Well in, Stevie!
Yes, of course they can. We (Liverpool FC) proved that in one of the most important games of the season for both teams — forgive the crass associations, but it looked rather a lot like New Labor comes a cropper on the rock solid defense of Old Labor… And they way they struggled at Wigan in their opening fixture added to the evidence — Chelsea are going to suffer from both from the arrogance of assuming they’re going to win, and from their reputation turning every away match into a cup final for the opponents. Still, there’s a formidable look to the squad built on the billions Roman Abramovich extorted from the Russian national patrimony — like all the other oligarchs, he made most of his money when the craven buffoon Yeltsin tapped them all up for a bit of campaign cash because he was about to lose the election in 1996, and they obliged in exchange for being sold some of the state’s prized assets at Salvation Army prices.
Chelsea won the title fair and square, and if I was to name the key players in that triumph I’d say Lampard, Makelele, Terry and Cech, rather than some of his more extravagant buys (uh, how about 23 million pounds for Carvalho, or even 13 million for Ferreira?). Since then, of course, he’s been throwing mad money around trying to tempt the likes of Adriano and Shevchenko, and it’s been pretty funny to see that not everyone has a price… And when they have spent, they’ve lavished money on bringing in players like Sean Wright-Phillips, probably the second best right wing in the premiership, to compete for that position with Arjen Robben, probably the best. That’s silly — how are you going to keep either one happy on the bench when both are fit? And when you hear their chairman Peter Kenyon talking like Paul Wolfowitz about starting a dynasty that will have no competition for years to come — well, let’s just say you badly, badly want to seem them beaten. Particularly by the likes of Portsmouth and Bolton.
Chelsea have to start the season as front runners, even if their football is pretty basic when compared with Arsenal’s delightful pass-and-move game. Chelsea will break out of defense and get it wide to Robben or Duff to take it down to the byline or cut in and provide service for Drogba, whose speed and strength are awesome to behold (and I think he’ll help Cote d’Ivoire cause some surprises at next year’s world cup). Or they’ll simply hoof it up to him directly, letting him convert the chances or hold the ball up for Fat Frank to make it up from the midfield. But as Liverpool proved, Chelsea’s game can be contained, despite the resources at their disposal.
Still, what Chelsea has more than anyone else in the top tier is that ability to “win ugly” so critical to be able to win the title — that gritty game when you’re lucky to hold the opposition at bay, and sneak one well taken goal on the break while soaking up everything they throw at you. (Hell, Liverpool in the opener at ‘Boro couldn’t even win pretty — played some glorious stuff but couldn ‘t score.) For everyone else, of course, beating Chelsea will be the ultimate prize — until a few have. Their next home game against Arsenal will probably be drawn or edged by Chelsea, and much as I’d love them to, I don’t think West Brom have it in them. But I’d put a little wager that their first slip will come away at Spurs on August 27. And when they come to Anfield on Oct 2. they’ll feel the wrath of Steven Gerrard for all that messing with his mind.
They’re the team to be beat, but will they be beaten? Maybe not enough to knock them off the top, but it’ll be a lot closer.
Arsenal, I’m afraid, are going to struggle to maintain their second spot, sad as that is because they play the most attractive and poetic game in England (although having seen them in that ugly 1913 claret color strip they’re wearing as a promotional device this year, I’m tempted to withdraw the accolades!). The loss of Vieira and possibly still of Sol Campbell too, the fact that Cole is so obviously unsettled, the aging of Pires and Bergkamp. Their youngsters are a joy to watch, and I have no doubt that in the fall of 2006, they’ll be the team to beat. But this season, I think their inability to “win ugly” and defensive vulnerability will count against them. I expect a lot of high scoring games, but they may not manage better than third or fourth.
Man United are in an even worse state of transition than Arsenal, because their troubles are off the pitch as well as on it now that those American tycoons have taken over. They’re a formidable outfit, of course, but I can’t quite buy the idea of Alan Smith as replacement for Roy Keane — Smith may be a nutter, but there’s a lot more to Keane than steel. Van Nistelrooy will score goals, but he’s getting older, and he doesn’t add much else to their game. Scholes aging too, even Giggs (my favorite among their attackers). Ronaldo is a menace, and Heinze was my personal favorite defender in the premiership last season, and Dough Boy Rooney is phenomenal. Don’t think they have a title challenge in them, although their opener over Everton away was easily the most impressive start (given the venue and quality of the opposition) of any of the contenders.
Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool is a place of miracles, which is a good thing because we still need a few. I’m imagining we’re going into this campaign with a lot more grit and steel, and aren’t going to roll over away any more. Saturday was illustrative, with Mohammed Sissoko’s debut bossing the midfield underlining Rafa’s claim that he’s the next Vieira. We’re still far too reliant on Stevie for goals, although the fact is that we used to be relying on Stevie to score 30-yard screamers, but on Saturday most of his chances were close range headers and shots after smart passing by Xabi, Djibril — even Baros, who passed the ball more in his 20 minutes on the field at Teeside than in the whole of last season — had opened up defenses. So no cause for alarm there, he’s getting into scoring positions because he has Momo and Xabi behind him. And, of course, Crouchinho is still injured and suspended, and now there’s talk that we may yet buy Owen.
But if you take Saturday’s Liverpool premiership debutants — Reina in goal, Zenden on the left, and Momo in the middle — I’d say we have a more solid look about us this year. And Rafa’s tactical discipline and grasp of the English game will stand us in good stead in his second season. I’ll go out on a wishful-thinking limb and say we’ll be second!
The team I’m backing to surprise everyone this season by contending for a Champion’s League spot, though, is Spurs. Martin Jol looks like a cool head, they have loads of striking talent in Defoe and Mido, their midfield options include an extremely talented youthful trio in Reid, Carrick and Routledge, Paul Robinson is one of the better keepers in the premiership and Ledley King is a central defender Liverpool can only envy.
Unfancied for decades, I think Spurs are about to return to the top four and regular European competition.