Who was greedier: Hicks and Gillett, or Liverpool fans?

The saga, it appears, is finally over. Having taken out a temporary restraining order in a last-ditch attempt to stall the £300m sale of Liverpool FC to New England Sports Ventures (NESV), owner of the Boston Red Sox, Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr backed down yesterday morning and allowed the transaction to proceed, although they are still rumoured to be considering filing a £1 billion damages claim in the English courts.

Liverpool fans can once again breathe easy, it seems, safe from a week with wrestling with the convolutions of the legal system. Its now former American owners, who had arrived amid a fanfare of optimism declaring their desire to build a profitable and successful future, are gone. In their place comes a new set of American owners, fronted by the cigar-toting John W Henry, who have arrived amid a fanfare of optimism declaring their desire to build a, er, profitable and successful future.

As a forty-year old Arsenal fan who grew up as part of a generation in which Liverpool were the dominant force in both English and European club football, a significant number of my friends are devoted fans of the Anfield club. Many of them are sober and intelligent people, other than that one obvious aberration, and all of them are considerably more knowledgeable about the ins and outs of both this week’s court proceedings and the tumultuous 44-month reign of Hicks and Gillett than I am. I won’t comment further on these particulars; they are comprehensively covered elsewhere on the web and in the mainstream media.

However, I would like to pose one question – okay, three – if I may. Has Hicks and Gillett’s behaviour been any worse than that displayed by (some) Liverpool fans over these past few years? Have they really been the only party guilty of the deadly sin of greed? And is the situation really as straightforward as the old spaghetti Western staple of the bad guy in the black hat versus the good guy in the white one?

Defending the indefensible

Watching from a safe distance, I have been surprised by the media-fuelled reaction to the former owners’ various legal attempts to prevent the deal with NESV from going through over the past week. After all, the sale was negotiated and agreed by the rest of Liverpool’s five-man board without their knowledge or consent as owners – and it is a deal which stands to see them lose around £140m in the process. If you were in their shoes, wouldn’t you be a bit peeved, and do everything in your legal power to prevent someone from burning a very large hole in your children’s inheritance? Or, to put it another way, if you fell behind on your repayments and someone was sent to repossess your car, would you hand them the keys with a smile and offer them a cup of tea first?

Some of Hicks and Gillett’s claims in court were patently weak, and the injunction they took out in a Texas county court was clearly little more than one final attempt to buy some time to explore every last avenue open to them, but it is all too easy to swallow the line about their actions being spiteful or lacking class. They were merely the acts of two desperate men whose biggest mistake was to make a business investment which they hoped to profit from, only to see it go horribly, horribly wrong. Were they greedy? Yes, but no more so than you or I when we buy a lottery ticket. (Remember, folks, the value of your investments can go down as well as up, and history is no guarantee of future performance. Here ends this public service announcement.)

Attacking the ‘innocent’ fans

So what about Liverpool’s fans, or at least the subset of them whose eyes lit up those 44 months ago when they naively thought their new American owners were Roman Abramovich, Sheikh Mansour and Bill Shankly all rolled into one? Were they in some way culpable? Are they now?

It’s difficult to say. Certainly in some quarters expectations were raised unreasonably high. Former manager Rafael Benítez was given plenty of scope to play the transfer market initially, although not to the same extent that Chelsea and Manchester United, and more recently Manchester City, have been able to. It didn’t take long before the mutterings started from both Benítez and some supporters about needing more money to compete at the highest level. Hicks and Gillett – who never claimed to be fans before being businessmen – refused, and so the downward spiral began, culminating in this week’s acrimonious events.

But were those complaining Liverpool fans being reasonable in demanding the owners increase their investment and jeopardise their by then already constrained opportunity to turn a profit? Of course, fans want the best for their club, but were those expectations – fuelled by a long, proud and successful history, and with pride wounded by the inexorable rise of the hated Man U over the past two decades – an expression of passion, frustration or simple greed? As an individual, if you put money into an investment and it starts to turn sour, the last thing you are going to do is throw even more money at it. Hicks and Gillett were not being stingy, they were acting just as any other sensible investor would do. In some ways, their biggest crime was merely that they just weren’t big enough fans of the club they owned.

With the former owners now dismissed, how will Liverpool fans now perceive NESV? They turned around the Red Sox – like Liverpool, a proud club with a great history but little recent success – through a sensible, measured business plan rather than by injecting the kind of immediate and massive investment which took place in the case of both Chelsea and City, for instance. Will that be enough for the fans? Or will they grow quickly impatient if a return to trophy-winning success is not immediately forthcoming?

Are (some) Liverpool fans greedy? In truth, only time will tell. But before the Anfield masses start to fidget impatiently in their seats in the Kop, they would do well to remember the salutary lesson of the last four years, set aside their emotions for the club and look at the situation through rational eyes. Where does passion end and greed begin?

I know, I know, it is easier said than done, and football – like all sports – appeals to the passion in people rather than their rational nature. But it is an interesting conundrum nonetheless, and it brings into question whether it is fair to paint Hicks and Gillett as ‘the bad guys’ with such unseemly haste. If Liverpool fans look at themselves in the mirror for a minute, they might not like what they see.

Don’t get me wrong. Even as a fan of an opposing team, I am glad to see Hicks and Gillett gone from the exclusive club of Premier League owners. I’m just not at all convinced they were the be-all and end-all of the problem. Whether the fans like it or not, it is a long road back to success for Liverpool FC, and one fraught with many potential pitfalls in the months and years to come.

Arsenal and Walcott bring Blackpool down to earth with a bump

Arsenal 6 Blackpool 0

Walcott 12, 39, 58, Arshavin 32 pen, Diaby 49, Chamakh 83

Blackpool fans are realistic enough to know they are the Premier League‘s equivalent of the archetypal seven-stone weakling, destined to struggle against the top division’s muscle-men. They will have enjoyed last weekend’s opening 4-0 win at Wigan for what it was: a rare opportunity to kick sand into a bigger boy’s face; a thoroughly enjoyable high in what promises to be a season with more downs than ups. Nonetheless, yesterday’s 6-0 hammering at the Emirates Stadium brought them back down to earth with a bump and ensured their Premier League honeymoon came to a sharp and painful end.

Blackpool fans will at least be familiar with what a rollercoaster ride feels like (image courtesy of cubicgarden)

Two games in, and the Seasiders’ season is already starting to resemble the In Fusion rollercoaster at the town’s famous Pleasure Beach. The ride opened in May 2007, the same month in which Blackpool earned promotion from League 1 to the Championship, from where they ascended after three seasons to the Premier League via a 3-2 playoff final win over Cardiff. If the club can stay on the rails – and the sudden resignation of Karl Oyston, currently involved in a bankruptcy hearing, as chairman this week is not exactly the best possible news – then a 17th-place finish would be regarded as a miraculous achievement by manager Ian Holloway and his under-financed side. When former Aston Villa striker Marlon Harewood and one-time Rangers playmaker Charlie Adam are your star attractions and your ground, Bloomfield Road, has a capacity of less than 13,000 and is currently undergoing much-needed redevelopment, it is understandable that expectations would be muted.

But, make no mistake, Blackpool are not just along for the ride. And as they demonstrated at Wigan last week, they are willing and able to play attractive, attacking football, and will give many larger clubs an awkward 90 minutes between now and the end of the season.

All of which made this the proverbial potential banana skin for an Arsenal side who had scrambled a late point last Sunday against ten-man Liverpool, and who have ‘previous’ in slipping up against newly-promoted sides, with the wounds of a 2-1 home defeat to Hull City – the only other club in Premier League history whose first-choice strip is orange – two seasons ago still fresh in Gunners fans’ memories.

However, from the moment Andrey Arshavin converted a 32nd-minute penalty awarded for a foul by Ian Evatt on Marouane Chamakh – as the last defender, Evatt was sent off, although the foul appeared to occur outside the box – the result was never in doubt. Until then Blackpool, trailing to Theo Walcott‘s 12th-minute opener, had crafted a couple of decent openings – most notably a header that Gary Taylor-Fletcher failed to get on target – to give them justifiable encouragement against an Arsenal defence featuring midfielder Alex Song alongside Thomas Vermaelen.

Theo Walcott scored his first Premier League hat-trick (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Evatt’s dismissal, however, hastened the inevitable, and the visitors quickly found themselves overrun and five down before the hour mark. Walcott notched up his first Premier League hat-trick either side of a crisp Abou Diaby half-volley; his third – a fine run and left-footed finish – being the pick of the bunch. And Chamakh opened his Arsenal account late on with a powerful header from a corner earned after a mesmerising run by substitute Carlos Vela. It was a just reward for a strong, line-leading performance by the Moroccan international, which had been marred only by wayward finishing.

Walcott knows this is an important season for him for both club and country as he attempts to prove his doubters – both among fans and the media – wrong. This was just the performance he needed as he attempts to force his way back into the England side after his omission from the World Cup squad. Each of his goals was the result of neat, composed finishing, and his overall performance was perhaps the best we have seen from him as a starter since the 2008/09 season. Both with and without the ball, his pace provided a constant threat, he drifted in off the touchline to good effect, and his decision-making with the ball at his feet was good. Oddly, his first Premier League hat-trick comes nearly two years after his first England one, but it will have done the 21-year old’s confidence a power of good.

Manager Arsène Wenger was delighted with his performance:

He is more electric than he has been to date because he is sharp. I like today the fact he mixed well the final ball and the finishing. That is always a sign that the player is always more mature. Let’s not forget that what he does is at a very high pace, so it’s not always easy to make the right decision, but today I think he got many decisions in the final third right.

The challenge for Walcott now is to reproduce this kind of performance on a more regular basis, and particularly against better, more physical opposition than he faced yesterday. If he can achieve that, he will be back in the England side on a regular basis again.

Wenger also praised the contribution of Tomáš Rosický, whose Arsenal career has been frustratingly injury-prone:

[Rosický is] a player who had a proper preparation. He was 18 months out and it takes a long time to come back and after when you do you have little problems. I believe when he came on at Liverpool he had a big impact on the game and he looks physically ready and sharp as well.

The Czech player ran and passed with great intelligence, providing valuable impetus from midfield which was largely missing at Anfield until his arrival from the bench. Arsenal fans (myself included) are often frustrated by his alarming susceptibility to long-term injuries, but it easy to forget that Rosický is a player very much in the Paul Scholes mode – a great runner from midfield with excellent vision and a hammer of a right foot. If he can stay fit, he will be a critical cog in Arsenal’s attacking machinery this season.

Unsurprisingly, Blackpool manager Holloway branded as “ridiculous” the penalty decision which reduced his side to ten men, but conceded his team were already heading for a likely defeat by then:

Arsenal are a team full of fantastic players. They way they try and play, pass and move is an education. We were doing OK until the referee deemed Ian’s challenge to be a sending off. I thought it was a penalty at best but then to send him off was ridiculous – it absolutely ruined the game as a spectacle. But we’d probably have been beaten anyway. Some of the football Arsenal played was world-class and they could have scored more. After the red card it was damage limitation and they damaged us all the way to the end.

Even Wenger agreed the call was marginal:

From where I was I thought it was outside the area but I think the linesman gave it. I saw it, but from the bench it is difficult to see if it was inside or outside. The referee has no choice, unfortunately, because it was not a malicious foul, but denying a goalscoring opportunity is clear. I feel many times a yellow card would be enough.

Finally, the manager made cautious but positive noises regarding potential signings before the transfer window closes in just over a week’s time:

I am confident we will add at least one, maybe one plus one. It is difficult to predict because the market is very quiet but I know that in the last five days it gets crazy and then it gets completely mad.

He also put the lie to Fulham boss Mark Hughes‘ complaints about Arsenal putting unfair pressure on want-away goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer, to whom he has always attempted not to refer directly:

I believe it has to be as quiet as possible. We always respect the decision of the clubs if they don’t want to sell. They do not need to come out in the press with that. If they don’t want to sell they say that and we respect that. It’s the same with anybody.

Overall, despite the limitations of the opposition, this was an encouraging performance by Arsenal, if not one to get too carried away about. The movement from midfield was much crisper (albeit against a bedraggled Blackpool back line) than the previous week, and for Chamakh to get his first goal under his belt was every bit as important as Walcott’s hat-trick. Jack Wilshere generally sat relatively deep in midfield, but like captain Cesc Fabregas did at a similar age, he impressed with an ability to find time on the ball when everyone else around him is haring round like madmen. And both Fabregas and Robin van Persie were able to enjoy a light workout as they continue to ease their way back into the side, coming on as substitutes for the final half-hour. Both looked bright and eager after their World Cup exertions and (in the case of Fabregas) on-off transfer sagas.

There will be bigger challenges to come – starting with a tricky visit to Ewood Park to take on Blackburn on Saturday lunch-time – but Arsenal’s season now feels like it is properly under way. Only time will tell if this is the start of a title challenge, or another false dawn.

Finally, and without meaning to sound in any way patronising, it was great to see Blackpool’s fans not only stay to the very end, but continue to sing long and loud as their team battled on desperately. They are a credit to their club, and they will undoubtedly win many friends this season. I wish them well.

New season, same old failings as Arsenal salvage draw

Liverpool 1 Arsenal 1

Ngog 46; Reina (og) 90

It is easy to read too much into a single game, but on the basis of this performance Arsenal still have a lot of work to do to disprove the doubts hanging over their Premier League title credentials, while Liverpool will take some encouragement from a battling performance in which they led for almost the entire second half despite seeing debutant Joe Cole sent off on the stroke of half-time.

Laurent Koscielny had an eventful debut - first stretchered off, then sent off (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Three Arsenal players made their first Premier League start at Anfield yesterday: midfielder Jack Wilshere and new signings striker Marouane Chamakh and centre-back Laurent Koscielny. Each had an eventful game, with Koscielny directly engaged in both sendings off, and the others involved in the two goals.

At the end of a first period of few chances which had been largely dominated by the visitors, Cole leapt in from behind on Koscielny and immediately received a straight red card from referee Martin Atkinson. Replays suggested the tackle carried little malice, but was technically a red card offence according to the rules of the game. However, seven times out of ten, the tackler would probably have only been cautioned. Nonetheless, coming just five weeks after Holland attempted to kick Spain into submission in the World Cup final, if this signals a clampdown by officials on overtly physical intimidation, it is a not unwelcome move.

Pundits and fans alike immediately sprang forth with the now standard “he’s not that type of player” defence, but Cole later received backing from the most unlikely of sources, as Arsène Wenger, who has in the past been quick to criticise opposing players for dangerous tackles, said:

He is not one I would like to record as a guy who tries to hurt people. That is not his style. He was maybe a bit rushy into his tackle and he kicked him [Koscielny] accidentally because he had a big mark on his shin.

The sending-off served only to galvanise Liverpool, and less than a minute after the restart Javier Maschearno seized on Wilshere’s mis-control to feed David Ngog, who blasted a fierce shot to beat Manuel Almunia – who perhaps could have done better – at his near post.

The home side understandably chose to defend deep for most of the rest of the game. Arsenal continued to enjoy considerable possession in the Liverpool half, but without creating many clear-cut chances. Samir Nasri, occupying the Fabregas role, gave a good performance in midfield. Wilshere, making his first Premier League start four days after his first England appearance (go figure), looked like a man beyond his tender 18 years in possession but appeared more of an under-sized boy in tending to his defensive duties. Andrey Arshavin looked like a pale, disinterested shadow of the man who had scored five goals on his previous two visits two Anfield.

Marouane Chamakh's effort forced Reina into conceding a late equaliser (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Theo Walcott and Tomáš Rosický, on as substitutes for the last half-hour, produced Arsenal’s only real efforts of note in the first 44 minutes of the second half, the latter a stinging effort that a diving Reina did brilliantly to turn over, but the Liverpool keeper was largely untroubled until the final 30 seconds of normal time. Then Rosický whipped in a cross which Chamakh, in an otherwise quiet debut, turned onto a post. As Reina scrambled back after the ball, he succeeded only in bundling it over the line to give Arsenal a share of the points. Howler or just plain bad luck? You decide.

There was just enough time for the otherwise impressive Koscielny to see double yellow – the first justified, the second for a close-range handball lookied harsh – and for Almunia to parry a Steven Gerrard free kick, but on the balance of play a draw was probably about right, and I suspect both Wenger and Roy Hodgson will be satisfied rather than pleased with the result.

Having started with the caveat that it is easy to read too much into a single game, what did we learn about Arsenal yesterday that we didn’t already know?

We saw that Manuel Almunia can no longer be relied upon as a number one goalkeeper. But that is not news.

Although Ngog’s goal was fiercely hit, Almunia should be disappointed not to have beaten it away. More concerning was the way he, when tested from a corner for the first time, charged unobstructed from his line only to flap haplessly and miss his punch by at least a yard – the Almunia of two seasons ago would have dealt with it comfortably. Fulham‘s Mark Schwarzer is desperate to move, and rumours were circulating last night about a possible eleventh-hour deal for Shay Given. Either way, Almunia’s days as a starter appear numbered.

We saw that Arsenal are both frail and lacking in depth defensively. But that is not news.

Without the injured Alex Song, Arsenal lacked a defensive screen in front of the back four, and looked vulnerable against both counter-attacks and at set-pieces. The slight Wilshere struggled to compete physically, and Abou Diaby continues to frustrate with his lackadaisical approach to tracking back. Now, with Johan Djourou out with a hamstring injury and Koscielny suspended, Wenger may be forced to give a debut to 20-year old Norwegian Havard Nordtveit against Blackpool next weekend. With Gallas, Silvestre, Campbell and Senderos all departing in the off-season, Arsenal’s need for central defensive cover is more acute than ever. A signing before the transfer window closes remains of the highest priority.

We saw that, without Cesc Fabregas (who did not travel due to illness, we’re told), Arsenal lacked both leadership and penetration in the final third against a massed, determined defence. But that is not news either.

The absence of Robin van Persie for all but the final 14 minutes did not help either but, Nasri aside, Arsenal lacked creative spark. Wilshire will continue to develop with experience, but is not quite ready for the biggest stages yet. And the greatest disappointment of all is Arshavin, who appeared to withdraw into his own little world, offering neither leadership nor effort to support his younger teammates.

However, we saw that Arsenal never, ever give up. But we knew that already too.

Even when playing poorly, the side had an encouraging habit of scoring late equalisers or winners which kept them in the title race longer than they had any reasonable right to last season, most notably snatching late winners at Stoke and Hull. Of course, the flip-side of the coin is that the team digs itself into too many holes in the first place, but it does at least say something about the side’s fitness and self-belief. It would be nice to be 3-0 up and cruising in more games, though.

There is nothing here Arsenal fans did not already know. Unfortunately, it is also clear Arsenal are starting the 2010/11 campaign with many of last season’s problems still unaddressed, or at the very least unsolved.

Overall, a point was not a bad result, particularly given our injury problems. We live to fight another day. And, having opened the season with a stern test, Arsenal now face a run of extremely winnable games over the next few weeks – Blackpool, Bolton and West Brom at home; Blackburn and Sunderland away – which may yet provide the platform for a credible title challenge ahead of our next big head-to-head, a visit to Stanford Bridge in early October. But, even allowing for the fact this was the first game of the season with an under-strength side, there is clearly some work to be done.

Hold on tight, Gooners, it’s going to be one of those seasons.

Premier League predictions

It wouldn’t be the start of a new football season without the usual round of predictions. So, for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on how I expect the Premier League season to unfold.

It is certainly shaping up to be one of the closest and most exciting title races ever, with Manchester City throwing their considerable weight around in the transfer market and none of the traditional ‘Big Four’ making more than incremental improvements. The new 25-man quota for senior players is further complicating matters, with Craig Bellamy likely to be on his way out of City as a result.

At the other end of the division, can Blackpool defy the odds and their limited budget to retain their seat at the top table? Can West Bromwich Albion defy their recent history as the archetypal yo-yo club? And can Newcastle United re-establish their credentials as a Premier League powerhouse?

The story will unfold, with all its twists and turns, over the next nine months, but here are my picks for the top and the bottom of the division.

Champions League qualifiers

Champions: Chelsea. Ricardo Carvalho, Joe Cole and Michael Ballack may have gone, but the champions still possess a formidable squad, with Branislav Ivanovic likely to partner John Terry and Yossi Benayoun a direct replacement for Cole. Their starting XI is creaking with age, but they should still have enough strength in depth to weather any injury problems and sustain a challenge on multiple fronts right through to May.

Marouane Chamakh (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

2nd: Arsenal. This may be a triumph of optimism over realism, but I believe there is every chance of the Gunners continuing to improve this year. New signing Laurent Koscielny will go straight into the centre of defence alongside Thomas Vermaelen, while up front Marouane Chamakh will pose a greater threat as a target man than the injured Nicklas Bendtner – no one in the major European leagues has scored more headed goals over the past two seasons than Chamakh’s 17 – bringing the best out of captain Cesc FabregasRobin van Persie, Andrey Arshavin and a supporting cast of talented attackers. If Arsène Wenger can address gaps at goalkeeper and centre back, and if Arsenal can avoid last season’s appalling luck with injuries, expect them to put in a strong run in the second half of the season after a lethargic start.

3rd: Man City. With the additions of Mario Balotelli and James Milner seemingly imminent, manager Roberto Mancini may well have the best squad of players in the Premier League at his disposal, after the summer captures of Yaya Touré, Jérôme Boateng and David Silva. Whether he can knit those individuals into a functioning team and keep all the egos happy is another matter entirely. I think they will start slowly, but without the distraction of tough Champions League games they will gather pace as the season goes on.

4th: Man Utd. Could this be the year when things start to fall apart at Old Trafford? Javier Hernández looks like an exciting signing going forward, but United have creaking joints elsewhere in their team, with Edwin van der Sar, Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Michael Owen all within earshot of the fat lady. And Alex Ferguson‘s side still look desperately short of adequate cover in the centre of midfield, with little reliable quality other than Giggs and Scholes behind Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick.

Europa League qualifiers

5th: Everton. David Moyes continues to work miracles doing the equivalent of turning water into wine. With strength both at the back (Phil Jagielka, Tim Howard, Leighton Baines) and in midfield (Marouane Fellaini, Tim Cahill, Steven Pienaar, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, Jack Rodwell), if Moyes can get reasonable production out of his strikers, the Toffees will be right in the mix at season’s end. They won’t be the prettiest team around, but they will be mighty effective.

Christian Poulsen (image courtesy of liverpoolfc.tv)

6th: Liverpool. With the additions of Christian Poulsen and Joe Cole (effectively swapped for Benayoun), and with Alberto Aquilani hopefully fully fit, there is no doubt that Liverpool have upgraded their midfield, and with Roy Hodgson at the helm the Anfield dressing room should be more tranquil too. With cash likely to remain tight until the ownership issue is resolved, much still depends on the fitness of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres – another injury-plagued season for either of them will see Liverpool struggling to regain their position in the so-called ‘Big Four’.

7th: Tottenham. It has been a surprisingly quiet summer (so far) in the transfer market for the usually industrious Harry Redknapp, with no major signings despite the carrot of a potential Champions League campaign. Spurs possess good strength and depth from front to back, although a cadre of injury-prone defenders including Ledley King and Jonathan Woodgate will undoubtedly cause concern at some point. It remains to be seen how they will cope with the twin challenges of top-level domestic and European competitions. Given the lack of reinforcements, a step backwards this season looks likely.

That means there will be no European place for an Aston Villa committed to a sell-before-you-buy policy, who are now missing Martin O’Neill and appear resigned to losing James Milner, at the very least. And I cannot see any other club seriously challenging the top seven who, although they are more closely matched than at any time since the inception of the Premier League, are now streets ahead of everyone else in the division.

Speaking of which …

Relegation candidates

In the same way I believe there is now a clear top seven, I also think there is a clear bottom seven, from whom the three Championship-bound teams will inevitably emerge. Those seven are: Blackburn Rovers, Blackpool, Bolton Wanderers, Sunderland, West Brom, West Ham United and Wigan Athletic. (I think Newcastle will have no problem retaining their Premier League status.)

Most of the above have weak squads which will struggle to score goals, or are one or two key injuries away from staring oblivion in the face. However, my tips for the drop are:

Mauro Boselli (image courtesy of wiganlatics.co.uk)

18th: Wigan. A shaky 16th last year, which included 9-1 and 8-0 humiliations by Spurs and Chelsea respectively, Wigan have signed Argentina striker Mauro Boselli and Paraguay defender Antolin Alcaraz over the summer, while losing Titus Bramble and Paul Scharner. Although both Boselli and Alcaraz are quality players, the former has never played in Europe, while the latter’s continental experience consists of a brief stint at Fiorentina (where he never played) and three seasons at Club Brugge. They will both need to acclimatise quickly if Wigan are to survive. It’s a big ask; too big to my mind.

19th: West Brom. The Baggies have made a number of signings, most recently defender Nicky Shorey from Aston Villa, but lack players of the very highest class. They will fight hard and play decent football, but don’t expect it to be enough to save them from their fourth relegation in nine seasons; only once in that spell have they managed to avoid an immediate return to the Championship.

20th: Blackpool. With their tangerine shirts and the soundbite machine that is Ian Holloway as their manager, Blackpool will certainly bring colour to this Premier League season. But with a ground, Bloomfield Road, which has a capacity of less than 13,000, a £10k pw wage limit, and Marlon Harewood, Jason Euell and Brett Ormerod being their best-known players, Blackpool are facing – to put it mildly – an uphill struggle. They will win many friends this season, but not many points. Do not be surprised if they are relegated by the end of April; without meaning to be patronising, anything else would be a big achievement.

So there you have it. What do you think? Let me know. And feel free to come back and laugh at me in nine months’ time …

For a second opinion, check out James’ predictions from one through to 20 over at The 12th Man.

Is Craig Bellamy the tip of Man City’s melting iceberg?

It is not the first time Wales striker Craig Bellamy has been at the centre of controversy, but for once it is not a situation entirely of his own making. As Manchester City look to balance their drive to recruit expensive new talent against the need to get their squad down to 25 senior players to comply with new Premier League rules, Bellamy is the most obvious candidate to find himself out in the cold this season. However, he may prove to be just the tip of an iceberg, the enormity of which will only become apparent when City try to make significant inroads into the market next summer.

Bellamy is no stranger to scandal, having once attacked former Liverpool teammate John Arne Riise with a golf club at a mid-season training camp, among other misdemeanours. Now he is threatening to retire, at the age of 31, if he is omitted from the squad of 25 senior players (i.e. aged 21 or over) which is the maximum number any Premier League club can register in accordance with new rules being introduced this season.

Craig Bellamy, no longer wanted at Man City?

City have been struggling to reduce the number of senior players they have on their books over the summer, hampered somewhat by the fact that several of their rivals are in a similar position of needing to offload. Early last week, analysts on BBC 5Live estimated they were still five or six players over the 25-man limit. It explains why they have been more than happy to send Nedum Onuoha out on loan, and why there is such uncertainty hanging over players like Bellamy and Stephen Ireland, who potentially face being unregistered and effectively unemployed for the duration of the season.

Bellamy has already been left out of the squad which will face Romanian side Timisoara in a Europa League qualifier next week. A loan deal with Celtic is currently being looked into, but either way it seems he has played his last game for City.

But Bellamy really is just the tip of the iceberg. Although players like he and Ireland are highly paid, they are nothing like as well remunerated as new recruits such as defender Jérôme Boateng and midfielders David Silva and Yaya Touré, the last of whom has been recruited on at least £200k pw. The reality is that everyone knows the club’s owners have bottomless pockets, which commands a significant premium in transfer negotiations. Add to that the extra incentive required to attract top-drawer players without the promise of Champions League football (at least this season), and the reality is that Touré, although an excellent player, would probably only have been paid half as much (at most)  by any other club – remember, this is a player who was only a semi-regular at Barcelona, making a modest 74 appearances in three years.

So, even assuming City qualify for the Champions League – heck, even if they win the Premier League – what are they going to do next summer? You can be sure that the club’s owners will not rest on their laurels, and will want to recruit even more world-class talent. But to do so means they will have to create a space in their 25-man squad to accommodate any new signing, which means City will either have to sell players or risk a Bellamy-like situation where they face the prospect of de-registering an extremely unhappy and potentially disruptive player.

What if Yaya Touré proves to be a busted flush, and is one of the players manager Roberto Mancini wants to get rid of? Yes, the player will prefer to move rather than wallow in some kind of non-playing purgatory, but no one is going to pick up an unwanted player who is already being paid £200k pw. Will the player accept a pay cut? Of course not, especially not having signed a five-year contract only a year previously. So will City end up part-funding loan deals for players they no longer want? Or will they end up stockpiling players like Winston Bogarde, who was content to keep picking up his £40k pw pay-cheque at Chelsea even though he never played? The more City continue to pay ludicrous sums to players, the worse this situation is likely to become.

And, of course, it’s not just the players the manager wants to get rid of who will create problems. Fringe squad players – the vast majority of them established internationals – will be desperate for regular first-team football more challenging than the odd Carling Cup game, especially the European stars ahead of Euro 2012. If they are not playing, they will agitate for a move, but most of them are being paid at the kind of level that only a few clubs in Europe can afford, which will make them difficult to sell too. We saw this happen on a smaller scale at Chelsea under Roman Abramovich after their first couple of years of success, as seldom-used players like Scott Parker were transferred to clubs such as West Ham, who could ill afford their salaries. In a post-recessionary, post-Portsmouth world with squad size restrictions, City will find it more difficult to offload the great unwanted.

Now I should say that I’m not a City hater. The Abu Dhabi United Group are entitled to spend their almost limitless money however they want; I have no problem with that (other than a mild tinge of jealousy). My concern is not so much over any ‘unfair’ advantage they have over everyone else in the market – football clubs have never been equal in terms of spending power, and I don’t think anyone is suggesting Man Utd should be made to trade on the same level as Blackpool – it is more about the distorting effect this is likely to have on the global transfer market over the next few years, and the danger of players like Bellamy being callously cast aside. A global game in which one club is able to hoard talent at will and toss them to the kerb regardless of the financial cost is not a healthy one.

I never thought I would feel sorry for Craig Bellamy, but I find that I am. I won’t be shedding any tears if City implode at any point in the near future, however. They are painting themselves into a corner entirely of their own making. For their fans’ sake, I hope whatever glory they achieve is worth the pain. There are some folks down at Portsmouth who are still assessing the long-term impact of crazy over-spending. City, with their moneybags owners, are above such petty concerns right now. That does not mean they always will be. Caveat emptor.

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