By Shane Thomas
The Champions League final hopefully ended - for the time being, at least - the tiresome debate on whether England's Premier League or Spain's La Liga is the superior division. As well as being an asinine argument, it tends to come down to a matter of personal taste. Do you want high achievement or competitive meritocracy? As that will probably determine which league you'd rather watch. And right now, it's also an irrelevant point, as the topic at hand here is running the rule over England's top division. Unlike last season, I'll go through the clubs in the order of their respective league positions rather than alphabetically. And I'll also compare how accurate - or not - my predictions were at the start of the season with where they actually finished:
(1st) - MANCHESTER UNITED:
Ok, mea culpa time. I did say that I thought they'd finish third. But I also said I could be setting myself up for a fall. And I fell pretty hard. I thought Edwin Van Der Sar was too long in the tooth, and that Chris Smalling was a wasted signing. Well, Van Der Sar was the best goalkeeper in the league & Smalling proved an excellent back-up to the injury prone Rio Ferdinand. Ferguson proved me wrong on both counts, but the fact remains that this is no more than a solid United outfit. This was one of the Scot's greatest seasons as a manager by guiding them to their 19th league championship, as well as getting them to the Champions League final (and I did predict them to do that back in August). But the way that they were outclassed in that final shows the improvements that need to be made to the squad. Ferguson may have pulled up trees this season, but he cannot be expected to do so again, as United won't win the league with these same players next season.
STAR MAN - Nemanja Vidic: My Prediction - 3rd
(2nd) - CHELSEA:
Chelsea's season is a difficult one to appraise. They set off like a train, were abysmal during the winter before the return of Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba from injury & illness dragged them back up the table, and were not helped by yet another moment of madness from owner Roman Abramovich by spending £50 million on an out-of-sorts Fernando Torres. It only hindered the club and in part contributed to their elimination from the Champions League. Carlo Ancelotti can consider himself unlucky to be sacked but the fact that the decision surprised no-one shows the paradigm of managing Chelsea. Win either the title or the Champions League or you get sacked. Concepts of fairness are absent from Stamford Bridge these days. There's no doubt that Chelsea will re-enter the transfer market again in the summer, and Torres should be a resurgent force but Abramovich's capriciousness is beginning to outweigh his largesse. The main plus point of managing Chelsea is the huge payoff rather than trying to build success. Add that to a squad that is ever aging and Chelsea may begin to look a spent force this time next season.
STAR MAN - Petr Cech :My Prediction - 1st
(3rd) - MANCHESTER CITY:
It's been revealed that their FA Cup semi-final encounter against Manchester United was the pivotal moment in City's season. Belief in the methods of manager Roberto Mancini was fragile, and had they lost that match, it would have dissolved altogether. But they won the game, and the domino effect was averted. From that moment on, tales of dressing room unrest at intense training sessions & fights between players seemed to dissipate, and there's even a chance that the talismanic but nomadic skipper Carlos Tevez may remain at Eastlands next season. The trophy drought of 34 years is finally over and Mancini has won the minds of the players & the hearts of the fans. Now the hard work begins. The powers that be at City are as ruthless as the ones at Chelsea. City must either win another trophy next time or/and make a strong challenge for one of the Premier or Champions League trophies. Otherwise, the Italian may soon become another UK unemployment statistic.
STAR MAN - Vincent Kompany: Prediction - 4th
(4th) - ARSENAL:
While Manchester City avoided the domino effect of their season collapsing, Arsenal failed to follow suit. Earlier in the season I wrote that how their fortunes hinged on the result of the Carling Cup Final. The resultant defeat sent the dominos tumbling, and Arsenal's hopes of success for the season went with it. Even a man as stubborn as Arsene Wenger seems to have finally accepted that his belief in certain members of his squad was misplaced. For the first time in 15 years at the helm, Wenger's position is under threat and there's never been a more important off-season for the Frenchman. If Arsenal are not primed and ready from the first kick of a ball in August, they are in serious danger of being cast adrift from their domestic rivals. And the greatest manager in the history of the club is in danger of exiting The Emirates in ignominy.
STAR MAN - Samir Nasri: Prediction - 2nd
(5th) - TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR:
I felt from the start that Tottenham would struggle to combine a domestic league season with the demands of the Champions League. Yes, they had some fun, and did well to get to the quarter-finals. But they were found out when they took a beating against Real Madrid. Eventually Spurs's season was like a guy who burns the candle at both ends for far too long. They were so intoxicated by the thrill of Europe's top table that they took their eye of the ball in the league. And when they came back to earth with a heavy thud, they realised their chances of finishing in the top four had gone. The season ended on a whimper, and with many speculating that this will be Harry Redknapp's last season in charge, the future is uncertain for the Lilywhites. Don't be surprised to see Redknapp leave midway through next season.
STAR MAN - Luka Modric: Prediction - 6th
(6th) - LIVERPOOL
Talk about a season of two halves. Dire under Roy Hodgson (right man, wrong club). Much improved under Kenny Dalglish (maybe the right man. definitely the right club). Liverpool are a unique sporting entity and Dalglish is attuned to the naunces & rhythms of the place in a way that few can match. But positivity and belief can only take a team so far. Dalglish is no fool and knows that how he works the transfer market will determine how Liverpool fare next season. For them, the hard work is just beginning. But Liverpool will have to be taken seriously again.
STAR MAN - Luis Suarez: Prediction - 5th
(7th) - EVERTON:
This was the season that many Evertonians had feared. A woeful start, lack of goals and injuries to key personnel. While the recovery to reach seventh place was impressive, Everton weren't helped by mediocre seasons for the likes of Phil Jagielka and Mikel Arteta. The fans are now restless as they've heard this song before, and are now turning their guns on owner Bill Kenwright and even manager David Moyes. While I empathise with their frustrations (as I like Everton as a club), the supporters should be careful what they wish for. Few would be able to do as well at Everton as Moyes has, and Kenwright can't give Moyes money to spend that he doesn't have. The fact remains that their geographical location isn't good and that other Scouse team in red cast a looming shadow over Goodison Park.
STAR MAN - Seamus Coleman: Prediction - 7th
(8th) - FULHAM:
Maybe it's just as well that I waited a while before doing this review as Mark Hughes has just quit as manager of Fulham. Which I think is a real pity as he'd looked to have built upon the good foundations left to him by Roy Hodgson. And they even ended up back in the Europa League for next season. Fulham are something of a throwback, from their ground, to their squad. They play the game simply, but effectively. However, they rely heavily on a select few players, and I worry that - similar to West London rivals, Chelsea - they're beginning to get long in the tooth. And with the increasing load of European fixtures, and having to find yet another new manager, this may be as good as things get for Fulham for a good few years.
STAR MAN - Clint Dempsey: Prediction - 11th
(9th) - ASTON VILLA:
A real mixed bag. Initially it seemed that the club would only spend within their means, and look to bring some of their talented youngsters into the first team. But the appointment of Gerard Houllier was a puzzling one. And the second that relegation seemed a possibility, financial prudence went out the window as Darren Bent was prised away from Sunderland at great expense. The ends justified the means as Bent's goals were key in getting Villa to mid-table safety. And in conjunction with the improving Ashley Young & Stewart Downing, it looked as if Villa had a potent attacking triumvirate. Notice I used the past tense. There is little chance of Young & Downing remaining at Villa Park next season, and while it looks that Mark Hughes will replace the now departed Houllier, Villa look as if they will be nothing more than an ordinary & banal presence in the Premier League for the forseeable future.
STAR MAN - Stewart Downing: Prediction - 9th
(10th) - SUNDERLAND:
They were - Lee Cattermole's tackling apart - a real delight in the early stages of the season, with their 3-0 win over Chelsea being the result of the last ten months. But injuries, fatigue and a frankly dreadful attitude from members of the squad caused them to peter out after Christmas. At one point Steve Bruce looked like a potential candidate for the next England manager, but he seems to have an inability to correct the deficiencies in his side when they lose focus. Bruce has spent heavily at Sunderland and must find a way to get the best out of his players consistently if they are to be a regular occurence in the top half of the table.
STAR MAN - Asamoah Gyan: Prediction - 14th
(11th) - WEST BROMWICH ALBION:
I was extremely glad to see West Brom defy the doom-laden prediction I gave them at the start of the season. They were a joy to behold, playing expansively and not backing down from even the best sides in the top flight. But they began to look like the old West Brom, the nice guys who get brushed aside with ease. While Roberto Di Matteo looks a fine manager and was probably unlucky to be sacked, you can't argue with the end result. West Brom looked vulnerable defensively under the Italian and were sliding down the league fast. Chairman Jeremy Peace felt Di Matteo was unable to rectify this and promptly installed Roy Hodgson as head coach. And it worked, as Hodgson applied defensive solidity to their progressive nature when attacking. They look very much like Hodgson's outfit at Fulham, which is something that's been long needed at The Hawthorns. It's taken a while, but they finally look like an established Premier League club. And I for one, couldn't be happier for them.
STAR MAN - Peter Odemwingie: Prediction - 19th
(12th) - NEWCASTLE UNITED:
Stability at Newcastle at last? I'm not so sure. Yet another inexplicable decision from Mike Ashley and Derek Llambias to fire Chris Hughton - who had been doing a fine job - could have caused the squad to crumble, so Alan Pardew deserves kudos for stopping things unravelling at St James Park, especially with such a threadbare squad. But the cost-cutting shows no signs of abating, and unless Pardew is allowed to bolster this side, particularly finding a replacement for the now departed Andy Carroll, then Newcastle may find things tough going next season.
STAR MAN - Cheik Tiote: Prediction - 17th
(13th) - STOKE CITY:
Despite their lacklustre display in the FA Cup Final, this was a good year of consolidation for Stoke. They are reminiscent of the Bolton team of a few years ago when they were managed by Sam Allardyce; tough, uncompromising and awkward opposition. And like that Bolton side, Stoke will venture into Europe next season. Stoke may find it tough competing on both fronts, but mid-table is not be sniffed at. And it's a pity that the press won't let facts get in the way of a good cliche as they play nicer football than given credit for.
STAR MAN - Jermaine Pennant: Prediction - 10th
(14th) - BOLTON WANDERERS:
For much of the last campaign, it looked as if Bolton were going to be one of the stories of the season. The Reebok Stadium had become an increasingly nicer place to watch football, and the team looked to be knocking on the door of European qualification. But the hammering they took from Stoke in the FA Cup semi-final seemed to knock them out of their stride. Bolton may end up becoming a victim of Owen Coyle's proficiency at the helm. The wolves are looming to snatch Gary Cahill away, and if Coyle continues in this vein, he may also depart the club sooner rather than later. Bolton are a credit to the Premier League, but their position in it grows ever more precarious.
STAR MAN - Gary Cahill: Prediction - 15th
(15th) - BLACKBURN ROVERS:
We shouldn't really judge the new owners & manager Steve Kean until next season. But their first impression was anything but impressive. Blackburn are a team that always relied heavily on their team ethic, but the behaviour of those off the pitch has hardly fostered healthy development on it. Even if they did used the Premier League's ugly sisters, you knew where you were with Blackburn and what they stood for as a club. Now, I'm not sure Blackburn are about anything. If Steve Kean can't foster a footballing philosophy at that club, and fast, I'd find your nearest bookie and put a tenner on them to go down next season.
STAR MAN - Paul Robinson: Prediction - 8th
(16th) - WIGAN ATHLETIC:
I don't know how they did it, but Wigan clung on to their Premier League status on the final day. They were stronger in the second-half of the season than the first, but they still have such glaring deficiencies that they rely far too much on their best players to continue to stay in this division. And their nine lives may finally be up. Charles N'Zogbia is certain to leave, and James McCarthy & Maynor Figueroa may also join him. Roberto Martinez must find enough players to make his idea of football work effectively. If not, then Wigan's plucky Premier League adventure may finally come to an end.
STAR MAN - Charles N'Zogbia: Prediction - 18th
(17th) - WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS:
Manager Mick McCarthy tends to be a divisive figure, but I'm a fan. And his achievement in keeping Wolves in the top flight for the second successive season shows that he's good for more than just a media soundbite. But he failed to integrate Stephen Hunt & Steven Fletcher into the side quick enough for them to come close to fulfilling my pre-season prediction. And had those two players not finally got going in the closing stages, Wolves would have gone down. Also, some of their tackling in the early weeks was nothing short of reprehensible. Their attempts to kick Joey Barton out of the game when they played Newcastle was the low moment of the season.
STAR MAN - Kevin Foley: Prediction - 12th
(18th) - BIRMINGHAM CITY:
Seems the "Carling Cup" effect is something of a myth. As rather than give Birmingham a boost in their league season, they dined out on their extraordinary success at Wembley and seemed to forget that there were still three months of the season to go. While injuries to Nikola Zigic, Scott Dann & Obafemi Martins didn't help, the fact is that Birmingham didn't get relegated due to a lack of quality, but simple carelessness.
STAR MAN - Craig Gardner: Prediction - 16th
(19th) - BLACKPOOL:
I predicted they'd go down. I was right. I predicted they'd be an embarrassment to the league. I was wrong. So wrong. When I watched them take a pasting at The Emirates, the warmth and attitude of the club won me over. And forget the tabloid media's collective hard-on for Ian Holloway's press conferences. This isn't Live At The Apollo. Credit Holloway for taking a ragtag bunch of players, playing some wonderfully entertaining football and coming very close to keeping them up. But he put all his eggs in the Charlie Adam basket, and while he's good, he's also a touch overrated. And it was amateur hour whenever they had to defend. I'd like to see Holloway back in the Premier League soon, as he's a conscientious manager, and I think he'll learn from his mistakes.
STAR MAN - Charlie Adam: Prediction - 20th
(20th) - WEST HAM UNITED:
I clearly overestimated Avram Grant's managerial capabilities. And even though I said West Ham had the look of a "circus club" about them, I underestimated just how much of a circus they've become. The ineptness of the coaching was only surpassed by the machinations of the boardroom, especially with three different people all behaving as if they were the one in charge. The administrative side of the club seems to have more hangers-on than 50 Cent. My thoughts on West Ham right now are the same as my thoughts on Newcastle two years ago and Portsmouth last year. Proud club, with a great fanbase. But they're a mess and do no credit to the Premier League. Good riddance and don't come back until you've got your house in order.
STAR MAN - Scott Parker: Prediction - 13th
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