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Sunday, Jan. 3, 2010

PREMIER REPORT

Looking back at 2009 in the Premier League


LONDON — As 2010 dawns, a look back at the good, bad and ugly of another memorable year in the Premier League:

Christopher Davies

Biggest loss

Not even open to debate. It must be Cristiano Ronaldo, who left Manchester United for Real Madrid in a £75 million transfer that saw the departure of the only true world-class player in England.

He is a phenomenal talent and it can be said with confidence a winger will never again score 42 goals in a season. Ronaldo has everything — pace, technique, a thunderbolt shot, strength in the air and the ability to score a free kick from seemingly any distance.

Oh, plus charisma by the ton. The memories of his contributions to English football should be cherished.

Most welcome addition

Unsurprisingly, an Arsene Wenger signing. Andrey Arshavin is proving a bargain at £15 million from Zenit St. Petersburg and many Arsenal fans will say the Russian has been the Gunners' best player this season.

If you focus on Arshavin in a game you will appreciate the intelligence of the forward, the way he reads the game, his unselfish running, the way he is always available.

At 170 cm Arshavin is proof that size doesn't matter, and in April as Arsenal drew 4-4 at Liverpool, he became only the sixth player in Premier League history to score four goals in an away match.

Comeback

This time last year Stephen Carr announced his retirement after failing to find a club after leaving Newcastle in the summer of 2008. In February, the right-back began training with Birmingham and the rest is history.

The injuries that had plagued him in recent years have disappeared, Carr has started all but one of Blues' league games, and he is six months into a two-year contract. The former Republic of Ireland international is captain of the team seventh in the Premier League with nine shutouts to its credit, second only to Chelsea which boasts 10. Few players will look back on the year with as much satisfaction as Carr.

Biggest concern

The dumbing down of the Premier League this season. Liverpool's 1-0 win at Aston Villa on Tuesday was a dreadful match with two teams pushing for a Champions League place typifying the falling standard of England's elite league.

While the league is more open, competitive and exciting, Manchester United, Chelsea and most of all Liverpool are not performing to the heights of last season.

Arsenal plays the best football but doubts still remain about its durability.

United has lost Cristiano Ronaldo, Liverpool Xabi Alonso and Chelsea has a new manager in Carlo Ancelotti. They are not the reasons for the dip — perhaps it is the lack of top-class arrivals or younger players not coming through as hoped, but this is not a vintage Premier League.

Goal of the year

The odds on Maynor Figueroa of Wigan scoring the best goal of the 2009 would have been considerable, but hats off to the Honduran for his 55-meter strike against Stoke in December.

Rory Delap gave away a foul and should have stood near the ball to prevent a quick free kick. But Delap — or anyone — could hardly have expected Figueroa, five meters inside his own half, to spot Thomas Sorensen off his line and, with minimal runup, strike the ball perfectly over the Stoke goalkeeper and into the back of the net.

Unforgettable.

Bargain buys

A joint award for Birmingham central defenders Roger Johnson and Scott Dann who have been outstanding this season.

Johnson cost £5 million from Cardiff this summer and Dann £3.5 million from Coventry. Johnson is 26, Dann 22 and neither had played in the Premier League before August, yet here they are forming the cornerstone of the Blues' impressive first half of the season.

It proves there are still bargains to be found at less fashionable clubs.

Worst buy

Step forward — but careful not to injure yourself — Alberto Aquilani, belatedly of Liverpool. The Italian cost £20 million from Roma last summer but injury prevented him from making his debut until Oct. 28.

The midfielder has shown nothing to give the impression he can be Xabi Alonso's replacement, and it's a fair bet he will not be cautioned because for that to happen you have to tackle.

At the moment it must be said that rarely has so much been paid for so little.

Biggest lesson learned

That referees need help from video technology. Thierry Henry's handball that helped France beat the Republic of Ireland to qualify for the World Cup finals gave the argument its highest ever profile. Referees cannot be expected to see everything and I am not in favor of instant replays.

However, if the fourth official can spot an offense the referee or his assistants have missed, be it handball, violence off the ball or whether a foul was committed inside the penalty, it must be in the game's best interests.

FIFA maintains opposition to technology, but it would not so much undermine the referee's authority as ensure a natural sense of justice in major decisions.

Most boring trend continued

The predictable criticism of referees by managers, usually the losing ones. Referees are slated for making correct decisions by managers who are ignorant of the laws.

Managers are extremely touchy about being criticized, especially what they consider unfair criticism, but they are not slow at dishing it out to match officials. The losing manager knows that saying the referee got it (penalty/free kick/red card, etc.) wrong is a good way of deflecting attention from his team's loss.

The problem is that most TV "experts" and journalists do not really know the laws either, so fans are brainwashed into believing their side lost because of the ref.

Hopes for 2010

That England wins the World Cup. But my head says it will be Brazil.

That Arsenal's football is rewarded with the Premier League title which maybe, just maybe, will happen. And that the Premier League upgrades its "fit and proper person" checks for new owners.

Portsmouth owner Ali Al Faraj, who took over the club in October, has yet to see it play, and on Wednesday it was served with a winding-up petition by HM Revenue & Customs for £6 million.

There is no suggestion that the Saudi multimillionaire has done anything illegal, but apart from unpaid income tax, players and staff have also been kept waiting for their wages recently. To survive, Portsmouth will have to sell one or two of the remaining decent players it still has.

It does little for the league's credibility when a new owner comes in and this happens.

Happy New Year.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.


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