For the past few years, the FIFA Manager series has resembled the kind of big spending underachievers so common in the Premiership, a Newcastle United to Football Manager's Chelsea, tipped pre-season by its owners for greatness, then utterly underachieving when the tackles start flying in earnest. However, while this year's footy management crown once again looks to be heading to Sports Interactive's east London offices, the contest isn't quite so one-sided as in previous seasons.
FIFA Manager has often been maligned for being glitz over substance. It's an assertion which, once you've spent some time delving into FIFA Manager 08's depth and detail, you realise is somewhat erroneous this year. While it may fail to emulate the staggering realism and reach the heady heights of Football Manager 2008, it certainly possesses more than enough merit to be considered a credible alternative.
Just like Tottenham's Premiership campaign, things get off to a shaky start. A collection of under-explained customisation menus bereft of tooltips leave you initially baffled and overwhelmed, while many of the in-game screens have been poorly laid out. Before you begin your first day in charge, you can pick and choose your exact level of involvement in day-to-day club management. I say club rather than team management, because unlike many of its rivals - that simply allow you to take control of team affairs - you can opt to oversee every facet of your club, including ticket prices, supporter days and even the renovation of your stadium with an editor that's admittedly more virtual Lego than the powerful tool it claims to be.
In an interesting twist, you can also take charge of your personal life, give yourself a girlfriend or a wife and even pursue hobbies out of work hours. Juggling your home and recreational time is a mini-game in itself and while hardly an essential feature, it's touches like these that set FIFA Manager 08 apart from its rivals and add an imaginative tint usually reserved for the indie gaming scene.
You can choose to manage your favourite team from an impressive list of licensed leagues from across the globe (though the choice is considerably smaller than in FM) or embark on a career that sees you taking the helm of a struggling team and attempting to attract the attentions of more powerful clubs. You can also opt to manage an international team.
For newcomers, the first couple of hours of FIFA Manager 08 are likely to prove little short of baffling. If you choose to take charge of every element of a club's day-to-day affairs, you'll quickly find yourself assailed by a seemingly never-ending barrage of stats, tables, graphs and pointers. While navigation has been improved, it still takes a while to get to grips with a learning curve steep enough to have had even the late, great Tenzing Norgay begging for mercy.
To its credit, developer Bright Future has clearly invested a large chunk of the last twelve months into improving team management, and there are several decent new features on show, including greater player interaction options, such as the ability to proactively approach your players about their status, fitness, form and dedication. What's more, players can now confront you with their foibles, with gripes ranging from their shirt numbers (bloody prima donnas!) to their first-team involvement.
Training has also received a makeover, with individual player schedules and weekly progress updates adding to your list of managerial options. While it's hardly a groundbreaking approach, it's certainly no less involving than Football Manager's bar-sliding mechanic.
It's improvements such as these, along with the revamped transfer system (buying players is now a more involved, protracted and flexible affair), improved scouting (many players no longer have all their stats readily available), and some excellent media features that see important stories relayed to you via press articles, FIFA Manager 08 has managed to imbue last year's somewhat lacklustre effort with a far more realistic and engaging spine.
Of course as with any football management game, the true test comes on the pitch, and on this front, FIFA Manager 08 doesn't disappoint. While 07's live games were very much a work in progress, 08's 3D matches display a host of improvements. Matches look and feel more lifelike than ever, with players and teams displaying a wider range of skills and greater off the ball intelligence, despite still looking as though they're wading through a vat of treacle when running and occasionally losing a limb during the TV-style close-ups. Players also mimic their real-life counterparts far more accurately (although player likenesses are minimal), with Gerrard and Lampard drilling in pile drivers from the edge of the area and pacier, more skilful players displaying ballerina-like deftness.
Thanks to a host of excellent tactical options, such as the ability to set each player's position for defensive and offensive passages of play, you genuinely see your strategic vision starting to unfold on screen, while tactical changes have a fairly noticeable influence on proceedings.
Given the host of enhancements, it's somewhat strange that the optional ability to control a player during these live matches still feels as clumsy and tacked on as it did last year. That's not to say that this feature doesn't have a future, only that it currently feels incredibly unsatisfying, a cumbersome embarrassment rather than an innovation. The match engine also possesses a smattering of irritants, including overblown commentary, players running towards the touchline somewhat aimlessly at times and a little too much leniency from referees towards career-threatening tackles.
Despite still containing its fair share of problems, FIFA Manager 08 has taken a significant step forward for the series, arguably showing a greater level of improvement over the past twelve months than either Football Manager or Championship Manager. Its added team management features and improved match engine make it a credible alternative to FM (if hardly its equal), while its sheer level of customisation and depth will no doubt appeal to all you control freaks out there hankering for a club rather than team management experience. Throw in a powerful player editor for good measure and you're left with game that, while not quite a title contender, certainly has the potential to be in a season or two if it continues to improve and evolve at a similar rate to this year.