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Fantasy Preview: Week 13

Fantasy Picks about an hour ago
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Aug 18, 2008

The summer of stagnation

Tottenham have complained about Manchester United. United have moaned about Real Madrid. Aston Villa are unhappy with Liverpool. Liverpool can't decide whether Villa are asking for too much money or whether the problem lies with themselves. Mike Ashley knows his difficulties have been caused by Newcastle, even if his failure to read the balance sheet and notice that he is still paying for players recruited by the previous owners means he ought to share the blame.

This is football's summer of discontent. The three months before the Premier League reconvened on Saturday have been notable more for what has not happened than what actually has, at least where the transfer market has been concerned. Done deals have been a comparative rarity and blame has been dispensed in liberal quantities by the clubs involved.

The defining saga has been Cristiano Ronaldo's on-off-on-off (repeat ad nauseum) switch to Real Madrid, which has at least reached a conclusion (albeit probably only until next summer). Remarkably, however, it has been rivalled in the tedium stakes by Liverpool's protracted attempts to sign Gareth Barry. That, like Dimitar Berbatov's attempts to join Manchester United, may yet reach a resolution before the transfer window closes on August 31. Didier Drogba and Emmanuel Adebayor seem to have reconciled themselves to life in London after discovering moves to Milan, Madrid or Barcelona were unlikely to happen.

Who has benefited? Take the Ronaldo situation: Real put all their eggs in one Portuguese basket decorated with ample measures of bling. It took a late change of tack to recruit Rafael van der Vaart; even before then, Wesley Sneijder had voiced his displeasure at the pursuit of Ronaldo. United, rather than celebrating their third European Cup, had the unwanted distraction while the concurrent uncertainty may account for the lack of arrivals. Ronaldo, meanwhile, has succeeded in jeopardising his relationship with the Manchester United fans who were steadfast in his defence when the rest of the country seemed intent on making him a pariah.

In the case of Barry, there are still fewer winners. A decade of dedicated service at Villa Park may be forgotten, while Martin O'Neill, acting uncharacteristically promptly, had already forked out to replace his captain with Steve Sidwell. Liverpool, meanwhile, have contrived to destabilise a settled and popular player, in Xabi Alonso, in their bid to raise the funds for Barry. And, by revealing more of the fault lines in the relationships between Anfield's ruling quartet of Rafa Benitez, Rick Parry, George Gillett and Tom Hicks, the summer has hardly served to make Liverpool a more harmonious club.

Then there are the unhappy Africans, Adebayor and Drogba, who have discovered that the few clubs in the world capable of affording their transfer fee and meeting their wage demands have been unable to act. Supporters can be forgiven for being sceptical if they now pronounce themselves happy to be staying. It will be instructive to see if the two strikers opt to join the band of badge-kissers, attempting the most ostentatious and egregious displays of supposed loyalty.

But there has been one winner from the summer's sagas. Frank Lampard's £36 million contract to stay at Chelsea makes him a one-man depression-buster. The 4-0 thrashing of Portsmouth suggests Chelsea's recruitment has been excellent but, while there is unlikely to ever be a public admission of it, it would be interesting to know if Deco was signed on the presumption Lampard would leave.

Lampard apart, the last few months provide proof that football is not immune to global trends. The impact of the credit crunch can be detected. Chief executive Peter Storrie admitted that Portsmouth's plans to make three major signings have been disrupted: instead two-thirds of their FA Cup-winning central midfield have been sold to fund arrivals. Manchester City were also unable to indulge in the predicted spending spree, even if that may have had more to do with Thaksin Shinawatra's difficulties in the Thai courts.

Then there are the neighbours either side of Stanley Park. Neither new ground on Merseyside is proceeding at the hoped-for speed. Escalating steel costs, the difficulties of refinancing and the dollar's recent weakness against the pound are deemed the reasons for Liverpool. Everton, meanwhile, are yet to make a signing. The thought is that while discussions about Goodison Park's successor were conducted, David Moyes' was not informed what his transfer budget was.

Given that the collective debt of the Premier League clubs has been estimated at £2 billion, it is not necessarily a bad thing if some stop spending.

Some have no choice: the footballing equivalent of 125% mortgages are no longer available, something sporting and estate agents can mourn together. The logic of 'sell before you buy' is harder when no one will pay for your players. But football is characterised by impatience and while gradual team-building has a logic to it, a summer of inactivity frustrates fans, managers and players, who may have the shortest attention span of all. And while some deals will be conducted with undue haste before August 31, when the transfer window closes, an uneasy atmosphere will pervade at certain clubs.

Trapped within that window will be some footballers who had imagined themselves long gone and managers who had wished to dispense with them and invest the funds in their preferred players.

This summer of stagnation will be remembered fondly by few.

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