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Aug 12, 2010

Pretenders eager to kick-off after poor pre-seasons

It was a stroll in the sunshine, a chance to introduce new players to an appreciative audience. That, historically, was the role of the pre-season friendly. Now its definition has changed. It can become part of a global PR campaign, winning new friends and cementing distant allegiances. For the biggest clubs, it can be a lucrative interlude before the official start of business.

Yet, as the Premier League campaign is about to commence, it is notable how many of its supposed leading lights have endured an awkward, unhelpful or inconsequential pre-season. Chelsea's problems have attracted most publicity.

The Community Shield was their fourth successive defeat and, while friendly results are often deemed immaterial, setbacks nonetheless seem to have more significance. Ajax, Eintracht Frankfurt, Hamburg and Manchester United have all overcome the defending champions; perhaps meeting demanding opposition provides reminders of unpleasant truths. Defensive difficulties have been a constant; Ross Turnbull and Hilario have blundered in Petr Cech's absence, Ashley Cole was tormented by Antonio Valencia at Wembley, Paulo Ferreira has been in undistinguished form and John Terry has remained error prone, as he proved during the World Cup.

To put it into context, four successive losses is only two fewer than Chelsea suffered in the entirety of the Premier League campaign last season (and two more than were inflicted on Liverpool the previous year, when they didn't even win the title).Yet it has meant Carlo Ancelotti's side almost emulated their kindred spirits, the other nouveau rich club. Manchester City were also defeated four times, albeit within the space of five games, in a sequence that scarcely suggested they are future world-beaters. In one sense, the series of reverses were understandable: among the luminaries in action against New York Red Bulls, for instance, were Scott Kay, Ben Mee and Andrew Tutte. But if finding converts to City's cause in the United States was a purpose of their trip across the Atlantic, there are obvious reasons to doubt its success: the personnel employed, the results attained and the resounding mediocrity of the performances.

Like Chelsea, City showed defensive frailty. Wayne Bridge and Joleon Lescott were culpable for goals conceded, the left-back against Red Bulls and the central defender in the 3-0 defeat to Inter Milan. If those incidents served to persuade Roberto Mancini that others are more reliable, they will have an unwitting benefit. Yet, the 2-0 win over Valencia apart, it is hard to derive optimism from events on the pitch.

Such has been the nature of this pre-season, however, that every leading club has a ready-made reason: the World Cup. In City's case, Carlos Tevez and David Silva have featured for just 35 minutes apiece while Jerome Boateng has played a solitary game. Involvement in the latter stages in South Africa means Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas have not appeared at all for Arsenal while Liverpool are yet to see Jose Reina, Dirk Kuyt or Fernando Torres in action.

Indeed, the friendlies played by Roy Hodgson's side seem both inauspicious and somewhat irrelevant. The first, against Al-Hilal, was washed out; the subsequent three did not produce a single goal for the Merseysiders, although, of course, they did strike twice in each of their Europa League meetings with Rabotnicki. But with reserve-team right-back Stephen Darby employed out of position on the left and Daniel Sanchez Ayala, Lauri Dalla Valle and Thomas Ince figuring regularly, these were line-ups that were barely recognisable as representatives of Liverpool.

Even among those with more apparently encouraging outcomes have cause for concern. On a surreal Saturday, Arsenal contrived to concede five goals to Legia Warsaw and still win. It is tempting to dismiss it as an anomaly, and while the scoreline surely won't be repeated soon, the Arsenal defence has nonetheless been breached seven times in their last 109 minutes of action. That Gael Clichy, Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny played the whole of the match against Legia is hardly reassuring while the glut of goals at the wrong end is surely an illustration of the absence of a top-rank goalkeeper.

Arsenal have nonetheless won five and drawn one game during their preparations. With the Community Shield victory against Chelsea, Manchester United's build-up may have been still smoother. Their difficulties have come off the field, with Wayne Rooney's smoking and drinking and Anderson's driving bringing unwelcome headlines. The unfortunate, if hardly unexpected, injury problems of Owen Hargreaves and Rio Ferdinand, were other unwanted developments.

The most damaging off-field event occurred at Aston Villa with Martin O'Neill's resignation. Departures of managers at such a formative stage are not unknown - Steve Coppell's fourth spell at Crystal Palace ended after pre-season mishaps - but it is scarcely the ideal preparation. And while a 6-1 defeat Leyton Orient last season preceded Newcastle's procession to the Premier League, such a thrashing can only be exorcised from the memory with the benefit of hindsight. So after the events of the last month, the opening weekend of the Premier League may be greeted rapturously. For some, the campaign itself will be a welcome respite from pre-season.

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