Sunday, 24 March 2013

#F1 - the latest 'team orders' controversy

Today's Malaysian Grand Prix ended in controversy and anger, as Sebastian Vettel took the win ahead of teammate Mark Webber, despite team orders from the Red Bull garage to hold station behind Webber in second place, following the team's final round of pit stops.  The post-race interviews and analysis dwelt on the subject extensively, and almost 1500 people have posted comments on the BBC's post-race report, the vast majority of which are also concerned with the topic of team orders.

One of the interesting things about today's race was the stark contrast in the ways in which the 'team orders' situation was handled by the Red Bull drivers, when compared to Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg at Mercedes.

But first, let's talk about team orders in general, for a minute...

Every time an issue like this rears its head, we (as F1 fans) have to put up with reading streams of Blogs, articles and comments about how team orders are "ruining the sport", and how F1 is "not real racing" because of team orders, and other things.  Let's not forget that team orders are only of use to teams in a few specific situations - ie. when your team's cars are in adjacent positions in the race, and also on the same pit-stop strategies (two stop, three stop, etc).  Red Bull's team orders came into effect around Lap 43/44, when Webber was leading the race, and Vettel was close behind him in second - but at the start of the race, Vettel started from Pole position, while Webber was fifth on the grid.  How did they get from fifth and first to first and second without "real racing"?

Fans who claim to be fed up of "stage-managed" races seem to forget that team orders can only manage two of the twenty-two cars on the track.  No amount of team orders can stop another car from another team putting a spanner in the works of your carefully-managed performance.  (Unless you believe the conspiracy that F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone stage-manages the performances of all the teams - in which case, why are you even watching the races at all?)

Formula 1 is an unusual hybrid of an individual and a team sport - and, in the end, there are trophies (not to mention significant financial rewards) for both.  It is also a sport which is spread out over a period of many months, and divided into nineteen individual races, all of which contribute to the whole of the Championships; for the teams, and the drivers, it is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture - when the title is decided, it's the total points over the entire season which counts, not who won each individual heat.

Of course, as fans and spectators, we want to see close action, high drama and exciting wheel-to-wheel racing at every race.  In my opinion, however, there is room in F1 for team orders and close racing to coexist.  The close racing aspect, however thrilling, is only one side of the F1 coin; there is another side to F1 (which, for my part, I find equally gripping) - the intrigue of tactics and strategy, of design, and of two drivers (often with hugely contrasting styles or personalities) fighting for points not only for the team, but also within the team.  Add to that the fact that the regulations state that a finite number of engines (eight) and gearboxes (one every five races) may be used by each car throughout a season, and it therefore necessary sometimes to conserve power in order to make these components last, rather than going all-out on track at all times.  It is a fine balance, yes - but that's what makes this, in my opinion, one of the best sports in the world.

So how does this all relate to today's events...?

Well, let's talk about Mercedes first.  Despite starting fourth and sixth, Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg found themselves in a very strong position behind the two leading Red Bulls - indeed, for much of the race, they were keeping pace with Webber and Vettel, and looked like they may be able to challenge for a top-two finish.  Unfortunately, the team had made a miscalculation regarding how much fuel to put in the cars at the start (possibly down to the belief that more of race would be run in wet weather conditions than actually ended up happening) and towards the end of the race Hamilton's car in third, especially, was running on less-than-maximum power in order to save fuel and ensure they didn't run out before the end of the race.

Rosberg, in fourth place behind Hamilton, was also saving fuel, although to a less critical degree, asked his team on the radio whether he should overtake his team mate, and was told "no".  After remonstrating with the team, and being told "no" twice more, Rosberg accepted his fate, and cruised home in fourth place, behind Hamilton.  Team Principal Ross Brawn's explanation on the radio to Rosberg was about fuel consumption (Rosberg would burn more fuel by the overtaking Hamilton - and both cars would burn more fuel by racing each other rather than cruising, and would risk not making it to the end of the race at all, effectively turning 27 points for the team into 0) and also about safety.

Whatever you think of this decision, and the way it affected the end result of the race (Hamilton and Rosberg finishing third and fourth, instead of fourth and third - and Mercedes getting 27 points, instead of 27 points), the way it was handled by the drivers showed maturity and class.  Rosberg acted like a team player, and brought the car home in fourth place (which is still an excellent result, 12 World Championship points, and two places gained him his grid position) while Hamilton credited his team mate during his interview on the podium.

At Red Bull, however, it was a rather different story!  After the final pit stops, Webber was ahead of Vettel, and the team instructed both their drivers to turn down their engines and bring the cars home safe and intact.  Webber complied with this instruction; Vettel didn't.

Vettel attacked Webber, and passed him.  Webber - understandably very angry about this - refused later to interact with Vettel, either before or during the podium ceremony.  Vettel apologised during the drivers' press conference, but Webber refused to accept his apology.  I'm not surprised.

As ever, the internet is awash with comments about this - and, as ever, a huge number of them are anti-team orders.  "What's the problem?" people ask.  "Vettel and Webber are racing drivers - we want to see them race, not just follow each other around!"

I want to see them race too - but not when one of them (Webber) has turned his engine down, under the impression that the other (Vettel) would do the same (as agreed), only to find he's being attacked and can't defend himself because he's running on less power.  That's not fair - and it's not "real racing" either.

What Vettel did was not the "ruthless" drive of a Champion who "just wanted it do badly", as some people would have you believe - it was reckless, foolish, and above-all, disobedient.  He gambled a guaranteed 43 points for the team on the chance that he might win it - as it happens, he did win, but if he had taken both the Red Bull cars out of the race (as in Turkey in 2010), the repercussions would've been huge.

Vettel, however, believed he had some sort of God-given right to win this race.  Never was this more clear than when listening to his radio message to the team earlier in the race:  "Mark is too slow - get him out of the way!"

He instructs the garage to issue team orders which work in his favour, yet petulantly ignores any that don't.  He expects to be given a free pass to the lead of the race (which, in the end, was effectively what happened, as he made a pass on a team mate who was powerless to fight back) and he expects to be able to get away with disobeying his team boss, despite risking putting the whole dynamic of the team (and, therefore, their hopes of a fourth consecutive World Championship double) in jeopardy.

As I've said, Formula 1 is a long game.  The race doesn't end at the Chequered flag in Malaysia - it ends in Brazil, in November.  There are many, many factors to take into consideration during the season, and the fall-out from this incident is going to be one of them.  Vettel may have grabbed the win here, but how will he feel in November if he watched another man walk away with the title of 2013 World Champion, and looks back at today's race thinking maybe this moment of hot-headedness was a turning point?  Will it have been worth it?  I doubt it.

I was never the biggest fan of Sebastian Vettel - but I have even less respect for him, after today's happenings.  However, I won't deny that, from a fan's point-of-view, this certainly sets us up with a fascinating situation going into the Chinese Grand Prix in three weeks' time.

Unlike the Mercedes drivers, who handled their team orders with grace and maturity, and just knuckled down and got on with things, even if they weren't entirely happy about it, like true professionals, the Red Bull team is imploding in front of our eyes.  It is impossible to know exactly how things will play out from here, but it looks as if the events of today's race will change the face of team orders at Red Bull for a good long time - possibly for the rest of the season.  The consequences of this could be very far-reaching indeed.  We could potentially end up with a situation where other teams are able to manage their cars to maximise their points haul, and to ensure the most efficient use possible of resources like gearboxes, fuel and tyres, while Red Bull are unable to do so.  Yes, Sebastian Vettel's rashness today could come back to haunt him in a big way.

But back to the central issue - that of team orders - now...

Many people believe that without team orders, Formula 1 would be more exciting.  Considering that they're all everyone's been talking about since this race, it seems that - on this occasion, at least - it was their very presence which has made it exciting.

Anyone who thinks that today's race was 'boring' because of team orders clearly didn't see the seemingly ongoing scrap for places between Lotus' Kimi Räikkönen and McLaren's Sergio Pérez, the drama of the front wing coming off Fernando Alonso's Ferrari on the first lap (and his inexplicable failure to come into the pit lane, resulting in a retirement from the race soon after), the chaos in the pit lane with Force India, Toro Rosso and McLaren all involved in some way or another, and the very promising showing from Jules Bianchi and his Marussia team.

The fact is that team orders are a part of the sport - whether you like it or not - but they are not a big enough issue on their own to "ruin" a whole sport.  Formula 1 is a very complex business, and it has many elements which make it up - team orders are but one of these elements.  My advice to anyone who hasn't been watching Formula 1 for very long, or who is thinking of watching it for the first time, is not to get too hung up on any one of these details in isolation, but to enjoy the glorious tapestry of the  sport in its entirety.

Formula 1 may not be perfect - but, in my opinion, anyone who thinks it's boring must be watching with their eyes shut.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

San Marino Royale

England's chances of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil were given a boost, following a good 8-0 win over San Marino last night.  I remain, however, ashamed of the attitude of some England fans in the run-up to the game yesterday.

In sport, no one likes a sore loser - and no one likes a sore winner either.  To be a sore winner before the game's even started is really bad.  I found a lot of the comments about San Marino by English football fans to be incredibly arrogant, and also very unpleasant.  Saying things like (for example) "we don't even need to play a goalkeeper tonight!" or "my mum could play for England tonight, and we'd still win!" is pretty poor, in my opinion.

I've met some considerable resistance in trying to explain this point-of-view over Twitter, with plenty of England fans not deigning to consider San Marino worthy of the England team's time.  Believing others to be beneath you - and then pushing that view in their face - is not a nice way to behave, and certainly doesn't make England as a nation look good.

So, here's my take on things...

First of all - this is football, and anything can happen.  Nothing is a foregone conclusion.  Not to mention the fact that England tend to have a history of making rather a meal of matches which, on paper, they ought to win comfortably.

But most importantly, even you do think that England will walk it, and could win the game playing only eight players against San Marino's eleven (or something like that) you don't have to shout about it. How about staying classy, for once, and respecting the opponents?  That kind of cocky strutting by fans before the game is exactly the kind of arrogance which makes England (and English supports) look bad to other footballing nations.  There's simply no need for it.

The argument that "it's not arrogance if it's true" doesn't really hold water either.  You could go to an ATM, withdraw £100 in cash, and then wave it in the face of the nearest homeless person, singing "I've got money and you haven't, ha ha ha ha ha!" - that would be true, but it would also make you come across as vulgar and gauche and generally quite an unpleasant person.

The fact that England did win 8-0 I can ascribe only to the fact that within the team the players and coaches were professional enough not to think they could beat San Marino even if they were on Space Hoppers, and still respected the game enough to play properly and do the basics right.

I'm proud of our team, of course, and I'm very glad we won.  But English football fans who persist in such cockiness running up to a game do neither themselves, nor the team, any favours at all.

Friday, 15 March 2013

#F1 hysteria already

We've only had two practice sessions of the first Grand Prix of the new Formula 1 season, and already I am incandescent with rage.  And that's nothing to do with what's happening on the track...

Having read this report about the first day of practice on the BBC Sport website, I then decided to read a few of the posts in the comments section at the bottom of the page.  That was a mistake.

At the time of writing, there are 151 comments on that article - and most of them seem to be from people moaning about how "boring" F1 is.  After one day of practice!

Only four hours in to the new season and im bored. Vettel to coast to pole tomorrow with webber second (dominate red bull again!!!)
The chasing pack look close. Is it just a fight for second already??
-  THEgreatgatsby
I realise that its early days but after the promise of testing it has now returned to the boring inevitable even before the first race has begun.I can't stand the prospect of Red Bull dominating again.Put a monkey in that car and it would win. Instaed of that we have to suffer Vettel and his whoopee cushion. Now where do I find coverage of synchronized swimming?

Just a couple of the comments from internet geniuses who think they can tell how a whole season of racing, on nineteen different circuits across the world, in variable weather conditions, at different times of the day or night, having to manage fuel loads, on often unpredictable tyres, managing engine and gearbox usage to ensure no more than eight engines are used over the season, will pan out - just from a couple of hours' free running before the first race.

(Apparently, these people would prefer an almost theatrical melodrama which rewards inconsistency and unreliability and produces flukey, anomalous results - Maldonado in Barcelona last year, for example - meaning that we never truly know which team, or which driver, is actually the best.  But that's a topic for another post, I think.)

But these idiots are to be expected, and there will always be people who claim a certain sport is "boring".  Why they feel they have to comment on every article about that sport, expressing just how bored they are with it, instead of filling their time reading about things which actually interest them, is anybody's guess - but at least their inane jabbering is relatively easy to block out.

What really winds me up, though, is comments like this one:
Can they not just BAN ADRIAN NEWEY from the sport? If this is anything to go by for the rest of the season I can safely say I will be losing interest quite quickly

Ban Adrian Newey?  For what crime, precisely, Timmy?  Oh, y'know - for being good at his job.

Is that how sport is supposed to work, then?  As soon as anyone who's actually any good at it appears, they get shunted out of the nearest exit...?!  I must have missed that memo.

So I guess now we have to ban Lionel Messi from playing football, as well?  We'd better tell Venus and Serena Williams that they can't enter Wimbledon this year, too.  It's a good job Michael Phelps has already retired from competitive swimming - otherwise we'd have had to ban him (and his incredible 22 Olympic Medals) too.

I think people like Timmy forget what this sport - or, indeed, any sport - is all about.  He, and others like him, seem to think that twenty-two of the world's best and fastest drivers have all converged on a little tarmac-ed area in Australian purely to entertain them.

Sport is about pushing the limits (within the rules of that particular sport) and trying to be the best you can be - the fastest, the strongest, the most accurate, the most agile, or whatever.  They're not just there to "put on a good show" for us back home - they want to win.  And, as a sports fan, I enjoy watching them trying to win.

I think this year's Formula 1 season will be very interesting, for a number of reasons.  I am hugely looking forward to seeing how things develop between now and the final race in Brazil, in November. Maybe Red Bull will dominate - and if they do, though I'm no Red Bull fan myself, fair play to them! - or maybe they won't.  We'll have to wait and see.

One thing's for sure, though - Adrian Newey is not likely to be going anywhere soon.  And that's got to be a good thing.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Premier League with ten games left

With ten games left to play in this Premier League season, I thought I'd take a look at the table as it stands, and try making a few predictions about how things may look for each team by the end of the season.

Will Rooney leave Manchester United?  Can QPR survive the drop?  Who will be in charge at Chelsea next season?  Was Mauricio Pochettino's appointment at Southampton a stroke of genius, or a a moment of madness?  These are the questions to which no one knows the answers - but I am going to answer them anyway.

Manchester United (1st - 71pts from 28 games)

I don't think there's much doubt any more that United look like they'll win the title this year.  (Yes, there will still be a few Manchester City fans saying "it's still possible!" but realistically, I think Sir Alex Ferguson has at least one hand on that trophy already.)

What is interesting, though, are the rumours surrounding the future of star striker Wayne Rooney, following his omission from the starting XI in the Champions' League Semi-Final against Real Madrid earlier in the week.  Newspapers have been reporting that Rooney's days at Old Trafford may be numbered - that he may be moving on to pastures new at the end of the season.  Somehow, though, I can't see it.  I honestly don't think these rumours have any substance, and the decision not to start Rooney against Real Madrid was more likely to be a tactical one than as a result of any issues between Rooney and the club.

Of course, during the transfer window in the Summer, United will attract attention from some of the world's greatest footballers - they always do.  I reckon that Sir Alex will be active in the transfer markets, but not overly so; he'll be looking to strengthen on the squad he has, and build on the hard work they have put in during this year, rather than going for wholesale radical change.

So, that's that.  Manchester United - pretty dull, not much to say, just counting down the days until their next Premier League trophy arrives on the doorstep at Old Trafford.  Let's move on...

Manchester City (2nd - 59pts from 28 games)

While some Manchester City fans still cling desperately to the hope that they can close the gap to neighbours United over the remaining ten games of this season, many of them have already switched their attention to next year.  Apparently, so have the club themselves, as stories persist that they are interested in bringing strikers Radamel Falcao and Edinson Cavani (from Atletico Madrid and Napoli respectively) during the summer, to strengthen the side in readiness for next season.

But is this really the area in which City need strengthening?  They already have the strike pairing of Argentinian duo Sergio Agüero and Carlos Tevez available - Manchester United aside, these two would walk into the starting line-up of any Premier League team.  As ever, these press rumours should be taken with a pinch of salt, and it may well be that City are planning to strengthen in other areas too, but these plans just aren't getting the same media coverage as the pursuit of a couple of high-profile forwards - but if I were in charge at Eastlands, I would be seriously questioning the priorities of a club who have squandered the talents of a team jam-packed full of big-name star players on a very shaky Premier League title defence.

Some while ago, I predicted that Manchester City would finish third this season - behind Manchester United in first place, and Chelsea in second.  I'm no longer sure whether Chelsea will be the team to beat City to the runners-up prize, but as for City in third?  I stand by that prediction.

Tottenham Hotspur (3rd - 54pts from 28 games)

Nipping at the heels of the defending champions in third place are this season's surprise package - the mighty Spurs.  Whilst all the talk has been about Tottenham's Welsh wizard Gareth Bale, Spurs are by no means a one-man-team, as some detractors have suggested.  I have been very impressed by the whole side during this season, and as well as being a constant presence at the top end of the Premier League table, they have been on a decent run in the UEFA Europa League - a run which is far from over, as they lead Inter Milan 3-0 on aggregate, going into the second leg of their Last 16 tie.

To me, Spurs look set to complete their Top 4 finish this season, and the promise of a Champions League challenge next year will help them to hold on to the key players in their squad.  It only remains to be seen where in the Top 4 they will end up - and the more I see of them, the more I think they may just sneak second place away from Manchester City.

There have been question marks recently over what will become of Bale, and this worries me hugely - not just for Spurs' sake, but for Bale himself.  The rumours du jour suggest Bale may move overseas, having caught the eye of Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid.  Although, on the face of it, this may seem like a huge opportunity for a boy from Cardiff, I have a really bad feeling about it all...

Bale going to a big club in Spain seems like one of these big-money, over-hyped moves surrounded by an enormous media circus, which will end in a player ultimately being a flop at his new club.  (Think Robbie Keane going to Liverpool a few years back...)

In my opinion, Bale would be so much better staying at White Hart Lane - the team there all know him, the setup suits him, and he's playing great football every week.  Spurs under André Villas-Boas don't look like a flash-in-the-pan team - they are building something much more enduring and stable, and fast becoming a club who will be challenging right at the top of the Premier League for some years.  If I were Gareth Bale, I would want to be a part of that.

Chelsea (4th - 52pts from 28 games)

Ahh, we can we say about Chelsea?  Lots.

The manager-go-round is still spinning wildly - and, I'll be honest, I have no idea who may be the next to take a ride.  I think everyone knows that Rafa Benítez isn't going to last long; the fans hate him, and he hates them (although, to be honest, I thought he had a point when he went off on a rant about fans a couple of weeks back) and his results with Chelsea haven't been good enough to overshadow this fractious relationship.

The problem is not with Benitez - the problem is with what Chelsea are going to do post-Benítez.  Who else is going to want to manage Chelsea now?!  I can't see any top-level managers wanting that job.

Although I think Chelsea will still finish in the Top 4, their form has been so shaky of late it's difficult to say where.  It's still possible for them to come second - but it's just as likely that they will stay where they are in fourth.

As for after this season...  Well, with the managerial position shrouded in so much mystery, it's difficult to say really what might happen - but they need to change something up front, for sure; the Chelsea squad has a lot of talent in it, but if they don't recall Romelu Lukaku from West Brom, sell Fernando Torres, and start building a meaningful strike partnership between Lukaku and Demba Ba, then they need to have a serious rethink about their decision making process!

Arsenal (5th - 47pts from 28 games)

I think fifth is about where Arsenal deserve to be this season.  When I look at the teams above them, I can't see any which don't have a better squad than Arsenal have.

Arsenal have some really top-quality players (Santi Cazorla, Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere, Lukas Podolski) but they also have huge defensive problems, and a habit of selling off their key players every summer.

The perennial "Wenger out! / Wenger in!" debate is still there, bubbling beneath the surface, always ready to erupt whenever Arsenal have a bad day at the office.  For my part, I reckon Arsenal fans who are calling for their manager's head need to give Arsène Wenger more time - yes, it looks like their streak without a trophy is continuing for now, but their situation really isn't as dire as some fans seem to think it is.  Fifth in the Premier League, and reaching the last 16 of the Champions League is a position for which most clubs would give anything they had.

There are reports that Wenger has vast sums of money available to him, and that Arsenal will be spending big on signings this summer.  I really hope they do, as it's just what the club needs - but, to be perfectly honest, I'll believe it when I see it.  That's never been Wenger's way before, and I can't see him changing now.  Nevertheless, Arsenal fans - how about seeing what he can make of this squad next season, before you drag out Madame La Guillotine...?

Everton (6th - 45pts from 28 games)

Everton fans seem unhappy at the moment - after a bright start to the season, things have faltered a little, and Everton find themselves outside the Top 4, with their chances of joining that select little band of clubs diminishing almost by the day.  The fans are frustrated by their team throwing away apparently comfortable leads in so many games, but equally so by manager David Moyes' refusal to state whether or not he will sign a new contract this summer, and the possibility of star players like Marouane Fellaini leaving the club.

Controversially, though, I think this may well be exactly Everton Football Club needs.  This shake-up could be what ultimately what pulls Everton out of their long-standing rut of being a might-have-been club.  Expect a change of manager this summer, bringing several new signings to strengthen the team, and a big change in attitude and playing style for next season - culminating in qualification for European football.

Liverpool (7th - 42pts from 28 games)

Liverpool fans will say that Liverpool have under-performed this season - but if you look objectively at the quality they've got, I reckon towards the bottom of the top half of the table is about where they should be.  I actually think they will drop another place to Swansea, and finish this season eight in the table.  The little Uruguayan magician Luis Suárez has really carried the team for a large part of this season - despite some high-profile signings during the winter, in the form of Daniel Sturridge (from Chelsea) and Philippe Coutinho (from Internazionale), I still feel as thought Liverpool this season are all about Suárez.

So...  Can they keep him?  Will Suárez really stay at Liverpool for next season, in spite of a rather mediocre Premier League placing, no trophies and no European football?  Even though it doesn't quite make sense, my instinct says yes - Suárez will stay.  But they will need to attract more players of Suárez' quality to Anfield over the summer, if they want to improve on this season's performances next year.  The club will give Brendan Rodgers one more year as manager, and if things don't improve (read, Top 4 finish) then, they will sack him and get someone else.  (Possibly even a return for Rafa Benítez, following his sacking from Chelsea?!  Well, that really would be something...)

Swansea (8th - 40pts from 28 games)

It's hard to think of anyone with even an ounce of passion for football not getting caught up in the romance of the Swansea story.  From being a League Two team as recently as 2004, Swansea have climbed the footballing ladder to become an established Premier League club, and went on to win the Capital One Cup at Wembley Stadium just a couple of weeks ago.

As a Norwich City fan, I still look back to the 2010-11 Championship season when Norwich finished second in the Championship, ahead of Swansea in third - Norwich won automatic promotion, whilst Swansea had to do it the hard way, through the play-offs.  But from then on, Swansea have been the darling new club on the block, not us.

Neverthless, I have a lot of admiration for what Swansea have achieved, and for the way they have handled themselves in the Premier League.  The appointment of Michael Laudrup as manager, following Brendan Rodgers' departure at the end of last season, was a masterstroke - as was the signing of prolific Spanish striker Michu for a bargain £2m.  Swansea are currently flying high, on the back of their Cup Final victory, and winning three of their last four Premier League matches - I predict them to take this confidence into the remainder of the season, and climb another place to finish ahead of Liverpool in seventh place.

Swansea already have a spot in next year's Europa League competition secured, thanks to their Capital One Cup success, and I predict they will keep climbing higher and higher during next season.  European football and a seventh place Premier League finish will make them an attractive destination for good-quality players during the summer this year, allowing them to go from strength to strength; soon enough, Swansea City will be a Premier League force to be reckoned with!

West Brom (9th - 40pts from 28 games)

Sitting behind Swansea in the Premier League only on goal difference, West Brom are another club enjoying a great season, during manager Steve Clarke's first year in charge.  After a hugely impressive start (at one point sitting comfortably in the Top 5 of the Premier League), they have faltered a little, but still sit in the top of the table - which is, I think, where they will stay.

West Brom's future is a concern, though.  They look likely to lose on-loan striker Romelu Lukaku, whose parent club Chelsea would be utterly mad not to recall him for next year, and I can't imagine Peter Odemwingie sticking around in the summer, following the palaver surrounding his ill-fated attempt to join QPR on Deadline Day in January.  Losing so much power up-front means West Brom need to act quickly to replenish their forward players, or they may not enjoy quite such an illustrious season next year.

Fulham (10th - 33pts from 28 games)

Despite regularly being described as "struggling" throughout this season, Fulham still manage to squeeze into the top half of Premier League table.  They are one of three teams currently sitting on a total of thirty-three points - that they are the top of that particular little group on goal difference is due mainly to their star player Dimitar Berbatov.  The same could be said of their presence in the top half of the table at all, with the rest of their team failing to excite me particularly during this season.

Again, the question of whether Fulham can keep hold of the player who makes them tick raises its ugly head - in this case, I suspect so.  Berbatov is 32-years-old now, and I think he will stay will Fulham for the time being, meaning that their season next year will be pretty similar to this year's, unless manager Martin Jol makes any sweeping changes to the squad during the summer.

Stoke (11th - 33pts from 28 games)

Stoke are Stoke.  Impenetrable at home, less so away, playing rough-and-ready football but quietly getting the job done.  I can't really see Tony Pulis Stoke-ing the flames with any big-name signings over the summer, so I predict more of the same for next season.

West Ham (12th - 33pts from 28 games)

12th place in the Premier League in your first season after promotion from the Championship is a great result for West Ham, and shows what a good job manager Sam Allardyce is doing with his rather down-to-earth squad.  I reckon West Ham will stay around here - and, although Allardyce isn't always loved by the fans, I think the club would be mad to get rid of him after this season's results.

Norwich (13th - 32pts from 28 games)

Norwich.  The best team in the League.  How we're so far down the table is utterly bewildering.

I'm joking, of course.  But I do think Norwich have done much better this season than some commentators might give us credit for - particularly after the turbulence last summer of losing Paul Lambert as manager to Aston Villa, and having such a shaky start to the season.

Before Christmas, a streak of ten games without losing was the best unbeaten run by any team in Europe with the exception of Barcelona, and after a torrid festive period, results are looking up again now, with one win capable of taking Norwich into the top half of the table.

Which brings me to this...  This little group of four mid-table teams (Fulham, Stoke, West Ham and Norwich) are now, effectively, racing each other; all four teams are within one point of each other, but seven points behind West Brom in ninth place - and, at this stage of the season, that's a lot.  Basically, one of these four will claim the final spot in the top half of the table.  I hope it's Norwich.

In the summer, we need to bring it another striker, and an attacking midfielder with a creative spark.  It was disappointing not to be able to get Gary Hooper from Celtic in January, so something similar in the summer, but with more success, is what's required to keep progressing into next season.

Sunderland (14th - 30pts from 28 games)

Sunderland have been misfiring all season, but I think they're going to come good in the last ten games and comfortably avoid the drop.  I doubt they'll finish much higher than their current fourteenth place, to be honest, but I can't see them getting dragged into a relegation battle either.  Their draw with Fulham last weekend was crucial - it was a very gritty, steely performance, to come back form 2-0 down to claim a point, and if they can keep doing that, they'll be fine.

They desperately need to tighten up over the summer, though, and fill in some of the holes in their squad - particularly in midfield.

Newcastle (15th - 30pts from 28 games)

Beset by injuries and bad luck early on in the season, Newcastle are a team performing well below where they perhaps ought to be.  Like Sunderland, they'll finish around the middle of the bottom half of the table - not really a fair reflection on the quality of their squad, to be honest, but at least they won't be in danger of relegation either.

A better start to the season next year should see them back into the top half of the season where they belong, which should help manager Alan Pardew start to look less grizzled in his television interviews.

Southampton (16th - 27pts from 28 games)

Southampton are my girlfriend's team, and as such I am duty bound to support them (unless they're playing Norwich).  Even without this obligation, though, I would be keen to see Southampton stay up in the Premier League this year - they are an interesting and exciting team to watch, and I think they bring a lot to the League.

The Saints started well under their new manager Mauricio Pochettino, following the controversial sacking of Nigel Adkins in January.  A great win over defending champions Manchester City will certainly rank as a high point of their season, and it was sad to see that this didn't continue, as they were (perhaps a little unfairly) beaten by bottom-of-the-table QPR not long after.

I think the Saints will survive - but only just.  If they can get back to playing the way they did in their first few games under Pochettino, they should be fine.

In the summer, however, they need to make a priority of sorting out their problems at the back.  Southampton have no issues with going forward, and scoring goals - but too many defensive and goalkeeping errors have cost them points this season, and that needs to change if they want to build a long-term future in the Premier League.

Wigan (17th - 24pts from 28 games)

Wigan really irritate me, if I'm honest.  It's nothing to do with the club or the players, or even the fans - it's to do with the way football writers and pundits talk about them.  Even if Wigan only had four points at this stage of the season, not twenty-four, footballing "experts" like the BBC's Mark Lawrenson would still be predicting them to avoid relegation, because "they do it every year".

There is an expectation that Wigan will be fine, because they always do something of an escape act in the final third of the season.  In my opinion, this is a bridge too far for them, and the consequences of their slow-to-start ways will finally catch up with them.  They will be relegated at the end of this season.

Aston Villa (18th - 24pts from 28 games)

I guess former Norwich City manager Paul Lambert is discovering that the grass is not always greener on the other side...

With the exception of big Belgian forward Christian Benteke (who has impressed everyone so far this year - and rightfully so), goalkeeper Brad Guzan, and occasional flashes of brilliance from young Austrian player Andreas Weimann, Villa have not really looked like a Premier League team this year.  They will be relegated at the end of this season.

Reading (19th - 23pts from 28 games)

Although currently second-from-bottom, Reading are only one win away from safety in this position.  The situation may look worrying at the moment, but something about Reading this year tells me they may just have the steel to do it this year.  The Royals look like they have more team spirit than Aston Villa above them, and they have pulled off several remarkable come-backs to win against all the odds this year - I think one more comeback may just be on the cards, here.

But like Southampton, things need to change for them before next season - another year of relying on miraculous comebacks to scrape together enough points to avoid relegation will just about kill them.  They need a backbone of good central defenders and central midfielders to stiffen up their shape on the field, and they need to make fewer mistakes in general.

QPR (20th - 20pts from 28 games)

After a truly horrendous season in the Premier League, QPR are certain to go down.  And I'm really sorry, QPR fans - but I, for one, won't be too cut up about that.

Manager Harry Redknapp will leave, after failing to keep Rangers up, and the fans will once again be asking questions.  The best thing QPR could do then would be to get in someone like (ex-Southampton manager) Nigel Adkins, and start again from scratch, building a new team ethic, and working towards making something much more lasting than a quick-fix of throwing money at it, but somehow I just don't think that is owner Tony Fernandes' way.

QPR will be relegated this season.  They will challenge for promotion in the Championship next season, but if they get it, they will struggle just as much in the Premier League during the season after as they have done this year.

Thank you

If you've read all of this - I really appreciate that.  Please feel free to comment, tell me I'm hopeless wrong, tell me that your team still has every chance of making up twenty points over the last ten games to claim the title, or whatever.  I've never claimed to be an expert, and I know I'm just speculating.

One thing's for sure, though - I can't wait to see what will actually happen, as the season draws to a close!