Cazorla downs battling Wigan in FA Cup shoot-out

Santi Cazorla scored the winning penalty as Arsenal came from behind to beat holders Wigan Athletic in their FA Cup semi-final clash at Wembley.

Jordi Gomez had given Wigan a second-half lead with a penalty after Per Mertesacker chopped down the impressive Callum McManaman.

Arsenal rallied after the penalty and Mertesacker redeemed himself by equalising from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s scuffed shot.

After a goalless extra-time there was to be no fairytale defence of the crown for Wigan as they missed two penalties in the shoot-out, allowing Cazorla to calmly slot home to record a 4-2 shoot-out win and send his team to the final in May.

The win lifts the pressure on manager Arsene Wenger after he selected a weakened starting-line up following a torrid 3-0 loss to Everton, placing faith in a young and energetic side.

Arsenal’s pace caused Wigan big problems and they should have taken the lead after five minutes when Yaya Sanogo powered a header straight at Scott Carson from Oxlade-Chamberlain’s volleyed cross.

Oxlade-Chamberlain quickly asserted himself along Arsenal’s right-hand side and his pace almost created an opening as he chased a chipped ball, but an alert Carson stooped to turn the ball away for a corner.

For all of the Gunners’ early possession they created little in the opening quarter of the game as Wigan’s 3-4-3 formation set about stifling their opponent’s creative midfield.

It was left to Aaron Ramsey, making his first Arsenal start since Boxing Day, to rustle up some quality in a congested midfield.

His incisive pass to Sanogo was skewed away for a corner which presented Bacary Sagna with a good chance from an acute angle after Thomas Vermaelen’s knock-down, but the Frenchman could only lift the ball over the Wigan crossbar.

The Latics had hardly ventured into Arsenal’s half and a dismal Gomez cross that drifted out of play was a fair reflection of their start to the game.

However, Uwe Rosler’s side gradually worked themselves into the game and looked more dangerous with McManaman in possession – a point justified when the young winger briefly got in behind the slow Arsenal defence only to waste his opportunity with a heavy cross.

Arsenal were also proving to be profligate with their opportunities and Sanogo was again guilty of wastefulness when he blazed over from 20 yards after another threatening run from Oxlade-Chamberlain.

McManaman had easily been Wigan’s best player in the first-half and, after earning a shooting opportunity with his pace, a rifled shot was followed by a tame effort from Marc-Antoine Fortune who worked Lukasz Fabianski for the first time.

Moments later Sanogo’s poor finishing continued as he spurned the best chance of the half.

The inexperienced French striker was sent clear by Lukas Podolski’s clearance but a shoddy touch enabled Carson to close on him quickly and dispose of the danger.

For all of Sanogo’s impressive link-up play during the half his goalscoring ability has been in question and Arsenal might have led had his chances fallen to the benched Olivier Giroud.

Arsenal began the second half at a breathless speed, but it was actually Wigan who were the more menacing as a spell of pressure – including a weak penalty appeal after a nudge from Ramsey on James McArthur – induced jitters in the Arsenal defence.

The cup-tie was suddenly wide open and Wigan were the first to profit when McManaman held off Nacho Monreal before cutting inside and drawing a foul from the sliding Mertesacker to earn a penalty.

Arsenal were livid as they believed Monreal was fouled but, after a four-minute delay to treat the Spaniard’s groin injury, Gomez  confidently swept the ball home from the spot.

Rosler, who couldn’t bear to watch the penalty, reacted by replacing the excellent McManaman and Josh McEachran with Nick Powell and Jack Collison respectively.

Rosler’s counterpart Wenger also made a change at this critical phase of the game by hauling off Podolski for Giroud and switching to a 4-4-2 formation.

Arsenal consequently began to mount growing pressure on the Wigan defence and were desperately close to an equaliser when Sagna hit the post with a header from Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cross.

Seconds later a chipped cross was flicked on by Sanogo which released Kieran Gibbs on goal but he was denied by a fabulous save from Carson before Stephen Crainey hooked clear.

Eventually Wigan buckled and Arsenal equalised with eight minutes remaining.

Sanogo’s strength was again a key factor as he laid the ball off for Oxlade-Chamberlain whose mishit shot was turned in by Mertesacker at the far post as the German made amends for conceding the earlier penalty to take the game into extra-time.

Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanogo combined again to create the only meaningful shot of the first extra-time period, but the Frenchman could only fire at Carson after a neat swivel.

With just ten minutes of extra-time remaining, Arsenal struck the woodwork for a second time when Oxlade-Chamberlain unleashed an outswinging shot from 20 yards that crashed against the angle.

Wigan still looked a threat on the break, and a mazy run from Powell past the tired Arsenal defence might have produced a winning goal but the on-loan Manchester United man dragged his early shot harmlessly wide as the match headed for penalties.

Wigan’s Gary Caldwell and Collison had dreadful penalties saved by Fabianski, enabling Arsenal to open up a 2-0 lead when Mikel Arteta and Kim Kallstrom slotted home.

A Giroud penalty was sandwiched between successful Jean Beausejour and James McArthur spot-kicks but Cazorla was left with the decisive strike and he made no mistake to send Arsenal through to the final as they look to win their first silverware since a 2005 FA Cup win.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

Bayern Munich – The world’s first hybrid football team

Over the last few years the concept of all things hybrid has spread across the world. We now have hybrid cars – both on the road and in motorsport – there are hybrid road bikes and even ‘phablets’ which are a cross between a smartphone and a tablet.

There has, however, never been a hybrid football team – until now.

Bayern Munich, the German, European and world champions, are arguably the first tangible example of such a thing in the sporting, not technological, world.

A couple of seasons ago, Bayern were eclipsed in the Bundesliga by the burgeoning force of Borussia Dortmund.

‘Die Schwarzgelben’ had revolutionised German football with their aggressive defensive pressing –  ‘Gegenpressing’ – and their razor-sharp attacking play which regularly made fatal incisions into Bayern’s defence – most notably during a 5-2 German cup final win in 2012.

Dortmund’s powerful arrival onto the German footballing scene provoked a reaction in Munich. Bayern manager Jupp Heynckes finally had the barometer that would help elevate his side and convert their huge potential – setting them on the path to becoming the world beaters they are now.

Heynckes’ response was to recalibrate Dortmund’s ‘gegenpressing’ – using it in a way that would suit Bayern. The results were devastating.

The following season Bayern defeated Dortmund in the German Supercup and later went on to win the treble – including a last-minute win over their arch-rivals in the Champions League final at Wembley.

Yet, it was Bayern’s performance in their semi-final against Barcelona – then comfortably held to be the best team in the world – that drew the most attention as they crushed them 7-0 on aggregate.

In the first leg they swamped their Spanish opponents, asphyxiating them with a brutal display of counter-attacking and finishing them off with startling lethality in a 4-0 win.

Barcelona’s Camp Nou had long been a fortress – particularly in European football – but Bayern flattened it in the second leg, cruising to a 3-0 victory.

The Bavarians sent shockwaves through the footballing community – especially the Catalonian one – and from there they have built upon that success.

Heynckes left Bayern last summer but was replaced by Pep Guardiola – a man who had been the chief architect of Barcelona’s rise to the top of the game.

Guardiola has not hindered Bayern’s progress though – he has sharpened it.

In just eight months at the helm he has developed the German giants into an all-conquering machine and the theme of hybridity is the ideal way to describe their style of play.

A key feature of the modern Bayern is the seamless transition from defence to attack.

Guardiola has drilled a sublime one-touch passing game into his new side, which serves to speed up the way Bayern shift the ball from their penalty area to the other.

Full-backs David Alaba and Rafinha have a licence to raid forward – particularly Alaba who is rapidly developing into the most potent left-back in the world.

However, it is when Bayern are faced with a wall of 11 players in front of them that they are at their most fluid.

Their defence, midfield and strike force all combine in each venture forwards, with an interchangability that is unprecedented in the modern game.

So much so that some photographs of Bayern’s offensive shape this season show a 1-8-1 formation – an almost incomprehensible form for a football team to sustain.

That ‘midfield’ eight usually comprises Alaba, Rafinha, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Phillip Lahm and Thomas Mueller.

Eagle-eyed readers will notice Lahm’s absence in defence. Only a few years ago Lahm was seen as one of the best full-backs in the world, but Guardiola has transformed him into a free spirit that roams across midfield.

Effectively, Lahm acts an important cog between defence and midfield but, such is Bayern’s constant fluidity, the diminutive captain can pop up on either flank to assist wingers Robben and Ribery with attacks.

In Schweinsteiger, Bayern have the typical box-to-box midfielder – himself reformed from a flamboyant winger in his early career.

His partner in central midfield is contract rebel Kroos, whose growing influence during Bayern’s games has seen him linked with several top clubs in Europe.

Then there is Mueller – one of the most underrated players in world football at the present time.

Mueller has the ability to play as a striker – indeed that is where he started in his early career – but in recent seasons he has acted on the edges of an attacking three.

That Mueller is also an extremely hard-working midfielder enables his side to spring forward in numbers while also knowing that he will return goalside quickly if his side loses the ball.

This takes a huge amount of discipline and drilling on the training ground, and Guardiola must take credit for that.

What Guardiola has created is, in effect, the all-round football team.

In cricket, there are all-rounders, in cycling there are rouleurs and now in football there are hybrids.

Bayern’s influence on world football is now so strong that teams in England are dropping players whose talent only extends to one area of the game.

This is best evidenced in footballers such as Juan Mata and Mesut Özil.

Mata was allowed to leave Chelsea by Jose Mourinho in January. The Spaniard’s attacking quality was not in doubt, but his willingness to defend was.

Mourinho is keen to have the same all-round, hybrid player that Guardiola has created at Bayern. Consequently, players such as Ramires, Oscar and Eden Hazard were preferred to Mata for their greater work without the ball.

The same is true of Özil at his new club Arsenal. Although Real Madrid didn’t let him leave because of his lack of defensive diligence, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger dropped the German due to his ‘tiredness’.

After noticing Özil’s complete disinterest in tracking back, many critics saw this as a veiled signal to Özil that his work rate must improve.

As talented as Mata and Özil are, they are not the complete all-round footballer. They could even be considered a weakness if they do not perform to their high attacking standards because they offer little in defence.

This is where Bayern have excelled. They have changed the type of player needed to perform at the highest level and have quickly set up a squad containing players who are comfortable and capable of playing in several positions.

What used to be the utility player, a rare breed, is now a necessity.

Even goalkeepers are being asked to play as sweepers – good examples of those are Bayern’s Manuel Neuer and Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris.

Having such a goalkeeper allows teams have an extra layer of defensive security, and that is just one part of how the modern game is developing.

Defenders are midfielders, sometimes even attackers, midfielders are starting to flourish in any position across the width of the pitch and strikers are doing defensive duties too.

This hybridity will continue to reign in football for years to come and until then Bayern are the team to beat – just as Barcelona were when their tiki-taka football dominated the game.

The question is which team will be able to take football onto the next level and render the concept of hybridity a thing of the past?

My 2013/14 Premier League predictions

Straight away, I’m going to jinx the upcoming Premier League season – I think it’s going to be a cracker.

It’s certainly looking as if it’s going to be the hardest Premier League season to call for a while, and who wouldn’t be up for some unpredictability after Manchester United cantered to the title last time out?

Of course there are the usual rivalries to look forward to, and some new ones too as broadcasting newcomers BT Sport look to sink the all-conquering Sky Sports in the biggest ever battle of its kind.

There is also the addition of goal-line technology to muse over. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were no major goal-line incidents to speak of for the Hawk-Eye system to judge – but that’s show business for you.

Anyway, let’s get started with the serious business. Counting down from 20th place to 1st, here’s my version of what the Premier League table will look like come Sunday 11th May next year.

20. Hull City Tigers (2012/13: Promoted, 2nd in Championship)

Has there ever been a team so hotly-tipped to go down as Hull City? (or Hull City Tigers as they have imaginatively been renamed).

At the managerial helm is Steve Bruce, perennial signer of has-been big-name players. Bruce has lived up to his reputation in the transfer market, signing the under-achieving Tom Huddlestone and Danny Graham, who will need to shoulder the burden of scoring consistently for his new side to give them a chance of staying up.

The acquisition of former Rangers goalkeeper Allan McGregor is a good bit of business though, and Graham might have an exciting strike partner in the talented Yannick Sagbo. The backbone of the team also has a distinct Man United youth squad look to it, as so many of Bruce’s teams have done in the past.

Criticisms of Bruce’s managerial aptitude aside, Hull have a solid defence which hardly conceded in last season’s Championship, but I expect the step up in class to prove too tough for them on their return to the top flight.

19. Crystal Palace (2012/13: Promoted, Championship play-off winners)

Nearly every football fan in the country rejoiced when Crystal Palace beat Watford 1-0 in the Championship play-off final at Wembley in May. Not because they’re all Eagles fans, but because Ian Holloway would be a regular fixture on Match of the Day once more.

The colourful Bristolian may have lost Wilfried Zaha to Man United this summer but he has bought well to replace him. Jose Campana, just 20, signed from Sevilla for €2m while Marouane Chamakh has also penned a one-year deal.

Holloway’s excellent man-management and motivational skills should get the ailing Chamakh into better goalscoring form than in recent seasons while the exciting talent of Jonathan Williams will provide him with the creativity needed at Premier League level.

Palace, like Hull, proved tough to score against last season but being just as frugal in the Premier League will be much more difficult and consequently relegation looms large for them this season.

18. Sunderland (2012/13: Premier League, 17th)

Yes, you heard it here first. Sunderland to be relegated. Why? Because despite the Paulo di Canio effect the Black Cats very nearly faced the drop last season.

The trouble for Sunderland fans is that di Canio has made a whole host of distinctly average signings in the summer. They have been the Premier League’s most active club, signing ten players in all, but none of them carry formidable reputations and Mackem fans will be wondering if it’s going to be enough for them to stay up this season.

Does di Canio know his best team? And will the raft of new players destabilise the club rather than strengthen it? Time will tell, but I feel it could have a negative impact as di Canio sorts out his best line-up, tactics and alternatives.

That said, the signing of Emanuele Giaccherini from Juventus is a good one and, if he can link up well with Steven Fletcher and fellow newcomer Jozy Altidore, Sunderland might just be OK.

Questions still remain over their defence though, and I expect this to be where Sunderland come unstuck this season. Few recognised reinforcements for an aged defence that conceded 1.5 goals on average per game last season is an ominous sign.

17. Fulham (2012/13: Premier League, 12th)

Joining Sunderland in a fight to stay in the top flight are Fulham. Martin Jol’s side finished an unrepresentative 12th last season, jumping four places after a 3-0 defeat of Swansea on the final day.

Jol knew that signings needed to be made and perhaps the most impressive of those is centre-back Fernando Amorebieta. Signed on a free transfer from Athletic Bilbao, the Venezuelan is powerful in the tackle, while his skill on the ball exudes a calming influence on those around him. He will form a strong partnership with Brede Hangeland in central defence.

Fulham still have an older squad than most, which is not necessarily a problem, but a lack of depth beyond those experienced players is certainly evident. Dimitar Berbatov has a new strike partner in Darren Bent, signed on loan from Aston Villa today, while Maarten Stekelenburg has replaced Mark Schwarzer between the posts.

I doubt Fulham will be relegated, but should they suffer a spate of injuries they will be struggling.

16. Cardiff City(2012/13: Promoted as Championship winners)

Of all the promoted sides, Cardiff look best placed to upset a few of the more established Premier League sides this season.

They already had Premier League experience in Craig Bellamy and Fraizer Campbell and the addition of Steven Caulker to bolster their defence has bucked the trend of their fellow promotees.

Having also signed Chile international Gary Medel from Sevilla, Malky Mackay’s side look in decent shape and should avoid the drop.

15. Stoke City (2012/13: Premier League, 13th)

Not many teams have signed a Barcelona player this summer, but Stoke City have. They welcome Marc Muniesa, a 21-year-old centre-back, to the Britannia this season.

He joins Dutch left-back Erik Pieters in the Potters squad as new manager Mark Hughes looks to improve upon 13th last season.

That placing flattered Stoke somewhat, particularly because they had been in relegation peril towards the end of the season, but they have a strong enough squad to survive the drop again this time round.

14. Aston Villa (2012/13: Premier League, 15th)

Villa have done well this summer to tie star striker Christian Benteke down on a new contract. Up top last season Villa looked as dangerous as any of the top sides in the division as Benteke was partnered by Andreas Weimann and Gabby Agbonlahor, but their defence remains shaky.

Awash with youngsters, it was very nearly Villa’s undoing as they conceded 69 goals with the biggest slump in form coming in an 8-0 drubbing away to Chelsea.

Still, Villa’s forward line should get Paul Lambert’s men over the line and they can continue to build their side after the World Cup in Brazil in what is undoubtedly a long-term project for the Midlanders.

13. Southampton (2012/13: Premier League, 14th)

Mauricio Pochettino has been fairly inactive in the transfer market, but his two signings to date have been big ones.

Southampton have splashed the cash on Victor Wanyama (£12m) and Dejan Lovren (£8.5m), fees which are widely held to be well above what each player is worth.

£12m for Wanyama looks particularly expensive considering Wilfried Bony, Mesut Özil and Shinji Kagawa also commanded £12m fees, but Saints have nonetheless made a statement in signing the Kenya international.

Their form last season following Pochettino’s move was good, but a poor finish to the season belied a decent middle stint where Manchester City were among their scalps. Could be fighting for a top ten finish.

12. West Ham (2012/13: Premier League, 10th)

Sam Allardyce is similar to Steve Bruce in that he often signs players with a big reputation, and he has lived up to that billing by signing Liverpool pair Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing for a combined £21m.

The two players should, in theory at least, link up well with Downing’s crosses seen as the perfect supply for Carroll to destroy teams with his mastery of aerial duels.

With a solid defence and a diligent midfield, West Ham will be well clear of the relegation scrap and should be aiming for a top ten finish, which may just be beyond them given the quality of the teams around them.

11. Newcastle United (2012/13: Premier League, 16th)

A new season and a new start for Alan Pardew after the lucklustre display his side turned in last season.

Pardew has bought sparingly this summer, adding Loïc Remy on loan, and he will hope that the French contingent signed in January will be enough to see his side avoid the doldrums of their last campaign.

Newcastle still need to make a few additions to their squad to be on the safe side, but they have a good enough squad to contend for a top ten place.

10. Norwich City (2012/13: Premier League, 11th)

There are few teams in this division with a pair of strikers of the quality of Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Gary Hooper.

That Chris Hughton managed to secure their signatures for a comparatively small fee, suggests that Norwich have good reason to be chipper ahead of the upcoming campaign.

Van Wolfswinkel comes to Carrow Road with big promise and has a natural goalscoring ability which should alleviate the difficulties in front of goal that many Canaries fans had lamented last season.

Hooper has proven his prowess at Celtic and will be looking to kick on at a higher level with the carrot of a call-up to the England squad in World Cup year dangling in front of him.

Norwich can be defensively unsteady at times, and that is where their weakness lies. However, the exciting partnership up top and an underrated midfield including Robert Snodgrass and Wes Hoolahan will be good for a top ten spot.

9. West Brom (2012/13: Premier League, 8th)

The Baggies have prepared for the new season by signing experienced players of the calibre of Nicolas Anelka and Diego Lugano.

Yet, as is well known, both Anelka and Lugano are mercurial – Anelka especially so. Whether he will be consistently putting in 100% at the Hawthorns remains to be seen. If manager Steve Clarke sees him as a replacement for Chelsea loanee Romelu Lukaku, he could be sorely disappointed.

Lugano, meanwhile, looked past his best at the recent Confederations Cup for Uruguay and, in my opinion at least, represents more of a liability than a reliability.

Despite the relative lack of signings, West Brom should be competitive. An energetic and incisive midfield is their strength and if they can convince Peter Odemwinghie to stay they can aim for a top ten finish.

8. Everton (2012/13: Premier League, 6th)

Everton enter into the new season with a new manager for the first time in over a decade following the departure of David Moyes to Manchester United.

Incoming boss Roberto Martinez is certainly a respected manager and he will look to build upon the watchable style of play that Moyes developed during his tenure.

Key to their success will be the retention of Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellaini, with the club so far resisting overtures for both men from Manchester United.

New loan signing Gerard Deulofeu comes in from Barcelona to provide strength to the Toffees forward line, which is also bolstered by Arouna Kone, who followed Martinez from Wigan in a permanent deal.

The Goodison Park faithful will have to be patient with the new regime – a European place (fifth) might be out of their reach.

7. Swansea City (2012/13: Premier League, 9th)

Swansea’s season has already started with qualification for the Europa League, and they look well placed to improve on an impressive ninth place finish from last season.

New signing Wilfried Bony looks strong and has linked up well with goalscoring sensation Michu so far. The Ivorian’s presence allows the Spaniard to drift into his favoured position just off the first striker, so Swansea may well benefit from that this season.

Swans manager Michael Laudrup has raided Real Betis for Spanish duo Alejandro Pozuelo and Jose Canas, with Pozuelo looking a very promising player in the playmaker role.

Fans at the Liberty Stadium will be hopeful of a good Premier League assault and their team could well deliver a top six place if one of the top six teams falters.

6. Tottenham Hotspur (2012/13: Premier League, 5th)

The crucial question at White Hart Lane this summer is whether prize asset Gareth Bale is going to leave the club.

Real Madrid have reportedly had a world-record bid of £87m turned down, and their interest has since cooled.

Bale has remained silent – some say this means he wants to leave – but chairman Daniel Levy is intent on keeping his star player.

If Bale were to leave, Spurs will rely heavily on £26m striker Roberto Soldado to score goals after Emmanuel Adebayor and Jermain Defoe endured difficult seasons.

Paulinho, a £17m acquisition from Corinthians, looks a very good addition to the squad but the loss of Bale is expected to take its toll and I think Spurs will miss out on Europe – unless they can win a domestic cup.

5. Liverpool (2012/13: Premier League, 7th)

Liverpool flattered to deceive at times last season. They finished with 71 goals – the fourth highest in the division – but they were inconsistent and eventually paid the price when they missed out on European competition altogether.

They have also resisted Luis Suarez’s attempts to leave the club, with Arsenal having had two bids rejected, and have got their business done early, signing four players fairly cheaply.

Simon Mignolet will be first choice in goal after Pepe Reina left the club (on loan) to link up with former Reds boss Rafael Benitez at Napoli, while the addition of Spanish duo Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto will provide Daniel Sturridge with assistance should Suarez leave.

Philippe Coutinho is being tipped for a superb season alongside Steven Gerrard in midfield, and Reds boss Brendan Rodgers will be hopeful – rightly so – of a Europa League place at least.

4. Arsenal (2012/13: Premier League, 4th)

Much has been made of Arsenal’s lack of activity in the transfer market – but it has not been for want of trying.

The Gunners have twice failed in attempts to sign Luis Suarez and their only signing so far this summer has been French youngster Yaya Sanogo.

A fit again Jack Wilshere will be crucial to Arsene Wenger’s plans to launch an assault on a Champions League automatic qualifying spot, but with the calibre of teams ahead of them I feel fourth place is as good as Arsenal will get – for now.

3. Manchester United (2012/13: Premier League, champions)

Like Arsenal, United have added one player to their squad this summer – young Uruguay full-back Guillermo Varela. Interest in midfielders Thiago Alcantara and Cesc Fabregas has not resulted in a signing, while a bid for Leighton Baines has also been rejected.

Rumours are now abound that new manager David Moyes is looking to bring in playmaker Mesut Özil, and with time fast running out United fans are beginning to think a marquee signing may never materialise for the Glaswegian.

If it doesn’t chances will fall to exciting youngsters such as Adnan Januzaj and Jesse Lingard, while Nick Powell will be involved once he recovers from a pre-season hamstring injury.

Wilfried Zaha, who was signed in January, has also looked sharp in pre-season and prolific young Chilean striker Angelo Henriquez scored midweek for his country.

Wayne Rooney has been tipped for a move to Chelsea, but the club have rejected two bids and expect him to stay.

Despite the Rooney saga, the future looks bright for United, but they are in a transitional phase after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement and an automatic Champions League spot will be Moyes’ realistic end product.

2. Manchester City (2012/13: Premier League, 2nd)

New manager Manuel Pellegrini erased memories of last season by doing his business in rapid fashion early in the summer.

His £90m outlay on Stevan Jovetic, Alvaro Negredo, Fernandinho and Jesus Navas has strengthened City greatly, and they will be extremely difficult to beat as a result.

City enjoyed the best defensive record in the league last season, conceding just 34 goals. They scored a measly 66 though – and Pellegrini has addressed that problem emphatically.

I think City will just be pipped to the title but it will be a close battle with the usual title suspects.

1. Chelsea (2012/13: Premier League, 3rd)

Jose Mourinho has picked a good time to return to Chelsea.

They have the squad to mount a serious challenge in Europe, let alone domestically.

Romelu Lukaku returns to the club following a successful loan spell at West Brom and he is favourite to beat Fernando Torres to a regular starting spot up top.

Kevin de Bruyne also looks a very good prospect, as does new signing Andre Schürrle, while another young talent – midfielder Marco van Ginkel – has been promised games under the terms of his signature.

Should Chelsea manage to keep David Luiz, they have a defensive backbone to a team that is capable of delivering the title and I fully expect them to be lifting the Premier League trophy next May.

Cüneyt Cakir, the stage is yours

It is said that good referees are invisible for the duration of a football match.

Yesterday night, Turkish official Cüneyt Cakir was anything but.

Maybe that was down to the 36-year-old’s garish turquoise shirt? Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t.

Mr Cakir created a frenzy of disbelief inside Old Trafford when, with Manchester United 2-1 up on aggregate against Real Madrid in the Champions League last 16, he sent Luis Nani off for serious foul play.

United were incensed because the decision allowed Madrid back into the game, before they cruelly killed the hosts off with two goals in three minutes from Luka Modric and ex-United star Cristiano Ronaldo.

To the letter of the law, Cakir was probably correct to show a straight red. Nani’s right boot made contact with Madrid right-back Alvaro Arbeloa’s rib cage in an aerial duel and after a brief break in play to allow both players to gather themselves, Cakir brandished red.

FIFA’s law 12 on fouls and misconduct provides that “A player is guilty of serious foul play if he uses excessive force or brutality against an opponent when challenging for the ball.”

So, Nani was justifiably sent off? Perhaps not.

It is widely held throughout the global footballing community that part of the art of refereeing is the official’s ability to apply the laws of the game with judgement of the footballing situation in question.

With the ball coming over Nani’s shoulder, the Portuguese winger’s eyes were fixated on the ball, with Arbeloa making a late entrance onto the scene. There was no intent to commit “excessive force or brutality” on Nani’s part.

Does there have to be? Once more, perhaps not. Taking everything into consideration, most referees would have realised that it was a 50/50 challenge, there was no malice involved, and that it had not been a high-tempered match up to that point.

This makes Cakir’s decision all the more robotic – and he has previous history.

Cakir, an insurer with a love of table tennis, became an elite referee in the 2007/08 season, and has since officiated several matches in the European Championships, Champions League, Europa League and Club World Cup.

What is immediately recognisable when glancing through his record is that, in the 134 games he has refereed since the 28th of March 2007, he has failed to give a card in just four of those games.

The plot thickens further when Cakir’s habits are examined more closely, and how predictable his style of officiating is.

Cakir would have first come to the attention of English fans when he officiated Chelsea’s 4-1 win over Spartak Moscow in the 2010/11 Champions League. It was a straightforward match to referee, with only four bookings dished out.

His next European match came three months later – a Europa League tie between Villarreal and Napoli which finished 2-1 to the hosts. It was marred by nine bookings, six of those coming in the second half.

Exactly three weeks later he sent off Manchester City’s Mario Balotelli in the same competition,  booking eight other players as City went out 2-1 on aggregate to Dynamo Kiev, despite winning 1-0 on the night.

Such a high volume of bookings means that Cakir’s style of refereeing is to adhere as closely to FIFA’s rulebook as possible.

Perhaps he enjoys the limelight when he flashes cards about. For certain, it is an inorganic approach to refereeing, and the statistics reinforce that point.

Last season, Cakir took charge of 34 games in the domestic Turkish Superlig and both elite European competitions.

He managed to show 172 yellow cards in that time, complete with nine red cards for good measure.

Across the 34 games, that is an average of 5.32 cards per game – an unusually high figure.

Those who have followed Cakir’s eye-catching refereeing since that time will have noticed his style of observing the match and the players in it during the first half, before unleashing a flurry of cards in the second period.

Last season he showed 61.3% of all his cards in the second half, and there were some high-profile matches during that time.

The infamous 2-2 draw between Barcelona and Chelsea at Camp Nou was famous for John Terry’s needless sending-off – a decision which Cakir got right – and the fractious nature of the match, with an additional eight players booked.

In Cakir’s homeland, the notorious Istanbul derby between Fenerbahce and Galatasaray is almost always an ill-tempered affair. So it proved in 2012 too, when Cakir sent off two players and booked 12 others.

His form continues into the current 2012/13 season when, after officiating just 25 games, he has already sent off eight players in all competitions, and has brandished 110 yellow cards.

That is an average of 4.72 cards per game – again, an unusually high figure.

When his performances are compared to that of England’s most card-happy referee, Martin Atkinson, Cakir’s super-strict manner is exposed again.

Atkinson has taken charge of 27 matches in all competitions this season, amassing a total of 107 cards, just one of which has been red. His average of 3.96 cards per game is a staggering 0.76 cards beneath the level of his Turkish colleague.

Cakir’s performances also seem to be more negatively prolific as the profile of the match amplifies. In his first major international tournament – Euro 2012 – he only officiated three games.

Yet, he still managed to brandish 18 yellows and one red, 13 of those coming in the second half and nine coming in the derby between Portugal and Spain. Ireland’s Keith Andrews was the man dismissed in a 2-0 loss against Italy.

In a World Cup Qualifying match between England and Ukraine, under three months later, Cakir showed 10 cards, sending off Steven Gerrard in the 1-1 draw at Wembley with (yes, you guessed it) all 10 of the bookings coming in the second half.

Cakir has also sent off Sergio Busquets for Barcelona in the Champions League this season, and Gary Cahill for Chelsea in the Club World Cup final. He now has Nani to add to that list of big, game-changing decisions.

With atmospheres no more hostile than those in his homeland, you would think Cakir has the necessary mental qualities in a referee to officiate in the biggest of occasions. All the matters discussed in this blog seem to suggest otherwise, but still FIFA and UEFA continue to give him high-profile games.

Perhaps that’s because he is a limpet to the rulebook. With that in mind, does he do a good or a bad job?

Does the fact that he gives a high amount of cards mean that he sees fouls no other referee does and should therefore be given credit for doing so?

One thing that seems certain is that Cakir will officiate at his first World Cup in Brazil next summer, and because of his latest attention-grabbing decision the weight of one billion eyes will be upon him.

If he continues to make similarly mechanical decisions in Brazil, he should probably turn his hand to officiating table tennis matches instead.