|The eve of
yet another season that promises so much and yet that sense that, even
after an exceptional pre-season, we may not yet be good enough to
qualify for the Champions League still persists. Force of habit ?
remodelled defence looks better than it did this time last year: Gomes,
Hutton, King/Dawson/Woodgate (perm any two from three +/- Corluka).
Gomes is a huge improvement on Robinson and inspires confidence.
Pre-season didn’t really extend him but his form against us in the UEFA
Cup was consistent over the two legs and, as noted in The Guardian, we
at last have someone between the sticks ‘without pans for hands’.
True, that central
pairing is not in the same class as Carvalho/ Terry or Vidic / Ferdinand
but it’s solid enough if the two elder statesmen stay fit and if Daws
can recapture his early promise and add positional sense to his
undoubted enthusiasm and bravery. Kaboul’s gung-ho tendencies
won’t be missed whilst Corluka’s arrival would be a real bonus.
The full backs inspire
confidence going forward although Bale will need to prove his worth as a
defender in the same way that Hutton already has. The latter’s
absence on opening day is a cause for concern, particularly if Downing
lines up as expected against Zokora, Hutton’s potential replacement.
I’d like to see Gunter given a go as I’m sure King and Woodgate can
nurse him along if required.
Our midfield is (over)
loaded with verve, speed and skill : Modric, Lennon, Bentley, Dos
Santos, Huddlestone, Jenas, O’Hara etc, and we are going to
create multiple opportunities every time we play, regardless of the
opposition. The match against Roma exemplified the fluid passing game
Ramos has instilled and was reminiscent at times of the way (whisper it)
A*****l play at times. Long may it continue.
However, the absence
of the archetypal ball winner is troubling: Zokora is the nearest we
have but he’s no Makelele and we do need someone of that ilk when faced
with the spikier teams in the division (Bolton, Boro etc) as well as the
top six clubs. Nolan could have been snapped up earlier in the
year but has regained both form and favour with both Megson and the home
fans. Ramos doesn’t appear to think we need such a player and he
was happy to let Tainio go, a decision we may rue later in the year.
Up front, Bent has had
a stupendous pre-season and must be favourite to start against Boro with
the hope of maintaining his form into the matches that actually count.
Keane has gone after seemingly becoming part of the furniture whilst
Berbatov has spent the last eighteen months or so waiting for Fergie to
scoop him up in his arms and take him to Old Trafford where he will live
happily ever after … and yet still remains. The loss of Defoe may
yet prove to be the biggest blow: he is tailor made for the way Ramos
wants to play, making his eleventh hour departure last January all the
Assuming Berbatov goes
(be careful what you wish for, Dimi…) I’d like to see us bring in Santa
Cruz rather than any of Arshavin, Milito or any of the others being
touted as possible replacements. Santa Cruz has already shown he can cut
it in the Premiership and could slot it in fairly quickly, as would
Ashton. Arshavin et al would require a few months to acclimatise
to the pace and physicality of our league, time we can ill afford if
Champions League football really is our aim this season. (We’d also save
a few million quid with which to buy the holding / ball winning
midfielder we need.)
Ramos has been true to
his word and cut away much of the mediocrity in the squad: more to the
point, he has actually managed to get the likes of Sunderland and
Portsmouth to part with significant amounts of money for the likes of
Chimbonda and Kaboul. The arrival of Modric, even before Euro 2008
kicked off, was a magnificent statement of intent and the subsequent
acquisitions of Bentley and Dos Santos have underlined his intention to
play an expansive, fluid attacking game. (Anyone noticed how much time
the ball spends on the deck these days ?)
Much of our play under
Jol seemed improvised and lacking in direction, much as I loved the Big
Man. Ramos has spent the pre-season promoting precision and
purpose as well as passion and I only hope we can reap the rewards as
the months unfold.
We can well do without
the white knuckle rides in evidence for much of last year (Villa,
Reading and Chelsea at home spring readily to mind), nor can we afford
to lose to the likes of Birmingham (losing home and away to a relegated
team) and Newcastle, especially at home. The Lane has to be a
fortress and we have to go to places like Everton and Villa expecting to
Fitness and freedom
from injury will be key: King and Woodgate will need to be rested
whenever convenient and Bent, if we play with a lone striker, will need
to be rotated with the likes of Pekhart in the competitions like the
Carling Cup. There is enough youth and energy in midfield to rest
and rotate as required.
Can we do it ?
My local bookie has us 50-1 to win the Premiership but 4/5 to finish in
the top six. Arsenal look the most vulnerable of the top four:
Wenger can’t get away indefinitely with playing his under-12s in key
matches. If not them, then the other hope is that Benitez will
rotate his squad again so much that they don’t settle into any sort of
rhythm or pattern.
This time last year I
gave four reasons why I didn’t think we would finish in the top four:
the defence in general and Robinson in particular were the two main
grounds for concern and thus it proved. A year on and I would be very
surprised if we conceded 60+ this time round. We have lost two of
our proven goal-scorers (probably three) but this should be compensated
for by our vibrant midfield who will create chances galore for Bent or
whoever converts them up front.
We look and feel more
compact, more focussed than 12 months ago and the performance against
Roma suggests that we will be able to pass a lot of teams to death. If
the kind of performances against Man Utd (in the league) and Chelsea (in
the Carling Cup) can become the norm rather than the exception then we
have a great chance of breaking into the top echelon.