Monday, May 17, 2010

English Premier League: Big Summer Ahead

Chelsea have been crowned champions of England, holding off Manchester United in the final weeks to claim a deserved title.  What is to come is one of the most anticipated, and important, transfer windows in recent memory.  Manchester United will look back on a trophyless season for the first time since 2004 because no, the Carling Cup doesn't count.  Meanwhile, Arsenal struggled with injuries and defensive frailties once again.  Arsenal can no longer count on potential and need to come back stronger next season to challenge the top two for the title.  What makes this transfer window so interesting is the transitional nature of the balance of power in and around the top 4.  Liverpool have regressed horribly since their second place finish two years ago to fall out of the top 4.  Waiting in the wings to overtake Liverpool are Tottenham and Manchester City.  Tottenham's talented squad was able to qualify for Champions League football next season, and the Spurs will be looking to push on next season and establish themselves as a perennial power.  On the blue side of Manchester, City's billions give the the Citizens unparalleled spending power, money which will surely be spent this summer to continue City's assault on the top of the Premier League.  Apologies to Everton and Aston Villa, but this is the top 6 in England.  How they perform in July and August could go a long way to deciding how they shake out this time next year.


Chelsea had the deepest, most talented, and most experienced squad in the league this past year, and they were rewarded with a League title, the FA Cup, and were only ousted from Europe by an excellent Inter Milan team led by Chelsea legend Jose Mourinho.  There have very few needs, and will expect to challenge for every trophy again next season.  However there has been little indication of the resigning of Joe Cole, and there is a feeling that the popular Englishman may be heading out of Stamford Bridge.  The Blues may look to restock their options in attack, and there would be few better options than Franck Ribery of Bayern Munich.  The French star has long been rumoured to be leaving Germany, and Roman Abromavich would surely jump at the chance to remind Chelsea fans how valuable he is.  There is also very little quality backup for the aging duo of Drogba and Anelka, this could be the summer that long rumoured target Pato is approached to try to add some youth to the Chelsea attack.  Ancelotti will know all about the talents of the young Brazilian, who may see Chelsea as being more equipped to win trophies than his current club, AC Milan


Manchester United looked to be heading towards another good season before a terrible week where they lost to Bayern Munich in the Champions League and drew twice in the league, letting slip the opportunity to win either trophy.  United did manage to challenge for the major honours, but there was something lacking from their play for most of the season.  To be honest, it was quite an achievement to be where they were in May considering how badly they played at times this season.  Sir Alex Ferguson has already brought Chris Smalling and Chicharito into the fold, but has hinted that there might be more activity at Old Trafford this summer.  United were solid in defense, but will have been worried by a lack of goals from someone other than Rooney and Own Goal.  Dimitar Berbatov has stuttered at United, and while I believe he will stay on in Manchester, Ferguson will be looking to improve his attack.  A striker could be drafted in to ease the load on Rooney.  While United do have a lot of depth at striker, with Berbatov, Owen, Macheda, Diouf, and Chicharito behind Rooney, much of it is unproven or unreliable.  If a top quality striker was available, Ferguson could pounce.  Valencia's rumoured financial difficulties could see David Villa, one of the best forwards in the world, become available for the right price.  Ferguson has stated his unwillingness to spend big on older players, and Villa is already 27, he is also of a different class, and Ferguson could be tempted.  Other options could include Karim Benzema, of whom Ferguson is a long-time admirer, and who has not settled well in Madrid, most of his opportunities coming off the bench.  Pato could be another possibility, although United could be priced out by Chelsea.   Ferguson may also look at his midfield as a weakness.  Darren Fletcher has been the most consistent central midfielder in the squad, with Carrick having an up and mostly down season, Anderson nowhere to be seen, and Hargreaves injured.  Paul Scholes can still play, but isn't getting any younger, and young, creative central midfielder would help United's play immensely.  United have been linked with Modric, of Tottenham, but the Croatian is likely to stay with the London side, with the possibility to achieve something special.  Silva, of Valencia, can play on either wing or down the middle, and could be available due to Valencia's financial situation.


Arsene Wenger has a big summer ahead of him after yet another year without a trophy.  His young Arsenal side has too easily been brushed aside yet again in the title race.  Injuries, especially to Robin van Persie have not helped the cause, however, it is in defence where Arsenal are vulnerable.  The lack of cover at striker has also been exposed this season.  Expect Arsenal to target a goalkeeper to give a sense of security at the back.  If Man City choose to part with either Joe Hart or Shay Given, Monsieur Wenger should be at the front of the line.  Other possibilities in goal include the French duo of Hugo Lloris and Steve Mandana.  There is also the possibility of a bit of a splash, Gigi Buffon has said he is open to a move away from Juventus, and Arsenal do have the money to get him.  The centre of the defense, both at centre back and in the midfield has been soft in recent seasons, and both areas could be attended to this summer.  Wenger tends to lean towards younger player who are not yet well known in football.  If he follows his history, Wenger could look to the young and talented defender Mamadou Sakho, currently of PSG.  Some midfield steel would go a long way in North London, and Jeremy Toulalan of Lyon could fit the bill.  Ultimately it is pretty difficult to predict Wenger's movement, but it's a good bet to trend towards young and/or French when looking at possible signings.


Tottenham Hotspur will want to push on from what has been a terrific season for them, having broken into the top 4.  However, they already have a fine squad, with plenty of quality and depth.  Manager Harry Redknapp has already stated that he will only be looking for players with something special to improve the squad.  Spurs have flexed some financial muscle in the past, although not on the level of Chelsea or the Manchester clubs.  Look for Spurs to sign a player from just below the top tier.  Sergio Aguero, Angel di Maria, and Joe Cole are all possibilities.  A good World Cup could be enough to secure someone a move to White Hart Lane.


Manchester City are the wildcard of the bunch.  Losing out on Champions League football will hurt them, as it would have made the club more attractive to the kind of player they want.  Nevertheless, everyone can see that there is big ambition to match the big cheques at Eastlands, and City will be going after the cream of the crop.  Expect a number of bids for the likes of Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres, Sergio Aguero, Valencia duo Villa and Silva, James Milner, Ashley Young, Angel di Maria, and anyone and everyone else.


Liverpool are in a bad position.  They have holes throughout the squad, and Stevie G can't cover them all up like he used to.  The situation on Merseyside is pretty murky, the owners are rumoured to be trying to sell putting the club on uncertain ground.  What is for sure is that Liverpool are in danger of losing their part of the monopoly of the 'Big Four' to Tottenham or Manchester City.  Add to this that hated rivals Manchester United are 1 title away from surpassing Liverpool in that respect, and Liverpool fans will be hoping for some reinforcements this summer.  It is unclear what kind of spending power Liverpool have, but some funds could be raised from the sale of players, very few of whom have cemented their importance to the club.  Albert Riera is almost certain to leave following his negative comments about the club, and he could be joined by Ryan Babel.  Liverpool have already signed Jonjo Shelvey, a promising midfielder similar to Gerrard, for a small fee, and I expect them to continue like this.  They will have to build a stronger squad with some shrewd business and I don't expect too many big moves from them.  With that said, new ownership could change everything at a club with a reputation like Liverpool's.

Until then, enjoy the World Cup.  You might see your club's next superstar on show.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Home Sweet Home?

"We are all Canucks." This was the motto which was supposed to get the city of Vancouver behind its hockey team. Judging by the playoffs, it didn't work.  It was in the stands, not on the ice, where the "Canucks" were the most underwhelming
The wounds of a second straight playoff loss to the Chicago Blackhawks are still fresh, so what better time to point the finger of blame? That finger is usually reserved for the coach, or the star player, but this year it can only land on the fans of GM Place. The writing was on the wall in the first round series with LA. The difference in atmosphere was astounding. The Staples Center was rocking...GM Place? Put to shame by the fans from LA, whose hockey team isn't even the biggest draw in the city.
The trend continued into the second round. The home crowd is supposed to put pressure on the away team and support the good guys.  You do this by making as much noise as possible, spurring on the home team to make the plays which will make the crowd more raucous, which spurs the players on further, and on and on; it is a vicious cycle for those on the visitors bench. Make no mistake, that cycle has to start with the fans.
The fans at GM Place took anothert approach. Vancouver fans aren't a mob, they're a flock of sheep. They cheer when the Canucks score, they 'ooh' and 'aah' when there's a chance, they yell Luuu when Luongo makes a save, they boo penalties against the Canucks, and they repeat what the scoreboard tells them to do.  But that's all they do. All the noise a crowd is supposed to make in between these big plays, the noise that puts the visitors on their heels, was missing in Vancouver. In it's place, a buzz of nervous expectation which put the Canucks under pressure.
Up until Game 6 of the Chicago series, the Vancouver fans performance merely hinted at lack of commitment and belief; their performance in Game 6 confirmed it.
It took a goal from public enemy number 1, Dustin Byfuglien, halfway through the 3rd period to end the series and wake the fans at GM Place up.  With the series over, the fans found their voice to jeer their captain Roberto Luongo, and boo their own team.  It was a pathetic end to Vancouver's participation in the playoffs, and Canucks fans around the world should be ashamed.
The sheep in Vancouver should look to the east and see what a mob of fans can do, a la Montreal.  A city that is 100% behind its team, and shows it, has propelled an 8 seed into the conference finals.  You take the Bell Centre crowd and transport it to Vancouver, there's no way the Canucks lose all 3 games at home against the Blackhawks.
The experts will point to an injury-riddled defense corps, or underperforming stars, but this is a team that took 2 of 3 in Chicago, and deserved more from its fans.  Based on these playoffs, one can only assume that the people who buy tickets for Canucks games aren't real fans, aren't knowledgeable about hockey, have no faith, no commitment, and no class.  They have a lot to prove next season, namely that they aren't among the worst fans in the NHL.