West Ham’s final season at the Boleyn Ground began in July with the Hammers participating in the qualifying rounds of the Europa League following entry via the Fair Play League. Slaven Bilic arrived to replace Sam Allardyce and made a number of changes in the playing staff. Among those to arrive was Dimitri Payet from Marseille. The playmaker cost West Ham £11.25m but the fee has been worth it as Payet hit the ground running in England straight away. Beginning with an assist in an opening day victory at the Emirates and scoring five goals by November the French international fast became the star man in a promising season for the Hammers. However, an injury caused by a reckless challenge from James McCarthy against Everton forced Payet out of action for two months. By the time he returned speculation was mounting the Payet may become the latest player to be lured to China for big wages. West Ham ended rumours of departure by agreeing an improved contract for the midfielder to remain in East London. Returning from injury Payet maintained his excellent form with a couple of spectacular free kicks against Blackburn Rovers and Manchester United, making him the most feared set piece taker in the Premier League since Cristiano Ronaldo. Overall Payet has scored 12 goals for West Ham, and assisted 12 more. This form was acknowledged with a nomination for the PFA Player of the Award and a place in the PFA Team of the Year. With a record Premier League points total and the possibility of European football next year West Ham will be positive about moving to the Olympic Stadium with their talismanic playmaker.
With odds of 5,000-1 no one could have predicted Leicester City’s rise to the top of English football. 12 months ago the team just survived relegation following a remarkable run of form. However, it wasn’t enough for Nigel Pearson to keep his job and the Thai owners decided to appoint Claudio Ranieri as his replacement. Optimism was in short supply but the Italian kept the formula which had allowed the Foxes to escape the drop the previous season. One key change was the transfer of N’Golo Kante from SM Caen for £6.75m. With Leicester playing 4-4-2 a great deal is expected of the central midfielders who are usually outnumbered, Kante has built an impressive partnership with Danny Drinkwater in what has become the most settled line up in the league. The diminutive midfielder is crucial in the Foxes style of play and has topped the number of tackles won across Europe’s top five leagues. Despite his defensive work Kante has also broken into the attack to contribute with four assists and one goal, a crucial 2-1 home victory over Watford in December. For a player that was competing in third tier of French football three years ago Kante’s rise has been phenomenal. His efforts with Leicester have alerted the French National Team for whom the midfielder made his debut this year and will look to play in his homeland at Euro 2016 this summer. Despite being the unsung hero, behind teammates Jamie Vardy and Riyadh Mahrez, his peers have recognised the 25-year old’s contribution with a place in the PFA Team of the Year. With Leicester within touching distance of the title and assured Champions League football next season there is speculation that the top sides in Europe are looking to capture Kante from the Foxes. A £20m release clause in his contract will surely tempt Manchester United, Arsenal or PSG to make a move for the hardworking defensive midfielder.
When Thibault Courtois returned from a loan spell at Atletico Madrid last summer Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho had to choose between the Belgium goalkeeper and current incumbent, Petr Cech. Mourinho opted for the younger as his first choice and after almost a decade as undisputed No. 1 at Chelsea Cech had to accept a place on the bench. After making only seven league appearances during the Blues Championship winning campaign the Czech international knew he would have to look elsewhere for more regular first team football. As expected for a goalkeeper of his calibre there was high demand across Europe to secure Cech’s services. Mourinho would have preferred Cech moved abroad, potentially to PSG but the goalkeeper didn’t want to uproot his young family. Owner Roman Abrahmovic personally gave Cech his backing and authorised a move across London to rivals Arsenal. For £10m Arsene Wenger had secured a quality goalkeeper, ousting Wojciech Szczęsny and David Ospina. Cech’s competitive debut was made against the club he’d just left, in a 1-0 win to secure the Community Shield. However, the 33-year old’s league debut didn’t go to plan as he misjudged a free kick to allow Cheikhou Kouyate to score the opening goal as the Gunners went down 2-0 to West Ham. Cech’s successor at Chelsea didn’t have it any better getting sent off in their opening day draw at home to Swansea. That result, and Mourinho’s touchline antics, set the tone for the West London club for the worst title defence in Premier League history. Although injuries can’t be accounted for Cech would surely have received more game time at Chelsea had he stayed. However, with the turmoil at Stamford Bridge the veteran wouldn’t have regretted moving on. In a bittersweet season for Arsenal calls for Arsene Wenger’s departure and another last 16 exit in the Champions League were balanced by pipping Tottenham on the final day and securing a runner’s up spot, the club’s highest finish in 11 years. On a personal level Cech’s 16 Premier League clean sheets won him the Golden Gloves award for a joint record fourth time. Despite falling short against this year Arsenal fans will hope the Gunners can go one step further and win the title again, and with the calming influence of Cech they may get to end their wait.