The Big, Bumper 2005/06 Preview Bonanza Spectacular (Extravaganza)

Posted by Paul Tomkins on August 3, 2005, 10:55:19 AM

The league season looms large like a lavish, lion-sized leviathan. Football is back! (Oh, hang on a minute, it never really went away this summer, did it?)

So can the Reds make their first half-decent title challenge since 2002? And what of our rivals 末 how are they shaping up?

It has to be the most eagerly anticipated title race in many years: four teams with real pedigree in the running.


Liverpool's chances

The difference between Liverpool and the other three realistic (and understandably more favoured) title contenders relates to the stage of development. Chelsea are a project nearing completion, while Man United and Arsenal are in some kind of mini-transition, but with the redeeming factor of having long-established managers and continuing systems and patterns of play. Transitions are always easier with stability at the top.

Can Liverpool really be included as challengers, given the disadvantages when compared to the other three? 末 far less money than Chelsea and Manchester United (although the latter's finances may have been harmed by Malcolm Glazer's arrival), and unlike last season's top three, a manager who is still rebuilding a squad he inherited only 13 months ago?

Any team that can win the Champions League, whatever its domestic form at the time, and does so by defeating some of Europe's finest and most expensively assembled sides has to be onto something. If you can win the European Cup, you have to be considered at least outsiders for the Premiership.

The last time Liverpool finished 5th domestically and won the European Cup, they followed it with a league title in 1982. Of course, that was a team replete with legends, which had been dominating English football for a decade. But if a team that good can only finish 5th and yet win the European Cup, it shows that domestic form can be misleading.

Similarly, when Real Madrid finished 5th domestically and won the European Cup in 2000, they won the league title the following season. I don't mention these as 'omens' but as examples of a team building on success on the European stage. The last time Liverpool won a European competition, back in 2001, the same team added 11 points to its league tally the following season, and finished 2nd 末 still the high-water mark since 1991.

Given that there has been a greater injection of quality this summer, and that last season's league table was skewed by so many injuries to key personnel, I am be happy to say that (more freak injuries aside) Rafa will double that 末 and add 22 points to our tally. That would take the Reds to 80 points.

Of course, last season that would have meant 3rd place, 15 points behind the winners. But it would certainly put Liverpool in the mix, and that has to be the main objective. It's another truism that teams who win the title for their first time in years tend to finish 2nd the season before. United did so in 1992; Blackburn did so in 1994; Arsenal finished 3rd in 1997 but with the same points as 2nd; and Chelsea finished 2nd in 2004. To finish 2nd this season would be some achievement in the grand scheme of things.


Respect

People are wrong to suggest last season's cup success was anything other than hard earned, and fully deserved. Arsene Wenger compared Liverpool's success in Europe to Millwall making the 2004 FA Cup final. I have a lot of respect for the Arsenal manager, but that was ignorant and insulting. He was talking out of his Wenger. (Actually, I think I meant to use his Christian name there...).

Millwall played no Premiership sides on the way to Cardiff, and one-legged ties always leave more room for upsets. To beat the likes of Juventus and Chelsea over two legs is to do so with both the home advantage and the away disadvantage, and class eventually tells the more frequently you play someone; there's less chance of getting lucky two games running. Millwall went 3-0 down to a superior side in the final, a game in which they offered no resistance whatsoever. Liverpool played top-quality teams en route to Istanbul, and had a stunning response to going 3-0 down to a superior side in the final.

There are two criteria by which top teams are judged: success at home, and success in Europe. Only Chelsea, with two consecutive Champions League semi-finals to go with 2nd and 1st place domestic finishes, have showed good form in both, and as such escape any inquisitions. Arsenal and Man Utd, meanwhile, have struggled in the Champions League in recent seasons (Arsenal perennially so).

The questions surrounding Liverpool's domestic form need to be answered, of course. But by achieving things beyond the reach of the two teams who were seen, just two seasons ago, as the only two horses in the domestic race, weight has been added to Liverpool's claims to be title challengers 末 even if, ultimately, it's rightly as 4th favourites.

Many of Liverpool's domestic deficiencies will be eradicated by circumstance: no longer is the manager completely new to these shores and trying to make sense of a mixed bag of inherited players while attempting come to terms with the vagaries of English football; there will not be the daily, destabilising speculation surrounding his captain (look at the difference in Gerrard already 末 he's over halfway towards his best-ever tally of 13 goals); his star Spanish striker should start to adapt; and the myriad injuries to key players that led to the fielding of too many substandard replacements will hopefully prove it was an abnormal season.

Unlike Chelsea, who are merely signing more good players to play in areas where good players already exist (Wright-Phillips plays the same role as Robben, Del Horno plays in the same position as Bridge), Bentez has added several players to solve what he saw as problem areas. If Chelsea are able to only improve by small increments, Liverpool should be taking large strides.

Most crucially, Jose Reina is believed to be the kind of 'keeper who both commands his area and can also save the most testing of shots (and not merely, like Dudek, do only the latter). If he has anything like the same impact as Petr Cech, he could be worth ten extra points a season on his own - Dudek was in 2001/02, but lost that airof infallibility soon after.

Bolo Zenden offers experience, skill and consistently good delivery into the box, and has been in English football for four years. Momo Sissoko offers pace and power in the centre of the park, and an all-action style that would free up Gerrard and Alonso. Mark Gonzales is a super-quick goalscoring winger who can play on either flank. And, most crucially, Peter Crouch can hold the ball up, flick it on, score goals, as well as offering the kind of options no one else previously at the club could provide.

The early start to competitive football will be a big advantage, and unlike those teams that enter the InterToto Cup and start well domestically, but as a result of the extra games tend to tire mid-season, Liverpool have a squad to cope with such demands, especially as the manager likes to rotate to keep players fresh. Even before Uefa's decision regarding playing in the qualifying rounds, both Bentez and Ferguson had announced an earlier return to training to try and prepare more intensely.

Despite all the reasons for optimism, there can be no doubting that Liverpool are playing catch-up. The other three contenders each has a headstart, in one way or another. Bentez had the most work to do this summer 末 and thankfully, he's got on and done it 末 and much will depend on how quickly his new project comes together, and the quality of the two further additions he's looking to make at centre-back and right midfield. To be realistic title challengers, he will need all of his new players to settle quickly and his best players to remain fit.

My main worry for Liverpool is that everyone wants to beat the Champions of Europe, with that bizarre logic that if you beat a team once, you are therefore better than them.


Arsenal

The summer of 2005, and there's the shock (if, after an annual saga it can be a described thus) of one of the Premiership's greatest powerhouse midfielders leaving the club he has graced for almost a decade. But no, it's not Steven Gerrard. It's Patrick Vieira.

As with the prospect of Liverpool losing Gerrard, it's as much about the symbolic nature of the loss as anything else. It's clear that Vieira is an ailing force: nothing radical, but his standards have been slipping, and Wenger, guided by his computers, had noticed a year ago that his performances, hampered by niggling injuries, were diminished in terms of ground covered. Nearly 」14m for a player approaching 30, and who appeared to be growing a little stale, is an offer Arsenal understandably struggled to turn down, but it still leaves a rather large chasm.

Losing Robert Pires, who scored 36 goals in the previous two seasons, and who averages a goal every three games from midfield for Arsenal, would be another massive blow if it transpires (although now it seems he's staying for another 12 months), while Denis Bergkamp cannot go on inexorably (or, for that matter, aeroplanes). The uncanny understanding between those three players is something that cannot be replaced.

Keeping Pires and Bergkamp for another 12 months could be crucial. Every great team needs to be rebuilt at some stage, but I'm not sure Wenger sees losing three of his main creative forces within a year as ideal, however talented the up-and-coming players, including Vieira's likely replacement, the wonderful but inexperienced Cesc Fabregas. Antonio Reyes looks superb on his day, but has yet to show the consistency Pires has. Manchester United, so strong in that department only a handful of years ago, have since learned that dream midfields cannot be conjured at will.

There is great depth to the Arsenal squad because of the quality of their youth team, many of whom are nearing maturity, and as a result, Wenger did not need to buy half a dozen players (whereas Bentez clearly did). Wenger can restructure and rebuild partly with what he already has, by promoting the most talented players; Cesc Fabregas, Gael Clichy and Phillipe Senderos have excelled in their first team appearances, although Robin Van Persie's rape charge casts a cloud over his future.

However, there will be a different pressure on these emerging kids if they are expected to replace great players like Vieira, Bergkamp and Pires, rather than merely stand in for them from time to time. That could mean a year or two to fully settle into their roles; and while young players often contribute to title-winning teams, inconsistency plagues those who don't have the experience to work through their dips in form. You only need look at Reyes' radically polarised form of last season. Inconsistency costs titles.

So, little more than 12 months after an undefeated league season, it's hard to tell precisely what shape Arsenal will be in; prior to Vieira leaving, they were my favourites for title. But they now need a period of time to adjust, to bed-in the very talented Alexander Hleb, and react to Chelsea usurping them as the team to beat. An injury to Thierry Henry next season, and you have to wonder if it could be their first finish outside the top two for almost a decade.


Mourinho's Men

As mentioned before, Mourinho's Chelsea are a nearly-completed project, albeit one accelerated by the luxury of megabucks. The Portuguese inherited so many players from Claudio Ranieri that he could prune the excess and still retain a core of quality, and last summer's collection of additions were of a calibre (and cost) above and beyond anything previously seen in English football.

This time out, he's spent big on another full-back, and bought Shaun Wright-Phillips for 」21m. Mourinho can afford another five or six players, and none of them need be cheap; the thing is, he just has no need for them.

There can be no doubting that Chelsea remain the team to beat, but of course that goes with the territory as Champions.

It shows that they've already got themselves to a level where it's hard to improve upon the personnel 末 in terms of individual talent 末 without going out and getting players like Henry, Shevchenko, Ronaldinho, Gerrard (excuse me while I permit myself a smile, especially after Mourinho's latest comments) and Kaka. And these players are not the kind their clubs willingly let go; and also, as proven with Gerrard and Henry, some players like it too much at their present club to ever want to leave, however much extra money they could earn.

It's easy to forget that Chelsea have 'added' a top striker in the form of the returning Hernan Crespo 末 last seen scoring a brace against Liverpool before his team suffered the worst second-half in the history of the European Cup (not that I expect the Anfield crowd to remind him of that, of course). I always thought he failed in England first time around, but ten league goals in 19 games suggests otherwise. So he provides another option up front.

So will Chelsea be able to successfully defend their title? 末 something that appears to be getting ever-harder, with three different winners in the last three years. Last season their advantage was such that they can afford to drop more points this season and still run out comfortable champions.


Manchester Redskins

It's become a clich to say that you write off Man United at your peril.

Well, lately it appears that actually you don't.

My rule of thumb is that one bad season happens now and again; two consecutively, and there are problems. Not necessarily irreversible ones, and United haven't fallen so far as to put them out of the equation, of course. But two third-place finishes in a row must be worrying all at Old Trafford.

Of the 'big four', United are the only team to fail to win one of the major two trophies since 2003. Chelsea and Arsenal both have a league title, and Liverpool the European Cup. United only have the FA Cup in that time 末 the competition they couldn't even be bothered to enter in 2000.

United still possess a lot of talent, and some of the best individuals in the world, but the team doesn't appear to gel in the way it once did. It now seems a collection of ultra-expensive parts, rather than a cohesive unit 末 unlike Chelsea, the blend doesn't seem right. Certainly the midfield doesn't strike fear into teams in the way it used to, and Roy Keane only impressed me last season in a five-man midfield.

Ten or eleven goalkeepers later, Ferguson finally bought one fit to follow in Peter Schmiechel's glove prints; but Edwin van der Saar is still not as good as the imposing Dane. The Dutchman is now 35, and as such probably only has a season or two before the late-30s dip sets in. In midfield, Park Si-Jung seems a very tidy, energetic player, but not yet one whose name on the teamsheet will worry the opposition.

And of course, there's the disruptive factor of Rio Ferdinand, who was happy to receive a small fortune from the club while serving an eight month ban due to his own stupidity, but is now unbelievably (why do I say unbelievably?) holding out for more than 」100,000 a week. He may be more talented than either, but I'm sure United fans are looking wistfully back at the Bruce/Pallister pairing: no nonsense, 100% committed down-to-earth players.

Finally, there's the ruthless 'big guy up top' who never misses an opportunity: Malcolm Glazer. How will his ownership affect the club? Certainly it's already proving divisive amongst fans, and if transfer money isn't forthcoming, United will have lost the ability to buy their way out of trouble.

All dynasties need a catalyst for collapse. With Liverpool it was Hillsborough: Kenny Dalglish losing his drive and suffering from stress after the events of April 15th 1989, while Heysel and the extended ban from Europe contributed, too. The radical changes at the top, and Alex Ferguson's age (no one can go on forever), have to cast doubts upon United, and while I can see them having another good year, and challenging, I'd be very surprised if they won the title.


Conclusion

I am certain that the four teams outlined will finish in the Champions League positions. But the order is less clear.

Beyond these four teams, Newcastle and Spurs look in better shape than before, with Souness and Jol buying some very good players, but the former still doesn't convince me as a manager. Everton, meanwhile, appear to have weakened rather than strengthened over the summer, but as is the case for all teams, there are still a few weeks left to the transfer window to rectify that. If they don't even make the group stages of the Champions League they'll suddenly be on a big downer.

Right 末 let battle commence!

ゥ Paul Tomkins, 2005


Big Bumper Book News Bonanza: To coincide with the printing of a 2nd edition, "Golden Past, Red Future" now has a reduced RRP of 」9.99.

To win an ultra-rare signed 1st edition prototype copy and an AC Milan flag left abandoned in disgust by Italians in the Ataturk Stadium, Click here 末 anyone who buys the book in the next ten days will be entered into a prize draw for the above items.

There will also be a competition to win signed copies in the "Blood Red" column in this Saturday's Liverpool Echo.


Tomkins and Swain invade Ireland

Author and co-author will be visiting Ireland at the end of this month. We were invited over by the Westport Supporters Club as guests of honour for their 10th anniversary bash, on August 26th, where we'll be happy to meet, greet, sign some books and watch the Super Cup.

This is the information on the event:

"After a live screening of the UEFA Super Cup final we will have highlights of the Champions League on large screen followed by disco (including most importantly a late night bar exemption). We would be delighted if any other supporters from around Ireland could come along and make a weekend of it. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the door on the night but we would really appreciate it if you could let us know as soon as possible numbers of people hoping to come (Don't want to send any of you home hungry!)

All monies raised on the night are going to a local branch of Western Care who cater for people with disabilities and special needs. http://www.wyatthotel.com/ - Hotel where we are having celebration - Admission 10"

To attend or for further information, email Peter Flynn at Flynn_Peter@Allergan.com


Reviews

Reviews and customer feedback has been great, and currently all 16 reviews on Amazon are 5 stars. The book received the joint highest mark four stars in the latest FourFourTwo magazine.




Amazon and book stores

Amazon have "mislaid" several boxes of books delivered to their warehouse 12 working days ago. At the time the book was the top selling football title on their site, so understandably we are rather pissed off with them and their shoddy customer services in rectifying the problem. You can still order the book from Amazon, but please note that any delays are down to them and not us. Obviously we'd prefer people order direct from us, or buy from the HJC shop. Further bookshops in Liverpool will be taking copies soon, while Waterstones have sent us a contract to sign, but it might take a while to get the book into their stores.

For London Reds, the book is now being stocked in Sportspages, 94-96 Charing Cross Road.


Libraries

Don't forget you can request that your local library, wherever it is in the UK, order a copy of the book. The ISBN number is 0954958020.

And that's it!





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