U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel starts his third season with Blackburn Rovers, and their second in England's top flight league. The Bay Village, Ohio, native spent two seasons with the Columbus Crew in 1996 and 1997 before heading to England and a three-year spell at Liverpool. Last year, he led Blackburn to the Worthington Cup title , their first hardware since 1995. Now firmly planted as the first-choice 'keeper at Rovers and coming off a stellar performance in the 2002 FIFA World Cup, Friedel previews the 2002-03 English Premier League Season.
There’s nothing like the anticipation in the beginning of the English Premier League. Everyone is mad about it. It’s what I really like about the English league: the way the fans follow the game. They appreciate the game. They love the free-flowing soccer, as well as the battle. Every single team on a given day can beat any of the other teams, which makes the league exciting. I think in other leagues around the world, the top three to four teams just glide through about everybody, whereas here the Manchester Uniteds and Arsenals have a difficult game every single week.
Obviously the hot topic of discussion is who is going to do well. Who will challenge Arsenal for their title? Will Man U, Liverpool or Leeds make a run? Is someone good enough to win the Double or the Treble? The first round is on the books, and already the juices are flowing.
Fortunately, the issues of finances that crippled much of Europe during the off-season have not hit as hard in the Premiership. England, of all the countries in Europe, has the most solid base as far as a T.V. contract goes. You still had Man United splurging 30 million pounds, which is still massive money. I know it’s Man U, and they’re the richest club in England, but they’re not stupid businessmen. So they wouldn’t spend it unless they could.
However, it’s severely affecting the rest of the Nationwide League. With the way the ITV deal went, and Granada and Carlton not having to pay their remaining contract, it was a devastating blow to many teams. Burnley, who is one of our rivals, has reluctantly had to transfer list all of their players. That’s not good to see for anybody. But that’s the game right now. Without a doubt, it’s vitally important for clubs to avoid relegation this year. That’s an added pressure that many teams will have to deal with as the season progresses.
Looking at the winners and losers in the transfer market, the obvious one straight off the board is the move of Rio Ferdinand – it’s going to hurt Leeds United and bolster Man U. One of the things United did last year which was very uncharacteristic of them was they leaked quite a few goals, and buying Rio is going to be a massive step to stopping that. To get the best in the world, sometimes you have to pay a high price, and in my opinion as the season goes on he will prove to be value for the money.
Liverpool spent in the transfer market and helped their team out. The signing of Senegalese internationals El-Hadji Diouf and Salif Diao will help the team out immensely. In addition, they have adopted the practice of offering their current players new contracts, and they’re keeping them quite happy there. I think two teams that have struggled in the transfer market are Tottenham and Chelsea. They are two of the bigger clubs who haven’t really been able to go out in the transfer market as much as they have in the previous years. Perhaps they have overspent in the past. Again, in the Premiership this year, every team can beat the other on the day, so I think it's going to be another exciting season.
In looking at the teams with the chance to win hardware, I still see it as a two-horse race. I watched Arsenal play Liverpool in the Community Shield and Arsenal looked absolutely awesome in the first 30 minutes. I know Liverpool has a lot to offer, but I still think they’re just behind Man U. and Arsenal. I think Chelsea on the given day, if they can get the mood of the camp up, can fight for those places. Newcastle has a very, very good team, difficult to beat, and a lot of pace going forward. I think you’re going to see in the top ten that some of the positions are going to change. Take our club for example. If we get a good start to the season, if we keep our heads down and don’t think we’re better than we are, we could creep up into the top five or six spots. You have a team like Aston Villa who just might struggle a little bit more. Tottenham is a very good team when at full strength. They have a ton of injuries at the moment, and if that continues through the season they might have a harder time of it.
The English league, due to its free-flowing football, will always be one of the highest scoring leagues in the world. With the exceptional crop of strikers, this year should be no different. I’m especially interested to see how Diouf is going to pan out at Liverpool. It’ll be interesting to see if Liverpool plays more defensive like they did last year, or if they’ll let Heskey and Diouff and Owen go at teams. He looks a very talented player, and is definitely one to watch. I think our strikeforce is one of the best in the premier league right now. We’ve got Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke, who look absolutely superb together, and then we’ve got Damien Duff, David Dunn, and Keith Gillespie. Not a lot of teams have the pace we have going forward. I would have liked to see how Juninho performed at Middlesbrough, but he’s unfortunately just done his ACL.
In assessing Rovers for this year, we have to begin by being much more resilient in the back. When you play free-flowing soccer and always attack, you leave yourself exposed in the back a lot. In certain games we’re really going to have to take care of our defensive side. Against some of the other teams we can just keep attacking them and it will be too much for them. But when we go up against some of the big boys, we’re going to have to be very careful about getting hit on the break.
The goal for our team is to do better than we did last year. We finished in 10th place and won the Worthington Cup. So, I think if we finish any higher than that it would be very good. If you’re fortunate enough to win another trophy, that’s even better. But I think in our minds we’d like to finish better and have a more comfortable season of things. Last year, even though I felt we were going to be safe, it wasn’t until the end of March that we looked like we were definitely going to avoid relegation. That makes for a long, hard battle throughout the season. Again, with the economic troubles facing the lower divisions, relegation this year is to be avoided at all costs.
I’ve had the opportunity to reflect upon and enjoy the experience of this summer’s World Cup. I think the world recognized that we put together a very talented group of players, which was quite satisfying. It's encouraging to see more Americans playing in the Premiership as well, with guys like Claudio, Kasey, Joe-Max, and now Jovan, having the opportunity to make an impact. For now, I'm looking forward to focusing on another intense year in one of the best leagues in the world. It should be another fantastic season.
Here’s some predictions for the 2002-03 EPL season:
Top Three: Can’t pick a winner. It’s going to be a race to the finish between United and Arsenal, with Liverpool tucked in just behind them.
Relegation Zone: I don’t even want to think about that place.
Top Scorer: There’s a lot of guys who can bang ‘em in: Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Ruud van Nistlerooy. Eidur Gudjohnsen can score a lot of goals, and Owen can if he stays healthy. You’ve got Cole and Yorke at our club. Robbie Keane at Leeds. But since I have to pick one, I’ll go out on a limb and say Thierry Henry.
Surprise Club: Manchester City is going to surprise a lot of people and do very well. They spent a lot of money in the transfer market, and Kevin Keegan is a fantastic manager.