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.