11 September, 2007

State of the League - First Impressions

And so here we are. Five games into the 07/08 season, with the transfer window shut and a proper league table for the code-monkeys amongst you out there to analyse. The ongoing international break gives STT a chance for some much needed breath-catching and also some sage reflection on events so far.

It's great that any team has looked capable of beating anyone else, if the first few rounds of matches are anything to go by. Manchester United and Chelsea have started the season as shadows of their former dominant selves, while early pace-setters Everton and Manchester City have been playing some truly exciting football, establishing themselves as real forces to be reckoned with.

However, as good as Man City, Everton and Aston Villa, among others, have looked, is there really any genuine competition for the ‘big 4?’ Short answer is ‘no’ with a ‘but;’ long answer is ‘yes’ but with a very big ‘if.’ I feel that the rivalry around the remainder of the top half of the table though might produce the most entertaining matches this year, as Portsmouth, Newcastle and Spurs will all similarly fancy their chances of a top 6 finish ahead of the aforementioned fringe sides.

The biggest question has to be: Can Liverpool go the distance and secure the Premier League crown this year? And, if at Christmas time it looked like they were in with a real chance, would they choose league glory over another possible long-running Champions League campaign? It should make for fascinating viewing, as Liverpool has started by far the brightest with Torres and Babel especially looking like thrilling prospects, and full-blown match-winners too. Everything just seems to have come together under the newly goateed Benitez; defensively they are sublime, the choice of central midfielders is to die for, and the huge range of attacking options ooze pace and potency.

Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea look decidedly limp in comparison. While Liverpool have netted 11 goals in their opening 4 games, Manchester United have struggled, admittedly with injuries and suspensions, to just 3 in 5 games. With the return of a traditional striker in Louis Saha however, they look a much better team, with his sterling hold-up play and instinctive positioning creating more chances in one game than in their previous 4 combined. As much as I rate Tevez, Nani, Ronaldo, Rooney etc, none of them are old-fashioned centre forwards, and someone with this natural awareness and eye for goal is still the key to success, at any level.

Looking towards the opposite end of the table, unfortunately a few teams already appear seriously adrift from the rest in all areas. Newly promoted Derby and Birmingham have looked out of their depth defensively, leaking easy goals and making mistakes that will consistently get punished at this level, while Sunderland have been undoubtedly competitive, but I just can’t see them scoring too many goals with the options they have. The remainder of the bottom six are currently Bolton, Fulham and Reading, and I fully expect the latter two teams to still be in the drop-zone come May. Bolton on the other hand have played relatively well and not got what they perhaps deserved out of a couple of games. Plus, in Anelka they have one of the most dangerous forwards in the league, just leaving Sammy Lee the problem of keeping him and partner in crime Diouf interested throughout the season…

Wise opinions to recycle to your friends:

- Blackburn have been thoroughly impressive this season and have been playing decent football, despite Wenger continuing his slur campaign against any physical contact whatsoever on the pitch.

- Portsmouth will do well this season after a horrible opening set of fixtures; they have proved themselves more than able to compete against Chelsea, Man United and Arsenal, deserving more than they got from each game.

- Mikel Arteta is proving himself to be the most under-rated player in the Premier League, and if Spain don’t want him, surely we can find him an English great-great-grandfather or something so he’s eligible…

- England’s future is looking bright, with Micah Richards, Michael Johnson, Mark Noble, Steven Taylor and Ashley Young, among others, all making very impressive starts to the season.

- Many of the new imports we highlighted at the start of the season have settled in nicely; it’s good to see guys like Babel, Utaka and Bianchi shining, as well as the obvious Torres-shaped big hitters.

- Spurs must be the most frustrating team to support, but everybody loves the Big Guy. He lovesh hish playersh too.