Saturday, January 06, 2007

The EPL; a glance midway through

A race in two, with the wrong Reds involved + EPL team of the season

JUST past midway through an intoxicating English premiership season and with the third round of the FA Cup on the agenda this weekend, it's time to cast an eye over the players that have caught the imagination so far this season.

But before we delve into that, a quick moment to reflect on the personal disappointment that has been Liverpool's season to date. While they sit in third place after 22 rounds and are likely to be in the Champions League mix (top four) come May, I have to admit that this season was all about challenging for the long-awaited title (16 years).

After an aggressive off-season in the transfer market that yielded the likes of Bellamy, Pennant, Kuijt, Agger, Aurelio and Gonzalez, all the talk in the build up to the season was how Liverpool was the team most likely to challenge Chelsea.

Manchester United had grabbed Carrick from Tottenham, but the doubts persisted about whether he would be the answer to the question that has lingered at Old Trafford for the past two seasons; how to replace Roy Keane? And in any case, the departure of van Nistelrooy had left a gaping hole, so who would grab their goals? Not to mention that Ronaldo and Rooney were likely to kill each other at the first training session after the goings-on in Germany.

As for the Gunners, they'd recruited Czech wizard Rosicky and Chelsea's unsettled gun defender Gallas, but still appeared a couple of players short of challenging a Chelsea side that had added no less than Ballack and Shevchenko to their already formidable squad.

So it was all about Liverpool. Yet, for me, the key would be how well they started and how quickly Rafa Benetiz was able to mould his new signings into the 11. Unfortunately, the reality of the premiership is that it gives you little time and the key to success over the past five to 10 seasons has been to get off to the quick start, and maintain it. Rarely does it allow you a down period, perhaps two or three games at best.

As we now know, the Reds failed to win an away game until December (a 4-0 win at Wigan), meaning that they'd lost at such places as Everton, Stamford Bridge, Reebok, Old Trafford, Emirates, and drawn to both Sheffield United and Middlesbrough. A mere two points from a possible 21.

It was a tough start, no doubt, but any team with premiership ambitions needs to be splitting points with the likes of Chelsea, Man U and Arsenal, and taking maximum points from the likes of Everton, Bolton, Sheffield United and Middlesbrough.

It allowed the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea to skip away, and while Benetiz's men have recovered very well of late (8 wins, 1 draw and 1 loss in their past 10 games with 18 goals for, 1 goal against and 9 clean sheets in that period), the horse, in all likelihood, has bolted.

With Man U 14 points clear and Chelsea eight away, it would take a run similar to the one above, including maximum points at home to Everton, Chelsea, Man U and Arsenal between now and the end of March (not to mention they have two not so small games with European champions Barcelona in between) for Liverpool to be back in the race come April, when they have a reasonably comfortable run in.

While there has been personal disappointment in Liverpool's run (not for the first time), at the top it's been great to see Chelsea being issued a challenge, even if it's been from Man United. I remember thinking at the start of last season that if Rooney, Ronaldo and van Nistelrooy got it together, they might just be able to challenge, but it never eventuated, Chelsea getting off to a great start and maintaining it through the excellence of Lampard, Terry, Makelele and Cole.

A year later, Van Nistelrooy gone, Carlos Queiroz back in the fold, and Man United are flying, with Saha stepping in up front and doing a great job early, while the likes of Scholes, Giggs and Solksjaer are born again. While Rooney has yet to find full throttle, Ronaldo has been untouchable, simply sublime, while there have been unsung heroes, the likes of Vidic, Evra and Carrick. Man United's play and interchange, particularly in the final third, has been top shelf.

Chelsea, meanwhile, have stuttered of late. Early on, with Drogba and Essien flying, and Terry a rock, they looked on course for a hat-trick, but with Terry injured, Shevchenko, Lampard and Ballack struggling a bit, they are picking up draws where they would otherwise win.

Seeing how Mourinho and his men respond and whether the likes of Scholes and Giggs can maintain their form for a season will be fascinating. The addition of Larsson offers intrigue. At the very least, the title run maintains interest in a league that had, for a couple of seasons, been threatening to become a monopoly.

Meanwhile, in the background, Arsene Wenger and his sublime bunch of gifted technicians have been catching the eye, but stuttering away to some of the lesser lights, where a physical approach is often required. Long may they stick to their brand.

With all that in mind, here's a look at the players that have caught the imagination to date, set out in the premiership's preferred formation, 4-4-2;

Jussi Jaaskelainen, Bolton, keeper; a name that rolls off the tongue has been poetry in motion for the past few seasons, consistently pulling off spectacular save after save. This year, with Bolton again mixing it with the best, he has caught the eye. Just shades van der Sar, while former England number one James has been doing some great stuff at his latest club, Portsmouth.

Emmanuel Eboue, Arsenal, right back; after bursting onto the scene as a replacement for the injured Lauren last season and conquering all on his way to the Champions League final, has backed it up with an outstanding start to this campaign. Getting forward so easily, he just shades Glen Johnson, on loan at Pompey from Chelsea. Others worthy of note include Man City's Micah Richard, who has looked strong in the Man City games I have seen, and Gary Neville, who has rebounded well from conceding that horrible back-pass goal in Croatia.

Nemanja Vidic, Man United, central defender; ridiculed by many after a poor start to his Old Trafford career last season, he has been an absolute rock this season, strong in the tackle, powerful in the air and quick over the ground.

Sol Campbell, Portsmouth, central defender; hard to leave out Kolo Toure, who continues to excel as a quick central defender, comfortable at bringing the ball forward, but I'm giving the second central defensive spot to his old Arsenal mate, Sol Campbell, these days the foundation of the Pompey back four. No surprise their fortunes at the back have improved since his arrival, and he has brought Linvoy Primus along for the ride. Have also enjoyed the work of another Ivory Coast defender, Bolton's Abdoulaye Meite.

Gareth Barry, Aston Villa, left back; Wigan's Leighton Baines looks good and has produced a couple of wonder goals, while Reading's Nicky Shorey has provided some telling service to Kevin Doyle and Leroy Lita, but Aston Villa's captain is as consistent as anyone, always producing the goods, especially from the penalty spot. Surprisingly, for a bloke that has been around for what seems an eternity, he's on 25. Another Man U boy written off last season, Patrice Evra, who impressed for Monaco in the Champions League a few years ago, has bounced back, while Gael Clichy continues to improve under Wenger.

Michael Essien, Chelsea, right midfield; incredible energy, this bloke is a powerhouse down the right flank. Not the type to get out wide, he rips through sides, straight down the guts, but trying to keep up with him, for 90 minutes, is almost impossible. Machine.

Gilberto Silva, Arsenal, defensive central midfield; emboldened with the captains armband since the injury to Thierry Henry, and developing a mean-streak of late as a goal-getting midfielder, Gilberto is finally overshadowing some of his Arsenal teammates. Have also been impressed with the simple but efficient work of Michael Carrick at Man U and the drive and thunder from Scott Parker at Newcastle. After his brilliance last season, Xabi Alonso had a terrible start to this campaign, but things are improving.

Paul Scholes, Man United, attacking central midfield; in the form he was in before his knee injury, driving from deep and banging in the goals, Tim Cahill would have been a shoe-in for this spot. But since his injury, the one player that has produced it week in week out is the evergreen Scholes, producing some of the most spectacular strikes you'll see, and assisting in countless others. Just when you think he's past his best, he's so far eclipsed the likes of Lampard and Gerrard. Cesc Febregas is always great to watch, while the work of Mikel Arteta for Everton, both at the set piece and general play, has been eye-catching.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Man United, left midfield; after the dramas in Germany, where he was involved in some less than memorable incidents and enhanced a reputation for going down softly, there was a temptation to start thinking this kid might waste his sublime footballing gifts. No so, and thank goodness for that. Quick, mesmerising on the ball, strong, two-footed, powerful in the air, there is little this bloke can't do, from either flank or through the middle. The other left sided flyer going well at Man U is the evergreen Ryan Giggs, while Matt Taylor does some good things under Harry Redknapp. Sadly, neither of Liverpool's let sided signings, Aurelio or Gonzalez, are yet to fire.

Didier Drogba, Chelsea, striker; much as the his partner is struggling to adapt to English football this season, so Drogba struggled last season. Perhaps not as badly as Shevchenko, but there where times last season when judges were questioning his value and whether he would survive the cut-throat world that is Chelsea FC. Some of those same judges are now referring to him as the best striker in the world. Sometimes, in football, there is no in between. Truth is that Drogba has been a demon in front of goal this campaign, particularly when his back is to goal, turning and producing some outrageous half-volleys, with both feet. Powerful and predatory, he has 20 goals from 32 appearances.

Nwankwo Kanu, Portsmouth, striker; of the newcomers, Aston Villa's speedy Gabriel Agbonlahor caught the eye early, while Reading's Kevin Doyle has been consistently good, but, in a year for the reborn, Kanu's reincarnation has been been among the most remarkable. These days he is even scoring the odd goal with the head. Others to have impressed include former Inter Milan man Obafemi Martins, Arsenal pair Robin van Persie and Emmanuel Adebayor, Blackurn's Benni McCarthy and Liverpool new boy Dirk Kuijt.

Any thoughts on who has stood out for you? or perhaps who hasn't? and am I right to think Liverpool are shot for another season? Leave a comment.


Anonymous wayne said...

I am not an avid EPL folloower, bar the news highlights, but it seems you are spot on about getting a good start to the season, although noteble exceptions would be Man U against Arsenal a few years back - but in Liverpool's case, you cant lose that many points early on and pick them back up later on, cause everyone else you need to overcome has found their rhythm by then too. This is of course a complete amateur's opinion, but damn some one needs to reply to such thoughtful writing! Remember, more often than not, silence is the sound of someone nodding in agreeance.

Tue. Jan. 09, 12:07:00 am AEDT  
Blogger john said...

EPL seems to be about having a billionaire owner. The Pool have got the message and are searching for one.

The question for us is which shirt will we see Harry Kewell play in next?

Tue. Jan. 09, 10:48:00 pm AEDT  
Blogger The Round Ball Analyst said...

Thanks for the comments Gentlemen.

Can certainly see where you're coming from John, it really has turned into a race to see who spends the most.

Liverpool are certainly going through a debate at the moment on just how much to spend. Seems you can buys some decent players, spend average amounts, but does this keep you up their with the likes of Chelsea and Man U, spending ridiculous amounts?

After the loss to Arsenal in the FA Cup, Benetiz complained about his inability to obtain the really top class players.

The problem for me is that Liverpool appeared to argue in the off season that they did have the cattle to challenge, so it's a bit rich to be complaining now that they don't.

As for the question of Harry, any shirt will do....

Wed. Jan. 10, 12:07:00 am AEDT  
Anonymous sir alex said...

liverpool are skata and i love it when you guys struggle!

Thu. Jan. 25, 03:55:00 pm AEDT  

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