Exciting days on the cards

The English Premier League will once again be fiercely contested and most definitely better marketed and millions worldwide will continue tuning in on every weekend, no matter the quality of football. By Ayon Sengupta.

As the Queen’s land soaks in the zeal and shemozzle of one of the best-staged quadrennial Games, football in the country of beer, county pubs and fish-and-chips has taken a backseat. Not unexpectedly. Despite delivering a cliff-hanger in the last edition, the English Premier League is bound to start without the usual hype and hoopla as the likes of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps, or home-grown Alistair Brownllee, have taken over the minds and hearts of the Brits.

The traditional drawing room, cafeteria word jostling and betting from Manila to Madras have been more muted before the start of the championship this year. But naysayers have no business rubbing their hands in glee. Football and EPL still hold sway and have control over the pulse of the masses. This was our own humble way of bowing down to the brilliance of amateur athletes — though the Olympics these days, with its million-dollar babies, can hardly be called the playground of tenderfoot heroes — and patiently waiting for the professional rich boys to rightly occupy their positional plinth.

A last day, last second finish in 2011-12 saw a new champion of England and proved once again the pre-eminence of pocket power over continued, sustainable development.

Buoyed by the uncountable and unaccountable petro dollars (pounds in this case) poured in its lap (including a murky GBP 400 million partnership deal with Etihad Airlines, owned by the Abu Dhabi royal family and the Abu Dhabi United Group, which is led by the owners of the club), Manchester City, under Italian Roberto Mancini, scored handsomely and brushed aside a late attack of frayed nerves and scooped off the title, right beneath Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United’s nose. But winning twice is doubly difficult. And the Italian, having failed to add fresh legs to his substantially stout squad list, might have to digest that bitter pill at the end of the season.

With the imminent “financial fairplay” rules constraining its budget, City is in a precarious position where it has to sell first to buy. The lack of back-up for England international Joe Hart in goal and no visible substitutes for defensive linchpins Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott will be an area of concern, and City can do well with the addition of Liverpool’s Daniel Agger (known to be vigorously pursued by Mancini). However, the Manchester Blues’ attacking razzmatazz is beyond doubt, and any opposition will be wary of the combined threat of David Silva, Yaya Toure, Samir Nasri, Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero. City, indeed, will continue to score goals, at will.

United, bereft of dazzle, was strictly functional last term, and the addition of Japanese Shinji Kagawa from Borussia Dortmund will solve Ferguson’s problem of creation, and the likes of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie (if Arsenal reluctantly lets him have his way) will have enough balls to turn games into training pitch target practices. England under-18 international Nick Powell, another prize catch, will be used sparingly, but he sure has the talent to stamp instant impact in key games. Losing Brazilian teenager Lucas Moura to neo-rich Paris Saint Germain will have deflated Fergie a little, and the long-term health of centre-backs Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand will still worry him. But the coming of age of Johnny Evans and Chris Smalling, however, keeps United better prepared for injury eventualities than its City rivals.

In London, Arsene Wenger has overseen a series of arrivals and departures. Out-of-favour stars Manuel Almunia and Mexican international Carlos Vela have been shipped out, and underperforming assets Nicklas Bendtner and Andrei Arshavin are sure to follow suit. The coming of Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski and, possibly, Real Madrid’s Nuri Sahin and Santi Carzola (Malaga) promises much and leaves the Gunners well primed even in the eventuality of van Persie’s departure.

Last season’s unlucky bridesmaid, Tottenham (which lost on a Champions League spot despite finishing fourth), under the aegis of new man Andre Villas-Boas, will see a change of guard in defence (at least) with the retirement of the talismanic but injury-prone Ledley King and the arrival of Jan Vertonghen (Belgium). Despite the annoyance of the unending Luka Modric transfer saga, Spurs has bundles of talent in Gareth Bale, Aaron Lennon, Younes Kaboul and Scott Parker. A permanent move for Emanuel Adebayor from Man City and a possible introduction of Porto’s Joao Moutinho (Portugal’s EURO 2012 hero) will see Spurs occupying the tag of Premier League title-pretenders with ease.

Surprise Champions League winner, Chelsea, at last seems to have bought into the idea of change, and the heavy summer spending on Lille’s Eden Hazard, Marco Marin (Werder Bremen) and Brazil’s sublime creator Oscar dos Santos Emboaba Junior (Internacional) marks an alteration of philosophy — a transformation from big-bodied bullies to ball-retaining, ‘tiki-taka’ football, with last season’s revelation Juan Mata leading the charge. However, Fernando Torres, fresh from his EURO Golden Boot-winning effort, needs to find his form for Chelsea to kick-start. The departure of ageing Didier Drogba, Solomon Kalou and Anelka has left the Londoners with a thin ensemble upfront.

Eighteen-time winners Liverpool, now coached by Swansea’s very impressive Brendon Rodgers, despite the change of guard looks unqualified to mount a serious challenge for the four UEFA Champions League slots and surprise package Newcastle United should continue to amaze without seriously threatening the hegemony of the moneybags.

Everything set aside, the English League will once again be fiercely contested (despite the absence of Spanish fluidity or Italian discipline, the gap between top and the rear is the minimum in England — giving EPL an illusory balanced and well-rounded look) and most definitely better marketed (than La Liga, Bundesliga or Serie A) and millions worldwide will continue tuning in on every weekend, no matter the quality of football.

* * * The back-markers

The relegation battle in football leagues across the globe is as fiercely contested as the coveted top prize. Staying in at the top of the country’s footballing ladder comes with its bagful of perks and motley, hurriedly assembled sides try their best to hang in there by any means possible.

Usually in EPL, the three promoted sides from the Championships are always the favourites to take the plunge, given the vast difference in quality between the top two tiers of the English game. Reading looks the most likely fall guys this time round and despite the signing of Russian forward Pavel Pogrebnyak the apparent lack of depth in the squad will hamper manager Brian McDermott’s dream of hanging on to top flight football. Southampton, another newcomer, has spent close to GBP 10 million in summer spending and will hope Jay Rodriguez (Burnley) to find his scoring boots soon alongside Rickie Lambert. The Saints have sufficiently shored up its midfield with the addition of Steven Davis but a frail defensive unit might undermine all the good work done by the attacking force.

West Ham, with a strong playing squad under veteran Premier League manager Sam Allardyce, should survive or at least stay in the hunt and see the likes of Swansea, Wigan Athletic or Norwich City biting the bullet.