As work continues over the summer to rebuild the Anfield Road end of Liverpool’s famous stadium, it’s the rebuilding of the squad that fans will be more eager to keep an eye on.
In May 2014, things at Anfield looked to be heading in a positive direction and there was plenty of optimism among supporters for what was to follow.
A title challenge that failed to result in silverware was nevertheless a sign of progress – and an indication that the team, and the club, were again challenging with the country’s best.
There was never any suggestion that a splendid 2013/14 season had instantly put Liverpool at the same level as Man City or Chelsea, but there was genuine belief that, at the very least, competing with Arsenal and Man United would be possible to maintain.
The departure of Suarez during the summer was a blow to Liverpool’s chances of success but, as key as Suarez was the the team in helping Liverpool to second place, the emphasis was always on team, and contributions from all of the attacking talent played as much a part.
Less than twelve months later, and the outlook could barely be more of a contrast.
Daniel Sturridge, the club’s top striker, has spent almost the entire season either injured, or returning from injury and struggling for fitness. Sturridge is currently out of action and won’t feature until at least early Autumn.
Also missing from next season onwards will be club captain Steven Gerrard, who has already announced his departure, having not been offered a contract extension.
And Raheem Sterling, another of the stars of last year, is refusing to commit his future to the club, and seems increasing likely to try and force through a transfer away from the club during the summer.
Sterling remains one of the most exciting young talents in the English game, but there are definitely some question marks that exist – not only over his ability to realise his potential, but on his attitude, too.
For Sterling to consider himself as worthy of playing for one of the continent’s elite teams suggests a vastly-overinflated self-opinion. Very few fans around the country would think of Sterling as anything more than a very special talent who has potential for a big future.
But despite playing regular first team football for three years, after making his debut under Kenny Dalglish during the 2011/12 season, it’s hard to recall many big matches during which he’s been the difference. Progress in Sterling’s game has unquestionably been much more gradual than the recent actions by him and his agent would suggest.
Should the 20-year-old depart, it would certainly weaken the Liverpool team, but the impact wouldn’t be as great as losing Suarez or Sturridge to the team.
Of more concern would be how wisely the transfer fee was reinvested – and that’s one of the reasons that there are even supporters doubting the position of Brendan Rodgers as manager.
More than £100million was spent last summer, though none of the players brought in have justified their price tags – something which is a recurring theme under the ownership of John Henry and FSG. There can be no accusations that the US owners have failed to support whichever manager has been in charge, as both Dalglish and Rodgers have had large sums of money available to them.
But the success rate of the players brought in has been unacceptably low for a club hoping to compete regularly for the title.
Rafa Benitez’s transfer record always divides opinion, but even though mistakes were made – as all manager’s are guilty of, to varying degrees – the success rate of the players signed for larger fees was good. The likes of Xabi Alonso, Mascherano and Torres were all top players, and offered instant improvement to the team, before establishing themselves as world class in their respective positions.
Of the players signed for £20million or more in the last four years, only Suarez is in that bracket, whilst Henderson has also developed into a reliable first team player.
But when considering that the most obvious other major successes – Coutinho and Sturridge – were signed for a combined total of £20million, it leaves a huge amount of money which has been spent on a long list players who simply haven’t proved reasonable value for money.
Having undergone a major team/squad rebuilding programme under Kenny Dalglish following the loss of key players during the disastrous tenure of George Gillett and Tom Hicks, a similar task was required from Brendan Rodgers when it became clear that too many of Dalglish’s signings weren’t of the quality needed to break back into the top four.
Rodgers can at least claim credit for overseeing a successful return to the Champions League, but there’s a feeling, only a year down the line, that Liverpool may yet again have to embark on a major squad rebuilding exercise.
Looking up at this year’s Premier League top four, Liverpool will know that there’s no evidence that any of the teams who will go into the Champions League next season are going to be any weaker next season.
And that means that more than ever, Liverpool’s transfer dealings need to be a success – or the team rebuilding work is likely to continue long after the work on the stadium is completed.
If deciding the Premier League’s player of the year is a difficult task, then singling out the top manager is an altogether more complex decision.
Wildly different expectations and a large gulf in available budgets are two of the factors that have to be taken into account. Other considerations relate to the level of pressure, the amount of injuries, and even dealing with any bad luck that has occurred; after all, how many times has a manager lost their job on the back of a series of good performances that simply lacked a bit of fortune when it came to securing the points?
The one obvious candidate each year is the manager of the champions. However, so comfortable has Chelsea’s title win been this season that Jose Mourinho’s outstanding qualities as a manager really haven’t been tested as much as they may have, had there been even one club challenging for top spot.
A strong start was enough to gain distance over the stuttering sides of Arsenal, Man City and Man United. Barring a dramatic collapse at Stamford Bridge, there was never a real threat that the sides below them were capable of performing consistently enough to overturn the deficit.
That’s no criticism of Mourinho, who has done a fine job this season with Chelsea, and it’s no fault of his that the West-Londoners haven’t been pushed by any of the teams expected to challenge.
Elsewhere in the top half, Ronald Koeman and Garry Monk have each done fantastic jobs with Southampton and Swansea respectively, and achieved more than what would have been expected – particularly having both lost important players.
And so to the clubs in the bottom half. Tony Pulis was voted as last year’s manager of the year for his efforts in steering Crystal Palace away from the relegation zone and ultimately achieving a mid-table finish. On that basis, it’s possible to argue the same case for Alan Pardew this year, with the former Newcastle boss having done a similar job.
Pardew’s success at Palace came shortly on the back of a fine run of form which took Newcastle into 5th place at the end of November, even amidst the backdrop of a fierce campaign from supporters who wanted him sacked.
Despite relegation, Sean Dyche has led Burnley well, and for most of the season ensured that the club were within touching distance of getting out of the bottom three.
For a side who were given no chance by many people after their promotion last season, it still represents a decent campaign, and should Burnley win promotion back into the Premier League next season, there’s every chance that a more experienced team would finish outside of the bottom three.
Despite the efforts of Dyche and his Burnley team, it wouldn’t be right to give the top award to a manager whose team had been relegated, and for that reason my choice would be the Leicester boss, Nigel Pearson.
In spite of an infamous press conference during the latter stages of the season when Pearson claimed that the team had received little credit, there have certainly been admirers of a team which, for the most part of the season, has done far better than people were expecting.
The reality did look grim for Leicester towards the end of March though, when the club sat bottom of the league, seven points behind Sunderland, and nine behind Hull City and Aston Villa with only nine games to play. But Leicester put together a remarkable run of 6 wins out of 7 (only failing to beat the champions, Chelsea), to move clear of danger.
Another point last weekend saw Leicester double their points tally for the season in just six weeks, and guarantee that they’ll be in the Premier League again next season.
The club’s survival in the top flight has some similarities to Wigan’s remarkable 2010-11 season when, after months of persisting with good football despite not being rewarded with the points it deserved, a dramatic change in fortune occurred at the most important time of the year, and Wigan put together a winning run that kept the club from relegation with a game to spare.
In both cases, the managers deserve enormous credit, but so too do their chairmen. In the cut-throat world of football management, many club bosses would have quickly moved to change the manager, thinking it was the only solution to a growing threat of relegation.
Even with so many examples of clubs plummeting into much deeper trouble after changing a manager at the first sign of a perceived crisis, it seems that in the modern game, persisting with a manager who has the support of the squad, though simply isn’t getting the results, is a much more difficult decision for a chairman to make.
That Leicester kept faith in Nigel Pearson and gave him the opportunity to keep the team up was good to see, and with the decision having paid off, should earn Thai billionaire Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha a big shout for chairman of the year.
But the bulk of the credit for Leicester’s achievements rest with the players and the manager, and having missed out on the Premier League’s Manager of the Season award – which went to Mourinho earlier this week – Pearson’s contribution this season deserves to be recognised at the League Managers Association awards when they’re handed out next week.
With Barcelona securing their place in the 2015 UEFA Champions League Final on Tuesday night, Real Madrid last night had the chance to set up a fixture involving the two clubs that arguably make up the biggest rivalry in football.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s first half penalty put Carlo Ancelotti’s men en route to overturning their first leg deficit against Juventus, but it was cancelled out on the night by Alvaro Morata, whose goal was decisive in winning the tie for the Italian Champions.
Not only did it end Real Madrid’s hopes of being the first team to successfully defend the trophy in the era of the Champions League, but it denied football fans a chance to witness a mouth-watering ‘El Clasico’ in the season’s finale in Berlin next month.
It’s not the first time that the two bitter rivals have missed out on facing each other in the final. Here are five other occasions that have almost led to some of European football’s biggest rivalries in the Champions League final.
2000 Real Madrid v Barcelona
When Real Madrid completed an aggregate win over Bayern Munich in their semi final, attention turned to the second leg of Barcelona v Valencia. It was already guaranteed to be an all-Spanish fixture in Paris, but Barcelona had to overcome a 4-1 first leg hammering.
At the Camp Nou, there was little sign that there would be a successful comeback, and Gaizka Mendieta’s second half opener for Valencia virtually killed off any Barcelona dreams of a miracle.
The Catalans did manage to turn the game around on the night, but were soundly beaten over the two legs.
2007 Liverpool v Man United
Man United had demolished Roma in the quarter final, and were paired with another team from Serie A in the last four: AC Milan.
Inconsistent in the Italian league, where they were struggling to secure a place in the following season’s Champions League, and not much more convincing in Europe, Milan were considered underdogs against a Man United team on the verge of claiming the Premier League title.
A 3-2 win for Man United in the first leg was a result that flattered a Milan side heavily reliant on the brilliance of Kaka. And after Liverpool had overturned a first leg defeat to knock out Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, it looked likely that an Athens final against Man United would be on the cards.
But Milan had other ideas, and after scoring early in the game to lead on aggregate, eventually ran out comfortable 3-0 winners.
2008 Man United v Liverpool
For the third time in four years, Liverpool and Chelsea met in a semi final of the Champions League. And, as English sides continued to dominate the latter stages, Man United made up the same English trio as in the last four only a year earlier.
Completing the semi-final lineup was Barcelona, and despite the attacking talent on display from both teams, it was a single second leg goal by Paul Scholes that settled the tie and took United to Moscow.
The other tie was even closer still.
Liverpool were denied a first leg win when a 94th minute own goal by John Arne Riise gifted Chelsea a 1-1 draw at Anfield.
The goal proved costly, and after Liverpool earned a draw after a closely-fought 90 minutes in the return leg, the Reds trailed 3-1 by half time in extra time. A late Ryan Babel goal put Liverpool within a goal of winning the tie on away goals, but Chelsea held on to deny a Champions League final showdown between England’s two most successful teams.
2012 Real Madrid v Barcelona
Having met each other in the 2010/11 semi final in Jose Mourinho’s first season, Barcelona and Real Madrid were kept apart in the draw twelve months later, with both teams considered strong favourites to win their respective ties.
Single-goal first leg defeats for both teams weren’t considered to be too damaging to the prospect of Spain’s top two contesting the final, with each club playing their away fixtures first.
However, the second legs were disastrous for anyone hoping to see the famous El Clasico fixture played out in a Munich final.
Barcelona appeared certain to send Chelsea crashing out after earning a 2-0 lead – and a one-man advantage following John Terry’s dismissal. But after an inspired performance from Chelsea ‘keeper Petr Cech and a penalty miss by Lionel Messi, it was Fernando Torres who had the final say on the match – netting from a counter attack in injury time as Barcelona desperately sought the goal needed.
After Chelsea had scuppered the prospect of a Barcelona v Real Madrid final, Bayern Munich went on to ruin Jose Mourinho’s hopes of leading Real Madrid to a final against his former team, with victory in a penalty shootout in Madrid.
2013 Real Madrid v Barcelona
The two teams were at it yet again, in the pursuit of a place in the 2013 final at Wembley. Barcelona faced Bayern Munich, and Real Madrid were paired with Borussia Dortmund at the semi final stage.
After overturning a 2-0 deficit to thrash Milan in the last sixteen, and then knocking out Paris Saint-Germain in the quarter finals, there was no sign that Barcelona were heading for a crushing defeat at the hands of Bayern. A 4-0 loss in the first leg effectively ended any hopes of reaching the final though, and another potential final against Real Madrid had slipped away.
But only 24 hours later, even Barcelona’s result was overshadowed by Real Madrid’s 4-1 defeat to Borussia Dortmund. Four goals from Robert Lewandowski left Jose Mourinho facing a third successive year as a semi final loser, at a club where he was appointed specifically for the task of winning the Champions League.
Madrid did put up some resistance in the return fixture, winning 2-0 – though both goals came in the final seven minutes, and Dortmund held on for a surprise overall win.
Barcelona’s chances of recovery were much slimmer, and against even more formidable opposition. They were beaten 7-0 on aggregate, the most emphatic loss suffered by any team at the last four stage in the Champions League, and instead of two Spanish giants competing Wembley, it was Germany who provided both finalists.
Amid the gloomy prospect of life in a northern English city under a Conservative government for another five years, with the inevitable “efficiency savings” to badly needed public services and other policies that only benefit big businesses the wealthiest in society, there was one thing in the election that was a little more positive.
The losses suffered by a number of high-profile candidates offered some proof that whatever position has been held previously, constituents are the people who ultimately judge how a local MP has performed, and whether or not they deserve to be re-elected to Parliament.
Where trust no longer exists, there will always be political casualties, and no more emphatically was this demonstrated than with the Liberal Democrats losing of 49 of the 57 Westminster seats they secured after the 2010 general election.
I’ve nothing personal against any of the individuals involved, but do feel that the Lib Dems have to take some responsibility for the fact that so many people have little trust in politics. To put it even more strongly, I would accuse the party of almost single-handedly damaging faith in the political system for many – especially a lot of younger voters.
During the 2010 campaign, Nick Clegg appealed for the nation to trust the Liberal Democrats, claiming that they would do politics differently.
After all, if we couldn’t trust the Tories, and were coming off the back of a turbulent period under a Labour government under increasing pressure, it was the Liberal Democrats that we should look to as the one major party that could be trusted in way that was fair to everyone.
As the Lib Dems’ popularity rocketed during the TV debates, Clegg made a claim that “a growing number of people are starting to hope, to believe a little door has opened and that maybe this time we can do things differently.”
Amongst those believing that genuine change was possible in politics were voters who were drawn to the party’s promise to scrap tuition fees if elected into government – or at the very least, to vote against any proposed rise in fees.
But within months, tens of thousands of those very people took part in angry protests ahead of a vote which would see the majority of Lib Dems spectacularly breaking their pre-election pledges, and voting to allow universities to treble the fees charged.
I’m neither a student, nor a Liberal Democrat voter, but the issue was quite clearly going to have a damaging impact on the reputation of politics as a whole. How could a party who gained popularity by insisting that they would be different to Labour or the Conservatives be trusted after voting for a policy that went against one of the main promises used to attract voters in the first place?
More damaging, how would a smaller party rise to prominence in the future on the back of a promise to be different, when the Lib Dems had insisted that they were the very politicians who would restore greater trust to the political system, and who claimed they would keep promises in a way that Labour and the Conservatives could not.
For that reason, it’s good that the electoral system still ensures that voters are the ones who ultimately determine the fate of the MP representing them, and can make their voices heard by voting for an alternative candidate when there’s any sense of betrayal.
It’s something which should act as a future warning not only to the Liberal Democrats, but to any party who would consider abandoning promises and strongly-held principles in exchange for a few seats in the government.
Given the quartet of Champions League semi-finalists, there was never any doubt that the draw would create two mouth-watering ties.
Rarely, if ever in the Champions League era, has the last four been made up of such giants of European football, all of whom could achieve a domestic championship and European cup double – with three of the sides also in contention for a treble.
Juventus may be the underdogs, having reached this stage of the competition for the first time since 2003, when they went on to finish competition runners-up to Carlo Ancelotti’s Milan. But Real Madrid know only too well of how anything can happen at this stage, and three successive semi-final losses prior to last season’s dramatic triumph may lead to a tense two legs.
The other semi final pits together two of the teams that at the start of the season I felt were under more pressure than most to perform well in this year’s Champions League: Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
Since winning a fourth title in 2011, Barcelona suffered extremely disappointing eliminations from the competition in the subsequent two seasons: failing to turn a dominant second-leg performance into an aggregate victory against Chelsea in the 2012 semi final, and then losing 7-0 on aggregate to Bayern Munich twelve months later.
Last year’s defeat to Atletico Madrid was almost a confirmation that the team were no longer the same threat to the very best, and I feared that another season without posing a serious challenge for the trophy would be the final nail in marking the end of the club’s recent era of European dominance.
Had Bayern Munich achieved the full potential of their own team meanwhile, the past few years may already have been marked in Champions League history as an era belonging solely to the team from Bavaria.
A 2010 appearance in the final was seen as a surprise to many, but their march to the 2012 final, hosted in their home stadium, seemed certain to have only one outcome.
Despite a 100% home record in Europe, and having taken a 1-0 lead with only five minutes of a completely one-sided final against Chelsea remaining, the opportunity to win a fifth European Cup somehow slipped away from Bayern as they lost out on penalties.
A win against Bundesliga rivals Borussia Dortmund in 2013 was some consolation, but despite looking good for a chance to become the first back-to-back Champions League winners, Bayern were humiliated by Real Madrid at last season’s semi final stage.
Harsh it might be, but Bayern’s sole trophy win during a period of three or four years as arguably the continent’s best club won’t lead them to be remembered amongst the all time great teams.
With the added ingredient of Bayern Munich being managed by the man who led Barcelona to two Champions League titles in the space of three years, it might have been fitting for the two sides to have met in the final rather than a round earlier.
But with historic rivalries between all of the potential match-ups in the final, there’s to be no tame finale to the Champions League, and every one of the five remaining games has the potential to be a classic.
And so it is, and the Formula 1 rule-makers will get their wish, with the outcome to the 2014 Drivers’ Championship guaranteed to go to the final race in the calendar.
Lewis Hamilton’s win at the US Grand Prix on Sunday extended his lead to 24 points over teammate and last remaining Championship contender, Nico Rosberg.
In normal circumstances, Hamilton would need only to add another point to his lead in order to seal a second World Championship. But normal circumstances were always likely to be thrown out of the window when the farcical “double points” rule was brought in – applying only to the season’s finale, in order to try and keep the championship alive for the duration of the season.
Even without the added incentive of a 50 point windfall for taking the chequered flag in Abu Dhabi, Rosberg would still hold hopes of becoming 2014 World Champion.
The German set the pace for much of the season and it has taken a remarkable run of wins by his Mercedes team-mate to overturn what was, at one stage, a 29 point lead in Rosberg’s favour. At some point, Hamilton’s winning streak will come to an end, and Rosberg remains the most likely man in each and every race to capitalise on any dropped points by Hamilton.
In other words, there would be every chance that Abu Dhabi would still get to see the race which would crown one of the two men as World Champion.
As it stands though, Hamilton could go into that race with a potential 49 point lead, and ten race victories from 16 Grands Prix – yet still miss out due to a driver securing twice as many points for a race win than Hamilton had earnt for any of his triumphs.
It would be a wholly unfair way for the title to be decided, and wouldn’t do the sport of Formula 1 any favours. Even with his team certain of achieving a double Championship win, having already secured the Constructors title, Mercedes team boss, Toto Wolff, yesterday raised his own concerns that if the Drivers’ title was won purely due to the extra points, it could overshadow his team’s achievements over the course of the season – such would be the controversy.
And at a time when safety concerns and huge financial issues are affecting the sport’s reputation, Formula 1 really doesn’t need any extra negative attention that could lead to further disillusionment.
The hope is that the eventual champion can be decided without relying on the bonus points on offer – and that the sport’s governing body will see sense, and bring the distribution of points for the season’s finale in line with each of the races that come before it.
The public vote on the future of Catalonia’s place in Spain is now only a fortnight away.
Much debating concerning next month’s vote has already taken place, during bitter public battles between the central Spanish government, and the country’s most productive and profitable region.
The move has been entirely orchestrated from within Catalonia, with the leader of the ruling party, Artur Mas, repeatedly clashing over the issue with Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy.
The situation has intensified since a date was set for what was initially intended to be a referendum, but which recently had to be labelled as a “consultation” instead, after concerns were made by the Spanish Constitutional Court over the legality of the vote, which was subsequently suspended.
For Spain, there appear no benefits to seeing its wealthiest region break away, and a successful Catalan campaign to leave Spain could result in other regions making similar attempts to achieve their own independence in the future – although few, if any, of the country’s other 16 autonomous regions could feasibly survive better on their own than as part of a unified Spanish nation.
In Catalonia meanwhile, the move certainly presents some risks, though it’s easier to see the advantages from their side of the argument.
Aside from the proud cultural identity that Catalans consider unique to the rest of Spain, the main reasons for wanting separation lie with the desire to have more governmental powers to manage the region, as well as a sense that Catalonia isn’t currently being given a fair deal from Madrid in terms of its public funding.
The cultural argument is weak, for every region of Spain can make a similar argument. But no other region can make such a strong financial case, and its in the country’s economics where Catalans see the real benefits to independence.
Extra power that the regional government will have over Catalan affairs and, more significantly, complete control over its finances are where the debate is being most strongly fought by pro-independence campaigners.
One big financial drawback that does exist is in the level of debt that would have to be dealt with, leaving any newly created state with a need for outside financial support.
An EU bailout wouldn’t be an option, because Catalonia’s membership in the EU would require an application to be made in order to rejoin – something which could take years. And a smooth process of obtaining EU membership status wouldn’t be guaranteed of success if there were fears that an independent Catalonia would immediately look to European funding in order to help with its debt.
At this point in time, such issues are virtually irrelevant. Many obstacles stand in the way of the prospect of Catalan independence, and a legal vote on the issue doesn’t seem to be on the cards any time soon.
Even the November 9 consultation will have little bearing on any outcome because it won’t attract the same level of turnout that a full referendum would.
Should the consultation indicate that public opinion is strongly in favour of secession from Spain, it may place a little more pressure on Madrid to negotiate Catalonia’s level of autonomous power. But it’s difficult to see any further ground being handed to Catalonia, given its financial importance to the whole of Spain, and earlier this year, the country’s Finance Minister ruled out any review of funding for the nation’s autonomous communities.
It’s an issue that may involve years of bitter fighting between central and regional governments, and no obvious solution seems to exist at present which would satisfy both parties.
A new Premier League season gets underway on Saturday, with experts’ previews and predictions for the campaign out in force.
With the top sides in the league becoming more and more evenly matched, it’s more difficult to make predictions with any sense of certainty.
Each season brings its own shocks and surprises, rarely going to plan. How many neutrals would have imagined that defending-champions Man United would slide far enough down the league table to miss out on European football altogether? Or that Roberto Martinez would be so close to steering Everton into the Champions League, with city rivals Liverpool still in contention for the title on the final day?
In the Premier League era, the one position in the table that has never been a complete shock is first place; Never have the eventual winners been a team who weren’t equipped to mount a title challenge when the season began.
It’s probably safe to assume that neither Tottenham nor Everton are likely to break that trend this season, which leaves five teams who will go into the new season with realistic hopes of competing for the title.
Liverpool have shown signs of progression throughout the ownership of John Henry’s Fenway Sports Group, though it took until last season before the Reds were finally able to break back into the top four again, and ensure Champions League football returns to Anfield after a five-year absence.
Liverpool’s second-placed finish would have seemed highly unlikely to most neutrals at the start of the season, but the reality is that there was nothing fortunate about a second-place finish that was earned on merit.
Key victories at home to the teams around them in the table, and a fine run of 13 wins from the last 15 games was ultimately enough to finish well clear of Arsenal and Everton, but repeating that kind of form with the additional matches in Europe is likely to be difficult, and to consolidate a place amongst the top four at the same time as competing for domestic or European silverware would represent another good season.
While there will be lots of eyes focussed on Brendan Rodgers’ team, with observers eager to see if last season’s league performance can be matched (or even bettered) without Luis Suarez, it is certain that Man United will attract more attention than their rivals as they look to recover from a nightmare year that saw the 2013 champions finish in seventh place.
Louis van Gaal will inherit a team far more capable than the results of 2013/14 suggested, no doubt supplemented by some key arrivals. The Dutchman will certainly not be overwhelmed by the task of reviving the club, and it would be no surprise to see United back in the mix for honours.
Still, questions remain over whether last year’s top four them have strengthened enough to keep United out of the top four places for a second consecutive season.
If Man United are to be back in the top four, then Arsenal may be the most likely contenders to drop out, with the Gunners possessing a team who can match anyone on their day, but who also have more of a tendency that any other top team to self-destruct.
Arsenal did finally lift some silverware last season following a dramatic turnaround against Hull in the FA Cup Final, but also led the Premier League for the majority of the season up until February, before suffering a slump in form that at one stage saw Everton move into pole position for the much-coveted fourth place.
Arsene Wenger’s team have now qualified for the Champions League during each of the last 17 years, but last season wasn’t the first time that they have been close to missing out, and with the group of top teams getting stronger each year, there surely cannot be many more times that Arsenal snatch a top four place so late in the season.
And besides, with big investment in players such as Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, there will be growing expectations amongst Arsenal fans that their team can still be challenging for the title itself in April and May.
Just as there are set to be many questions asked over whether Liverpool are capable of matching last year’s league showing that led to them finishing above Arsenal and Man United, so too will there be an element of doubt over whether Arsenal are capable of repeating the feat of placing higher than United – something that they achieved last season for the first time in a decade.
If it’s one of those three teams who would start as the most likely to be under threat of not making the top four at all, then the same shouldn’t be said of Chelsea or Man City. Both have spent big sums of money adding to already strong – and successful – squads during the past 2-3 years, and this summer has been no different.
Jose Mourinho’s complaints of not having a goalscorer was a weak excuse for his team’s failings given the quality of the attacking players at his disposal (and the fact that both Di Matteo and Benitez had been successful with an inferior squad to that which Mourinho had to work with), but it has nevertheless been addressed not only by the arrival of Diego Costa, but also Cesc Fabregas, who comes with an impressive goalscoring record of his own.
Given the sort of games in which Chelsea dropped points at the end of the season, it could be argued that they were even more guilty than Arsenal of Premier League underachievement – and more guilty than Liverpool of missing a golden opportunity to pip Man City to the title.
Anything less than a season-long title challenge will represent another below-par showing for a club that has all of the ingredients for being successful on multiple fronts, and it would be unthinkable for Chelsea not to be part of the top four.
And finally to Man City, whose expectations will be on a par with those of Chelsea. Manuel Pellegrini’s team were deserved champions last season, but equally deserving was the fact that they were pushed right to the wire by Liverpool and Chelsea.
For as much as City spent much of the year looking like the team to beat, they also failed too many times to get the results needed in order to build a clear advantage over their title rivals. As a result, City ultimately needed to add steel to the swagger that was so often displayed, and in doing so in order to see the job through, they proved worthy winners.
The tough job is now to win back-to-back titles, and cement their status as the country’s number one club. Achieving domestic success while also remaining in the Champions League until Spring is nothing more than what would be expected of the club in order to make a step up to the next level.
Following last year being described by the press as a three-horse race for the title (at a time when Arsenal were closely followed by Man City and Chelsea), Jose Mourinho attempted to dampen any expectation surrounding Chelsea’s title credentials by referring to his side as a small horse. Some weeks later, with Liverpool having replaced Arsenal as serious challengers, Brendan Rodgers responded with a similar analogy of Liverpool, labelling his inexperienced team as a chihuahua running between the legs of the horses.
With five strong teams battling it out, there’ll be no need for such talk this season, although if Chelsea and Man City each perform to their potential, it’s hard to imagine that the eventual champion wouldn’t be one of those two teams.
But it’s even harder to think that it won’t be another thrilling Premier League season, and I’m sure that I’m not alone in saying that I cannot wait for it to get started.
If there’s one thing that English participation at a major tournament will guarantee, it’s that most of the football-supporting population of the nation will find themselves getting carried away rather easily.
Whether for positive or negative reasons, the extreme reactions that follow almost every match are as predictable as the outcome to penalty shoot-outs that the players themselves are invariably involved in at this stage of almost every other calendar year.
And there’s no sign of that pattern changing, based on the aftermath of both matches played so far in the 2014 FIFA World Cup that, based on results between other teams, have ultimately led to England’s early elimination.
Going into the competition with relatively modest expectations was some progress on the usual hype and overly optimistic predictions, but that soon changed after a display against Italy which, despite an eventual 2-1 loss, offered plenty of signs to suggest that England were well-equipped to recover – and progress.
Such newly found optimism even led to England being considered favourites to win their second fixture against Uruguay, which was originally deemed to be the toughest challenge facing Roy Hodgson’s men.
The fact that Uruguay had been convincingly beaten by Costa Rica in their opening group game didn’t help to keep English expectations in check, and instead only caused more certainty that England would triumph over their South American opponents.
However, as was the case in the opening game against Italy, things didn’t go exactly to plan, and England came out second best after a game which they might not only have drawn, but possibly won.
As expected, the post-mortem was instant, and utterly damning of the players and tactics.
Though despite the predictable nature of the reaction in phone-ins and forums, it was difficult not to be a little shocked by a tone of almost sheer anger at the way in which England’s World Cup bid was on the brink of being over, only a week after the tournament kicked-off.
Disappointment of two straight defeats is understandable, as is a degree of frustration that so many players were unable to replicate their club form – even if the assumption that footballers will perform exactly the same for their country as they do in the Premier League is always easier in theory than in practice.
The most disappointing thing about England’s performance against Uruguay was that they were clearly capable of making life difficult for their opponents, but despite enjoying periods of controlling the game, there were too many other occasions when England didn’t look to be showing any urgency in going for the win.
At the risk of looking at somewhere else to place blame, there was also a couple of refereeing decisions which could have changed the whole nature of the game that went against England. Both involved offences by Uruguayan defender Diego Godin which should have resulted in his sending off, having collected an early caution in the game for a handball.
How different the game could have been if Godin, Uruguay’s captain and defensive rock, had been dismissed in the first half for halting Daniel Sturridge’s run towards goal with an unpleasant forearm swing that caught the England striker’s throat. The fact that the decision went against England shouldn’t be used as any sort of excuse, but it was a straightforward decision that the referee chose not to make and, with the score still 0-0, would certainly have changed the game.
But now for some perspective. England have lost narrowly against two of the tournament’s better teams, and in matches that neither opponent truly dominated. Each game was a relatively close contest.
Compare that to England’s last two major competitions. In being knocked out of the last two international tournaments when facing a similar calibre of opponent, England have been thoroughly outclassed. Germany’s 4-1 over England during the 2010 World Cup was in no way flattering, while Italy’s performance in the 2012 European Championship quarter final was almost as one-sided.
If there’s to be any consolation from Brazil, it is that England have competed far better against two sides who have both achieved recent success at international level, and the almost unprecedented standard of teams competing in the same first round group stage always left the possibility of a swift exit from the competition for one of the teams involved.
Never before have three former winners been drawn in the same first round group, with all three countries currently in the top 10 of the FIFA rankings. Of the other seven groups at the 2014 World Cup, five have only one top 10 team, and Group H doesn’t even manage that.
If flaws in the system which produces the ranking are such that it isn’t a reliable measure of a national team’s strength, then a simple look at the actual recent achievements of Italy (2006 World Cup winners, 2012 European Championship finalists) and Uruguay (2010 World Cup semi-finalists; Copa America holders) paints a clearer picture.
During the last World Cup, England were grouped with USA, Algeria and Slovenia It was a group in which qualification was expected to be comfortable, but in which England failed to win either of their first two games and ultimately had to grind out a scrappy 1-0 win over Slovenia in order to claim second place in the group.
Whatever disappointment there is concerning England’s early exit from Brazil, there’s certainly more positives that can be taken than the performances and results from South Africa four years earlier – and far fewer reasons for criticism.
It was interesting yesterday to read some of the responses to Rafael Nadal’s ninth French Open triumph.
Whilst there was obviously a large amount of admiration for a man who continues to achieve things that have never before been done in his sport, I also read some comments about how boring it was for a the same player to win an event so many times.
As has always been the case, sporting legends can provoke very different responses, depending on which angle you take.
For example, Michael Schumacher’s utter dominance of Formula 1 was enjoyed by some, but also contributed to others switching off (a situation that the FIA attempted to address through a number of regulation changes that were intended in part to make the sport more exciting).
When such dominance occurs, it’s usually a combination of a tremendously gifted competitor performing in an era where there are no opponents capable of reaching the same level. And it’s easy to understand how it can be boring – particularly for casual fans who may not follow a sport with too deep an interest.
In the case of men’s tennis, it was deemed by some to be boring when Pete Sampras was untouchable at the top, although fewer people voiced complaints about Roger Federer’s position of superiority during the last decade, whether because of his style of play, or because of the fact that he wasn’t in a league of his own for quite as long.
For the latter, Nadal must take enormous credit. Until his emergence in the game, which inevitably started with major successes on clay at a young age, there was no one else on the tour capable of rising to Federer, or going on to achieve close to the same level of success.
Nadal twice denied Federer from holding all four Grand Slams at the same time, by overcoming him in the final of the French Open. But he also took the fight to Federer at Wimbledon and – after two successive defeats in the final – claimed the one title that no other player had threatened to take away from the Swiss.
Rising to the challenge of toppling Federer at an event he had made his own was almost the ultimate success for Nadal, during an era in the sport that frequently saw the two men battling each other for honours on every surface.
The rise of Djokovic and, to a lesser extent, Andy Murray, expanded the group of potential major winners further, and added even more intrigue.
Djokovic’s domination of 2011 forced a response not only from Federer, but also from Nadal, and the way in which each player responded to the challenge laid down by Djokovic only further strengthened their reputations as two of the all time greats.
A glance at the winners’ list at Roland Garros would give an impression of predictability for any outsider to the sport of tennis. It would look as if the tournament ending with Nadal’s name being etched once more onto the famous list was little more than an inevitability.
Any such view would fail to tell the whole story, particularly when taking into account Djokovic’s efforts to get his hands on the only grand slam that has eluded him. The Serb’s absolute determination to win at Roland Garros has been ended only by a fiercely resolute Nadal during each of the last three years – and each of those encounters could quite easily have had a different outcome, such was the part played by Djokovic.
That Nadal continues to come out on top when it really matters only reinforces his status as the finest clay court player in history.
But as long as there are players like Djokovic performing at the same, near-superhuman level, and forcing the very best out of one of the greatest of champions, there’ll be no danger of a Nadal win in Paris ever becoming boring.