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May 20, 2005

On Football: Chelsea players lead Premier League stars

It's that time of year again. As soccer in Europe draws to a close, it has come time to hand out accolades. Few honors can compare with the recognition and glory that comes with being named to the Chicago Maroon Premier League XI. These are, without exception or argument, the eleven best players for the 2004-2005 season in the English Premiership.

This season in England will always be remembered as the year that Chelsea dominated the rest of the pack, but the team from Manchester that actually beat Chelsea is worth some attention. No, not United, but City. If Oasis's favorite football team wins this weekend, they will qualify for the UEFA Cup. At the center of the City defense, Richard Dunne has seen his career take an amazing swing upwards this year. The laughing-stock of an abysmal defense last season, the big Irishman was the focal point of a new, stingy fullback unit this term.

Dunne's teammate Shaun Wright-Phillips has also earned a spot in the squad, despite suffering a serious injury in the second half of the season. Wright-Phillips was undoubtedly one of the most exciting players to watch in the Premiership. His performances, often capped by spectacular goals, have caught the eyes of both the England manager, who called him up to the squad this past year, and some major clubs around Europe.

Liverpool, who knocked the West Londoners out of the Champions League, was plagued by inconsistency and doesn't have much to take from this domestic season. Jamie Carragher, however, stood out as a bright light amidst the dark. Versatile and disciplined, the English international has played in every position across the back for the Reds. While it can be argued that his teammates haven't shown up for every match, few would make that claim about Carragher.

Much of Liverpool's agony was inflicted by their bitter cross-town rival, Everton. The Toffees have enjoyed a wonderful season, capped by their qualification for the UEFA Champions League next year. Tim Cahill led Everton in scoring this year, often chipping in the crucial goals. What seemed to be bargain basement shopping in the off-season turned into one of the best buys of the year, as the Australian stood at the forefront of Everton's charge into the upper-echelons of the table.

Andy Johnson, another relative unknown, established himself at the top level despite playing for struggling Crystal Palace. If the Eagles manage to avoid the drop to the second division, it will certainly be due to Johnson, the top scoring Englishman in the league.

When Manchester United and Arsenal contest the FA Cup Final on May 22, the clubs will both be looking at their only shot to claim silverware this year. For two teams looking back on seasons marked by inconsistency and sub-par performances, two players managed to stand out as meritorious among the mediocre.

For Thierry Henry, it has been another great season. Though he is sometimes relied upon too heavily by the Gunners, the Frenchman is nothing but world-class. Top scorer in the premier league and a model professional, Henry is the most well-rounded striker in the world.

For the Red Devils, Gabriel Heinze is fast establishing himself as one of the best buys for the club in recent years. Though it took him awhile to get into the squad, due to international commitments, when he came, it was clear that the left back was worth the wait. Committed defending and a willingness to attack separate this Argentine from the rest of the pack.

For league champion Chelsea, keeper Petr Cech has been a stalwart final line of defense. Cech may have been relatively unknown upon his arrival in England but he made a name for himself with a record-setting shutout streak.

At the heart of the Maroon XI resides Chelsea captain John Terry. There's not much to say that hasn't already been said about the imposing England center back. Consistent, unafraid, and dangerous on set-pieces, Terry should be the automatic choice in the center of England's defense.

Leading the midfield is Chelsea's other award winner, Frank Lampard. The irrepressible number eight brings an enormous breadth of skills to his position. His tireless running, his ability to track back and his timely tackling make him a presence in his end of the pitch. Lampard's tally of 18 goals makes him more prolific than most strikers, and is all the more impressive considering his position on the field.

Finally, we have Claude Makelele filling all the gaps in the team. Makelele was a crucial piece of the puzzle for Chelsea, making all of his teammates that much better. It is no coincidence that Lampard and Terry have had such good years with Makelele in the team.