Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Money talks louder than ever...

If it was not Roman Abramovich spending 30 million pounds on a 30-year-old (Andriy Shevchenko), it was Ashley Cole flouncing out of Arsenal in a hissy fit over their 'disrespectful' offer of a new contract worth 55,000 pounds a week. No sooner had the ink dried on a forecast-busting new television deal than Dubai's accountants were poring over Liverpool's books with the aim of wrapping up a 450-million-pound takeover of the five-times European champions. Money has never talked louder in English football than it did in 2006. And with the enhanced television cash that will kick in from next season acting like a dose of financial Viagra, never have the country's top clubs appeared so attractive to suitors from around the world.

By this time next year it is conceivable -- likely even -- that half the Premiership's 20 clubs will be in foreign hands. If the Dubai bid goes through, Liverpool will follow in the footsteps of Chelsea, Manchester United, Fulham, Portsmouth, Aston Villa and West Ham. Everton, Manchester City and Newcastle look good bets to take a similar route in 2007 as global investors scramble for control of businesses which have seen their outlook transformed by the prospect of sharing broadcasting revenues that will exceed two billion pounds over the course of the 2007/08, 2008/09 and 2009/10 seasons.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has warned that the influx of foreign capital threatens "the soul of football." But the buyouts of Aston Villa (by American tycoon Randy Lerner) and West Ham (by an Icelandic consortium) this year have generated few complaints from those clubs' fans, while the hostility of most Manchester United supporters to Malcolm Glazer's 2005 takeover at Old Trafford melted away as results improved. United's revival -- which began at the tail end of last season -- has served as a reminder that the correlation between money spent and success in football is not always a direct one. Given how easily they cantered to the 2005-06 title in May, it was wildly assumed that the costly summer acquisition of Shevchenko, Cole and Michael Ballack would make Chelsea irresistible for a third successive season. That could yet prove to be the case.

Jose Mourinho's boast that United cannot match the depth of quality in his squad is not an idle one. Yet it is also true that, apart from giving Abramovich someone he can speak Russian to, Shevchenko has been only a sporadic contributor to the Chelsea cause while Ballack too has yet to reproduce the kind of marauding form on which he constructed his reputation. United in contrast have prospered largely on the strength of existing resources, the increasing maturity of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney being complemented by the Indian summers being enjoyed by the homegrown duo Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs.

Even allowing for the scheduled short-term arrival of Henrik Larsson in January, United do look vulnerable to injuries during the title run-in. But for the first time since Mourinho's arrival at Chelsea in 2004, the year is ending with genuine uncertainty about the destination of the title. Most neutrals will be pleased about that, but the switch from one-horse to two-horse race will not be enough to assuage concern about the gulf between the top clubs and the rest, for whom a run of three defeats can mean a lurch from challenging for a place in Europe to the relegation battle.

The over-riding imperative of avoiding the financially calamitous consequences of a drop to the Championship was behind the pre-Christmas sackings of Iain Dowie and Alan Pardew at Charlton and West Ham. Both men could justifiably argue that they should have been given more time, Dowie on the grounds that he had only been in the job for four months, Pardew on the strength of a record that included winning promotion and taking the Hammers to the FA Cup final.

There is also a worry that the financial fear factor is making teams more cautious, resulting in the Premiership currently producing the lowest number of goals per game of any top flight in Europe. It could equally be argued that the quality of defenders is improving in a league in which half the registered players come from overseas. But Arjan de Zeeuw, Wigan's veteran Dutch centreback, thinks otherwise. "When I first came here everyone played 4-4-2 and you knew what you were going to get," de Zeeuw said recently.

"Now you see teams with one up front and five in the middle most weeks. And one of the five will usually be in the Claude Makelele position, providing an extra level of defence. "Everyone is more cautious now because there is such a big gap between the top three or four and the rest. Once you go behind against Chelsea they won't let you back into the game, so teams are thinking first and foremost about how not to concede." That might mean problems lie ahead but for now the Premiership can bask in its status as the world's favourite league.

(Thanks to Reuters)

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