A Review: The Premier League So Far – Part 2

Bringing the blog back for some more football, we’re moving on to part two of the Premier League review. Since Paul the Octopus kicked the can, it’s been left up to me to take up the mantle with this prediction malarkey.

Everton

So far: To say David Moyes has his hands tied when it comes to finances would be an understatement. The Scot continues to do wonders with a threadbare squad, and his consistency makes him easily one of the best managers in the league. Everton spent an appetising zilch in the summer, with the recurrent aim of holding onto their best players and scraping the barrel for a few loan signings being top of Moyes summer list. Despite the loss of talismanic midfielder Mikel Arteta, the Toffees still find themselves sat comfortably among the top ten sides in the division.

Everton have played a lot of the league’s ‘big boys’ already. The season curtain raiser (at Spurs) was called off due to some absolute morons thinking it wise to loot a Currys for a brand new flat screen. However, when Everton have got on the pitch they’ve beaten the teams you’d expect them to, and that’s why they are in the healthy position they find themselves in. Defeat at home to Liverpool will certainly be the season’s low, but while Moyes continues to captain the Goodison vessel, the club will continue to navigate the Premier League seas with unmitigated ease.

Key player: Louis Saha. An in-form Saha will score goals. But the Frenchman’s injury troubles have always stopped him reaching the absolute top and that’s worked to Everton’s gain. He finds himself pretty isolated in the Everton strike force department though, and it has often been left for the tireless Tim Cahill to fill the void when Saha vacates. Cahill can provide goals from the midfield, but asking him to spearhead an attack has left him slightly out of his depth and consequently the team struggles to score goals.

Where will they finish? Top half providing all the players stay fit and healthy. The addition of Royston Drenthe seems to have been a shrewd piece of business, and has shown plenty of skill and pace when given the chance. Leighton Baines and Jack Rodwell are both on the fringe of the England squad, and Everton’s best choice XI would give most a run for their money on their day. Moyes has assembled a classy, yet small squad which he organises very well, and I wouldn’t bet against Everton too many times on home soil this season. The reason why I think of Moyes’ management so highly is that he offers security to the club. The club is unlikely to fluctuate positionally despite the lack of funds to improve the team. And in today’s game, you can probably count on one hand how many managers can create a team and continue to outperform every season like Everton do.

Verdict: 7th-10th. Continuity is key for Moyes, and if the team continues to battle on in the Moyes fashion then I’m confident they will finish in the league’s top half. 

Fulham

So far: Like Everton, Fulham will continue to plod along in an elite division of fast cars, fast players and equally fast women. Martin Jol just feels like a Premier League manager, but Tottenham being the plonkers they are didn’t realise that! Spurs gags aside, Fulham have continued much in the same fashion as the past 24 months or so. Largely dependent on their home form due to their pretty abysmal away form, and going along quite nicely in the Europa League, Jol will be satisified with the start the Cottagers have made. The fact that they are currently 15th won’t be raising too many alarm bells just yet.

Key player: Danny Murphy. The ex-Liverpool man even turns his hand to a bit of punditry these days, and as expected, he’s pretty spot on with that as well. Captain, set-piece taker and just all round midfield general, Murphy is a clever footballer, and he pulls the Fulham strings from the heart of the midfield every week.

Where will they finish? The doldrums of mid-table await, as exciting as that sounds. There are probably seven or eight teams that I would fancy to be above Fulham over the course of 38 games, but with the expansive schedule of the Europa league, Fulham will have some tired legs in there come Christmas and January. In summary, not in danger of the drop, but not setting off any fireworks either. (Unless they buy Mario, that is.)

Verdict:10th-16th. A pretty broad verdict for Fulham, but I think the scale of their league success could be proportional to the amount of monotonous football UEFA will have them playing. Again, like Everton, they have quite a small squad to choose from, but they do have some sparkling individuals, which will shine through the mire of the bottom half to ensure top flight football next season. Still waiting for a John Arne Riise thunderbolt to fly into the Thames as well…

Liverpool

So far: John W. Henry certainly wasn’t messing about when he took control of the club. Since January and the awaited return of King Kenny, they’ve attempted to take a clean cut approach to get the club back fighting into the upper realms of the Premier League. But, a bit like a Top Gear car-come-tumble dryer, their ambitions may slightly outweigh the reality in May. Not that I am slating what Kenny has done, I love the sheer enthusiasm he has for the club, and his passion about playing football the right way. I do have a few minor issues with some of his signings though, and the main proprietor of my scrutiny falls to one Mr Andy Carroll.

As aforementioned with Everton, the Reds did manage to steal the derby in their neighbours back yard, with goals coming from Luis Suarez and Andy Ca… I’ll drop the criticisms for now, Andy.

A victory at home to United was scuppered by the ‘little pea’, but there has been success at Stamford Bridge and the Emirates. They also got trounced 4-0 at Spurs and could only manage draws against new boys Norwich and Swansea, so a bit of a mixed bag for Kenny.

Key player: Luis Suarez. What. A. Player. I cannot speak highly enough of how good Luis Suarez is in terms of pure footballing ability. His all round forward game and general hard work will guarantee he goes down in folklore at Anfield…providing he doesn’t do an overpriced runner to Chelsea in January.

Where will they finish? With 3rd and 4th both already occupied in my crystal ball, it leaves a pretty straight forward duel between Liverpool and Tottenham for 5th place. Liverpool have already dropped points in games they shouldn’t, and find themselves 6 points behind Spurs as it stands. I touched on Carroll earlier, and although hindsight is a wonderful thing, Kenny still has a lot to prove that £35m was well invested in the Geordie lad. He also bought England protege Jordan Henderson for £20m and hot-and-cold winger Stewart Downing for similar money. They also shelled out the best part of £10m for last season’s surprise star Charlie Adam. That’s a lot of midfielder’s on the payroll, Kenny.

Verdict: 6th, but it’ll be a close run thing. In direct comparison to Spurs, I think Spurs midfield have Liverpool covered, but there’s probably a good argument that Spurs have the best midfield in the league. Liverpool have plenty of creation in their ranks, but I still have my doubts over whether Glen Johnson, Martin Skrtel and the evergreen Jamie Carragher are up to the defensive standard required to challenge week in, week out for major honours. I can also see Liverpool having a good go at the FA Cup with no European distractions in their way.

Manchester City

So far: As November draws to a close, I think Roberto Mancini will be quietly confident of winning the title this season based on what has happened thus far. The 6-1 drubbing of United will go down in legend, and has been the hallmark of City’s dominance this season. They lead their city neighbours by five points after 12 games, but plenty can change between now and the end of the season, as only Sir Alex well knows. Despite the wealth of international stars in City’s ranks, very few of their first team have lifted the title prior to this season (Bridge, Clichy, Hargreaves, Tevez and Kolo Toure). The biggest test for Mancini will be to see if he can master the league, and teach his squad how to win the title.

Still unbeaten, and scoring at will, they face a stern test at Anfield on Sunday but I’m sure that the Sheikh’s superstars won’t be fazed in the form they are in.

Key player: Vincent Kompany. A lot of City’s dominance this season will boil down to them simply outscoring them with their infinite attacking options, but they do lack world class cover at centre-back and that is why skipper Kompany is so vital. There is no question that with the striking talent available to Mancini that City will be able to play confidently and openly in most games this season, home or away. It is therefore essential that the trio of Joe Hart, Joleon Lescott and Kompany provide the steeliness at the back to prove they are worthy of the title.

Where will they finish? In August I doubted whether Mancini’s tactical approach was suited to a title assault, but since the additions of more attacking outlets, he’s changed his philosophy. They are now trying to win every game, and there are plenty of strong individuals in the group which don’t give the impression that they will buckle under pressure. Only time will tell whether that proves the case.

Verdict: Champions. At this stage of the season it seems as if only United can stop City marching to the title this season. There’s something different about this season though, and I think all of City’s spending may bring the ultimate reward. City have the goal scoring depth and a vast contingent of flair players, including one of the best players in the league in David Silva to unlock any defence.

Manchester United

So far: United have quietly gone about their business this season, and despite only losing once, still lie in the wake of neighbours, Manchester City. This is a new era for United under Ferguson, Paul Scholes’ departure has left a bit of a hole in the midfield, particularly with the improving Anderson struggling with an injury problem. In the early part of the season, Tom Cleverley showed great promise and maturity in the middle of the park, but his injury comes as a shame to me as an English football fan, and to the Premier League as a spectacle. United’s 8-2 smashing of Arsenal promised much, but perhaps the City result proves how hard it will be to retain their crown this season.

Key player: Nemanja Vidic. Much the same story as City in terms of importance of keeping clean sheets. The Serb always leads from the front, and his performances set the standard for his teammates to follow. With Edwin Van Der Sar’s retirement, young David De Gea needs protection, he has already experienced some hairy moments in United’s goal this season. United have a great attacking quartet in Nani, Ashley Young, Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez, which will score goals. It is therefore paramount for Ferguson to ensure that the senior heads at the back keep it tight, particularly away from home where they struggled to win games last season (5).

Where will they finish? It would be unthinkable for United to finish outside the top two, and while Chelsea seem to be stuttering like a scratched record, and Arsenal being dragged along by Van Persie, I think they will be ok. I’ve already said where I think the title will end up, but I’m not discounting Fergie’s challenge. Everyone knows that United always pick up in the new year, and if City are still top by then, then they can expect a difficult fight until the end of the campaign.

Verdict: 2nd. City’s strength in depth and sheer financial power may have finally caught up with, and have the potential to surpass Fergie’s team this season. European football could also be a vital part as both managers have to balance their team selections. United can go far in the Champions League again this season, maybe semi final material. I expect either of the Spanish heavyweights to lift the cup in Munich next year.

A Review: The Premier League So Far – Part 1

The Premier League has already provided plenty of memorable moments this season. Over the next four entries, the blog will give a club by club review, and try to forecast what awaits us come May.

Arsenal

So far: Losing both Cesc and Nasri in the summer would have hardly consoled Arsenal fans, after the absence of a Gunners trophy spanned to six seasons. Wenger stepped into the transfer market late in the piece to acquire the services of Mikel Arteta, Yossi Benayoun and ‘dominant’ centre-half Per Mertesacker, who seemed like the ideal signing to remedy Arsene’s defensive frailties. – Although on the evidence the German has provided so far, he seems about as much use as a flammable fire extinguisher.

On the field, fortunes are changing. Manchester United demolished their schoolboy effort in an unforgettable 8-2 encounter back in August. But since losing to Spurs on 2nd October, Wenger’s team have bounced back to win every single league game, and only a 0-0 draw with Marseille blemishes their 100% record since then. The Gunners have now climbed to 7th position in the league, and have qualified as group winners in the Champions League.

Key Player: Robin Van Persie. Who else could it be? The talismanic striker has carried the team throughout the whole of 2011. This year, RVP has scored 33 goals in 30 appearances, and his form in the calendar year places him alongside the most prolific strikers in Europe. He’s not been nominated to win the Ballon d’Or, but then what do FIFA know?

Where will they finish? For Arsenal it is essential to maintain Champions League football for next season. It seems even at this early stage that the title is likely to stay in Manchester, so Wenger will be looking towards domestic competitions, and if they can avoid Barcelona for once, they will hope for a good run in Europe.

Verdict: 4th and in keeping with recent tradition, trophyless.

Aston Villa

So far: A summer of transition has seen some notable changes at Villa, and I’m not convinced they were for the best. Alex McCleish took over the reigns despite the will of the fans, and I think their worry has good reason. Elsewhere, Stewart Downing and Ashley Young both jumped ship, and they were in part replaced by a big fish from a small pond, Charles N’Zogbia, whose performances have hardly set Villa Park alight thus far.

Results wise, Villa haven’t had too many of note. The only heavyweight they’ve encountered were Manchester City at the Etihad, a game which they lost 4-1. They were beaten by West Brom at home and could only muster a 0-0 draw with Wolves at Villa Park. However, they are in the top half as the league stands, and the league doesn’t lie.

Key Player: Darren Bent. There were a couple of contenders for who I felt could be Villa’s main man, but ultimately if Darren Bent can muster 20 goals out of this set up, I think he can steer them clear of any potential danger. Gabby Agbonlahor looks to be showing maturity in his performances and his final delivery is now matching his lightning pace. He and Bent could have the makings of a good partnership.

Where will they finish? Last season, city rivals Birmingham were relegated under McCleish, and carried the tag of being the league’s lowest scorers. The Scot’s unimaginative and uninspiring style of play will do little to quench the thirst of Villa fans, his track record shows that he is not proven when it comes to collecting results in the Premier League, and I personally feel this job was too big for him to take on. If proven goal scorer Darren Bent doesn’t get the service he needs, then Aston Villa may be in danger of suffering the same fate as McCleish’s old employers. I will be surprised if he still has his job at the end of the season.

Verdict: Safety, somewhere between 10th and 15th. They may even fancy a stab at a cup run, providing that it doesn’t relegate them in the process.

Blackburn

So far: It’s not been a comfortable ride for Steve Keen as Rovers manager, and with growing frustration and calls for his head from the fans, Blackburn’s season hasn’t really started. Precariously positioned in 19th sandwiched between Wigan and Bolton, the relegation zone is a north-western neighbourhood in which nobody wants to reside.

Blackburn have managed to get themselves into a winnable last eight tie with Cardiff in the Carling Cup, but the Premier League results have put Keen under immediate pressure. The owners appear to be showing faith in Keen, but when owners start ‘backing’ their manager publicly, an execution usually soon follows. If this form continues, the defining moment will be when/if the board pulls the trigger on Keen, because come January it could be too late.

Key Player: Chris Samba. The heartbeat of the team missed the start of the season but the powerful centre-back will now come in alongside Scott Dann to try and stem the flow of goals Blackburn are conceding. If these two can strike up a partnership and chip in with a few goals…Blackburn will be able to prolong their relegation.

Where will they finish? Probably relegated. Keen can’t get the fans on side and the team has lost young starlet Phil Jones. A simple concoction of not enough goals in the team, and a defence which is leaking goals will make for grim viewing at Ewood Park this season.

Verdict: Bottom three. The culmination of factors I have mentioned and the disjointed atmosphere doesn’t bode well. If things change quickly then they may avoid the drop, but after 12 games, I regard Blackburn as one of the three weakest teams in the league.

Bolton

So far: Perhaps the season’s surprise package, but not in a good way. Bolton have started dreadfully, but the fixture Gods certainly weren’t smiling on Bolton for the first couple of months of the season. Owen Coyle is a talented manager and he has some quality players available to him. Injuries have dogged progress at the Reebok, with Tyrone Mears, Lee Chung-Yong and Stuart Holden all absent with long term injuries.

The 5-0 drumming of Stoke would of been welcome revenge to Bolton fans after the FA Cup semi final last year, but the Premier League has been a bit of a graveyard for Coyle’s men so far. Nine points from 12 games means the Trotters curently occupy the last relegation spot, but Bolton should now be aspiring to climb the table. – They definitely have the capability to pull away from trouble now.

Key player: Gary Cahill. After speculation about his future in the summer, Coyle managed to keep the emerging England international at the Reebok, after he was subject to interest from Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham. Besides Cahill, Bolton’s defence isn’t the strongest in the league, but if Cahill and the defensive contingent can hold up their end of the deal, then Bolton will have a comfortable season in the top flight.

Where will they finish? A safe mid-table position is easily achievable for Bolton this season, but they may rue the start they’ve had. The top half is not out of Owen Coyle’s reach.

Verdict: 11th – 14th. Fans will have little to worry about in May, and with a few additions the squad could dream of reliving the European glory days under Big Sam.

Chelsea

So far: Put simply, Abramovich’s lot are in a right pickle. Andre Villas-Boas has a huge task on his hands, as he tries to revolutionise the club’s style of play. Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool have all beaten the blues already, with the latter fixtures both being at Stamford Bridge. To put that into perspective and exaggerate the pressure AVB is already under, Jose Mourinho did not lose a single home league game as Chelsea boss between 2004 and 2007, and even that was not enough to save his job.

Abramovich has clearly highlighted the Champions League as his main target, as the crown continues to elude the Russian. The last gasp winner for Bayer Leverkusen tonight now means they have to get a result at home to Valencia to qualify.

Key player: Frank Lampard. Early season critics have been silenced, after he found himself out of the team at the start of the season. Lampard is still scoring goals despite the sketchy team displays, which testifies to his class. With a wealth of attacking talent in front of him, and a proven eye for goal, Frank’s input will probably be a good measure of how Chelsea fair this season.

Where will they finish? It’s difficult to judge whether Villas-Boas’ new tactics are going to work, but early signs suggest not. With players such as Juan Mata, Lampard, Fernando Torres to name a few, it’s plausible that Chelsea will go into most games comfortable of being able to outscore their opponents, bar Manchester City. Torres is still floundering, but he hasn’t turned into a bad player over night. It’s down to AVB to rediscover his confidence and blistering goal scoring ability.

Verdict: 3rd. Villas-Boas’ flamboyant style has caught Chelsea out on several occasions already this season. He needs to tighten the defence, and use the assets available to him. – I can’t think of too many seasons where Didier Drogba has struggled to find the net regularly. John Terry needs to drive the squad on and continue to set the example, because if the young manager loses the dressing room, it will reflect through results. I’m backing Villas Boas and the senior players to sort this out, because Abramovich certainly won’t be pulling any punches if it doesn’t.

Friendlies, F1 and a good week for journalism?

Good evening sports fans and welcome back to the blog after last week’s no show. I’m going to dive head first into the game from last night, and see if the 87,000 that flogged to Wembley should be excited by what they saw.

Firstly I have to congratulate England. It’s hard for me to stray from my pessimistic views but our gameplan worked last night, and they should be proud of that result as they were vying against the world’s best international tenants of a football.

It takes immense levels of concentration and fitness to cope defensively with a team like Spain, because once they have the ball it is extremely difficult to: a) get it back, and b) to move it forward. Xavi acts as a quarterback figure, his laser-like passes scything through the opposition’s final third. He has players such as Iniesta, David Silva and David Villa all running dangerous, intertwining routes. They also possess the ability to boss the tempo through the industrious Sergio Busquets, and the eloquent Xabi Alonso in the middle of the park.

But Vicente Del Bosque’s Armada was unsuccessful as Fabio’s stubborn tactics just about resisted, and that was due in the main part to the sheer endeavour and defensive skill of Scott Parker.

Parker is one of the best players in the Premier League and the recognition he is getting now is just deserved, and if anything, long overdue. Perhaps I see it through rose-tinted glasses because of his toil for my beloved West Ham over the past seasons, but the capacity and drive of Parker is the only thing I can be proud of in the last four years at Upton Park. My appreciation is probably best summed up by the fact that I find it hard to hate him, despite his move to Sp*rs.

Behind him, Joleon Lescott was also exceptional at the back, and his partner Phil Jagielka did himself no harm either as he had an excellent game, with countless interceptions and tackles to stop the Spanish breach.

The game itself was pretty dull and quite stereotypical of a Spanish game, but Joe Hart didn’t have too much to do in truth. Spain’s ball retention was mesmeric, but they were kept at bay by England’s rearguard action. The second half saw David Villa hit a dipping volley onto Hart’s post, before a somewhat more cultured-looking Cesc Fabregas spurned two opportunities to level in the last ten minutes.

I made it clear in my first blog entry that I thought England had no chance of winning Euro 2012, and the game at Wembley hasn’t done much to change my mind.

In order to beat teams such as Spain, there is one key ingredient needed above all else: luck. Capello rightly set out his stall to combat Spain’s drone of midfield possession, as often opening up against teams with a large Spanish contingent spells disaster. (see Barcelona v Arsenal, April 2010).

Set pieces seem to be the only flaw in the Spanish team, but in order to win free-kicks or dare I say corners against the World Champions, you need the ball. Their unrivaled technical ability and trust within each other to keep the ball oozes confidence, and the fact that many of them are seasoned winners merely adds to their supremacy. Surprisingly, this was their fourth defeat since their triumph in South Africa, but they have qualified at a canter from Group I, winning eight out of eight and conceding only six in the Euro 2012 qualification. So for now, Mr Del Bosque will continue to enjoy his Sangria.

To keep the blog fresh and hopefully enjoyable, I want to talk about motor sport this week. Unfortunately the sport has encountered two travesties recently, where Dan Wheldon and Marco Simoncelli paid the ultimate sacrifice doing what they loved best.

Off the track, Bernie Ecclestone has given the green light to a new circuit for the 2013 season in New Jersey. America will hope that this time they can bridge the gap between their audience with F1, as it has never really taken off in the States.

The last race in America was won by Lewis Hamilton, in 2007, at the Indy 500 circuit in Indianapolis. But since then, Bernie could never agree a deal with the track owners, and F1 has had a five year absence from our transatlantic neighbours.

But before the street circuit of New Jersey in 2013, F1 will be returning to America for 2012 in Austin, Texas. At the 2005 American Grand Prix, fans saw just six cars start the race, after the majority of the teams pulled out over a tyre safety dispute.

Finally this week, I want to give journalism a pat on the back for the revelations of the spot-fixing scam from last summer’s series between England and Pakistan.

Bowlers Mohammad Asif, Mohammad Amir and then captain Salman Butt have all been sentenced to jail after being found guilty of taking bribes to bowl no-balls last summer. Cricket will mourn the loss of these three players, and particularly Amir, who was a throwback. A talented, left arm swing bowler, who was showing great promise in his late teenage years. Asif was one of the best test bowlers in the world, despite not being express pace, he was often very effective at the top of the innings for Pakistan, and thrived on the English pitches where the ball moved around.

The evidence provided by one undercover journalist exposed this whole scam. And the question that comes to mind is, how much are the anti-corruption teams and governing bodies actually doing to regulate sport?

The no balls were pretty blatant, and despite there being lots of evidence put forward, the footage of bookmaker Mazhar Majeed predicting the no balls was filmed by a News of the World journalist. And in the current climate of journalism and the backlash it has received from phone tapping, I think in this instance it needs to be congratulated for the part is has played in uncovering the shameful acts of these players. Simply put, it was the media contact which enabled the unveiling of the crime, and the ICC should now wake up and crack down on cheating for good.

It’s a sad thing to see that the players have been jailed and suspended, but equally I have no sympathy as they have brought shame upon test cricket and Pakistan as a cricketing nation.

However I want to end on a more somber cricketing note, Australia were bowled out for 47 in their second innings against South Africa in the first test at Cape Town (this was before the home side were skittled for under 100 themselves in the first innings). The South Africans went on to win the game by eight wickets. Who said test match cricket was a batsman’s game?