The Best Eleven (For Your Entertainment Value): Your FourFiveTwo EPL XI

As with many other soccer websites, it’s retrospective time here at FourFiveTwo. The 2012-13 EPL season is over. Some, like SB Nation’s Kevin McCauley, are saying “Smell ya later” to the season. (Note: McCauley’s a Spurs fan). It wasn’t even unicorns and chocolate fountains for United fans, who got to celebrate a title victory, but then Sir Alex decided to quit while he was ahead, and the last few weeks of the United season turned into a wistful SAF retrospective where all United fans found the room a bit dusty.

There wasn’t the frenzied last day of action and suspense that there was last year, that’s for sure. At the top of the table, it played out the way many figured it would — those shirts celebrating Championship #20 for United that were prematurely printed last year are now marketable and relevant. Arsenal’s won fourth place yet again (and finished ahead of Spurs for 18 straight years). Chelsea ended up third, after a confusing season in which fans thought they’d win the league with Di Matteo as manager, saw him sacked, saw Benitez and Torres combining forces and assumed the worst, and yet, for all the 16th minute salutes and the Spanish waiter jokes and the hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing, it turns out that Chelsea has Champions League talent on-board. Meanwhile, City proved the bitter sports adage that “second place is the first loser” — especially given City’s exalted new expectations — in both the Prem League race and the FA Cup. (And, now with Balotelli and Mancini both out, how are we possibly supposed to enjoy watching City?)

The bottom of the table wasn’t that much fun either. QPR and Reading had clear paths to relegation by the time the January transfer window rolled around — QPR tried to spend their way out of disaster, while Reading just tried to rely on grit, determination, and Pavel Pogrebnyak. Neither approach worked. Arguably, aside from the Arsenal vs. Spurs scrap for fourth, the league’s last bit of fun came the week before the season ended, when Wigan won the FA Cup and was then relegated within three days. Villa and Newcastle did their best to make relegation drama happen, but in the end, five teams avoided the drop zone by landing in the 39-42 point range, compared to Wigan’s 36.

Along the way, Swansea and Bradford reaching the Capital One Cup made for two delightful surprises in one, comically-coiffed players like Fellaini and David Luiz had breakout seasons, Berbatov became the one compelling reason to watch Fulham matches, Gareth Bale celebrated 21 league goals by making a heart with his hands, and Eden Hazard kicked a ball boy.

But none of those players made the FourFiveTwo Starting XI — which, for our purposes, consists of a goalie, four defenders, a midfielder, a false nine, and four forwards. (Forwards are more fun to talk about this year.) When it comes to entertainment value, and encompassing some of the glorious lowlights of the 12-13 EPL season, these are this year’s top, top lads.

Goalie: Ali Al-Habsi and Joel Robles, Wigan
We considered Norwich’s Mark Bunn, who was sent off from a relegation six-pointer vs. Sunderland in March for wandering a few yards past the 18 to paw at an airborne ball in danger of being slotted home by Danny Graham, leaving third-string goalie Lee Camp to flap for 60-plus minutes. But Al-Habsi and Joel combined to let in a league-leading 73 goals this year — including Al-Habsi’s smooth move against Reading and Joel’s inability to clear a tap-back pass or deal with Bale’s karate skills.

Defense: Phil Bardsley, Sunderland
After Sunderland’s final match — a 1-0 loss to Spurs, in which David Vaughan was sent off for a second yellow 15 minutes before Bale’s inevitable late-game goal — delightful new manager Paolo di Canio confirmed that Sunderland will no longer be a palace of earthly delights for footballers, expressing his fury with players for allegedly partying to celebrate not getting relegated, and revealed that Bardsley was held out of the final match after online photos surfaced of him lying on a casino floor covered in 50-pound notes. Bardsley denied that alcohol played a part in the wacky antics. I don’t think Di Canio’s buying it.

Defense: Christopher Samba, QPR
The poster boy for QPR’s mid-season plan (Buy Our Way Out Of Relegation), Samba was rescued from Anzhi Makhachkala for a £12.5 million transfer fee and a reported £100k a week. According to the Guardian, the signing resulted in weeping, Samba didn’t even make the lineup in the late April scoreless draw against Reading that fittingly relegated both teams, and yet he will be retained and built around if Harry Redknapp has his way. (Though if ‘Arry doesn’t get to buy new, better disciplined players, he might be gone — though what could go wrong in the Championship?)

Defense: Pablo Zabaleta, Man City
Though he was named City’s Player of the Year — and rivaled Manu Ginobili for Best Balding Argentine Athlete honors all year — it was this foul late in the match against Wigan that left them a man down and vulnerable to Ben Watson’s Ginger Magic, sending Mancini to exile in the process. (Perhaps to Monaco, which the Guardian’s now hilariously calling “wad-waving Ligue Two champions Monaco.”)

To be fair, Zabaleta’s foul was on a player who had maybe the worst (not called) foul of the year. Callum McManaman’s foul earlier in the year earned a place in the Telegraph’s discussion of the 10 worst tackles of all time for this collision with Newcastle’s Massadio Haidara in March. Yet, for whatever karmic retribution was in play when Zabaleta came in late on a goal-bound McManaman, Zabaleta became only the third player to be sent off in an FA Cup Final. (And he wasn’t happy about it — as in, those are some very angry arm gestures he’s making.)

Defense: John Terry, Chelsea
Taking “full-kit wanker” to a whole new level, Terry sat out the Europa League final due to injury, wearing a suit during the game, and then donned his uniform (including shin guards!) to take place in the trophy celebration. Terry’s been one of the hardest-to-love players in recent Chelsea memory, but getting in uniform to hoist the Kid’s Table of Trophies almost trumps the tawdry tales of racism and adultery we’ve come to expect of the aging defenseman.

Midfielder: Tom Huddlestone, Spurs
Huddlestone is just trying to do the right thing — but that still doesn’t keep him for being at least a little chuckle-worthy. In October 2011, he set up a page on JustGiving, with a goal of raising £75k for cancer research. The catch? He pledged to not cut his hair until he scored a goal in a Premier League game. When he set up the page, he hadn’t scored since an April 2011 match against Arsenal. Sadly, that’s still the case, more than two years later. He now has a lot of hair — a veritable turducken of hair — a Valderrama stuffed into a Coloccini stuffed into a Fellaini. But, as Fred Willard once said while playing an Air Force official in This Is Spinal Tap, “Although I shouldn’t talk — may hair’s getting a little shaggy, too.

False Nine: Fernando Torres, Chelsea
The enigmatic Torres fared comparatively well Chelsea’s marathon 2012-13 season, scoring 22 times in 64 matches, versus 13 goals in his first 67 as Chelsea’s £50 million striker. He flourished at times playing in a false nine role, and he did score the deciding goal in the match that sealed 3rd place for the Blues, but he only managed 8 goals and 6 assists in 28 league games played, lost playing time to January signing Demba Ba, and is having to speculation about new Chelsea strikers and a new manager coming in over the summer. Oh, and he broke his nose and had to wear this mask for six weeks. (But at least this year wasn’t as bad as last year.)

Forward: Jonathan Walters, Stoke City
January 13, 2013: It’s a day that Jonathan Walters will never forget, ever, even if he wants to, which he undoubtedly does. Chelsea won 4-0, but Stoke could have won 3-2 if Walters hadn’t forgotten how to play soccer that day. This lowlight reel documents Walters’ nightmare — heading an own-goal past his keeper toward the end of the first half, heading a second-own goal past his keeper in second-half action, and then, in the 90th minute, skying a penalty kick to keep Chelsea’s clean sheet intact.

Forward: Gervinho, Arsenal
At one point in the season, Gervinho was among the league leaders in goals scored. But then September ended, and the drought was on — from October to mid-March, he managed a single goal in Champions League play and nothing else in an Arsenal uniform, though he did light it up for Ivory Coast in the African Cup of Nations. The Gervinho miss of the season, though, was this bit of clownery against Bradford — in the match where Bradford bounced Arsenal from the Capital One Cup competition. (Which Arsenal fans will never be allowed to forget.)

Forward: Peter Odemwingie, West Brom and QPR
On the final day of the January transfer window, it looked like Nigerian national player Peter Odemwingie would be moving from West Brom to QPR, willingly. So much so, in fact, that Odenwingie drove to Loftus Road to talk terms — only the proposed deal had fallen through, QPR had to lock Odemwingie out to keep from breaking FA rules, West Brom manager Steve Clarke described the move as “total lunacy,” Odemwingie lashed out at the club, and his teammates chipped in to buy a QPR jersey for him. Less than four months later, he’s apparently re-burned bridges with a locker room outburst, and will finally get to participate in a relegation battle next year (assuming the rumors are true that he’ll sign with newly-promoted Hull).

Forward: Luis Suarez, Liverpool
Even before The Biting Incident, Suarez was on the short list of temperamental forwards to make the FourFiveTwo XI — single-handedly keeping Liverpool from being relegated following the glorious early weeks of the season, literally single-handledly beating FA Cup opponents Mansfield as one of several incidents with the manos, stomping on or hitting opponents in three different types of competition (Premier League, Europa, AND international play), and celebrating a goal (an equalizer against Chelsea, no less) alone — a moment immortalized in a priceless GIF.

But with The Bite, Suarez has reached a whole new echelon of crazy. Even though Suarez has done this once before (while playing for Ajax in 2011), this bite was during action in front of goal, with the ball being played into him. Though the refs “didn’t see it,” and Suarez scored a dying-moments equalizer to further compound Chelsea’s righteous indignation, it spawned jokes, clever Tweets and GIFs — including noted Suarez-hater Evra gnawing on a fake rubber arm given to him after United’s title-clinching win. Sadly, though, it also spawned contemplation of whether Suarez can play in England again, along with tiresome talk of Liverpool’s honor and tradition. Even with all the attendant crazy that comes with Suarez — or, perhaps, because of it — he’s arguably the most compelling figure in the EPL, arrogant yet talented, a perfect villain for a league that still desperately needs one.


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