preview of the 2008-09 season
|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 ?
The 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 more puzzling.
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 win.
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.
your say ...
Far too pessimistic, mate!
I am pretty pleased with the comings and goings from north London this summer. Keane, admittedly, was a surprise, but we got good money for him. Nor did I expect Malbranque to depart. Or Zakora, Boateng and Dawson to stay !
I think Ramos has bought well, with the prospect of one or two more additions with the Berba cash.
Modric will be a big hit, but the Mexican could disappear in the November mud. (Not that we have mud at the Lane, mind you.)
Bent looks like he has regained his confidence and should be good for 15 goals or so. Bentley will knock in a few, and perhaps this Pekhart chap will see first team action this term. We won't need to totally replace the 50 goal deficit left by the departures of Keane and Berbs simply because the defence will no longer play so badly that we are chasing 4-4 draws. Expect a few more 2-0 wins this season, now we have got a decent goalkeeper between the posts.
Anyway, who is better than us outside the Top Four ?
I think the goings-on at Man City, Everton and Blackburn this summer will see all those three struggle, and two of the three managers leave. (Ince first; Hughes second ?)
To my mind that leaves only Aston Villa and Portsmouth and so, seventh at the very worst. Possible 5th.
And starting away ?
No problem! Prediction: Middlesboro 1: Tottenham 4 or 5. (Bent hat-trick)
(Well, the first day of the season does throw up some funny results, so why not ?)
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