joeldurston

Posts Tagged ‘Liverpool’

Mo’ money Ro’ problems for Abramovich

In Sport on November 22, 2012 at 9:17 PM

So another one bites the dust, and another is appointed, albeit temporarily, to the quite possibly the most poisoned, though no doubt lucrative, chalice in football. In case you haven’t guessed, this is the news Roberto Di Matteo has been sacked as Chelsea manager, despite having won the FA Cup and Champions League in under a year, and been replaced with Rafa Benitez, in the ‘interim’ at least.

I’m not entirely sure Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea is what Notorious B.I.G. (and Mase and Puff Daddy) was singing about when he sang Mo Money Mo Problems, but it certainly holds true, what with eight managers in eight years signalling a discontent which to 99% would be incommensurate with Chelsea’s nine major trophies since 2005. (This in addition to a legal case brought against him by one-time business partner Boris Berezovsky; the estimated most expensive divorce case ever (with settlement figures of £5.5 billion conjectured), and a 40-person “private army of bodyguards”.)

The idea of Abramovich treating Chelsea as a ‘plaything’, a ‘kid’s toy project’ is a well-worn cliché, but never truer than now. For Roberto Di Matteo had been thrown in at the deep end, in the middle of the season, and managed to win both the FA Cup and Champions League in addition to rescuing a pretty wretched league campaign, dealing with the recent racism controversy about as well as he could, and perhaps most importantly galvanising and uniting a team seemingly riven by internal strife. Even this season, Chelsea have done relatively well. Granted, they have had a mediocre Champions League campaign, but they can still progress. And the attacking midfield trio Mata, Hazard and Oscar (“Mazacar”) – the latter bought if not by Di Matteo, then at least in his tenure – have at times set the Premiership alive with their creativity and industry, taking them to a respectable third. So even by Abramovich’s standards, this must go down as a ruthless sacking. To wit, consider that there were, at least to my knowledge, no harbingers of dooms for this decision, even among the often voracious, vulture-like British press (see the current Mark Hughes situation) – or not since Di Matteo’s quick success put paid to the pre-emptive strikes, anyway.

So, rash? Definitely. Idiotic? Quite possibly. Time will help with that one. But Abramovich presumably has some reasoning behind the decision. Di Matteo’s sacking certainly adds fuel to the fire of suspicions that the Italian was merely keeping the seat warm for Pep Guardiola – with suggestions the former Barcelona manager has already been called but couldn’t be coaxed out of his self-imposed “sabbatical” in New York. And while it might be a bit much to suggest Abramovich in some way did not want the success of last season, it’s fair to say it would have made the decision to axe Di Matteo, who we can now say with some certainty was only ever thought of as temporary, easier and more justifiable. And the interim in Benitez’s title implies a similar predicament for the Spaniard…unless he somehow contrives to win the World Cup, one can only assume. (The omens do not look good for the former Liverpool man, either; supporters’ groups are against him and some have labelled him Rafa ‘beneathus’ – though admittedly much of this could be put down to mere club rivalry.)  Indeed, as the joke doing the rounds goes, maybe no Chelsea manager can be anything but ‘interim’.

Reading between the lines, there’s maybe also some undue affinity with Torres. While Di Matteo’s sacking and the fact that Torres’ was dropped against Juventus on Tuesday night could, in isolation, easily be put down to coincidence, when put in the wider context it’s certainly a plausible reason. Abramovich has long been dogged with suggestions he press-gangs his managers into playing his favourites, often despite evidence radically to the contrary. It was widely cited as a reason for Jose Mourinho’s somewhat shock departure from the Bridge; notably the (understandable) lack of game-time for Shevchenko, bought as a £30.8m flagship signing, allegedly far more due to Abramovich’s wishes than Mourinho’s.

A friend very aptly put it that Abramovich is a man who “knows the price of everything but the value of nothing”. But in a way the opposite is true, as the Shevchenko saga shows. Let’s face it, the immediate worth of £30 or £50 million to a man worth over an estimated $7.6 billion is not too much, but the intangible, the reputational value, if you will, may well be much more. Because, for all his hard-nosed business past, Abramovich often seems a man of whimsy and caprice, given to vanity and wary of losing (supposed) face. It was similar accusations – that Abramovich took a dislike to the benching of much off the ‘old guard’ such as Terry and Lampard – that attended the sacking of Andre Villas-Boas last season.

A similar kind of attachment and stubbornness is not unfeasible in terms of Torres – again supposedly an ‘Abramovich signing’ – a £50m, one-time (still?) world-class signing who, in nearly two years, still weighs in at nearly £5m per goal for Chelsea. And it’s certainly a view Neil Ashton, writing in the Daily Mail, takes. It hardly seems fair to place Torres’ poor performance at the door at Di Matteo, though – Torres is playing in the lone striker role in which he’s excelled at Liverpool and Atlético Madrid and receiving great service from Mata, Hazard and Oscar (“Mazacar”). But by no means all in Abramovich’s world is fair (and I’m sure Di Matteo’s pay-off will go some way to easing the pain).

Di Matteo’s sacking also lends weight to the idea that Abramovich has an overarching desire for the Champions League – an ostentatious billionaire’s playground to some degree – since this is the only competition Chelsea are really disappointing in at present.

Yet, in all this madness, the sacking might yet work, as Jonathan Liew argues in this piece, because football is such a mercenary world now, not least in the court of a Russian oligarch. In it, Liew shows the respective success enjoyed since 2005 by Chelsea, who have had eight managers in that period, and by Manchester United and Arsenal, who have both had just one:

 prem

Teams’ trophies per manager since 2005

So one more trophy for Chelsea than United – though one less Premiership title – and eight more than Arsenal. But the crucial stat missing here is the finances. In fact, Chelsea fare pretty badly when it’s factored in that, in basically same period (since the 2005 summer transfer market), they are £326.5m in deficit in the transfer market (including agent fees – but not wages…and the approximate £70m in managerial pay-offs). If one spends an average of over £40m in excess of what one takes in every season, is it any wonder one’s winning titles?! Frankly, with all the expensively-assembled world-class talent at Chelsea’s disposal, it would take a really rather shit manager for them not to win anything, and it’s not unreasonable to suggest they might have done even better had managers had more time to create real stability and unity in the camp.  As a point of comparison, United’s outlay in this period was £93.7m and Arsenal actually gained £41.82m. So, using an admittedly crude calculation (though arguably no less so than the above chart), this works out at £32.68m per trophy for Chelsea, £11.71m for United, and Arsenal, in a sense, getting paid £41.82m for winning a solitary FA Cup.

But, hey, it’s Roman’s money*, not ours. And despite – or because of – him appearing to be auditioning for a part in the sequel to mediocre Hollywood comedy Horrible Bosses, it’s been a fun ride hasn’t it…

*Notwithstanding socio-economic arguments of his money actually being stolen from the Russian people in his underhand seizure of lucrative oilfields after the break-up of communism and successful investment of black market money…but that’s a different story.

Joel Durston

2011/12 Premiership Season Review

In Sport on May 20, 2012 at 3:34 AM

O……M…….F……..G. Here at TAY we’re not usually prone to such teenage internet-speak, but the most  apocalyptic end to the most apocalyptic season (in living memory at least) had the marvellous ability to bring out the gawping, incredulous child in all of us. Alright there were some killjoys, but more fool them if they are either too serious (or joyless) to spurn the emotional thrill of football for the FT,  or hypocritical enough to enough to decry football while engrossed in the Saturday night fortunes of others who have the temerity to passionately pursue their dream.

But for the most of us – engorged in fat, fatuous cake of football, however self-consciously – here’s TAY’s attempt to make a method of this season’s undoubted, exhilarating madness…

Best match

How to choose. United v Everton? Chelsea v Arsenal? United v Arsenal? City v QPR? All great games in their own right. The obvious answer is of course the latter; City’s breathtaking 3-2 win this weekend against QPR, but, being a pretentious pedant, this was only so exciting when viewed in the context of the other games that day and the narrative of the season as a whole. In isolation it was just a perfectly normal, albeit exciting, win against a much lesser team. My pick is City’s landmark 6-1 win against United earlier this season because of its significance; confirmation, if it hadn’t already arrived, that City were no longer just the ‘noisy neighbours’ playing their dubstep at a slightly inconvenient yet ignorable level, but neighbours persistently urging to come over and join the dinner party. They wrangled the invite. The results were thrillingly messy.

Best team

At the start of the season, many if not most were consigning Swansea to relegation – myself included, despite having a soft spot for them due it being my mum’s hometown. It seemed likely they would become this season’s Blackpool; likable, attractive to watch, but ultimately too brittle and under-resourced for the Darwinnian, Hunger Games-esque world of the Premiership. That they definitively proved the naysayers wrong, whilst still retaining their integrity and playing style, is a tremendous credit to Brendan Rodgers and his players.

Best goal

Another very tough choice. Cisse (that one) and Suarez (the chip against Norwich) both scored amazing goals, but these were spontaneous moments of brilliance. Hatem Ben Arfa’s, my choice, showed several moments of genius, which all combined to make one spectacular whole – the quick-thinking backheel and then blistering pace to beat the two Bolton central midfielders, the thread-through-a-needle incision of the centre-halves, and the composed finished past Bogdan. Sublime.

Best player

Could be any one of a dozen or so – (in rough ascending order) Walker for tireless running; Ba/Cisse (pre- and post-Christmas, respectively); Bale if he – and spurs – didn’t go off the boil slightly; Rooney for consistent strike rate (and unusual temperament); Aguero for impish energy and finishing; Silva for effortless, elegant excellence; Hart for presence and world-class shot-stopping; Parker, Kompany and Toure for towering performances and leadership. But, admittedly with possible bias, I’m plumping for Van Persie, for the way he almost single-handedly brought Arsenal (hell, cover’s blown – ‘us’) Champions League football with 30 league goals – an eclectic mix of wonder-goals and tap-ins. There were times this joke seemed very apt: “The Robin Van Persie Tea Tray….carries 10 mugs”. Considering, a third-placed finish is a great achievement, and largely his.

Best character

A two-horse race, surely, between messrs Balotelli and Barton. The former an exuberant, enigmatic court jester, a man with the talent of the 21-year-old he is but the attitude of a 7-year-old. The latter a strange tri-chotomy, if you will, of a man – part sensitive, art-loving Smiths fan; part people’s philosopher (or fool); and part Scouse thug. Public perception has lurched staunchly to the latter view after Sunday’s moment of madness (or, perhaps, normality for him). So for this reason, Balotelli gets my vote. Super Mario was similarly a class-A prat against Arsenal, where he got sent off for a reckless challenge after he should have been sent off for an even more reckless challenge – actions that arguably nearly cost City the title, and may yet lead to his exit from the club. But, although this was one piece of crazy too much for many, Balotelli can largely pull off japes like playing Angry Birds on the bench for his national team (i.e. funny but disrespectful) due to his youthful joie de vivre – personally what football is all about. Barton would be pilloried, and rightly so.

Best howler

The cliché my nan could have scored that! is oft-used in football, but probably actually true in this case. Torres had actually had a good game this match at Old Trafford – not always with end product, but lively, and he produced one sumptuous chip to beat De Gea. The miss, however, typified his form. He took a through ball and rounded De Gea well, but missed an open goal from 6 yards under absolutely no pressure. People pored over the replays to look for an incriminating bobble, but there was none; just absolutely shocking tekkers, hilarious to the majority of football fans who love a bit of schadenfreude.

Best Manager

Could have equally gone to Brendan Rodgers (as best team could have Newcastle), but I’ve elected to give this to Alan Pardew for the way he has turned a very average team into serious Champions League hopefuls. And he did it the right way too. Contemporaries Liverpool splashed the clash yet floundered (in the league at least), but Pardew brought in relative unknowns for bargain-bucket prices and moulded them into a unit at once solid and exhibitive of fantastic, flowing football. Demba Ba on a free has to be signing of the season. Remember we were all outraged at nice guy Hughton being given his marching orders?! That this seems a distant memory is testament to Pardew’s transformation.

Dark horse

Would be Newcastle or Ba specifically, but since I’ve covered both already, I’ll go for Papiss Cisse, with a notable mention to reborn Hatem Ben Arfa. Pretty much unknown by everyone before he was bought in January (for £10m from Freiburg) – I’ll hold my hands up, I didn’t know who he was – Cisse has gone on to become a fans’ favourite. And unsurprisingly, given his 13 goals in 14 appearances, including some absolutely redonkulous ones such as the looped chip against Swansea and outside-of-the-foot, 35-yard banana shot against Chelsea, which probably would have returned back to him were it not for the net. Nice guy, too, as shown by his surprise visit to the home of the (overjoyed) primary school kid who drew a picture of him at school when he was meant to make a present for his folks. Who needs Carroll, eh?!

Best Funny moment

There’s been a few – there always will be with Super Mario around – but it’s got to go the Anfield cat. The stray, known to wander around the premises, livened up an otherwise drab encounter between Liverpool and Spurs, insouciantly trotting around Brad Friedel’s goalmouth and sitting down – much to the amusement of the players and fans – before being escorted off by a steward, earning 25,000 Twitter fans in the process. And in doing so, ‘Kenny’, as he’s been dubbed, made more of an impact at Anfield than Stewart Downing did all season. Miaow.

Best punditry

OK, so they’re both technically in the Champions League (the Chelsea/Barca semi), but it’s got to be a joint win between Gary Neville’s much-parodied orgasmic exhortations at Torres’ last minute goal and Geoff Shreeves’ brutally frank questioning of Branislav Ivanovic. Without so much as a personal congratulation for a typically resolute performance, Shreeves saw fit to demand of Ivanovic whether he was booked and, upon the bewildered Ivanovic answering in the affirmative, tell him in no uncertain terms he would miss the final. Talk about party-pooper. Made for great TV, though, in a similarly bonkers, brilliant season. Please no one burst the bubble.

Joel Durston

King Kenny Leaves the Castle

In Sport on May 17, 2012 at 6:26 PM

So, King Kenny has been forced from the castle. Instead of taking a no doubt much needed holiday, he flew to America to review his contract with owners John Henry and Tom Werner, and was given his marching orders from the insular bubble of the castle, over the crocodile-infested moat of hacks, and into the land of managerial uncertainty.

The case for the prosecution against this once great player is contentious. On the one hand, he has brought Liverpool a Carling Cup, seemingly instilling the resolve to see them past a strong City team in the semis and beat a very spirited Cardiff team – on penalties, after a gruelling 120 minutes – in the final. This is one more serious title than Barcelona and Manchester United have got this season. He also got them to an FA Cup final, only losing narrowly to a good Chelsea team. And, despite all the controversy and the myriad stars (or supposed stars) who have had to content themselves with bench-warming for much of the season, it appears he’s created a positive team atmosphere around Anfield. No mean feat, especially when compared to the problems City, a similar if more successful case, have had in this respect. Even erstwhile renegade vagabond, Roy Carroll, seems to be acting like a sensible, if largely shit, professional nowadays.

No doubt he was helped in this by the aura of hero-worship which surrounds him on the red side of Liverpool – a respect seemingly echoed by the players, and one which lent him the benefit of the doubt on many contentious cases. For this you could call him ‘lucky’, but one’s stature is not divorced from the job, so this should be a point in his favour.

But – and it’s a big but – in finishing 8th Liverpool have simply failed to perform in the league, especially when considered, with the ‘messiah’ Kenny and several big signings on board, many fans were hailing this as the season as the one in which Liverpool finally fulfilled on their promise and returned to former glories. And it wasn’t even a particularly close 8th – closer to the drop zone than (normal) Champions League Qualification (16 and 17 points, respectively), and a galling four points off those pesky neighbours on the other side of Stanley Park. Undoubtedly they were unlucky in some games in which they dominated but thwarted by some combination of poor finishing, refereeing decisions, out-of-the-ordinary goalkeeping (Scott Dann), and the woodwork – which, with 22 strikes, they hit comfortably more than anyone else in the Premiership. However, that is only so if you agree all this so-near-yet-so-far constitutes ‘unlucky’ (I do to some extent). In many performances they were just plain poor; disorganised, anaemic, and seemingly clueless. A tell-tale sign is that the now-infamous Anfield Cat, which appeared in their drab 0-0 home with Spurs, spawned so many ironic jokes about the tabby doing more at Anfield than many players, particularly Downing, had done all season.

Yes, a lot of the culpability for this should lie with the players – a crux I feel most sacked managers are unfairly burdened with. However new the system or unfamiliar the players, surely a ‘good’ left winger should be able to beat the man and put in a decent cross… *cough* Downing *cough* (ok, so I’m singling poor Stewart out, but I’m angry about his selection for the England squad). In this case, though, a lot of the blame should fall on Dalglish’s shoulders. Newcastle, for one, will be laughing at Liverpool’s (figurative) fortunes right now. Flushed £41m from the sale of Carroll (£35m) and Jose Enrique (£6m) to Liverpool, they have bought – among others – Check Tiote, Davide Santon, Yohan Cabaye, Hatem Ben Arfa and Papiss Cisse and signed on a free Demba Ba. All unmitigated successes, and they still turned a £8m profit. Bravo, Pardew. By contrast, on top of the £35m for Carroll (though admittedly buoyed by an equally ridiculous £50m for Torres), Kenny spent more than Newcastle on Henderson and Downing alone (£16m and £20m, respectively). In the league, the former clocking in with a disappointing 2 goals and 4 assists and the latter a pathetic zilch. It’s very easy to point the finger at bad signings in hindsight, but even at the time the consensus – and my opinion – was that Liverpool were paying way over the odds for these two. Even Adam and Coates – at £7m each – seemed overpriced, in hindsight at least. Also, his selection has often seemed misguided. Despite lacklustre performances, Henderson and Downing have both found regularly found themselves in attacking midfield positions ahead of Maxi Rodriguez, who has scored four goals in just 11 league appearances.

Also, Dalglish’s handling of the whole Suarez-Evra affair was very divisive; unbridled in his support for the player vehemently accused – and later convicted of – racism. His indignant reaction to ban, too – acting as if it was an unfair attack on him/his club – won him few admirers. It’s certainly true that being honourable and nice to the press (and fans) is not a pre-requisite for the job – it certainly never hurt Fergie or Mourinho – but for a club that prides itself so much on its ethics (or being self-righteous and worthy), it was quite damaging. And arguably quite an unhelpful distraction from the football itself too.

So, I think the prosecution wins on the balance of probabilities, at least in today’s cutthroat, Darwinnian hell-hole that is the Premiership managerial merry-go-round. It may seem harsh and rash, but so did Chris Hughton’s sacking, remember?! And look what Pardew’s done. Another thing to be said for the decision is the timing; a new manager, if appointed quickly, will have plenty of time over the summer to rebuild and mould his squad. And a prestigious, if ‘pressure-cooker’, job like Liverpool should have no shortage of attractive potential suitors – already Martinez, even Benitez and Capello have been thrown into the ring. If messrs Henry and Warner appoint one of these and he takes Liverpool onto success, it will prove a good decision…in hindsight as well as at the moment.

Joel Durston

If the London Mayoral Candidates Were Football Teams

In Opinion on April 20, 2012 at 1:23 PM

Boris Johnson (Conservative) – Manchester United

Precociously talented enough at what he does do to gain a grudging respect even from detractors. For the same reason, he manages to carry off his arrogance, often worn with the same simmering self-confidence as one of Old Trafford’s most finest sons, Mr Cantona. And with a charm typical of their respective countries of birth; Johnson’s ostensibly bumbling English gent to Cantona’s enigmatic, quintessentially Gallic taste for the arts and philosophy. Of course, the image is largely just clever PR. Just as behind United’s arrogance there is steel that, almost unerringly, leads to victory despite playing shit (usually courtesy of a fortuitous penalty or goal off someone’s arse), behind Johnson’s awkward, bumblingly comic demeanour there is a fierce intelligence and wit, which even opponents have a grudging respect for. (A personal favourite Borisism, if you will, is his response to criticism from Chris Huhne, who had recently been found to have transferred a driving penalty to his wife: “Well, to be fair to Chris, he does know how to get his points across…”. Miaow.)

The same sense of self-confidence influences their respective attitudes to much outside the city they represent, despite paradoxically having a relatively huge profile elsewhere. And income; Boris reportedly earns £250,000 a year for writing for the national paper The Daily Telegraph, and United earn millions from their fanbase in Asia, which is estimated to be near 100 million – a recent tour earned them an estimated £6 million. Of a huge source of United’s support, China, Boris Johnson said: “Virtually every single one of our international sports were invented or codified by the British. Other nations, the French, looked at a dining table and saw an opportunity to have dinner; we looked at it and saw an opportunity to play Wiff-waff. And I say to the Chinese, and to the world, that Ping-pong is coming home!”

Both are also not overly fond of Scousers. Manchester United fans sing (of Park Ji Sung and Liverpool fans): “Park, Park, wherever you may be, you eat dogs in your home country. But it could be worse – you could be Scouse, eating rats in your council house.” Boris has caused furore by suggesting the Hillsborough tragedy was largely due the irresponsible actions of drunken Liverpool fans, and the city wallowed in its “victim status”.

And, love them or loathe him, both now have iconic, if costly, stadiums in rough areas of their cities to their name, which should bring joy to many all over the world, if not to many of the grumbling, oppositional locals.

 

Ken Livingstone (Labour) – Liverpool FC

Both somewhat troubled at the moment, they relentlessly harp on about their glory years in the 80s – and to a lesser extent more recently – and how they can return to that hallowed place, like tired old romantics. The emotional yearning – vomit-inducing to many – can be seen in Livingstone’s (crocodile?) tears at the broadcast of his election manifesto video. For both, there are frequent calls of self-righteousness and sanctimony; most recently for Ken- whether his tears were really spontaneous and sincere given the news he had watched the film the night before.

There are also recent cries of shady and unethical organisational malpractice. Liverpool in the various financial proceedings between unpopular Americans George Gillett and Tom Hicks buying the club in 2007 and Fenway Sport Group’s 2010 takeover. And Ken Livingstone in the press’ hounding of him for including ‘actors reading from scripts’ in his election broadcast. Even if reports are often exaggerated by short-sighted press and punters – Livingstone’s ‘actors’ had been selected, paid (but only expenses) and provided with a script, but all were genuine Labour supporters. Ken has also been in hot water for the hypocrisy of denouncing the tax avoidance and evasion of “rich bastards”, yet reportedly funnelling £238,646 into a private firm to avoid the higher tax, thus saving up to £54,000 for being subject only to the 14.5% tax rate – lower than a City Hall cleaner.

And, just like Liverpool FC in their – ultimately unwise –  support of Luis Suarez amid allegations of racism, Ken has been dogged with accusations of racially divisive practice; notably, his combination of passionate championing of Islam yet snide comments about Jews. Though condemning of the authoritarian regime in Iran, he has accepted payments from the Iranian state, and also invited Yusuf-Qaradwi, Muslim hate-preacher banned from the USA who has supported suicide bombings and executions for homosexuals, to speak at City Hall.

Yet despite all the controversy both still retain a deep pride in their noble, socialist roots, or worthy wankerishness to the more cynical. Liverpool fans recently sent Alan Davies death threats for him having the temerity to suggest – sensitively – the club’s insistence on not playing on the Hillsborough anniversary was just a tad overbearing and demanding. And Ken has said this election is a “simple choice between good and evil […not] so clear since the great struggle between Churchill and Hitler”, and joked, “those who don’t vote for [him] will be weighed in the balance come Judgement Day. The Archangel Gabriel will say, ‘You didn’t vote for Ken Livingstone in 2012. Oh dear, burn for ever’.”

Add in the respective staunch devotion to red, and the resemblance is almost uncanny.

 

Brian Paddick (Lib Dem) – Arsenal

Makes positive moves, is liked by many, and has led the way in promoting a more progressive culture in his line of work (being a stereotypical Lib Dem and the UK’s first openly gay police officer), but seems not to quite have the cutting edge or political clout to mount a serious challenge, with a mere 8% of the estimated votes backing this up.

 

Siobhan Benita (Independent) – Swansea

A relative newcomer to the big league(s), Benita has a fresh, attractive approach to the game, but with a reticence and inability to spend big – and arguably play dirty, too – is unlikely to really challenge the big boys.

 

Carlos Cortiglia (BNP) – Millwall

Makes bold claims to be standing up for tradition and good, honest, hardworking Brits, but to most just hides a bunch of aggressive racists, under whatever new guise (this chap was born in Uruguay and is also of Spanish and Italian descent).

Joel Durston

Premiership 2010/11 End of Season Review.

In Sport on June 21, 2011 at 6:33 PM

With Manchester United tying up the title and one of the tightest, most dramatic, relegation battles in premiership history, so comes to pass another season of the premiership. And what a season it was! It included ridiculously over-priced transfers (Torres, Carroll), bizarre sackings (Hughton), contract face-offs (Rooney vs Fergie), super-injunctions (inherently anonymous), multi-million pound takeovers (Kroenke of Arsenal) and the introduction of the inimitable Mario Balotelli, who at times kept the daily soap opera of football running single-handedly!

Oh, and there was also some rather fine football on show too. Though not consistently, the top 4/5 played some wonderful football; a relatively low title-winning margin personally showing the competitiveness of the league rather than the ‘mediocrity’. As demonstrated by the wildly erratic, plum-mid-table, Sunderland, those in the mid-table were far from boring plodders. And the teams at the bottom also provided the league with much colour too, especially Blackpool, whose spirited shoe-string squad cemented their place as ‘second team’ in hearts of seemingly everyone with their admirably gung-ho brand of ‘you score 4…we’ll score 5’ football. Personally, the league will be a lot less colourful without them, literally and figuratively. In this article, I give end-of-term reports on the top 6:

Ian Holloway unveils the new signature of himself.

Ian Holloway unveils the new signature of himself.

Manchester United

United were far from the seemingly invincible team that they have been in past title races, but continually managed to pull results out of the bag due to some abstract brand of ‘Champions spirit’, if you will. As Alan Hansen always (and rightly) lauds, Sir Alex specialises in this. This was a title won as much through infamous ‘hairdryer’ treatment, opportunism and ‘never say die spirit’ (see for one their Giggs-inspired comeback from two-down on a grim night at Bloomfield road), as it was through quality (not to mention a fair bit of luck too). They have, however, played consistently good football elsewhere, in getting to the F.A cup semi-final (only to lose to rivals City) and in reaching the Champions League final at their home-from-home (old joke, I know, but as a jealous Gooner, I couldn’t resist). Yes, Barcelona’s mesmerising passing made it a ‘men vs boys’ contest, but very few teams recently have come off as anything better than adolescents against this Barca team which, for my money, rank as the second greatest ever, eclipsed only by the great World Cup-winning Brazil ’70 team.

Stars: Van der Sar and Giggs continue to defy their age by putting in consistently great performances, the latter from his newly-realised position in the middle of the park. In front of the ever-reliable Van Der Sar, Vidic was, as usual, a rock, even if he occasionally displayed the movement of one too. Nani has continued to fill the significant void left on the wing by one Mr. Ronaldo by adding end product to his undoubted skill. And up front, United have been spoilt for choice. Berbatov has seemingly strolled, literally at times, to being the Premiership’s joint top scorer thanks in no small part to a staggering 5 against Blackpool. Javier Hernandez has been signing of the season; his estimated £7m transfer fee a mere snip for the frequent ‘poacher’ goals and permanent ‘last man’ threat. The ‘Little Pea’ is such a perfect foil to Berbatov and Rooney, the latter having improved greatly in the second half of the season after the settling of the contract debacle.

Flops: On his few appearances, new signing Porteguese winger Bebe has seemed entirely unworthy of the ‘new Nani/Ronaldo’ tags bandied around him. Evans often seems out of his depth and Gibson also does not quite look like a United player, as demonstrated by the harsh fan abuse which caused him to shut down his newly-opened Twitter account.

A-

Manchester United FC lift the 2010/11 Premiership trophy

Manchester United FC lift the 2010/11 Premiership trophy

Chelsea

After a solid start playing attractive football, slightly atypical of Chelsea in recent years, they collapsed like Dominoes over the winter, plummeting out of the European spots. With little help from their megabucks flop Torres, they mounted a quietly impressive late run from February which, as rivals slipped-up, earned them second place finish, having lost the late top-of-the clash at Old Trafford. Alas, a decent 2nd  place in the league and Quarter-Final exit in the Champions’ league was evidently not enough for the ultra-demanding powers that be. Thus, Ancelotti was given his marching orders.

Stars: The backline has been typically solid, conceding the league’s joint lowest goal tally (with City). In the absence of a ‘20-goal’ forward this season, midfielders have been left to pick up the slacks. Malouda has impressed, bagging a very healthy 13, as has Lampard with 10, though he has not up to his usual stratospheric standards. Kalou has also popped up, often as a sub, to score 10.

Flops: Torres is the obvious, much-ridiculed flop with only 1 goal in his 14 starts, but the whole frontline has struggled to gel, perhaps as a result of too many big egos clashing. Anelka has bagged just 6 from his 32 appearances and Drogba 12; a little disappointing by his own standards. Indeed, arguably, they have all been upstaged by the on-loan Sturridge.

B

£50 million 'flop', Torres.

£50 million 'flop', Torres.

Manchester City

In contrast to the massive egos and transfer fees off the pitch, Manchester City have been steady, solid, yet rarely spectacular on it. At a relatively low 60, their league goals tally lies a good 18 below United’s total, but their parsimony defending goal (joint lowest conceded goals and most clean sheets at 18) has ensured many one and two-nil victories which has brought them the F.A. Cup and Champions league football with their 3rd place finish.

Stars: Of particular mention in their oft-changing rearguard is the ever-present, safe hands of Joe Hart, who has cemented his place as a world-class keeper. Going forward, Yaya Toure has to a large extent justified his astronomical wages with his surging presence and David Silva has often been a creative force. Tevez has had a very good season, being at times scrapping and at times spectactular and ending up as joint top scorer with 21.

Flops: Hard to mention flops with city because, with the size of their squad, they can afford to keep mediocrity (even better) hiding behind the proverbial curtains on the bench (see for one, Shay Given). That said Dzeko hasn’t justified his hefty January price tag, scoring just 2 in his 15 appearances. Undoubtedly entertaining, Balotelli could fit in either category, going as he does from brilliant and talismanic one week, to blundering and uninterested the next.

B

Mercurial Mario Balotelli - 'Super Mario'

Mercurial Mario Balotelli - 'Super Mario'

Arsenal

Arsenal were doing well up until about late February when they were still in serious contention for all four trophies. Then they had the seemingly customary ‘bottle job’ as the wheels fell off and they lost the League Cup final (courtesy of a horrendous, last-minute defensive cock-up), crashed out of the F.A cup and Champions League to the respective superiority of Manchester United and Barcelona and threw away the league too. The latter was largely down to throwing away points at home in goalless draws with Sunderland and Blackburn and the unbelievable draw with Liverpool. In this game, Arsenal scored a 95th minute penalty… only to concede a very clumsy one in the NINETY-NINTH minute which Kuyt converted.

Stars: Nasri had a stellar start to the season, though failed to quite match these astronomical standards upon returning from injury. In his first real season in the first team, Wilshere was very promising, even if his inexperience occasionally showed, especially in his sometimes rash tackling. Van Persie hit the ground running upon his return from injury managing to bag a very impressive 18, considering. Arshavin was intermittently impressive, as was Fabregas when fit.

Flops:  In the long absence of Vermaelen, none of the backline covered themselves in glory, particularly Koscielny and Eboue. Goalkeeper was a particularly problematic position, with newcomer Wojciech Szczesny the best of a bad bunch. Especially in big games, Denilson just isn’t up to the task of ‘enforcer’, which Arsenal so sorely lack a world-class example of. After a good start, Chamakh faded and Bendtner was his usually faltering self.

C-

Arsenal crash out of the Carling Cup in the stoppage time

Arsenal crash out of the Carling Cup in stoppage time

Tottenham Hotspur

Spurs gamely fought for their second Champions League spot in two years, which indeed they occupied at various points of the season. But, perhaps due in part to the mental and physical toll of their European adventures, they were edged out by the literal and financial strength of City.

Stars: Dawson was a consistent presence at the back. Van Der Vaart proved a mere snip at £8m, claiming 9 assists and 13 goals in his 28 starts. Alongside Lennon (who’s recently acquired the ability to cross), skilful Modric and speed-merchant Bale, so electrifying in Europe, Van Der Vaart marshalled a very creative Spurs midfield.

Flops: Gomes, though often brilliant, is still prone to horrific errors, such as the ones he made against Real Madrid and Chelsea. Crouch and Defoe’s respective totals of 4 goals are quite paltry, though the former did link well with the midfield, especially Van Der Vaart, and the latter was injured for much of the season.

B –

Gareth Bale dazzles on the wing against Inter Milan

Gareth Bale dazzles on the wing against Inter Milan

Liverpool

Under Roy Hodgson, Liverpool started the season disastrously, lacking both the creativity and drive necessary for a Champion’s League finish which the club so desperately craves (even feels it has some sort of God-given right to). Indeed, by January, they were languishing not far above the relegation zone. But then, on the 8th of January, Hodgson left and ‘King Kenny’ returned to his beloved Kop! He evidently put some fire back in to the hearts of the players (and fans) as, with the help of the incoming Carroll and Suarez, they subsequently rose up the table to finish in sixth.

Stars: Since his £23m arrival in January, Suarez has proved he is worth every penny, putting in far superior performances to the ones Torres was (and indeed continued to do at Chelsea). His movement is so brilliant that he could probably find space in a telephone box and his touch ain’t bad either (see his trickery to set up Kuyt against United). Kuyt scored 13 and, as ever, was a tireless workhorse all season, whether deployed wide on the right or as an out-and-out striker as he often was before the arrival of Messers Suarez and Carroll. Mereiles and Maxi Rodriquez were two particularly rejuvenated by Dalglish’s return to the Kop. After fairly non-descript starts to the season, their performances improved drastically, going on to score some crucial goals to end with 5 and 10 respectively.

Flops:  It’s hard to really pinpoint where the blame lies for the early-season slump because it seemed like a largely collective malaise. That being said, Joe Cole, admittedly plagued with injuries, seems a shadow of his former self and N’gog has yet to mature into anything resembling a world-class striker.

D+ (E in 2010, A in 2011)

3 of Liverpool's mid-season saviours: 'King' Kenny, Carroll and Suarez

3 of Liverpool's mid-season saviours: 'King' Kenny, Carroll and Suarez

Joel Durston