Category Archives: Uncategorized

Best of the Prem: Sunderland to West Ham

Sunderland stay up under Poyet

Sunderland stay up under Poyet

None of these sides seriously challenged for a Champions League side… but a couple of them almost got relegated.  Here then, is the last of the club-by-club players of the year.

Johnson tries to comprehend Hodgson's England maths

Johnson tries to comprehend Hodgson’s England maths

SUNDERLAND
Adam Johnson (ENG) – It’s great sport in England to second-guess the national team manager, a thankless job if ever there was one.  For the most part, Roy Hodgson seems to have done the best he can with what he has.  However, his selection of a certain Manchester City player was flawed, especially when a former Citizen could have easily taken the spot.  Adam Johnson never shone in the team of stars that was assembled around him before Citeh shipped him back to the North East.  But the winger did a better job at the Etihad than James Milner has done… yet it is Milner who will get the World Cup caps.  What’s more, Johnson has been Sunderland’s best player for the last two seasons, even as they looked over the precipice during the Christmas break.  The Black Cats did a miraculous turnaround, not only staying in the Premier League but finishing 14th in the table.  Cue the Mackem applause for the man who led the club in goals, assists… and heart.

Bony was not puny for the Swans this season

Bony was not puny for the Swans this season

SWANSEA CITY
Wilfried Bony (IVO) Swansea City’s signing of this Ivorian striker was astonishing, and it paid off.  Although the Welsh club slipped in table position and stature, Wilfried Bony’s production far outweighed that of his team mates.  Tied for sixth in league scorers and making his contribution to Swansea’s admirable European adventure, Bony assured his club’s safety from the mire of the Premier League’s relegation fight.

The Prem hands Christian Eriksen a new challenge...

The Prem hands Christian Eriksen a new challenge…

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR
Christian Eriksen (DEN)  Where do you go when you’re 21 years old, and you’re already named the best player for club, country and league? Danish player Christian Eriksen chose an Andre Villas-Boas-led Tottenham Hotspur.    Spurs are one of the Premier League’s “big small clubs” (like Everton, Aston Villa, Newcastle and Sunderland), and Eriksen must have been caught off-guard at the turmoil that has engulfed the team’s front office.  Still, the young winger was the sole success amongst a splurge of Spurs signings.   He was second behind scallywag Emmanuel Adebayor for goals, and was the club’s best playmaker.

What has two thumb and is headed back to France? This guy!

What has two thumb and is headed back to France? This guy!

WEST BROMWICH ALBION
Morgan Amalfitano (FRA) – To be frank, it was hard to pick a best player on a side that was awful enough to challenge for relegation, but still managed to stay afloat.  This is a side that drew 15 times, had chaos at the managerial position and finished a hair above the drop zone, after spending the previous two seasons in the top half of the table.  Morgan Amalfitano shone for the West Country club in a fantastic performance against Manchester United, but was often subbed off, started on the bench… or not even used at all.  Luckily for the Frenchman, he’s back in Marseille to play under new manager, Marcelo Bielsa… while WBA remains a club in disarray.

"Whether it is Noble in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of Big Sam..."

“Whether it is Noble in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of Big Sam…”

WEST HAM UNITED
Mark Noble (ENG) – Sometimes, your best player is your folk hero… the man who creates story lines because of his links to the club that he serves. For years, that was Steven Gerrard’s role at Liverpool.  In London’s East End, Mark Noble is Mr. West Ham… a reliable central midfielder on a Sam Allardyce squad… which is to say that he is invaluable to Big Sam.  A goal here, an assist there… but a defensive asset through and through, Noble’s on-field performances outshone the reputations of the Tyneside Twins, Kevin Nolan and Andy Carroll.

Brent P. Lanthier

Up Next: My Starting XI

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The Art of Moyes

david-Moyes

There are two kinds of football fans: Manchester United fans… and everyone else.  The United fan has become ubiquitous over the last 20 years, as the hardcore ranks of the Red Army fans swelled, many of them young people who wanted to support a winner (not unlike Liverpool fans in the 70’s and 80’s, and Chelsea fans over the last decade).   Winning begets winning, both in the trophy case and on the balance sheet, and Manchester United has rode their success to the top of the football world.

However, the inevitable consequence of United’s prolonged success has been envy.  The club’s double-decade dominance of the Premier League has given their rivals a generation to sharpen their knives and bide their time.  So when Sir Alex Ferguson’s announced his retirement this past spring, the rest of the soccer world sensed that United’s hegemony would begin to diminish.    Fans were sick of Ferguson’s mind games, his badgering and bullying of officials, alng with the club’s contribution to the gross inflation of players’ wages and the normalization of leveraged-to-the-hilt spending.  Supporters of “other” clubs have been waiting for United to stumble and fall.

That David Moyes would be under the cosh from the start was thus undeniable.  There is only one Alex Ferguson, a man who willed, cajoled and frightened his team to victory while speaking and moving as a larger-than-life figure.  One can only imagine that, when the legend finally passes, a film version of his remarkable life will hit theatres sooner rather than later.  It should come as no surprise then, that someone like Moyes — an admitted stats geek who is more likely to have a quiet word with a player than give him the “hairdryer treatment” — was bound to underwhelm.

Fellaini calls for a taxi...

Fellaini calls for a taxi…

Initially, Moyes did not help his own cause.   The former Everton manager needed to make a splash in the summer transfer market, both to settle down the naysayers and to fill some very real deficiencies in United’s spine.   When the window closed, Moyes’ only acquisition was his midfield anchor at Everton, Marouane Fellaini.  It wasn’t exactly a marquee signing: £27.5 million for a player that has only appeared eleven times for the Red Devils, only seven as a starter.   The squad was already weak (by United’s standards) but now the holes have been laid bare for all to see.

Meanwhile, the strikes against the man from East Dumbartonshire started to add up.  A 1-0 loss at Anfield, a 4-1 loss to crosstown rivals City, and a 1-2 defeat at Old Trafford to dwindling  West Brom made for a terrible September.  Draws against Southampton, Real Sociedad, Cardiff and Tottenham piled it on, but it was successive losses at home against former club Everton and then Newcastle United that meant Moyes was officially “under pressure”.  It didn’t help that the travelling fans in both of those games sang about Moyes getting sacked in the morning.

Rio really shows all he can.

Rio really shows all he can.

The reality is that United are not the favourites to win this season’s Premier League title; they never were.  The holes in central midfield and centre back are glaring.  CB Phil Jones has deputized for Michael Carrick during times of injury, while the rest of the backline continues to look shaky.  You only have to look at Rio Ferdinand against Shakhtar Donetsk on December 10th.  Time after time, he was getting schooled by Alex Teixeira, leaving RF5 looking like John Terry in that World Cup match against Germany.  United won the game, but only after waking up at the half.  Meanwhile, former Premier League Player of the Year Nemanja Vidic has not been the same player since a knee injury two years ago.

Despite United’s mediocrity in defence (they’ve almost reached the total Goals Allowed average of their title runs from 2007-2009), they have kept pace with the rest of the league.  However, it’s goal scoring that has become a bigger issue.  They are 13 markers behind last season’s tally after 18 matches.  While Moyes has been criticized for importing his negative tactics from Goodison Park, the bigger culprit has been RVP’s reduced impact, through slump and then injury.

But the Dutchman’s woes are part of a bigger dynamic that Moyes will have to address in January and then July.   United have been on the decline for some time.  While Ferguson has always had a great eye for young talent, and the ability to develop said talent, you got the sense in the last few years that he was, well, slipping.  There is no way that a younger Sir Alex would have allowed Wayne Rooney to sulk himself into a new contract.   Meanwhile, the purchase of Robin Van Persie sealed Ferguson’s final league title, but only by covering up the rest of the team’s deficiencies through a barrage of game-winning goals.

In the next five weeks, Moyes will have to make his own mark in the transfer market.  No less than 11 key United players will be out of contract in the next 18 months.  Five of those players are done in July, with four of them —  Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Fabio — playing on United’s back line (the fifth, Ryan Giggs, will almost certainly join United’s staff full-time).  That leaves Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans, Jones and Alexander Büttner to fill their spots: not exactly a ringing endorsement for positions that favour men over boys.   On the flip side, Moyes is known for emulating his predecessor by signing youth over experience.  That could be bad news for Michael Carrick (32), or the illness-plagued Darren Fletcher (29).   Throw in Moyes’ low tolerance for petulance and out goes Nani, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young.   Most importantly, the team still has not found a meaningful and long-term replacement for Paul Scholes.  Shinji Kagawa has been pushed to the left, and Rooney has been playing somewhere between a second striker and an attacking midfielder… admirably so.  But contrast this with the midfield players at Manchester City and Chelsea, and the difference is embarrassing.

So the power of expectation — from both the pro- and anti- United camps — is such that Moyes was always going to be considered a failure, no matter what happened.  Yet despite United’s bad start, there are still a lot of positives and/or mitigators:

– They have won five games on the trot, including a comeback against Hull that was reminiscent of the “old” United

– One of Sir Alex Ferguson’s parting gifts to Wayne Rooney was to publicly expose the player’s demand for a transfer.  Moyes has had his troubles with the Scouser as well, suing Rooney for comments he made in his autobiography.  But despite all of that, the England international has remained a professional, stepping up in place of the injured (or disgruntled, or both, depending on whom you believe) Robin Van Persie.

– United are looking comfortable in cup competitions.  They open their FA Cup campaign at home against a struggling Swansea City, plus they play a semi-final League Cup match-up against bottom dwellers Sunderland. They also progressed comfortably through the Champions League group stages and will now face Olympiakos, the weakest opponent in the Round of 16.

– The club sits in 7th place with 31 points, but they are only eight points off the top and five points from a Champions League spot.  In such a topsy-turvy year, the season is not necessarily a write-off.

 The players seem to be buying into Moyes’ leadership, and in return, the Scot seems to be abandoning the conservative football that he favoured at Everton.  But there will continue to be growing pains.  A cup or two seem to be reasonable goals this season.  That may not be enough to satisfy the average United fan that has only known winning.  It may also be fodder for opposing fans who enjoy the schadenfreude of a former champion struggling with a new identity.  That’s not to say they are going to push David Moyes out: it’s simply not the United way.  But the Sisyphean task of managing expectations on both sides of the divide may mean that Moyes faces a long journey in the wilderness of public opinion.

Brent P. Lanthier

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Brazil Feels The Heat

brazil-teachers-1

International football is set for a big week.   By next Tuesday evening, 11 more teams will have secured their spot in the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil.   Obviously, there will be much rejoicing — or a collective gnashing of teeth, depending on the outcome.   But for FIFA and the home nation, there are obviously bigger concerns surrounding the tournament… namely Brazil’s potential descent into chaos.

Brazilian organizers are facing pressure from both within and outside the nation.  Domestically, the FIFA tournaments have served as flashpoints for wider discontent with the country’s economic direction.  Protests have ebbed and swelled since before the summer’s Confederations Cup tournament, with social activists upset that public funds are being used to fund stadium construction and renovation.  That’s despite government assurances that the funding would come from private sources.  On Monday night, things got worse: violence erupted in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo over wages and government policy.  While the protests weren’t directly related to the World Cup,  they show a disturbing pattern of escalation as the tournament gets closer.

Last week, the activists were handed additional ammunition.  On Wednesday, a judge ordered work to stop at the Arena de Baixada due to poor safety standards on-site.   The ruling couldn’t have come at a worse time for FIFA.  Just a week ago, the Guardian revealed that hundreds of migrant workers are labouring under appalling conditions in Qatar, the site of the 2022 World Cup.

This all comes as Brazil rushes to meet December’s  stadium completion deadline.  On Monday, FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke was in country, inspecting stadium sites and admitting that his visit was a way to put pressure on tournament organizers.  Meanwhile, Brazil are seeking help from the man behind the 2010 World Cup to help them get ready.  South African Football Association President Danny Jordaan has been hired as a special advisor.

That’s all well and good, except that South Africa experienced the same problems meeting deadlines, as well as dealing with poor labour conditions and funding improprieties.  All of the same mistakes appear to have been repeated, which is troubling for a country that is set to host the world twice in two years: they are hosting the 2016 Summer Olympics as well.  Brazil’s woes have swung the spotlight back onto the debate about whether it is responsible to award a major sporting event to developing or economically troubled nations.

The tournament is also causing a headache for Brazilian football itself.  According to this BBC report,  the country’s league system can’t handle the World Cup’s intrusion into its club schedule.   This does not bode well for the European leagues, who will have to try and figure out a way to work around Sepp Blatter’s plan to move 2022 World Cup to the winter, in order to avoid Qatar’s blistering heat.

Speaking of playing in the heat: no one is really talking about possible conditions at some of the Brazilian matches this June.  Technically, this is a “winter tournament” because most of Brazil sits below the equator.  But some cities are within the equatorial zone, meaning they don’t experience winter or summer; it’s more like “wet” or “less wet”.   And while Fortaleza and Recife worked out for the Confederations Cup, venues in Manuas and Cuiabá are untested.  These are cities that sit in the middle of a rainforest and experience average June-July highs of 30.7 to 31.8 degrees Celsius.  Throw in an average humidity of at least 80% during afternoon kick-offs and you might see Northern hemisphere teams experiencing their own climate nightmare.

The window for World Cup ticket requests closes on Friday.  FIFA says it has received 4.5 million requests to attend matches.  But if the stadiums aren’t built, if the nation’s infrastructure can’t transport and house fans, if security can’t keep players and tourists safe, if the country doesn’t want the tournament… then FIFA’s dream of returning the game to O País do Futebol may already be turning into a PR and financial nightmare.

Brent Lanthier

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Llorente Gets His Wish

Fernando-Llorente

Fernando Llorente started.  Fernando Llorente scored.  Happy now?

So much ink/cyberspace has been dedicated to the saga surrounding the Basque player’s prolonged transfer from Athletic Bilbao to Juventus.  Llorente demanded a move after the 2012 Europa League final, didn’t get it, and then paid the price with Marcelo Bielsa starting him on the bench for most of the season.

Meanwhile, Juventus fans and media types demanded that the club sign him, saying they needed more forwards.  They got their wish on July 1st.  But then the clamouring changed in tone, from “Where is Llorente?” to “Why isn’t Llorente playing?”.  Before Sunday, his only competitive appearance in the Bianconeri shirt was seeing out the clock for a couple minutes at Sampdoria.

So the inevitable reaction from the European press is that Llorente is unhappy, that he is already looking towards England in January.   But on Sunday, the Number 14 appeared on both the team-sheet and the score-sheet.  The response from the press and the fanzines? Llorente played well, but the rest of the side “needs work”.

The hype that surrounds a new arrival at big clubs almost always takes on a life of its own.   The longer the transfer is drawn out, the greater the myth that accompanies the incoming player.  In reality, Llorente needs Juventus more than Juventus needs him.

Before last season’s drama in Bilbao, Llorente was the go-to guy at his ancestral club, their top scorer for five straight seasons.  But Llorente only broke the 20-goal mark in two of those campaigns (including that Europa league final season).  He’s thrice been in La Liga’s top 10 scorers, coming in at 9th, 5th and 6th in 2010, 2011 and 2012 respectively.  If you were to find an English comparison, Llorente is the Spanish Emmanuel Adebayor: a guy who can be lethal when he wants, but not someone to build your whole team around.  Since he’s left, Bilbao have had no problem finding an adequate replacement, bringing in another Basque player (of course), Aritz Aduriz from Valencia.

arturo-vidal-juvenus-300x159

Scoring comes to Vidal so soon…

Despite the common wisdom, Juventus have been finding the back of the net.  Last season, they finished their Serie A campaign with the third-most goals in the league, only two behind high-flying Napoli.  In the Champions League, by the end of the Round of 16, only Real Madrid and Bayern Munich had scored more goals.  No one had a better plus-minus, but critics point to the quarter-final matches against Bayern Munich, when they were outscored 4-0 over two legs.  This is the same Bayern that put seven unanswered goals past mighty Barcelona in the following round.

To say that Juventus needs strikers is to misunderstand how Antonio Conte has set up his team.   The manager likes to play a 3-5-2 (closer to a 3-5-1-1), which means that the midfielders are the stars of the show.  It’s hard to argue with a group that could be the best in Europe: Andrea Pirlo quarterbacking the likes of Arturo Vidal,  Kwadwo Asamoah, Stephan Liechsteiner, and Paul Pogba through the middle.   It allows them to remain disciplined defensively, while trying to keep possession until they can open up the pitch for the forwards.

Those attacking players haven’t been idle either.  They may get outshone individually by, say, Vidal or Pirlo, but they have done their part.  If someone has the right to be miffed, it’s Claudio Marchisio and Fabio Quagliarella.  Normally slotted in the Number 10 role, the pair have been displaced by the club’s other high-profile signing, Carlos Tevez.   The energetic Argentine has already scored four in six matches, including that beauty on the weekend.

Vucinic injury opened the door for Llorente

Vucinic injury opened the door for Llorente

Conte has probably waited this long to start Llorente because the player simply hadn’t appeared that much over the last 15 months.  Conte also had no reason to displace Mirko Vucinic up front until now.  The Montenergrin injured himself on international duty and Conte is easing him back in, using him to replace Llorente in the 69th.

Llorente should be a good foot soldier for the Italian champions.  He will have to compete for his job with Vucinic, but if he gets the minutes, he should contribute to the club’s goal count as they defend their title.  What he will not be is a game changer, the way that Tevez can take control of a match.

In Bilbao, Llorente was the proverbial big-fish-in-a-smallish-pond.  But now he’s in a different league, in the metaphorical as well as the geographical sense.  So if he gets a game here and there, and happens to notch a few goals, we should all be happy for the man who finally got his wish… and for the fans and pundits who got theirs as well.

Brent P. Lanthier

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by | September 24, 2013 · 8:00 am

Liverpool on the Edge

Kenny welcomes back his prodigal hijo..

Two-thirds into the season, the jury is still out on Liverpool. Has the storied club moved one step closer to its former exalted position? Or does Kenny Dalglish have his team running to stand still while other clubs leapfrog over the fallen giants?

One of the clubs on the rise is Tottenham Hotspur.  “Wheeler-Dealer” ‘Arry Redknapp has built a team that sits in third place, and — along with Manchester City — has displaced long-time Top 4 residents Chelsea and Arsenal.   It is hard not to see them in the group stages of the Champions League come September, but there are no guarantees.  Meanwhile, five points separate four teams for the last CL spot.  So today’s game at Anfield may be rich with meaning and consequence for both sides.

But where are the Reds exactly? They have reached one cup final, and have bested a mighty rival to progress in another.  The club has stated that its goal is Champions League football… but they have to go through the aforementioned Chelsea and Arsenal, as well as fight off the football renaissance going on in the country’s Northeast.  Newcastle were supposed to collapse after the £35 million sale of Andy Carroll to the Reds, and the defection of Kevin Nolan to play for his old boss, Sam Allardyce.  But in a case of addition through subtraction (and the smart pickup of Demba Ba), the Magpies are keeping pace.  Meanwhile, Martin O’Neill is weaving that Ol’ Black Magic with the Black Cats: Sunderland are 8-2-3 under the Irishman.

In hope of making sense of  Liverpool’s season, let’s look at the numbers.

– Liverpool have six more points than this time last year.  But in comparable games played, they are -1.  In other words, when you take all the matches they’ve played this year and compared them to the games from last year against the same teams, they are behind.

– The Reds’ record against Top 10 teams is trending to be about the same (just better than 50%), but they have improved against the lower half.

– Their away record has improved significantly, while their home record is worse.  Liverpool have yet to lose at Anfield this year, but they have frustrated fans by drawing a league-leading seven times at home.

– Liverpool’s goal difference is +7 compared to 0 at this time last year.  But they have scored three fewer goals.  A year ago the ranked fifth in offence, sixth in defence.  This year, they are one of the stingiest sides in the Prem, but are 12th in goals scored.  Fulham, Villa and Blackburn have all scored more than the Reds.

And therein lies the problem.   After spending over £100m on players like Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam and Luis Suarez, the offence has gone backwards.  Carroll and Henderson are young players wilting under the pressure and excessive price tags. Charlie Adam seems to have been a big fish in Blackpool’s small pond.  And Suarez has been dubious in both play and disposition, letting shots go errant while embroiling himself in several controversies.

However, there appear to be several lights in the fog.  A player who is no stranger to discipline problems himself, Craig Bellamy seems to have been settled down by Dalglish, his boyhood idol. He now leads the team in scoring… not bad for a player who’s started half the games on the bench.  Jose Enrique — another wantaway from St. James’ Park — has admirably filled the long-time void at left back, and may be the team’s Player of the Year.

Is it enough?  Spurs have amassed a midfield and defence that are as good as any in the league, and snapping up Brad Friedel in the supposed twilight of his career looks like a stroke of genius.  But Liverpool have yet to lose at Anfield this season.  The talismanic Steven Gerrard will be in the line-up, and Suarez returns after his long stay in the corner, hopefully with something to prove.

If they win the Carling Cup (likely), win the FA Cup (maybe) but don’t reach the Champions League, will this have been a successful season? Or will Kenny have to take a long, hard look in the mirror and decide whether he’s the man to lead his team back to the promised land?  Tonight’s game may go a long way to answering those questions.

My prediction: 2-2.

Brent Lanthier

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Achtung! Die böbies…

We here at At The Rails believe in gender equality in sport… that female footballers are often given short shrift when it comes to media coverage and funding.  This year’s Women’s World Cup final between Japan and the U.S. was as thrilling as anything offered up by their male counterparts.

However, we are also very very very weak.  That’s why we are posting a link to a calendar that features scantily-clad German footballers.  We would like to tell you that publications like these add to the objectification of women and delegitimizes their training and efforts… but we won’t.

We just like fit and beautiful girls.  Cheers.

http://www.metro.co.uk/sport/oddballs/874171-german-women-footballers-pose-for-calendar-warning-attractive-images

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Second Chances: Birmingham City

Big Eck has a GOB moment: "I've made a huge mistake..."

Oh Birmingham City, we’ve seen this before.  After a 16-season stint in the lower divisions, the Blues were promoted in 2002… and then finished three seasons mid-table, before enduring four more yo-yo years into the Championship and back.  Yet last season was supposed to be different. Under the guidance of Carson Yeung and Alex McLeish, Brum finished a respectable ninth in 2010 with a stingy defence and a young keeper on-loan.  Who cared if they couldn’t score? It was a new era.

Ugh. Fast forward 12 months.  Despite their first trophy in almost 50 years, and an appearance in the FA Cup semi-final, Brum rode a train of mediocrity into relegation.  Before their historic victory over Arsenal in the Carling Cup final, City were 6-12-9.  The 30 points weren’t great… but it left them only a handful of wins away from the magic safety zone of 40.  But after that,  Birmingham only won twice in their last 12 matches… including three straight losses at the end to send them down, allowing Wigan (ugh) and Wolves to remain.

Now McLeish’s defection to hated Aston Villa has fans on both sides of Birmingham screaming Blue murder.   But unlike other serious rivalries, the teams’ exposure to each other has been spotty over the years… while the Second City derby features a couple of key players that have swapped shades of  blue,  with a lot of claret thrown in.

Ridgewell can't believe McLeish left him at City. COME. ON.

One such player is the sensational Liam Ridgewell, who joined Birmingham from Aston Villa in 2007.    The left back scored as many goals as the club’s strikers this season, which is probably a statement on both Ridgewell’s talent and the dire situation in Birmingham’s attack.  Ridgewell signed a new contract last summer… but West Brom have come calling, offering £3 million.   City thinks he’s worth more,  and so does this writer.  The big clubs could do worse than pick up him up.

After 200 matches, Sebastian Larsson is set to leave the Blues, having declined a new contract with the relegated side.  His father says the right winger has signed at Sunderland for Steve Bruce… the man who brought the Swede to St. Andrews in the first place. 

England back-up keeper Ben Foster is no youngster… but has always seemed a star-in-waiting.  Foster performed admirably this season, replacing his contemporary Joe Hart in net with one of the league’s highest save percentages, while facing the second-most shots.  Foster is a Premier League keeper, plain and simple.  I will make a call and say this West Midlander will follow McLeish to Villa.

Roger Johnson and Scott Dann would have received England call-ups, had it not said “Birmingham City” on their badges.  Roger Johnson started almost every match for the Brummies, while Scott Dann had his season cut short by injuries.  Both will likely get a sniff from the big clubs, including Dann, a Scouser whose name is creating rumbles at Anfield.  Meanwhile, Johnson is tough and good in the air.  Both made it onto the score sheet… and neither are afraid of a booking now and then.

Birmingham’s skipper — Stephen Carr — is 34… kind of up there in football years.  But the right back was the lynch pin for the club’s excellent defence: the Irishman started almost as many games as Johnson.  It’s likely he will stay because a) he has extended his contract by a year, and b) his former coach at Spurs and Ireland — Chris Hughton — is the front runner to take McLeish’s place.  Still… Carr’s performance this year merits another kick at the Premiership can.

Do you know which Villa player led the club in fouls and yellow cards? Ashley Young (stop snickering!).  Now that the team’s “hard man” (uncontrollable guffawing) looks bound for Manchester United, and Nigel Reo-Coker (a man who actually would give us nightmares, were we would good enough to play Premier League football) has been released, the club needs some steel in the middle.  Cue Barry Ferguson

Gardner tries the old hand-over-the-badge trick...

Finally, we have Craig Gardner — Birmingham’s answer to Steven Gerrard, circa Istanbul.  Gardner led his team in both goals and infractions this past seaon.  In a Robbie Keane-like obfuscation, Gardner has claimed to be a lifelong Villa or City fan — depending where he’s playing.  Yet he could still return to Villa Park.  After the vitriol that’s greeted Big Eck, the move would likely have Lions fans foaming at the mouth.   However, he has been linked with a move to the Northeast, either Newcastle or Sunderland.

Brent Lanthier

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