The EPL has started, signaling the start of another year of incredible goals, plays and games across the continent. The best teams and players in the world will vie for what is arguably the most important club title in all of sports. In England, the country boasting the best domestic league, they are ushering in new talent, reloaded teams and renewed rivalries.
I‘ll start by separating the contenders from the pretenders to see who will be left standing come next summer.
Having watched several of the teams through the first two weeks, I think there is a clear three tier divide in the top flight in England. The handful of teams that can realistically contend are in one group, while there is another group of very good teams that with a few injury breaks can either threaten at the top of the standings or fall precariously into the chasm of the third group, which is to wit, the ones with no chance of winning.
The ‘real’ contenders (in no particular order) are as follows:
Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City & Liverpool.
Everton, Newcastle, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Aston Villa, Bolton & Fulham.
No shot at the top 4:
In looking at the contenders, I am hard pressed to find any team that can beat Chelsea this season. Consider this: Chelsea won the EPL last year without Michael Essien (R),
who in my estimation is one of the top 10 midfielders in the world. Essien, who also missed the World Cup for Ghana because of injuries, is the motor of the Chelsea attack. His passes that picked apart Wigan last week will be crucial for Chelsea as they seek to repeat and win their first Champions League title this season.
The team has already proved that they can win without him, but with Essien orchestrating the attack and the plethora of goal scoring options (Anelka, Drogba, Kalou, Malouda, Lampard…) at his disposal I think they are easily the deepest team in Europe.
If there is any weakness in this squad, it’s John Terry in the middle of the defense. I think he has missed a step or two, and the last season and the World Cup exposed that in the most unflattering of terms. They do have enough depth and youth however that if Terry falters repeatedly or cannot handle the crunch of multiple games each week when the different tournaments heat up that they should be able to weather that. They also have Didier Drogba, who is one of the best forwards in the game, at the peak of his abilities and showing no signs of slowing down.
A disappointing World Cup aside, the strength, pace and smarts of Drogba has proven to be a perfect fit for this team. Pairing him with Anelka, a duo that a lot of skeptics said couldn’t work has created an unstoppable two headed monster for most teams not coached by Jose Mourinho. The failures in Europe have chafed at this team recently and no more so than last year as their former mentor/coach lifted the trophy with a solid but unspectacular Inter Milan team. He has now moved on to Madrid, a team that on paper should be one of the favorites to win that tournament, but Chelsea has already made it clear that their goal this season is the double; EPL and CL trophies.
I think they have the talent to do it in spectacular fashion. I certainly cannot see anyone beating Chelsea in their quest to repeat as Premier League champions this season.
In the Sir Alex Ferguson era at Manchester United the team was resurrected from a middle of the pack rag tag group to an international juggernaut. The team that had ushered in a teenage George Best on the world stage had fallen onto hard times in the early 80’s. That changed under Sir Alex. The names are now legendary; Eric Cantona, Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs, Beckham, Rooney, Ronaldo, Scholes & Ferdinand all have called Old Trafford home and all flourished and became stars under the guidance of Sir Alex. That is a testament to not only him, but the framework he put in place. The scouting, youth teams and also Man U’s willingness to spend money to obtain talent are hallmarks of his stewardship. But talent alone will not ensure success, and that’s where Sir Alex has been superior to any other coach in the game until recently. Talent keeps you competitive, coaching wins titles. So what has changed?
Well, the earnings of players are going up at an unprecedented pace. Great players have always made a lot of money, but now good to average players are breaking the bank, and the trickledown effect is creating a huge chasm in European football between the mega rich clubs and everyone else. In this era of “mo money mo problems,” a disciplinarian such as SAF is a relic. You could see this shift with the rise of Beckham’s popularity and the tension with the coach. It happened again with Cristiano Ronaldo. Guardiola at Barcelona and Mourinho at Chelsea/Milan and now Madrid understand this new dynamic, and their ability to harness the egos of multiple stars on a team has been key to their respective successes.
For over 20 years, the biggest star at Old Trafford has been Sir Alex, and unless that old dog learns a few new tricks, they will be quickly entering another period of dark, trophy less days. That being said, the young players that United have in their squad are very good and will keep them in the chase all season long.
There are a lot of players in the English Premier League who have something to prove after the World Cup. Wayne Rooney is at the top of that list. He was invisible in South Africa, and this past season was the first since his initial season at Man U that the team did not win a single title. Can he rebound? My answer would be yes, and Man U has helped him by reloading to go after Chelsea. Javier Hernandez, Valencia, Nani and Macheda are all expected to play major roles this season. Can they ascend to the throne of best team in England again this season? I do not see it happening, and they may be hard pressed to claim the mantle of best team in Manchester.
Man U will be top 4 again this season, but they don’t have enough top flight players to maintain a sustained challenge for the EPL and CL trophies.
Liverpool is a strange team. They have one of the best English players of the last decade in Steve Gerrard, one of the top 5 strikers in the world in Fernando Torres, and a solid defense anchored by Javier Mascherano. They won the Champions league title in the last decade in the same season where they floundered in the domestic league. In the offseason they made no major additions. Their defense with the aggressive Skrtel and Mascherano is solid, but they are not a team that can go toe to toe each week with the other big teams vying for the EPL title. The gap between them and the other contenders have widened. They will be no better than fourth this season.
Which leaves Manchester City. This team is deep, talented and explosive. Consider this; two years ago Emmanuel Adebayor was one of the best strikers in the EPL, challenging for the Golden Boot and now while healthy he cannot crack the starting lineup. David Silva, Mario Balotelli, Shaun Wright-Phillips, James Milner and Carlos Tevez (L) give Roberto Mancini a mouth watering array of options to work with. Besides Chelsea and the twin powers in Spain, this is the deepest team in Europe. Shay Givens is on the bench and it’s hardly worth an argument, because Joe Hart has proven that he is a very good keeper and deserves to not only start for City but a shot to be the England #1.
The only chink in this powder blue armor? Manchester City has a porous defense. Company, DeJong and Micah Richards need to get on the same page quickly, but if they do this team will be steamrolling the league and challenging Chelsea for the title. The addition of Yaya Toure to anchor the midfield was a great signing, but I think the key for them will be if they manage to consistently get productivity from Silva and Alex Johnson. Silva is going to be a very good player for City once they set on a position for him….Mancini, are you listening? If they can work these issues out, this team will score in bunches and clinch a top four finish this season. As stated before coaching wins titles, and Roberto Mancini will have his hands full keeping this team focused, especially the enigmatic Balotelli. This team was built to challenge for titles however and they will begin to do exactly that this year.
Dark horses in the EPL:
Fulham is an interesting team that will occasionally beat one of the big boys then alternately struggle to a draw with a bottom third squad. Clint Dempsey is a very good player, Damien Duff has an incredible motor-a poor man’s Dirk Kuyt- and they proved last year they could spring a surprise or two. They could stay in the race for a long stretch, but they don’t have the depth or stars to tangle with the big boys over the course of several months. They will be a fun team to watch however.
Arsene Wegner of Arsenal is one of my favorite coaches. He has kept Arsenal competitive despite repeatedly losing quality players. The defection of Thierry Henry to Barcelona however created a void that was never filled. Chelsea has the duo of Anelka and Drogba. Man U has Rooney. Liverpool has Torres. Man City has Tevez. Arsenal has _____?
I do believe that Marouane Chamakh (R)
can eventually fill that blank. It will take him a little while to get used to the pace and physical play of English football, but I see him as a future star. Keeping Fabregas, Van Persie and adding Chamakh and Laurent Koscielny has created a very good and exciting group of young players.
The key word is young; this group will be too inexperienced to challenge Man U, Man City or Chelsea for the title this year.
I am also curious what the fallout from Fabregas’ flirtation with Barcelona will be on the field. His desire to move was obvious, and an unhappy captain does not make for good team chemistry. That will bear close watching.
In the end, Arsenal is what they were last year; a good young team with no big time goal scorer and a suspect goalkeeper. Good enough to keep them competitive but not good enough to win the EPL or challenge in Europe.
This is going to be an exciting season in English football. The continued rise of some new school teams is a beauty to behold, the return of Newcastle to the top flight is a good thing, and hopefully the group of contenders will continue to expand to include some of the other clubs with great histories but barren trophy cases. I cant wait to see what lies ahead.
It was announced today that Roger Clemens (R)
is going to be indicted on federal perjury charges relative to his testimony before Congress about steroid use in baseball. It’s not surprising to me and shouldnt be to anyone else who has followed this story.
I am against steroid use, but i’m also against ambigious rules. Baseball had no policy in place to govern steroid use. It was a problem of epidemic proportions and several people said so years before the Congressional hearings.
The hitters, pitchers, fielders were all juicing, so my only question is: where was the competitive advantage? The longer that MLB lets this linger and the government selectively persecutes ball players, the uglier it gets for them.
My opinion on this hasn’t changed too much, so i’ll re-post an article I did in 2006 on the subject.
Previously published at Helium.com, December 2006:
The AP reported recently that Mark McGwire is named on the ballot for the Baseball Writers Hall of Fame. This is the opening of a proverbial Pandora’s box of issues about sports, race and the media. Does McGwire, dubbed by the media as ‘Big Mac,’ deserve to be inducted into the HOF? Based on numbers alone, absolutely.
McGwire finished his career with 583 home runs, seventh in baseball history. Numbers, though, doesn’t begin to tell the entire story of this most devilish of dilemmas and why a debate with some ugly racial undertones is about to reach boiling point.
What makes this decision interesting is the dual specters of race and steroids. In a nutshell, as McGwire goes, so does, or should, one Barry Lamar Bonds. I will note a caveat here: I am and have always been a fan of Barry Bonds. He is surly, petulant, unfriendly and without a doubt the best baseball player my generation has seen. It is debatable if he is the best of all time, but in my opinion, a ranking or list of the players who could be the GOAT starts with him.
What about Babe Ruth you ask? Well, i’ll answer in one word-segregation. If Blacks were allowed to play when Ruth played, everyone would be looking up in the record books to Josh Gibson’s home run total, Ruth included. Do the research if you don’t believe. And Bonds has erased Babe Ruth’s name from the record books over the past few years, passing him in every statistical category-further adding to the ire of so-called ‘baseball purists.’
But back to McGwire. He is the ultimate one-dimensional player-a limited fielder who struck out a lot but with a big home run bat. That bat hit over 500 home runs, a phenomenal amount. Anyone who thinks his achievements are tainted is right, but when healthy, throughout his career going back to his rookie season, he put up consistently good power numbers. His first year with Oakland, he broke the AL rookie record of 31 home runs that had stood for over a decade by hitting 49. Was he on steroids then? Doubtful, but no one knows. He carried a lot less weight and bulk then in 1987 than he did when he hit 70 in 1998. But for that matter, so did I, and most likely, the same goes for a lot of people, athletes and regular joes alike.
Mark McGwire, unlike Bonds, is very likeable, and while he is considered ‘a private person’ (media speak for someone who politely declines interviews,) he is viewed favorably by the media. The same media has never, not for one second, liked Barry Bonds. And it’s a mutual hatred. Yes, they are the ones that vote for MVP, and yes, Bonds has won the award more times than anyone in the history of baseball, but that’s more of a testament to his incredible talent that yearly separated him from his contemporaries than an urge on the part of voters to reward him. The years where it was a close choice, the media voted for others (Terry freakin’ Pendleton? c’mon.)
And now Mark McGwire is on the Hall of Fame ballot. His numbers says he is a lock. But if McGwire is elected, how do you not elect Bonds when his turn comes up? Or Sammy Sosa? How about the other ‘Great White Knight’ that amazingly no one is talking about, Roger Clemens? His name was brought up as a frequent steroid user by an indicted ballplayer/supplier this year-what about him? Where do you draw the line?
The reason there is no public uproar is that this is not about them. It’s not even about steroids, since nothing has been proven, can be proven and at the end of the day, it wasn’t against the rules of baseball to use steroids.
Even if they all used steroids, the use of steroids was not banned by Major League Baseball until 2005. Yes it was banned throughout most of the country, but the organization that employed him, Major League Baseball, banned other substances but not steroids. They had no rule in place for it and that analomy makes it, or should make it, a non-issue. What Bonds did, if anything, was make a leap from being the greatest player of his generation to the greatest player of all time. McGwire on the other hand, went from a good slugger with decent but not mind boggling numbers to a hall-of-famer.
The other fact that needs to be considered is that steroids never helped anyone hit a baseball. Did it make these players stronger? Yes. Recover from injuries faster? Yes. Improve hand/eye coordination? Unlikely. Most of the players who were busted under the drug testing program had middling careers, proof enough that taking performance enhancing drugs in and of itself s not going to make anyone turn into Superman overnight.
As someone who used to participate in sports and specifically the sport most tainted by steroid use over the last twenty years, track & field, I am against steroid use and all in favor of banning it. It’s cheating, plain and simple. You cheat, you’re out. Forever. But I also believe in a clear set of rules. Major League Baseball had no rules about steroids, even after a former MVP turned crackhead, Ken Camminetti, stated ten years ago that ‘most’ baseball players were on steroids. Nothing was done when an even more famous player, Jose Canseco, blew the lid off the problem, detailing how it was done, why, and who did it. Nothing was done until the federal government stepped in and threatened to put rules in place for them. Even then it was a halfhearted attempt that was more mockery than punishment in comparison to other sports rules and punishment for steroid use. This would lead me to believe that MLB knew full well what was going on and chose to ignore it. Considering how the sport was losing fans to other sports, especially after the strike/lockout in the early nineties, its not a stretch.
Remember this; the entire BALCO/MLB investigation was started by an IRS agent Jeff Novitzky, who was a baseball fan and disliked Bonds and his pursuit of the homerun record. According to the very first interview/story about BALCO that was published three years ago (in Playboy magazine,) Novitsky “thought Bonds was an asshole and a steroid user and wanted to bust him.”
So here we are, the greatest baseball player of the last 50 years and most likely ever, about to break the single most respected of American sports records. The reporters cannot stop his quest, although they have tried; railing daily about Bonds alleged grand jury testimony and standing on soapbox about how the Commissioner of baseball ‘must stop him.’ But these same writers, the ones are the ones dismissed and shunned by Bonds for his entire career, they are the ones that hold the key to the kingdom; they decide who goes into the HOF. This is their chance to exact some measure of revenge on Bonds for what would have been openly called ‘uppity’ behavior not so long ago.
As a fan, I would like to see McGwire in the HOF. He deserves it based on what he has accomplished. But make no mistake, Bonds is even more deserving when he retires and his moment of truth comes. I may be in the minority here, but when he does break the career home run record, which will most likely be sometime next year, I will stand and applaud. He may have taken steroids, but his greatness was evident a long time ago, years before BALCO, and he deserves the accolades he receives.
Keeping McGwire, Bonds, and their contemporaries out of the Hall of Fame is not so much celebrating cheaters as much as acknowledging what they accomplished. They deserve to be elected to the HOF and MLB should learn from this.
Circle December 2nd
on your calendar, folks. That will be the first time Lebron James steps on the court in Cleveland as a professional wearing a jersey other than the Cavaliers. The over/under on people greeting him with cheers is 10, and that number includes his family members.
Wyclef Jean is running for President of Haiti. I’m not quite sure how I feel about this. Initially I thought it was amusing, then I was skeptical, and then suspicious. Pras, the third Fugee (which is kinda like being the fifth Beatle) has already come out in opposition of Jean and in support of his rival. In the words of Pras as quoted from Foreign Policy magazine “I love Wyclef to death, but he is not suited to be President of a new Haiti.” I could tell you twenty reasons why Wyclef running, whether he wins or not, is a terrible idea. The first reason is quite simply that Haiti needs more than he can bring-it needs steady, qualified, committed leadership. I won’t go into all the reasons however, but follow this link to an excellent OpEd about this issue.
I get two things from Pras’ statement though; one is that if the people that know you best won’t support you, why should anyone else? Second, I guess that Fugees reunion is off, huh?
So UAE and Saudi Arabia wants to ban-or in the alternative, be allowed to monitor-Blackberry messages/texts etc. Research in Motion is fundamentally opposed to the idea and Secy of State Hillary Clinton has said that while there are “legitimate security concerns,”
there’s also “a legitimate right of free use and access,”
Hmm. Is that like the free use and access the US government allows us? I seem to recall something from a few years ago called the Patriot Act that allowed them to listen in and check the same info that the Saudis and Emirates are asking for. So I guess what’s good for the goose is not good for the gander?
I was dreaming the other day that I heard a radio report that Isaiah Thomas (L)
was rejoining the Knicks as a ‘consultant.’
Boy, i’m glad that was only a bad dream…
The NFL season starts in one month. College football starts in three weeks. I’m ready!
Sooo….instead of down goes Tyson, down goes Bolt. The Diamond League meet today in Stockholm was the venue, initially billed as a clash of the three fastest sprinters ever turned into the 10 second massacre as Tyson Gay convincingly beat Usain Bolt in the 100 meter finals.
The worst thing a top flight athlete can ever do is think they can just show up and win; meaning turn on and off their intensity/focus to beat the competition. Before today, Gay may have said he could beat Bolt, but he hadn’t, and had lost badly every time. Bolt came in unprepared to run his best and got beat.
Its the equivalent of an out of shape, ill prepared Mike Tyson-the baddest man on the planet and the unbeaten heavyweight champion of the world, showing up to fight a no-name Buster Douglas in Tokyo so many years ago and being stunningly and convincingly beaten.
Now that the *aura* of invincibility around Bolt is gone, lets see how they both do going forward. Will Bolt go the route of Mike Tyson or the route of Mike Jordan-the other Mike that decided the challenges of basketball weren’t enough, decided to try playing baseball and was an embarrassing failure?
Jordan came back to his senses and basketball to win the second of his three in a row championships and securing his place in the pantheon of greatest ever athletes. Tyson….not so much.