In many ways, 2010 has been an unusual curate’s egg of a year on the pitch. With the value of hindsight, we can see that not everything that we might have predicted last January came to pass yet, at the same time, it often felt as if it was very much business as usual on the pitch. The clubs of the Premier League and Barcelona, the aesthetes choice, all contrived to hit a brick wall in the Champions League before the final whilst, in the Premier League itself, league Chelsea managed to break Manchester United’s most recent monopoly on the league title itself with a victory that felt more routine than it was thanks to late season thrashings of Aston Villa, Stoke City and Wigan Athletic. Yet Chelsea needed a win at Old Trafford and those thumpings to secure the title on the last day of the season.
With the World Cup finals came a competition that couldn’t – and didn’t – live up to the hype. Spain were, as we might have expected, technically superb but seldom sparkled in the manner in which we may have hoped, whilst many of the other “bigger” nations flattered to deceive to varying extents, from England, who, like the tournament themselves, were simply incapable of living up to people’s expectations (and the biggest surprise about this was the amount of surprise expressed when they were torn a new one by Germany in the Second Round), to Brazil, who fell to pieces in the quarter-finals against the Netherlands having shown flashes of brilliance prior to this. And after all of this, the Netherlands tried to kick seven bells out of Spain in the final, in a match that summed up the vaguely unsatisfactory nature of the tournament. If the Champions League continues to go from strength to strength (and, in pure footballing terms alone, it is), then the World Cup looked like a tournament on the cusp of decline during the summer.
In England, the post-World Cup debate circled on something that we perhaps had known all along. The shot that bounced down, over the line and out against Germany wasn’t the story. England were absolutely, completely outplayed by a team from a country that isn’t “the enemy”, rather a template for how football should be organised and run. A sticking plaster was applied to the fractured national team by an odd indian summer that saw them start the qualifiers for the 2012 European Championships with wins, but insipid performances against France and Montenegro reopened old wounds and, with a team that is uniformly and almost uniquely unlikable (more on them tomorrow) and the identity of the next manager currently unknown (and likely, in view of statements the the effect that an only an English manager can be the man for the job, to be the sort of manager that raises a hand to the forehead in exasperation), there is little positive to see in their prognosis.
The Premier League has seen a year of two halves. The second half of last season was very much business as usual, although signs were present at the very start of the year that the times could be about to change. Just three days in, for example, Manchester United were knocked out of the FA Cup at home by Leeds United in a result saw its real significance – defending English champions knocked out at home by League One club – overshadowed by the fact that it was Leeds United beating Manchester United. Yet when the biggest didn’t spend heavily during the summer (possibly a consequence of economic circumstances, possibly of preparations for UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Initiative), it was a sign that perhaps – just perhaps – something might be changing.
This Premier League season has certainly had a peculiar egalitarianism about it so far, and this has been greeted by the scratching of heads by those that have become completely used to grinding regularity over the last decade and a half or so to such an extent that one could almost believe that they have forgotten that league football can be like this. Each defeat for a bigger club has been treated as a calamity in its own right and there has been an air of panic over clubs that seem to be spending too much time looking at the number of points between them and that dotted line near the bottom of the table. It probably won’t last, and in all likelihood the most powerful will rise to the top (Manchester United, for example, are still unbeaten in the league and may yet tin the tournament at a canter), but we should embrace this unpredictably while it lasts.
In the lower divisions, money talked. Notts County walked away with the League Two championship with a team built upon the foundations of a scam and this season Crawley Town have decided that they are non-league royalty and are spending money that will either lead to them becoming Sussex’s second Football League club or into administration. Still, Stevenage Borough defied the odds and won promotion to the Football League in their forty-fourth year and Newport County’s promotion into the Blue Square Premier was a triumph of excellent management on the part of the club. Meanwhile, the continued souring of the Milton Keynes experiment was a continuing source of merriment and the FA Cup continued its capacity to delight, with the adventures of FC United of Manchester and Dover Athletic in particular being sources of excitement.
Predicting what may or may not happen in 2011 will likely turn out to be more difficult than it was for 2010. Anybody that saw Barcelona trample Real Madrid a few weeks ago may well already see them as shoo-ins to win the Champions League, but the knock-out stages of the competition mean that only one bad ninety minutes could be enough to eliminate them from the competition. Such is the nature of knock-out football. In the Premier League, meanwhile, Manchester United are comfortable, but still have to travel to Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool having won only one of their eight away matches so far this season. Crawley Town may yet crash and burn. These are all at present imponderables and we should be grateful for the fact that they will be. Perhaps the biggest decisions to be taken in football over the next twelve months, however, will be taken away from the pitch, and we’ll be looking at what they may or may not be tomorrow evening.
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