Premier League Review 2008/9 [Half-Time Report]

Back in August I predicted how the Premier League might pan out. It’s time now to look back, laugh at or laud my predictions. How exciting…

1st Manchester United
Currently:
3rd
What I said: Man U retaining is not a banker … Rooney must be used effectively … Ronaldo is key man …

What has happened: Interestingly United have suffered key defeats to their rivals, Liverpool and Arsenal. While drawing one third of the other games they’ve played has not helped, it should be noted that most of them were away to decent sides with the only home points dropped at home to Newcastle. United are seven points behind the leaders Liverpool but have two games in hand. They also have 12 games remaining at home with the rest of the top four to visit them yet.

Re-assess? The fixture list in the second half of the season is kinder to United than the first half and I expect Dimitar Berbatov to find some consistent form – something he did in both seasons at Spurs once the winter was in full swing. United should still retain.

2nd Liverpool
Currently:
1st
What I said: Chelsea and Arsenal upheavel leaves way open for Liverpool … working out how to play Keane and Torres together is important … problem on the wings …

What has happened: Although anecdotal, a large number of Liverpool fans are not hugely impressed with their own team this year in spite of their lofty league position. Few expect it to last. They were fortunate to pick up points against Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Wigan, and were dire against Stoke, West Ham, Fulham and Hull. But they have lost just once in the league (at Tottenham despite hammering them for seventy minutes) and once in the cup (erm, against Tottenham – this time the subject of a beating).

Re-assess? Like most of the rest of the world I’d be surprised to see Liverpool keep the top spot. Benitez has given up the rotation that hampered previous campaigns but it is his poor recruitment that continues to hamstring the side. Dossena, Ngog, Degen and, the most high-profile, Robbie Keane have not impressed. The expensive Albert Riera is better than expected but still rather ordinary in the grand scheme of things. Torres has hardly played this year and they rely a lot on Gerrard and, to a lesser extent, the revitalised Xabi Alonso to create with Babel and Kuyt not delivering on the wings. Second would be a good result for Liverpool and I think it’s the minimum if Benitez wants to keep his job.

3rd Chelsea
Currently:
2nd
What I said: Deco and Bosingwa are good signings but Deco probably past his best … Lampard and Drogba unsettled and Chelsea need their goals … needs first choice central defenders to stay fit … Essien key in central midfield …

What has happened: Take Essien and Ricardo Carvalho out of the Chelsea side and they struggle. It started off so well (4-0 v Portsmouth) but they have been awful in the big games (v United, Liverpool and Arsenal where they have just 1 point from 3 home fixtures) and not been convincing elsewhere (recent home draws with West Ham and Newcastle). Stories of senior players being unimpressed by Mr Scolari’s training methods and tactics have undermined their progress as well.

Re-assess? I think this one is right – I think Chelsea will slip behind Liverpool and United given the continuing upheavel at the club. I don’t know if Big Phil – a hugely respected manager – is right for the job but he has suffered by losing two of his best players to injury. He also failed to replace Claude Makelele and there must be disappointment that none of the youth players that Abramovich has invested a lot of money in during the last four seasons have made a first-team breakthrough.

4th Arsenal
Currently:
5th
What I said: Arsenal considerably weaker than last season … Song, Djourou, Denilson and Diaby may not be classy enough for first team … Almunia not solid-enough goalkeeper … Rosicky and van Persie need to stay fit…

What has happened: I didn’t expect Arsenal to be as poor as they are this season but largely I’ve been proven right that the four aforementioned names are just not good enough for the first team. I don’t think they’d be regular starters if Arsene hadn’t seen major stars depart in the last two seasons.

Re-assess? I still think they will take fourth place in spite of some stiff competition from a Villa side I don’t entirely trust yet. I think it would take mid-table flirtation for the Arsenal board to consider the manager’s position but Wenger needs to start thinking about winning something and not “building” for a future he may not get a chance to oversee.

5th Portsmouth
Currently:
11th
What I said: Light in the middle of the park … defence is slowing up and questionable … goals from Crouch and Defoe crucial with 30 between them the minimum.

What has happened: It wasn’t going all that well (consecutive 0-4 and 0-6 thrashings in the league to Chelsea and Man City) before ‘Arry slung ‘is ‘ook over to White Hart Lane. Losing Muntari was a blow but HR saw the writing on the wall with the owners looking to sell and prize assets including Defoe, Lassana Diarra, Glen Johnson and Nico Kranjcar all effectively on the market. Since Tony Adams replaced him results have not been good and there are fears that Portsmouth, in what looks set to be a very tight battle against relegation, may enter freefall under an inexperienced manager.

Re-assess? Absolutely. They are nine points off fifth and only three off relegation despite of being in the middle of the table. I think Portsmouth could still finish in the top half if they manage to hang on to their stars but if they lose a couple of big names it’s going to be a battle.

6th Tottenham
Currently:
16th
What I said: Dos Santos looks a great catch … Dimitar Berbatov is on his way … Darren Bent resurgence… Woogate and King fitness central to success.

What has happened: Two points from the first eight games was incredibly poor, it goes without saying. Out went Ramos and within a few days the aforementioned ‘Arry Redknapp was in place at White Hart Lane. They picked up unlikely points at Arsenal and home to Liverpool, rattled off good away wins at Man City and West Ham but otherwise they looked unconvincing in the league. They currently thank goal difference for keeping them out of the relegation zone but are only one win away from mid-table.

Re-assess? It’s unlikely Spurs will claim a European place through the league given how off-form the team is. I was never a fan of David Bentely but he looks worse than I imagined he would. Ramon Pavlyuchenko is a good player but has struggled with fitness and may never get a chance to settle. Darren Bent’s early season form has deserted him, the midfield (with the exception of Aaron Lennon) are inconsistent with Jermaine Jenas having yet another mediocre season. Spurs need to bring in a creative player and a target man – I said Peter Crouch in the summer and I would much prefer him now to the return of Defoe.

7th Aston Villa
Currently:
4th
What I said: Defence strengthened by Young, Shorey, Davies and Friedel … forward line lacking.

What has happened: Lots of deserved plaudits for Villa who were outstanding in the 2-2 draw with Arsenal (they should have put the game beyond doubt by half time and yet had to come from two goals down) and also have been getting results in spite of some poor performances (recently at West Ham and Hull). Gabriel Agbonlahor and Ashely Young have continued their development although a struggling forward line is missing the injured John Carew. In midfield they have seen a bright start from new signing Steve Sidwell and much improved form from Stillian Petrov.

Re-assess? It’s not implausible that Villa might slip out of the top five (personally I don’t think they will get fourth unless they stregthen this month and Arsenal are weakened further). Could Everton take fifth place from them? Possibly. But there’s not much to fear from what is behind them.

8th Everton
Currently:
6th
What I said: Squad looks threadbare … need another striker and some bodies in midfield.

What has happened: The indifferent early-season form is behind them with three wins in the last five games and their only defeat a barely-deserved one to Aston Villa in the dying seconds. Late captures of Louis Saha (out injured, unsurprisingly) and Maurouane Fellaini (one of their stars) were badly needed. But with their recent great run built on the goals and artistry of midfielders Tim Cahill and Mikel Arteta as well as input from defender Joleon Lescott, they desperately need to bring in a couple of strikers with Saha and Yakubu injured.

Re-assess? I keep thinking Moyes has done as much as he can with Everton and, truly, he probably has. I doubt they will challenge the top four with such a thin squad but top eight is theirs to lose and fifth is not out of the question at all.

9th Sunderland
Currently:
14th
What I said: Good business in the summer … Diouf and Chimbonda need to apply themselves … midfield of Richardson/Tainio/Reid/Malbranque very good indeed.

What has happened: Wow. Roy Keane walks and the unknown Ricky Sbragia fought off about 30 serious applications for the job to net himself an 18 month contract. Sbragia took his side to Old Trafford and lost in the 92nd minute, then scored eight in two thrashings of West Brom and Hull – both very flattering results. They should have been beaten at home by Sunderland and were well-beaten by Everton … let’s just say this Sbragia move does not look very inspired. However Malbranque and, to a lesser extent, Djibril Cisse, have been good signings.

Re-assess? Yeah, I got to say, this has Les Reed/Charlton written all over it. I saw the Hull game where Sunderland ran out 4-1 winners and they barely deserved a point out of it. A friend who was at the 4-0 win over West Brom
said they were very, very ordinary. I think Sunderland will struggle and perhaps by March Sbragia will be relieved of his duties. Niall Quinn may have to put on his managerial disco pants again. I think the fans have every reason to be disappointed by the board’s actions.

10th Wigan
Currently:
9th
What I said: Cattermole is an honest defensive midfielder … Bruce can get the best out of what he has … Valencia, Koumas and Scharner are all talents.

What has happened: It’s been “so far so good” for Bruce and Wigan. They have won four of the last six with the only defeat being a narrow one to Arsenal. I don’t think there’s any question of a relegation battle for the club with 25 points on the board already.

Re-assess? No, I think this one is on target. Keeping Valencia, Heskey and the surprise hit of the year, Amr Zaki, is crucial. He did well to keep his squad together in the summer. He just needs to get to the summer again to ensure another season in the top flight for Wigan.

11th Manchester City
Currently:
15th
What I said: Squad needs more improvement … key players inconsistent last year … legal furore surrounding owner Thaksin Shinawatra is unsettling … Jo needs to click … needs to keep Corluka.

What has happened: Clearly I wrote my preview before the club were purchased by the oil merchants and subsequently recruited Robinho (as well as Pablo Zabaleta). They have gone from the sublime (6-0 v Portsmouth, 3-0 v Arsenal, 5-1 v Hull) to the ridiculous (meek away defeats to Middlesbrough, Bolton and West Brom) and Mark Hughes finds himself under tremendous pressure. No matter how overpriced the luxurious Robinho is, he has done well at times with 11 league goals. While Zabaleta has impressed, Stephen Ireland has been their outstanding player. Elano is out of favour and Jo is struggling.

Re-assess? I think mid-table is fair but with the money at their disposal Man City could do anything at this point. I think Hughes may now make it to the end of the season as long as they don’t find themselves in the bottom three in a month’s time. Their biggest problem is in defence where Micah Richards and Richard Dunne just aren’t performing. Richards fall from grace is swift and painful.

12th Middlesbrough
Currently:
17th
What I said: The squad doesn’t stand up to scrutiny and the fans probably don’t expect much … Tuncay and Alvez may give salvation.

What has happened: They started so well, embarrassing Juande Ramos’ Tottenham in the season opener and only minutes away from deservedly beating Liverpool at Anfield. But their erratic form has seen them lose poorly at home to West Brom, Chelsea, Bolton and Everton while recording occasionally eye-opening results against Arsenal and Aston Villa. It’s kind of what I expected as honest-but-limited players will not perform consistently. They are also struggling to get anything out of Alvez (3 goals in 15 starts) although Mido has 4 goals in just 5 starts.

Re-assess? Middlesbrough are just completely unpredictable and could as easily finish 9th as 17th. I don’t think they will go down but they are showing relegation dogfight form, if you know what I mean. Losing Stewart Downing will hurt them although the man who scored 9 goals last season as an ever-present has scored none this season in 19 games. Perhaps the £15m they would expect to recoup could be used to buy some midfield goals.

13th Fulham
Currently:
8th
What I said: Hodgson bought very well … Zamora and Johnson could be successful front pair … Danny Murphy, Jimmy Bullard and Zoltan Gera are an exciting attacking unit.

What has happened: Fulham have not lost since the 1st November and fully deserve their top half placing. Relegation is not going to happen this year with Jimmy Bullard playing some great stuff, Danny Murphy playing his best football in years and, despite only 5 league goals between them, Zamora and Johnson giving opposition defences lots of problems. Clint Dempsey, Murphy and Bullard have bagged seven goals between them and it’s a healthy squad who score their limited number of goals from all over the pitch.

Re-assess? They don’t score many goals but with Brede Hangeland absolutely outstanding in defence alongside John Pantsil, Paul Konchesky and Aaron Hughes, it’s a solid unit that’s watched-over by the on-form Mark Schwarzer. No problems here this year.

14th Newcastle
Currently:
12th
What I said: Hard to know what to expect of Gutierrez … Guthrie is bustling … need a good center back … Keegan may not last the distance this year.

What has happened: I said they needed a good center back and they went and bought Fabrizio Coloccini for £10m. He has all the makings of a cult-figure: mad hair, mad as a brush and drive you mad with his positioning and tackling. But of course the main news is that Kevin Keegan was not long for the world and he was replaced by Joe Kinnear. Yes, the old Wimbledon guy. A lot has been written about it so I won’t bore you but let’s just say it hasn’t been the unmitigated disaster it should have been.

Re-assess? Newcastle still aren’t very good with that solid starting XI I talked about looking shaky. Butt, Duff and Owen are just not as good as they once were and although he started well Jonas Gutierrez is showing the strain of playing in a struggling team. It’s a big transfer window for a club with little money but I think there are worse clubs and lower mid-table is a reasonable expectation.

15th Blackburn
Currently:
19th
What I said: It might be too much, too soon for Ince … re-birth of Benni McCarthy important.

What has happened: My fears were not ill-founded. Paul Ince could not get his head around the Premier League and his transfer policy (Fowler, Andrews) underlined this. It started quite well in the first three games but then successive tonkings to West Ham and Arsenal highlighted that this team were ill-prepared. Now Sam Allardyce is in and they have 5 points from 9 (should have been 7 only for Jason Roberts incredible miss away to Sunderland in the dying seconds).

Re-assess? I doubt we will see Blackburn go down now that Allardyce is in place. I don’t like the man or apologise for his demeanour, but he has a track record that indicates he will pull the club away from the relegation zone and solidify them in mid-table over the coming seasons. This league position seems reasonable.

16th Bolton
Currently:
10th
What I said: Megson has not exactly convinced the crowd yet … Elmander money is absurd but needs 10-15 goals from him with Davies and Nolan in support … Grétar Steinsson is fine right-back.

What has happened: I actually thought Megson was doomed early on in the season but he somehow has picked up a solid number of points already this season. If they repeat the trick for the second half then they will sit comfortably outside the relegation zone when the season is over. Elmander and Davies have 5 each but they are being upstaged by Matthew Taylor who has matched that total.

Re-assess? Four defeats in their last five games indicate that the team are lacking quality and with their next league game away to Arsenal I don’t expect things will improve. Free fall is possible and I still think it’s an outside chance.

17th Hull
Currently:
7th
What I said: Showing lot of faith in Phil Brown and Hull … Geovanni, Mendy, Boateng additions are key … goals look unlikely.

What has happened: Although they flirted with the top four they are now struggling with just one win in their last eleven games. Their early-season form (wins over Arsenal and Tottenham included) has ensured that they are not far from survival. But there have been some right-thrashings (0-5 to Wigan, 1-4 to Sunderland, 1-5 to Man City) that are undoubtedly worrying Brown. They have scored goals but Geovanni’s half-dozen were all from earlier in the season and Marlon King has not set the league on fire as their main man.

Re-assess? I would re-assess upwards in that Hull are likely to have more points than I imagined they would but with the league so tight a position just outside the relegation zone might not be that unlikely inspite of the points tally. They’ve done really well but it could be that Phil Brown might be sensible to keep them up and then look for another job as he is unlikely to repeat the trick next year.

18th West Ham
Currently:
13th
What I said: Only won five games in second half of 2008 … squad is poor beyond starting XI … Curbishley does not fill anyone with confidence … the underperforming team of the season will be West Ham.

What has happened: Curbs went, Zola came in, things didn’t really get better. West Ham have been poor (not the only underperforming team around) and until recent back-to-back wins over Stoke and Portsmouth (thoroughly undeserved in the case of the latter) they had just one win in twelve games.

Re-assess? I don’t expect them to get relegated since they have enough good players to get them above 40 points. But losing Craig Bellamy might slow them down and with Dean Ashton out (again) the pressure is on Carlton Cole to pull them through. Decent player but it’s still hard to see him being up to the task.

19th West Brom
Currently:
20th
What I said: I rate their manager Tony Mowbray … with some luck they could stay up … needs surprisingly-good seasons from strikers Bednar, Miller and Moore.

What has happened: One win in twelve means that they find themselves bottom of the table. But having said that the team have been praised for their football and a couple of wins will see them vying for mid-table. As feared, there are few goals – just 14 in 19 games. Bednar has 6 in 12 starts which is very respectable but with Miller (3 in 11) out for the rest of the season they will require another striker – and one with a Premier League or top-flight goal scoring track record.

Re-assess? I expect that West Brom will battle bravely but ultimately go down this season. They just don’t have the quality to stay up and very little in reserve if they need to rotate. Mowbray has done a great job at the club but as noted in my original article, they are a yo-yo club and don’t seem to have found the nous yet that will enable them to “do a Wigan” and maintain their top flight status against the odds.

20th Stoke
Currently:
18th
What I said: Route one tactics and who would blame them … probably won’t survive but failure won’t be of Derby proportions.

What has happened: Since their unlikely win over Arsenal they have just one win in nine but with four draws in there too it’s not a complete loss. Ricardo Fuller has six goals but has also slapped his own captain Andy Griffin to net himself a ban. Dave Kitson has failed to score and goals are dotted around in an unconvincing manner elsewhere. Rory Delap’s long throw has caused chaos and great entertainment for the neutral, causing mature international goalkeepers to flap in a panic as the ball lands in the six yard box.

Re-assess? Stoke have been fun in spite of the physical approach to the game. Sidibé has battled manfully but will not be a sufficient goalscorer alongside Fuller to keep Stoke up. Olofinjana, Faye (x2), Delap and Sorenson have all done their bit but it will take a serious run of wins to ensure Stoke’s survival given the high threshold that looks likey to be required this season.

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