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Page added on March 14, 2012

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It’s “Squeaky bum time” in the English Premier League

It’s “Squeaky bum time” in the English Premier League thumbnail

“Squeaky bum time” is the famous immortal words of Alex Fergusson, the Manchester United manager and the man who knows better than most, how to win the premier league. It is therefore not surprising that the twists and turns in the Premier League have just begun. Forget about the Suarez race row, the John Terry racial aggravation, Tevez going AWOL or the trigger happy Chelsea owner, Roman Abramovich. The league is now at the business end of the season. With all the reinforcements to the squads, it was predictable that the fight for the Premier League title will be one of the most tightly contested for years. This year has been different in many ways, not least by emergence of Tottenham and Manchester City to the league’s high table. The league title has been always contested by the usual suspects like Manchester United, Chelsea and until recently Arsenal. The notion that this will be changed this year was buttressed by the early forms of teams like Manchester city and Tottenham.  (Photo: Abdulai Mansaray, author)

On the other hand, Chelsea and Arsenal started sluggishly, lending credence to the new found belief in Manchester City and Tottenham. Both had maintained consistency for large parts of the season, while Manchester United, the past masters have hung in there. If the results of the past weekend are anything to go by, it will show the kind of scepticism that I expressed earlier when Tottenham and Manchester City were flying. Most neutral pundits had welcomed the perceived changes at the top, but like many, I questioned the “staying power” of these teams. In spite of their impressive forms, the question had always been, whether they can maintain them. With City and Tottenham flying, the “demise” of Arsenal was more telling as they struggled at the bottom rungs of the title ladder.

But Arsenal’s recent form, which is thanks in no small measure to the inform Van Persie, has shown that the race to the title is anything but a sprint. Their near immortal comeback against AC Milan in the knock out stages of the Champions League seems to demonstrate an underlying steel in the team ethos; a feature that has been their Achilles heel in the past. Their recent form has seen them win six of their last ten games and drawing one. They have had to come back after conceding, to win 2-1 against Sunderland, Liverpool and Newcastle United; a mark of champions you would say. They have clawed an impossible 10-point deficit on Tottenham to just 1, with ten games to go. It is too early to predict but I know which team is quaking in its boots.

As recently as last month, Arsenal’s main aim was not to miss out on Champions League football next year. But with their current form, don’t be fooled that their only aim is to finish above Tottenham. There is a secret hope to even over haul one of the Manchester teams; whether in the first or second spot is anyone’s guess. With 30 points at stake and with games coming thick and fast, this can be anyone’s game.

Like Tottenham, Manchester City had been granted a monopoly and patent rights to the top of the league table since October last year. With their impressive form, most armchair critics, especially some of us with a soft spot for their tribal rival Manchester united, had predicted their demise with the absence of the Toure brothers to the African Cup of Nations. Even the unauthorised absence of their talismanic Tevez could not put them off their stride, as they effortlessly brushed past teams to maintain their grip on the top mantle. But recent results in Europe and like Arsenal, 3 defeats in 10 games have not been a welcome situation. It is customary that every team goes through a bad patch or suffers from a blip at one point of the season. Gareth Barry’s petulance at being substituted and the reported feud between Balotelli and Yaya Toure may be symptomatic of pressure.

Carlos Tevez’ “kiss and make” up was seen as Manchini’s master stroke by many of his ardent followers. Carlos was received with open arms by the club hierarchy, after some serious grovelling from Tevez. Tevez stated that the club treated him “like a dog”, a statement that got the animal rights brigade up in arms. England is renowned as an animal loving nation. The irony is that for Carlos to feel treated “like a dog” meant that he was treated well; contrary to his intended meaning. With a reported £250,000 weekly wage, Carlos will be hard pressed to have an ally for such an assertion. Tevez has been seen as the last piece to the jigsaw puzzle to the Holy Grail by some pundits, and his return had prompted some betting organisations to pay out on Manchester City winning the league. Their defeat to newly promoted Swansea City means that Manchester United would like to have a say in that.

Manchini had gone on record to say that Tevez “is finished” at the club and that he will never wear the jersey again. His “welcome back” was seen by some of us sceptics as an unnecessary sign of desperation; especially at a time when they were still flying high. His return to the club on 14 February was met with mixed feelings by the fans. Others will see his open arms return as a lack of faith in the players who held the forte in his absence. Like during their FA Cup last year, Carlos came back from similar circumstances to lift the trophy as captain. Some will see his recent return as a similar ploy to join in milking the long awaited title win, but was nowhere to be seen during the cold December nights. Perhaps Tevez is poikilthermic. There is an apparent public front of acceptance by his team mates but it is plausible to assume that not all of them see him as the man to depend on for a trench fight. Carlos is currently considered for inclusion in the game against Chelsea. If he plays, the pressure to win could be over the boiling point. The club and Carlos have taken a huge gamble; and if they fail to win the league, I know who will take the blame. Manchini may even pay dearly with his job; not least for his handling of the Tevez saga. With Mourhino preening his peacock feathers on the side lines, the pressure cannot be higher.

Lest I forget, there is the small matter of Harry Redknapp and Tottenham. The team has lost 4 and drawn 2 in the last 10 league games, and Tottenham fans would want you to believe that their apparent collapse is due to the manager being linked to the vacant England Manager’s post; following the industrial departure of Capello. This has not been helped by the recent and unwelcomed distraction from his court case for alleged tax evasion; for which he was exonerated I must add. To all intents and purposes, it is conceivable to sympathise with such feelings; that Redknapp may have taken his eyes off the ball (literally). But it all boils down to “staying power”, as the race to the league title has never been a sprint but a marathon.

Redknapp may be the best English (not British) manager available and his pedigree is never in doubt, as he has shown with teams like Bournemouth, Portsmouth, Southampton (though chequered) and Tottenham. But managing a national team is a complete different kettle of fish. Unlike club teams, you don’t have the luxury of day to day team affairs; and more importantly the manager can only play the players available to him by virtue of their nationality.

 The luxury of scouting, grooming and “buying” the players the manager wants is nil. The national manager can be far removed from the regular hurly burly of team affairs. At best, the manager can qualify for a pilot’s licence as they spend most of their time flying from one match to another. It is an open secret that English players are over hyped with over massaged egos. The daunting task of taking the thankless job of managing the England team may just be dawning on Redknapp; and it is no surprise that he is now reportedly “not sure about (the) England job”. Well the hype is receding and with it comes a reality check.

The English media would want you to believe that its league is the best. Some might disagree and rather describe it as the most exciting. There is plenty cash in the Premier League; but if this year’s Champions League is anything to go by, the league is anything but the best. Both Manchester teams are out of the Champions League and the FA Cup competitions, and their participation in the Europa League is little comfort and nothing to write back home about. The race to the Premier League title cannot be more coveted. Manchester united may look like they have the momentum but there is a long way (10 games) to go yet. To say that there are still more twists and turns left in the league might just prove to be the understatement of the year. And the customary mind games have not even begun yet.

Oh, Liverpool won the Carling Cup but it looks like they may suffer from the same withdrawal effects that saw Birmingham City relegated after they won the same cup last year. Now you know why the big guns don’t seem to take it seriously; but don’t tell dirk Kuyt that. It’s his first trophy at Liverpool.  Meanwhile, Captain Steven Gerard has blasted his fellow Kop flops for their poor season. But Steven should be looking elsewhere to those who allowed their season to be high jacked by the Suarez debacle. Let the games begin.

May the last fan please turn the lights off?

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