English Super-Powers preparing to save their European lives

Who would have thought that going into the last round of group stage fixtures that the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea would be in serious danger of falling at the first hurdle? Not many I can assure you, but alas this is the case and arguably England’s three strongest sides are right up against the metaphorical ‘it’.

Of these three giants the side in the most grave danger of failing to progress are Manchester City which is rather unbelievable given their contrastingly magnificent league form. Week after week they are continuing to churn out formidable domestic displays, which, have seen them race five points clear of their Manchester rivals at the top of the Premier League, whilst also seeing themselves through to the last four of the League Cup. However, their stunning form outside of Europe has been belittled by their lacking performances on the continent so far this season and it has left them in an incredibly precarious position.

Manager Roberto Mancini is usually an enormously confident man and has already this season said that he believes that he is in charge of a side that are on a par with the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid. City’s fairly dismal European form has  seriously contradicted their manager’s assessment of their standing in world football though, to the point where going into Wednesday’s game against Bayern Munich he has conceded that they have a “60% chance” of an early exit.

Mancini’s concession that his side are facing an unenviable task must have been a really bitter pill to swallow. Having guided them to their first piece of silverware in their wealthy new-era and their first ever qualification to the Champions League, Mancini will have no doubt dreamt that his charges would venture out into the unknown and lay down a serious marker. Along with their passionate fans he will have let his mind wander freely to thoughts of making the Etihad Stadium one of European football’s most feared fortresses whilst moulding his squad into ferocious battlers when travelling away on the continent. Sadly, the blue side of Manchester have seen little of these dreams becoming a reality and their team have looked every bit a rookie side in this year’s competition.

It is quite often the case that one of England’s teams struggle en route to first round qualification but this year has provided us with two additional strugglers in the form of Manchester United and Chelsea, who in recent years have established themselves as two of the most consistently strong European performers. Manchester United must go away to Basle on Wednesday and get a point to secure qualification and though this would usually be run of the mill for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men, this season has seen them repetitively stuttering through their group matches to the point where they have only achieved victory over whipping boys Otelul Galati.

Though they will undoubtedly go into Wednesday evening’s game as big favourites to progress, their Swiss opponents have already proven their ability to compete with United in their thrilling 3-3 draw at Old Trafford. This game saw United cruising as a result of a first half brace from Danny Wellbeck, but then they suffered a dramatic second half collapse nearly losing all three points only to be saved by Ashley Young’s most crucial United goal to date in the dying embers of the game. Maybe the fact that they know not to be complacent against their inferior opponents will aid them in their quest to secure qualification, but win, lose or draw Sir Alex will know that his team have drastically under performed throughout a group which they should have topped with some spare left in the tank.

The third English offering on this year’s list of under-achievers in the Champions League groups are Chelsea whose struggles have extended to all competitions under new boss Andre Vilas-Boas. Having raced to seven points from their first three games Chelsea looked to set to win the group with comfort, but since then they have suffered a major dip in European success that has coincided with a rotten run of results in the Premier League. Their previous two games have seen them play out a stale draw against Belgian minnows Genk and an immensely disappointing defeat away to Leverkusen having taken the lead in Germany. These equally damaging results have seen them slump to a position in the group where they must either achieve victory or a scoreless draw against a very decent Valencia side. They, like Manchester United, will be expected to make their class and experience show on a huge night for the club but there are perhaps greater doubts about their ability to do so than United’s when taking into account their poor recent form and their manager’s limited experience of facing up to serious adversity.

If all three of the aforementioned sides fail to qualify for the knockout stages then it would probably make for just about the greatest shock in the history of the competition given each of their standings in world football. Though Manchester City are in their rookie year in the competition they are fast establishing themselves as one of England’s strongest outfits, and the quality and depth of their squad is well in line with their lofty ambitions. For some reason though they, along with United and Chelsea, are performing with a lack of resolve and at times a complete lack of imagination in this year’s competition and as such have found themselves on the verge of an embarrassing early exit.

The fallout from the these three sides’ potential failure to progress could be enormous in terms of their finances and their reputations and if the rumour mill is to be trusted then it could even cost them the services of their managers. If Chelsea were to fail this evening then it is entirely feasible that Andre Vilas-Boas could be given his marching orders just months after taking the reigns at the club. Mancini too, in spite of his domestic success thus far this season, could face serious scrutiny if City don’t qualify for the next round. Probably the most strongly positioned manager of the three is Sir Alex Ferguson given that he has twenty five years of great success at United, but even he may have to re-consider his remaining value to the club if they were to be knocked out on Wednesday.

As it stands things look fairly dire for three of our major forces in European football, but just what will be the outcome of this week’s huge matches? We await the results with enormous anxiety and anticipation and soon we will know if  English club football is set for a crisis of confidence on the European stage.

 

My Predictions:

Chelsea win and take second place, United win and take second place, City draw at home to Munich but are eliminated as a result of Napoli defeating Villareal.

 

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Sepp Pratter

When you thought he couldn’t make any more faux-pas he went and outdid himself. Sepp Blatter: Idiot of the year 2011!

There isn’t too much to say that hasn’t already been said a thousand times about Mr.Blatter but I thought I’d add my two cents. So off I go on a little rant…

First and foremost I would like to express my surprise and disgust that racism seems to be rearing it’s ugly head in our premiere football league. I had by no means assumed that racism in top-flight football was a thing of the past, but, I did believe that the English Premier League was one of the league’s in world football where it was limited to an incredibly small minority. In truth, even if the likes of Luis Suarez and John Terry are proven guilty of racially abusing opponents then it is still probably a very small minority of players in the Premier League that are guilty of partaking in such foul behaviour. It is still apalling to think though that our incredibly diverse league which represents an enormous amount of different nationalities could have any problems when it comes to racial abuse.

For what it’s worth I don’t actually think that John Terry did racially abuse Anton Ferdinand in the infamous slow-mo clip on youtube, that isn’t to say though that he didn’t at all in another instance. I actually believe he was aiming a torrent of slightly more tolerable (but still repulsive) abuse at the referee or Ferdinand. In place of the key word “black” which he is accused of having said before the more obvious profanity, I believe he said “blind”, but honestly who knows apart from those who were within ear-shot of the event. Also, I have no idea whether Luis Suarez persistently racially abused Patrice Evra throughout the Liverpool Vs Manchester United game last month but I have no reason to disbelieve Evra’s accusations and the fact that he is claiming it was persistent would suggest to me that there is definitely at least some level of truth in his claims.

No matter whether these two players were guilty of the accusations being levelled at them, it is clear that Sepp Blatter’s public response to fears of a major re-emergence of the problem in the English game were wholly inappropriate. For a man of such “high” standing in the game to demonstrate such an incredible level of ignorance and frankly such a lack of class is outrageous. I think Mr.Blatter would be very wise to step down from his post or alternatively I think his minions at FIFA HQ should ask him to retire from his role as President.

It is however with great sadness that I think this isn’t the last we’ll see of Sepp as President. It really does seem as though the blundering fool is untouchable and that if he asked his fellow FIFA higher powers to jump off a cliff with him that they would race him all the way to Beachy Head. I will take this opportunity to state on record that I don’t think Sepp Blatter is a racist, that would be an incredibly naive thing to take from the nightmares of the last few days at FIFA HQ, but I do think he is completely and utterly irresponsible. To suggest that racism on the field is not a problem and that if it were common place that players would accept it and “shake hands” at the the end of a game is beyond words frankly. This latest bout of loose-tongue disorder from Mr.Blatter really does put the goal-line technology debate in perspective doesn’t it (I do however think that this is utterly ridiculous too). Hats off Mr.Blatter, you certainly do know how to cause a stir with  your unenviable lack of social awareness.

Super-Scott setting the standard for England’s young guns

Amidst all the hype and excitement about England’s emerging talents there was one man that has stood head and shoulders above the rest against Spain on Saturday; Scott Parker. This week was meant to be all about the absence of big name players such as John Terry, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney and how their much younger and less experienced International team mates would cope when asked to fill the void. However, Saturday’s game was well and truly taken by the scruff of the neck by Scott Parker who does indeed lack International experience, but he certainly isn’t a young prospect like Phil Jones, Danny Wellbeck or Jack Rodwell who all contributed to Saturday’s morale boosting win.

It is so rare in the modern era for someone to get their first major opportunity at International level when they are in their thirties but that is sadly the case for Parker. For years now I have been a great admirer of Parker as a player and have been at a loss when trying to explain why England manager after England manager have overlooked him as a viable option to play in the holding midfield role for the national side. For me he has been one of the most consistent performers in the Premier League over the past six or seven years and minus the early career blip that he suffered upon moving to Chelsea, he has managed to impress for every club that he’s played for. His success at several clubs is demonstrated by the fact that he has been named ‘permanent’ Captain for two different sides, Newcastle and West Ham, both of which are notoriously difficult to lead. In spite of the hard challenge posed by the Captaincy role at these two famous English clubs he has shone in the role. Parker excels as a leader and it is strange to think that such understanding of responsibility hasn’t earned him greater International opportunities earlier in his career.

His successful graduation through the “old-school” English route to the height of International football makes his long-standing lack of caps all the more odd. In classic fashion Parker ‘graduated’ from the now defunct Lilleshall School of Footballing Excellence and went on to represent his country at all levels of youth football, including several caps for the Under 21 side. This now retired procession through Lilleshall and then onto the youth ranks of the national side was once your sure-fire path to a starring role in England squads from a fairly young age, but Parker having made his full international debut in 2003 had only picked up another two caps going into the start of 2011.

In the wake of England’s horrific World Cup campaign in 2010 and his magnificent start to the 2010-11 season with West Ham, Parker was wisely gifted the opportunity to become an exception to the modern era’s unwritten rules regarding international selection. It seems that nowadays if you are in your late twenties or early thirties and you have yet to establish yourself as an English international then you are almost certain to miss out on the chance of ever impressing yourself on this stage. Parker though was called in by Fabio Cappello and has since gone from strength to strength.

For all too long a period it seemed that the England selectors had deemed Parker a solid and reliable Premier League performer but nothing exceeding this. Many managers and coaches must have been guilty of this assumption so it is unfair to direct blame at any clear targets but perhaps good old Sven was the first to play the ignorance card, which if you think about it is rather strange. We all know hom much Sven loved a solid performer don’t we? Think Emile Heskey, think Nicky Butt, think a young Owen Hargreaves. These players did all the simple things well and allowed those around them to provide the spark. For me, Parker offers everything these players did in their time as International regulars, and with the exception of Hargreaves who developed into an outstanding International performer, I believe Parker offers much more.

Thankfully, Fabio was eventually drawn to the lure of Parker as an International footballer and since making him a regular starter he has been richly rewarded with a string of typically determined and resilient performances from Spurs’ summer recruit. The latest in this string of fine performances was his almost sacrificial performance against Spain at the weekend where he firmly set the standard for the rest of his team mates in an understated but ruthlessly effective performance.

It was clear in Saturday’s win that the likes of Rooney and Gerrard were missed in terms of their attacking spark and their ability to surge forward turning defence into clinical counter-attacking football, but under Capello’s apparent guidance to swamp the Spanish playmakers and prioritise defensive responsibilities Parker stood out as the figure-head of England’s defiance. If England are looking for a new Captain in the wake of John Terry’s latest flirtation with controversy, and I accept that that they probably aren’t, then they should look no further than ‘Super Scott’ whose handling of over-the-top fans expectations at Newcastle and West Ham was always respectful and dedicated.

City hit sorry United for 6, As the big-boys continue the goal-glut

Once upon a time there were four managers and their names were Ferguson, Mourinho, Wenger and Benitez. These four super-powers of the game were in charge of the top four sides from England’s premiere football division and they were the envy of most managers in the world. There stay of success in English football meant that year on year they were qualifying for the Champion’s League and winning domestic trophies accumulating precious money along the way. Whilst many clubs in England and around the world were struggling financially, these four clubs were thriving and as a result they were empowered with the ability to buy the best talent from around the world in the quest to assemble the strongest squad’s in world football.

Aside from the domestic and European domination that these clubs enjoyed the other enduring memory for me from this era of the Premier League is that of the four club’s head-to-head fixtures. The excitement and tension surrounding the build-up to these fixtures were tangible. The fans knew full well that the sides were all well matched and immensely competitive and with this came the knowledge that their sides were just as likely (if not more) to lose or draw the match as they were to win.

With their respective club’s being so well matched the manager’s developed fierce rivalries. Their underlying mutual respect for one another fired their ambitions and hopes of getting one over on each other and not one of them shirked the challenge. Not one of them were short on confidence. Each of them were immensely confident in their team’s and their own ability and it made for a brilliant side show to the main attraction of the matches themselves.

This burning desire not to be embarrassed by their challengers was perhaps what led to the matches being so tight and generally low-scoring. It seemed that the managers’ intense rivalries rubbed off on their players and as such the matches bristled with tension, mind-games and a fierce undertone. Where the players could get away with small niggling indisciplines they did and more often than not the games were fractious affairs. Perhaps it is arguable that the nature of these games detracted not from the defensive qualities of the club’s but their attacking brilliance, which was such a factor in their overwhelming of lesser sides.

I don’t mean to dumb down the magic in these fixtures with stories of negativity, but in these years the big games were captivating rather than thrilling. They were based far more on ebbs and flows than they were upon roller coaster rides, but they were brilliant nonetheless. Maybe not beautiful, but brillant, and more often than not decided by moments of inspiration. Sure it would have been nice to get the odd 4-3 thriller and maybe there were a few too many 0-0 and 1-1 draws but that just served to demonstrate the equality of effort and strain being put into these games by all the sides.

The reason for such nostalgia is this current season’s own take on the big matches and the stark contrast to the aforementioned era of Premier League football. This season’s head-to-heads between the so called ‘title contenders’ have been a world away from the older days with goals galore caused by an amalgomation of brilliant, fluid attacking play and some quite frankly rotten defending.

The latest example in the series of open games between the Premier League’s finest was that of Manchester City’s romping 6-1 victory over Champions Manchester United in their own backyard. Though full credit must go to City for their attitude towards at first eleven United players and then later the ten remaining opponents following Jonny Evans’ dismissal. Mario Ballotelli, as frustrating as he can sometimes be, was terrific. His combination of strength, pace and self-belief scared United into submission at times and for me he was the focal point of City’s glorious day, the sort of day that may well have made Sir Alex question why he is still managing a football team.

This isn’t to say that Sir Alex should have packed it in, he is still a marvellous manager, but it really was a horror show and one which would have made any self-respecting Manager question them self. United’s early territory threatened to overwhelm City and Ashley Young looked set to further endear himself to the Old Trafford faithful with a buccaneering wing display but as soon as Ballotelli bagged the opener with great craft United’s challenge fizzled out. Scoring so simply against the run of play inspired City to drive on knowing that they had safely navigated their way through the early torment and come out on top. From this point on City were unrelenting and United pathetic. Few occasions in Sir Alex’s epically long tenure have been so hideous. A few games come to mind though namely the 5-0 defeat to Newcastle (which is celebrating it’s anniversary in Geordie-land this week), the 5-0 loss to Chelsea about a decade ago, and the humiliating 4-1 defeat to Middlesbrough that sparked Roy Keane’s acrimonious departure from the club. It is a staggering scoreline reflective of United’s suicidal attitude throughout the match, and was just the latest feather in the Premier League’s goal-rush cap when it comes to the top of the table clashes.

Accompanying this unthinkable result have been United’s comical 8-2 win over Arsenal, United’s 3-1 win over Chelsea (which Ferguson said could honestly have finished “13-12”), United’s 4-0 thrashing of Spurs and City’s own thrashing of Spurs by 5 goals to 1. It is incredible to think that this Premier League season still hasn’t even seen November and that it has already produced so many title-contending clashes played out like basketball matches.

Maybe it is just the new breed of manager’s at the top clubs that are responsible for such results, after all the likes of Harry Redknapp in charge of Spurs are famed for playing football in the spirit of “avin’ a go”. I believe thought that there are two equally if not more significant factors. The first of these maybe that the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United have had the honour of facing up to the current Barcelona side and have realised that their only chance of unsettling them is to attack them and put them out of their comfort zone. Last season alone both Arsenal and Manchester United were denied the opportunity of European glory by Barca, and the pick of the confrontations was Arsenal’s gutsy fightback to beat Barca 2-1 at the Emirates.

Having begun the game on the back foot and trying to soak up the Catalan pressure they found themselves trailing by a goal to nil and being run ragged. However, the second half saw Wenger’s men take Barcelona on at their own game and they managed to reap huge rewards for their courageousness. Though they failed to back the win up with progression to the next round, they provided the greatest indication yet that the way to stop the seemingly irrepressible Catalan’s is to play on the front foot and take the game to them. Perhaps then this is the motivation for the top English clubs’ seeming desire to express themselves in big matches, perhaps they are honing in on tactics that they believe could return them to the peak of the European game.

The second, and arguably most logical reason is that the goal-glut has been caused by the increased competition for places at the top of the Premier League. With 6 teams realistically vying for Champions League qualification there are now fewer ‘easy’ games. As a result the big teams are no longer able to store up their fitness, composure and defensive strength for stand-out ties whilst cutting loose in the less demanding fixtures. More games are tough games now, and more games are able to have a genuine say in the title shake up and as such the teams are encouraged to play with similar freedom regardless of the opposition.

Whatever the reason, I certainly hope that the gluttony for goalscoring is a recurring theme in the Premier League’s glamour ties (though as a United fan I’d probably rather avoid 6-1 home defeats to our fiercest rivals). The old days of the Premier League were just as great, but not quite as hair-raising and exciting. The new breed of title-chasing sides are geared to continue in the same vein as they have done thus far this season, and if they do then we could be in for a hell of a ride!

Arsenal the Headline Act on Deadline Day

Another transfer window has come and passed and though they left it very late indeed Arsenal have finally made strides towards replacing Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri. Last weekend’s 8-2 humiliation against Manchester United left manager Arsene Wenger with little to no choice, but he has acted boldly on deadline day in order to secure five major signings which should go some way towards appeasing their fans.

The first confirmed signing was that of South Korea captain Park Chu-Yong. Though many will not know much about this acquisition he is captain of his country and having impressed up-front for Monaco he was subject to much interest in the transfer market and not just from Arsenal. French champions Lille were also in for Arsenal’s new man and Wenger will be pleased to have strengthened his attacking ranks.

The next addition to Arsenal’s squad was Fenerbahce’s Andre Santos. The Brazilian international left-back seems to be a promising addition to Wenger’s ranks having played over twenty times for his country. At Fenerbahce he has experienced Champions League football and has proved his ability to demonstrate attacking prowess from defence, scoring at a rate of a goal every five games. Santos looks set to provide able support and competition for promising young English prospect Kieran Gibbs.

Mertesacker should provide great experience an leadership

Third in on deadline day was the immensely experienced Per Mertesacker from Werder Bremen. The German centre-back has impressed at the very highest level in over seventy international caps and I believe he is a great coup for Arsenal. Not only has he made significant strides in international football, but he also has superb domestic experience having played Champions League football for Bremen and having captained the club. Arsenal’s young and rather frail squad are in dire need of leaders and Mertesacker should be able to settle in very quickly given his background and will provide great support to new Captain Robin Van Persie in the leadership stakes.

Arsenal’s fourth and fifth major signings really did push the transfer deadline to it’s full limit, but both were immensely important deals for the club. First they signed the experienced Israeli attacking midfielder Yossi Benayoun from Chelsea on loan, which I think is a very astute signing. Having become rather surplus to requirements at Stamford Bridge Benayoun who has consistently delivered at Premier League level is a tidy addition to Wenger’s squad and he provides a wealth of international and Champions League experience.

Arteta stole the headlines at the Emirates

The second of Arsenal’s last minute deals is perhaps their most significant signing of the summer. To have signed Mikel Arteta from Everton is a real show of intent from Wenger and it is the sort of deal which will excite Arsenal fans. Arteta has demonstrated real class in his time at Everton, his fine range of passing and eye for goal should set the Emirates alight and at 10 million he is near guaranteed to be value for money. Many sceptics will say that he is not up to the standard of the departed Fabregas and Nasri, but the painful truth is that not many attacking midfielders are. The loss of these two players will continue to leave a gaping hole in terms of world class talent at the Emirates, but Arteta and Benayoun are both very good players and could well go on to be top players for the club.

Other news coming out of Arsenal included the departure of Nicklas Bendtner on loan to Sunderland for the season and Henri Lansbury’s loan move to West Ham. It was a day of immense importance for Arsenal and the status of their under fire manager and they did at least go some way towards repairing their turmoil-stricken squad. It seems outrageous that they would leave it this late to move for major reinforcements given the inevitability of Fabregas and Nasri’s departures, but the general consensus coming of the club’s followers seems to be something along the lines of better late than never. Only time will tell just how important today’s signings will be for Arsenal but on paper it seems that they have bought in a calibre of player that should see them rising up the table and at least competing for European places.

Other big players on deadline day included Arsenal’s bitter rivals Tottenham. Though they only managed to land the brilliant Scott Parker on the final day of the window, they did manage to sell big in order to reduce their wage bill. Departures from White Hart Lane were Peter Crouch, Wilson Palacios, David Bentley, Jermaine Jenas and Alan Hutton, all of whom fetched reasonable fees which should boost Tottenham’s chances of landing significant new signings come January.

Against all the odds Gary Cahill remained a Bolton Wanderers player

Probably the biggest news of the day for Tottenham on deadline day came in the form on two failed deals. On one hand they managed to cling on desperately to their star player Luka Modric, but on the other they missed out on bringing in the outstanding Gary Cahill from Bolton. It was only on the day that Spurs emerged as huge favourites to land Cahill but up until the evening it seemed as though it was a goer. Sadly though for Harry Redknapp Bolton managed to keep a hold of their star player due to differing valuations of the England international.

Another London club QPR were also very active prior to the closing of the summer transfer window. Shaun Wright-Philips became their first major signing of the day and he was followed through the door by Anton

Warnock will be pleased with his late deals

Ferdinand of Sunderland. These two signings coupled with the recent capture of Joey Barton demonstrates their new owners ambition to keep QPR in the Premier League upon their return to the top flight.

Other top deals on deadline day included Raul Meireles to Chelsea, Peter Crouch and Wilson Palacios to Stoke, Joe Cole to Lille on loan, Owen Hargreaves to Manchester City, Scott Dann and Cameron Jerome’s Birmingham exits to Blackburn and Stoke and Craig Bellamy’s sensational return to Liverpool.

In conclusion then, it was another high-drama day of transfer dealings on the 31st of August but perhaps it was lacking the glamour signings provided by the imminent closure of previous transfer windows. Headline act Arsenal have indeed landed some important deals, but their fans will be left feeling strangely deflated. Though they managed to make significant moves in the last twenty four hours it is hard to see how their additions can inspire them to challenge for Champions League qualification. Wenger must for once accept that this is a year of transition and development, his big names have gone and for now they must be forgotten.

Can England’s elite take financial strides to try and match Barca’s brilliance?

Big Summer in Prospect for England’s Elite:

With Barcelona’s demolition of Manchester United last week resonating through the footballing world, Europe’s top clubs will certainly be feeling the need to improve their ranks. It may seem unrealistic that any team can invest and bring in anyone of the level of genius which graced the hallowed turf of Wembley last week, but that shouldn’t stop the British clubs assault on the transfer market this summer. The topsy-turvy nature of events in the Premier League this season means that any one of six teams will be going in to the new season with dreams of winning the title. I will consider the chances of each of the four most prominent contenders and weigh up their potential movement in the forthcoming transfer window.

Arsenal:

The events over the closing weeks of the season will have seen manager Arsene Wenger sick to the very pit of his stomach. The enthusiasm and verve present amongst his team of young stars for much of the season simply appeared to fizzle out, and with it their chances of silverware were lost without a trace. The moment which encapsulated all the frustration of their campaign was the late winner scored by Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final. Having gone without any silverware for several years, to then go and throw away a lead in a cup final against a side who went on to be relegated from the Premier League is beyond disappointing. It is criminal, absolutely criminal. Not only did this moment of footballing agony demonstrate a lack of nerve but it also highlighted their need for an experienced and imperious central defensive pairing and a top quality goalkeeper.

In terms of goalkeepers they have plenty of options, though the experienced ones would probably prove to be the wisest investments. I believe the man they should target is Shay Given. He is a fantastic shot-stopper who has experience at the highest levels of international football and european club football, all the attributes of a fantastic keeper. This is a transfer which could very feasibly happen as Wenger is rumoured to be a long-time admirer of the Irishman and he has been rather frozen out at Manchester City this season.

In addition to a keeper it is very important that Wenger breaks his own policy of only investing in youth and invests in a battle-hardened experienced centre back that preferably has premiership experience. A good buy would be Chris Samba of Blackburn Rovers who has been immense this season and has shone above the turmoil at the club and their battles against relegation. He wouldn’t cost the world and would be keen for a big move having had a transfer request rejected by the club in the most recent transfer window.

It is these defensive areas which need the most attention at the club this summer, but perhaps other areas could do with strengthening too. One option could be to invest in a new holding midfield player as an alternative to the young Alex Song, who has certainly demonstrated some promise this season but needs time and competition to drive his career in the right direction. The obvious investment here would be Scott Parker who this season has demonstrated outstanding mental strength, desire and tremendous ability whilst captaining a sinking ship. With West Ham relegated to the Championship Parker will be looking to ply his trade elsewhere and I believe Arsenal would be an ideal fit for a player of his talents.

One final suggestion for Arsenal could be to invest in a striker. Their over reliance upon the injury prone Robin van Persie has become a serious concern, and whenever he is unavailable they struggle to come up with the goals necessary to win a Premier League title. This may seem a controversial suggestion but former Spurs and current Manchester United striker Dimitar Berbatov could well prove a fantastic signing for the ‘Gunners’. He is creative, skilful and elegant which would be in-keeping with Arsenal’s  philosophy and he is a proven goal scorer at the highest level. Such talent coupled with the fact that his omission from Manchester United’s Champions League final squad seems to have signalled his departure, could well prove this to be a viable option.

Potential Ins: Given, Samba, Parker, Hazard, Berbatov, Benzema, Gervinho. Potential Outs: Almunia, Fabianski, Scquilliaci, Fabregas, Arshavin, Chamakh

Manchester United:

Manchester United have had a fantastic season, but their lack of quality ball players and central players with the drive to track the opposition were exposed by Barcelona’s majestic performance against them last week.

With the departure  of old-hands Edwin Van Der Sar and Paul Scholes this summer there appears to be the need for investment in goal and in the middle of their midfield. It seems as though David De Gea of Athletico Madrid has won the battle for the coveted keeping vacancy at Old Trafford, and I would say he is a wise investment. He may only be very young, but he has already had a taste of Champions League football and has emerged as one of Europe’s finest young keepers.

So that leaves the need to invest in a midfield play maker to replace Scholes. A few names have been touted for this role such as Luka Modric of Tottenham and Inter’s Wesley Sneijder. Both of these players would be exceptional signings and an ideal replacement for one of United’s most loyal and talented servants of all time. Another possibility that is rife with rumour amongst the media is for United to sign Samir Nasri in a cut-price deal due to his contractual wrangling at Arsenal. Sir Alex Ferguson is a canny operator and it wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility that he could make this deal happen, and if he did it would be a remarkable coup given Nasri’s form over the last year.

Another potential problem for Manchester United  to deal with this summer is that it seems certain that Dimitar berbatov will leave the club. He won the golden boot this season and losing him would effectively leave a void of twenty to twenty five goals a season. Sir Alex Ferguson may well entrust some of his young charges like Javier Hernandez, Danny Wellbeck and Federico Macheda with this responsibility but their does appear to be justification for movements in this direction during the window.

Potential Ins: De Gea, Sneijder, Modric, Nasri, Benzema. Potential Outs: Van Der Sar (confirmed), Scholes (confirmed), Berbatov

Chelsea.

What a season Chelsea have just had. It has been tumultuous to say the least and the recent sacking of Carlo Ancellotti will have done nothing to steady the ship. However, there is a very definite need for them to improve the depth of their squad and a new manager at the helm usually means that their will be money made available for transfers.

Areas of concern for Chelsea could be the wide areas of their midfield and in attack. It seems likely with the amount of money invested in him that Chelsea will remain faithful to Fernando Torres in spite of his lacklustre form since signing for the club. Such faith coupled with the apparent inability of Didier Drogba and him to blend as a partnership could see Drogba their talismanic striker leave this summer. If he does go then Chelsea will need to invest in this area as they can’t afford to part with a player of Drogba’s stature without having lined up a replacement. Karim Benzema would fill the role very nicely and Real Madrid would perhaps be willing to part with him, alternatively they could try and lure Sergio Aguero from Athletico Madrid as they are failing to make the strides necessary to keep hold of a player of his talents. Young Brazilian talent Neymar has also been heavily linked with a big money move to the club.

In midfield their appears the need for greater creativity and innovation in order to supply the likes of Torres with greater effect and regularity. An option here would be to try and lure Kaka from Real Madrid. However, since Ancellotti has been sacked by the club this has become an even more remote option given the link between the two men, an alternative could perhaps be Luka Modric.

Potential Ins: Kaka, Modric, Aguero, Benzema, Neymar. Potential Outs: Ferreira, Bosingwa, Drogba, Sturridge.

Manchester City:

Now that City have seemed to join the elite of English football by securing the FA Cup and Champions League qualification, could it then be time for them to make a real assault on European football. If this is to be the case then they need to strengthen again.

In defence this season Vincent Kompany has been a revelation but given Kolo Toure’s absence from the game for a failed drugs test and Joleon Lescott’s lack of experience at the summit of European football this could be an area that needs strengthening. A possible option could be Bolton Wanderers’ Gary Cahill, a very talented young man who would certainly provide a good alternative to Lescott in the heart of their defence.

Another chink in City’s armour could be in defensive midfield where current first teamer Gareth Barry’s form has appeared to slump over the past twelve months. One option for his replacement could be Scott Parker who seems to have grappled this position away from Barry at international level for England. He is likely to be subject to much interest this summer given his impressive form but City’s millions and the prospect of Champions League football may be enough to tempt him to sign up.

On final area of concern for City is in attack where they must do all in their power to keep a hold of their star player Carlos Tevez. He is one of their only ‘X-Factor’ players and in truth is pretty irreplaceable. However, if he does decide to leave then City will have to come up with an exceptional replacement. Possible options could be Benzema, Berbatov and Aguero but in truth these players could pale in comparison to Tevez and his consistently fantastic contribution to the club.

Potential Ins: Anyone! (Benzema, Berbatov, Aguero, Kaka, Cahill, Parker) Potential Outs: Anyone! (Tevez, Barry).

Whatever unfolds between now and September it appears that we are set for a turbulent summer of big money and major transfer activity, which could perhaps exceed anything like what we have seen in the past. If this is is the case then it will prove to be a hugely exciting period and one which could potentially shape the balance of power in English and European football for years to come.

Below are my predictions for the next English season:

Premier League Top of the table: 1. Manchester United, 2. Manchester City, 3. Chelsea, 4. Liverpool, 5. Arsenal, 6. Tottenham

Premier League Relegation: 18. Blackburn Rovers, 19. Wolverhampton Wanderers, 20. Norwich City

FA Cup: Chelsea

League Cup: Liverpool

Champions League: Barcelona

Best title race ever? Or is it just the worst quality Premier League season of all time?

A new year is upon us and 2011 is set to stage one of the most open title races in the history of the Premier League. Is this as good for English football as it is for the neutral supporter? Interesting certainly, but good for the game?

Will Rooney steer United to the title?

As we enter the new year everybody’s least favourite team Manchester United top the table and with games in hand up their sleeve. Miraculously, given what a turbulent season we have seen so far, United have gone unbeaten up to this point only very rarely impressing along the way. It has been indifferent on the performance side of things from Sir Alex Ferguson’s troops bar a few notable exceptions including the 7-1 demolition of Blackburn Rovers and the 3-2 victory over arch-rivals Liverpool. Even the victory over Liverpool saw them negligently surrender a two goal advantage before Dimitar Berbatov salvaged three points with a piece of magic that he and pretty much only he could muster. Never before could a team boast such a consistently below-par level of performance whilst cruising to a position comfortably situated at the summit of the league come January. If this had been any other league season it is near certain that Manchester United’s form would of seen them soundly beaten five or six times come this stage, not this one however. The Red Devils have demonstrated defensive frailty, an ever-changing and unsettled midfield and up-front their star man Rooney has endured his much reported ‘annus horribilis’, all this yet they are dominating the race for the title. Surely this is reflective of a drop in standards?

What of United’s loosely termed ‘challengers’. Well.. most intriguing of the bunch must be their neighbours Manchester City. Currently City are level on points with United having played two more games much owing to the unstoppable form of their talismanic skipper and ex-United star Carlos Tevez. It is his form that has driven his otherwise under-performing side into second place in the league and their best half-way points tally in the Premier League. Tevez is undoubtedly world class and the owners of the club certainly possess the financial clout that could see big-money arrivals this month. However, it seems unlikely that a team with one absolute superstar and an unsettled squad otherwise would be capable of seeing off Ferguson’s men. It could happen but it seems a little out of City’s reach for now.

Next are the usual suspects Arsenal and Chelsea. The latter’s year has gone from the ecstasy of a domestic league and cup double and early season domination into absolute ruins over the last couple of months. The sudden loss of form from such a talented squad is utterly staggering and it is clear that all is not well within their camp. The usually unflappable force that is manager Carlo Ancellotti seems distant and agitated, star man Didier Drogba can’t buy a goal and is desperately lacking any sort of form or fitness and the press are swarming around the apparent unrest at the Bridge. The recent slide sees them six points a drift of the leaders having already played one more game. It would take another twist of biblical proportion to reignite any challenge from the Blues when it comes to the business end.

Arsenal on the other hand are brimming as ever with youthful exuberance and talent. The football being played by Arsene Wenger’s outfit has as ever been delectable. Such beauty is there to behold but Wenger  must again be ruing his side’s lack of substance when confronted with an organised and physical opponent. Losses to Newcastle and Manchester United horribly exposed Arsenal’s lack of strength and experience, yet again, Wenger protests his team’s increasing nous. The recent victory over Chelsea has sparked an air of belief within the camp that has been vacant for a few years now, but two points adrift with a game more played than United could it be another year void of silverware for the Gunners?

The last real contenders are Tottenham. Led by the signing of the summer Rafael Van Der Vaart and the wizardry of young Gareth Bale Spurs have become outsiders to win the league. It will surely take a couple more transfer coups this month from ‘wheeler’dealer ‘Arry’ Redknapp to seriously pose a threat but stranger things have happened already this season!

So, for now Sir Alex can sit tight with a smile on his battle-hardened face as United continue to stumble towards yet another title. It is advisable though that he does keep a watchful eye on the many challengers in case a minor miracle occurs and one of them actually hits form. The neutral fan will be salivating over the battle ahead, however, it is undeniable that standards have dropped in our beloved league. This off the back of a more than disappointing showing in the World Cup and World Cup bid for 2018 should be causing concern amongst fans and must surely worry the powers-that-be at the FA headquarters. A new year is here lets hope the English game fights back.

Premier League Predictions: 1.Manchester United, 2. Chelsea, 3.Manchester City, 4.Arsenal, 5. Tottenham… 18.Wigan, 19.West Brom, 20. Wolverhampton Wanderers

Players of the season so far: Carlos Tevez, Rafael Van Der Vaart, Darren Fletcher, Dimitar Berbatov, Charlie Adam, Samir Nasri, Luis Nani, Kevin Davies, Johan Elmander, Darren Bent

Young Players of the season so far: Gareth Bale, Andy Carroll, Seamus Coleman, Danny Wellbeck, Javier Hernandez, Rafael, Joe Hart, Adam Johnson

Managers of the year: Ian Holloway, Harry Redknapp, Chris Hughton, Owen Coyle

Can Chelsea fightback?