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Saturday, May 13, 2006

PREMIER REPORT

Success stories cap memorable season for Premier League


LONDON -- After a couple of disappointing high-profile matches, those who rarely attend football games but love to put the boot into the national sport were almost at grievous bodily harm level with their attacks.

Christopher Davies

The Premiership, we were told by its distant observers, was in crisis.

Nine months later, English football can reflect on another memorable season and look forward to what could me a memorable finale to 2005-06.

On Wednesday, Middlesbrough lost 4-0 to Sevilla in the UEFA Cup final, the first of two Anglo-Spanish European finals, a disappointment but it it underlines the strength in depth of the Premiership that a team finishing 14th can go so far.

On Saturday, West Ham plays Liverpool in a fascinating F.A. Cup final, while next Wednesday in Paris Arsenal and Barcelona meet in probably the most eagerly awaited Champions League final.

The icing on an already tasty cake comes in the form of the World Cup finals, where England may be without Wayne Rooney but are ready to unleash Arsenal's Theo Walcott, yet to play in the Premiership, on football's biggest stage.

We have seen another record-breaking Premiership triumph by Chelsea, spoiled only by the churlish attitude of manager Jose Mourinho, the person responsible for the public seeing the Blues as the least popular champion ever, but the only person not to realize this.

Thierry Henry, the first player to win the Footballer of the Year award three times, has been breathtaking; Wigan and West Ham have proved that promoted clubs need not face immediately relegation with the right management; Blackburn qualified for the UEFA Cup after narrowly avoiding relegation last season.

Despite the farce of a selection process to belatedly appoint Steve McClaren, Sven-Goran Eriksson's coach, as his successor, those who run the English game can be happy with their product if not their skills at choosing a national manager.

Crisis?

What crisis?

* * *

WEST HAM was 40-1 in January to win the F.A. Cup and it has reached the final the hard way. Apart from a third-round win over Championship side Norwich, it has beaten Premiership rivals Blackburn, Bolton, Manchester City and then Middlesbrough in the semifinals.

Win or lose, its place in the UEFA cup next season is assured because Liverpool has qualified for the Champions League.

It represents considerable progress for a side that only 12 months ago was still in the Championship. Its achievements are also proof that patience and not bowing to mob rule can pay off.

Last season, a significant number of West Ham supporters were calling for manager Alan Pardew to be sacked -- the same Alan Pardew whom the Upton Park faithful now speak of in such glowing terms.

A year after winning the Champions League final in such dramatic style, beating AC Milan on a penalty shootout after trailing 3-0 at halftime, Liverpool can look back on a season of progress after conquering Europe.

Liverpool won 82 points in 2006-07 in finishing third compared to 58 points last season when it struggled to fifth place.

It is their highest Premiership point tally. It also won 50 percent more league matches -- 25 compared to 17, doubled its away wins tally to 10 and conceded only 25 goals, compared to 41 in 2004-05.

* * *

AND SO TO Paris for Arsenal versus Barcelona in the Champions League final.

Despite the wealth of attacking talent on view do not expect another 3-3 final -- Arsenal have 10 successive shutouts, while Barca has not conceded a goal in four ties.

Needless to say the pre-match focus will be on Thierry Henry, who was born in Paris, and Ronaldinho, who first came to European attention with Paris St.-Germain which he joined from Gremio in 2001.

Henry grew up in Les Ulis area, a working class area of the French capital, while Ronaldinho's ""home" when he arrived was too often Parisian night clubs.

"He does not live the life of a world-class athlete," said PSG coach at the time Luis Fernandez.

Ronaldinho's stepovers were mainly on disco dance floors, he was once five days late back from Brazil for preseason training, while Fernandez was not best pleased to find the striker enjoying female company the night before a game.

The euro finally dropped and Ronaldinho concentrated on performing under floodlights rather than disco lights.

Barcelona pipped Manchester United to his signature in 2003, a subject best not raised with Sir Alex Ferguson, and Ronaldinho is now a Catalan legend.

Barcelona says it is more than a club, Ronaldinho is more than a player, too.

While Henry's main assets are his speed and ability to score goals where even shooting can seem impossible, Ronaldinho's close control leaves defenders suffering, as one observer said, from twisted blood, no doubt wishing they had been injured that day.

Ronaldinho will be running at an opponent and then look to the right, the defender ready for such a pass but the Brazilian will suddenly, without looking, make a pinpoint pass to his left.

Amazing.

Henry has yet to commit to a new contract with Arsenal -- his current deal has a year to run -- and until he announces what his decision is the speculation will continue. He genuinely loves Arsenal, which is moving to a state-of-the-art new Emirates Stadium next season, while he is married to an English girl. Arsene Wenger speaks the same language as Henry both in mother tongue and football.

Some believe if Arsenal wins in Paris, Henry will leave as it will be mission accomplished. Others say that the new stadium and a promising young Arsenal team will give Henry the challenge he needs to remain in London.

We should not wish our lives away, but football fans around the world would fast-forward to next Wednesday if they could for a final that surely cannot disappoint.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal, Chelsea and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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