james debate
james debate

Thursday 25 August 2011

Genre Rock
Label Warner Bros.
Producers Rick Rubin
rhcp i'm with you ephemeric

There has been a long hiatus for the Red Hot Chili Peppers between their last album, released in 2006, and this newest release. It's been a time of upheaval for the band, with lead guitarist John Frusciante leaving (again), to be replaced by Josh Klinghoffer. It's a perilous time for a comeback.

The first thing to note is that the band is definitely missing something without Frusciante. You don't lose arguably the best guitarist of a generation without noticing. Indeed the band appears to have lost some of their edge.

Album opener Monarchy of Roses typifies everything that the band has become known for; the duality between the dirtier funk stylings and the more melodic, soaring chorus. It's a hopeful and exciting start to the new era.

Unfortunately the next track Factory of Faith is more representative of this particular album. Awfully repetitive and frankly bland, this track sounds more like a parody of incredibly phoned in, inspiration-less funk.

Indeed much of the album seems to consist either of similar songs like this or more uncharacteristically low-fi rock like Brendan's Death Song and Meet Me at the Corner, the likes of which are perfectly listenable, but again, strangely flavourless for the band.

However there are brighter moments, including the typically radio-friendly lead single The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie, which features the classic RHCP funk/melody combination and one of Flea's classic swaggering bass lines.

Meanwhile, Did I Let You Know becomes one of the surprise highlights of the album with it's sunny demeanour and multi-vocalist chorus, while Happiness Loves Company is a delightfully bouncy throwback to the 1970s. Also worthy of note is the laid back Police Station, this album's answer to Californication.

In the end, I'm With You seems to be more about the band finding it's footing following the recent shake up and time out. The album as a whole is mercifully less sprawling than their last effort, the two-disk Stadium Arcadium, but it feels unfortunately lacking in memorable tracks. Their are some fine songs here to be sure, but they are few and far between, and overall, not of a high enough quality to stack up next to the band's back catalogue.

Must Listen
The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie

Happiness Loves Company

Did I Let You Know

Police Station

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Did we even have a summer this year? I have had neither the time off, nor the good weather here in London. Nevertheless, I have been informed by my assistant that it is now August, and as such we are approaching the start of the new season of football.

As per usual the Ephemeric is here to run the rule over every team in the Premier League and render a few solid predictions. Read on for the ultimate preview of what awaits us these next nine months.

Premier League 2011/12 in a nutshell:
Champions: Manchester United
Champions League qualifiers: Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal
Europa League qualifiers (via final league position): Liverpool, (others depending on cup + fair play)
Relegated: Swansea, Wigan, QPR
Golden Boot winner: Wayne Rooney (Man U)
Golden Glove winner: Petr Cech (Chelsea)
Player to watch: David Silva (Man City)
New signing to watch: Sergio Agüero (Man City)
Young player to watch: Daniel Sturridge (Chelsea)
First manager to get the sack: Steve Kean (Blackburn)
Shock of the season: Arsene Wenger leaves Arsenal


Nickname: The Gunners
Ground: Emirates Stadium
Capacity: 60,000
Position last season: 4th
Manager: Arsene Wenger

The better part of a decade has now gone by without Arsene Wenger’s men bringing home any silverware. The “club in transition” excuses have long since dried up, and it’s getting to the point where simply shrugging one’s shoulders and pointing toward empty coffers for an explanation will no longer cut the mustard with the Arsenal faithful

That’s where porn-star-moustachioed new owner Stan Kroenke comes in, to give the club a bit more of the financial clout that is so important in this day and age. Arsenal fans have so far been resistant to any such spending (years of self-righteous bitterness toward the League's sugar daddies may be a factor here) but even the hardest of hardcore now seem willing to admit that such action is necessary if the club want to catch up with the top tier teams.

Of course, transfer spending is not the only area where Kroenke can make a difference. The faster the club’s massive stadium debts are paid off, the faster they can realise the income potential of such an asset. With Kroenke’s investment and the Emirates’ stadium income, Arsenal FC stand to be in a very strong financial position in a few years’ time, where the only thing holding them back will be their relatively minuscule commercial revenue. For that to pick up, they’ll have to actually start winning things.

On the personnel front, the club faces a real challenge with the threat of mass exodus of key players including Fabregas and Nasri, with Clichy already out the door. Robin Van Persie is likely to take the arm band in the near future as an increasingly heavy weight is placed upon the Dutchman’s shoulders, Arsenal fans will be hoping that he doesn’t begin to get similar ideas of greener pastures abroad.

Key Signing: Gervinho
Key Man: Robin Van Persie
If they were a car: A Daihatsu Copen, sporty, pretty to look at whilst being very economical, but in reality it's just a lemon.

Verdict: Can still challenge if their more established rivals falter in a big way or suffer catastrophic injuries, but will likely be more concerned about keeping their top 4 position with the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham breathing down their necks.


Nickname: The Villans
Ground: Villa Park
Capacity: 42,593
Last season: 9th
Manager: Alex McLeish

Never quite recovered from the bombshell of Martin O’Neill’s resignation, but the writing had been on the wall for a long time with the unpopular departures of key players to bigger clubs. They face a similar problem once again with the likes of Ashley Young and Stewart Downing already leaving this summer and the threat of further exits down the road.

New manager Alex McLeish is undoubtedly good at what he does, but begins his job amid a fire of controversy following the fracas that has arisen from his switch between the club and bitter arch rivals Birmingham. He has a lot to prove after suffering relegation last season, even more so now with the additional undesired attention and the scepticism of the fans.

On the other side of the transfer market the club have done some good business already this summer. Villa have pulled of something of a coup with the signing of Shay Given, unquestionably one of the best goalkeepers in the league who was only kept out of a strong Manchester City side by the quality of Joe Hart. However Given has his work cut out for him, stepping into the shoes of Brad Friedel. Meanwhile Wigan’s star player Charles N’Zogbia has made a big money switch to the Villans in what could prove to be a shrewd reinforcement for the club.

Key Signing: Shay Given
Key Man: Darren Bent
If they were a car: They would be down at the chop shop, selling off spare parts without a care in the world for whether or not she will ever drive again.

Verdict: If N’Zogbia can supply Bent with a steady stream of chances, Europa League qualification is a strong possibility.


Nickname: Rovers
Ground: Ewood Park
Capacity: 31,367
Last season: 15th
Manager: Steve Kean

Steve Kean managed to save the club from relegation last season, but the fact remains that they weren't even under threat of going down until Sam Allardyce's shock sacking. Kean has much to prove this season, and the same has to be said for Blackburn's wealthy new owners who have taken a lot of flack for this controversial decision.

A good start to the season will be crucial to calm nerves and ensure the club doesn't get sucked down into another relegation battle. However fans would be wise to start preparing for the worst.

A bright prospect has left the club in Phil Jones, and rumours persist linking Chris Samba with a move away to a bigger club. Radosav Petrović, meanwhile, is an interesting signing of whom much will be expected.

Key Signing: Radosav Petrović
Key Man: Chris Samba (if he stays)
If they were a car: A jeep where the engine has inexplicably been traded for that of an electric scooter.

Verdict: A tough season ahead which could well see the team dragged into another relegation fight.


Nickname: Trotters
Ground: Reebok Stadium
Capacity: 27,879
Last season: 14th
Manager: Owen Coyle

Owen Coyle seems to have stabilised a club that has been in decline ever since the departure of one Sam Allardyce, but it'll be interesting to see how he can take them on from here.

Bringing Daniel Sturridge in on loan last season proved to be a very shrewd move, and the Chelsea youngster's 8 goals in 12 games played a big part in their improved form for the second half of the season. They'll be at a disadvantage then this season without Sturridge, who is set to make a breakthrough at Stamford Bridge.

Coyle has wasted no time in snapping up a few bargains this season, including Nigel Reo-Coker on a free transfer, but he'll desperately need more firepower up front to play off of Kevin Davies if he is to assure a comfortable mid table finish.

Of equal concern will be the persistent rumours linking Gary Cahill with a move away from the Reebok, a loss which would have quite an impact on the club's back line.

Key Signing: Nigel Reo-Coker
Key Man: Kevin Davies
If they were a car: Honda insight. Hardly the most glamorous out there, but dependable, and in the hands of a skilled driver can even challenge the big boys.

Verdict: Consistency is key to prevent club from going backwards.


Nickname: Blues
Ground: Stamford Bridge
Capacity: 42,449
Last season: 2nd
Manager: André Villas-Boas

Last season was the perfect summary of the consistency problems that plagued the club under the reign of Carlo Ancelotti, from record breaking winning runs to record breaking winless runs, and the unsurprising result was a trophiless year.

The club has pulled off something of a coup in appointing Villas-Boas, the treble winning Porto manager who was being tapped as Pep Guardiola's replacement at Barcelona next year until he was poached by his former employers at Chelsea. Villas-Boas brings a more stylish flair-based approach to football to the club, but only time will tell if he's really ready for such a big step up. Either way, patience will be needed from the fans and the club owners.

There is no doubt that the team is in need of a serious shake up. It is surprising then that there has been so little transfer activity from the Blues this summer. So far only hot prospects Thibault Courtois, Oriol Romeu and Romelu Lukaku have been signed, with Courtois already off on loan for the season, and the others unlikely to play a major role in the first team just yet. Rumours persist of a move for Tottenham's Luka Modric, which would be a major boost to a club that lacks creativity in the midfield, but with such extortionate fees being quoted one must wonder why they don't seem to be considering other targets. Indeed, if the squad remains as it is now, it's hard to see the club having aspirations for anything beyond a top four finish.

On the plus side, youngsters like Daniel Sturridge and Josh McEachran appear ready for a breakthrough season, with the former in particular likely to play a big part in the team's drive for silverware. There is still a good deal of team building required here, Frank Lampard looks to be on his last legs and Didier Drogba is getting on in the years, but the club finally appears to be on the right track, arguably for the first time since the sacking of Mourinho.

Key Signing: So far, the manager.
Key Man: John Terry
If they were a car: A vintage Mercedes; expensive once upon a time, but after years of disuse is now having to subsist on budget replacement parts, currently missing a steering wheel.

Verdict: As always, predicting Chelsea's fortunes is an exercise in futility, but few would predict anything lower than third this season, and a title push an outside chance, but probably only if additional signings are made.


Nickname: Toffees
Ground: Goodison Park
Capacity: 40,170
Last season: 7th
Manager: David Moyes

Another year, and another big challenge for David Moyes who continues to purvey his unique magic levitating act on Everton with no budget. Indeed there are no transfers in so to speak, and nagging rumours that key players Phil Jagielka and Jack Rodwell could be off in the near future. Arguably though, such a loss would in fact be a good thing for Everton, who could then use the proceeds to buy a couple of new players, something that Moyes has always been adept at when presented with the funds.

This, plus stadium and ownership issues, has lent to a feeling of angst surrounding the club in the run up to the season, and one which could put a dampener on things once the action gets underway. There is the impression that the club has stagnated in recent years, and unfortunately for Toffees fans, that doesn't look like changing this season.

Key Signing: None yet
Key Man: Leighton Baines
If they were a car: The Magic School Bus, nobody quite knows how it does what it does, but there you go.

Verdict: Again, will probably be around the same place as they end up every year, barring a miracle or a disaster.


Nickname: Cottagers
Ground: Craven Cottage
Capacity: 26,000
Last season: 8th
Manager: Martin Jol

Mark Hughes appeared to be doing a good job at the club until his humorous self destruction over the summer. The reigns of power now pass over to Martin Jol, another seasoned hand with Premier League experience who will endeavour to take the club to the next level.

No major signings so far, aside from the reunion of the Riise brothers, this season, but then the squad is not such that it needs a major overhall. Fans will be hoping that Bobby Zamora can avoid the injury problems that have followed him, and that the impressive defensive combo of Brede Hangeland, Aaron Hughes and Mark Schwarzer continues in similar form. Most importantly will be the consistency of key performer Clint Dempsey, who seems to have hit his peak in recent years.

Ultimately it’s hard to see how the club can go any further than they have done, finishing a creditable 8th place last season, but similarly I would not expect them to face any real threat of being sucked into a battle for survival.

Key Signing: John Arne Riise
Key Man: Clint Dempsey
If they were a car: The “ghost of Michael Jackson” car... for obvious reasons.

Verdict: A comfortable mid table finish seems likely.


Nickname: Reds
Ground: Anfield
Capacity: 45,362
Last season: 6th
Manager: Kenny Daglish

Liverpool have had a number of false dawns over the years, and following their sublime second half of the season last year, in which new manager Kenny Daglish turned their fortunes on a sixpence and ended up as the form team in the league, there is the feeling that a return to the big time is not far away.

In truth, not many would predict that the club are anywhere near ready to mount a sustained title challenge again, but a return to the Champions League certainly seems like a distinct possibility. Given that last Christmas they found themselves in the bottom half of the table, that’s quite the turnaround.

They have coped well following the loss of Fernando Torres, though perhaps eyebrows will be raised at the club’s decision to blow more than two times the Torres income (£45m) on largely unproven players like Andy Carroll (£35m), Jordan Henderson (£20), Stewart Downing (£20) and Luis Suarez (£23); although in the case of Suarez, the money appears to have been well spent, the jury is still out on the rest.

Following such a massive expenditure, expectations will surely begin to mount on Daglish. It will be upon him to gel the new players quickly, and maintain the form of present Liverpool stalwarts like Dirk Kuyt and Steven Gerrard, the latter of which is in desperate need of a good season after appearing to be on the decline over recent years. If Gerrard is unable to recover his form, a lot of will rest upon new signing Charlie Adam.

Key Signing: Stewart Downing
Key Man: Luis Suárez
If they were a car: Must... resist urge... to make scouser joke.

Verdict: A massive season for the club if they’re serious about returning to the glory days. Contention for a Champions League place is likely, will probably duke it out with Arsenal for 4th.


Nickname: Blues
Ground: City of Manchester Stadium
Capacity: 48,000
Last season: 3rd
Manager: Roberto Mancini

No more excuses for nouveau riche club or it’s under pressure manager. Manchester City’s FA Cup triumph last season made it clear for all to see that the heavy investments are starting to pay off, and the next target has to be the Premier League crown.

Nobody doubts the quality of the squad that has been amassed here, at great expense, but real questions remain over how good a team they are together. It’s never a good way to the start the season with your club captain Carlos Tévez doing all he can to force his exit, even going so far as to publically declare that he will never again line up in Manchester blue.

His ostensible replacement Sergio Agüero is unproven at this level, and very inconsistent for both his former club and country, while Mario Balotelli is one of those players who will always make more headlines for his crazy shenanigans than for his footballing prowess, talented though he may be.

In addition Agüero, new signing Gaël Clichy offers perhaps a slight upgrade on Wayne Bridge, and it is widely expected that Samir Nasri will join any day now. If Nasri signs then Manchester City will have arguably one of the strongest clubs in the league, and one of the brightest midfield prospects in the world. However, the priority now has to be less on bringing in more signings and more on helping this current group of stars operate as a unit. The secret to Manchester United’s success has always been the strong dressing room atmosphere, a factor that inevitably pays dividends right at the crunch time of the season when it really counts. Arsenal’s invincibles had it, Chelsea under Mourinho had it, and Manchester City must find this quality if they want to be the best team in the country.

Key Signing: Sergio Agüero
Key Man: David Silva
If they were a car: A souped up Lamborghini from Fast and Furious, the owner constantly adding more flair and shiny things, but seemingly unconcerned with practicality.

Verdict: A big year for the club where many pundits are expecting great things, likely to mount a challenge, but would be a surprise if they managed to achieve the consistency required to actually win the thing.


Nickname: Red Devils
Ground: Old Trafford
Capacity: 76,000
Last season: Champions
Manager: Sir Alex Ferguson

Last season Manchester United were easily the best team in the league, but any suggestion that the club intend to sit on their laurels and content themselves with being the best on this side of the Channel can be ignored.

No, this year they face a bigger challenge: unseating Barcelona at the summit of European football. Following last season’s comfortable Champions League final defeat at the Catalan’s hands, Sir Alex has set himself the challenge of building a team that can go one step further in what may indeed prove to be his final project at Old Trafford before retirement.

Not only do they start off the season as the strongest in the league, but they have also been one of the more active in the transfer window, adding the likes of Ashley Young, Phil Jones, De Gea and potentially Wesley Sneijder. Considering the transfer activity of their rivals who begin in a worse position (Chelsea have yet to make a first team signing and Man City have only signed no-names and a Tevez-lite replacement) it's hard to see them having too much trouble in securing a record 20th title. Of the prominent players who were released this season, only the loss of Van der Sar weakens them somewhat from last season, and so a lot will depend on how quickly his replacement can adjust to life at Old Trafford.

Key Signing: Ashley Young
Key Man: Wayne Rooney
If they were a car: The Batmobile. Their super powered enemies usually get a head start, but once Batman gets going it would be unwise to bet against them.

Verdict: Have enough about them to defend their title so long as their new goalkeeper proves to be less Van der Gouw and more Van der Sar.


Nickname: Magpies
Ground: St. James' Park
Capacity: 52,387
Last season: 12th
Manager: Alan Pardew

Mission accomplished last season in holding a comfortable mid table position and remaining in the top flight. Some may have questioned the dismissal of Chris Hughton, the manager who after all got them promoted and took them into the top half of the Premier League, although in Pardew they have placed themselves in safe hands. Eyebrows may also be raised by the club's transfer policy in selling the likes of Enrique and Carroll, but they have recruited well this summer with the signings of Demba Ba who impressed during the tail end of last season, and former Manchester United hot prospect Gabriel Obertan, who could turn out to be something of a coup for the club.

Survival shouldn't really be an issue this season, but at the same time I don't think anyone should be expecting a Europa League push either. Of greater concern will be the morale of players off the pitch. Considering the recent high profile shenanigans with Joey Barton who almost got free-transferred for criticising the club's management hierarchy, it only seems reasonable to ask questions of the perennially under fire club owner Mike Ashley, and whether his treatment of the senior players bodes ill for their prospects.

Key Signing: Demba Ba
Key Man: Joey Barton
If they were a car: The Prime Minister's car, as the owners of both club and car enjoy a similar level of popularity.

Verdict: Another mid table finish is on the cards.


Nickname: The Canaries
Ground: Carrow Road
Capacity: 27,033
Last season: Promoted from Championship
Manager: Paul Lambert

Back to the big time for the Canaries, for the first time in six years they will compete in the top flight of English football. Manager Lambert has pulled off something really quite remarkable by securing back to back promotions for the club, but he will find that the Premier League is something completely different, and he will do well to ensure survival.

But this is not an impossible task, and indeed his business operations during the summer appear to be quite shrewd, ruthlessly cutting a lot of the lower league slack that remained on the books and bringing in some quite interesting talent, including former Everton striker James Vaughan, and the loan signings of Kyle Naughton (Spurs) and Ritchie De Laet (Man U) among others. The emphasis is certainly on young and hungry players, as opposed to experienced and over the hill, a stark contrast to the team building policy of many newly promoted teams.

A long season lies ahead, but Norwich are certainly not going to be pushovers, and it could well be that the next page of the script has them staying afloat this year.

Key Signing: James Vaughan
Key Man: Grant Holt
If they were a car: A circus clown car. Looks small, not really sure what's inside, but could spring a surprise or two.

Verdict: Staying in the Premier League will be a tough challenge, but if any newly promoted side looks to have a shot it's them.


Nickname: The Hoops
Ground: Loftus Road
Capacity: 18,360
Last season: Promoted from Championship
Manager: Neil Warnock

Fans rejoice, Neil Warnock has returned to the Premier League, and now that he is backed by the money of QPR it will be interesting to see what rants he comes up with this time around.

Transfer activity so far seems to be a mix of the good (Jay Bothroyd, DJ Campbell) and the sounds good on paper, but is actually bad (Kieron Dyer), while the club will be buoyed by the fact that much talked about (by his agent presumably) midfielder Adel Taraabt looks set to stay at the club for at least another six months, however the loss of Wayne Routledge, to another newly promoted team no less, is a blow.

This is the club's first season of top flight football in 15 years, since the early days of the Premier League, but their chances for survival appear threatened by a host of off the pitch tensions, created chiefly by their wealthy owners and the ongoing saga of takeover rumours, which has contributed to the present unwillingness to afford the squad the kind of investment that would make a positive season more likely. As it is, this is a team that still looks awfully lower league.

Key Signing: Jay Bothroyd
Key Man: Adel Taraabt
If they were a car: A hatchback entering into an F1 race, with two elderly ladies driving, bickering over control of the wheel.

Verdict: Survival is going to be a very tall ask for the club, despite Warnock's best efforts. Get ready for the press conference fireworks now.


Nickname: Potters
Ground: Britannia Stadium
Capacity: 28,384
Last season: 13th
Manager: Tony Pulis

Pulis continues to do almighty work at Stoke, punching above their weight and particularly pulling out the stops against the big teams.

So far the only incoming transfer activity has been Jonathan Woodgate. If he can stay fit, he will be a fine addition to the already formidable Stoke defence, and a threat going forward for set pieces, still the mainstay of Stoke goalscoring. Rumours abound for some additional attacking threat along the lines of a Carlton Cole or a Cameron Jerome, but as of yet no move has materialised. The expectation then should be for more of the same from one of the more consistent teams in the Premier League these days.

The key central defensive duo of Shawcross and Huth seems to grow stronger with each passing game, and the emergence of Asmir Begovic in goal has been something of a triumph for the club now entering its fourth consecutive season of top flight football. If it ain't broke don't fix it, but one has to wonder, how long can Stoke keep playing at this level without trying to evolve the squad and style of play.

Thanks to last year's appearance in the FA Cup final, Stoke will also be involved in European competition this season, adding further challenges to the already congested schedule of a Premier League club. It will be the most telling indication yet of Stoke's durability as a top flight club to see how they cope with the additional pressure.

Key Signing: Jonathan Woodgate
Key Man: Asmir Begovic
If they were a car: A Rory Delap shaped catapult… that's close enough to a car, right?

Verdict: Aiming for status quo in the face of new challenges.


Nickname: Black Cats
Ground: Stadium of Light
Capacity: 48,300
Last season: 10th
Manager: Steve Bruce

Steve Bruce is a good manager and he has crafted a decent club out of the collection of Sunderland misfits he inherited, one that has long since forgotten about ensuring Premier League survival and one that now sets its sights on Europa League qualification. The challenge this season will be to combat the club's habit of inconsistency in order to progress still further.

The sale of Darren Bent was a big loss for the club, but the signing of much hyped striker Connor Wickham offers a great deal of potential, both for a player looking for space to develop, and for a club looking for someone to partner the erratic Asamoah Gyan. Meanwhile decent signings have been made in other positions including the likes of Craig Gardner and Sebastian Larsson.

If this is to be a good year, Sunderland will finish top seven and mount a creditable cup run, on the other end of the hypothetical spectrum, they might finish around 15th. My prediction? Well see below.

Key Signing: Connor Wickham
Key Man: Lee Cattermole
If they were a car: The Smartcar, small, unassuming and attracts derision from many, but surprisingly solid, and quietly gathering momentum… and then they break down for no apparent reason.

Verdict: Push for a Europa League place, but top 10 finish should be the minimum aim.


Nickname: The Swans
Ground: Liberty Stadium
Capacity: 20,532
Last season: Promoted from Championship
Manager: Brendan Rodgers

Cue the hysteria, we have the first ever Welsh club in the Premier League. Oh, what's that you say? No one gives a toss? Right then moving on…

Ex-Chelsea youth coach Brendan Rodgers is quickly making a name for himself as a manager. Rodgers was quick to poach the cream of the unwanted Chelsea youngster crop with the likes of Fabio Borini and Scott Sinclair lighting up the Championship, and last season his attractive Swansea side were the final team to clinch promotion to the Premier League through the playoff system. Even though Borini is now gone, he has strengthened his side well with the likes of Wayne Routledge and Leroy Lita, while the attacking forces of Nathan Dyer and Luke Moore make perfectly clear the intention to fight for survival playing attractive, attacking football. It's a similar tactic to the one Blackpool employed last season, so best of luck to them.

Whatever happens, this is a team that's likely to be fighting for survival come the end of the season, and while their style of play will win many fans and make them a popular choice for avoiding the drop as with Blackpool last year, the odds are that they too will find the step up to the top flight one too many.

Key Signing: Wayne Routledge
Key Man: Scott Sinclair
If they were a car: Alpha Romeo, aspiring for style and panache, but clearly lower league under the hood.

Verdict: A favourite for relegation despite their ambitious style.


Nickname: Spurs
Ground: White Hart Lane
Capacity: 36,236
Last season: 5th
Manager: Harry Redknapp

Tottenham under Harry Redknapp have far too often turned out to be the "almost but not quite" club. A rare piece of silverware, a first foray into the Champions League after threatening to break through for so many years, but last season saw a step backward for the club. With the level of competition toward the top of the league being what it is now, there are realistically six clubs fighting for the four Champions League qualification places, and arguably three of them fighting for just one place. Tottenham is one of those clubs, and compared to their rivals, they would appear to have the longest shot.

On top of this it is often overlooked that Tottenham have been among the biggest spenders in the league for many years now with very little to show for it, and considering the lack of major changes this summer, it is hard to see this changing. The one big improvement is the recruitment of a consistent, and excellent goalkeeper in Brad Friedel to replace the gaffe prone Gomes. No noteworthy departures as of yet, but rumours persist linking Luka Modric with a move to Stamford Bridge in the near future. Such a loss would clearly have a big impact on the squad, and on player morale for that matter, although the potential transfer fee would easily allow Redknapp to bring in a few replacements.

Make no mistake, Tottenham are certainly in contention for Champions League qualification this season, but it seems unlikely unless both Arsenal and Liverpool have massively underwhelming seasons.

Key Signing: Brad Friedel
Key Man: Luka Modric
If they were a car: Lotus Elise, costs way more than it should, in equal parts frustrating and delightful.

Verdict: Finishing outside the top six would be a bad result for the club, but pushing into that all important top four may be too much to ask.

Latest club news

Nickname: Baggies
Ground: The Hawthorns
Capacity: 26,500
Last season: 11th
Manager: Roy Hodgson

The dismissal of Roberto Di Matteo came as a surprise considering the fact that the newly promoted club (which he got promoted at the first time of asking) was positioned against all odds in the top half of the Premier League table at the time, however they have replaced him well with Roy Hodgson, a man whose disastrous tenure at Liverpool takes nothing away from his ability as a small-team manager. Hodgson duly did what he does best and ensured survival and even a comfortable mid table finish.

Once upon a time next big thing Scott Carson has been moved on, and another once upon a time next big thing Ben Foster has been brought in as his replacement, a definite improvement as far as we're concerned. Elsewhere, star striker Odemwingie looks set to carry the team's front line again, as no partner has been brought in as of yet. Hodgson looks as though he might even play with just the one up front, having brought in a number of new midfielders, including Shane Long who impressed for Reading in the Championship last season.

Captain Chris Brunt continues to be influential on the right, with Mulumbu sits in front of the back line with his intelligent play and fine passing, while Jerome Thomas completes a solid midfield. This is not a team that's ready to push for the Europa League just yet, but one that is probably good enough to avoid the drop.

Key Signing: Shane Long
Key Man: Peter Odemwingie
If they were a car: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, something delightful about the old codger in charge, who manages to craft something quite special from not much at all.

Verdict: Another finish in the lower half of the table looks likely, probably not quite stuck in the relegation battle.


Nickname: Latics
Ground: JJB Stadium
Capacity: 25,000
Last season: 16th
Manager: Roberto Martinez

Wigan defied the odds, and an atrocious start to the season, by securing survival on the last day of the season in dramatic fashion. It may take another late miracle to prevail again, as the coming season looks like another long one for the club.

Securing Ali Al-Habsi is a big coup for the club, but much more will be needed to shore up the leakiest defence in the league. Meanwhile the loss of Charles N'Zogbia and the return of Tom Cleverley to Manchester United are both big losses for the team's attacking efforts. As of yet no ready replacements have been signed, which will probably mean that the burden of responsibility rests with Victor Moses and Rodallega.

Given the number of years that this club has survived against the odds, one would think that a turnaround in fortunes is long since due, however the opposite appears more likely and Wigan fans have every reason to worry.

Key Signing: Ali Al-Habsi
Key Man: Hugo Rodallega
If they were a car: A golf, with required pit stops every few miles, its engine on the last legs.

Verdict: Wigan's luck could run out this season.


Nickname: Wolves
Ground: Molineux Stadium
Capacity: 28,525
Last season: 17th
Manager: Mick McCarthy

Wolves face a tall order to remain in the Premier League, once again. However, Mick McCarthy is a good manager and he has done impressive work with Wolves for the last couple of years. He has also invested well. with Steven Fletcher coming in from Burnley, and Birmingham's impressive Roger Johnson coming in to bolster the back line.

But in today's Premier League where the quality of even the lower tier teams seems to improve with each passing year, that may not be enough. Johnson, while impressive for Birmingham, rarely got called out for his inconsistency, and here he is joining a defence that is already notoriously inconsistent. Meanwhile Wolves' attack was the least productive in the league last season, and while Fletcher and Doyle might sound like a convincing attacking pair together, it won't count for much without some additional quality in the midfield to create chances.

Key Signing: Roger Johnson
Key Man: Kevin Doyle
If they were a car: A Fiat. 60% of the time, it works every time… except that it's more like 20%.

Verdict: Another tough season ahead, which is likely to involve a struggle for survival.

Predicted table:
1. Manchester United
2. Manchester City
3. Chelsea
4. Arsenal
5. Liverpool
6. Tottenham
7. Everton
8. Sunderland
9. Stoke City
10. Aston Villa
11. Fulham
12. Newcastle United
13. Bolton
14. West Brom
15. Norwich
16. Blackburn
17. Wolverhampton Wanderers
18. Swansea City
19. Wigan
20. Queens Park Rangers

Wednesday 3 August 2011

Directed by Howard Davies
Written by Anton Chekhov (Original), Andrew Upton
Starring Zoë Wanamaker, Conleth Hill, Kenneth Cranham
Theatre National Theatre, Olivier

cherry orchard national theatre anton chekhov

I will begin by saying that Anton Chekhov is one of my favourite playwrights, possibly the favourite, while the Cherry Orchard is one of his most revered plays, considered by many to be his best.

Set at a time of social upheaval, characterised by the rise of the middle class and the fall of the nobility, the Cherry Orchard follows a formerly wealthy family that has been ravaged by debt, as they return home to the family estate to be present as it is auctioned off to pay the mortgage.

Just as the landed gentry at the time were cost by their refusal to face up to the changing times, so does this family ignore all warnings in order to perpetuate the fantasy of permanent status. But the march of "progress" proved to be unstoppable, as presaged here in Chekhov's visionary work.

It’s always a risk when you take such a play that has been done, and done well, in the past and attempt to refresh the script. So it’s no surprise that reaction so far has been mixed at best, with newcomers generally pleased with the production while old fans are grated by the intrusion of modern slang and inconsistent anachronisms.

However, despite my fondness for Chekhov’s original work, I did not find myself particularly bothered by Upton’s liberty taking with the language. The central themes and the underlying historical context all remain intact, ensconced in the kind of rich character drama that only Chekhov can do so well.

For me, the biggest problem with this production comes from a strange lack of heart. One could argue that it is the director’s intention to cast a cruel and unfeeling light on proceedings; it would even be a fitting reflection of the homogenisation of modernity, the inevitability of which casts a pall upon the characters in this play. Ultimately something feels lost in translation as the fantasy of the old world mentality, epitomised by the luxuriant hubris of land owner Ranyevskaya, fails to contrast effectively with the relentless advent of societal change. In a play where the ties of family and tradition are overwhelmed by the changing times, I found myself oddly unmoved.

The play also contains an uneasy marriage between the naturalism that typifies the work of Chekhov, and symbolism that is part and parcel when it comes to a politically intentioned play such as this. Often this works to good effect, with the complex and often unspoken dynamics between characters mirroring the underlying analogies. However other times it comes off as quite jarring, as with perennial student Tofimov and his penchant for meandering monologues making a stark contrast with the otherwise understated and natural style of dialogue.

Aside from these potential criticisms, however, there is much to enjoy with this production. The acting is generally excellent; Zoë Wanamaker shines in the starring role of Ranyevskaya, while Conleth Hill nearly steals the show as the exasperated businessman Lopakhin. Credit must also go to James Laurenson's tragically layered turn as Gaev and Tim McMullan as loveable moocher Simyonov-Pischik, but above all to the venerable Kenneth Cranham for his effortlessly masterful rendition of the senile Firs.

In addition the stagecraft is fantastic, the set makes good use of the Olivier space, and it's level of detail is a thing of beauty. It is even more impressive as it effortlessly transitions from one seen to the next. The lighting is also pitch perfect and atmospheric, giving a real sense of place and time, while the sound-work also displays a keen attention to natural detail in classic Stanislavskian traditions.

In the end this is a technically adept production which never quite achieves the sum of its fine components. This reworked version of the Cherry Orchard serves as a clear reminder that even when the acting and production is done right, it still takes something extra to really capture the soul of a play, an intangible quality that this production unfortunately lacks.

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