Premier League: It's London taking on Manchester, with only one winner
Chelsea do not look any stronger but City could be formidable and United may already have made the signing of the summer
Sunday 08 August 2010
Welcome to the season in which the phrase "home-grown" will be found in newspaper sports sections as often as in the gardening pages. The Premier League's new rule, under which clubs can name a squad of no more than 25 players, of whom at least eight must have been developed in England or Wales, will come into force once the current transfer window closes on 31 August.
If the timing is appropriate following England's wretched efforts at the World Cup, the effect is likely to be greater in the long term than in the campaign beginning next Saturday, mainly because "home-grown" does not equate to "English"; we are talking Desiree potatoes as much as King Edwards, Gaël Clichy as well as Ashley Cole.
The term covers all players over the age of 21 on 1 January this year who were registered in England or Wales for three years before that. So of the seven Arsenal players who qualify, not a single one is available to Fabio Capello; Theo Walcott and Kieran Gibbs are too young to count and players like Cesc Fabregas and Nicklas Bendtner were all lured to this country almost before they were out of short trousers.
Nor has it stopped Arsène Wenger, Chelsea's Carlo Ancelotti or Roberto Mancini of Manchester City importing more foreigners this summer. Chelsea allowed Joe Cole to leave and replaced him with Yossi Benayoun even though that left them with only five qualified home-grown players. They must either make up the total to eight by using under-21s, or restrict their Premier League squad to 22, which would represent a nonsensical self-inflicted handicap.
The contrasting problem for City is reducing their squad to a mere 25 players, which means either shifting half a dozen out in the next couple of weeks or having the most extravagantly paid team in the history of the Premier Reserve League.
Positive ramifications, on the other hand, can be discerned at Manchester United and Liverpool, where signings such as those of Fulham's Chris Smalling and Charlton's Jonjo Shelvey respectively, have been made with one eye on the future implications of the new rules.
However these permutations work out over the next eight months, it seems certain that the season's principal honours will again be contested by London and Manchester, while Merseyside and the Midlands are restricted to a pursuit of the minor baubles. For everyone outside last season's top eight – in other words 60 per cent of the clubs – the priority will once again be to accumulate sufficient points to avoid relegation.
This confirms the trend established last season whereby the top of the table became more competitive while the rump grew weaker. The 86 points that earned Chelsea the title was the lowest total to do so for seven years and the top four totalled only 316 points between them, as opposed to 331 the year before. Yet half a dozen teams down at the bottom failed to secure more than one point per game and sides as moderate as Birmingham and Blackburn were able to finish in the top half; Birmingham managing no more than one goal per game and they failed to beat anybody in that top eight even once.
The old chestnut about any team beating any other has increasingly come to resemble so much romantic nonsense, with victories like Burnley's against Manchester United early on last season and Wigan's over Chelsea all the more cherished but very much the exception.
With those two unexpected defeats cancelling each other out, the key to the title became the direct head-to-heads between the principal contenders, so that Chelsea's outstanding record in beating United, Arsenal and Liverpool twice each won the day.
Yet lapses against the second tier of clubs – Tottenham, Manchester City, Aston Villa and Everton – showed they were eminently beatable and with three weeks of potential transfer deals to be done, they do not look especially stronger.
Goalkeeping will be a concern until Petr Cech is fit again; Jose Mourinho could yet lure one of his favourites, Ricardo Carvalho, to Real Madrid; and there are numerous candidates who need to disprove the theory that disappointment at a World Cup carries over into the domestic season.
Conversely, success in the summer can have a more positive effect, which is one reason Sir Alex Ferguson is so excited about his principal new signing, the Mexican striker Javier Hernandez. Ferguson can point to the fact – and has done, many times – that one draw against Chelsea instead of two mildly controversial defeats by the odd goal would have earned United an unprecedented fourth successive title. The margins could easily be just as close again.
Arsenal, who were still very much in contention until Fabregas was injured with five games to go, need to have the allegedly home-grown midfielder committed and in form for the whole season. They deserve to benefit from better fortune overall with injuries and have a potentially useful new option in Marouane Chamakh, the tall striker from Bordeaux.
Then there is City, never quite convincing enough for long enough spells last time. There was an inevitable bedding-in process for the many new players – seven successive draws at one point costing Mark Hughes his job – and one poor performance in the penultimate game allowed Spurs to take the Champions' League place that had seemed destined for them.
Rather unwisely, the inevitable new intake contains virtually no experience of English football, which risks repeating last season's problems. If Mancini can bind them all together more quickly than Hughes did, they could still be formidable.
Under the new restrictions, size of squad will be almost universal, making the weight of experience in it all the more important. City should have enough of that to prevent a long run in the Europa League affecting their domestic form in the manner that Fulham suffered. Everton were boosted yesterday by Mikel Arteta signing a new five-year deal. Aston Villa benefited from being knocked out of the Europa League early on last year. They will probably be without James Milner however far they progress this season. Roy Hodgson and Liverpool's first task will be to avoid becoming carried away by all the talk of Chinese millions. Spurs, surprisingly quiet in the market thus far for a Harry Redknapp club, are facing a huge challenge in the Champions' League assuming they beat the Young Boys.
With even Newcastle's usual bravado muted for once, the three promoted clubs would settle for nothing more than survival and if West Ham can hope to improve marginally on a poor effort last time, Wigan, Wolves and Bolton offer little reason to believe in a higher placing. All three will have to dig deep.
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