Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Europe -bound teams of 2006-2007

Are you ready for the 2006-2007 Premiership? Here are my thoughts on the teams that'll make it to Europe (yeah, I included the Intertoto spot)

1st place - Chelsea

Last Year: 1st

Champions League:
Knocked out in round of 16 by Barcelona

FA Cup: Knocked out of semi-final by Liverpool

Positive: Thanks to the demise of the former USSR and ensuing privatization, Roman Abramovich was able to seize a large chunk of the territory's petroleum resources, resulting in his $18.4 billion fortune, only to benevolently bestow his new-found riches on Stamford Bridge. May begin the season with arguably the world’s best left-back, Ashley Cole.

Negative: When you spend that much money in the transfer market, as well as dominate the Premiership as Chelsea has done, anything less than a double seems disappointing. Melodrama surrounding William Gallas and his desire to play for another club.

Manager: Jose Mourinho, the continental tactical pragmatist prone to elaborate Euro-flash scarf knotting, and paranoia that nobody respects him.

Squad: 16 players in the World Cup, matched only by Arsenal. Beginning to feel the effects of stocking 2 stars for every position; the departure of so many Blues in the off-season, namely winger Damien Duff to Newcastle, shows players' displeasure with Jose's rotating system. Managed to lure Michael Ballack on a free (out of contract), Saloman Kalou (for a rumored $14M), 19-year-old midfielder Mikel John Obi (from Lyn Oslo via Man Utd. who ransomed him for $21M), and Andriy Shevchenko (for a mere $50M) from AC Milan.

Newbies of Note: Shevchenko, arguably at his peak at the age of 29, wooed by Abramovich. If he can score 20 this season, should make Mourinho happy, which comes to about, gulp, $2.5M per goal. Ballack, the German captain - can he partner with Frank Lampard at Chelsea, something Steven Gerrard couldn't with the England squad?

Golden Boy: Mikel John Obi, gained recognition starring for Nigeria in the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship, where the Super Eagles lost 2-1 to Argentina in the Final. Mikel originally signed for Manchester United, and forced a sale to Chelsea for $20.4M.

Style: Will Mourinho abandon the 4-3-3, with the loss of Duff and the inability of Robben to refrain from diving? A packed midfield (Lampard, Ballack, Makelele, Essien and Mikel) could mean Chelsea are likely to use four in a diamond formation in the middle.

Title odds: 4-9

2nd place - Liverpool

Last Year: 3rd

Champions League: Knocked out in round of 16 by Benfica

FA Cup: Lifted trophy by defeating West Ham 3-1 on penalties

Positive: Despite the fact that the last time the Reds have lifted the trophy in football's top division was sixteen years ago, the club has arguably returned to its former stature, winning both the Champions League trophy and the FA Cup in the last two years. Rafa Benitez had a fruitful transfer season as well, and one the world’s best midfielders, Steven Gerrard, is team captain. Perhaps the strongest competition for Chelsea.

Negative: Still hasn't won the Premier League title since its inception 1992. Liverpool is the only club of the "Big Four" (Arsenal, Chelsea, Man Utd) that has not won a league title. Fans relished the success in Europe and in the FA Cup, but the Premier League is what they really want.

Manager: Rafael Benitez. The Spaniard has made progress since he began in 2004-2005, where they finished 5th but clinched the Champions League trophy. The next season saw them finish in 3rd, with an FA Cup trophy, their seventh.

Squad: Solid midfield players like Steven Gerrard, Mohamed Sissoko, Luis Garcia and Xabi Alonso. Liverpool's lack of scoring threats was highly publicized last year, so much so they brought back Robbie Fowler from Man City. Fernando Morientes (to Valencia) and Djibril Cisse (on loan to Marseille) make way for Craig Bellamy (from Blackburn) and Jermaine Pennant from the pokey (actually Birmingham City), who can add pace and stretch the field wider. Last year, Liverpool scored 57 goals, compared to Chelsea and Man Utd's 72 each and Arsenal's 68. Sadly, 23 were scored by midfielder Steven Gerrard. Malian Mohamed Sissoko, a tough-tackling defensive midfielder, is often likened to Patrick Vieira in terms of energy and hardman fearlessness.

Newbies of Note: Denied a work permit in 2005, the speedy Chilean winger Mark Gonzalez has finally arrived at Anfield. Craig Bellamy, who Bobby Robson called "the only man I know who could start and argument with himself" can utilize his speed if he can beat the offside trap. Argentinean central defender Gabriel Paletta, who Benitez likens to Robert Ayala.

Golden Boy: Steven Gerrard is the heart of Liverpool. Pace, power and an incredible propensity for cracking shots late in big games. About as Scouse as you can get.

Style: A lot of production comes from the midfield, and Rafa has been known to play a 4-5-1. Despite new wingers, look for the same this year, with RoboCrouch up front alone. Steven Gerrard and added pace on the flanks are an improvment.

Title odds: 6-1

3rd place - Arsenal

Last Year: 4th

Champions League: Defeated in Final by Barcelona.

FA Cup: Knocked out in fourth round by Bolton Wanderers

Positive: A new 60,000 seat stadium should help fund their transfer kitty, despite $445M of debt they got themselves into for it. Knocking out Tottenham Hotspur out of qualifying for this year's Champions League on the last day of last season (with help from some bad lasagna that gave most of the Spurs' squad food-poisoning mysteriously before their final match with West Ham), the Gunners secured CL revenue for their brand new stadium, and managed to keep their star captain, Thierry Henry. A young, talented group that knows how to utilize what little experience they have to improve. Fans still reeling from last year's success in the Champions League.

Negative: Last year's fourth place finish was the worst at Arsenal since Wenger arrived. The potential loss of Ashley Cole may send Wenger to look for a new left-back, who will be inevitably overpriced if Arsenal is interested. Injuries to Phillipe Senderos and Bisan Lauren leave young Swiss defender Johan Djourou and Pascal Cygan as the only options to partner with Kolo Toure. Fans still reeling from last year's defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League Final.

Manager: A tremendous spotter of talent, Arsene Wenger is known for shrewdly buying young unknowns for cheap, turning them into stars, and selling them for a profit once a younger replacement is in place. Highly-criticized for harvesting young foreign talent rather than targeting young English talent, despite signing Theo Walcott from Southampton for $8.5M, making him the most expensive 16-year-old in British football history. Eagle-eyed on the sidelines when his team is roughed up on the pitch, but strangely unable to see fouls committed by his team.

Squad: 16 players represented their nations at the World Cup this year. Thierry Henry scored 27 in the Premiership last year, topping the league for the fourth time. Most importantly, he managed to step into the captain's role to lead a callow group of youngsters to the Champions League final, knocking out Real Madrid, Juventus and Villareal. New Czech attacking midfielder Tomas Rosicky ($11.6M from Borussia Dortmund) moves into Robert Pires' (out of contract to Villareal) spot on the pitch. Young standouts Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, and Emanuel Eboue played beyond their years, as Kolo Toure, Gilberto and Jens Lehman provided veteran leadership, if only by example. Thierry Henry. Arsenal's all-time leading goalscorer in all competitions, the 29-year old striker matured in the captain's role after the departure of Patrick Vieira. Kept Gooners on the edge of their seats last season, waiting until after the Champions League final to commit himself to the club for another 4 years.

Newbies of Note: Rosicky, who should move forward quite a bit out of the midfield, something Fabregas and Silva are not as comfortable with. After featuring in a Carling Cup match last year, 18-year-old Danish striker Nicklas Bendtner, who is on loan to Birmingham City for the first half of the season, has been likened to a young Zlatan Imbrahimovic.

Golden Boy: Thierry Henry. Four-time Premier League top scorer of the season, the talisman of Highbury (now Emirates Stadium) literally carries Arsenal at times.

Style: Always in motion, Wenger's teams took advantage of Highbury's small dimensions (and the immaculate pitch) by running at defenders and utilizing short, diagonal passing. There is talk of playing a 4-3-3 formation with the wider pitch at Emirates Stadium.

Title odds: 7–1

4th place – Manchester United

Last Year: 2nd

Champions League: Did not advance from group stage.

FA Cup: Knocked out in fifth round by Liverpool

Positive: The arrival of midfielder Michael Carrick (from Tottenham for a minimum of $24M, maximum of $31M with incentives) and return of Paul Scholes (from a season-ending eye injury) should help to bolster a rickety midfield. Gabriel Heinze is back (from a season-ending knee injury) and Alan Smith was spotted recently kicking a ball, which a welcome sight after his horribly dislocated ankle and broken leg. Sir Alex is planning to return Smith to his favored centre-forward role.

Negative: With over $1 billion in debt, the Glazers are fiddling with Sir Alex Lord Ferguson’s purse strings. The overpriced arrival of Michael Carrick (also set to miss the start of the season with a foot injury) seemed to be dependent on the sale of good-for-20-goals-a-year Ruud van Nistelrooy to Real Madrid for a pittance of $17.8M. Wayne Rooney and Paul Scholes are suspended for the first three games beginning August 13 (Charlton, Watford, Spurs) due to silly red cards in a friendly tournament.

Manager: Ferguson has won more trophies than anyone in British football, and helmed United’s domination in the two decades. His no-nonsense style often clashes with star players, as evidenced with the departure of David Beckham, Roy Keane and van Nisterooy, to name just a few of those he’s destroyed relationships with. Many think he may be past his prime, but he maintains a firm-grip within the club and fans still believe a comeback is around the corner.

Squad: Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo are key to United’s attack, and both are coming from a tempestuous World Cup with petulant anger and hopefully something to prove. Though not what he once was, Paul Scholes return will aid the midfield, and Alan Smith is playing in the forward role to make up for the exit of van Nistelrooy. Rio Ferdinand is still a world-class defender and Gabriel Heinze’s return to the back line will hopefully help an average defense. Manchester United had the fourth best defense last year, but keeper Edwin van der Sar should be given most of the credit there.

Newbies of Note: Carrick, Tomasz Kuszczek on loan from West Brom backs up van der Sar. The Northern Irish youth, defender Jonny Evans and central midfielder Darron Gibson played well in Holland during the pre-season, may be on loan to Antwerp part of the season. Giuseppe Rossi, an Italian-American 19-year-old came to United from Parma, and scored several goals in last year’s winning League Cup run. David Jones, a box-to-box midfielder, is on loan at NEC Nijmegen.

Golden Boy: Wayne Rooney’s bullish demeanor and deft touch are inspiring at times. Cristiano Ronaldo had an impressive World Cup, despite the diving. Expect him to reduce his step-overs from 30 to 15 per game.

Style: Ferguson likes his 4-4-1-1, with Rooney working up front with Louis Saha. The same formation used by the World Cup winning Italian team, he’ll look to the midfield to improve on their holding.

Title odds: 6–1

5th place – Tottenham Hotspur

Last Year: 5th

FA Cup: Knocked out in third round by Leicester City

Positive: Arrival of Bulgarian striker, Dimitar Berbatov (from Borussia Dortmund for $18.5M), who scored 21 goals in the Bundesliga last year. Michael Carrick replacement Ivorian Didier Zokora (from St. Etienne for almost $14M) had an impressive World Cup campaign.

Negative: The loss of Carrick, Ledley King (broken foot), and Egyptian striker, Ahmed Mido (back to Roma after loan spell with Spurs). Always the club nipping at the heels of the big four, Spurs lost the 4th Premiership and final Champions League spot to Arsenal on the last day of the season; most of the squad played while ill, and investigations traced the sickness to some bad lasagna. Numerous pics of Arsene Wenger in a chef’s hat appear in almost every fan’s email box.

Manager: The Dutch Tony Soprano, Martin Jol. Anybody can look great after Jacques Santini, but the Jol had Spurs as high as 1st place for a bit and never below sixth for the entire season. Known for promoting English talent makes him popular in his Spurs’ share of North London (next to continental Arsenal).

Squad: Big signing of Berbatov will add to Spurs’ offensive threat, along with Jermain Defoe and Robbie Keane. Zokora is pretty much a competent replacement for Michael Carrick, and a bargain compared to what he went for to Man Utd., and he is arguably more skilled than Carrick. How well Spurs do without Ledley King, a key to last year’s stingy defense, remains to be seen.

Newbies of Note: Often compared to Patrick Vieira (in a good way), Didier Zokora presents more physicality and speed than Carrick. Berbatov has twenty league goals in his last two seasons in the Bundesliga.

Golden Boy: Used to be Carrick, but you can take your pick from Robbie Keane, Jermain Defoe and Aaron Lennon. Since Lennon’s call-up for the England squad, he seems to be the current favorite.

Style: Strong in the midfield, with Davids and Zokora, Spurs should take advantage of Lennon’s speed, and their arsenal of strikers, Robbie Keane, Berbatov and Jermain Defoe.

Title odds: 50-1

6th place - West Ham

Last year: 9th

FA Cup: Lost final to Liverpool 3-1 on penalties

Positive: The Hammers were a surprise last season, after not only avoiding relegation after their return to the top flight, but also finishing ninth, meeting Liverpool in the FA Cup Final, and making it into Europe for this year. Young players from last year (Anton Ferdinand, Yossi Benayoun and Marlon Harewood)

Negative: Can Alan Pardew guide his team through the rigors of the Premiership, the FA Cup and UEFA Cup competitions? Forward Dean Ashton promptly snapped his ankle in training when he was called up by Steve McClaren for the England v. Greece friendly; he’s expected to be out a minimum of 12 weeks, which deprives West Ham of a scoring option.

Manager: Alan Pardew has his work cut out for him if he expects to match or even improve on last year’s results. A finish in the top ten and a place in the FA Cup final were surprising. Pardew is known for taking cast-offs that still hold good value, and it should be interesting to see if he’s able to resurrect the careers of midfielder Lee Bowyer (from Newcastle) and striker Carlton Cole (from Chelsea)

Squad: With a good number of big forwards (Ashton, Harewood and Zamora) the Hammers display power and quick passing. Midfielders Yossi Benayoun and Matthew Etherington provide can provide service from the wings, and the Israeli international is also known to strike from the middle at times. Bowyer will have to gel with the midfield and much falls to Harewood (14 goals in the Premiership last year) and Bobby Zamora to make up for the loss of Dean Ashton. Anton Ferdinand follows in the footsteps of his older brother Rio in central defense. The Hammers 12th ranked defense in the Premiership last year will look to improve with the addition of Pantsil. Tyrone Mears, a right-back from Preston North End, was the Hammers’ most expensive acquisition ($1.7M) and will compete with Pantsil for a place.

Newbie of Note: Carlton Cole, who simply saw no time at Chelsea, needs to prove he can be the target man. He is competent in the air, but not known as a hard worker and seems to have a clumsy first touch. Pugilist Lee Bowyer returns to Upton Park, after going down with the Hammers in 2003. Known more for his altercations both on and off the field, Pardew is taking a gamble. Ghanian defender/midfielder John Panstil (from Hapoel Tel-Aviv) turned down Marseille, Rennes and Belgian champions Anderlecht to come to East London. Israeli international Yossi Benayoun convinced Pardew to allow Pantsil to accompany the team during the pre-season in Sweden, where he impressed enough to convince Pardew to acquire him.

Golden Boy: From a club known for its youth academy, Pardew claims Mark Noble, a midfielder, as the best prospect at Ewood Park. The 19-year old won the Championship Young Player of the Year award in 2004-2005.

Style: The Hammers should take advantage of their strong strikers, with Harewood and Ashton (when he returns from injury) strong on the ball should take advantage of midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker who is a strong part of the midfield and team captain. Pardew is credited with a more free-flowing, attacking game than when West Ham was in the Championship and it seems to work.

Title odds: 350-1

7th place – Blackburn Rovers

Last Year: 6th

FA Cup: Knocked out of fourth round by West Ham

Positive: Mark Hughes has managed steady improvement since he’s been at the helm at Ewood Park, meeting Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final in 2004-2205, and clinching a place in Europe last season. Arguably brutal in terms of the physicality of their style, their stolid defense is matched by speedy front men.

Negative: Fans and referees spend more time waiting for Robbie Savage to commit a foul than actually enjoying their team attack. The loss of Craig Bellamy and the 13 goals he scored last season. Ewood Park was also one of the sites where Jack Straw and Condi Rice consummated their creepy public romance.

Former Welsh national coach and striker for Manchester United, Hughes has managed to improve every squad he’s touched; it is hard to envision him taking Blackburn any higher than he did last year.

Squad: Stolid back line with Ryan Nelsen and Lucas Neill. Norwegian midfielder, Morten Gamst Pedersen shows considerable ability on the ball and is equally gifted with both feet. Midfielder David Bentley likes to play deep and will attempt to fashion his contribution along the lines of Dennis Bergkamp (whom he shared a dressing room with, as opposed to a pitch, at Arsenal); the former England U-21 player scored a hat-trick against Man Utd last year in a 4-3 victory, something that hasn’t been done since 1992. Unfortunately, those were the only three goals he’s scored for Rovers in nearly 30 matches over two seasons. Along with Roberts, McCarthy and Jeffers, Hughes hopes to make up for the loss of Bellamy.

Newbie of Note:
South African striker Benni McCarthy (from FC Porto for undisclosed fee) played under Jose Mourniho in the Portuguese league, and has always been linked to Premiership sides, specifically Everton when Wayne Rooney left Goodison Park for Man Utd. McCarthy’s reputation is hard to find fault with, having won Dutch and Portuguese championships, as well as a Champions League title with Mourinho. He is prone go on scoring runs (12 in 10 matches in 2001-02, 20 in 23 matches to win the Golden Boot in his league in 2003-04) and scored two against Manchester United in second round of the Champions League in 2004. At 28, Hughes is hoping he’s acquired the striker at his peak. Grenadian striker Jason Roberts makes the move from Wigan (undisclosed fee). Known for knocking Arsenal out of the Carling Cup competition of last year, he is strong and has a good bit of skill on the ball. Striker Francis Jeffers (from Charlton) looks to salvage his career after a great start with Everton almost ten years ago after failing to live up to expectations at Arsenal and Charlton.

Golden Boy: No real standout since Damien Duff left in 2004. Pedersen seems the likeliest candidate, given Bellamy’s now gone.

Style: Physical brutality, so much that they’re often dubbed “Blackeye” Rovers. But there is considerable speed up front.

Title odds: 200-1

Going Down:

Sheffield United

Enjoy the season

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