2008 English (and European) Football Review

Written 14 May 2008.

Did you watch 141 EPL games this season? I did. I also watched 14 FA Cup matches, 9 Champions League matches, 7 League Cup matches and 4 UEFA Cup matches. Throw in the Community Shield and 3 promotion playoffs and that’s 179 games of competitive football. If you, or someone you know, watched more than this and can write a poetic, informative and humorous review of this season then I’d like to kill that person.

Hello Football Fans,

Welcome to a comprehensive and overly opinionated insight into my ego and the world of English football. And Welsh football. Last Sunday, Manchester United wrapped up its tenth Premier League title and it 17 top flight title overall. Despite this travesty, I will fulfil the requests of a few of my most ardent fans by reviewing what has been an enthralling, fascinating, topsy-turvy, sleep depriving season.

Of course, the season is not yet over. We still have the FA Cup, UEFA Cup and Champions League Finals. Also, there are still the promotion playoffs to be sorted. Then, it’s a three-week break before Euro2008 and then a six-week holiday in the Caribbean before it all starts again.

Let’s look forward before looking back…

UEFA Cup Final

Rangers FC vs Zenit St Petersburg (City of Manchester Stadium)

At the end of Ramgers semifinal win on penalties, a shoot-out that was needed to separate the clubs after 210 goalless minutes, commentator Robbie Mustoe declared “Their gameplan has succeeded”.

They don’t deserve to win, in fact, Zenit deserve to win 5-0 after crushing Bayern Munich in their semi. I hope Rangers don’t win but I fear they could stifle Zenit’s attack enough to take this to spot kicks as well. Rest assured Scotch Catholics, that’s the only way they’ll do it.

Suggested bet: Rangers FC to win on Penalties at $9.00 (TAB Sportsbet NSW)

(CP: Zenit St Petersburg won 2-0.)

FA Cup Final

Cardiff City vs Portsmouth (Wembley Stadium)

Portsmouth is in woeful form at the moment, losing its last four matches and without a win since knocking over West Brom in the semifinal. Cardiff is flying high in the Championship, emerging from a relegation battle to only narrowly miss out on the promotion play-offs. If there were any justice in the world Barnsley would be playing in their stead, having knocked out Liverpool and Chelsea in successive fixtures before bottling it against the Bluebirds in the semifinal. A full strength Pompey (minus the cup-tied Defoe) should be too strong here but with David James struggling with niggling injuries and Sunny Campbell destined to move to Sol Spain (noticed what I did there?), this is the best chance of lower league victory our lives may coincide with. The last team to lift the trophy from the depths was West Ham United in 1980. They beat Arsenal that day: surely knocking over Portsmouth is an easier task. Based on League finishes, this game represents 8 vs 32 in English football rankings. That’s 24 places, but the difference between and 8 and 32 is much less than the difference between 4 and 5.

Suggested bet: Cardiff City to lift the FA Cup at $3.55 (TAB Sportsbet NSW)

(CP: Portsmouth lifted the cup after a 1-0 win.)

UEFA Champions League Final

Chelsea FC vs Manchester United FC (Luzhniki Stadium)

The last time they met Chelsea secured a deserved 2-1 win and they’ll be out to get some revenge for not being able to haul in the league champions. Sir Alex Ferguson is known for his psychopathic desire to win and no-doubt he’ll be telling the players that if they lose they’ll be left in Moscow to rot in a gulag. Something tells me Andriy Schevchenko is going to feature in this game, if not from the start, then at least from the bench. There would something vaguely ironic about him scoring the winning goal for Avram Grant’s Chelsea when it was his purchase that led to Jose Mourinho walking out on the club. There’s a lot to consider in this game and, considering that I don’t want either team to win, let’s hope my bank balance is the big winner on the night.

Suggested bet: Didier Drogba to score first/Manchester United to lift trophy. (No exotic markets are open on this match, but I would guess that you’d be able to get about $30 for that bet, and that’s what you need. Otherwise, take both options separately.)

(CP: Cristiano Ronaldo scored first in a 1-1 draw, with Manchester United lifting the trophy after penalties.)

Premiership Promotion Playoff Final

Bristol City vs Hull City or Watford (Wembley Stadium)

At the time of writing Hull City were two goals up after the first leg and look set to meet Bristol City in the most lucrative individual sporting contest in the world. Some estimates claim that winning this game is worth AU$60million. Apparently Jessica Fletcher has been called in to find out what Derby did with that money last year. I have grave fears for which team wins this game, Derby’s 11 point record low is already in jeopardy…

Suggested Bet: The winner of this game to finish 20th in the 2008-09 EPL (No market is open yet, but if you can find 1-2 on for this than I’d rush in with the kids’ college fund.)

(CP: Hull City secured promotion with a 1-0 win, and finished 17th in the 2008-09 Premier League season.)

And now we reminisce…

Association Football, or as it is officially known, soccer, was invented by Rupert Murdoch in England in August 1992. In his infinite wisdom, Mr Murdoch invented this sport and devised around 713 teams to play it on live pay television throughout nine months of the year. In the first season all 713 teams played each other home away, seven games a day with an hour break between each and three hours sleep a night. Ryan Giggs played all 1424 games this season, even though he was only 13 at the time, and was part of the Manchester United team that raised the trophy.

From this extended league table divisions were introduced at 20 or 24 team instalments (because that makes sense) until a pyramid was formed. Whilst the league structure in other European countries works along a numerical or alphabetical system (for example Ligue 1, Ligue 2 in France or Serie A, Serie B in Italy), the English system is much more user friendly and easier to understand. And so it was that the 713 teams (712 if we don’t count Leeds) were organised into the following divisions:

English Premier League
Coca-Cola Championship
League 1
League 2
Blue Square Premiership
Conference North and Conference South
And on and on and on…

But who cares about the past? ‘Not me’ says this historian. Well maybe not anything more than the past year.

I have included links to footage for most of the following. Be careful, though, one of them is actually gay porn.

I’m just joking – they’re all links to gay porn.

Best Games of the Season:

1. Chelsea 4 – 4 Aston Villa
2. Arsenal 2 – 2 Manchester United
3. Tottenham 4 – 4 Chelsea

Best non-EPL Game of the Season:

Liverpool 4 – 2 Arsenal (Champions League Quarterfinal)

Best Goals of the Season:

1. Sully Muntari (Aston Villa vs Portsmouth)

2. Tim Cahill (Chelsea vs Everton)

3. Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United vs Portsmouth)

Best Dives of the Season:

1. Steven Gerrard (Liverpool vs Blackburn)

(25 seconds in)

2. Ashley Young (Aston Villa vs Arsenal)

(no video available)

3. Wayne Rooney (Manchester United vs Blackburn)

You’ll notice that all three of those players are English. So much for the Johnny Foreigner stereotype.

Best 10 Players all Season:

1. Cristiano Ronaldo
2. Cesc Fabregas
3. Fernando Torres
4. Emmanuel Adebayor
5. Rio Ferdinand
6. Nemanja Vidic
7. David James
8. Tim Cahill
9. Ashley Young
10. Steven Gerrard

Best Quotes of the Season:

1. “I went for a loan and the bank manager said, ‘How you going to pay for this?’ and I said, ‘Haven’t you heard, Derby are playing football’.” (Richard Callender)

2. “I’m coming on because you’re shit.” (Emmanuel Adebayor as he replaced Nicklas Bendtner, Tottenham vs Arsenal)

3. “I do not socialise with my teammates.” (The always affable Jens Lehmann discusses life as an Arsenal player)

Best Red Cards of the Season:

1. Javier Mascherano talking his way into two bookings (Manchester United vs Liverpool).

2. Nani headbutting Lucas Neill (Manchester United vs West Ham United) .

3. Phil Neville giving some goalkeeping advice to Scott Carson (Everton vs Liverpool).

Worst non-Red Cards of the Season:

1. Dirk Kuyt’s reverse Superman, known affectionately as the Flying Dutchman. Much to the ire of Toffees everyone, he stayed on the pitch to convert both penalties for the Scousers (Everton vs Liverpool).

(no video available)

2. Ashley Cole’s two-footed, studs up tackle to the knee of Alan Hutton. Understandably upset at receiving a yellow card, Cole then turned his back on referee Mike Riley. This incident led directly to our #1 Best Red Card listed above (Tottenham vs Chelsea) .

(2 minutes, 15 seconds in)

3. Paul Scholes’ rugby tackle on Wigan’s Wilson Palacios after he’d already been booked for an horrendous tackle in the match. Suffice to say that Sir Alex had appointed Steve Bennett the referee that day (Wigan Athletic vs Manchester United).

(no video available)

The Jose Mourinho Award for Best Goal from the Moon:

Emmanuel Adebayor’s hand of God effort to take the lead at Old Trafford (Manchester United vs Arsenal).

(no video available)

Best Moments of the Season:

1. William Gallas’ last last last second equaliser that only just cleared the line to hold Manchester United to a draw (Arsenal vs Manchester United).

2. Alan Wiley points to the spot as Manchester United concede their only penalty of the season and your Reminiscing Raconteur wins enough money to stave off bankruptcy (Chelsea vs Manchester United).

3. The players’ hands rise in unison and shout “handball sir”. In the confusion that follows the referee shows Ashley Cole a red card and Gareth Barry slots home the penalty to earn a remarkable draw in a remarkable match (Chelsea vs Aston Villa).

Best non-EPL Moments of the Season:

1. Milan Baros is brought down in the box by Thomas Kuszak and, with Edwin van der Sar already replaced and no substitutes left, Rio Ferdinand changes into the keeper’s strip to defend the penalty. The FA Cup Final fixture discused above proves that he wasn’t successful (Manchester United vs Portsmouth, FA Cup Sixth Round Proper).

Video not available for embedding. Watch here.

2. With the clock showing 94:04 a desperate Chelsea boot the ball into Liverpool’s penalty area. With Reina ready to pounce to seal the win, John-Arne Riise inexplicably chooses not to kick the ball away but to rather head it into his own net (Liverpool vs Chelsea, Champions League Semifinal First Leg).

3. With Barnsley set to secure an FA Cup replay back at Oakwell with a 1-1 draw at Liverpool (John-Arne Riise ‘scored’ their equaliser in this game too) the game turned in the 92nd minute when they had a stonewall penalty disallowed before Brian Howard silenced his own teammates’ complaints by booting in the winner and finally dispelling the myth that Rafa Benitez is some kind of Cups Magician (Liverpool vs Barnsley, FA Cup Fifth Round Proper).

Incoherent Diatribe

It’s also worth pointing out that Tottenham Hotspur beat Chelsea to win the League Cup, a competition so worthless that Sir Alex wasn’t even upset when Coventry knocked the Red Devils out in the Second Round. Interestingly, Chelsea played their first team squad in this tournament. Digression is needed.

It’s been a great season. A lot of people complain that English Football is dominated by the Big Four. Even Kevin Keegan, spiritual deity of the Geordie Nation recently commented that fifth is as good as Newcastle United could ever finish. This is both defeatist and untrue. We already know that Tottenham have a trophy for this season and come Saturday night either Cardiff (last trophy 1912) or Portsmouth (1951) will be celebrating. Additionally, the success of the Big Four is actually a movement away from the duopolies that existed beforehand. The 1980s were absolutely dominated by the Merseyside teams and in the 90s and 2000s, Arsenal and Manchester United combined to produce eight consecutive quinellas. By vertical comparison, the Big Four is a luxury; horizontally, it is a paragon of the league’s competitiveness. If one is to look at the six best leagues in Europe, as ranked by UEFA, you can’t complain about the Big Four’s dominance:

1. England (Big Four, three different winners in last five years)
2. Spain (Big Two, three different winners in last five years)
3. Italy (Big Three, three different winners in last five years)
4. France (Big One, three different winners in last nine years)
5. Germany (Big One, three different winners last five years)
6. Russia (Big One, three different winners in last four years)

14. Scotland (Big Two, three different winners in last 23 years)

As a sidenote, that win 23 years ago was by Aberdeen, managed at the time by a pre-knighted Alex Ferguson.

The connection between the Big Four and there being four Champions League places is undeniable. There will never be a Big Five, but there is the possibility that teams will displace the current Big Four and take their place. A few years ago this was set to happen when Everton finished fourth. Unfortunately for them, they drew eventual semifinalists Villarreal in their qualifier and Liverpool was invited to compete, despite their fifth place finish, due to their undeserved win in Istanbul the season prior. If the considerable advances made by Aston Villa and Everton continue next season, they will be knocking very loudly at the door of a Liverpool side that is more concerned with resting players than with playing League games.

At the foot of the table, Derby was absolutely atrocious this season. Only the ineptitude of a Sam Allardyce-managed Newcastle United prevented them from finishing the season winless. Their season started well enough, with Matt Oakley scoring for the Rams in the fifth minute of their opening match. Matt Oakley finished the season playing for Leicester City, who was relegated to the third tier of English football for the first time in their history. Second down was Birmingham. I took great pleasure in their demise and stood in my loungeroom cheering as images of crying Brummies were flashed upon my screen. Not only did they contribute nothing aesthetic to the season, they also ruined Arsenal’s season with Matthew Taylor’s criminally violent tackle on Eduardo. Bye bye, Birmingham, bye bye bye. Third down were Reading – I didn’t even know they were in this division.

Into the UEFA Cup next year are Everton (fifth), Tottenham (League Cup), Manchester City (Fairplay), Aston Villa (Intertoto), and either Cardiff or Portsmouth (FA Cup). That brings England’s total European contribution for next season to nine, almost half the entire league. That’s an impressive turnaround from 20 years ago, when exactly zero English teams played in Europe. I’ve thought for some time that winner of the UEFA Cup deserves to be ‘promoted’ to the Champions League. There are numerous valid reasons in support of this and no counterarguments. But alas, UEFA are a more backward organisation than those snake handlers stuck in the West Virginia mountains that think the American Civil War is still raging.

And the others:

Newcastle United: Soap Opera
West Ham United: Boring
Fulham: The Great Escape
Bolton Wanderers: The Just-Less-Than-Great Escape
Blackburn Rovers: Respectable
Wigan Athletic: Rubbish Pitch
Middlesbrough: Beat Man City 8-1
Sunderland: Yawn

Euro2008 is just around the corner…

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