Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Manchester United - Red Devils fired up for Title Race

Written By Brad Smith

Reigning Champions, and 19 times winners, yet some people had written them off pre-season. Edwin Van Der Sar has retired, and Man Utd would have to sign a goalkeeper. Fergie has had an interesting time with that position, on one end of the spectrum you may Schmeichel and Van Der Sar, the other you have Taibi and Carroll.

They signed highly rated David De Gea for near £20m, who has been dubbed spectacular, but inconsistent at best. They also signed two other youngsters for large fees, in Ashley Young, and Phil Jones.

They were under the cosh early on from their neighbours, but were giving a good account of themselves as reigning champions. They won their first 5 games, including a memorable 8-2 demolition of Arsenal, one which will stick in the minds of both fans for years to come.

They then drew two of their next 3 games 1 apiece, separating them was a 2 goal defeat of Norwich at Old Trafford. Everything was going well, title reclamation was in full swing. United fans might want to look away now.

Next up was Manchester City. Many phrases were used, “bad day at the office”, “blip” to name a couple. In pure terms, they were demolished, spanked, “had the stuffing knocked out of them” as they went down 6-1 in front of their own, gob smacked fans. However, in perfect Man Utd fashion, they quickly moved on, and won 4 of the next 5 by a solitary goal, only drawing to Alan Pardews in-form Newcastle side in a 2-2 encounter.

After being knocked out of Europe in an amazing match versus Basle, they had to get back to continuing their league form. They didn’t. They improved. Hitting 4 wins out of 4, scoring 16 goals, and conceding just the one, Man Utd were back, and with City faltering, they were hot on their heels at the summit.

Their last fixture of 2011 came in the form of a Blackburn side who had no consistency to speak about. It was billed three points for Man Utd before they stepped out, and Sir Alex had been heaping praise onto his compatriot Steve Kean in the week, in light of the sheer abuse he was getting from his own set of fans.

In fairness, with results seemingly being drawn out of a hat, we should have seen Blackburn winning 3-2, and ensuring the red half of Manchester had a frosty and uncomfortably New Years.

I think both Manchester clubs will pull away from the rest, but I think Man Utd will struggle to overcome their neighbours if they keep up their fairytale home form.

Best Player So Far - Nani. Creator. Scorer. Has scored 6 and assisted 8 in his 19 games so far, an impressive record. Back to his best.

Biggest Flop So Far - David De Gea. The defence are just not comfortable playing in front of him at the moment. Has made costly mistakes, and must improve if Man Utd are to defend their title.

Predicted Finish. 2nd.

Manchester City - Sky is the limit for City

Written By Brad Smith

After a 3rd place finish last season, it is clear what the blue half of Manchester wants. The title. They already had the makings of a title winning squad last season, but just in case, they added a few more diamonds to their crown in the form of Sergio Aguero, Samir Nasri, and Gael Clichy.

Few could fault any part of their squad, although they may be lacking a back-up to their back-up goalkeeper, which I am sure Mancini may address in this window. Excuse Premier League virgins Swansea, who had the task of coming up against what could have been mistaken for a World XI back-up team playing in Man City shirts.

In fairness to Swansea, they held out until 57 minutes, before being beaten 4-0, with two from the new boy Aguero. They were scoring for fun. They put 5 past Spurs, and 4 past Blackburn and Villa, and 3 past Bolton. 8 games gone, and just the solitary slip in a 2-2 draw at Fulham.

No doubt any blue Mancunian’s favourite bit of the blog, they faced their rivals, and defending champions Manchester United on game day 9. Often referred to as lions, courageous, attacking, and hard to beat. They were turning into scared little injured cats, as their neighbours ran the show like they had just been released from a cage, and mauled their victims 6-1 at their own ground.

They then won 5 of their next 6 games, only drawing away at Liverpool, before being beaten for the first time in the league at Stamford Bridge in a narrow 2-1 defeat. Since then, they have won 3 out of 5 games, drawing another, and cruelly being beaten by the revitalised Sunderland with a 93rd minute winner, whilst pushing for one up the other end. Last time out, they beat Liverpool 3-0, to take it to an incredible 10 wins out of 10 from home this season in the league, scoring 31 goals, and conceding just 4.

Although it looks like the two teams from Manchester pulling away with the league, if Manchester City can improve their away form, of 18 points from 10 games, then they could win the league by a significant margin, as their home form seems to be carrying on in the same way it has all season.

Only a fool would suggest that Man City won’t add to their squad again in January, if the right player comes around. Wayne Bridge and Tevez look the most likely exits, as well as many fringe players looking for first-team football.

They seem to have established a strong spine to the team, that is so key to winning titles and trophies. In Hart, Kompany, Yaya Toure, Silva, and Aguero, they have a spine that can only be matched by European Champions Barcelona in my opinion.

Best Player So Far - David Silva. Could have been any of 5 or 6 players, but Silva is the heart of every attacking move, and their goals/game ratio at nearly 3, they are going to be very hard to beat.

Biggest Flop So Far - Carlos Tevez. The one bad thing to come from Eastlands. Had the potential to become a hero in a world-class team, blown it. Mancini will do well to get rid of him this window.

Predicted Finish. 1st.

Liverpool - Too soon to be crowned Kings for Kenny and Liverpool

Written By Brad Smith

King Kenny is back, and so is the spirit around Anfield. Out went the dead-weights and squad fillers, in came exciting players such as Downing, Henderson, Jose Enrique, Charlie Adam, and the fiery Craig Bellamy.

Fans were talking about mounting a title challenge, most expected a much better finish than last seasons paltry 6th, which they did well to grasp after their appauling start. With £60m worth of talent up front to play with aswell, it looked very promising for the red half of Liverpool, especially after they beat Arsenal at the Emirates on the second weekend of the season.

Despite comfortably beating Bolton, they then we’re beaten in consecutive away games, by Stoke, and then were trounced 4-0 at the hands of Harry Redknapp and his Spurs team. 3 wins in the next 5 games, including a defeat of their Merseyside rivals, and Dalglish was all smiles, as they were also unlucky not to beat Man Utd at home after conceding a late equaliser at Anfield.

Draws against Man City and Swansea we’re manageable, especially as those two results sandwiched a 2-1 conquest over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. They were briefly stopped by Clint Dempsey and Fulham, as they were defeated in a frustrating game in which the hosts scored late on. Since then, it has been 3 wins, 2 draws, and a solitary loss, last time out against Man City.

They have been most guilty of not converting draws into wins, drawing with Blackburn, Wigan, Swansea, Norwich and Sunderland, which may become huge dropped points come May-time.

It will be interesting to see how they cope with Luis Suarez’s racism ban, with Andy Carroll being forced to step up in the goals department. Downing and Henderson have yet to repay their inflated transfer fees, and will need to if Liverpool are going to compete with Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham for 3rd place. The latter who looks miles apart from the Merseyside boys in the 4-0 destruction at the Lane in mid-September, which Dalglish has dismissed as just a blip.

They seem unlikely to do much business in the transfer window, unless they feel they have to cover Suarez for the next month or two, although the main chunk of the £50m they received for Torres has been paid back out.

Best Player So Far - Martin Skrtel. A defensive rock at the back, big contributer to the 3rd best defensive record in the league, despite the one blip at Spurs.

Biggest Flop So Far - Stewart Downing. Not showing anywhere near the quality that impressed them enough to pay £20m for him. Carroll needs the balls in to him, but he is simply not getting them.

Predicted finish. 5th.

Fulham - Jol-ly Christmas for the Cottages

Written By Brad Smith

The Cottagers brought in Martin Jol to lead the team from London this season, and despite losing some fringe players on free transfers, they bolstered the squad accordingly, spending around £20m in the process.

Most notably in through the door was Bryan Ruiz, a prolific striker from FC Twente, along with the bullet-booted John-Arne Riise, and Kasami from Palermo. Fans of Fulham were optimistic for the season, along with Dembele and Johnson up top, they shouldn’t have many goal woes.

Juggling the league with European football at the start of the season seemed to come at a cost. They progressed to the Europa Group stages, but failed to win any of their first 7 games in the league, despite more than credible draws against Chelsea and Man City. Of those first 7, they drew 5, and the Fulham contingent were getting antsy, before an emphatic 6-0 victory over new boys QPR, in which Andy Johnson took home the match ball.

Their next two games consisted of close games, where they looked to share the spoils with Stoke, before two goals in the last ten minutes buried them, only to be outdone the week later by two injury time goals at Goodison Park.

Jol bemoaned the Europa competition and the tiredness of their players, a very plausible reason, but the fans would want more from their team. A win away at Wigan was softened with a loss against Spurs, but then back-to-back draws away to Sunderland and Arsenal gave fans more faith.

They would go on to win 3 of their next 4 home games, although a 5-0 reverse against Man Utd at home would have left a sour taste in the back of the mouths of the Londoners. Sandwiched between them were away draws against Norwich and Chelsea, and a 2-0 defeat at the hands of the in-form Swansea. Their most recent outing is very mentionable in which they turned around a deficit to beat Arsenal, and lump more pressure on their London compatriots.

The serial draw specialists lie in 14th place, which doesn’t say much due to the close nature of the bottom half, in which a win could catapult them to 9th position. Saying that, I am not entirely sure of Martin Jols job at Fulham, but consolidation of their Premier League status should be nothing more than a formality for them this year, and a push on into the top-half must be aimed for.

I don’t expect much business to be happening in January unless any injuries or suspensions take place in January, and I expect the very lovable Martin Jol to carry on with the job in hand with relative ease.

Best Player So Far - Clint Dempsey. Has been a rock in the Fulham midfield for a few years now, and leads the team forward with the ball. Invaluable player, interested to see what they would be like without him. 6 league goals as well to his name.

Biggest Flop So Far - Mouassa Dembele. In a season full of barn-door attacking strikers, he has notched just the 1 goal this season, despite looking very exciting last term.

Predicted Finish - 13th.

Everton - The Toffees are becoming increasingly hard to crack.

Written By Brad Smith

It is no secret that there is no endless pot of money for David Moyes to work with, and he has shone as a manager working with little funds, and having to part with what stars that do emerge at Goodison Park.

Mikel Arteta was the main big loss for Everton, as Arsene Wengers chequebook creaked open on deadline day. James Vaughan and Beckford also made way, while Moyes was working his magic in the loan market, bringing in fabulous names such as Royston Drenthe, and Denis Stracqualursi to bolster the attack, both of who have showed glimpses of their foreign flair in the roles they have played.

A couple of early wins in the league, one thanks to a lovely parting gift from the penalty spot by Arteta late on against Blackburn, and it was business as usual for The Toffees. The second of the maximums picked up was away at Wigan, where the home team baffled their fans by throwing away a 2-1 lead late on, with Drenthe scoring his first goal in the eighth minute of injury time to win the game.

It was then 3 losses on the trot for Everton against local rivals Liverpool, Chelsea, and Man City, before they got up to their old tricks away at Fulham. Seemingly happy to take a point away from the Cottage, they scored 2 injury time goals to leave the home fans reeling, and the away contingent wondering whether they would be followed back up north by the Metropolitan Police, for what seemed like daylight robbery.

A couple of spirited losses to the Red Devils, and the in-form Newcastle, were quickly followed by back-to-back victories versus strugglers Wolves and Bolton, and going into December, the Goodison faithful were more than happy.

Just the one win in December against a Swansea side struggling on the road, followed a stalemate at home to the Canaries, in which Leon Osman had scored late on the rescue a point. Despite their poor December, they went into the New Year mid table, before a crucial win at the Hawthorns on New Years Day, with yet another late goal to take the 3 points back home.

They sit 11th, with 2 games in hand, next against struggling Bolton, so they should easily climb up to 10th, but could feasible go 7th if they were to win the two in hand.

Toffees fans will be happy with the season so far, although some may be excused for turning up at half time, as 15 of their 19 goals this season have come after the break. Personally, I don’t expect much action to happen in the window involving Everton, nor on their position for the rest of the season.

Best Player So Far - Leighton Baines. Most valuable player, and top scorer with 3 goals. Without him defensively and from set pieces, they may well be in a lot more trouble.

Biggest Flop So Far - Louis Saha. Has a 1 in 3 goals ratio for Everton, but just 1 goal to his name this season. His goals could fire them close to the European spots.

Predicted finish. 10th.

Chelsea - What is the Mata with Torres and co.?

Written By Brad Smith

No surprise that at Chelski over the summer, the main transactions were outgoing rather than incoming, with around £70m being spent to mostly toughen up the midfield options, with Juan Mata and Raul Meireles being the most notable entrants, along with the highly-rated Lukaku, and Oriol Romeu.

After missing out by 9 points last season, Chelsea were highly tipped the crack on and push all the way for the title this season, the highly rated Andre Villas-Boas in charge, and the so-far £50m doorstop Fernando Torres expected to go off like a firework this season.

Despite losing the influential Michael Essien for the season before it had really started, they collected 10 points from their first 4 games. Only dropping points in a frustrating 0-0 at the Britannia on the opening weekend, before travelling to Old Trafford, where they were comfortably beaten 3-1, albeit with Torres scoring half of his goal total so far. The ball got rolling for Chelsea as they turned over Swansea, Bolton and Everton, before being cruelly stopped in their tracks at Loftus Road, where they were edged out 1-0 by the hosts, in a highly emotional affair, having had 2 players dismissed, and enough penalty decisions turned down to feel a bit aggrieved they didn’t get one, in which seemed a classic case of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”.

They then were guilty of poor concentration, as they twice threw away points at home by conceding late goals to Arsenal and Liverpool, in very important clashes. A couple of frustrating draws versus Fulham and Wigan, as all of the top teams started to falter, seemed even more important after they came from behind to beat table-toppers Man City at Stamford Bridge in what was billed to have started their season off.

However, their frustrations at home continued after they were turned over 3-1 by an Aston Villa side, who were hardly setting the place alight themselves, although in their last outing, they battled to an important three points at Molineux, with the ever-present Frank Lampard activating another Get Out Of Jail Free Card for the Londoners.

Few would have expected Chelsea to be sitting 4th at this stage, and few Chelsea fans would accept that come May-time. Time will tell whether the Russian billionaire will dig into his pockets again now, but Chelsea have made no secret in their want for Gary Cahill, as David Luiz seems simply too crazy to play at centre-back for a title-challenging team, and may well need some medication to calm him down. They may well have cash coming in as well, as a host of players like Anelka, Malouda,even Drogba, and Lampard, have been lnked with moves away from the Bridge.

Best Player So Far - Juan Mata. Has been fantastic so far, scoring and crossing balls for fun. Filled the void that Malouda had left after a great couple of seasons.

Biggest Flop So Far - Fernando Torres. Nothing can make up for 2 goals this season after such a hefty price tag. Manager seems to be losing patience also.

Predicted finish. 3rd.

Bolton - Wandering whether Coyle is the man to fix things at The Reebok

Written by Brad Smith

The accounts at the Reebok we’re probably the most boring over the summer, with only Al-Habsi and Matt Taylor the notable exits, and only a few loans coming in, along with N’Gog from Liverpool, and Chris Eagles from Burnley the most exciting captures for Bolton.

They kept Cahill after being under immense pressure from the big four in the summer, and it seemed to be a great start for Owen Coyles men. New boys QPR were given the rough treatment and trounced 4-0, before being narrowly beaten 3-2 in an excited encounter with massive title contenders Man City. It was then 5 defeats in 6 for the Trotters, sandwiched between them was a comfortable 2-0 win at Villa Park, and then they turned over Wigan on their own field, after a well placed two-week break following a 5-1 demolition at the hands of Chelsea.

Fast-forward to mid-December, and they had lost 7 out of 8 games, only a brief respite was endured during a memorable day at the Reebok, in which they got revenge against Stoke for last years FA Cup mauling, by beating them by the same 5-0 scoreline in the league. They did manage to beat Blackburn in what was billed as a six-pointer this early on, when they came out 2-1 victors at Ewood Park. A loss and a draw since then, leaves the boys in white marooned to the bottom of the table, albeit with a game in hand on the teams above them.

You have a feeling some home points were on the Christmas lists of Bolton fans, with just 4 points from the 10 games there, leaving them unsurprisingly the worst home record in the division.

Some have called for Coyles head, the big questions will be whether they can keep hold of Gary Cahill, whose price is dwindling as his contract ticks down. They are unlikely to add to the squad without sales, but only time will tell whether they do shake this up or not, they definitely have the experience to stay up this season.

Best Player So Far - Chris Eagles. A steal at £3m from Burnley, has scored goals, and is very dangerous on the wing. A good consistent run from him could be key to staying in the league.

Biggest Flop So Far - David N’gog. Brought in to help with the goals tally, has only got the 1 so far from 20 appearances, and not doing much else.

Predicted finish. 17th.

Blackburn Rovers - Fans Kean for change at Ewood Park.

Written By Brad Smith

Ewood Park has been a bit of a pantomime so far this season, albeit a farfetched one. New owners, chicken adverts with David Dunn, a big loss in the shape of Phil Jones, but a huge cheque in return. Straight back out that went, in came the formidable Scott Dann, man mountain Yakubu, and a couple of cheap, cheerful signings in Goodwillie and Vukcevic. Optimism surrounded Ewood Park, whilst keeping the highly rated Samba, and former England stopper Robinson, they had the making of a competitive team.

All that gone, as they started the season with back-to-back losses, before Mikel Arteta gave Everton a farewell 3 point gift with a 93rd minute winner, in a game where the home side had half their team cautioned.

So, 0 points from 9, and they finally picked up a point as they drew away at Fulham. Cue the crazy. Whilst Steve Kean had a similar fan rating to local murderers, and fans were only turning up to get away from the Eastenders omnibus on at home, few expected an impending 4-3 victory over Arsenal. Many would have had you sectioned for even suggesting it. However, it happened. The revitalised Yakubu and the Arsenal back 4 scored 2 each, and Ewood was in raptures. If only for a week.

They lost 3 of their next 4, before cruelly drawing away to Norwich after being 2 up with 9 minutes to play. Things didn’t get much easier or less eventful either. They were 3-2 down to Wigan before Yakubu turned hero by equalising from the spot with no less than 99 minutes on the clock, before scoring four at home to Swansea. David Moyes was scratching his head, and so were numerous football fans, who simply dismissed him as a passenger in this league, and certainly not a prolific striker on previous form.

They then decided to throw away a 1-0 lead at the Stadium of Light, conceding 2 goals in the last 6 minutes, before losing to West Brom, drawing away at Anfield and then taking the maximum in a thriller at Old Trafford.

Topsy-turvy and exciting could be ways to describe their season, frustratingly inconsistent would be a Rovers fans more popular choice of phrase. They sit 19th on 14 points, having collected half of them in the 3 games versus Man Utd, Liverpool and Arsenal. Steve Kean has divided fans, countless protests and demos against him, he has done well to soldier on, but most agree they want the Venkys to back Kean, or sack him and back a new manager, with an endless pot of player funding.

Best Player So Far - Yakubu. 11 goals already this term, and can fire them to safety if given a helping hand.

Biggest Flop So Far - Morten-Gamst Pedersen. Not showing the impact he has in past seasons, he will look to improve his set-pieces and crossing in the New Year.

Predicted finish. 18th.

Aston Villa - Fans in limbo over McLeish

Written By Brad Smith

Another massive seller in the summer. Farming Downing and Young out to Liverpool and Man Utd for around £40m, they quickly snapped up the tricky winger N’Zogbia to fill a void, but failed to replace the other, and it has been brought upon Agbonlahor and Albrighton to fill the other, as Villa look to cut costs.

Shay Given was also picked up at a steal £4m, as well as Hutton and Jenas from White Hart Lane, whilst countless others for kicked out the door on frees. In an early bid for controversial signing of the decade, Randy Lerner hopped into town and took Alex McLeish from recently relegated Birmingham, to the bemusement of both sets of fans, wondering whether clocks had been set back to April 1st.

9 games in, and Villa had only lost twice. Go figure. They had also only won twice. Not so good. McLeish was widely tipped to fail, even by some of his new brigade of fans, but he had installed his tough defensive mind in the team, and had got 3 clean sheets in the first 8 games, which would have been 4, had Richard Dunne not inexplicably thought he was a QPR player in the dying seconds of a game, which at that time, would’ve been an excellent win.

The Holte End were still undecided on McLeish. They then went and lost 2-1 at home to their local rivals Albion, albeit in controversial fashion. They recovered with a dramatic 3-2 defeat of Norwich, and a win away at struggling Bolton, before being beaten by Arsenal and Liverpool on the run up to Christmas.

Roll on the Britannia. In the chilly, boxing day wind, they battled to an uninspiring, but valuable point away at Stoke. Goalscoring problems were well documented, so few expected a 3-1 turnover of Chelsea on their home patch. But it came, and so had Christmas in the Claret half of Birmingham. Then, just two days later, in front of the optimistic claret and blue, they were over-ran and beaten by newcomers Swansea, making in 5 losses in 6 at home, and few could ignore the discontent after the whistle had been blown.

So McLeish is still in muddy water, and Villa sit 13th, but still dangerously close to the peril that is the bottom 3, but look no closer to breaking into that top 6 this season, nor next if Lerner doesn’t open his chequebook.

Best Player So Far - Stiliyan Petrov. A mainstay in the midfield, and chipping in with important goals. Could be key if Villa are to find consistency in 2012.

Biggest Flop So Far - Charles N’Zogbia. Bought with only half the Ashley Young funds, and half the quality would be nice. No goals and doesn’t look the threat he was at Wigan.

Predicted finish. 14th.

Arsenal - Out with the new, and in with the Old.

Written By Brad Smith

Well, where do we start?

King Cesc left for Barca, Clichy and Nasri flew up to Eastlands, and a hatful of youngsters came in, along with the beanpole Mertesacker, the Ivorian Gervinho, and Arteta from Everton. But despite the purchases, the majority believed they had simply papered over the cracks, and that they would struggle to compete again.

Cue the season. Arsenal started badly. I say badly, after fans begged for proven strikers and money to be splashed, they shot blanks vs. Newcastle and Liverpool, only to score 2 away at Man Utd. Problem was, they conceded a hatful. 8 to be precise. A few dog-eared performances, including an infamous 4-3 defeat at the hands of Blackburn, and a 2-1 loss to their North London rivals, who had struggled out the blocks themselves.

Arsenal needed a hero. A superhero. Cue Batman, or more importantly, Robin. 10 goals in 6 games from Mr.Van-Persie, and 6 league wins on the trot, the title race was on again, and they couldn‘t stop scoring, not more so than in an unexplainable classic at Stamford Bridge, in which they came through 5-3, with a hat-trick from you-know-who. However, the wheels started to falter, a fellow Londoners Fulham frustratingly drew 1-1 at Emirates, and then robbed them late at the Cottage, leaving Arsenal with just 1 point from the 6 available.

So they sit 5th. 12 points off the lead and potentially out of the race for silverware for another season, whilst Tottenham seem to have progressed at a canter, Arsenal have stagnated, and will potentially just be happy to simply not see their rivals pick up the trophy come May

Of course, now is the time to freshen it up in January, which isn’t quite what Arsene has done. Rumours that Gervinho may leave after a paltry 4 goals from 17 games, and in comes Highbury legend and automotive expert Theirry Henry. So it does seem out with the new, and in with the old. But without an in-form Tony Adams, Patrick Vieira, and a minor miracle, I fail to see Arsenal mounting a title challenge for yet another season.

Best Player So Far - Robin Van Persie. 17 goals in 20 games, and countless assists. Contender for the Dallon D’Or.

Biggest Flop So Far - Maroune Chamakh. Had a season to settle, should be helping with the goal tally, but has only scored 1. Could be gone in January.

Predicted finish. 6th.