Premier League Outlook: Final Third

OFFICIAL 2/3rd PREMIER LEAGUE PREVIEW

Now that the Premier League season is about 2/3rds of the way through, the picture is beginning to clear up. Upon the season’s kickoff, most pundits figured it would be a Manchester battle for the title, and that’s exactly where we stand again today. Man City, the defending champions, have enjoyed a spell of successful football in December and January, but still trail the pace-setters Man United by 7 points. While the January transfer window comes to a close, there are only a few moves that will drastically shape the final layout of the league table. So we can really begin to assess what each team can do in their last 14 games

At this point in the season, clubs have different goals: to win the Premier League, qualify for a European spot, make the top half of the table, or to just stay afloat. Each result is crucial, and to some, holding on for draws is good enough, while for others, it could be the different between holding a trophy and coming home empty handed. Here’s how I see things playing out the rest of the way.

Prediction: Final Standings

Place Club Points
1 Manchester United 88
2 Manchester City 83
3 Tottenham 67
4 Chelsea 66
5 Everton 62
6 Arsenal 57
7 Liverpool 56
8 Sunderland 52
9 Swansea 51
10 Stoke City 45
11 West Brom 43
12 West Ham 42
13 Fulham 41
14 Norwich 38
15 Newcastle 36
16 Southampton 33
17 Reading 32
18 Aston Villa 30
19 Wigan 29
20 QPR 24

Quick Assessment:

Top 4: Man United have been improving defensively since Nemanja Vidic’s return, which could be the thing that gets them over the mountain. City’s recent form (5 straight victories) has them keeping pace with their cross-town rivals, and could really put pressure on the Red Devils with continued success leading up to the Manchester derby on April 6. Tottenham Hotspur started the season a bit slow, but AVB now has them hitting their stride. With Chelsea seemingly unable to make their minds up about who they can beat on a given day, Spurs could surprise a few people and pip Chelsea for the 3rd automatic Champions League spot.

Europa League: Everton should be hailed for a marvelous performance; to make the top 4 would be a dream, but even a top 5 finish is impressive for David Moyes. I just don’t see Arsenal clawing back up into the top 4 this season, they’re W1-D2-L4 against teams ahead of them in the table this season and aren’t picking up points with enough consistency. Liverpool should consider things a success as well. Although Brendon Rodgers has had a tumultuous first year at Anfield, their offensive performances are improving, and Luis Suarez has enjoyed his best PL campaign to date.

Mid-Table: Swansea have had a magical run, and deserve praise for what will likely be a top half finish. Perhaps even more praise could go to Martin O’Neill who may be in the process of saving his job and his club. Sunderland was just 2 points above the drop zone last month, but the crafty gaffer has finally turned the tides. West Brom spent a good portion of the year in the top 4, but are now sinking fast. They’re likely safe from the drop though. Stoke City’s once heralded defense has been leaking like a sieve. Can Tony Pulis get them back to their stingy ways?

Relegation Zone: Aston Villa are sitting in the drop zone for the first time this season, but it’s fitting considering they boast the worst Goal Differential in the League. I’m amazed this hasn’t yet cost Paul Lambert his job. My pick for drop zone survivalists is Reading. They’ve lost just one of their last 6 matches, and seem to be repeating their late season run of good form. Wigan and QPR, to me, are both finished, as they continually get outplayed by teams in similar positions, and haven’t shown much grit in the last month or two. Newcastle and Southampton both look to have enough quality to stay afloat.

Redknapp signed on for the impossible job. As you can tell… he’s super excited

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Red Title Blow

It’s official. Nemanja Vidic will miss the rest of the season with a ruptured cruciate ligament. Sir Alex Ferguson and United officials confirmed during a press conference that the Serbian Centerback will not be available for the rest of their title chase this year.

So what’s the impact you ask? Huge is the first word that comes to mind. Ferguson will now have to rely on the likes of Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, and Johnny Evans… yes the same Johnny Evans that single-handedly cost United their 6-1 thrashing at the hands of League leaders Man City a few weeks back. Vidic is a towering presence at Old Trafford, and the likes of Rio Ferdinand, who himself could go down with injury at any moment, is United’s only experienced central defender remaining. The Reds will depend on his veteran leadership, and pray he too can stay of the medic’s table.

Fans praying for more Fergie magic

One quote that will surely give United fans an ulcer is that from Fergie this morning. “I thought Rio had his best game of season on Wednesday. His experience will be vital.” A defender, who surrendered two crucial goals in the team’s most important game of the year, had his best game of the season?!?! Certainly won’t help the fans sleep better at night.

To add injury to insult, United host a slew of other absentees at the other end of the pitch. Berbatov, Chicharito, and Michael Owen will all be unavailable for at least the next week, with the latter two missing upwards of a month. Throw in knocks to Tom Cleverly, Anderson, and both da Silva twins. The retirement of Paul Scholes seems to hurt more and more as the months play out.

Phil Jones will be crucial from here on out

The question will soon become. Will Fergie buy this January to offset some of his shortcomings? He has a history of defending his squad, no matter how young, but it’s starting to seem as though a few injuries can really hurt, especially when you’re 5 points off the title lead, and already out of the Champions League.

This has been one of the darkest weeks at Old Trafford in recent memory, perhaps all-time. United fans are begging for a spirited win against Wolves this weekend, and who could blame them. Carling Cup = gone (at home), Champions League = gone, Captain = gone too. Not looking very good in the red half of Manchester.

Water Under the Bridge?

Tick… tick… tick… the clock is winding at Stamford Bridge…. Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is known for giving his managers a very short leash. Iconic boss Carlo Ancelotti was sacked just one season after winning the Premier League and FA Cup, and other managers can attest to some short spells too.  Luiz Felipe Scolari was sacked after just league matches, and was one of 6 different managers to take the helm at Stamford Bridge since 2007.

He's available, will Roman turn to Guus yet again?

So here’s the question of the hour. Will the Russian billionaire sack his still-fresh manager before Christmas? Chelsea has already lost 4 matches, and have yet to fire on all cylinders. Dropping 12 points off the league lead with just 12 matches played cannot sit well with the business tyrant… I mean tycoon. Despite splashing his cash, recent signings highlighted by Fernando Torres have not lived up to the hype that surrounded them.

So what needs to change at Chelsea? Perhaps a manager is the first step. Villas-Boaz is still just 33 years old, and perhaps has taken over a team that he never had a chance of gaining full control of. Guus Hiddink, with his numerous years of experience has already taken this post once, could the mad scientist/owner try this concoction again? Perhaps a new approach is in order. Chelsea haven’t had a full-time British manager since Glen Hoddle in 1996. Instead of hoping for lightning in a bottle with a youthful novelty such as Mourinho or Guardiola, Chelsea may need to consider a wiser more experienced coach to lead the team out of their current funk. Other names that come to mind are Marco Van Basten, Mark Hughes, and of course Hiddink.

In terms of their actual play on the pitch, multiple issues are evident. First off, the Blues have struggled to keep the ball out of the back of their own net, conceding more goals than 11 other Premier League teams at the moment, and keeping just two clean sheets this season. Offensively it’s clear that some changes are becoming necessary. Torres’ struggles have been well documented, but there’s another culprit here at the moment. Didier Drogba is a shell of the player he once was; recording just 1 goal this year compared to an average of 21 goals per year since joining the Blues in 2004.

An overall change in the offensive system may be more effective, though. Juan Mata, to me, looks more like a wizard each week I see him play, and would be best used down the center of the pitch where he sees more of the ball. Raul Miereles, David Luiz, and Nicholas Anelka also need more playing time. Daniel Sturridge has been somewhat of a roller coaster ride, but he consistently finds the back of the net (scoring Chelsea’s only goal on Sunday). Overall, some tinkering may need to be done to find out which players are in form, and which are on their way out.

Both Nino and AVB are under immense scrutiny

The underlining theory here is not that one thing will fix whatever plagues the Chelsea squad at the moment. Heck, the John Terry sagas (yes plural) alone can be a factor in distracting the team! But all in all, the man making all the calls will need to be careful in his next move. If Abramovich decides to sack AVB, he’ll need the right manager for March, not November. The season is still young, and plenty of teams have won the PL with 4+ losses; the need for panic isn’t upon us, but it is starting to set in. Your move Roman…

 

EPL Fantasy Football Failures

Three weeks into to season and I’m pretty much ready to blow up my team. As an avid player of the Official Premier League Fantasy game, I spent countless hours researching who I’d place on my team to start the season. The toughest part is making things work with the budget of just £100. Not only was I able to do this, but I can boast that I have more star players than most others in our league. Going into the year, I had a pretty good feeling about my squad.

As a top 3 finisher in my league in each of the past three seasons, I figured I’d be somewhere near the top of the table at this point in the year. I had plenty of time to research which players would be one’s to start off the year hot, and which one’s would simply be in the line-up week in and week out. I am comfortable with the latter point, almost all of my players have played 90 minutes each game thus far. My ability to pick the players who would light up the scoreboard was slightly off however…

Here’s a quick look at my starting XI:
GK: Given (AV)
DEF: Cole (CH), Hughes (FU), Kompany (MC)
MID: Malouda (CH), Nani (MU), Moses (WI), Yaya Toure (MC)
FWD: Bent (AV), Carroll (LI), Holt (NC)

Needless to say, less than stellar. But let me take you behind the thought processes, and we’ll see just where I went wrong. In doing so, we’ll hope to come away with some valuable lessons on picking between two players.

Nani vs Ashley Young– opted for Nani due to the fact that he’s a proven Man United player, and Young’s new to the squad. It will take him time to gel, right?

Carroll vs Suarez– Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish said he’d give Suarez a rest after coming off a busy summer with Uruguay. 14 points his first two weeks, some rest.

Bent vs Aguero– the English striker was a guaranteed starter week 1, between Dzeko, Aguero, Tevez, and Balotelli only Mancini knew who’d start. Missed out on at least 17 points

A paltry Week 1 for midfielders and strikers

Overall, we can always look back and say, shoulda-woulda-coulda, especially since hindsight is 20/20. But, when you’re debating between two players, and the one you pass on is the top performer, you certainly want to kick yourself. Whitsport vows to return to prominence, but it may take some time. Transfers for Aguero, Suarez, and Young have been made, but they seem to be wasted transfers at this point, since I nearly had them on my squad to start the year. “Oh well,” that’s all I can say… hoping for goals, and more goals going forward…

Happy hunting fantasy players.

Transfer Madness

AVB likes Portuguese players, Man United didn’t buy Sneijder, Arsenal’s website crashed, and Uncle ‘Arry really likes talking to reporters through the window of his car… that’s all you really need to know about the final day of the transfer window in the Premier League. But just for fun, here’s a few other thoughts on the penultimate day of the wheeling and dealing:

This time, Tottenham got things right. Signing Scott Parker and getting rid of Crouch and Palacios. On the flip side, Alan Hutton impressed me last year, and may be missed if Corluka doesn’t stay healthy.

Wenger also got it right. Whether or not it was him or the Arsenal board who decided to open the checkbooks, they did so many things by signing 4 players yesterday… 1- appease fans CHECK… 2- sign defenders CHECK… 3- add veterans (non-teenagers) DOUBLE CHECK… 4- win trophies? We’ll wait to see on that one. Crisis averted, as of now.

The Portuguese revolution continues at the Bridge. Andres Villas-Boaz clearly has an afinity for certain players. Handing Jose Bosingwa 3 starts was one thing, signing Raul Miereles was another. They may not have landed Modric, but Chelsea certainly added some nice talent and depth at midfield.

Liverpool continues to make all the right moves. Sending Poulsen and Joe Cole packing was smart. Signing Craig Bellamy was even smarter. When Andy Carroll turns out to be a bust, trust me he will, guys like Suarez and Kuyt will need help up front. Bellamy to the rescue, and I’m happy to see him anywhere but the City bench right now.

Speaking of which, the rumblings out of Eastlands on Wednesday were odd. Man City actually did a lot on the final day of the transfer window, despite not signing anyone, yes this includes Owen Hargreaves. Although the British media was all over this story, we all know he’ll do very little on the pitch for Mancini this year. Can anyone explain this signing? Moreover, letting go of their excess players was a nice gesture, guys like Shawn Wright Phillips deserve first team football elsewhere.

And finally, Tim Cahill has one word for Everton… really? Losing Arteta, Beckford, and Yakubu all in the same day, with nobody coming the other way? Looks like it’s all up to the Aussie to score their goals. Could be a rough season for Toffees fans

 

Cesc Finally Gone… What awaits Wenger?

What else could go wrong at the Emirates? After all of the transfer speculation swirling throughout the tumultuous summer, Arsenal finally kicked off on Saturday. They did so with a bang, but not quite the same bang as Man City. The bang I speak of is that involving some ugly incidents that will likely leave Alex Song and Gervinho missing the team’s next few matches. Joey Barton did little to improve his reputation, but at least Newcastle came away with a point, and Arsenal was left wondering how even more drama ensued.

Feel free to print this picture out and burn it Gunners fans

With the Cesc saga finally behind them, Arsenal now looks to move forward towards a new horizon. The only problem is that their path to glory has many question marks, and even more obstacles.  It’s almost as if Arsene Wenger has signed fans up for a large-scale re-enactment of the Oregon Trail. Jack Wilshere is sick with measles (ankle), Van Persie suffered from a snakebite (suspended), Rosicky has dysentery (groin), and Gervinho recently came down with typhoid (3 match PL ban). Not to leave out Nasri who just decided that Wenger’s hunting skills weren’t up to snuff, so he bailed on the wagon altogether, bad-mouthing the fans on the way back to town.

Thank God Mary doesn't play for Arsenal

Many Arsenal fans believe Wenger can fix the broken wagon wheel, by signing a few players. Mata, Jadson, Samba, and Dann are all names being rumored. But so far, the only thing Arsene has done is bought another Ox (Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, see what I did there?). It is certainly a frustrating time if you’re a Gooner. With the Champions League spot in the balance and the squad uncertainty still looming, some are wondering if the worst is still to come. Arsenal could quash some of these fears by taking the first leg from Udinese, but there’s still a wide river waiting up ahead for Wenger’s Wagon of Worries.

Some Arsenal fans wish Wenger had passed on the new Ox and opted for more ammunition... pun intended

The river holds consecutive games against Liverpool and Man United, so it looks like Arsenal can’t take the Ferry… they’re going to have to ford the river. If they’re lucky, the Gunners could squeak across to the other side without anyone drowning. In a literal sense, Arsenal fans will be happy with a draw from each game, and no more injuries or suspensions. Their squad seems thin right now, but the main reason this condition exists is because Wenger hasn’t shown much in the way of playing time for fringe players.

Wenger will undoubtedly be forced to start introducing some of the younger players if he loses his remaining unsettled attackers, Nasri and Bendtner. If the first game of the season showed us anything, it’s that the defense may be better off than originally thought; the inability to score could be creeping into the minds of fans, however. Let’s take a look at who may be poised for upcoming roles in the Arsenal attack:

Aaron Ramsey– has already been selected as Fabregas’ replacement. Though he’s not the same player, Ramsey has shown promise filling that role over the past few seasons.

Emmanuel Frimpong–  played 15 minutes against Newcastle, and seemed very intense in hunting down the ball. His energy could be useful in sparking the team on the pitch

Joel Campbell– likely too young for Wenger, but injuries up front could thrust the young Costa Rican into the line-up.

Rio Miyachi– the crafty Japanese forward could be a sleeper this year. If he gets on the pitch and impresses, he could very well nab Arshavin’s starting role.

So despite thieves stealing the Gunners’ oxen, and the medical staff running out of provisions, Arsenal will still likely finish towards the top of the table. No matter how the game plays out for Arsenal, the fans will also remain. But an unsuccessful wagon adventure could leave Wenger falling short of his Manifest Destiny come next season…  Champions League play.

Premier League Preview – Part III: “The Big 5”

That’s right, it’s pretty much a big 5 now. But even this term is vague. No doubt Manchester City belongs in the discussion of top teams in the Premier League. Along with Man United and Chelsea, they seem most likely to challenge for the title this year. So what about the remaining teams? Let’s take a closer look…

Sinking Ship?

It'll be up to RVP to carry the weight

Arsenal has grabbed most headlines this summer, despite making only a few deals in the transfer market. As usual, speculation has run rampant on the possible sale of Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona. The former Barca youth player finally seems destined for a return to his club, after being left out of the clubs pre-season fixtures entirely. Gunners fans’ headaches don’t end there though. There’s also specualtion that Samir Nasri could leave for Man City, and then there’s the fact that Arsenal’s only “boost” to the leaky backline was Carl Jenkinson. No matter how things play out in the transfer market, Arsenal still seems so unsettled that less and less people are picking them to finish in the top 4. As much of a disaster as it would be to not qualify for the Champions League, perhaps a poor season is just what Wenger needs. The purse strings at Arsenal may need some loosening if Arsenal are to keep up with the other clubs at the top.

“Home-Grown” potential
By using the term “home-grown” we essentially mean British. Afterall, the influx of new players into Kenny Dalglish’s newlook squad at Liverpool were hardly developed anywhere near Anfield. Nevertheless, the new arrivals at Liverpool have certainly created a buzz. If Luis Suarez can continue his creative play and Stewart Downing can bring his effective crossing, the Kop faithful have a lot to look forward to. A top 4 finish is still somewhat of a high goal, but the drop in Arsenal’s stock may give Liverpudlians some hope at sneaking back into the Champions League

Title Contenders

United with trust a 20 year old with the gloves and their hopes of a repeat title

Man United is the toast of the town heading into the 2011-2012 season, but don’t expect them to run away with the title as easily as some think. Man City is a huge threat, and showed it with their first half display at the Community Shield last week. Their strike force may not be on par with their wages, but Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez alone could wreak havoc on most defences. Joe Hart was stellar in net last year, and single handedly kept City in games they seemed to have no interest in winning. If Mancini can continue to get his men on the same page, he’ll walk home with another trophy this year, even if it’s a Cup.

Don’t discount the “ageing” Chelsea team either. We all saw what Ancelotti did in his first season in the Premier League. Could Villas-Boaz bring the same savy play, and catch his new English opposition off guard? Entirely possible… Drogba still proved he’s a menace last year, and Frank Lampard may still be serviceable as a holding midfielder. If the pieces come together, the Blues could have a shot, so long as Torres operates from the bench…

They look nothing alike...

Check out the Ultimate Premier League Preview for more insight, and some thoughts on where all 20 teams could finsish in this year’s table.

Cheers!