Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Get used to it, money rules

As football finances lurch further out of control, do fans care at all or has winning at all costs taken precedence over common sense and morality?

Sheikh Mansour maybe a grabbing headlines with seemingly endless spending. He may yet buy the premier league title but it is all coming at a terrible cost to football as a whole. Transfer fees are exorbitant because one team are willing to break record after record with weekly wages regularly over £100k a week. And all of this during a recession. We should all be deeply worried but a possible change in the hierarchy of football in this country is compelling enough for now. At the other end of the scale, Liverpool and Man United are carrying huge debts. It is hard to swallow for many fans used to seeing them compete hard in the transfer market but the reality is that money is not available and it sits uncomfortably with most fans that American owners are ruining both clubs. How long, though, before another billionaire decides it’s time to invest in these great clubs. How will the fans feel then? It’s not the solution is it? But maybe that’s what it will take for both clubs to compete at the highest level. Maybe that’s what it comes down to now. This should sit even more uncomfortably with all fans, in my opinion.

City fans won’t care less and perhaps nor should they. Less than 5 years ago they were festering around the nether regions of the lower divisions and a world away from competing for the premier league title so these are truly exciting times. Does it worry them at all that they may be accumulating a squad of mercenaries who will cause untold dressing room unrest or is that part of the overall intrigue. Do they mind that they are fast becoming the most hated club in the UK. Not a bit of it if potential turns into success.

For the rest of us it has become clear that we all singularly want City to fail. In the same way as we all wanted Chelsea to fail when Abramovich arrived on our shores waving wads of cash in our faces. It didn’t take long for cash to turn into prizes but the situation was a little different. Chelsea already had a strong backbone and with clever investment and an outstanding, if arrogant, manager they gelled far quicker than most people expected. City have further to go. There is no spine. Even now they resemble a bunch of individuals all pressed into playing together with little in common except the lure of gold.

So what should we make of City’s rather convincing victory over Liverpool on Monday. On balance I think it says more about the deficiencies at Liverpool than the gathering momentum at City. Liverpool were truly woeful and Hodgson, famed for his tactical acumen in guiding Fulham to last season’s Europa cup final, seemed rather at a loss, a bit out of his depth maybe? Playing two strikers away from home was ill advised against a team set up to build from midfield and utilise their wide players. Liverpool were over-run and out-thought. City didn’t have to try too hard to settle in front of their hugely expectant fans but they will surely face tougher tests this season. The jury is still out.

Elsewhere it was a remarkable weekend for goals. Arsenal played the most attractive football. Drogba was irrepressible. Toon have a new hero at no 9 and United were uncharacteristically sloppy.

In the fantasy stakes, is there any other player in better form than Drogba? Well Gareth Bale, maybe? What is it with the Welsh and left sided wingers? He’s had another stormer in the CL qualifier tonight too. An absolute must.

My other tip is Kevin Nolan. He’s down as a midfielder but is playing as an auxiliary striker. He looks good value on this basis.

There are some tasty looking ‘home bankers’ this weekend for Chelsea, Liverpool, Spurs and United. We could witness another avalanche of goals. Long may it continue.


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Gameweek 1 - first impressions

A new season always throws up a few surprising results in the first couple of weeks but what has the first round of games told us?

First things first, Chelsea are going to take some beating. Granted, West Brom offered very little resistance but to score 6 goals in the first game when players are supposed to be easing themselves in sends out a clear message to all their title rivals.

It’s a pity that both they and Man United didn’t get a tougher test in the first game. An easy looking fixture for both against newly promoted teams resulted in very straightforward wins and has told us nothing about their real title credentials.

That said we did witness some impressive performances. Drogba was apparently a doubt before the game but at 32 is in the form of his life and has already hit the ground running. He certainly knows where the goal is.

For United, it was Scholes who stole the show with a masterful performance against an ultimately dispirited Newcastle team who had started reasonably well. I’ve always liked Paul Scholes. He can’t tackle for toffee but just about every other element of his game is first class. His eye for a pass and range of passing is truly world class, even at the grand old age of 35. He has reinvented himself so many times during his career and yet excels in almost every role. A model professional and a one off.

The first game of the weekend paired up the two clubs who raced each other all through last season for the coveted final Champions League spot. Spurs deserved it in the end and had it not been for a stellar performance in goal by Joe Hart, they would have put City to the sword and put down an early season marker. Spurs are a strange club. Hugely exciting at times but ultimately they let themselves down. What, though of City? Well the jury is definitely still out. They played like a team of individuals and whilst it may take a few games to gel into a unit, there were few signs that this team will challenge for the title. I know - it’s really early days - but the massive outlay on multiple players so far does not look as if it has been underpinned by a clear strategy and does look a little kamikaze and haphazard. Their next game is at home to Liverpool. I expect these two to challenge each other closely for a Champions League spot and will watch with interest as they do battle. I genuinely expect Liverpool to come out on top.

Liverpool met Arsenal in another fascinating first weekend match up. A draw may seem a logical result but masks the full story of the game. As the teams emerged for the 2nd half, with the scoreline goalless, Liverpool had been reduced to 10-men with Joe Cole sent off for over-exuberance rather than recklessness. What an anticlimax on his home debut! As is often the case, playing with 10 men galvanised the team and having made a fast start to the half with a classy goal, they settled into a pattern to stifle. Arsenal were hugely disappointing with their response. At half time, they must have felt they could win the game. If any team can suck the life out of the opposition with neat and tidy keep ball, it’s Arsenal. Yet they were utterly toothless and probably didn’t deserve their late equaliser. Cole’s suspension may be a blessing. It takes the pressure off a new system which somewhat nullifies Gerrard’s influence. Whilst Cole sits out 3 games, Gerrard can renew his partnership with Torres. There’s no doubt this suits them both and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Arsenal will be delighted with a point at Anfield. Chamakh did not show a great deal but at least offers them an outlet they have lacked since Adebayor left. With Fabregas and Van Persie both fit they will again mount a decent challenge but they still look a couple of players short of a proper tilt at the title.

Blackpool’s first match in the top flight was wholly unpredictable. Not in their wildest dreams could they have expected to win by 4 goals and be top of the league albeit for a couple of hours before Chelsea stole their thunder. Certainly it wasn’t a result I thought likely or indeed possible. In a previous blog, I wondered whether Blackpool were so ill equipped for this league that they may take a while to win their first game. Shows how much I know. In fairness, no one could have legislated for such a wretched Wigan performance. Next up are Chelsea and I suspect by Monday, Martinez may well be the first manager sacked this season.

And to finish off, a couple of transfer tips for the fantasy football. I might make this a regular feature, despite the relentless mickey taking from some work friends on Goops tips!

This week I’m going for a couple of bargain midfield options – Gary Taylor Fletcher (Blackpool) and Marc Albrighton (Villa) both had very promising debuts at this level and will be new, fresh and cheap.

Til next time.


Thursday, August 12, 2010

Premier League Predictions 2010/2011

Less than 48 hours to go and here we go again. Making predictions for the season ahead is a mug’s game. Following a world cup, it’s far too early to tell how quickly players will find their form and teams will gel. So am I just opening up myself to ridicule? Perhaps, but I’m going to have a go anyway.

So let’s dive straight in at the deep end. Who is going to win the league in 2010/2011? It’s difficult to see past Chelsea but after unbridled success last season, cracks have started to appear in pre-season culminating in a lacklustre performance in the Community Shield. We all know, however, that pre-season is not a pre-cursor for the season ahead and the fixture gods have thrown out a very straightforward first 6 games giving them a chance to play themselves into form. On this basis, I expect them to edge it, but it will be close.

Hot on their heels will be Man United. Some experts have been quick to jump on the bandwagon that the empire is crumbling under massive debts. This is partly true. United don’t appear as solvent as they were and seemingly can’t compete for the best players at any price. The irrepressible Fergie doesn’t know when he’s beaten though does he. The scouts appear to have pulled a rabbit out of the hat with Javier ‘Chicarito’ Hernandez. He looks a player. The new baby faced assassin maybe. There hasn’t been this much excitement over a player at Old Trafford for a few years now and he already looks a snip at £7m. Holding onto Vidic is a major coup and should not be under-stated. However there is something lacking and it’s in midfield. There remains an over-reliance on the golden generation of Giggs and Scholes. In the pressure games, there is no midfielder in the current squad who can take the game by the scruff of the neck the way Roy Keane used to. Chelsea have Lampard. Liverpool have Gerrard. Arsenal have Fabregas. United need a playmaker and Ozil would fit the bill but will the funds be released to secure him?

What of Liverpool? There’s a frisson of excitement on Merseyside. Hanging onto Gerrard and Torres is an achievement given their morose expressions at the end of last season. The ‘turning point’ appears to be the signing of Joe Cole. A little too much is being made of this. He’s better than Messi apparently. Don’t get me wrong I think he could be an inspired signing - although he has much to prove as £90k a week is hardly a free transfer – and he will make them a more potent attacking force but the messiah he is not. If Mascherano leaves, as looks likely, their midfield may lack bite and expose them at the back where Carragher is simply not the leader he was. Gerrard proved for England last night that he is most effective as an attacking force. Will accommodating Cole actually negate his influence for Liverpool where his understanding with Torres is their most effective weapon. I expect them to challenge for the top 4 and if they can keep their key players fit, might well challenge for more than that, free from the shackles of a European Cup campaign.

And what of Man City? I have to admit I simply have no idea. They could be title challengers or also-rans. The players could gel or some could get tired of playing second fiddle. Championship winning teams need stability. There needs to be a strong core. Their squad might look impressive on paper but is that enough? Robinho, their marquee signing has fallen out of favour. Bellamy, arguably their star performer alongside Tevez last season, won’t make the final 25 this season. I could be wrong but I think it will be a seismic task to build a team ethic that will be sustained throughout the whole season. They need to make a strong start and the fixture gods have not been kind. Watch this space.

At the other end of the table, Blackpool are relegation certainties. They look so ill equipped to compete at this level, it might be Christmas before they secure their first win. I expect them to challenge for the lowest ever points tally in the Premier League.
West Brom will struggle too. They will play attractive football and that will be their downfall. The classic yo yo club.

The final spot is less obvious. The other promoted club Newcastle will do ok. They should be good enough at home to survive. Wolves and Wigan may be the main candidates. They did just enough last season but maybe not this time.

Here are some of my tips for players to watch this season.

My first is Michael Essien who is Chelsea’s most effective performer on his day. He will feel like a new signing. He is exactly the type of player who can lift a club. A great box to box midfielder and could well make the difference this season.

Next is Marouane Chamakh. Arsenal have lacked an out and out centre forward for a few seasons, a finisher. He should give them more cutting edge.

Joe Cole. Will he flourish or has he been over-hyped. Can he live with the weight of expectation? Robbie Keane couldn’t.

Adam Johnson – City’s most effective signing apart from Tevez. Certainly their biggest bargain. With so many others to compete with, will he get a chance to push on? One of the most intelligent crossers of the ball.

Carlos Tevez. Great first season, much to the displeasure of the other half of Manchester. Rumours City paid nearly £50m for him. Is City just a stepping stone or will he feel loved enough to spur them to glory?

And finally Javier “Chicarito” Hernandez. Even at 21, he looks like breaking into the first team and scoring a lot of goals. Will take some of the burden off Rooney and could be crucial in the title challenge.

I’m probably way off the mark, and only time will tell. Enjoy the season folks.