Thursday, April 16, 2009

PFA Player of the Year: It’s got to be Gerrard

Football awards tend to frustrate and aggravate in equal measure. The same old big- name nominees are trotted out again and again, often regardless of form or even, sometimes, ability. If such awards are to be dished out at all, surely the consistently outstanding performers should be the recipients. It rarely pans out this way. The PFA Players’ Player of the Year – for which the shortlist was announced this week – is no exception.

First of all, letting the pros loose to cast a vote is perhaps the very worst feasible method of coming up with a deserving winner. Yes, there are a number of honourable exceptions, but the bulk of top-flight footballers are incapable of making a discerning decision without the aid of their omniscient agent. A significant sub-section of the Premier League glitterati also have very little interest in what goes on in football outside of their own monetary gain. To cap it all, the vote in held in late February.

As Arsene Wenger says, February is hardly the most crucial stage of the season and that means the players rewarded are those who played well until that time only.

“Now is the most important time of the season - April, May,” says the Arsenal boss. “A player who has been out until January has no chance to be voted but he can still be very influential for the climax of the season.”

The shortlist spewed out by this ill-designed process offers few surprises: Nemanja Vidic, Ryan Giggs, Edwin van der Sar, Cristiano Ronaldo and Rio Ferdinand of champions-elect Manchester United are joined by Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard.

Van der Sar’s inclusion is directly attributable to his enviable clean-sheet record which has slipped spectacularly over recent weeks, in the absence of the Ferdinand-Vidic partnership. The Dutchman’s performances have featured a growing number of errors and Ben Foster’s comparative excellence in the Carling Cup final has thrown the 38-year-old’s declining powers into an even harsher light. Vidic has seen a similar decline in his hitherto consistently rock-like showings of late, sans Ferdinand. The nightmarish 90 minutes the Serbian endured in what could yet prove to be a Premier League-deciding clash with Liverpool might be valid cause for reassessment of his claims to the accolade.

Giggs would be a largely sentimental choice. Indeed punters have backed the pros to follow this line of thought, as bookmakers Coral have had to suspend betting on the event due to the vast chunks of cash being laid on the Welsh wizard. His level of performance has been his best for many a year and he would make that rarest of things – an (almost) universally popular Manchester United winner, but these factors alone are not justification for a triumph at the PFA Awards. Instead, someone should hand over a much-belated gong for ‘Most Inspired Exit From International Football’: Giggs’ one-man-band destruction of the then-excellent Czech Republic side at a rapturous Millennium Stadium in 2007 remains one of the finest individual displays I’ve seen from any footballer past or present. How the game eventually ended 0-0 remains a mystery.

Ferdinand’s continued supremacy at centre half would make him an outstanding candidate for the award, though injury has disrupted both his and United’s previously serene progress at home and in Europe. Of the World Champions innumerable other squad members, it is their midfield metronome, Michael Carrick, who might feel most aggrieved at missing out on a nod. The quiet man of the Old Trafford engine room has seen his stature rise throughout the campaign and even grisly old Fabio Capello has finally succumbed to the Geordie’s playmaking charms.

Elsewhere, chief title rivals Liverpool might well have garnered another couple of nominees, had the vote been cast more recently. Certainly, the omission of the tigerish Javier Mascherano from the list is a glaring error. Xabi Alonso’s stylish promptings alongside the Argentina captain have drawn rave reviews following his summertime flirtation with the Anfield exit and he could, too, have been acknowledged.

At Chelsea, Michael Essien has returned to action too late to make an impact on the vote, but is potentially a future winner of the award. Jose Bosingwa’s spectacular start in English football has dimmed and while Nicolas Anelka has top-scored, he has somehow managed to underwhelm. Arsenal’s renaissance has been prompted by the arrival of Andrei Arshavin and subsequent return of a number of key players. However, the Gunners would struggle (with the possible exception of Robin van Persie) to put forward a credible challenger for the players’ award.

Proving there is life outside the big four, few could have argued with the inclusion on the list of either of Everton’s defensive duo; Joleon Lescott and Phil Jagielka. Tim Cahill has again proved his unique ability to score headers from any range or angle since returning from injury, while Mikel Arteta’s stellar start was curtailed by the rupturing of his cruciate knee ligament in February. Versatile Marouane Fellaini has also been an exciting addition to the Premier League.

Villa’s Gabby Agbonlahor reached a career-high with his barnstorming early-season performances, but understandably – given his lone forward role and the Villans thin squad/hectic schedule combination – has waned of late. Ashley Young, Stillian Petrov and Gareth Barry have regularly excelled too, for the side which briefly threatened to rudely interrupt the top four hegemony.

This season too, Bolton’s Kevin Davies finally managed to add goals to an otherwise outstanding all-round game; Steven Ireland has continually lit up a gloomy on-field year for Man City; success at Fulham, West Ham and Wigan, meanwhile, has been earned through consistent collective performances, rather than as a result of stunning individual displays.

Having weighed up all the options, it seems that the prime candidate for the PFA accolade must be the man who has dragged his team-mates onwards and upwards throughout his club’s first truly sustained title challenge for years. The player with the intangible ability to turn a game with one charging run and shot or perhaps by spectacular interplay with a similarly gifted Spanish forward (with whom he has struck up one of the most exciting partnerships in world football). The irreplaceable attacking fulcrum of his side; with seven Premier League assists and 21 goals in all competitions. Of course, that man’s name is Steven Gerrard.

Agree? Disagree? Who would be your award winner and who should’ve made the shortlist?

Monday, April 06, 2009

What next for shattered Aston Villa?

Taken with archetypal Roman confidence, young Federico Macheda’s exquisite later-than-late goal at once re-established Manchester United’s dominance in the title race and thrust a dagger deep into the fading heart of Aston Villa’s season. In the second minute of stoppage time came the cruellest of blows – Villa’s hard-earned 2-1 advantage was finally overturned with a swaggering swish of the teenage Italian’s right boot. Was this the moment the Midlands side conceded defeat in the chase for fourth place?

Well, of course not. Publically, Martin O’Neill will not make a concession to that effect, but it’s been clear to all and sundry that Villa’s Champions League challenge faded quite some time ago. In taking the hotly-debated decision to rest a host of first-teamers for the difficult UEFA Cup 2nd leg tie with CSKA Moscow, the Villa manager had on his hands a team that were no longer mildly-fatigued winners, rather dog-tired losers. The momentum which had been gradually building since Intertoto duty kicked off their season at the height of summer was irretrievably lost.

Round about this time too, a telling piece of TV production (occasionally it happens) highlighted the rising tide against which Villa’s tiring troops were battling. As the magical skills of Andrei Arshavin were beginning to re-ignite the Gunners’ waning goal-making - and taking - prowess following their lengthy lean patch in front of goal, the camera panned along the line of upcoming Arsenal returnees. Theo Walcott, Cesc Fabregas and Eduardo da Silva were all among a benchful of world class talent, each on the verge of a return from one long-term injury or other. It was an ominous signal that the North London club were ready to kick out of the stupor which had dogged their season.

Villa have quite patently been unable to compete with such impressive strength in depth, and understandably so; because they have not been party to continued Champions League ‘financial doping’ (a term Arsene Wenger used about mega-rich club owners such as Roman Abramovich having a distortive effect on the game, but which can easily be applied to the current Champions League cartel). The wafer-thin squad of the Second City side was supplemented only by Emile Heskey (who has unfortunately been largely MIA since his debut goal at Fratton Park) during the January transfer window. Rather than speculating to accumulate, O’Neill stuck steadfastly with his hand and subsequently went bust. At the time, it must be said, few fans complained about the lack of recruitment.

Successive defeats culminating in Sunday afternoon’s unlucky – if somehow inevitable; given United’s prodigious injury-time goalscoring record – loss at Old Trafford have again drawn a harsh light on the limitations of the squad. Without defensive lynchpin Martin Laursen, the back four – too often featuring Nigel Reo-Coker as a fish-out-of-water right-back and Mr Consistency, Luke Young, deputising for Freddie Bouma at left-back – has been sieve-like. The switch to 4-4-2 in order to accommodate their new England centre forward saw the counter-attacking menace of the previously preferred 4-5-1 significantly diluted.

For some time now, the more pragmatic Villa fan has been glancing down the table at surging Everton rather than dreaming of gate-crashing the Champions League party. The Toffees are one of the few clubs to have usurped the big four’s hegemony in the past decade and, led by the exceptional David Moyes – one of Martin O’Neill’s few equals or superiors in the Premier League – their recent form is enough to suggest that it is they that should now be favourites for fifth.

As the New Year rolled around and the tightly-packed table promised a dramatic conclusion to events at either end of the league, there was much talk of a refreshing shift in the static Premier League hierarchy – with Villa at the vanguard of the uprising. It looks unlikely now that such a change will transpire: United are probable champions; Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal cruise along behind. Even at the bottom, a previously intoxicating survival battle is fast losing its allure – at least for the neutral. It’s still possible (though unlikely, given Stoke’s outstanding home form) that the three promoted clubs could slip back into the Championship and the status quo would then be well and truly restored.

Following that logic, many would have pencilled in Everton and Villa battling it out for Europa League entry and so it has turned out. The two sides meet at Villa Park next week with the momentum inexorably in Everton’s corner. For Martin O’Neill’s men, the game has the feel of make or break – a defeat here would finally concede Villa’s dearly-held ‘best of the rest’ tag to the Merseysiders.

Gareth Barry’s future destiny again looms on the agenda like a long-feared dentist’s appointment – though let’s hope any ensuing saga doesn’t drag on as painfully as last summer’s snore-athon. This year, Stillian Petrov’s contribution to the Villans’ engine room has matched, even surpassed, that of the England star. Yet to lose their talisman – and longest-serving player – would be a shattering blow to the hopes of a club with fast-rising ambition. So far, progress under O’Neill’s guidance has been admirable. Whether or not the Ulsterman can now lead his team up another level will define the success, or otherwise, of his Villa Park reign.