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As we approach the end of another Premier League season, it is perhaps the right time to take a look back at another extraordinary campaign.
The hunt for the coveted fourth Champions League spot was settled when Manchester City beat Tottenham earlier this month. Over the course of the season, City have clearly deserved to finish in the top four, with a beguiling mixture of youth, experience and expensive flair pushing them over the line. They owe a lot to stand out performers such as Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure, David Silva and of course the outstanding Carlos Tevez.
For Roberto Mancini, it was job done as he delivered what was expected of him from the Abu Dhabi owners at the start of the campaign: Champions League qualification. The FA Cup win against Stoke City was simply the icing on the cake. It was a reward for the long suffering City fans, as they finally got their hands on some silverware. Always unwavering in their excellent support, the win was as much a triumph for the fans as much as it was for the club.
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Below City, Tottenham will look back and rue their wretched run of form since knocking AC Milan out of the Champions League. Two league wins out of eleven means that if they hold off Liverpool for 5th place, they will be playing in the Europa League rather than the Champions League next season. During those run of games they failed to beat West Ham, Wolves, Wigan, West Brom and Blackpool.
Without being disrespectful to those sides, a team with top 4 aspirations should have won those games, and Spurs’ failure to do so has cost them. The much maligned trio of Roman Pavlyuchenko, Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch have rightly come under fire for not scoring the goals expected of them, and it is clear Redknapp desperately needs to strengthen the attack in the summer.
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This shouldn’t take anything away from the excellence of Luka Modric, Rafael Van der Vaart and Gareth Bale, who have all enjoyed great seasons. The exciting triumvirate have embodied the swashbuckling football played by Spurs on their Champions League debut. Bale’s performances in the two games against European champions Inter Milan were sensational and no doubt played a huge part in his personal glory of winning the PFA Player of the Year award.
At the bottom of the league, there are still two relegation places to be decided, with West Ham already relegated. If it wasn’t for the east Londoners throwing away a 2 goal lead at the DW in the second half, we would have had the unique scenario of no teams already being relegated entering the final weekend.
Truth be told, the malaise at Upton Park had set in long before their relegation at Wigan. Underperforming players and expensive loan flops all contributed to the Hammers’ relegation and it will be a tough ask to bounce back at the first attempt. Ask Middlesbrough, Hull and Burnley etc.
West Ham’s demise, although ultimately deserved, was perhaps surprising given the players at Avram Grant’s disposal. Some will argue that a team with England internationals such as Carlton Cole, Matthew Upson, Rob Green and Football Writers’ player of the year Scott Parker should not get relegated. However, the root of the problem probably lies with the ownership and the management. Although they saved the club from administration, Gold, Sullivan and Brady should take a lot of blame for undermining a manager they chose to hire in the first place.
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Grant was a dead man walking from the moment they attempted to replace him with Martin O’Neill in January. If they wanted to get rid of Grant, they should have done it there and then rather than after the final whistle at Wigan. Dalglish at Liverpool and ironically Roy Hodgson at West Brom have shown that changing the manager mid-season and getting the right man can have a huge impact on changing a team’s fortunes.
At the top of the Premier League, Manchester United won their record 19th league title at a canter, overtaking Liverpool’s 18 with immeasurable glee. Sir Alex undoubtedly took great pleasure from knocking the old enemy ‘off their perch’, whilst the fans showed their elation by unfurling a banner at Anfield in an audacious prank.
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Detractors will argue that Utd have simply been the best of a bad bunch. That their away record (the poorest ever of any title winning side) meant they were not convincing champions.
They could say that the closest title challengers in the shape of Arsenal and then Chelsea, have been mediocre to average at best in their pursuit. Chelsea’s dreadful form during the winter cost them any chance of retaining their title, whilst Arsenal have been predictably shambolic after March.
Chelsea started the season how they finished the last, giving everyone the impression that they would comfortably steamroller their way to a second consecutive crown. An opening day 6-0 win against West Brom was followed by a 0-4 romp at Wigan. However, they rarely repeated that sort of form again, as they spectacularly faltered during the Christmas period.
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An already thin squad, which was noticeably ageing, was stretched to the limit with injuries to Frank Lampard and Michael Essien, whilst Didier Drogba has never quite been the same after his malaria problems. Rather than inspire them to the Champions League trophy Abramovich craves, the £50m signing of Fernando Torres only proved to be problematic for Carlo Ancelotti. Sacrificing the team’s favoured and successful 433 formation in order to partner him with Drogba did not work at all. Their exit in the Champions League to Utd was partly blamed on Ancelotti starting Torres in the first leg, despite the system clearly not suiting the Spaniard at all. Whether it was the manager or the owner’s decision to play Torres however, is another matter.
There isn’t much to say about Arsenal which hasn’t already been written. Another season flirting with the top has ultimately ended in disappointment yet again. Yes, Wenger has steered the club to Champions League qualification for an umpteenth consecutive season, but a sixth consecutive season without a trophy has been hard to swallow for their fans. The 6.5% increase on season ticket prices for next year, has not been well received in North London either.
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In a season of increasing disillusionment with the team and more surprisingly, the manager, it is easy to forget that were some high points for Arsenal. Beating Barcelona, Chelsea and Utd at the Emirates should rank as successes. The emergence of Jack Wilshere and Wojciech Szczesny should also be considered as major positives. However with Arsenal, it is easy to quickly reel off their failures as well. The League Cup final defeat to Birmingham, the 4 goal collapse against Newcastle and throwing away a 2 goal lead against Tottenham at the Emirates all spring to mind. Furthermore, after City’s midweek victory against Stoke, they look like slumping to a 4th place finish, capping off a truly miserable end to the season.
Nevertheless once the dust has settled, as frustrating as it is for their title rivals, no one can seriously doubt that Manchester United were worthy champions. They have won more games than anyone else, scored the most goals and prior to the last game against Blackpool, have the best home record, winning 17 out of 18 games. Ferguson deserves massive praise for motivating and inspiring a squad labelled ‘average’, to greater heights.
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Every big player has stepped up at just the right time throughout the season. Nani and Berbatov fired when others didn’t at the start of the season, whilst Rooney, Giggs, Valencia etc. have been magnificent during the run in. Vidic and Van Der Sar have continued to be consistently brilliant throughout, whilst the fantastic £6m signing of Hernandez almost
compensates for the £7.4 paid for Bebe.
A leading pundit said that Sir Alex would have won the title with any of the other top 4 teams this season, and who could disagree? It is hard to imagine any other manager taking Utd to the brink of another historic Premier League and Champions League double with the so-called ‘worst ever United side.’ Some achievement.