LONDON — With a quarter of the Premier League campaign gone there can be little doubt about the team of the season so far — West Bromwich Albion.
Promoted clubs tend to struggle, and when Albion were thumped 6-0 in their opening game at Chelsea the wise old sages nodded their I-told-you-so heads. Since then, West Bromwich has won at Arsenal, drawn at Manchester United and has reached the quarterfinals of the Carling Cup.
Albion have previously struggled to establish themselves in the Premier League since joining English football’s elite in 2001. Since that time, West Bromwich has bounced back and forth between the Championship — in 2004-05 it became the first ever team to stay up after being at the bottom of the Premier League table on Christmas Day.
They do not have a billionaire benefactor, yet the Baggies, who play Blackpool on Monday, could be second behind Chelsea if results go their way.
Manager Roberto Di Matteo, the former Chelsea midfielder, is in his second season at the Hawthorns after a successful stint with MK Dons. One of the most impressive things about West Bromwich has been a belief that it is never out of a game; it was down 2-0 at Old Trafford — an attitude that the eloquent Di Matteo has instilled in his players.
The Italian seems to have a calming presence over his squad, not letting a poor start or an individual mistake disrupt the attitude of the team. Di Matteo also has the knack of discovering players unknown in England and making them into solid, effective performers able to hold their own at the highest level.
Center back Jonas Olsson is known for a brash, physical style of play and fiery displays of emotion that in his younger days made him the most cautioned player in Sweden. His discipline has improved and Olsson typifies the spirit of Di Matteo’s West Bromwich.
Nigerian striker Peter Odemwinge, with three goals in six games, has been a revelation since signing from Lokomotiv Moscow. Chile international defender Gonzalo Jara, who joined from Colo Colo, Romania’s Gabriel Tamas (Auxerre) and Democratic Republic of Congo midfielder Youssuf Mulumbu (PSG) are part of a side playing with the confidence that suggests Albion’s yo-yo days are over.
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WAYNE ROONEY celebrated the signing of his new contract by enjoying a well-earned break in the millionaire’s playground of Dubai. It was a fitting tacky end to his contract saga and underlined the growing belief that the Manchester United striker’s list of people he really cares about could be written on one finger.
Even by Rooney’s standards of public relations own-goals this was something special. He has an ankle injury, so instead of keeping a low profile and having treatment at United’s training ground, he jetted off with his wife Coleen to stay in a £2,000 a night suite in the Burj Al Arab where he was photographed drinking lager and eating chicken nuggets with French fries.
Did it not register somewhere in Rooney’s brain that this was not the ideal way to repair his broken image? An injured player who has just signed the most lucrative contract in English football in controversial circumstances was splashing the cash in the sunshine with a diet hardly in keeping with that of an athlete; phone-ins indicated those who help to pay his considerable salary were unimpressed.
The reaction of the Old Trafford faithful will be significant when Rooney resumes his United career and plays for the team he doubted was a title contender. Some will remain blindly loyal to a player who last season was deservedly chosen as the Footballer of the Year but had a dreadful World Cup — he was not alone — and has been a pale shadow of Old Rooney this campaign.
Others will be unforgiving, upset at the way he told the club he wanted to leave NOT because of money but because it wasn’t buying the right players. Yes, this is the Manchester United, which is third in the Premier League and unbeaten in all competitions this season.
“OFFICIAL: ENGLISH FOOTBALL IS RUBBISH,” screamed the back page headline of the Sun after FIFA’s 23-man shortlist for the World Player of the Year award did not include a single member of Fabio Capello’s World Cup squad.
It is the first time since FIFA introduced a shortlist six years ago that no English player has been among the nominees. But is English football really rubbish?
In UEFA’s coefficient table based on results in Europe over the past five seasons awarding two points for a win and one for a draw, English clubs have been the most successful with Spain second and Germany third. Over the same period, Manchester United leads Barcelona followed by Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Arsenal — four of the top six are Premier League clubs.
Few can doubt that Spain has more outstanding individual players than anyone at the moment, though Argentina’s Lionel Messi remains a class apart even from the world champions. England’s national team may not be experiencing a vintage era, but English football remains in a healthy state even if a large debt is owed to overseas players.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for theLondon Daily Telegraph.
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