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The End of the Season

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Manchester City are the first club to repeat as PL Champions in a decade

English football fans certainly got their money’s worth this season, with a title race that kept both supporters and neutrals on the edge of their seat.  Fans of lower league clubs also got some thrills as latent giants are finally challenging to climb back into the top flight.  All of this under the shadow of Financial Fair Play regulations with teeth… and of course, Brexit.

Here is my take on the 2018-2019 Premier League season.

WINNERS

Manchester City

Would they, or wouldn’t they? The writing was on the wall when Manchester City beat Liverpool at the Etihad in the new year.  The first team to successfully defend its crown since the last Manchester dynasty, Pep Guardiola’s side ended their season as worthy champions in a title race for the ages.  They did it by accumulating 198 points over two campaigns, scoring 201 league goals in the process… while only letting in 50 (Arsenal let in more in the last ten months, and they finished fifth).

Despite losing a crazy Champions League tie to scrappy Tottenham, Citeh may still win a domestic treble by beating Watford next week in the FA Cup.  If so, they will have done it with basically two full sides, almost all of whom would fit in at any other European elite team.  That includes the ever-present Sergio Agüero, Raheem Sterling and, eventually, Leroy Sané.

The off-season will be busy.  Talismanic but injury-prone captain Vincent Kompany may or may not sign a one-year deal at 33 years old. Former record signing Elaquim Mangala has a one-year contract extension after a big knee injury.  Six other players also have one year left on their contract.  Fernandinho, David Silva, Delph, and Gündogan have played key parts in City’s success this year as the heart of Pep’s midfield, but none of them could be considered youngsters.  It will be interesting to see how much Emirati oil money gets splashed around this summer, to help City finally lift Big Ears in Istanbul in 2020.

Liverpool

It has been exhausting being a Liverpool fan this season, exhilarating yet bittersweet as Jürgen Klopp built on past campaigns to refine his Heavy Metal Football.  A 22-point improvement meant the Reds finished with 97 points… and still came up short.  In a season of inches, it was a bumpy two months at the start of 2019 that undid Liverpool: a close loss away to City, followed by an FA Cup loss against a productive Wolves side, and then four draws in eight matches.  Come March, a potential 10-point margin at the top had evaporated into nothing.

And yet… there is a feeling of crackling energy under the skin at this club.  Liverpool were perfect against the bottom half, and despite their image of a calmer, more disciplined team, they actually scored four more league goals this season while practically shutting the door at the back. Pundits pooh-pooh Mohamed Salah for “only” scoring 22 goals which, alongside teammate Sadio Mané, and Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, was good enough to win the league’s Golden Boot.

A monumental comeback against a European giant means that Liverpool may finish what they could not 12 months ago.   And there is almost no indication this side — so complete with the addition of Golden Glove winner Alisson, and Premier League and PFA Player’s Player of the Year Virgil van Dijk — will be any less formidable come August.

Wolverhampton Wanderers

The last five winners of the Championship have managed to hold onto their Premier League status, but none have done so with Wolves’ panache.  Maybe panache is not the word; perhaps “authority”.  This club was 13th in offence, but had the fifth-best defence in the league.  A Midlands side with a Portuguese heart, Nuno Espirito Santo kept his side organized enough to beat Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal AND Manchester United, and held Manchester City to a draw at the Molineux.  Only Liverpool did the double on Wolves, and even then, Wolves gave them an early shove out of the FA Cup.

Benfica loanee Raul Jimenez is set to sign a permanent contract after a 17-goal season, and the Portuguese contingent (there are eight of them on this team, four of whom have been capped in the past year) have had no problem with life in England.  Wolves achieved the highest finish in the league table for a newly-promoted side since Ipswich Town got to fifth in 2001.  While this may surprise some, many pundits seem to forget that Wolves are a big club (one of the original 12) with big pockets.  They seem to be in the vanguard of the return of some classic clubs, with Sheffield United already up, and Leeds, West Brom, Villa and Derby fighting it out in the playoffs.  Good fun.

West Ham United

The Hammers’ image of a club in perpetual turmoil appears to be fading.  While West Ham continues to be stuck in-or-near the middle of the table year after year, the arrival of drama-free manager Manuel Pellegrini seems to have brought a stabilizing influence.  The signing of Felipe Anderson from Lazio has given fans a goalscorer to cheer about, and Issa Diop helped the club keep out 13 more goals.  However, the move from North to East London has not made Jack Wilshere any less brittle, and an early injury to Dortmund import Andrii Yarmolenko was a blow.  Those two should be back for the new season and, barring a summer contract extension, perpetual IR list member Andy Carroll will be off the books.

An improvement of 10 points and three table places means a successful rebuilding year for the Iron.

Watford

We’ll temper this one after looking at their last four matches: a draw, and three losses, albeit to Top Ten sides.  It was rough end to the season for a club that constantly hovered in and around the top half of the table.  Javi Gracia’s first full season in charge earned the Hornets three more wins, nine more points and three higher spots than last year.  Troy Deeney was Mr. Watford, pure entertainment for the “purist”, and Doucouré was an ever-present large menace in the goal box.  But Gracia’s, um, coup de grâce, was signing Gerard Deulofeu from Barcelona on a permanent.  The journeyman Spaniard was good for 10 goals and 5 assists, helping Mssrs. Deeney and Doucouré along the way.  The reward is an appearance at Wembley, a possible trophy, and the European campaign that goes along with it.


LOSERS

United lose to Cardiff on last day

United need a lot of work in the off-season.

Manchester United

The club removed a tyrant for the prince that was foretold… except that hasn’t worked out; it’s all gone Game of Thrones, hasn’t it? (As opposed to the constant Lord of the Rings references for Ole Gunnar Solskjær… would that make this season a Three-Ring Serkis?)  We were constantly told that José Mourinho had lost the plot, had turned on his players and was content to go scorched earth as United lost three and drew one in their first seven matches.  Training ground arguments, dressing room mutinies, as well as increasingly bizarre press conferences meant that a mid-December loss to Liverpool was the final straw.

Enter Old Trafford’s Hamlet from stage left.  The provisional manager appeared to kick at the daylight and a new era began as United went undefeated for 12 straight matches.  Then Solskjær was signed as the permanent manager and the players were content to watch their season burn: eight points from their last nine matches, as well as falling out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals.  It turns out it was the players after all…

So here they sit.  No Champions League next season.  If Arsenal beat Chelsea in the Europa league final, United will be the only Top Six team not in Europe’s top competition.  To make matters worse, if Watford win the FA Cup, United would have to start Europa League qualifying matches in mid-July.

The squad is a shambles and it will likely take a small fortune for proper replacements.  It turns out Paul Pogba is dressing-room poison, despite his obvious talent.  It turns out Romelu Lukaku is not a big-club player, and may actually be an anachronism in this era of twitchy wingers and counter-pressing.  It turns out that Alexis Sanchez is a multi-million pound albatross that will be difficult to move.  It turns out (to the surprise of almost no one) that United’s back line is a shambles, and that wholesale change is critical.

As the years pass, the evidence grows stronger that United’s biggest superstar for years was Sir Alex Ferguson.  Good luck finding his successor.  It isn’t OGS.

Burnley

This one might be a bit unfair, except that the Premier League is a cruel place, what with all the money at stake.  Burnley have known the see-saw battle of the “small” club (even though they are one of said Original 12) for years, but after last season’s seventh place finish on a shoe-string budget, expectations were maybe not high, but there was optimism.

Then came an early Europa League campaign, and the apparent abandonment of the defence-first strategy that worked so well last season.  Burnley were then left gasping for air for most of the season, and the club dropped 14 points and eight places.  If not for the bottom three’s efforts to speed towards the trap door, Burnley might have been looking at a Championship stint in the fall; it may just be delaying the inevitable.  The Clarets had a dismal -23 goal difference, and finished the season on a draw and three losses.  Expect more of the same in August, and another relegation battle for the Lancashire club.

Huddersfield Town

Unfortunately, this one was on the cards from the get-go.  The Terriers had wait until November for their first win… one of only three on the season.   A precipitous drop of 21 points from last season sent them to Number 20 with a bullet.  Maybe they will return to the Prem with the help of parachute payments, but not likely.

Cardiff City

Never really a contender or hopeful to stay up, this club was here sightseeing.  No money, no players, no hope.   Plus the added bonus of not having to listen to “proper footballing man” Neil Warnock spout off venom and crap.

Fulham

See above, except some pundits were genuinely excited about the Cottagers’ scrappy line-up.  Aleksandar Mitrović started strong with five goals in six games, and then scored six in the next 32.   Fulham had seven wins all season; three of those came after they were relegated.  ‘Nuff said.

Brighton and Hove Albion

Saved only by Cardiff’s self-immolation, the Seagulls basically repeated their previous PL season.  Yes, Glenn Murray continued to defy Father Time and scored goals in the double digits.  But the Cumbrian aside, Albion was positively anemic, both on the score sheet and in the league table.  Only earning two wins after Christmas has cost Chris Hughton his job.  The club are tourists in the top flight, and will likely return home in 2020.


UNKNOWN

Sarri Upset

Will Sarri win the battle of wills at Stamford Bridge?

Chelsea

Sure they qualified for the Champions League, but the last two spots were a hot potato that no one seemed to want at the end of the season.  At times, Mauricio Sarri carried on with the frantic exasperation of a taxi dispatcher, smoking and pacing on the sidelines.  He was obviously brought in to make Chelsea better, and to lead a fractious dressing room that had full-on revolted against fellow Italian, Antonio Conte.

But did he? The same player issues seem to still be there, despite bringing midfield quarterback Jorginho with him from Napoli, as well as spending £72M on Kepa from Bilbao… with whom he had an apoplectic, and very public, battle in the League Cup final.  Chelsea is a club with notorious “player power” whose owner seems to listen to his on-field staff more than his managers.

Chelsea finished the season with only two more points than last year, and practically the same goals for and against.  The only difference is that Chelsea’s rivals appeared in the same rush to lose.  With main goalscorer Eden Hazard almost certainly on his way to Real Madrid, Sarri had better hope he can continue to mould his team in his unwavering image, while continuing to challenge for the Top Four.  Of course, there is the little matter of UEFA’s transfer ban for Financial Fair Play violations… maybe winning the silver of a Europa League trophy will add some shine to this season.

Tottenham Hotspur

What to say about Spurs? Frankly, with all the factors lined up against them, they should have no business being in the Champions League final, and have had to fight hard to stay in the Premier League Top Four.  After a net spend of £18M last season, owner Daniel Levy spent a grand total of £0 on new players in the summer of 2018.  Nicht.  Nil.  Zip.

Tottenham had to contend with another season at Wembley, as construction delays at the new White Hart Lane ate away at the club’s bottom line on the daily.  They have a gifted and charismatic manager who made rumblings all season, hinting that the owner needed to spend or else he was off to a “bigger” club.  They had a threadbare squad that fans had to hope would push through injury and fatigue.

Obviously, they were not disappointed.  Spurs have managed to scrape into the Champions League… even though their talismanic striker was obviously exhausted after going deep into the World Cup with England.  Harry Kane was out for a quarter of Spurs’ league games.  It didn’t stop Spurs from mounting the Mother of All Comebacks.

That’s because there are two new folk heroes of Haringay: Heung-min Son, a man who is obviously experiencing pure joy playing for the Spurs faithful, and Lucas Moura, who will eternally be remembered for THAT game in Amsterdam.  After everything stacked up against Spurs, a first-ever Champions League trophy would simply be mythical.

But one can not stand still in the Premier League.  You only have to think back to rivals Arsenal in the early 2000’s to see the financial effects of a brand-new stadium.  Yes the gate will dramatically increase, but it will likely take at least a decade to pay off the new-build’s capital costs.  Levy is frugal at the best of times, and Mauricio Pochettino wants assurances that he will have cash to splash, come July.  Christian Eriksen is valued at around £77M right now, and Levy will likely sell to spend.  Otherwise, the Miracle of North London will end just as it did in the mid-70s, and early 90s…

Arsenal

After 22 years under a single manager, Arsenal’s post-Wenger era was always going to be trepidatious.  Certainly the Frenchman’s replacement had the pedigree.  Unai Emery has three European titles to his name, along with a two-season stint at French giant Paris Saint-Germain.  But Emery walked into a hodgepodge of a dressing room.  He inherited a wonderful offence… and a truly terrible back line.  Koscielny is brittle and past it, Xhaka and Mustafi are volatile liabilities, and bringing in Stephan Lichsteiner — whose attempts to use sh!thousery to cover a serious decline — was never going to be the answer.  Emery’s thinly-veiled battles with Mezut Özil and fan-favourite Aaron Ramsey have angered many Arsenal supporters.

However, Emery does have the front pairing of Golden Boot winner Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette.  His purchase of Lucas Torreira from Sampdoria was inspired; same with Sokratis who, despite losing his head now and then, was coveted by several Premier League teams.

Losing out on Champions League qualification on the second-last week of the season had to sting.  That pain will subside completely if they beat rivals Chelsea on the 29th.  But they will need to find more cohesion, more sense of self, more Arsenal of old.

Newcastle United

Sigh.  The “fans hate Mike Ashley/the manager might be leaving/please sell the club” narrative is now a decade old.  Newcastle actually finished with one more point this season, but dropped three places.  Content to play like a much smaller club, the Magpies have firmly ensconced themselves in the third quadrant of the Premier League table.  Of course, that could change if the ownership does as well…

Bournemouth

Whither Eddie Howe? The Premier League’s longest-serving manager (approaching seven years) has kept his club in the top flight for five seasons.  When the Cherries finished ninth three years ago, the typical hyperbole about “the young English manager” whipped around, including as a potential replacement for Arsene Wenger or, heaven’s mercy, England.  Certainly Howe is quite good at nurturing young talent, but he spent £80M in the off-season with minimal results.  Twenty-five million of that money was spent on defensive midfielder Jefferson Lerma… yet Bournemouth let in nine more goals in 2018/19.  Chances are good that Bournemouth will be in the relegation battle come next spring.

Southampton

The good news for the Saints is Mark Hughes is not their manager anymore, replaced in December by the equally sparky (but by all accounts, much nicer) Ralph Hassenhüttl.   Under Hughes, Southampton had four league matches in an entire calendar year… including a solitary victory from the start of the season to his firing.  Under Hassenhüttl, the team earned an 8-6-10 record… not lighting up the league, but certainly enough to dig themselves out of a dark hole.  What is worrying for the club is that, despite the threat of relegation, Southampton finished with three draws and two losses; all of those opponents finished 11th or lower.  Luckily, Cardiff fell on the sword instead, and Ralph & Co. get to play in the Premier League for another year.


MEH…

Marco Silva

Much ado about nothing…

Everton

All the drama surrounding the hiring of Marco Silva appeared to be blowing up in the Toffees’ face.  Everton mostly languished outside the Top 10 until the middle of March, when they finished a strong 5-3-2, and landed exactly where they were 12 months ago: eighth.  No Everton Cup for you, Everton.  Now let’s see if Silva will be allowed to replenish his aging squad, as well as loanees Kurt Zouma and André Gomes, while keeping Gylfi Sigurdsson down on the farm.

Leicester City

Well… you couldn’t find two more different managers then the gaffers that took charge at the King Power this season.  By all accounts, Claude Puel was not the most inspiring of generals, and his record with the Foxes was positively insipid.  Enter Brendan “Enough About Me, Let’s Talk About Me” Rodgers, whose 6-3-2 record helped Leicester claw its way back and finish in the same spot as last year: ninth.  Puel’s great crime was spending all that Riyad Mahrez money, and then wasting it.  Rodgers let loose £22M signing Ricardo Pereira up the wings and he was rewarded with crosses galore.

Leicester is a very talented squad.  Example: despite all the hype around Manchester City and Liverpool, Jamie Vardy was mostly overlooked as he finished the season with 18 league goals… good enough for fifth overall, and more than Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane and Eden Hazard.  The problem (sorry, “challenge”) is that the club recently won the Premier League title.  It was an anomaly… but now the team and the fans feel they should be challenging for the Top Six.  They’ve got their work cut out for themselves.

Crystal Palace

A slight improvement in both offence and defence, if not in table position, Crystal Palace are as bland and anonymous as their manager… and that’s not a dig either.  An almost perpetual dweller in the lower leagues, Palace have now managed to stay in the top flight for six seasons.  Roy Hodgson has taken his patchwork quilt of cast-off players and held onto that mushy, nebulous part of the table that will rarely rise into the Top 10 but, with a bit of luck, won’t get relegated either.  After relying on Wilfried Zaha as the sole goalscorer, Hodgson now has options: hard man captain Luka Milivojević led the team in scoring with 12 goals.  Not bad for a supposed “defensive midfielder”.  Expect more of the same from Palace next season.

All right: now bring on the finals for the FA Cup, Europa League, Champions League and Nations League!

Brent Lanthier

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Champions League, FA Cup, Premier League

Luis Suarez: The Rob Ford of Football

suarez fordHe is very, very, very sorry.  Lo siento.  It will never happen again.

Luis Suárez’ pseudo-apology for his bite on Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini is meant to placate the footballing world, but it doesn’t do the trick.  The Uruguayan should be on top of the world, but instead of topping a career season with Liverpool, the striker has had to deal with more of the controversy that follows him around.

As Suarez deals with his demons, so too does a man who has returned to the spotlight in the arena of politics.  Toronto mayor Rob Ford is back on the job today, after several weeks in rehab.  You can’t help but look at the two men’s situations and see the similarities.

Suarez doing what he does best: score.

Suarez doing what he does best: score.

Both are more famous for their behaviour than their job.   Most casual sports fans had never heard of Luis Suárez before the biting incident, or had forgotten about his brazen hand ball in the 2010 World Cup.  You’d be hard pressed to take a group of 100 people at a bar watching the World Cup and get them to tell you Suárez’ club team, or how many goals he scored for them this year.  But everyone remembers The Bite, played over and over and over again.

Rob Ford made Toronto a laughing stock the world over by admitting to smoke crack cocaine, bumping into cameras, and making a drunken ass of himself while clinging on to his vestiges of power.  But almost no one outside Toronto (and sadly, a majority of people in the city) know about his 10-year career as a city councillor, his stance on privatizing garbage collection, property taxes, etc.  He is simply Toronto’s Crack-Smoking Mayor.

The proof that sent the mayor to rehab

The proof that sent the mayor to rehab

They have serious problems.  Before you get upset that I am attempting to link drug and alcohol addiction to a serial biter, know this: any addiction expert will tell you the underlying issue for an addict is a mental anxiety, trauma or compulsive behaviour issue.  The person with these issues might lash out, they might overindulge, they might feel frustrated… but all of them engage in socially unacceptable and, frankly, harmful behaviours.  It is not the sign of a healthy person when a player — widely acknowledged as one of the top-five players in the world — lashes out in a base and animalistic way in front of hundreds of millions of people.

Rob Ford is the mayor of the fourth-largest city in North America.  He is in charge of a government that eclipses other provinces, states and even some nations in economic clout and influence.  Yet this is a guy who showed up at City Hall and in public as drunk as the proverbial skunk.  He was at the height of his power and then threw it away.

I’m sure that both men, when calm and collected, know their behaviour is wrong.  Yet in times of great strain and anxiety, both men act out in ways they know they will regret later.

Suarez consoled by Uruguayan official

Suarez consoled by Uruguayan official

Both are enabled by those closest to them.  When Ford first admitted to smoking crack cocaine, Toronto news station CP24 interviewed his mother and sister.   When pressed about his behaviour, his mother explained that her son had a weight problem, not a drug problem.   His sister also denied that Ford had a drug problem because she is  “a former addict” and she would know.  Before police found a video of the mayor using drugs, Ford and his brother, Doug, repeated until they were blue in the face (or in Rob’s case, very red) that everything was fine.

Suárez has also been enabled… by his club, by his national side, by the very nation he represents.   Liverpool bought him in January 2011, as he was coming off a suspension for his first biting incident.  In fact, LFC negotiated for him with Ajax Amsterdam while he was serving the suspension.  You’d expect the Uruguayan’s behaviour problems to devalue the player, but Liverpool ended up paying £22.5 million, a club transfer record at the time.  The next season, he was suspended eight matches for racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra.  Liverpool’s response was to have the team practice in Luis Suárez t-shirts, saying they believed Suárez, not Evra.   Eighteen months later, Suárez bit Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic , resulting in a 10-match ban.

Uruguayans are outraged by the latest Suárez ban because they love Luisito.  They love his never-say-die, win-at-all-costs mentality.  To them, FIFA has judged harshly because they believe that a player’s profile and accomplishments must be taken into consideration.  Basically, they believe there should be one set of rules for superstars and another for everyone else.  That is the very essence of enabling.

For months, Ford denied he had a drug problem

For months, Ford denied he had a drug problem

Both men and their supporters blame the media for their troubles. The fall back position of many a fallen public figure is to blame everyone but themselves, including the messengers.  Like so many other conservative politicians, the Fords initially blamed the crack video story on the left-wing media, who only wanted to smear the mayor’s good name.  When Rob finally admitted to the drug use, Doug attacked the media for pillorying his brother, saying he had simply “made a mistake” and asking why they couldn’t just leave him alone.

When the Suárez incident first happened, he denied it.  When he was banned, he denied it again.  His national team coach, Óscar Tabárez, cried conspiracy, saying that his star striker was a “scapegoat” who’d been punished because of pressure brought by “English-speaking journalists”.   When Suárez scored his two goals against England, he said that he felt vindicated for the way he had been treated by the English press over his previous biting and racism incidents.

Uruguayans have supported Suarez without question

Uruguayans have supported Suarez without question

Both men have populist support, despite their behaviour.  By now, Torontonians are sick of the over-used “Ford Nation”, an umbrella term for predominately white, older, working-class, conservative voters who live in Toronto’s suburbs.  Ford speaks to this group, continually claiming that he sticking up for the little guy against the downtown, fat cat elites (including the aforementioned media).  His behaviour (“Just having a few beers.”) and his apologies (“Who hasn’t made a mistake?”) have found traction in a group that sees themselves in him, drug problems notwithstanding.

Likewise, Suarez is revered by his compatriots…even his fellow continentals.  After this latest ban, Uruguay captain Diego Lugano called the punishment “barbaric”, saying Suárez’ human rights had been violated and that “not even a criminal would receive this penalty.”   Argentinian legend Diego Maradona — the Suárez of his day — compared the ban to being sent to Guantanamo Bay.   In a nod to his late predecessor’s extreme populist stances, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro invoked the spirit of Hugo Chávez by claiming that “all of South America” rejects the ban against “the son of the people”.  You can’t get much more people power than that.

A media circus has surrounded Ford... and City Hall

A media circus has surrounded Ford… and City Hall

Both men have bit the hands that feed them.  When Ford lied about his crack use, then later admitted it when confronted with video evidence, he eroded the credibility of all who had supported him.  His allies on council turned against him, leaving his own brother to sputter out half-excuses on behalf of his wayward sibling.  He hurt the reputation of his city and made those who had backed him look foolish.  He turned City Hall into a circus, bringing the business of government grinding to a halt as the spectacle played out day after day, week after week.  Local media missed big, but boring, stories in favour of tracking Rob Ford, awaiting another gaffe.  A politician with any sense of shame and duty would have bowed out.  But Ford doesn’t care about the city… he only cares about himself, and won’t let his remaining reins of power go.

Suárez has done no one any favours.  While he almost led Liverpool to its first Premier League title in almost a quarter-century, he has missed 34 matches for his two clubs since the infamous Ghana hand ball game at World Cup 2010, almost one full season out of four.   Despite Liverpool’s support, he sought to abandon the club last summer in favour of a move away.  First he wanted to go to Spain to “get away from England”, then he lobbied for a move to Arsenal… which obviously is still in England.  Meanwhile, for two straight World Cups, Uruguay has rued his suspensions that followed his bad behaviour.  Just as his national side could have used him against Spain in the 2010 semifinal, so too did they miss him against the surging Colombians on Saturday.   You get the sense that Uruguay’s time has come and gone… as their wait for another World title extends to 68 years.

Suarez' apology may have secured his move to Barcelona

Suarez’ apology may have secured his move to Barcelona

Both men have shown contrition at opportune times.   Over the term of his mayoralty, Ford has faced questions about being drunk in public, about assaults, and about drug use.  Each time he was confronted with a transgression, Ford denied…until he was confronted with evidence and overwhelming negative opinion.  Then, he apologized.  And apologized.  And apologized again.   We could have accepted his apologies if he hadn’t been so vicious in his denials, laying the blame elsewhere and threatening those who would think otherwise.  Yet, in the end, the journalists who exposed him have been vindicated, forcing Ford to back pedal.  When a second video came along, Ford finally went into rehab… if only to jump back onto the campaign trail when he finished.

Luis Suárez has also been contrary: he denied that he intentionally raised his hand to block a shot, until confronted with the video.  He initially denied saying anything racist, but then changed his testimony and tack, admitting that he said it.. but that it wasn’t racist where he came from.  Now he’s had to apologize after being confronted with a lengthy ban.  But Suárez’ half-hearted mea culpa is conveniently timed, considering that it is an alleged condition of a potential move to Barcelona.  Instead of being punished, it appears the striker’s apology will get him exactly what he wants.

Despite their setbacks, despite their very public falls from grace, neither Ford nor Suarez has yet to experience a true comeuppance.  But that may still come to fruition.  Ford is back to work today.  He still plans to run for mayor, and polls show he still has a solid base of support.  But it remains to be seen if he can translate that support into actual votes come October 27.  If he doesn’t win, he’s likely out of politics for good.

Meanwhile, Suarez could get his wish of a move to Barcelona.  But after almost a decade of success, the Catalan club appears to be on the downward side of the curve that all teams experience.  He is not of La Masia, the fabled Barça academy… and he does not embrace the concept of team very well.  Suárez may not find the titles he craves… but he may find that his talent and time have passed him by.

Both men may yet wonder what could have been… an awful thing when you’ve been to the places they’ve been.

Too bad… so sorry.

Brent P. Lanthier

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Premier League Starting XI – 2013-2014

Luis_Suarez_Liverpool-377452

Many pints have been bought/drunk/spilled while friends/strangers/adversaries debate the Premier League’s best players.  In my list, I’ve tried to avoid hype and reputation… but that’s not to say it’s all about the stats.  I’ve also been liberal with the positions, using a 4-1-3-2 but frankly putting players in to fit.   For example, Steven Gerrard was praised for his reinvention as a defensive midfielder, but let’s face it, he mostly played the same as he always has… he just had farther to run.

Here then are my Starting XI:

Mannone of the season for Sunderland

Mannone of the season for Sunderland

Goalkeeper
Vito Mannone (SUN) – There was a reason for Vito Mannone’s switch from the bright lights of the Emirates to the ironically-named Stadium of Light.   Like almost every other professional athlete, he probably expected to start.  So it must have been disappointing when Paolo di Canio went with Keiran Westwood, a man who had spent most of his career in the lower leagues.  The Black Cats’ start to the season was dismal — going  2-1-6 — with Westwood letting in almost one out of every two shots on goal.  Mannone got his chance when Westwood got injured, and the Mackems improved, finishing a stronger 10-7-11 with 11 of those games finishing in a clean sheet for Sunderland.  In fact, Mannone faced more shots on goal than any other keeper in the league, despite missing a quarter of the season.  Quite rightly, he was named Sunderland’s Player of the Season.

Bench: Petr Cech (CHE), Tim Howard (EVE)

Coleman, Baines were lethal from the back this season.

Coleman, Baines were lethal from the back this season.

Fullbacks
(LB) Leighton Baines, (RB) Seamus Coleman (EVE) – The Toffees seem to have an embarrassment of riches at the fullback position.  Under Roberto Martinez, Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman act as virtual wingers in an already offence-friendly side.  The pair fly in with crosses, complementing the Mirallas/Barkley/Osman contingent on the wings.  That leaves the two centre backs, along with a resurgent Gareth Barry and GK Tim Howard, to worry about any defensive issues.  It seemed to work: Everton had the third-best defensive record in the Prem, while the Scouser and the Irishman both scored as many goals as their colleagues in midfield.

Bench – Patrice Evra (LB), Bacary Sagna (RB)

Skrtel, Koscielny saw both highs and lows this season

Skrtel, Koscielny saw both highs and lows this season

Centrebacks
Martin Skrtel (LIV), Laurent Koscielny (ARS) – I can hear the howls of protests already.  Why not players from Chelsea or City or even Everton? How can you pick one player who set a record for own goals in a season, and another with a propensity to self-destruct?  Because the game-in, game-out stats tell a different story.  In a league where goals are up across the board, both players were on sides built to throw everything forward in attractive — but dangerous — football.  Martin Skrtel led the league in clearances and was tied for fourth in block shots.  Think back to the images of him racing back to clear the ball, because Brendan Rodgers had his team playing such a high line.  (Don’t forget Skrtel scored seven goals… he’s a centre back!).  Meanwhile, Laurent Koscielny was in the league’s top ten for both interceptions and offsides won, and he was in the top 20 for blocked shots.

Bench – John Terry (CHE), Per Mertesacker (ARS)

Jedinak might be the hardest man in the Prem.

Jedinak might be the hardest man in the Prem.

Defensive Midfield
Mile Jedinak (CRY) – Crikey! Mile Jedinak has maintained the fearsome reputation of Aussie footballers in the Premier League — Messrs. Emerton, Neill and Cahill come to mind (like a prog-rock band! Ha!).  The Palace player led the league in interceptions per game, and was 2nd in tackles per game.  That’s all the more impressive when you realize he started every single game.  A big reason why the Eagles had the league’s sixth-best Goals-Against.

On the bench – Gareth Barry (EVE)

Ramsey was one of the league's best midfielders, despite injuries

Ramsey was one of the league’s best midfielders, despite injuries

Right Wing
Aaron Ramsey (ARS) – Mr. Arsenal this season, Aaron Ramsey set the league on fire in the season’s first half, before he was twice sidelined by injury. He was Arsenal’s second-biggest goal-scorer in the league, and tied for third in assists, despite playing in only 60% of the Gunners’ matches.

On the bench – David Silva (MNC)

Yaya holds his birthday cake that's coincidentally shaped like a trophy

Yaya holds his birthday cake that’s coincidentally shaped like a trophy

Central Midfield
Yaya Touré (MNC) – What hasn’t already been said about Yaya Touré’s season?  The first midfielder since Frank Lampard to score 20 goals in a season, tied for fifth in assists, the Ivorian was Citeh’s talisman (an overused cliché, but in this case, true) and led the Citizens to their second title in three years.

On the bench – Steven Gerrard (LIV)

"Oh my God, I can't believe I made ATR's Starting XI!"

“Oh my God, I can’t believe I made ATR’s Starting XI!”

Left Wing
Eden Hazard (CHE) – José Mourinho had a rough relationship with his forwards this season, and sometimes played without a striker.  Enter the Belgian, Eden Hazard.  The attacking midfielder led his team in goals and assists, and was one of the league’s best passers.  An incredible player to watch (unless you’re a ball boy), Hazard will be a key part of Marc Wilmot’s plans in Brazil.

On the bench – Adam Lallana (SOU)

Suarez and Sturridge: 52 goals between the pair.

Suarez and Sturridge: 52 goals between the pair.

Strikers
Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge (LIV) – The picking of these two players was almost a no-brainer… almost.  Luis Suarez tied the Premier League record for goals in a 38-game season, despite missing the first five matches.  He was also second in the league for assists — just behind team mate Steven Gerrard — so it’s not like he was being selfish.  Love him or hate him, he had a brilliant season and propelled Liverpool into the most exciting title run in almost two decades.

Sergio Agüero was almost equally brilliant, scoring 17 in 23 appearances.  But injuries hampered an otherwise brilliant season, and young(ish) Daniel Sturridge found his own touch, scoring 21 of his own.   That’s why he would start in my XI.

On the bench – Sergio Aguero (MNC), Wayne Rooney (MNU)

Player of the Season: Luis Suarez

Brent P. Lanthier

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Best of the Prem 2014: Everton to Man City

"And then Moyes says, 'Boss, can I have my old job back?"...

“And then Moyes says, ‘Boss, can I have my old job back?”…

This edition features three players  who made the Top 10 of Premier League scorers and who are all headed for the World Cup.  The other two fought to keep their clubs above water… and only one was successful.

Lukaku back-handed Mourinho all season

Lukaku back-handed Mourinho all season

EVERTON
Romelu Lukaku (BEL) – David Who? Roberto Martinez’ reputation as the manager who won a trophy but lost a relegation battle is done.  Gone in a season.  The Spaniard’s brand of attacking football ensured that it wasn’t just the red side of Stanley Park that earned the city’s new nickname of “Liver-lona”.   The goals and the passing were a welcome change from Moyes’ cautious approach… and it was made possible with many of Moyes’ men.  But a trio of loan signings pushed the Toffees into overdrive:  Gerard Deulofeu from Barcelona, Gareth Barry from Manchester City… and Chelsea’s odd-man out, Romelu Lukaku.  Heads shook when José Mourinho let the big Belgian go out on loan again… and then poo-poo’ed his performance.  But surely Chelsea could have used him.  Lukaku scored 16 goals in 32 games, a rate of 50%.  Chelsea’s highest scorer — Eden Hazard — managed 17 in 55 matches.   Martinez will need to bring back Lukaku back to Goodison Park on a permanent basis… or he could go back to being known as the young manager from Wigan.

Sidwell's ginger superpowers couldn't save Fulham from the drop

Sidwell’s ginger superpowers couldn’t save Fulham from the drop

FULHAM 
Steve Sidwell (ENG) – Let’s just come right out with it:  Fulham were awful.  The Cottagers woefully capitulated, six seasons after Woy’s Great Escape in 2008. From 2009 to 2013, they finished no lower than 12th.  This was the little club that could.  But going through three managers in a season — the last being known as a touchline tyrant — and you have to think morale and attitude is going to suffer a wee bit.   However, Steve Sidwell held his head up and led the team in scoring, as well as fouls committed.  He gave his all in a losing effort, unlike £11m Kostas Mitroglou, who only played a single game.

Elmo: A Tiger on the wing

Elmo: A Tiger on the wing

HULL CITY
Ahmed Elmohamady (EGY)  – A Steve Bruce-managed team tends not to be a forward’s paradise.  Hull City did not break that mould… with no player scoring more than five goals.  But even though Ahmed Elmohamady only put two past England’s goalkeepers, Bruce remembered what ‘Elmo’ does from his time at Sunderland.  The Egyptian runs and cuts up the right side, stretching defenders’ lines while his team mates get into position.  Let’s see what he can do on Sunday at Wembley.

Unbelievable... for so many reasons

Unbelievable… for so many reasons

LIVERPOOL 
Luis Suarez (URU) – In Liverpool’s annus mirabilis, one man leads the way.  Love him or hate him (and there are many people in either camp), Luis Suarez is one of the top five players in the world right now.  What other player — who isn’t named Ronaldo or Messi — could miss the first six matches of the season, and then go on to tie the Premier League’s record for goals in a 38-game season?  If Steven Gerrard is the heart of the club, and Brendan Rodgers is its brains… then Suarez is the Liverpool FC’s cojones.

Toure puts "The Man" in Man City

Toure puts “The Man” in Man City

MANCHESTER CITY 
Yaya Touré (IVO) – On a side containing some of the most expensive players in the world, how does one pick the best? Actually, it wasn’t that hard.  This team was supposed to dominate in the post-Ferguson era of the Premier League — and it did in spots — but many personnel underperformed at times (losses to Villa and Cardiff, only one point off of Sunderland, failure to beat Chelsea).  Luckily for new manager Manuel Pellegrini, he had Yaya Touré.  The big Ivorian was the man in the middle, City’s version of Steven Gerrard who pulled his team up by the suspenders when it faltered.  Touré led his club in Premier League goals and is the first midfielder to score 20 since Frank Lampard.  He’s fun to watch… unless City are playing your team.

Brent P. Lanthier

Up Next: Manchester United to Stoke City

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Newcastle’s Tactical Nous

AlanPardew9Top-flight English football has just finished a crazy week, with a mid-week match day squeezed in presumably to make room for FA Cup ties and this summer’s World Cup.   Some teams have done blazingly well, like Liverpool who scored nine goals in just two matches.  Other clubs are in genuine, if inflated, crisis.  This would be Manchester United and perhaps a schizophrenic Chelsea.

And then there is the enigma that is Newcastle United.  Are they the club that has won five of their last six games, including victories against Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United?  Or are they the overly cautious side that conceded a bizarre 3-0 loss to Swansea mid-week?  The Telegraph’s Luke Edwards has written how Alan Pardew has grown a rose out of a slag heap.   Edwards contends that Pardew has navigated crisis after crisis since the summer: the re-appointment of the megalomaniacal-delusional Joe Kinnear, the excess of hastily-signed French players in the January transfer window, the reconciliation with want-away Yohan Cabaye, the loan signing of Loïc Remy.

The Kinnear thing is just bizarre, but it’s a typical Mike Ashley move, so no surprises there.  As for the French players, they are indeed clicking and, as Edwards hypothesizes, they are probably jockeying for a spot on Didier Deschamps’ squad in Brazil (although presumably only Cabaye, Remy and Mathieu Debuchy will be going in any case).  Cabaye has definitely rediscovered his mojo: just watch his cheeky 10th minute goal attempt from just past the half-way line against Swansea, or his textbook goal against Manchester United.  Loïc Remy? He “only” has eight league goals this season.  That’s as many as Wayne Rooney and more than Robin Van Persie, good enough for fourth in the league.

Cabaye celebrates his goal against Man United

Cabaye celebrates his goal against Man United

But if I was a Newcastle fan, I’d be worried about tactics.  Alan Pardew says that the Magpies can win with different styles.  But Saturday’s match was the first time this season that Newcastle has won playing with a solitary striker, and that win came against a club that is in complete disarray.  The matches against Chelsea, Spurs, Norwich and West Brom all featured Remy partnered with Ameobi (although the goals in the Chelsea game came after Ameobi was subbed off for Gouffran).  The pair also started against Swansea, but then Ameobi was subbed off following the Debuchy own-goal, with Obertan (ugh) coming on, and Remy moving into a wide position.   That meant Pardew was switching from the oh-so-British 4-4-2 to the 4-5-1 that he had previously favoured in away games, with little success.

Why would Pardew do this? Was he giving up the game, even though there was still more than 20 minutes left to play?  Or did he think that this would cauterize the bleeding? (It didn’t).  It must have been a bit of a letdown for the Geordie faithful, considering that their side barely pressured Swansea and had trouble hanging onto the ball.  The move to the classic “away formation” hasn’t exactly been frustrating for opposing sides either: Newcastle has the fourth-worst away defense record in the league.

By this time next month, Alan Pardew will be the third-longest serving NUFC manager in the 3-point-win era, dating all the way back to the club’s promotion in 1984.  He has certainly skippered the most top-flight matches in the 10 years since Sir Bobby Robson was in charge.  In hindsight, the eight-year contract that Mike Ashley gave to Pardew looks less like a flashy publicity stunt, and more like a way to keep the club stable and growing. This is admirable, but a big club with a massive local fan base needs trophies.  Arsenal fans may think they have it tough, but try going 60 years without a major honour.

During the summer, I was very close to laying money on Newcastle to go down.  Their goal difference in the previous season was atrocious and the club was a cauldron of controversy.   But the manager seems to have ridden this out.  If Pardew can remain brave and can keep picking a team that is attack-minded and applies pressure, and if he can keep his side together for the rest of the season, the Geordies might be a surprise in a Premier League season already full of them.  But if this very English manager decides to revert to very English tactics,  things will start to get tough. Then Newcastle fans will be strapping themselves in for a ride towards the end of the season.

Brent P. Lanthier

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Rovers and Wanderers: Who Will Likely Leave the Relegated Clubs

European football’s silly season began on Sunday, when the transfer window opened and the leagues finally recognized long-negotiated deals.  But there is still a lot of jockeying to come.  Rumours will fly, agents will promise that their clients are going to the biggest clubs, while the clubs deny everything.

It’s also the time when the newly-relegated sides struggle to keep their lineups together.  They all make the same noises about not letting players leave.  But money talks… and clubs don’t relish the reduced revenues that come with their lowered status.

Here then is a look at who could be on the market from the three clubs who fell through the Prem’s trapdoor.

Hoilett hasn’t said which club — or country — he will play for…

Blackburn Rovers
Let’s face it: it only took Venky’s 18 months to sink the Good Ship Blackburn.  Buying a team and then watching it do the drop is bad enough.  But doing it while watching your litigious ex-manager go the other way has got to, well, burn.   Meanwhile the owners are sticking with the guy who some say pushed the other guy out the door.

Meanwhile, the exodus has started as several players have left on a Bosman.  The two most prominent players are Yakubu and Junior Hoilett.  The Nigerian overcame everyone’s expectations (including mine) to score 18 goals for Rovers.  Meanwhile, Hoilett has yet to find a home, but that should be rectified shortly.  Other players that could get scooped up by top clubs include defenders Martin Olsson, Stephen N’Zonzi and Gaël Givet, as well as midfielder Mauro Formica.  But sub-par performances from Scott Dann and Paul Robinson mean they shouldn’t expect to get picked up by a top-flight club.

Bolton reluctant to let go of Davies

Bolton Wanderers
Bolton was another team where their management change wasn’t necessarily for the better.   Owen Coyle left newly-promoted Burnley in January 2010 to take the reins at Bolton.  He’ll now have to face the fans he left behind… likely with a different squad than the one that dropped in May.  Long-time keeper Jussi Jääskeläinen will fill in the gap left by Robert Green at West Ham.  Mark Davies was Bolton’s best player last season… and there are rumours that Liverpool have been sniffing him out.  Martin Petrov could get picked up by a Premier League minnow, and Stuart Holden may feel he needs a bigger stage to figure in Jürgen Klinsmann’s Team USA plans.

Tyrone Mears is too good for the Championship, but after spending last season mending a broken leg, he may feel the need to repay the club.  Both he and Chris Eagles may be reluctant to leave the man that plucked them from Burnley,  especially with former teammate Joe McKee set to play alongside Eagles.

“Now a show of hands please. Who wants to leave the club?…”

Wolverhampton Wanderers
Wolves have been quiet so far this summer, but don’t expect that to last long.   Steven Fletcher scored 30% of the club’s league goals last season, and the word is that Sunderland is tracking him, especially since no one exactly lit up the scoreboard for the Black Cats last season.  Fletcher would be a great target man for Stéphane Sessègnon and Sebastian Larsson at the Stadium of Light.

After spending five years as a loyal servant, Matt Jarvis deserves a chance to jump back into the Premier League.  Ditto Kevin Doyle… although his performance for Ireland at the Euros may not help.  That may also apply to another Irishman (there are seven in the Wolverhampton side), Stephen Hunt. But the left-winger always seems to show up in a lower-table side mere weeks after his former team suffers relegation (Reading to Hull to Wolves).

Brent Lanthier

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Best of the Prem: Everton to Man U

Fergie has something stuck to the roof of his mouth. It might be crow…

Part Two features players from both sides of Merseyside, along with the two big sides from Manchester.  Part of what made this season so great is that these big clubs — along with the North London clubs, Arsenal and Tottenham — finished right next to their derby rivals in the table. Greatest Premier League season, indeed.

Baines and Jelavic: Goodison’s best

EVERTON
Leighton Baines (ENG) – If that season began on January 31st, then Nikica Jelavic would have been the obvious choice, scoring 13 goals since his arrival, while the Toffees went 10-6-3 in all competitions.  But the season is of course long and arduous.  Typical Everton then, who were awful in the first half of the campaign… except for Leighton Baines.  The first name on David Moyes’ team sheet, Baines is everything a manager wants in a full-back.  He can race up the wing but still served as a member of one of the league’s stingiest defences.  The Scouser is also a superb deliverer of crosses and is a set-piece specialist.  If he can stand a month in the Ukraine, then he may actually get onto the pitch under Roy Hodgson.

Dempsey OK for USA

FULHAM
Clint Dempsey (USA) – Who else could it have been? The Yank has been a revelation since the 2010 World Cup, leading the Cottagers in scoring over the last two seasons by a country mile.   This year, Dempsey set the single-season record for Premier League goals in a Fulham shirt.  He has taken over from Landon Donovan as the global face of American soccer, and Jurgen Klinsmann will need Dempsey firing on all cylinders as Team USA begins its World Cup-qualifying campaign.  Another player who is so good that he may be wearing different club colours, come August.

LIVERPOOL
Jose Enrique (ESP) – To be honest, the Spanish fullback is the best of a bad lot.  While King Kenny forked out millions for Andy Carroll, the “other” former Newcastle player was the shining light on an underachieving Anfield side.  It is telling that Enrique’s decline coincided with a reversal in Liverpool’s fortunes after the Christmas break.  In fairness, he has brought some consistency to a position that seems to have been a black hole for the Merseyside club.  As well, he was ever-present in the squad sheet and the Liverpool defence still managed to be one of the league’s best.

Silva has lots to cheer about this season.

MANCHESTER CITY
David Silva (ESP) – On a team deep with expensive talent, this £30m man has proved to be worth every penny.  The league’s ultimate winger, speedy Silva led the league in assists.  Kompany may hoist the trophies, and Aguero/Tevez/Balotelli may find the back of the net, but Silva might be the best playmaker in the league.  A Spanish midfield of Xavi and Iniesta in the middle, with Silva and Mata on the wings, is a formidable thing indeed.

MANCHESTER UNITED
Wayne Rooney (ENG) – Quite possibly the most frustrating man to ever put on an England jersey (apologies to Paul Gascoigne).   The man (still only 26 years old) seems to have an infinite supply of talent.  After a season-long post-World Cup hangover, Rooney rebounded in 2011/2012 with an astonishing 34 goals in 42 games for United.  That includes 27 in the EPL, where he pushed Van Persie for the scoring title right until the end.  In fact, it’s hard to believe he has yet to win the Premier League’s Golden Boot.  How frustrating then, for both the players and the fans, that he must sit out what will surely be two critical games for England this summer.

Brent Lanthier

Coming Up: Newcastle United to Sunderland

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by | May 16, 2012 · 9:07 pm