Tag Archives: Premier League

Predicting Premier League finishing positions (10-1)

In my previous post I made my predictions on who would finish in the bottom half of the Premier League table (20-11). In this post I will predict who I think will finish in the top half of the Premier League table, who will qualify for the Champions League and most importantly who I think will win the Premier League title. So let’s start at 10th place and work our way upwards…

10. Southampton – It shows the progress that Southampton have made that another top ten finish plus a League Cup Final appearance which they were desperately unlucky to lose was not enough to save manager Claude Puel’s job. The main problem for Southampton was scoring goals especially at home where only rock bottom Sunderland scored fewer. But Manolo Gabbiadini started well and he and Charlie Austin – if he is fit – will solve that problem. They are probably fighting a losing battle to keep Virgil van Dijk but even without him new manager Mauricio Pellegrino should have enough to keep the Saints in the top ten. 

9. West Ham – West Ham had an unhappy season last time. The move to the Olympic Stadium had teething problems with crowd trouble and fans and players struggled to adapt. For a lot of the season it looked like they were going to be in a relegation struggle. This season should be better. The new signings – Pablo Zabaleta, Joe Hart, Marko Arnautovic and Javier Hernandez – look sensible and they will be more used to their new home. I expect West Ham to get their League position back down to single figures.

8. Leicester City – After four seasons where they won promotion, staged the great escape, won the Premier League title against all odds, then botched their title defence but reached the Champions League Quarter Finals Leicester fans might want a quiet life. I think they will get it. It helps that they will not be the target for scalp hunters that they were last season. They might lose Riyad Mahrez but he was not the force he was the season before last and it is significant that no one has bid for Jamie Vardy this summer. In 2015-16 Leicester over achieved in winning the title and last season they under achieved in finishing 12th. This season they will find their true level as a solid lower top ten team. 

7. Everton – Everton were in a League of their own last season eight points behind sixth but fifteen points ahead of eighth. While I think they will keep seventh place I suspect they will be further away from the top six and nearer the rest of the pack than they were last season. Losing Romelu Lukaku is a huge blow and I don’t think Wayne Rooney who is past his best is an ideal replacement. Jordan Pickford and Michael Keane are interesting signings and they might sell Ross Barkley and sign Gylfi Sigurdsson before the transfer window closes. Participation in the Europa League won’t help and seventh is probably the best they can do.

6. Liverpool – Jurgen Klopp managed to guide Liverpool back to the Champions League (well the qualifying round anyway) last season but the task will be harder this season. Liverpool had the advantage of not being in Europe last season and the squad does not appear to have the strength in depth to challenge on two fronts this season. Personally if Barcelona are offering £90 million for Philippe Coutinho I would take the money and sign four £20 million players to give the squad the depth it badly needs. They did not lose a League game to a fellow top six team last season but that is surely unsustainable and I suspect that Liverpool will finish in the Europa League zone this season.

5. Tottenham – Tottenham have been the best team in the Premier League over the last two seasons (though they did not win the title) but they might have to go backwards before they go forwards. The move to Wembley this season will seriously hinder them – their European form there last season was terrible – while as of this writing they have made zero signings in the close season and lost Kyle Walker. In football if you stand still you go backwards and that is what will happen with Tottenham. They still have Delie Alli and Harry Kane and will be in the race for a Champions League spot but I think they will just miss out. 

4. Arsenal – For the first time in 20 years Arsenal are not in the Champions League. That season (1997-98) they won the League and Cup double but I doubt that happens again. Alexander Lacazette is the star signing but free transfer Sead Kolasinsc is the more interesting signing judging by his substitute appearance in Sunday’s Community Shield. Two problems – the contract situation of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil and if they get off to a bad start the whole Arsene Wenger debate will resurface. Suspect they will regain their Champions League spot but still look a bit below the top three. 

3. Chelsea – All does not appear well at Stamford Bridge. Eden Hazard will miss the start of the season, Diego Costa looks like he is on his way out and manager Antonio Conte is grumbling about the depth (or lack of) in the squad and is talking about avoiding a “Mourinho season” – referring to Chelsea’s inept title defence of two seasons ago. I doubt Chelsea will sink as low this time but they don’t look like a title retaining team. They will have to cope with the rigours of a European campaign – unlike last season. It will be interesting to see how Alvaro Morata adapts to the Premier League but they look unlikely to defend the title.

2. Manchester City – Judging by the hype on his arrival Pep Guadiola was going to lead City to a Premier League/Champions League double without breaking a sweat. Of course nothing of the sort happened and they were no nearer the Champions last season than the season before – in both seasons they trailed the title winners by fifteen points and sometimes the defence was a source of comic entertainment. Guadiola has taken action by signing a new goalkeeper (Ederson) and three new defenders (Kyle Walker, Danilo and Benjamin Mendy). Are these the right players? Some grumbling City fans on Twitter were saying they would rather have England women’s right back Lucy Bronze than Walker. Suspect that they are joking but it does not show confidence in Walker. They need the new defence to bed in quickly, Vincent Kompany to stay fit and John Stones to cut out the errors. For them to win the title that might be too many needs. Watch out for Gabriel Jesus though. This player is a future star. 

1. Manchester United – Ironically last season United had the opposite problem to their neighbours. The defence was solid but the attack apart from Zlatan Ibrahimovic was toothless. They scored fewer League goals last season than Bournemouth – and fewer at home than relegated Hull. Enter £75 million striker Romelu Lukaku. Some people say that Lukaku is just a rabbit killer. I don’t agree but even if he is that is just what United need as they did not do much rabbit killing last season – especially at home. Bournemouth, Burnley, Hull. Stoke, Swansea, West Brom and West Ham all gained draws at Old Trafford last season mainly because United did not take their chances in games they dominated. With all due respect those are the bread and butter games that title challengers MUST win. If Lukaku can turn those draws into victories he repays his fee. Add to that the signing of Nemanja Matic from Chelsea – which Chelsea could live to regret – that Paul Pogba might have adapted to the Premier League, Marcus Rashford will keep improving and José Mourinho’s tradition of having a better second season in charge and you have my tips for the title – just. 

I suspect that the key to the season is will Lukaku improve United’s striking weakness or will City’s new defence solve their weakness in that department? My prediction is for Lukaku to have the impact on United that Robin van Pierse did in their last title winning season (2012-13) and bring the title back to Old Trafford.

Predicting Premier League finishing positions (20-11) 

So the greatest show on earth – well according to the Sky Sports hype machine anyway – is about to start. On the 25th anniversary of its formation back in 1992 another Premier League season starts – this time unusually on a Friday night with a match between Arsenal and Leicester City. As usual there are plenty of questions. Will Chelsea defend the title? Can José Mourinho or Pep Guadiola bring title glory back to Manchester? Will Tottenham maintain their progress? Can Arsene Wenger regain Arsenal’s Champions League place? Who will get relegated?.

I don’t know the answer…but I’ll have a go. In the next two posts I will be predicting the finishing prediction of every Premier League club…and in time honoured tradition I will do it in reverse order. In this post I will predict positions 20 to 11. 

20. Huddersfield – Huddersfield finished last season with a goal difference of minus two. They won their play off Semi Final and Final on penalties. Had a team been promoted to League One with that record I would say they faced a battle to stay up. In the Premier League they have no chance. Thirteen Championship teams scored more goals than Huddersfield eight conceded less. Their only asset is highly rated young manager David Wagner. I suspect Wagner has more chance of being in the Premier League next season than his team has. 

19. Burnley – It was a remarkable achievement for Sean Dyche to keep Burnley up last season but it will be harder this season. They stayed up exclusively on their home form and I suspect that form is unsustainable. Therefore they will have to improve their awful away form which I suspect will be beyond them especially with key players Michael Keane and Andre Gray gone. This time I don’t think they survive. 

18. Crystal Palace – Survival specialist Sam Allardyce managed to keep them up last season but he has left. Bolton, Blackburn and Sunderland were all relegated soon after Allardyce left and Palace could follow suit. Allardyce’s successor Frank de Boer is new to the Premier League and flopped at Inter Milan. Their home form is absolutely abysmal – they have lost ten or more home games in the last three seasons. If that does not improve Palace are in serious danger. 

17. Brighton – In all but three Premier League seasons one or two of the promoted clubs stay up. In most seasons one promoted team is a cert to go down (see Huddersfield) one promoted team is marginal and one promoted team stays up quite comfortably (I’ll get to the one I think will stay up OK this season later). Brighton are a toss up to stay up but the combination of home support and an experienced Premier League manager in Chris Hughton might – might – be enough to keep them up.

16. West Brom – Tony Pullis has never been relegated in his managerial career and he won’t be this season either. That said I see West Brom slipping down the table. They did not finish last season well, the fans are grumbling about the style of play, they struggle to score goals, have only made two new signings and have lost captain Darren Fletcher. All that equals a harder season than previously but I still think they will be OK. 

15. Newcastle – For the second time in seven years Newcastle bounced back from relegation at the first time of asking this time under experienced manager Rafael Benitez and they are the most likely of the promoted teams to have a comfortable season. That said their points tally of 94 was eight less than their Championship winning tally of 2009-10. They finished 12th in their first season back in the Premier League on that occasion and I don’t think they will finish that high this time. Still had they appointed Benitez earlier in 2015-16 they would probably have stayed up then and with him in charge for a full season they should accumulate enough points to stay up.

14. Watford – Watford finished last season abysmally with six defeats in a row but the appointment of Marco Silva should lead to improvement. He nearly kept a poor Hull team up last season – had he been at Hull all last season and maintained their points per game tally they would have finished 13th – and I suspect Watford will finish in that vacinity. It will be interesting to see how new signings Tom Cleverly and Will Hughes do but not only do I think Watford will stay up Silva might even survive for another season – a rarity for a Watford manager.

13. Swansea – At the start of this year Swansea were bottom of the table and after Bob Bradley’s shambolic reign looked doomed. But under the impressive Paul Clement Swansea gained 29 points from his 19 games in charge. If he did that over a full season they would probably be top ten. But star player Gylfi Sigurdsson looks highly likely to leave most likely to Everton. In predicting Swansea’s finishing position I have assumed that Sigurdsson will go. If he stays they could finish in the top half but even without him I expect them to be safe mid table. 

12. Stoke – Stoke are arguably the best run club in the Premier League but they appear to have plataued in mid table. They have sold Marko Arnautovic and their first three home games are hard –  Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea. But their toughness and determination should ensure Premier League safety for another season. 

11.  Bournemouth – The smallest club in the Premier League in terms of ground capacity but not ambition. The signing of Nathan Ake – who was on loan at the club last season – is a declaration of intent. Agmir Begovic is an experienced goalkeeper and Jermaine Defoe last season scored 15 goals for a Sunderland team that were by a long way the worst in the League. Bournemouth play a nice style of football and unless another Premier League club takes a punt on manager Eddie Howe they are in no danger of a relegation battle and might even crack the top ten again.

So that is part one of my predictions done – the bottom half. Tomorrow the fun starts when I predict the top half and who I think will win the title…

How to have a winter break without ruining Christmas 

We are in the middle of the most choatic period in the Premier League season the festive fixtures. All Premier League teams will have played three games between Boxing Day and January 4 2017. This is a soft schedule compared to 39 years ago – in the 1977-78 season all English clubs played four games between Boxing Day and January 2 (on Boxing Day, December 27th, New Year’s Eve and January 2). Yet people are still demanding a winter break in English football – either foreign managers who think that if the rest of Europe have a winter break so should Britain – typical of the arrogant European attitude which has led to Brexit – or the FA who seem to think it will help the England national team (conveniently forgetting that the vast majority of England fans care more about their clubs than the national team and don’t want to suffer the garbage Checkatrade Trophy or lose their Christmas entertainment on the off chance it can help a bad team to beat Iceland in a major tournament). 

As I wrote before those who want a Christmas shut down forget that both other sport in Britain (Rugby, Darts and Horse Racing to name but three) and sport in other English speaking countries (the NBA, NFL and NHL in the US, cricket in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) play on in the festive season). And as the EU referendum surely confirmed we in the UK have more in common with our English speaking friends than Europe even if the UK “Remoaners” don’t accept this. 

But even if we did have a winter break why should it mean the end of the Christmas fixtures? Just because most of Europe has a winter break at Christmas doesn’t mean to say we have to. In my opinion there is another option for a winter break that would also preserve the Christmas fixtures. 

That is not the period after the New Year (ie January). Traditionally the first Saturday in January is the day of the third round of the FA Cup and moving it out of January would devalue the competition. The FA should know this as they already moved the FA Cup third round from January to December – in the 1999-2000 season. It was a total disaster and the third round was immediately restored to its traditional date in the calendar. The FA would be incredibly stupid even by their standards if they mucked about with the scheduling of their crown jewel again. 

I’m surprised that nobody has thought of having a winter break in the Saturdays immediately preceding Christmas. For one thing in the old days before season tickets became popular that was generally the time of the season that had the lowest gates as fans went Christmas shopping with their families. If the Saturdays immediately before Christmas were football free fans could do their Christmas shopping without missing their team play. 

Here is how it would work using this year’s dates. The last round of Premier League games before the break would have been on the week of November 29-30. The next four Saturdays (December 3,10,17 and 24) would be the break. The season would resume on Boxing Day and the Christmas programme would start. The only games on would be the European games on December 7-9 but other countries (ie Eastern European ones) already play European games during winter breaks so if they can do it…

For this to work out the football authorities would have to sacrifice the League Cup which as I’ve wrote before is a useless tournament that should never have been invented and reached the end of its limited usefulness in the mid 1990s when Manchester United started fielding reserve teams in the competition. If you got rid of the League Cup itfrees up five midweeks which could be filled with the Premier League games that are currently played in December. For example this season the Premier League games that were played on December 3, 10, 13/14 and 17 could have been moved to the midweeks of September 20-21, October 25-26, November 29-30 and January 24-25. You have your winter break. 

Personally I don’t want a winter break but that is because everybody that wants it wants to sacrifice the Christmas programme which would be stupid as it draws the highest attendances and is clearly popular with the public.

It is interesting to note that there are people in Spain who would like La Liga to play on Boxing Day. Whether or not that happens I don’t know. But if Spain want to play in the festive season why should we stop? Especially as – as I have shown – there is a way to have a winter break and to preserve the tradition of both the Christmas programme and the FA Cup….

Why recent history is a good omen for Christmas number one Chelsea

To quote John Lennon “So this is Christmas”. And as Christmas Day approaches Antonio Conte’s Chelsea sit proudly on top of the Premier League tree. But the question is will they still be there when it matters next May? In theory the omens are mixed but in practice they are very favourable for Chelsea.

This is the 25th season of Premier League football since the breakaway League was founded back in 1992. Of the previous 24 seasons twelve of the leaders at Christmas went on to win the title the next May. So on that basis there is only a 50 per cent chance that this season’s title is heading for Stamford Bridge. 

But it’s not as unfavorable for Chelsea as those statistics suggest. Firstly in recent seasons the pendulum has swung in favour of the Christmas League leaders. In the first twelve Premier League seasons (1992-2003) only three Christmas Day leaders – Manchester United (twice) and Blackburn Rovers went on to win the title. But in the next twelve Premier League seasons (2004-15)  nine of the twelve Christmas Day leaders went on to win the title – Manchester United (three times), Manchester City, last season’s shock troops Leicester City and significantly Chelsea themselves (four times). In fact every time Chelsea have topped the table at Christmas they have gone on to win the title. 

The other thing in Chelsea’s favour – apart from their current eleven game winning streak in the Premier League – is the size of their lead at the top – six points over Liverpool. In the previous twenty four seasons of Premier League football only four teams have had a bigger lead on Christmas Day than Chelsea have now – Manchester United (twelve points in 1993 and eight points in 2000) Chelsea themselves (nine points in 2005) and Newcastle (ten points in 1995). Of those four only Newcastle – in one of the most infamous bottle jobs in football history – failed to win the title. And that was a club that had (and still have) failed to win the title since 1927. The Newcastle players and especially manager Kevin Keegan could not cope with the pressure. But the core of this Chelsea team won the title as recently as 2015 and it is highly unlikely that this team will bottle the title. Nor will manager Conte who has title winning experience in Serie A with Juventus. 

One oddity will have Arsenal fans clutching at straws. The Gunners are the only club to have won the Premier League title, led the table at Christmas but not done both in the same season. They led the League at Christmas in 2002 and 2007 but did not win the title. When they did win the title (1998, 2002 and 2004) they did not top the table at Christmas (not even the 2003-4 “Invincibles” achieved the feat of topping the table at Christmas). Unfortunately for Arsenal they trail Chelsea by nine points and have still to go to Stamford Bridge so their chances are slim to say the least. 

Whether or not Chelsea win the title they have almost certainly achieved one of owner Roman Abramovich’s pre season targets. Last season Chelsea finished a dismal tenth and out of the Champions League for the first time since season 2002-3 – the last season before the Abramovich takeover. But of the previous twenty four Christmas League leaders only one – Aston Villa in 1998 who collapsed to sixth twenty two points behind Champions Manchester United – did not finish in one of the top four spots that give a club Champions League qualification. And the chances of Chelsea finishing outside of the top four are practically nil. 

It is not often both current form and recent historical precedent point to the same event happening. But both suggest it will take either a spectacular Chelsea collapse or at least a ten game winning streak by one of their rivals to deny Chelsea the title. It could happen – Newcastle collapsed spectacularly in 1996 and Arsenal went on winning streaks in 1998 and 2002. But it is much more likely that the title is heading to Stamford Bridge again. 

Finally I would like to say Merry Christmas to everyone who reads me. Have a wonderful day! 

Key games in the Leicester miracle (part 2)

This is part two of my list of key games in Leicester City’s amazing Premier League title winning season. I will list what were in my opinion the key games (not all Leicester’s) from the second half of the season (January 2nd – May 2nd).

1. Tottenham 0 Leicester 1. This game won by a goal from unlikely scorer Robert Huth was important first because it ended a slight wobble (no goals in Leicester’s last three League games) and second it was an away win against the team that turned out to be their main rivals for the title.

2. Leicester 3 Stoke 0. Important because Vardy ended a six game goalless streak and this win took Leicester back to the top of the table where – as it turned out – they would stay.

3. Arsenal 0 Chelsea 1. Arsenal could have knocked Leicester off the top spot the very next day. But their fragile temperament was exposed again. An early red card for Per Mertesacker and a goal by Diego Costa gave outgoing champions Chelsea the “double” over Arsenal and raised question marks about Arsenal’s ability to sustain a title challenge.

4. Leicester 2 Liverpool 0. Two goals by Vardy – one a goal of the season candidate – gave Leicester revenge over one of the two teams to have beaten them in the League and maintained their three point lead.

5. Arsenal 0 Southampton 0. Another bad night for Arsenal. They huffed and puffed but ran into a great performance from Saints keeper Fraser Forster. Arsenal were now five points behind Leicester and to their fans horror were below bitter rivals Tottenham in the table.

6. Manchester City 1 Leicester 3. This was the game. The game that made people sit up and take Leicester seriously. A seriously impressive performance with two goals by Huth and one by Mahrez put Leicester five points clear at the top. City would have gone top had they won but this game led to the end of their title challenge.

7. Arsenal 2 Leicester 1. Heartbreak for Leicester. 1-0 up and playing well until Danny Simpson was sent off. Even so Leicester looked like hanging on for a deserved point until sub Danny Wellbeck scored in the fifth minute of injury time. Arsenal celebrated like they had won the League – even taking dressing room selfies! A kick to the solar plexus for Leicester who now faced a real test of character.

8. Manchester City 1 Tottenham 2. This game showed that Tottenham were for real. Goals by Harry Kane and Erik Lamela gave Tottenham a huge win a “double” over City and meant there were just two points between Leicester, Tottenham and Arsenal at the top of the table. The heat was on…

9. Leicester 1 Norwich 0. And this was one of the key games of the season. Leicester struggled for 89 minutes and looked like dropping two points. But instead substitute Leonardo Ulloa scored to give Leicester the ugly, late 1-0 win that Ferguson’s Manchester United and Mourinho’s Chelsea specialised in. Wins like this win titles.

10. Manchester United 3 Arsenal 2. Another disaster for Arsenal embarrassed by 18 year old Marcus Rashford who scored two and had one assist on his Premier League debut. Arsenal were now five points behind Leicester and in trouble.

The next three games were all on one night – March 2nd. Leicester had been held 2-2 by West Brom the previous night and Tottenham had a chance to go top of the table while Arsenal and City had a chance to make up ground. Incredibly they all lost.

11. West Ham 1 Tottenham 0. West Ham were the seasons spoilers and were at it again. On a raucous night at Upton Park a goal by Michail Antonio prevented Tottenham from going to the top of the table.

12. Arsenal 1 Swansea 2. Of all Arsenal’s flops this was the worst. Swansea prioritising their relegation six pointer against Norwich on the next Saturday fielded a weakened team lost an early goal and still grabbed a famous victory. The natives at the Emeriates were getting seriously restless.

13. Liverpool 3 Manchester City 0. City had beaten Liverpool in the League Cup Final the previous Sunday but Liverpool gained instant revenge with a crushing win. City were now ten points behind Leicester and after this incredible night Leicester’s title win started to seem – to quote WWE star Randy Orton –  “destiny”.

14. Tottenham 2 Arsenal 2. The biggest most hyped North London Derby in years produced a result that suited only Leicester. Tottenham should have won and gone to the top of the table – they were 2-1 up against ten men – but Alexis Sanchez’s late equaliser gave Arsenal a point. Instead of being top Tottenham ended the day five points behind after Leicester won 1-0 at Watford (Mahrez of course!)

15. Leicester 1 Newcastle 0. Leicester had one piece of luck towards the end of the season. They usually played before Tottenham so if they won the pressure was on Tottenham to catch up and if they slipped up Tottenham still had to win to take advantage. But on this occasion Tottenham played first. They won putting the pressure on Leicester. Add to that Newcastle – hitherto a shambles – had a new manager in Rafael Benitez and new managers sometimes give struggling teams a lift. But a brilliant bicycle kick goal by Shinji Okazaki restored Leicester’s five point cushion.

16. Liverpool 1 Tottenham 1. A point at Anfield is usually a good result but as Leicester were grinding out 1-0 wins Tottenham really needed a win. They played before Leicester this weekend but instead of cutting the lead to two points they only cut it to four. Next day Leicester had yet another 1-0 win – this time over Southampton. They were seven points clear with six games to play…

17. Leicester 2 West Ham 2. At half time Leicester were 1-0 up – Vardy again – and all was going well. Then Vardy got himself sent off for diving and everything changed. West Ham – who had played spoilers all season – scored in the 84th and 86th minutes to stun the King Power Stadium. But in the fifth minute of injury time Leicester were awarded a controversial penalty. Ulloa cooly converted to turn a morale denting defeat into a fighting draw. But Tottenham looked seriously impressive at Stoke the next night the gap was now five points and talismanic striker Vardy was suspended for two games (the extra game was for dissent after his sending off). The pressure was back on.

18. Leicester 4 Swansea 0. Leicester got a lucky break – an error by one of the best defenders in the League Ashley Williams who gave the ball to Mahrez of all people! – but once in front they played like Champions to score their biggest league win of the season. Tottenham had to catch up again…

19. Tottenham 1 West Brom 1. And they couldn’t. They took the lead in the first half but could not increase it and the longer the game went on the more nervous Tottenham got. When the equaliser came it was not a surprise. This meant if Leicester won at Old Trafford the title would be theirs…

20. Manchester United 1 Leicester 1. Which they could not do. But considering they fell behind had Danny Drinkwater sent off and they were playing a United team who had to win to help their own Champions League ambitions this was a good result. Captain Wes Morgan scored the goal that meant Tottenham had to win at Chelsea or the fairytale would come true.

21. Chelsea 2 Tottenham 2. And we know what happened here. Tottenham 2-0 up at half time looked like they would make Leicester have to beat Everton on Saturday to win the title. But like Liverpool at Crystal Palace on another May Monday night in 2014 they lost the lead and the plot ending the game with nine players being booked. And to show how amazing football is Chelsea’s equaliser was scored by last season’s player of the year Eden Hazard who had a terrible season just like his team. He had not scored a Premier League goal until Chelsea’s game at Bournemouth the previous week – Chelsea’s 34th game of the season. But his strike with seven minutes to go completed the fairytale and made him a Leicester hero.

So ends the story of what must be the most amazing story in football history. The Champions of Europe’s big five Leagues are Juventus, Paris Saint Germain, Bayern Munich*, either Barcelona, Atletico Madrid or Real Madrid, and Leicester City. It still does not seem right. But congratulations to Claudio Ranieri and his Leicester players. Whatever happens now they are in the history books for ever and will never be forgotten…

*Bayern have not yet clinched the German title but five points clear with two games to go a win at Ingolstadt on Saturday will clinch the title for Pep Guardiola’s team.

Key games in the Leicester miracle (part 1)

The unthinkable has happened. Leicester City who started the season at 5000-1 to win the Premier League title, were favourites for relegation pre season and whose manager Claudio Ranieri was rated favourite to be the first Premier League manager to be sacked have won the Premier League. In my opinion the biggest shock in sport since Nottingham Forest won the title in 1978 (see previous post “Leicester’s success recalls another East Midlands Miracle”). I know you get shocks in sport. But they are usually in one off Cup ties or fights (ie Buster Douglas beating Mike Tyson or Holly Holm beating Ronda Rousey). But Leicester’s success is in a gruelling 38 game August to May marathon. There are no shortcuts to winning the title. Whoever wins it thoroughly deserves to. And Leicester do.

But how have they done it? I decided to pick out in my opinion what the key games were in the season (not all Leicester games).  This is quite a long list so I have split it in two. In this part : The key Premier League games in the first 19 rounds of matches (August 8- December 29).

1. Leicester 4 Sunderland 2. Must start with Leicester’s first game. Expected to achieve nothing but try and avoid relegation Leicester roared into a 3-0 lead in the first 25 minutes (two from Riyad Mahrez and one from Jamie Vardy a sign of things to come). The game finished 4-2 and can be called a declaration of intent. No one was paying attention for on the same day this happened…

2. Chelsea 2 Swansea 2. Enough has been written about this  game already but Chelsea’s failure to win and the Mourinho/Carneiro shambles was the first sign of a key early season event.  The implosion of the reigning champions. Arsenal fans enjoyed it. Until the next day…

3. Arsenal 0 West Ham 2. In a season of shocks the first one. Arsenal were convinced the signing of Petr Cech from Chelsea was the key to winning the title but his debut was poor and a West Ham team including 16 year old Reece Oxford produced a famous away win. Not their last either.

4. Manchester City 3 Chelsea 0.The first heavyweight clash of the season turned into a catch-weight contest. City were awesome Chelsea were awful. City looked like they would take advantage of Chelsea’s implosion and romp away with the title…

5. Chelsea 1 Crystal Palace 2. It’s one thing losing away to Manchester City but to Crystal Palace? At home? A sign that things were going seriously wrong for Chelsea.

6. Leicester 3 Aston Villa 2.This game defined two seasons. Since their first day win Leicester had won one and drew two without people noticing. When Villa were 2-0 up with 18 minutes to go it looked like Leicester’s unbeaten run was over. Instead goals by Ritchie de Laet, Vardy and Nathan Dyer propelled Leicester to a sensational victory. Leicester gained confidence, Villa lost it. In my opinion the key game of the season for both Leicester and Villa who went down without a whimper.

7. Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0. A sign of Arsenal’s mental fragility. The Gunners allowed themselves to be provoked by Diego Costa losing both the game and two men throwing doubts yet again on their ability to cope with the pressure of a title race.

8. Stoke 2 Leicester 2. Leicester up to their old tricks again. 2-0 down at half time but yet another fightback brought goals by Mahrez and Vardy and showed Leicester’s “never say die” spirit.

9. Manchester City 1 West Ham 2. City had won five out of five scoring eleven and conceding none. They looked unstoppable… until West Ham who had already won at Arsenal and Liverpool caused more mayhem going 2-0 up. City pulled one back before half time but their aura of invincibility had gone and did not return.

10. Southampton 2 Leicester 2. And again. By now Leicester had lost a game (2-5 to Arsenal) and people thought the bubble had burst. At St Mary’s they went 2-0 down (again) and fought back to claim a point (again) with Vardy scoring two (again). Leicester sending a message that they never give up!

11. Leicester 1 Crystal Palace 0. Vardy scored again (for the seventh game running) but this is more significant for it being  Leicester’s first clean sheet in their tenth game. Ranieri rewarded his players with pizzas!

12. Manchester United 0 Manchester City 0. A terrible game but I’ve mentioned it as it showed that the Manchester clubs – who had won four of the last five titles – were not the force they were and the title race was wide open…

13.  Chelsea 1 Liverpool 3. …Especially as Chelsea were not recovering. Jurgen Klopp’s first great result as Liverpool manager kept Chelsea marooned in the bottom half and piled the pressure on Mourinho.

14. Newcastle 0 Leicester 3. An easy win over a pathetic Newcastle with Vardy scoring for the tenth successive match equaling the Premier League record. I’ve mentioned this game as it was the day Leicester went top for the first time (November 21). Still they wouldn’t last long surely…

15. Stoke 2 Manchester City 0. And they didn’t. Held by Manchester United despite Vardy setting a Premier League record by scoring for the eleventh game in a row they lost top spot to the other half of Manchester. But the next week a terrible performance by City gave Stoke an easy win and if Leicester won that afternoon they would return to the top..

16. Swansea 0 Leicester 3. Which they did. Despite Vardy failing to score a hat trick by the brilliant Mahrez sent Leicester back to the top and cost Swansea manager Garry Monk his job. Still they had not beaten a big team said their critics…

17. Bournemouth 2 Manchester United 1. Although United were near the top of the table their performances had been poor and they had just been knocked out of the Champions League. An embarrassing defeat to Premier League new boys Bournemouth piled on the pressure on Louis van Gaal and United’s title ambitions faded away.

18. Leicester 2 Chelsea 1. A significant game as Leicester gained their first win of the season against one of the “big five”. Vardy and Mahrez scored in a game which is also significant for the fact Chelsea finally sacked Mourinho after this defeat. They only lost two more League games after this but it was far too late for them.

19. Everton 2 Leicester 3. Notable for the fact that this clinched Leicester top spot in the table on Christmas Day. But everyone thought they would come down with the decorations….

20. Southampton 4 Arsenal 0…Especially when Leicester lost at Liverpool on Boxing Day. If Arsenal won at Southampton they would go top. But they crumpled to a humiliating defeat that caused more questions about their ability to sustain a title bid. They would end 2015 top when Leicester and Manchester City drew 0-0 but still with lots of questions to answer.

21. Manchester United 0 Chelsea 0. The Premier League’s fallen giants showing how far they had fallen. It was clear after this game that the duo who had won all but two of the titles since 2005 were not going to win it this season and that the door was wide open. Even for little old Leicester…

Part two coming up….

Put the League Cup out of its misery

People in English football are getting concerned about the diminished status of the FA Cup. This was shown last Sunday when Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini fielded a very weakened team in the fifth round – against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Not surprisingly his team of youngsters got hammered 5-1 much to the disappointed of the BBC TV audience. Pellegrini picked this team because he wanted to prioritise the Champions League tie against Dynamo Kiev on Wednesday and the League Cup Final against Liverpool tomorrow. People have suggested scrapping replays, offering the winner of the Cup a place in the Champions League (whether or not UEFA would allow that is highly debatable) or “rigging” the draw so that if a lower division club drew a Premier League team it would automatically have home advantage). But there is a simple solution staring every one in the face – scrap the League Cup.

The League Cup has existed for 55 years which is a long time for a bad idea to last even by the standards of UK sport. The competition was called “Hardaker’s folly” after the man who proposed it Football League Secretary Alan Hardaker. Hardaker was anti Europe* –  in 1955 he browbeat English Champions Chelsea into snubbing the first European Cup – and saw the new competition as an alternative to European Football. But the Times Newspaper (May 30th 1960) called the League Cup “useless”.  At the start the League Cup was not popular. Plenty of First Division clubs refused to enter and in its first season the Cup’s average attendance was 10,556 barely more than the average third division attendance.

The League Cup might have died a death but two events saved it. In 1967 the League Cup Final was moved to Wembley and UEFA inexplicably offered the winners a place in the UEFA Cup. Only then did all 92 Football League clubs enter the competition but it was never as highly regarded as the FA Cup or European competitions. Examples : No third division club has ever even reached the FA Cup Final. Two third division clubs have won the League Cup (QPR 1967, Swindon 1969) and two Fourth tier clubs have reached the Final (Rochdale 1962, Bradford as recently as 2013). No fourth tier team has even reached the FA Cup Semi Finals. In 1974-75 not one top division club reached even the Semi Finals. Admittedly (see earlier post) 1974-75 was a bit of a “silly season” and two of the Semi Finalists were Manchester United and Aston Villa who are usually top division clubs while another of the quartet Norwich City are a current Premier League club. Only fourth division Chester were real minnows. But still it doesn’t say much for the competition that there was a season where no top division club got to the Semi Finals.

The ridiculous thing about the Football League Cup is that the Premier League clubs are not members of the Football League so they really should not be in it. The big clubs have been fielding reserve teams since at least 1994 where Manchester United fielded young unkowns like Beckham, Neville, Butt and Scholes at Port Vale. Port Vale fans were so angry they wrote to the local paper saying that United should refund fan’s admission money and MP Joan Walley even got involved! United had the last laugh – they won the game 2-1 and the four players mentioned became superstars – but it showed how little the competition was regarded.

Getting rid of the League Cup would have the advantage of freeing up five midweeks. The three rounds of midweek games played in January, February and March could be moved to September, October and November. That would free up five midweeks for FA Cup Replays, rest or even to allow England manager Roy Hodgson to hold a couple of midweek training camps. Incidentally if UEFA staged the last sixteen of the Champions League over two weeks instead of four that would free up another couple of weeks. Hopefully if UEFA get a new President he has the sense to do it.

I suspect if the League Cup did not exist it would not be invented now. Of all the countries in Europe outside the UK only France has a League Cup. Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal and Holland somehow survive without one. Besides the Football League should go too. Most sports in the UK only have one governing body. Football has the FA, the Football League and the Premier League who spend as much of their time arguing with each other as running football. A single governing body for football would make sense but unfortunately too many nonentities would lose their jobs which makes it a non runner. After all it’s not just in FIFA that turkeys don’t vote for Christmas!

The common sense thing to do to cut down fixture congestion is to put the League Cup out of its misery. For most of its history the big clubs have not taken it seriously. To be honest – like the not dissimilar Benson and Hedges Cup in cricket which was one competition too many – once it is gone it will soon be forgotten. To quote Peter Cook who played a deranged army big-wig “The time has come Perkins for a useless sacrifice”. To cut down fixture congestion and help the FA Cup it is time to sacrifice the League Cup. Let’s put it out of its misery.

*A joke of mine is that Hardaker would be kicked out of UKIP for being too anti European!