Monday, January 12, 2009

It's game on for title hopefuls

Over the past two months, nothing had really compelled me to write in this space. I hadn't stopped watching football, I still manage to see the better portion of six games or so a week. It's that nothing grabbed me enough to compel an online rant, or even a bold analysis.

Oh, and the bloody bus drivers are striking in this God-forsaken city, but that's another story.

But having watched what was the most compelling weekend in the Premier League this season, the fat is truly in the fire, and I'm ready to rant.

Starting with Rafa Benitez rant on Friday against a man best described as the "petulant Scot," what had been a moribund season so far got a kick in the pants. It seems everyone who doesn't drape their bedroom with Red Devils agrees that Benitez wasn't wrong to suggest Alex Ferguson gets away with murder when it comes to referees and the FA, but Liverpool's manager has gone off the deep end, picking a fight he can't help but lose.

I think the worst thing anyone can take out of the "rant" is that Benitez is anywhere near as vacuous as Kevin Keegan. The former (twice?) manager of Newcastle United will forever rue the day he said he'd love to beat out Man United for the title. Kevin Keegan was a fantastic footballer, but I think his record speaks for itself.

Benitez, on the other hand, didn't get to where he is today because he is a stupid man. If Ferguson believes this, even for a second, I feel sorry for him. At this point in the season, Benitez wouldn't have risked causing a stir without a purpose.

Perhaps he felt Liverpool needed some extra pressure, a situation the Reds have thrived on in the past (their success in the Champions League has often come under some sort of duress). With his teams title rivals conveniently slipping up whenever Liverpool dropped points, it's possible Benitez wanted someone to start biting at their heels, and who better than Ferguson and United. Perhaps he wanted to remind Ferguson that it is Liverpool who are challenging them for the title, and no one else (I'll get back to that). I'm positive, however, that Benitez has some sort of method to his apparent madness.

The next event to get under my skin was Liverpool's 0-0 draw against Stoke. You would hope that a team would respond to a manager's rally cry with some sort of positive display. I think the result speaks for itself. Stoke did a great job of play the kind of football that leads most North American sports fans to label the game "boring": park the bus, lump the ball up field, have one man chase, repeat. It ground out the result. However, Stoke may think this is the route to Premier League survival, but they remain only three points ahead of West Brom, who actually try to play football. Both may go down, but at least Albion will do it with some amount of style.

As for Liverpool, their ability to win the match was hampered by several reasons. First was Lucas, who is not Xabi Alonso. Where Alonso looks to play a good ball to the feet of his teammates in space, Lucas punts the ball up to where he hopes his teammates are. Tinkering in this area of the pitch (moving Steven Gerrard back and putting Babel, Keane or even Nabil El Zhar behind the striker would have helped) was needed, but not addressed.

Second, having Jamie Carragher and Fabio Aurelio at fullback isn't the best set of circumstances. Carragher put in a fantastic effort, but he is nowhere near as effective as the injured Arbeloa. On the other side of the pitch, Insua has proven he is Liverpool's most effective left fullback for the league, whereas Aurelio disappears far to often when not in Europe.

Third, I thought Dirk Kuyt established about a year-and-a-half ago that he is an industrious winger, not a striker. With Torres fit and Keane and Ngog available, each one has more ability playing up front. Kuyt has scored a decent number of goals this term, but most I can recall have come with him playing off the wing.

Enough about that. Liverpool's season won't be decided against Stoke City at the Britannia, it will be decided at Old Trafford, and at home against Chelsea and Arsenal.

Lastly, the game at the Theatre of Dreams on Sunday was a miserable affair, but not because Man United won. Chelsea are in dire straits, and that fact was laid bare on the pitch.

Chelsea are bereft in attack, with two moody strikers who are anything but reliable. In midfield, Frank Lampard alone exhibits any perceptible amount of passion, often to excess. Deco and Ballack seem unable to lift their game when it matters most, while Joe Cole, whose career was revived last season under Avram Grant, seems lost under Scolari. At the back, the unit is only as composed as the incendiary John Terry allows them to be. What must newcomer Bosingwa, who has been one of the top performers in the league this season, think when his captain flys off the handle when it matters most for the team? I couldn't help but think how differently the game might have gone had Chelsea's true talisman, Michael Essien been fit for the match ...

That leaves us with Scolari, who like Cole, seems adrift in the roiling sea that is the Premier League. I think the Brazilian is lucky Roman Abramovich was nowhere near Manchester on Sunday, or else he might have found himself in the unemployment line on Monday. The man who led Brazil to World Cup glory will have to act quickly, if there is indeed anything that can be done at all, if he wants to right the ship.

A good place to start would be to find a talented young striker with funds raised through the sale of Didier Drogba, who clearly didn't want to be playing in the cold at Old Trafford (too bad for him that it looked awfully cold in places like Pamplona yesterday as well). A midfielder wouldn't be bad either, someone with at least an ounce of passion, which would be one ounce more than was on display Sunday.

That being said, Manchester United are the champions, and look prepared to stay that way, at least for the time being.

Its good to be back.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Liverpool owner Gillette positioning for move?

I'll warn anyone who read this post that it's pure speculation, but the sheer possibility demands some sort of comment.

According to Canadian media reports, the Montreal Canadiens NHL hockey franchise, owned by Liverpool co-owner George Gillette, are the subject of a sale speculation. Research In Motion CEO Jim Balsille, who has sought to acquire an NHL franchise, was reported to have told the La Presse newspaper in Montreal that the Canadiens are for sale. Both Balsille and Gillette have since subsequently rejected the notion, but the mere report of a sale raises some questions.

Perhaps Balsillie isn't going to buy the team, but does this mean the Canadiens are not for sale? The team is performing very well this season, but perhaps the value of the franchise will never be higher. Also to consider, is that the NHL is largely a North American property, with marginal interest outside Canada and the U.S.

Liverpool on the other hand, is in many respects a global property. Is it possible that Mr. Gillette is considering selling the Canadiens for a considerable profit, only to ensure that the proposed new Anfield moves ahead and prior loans are secured, thereby safeguarding a larger, potentially more lucrative investment? In the face of the Liverpool ownership's refusal to deal with Middle East oil interests, this may represent the next move in the ongoing ownership saga.

As I said at the outset, this is my own speculation, but considering what Premier League observers have already seen this season (Manchester City, for example), such a move wouldn't be out of the ordinary.

Stay tuned ...

Monday, November 3, 2008

Top of Premier League table resumes familiar pattern; MLS 2011 expansion prediction

Things at the top of the Premier League table are starting to look awfully familiar.

After losing to the Tottenham "Redknapp effect" 2-1 Saturday, Liverpool now trail Chelsea (easy 5-0 winners against Sunderland) on goal difference, while Manchester United have shrugged off an indifferent start to their campaign, their latest scalp a tricky 4-3 win over Hull City. United lie in third, five points behind with a game in hand. Arsenal meanwhile, sit in fourth after their weekend debacle away to Stoke City.

Sound familiar? It's more than a little comical how it generally takes about 10 or so games, but the pretenders get shaken out sooner rather than later. There are questions to be asked of the Big Four (Can Liverpool do the business over the long term without Fernando Torres, will Arsenal suffer a total collapse due to injuries, will Man United get distracted by January transfer speculation?), but for all the talk of several teams "breaking in" to the Champions League positions, nothing seems to have really changed.

For all of the promise that Hull City have shown through the first quarter of the season, the Champions League will not be the next stop for the determined Tigers.

The only intriguing case for a shake-up at the top appears to be the pluck Aston Villa. Villa look to have mastered the task of navigating the lower-tier Premier League teams, and have already taken a point off Liverpool. Victory tonight at Newcastle would vault the Villains ahead of Man United into third. This at the same time that their chief rival to the Big Club, Arsenal, took a beating in more ways than one against Stoke.

The Gunners' best striker this term, Robin van Persie, got sent off and will miss the upcoming match against Manchester United. Emmanuel Adebayor, Theo Walcott and Bacary Sagna all suffered injuries. Yesterday, manager Arsene Wenger admitted his team may already be burnt out. Not a good sign at this point, is it?

Like Arsenal, Villa are talented, but the depth of Martin O'Neill's squad is questionable over the gruelling English season. With UEFA cup group stage games, FA and Carling cup ties along with the Christmas schedule on the horizon, Villa's credentials will be truly tested over the next two months.

As for the rest, relegation battles and cup dreams remain the only possible consolation.

MLS Expansion

Since straying from my little piece of the 'Net, Major League Soccer announced its list of suitors for two expansion slots for the 2011 season. Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, Miami, Atlanta, St. Louis and Portland all confirmed their intentions to bid for what would be the 17th and 18th league franchises (after Seattle and Philadelphia are admitted in the interim).

From my corner of the world here in Ottawa, I see two possible results, bounded by two factors. Remember: 1) the league wants to promote rivalries, 2) the league is split geographically into East and West.

This makes for two scenarios: Montreal and Portland or Vancouver and Atlanta.

The first assumption that this prediction makes is that MLS is hot for Canada. Toronto FC is, at least commercially, the most successful club in the league. Some of this comes down to the city of Toronto and not having enough holes for people to drop their bottomless pit of entertainment dollars into; some of this is because there are many people in this country who crave professional football.

MLS, in my opinion, sees the opportunity to cash in on Canadian footballing dreams and will take one bid from the three northern cities.

Montreal, with solid ownership and a "soccer specific" stadium which can easily be expanded, seems the most likely candidate. The Impact's run in the CONCACAF Champions League couldn't come at a more opportune time either. Also working in Montreal's favour is the age-old rivalry with Toronto (George Gillett, owner of the Canadiens/Impact vs. MLSE, owner of the Maple Leafs/TFC).

This would make way for Portland and the Timbers, who could then re-kindle their rivalry with Seattle at the MLS level.

The alternative would be Vancouver, also in the west and a potential rival for Seattle, but with no stadium. In the East, Atlanta would be the second pick of the litter behind Montreal, only because it is backed by Falcons owner Arthur Blanks. Atlanta however is a professional sporting nightmare, with little in the way of consistent fan support for any of the current franchises (Falcons, Braves, Hawks, Thrashers).

Miami, backed by Barcelona, was tried once before by MLS, why go back now? As for St. Louis, a team there would serve as a rival for Kansas City, but why prop up the weakest market in the league with another dubious football market?

As for Ottawa: no professional team + no stadium + no clue = no team. Senators owner Eugene Melnyk should look into the soon-to-be-burgeoning market for a USL team and build from the ground up, unless Millwall co-owner and city sporting rival Bill Shenkman beats him to it.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Shipwreck on the Tyne: the good ship Magpie goes down

Things just aren't right at St. James' Park, are they?

Four losses in a row, a brand new interim manager to replace the previous interim manager who stepped in when the Toon idol finally had enough and walked out the door. Top it off with an owner (or is it wealthy cheerleader?) who can't sell fast enough.

What can players like Michael Owen, Nicky Butt and Damien Duff, players who have all won trophies and played at the highest levels, think about what's going on at Newcastle?

About a month and a half ago, I quite cynically predicted Newcastle would be relegated this year. I think anyone who tries to predict anything needs to make one bold call, make a call to set themselves apart from the crowd. Most pundits had Newcastle pegged to finish 11th or 12th come May; I had them 18th. At this point, I may have been optimistic.

In the Magpies' defence, they have had a tough schedule to this point. A gutsy draw against Manchester United, a win at home to a soft Bolton and a 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Arsenal at the Emirates. I don't think anyone would have seen those results differently (the opening draw aside).

In the past three games, the wheels have fallen off. A home loss to Hull, a 3-1 defeat at Upton Park against another mid-table side engulfed in off-field turmoil, and finally losing 2-1 today to Blackburn.

Sandwiched in there as well was another home loss to the equally woeful Tottenham, 2-1 in the Carling Cup on Wednesday.

No wonder Terry Venables turned down the job...

Along the way, manager Kevin Keegan imploded, blaming the transfer policies of owner Mike Ashley and his hench-thingy Dennis Wise for his typically odd resignation saga. It was never going to work out for Keegan, despite the hopes and dreams of his adoring public. But in the end, the fate of Newcastle United was never really Keegan's fault anyway.

I think in order to understand how Newcastle got to this point, you need to look back to 2004, when Sir Bobby Robson was sacked for failing to qualify for the Champions League. Since then, they've finished in 14th, 7th, 13th and 12th. They've also had five managers.

At one time this was a team capable of playing in Europe. No longer. At one point this was a team to be feared in the Premier League and St. James' Park was a tough place to play. No more.

New interim manager Joe Kinnear has his work cut out for him. The first thing he needs to do is treat every game a point he needs to claim. He needs to send teams out on the park willing to scrap for a draw and to nick a win if they're lucky. This team needs to get into relegation battle mode now, because by January it may be too late.

The manager and the players can't control events off the pitch, so it's best to ignore them as best you can.

Last season, Liverpool suffered through a spell of owner antics. After claiming only one point after three matches in the group stages of the Champions League, they won their remaining three to qualify for the knockout phase. Meanwhile, the Reds' American owners were rumoured to be hunting for a new manager, fans were protesting, points were dropped in the league. But the team accomplished the task at hand.

Newcastle would be advised to draw inspiration from that situation. The players need to ensure the team's Premier League survival, owner be damned. It's going to be the longest of seasons on Tyneside.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Canada puts themselves behind the 8-ball

It's been a bit since my last post; the end of August proved to be a busy time in both my life and the world of football.

Canada has put themselves in quite a predicament, after poor displays against both Jamaica in Toronto and, most recently, Honduras in Montreal. Against Jamaica, a moment of madness from veteran keeper Paul Dolan cost them points, while on Saturday the game plan started to crumble after winger Tomasz Radzinski sliced his hand open on the advertising boards.

Both matches (I was at the Jamaica game and only caught Saturday's game on the telly) showed that while Canada has more attacking potential than perhaps any time in the past, they still need that bit of quality when it comes to finishing. Canada had more scoring chances than their opponents in each match, but failed to convert chances into goals. Honduras on the other hand, had but maybe four good chances on goal and took two of them.

The other criticism I have of Canada's play, especially against Honduras, was the way the team slipped back into a fruitless, direct style of play after Radzinski went off. Before that moment, Canada controlled possession, was pushing the ball down the wings and creating chances. Afterwards, some fifteen minutes into the match and with a deserved 1-0 lead, they sat deeper and were content to hoof the ball up to striker Rob Friend, who seemed to operate without support. This allowed the Hondurans back into the game and effectively squashed Canada's chances once they went behind 2-1.

If Canada play like they did Saturday against the Mexicans on Wednesday night, their World Cup campaign will come to a screeching halt with three games remaining. If they use the talents of Julian De Guzman, Dwayne De Rosario and Atiba Hutchinson to control play, coming away with a point would save them from another four years of regret.

Don't get me wrong. With only one point from their first two home matches Canada will not be favoured to move on in the competition. Effectively, they need to aim for a pair of draws or an unlikely win in Edmonton against Mexico, plus a win in Honduras and again away to Jamaica.

That's a tall order, but CONCACAF is not a confederation where there's a unassailable gulf of talent between these teams. Canada, on their day, can beat any of the teams in their region, just as Trinidad and Tobago or Cuba or Guatemala can show up and play against the likes of the U.S. or Costa Rica. This ain't over for Canada yet, they've just made it a lot harder on themselves.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Canada v. Jamaica: World Cup 2010 Qualifying Preview

Canada starts the next stage in its bid to earn a berth in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa with a match against the Reggae Boyz of Jamaica on Wednesday in Toronto.

The Canadian team, announced last week, is perhaps the strongest we've ever managed to assemble:

Goalkeepers: Pat Onstad (Houston Dynamo); Greg Sutton (Toronto FC)

Defenders: Paul Stalteri (Tottenham Hotspur); Jim Brennan (Toronto FC); Mike Klukowski (Club Brugge); Kevin McKenna (FC Koln); Richard Hastings (Inverness Caledonian Thistle); Adrian Serioux (FC Dallas)

Midfielders: Daniel Imhof (VfL Bochum); Julian de Guzman (Deportivo La Coruna); Issey Nakajima-Farran (FC Nordsjlland); Atiba Hutchinson (FC Copenhagen); Patrice Bernier (FC Nordsjlland); Tomasz Radzinski (Skoda Xanthi); Dwayne De Rosario (Houston Dynamo)

Forwards: Ali Gerba (MK Dons); Rob Friend (Borussia Moenchengladbach); Iain Hume (Barnsley)

Canada looks strongest in midfield, with the likes of De Rosario, De Guzman, Radzinski and Hutchinson. The forwards, particularly Gerba and Friend will also play a big factor in Canada's success. Defence is a weak spot with no true centre backs named in the squad.

For Jamaica:

Goalkeepers: Donovan Ricketts (Bradford City); Shawn Sawyers (Portmore United)

Defenders: Tyrone Marshall (Toronto FC); Ian Goodison (Tranmere Rovers); Keneil Moodie (Seba United); O'Brian Woodbine (Reno); Demar Stewart (Chengdu Blades); Jermaine Taylor (Harbour View); Demar Phillips (Stoke City)

Midfielders: Davion Thorpe (Reno); Evan Taylor (Reno); Rudolph Austin (Stoke City); Jevaughn Watson (Sporting Central); Jermaine Hue (Harbour View); Ricardo Gardner (Bolton Wanderers); Wolry Wolfe (Joe Public)

Forwards: Deon Burton (Sheffield Wednesday); Luton Shelton (Valerenga); Omar Cummings (Colorado Rapids); Andy Williams (Real Salt Lake)

The Jamaicans also look strong up front, with Shelton leading the team with five goals in the opening qualifying round. Their defence looks decent, with a couple England-based players and TFC's Tyrone Marshall (who is questionable for the match, having picked up a quadriceps injury). The midfield is mainly composed of domestic-based players and remains somewhat of an enigma for us non-Jamaicans. They will surely benefit from their familiarity with one another, but the star, Gardner, didn't feature for Bolton on the weekend.

Canada leads the series between the two nations with a record of 6 wins, 4 draws and only 2 losses over 12 games. Particularly telling is the Canadians' record at home, with 5 wins and a draw. The confines of BMO Field should only help with this fine home form.

The Jamaicans dominated their second round qualifier against the Bahamas, winning 13-0 on aggregate.

There will be no games in the so-called Group of Death (also including Honduras and Mexico) that Canada can take for granted. They should be looking for three points against Jamaica, but by no means should these points be considered automatic.

Rene Simoes, the Brazilian who had been in talks with the Canadian Soccer Association to take over after the departure of Frank Yallop last year, manages the Jamaicans and will certainly have the Reggae Boyz prepared for the match.

Canadian manager Dale Mitchell would be advised to make the best of his limited training time with the largely European-based side, to ensure the squad is organized and acclimatizing his players to the artificial pitch at BMO.

Canada's next match is in Montreal on Sept. 6, against Honduras.

TFC's Edu makes Rangers switch

Glasgow Rangers have acquired Toronto FC and U.S. international midfielder Maurice Edu for a fee of £2.7 million (roughly $5.25 million Canadian).

According to the club's website, the move is still contingent upon Edu receiving a British work permit, but with six senior caps and his selection to the U.S. side for an upcoming World Cup qualifier against Guatemala, it should likely be nothing more than a formality.

Edu scored five goals in 38 appearances for Toronto FC, and won the MLS Rookie of the Year award in his debut campaign last season.

The midfielder has a bright future ahead of him in Scotland, but it leaves questions about what lies ahead for the TFC midfield. Aside from Welsh international Carl Robinson, there isn't really anyone else to mind the centre of the park for the Reds. Canadians Kevin Harmse, Tyler Rosenlund and Gabe Gala have all appeared in the role this season, none of the trio have managed to acquit themselves yet.

General manager Mo Johnston moved to pick up former U.S. under-21 forward Johann Smith late last week, but with Edu gone the transfers may not have wrapped up yet for Toronto. According to MLS rules, TFC receive two-thirds of the transfer fee for Edu.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Premier League 08/09 Preview: Part IV

At long last, the final installment of the Premier League preview!

5. TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR (at Middlesbrough, Aug. 16)
Stadium: White Heart Lane (Cap.: 36,310)
Manager: Juande Ramos

07 / 08 Finish: W 11, D 13, L 14, GD +5, P 46 (11th)

Perhaps the centre of attention in the Premier League this summer, Juande Ramos and Tottenham will this season reap the rewards of the stir they have caused. After stumbling for the first few months of last season, Spurs made steady progress after Maritn Jol was sacked and Ramos was installed as manager, culminating in their League Cup triumph over Chelsea. The team has improved iteself in almost every area of the pitch, and will be one of the treats to watch this term. The additions of David Bentley, Luka Modric and Gio dos Santos will bring verve to the midfield, while Heurelho Gomes will add solidity in net. Players added last season, including Scottish fullback Alan Hutton and Jonathan Woodgate, should continue to flourish. Ramos still may lose Dimitar Berbatov to Manchester United, which will surely impact the teams fortunes, but Spurs will remain the best candidate to challenge the dominance of the top four this year, and in years to come.

IN: David Bentley (Blackburn, £15m rising to £17m); Luka Modric (Dinamo Zagreb, £16.8m); Heurelho Gomes (PSV Eindhoven, £8m); Giovani dos Santos (Barcelona, £4.7m rising to £8.6m); John Bostock (Crystal Palace, £700,000 rising to £2.15m); Paul-Jose Mpoku (Standard Liege; undisclosed)

OUT: Robbie Keane (Liverpool, £19m rising to £20.3m); Pascal Chimbonda (Sunderland, £4.9m); Steed Malbranque (Sunderland, £4m); Paul Robinson (Blackburn, £3.5m); Teemu Tainio (Sunderland, £3.5m); Younes Kaboul (Portsmouth, undisclosed); Tommy Forecast (Southampton, undisclosed); Joe Martin (Blackpool, undisclosed); Simon Dawkins (Leyton Orient, six month loan); Anthony Gardner (Hull, six month loan); Jake Livermore (Crewe, six month loan); Leigh Mills (Brentford, season loan); Jamie Davis (released); Radwan Hamed (released); Chris Riley (released)

Top League Goalscorers:
Robbie Keane 15
Dimitar Berbatov 15
Darren Bent 6
Jermaine Defoe 4
Jermaine Jenas 4
Steed Malbranque 4

4. ARSENAL (v. West Brom, Aug. 16)
Stadium: Emirates Stadium (Cap.: 60,355)
Manager: Arsne Wenger

07 / 08 Finish: W 24, D 11, L 3, GD +43, P 83 (3rd)

In December of last season, the Premier League was Arsenal's to lose. They lost. It was felt that between their run in the Champions League and the English season proper, their squad was too thin to compete over the 10-month haul. Arsene Wenger has responded by ... signing a teenager (Aaron Ramsey) and a player barely out of his teens (Samir Nasri). Now, I'm not one to question Wengers aptitude when it comes to identifying talent, but to me, it seems the Frenchman is content to fade from contention this season as well. Arsenal have the starting eleven to best any other club in the league, but not over the 50-plus games they will likely play over the course of the season. Cesc Fabregas and Emmanuel Adebayor will continue to terrorize defences, but if and when they break down, watch out. The loss of both Alexander Hleb and Mathieu Flamini will be felt at some point this year. For the sake of the Gunner faithful, I hope that some of the ticket revenues generated by 60,000 fans can manage to purchase some cavalry before some of the teams beneath Arsenal sneak up from behind.

IN: Samir Nasri (Marseille, £12.8m); Aaron Ramsey (Cardiff, £5m); Francis Coquelin (Stade Lavallois, free); Amaury Bischoff (Werder Bremen, undisclosed)

OUT: Alexander Hleb (Barcelona, £11.8m rising to £13.5m); Gilberto Silva (Panathinaikos, £1m); Mathieu Flamini (AC Milan, free); Jens Lehmann (Stuttgart, free); Kerrea Gilbert (Leicester, season loan)

Top League Goalscorers:
Emmanuel Adebayor 24
Robin Van Persie 7
Cesc Fabregas 7
Tomas Rosicky 6
Nicklas Bendtner 5

3. LIVERPOOL (at Sunderland, Aug. 16)
Stadium: Anfield (Cap.: 45,522)
Manager: Rafael Benitez

07 / 08 Finish: W 21, D 13, L 4, GD +39, P 76 (4th)

Liverpool start this season hoping they can have a say in ensuring Manchester United don't match their English record of 18 league championships. Easier said than done. Rafa Benitez has made some moves that will help end a title drought that is creeping up on two decades, but it remains to be seen whether he has done enough. Robbie Keane is sure to bring goals to Anfield, both for himself and for last season's top marksman Fernando Torres. Andrea Dossena and Philipp Degen bring added depth to a solid back line, which will benefit from the return to fitness of Daniel Agger, who missed most of last season through injury. What is still missing is a true wing player, especially vital as Benitez has grown fond of the 4-2-3-1 formation that demands a pair of skilled wide players. Ryan Babel could fill one half of that role while Keane may get drafted into the other, but a born-and-bred winger is what the Reds truly need. The biggest threat to a championship for the red half of Liverpool may lie in the boardroom however, as the travials of the two American owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, won't seem to go away.

IN: Robbie Keane (Tottenham, £19m rising to £20.3m); Andrea Dossena (Udinese, £7m); Diego Cavalieri (Palmeiras, £3m ); David Ngog (Paris St-Germain, £1.5m); Nikola Saric (Herfolge, £600,000); Vincent Weijl (AZ Alkmaar, nominal fee); Christopher Buchtmann (Borussia Dortmund, undisclosed); Philipp Degen (Borussia Dortmund, free); Emmanuel Mendy (Murcia Deportivo, free); Zsolt Poloskei (MTK Hungaria, season loan)

OUT: John Arne Riise (Roma, £4m); Scott Carson (WBA, £3.25m); Peter Crouch (Portsmouth, £9m rising to £11m); Danny Guthrie (Newcastle, £2.5m); Anthony Le Tallec (Le Mans, £1.1m); Charlie Barnett (Tranmere, free); Besian Idrizaj (Wacker Innsbruck, free); Harry Kewell (Galatasaray, free); Godwin Antwi (Tranmere, six month loan); Adam Hammill (Blackpool, six month loan); Jack Hobbs (Leicester City, season loan); Robbie Threlfall (Hereford United, season loan); David Martin (Leicester, six month loan); Sebastien Leto (Olympiakos, two year loan)

Top League Goalscorers:
Fernando Torres 24
Steven Gerrard 11
Peter Crouch 5
Andriy Voronin 5
Ryan Babel 4
Yossi Benayoun 4

2. MANCHESTER UNITED (v. Newcastle, Aug. 17)
Stadium: Old Trafford (Cap.: 76,212)
Manager: Alex Ferguson

07 / 08 Finish: W 27, D 6, L 5, GD +58, P 87 (1st)

United's chances to win three league titles in a row rest on one of two things: Cristiano Ronaldo scoring 30-plus league goals again or someone else to pick up the slack. The imminent arrival of Spurs striker Dimitar Berbatov remains just a bunch of newspaper fodder, while it remains to be seen whether Ronaldo can recover from ankle surgery and rekindle his other-worldly form of last season. Along with Chelsea, Manchester United have oodles of depth and talent at every position. But their double from last season was secured largely without a traditional centre forward. Berbatov would fill the role, and surely create space for the likes of Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez to further increase their goal tallies. Alex Ferguson has chosen not to invest further in the transfer market this summer, pinning his hopes on a squad that failed to win only 11 times (six draws, five losses) in 38 attempts last season. Not the worst bet, but with other clubs continuing to improve, it may turn out to cost the Red Devils come May.

IN: Davide Petrucci (Roma, £200,000)

OUT: Gerard Pique (Barcelona, £4m); Chris Eagles (Burnley, £1.2m); Richie Jones (Hartlepool, free); Michael Lea (Scunthorpe, free); Kieron Lee (Oldham, free); Conor McCormack (Triestina, free); David Williams (Oldham, free); Tom Heaton (Cardiff, season loan); Ferbin Brandy (Swansea, six month loan extension); Danny Simpson (Blackburn, season loan); Michael Barnes (released); Sean Evans (released); Chris Fagan (released)

Top League Goalscorers:
Cristiano Ronaldo 31
Carlos Tevez 14
Wayne Rooney 12
Louis Saha 5
Nani 3
Ryan Giggs 3

1. CHELSEA (v. Portsmouth, Aug. 17)
Stadium: Stamford Bridge (Cap.: 42,360)
Manager: Luiz Felipe Scolari

07 / 08 Finish: W 25, D 10, L 3, GD +39, P 85 (2nd)

When one of your biggest concerns is whether you can find any playing time for the likes of Joe Cole. things aren't bad. Felipe Scolari's Chelsea squad are dripping with talent, enough that it should bring the championship back to Stamford Bridge this season. The Blues only lost the title by two points last year, and the arrivals of full back Bosingwa and midfielder Deco will only make Chelsea stronger. Yes, they still only have a pair of strikers in Nicholas Anelka and Didier Drogba, but with German Michael Ballack back to his former, all-world self, the problem isn't nearly as glaring. And if it proves a problem, owner Roman Abramovich's pockets are still the deepest around. It will be interesting to see what sort of effect Scolari will have on Chelsea's style this year, which has bordered on drab or outright boring in the past. But really, this shouldn't matter too much in the end, so long as Scolari wins, everyone, including Abramovich himself, will be happy.

IN: Jose Bosingwa (Porto, £16.2m); Deco (Barcelona, £7.9m)

OUT: Steve Sidwell (Aston Villa, £5m); Khalid Boulahrouz (Stuttgart, £4m); Tal Ben Haim (Manchester City, £3m); Claude Makelele (Paris St-Germain, free); Harry Worley (Leicester, free); Ryan Bertrand (Norwich, season loan); Shaun Cummings (MK Dons, one month loan); Slobodan Rajkovic (FC Twente, season loan); Ben Sahar (Portsmouth, season loan); Michael Modubi (Westerloo, season loan); Jeffrey Ntuka (Westerloo, season loan); Emmanuel Sarki (Westerloo, season loan); Jimmy Smith (Sheffield Wednesday, season loan); Hernan Crespo (Inter Milan; season loan); Anthony Grant (released); Adrian Pettigrew (released); James Simmonds (released); Phil Younghusband (released)

Top League Goalscorers:
Frank Lampard 10
Didier Drogba 8
Michael Ballack 7
Saloman Kalou 7
Joe Cole 7