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Barca hampered by archaic FIFA

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Aug 19, 2009

The best laid plans of mice and managers

A restorative break of a month or so, followed by another month of carefully planned training with a selection of well chosen friendlies to regain match fitness. Then, with tactics perfectly practised and new signings smoothly integrated, the season begins. It's a nice theory. Unfortunately, the opening weekend of the Premier League suggested something very different happened. It may be closer to the mark to say that what some clubs experienced was a selection of lucrative, but not overly useful, tour games, an infuriating wait to secure the desired recruits and tactics amended swiftly amid the first talk of an injury crisis for the campaign. While there was much focus on the chaotic backdrop to Newcastle United's start, more stable clubs experienced their share of trauma.

Manchester United, for instance, began the defence of their title with Fabio da Silva at right-back. The young Brazilian may be sixth choice in that position, but of the five more plausible candidates Wes Brown was only deemed fit enough for a place on the bench, John O'Shea was required in the centre of defence because neither Rio Ferdinand nor Nemanja Vidic was available and Rafael da Silva, Gary Neville and Owen Hargreaves (injured, injured and, inevitably, injured) were all missing. Their opponents Birmingham City, meanwhile, had a similar number of sidelined defenders.

A double dose of misfortune? Perhaps. But not an isolated example. Wolves started their campaign short of attacking options. Kevin Doyle, Chris Iwelumo and Michael Kightly were out even before Sylvan Ebanks-Blake sustained a hamstring problem against West Ham, who themselves only have one fit out-and-out centre forward, Carlton Cole. Liverpool went to Tottenham with a liberal sprinkling of injuries across the squad while Arsenal arrived at Goodison Park without three of their premier performers on the flanks, though the absences of Theo Walcott, Tomas Rosicky and Samir Nasri didn't exactly prove much of a hindrance.

Clubs can argue that the Confederations Cup meant some players began training later than was ideal and are entitled to question the wisdom of the scheduling of the international fixtures last week. Indeed Scotland's defeat in Norway denied two Premier League newcomers - Wolves and Burnley - of central defenders, with Christophe Berra and Steven Caldwell both hurt in Oslo.

Yet, in all too many cases, their own build-up can be questioned. Some pre-season tours contained fixtures that were little better than exhibition matches; perhaps attempts to compensate, either with more competitive games or more intense training, contributed to the injury lists.

And, while they have had the best part of three months to recruit reinforcements, the habitual dallying until the frantic trading at the end of the transfer window appears to offer few benefits. While there is some credence in claims that Real Madrid and Manchester City have distorted the market and inflated prices this summer, that does not account for every club that kicked off seemingly in transition.

Aston Villa are an example. Martin O'Neill is a serial procrastinator and still has not replaced the retired Martin Laursen while the two debutants he fielded against Wigan, Habib Beye and Fabian Delph, had each been at the club for less than a fortnight. It is understandable, therefore, if they weren't fully attuned to their new team-mates' game.

Others are rooted in the past. Besides borrowing Jo on a second loan spell, Everton are without a senior signing; the 18 men named against Arsenal were all at the club last season. If Joleon Lescott goes, however, David Moyes may have a rather different side on September 1, and one denied the time to gel that pre-season should afford. Lescott's prospective employers Manchester City started their season captained by a man, in Richard Dunne, who may not be at the club in a fortnight.

Chelsea have chosen and worked on a shape, the diamond midfield, without finding the marquee buy they have targeted. Thus far, their only major buy, Yuri Zhirkov, has only taken the field on the pre-season tour of America. But there is a common theme among the more exotic arrivals from far-off lands: they have barely featured, if at all. Many are either awaiting work permits or short of match sharpness after the delays in finalising their signings. Christian Benitez, at least, was able to provide an encouraging cameo for Birmingham at Old Trafford, but Nikola Kalinic, Paulo da Silva and Jozy Altidore were all unable to debut at the weekend.

Others, instead of three months' preparation, had around three days to ready themselves. Nor was that always an impediment: Stephen Hunt starred and scored for Hull, while Kamel Ghilas appeared a threat on his brief outing while Birmingham's Gregory Vignal, signed on the Friday, performed respectably on the Sunday against Manchester United.

Yet the occasional success of things done on the hoof doesn't necessarily make it the ideal method. We are often reminded by various managers of the importance of every game, the difficulty of scoring every goal and securing every point in the Premier League. But, early as August is in the campaign, points have been squandered by clubs who fielded sides with a makeshift look and in a state of flux, more concerned by the August 31 - the transfer deadline - than August 15, the first game.

There is obviously an element of ill-luck whenever a player is injured, but with a continuing wait for signings and managers and players alike distracted by jaunts dictated by commercial considerations, Benjamin Franklin's maxim about failing to prepare springs to mind; but while everyone prepared, how many actually prepared properly?

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