Premier League season review
So the Premier League ended pretty much as I predicted - with Liverpool as champions give or take the odd seven places and 23 points.
Best to get that one out of the way first. And in my defence, I will use that as a perfect example of the Premier League's unpredictability that gave this season an intriguing slant to surpass many others of recent memory.
Chelsea were one of the prime pre-season contenders to be champions and ended as domestic double winners - but it was not achieved without some surprise slips along the way which characterised the nature of this campaign.
How will those who played in the Premier League gauge the success of their seasons?
As well as trying to answer that question, I've given them some marks for added interest based on their pre-season expectations.
Chelsea's Italian manager Carlo Ancelotti has adapted seamlessly to English football - photo: Getty
CHELSEA - CHAMPIONS
Carlo Ancelotti's first season in charge ended with the Premier League and the FA Cup in the Stamford Bridge trophy room - a piece of history and a fitting reflection on an introduction to England that has brought many admirers of the Italian's dignity and expertise.
The size of the shadow cast over England's big clubs by the Champions League was emphasised at Ancelotti's after-match briefing at Wembley following the FA Cup Final win against Portsmouth.
It went something like this: "Well done for doing the double Carlo - but you do realise Roman Abramovich won't be happy until you win the Champions League."
There is something in that. Ancelotti, as ever, was sanguine but the Champions League exit against Inter Milan, and more pointedly against Jose Mourinho, was a blot on his season and he will be intent on putting that right next term.
Chelsea ended as champions because they were such a potent goal threat, eclipsing the 100 mark for the first time in the top flight since Tottenham in 1963, and then held their nerve in the final three games of the season in emphatic style after losing at White Hart Lane.
Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard were irresistible in front of goal, even in a season that was not Lampard's best in terms of all-round performances, and this ultimately made the difference.
Ancelotti cannot rest on his place in history, however. A top-class goalkeeper is needed to put pressure on Petr Cech and another central defender would not go amiss to turn up the heat on John Terry, Ricardo Carvalho and Alex.
Strangely, a team that won the double is in need of a bit of work and defeats such as the one at Wigan Athletic hinted at growing vulnerability.
But Chelsea rule the domestic game once more and Abramovich now appears in the mood to reward Ancelotti with an A-list signing. And yes, Roman still wants that Champions League.
SEASON'S MARK - A-
MANCHESTER UNITED - 2nd
I said before the start of the season that I felt a fourth Premier League title would prove beyond Manchester United. It did - but only just.
Sir Alex Ferguson's side somehow stayed in contention until the season's final day, but a campaign that brought only the Carling Cup has to be viewed as a disappointment when measured in terms of both performances and silverware. It was a tribute to United's built-in resilience rather than the quality they displayed that they ran Chelsea so close.
Rooney scored a remarkable 34 goals for Man Utd - photo: Getty
With Cristiano Ronaldo gone and Carlos Tevez moving to Manchester City, United were always going to rely even more on Wayne Rooney. They came to rely on him too heavily, as was proved when he played when only half-fit as United went out of the Champions League against Bayern Munich at Old Trafford in the quarter-final then missed the decisive home defeat by Chelsea.
Ferguson will be delighted by the progress of Nani and Antonio Valencia, but this was offset by minus marks such as the decline of Michael Carrick and Dimitar Berbatov's failure to deliver regularly, although I felt some of the criticism aimed at the Bulgarian was unduly harsh.
United were also undermined by the regular absences of Rio Ferdinand, and once again we have to ask how much more Ferguson can dredge out of the old reliables such as Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes.
If Ferguson, as he says, has the large portion of the £80m received from Real Madrid for Ronaldo still at his disposal, then some world-class attacking support for Rooney and more bolstering of central defence (besides Fulham rookie Chris Smalling) will be needed.
And with keeper Edwin van der Sar 40 in October and the once great hope Ben Foster seemingly bound for Birmingham, Ferguson also needs a quality keeper. Hugo Lloris of Lyon and CSKA Moscow's Igor Akinfeev are live contenders.
SEASON'S MARK - C
ARSENAL - 3rd
I suggested at the start of the season that the cups may be Arsenal's best bet. Not the Champions League - they were never good enough to win that.
I reckoned without Arsene Wenger's virtual disregard for the Carling Cup and FA Cup, strange indeed for a superb manager who might just feel in need of a piece of silverware after five barren years.
Arsenal's fans took grave exception to my claim that Wenger was somewhat deluded about the strength of his side, but their performances against Manchester United and Chelsea, their true title rivals, said it all. I will not retract those criticisms.
Thomas Vermaelen was a fine central defensive signing and Robin van Persie's long spell out of action was a serious setback, but once again Arsenal ended the season unfulfilled.
It looked for a time as though the failings of others might let them sneak in and snatch the title, but this was beyond them and Wenger now needs to address continuing problems because every season without a trophy will bring more questions.
"Arsene knows" is a familiar mantra from Arsenal's supporters, but what Arsene clearly did not know, or chose to ignore, was that having a sub-standard goalkeeper will eventually cost you if you want to win titles. Manuel Almunia and Lukasz Fabianski prove the point. They must be replaced with someone better.
Arsenal need another powerful defender and more of a presence in midfield, but the main concern at the moment appears to be the threat of losing Cesc Fabregas. If that happens, then Wenger will have an uphill struggle to recapture former glories.
I take no pleasure in being proved right about Arsenal - just not good enough.
SEASON'S MARK - C-
TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR - 4th
The season Spurs finally made the breakthrough and won a place in the Champions League. It was a superb feat of management by Harry Redknapp, who assembled a squad of many qualities to deservedly finish fourth.
Spurs showed all their best facets when they went to Manchester City in what was effectively a fourth-place play off and won far more convincingly than the 1-0 scoreline suggested.
Redknapp built his success on a strong spine in the shape of reborn goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes, a variety of central defensive partnerships based on Sebastien Bassong, Michael Dawson and the outstanding Ledley King and a midfield that had character and creation with Wilson Palacios and Luka Modric at its heart.
Gareth Bale proved the biggest revelation when switched from an uncertain left-back to an unstoppable left-sided midfield player, a maker and taker of goals, especially in the crucial wins against Arsenal and Chelsea.
You can guarantee Redknapp will be back in the market ahead of the Champions League campaign, and no praise is too high for the manner in which he took Spurs from the bottom of the Premier League into the top four in 18 remarkable months.
SEASON'S MARK - B+
MANCHESTER CITY - 5th
Strange campaign that saw progress in terms of their Premier League placing but also a tinge of disappointment that such lavish spending by the Abu Dhabi money men did not earn a place in the Champions League.
Mark Hughes was allowed to spend on an unprecedented scale for this club in the summer and the results were mixed. Carlos Tevez was an unqualified success, an outstanding and consistent performer, but the outlay of £42m on Roque Santa Cruz and Joleon Lescott proved highly questionable.
Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor were mixed at best, but such is the danger of deciding to rebuild a team at vast expense in almost one fell swoop.
It still seemed unduly harsh when Hughes was dispensed with, and his successor Roberto Mancini is yet to convince, despite assurances from the Eastlands hierarachy that he is a long-haul appointment.
City struggled in moments of real pressure, losing vital home games in the closing stages of the season to Everton, Manchester United (who beat them in stoppage time on three occasions this season) and most vitally against Spurs when they seemed burdened by the weight of expectation.
The addition of Adam Johnson in the last transfer window marked a fine start to the Mancini rebuild but xxpect the revolving door to be spinning at top speed again this summer.
Once City's supporters set aside the failure to reach the Champions League, they can at least rest assured that the club's fiercely ambitious rulers will finance any serious target to reach their eventual goal.
SEASON'S MARK - C
ASTON VILLA - 6th
Reaching the Carling Cup final and the FA Cup semi-final, only to fall victim of poor refereeing on both occasions, and maintaining their Premier League placing represented a step forward by Villa.
But again, as with Manchester City, there will also be a tinge of disappointment that they could not make the leap into the top four in a season when Liverpool's awful form created such an obvious vacancy.
Martin O'Neill moulded a team in his traditional style, with width, pace and power - but is there a one-dimensional aspect to this Villa team? I would suggest so on the evidence of what I saw from them this season.
The good news is that O'Neill's future is certain, according to owner Randy Lerner, after a rash of speculation suggesting he had grown tired of life at Villa Park.
And it will be fascinating to see how O'Neill goes about freshening up Villa for next season. One key task will be keeping hold of James Milner, who matured into an outstanding player.
The introduction of extra creativity in midfield to help Milner and Stilyan Petrov would be recommended.
In previewing Villa's season I wrote: "I expect more of the same in terms of league placings with more emphasis on success in the cups." And so it proved.
SEASON'S MARK - C
LIVERPOOL - 7th
Sadly, I must interrupt the backslapping for a prediction that was stunningly accurate to move on to one that was embarrassingly wide of the mark.
When I boldly (not to mention foolishly) announced Liverpool would win the Premier League, it was based on the flowing attacking football they played in the last three months of the previous season and with the proviso Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard stayed fit.
Both had their injury problems, but this can in no way be used in mitigation for a dreadful campaign rich in mediocrity that allows me to label Liverpool as the season's biggest disappointment.
After going public with my backing for Liverpool, my blood started to run cold after witnessing how poor they were in defeat against Spurs and Villa in their opening three games.
Few Liverpool players emerged with great credit from the season, with goalkeeper Pepe Reina an outstanding exception. Out of the Champions League in the group stage, unable to cash in on being parachuted into the Europa League and out of the FA Cup at home to Championship side Reading, it was a time of almost unremitting misery for Liverpool supporters.
Torres was again world-class when fit, but for too long he was on the sidelines and without him Liverpool were impotent. Gerrard, the saviour so many times, found the task beyond him this season.
The sale of Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid was highlighted as the key to Liverpool's downfall. He has become one of the Anfield greats with every game he hasn't played - but there had to be more to it than that.
Manager Rafael Benitez often trots out the recurring theme of lack of money, but he has done pretty well for cash over the years and his case is weakened by his expenditure of £17m on Glen Johnson, a fine offensive player but flawed defensively, and £20m on Alonso's supposed replacement Alberto Aquilani.
When Liverpool needed a player to hit the ground running and make a statement after Alonso's departure, Benitez signed an injured, expensive luxury item with a chequered fitness record - a perception Aquilani did nothing to alter during the season.
Benitez suffered his worst season since arriving at Anfield in 2004 - photo: Getty
Benitez once again got bogged down in tedious politicking - see his "senior sources" references at Hull after the season's final game for more evidence - and the ongoing saga of the ownership under Tom Hicks and George Gillett was a running sore.
And still it goes on into the close season, with no resolution in sight to the ownership issue, the manager being linked with a succession of vacancies and fears that the less than enticing Europa League may see Torres and Gerrard tempted elsewhere.
If that happened it would present an acid test to the Liverpool hierarchy. Do they trust Benitez's record enough to hand any more cash raised from sales? It would not be a formality.
If Benitez stays he would do well to steer clear of seeking assurances or delivering any ultimatums to Liverpool's reconstituted board. The assurance he required came in the form of a lavish five-year contract and the ultimatum should actually come the other way, from the boardroom. And it is this - a season such as the one just passed is intolerable at a club of Liverpool's stature.
SEASON'S MARK - D-
EVERTON - 8th
A season of what might have been at Goodison Park. Everton played as fluently and as well as just about any team in the Premier League from around the turn of the year, but failure to qualify for Europe after successive fifth-place finishes must be classed as a disappointment.
Manager David Moyes complained consistently that the ongoing, and acrimonious, story of Joleon Lescott's sale to Manchester City cast a shadow over Everton's opening to the season and made them slow starters.
There is some truth in this, but Moyes himself also appeared dragged down by his disappointment, and fairly obvious bitterness, at how he felt City went about their business of signing Lescott.
In City's defence, an offer of £24m was more than reasonable recompense for a player who, while excellent at Everton, was horrendously overpriced at that figure.
The price Everton paid was that wretched start that saw them lose at Burnley, Bolton and Hull and only draw at home with Stoke City, Wolves and Birmingham. Damaging results.
And in defence of Moyes, long-term injuries to crucial players such as Mikel Arteta and Phil Jagielka saw them enter the season belatedly. The upturn in form when they did was no co-incidence.
The curse even continued into the season when the giant figure of Marouane Fellaini, having developed into the country's finest midfielder according to Moyes, suffered an anke injury that requires six months on the sidelines.
The recovery, once it started and helped by the arrival of Landon Donovan on loan, was spectacular with draws away at Chelsea and Arsenal leading to victories at Goodison Park against Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United - the latter two after falling behind.
Moyes is unlikely to have major cash resources this summer, so his main priority will be keeping the talent he has, namely Steven Pienaar, Jack Rodwell and Mikel Arteta by getting their names on long contracts.
Once more, Everton face a vital summer because if Moyes can maintain his current squad and add a class striker to back up Louis Saha, then he is right to predict a bright future. If it goes the other way Everton will find their closest rivals moving out of reach.
SEASON'S MARK - C+
BIRMINGHAM CITY - 9th
Defied everyone, including myself, who felt they might stay up but only after a struggle. A wonderful piece of management by Alex McLeish who got everything out of a group of players who proved fiercely resolute.
McLeish showed a sure hand in the transfer market by bringing in Joe Hart on loan from Manchester City and helping him to develop into a potential regular England keeper.
He also brought the best out of Barry Ferguson on his return to England and saw his faith in two stalwarts of the Championship, Roger Johnson and Scott Dann, pay off superbly. Lee Bowyer was also a force once more, even rediscovering his old goalscoring touch from midfield.
Birmingham were not spectacular - this was not their remit this season - but they were meticulously prepared and organised down to the final detail and they cruised to safety, even lurking in contention for Europe at one stage.
McLeish must now repeat the feat, but he reportedly has money from owner Carson Yeung and his track record suggests he will use it wisely. Birmingham's new regime must back him - because if they do not the Scot's work will make him widely coveted.
SEASON'S MARK - B+
BLACKBURN ROVERS - 10th
Sam Allardyce's methods are still questioned - do not bother asking Arsene Wenger for a glowing reference - but a top-10 finish will more than satisfy Blackburn Rovers' fans.
Ewood Park was treated to some traditional no-nonsense Allardyce tactics, but he fought passionately against the charges that he has created a long ball team.
Blackburn were not prolific on their travels but the foundation of their success this season was a formidable home record, and it was refreshing to see David Dunn finally playing to his potential again at his boyhood club after long injury troubles.
Allardyce and Blackburn's cause was also helped by the rejuvenation of goalkeeper Paul Robinson. This popular character was, in my opinion, harshly criticised after a freak goal Croatia scored against England and it seemed to have a detrimental effect on his career. Good to see him playing so well again and he is not markedly worse than the goalkeepers Fabio Capello is taking to the World Cup.
Expect a few shrewd moves from Allardyce in the summer and more of the same next season.
SEASON'S MARK - C+
STOKE CITY - 11th
Once again a fine season of consolidation for Stoke City under manager Tony Pulis. No longer a surprise package after their return to the Premier League, when the bearpit atmosphere at The Britannia Stadium proved a culture shock to many, Stoke were never looking at a fight for survival this season.
Pulis and his team have been criticised in some quarters, but they have found a method that works and make no mistake, any manager who had Rory Delap's throw-ins as a potential weapon would use them just as much.
It does not need hours of investigative journalism to detect that Pulis will want James Beattie and Dave Kitson out of the door this summer, but he can rely on the backing of the Stoke board, who will be happy to show their gratitude to a manager who looks like he has made them part of the Premier League's fixtures and fittings.
SEASON'S MARK - C.
FULHAM - 12th
In some ways the story of the season. To be at Craven Cottage and see the reaction of the supporters on the night they beat Hamburg to reach the Europa League final was something special.
They may have fallen short against Atletico Madrid in the final, but Roy Hodgson was the architect of a wonderful adventure that burnished the reputation of manager and team and increased the club's profile as Shakhtar Donestsk, Juventus spectacularly, and Wolfsburg were beaten.
A reflection of their manager's sound principles, Fulham were attractive as well as tactically disciplined.
And in Bobby Zamora, they arguably possessed the Premier League's most improved player. A journeyman who fell short of his full potential for most of his career and even criticised by Fulham's own fans, a love affair ensued as he emerged as their top scorer and a contender for England's World Cup squad.
If there is a downside to Fulham's season, it is that Hodgson's success may lead him to be courted by other clubs. So much of Fulham's future success could depend on whether he stays - but foundations are in place for further good times at Craven Cottage.
SEASON'S MARK - B+
SUNDERLAND - 13th
Up and down first season at the Stadium of Light for Steve Bruce. Up at the start, swooping down during a bad spell in the middle and then on an upward curve to end in 13th place that just about borders on respectability given his transfer market outlay.
Bruce can take heart from consolidating Sunderland's position in the Premier League and in pulling off one of the signings of the season in Darren Bent, who once again showed his prowess with 25 goals.
I have always been an admirer of Bent and he simply did what he has always done - scored goals. Will he edge Emile Heskey out of England's World Cup squad? Probably not, but he is in a different league to his Aston Villa counterpart as a goalscorer.
Solid start for Bruce, but he will want more next season and will be allowed some more of owner Ellis Short's cash to do it.
SEASON'S MARK - C
BOLTON - 14th
Gary Megson's losing battle to convince Bolton's fans of his worth ended after a 2-2 draw against Hull City just before New Year and in stepped Owen Coyle, leaving supporters of nearby Burnley screaming betrayal.
I portrayed this as a sideways move by Coyle at the time and I have not particularly changed that view. He will always move around mid-table at best at the Reebok, which is satisfactory of course, but I remain convinced he would have eventually attracted a bigger club had he continued his fine work at Turf Moor.
What I will never deny is that Bolton have themselves a very fine manager, as proved by their survival and the signs of tweaks to their style that makes them more pleasing on the eye.
Can Coyle build on this to take Bolton even further up the table? This is the question - and if he does then there is every chance he may get another chance to move on sooner rather than later.
SEASON'S MARK - C-
WOLVES - 15th
Great to see one of the fine old English footballing institutions return to the Premier League - and then stay there under the stewardship of Mick McCarthy, ably assisted by chairman Steve Morgan and players who bought into the effort and application demanded by their manager.
Kevin Doyle proved a class act and a shrewd signing by McCarthy, and they thoroughly deserved to retain their Premier League status. Any visit to Molineux tells you that you are in a top-flight environment.
McCarthy will hope Morgan allows him further room for manouevre this summer to freshing things up. The Premier League is never the poorer for the presence of Wolverhampton Wanderers.
And now to a bone of contention that raised the hackles of the Wolves fans when I tackled this thorny subject back in December. I will never support the playing of an obviously weakened team, without any real prior warning to supporters, against the Premier League's elite teams as early as December. What signal does it send out before the season even reaches its halfway mark?
McCarthy will say, and Wolves' survival supports him, that he has been vindicated and that is fair comment. It is something that simply refuses to sit easily with me so relatively early in the season.
I may concede the point later in the season if clubs have cup priorities and there is little or nothing riding on the game - and I do also think it is a nonsense that Wolves were fined £25,000 and others escaped for coming close to similar offences.
This gripe aside, however, McCarthy and his players deserve rich praise emerging unscathed from their return to the Premier League.
SEASON'S MARK - C
WIGAN ATHLETIC - 16th
At the start of the season I stated that if new Wigan manager Roberto Martinez kept them up it could be regarded as a job well done.
Martinez stuck firmly to the principles he applied to Swansea City, namely an attractive passing game and a refusal to alter from that style.
It resulted in thrashings of the size of the 9-1 loss at Spurs and the 8-0 beating at Chelsea when the Londoners clinched the title - but also brought some of the best days Wigan have enjoyed in the Premier League.
Chelsea and Liverpool lost at the DW, but most dramatically of all Arsenal conceded a two-goal lead in the last 10 minutes as Wigan scored three times to effectively secure their safety and end the Gunners' title chances.
Martinez continues to mature along with his team and the same applies next season. Stay up and it is a job well done.
SEASON'S MARK - C-
WEST HAM UNITED - 17th
Miserable season of poor performances on the pitch, a change of ownership, the breakdown of the relationship between the club's power brokers and Gianfranco Zola, then safety followed by the manager's eventual sacking.
West Ham's loyal followers will hope a period of stability follows the appointment of David Gold and David Sullivan's own man as manager - the latter's early scathing public criticism of the team suggested Zola was on borrowed time from almost their first day in charge.
Don't bank on it though, not with every player in the squad appearing to be up for sale apart from the inspirational Scott Parker.
West Ham needs a breath of fresh air after this stifling and pressurised season that saw them fear for their safety. It is up to Gold and Sullivan to provide it.
SEASON'S MARK - D
BURNLEY - 18th
In all my travels this season - 9,000 miles in England alone before Christmas until I finally stopped counting - Turf Moor provided two highlights that will make them sadly missed next season.
Anyone sitting in the James Hargreaves Stand as it literally shook at the moment of impact when Robbie Blake's shot hit the back of Manchester United keeper Ben Foster's net will never forget it - for reasons of sheer footballing euphoria and fears for personal safety.
Burnley's first home game in the Premier League, and victory against the champions, gave all in this Lancashire town hope they could stay up. And another ear-splitting night when Arsenal were deservedly held gave weight to that feeling.
Sadly for Burnley, the departure of Owen Coyle to Bolton killed those hopes stone dead. The Scot was the adhesive that held it all together and once he left, accompanied by much bitterness from supporters who called him "God" after they won promotion, it all came apart.
Brian Laws looked to be an appointment made with the Championship in mind and that is where they have ended up. The galvanising effect Coyle had on Burnley's players could not be repeated.
A brief interlude with moments of glory for a warm club with superb support. On a purely personal note, I will miss those nights at a packed Turf Moor.
SEASON'S MARK - D
HULL CITY - 19th
One of my tips for relegation and they delivered in style. A shambolic season as they staggered on from an appalling conclusion to the previous campaign under Phil Brown.
Looked doomed pretty much from the start of the season, accompanied by off-the-field problems as chairman Paul Duffen was replaced by the returning Adam Pearson.
Brown was eventually placed on gardening leave in a move that smacked of a sudden realisation Hull City were going down - and the fact that his replacement Iain Dowie flew under the flag of a "football management consultant" just about summed up a confused season at The KC Stadium.
Will need to sort out financial and football matters swiftly or they will not be back in the Premier League for a very long time.
SEASON'S MARK - F
PORTSMOUTH - 20th
Avram Grant deserves credit for restoring a semblance of respectability on the field with some spirited displays in the Premier League and a run to the FA Cup Final, which they lost to Chelsea.
But this is all overshadowed by Pompey's dire financial position that saw them slip into administration and flirt with extinction. Grant's constant complaints about harsh treatment by the authorities will find plenty of deaf ears to fall upon.
A sorry tale of financial mismanagement off the field - and not much better on it as they prepare for a new, and you suspect long, life in the lower leagues.
SEASON'S MARK - F