So that was the Premier League season that was, an epic for unstinting drama but not a vintage campaign for quality.
By Henry Winter
There have been some exceptional goals scored from Gareth Bale’s volley against Stoke City, Wayne Rooney’s overhead kick against Manchester City and Dimitar Berbatov’s cool finish of a wonderful Manchester United passing move against Blackburn Rovers.
Jermaine Beckford’s 80-yard dribble and goal for Everton against Chelsea was real Roy of the Rovers stuff. But there has been no glittering star, no box-office draw like a Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi.
Good players abound, though, as a look at a Premier League all-star team confirms. A few contenders jostle in the penalty area for goalkeeper of the season, and Paul Robinson, Joe Hart and Petr Cech deserve mention in dispatches.
But the No 1 No 1 must be Edwin Van der Sar, the retiring United keeper, who has made some astonishing saves this season.
Right back has been a problem this season. Micah Richards has been galloping down the wing effectively for City, as have Rafael and Fabio for Manchester United, but each can get caught out defensively.
Martin Kelly shows real promise at Liverpool, although injury unfortunately interrupted his season. Branislav Ivanovic has impressed there at times for Chelsea while Bacara Sagna, although good, has not quite lived up to previous years’ form with Arsenal.
In an average season for right-backs, arguably the most consistent has been Kyle Walker, the Spurs fullback on loan at Aston Villa. He scored one of Villa’s goals of the season against Fulham; dropping a shoulder to elude Danny Murphy, Walker crashed a 25-yarder past Mark Schwarzer.
By contrast, the competition for the left back slot has been intense. Ashley Cole remains a class act. Jose Enrique’s performances for Newcastle United have been consistently superb, seeing him linked with a move to Liverpool.
Yet it is hard to avoid the claims of Leighton Baines at Everton. Baines has been outstanding, the model of the all-round fullback who can defend and race forward to create, even finding the net five times in the league this year.
Two of the season’s top performers have been at centre half.
Vincent Kompany has been excellent all season, a true leader by word and deed for Manchester City. His timing in the tackle is a lesson to all aspiring defenders while his aerial dominance has been one of the reasons why City finished third.
As the Premier League season closed, Nemanja Vidic has rightly, and belatedly, been earning plaudits for his high-class sentry duty in front of Van der Sar.
The Serb finished a distant third in voting for the football writers’ Footballer of the Year won by Scott Parker with Gareth Bale second (although Vidic did receive this reporter’s vote). Yet Vidic’s importance as a captain and centre half has been increasingly recognised of late.
One of the many compliments recently paid to Vidic has been that Arsenal might have won the title if they had him at centre-back. He’s a natural leader, who embodies United’s inherent resilience. (It is important also to acknowledge the contributions of Christopher Samba, Michael Dawson and Gary Cahill).
Picking the midfield quartet of ball-winners, ballplayers and wingers is inevitably complicated, and respectful nods should go to the likes of Charlie Adam, Matthew Etherington, Nigel de Jong, Joey Barton, Bale, Lucas, Ashley Young, Stewart Downing, Florent Malouda, Stuart Holden and company. Yet four individuals stand out.
For all the praise due Bale for some phenomenal displays in Europe, arguably Spurs player of the season has been Luka Modric, a bundle of steel, silk and vision.
Ryan Giggs has shone whether used in central midfield or out wide. Some of his passing has been almost laser-guided, and he still has the capacity to trick his way past a fullback.
Scott Parker and Jack Wilshere offer obvious candidates for the central roles. Parker has been the shining light in a season of darkness for West Ham, delivering passes, goals and even team talks. Wilshere is only 19 but has produced consistently mature performances for Arsenal, creating chance after chance, learning from his red card against Nikola Zigic and acquiring more stealth in his interception work.
For the two striking roles, there are contenders such as Clint Dempsey, Robin Van Persie, Luis Suárez and Wayne Rooney. Yet it difficult to look beyond Carlos Tévez, whose display against Stoke City at Eastlands last week highlighted his calibre: his brace showed the Argentine at his best, the first goal from a clever run and the second via a stunning free kick.
A Mexican joins him in attack, Javier Hernández, who echoes Gerd Muller’s goalmouth pyrotechnics. Hernández’s heading has been majestic, even scoring with a back-header against Stoke. Hernández boasts the qualities to satisfy a league craving stars.
Premier play-off ruled out for now
The Premier League has considered introducing a play-off for the fourth Champions League place, involving the teams who finish fourth to seventh.
The idea was to intensify interest at the end of the season in the top half of the table, and would have seen the winners of Arsenal v Everton and Spurs v Liverpool playing off for the right to the pre-qualifying Champions League berth (which under the rules has gone to Arsenal).
Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal, the regular finishers in the Champions League positions, are known to be against the play-off proposal but there was appetite for the idea from other clubs.
Two of the sticking points were the possible involvement of one of the play-off clubs in the FA Cup final and concerns about fixture congestion.
“We had a look at it,’’ said the Premier League chief executive, Richard Scudamore. “There was some interest but ultimately it was felt to stick with it [the status quo].”
Any play-off could not be brought in until the next broadcasting contract anyway, although the idea could feature in negotiations.
The FA would hardly enjoy the prospect of the Premier League staging such major fixtures at a time of a year when they are desperately trying to maintain interest in the FA Cup final.