Sunday, 27 December 2009

Christmas Week

Christmas week 2009 has been, in my opinion, as effective an advert for the Premier League as you could imagine. We’ve seen plenty of goals, big upsets, high quality football, brilliant fan support, mind games, backroom intrigue and even a high-profile managerial sacking. All of which has meant that we finish the year, with one more game to play, with the annual title race closer and more exciting than it’s been in years. It has also demonstrated, somewhat brutally, exactly what a ruthless place the league has become.

Last weekend, more so than this one, was the sort one could use as an argument to anyone as to why they should watch the Premier League over any other. Manchester United lost their second consecutive league game in a 3-0 defeat to Fulham, having been forced to play midfielders in defence owing to a crippling injury list – the sort of thing that just wouldn’t have happened last season. Portsmouth finally found a result to go with their improving performances as they beat a woeful Liverpool side 2-0 – the side hotly tipped for the title at the start of the season after their stunning 2008-09 run-in in April and May. Arsenal beat Hull 3-0 to keep up their string of impressive results and ensure that they remain worth keeping an eye on despite being largely unfancied and appearing under-strength. Mark Hughes’ Manchester City finally got a 4-3 over Sunderland win when yet another high-scoring draw looked to be on the cards – and their manager was sacked at the final whistle. And, on Sunday, with the stage set for Chelsea to move six points clear at the top, West Ham held them to a creditable draw – ensuring that no one was drawing premature conclusions as to the destination of the Premier League trophy at the halfway stage.

This weekend kicked off with Chelsea being held to yet another draw, this time away to Birmingham City who themselves, impressively, are currently 8th following a run of five consecutive wins. Victories for Manchester United, Arsenal, and Liverpool seem, on paper, to suggest a return to normal service – though with the latter lying in 7th behind Aston Villa, Tottenham and Manchester City, this might finally be the year when we are forced to stop talking about the ‘Big Four’, at least temporarily.

The gap between first and second is now only two points (with both teams playing again this year, and with Chelsea facing the prospect of play Fulham with an untested strike partnership) and between third and eighth is only eight. I’m not suggesting for a moment that we’re in a position yet where any one of these top eight can win the league – but would certainly argue that we’re no closer to knowing who will be entered for the European competitions than we were in August (indeed probably less sure) and that when you look at Serie A (Inter Milan eight points clear, Roma in fourth, 11 points behind) or La Liga (Barcelona two points ahead of Real Madrid, who are in turn seven points clear of third place Sevilla), and without wanting to come across too biased given that it’s the league I happen to watch every week, the English top flight does seem to be where the true unpredictability lies. Nothing is over by this Christmas.

Except one thing, maybe. Where there is the excitement of unpredictability, there is also bound to be a measure of the crushingly, tediously inevitable to spoil the party. Rumours of Mark Hughes’ demise as Manchester City manager after 18 months were in all the tabloids from Friday morning and all over the internet on Saturday morning during the build-up to the afternoon’s fixture. It’s been well reported that Hughes looked disconsolate and distant throughout the game, despite the pulsating action on the field and the odd-goal-in-seven win for his team, and that his wave to the fans at the final whistle had a look of the farewell about it. Sure enough, here was a man who had effectively been replaced weeks before, by another young manager – this one from Italy and with a more high-profile name and CV. While it seems now that Mark Hughes was the only person in the country who didn’t know on Saturday that the Sunderland game was to be his last, the fact that he clearly knew something was up is heartbreaking.

The inevitability of the decision is the worst part. When City’s new owners came in at the beginning of last season, it seemed even then to be only a matter of time before Hughes went. Given £200 million to spend, Hughes survived into this season – but it seems now that only sitting top of the league and with a trail of Big Four scalps behind him would have been enough to save him this indignity (though going unbeaten at home all season and getting wins against Arsenal, Chelsea and narrowingly missing out against Man United was not).

Of course, the points that City have dropped this season were never going to be tolerated by ambitious, impatient owners who clearly feel they had given Hughes everything he needed to shape the club into international superstars. Financially, they did. The one thing they didn’t give him was time. Roberto Mancini did not start out with the name and reputation he has. Neither did Ferguson, or Wenger. Hughes was settled into the job, had bought well (mostly) and the players liked him. Mancini will now start from scratch and, in all likelihood, bring in a slew of players in January and next summer. In replacing Hughes, City’s owners have effectively put themselves back a year in development and written off the money they spent on players this year – and if they get the Champions League place they so crave this season it will only paper over the cracks.

I wish Manchester City all the best and hope that Mancini does use the club’s financial clout in the same way that Mourinho did at Chelsea when he arrived in 2004 – to bring in exciting new talent rather than marquee shirt-shifters, to make the Premier League even more competitive than before and to help the English leagues show the rest of Europe the way in modern football. My fear is that if it doesn’t happen quickly, I could be writing all this again very soon.

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