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Jan 29, 2007

The best of the rest

The gulf is widening.

Two seasons ago, Everton finished ahead of Liverpool. Last year, but for a rogue lasagne, Tottenham believe they would have looked down on Arsenal in the final league table. Now, though neither Liverpool nor Arsenal has had vintage seasons in the Premiership, both are safely ensconced in the Champions League positions.

The gap between them and the rest is reflected not just on the team sheets, but also on the bench. The concentration of talent at the top seemed to reach its logical conclusion when Chelsea acquired two players in every position. That policy may have been abandoned, but the events of recent weeks could prompt its reintroduction.

The difference between the elite and the others was evident last week in Spurs' inability to beat what was effectively Arsenal's reserves, albeit with the considerable assistance of Cesc Fabregas, at home. Much as Arsene Wenger has been criticised for his selection policy in the Carling Cup, reaching the final without once using Thierry Henry, Robin van Persie, Tomas Rosicky, Gilberto Silva, William Gallas or Jens Lehmann would be an unarguable defence of the Arsenal understudies.

Yet Tottenham themselves finished as the best of the rest last season. Were it a big five, they would be the probable addition. In choosing a select XI from the other 16 clubs, Spurs have contenders in almost every position with the exception of left-back and goalkeeper (there must be an element of mockery in chants of 'England's Number 1' so soon after Paul Robinson errs).

The signing of Steed Malbranque underlined their position; an accomplished Premiership performer who many have long felt was equipped to sign for one of the big four, but recruited at White Hart Lane when none of them showed interest.

Getting players of sufficient calibre to compete with the four, recognised giants of the English game would seem their objective in the transfer market. But are they? Malbranque, like Robbie Keane and Jermain Defoe, can polarise opinions. Michael Carrick, deemed good enough by Sir Alex Ferguson, was prised away.

Blackburn can testify that the big four will try and cherry-pick players from the rest, even if Lucas Neill opted not to follow Craig Bellamy to Anfield.

Given the size of his pay packet. Neill should be an automatic choice for this team but, as the Premiership itself would be were Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal barred, it is closely contested.

Asked to nominate the division's best goalkeeper recently, Brad Friedel said it was difficult to pick from 10. Modesty precluded the American from naming himself but he merits a mention. Harry Redknapp, with a hint of hyperbole, has described David James as the best goalkeeper in Europe.

Over several seasons, Shay Given's salvage job behind a porous Newcastle defence has been little short of heroic. This year, however, he has been upstaged by Bolton's Jussi Jaaskelainen.

Central defenders can arrive in the finely-formed package of partnership imbued with understanding. Were the former not injured, Ledley King and Michael Dawson would have a strong case. The Pompey pairing of Sol Campbell and Linvoy Primus do, but this vote goes to a similarly strong and speedy combination, Everton's Joseph Yobo and Joleon Lescott.

In a choice between two forceful right-backs (the richly remunerated Neill didn't quite make the shortlist), Micah Richards has the greater potential, but Pascal Chimbonda's all-round excellence earned his inclusion. On the opposite flank, Gareth Barry may not be a specialist left-back but his attacking menace and set-piece expertise edges out Leighton Baines.

Competition is fierce in central midfield. The precocious Tom Huddlestone, like Richards, may be destined for a decade at one of the established elite, but he doesn't quite make this cut. A preference for 4-4-2 works against Tim Cahill, but it is the favoured system of the majority of the league.

Including Newcastle, where midfield is a strength. The rejuvenated Kieron Dyer and Nicky Butt are options, but Scott Parker's combative instincts earn him selection alongside Portsmouth's Pedro Mendes, whose passing and long-range shooting should complement the Newcastle captain.

The elusive running and ability to beat defenders in a myriad of ways makes Aaron Lennon essential on one flank. The Tottenham teenager's versatility increases the options for the other. Were another out-and-out winger wanted, it could be Morten Gamst Pedersen.

Blackburn's David Bentley and Steed Malbranque offer creativity and the prospect of goals. However, this vote goes to Everton's underrated Mikel Arteta, a skilful distributor who can act as the playmaker as well as posing problems at dead-ball situations.

In attack, there is another automatic choice from Tottenham: Dimitar Berbatov. It could then be the choice that confronts Martin Jol on a weekly basis: Robbie Keane or Jermain Defoe?

Alternatives include Middlesbrough's Yakubu and Mark Viduka, depending on their mood, and Bolton's Nicolas Anelka, of whom the same suggestion could be made. In the end, Blackburn's exuberant Benni McCarthy loses out to the engaging, unpredictable Obafemi Martins.

It is a strong side, undoubtedly. Given the number of alternatives, many, if not all, selections could be disputed. But would even the best of the rest be good enough to beat Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool or Arsenal?

Team: Jussi Jaaskelainen (Bolton); Pascal Chimbonda (Tottenham), Joseph Yobo, Joleon Lescott (both Everton), Gareth Barry (Aston Villa); Aaron Lennon (Tottenham), Scott Parker (Portsmouth), Pedro Mendes (Portsmouth), Mikel Arteta (Everton); Dimitar Berbatov (Tottenham), Obafemi Martins (Newcastle).


The Soccernet team have given their opinion too. Here's their selections:

Dom Raynor: Ben Foster (Watford), Phillip Neville (Everton), Jonathan Woodgate (Middlesbrough), Richard Dunne (Man City), Gareth Barry (Aston Villa), Mikel Arteta (Everton), Steed Malbranque (Tottenham), Joey Barton (Man City), Morten Gamst Pedersen (Blackburn), Dimitar Berbatov (Tottenham), Benni McCarthy (Blackburn).

Jon Carter: Jussi Jaaskelainen (Bolton), Micah Richards (Man City), Joleon Lescott (Everton), Sol Campbell (Portsmouth), Matthew Taylor (Portsmouth), Aaron Lennon (Tottenham), Tim Cahill (Everton), Joey Barton (Man City), Morten Gamst Pedersen (Blackburn), Yakubu (Middlesbrough), Benni McCarthy (Blackburn)

Phil Holland: Ben Foster (Watford), Pascal Chimbonda (Tottenham), Arjan De Zeuuw (Wigan), Steven Taylor (Newcastle), Gareth Barry (Aston Villa), Nolberto Solano (Aston Villa), Gary Speed (Bolton), Mikel Arteta (Everton), Matthew Taylor (Portsmouth), Kevin Doyle (Reading), Dimitar Berbatov (Tottenham)

John Brewin: Shay Given (Newcastle), Lucas Neill (West Ham), Ledley King (Tottenham), Sol Campbell (Portsmouth), Gareth Barry (Aston Villa), Aaron Lennon (Tottenham), Joey Barton (Man City), Mikel Arteta (Everton), Morten Gamst Pedersen (Blackburn), Yakubu (Middlesbrough), Dimitar Berbatov (Tottenham)

Dale Johnson: Shay Given (Newcastle), Pascal Chimbonda (Tottenham), Ledley King (Tottenham), Jonathan Woodgate (Middlesbrough), Nicky Shorey (Reading), Aaron Lennon (Tottenham), Tim Cahill (Everton), Joey Barton (Man City), Morten Gamst Pedersen (Blackburn), Andrew Johnson (Everton), Yakubu (Middlesbrough)


  • What would be your team? Email us with your best of the rest.