The Premiership 2001/2: Half-baked

Whoa, we’re halfway there…

Once again they are saying it is the most open title race ever. Five clubs are realistically vying for the Premiership crown after 19 games, and it’s a tight scrap at the bottom too. In this three-part column, we’ll have a look at both, but first lets investigate Tottenham’s first 19 matches.

1. Tottenham Hotspur FC 2001

Same old, same old, but different!

It’s been a rather different Spurs this year, even if the points tally is similar to what it has been for the last few years. Glenn Hoddle, not one of my favourite people, has come in and got the side playing with style, if not always substance.

Mixed Fortunes

His new purchases, Poyet and Sheringham, have shone, but question marks remain over another two. Christian Ziege cost £5m and although he has delivered crosses and goals, his overall contribution must be questioned. Often disappearing from games, and shirking his defensive responsibilities, you have to ask whether all his pre-season rhetoric is worth anything at all. Hoddle showed a lot of faith in him after a nightmare spell with Liverpool, and the least the German could do is pay him back. Personally I feel that Ziege was at his level while at Middlesbrough and I think it’s a shame that we shelled out all the money for him, when it might have been better used elsewhere. It’s early days, but I don’t think Ziege looks any better now than he did on Merseyside.

Dean Richards cost a whopping £8m plus, and a number of eyebrows were raised at the time. He looks to have potential, but thus far has not performed with any consistency, some Spurs fans already declaring him a dud of Ramon Vega proportions (only at more than twice the cash!). That’s probably a bit harsh, but it’s worrying that he is being given the job of helping Ledley King, Tony Gardner and Gary Doherty mature into top defenders, when he himself is being so closely scrutinised.

Some people counter-argue and say that he doesn’t deserve criticism for failing to live up to the fee he cost as he has no say in it. That’s true, and it is not. Nobody twisted Richards arm, and he walked out on Southampton only months after signing a new deal. He himself must know and expect that he will be expected to perform at an eight million pound caliber. If he doesn’t, then he should expect criticism. We all hope that he will settle in and perform a lot better in the future.

That league record

Pld Pts GD
Tottenham 19 27 4

Although it seems to make pleasant reading, seventh place, on the verge of the top six, Spurs should be kicking themselves. Consecutive defeats against relegation fodder Ipswich and Southampton have left them down six points that should have easily been theirs for the taking. The next six available are away to Villa and home to Blackburn. From these two games, one would expect four points but on this form, don’t be surprised to see Tottenham pick up just one point from the home game.

The cups

The next two games are then crucial to the season. An FA Cup run is needed to help keep morale up, and Spurs should be one of the favourites for the competition that they have not won since 1991. However, third round opponents Coventry will prove tough to beat.

The league cup semi-final is against Chelsea over two legs and the omens are not good. Spurs have not beaten Chelsea at all since the 1980s. If Spurs go out at this stage, then their best chance of Europe will have disappeared. The reality then is that the league will become all important, with Spurs unlikely to attract new top players, or keep existing ones (Stevie Carr?) without European football.

Expectations

The target this year was European football, and I don’t think that Hoddle could expect our expectations to be lower. This was a reasonable side he took over, even if they were not playing to their potential under George Graham. For all the style that he has instilled, I would give it up for a bit of substance – ie guaranteed European football next year. I have watched a number of games on TV, and been in attendance at our home win over Middlesbrough. The football is better but overall the performances are not good.

Middlesbrough at home was made hard work (2-1 win) despite our opponents being incredibly poor. Bolton at home was a struggle. A late 3-2 win against a very poor, but well organised side. Other disappointing performances came early on with a stubborn draw at Everton with 9 men, and more recently a 2-1 win at Sunderland. Despite the result at the Stadium of Light, Spurs were again frustrating – giving the ball away, playing with a misleading swagger that is just calling out to be burst (as it was recently).

The gamble

The signing of the aged Poyet and Sheringham was called a gamble, but it isn’t them who have let the side down. Indeed the remarkably average Les Ferdinand has hit 10 goals when most people would not have put him in their first XI ahead of the enigmatic Sergei Rebrov.

So the gamble it turns out was not buying that commanding midfield player, and rather relying on the much improved but still limited Steffen Freund and inconsistent bag of trouble, Darren Anderton. With Simon Davies coming through, we can only hope he reaches his potential in the next few seasons – bit too late to save this one of course.

So now what?

I predicted seventh place for Spurs at the start of the season and I still think they will be there or thereabouts. Battling for this position with the likes of Aston Villa, Charlton, Sunderland, and I believe in the end, the surprise league leaders Newcastle, will be the key of the last month of football this season. Spurs should make it theirs.

2. Battle for the Premiership

Life at the top

Pld Pts GD
Newcastle 19 39 14
Arsenal 19 36 16
Liverpool 18 36 10
Leeds 19 35 12
Man Utd 19 33 17
Chelsea 19 30 14

Good old Bobby Robson. There are few people outside of Teeside who wouldn’t begrudge Newcastle the title. They are three points clear at the half-way point, but history has thought us that they will inevitably fade … whether it be next month or in March.

But the 57,000 Geordie fans will no doubt relish every moment of the glory for now. And I’m sure they will be full of criticism that the board haven’t capitalised on their position when it all falls apart. But the best thing now is for consolidation, not upsetting the successful formula. Remember Tino Asprilla?

Rise and Fall

The big story of course has been the rise and fall of Man United. Laughing last has always been their speciality (not that difficult with all that injury time added on), and it looks like they will again. Four wins on the spin and closing in on the leagues top boys once again. They will take it I believe.

Crying Foul-er

Liverpool and Leeds will provide the most interesting psychological battle. Robbie “Five in Two Games” Fowler would love to push Leeds to the title after being thrown out by his manager at Liverpool, Gerard Houllier. Leeds form has been moderate this season, and after all the money spent, Dave O’Leary needs his team to finish in the Champions League spots (anywhere in the top four will do it seems).

Desperation?

The signing of one of the most loathed players of recent times, Nicolas Anelka, looks like a desperate gamble from Houllier who has seen his team slide in recent weeks. Injury prone Michael Owen can’t score from the treatment table and despite the class of Jari Litmanen and troublesome brawn of Emile Heskey, they’ve been short up front. Anelka arrives on loan until the end of the season and if he performs well and doesn’t moan about the weather, he may get a permanent £15m switch to Merseyside.

To me it looks like a marriage made in hell. The kid is the French Collymore.

The best of London

London duo Chesela and Arsenal have been unpredictable this season. Despite thumping Liverpool and Man United, Chelsea have collapsed against West Ham, Charlton and also experienced an embarrasing European exit to little known Israeli team, Hapoel Tel-Aviv. Their inconsistency is their consistency and I expect them to stay somewhere around fourth or fifth this year.

Arsenal have had their bad days too (home defeats to Charlton and Newcastle, draws with Sunderland, Bolton and Blackburn) but they remain firmly in the title race despite all that. Their English league cup defeat was mildly embarrasing. Even with a reported 7 internationals on the field, they lost 0-4 to Blackburn. Not that Arsene Wenger was too dismayed of course. Arsenal look set to be United’s closest challengers again but their seems to be a defeatist attitude at the core of the club. Stand up Mr Patrick “Stay or Go?” Vieira.

Comparing my predictions – pre-season and now

The only team to drop out of contention is Aston Villa who have not performed as well as Newcastle this year. Elsewhere, I think Liverpool, Leeds and Chelsea will battle for their bridesmaid positions to the top two.

Pos Before Now
1 Man Utd Man Utd
2 Arsenal Arsenal
3 Leeds Liverpool
4 Chelsea Leeds
5 Liverpool Chelsea
6 Aston Villa Newcastle

3. The War for Survival

The relegation scrap

Pld Pts GD
Bolton 19 21 -8
Middlesbrough 18 19 -9
Southampton 18 19 -11
Derby Co 19 16 -21
Ipswich 19 15 -9
Leicester 19 15 -22

The usual weary battle is unfolding at the bottom, and a few surprise teams have been dragged into it. At the very bottom are Leicester, continuing their downward momentum since the departure of Martin O’Neill over a year ago. Dave Bassett has since replaced Peter Taylor, but their fortunes don’t look like getting any better. They should be one of the bottom three come next May. It’s a surprise to see them share the basement with Ipswich Town, last seasons surprise package. While no one expected a repeat of last year, I was sure they would make mid-table respectability. Two wins on the bounce though have given Ipswich a chance of surivival, and I think they will make it.

Coast to Coast

But it’s the geographically opposite Southampton and Middlesbrough which are the most intriguing sides down there. Boro have just brought Steve McClaren on board and despite having the talented Ehiogu and Southgate at the back, they have been unable to score the goals required to drag themselves away from the danger zone. I wouldn’t blame the world class Alan Boksic up front, so fingers are pointing at the ineffectual midfield (not exactly “spearheaded” by ex-Man Utd waif, Jonathan Greening) for creating very little for the forward line. Mind you if you’ve only had to aim at the likes of Noel Whelan, Joe Desire Job and Hamilton Ricard for 18 months, you’d probably feel less than motivated as well.

On the south coast are the wonderful Southampton. That’s right, the team who refuse to be pushed around by North London yobbos. What a pleasant and mature man Chairman Rupert Lowe is. After being rebuffed by everyone he approached, he eventually gave the managers job to Stuart Gray, even though he was about as qualified for the job as I am. Needless to say, eight weeks into the season, Gray was gone. Gordon Strachan has come on board and brought about a mild recovery, but if nothing else the team is now playing with more confidence and style. They probably will stay up, just about, but only because of the existence of Leicester and these two…

From top to bottom

Poor old Bolton. Topping the Premiership was a great achievement earlier this season but it’s all started falling apart for them. Just one win in the last twelve games have seen them slide mercilessly down the table, and they are only just over half way from the 40 points safety net. A decision to play a reserve side which was routed 6-0 in the Worthington Cup quarter-final at Spurs seems to say it all – manager Sam Allardyce is worried. They look doomed.

Derby County are not much better off…perhaps only the presence of the exceptional Fabrizio Ravanelli their only hope of survival. Colin Todd has splashed some cash on some unknowns and also brought in the occasional talents of Benito Carbone. But so far the results are not coming and recent thrashings at Old Trafford and Upton Park suggest that Derby will be lucky to get another half dozen wins this season.

Comparing my predictions – pre-season and now

Looks like Ravanelli will not be enough to stop Derby going down, and Leicester’s pathetic form looks set to send them down too. Staying up at their expense will be the Strachan-revitalised Southampton and the wily Graeme Souness-led Blackburn. Bolton fans? Sorry, it’s all going wrong.

Pos Before Now
15 Leicester Everton
16 West Ham Ipswich
17 Everton Blackburn
18 Southampton Leicester
19 Blackburn Derby
20 Bolton Bolton

And Finally…

It’s been a surreal year in some ways. Obviously the September 11th events will live in my mind until my last breath, as unbelievable as they still seem in some ways. Another series of events that seem unbelievable is the soap-opera that unfolded at Leeds United this year.

Woodgate and Bowyer walked away from court with only their reputations battered, while their victim still carries the physical scars from the brutal act that was perpetrated on him. Bowyer of course escaped conviction and in the eyes of the law is innocent, if not in the eyes of anyone else. Woodgate, looking geniuinely perturbed and distraught by what he got caught up in, landed himself community service as well as a big fine.

But there is no doubt that they got away lightly and many people will be disturbed to hear that both have been ‘rewarded’ with new contracts and large pay rises.

Leeds conduct through it all has been less than exemplary. In any other industry, these players would have been sacked, even allowing for Bowyer being cleared of all charges. But the bottom line is that they are worth a combined £20m or so to the club, and there is no way their sacking would have been allowed in this day and age.

Now Leeds must battle through a messy civil case. No doubt it will cause little concern to Lee Bowyer who seems to be one of the most unpleasant people ever to step on a football field.

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