James Lawton: what the Dickens was going on?

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The Independent Football

It was not quite A Tale of Two Cities - Liverpool do, after all, still hold a potentially stupendous hand in Istanbul next week - but Dickens might still have been tempted to brush down an old phrase or two when reviewing the Premiership action which closed so joyfully at The Hawthorns.

For the Baggies certainly it was "the spring of hope, the winter of despair..."; and which Manchester United fan would dispute any conclusion, once the spectre of Malcolm Glazer, finally, had become a sinister reality, that the "season of light" ushered in by young Wayne Rooney had turned into one of darkness? A gloom, you have to suspect, that will require a lot more dispersing than mere victory over Arsenal in the FA Cup final.

Of Chelsea, Dickens might have said, as he did of revolutionary France, "We are all going direct to heaven, we are all going direct the other way." This of course depends on (a) Roman Abramovich's continued devotion to his team and (b) an ongoing serenity in his life not generally associated with that of a modern oligarch.

For the rest of us there is the harmless pleasure of picking our team of the season, and perhaps, if we have the time, two of them.

Mine are the season's best XI - and also one you would most cheerfully support if they were, by some happy circumstance, gathered together under the same banner.

Jamie Carragher, the soul and the ramrod of Liverpool's amazing run to the Champions' League final, unsurprisingly makes both selections, but it must be hoped that he will be undisturbed by being moved out of position in the all-winning unit. It has happened to him before, however.

The Premiership players most likely to give their coach least misgivings: Cech; Carragher, Terry, Carvalho, Heinze; Duff, Lampard, Makelele, Robben; Rooney, Henry. Coach: Jose Mourinho. Assistant coach: David Moyes.

The team earning the least complicated cheers and genuine hope for success: Martyn; Finnan, Carragher, Carvalho, Riise; Duff, Alonso, Scholes, Robben; Rooney, Henry. Coach: Rafael Benitez. Assistant coach: Bryan Robson.

Team one explain themselves: week in, week out (and in the case of Robben, when he was not injured) they were the men most guaranteed to produce the winning performance.

In a season of desperate extremes, Heinze was a consistent comfort for Sir Alex Ferguson. He played with a bite and an ambition which used to be mandatory at Old Trafford. In terms of public attention and media acclaim, Carvalho was hugely outstripped by his English team-mates Lampard and Terry, but he produced immense performances with a wonderfully untheatrical approach, confirming the opinion that he was the outstanding defender in last summer's European Championship. Mourinho, despite his somewhat selective views on cheating, will also no doubt have noted that his compatriot performed by some distance the most valuable foul of the season, when waylaying the Barcelona goalkeeper as Chelsea scored the decisive goal at Stamford Bridge.

Makelele was also phenomenally consistent, not least on the night when Chelsea's Champions' League run ended at Anfield. Henry also played brilliantly when Arsenal surrendered to Bayern Munich and generally remained both exquisite and productive. Rooney was Rooney, the prodigy capable of anything from the sublime to the anarchic.

For the good news team, Nigel Martyn would be a superb foundation. He was a source of vast strength in Everton's extraordinary run to Champions' League qualification, and those who had long admired this fine, affable pro could only rejoice at his escape from the mayhem of Elland Road. Steve Finnan is another of those players who gets through his work in self-effacing fashion, and with Carragher and Riise he was outstanding in the ejection of Chelsea.

Duff and Robben reasserted the joys of thrillingly effective wide play and if there had been any doubt about their value to Chelsea it was swept away when injury claimed them at the most critical moments of the European campaign.

Alonso is a throw-back, a midfielder of wonderful vision and passing technique. His injury on New Year's Day against Chelsea shut down fast-building momentum for Liverpool, and his recent return has been hugely, heart-warmingly significant.

Henry and Rooney appear again because any game without their presence is automatically diminished in the most profound way. This, sadly enough, kept out the splendid, spindly Peter Crouch. His spirit and effectiveness shone through the failed season of Southampton.

We have explored often enough the problems of English football, the greed, in the dressing-room and the boardroom, and the arrival of Glazer at Old Trafford has only compounded the worst fears triggered by the latest declaration of the Premier League that it should be the chief arbiter of all new developments in the national game.

However, as Dickens so eloquently pointed out, even in the worst of times there is usually something to celebrate. In this case, it is the players who earned their money, and who reminded us of what football can still be when it gives itself the chance.