Friday, 6 January 2012

Wolves - Fighting Spirit May Not Be Enough For McCarthy

Written By Brad Smith

Staying up in spectacular fashion last season, few can question the passion that both the crowd and players put into the games, and have tried to make Molineux a place that instils fear into sides.

Not much business happened in the Black Country this summer, mainly loans and free transfers out, with two big names coming in, the centre back Roger Johnson from relegated neighbours Birmingham, and the creative Jamie O’Hara from Tottenham.

On to the season, and 7 points from the first 3 games left them with the big guns near the top of the table, after wins against Fulham and Blackburn, whilst their derby against Aston Villa was a bore 0-0 draw.

They then shipped 5 goals without reply in home against against QPR and Tottenham, before they also lost their next 3 games, including a loss against their bitter rivals West Brom. After 5 straight losses, they somewhat fortunately picked up a draw at home to Swansea, with 2 late goals, after fans had be vigorously booing their team and manager, Mick McCarthy.

A loss to Man City was far from surprising, but Wolves briefly got their campaign back on track with a 3-1 victory over relegation rivals Wigan. They were then left flattened after a late penalty sunk them at Everton, whilst Chelsea comfortably beat them at The Bridge.

Again, the Molineux faithful were baying for blood, especially when the Sunderland came and were seemingly coasting to victory, before a Steven Fletcher double sent the orange-bathed stadium into raptures. They didn’t help themselves though, and after 2 losses, they drew 3 on the trot, before being cruelly beaten by Chelsea last time out, despite looking great value for the draw.

Mick McCarthy is his usual calm self, and in previous seasons, their passion has rolled them across the line, but in a very competitive league again this season, you have to wonder whether that alone with be enough, and whether anyone else can help Steven Fletcher with his goals tally.

Best Player So Far - Steven Fletcher. A decent goals return, and all of his goals seem to have rescued points for the Wolves this season. His spirit optimises what is needed at this level.

Biggest Flop So Far - Roger Johnson. Highly rated at Birmingham, and thrown in as captain, cannot fault his work-rate, but with the 4th worst defensive record in the league, you would have expected him to be controlling the back 4 more impressively than he has been.

Predicted Finish. 19th.

Wigan - Di Santo Claus Brings Holiday Cheer to The DW

Written By Brad Smith

It seems there isn’t a season that goes by without people either condemning Wigan to relegation by February, or asking how on earth they stayed up “with the squad they have”.

As has been proved in seasons gone by, teams that have been labelled “too good to go down” have indeed gone down, and there are always surprises like the Hulls, Readings, and Ipswichs who take the League by storm. Whilst Wigan simply go by their work every season and do just enough to stay up, although selling the influential winger N’Zogbia will affect them massively in my opinion.

Ali Al Habsi was the biggest name to come through the doors at the DW in the summer, in a £4m move from Bolton, whilst Albert Crusac came in from Almeria to add a bit of spark to the midfield.

Wigan were handed the ominous task of facing all three promoted teams in the opening 3 weekends. They drew the first 2, before beating QPR 2-0 through a Di Santo double in front of their own fans at the DW.

However, the fun stopped there for Wigan, as they were thrown back into reality with no less than 8 straight defeats in the league, scoring just 4 goals. Home losses to Fulham and the out-of-sorts Bolton hurt the Latics the most.

However, they took advantage of teams in turmoil in the next 2 games, as they were denied 3 points at home to Blackburn, when they inexplicably gave away a 99th minute penalty in a 3-3 draw. However, justice prevailed in the next game, as a horrendous defensive error allowed them to steal all 3 points at the Stadium of light.

Despite a 4-0 loss at home to Arsenal, they managed to pick up draws against both Liverpool and Chelsea at the DW, whilst picking up a maximum versus West Brom in between.

Since then, they have been struggling to plug gaps in the defence, conceding 5 at Man Utd, 4 against Sunderland, although they did manage a 2 all draw at the Brittania.

It is no surprise they have the worst scoring record in the league, just 18 goals in 20 games so far, they are only off the bottom due to Blackburns similar poor form.

With not much money in the coffers, they are unlikely to invest much in January, but if they want to stay in the league, they may have to, or this might just be the season they don’t do quite enough.

Best Player So Far - Ben Watson. The midfielder is central to anything positive that is coming from Wigan at the moment, if Wigan do drop this season, he should have no problems getting a move back up into the big time.

Biggest Flop So Far - Hugo Rodellega. The Colombian has been here a few seasons now, and along with N’Zogbia, has been the key to this team, but has had a poor season so far. Must improve in 2012.

Predicted Finish. 20th.

West Brom - Long Way To Go For Baggies

Written By Brad Smith

Last years 11th place finish was their best in over 30 seasons, with the Nigerian Odemwingie in particularly good form. This term, fans seem to all agree that avoiding the bottom three is still the aim, although a finish above both Villa and Wolves would sweeten the deal.

After Hodgsons poor spell at Liverpool, many sceptics dismissed him as a manager that could simply avoid relegation, as he has done with both Fulham and West Brom, but one that is unable to improve and progress with teams.

The signing of Reading striker Shane Long seemed to be heading in the right direction, as was the loan deal which saw the highly rated Ben Foster join on loan from neighbours Birmingham. 13 players left for minuscule sums, on loan, or on free transfers, as they were very keen to decrease the wage bill at the Hawthorns.

The Baggies lost their first three games, albeit to Man Utd, Chelsea, and Stoke, as they were treated to one of the hardest of opening schedules. In spite of this, with the next 5 games considerably easier, they picked up just 5 points, including a solitary win at Norwich.

In mid-October, they recorded two derby wins in 6 days, which won over any sceptical fans there might have been, a controversial 2-1 victory at Villa Park the pick of the two, with Paul Scharner scoring the winner, as well as leaving himself in hot-water with the authorities, for what seemed an innocent display of affection towards the Baggies fans.

The Hawthorns was a much brighter place, before 4 defeated in the next 6 games quashed the atmosphere somewhat, the most unbearable on the 4 being at The Hawthorns as they were defeated 2-1 by a disappointing Wigan team.

Hodgson rallied the troops, and wins away at Blackburn and Newcastle saw them climb the table, before a 0-0 draw against freely-scoring Manchester City left the Midlands team in a much more comfortable position. Since then, they have been beaten by the single goal to both Everton and Spurs, but with no goals in three games, fans will be hoping they can find that scoring touch soon, before the teams below them catch up with them.

Best Player So Far - Shane Long. Has scored important goals for the team, and despite only 5 goals so far, he brings a lot, and a great work rate to the team, that is needed when you are languishing in the bottom half.

Biggest Flop So Far - Peter Odemwingie. Fans will have been calling for the Nigerian to replicate his scoring abilities of last season, but has been poor up until a few games ago. Strong second half to see the season is a must for the 30yr old.

Predicted Finish. 15th.

Tottenham - Redknapp Spurred On By Bale Form

Written By Brad Smith

Slightly aggrieved by finishing 5th last season, Harry Redknapp and Co. were looking to capitalise on the European games by using it as match practice for their fringe players, whilst concentrating on making another push into the coveted Top 4 that has been so hard to break in previous seasons.

With neighbours Arsenal busy in the transfer market, Spurs raised most of their funds by Crouch, Palacios and O’Hara, whilst several more players left for small transfer fees, or on loan deals. Whilst in came American Brad Friedel on a free, Adebayor on loan from Manchester City, and Redknapp finally completed the signing of Scott Parker, after seemingly chasing him for decades.

The best piece of business done by Spurs was arguably keeping Luka Modric from Chelseas grasp, after several bids from Roman Abramovich and his diamond encrusted cheque book.

Both sides of Manchester we’re quick to dispel any title murmurs around White Hart Lane, as United beat them 3-0, and City went one better by annihilating them 5-1 in front of the Spurs faithful at the Lane.

In true “knocked down but not out” spirit, they kept back-to-back clean sheets, beating Wolves, before destroying Liverpool 4-0. 3 of their next 4 games they won 2-1, including a massive one over their rivals Arsenal in a pulsating game, restoring hope and belief into the stands at White Hart Lane.

Just in case memories of the opening weeks we’re still in the minds of the Lilywhites support, they won their next 5 games, with Adebayor in extremely impressive form during his loan spell from Man City.

A minor black spot on the Tottenham card came in the form of a 2-1 loss at Stoke City, in which every betting man had lost money on Peter Crouch being the villain. Three of their next 5 games were victories, including a win away at the newly-promoted Norwich where it seemed as if the Welsh-Wizard Gareth Bale was playing by himself.

With just 1 loss in their last 17 games, they have fired themselves into title contention, as they keep picking up points whilst the Manchester sides falter, leaving them just 6 points off the lead with a game in hand.

Injuries to key players may force ‘Arry to add to his squad in January, a defender and striker are on the lists of most Spurs fans, whilst a midfield cover would be welcomed if the right man comes along. However, it is well-documented about Daniel Levy and his tight purse strings at the Lane, so don’t be too surprised if any business done is late, if at all.

Best Player So Far - Gareth Bale. Consistent, and has the ability to win games all by himself. Simple invaluable to Tottenham, but in fairness it is hard to see where he would move if he did.

Biggest Flop So Far - Younes Kaboul. The weak link in the Spurs defence, has the ability to be world-class, and also Sunday-League class when he wants to be.

Predicted Finish. 3rd.

Swansea City - Goal-den Graham a hit for Welsh Boys

Written By Brad Smith

Just a few years ago, you may have been arrested for suggesting that Swansea would be playing Premier League football this season, as they languished in the lower reaches of English Football, and in fact, we’re only a game away from being relegated to the Conference less than 10 years ago.

It has been a fairytale ride since then, and promotion capped it all off last year, as they overcame Reading in the final, with a hat-trick from the highly rated Scott Sinclair.

They continued to strengthen their side in the summer, with manager Brendan Rodgers adding Leroy Lita and Danny Graham to the attacking ranks, along with Michael Vorm who joined from Utrecht, Wayne Routledge from Newcastle, and a host of other small money purchases.

Their season started promisingly, despite being beaten by Arsenal and Chelsea, they recorded a 3-0 victoy over the Baggies, and drew a stalemate with Sunderland on the opening day. In early October, a two-goal victory over the impressive Stoke City ensured fans they were adapting to life well in the Premier League.

Although being soundly beaten by fellow promoted team Norwich at Carrow Road, they recorded away draws aagainst both Liverpool and Wolves, both of whom have stellar home records. In between those two away points, was a comfortable home win over the struggling Bolton, with newboy Graham getting on the score sheet for the fourth game running.

Just 1 point was collected from their next 3 games, the 4-2 loss away at Blackburn being most damaging for the Welsh side. However, their home form continued to impress, turning Fulham over, and drawing with QPR and Spurs in their next 3 games at the Liberty Stadium.

The 3 away games sandwiched in between these, they just conceded the one goal in a loss to Everton, and overturned the hosts at Villa Park by two goals to nil, which arguably could’ve been a lot more.

They sit in 12th place, and have just lost the once at home in 10 games, but will be looking to turn more of the draws into victories come 2012, if they want to avoid relegation, in a very competitive bottom-half of the table.

Brendan Rodgers is unlikely to do anything spectacular in the transfer window, and will believe he has a squad very capable of pushing on towards the top half of the table if they can keep their defence as tight as it has been.

Best Player So Far - Michael Vorm. Signed for just £1.5m, he has been spectacular in goal, collected 8 clean sheers already for the Swans.

Biggest Flop So Far - Vangelis Moras. The Greek defender was signed on loan to add a bit of experience to the team, but obviously hasn’t shown anything to merit more than the 4 minutes on the field he has managed this season.

Predicted Finish. 12th.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Sunderland - A Much Brighter Year on Horizon for Black Cats

Written By Brad Smith

After a 10th place finish last season, and no less than 11 arrivals in the summer, most fans of The Black Cats expected another impressive season this term.

The highly rated Connor Wickham arrived from Ipswich, a long with a host of other Premier League quality players, including a loan deal for the Danish striker Nicklas Bentdner. Sunderland kept most of their team from last season, although the highly rated Jordan Henderson fled the Stadium of Light in a mega money move to Liverpool.

Ignoring a 1-1 draw at Anfield on the opening day, they were beaten by local rivals Newcastle and then Chelsea, only stopping for a goalless draw away at Swansea, in a hardly inspiring start from Steve Bruce’s side.

Relief came in the form of a 4-0 battering of Stoke City, but just 8 days later they were beaten 2-1 by newcomers Norwich at Carrow Road.

In their next 6 games, away from home they were beaten by the odd goal by Man Utd and Arsenal, and despite winning at Bolton, they drew all 3 games in that period against very beatable opposition, especially with the money that had been spent in the summer months.

Fans we’re getting impatient, as there calls for Steve Bruce to be sacked, they we’re then beaten at the Stadium of Light by struggling Wigan, in very comical fashion.

Just 4 days after the defeat, and a day before his birthday, Bruce was given the boot, and Martin O’Neill took the reigns, only to see his new side fall to late defeat away at Wolverhampton a day later.

The Black Cats then won 3 of their next 5 games under a mini-revolution, with all of the winners coming in the 89th minute or later. The most sensational of them was a 1-0 victory over Manchester City, when a highly depleted squad could only be likened to a boxer on the ropes, came back to deliver a knockout blow, in the 93rd minute, to the amazement of everybody, including their own manager.

They followed that up with a 4-1 victory over Wigan, making up for the loss earlier in the season. O’Neill has completed changed the mentality of the team, into one that certainly doesn’t seem to be beaten.

Best Player So Far - Seb Larsson. The set-piece specialist has carried on where he left off last season and is top-scorer so far. Bargain on a free.

Biggest Flop So Far - Nicklas Bentdner. Only on a loan, but was brought in to help the goal load, and hasn’t so far. Needs to show the form that impressed Arsenal to sign him, if he wants to make his name in this league.

Stoke City - Top 6 a Tall Order For The Potters

Written By Brad Smith

Since promotion in 2008, the Potters have made steady and continued progress in the league, with expectation rising at the Britannia, and pessimism being left way back in the Third Division.

With their unique brand of football, a mould of defender that wouldn’t be out of place in the 80s, and some creative midfield players, they could have been excused for simply picking up where they left off last season, after a 13th place finish, and FA Cup Final, which of course guarenteed them European football this season.

On the other hand, some fans wanted Stoke to progress, and break into that top 10 of English football. Their signings were positive. Two experienced defenders in Jonathan Woodgate and Matty Upson arrived, whilst the main chunk of summer money went to Tottenham, in return, Peter Crouch and Wilson Palacios put pen to paper on deals at the Brittania, along with Cameron Jerome from relegated Birmingham.

The first 4 games went according to plan, draws versus Chelsea and Norwich were quickly followed up by back-to-back wins, the second against Liverpool being the main talking point.

Fans were certainly not lamenting the trips to every corner of Europe during the week, but their form suffered, they went 4 games without a win, although the losses to nil against Swansea and Sunderland would be more concering than the stalemates with Spurs and Man United.

They were progressing very well in Europe, and odds-on to qualify for the next round, while their league form briefly picked up in a late victory over the Cottagers. This was very brief in fact, as they then lost their next 4 games, conceding 14 goals in the process, none more damaging than the 5-0 annihilation by Bolton Wanderers, who we’re just as shocked themselves, after last years reverse scoreline in the FA Cup.

In true unpredictable fashion, they then won 4 on the trot, including a 2-1 over the impressive Tottenham. Their run was stopped, but only by a Manchester City team who we’re winning for fun at home, as they stuck 3 past Stoke in a one-sided game.

Consecutive draws at the Britannia, against struggling Wigan and Aston Villa, was followed up last weekend by a 2-1 victory over Blackburn, who themselves had just recorded a famous win over Man Utd.

The rollercoaster form from The Potters has left them in 8th place, 4 points ahead and behind the nearest teams. I certainly do not expect their form to even out or become any more predictable, although I do think an assault on the top 6 has come a season too early, although they certainly have the makings of a very competitive squad.

Best Player So Far - Ryan Shawcross. Epitomises the Stoke philosophy, has been a rock in defence all season, and can also get on the score sheet from time to time.

Biggest Flop So Far - Kenwyne Jones. Mainly limited to the bench this season, as despite his inflated transfer fee, has failed to set the world alight since his move to The Britannia.

Predicted Finish. 8th.

Queens Park Rangers - Dyer Form May Mean January Spending.

Written By Brad Smith

Promoted as Champions last season, fans of The Hoops were extremely buoyant about what this season would bring for them. With money to spend, and a promise to keep their star players such as Taarabt and Faurlin,

They already had a squad with several players who had already graced this level, arguably many more as the other promoted two after the window had closed. In came Anton Ferdinand, Joey Barton, and Shaun Wright-Phillips, increasing the quota or English players in the squad. They also brought in strikers DJ Campbell and Jay Bothroyd, along with serial injury victim Kieron Dyer.

Few could complain if Rangers fans we’re a bit down after the start they had, losing their first 3 games to nil against distinctly average sides, before holding Newcastle to a 0-0 draw. QPRs attack woke up for their next game, as they overcame Wolves 3-0 in the Midlands, before another Midlands team, this time Aston Villa, gifted them a point with a last-second own goal in a 1-1 draw.

Then came probably the two most contrasting results of the season, either side of a 1-1 draw with Blackburn, Fulham hit them for 6 on October the 2nd, before they beat high-flying Chelsea 1-0 just three weeks later.

In spite of a memorable victory, they lost their next two games against Tottenham and Manchester City, before a brief comeback in the form of a 3-2 victory away at Stoke City. Nonetheless, they have gone on to lose 6 of their last 8 games, 5 of them by just a 1 goal margin. They have picked up just 2 points in that time, with 1-1 scorelines against Swansea and West Brom.

So with just 5 points from their last 11 games, fans will be calling for Tony Fernandes to dig into his pockets and supply Warnock with money or to make a decision on Warnock himself quickly, as their poor form has left them just 1 point outside the drop zone, and a gap is starting to form from 15th upwards.

Warnock has been here before, with Sheffield United, and he will certainly not be hoping for a repeat of last time, but you would expect there has to be money spent in January to prevent a return to the Championship

Best Player So Far - Heidar Helguson. The 34-year old has scored some important goals, with 7 in just 11 starts. QPR may be much worse off without him.

Biggest Flop So Far - Adel Taarabt. Was trying to push through a move in the summer, and while rated at nearly £15m, has done nothing of note so far to suggest he is worth that, or that his first priority it to help Rangers stay in this division.

Predicted finish. 16th.

Norwich - Canaries Singing Lamberts Praises.

Written By Brad Smith

Promoted last season in 2nd place, Delia Smith’s Canaries were widely tipped for a brief stay in the top division after their six-year absence. They have certainly been missed, making their home to strikers such as Darren Huckerby and Robbie Earnshaw, along with Delia’s famous “Lets be having you” speech of 2005.

In an otherwise very competitive squad, they spent the majority of their funds in the summer on forwards Steve Morison, James Vaughan, and Anthony Pilkingont. On top of the attacking purchases, they took De Laet from Man Utd, as well as Naughton from Spurs.

They recorded 2 draws and 2 defeats from their first 4 games, but they might feel slightly aggrieved after a 94th minute equaliser saved Stokes skin, and their game with Chelsea seemed to be filtering out into a draw until two late goals sunk them.

Paul Lamberts boys did not lie down however; 3 wins in their next 4 games, all against teams around them in the table, was only broken up by a 2-0 loss to the red side of Manchester, on the first day of October.

It was evens-stevens against Liverpool, and against Blackburn, in a high octane 3-3 draw where Grant Holt was the hero with a 94th minute conversion from the spot. Narrow losses to Aston Villa and Arsenal we’re quickly erased from the memory, as they edged out fellow promoted side QPR 2-1 at Carrow Road.

Their first major setback came in a 5-1 demolition by Man City at Eastlands, but as they say, its how you react to these results that matter most, as they took 3 points from in-form Newcastle in a 4-2 victory, before consecutive draws against Everton and Wolves.

Then came Christmas and Norwich’s eratic form continued, with a draw, loss, and a victory last time out against QPR, ensuring the double over them was completed.

They sit very comfortably in 9th after 20 games. Although that doesn’t tell the whole story, as they are just 3 points above 15th, although most fans will be happy with Premier League football for another season, they are definitely one of 8 or 9 teams that will have to be careful, but if they keep their record up against the lower teams, they should have no problems come May.

Best Player So Far - Steve Morison. Has made the step up brilliantly, and has 7 goals to his name, along with Holt. More to come from Morison, and can also pick out a pass to fellow strikers.

Biggest Flop So Far - David Fox. Hard to name one in a very competitive team, but Fox has not contributed as much as midfielders such as Hoolahan and Pilkington for me.

Predicted finish. 11th.

Newcastle United - Pardew and Fans Singing The Same Toon.

Written By Brad Smith

So, after a 12th place finish for the Geordies last year, it was up to Alan Pardew to restore some belief in at the newly-baptised Sports Direct Arena.

Newcastle went about signing David Santon, Yohan Cabaye, and Gabriel Obertan on the hush, all for respectable sums, as well as Demba Ba on a free from relegated West Ham. Out went a host of first-teamers, including Enrique to Liverpool, and troublesome midfield pairing Barton and Nolan.

The Magpies sprinted out of the blocks, going all the way until mid-November until being beaten in the league. It all started with stalemate against Wengers Arsenal, before recording back-to-back maximums at neighbours Sunderland, and at home to Fulham.

They shared the spoils against QPR and Aston Villa, before they called upon the injury-plagued but highly rated Demba Ba. 7 goals in 12 games for West Ham at the end of the season, and at home to Blackburn, he showed the form that convinced Pardew to capture his signature, and left a host of clubs wondering why they had turned him down.

Ba took home the match ball as they beat Rovers 3-1 at home, and the Senegalese man went on to score in the next two games, including a draw against the impressive Spurs at White Hart Lane. A narrow 1-0 victory versus Wigan, was followed up my a victory over Stoke at the Britannia, in which Ba took home his second match ball of the season, in taking his total up to 8 in his last 5 games.

When Man City overturned them 3-1 at Eastlands, the Toon hit a wall, they went on to lose 4 of the their next 6 games, and despite drawing at Old Trafford, they lost against Norwich and West Brom, although Ba still managed to score 4 goals in those 2 games.

Christmas came, and so did Newcastles form. They beat Bolton on their own turf, and despite losing 3-1 to Liverpool, they came back to outplay and comfortably beat the reigning Champions 3-0 in a game which had to be seen to be believed.

Eager to catch the top 6 that normally leave teams trailing off at this point, they sit just 4 points behind 4th place Chelsea, but it is hard to see Ba carrying on his form all season, meaning somebody else may have to step up to the scoring plate. Though if Krul, Tiote, Cabaye and others keep up their tremendous form, then anything could happen.

Best Player So Far - Demba Ba. Signing of the season so far. 15 goals and some absolute crackers. Will need to keep scoring if Toon are to progress.

Biggest Flop So Far - Shola Ameobi. Nearly 30 now, and doesn’t seem to have progressed, Wins a lot of balls in the air for Ba, but needs to share some of the goals himself to progress as a striker.

Predicted Finish. 7th.