Closest EPL battle in years

From a football fan’s point of view, I think that the notion of an all-dominating ‘Big Four’ team EPL should be shattered sooner than later. Like what has happened to international football at least 7 years ago, there are now no more small teams in the international arena. For example, teams like San Marino, Andorra and Liechtenstein could still be run over like a steam-roller but I think that they have mastered the art of damage limitation. Great teams like Holland could still score 2 or more against them but the final score won’t be an obscene one.

For many years since the Premier League’s inception in 1992, only four teams have won the crown of English football – the Arsenal, Blackburn Rovers, Chelsea and Man Ure. Before Roman Abramovich stepped into the EPL scene back in 2003 with his investment, there were only three teams. Essentially, it has been between the Arsenal and Man Ure but there’s no need to further delve into it. Instead, we look at the current game – Chelsea is leading the table with 48 points, above Man Ure by 1 point though still having played a game less. The Arsenal is three points back with 45. Of course, during moments like this, you’d wonder if the Arsenal have won their games against Everton at home last weekend and that Burnley game which ended 1-1 in the middle of December 2009.

Granted, nobody expects Spu*s to win the EPL this season or Aston Villa for that matter, but the top 4 is suddenly wide open due to Liverpool’s well-documented internal problems. Suddenly, even Manchester City dreams of playing in the glamorous Santiago Bernabeu stadium or the massive Camp Nou arena instead of some far off dinky Bulgarian stadium or against a Transylvania team with 100% playing staff you have never heard of.   

At surface value, we could point at the rich sheiks as a contributing factor – the money that they inject into the game is almost disgraceful as it is rather daunting to expect. Even as we speak, Tony Fernandes is readying a takeover of West Ham and we could well see something interesting happening there.

Of course, Portsmouth fans could well be cursing their own luck with the Al- Faraj involvement where players were not paid their salaries and the team is even banned from signing anyone this January transfer window. A foreign investor is not a sure sign of financial stability although Carson Yeung’s acquisition of Birmingham City should not be as likely to cause consternation within the club’s faithful.

Referring to the Manchester City situation, they have failed to convince Kaka that the team is glamorous enough. Sure, almost all footballers are mercenaries (one club men are almost extinct) and I’m sure that Dutch clubs reminiscing the late 90s are equally critical of the way the English teams raided their league for talent. But like the saying goes – if the horse doesn’t want to drink water, you sure as hell can’t force it to. But City doesn’t have an established support base. Even back in, say 1992, the Arsenal wasn’t particularly well-supported in Malaysia. When Wenger came, he probably broke free from the typical English game and wowed fans with the Gallic flair that he was able to recruit. City would have to stand out from the others, though with the ludicrous amount of money at their disposal, would indicate that positive change could well be afoot.

But just when you thought that the richest clubs could make clean pickings of another club, then comes the news of signing Patrick Vieira from Inter Milan that is almost unbelievable – here is a player who once set the box-to-box midfielder role aflame with his Arsenal tenure and then Wenger thought that his protege is finally aging and quickly agreed for Vieira to move to Juventus for a rather attractive transfer fee of £18 million that most Italian clubs these days would struggle to cough up. But for the richest club in the world to settle for a player who, at 33 is at the twilight of his career as a midfielder and who did not particularly set the Serie A alight as what he has done with the Arsenal doesn’t compute. In short, we have seen Vieira decline sharply as a player and it would be rather peculiar to expect him to perform to pre-Juventus standards.

There are probably a dozen reasons as to why top English teams are suddenly raiding the footballing pensioner’s home for membership drive, but I’d think that the strongest case in point is the fact that there is a dearth of really good talent these days. All the Ronaldinhos and the Bergkamps and Marcelo Salas of the world is not generated at a prodigious rate to satiate the needs of football fans. In the absence of quality, lies mediocrity and while the standard of the EPL is still top-notch, Manchester City could barely find someone of Vieira’s stature but of a younger alternative to quickly turn the season around and catch up with cross-town rivals Man Ure. Of course, there are hardly any footballers these days who could turn a match on its head single-handedly. Even with Wenger turning to Sol Campbell as cover for the Arsenal’s centreback role, you could be thinking that players in their mid-30s do not need to think about retiring anytime soon.

When we played the old Championship Manager in the early 2000s, whenever a player bumps into the mid-30s, his stats would suddenly drop dramatically as if he had the talent sucked out of him from some benign, unseen force. Worse, if the same 30-something year old doesn’t play regularly in the PC game, he may be called Roberto Carlos, but he sure looked like one worthy of the Conference Leagues. For your interest, you can find here a list of players who have featured for the Premier League until at least 38 years old. Writing either Vieira or Campbell off now is therefore not so correct at this point of time, though the decisions to sign them to their respective clubs at this moment is still a quandary.

However, with Wenger’s rueful observation that he would have loved to buy a new striker but could not find one is almost affirmation that the football world is somewhat deprived of talented players who could come in for one season and would be on the road to legendary status. With clubs eager to splash the cash but couldn’t find a suitable candidate to lavish the money on, then there is a problem. Of course, this perception is only skin-deep: some clubs are not prepared to sell mid-way of the season; some players would not favour a move elsewhere particularly during a rich vein of form; some players are easily homesick etc.

Before I wrap up for today, this is just a way to sneak in an Arsenal feature into this article without consciously breaking my rule of reviewing any more Arsenal games.

Two Spaniards of youthful energy gave the Arsenal three points against the well-known thugs of Bolton Wanderers. The final score is 2-0 to the Arsenal. Now, when can we see Sol Campbell enjoying first-team action again?


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