Two rounds into the 2010-2011 season in England, a few themes are beginning to emerge. While some teams are still in pre-season form and Wigan is definitely still on vacation, the rich teams will contend again for the honors in what may become, by the mid-point of the season, two separate competitions with a very large gap in between: one unfolding at the top, with six or seven clubs vying for European places, and one at the bottom, with a number of clubs vying for survival.
Chelsea looks set to be dominant with the return of their mercurial midfielder Michael Essien and a formidable offensive formation and a couple of inspired complementary additions like Yossi Benayoun. The London club correctly let Ballack (Bayer Leverkusen) and Deco (Fluminense) go, two departures that spared Ancelotti the headache of finding playing time for all, but Ricardo Carvalho (Real Madrid) and Joe Cole (Liverpool) are debatable key departures. Still, as already demonstrated, Chelsea has plenty of depth and experience to defend its crown, provided that no key injuries derail the course.
Arsenal should be very close to challenging for the title, at last, with the retention of Cesc Fabregas and a few solid additions like Chamakh and Squillacci to complement van Persie, Arshavin and Vermaelen, respectively. Arsene Wenger is a masterful manager of players and the group he has put together over the past five years or so looks set to blossom into a force. Wenger correctly let go injury and error-prone William Gallas, the defender now set to be the only player to have played for Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham. Arsenal will entertain with its brand of football, but to rise to the top they will also need to demonstrate the physical fortitude required by the long domestic and international competitions.
Arsenal’s ascent looks especially likely as Man United appears less intimidating than in past years and Wayne Rooney is starting the season as out of form as he was in South Africa. Sir Alex has made very few moves in the off-season, content to go to battle with the same group as last year. Veterans Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and van der Saar are off to a good start, but how sustainable is Rooney’s mediocrity and Rio Ferdinand’s absence? Prediction: by New Year Man United will have to acquire at least two or three players to keep up with Arsenal and Chelsea.
Liverpool’s promising pre-season has hit the skids, albeit with a very tough opening schedule against Arsenal and away to Man City. The additions of Roy Hodgson and Joe Cole galvanized the club, but Javier Mascherano’s insistence to be transferred irrespective of the club’s best interests is unreasonable and has proven already disruptive. The Argentine has effectively gone on strike, refusing to play against Man City and forcing the club’s hand to transfer him. Inter and Barcelona are his likely destinations, but there is a big gap in his valuation. So far, Liverpool has handled the matter correctly. Mascherano hates living in England, but he made his bed when he took millions of pounds and extended his generous contract. A deal with Barcelona is likely within the week.
In the meantime, Liverpool’s game looks anemic. Against Arsenal Liverpool retreated to protect a feeble 1-0 lead and, as it always happens, Arsenal’s pressure yielded the equalizer even if it came accidentally. Two points lost at home. Against Man City, Liverpool’s deficiencies were on full display. The midfield area is still the greatest weakness, with very poor possession, ingenuity and concentration. The good news for is that Fernando Torres seems to be moving much better and looks poised for a full recovery. Liverpool is still a work in progress with the dust to settle only after the transfer window closes.
Roberto Mancini’s Man City summer moves made Chelsea’s aberrations from a few years ago seem modest in comparison. Pressure must be high on Mancini to finish no lower than the top three this year, having spent about $150 million on good but not great players – YaYa Toure, Kolarov from Lazio, David Silva from Valencia, Jerome Boateng from Hamburg, Balotelli and James Milner. Man City has Forty-One (41) players on its roster! It has a payroll the size of a small country’s GDP. YaYa Toure, who looked unfit against Liverpool, is making $300,000 per week. This all adds up to a head-scratching reaction from the historically blue collar club’s fan base. Man City did not impress in its victory over Liverpool. It’s best players were Adam Johnson, a great acquisition last year, and James Milner in his debut. The upside for Mancini is that literally ten great players can get injured without a loss of talent. Adebayor, a $50 million recent acquisition, Roque Santa Cruz, the Paraguayan star, and several other stars don’t even suit up any more. Prediction: Man City will not finish in the top three and Mancini will be gone pronto if the club slips below fourth place.
Tottenham Hotspur’s hopes are still in the good hands of Harry Redknapp, the man with the golden touch who brought the club up from the brink of relegation and into the Champions League within a miraculous time frame. More impressively, Redknapp’s Spurs accomplished this with a modest acquisition budget. Staying near the top will prove to be even tougher, as nothing short of a top four finish will be considered acceptable for either Liverpool or Man City. With a long European campaign and a grueling domestic schedule, Redknapp and his players will experience an unprecedented challenge.
Aston Villa is in big trouble. Not just because of the incredible trouncing inflicted by Newcastle United this week-end, but because the club has lost its center of gravity. Martin O’Neil leaving Villa is akin to Arsene Wenger leaving Arsenal – the psychological impact is sensed everywhere. The American owner, Randy Lerner, may learn the hard way that he shot himself in the eye, winning a silly power struggle and in turn losing his greatest asset. Villa is too good and proud a club to sink into crisis, but the performance of last year seems impossible to repeat. USA coach Bob Bradley at Villa? Not wise or respectable.
Everton may become this year’s Aston Villa if David Moyes can work his magic, as he usually does. West Ham started the season with inflated expectations and successive defeats, declaring in effect to its loyal and passionate fans that they will not be spared the usual relegation drama this year after all. Speaking of passionate fans, Newcastle United has reclaimed its proper place in the Premiership and will likely finish at mid-table in its first season back. Fulham and West Brom will do well this year to avoid relegation, while Wigan, Blackpool, Stoke and Sunderland must be considered primary relegation contenders. As the lazy late summer vibe gives way to cooler weather, expect the intensity to rise.