Monday, May 14, 2007

A Long Summer Awaits: EPL in Review

I'm an obsessive, but at least I can recognize my own behavior. And over the past nine months, nothing has touched the immense passion I've re-discovered in myself for the Beautiful Game.

The season kicked off in August with a 7:30 am wake-up call and a solo trip to the Red Lion for an unfortunate Liverpool draw with (Gary) Sheffield United at Bramall Lane. It concluded on Sunday with Slack co-founder Don Fiedler on my couch for the conclusion of the relegation battle that saw West Ham United defeat the Premier League champion Manchester United to avoid demotion. In between, the world's best and brightest treated us to one of the best complete sports seasons I've been fortunate enough to follow.

Chelsea flirted with the quadruple, Manchester United searched for the treble, Arsenal debuted its youngsters to the world, my Liverpool's headed back for its sixth taste of European glory, and three great friends and I spent a week in the United Kingdom for a Football Fantasy come true, five matches in seven days that included a night in the same stadium as the one and only Morten Gamst Pedersen.

So let's take a look back at the creature that stole my weekend sleep, starting with some serious categories and winding our way closer to the usual offbeat Slack-type nonsense. Without further (Freddy) ado, with a clever assist from Donnie, here's my EPL Year in Review:

Best Offseason Transfer: Dimitar Berbatov -- Tottenham Hotspur
How do you say "Hey, at least you did one thing right this year, Martin Jol!" in Bulgarian? Andriy Shevchenko surely commanded the most coinage and column inches to finally join Chelsea, but the 26-year-old Berbatov has clearly been the best signing of the summer transfer window. The most consistent player on a wholly inconsistent Spurs side, Berbatov scored 23 goals in all competitions for Tottenham following his transfer from Bayer Leverkusen.

With Jermaine Defoe and Robbie Keane taking turns completely disappearing, and with goalkeeper Paul Robinson blowing goats (I have proof) on a regular basis, Berbatov stepped up for the sputtering Spurs and almost single-handedly led them to European play next year. The big clubs will come calling in the months ahead, and both Arsenal and Manchester United would love to add his services up front, but I don't see Big D's swarthiness leaving White Hart Lane behind. Can Jol really let that face (or that awesome watch) get away? I doubt it.

Delayed Chernobyl Effect Syndrome...of the Year: Shevchenko
Twenty years after the biggest nucular disaster in history, Sheva finally succumbed to the radioactivity coursing through his Ukranian veins and delivered the most retarded first half since Corky Thatcher laced up his velcro boots for West Bromwich Albion in the late '80s. Sheva showed flashes later on, but we fully expect him to grow an arm out of his abdomen by the time he's transferred back to Italia.

Best Midseason Transfer: Javier Mascherano -- Liverpool
Strange that one of the biggest disappointments of the August window turns out to be the best midseason pickup. I'm not saying Liverpool would have been knocked out of the Champions League had they decided against acquiring the Argentine, but snatching the role-less midfielder from West Ham at the close of the January window looks like another brilliant move by Buster Bluth Rafa Benitez. Like Arthur says when Linda Marolla asks what it's like to be on a yacht, "It doesn't suck," and picking up Monster Masch certainly didn't suck for the Reds.

Momo Sissoko returned from injury a step slower and, surprisingly, even more inaccurate in his passing. Mascherano filled in admirably in the holding mid role that Sissoko grew out of, and by taking the first-team spot, he breathed some much-needed new life into a Liverpool side that only had one thing left to play for: Champions of Europe. Masch came in and fit in, immediately, kinda like that New Guy with Sideburns who came into Shawshank and filled the inmates with hope. Let's just pray AC Milan doesn't have the guards shoot him in the prison yard before game time on the 23rd. And if he can convince his good buddy Charlie Tevez to jump ship and join the Reds this summer, he'll officially be the greatest signing of Rafa's tenure.

"Tough Season, Dude" Award: Juan Pablo Angel -- Aston Villa
Angel clearly does not deserve his place in the EPL Review Show opening credits every Sunday night any longer. The Colombian international probably enjoyed suffered through the second-most bizarre season of anyone in the Premier League (we'll get to Carlos Tevez in a minute). Angel had one of those days back in mid-October when he missed a second-half penalty kick and scored an own goal for 10-men Tottenham within the span of two minutes.

First team before that day, Angel started only four matches for the remainder of the season and was used sparingly off the bench. Villa boss Martin O'Neill then buried Angel when he brought in young, virile strikers in the form of John Carew and Ashley Young. Finally, O'Neill gave the club's former top scorer the Old Yeller Treatment, shot him in the head and buried him in the Meadowlands (they shipped him off to the friggin' Red Bull New York on a free transfer). Rough year, but at least he's got this awesome photo to his credit:

Bizarre-oh World Award: Carlos Tevez -- West Ham United

Mascherano and Tevez made some strange third-party deal that nobody quite understood and bolted Corinthians for West Ham on the final day of the August transfer window...then promptly had no impact whatsoever on the football there. None. Ningún. The Hammers failed to win any of their next seven games, registering six defeats and a draw (scoring only twice in that span). Expectedly and quite deservedly, Tevez's club then sacked Alan Pardew in the Great London Alan Swap of Late 2006 (Pardew, out; Curbishly in) after the manager inexcusably and inexplicably could not find a place for either of his imported Argentines.

Tevez finally opened his Premiership account on a gorgeous free kick against Spurs in early March (embedded above), and then we're talkin' floodgates. The 23-year-old put the surely demoted West Ham on his back and personally led them from the drop zone to safety, scoring seven goals over the club's final 10 games of its campaign to avoid relegation. He gored through the ManU back line and scored the club's only goal in a 1-0 win at Old Trafford to complete the Great Escape, and in last weekend's huge match against Bolton he netted two and set up a great volley from Young Mark Noble.

Oh yeah, and there's also the matter of Tevez's involvement in one of the biggest scandals in the recent history of English football: Several teams have threatened multimillion-dollar lawsuits over the Premier League's failure to dock West Ham points in regard to the controversial transfer. So all summer long a loud, obnoxious furor will surround a man that doesn't even speak the language of the people arguing about him (and now he's pullin' a Vlad Guerrero and refusing to even try). Nine months ago he was a star on the rise following the World Cup; now he's a lightning rod for the bottom teams and an acquisition target for the bigs. Not a bad year for Carlito.

RIAA Envy Award: Premier League Sues YouTube
I will never understand the motivation behind the companies and organizations that pepper legal action against the people spreading their gospel. Sure, copyright protection is a major priority for anyone with tangible property, but talk about biting the teet that feeds you...this is either idiocy or lunacy, or both. I could probably write 2,500 words on this alone, but I enjoyed our friend from That's On Point's succinct and well-phrased take -- go over there at some point and read it. In any event, many YouTubes remain, but they're slowly coming down. Bollocks.

(Relatedly, I read at least five well-written soccer blogs a day, and they're all fantastic, but if I were to give out an award for must-read daily coverage of the sport, the aforementioned TOP gets my vote.)

Horror Challenge of the Year: Ben Thatcher on Pedro Mendes
I'm guessing Man City's Thatcher spent much of the afternoon asking Portsmouth's Mendes, "Oy, what in the bloody 'ell does Pompey mean, mate?" When Mendes failed to answer his repeated inquiry, Thatcher had no choice but to deliver a vicious elbow for seemingly no reason. These replays make me weak in the knees:

Earned Nickname of the Year: Arjen Robben -- Chelsea

I couldn't find a photo in the Google Images scrap heap that accurately portrayed the Dutchman's running style, but if you've ever seen Robben sprint the length of the pitch with possession, you'll know why my colleague Don Fiedler started referring to him as "Jazz Hands." I'm actually a huge fan of Robben's, but if I could slip him a note after a match one day, it'd definitely say "Dude, stop running like you're air-drying your nail polish. P.S. Why do you look so old?"

Carl Pavano Achievement Award: Matthew Upson
In search of upgrades all over the pitch, West Ham signed the central defender from Birmingham City for a minimum of six million pounds at the end of the January window. My friends and I happened to be at Villa Park for his Hammers debut, and we watched as he limped off about 30 minutes into the first half (to a chorus of boos from a former rival club). Upson missed a month for his new team, returned to start the March 4th match against Spurs and limped off 11 minutes into that one. If you're counting at home, that's six millions pounds plus salary for 41 minutes since February 3rd. New West Ham owner and Icelandic biscuit magnate Eggert Magnusson can't be diggin' that horrific investment, although I think he's busy singing "I'm the one who said just grab 'em in the biscuits" to truly care. And Pavano still sucks more than anyone, ever.

First Annual Mark Viduka Award: Mark Viduka -- Middlesbrough
Just because. The guy's a beast, a part-Croat, part-Ukranian, all Australian beast. He looks like he should be playing rugby or lifting cars over his huge head for sport. Love that Viduka.

Injury of the Season: Paddy Kenny -- (Gary) Sheffield United
Back in November, Sheffield goalkeeper Paddy Kenny had his eyebrow bitten off during a midweek brawl. Let me say that one again: The guy had his eyebrow bitten off. But that's not even the worst part. The Sun reported the culprit was a mate that had just admitted to sleeping with Kenny's wife. That's not a decent night.

Glenn Roeder Caretaker Manager of the Year: Les Reed -- Charlton

In the middle of that Great London Alan Swap of Late 2006, caretaker manager Les Reed (pronounced: Lez) parked himself on the Charlton bench and didn't move or show expression. Charlton earned four points in seven matches under him, and he exited as quickly as he became manager. Awesomely, he was last seen spotted on the United States of Fulham sidelines with caretaker manager Lawrie Sanchez.

Deadwood Dan Dority Eye Gouge of the Year: Joey Barton
Barton and Man City teammate Ousmane Dabo could have also taken home some sort of Kieran Dyer v. Lee Bowyer Same Team Melee Award, but Barton's indiscretion was more violent and the Dyer v. Bowyer tiff happened outside the training ground. So scratch that thought like Barton scratches retinas. But Barton's assault on Dabo can only be described as a brutally savage outwardly Oedipal reaction that has no place in soccer or society. I boo this man.

Scottie Pippen Award: Nemanja Vidić -- Manchester United
You know how good quarterbacks like to buy their offensive line Rolexes and steak dinners? Well, (Her name is) Rio Ferdinand should buy his defensive partner a car, a house and a team of hooker stewardesses to go with his new private jet...really, whatever the hell he wants. Rio gets al the credit, but it's the Serbian and/or Montenegran that's been responsible for so much of the success of the Man U back four. Just wanted to get that out.

Everything's 60 Million Bucks Award: Everyone
As the relegation battle escalated, all of a sudden everything became bathed in the light of $60 million. Clint Dempsey's goal was worth $60M to the U.S. of Fulham, Yossi Benayoun's line clearance and Tevez's goal in the final match against ManU, Phil Jagielka's hand touching the ball before halftime of the Wigan/Sheffield game, Paul Jewell's ball sack, Neil Warnock's toenails. I love the fact that these teams are playing for something, but it's time to put this one to rest.

Goal of the Year: Michael Essien -- Chelsea
We had some great candidates this season, with the real best goal being Ronaldinho's bicicleta against Villareal earlier in the Spanish campaign. But let's stick with the EPL -- we had two wonder strikes from Matty Taylor (vs. Everton from 45 out and the Arsenal volley), Robin van Persie's stunning running volley, Xabi Alonso's own-half strike against Newcastle, an absolute stunner from league-leading scorer Didier Drogba against Everton, Obafemi Martins' thumping power drive against Spurs, Paul Robinson's ridiculous goal over fellow Britkeeper Ben Foster, and so many more.

Those are just the ones I remember off the top of my head, and I bet I'm omitting some great goals. But the winner belongs to The Bison, from the highly anticipated December matchup of Chavski and Arseweb. With Arsenal leading 1-0, Essien absolutely nails one from well outside the area, bending, hitting the post and going in the net. The final replay on this thing shows you just how crazy this hit was. What a hit, son:

Player of the Year: Cristiano Ronaldo -- Manchester United
Was thre anyone else? Drogba put up an early season charge. Essien made his case known when he played all over the field with exceptional skill. But when it comes down to it, nobody had a greater impact on their team than Ronaldo. He used to be all flash, but maybe all it took for him to finally be a player of substance was getting his teammate Wayne Rooney tossed from the World Cup. The rumors of his banishment from English football weren't only exaggerated, they were stupid as hell. It's a good thing for Red Devils' fans that Sir Alex ain't a man of emotion over reason. Even though he's a pretty boy pussy, there isn't a player in the league that can match his pace and the excitement he brings when the ball hits his foot.

Now all we have left is the first FA Cup final at the new Wembley and the Champions League final in Greece; only two more serious matches before a long summer unfolds before us.

Hey, at least I'll get to sleep in on weekends. I'm freakin' tired.


At 1:19 PM, Blogger nate said...

I may be (very) biased, but Gerrard's consolation against Arsenal in the Carling Cup rout is up there for me.

Otherwise, there's very little I disagree with. Unforunately, I have to agree with Ronaldo as the best in the league. The fact the kid's barely 22 makes me wants to drown myself in battery acid.

Also, I want to add another Viduka memory. In his first season at Leeds, he scored 4 for them against Liverpool to win 4-3. In the post-match interview he looked stunned when the interviewer told him he'd scored four. He literally had no idea how many he'd scored or that he singlehandedly won them the game. If that's not the definition of an Australian, I don't know what is.

Really nice end-of-season round-up. I hope to do something similar over the next week, but I'd imagine it won't be anywhere near as funny.

At 2:04 PM, Blogger Ace Cowboy said...

Ya know, I almost put Gerrard's goal in there...and it pains me to leave out Captain Fantastic from this review altogether. But the fact is, Stevie doesn't really deserve to be in this review. He showed flashes, and he played out of position a lot, but he had a subpar season by his standards. Maybe omitting him will inspire the skipper to play better next season. I mean, I've got a #8 jersey for chrissakes -- make me proud, Scouser!

Damn, never heard that about Viduka...just more evidence that he's the coolest cat in the Prem. Boro may have only won five matches without him. I have no basis for that statement, but I'll make it anyway.

I look forward to your wrap-up -- don't sell yourself short, Judge, you're a tremendous slouch.

At 8:47 PM, Blogger DROGBALLS said...

Nice one dude. Very comprehensive and creative at the same time. I'm inspired to do one myself! Of course when I have the time.....


At 10:24 AM, Blogger Don Fiedler said...

Robinson scored over the Patriots tight end? Truly a long-distance goal if ever there was one.

Beautiful summary. Only I could have done it better...myself.

At 10:58 AM, Blogger Ace Cowboy said...

Ha, clearly I meant Ben Foster...As they say Down Under, "Foster, Australian for Watson." Wow, I guess there are serious downsides to writing 2,500 word pieces -- can't make 'em moron-proof.

Drog, thanks for writing in...can't wait for the 23rd.

At 1:44 PM, Blogger ismateo said...

Great review, Ace. I learned something today. Many somethings, in fact. Hooray! But I did want to share a couple quibbles...

1. Dude! Don't sleep on Paul Scholes' volley against Aston Villa. Remember --
I mean, wow, right? That's possibly the best goal I've ever seen.

2. Vidic may usually be solid, but he totally stunk up the joint against AC Milan, pretty much single-handedly losing that game for the ManU. Remember how Kaka just ran right by him and scored, and then he couldn't even clear a ball out his own penalty box, and then Gilardino just ran right by him and scored? I guess this game wasn't part of EPL play, so it shouldn't really count in this discussion... but still, 'twas not Vidic's best day. Thought it worth mention.

But my EPL knowledge isn't as deep as yours, and I only catch games as often as I can (which isn't as often as I'd like). And I don't even like any of them douches at Old Trafford. I's just saying is all...

Anyhoo, keep up the good work. Thanks.

At 2:13 PM, Blogger Ace Cowboy said...

Matty, I'm with ya on Scholes' goal, the Ginger Ninja is deadly from that range.

But with regards to Vidic, the guy was hurt and shouldn't have even been playing in that match. Forget that one...the only reason he played was because it was the CL semis, otherwise he clearly woulda been off the roster entirely. Don't let that one change your opinion. He's nasty.


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