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Best of the Prem: Man United to Stoke

Managing at United ages you in dog years...

Apparently, the manager’s job at United ages you in dog years…

Four of these sides found mid-table mediocrity, while one of them found the trap door.   The first two clubs disappointed their fans, while the last two over-performed.   The choice for best player was obvious for three of them, while the other two offered up some choice.  Finally, only two of the clubs still have the manager they started the season with… for now.

Wazza to the rescue... again.

Wazza to the rescue… again.

MANCHESTER UNITED
Wayne Rooney (ENG) – We knew it would be a year of transition for Manchester United, and it is dishonest for people to blame David Moyes for all of the Red Devils’ transgressions this season.  Yes, Moyes showed remarkable naiveté in the transfer market and yes, his predictable tactics earned no plaudits.  But Sir Alex Ferguson left his fellow Scot with a mediocre squad that only performed for the outgoing manager.  It is the irony of ironies then, that the one player that wanted away from the club would be its most consistent player.  Robin Van Persie fans point to the Dutchman’s goals per game ratio… but Rooney put the ball in the net more and more importantly, far surpassed his team mates as a playmaker.  England’s only true world-class player… and United are lucky to have him.

Remy washes his hands of Newcaslte

Remy washes his hands of Newcastle

NEWCASTLE UNITED
Loïc Remy (FRA) – Is there a big club in more disarray than Newcastle United?  A disinterested owner and a volatile manager always seem to be the stories on Tyneside.  But now the Magpies are left to rue the departure of the team’s two best players.  Yohan Cabaye’s impact was such that he was still Newcastle’s second-best scorer, even though he left in January.  Now his compatriot, Loïc Remy, has finished his loan spell.  The signing of the Lyonnais was a coup for Pardew, and paid dividends, linking up well with Cabaye.  But then the midfielder left, Remy spent long stretches on the bench, and Newcastle’s second-half slide undid all of the successes of the season’s first half.  Pity.

Aye, listen Robbie: Norwich are fecked.

Aye, Robbie, listen: Norwich are fecked.

NORWICH CITY
Robert Snodgrass (SCO) Dutch Dreams turned into a relegation nightmare for the East Anglian side.  Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Leroy Fer quickly found out the Premier League is, well, leagues above the Portuguese and Dutch games.    The two — along with Celtic striker Gary Hooper — were supposed to stop Norwich’s goal slide, after the wonderful rampant play from their promotion season in 2011-12.   Instead, they flopped and the Canaries had the worst goal production in the top seven tiers of English football, and tied with relegated Bologna across Europe’s top five leagues.  The only Norwich player worth his mettle was ambi-winger Robert Snodgrass.  Look for him to end up at Upton Park next season with West Ham.

Let's hope he makes this face in Brazil...

Let’s hope he makes this face in Brazil…

SOUTHAMPTON
Adam Lallana (ENG) – At the other end of the spectrum is Southampton.  Looking at their line-up is like staring into a football shop window.  Who to pick? The “other” super-striker tandem of Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez? Young left back Luke Shaw?  Emerging playmaker Steven Davis? How about Nathaniel Clyne? The Saints’ player of the year has to be a member of the ever-elusive species, Acieslevus Anglicus: left winger Adam Lallana. You only have to watch his masterclass against Newcastle on March 29th, when he crossed, passed and scored his club through to a 4-0 romp at St. Mary’s.  He and several of his team mates will likely not be on the south coast come next season… and Southampton will be the victim of its own success.

Where are your nachos, Crouchie? You don't know?

Where are your nachos, Crouchie? You don’t know?

STOKE CITY
PETER CROUCH (ENG) – Sometimes a player will start at his small hometown club, but will quickly outgrow the team and then get swooped up by a bigger club.  But sometimes, that player should have just stayed as the big fish in the small pond.  Witness Charlie Adam and Peter Crouch, two players who did well in a wee outfit (Blackpool and QPR/Portsmouth/Villa/Norwich/S’ton) but kind of fizzled when they hit the big time (Liverpool).  However, since their arrival at Stoke City, the pair have thrived.  Adam fits in well with Mark Hughes’ rough-and-tumble philosophy, and Crouchie is the perfect target man for the tried-and-trued, oh-so-British, 4-4-2, kick-and-run style at Stoke.   Crouch gets the nod here because of his goals and assists…

Brent P. Lanthier

Up Next: Sunderland to West Ham

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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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Second Chances: Blackpool

"Here I am, boys. Come and get me!"

They were supposed to be the laughing stocks of the league.  But Ian Holloway inspired his Blackpool team to great heights for awhile, before they came crashing back to earth at season’s end.  A poor-club’s Harry Redknapp, Holloway had his players taking the game to their opponents.  It worked for awhile… before teams got wise and fed on the squad’s glaring holes in strategy.

Still, it put several players in the shop window… and while the club talks about bouncing right back to the Prem, it might not happen for Blackpool if the big boys come calling.

'Ollie in one of his quieter moments...

Front and centre is Charlie Adam.  Clubs have been trying to pluck the Scotsman out of Bloomfield Road since Christmas… and the player has made no secret of his desire to go.  But Holloway’s stubborness means that Adam is still a Tangerine… for now.  His former Rangers boss, Alex McLeish, would love to make him Aston Villa’s first big signing… and Kenny Dalglish is looking to add to his stable of central midfielders.    Blackpool supposedly values him at £12 million, which would be a nice bit of business, since they bought him from Rangers for £500,000.   Let’s see if he can replicate his success at a big club… if he can get a game.

You would expect a defender on last season’s worst defence to be looked over.  But it could have been much worse for Blackpool if not for Ian Evatt.  The 29-year-old led the league in clearances: 430 times. Unfortunately, he was one clearance short in the final game, when an own-goal against Manchester United effectively relegated Evatt et al.  He has reportedly signed a new contract with the Seasiders that will keep him at the team with Premier League wages, but Blackpool may sell him if the price is right.

DJ. Gigalo. Huh... sucker...

If you believe Ye Olde Interweb, DJ Campbell is headed for every single Premier League club.  Apparently, they are all enamored with Dudley Junior.  He has never spent more than two seasons at a club, working his way up from the Isthmian League into the top flight over the last 11 seasons.  After scoring more than a dozen goals last season, Campbell is harboring dreams of becoming a full English international.  If he’s still in tangerine by August, I’ll eat my Blackberry.

Left midfielder David Vaughan has already turned down a new contract and is looking elsewhere.  He says he wants to stay in the Premier League so his international career doesn’t stall.  Will someone please remind the boy that he’s playing for Wales?  Not exactly giants of football right now.  But Vaughan was voted the club’s player of the year: he’s fast, he’s left-footed and he can hold his ground.  He may still have a few more seasons in him for a lower-table team.

Also rejecting a new contract is Scottish leftback Stephen Crainey.  He’s being linked with both Wigan and Swansea… so he’ll have one more year, tops, in the Premier League.

Next: Biirrrrrrmingham City

Brent Lanthier

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Best of the Premier League: Arsenal to Blackpool

No Big Ears for you, Sir Alex. Just little wee Scottish ones...

Hello.  Remember us?  Your favourite Interweb football journos-slash-pundits-slash-hacks? We know, we know, we haven’t posted in awhile.   But that’s because we’ve been busy doing very important stuff.  Ian’s been planning his wedding… and I’ve been… well, let’s just say it’s reaaaaaallly hard to get up in the morning.  Stuff is hard. 

But since we’ve last written for your reading pleasure, the MLS has started, the European leagues have finished, Barcelona has proven they are actual Valhallian gods… and FIFA has engaged in a circle-like exercise usually reserved for fraternity initiations. 

Nevertheless, we have been paying attention.  Honest.  So now that the dust has settled, and Manchester United fans have realized that their squad won the Premier League by default this season, let’s get to my picks of the Premier League’s best…. which are not up for discussion.

"Lalalala... I can't hear jeuuw... lalalalalala..."

ARSENAL
Robin Van Persie (NED) — Sigh.  This one pains me.  Robin Van Persie bugs me.  He’s a shining example of why the people hate the Dutch… national team.  He is, quite simply, a bit of a whiner and he was injured a lot.  But when he did play, he found the back of the net almost every match.  Twenty-two goals in 27 matches.  Cesc who?

Young hears the big clubs calling for him.

ASTON VILLA
Ashley Young (ENG) — A supremely talented winger who will not be with the squad, come August.  Young was a stalwart of a team that really didn’t survive the abrupt departure of Martin O’Neill.   He lead the team in scoring in all competitions… but his real talent lays in his crosses. Rumours are that he is headed for Old Trafford.  Hopefully, Sir Alex will help him lose his Ronaldo-like habit of falling over in the box at the slightest touch.

Bye-bye Birmingham?

BIRMINGHAM
Liam Ridgewell (ENG) — A centre back by trade, Ridgewell was a shining light at left back on a defensive squad that should have been too good to go down. This writer believes he could compete with Ashley Cole and Leighton Baines for England’s LB spot.  In fact, Capello might do the whole country good by switching Ridgewell to the right, thereby ending the Glen Johnson experiment. Although Ridgewell signed a three-year deal last year, look for the East Ender to quickly return to the Prem.  Fulham, anyone?

Samba: The bright light on an awful team

BLACKBURN ROVERS
Christopher Samba (CON) — While I was tempted to pick Jason Roberts — aka the Second Coming of Alan Shearer (Ed. Note: While I writing that line, I laughed so hard, I had to get a Kleenex) — with his five goals in all competitions, I have to go with a man who was a giant on a team of footballing dwarves.  Samba stood tall in the middle of the defence on a team that missed Big Sam.  Wow… I never thought I’d write that. The blogosphere is rife with rumours that the Congolese national is heading to the Emirates.

BLACKPOOL
Charlie Adam (SCO) — A right pest in the midfield, Adam did himself a thousand favours by leaving Rangers in 2009 for a squad that had recently been promoted, and was languishing at the foot of the Championship table.  Cue Blackpool’s surprise promotion and subsequent taking of several big scalps.  Although Ian Holloway beat off the big boys clamouring for Adam’s services during the season, expect the Scotsman to join one of the Big Six teams before August.  But still the question remains: can he repeat his Tangerine Dream elsewhere?

Oh Charlie. You've turned into a right sexy bastard, haven't ye?

Tomorrow: Bolton Wanderers to Liverpool

Brent Lanthier

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The Best of Times, The Blurst of Times

Do Wolves have any legs left?

Call it the Year of the Keystone Kops… a season where clubs have been stumbling over each other to fail.   So forget about Manchester United’s mediocre march to the title (and don’t tell me they’re up for the double by winning Big Ears.  If Schalke doesn’t surprise them, Real or Barca will certainly dispatch them with maximum efficiency).  Forget about Arsenal finding new and novel ways to self-destruct, sending Arsene Wenger further along the road to Nutterville. Chelsea are old.  Man Citeh’s millions couldn’t buy a team.  ‘Arry’s mighty offence petered out.  Liverpool were already falling down the hill.  And as usual, David Moyes’ Everton started too late to matter.

So with the exception of the FA Cup final — whose implications for Europe require an engineering degree to calculate — I’m watching the relegation battle that potentially involves half the league.

Two points separate seven teams: Newcastle, Aston Villa, West Brom, Fulham, Stoke City, Sunderland and Birmingham.  All sit relatively safe.  Next are Blackburn and Wigan in the two spots above the relegation zone that currently contains Blackpool, West Ham and Wolves.  Newcastle and Villa (at 10th and 11th, respectively) have reached the so-called magic number of 40 points.  For the others, the next 5-6 games are critical.

Wide-eyed Woy widing high at WBA

I’m going to go out on a limb and say West Bromwich Albion are safe.  Saturday’s loss to Chelsea was their first under Roy Hodgson, and no club has scored more since his reign began. 

Hodgson’s legacy of going for the draw seems to be lingering at Fulham under Mark Hughes.  The Cottagers’ next two games are at bottom Wolves before they host Bolton, who are woeful on the road.  They should hit the 40-point mark no problem.

Stoke City and Birmingham are the Premier League’s little European embarrassments.  Birmingham is already in the Europa League, via their Carling Cup win… but whether Stoke qualifies is still up in the air.  If they win the FA Cup final, they are in.  If they lose but Citeh qualifies for the Champions League, they are in.  Otherwise the spot goes to the sixth-placed team… I think… carry the one…

Either way, both have not been playing well as of late, with each team only winning two games in their last eight.   The bad news for Stoke is that they must face three other relegation battlers — Blackpool, Wolves and Wigan — plus Arsenal and the aforementioned Citeh.  Birmingham must also face teams fighting for a spot in Europe.  I think they will both stay up… only because there are teams playing worse.  But if they drop, it means two of England’s three Europa clubs won’t be playing in the top-flight at home.

That leaves six teams fighting it out for three spots above the drop.  Wolverhampton Wanderers are 20th, but they will leapfrog Wigan into 17th if they win that game in hand against Stoke.  Many pundits say Wolves are too good to go down… and they took some serious scalps this season.  But despite their recent form, every single one of their remaining games is against a struggling club.  It could be tough going for Mick McCarthy’s men.

Bruce wonders where it went wrong

At the beginning of the season, I picked Wigan Athletic to drop, partly because they barely missed it last year… but mostly because I was irritated that such a small, unsupported club was taking up a Premier League spot.  They also have to play several games against strugglers… as well as a surging Everton.

West Ham United sit 19th.  I thought with the addition of Demba Ba, they might have a fighting shot at making it out alive.  But they remain ensconced in the drop zone due to their inability to go for the jugular.

It’s the three remaining clubs that have the most to worry about.  Blackburn Rovers, Blackpool and Sunderland have been dropping like stones.  Blackburn have performed poorly since the departure of Big Sam Allardyce.  Blackpool and Sunderland seem to be on opposite sides of a mirror.  The Black Cats haven’t been the same since they lost their best player in Darren Bent; the Tangerines have suffered without cashing in on Charlie Adam.  Out of the three clubs, only Blackpool has won a game since the end of January.

In such a topsy-turvy season, I still think we are in for some surprises on the final day of the season… on both ends of the table.  It’s either the best season in years… or English football is at it’s most mediocre.

By the way, here are my picks for the drop: Wigan, Blackpool, West Ham.

Brent Lanthier

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Seasiders Sitting Pretty

Lancashire's General Patton

Five months ago, guest columnist Colin Wood wrote a piece here, talking about the phenomenal rise of Blackpool FC as they prepared to enter the Premier League.  But no one could have predicted the achievements of Ian Holloway’s men as the second half of the season begins.

The Seasiders sit 11th in a crowded table, two games above the relegation zone alongside giants Liverpool and Newcastle United… and sitting above two clubs wishing for former glories, Everton and Aston Villa.  It is an astonishing feat.

Blackpool has been simply entertaining to watch, with Holloway ordering his once-anonymous side forward with gusto.  Their goals-against column suggests an offensive strategy that shows no concern for the Tangerine end of the pitch.  But discard a 6-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge, and a 4-0 defeat at the Emirates, and Blackpool start to look like Manchester City — a team they held to a 1-0 win on Sunday.

(Interesting side note: all three promoted teams — Blackpool, Newcastle and West Brom — are in the league’s top ten for goals scored.  The strategy may keep them all from going right back down, come May. If it happens, it will only be the second time in the history of the Premier League.)

The key to it all seems to be the gaffer himself, Mad ‘Ollie.  He has taken a rag-tag bunch of lower-league players and made them household names. Even followers of the Championship would have had trouble recognizing some of the Blackpool squad before the start of the season. That’s because players like Ian Evatt (BFC’s Man of the Season, IMO), Luke Varney and Charlie Adam were lads who put the “journey” in “journeyman”, struggling to even find the bench because of injuries and the inevitable rotation of lower-league managers and their particular strategies.

Charlie Adam: Headed for Manchester? London?

But Holloway has changed all that. He believes in his players.  And even if he doesn’t, he tells them that he does, which is the entire point. Witness ‘Ollie’s supposed comments yesterday to midfield wonder Adam, telling the Scotsman that he will get a chance to play for a top-four club.  Ian loves his players so much, he’s willing to set them free.

Blackpool’s unexpected success — and the manager’s unconventional comments — has given the Lancashire side plenty of television exposure.  But that has backfired somewhat for the tiny club.  Bloomfield Road is less than state-of-the-art — it held less than 10-thousand when the team was promoted — and brutal winter weather in England has forced the club to postpone three home games… a victim of its own meagre finances.

Critics say those postponed games will haunt the club, both financially (lost television revenues against big clubs Man U, Liverpool and Tottenham) and because the make-up matches will crowd Blackpool’s schedule.  But Holloway says his side is used to playing mid-week games in the Championship, so it’s no bother.

In another season, the Seasiders may have not elicited gasps of wonder, and would have instead been headed for the inevitable drop.  But these are topsy-turvy times for the world’s biggest league, and Ian Holloway should be commended… if only for sticking his neck out by getting his side to play exciting football, instead of looking down the ladder in fear.

Brent Lanthier

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Fergie’s Fantasy: Mr. Popularity

You're always picked last when your name starts with "Z"...

Just like in high school, Mr. Popularity is not your friend.

The only difference is that in high school you really hoped he would be. As a fantasy manager, you might want to have the same players as everyone else in order to keep pace, but to make a move up the table you are going to need to do some scouting and grab point-getters the other teams don’t have.

In fantasy terms, Chelsea’s Didier Drogba is the most popular player owned by 45% of all fantasy teams. He’s closely followed by teammate Florent Malouda and Tottenham’s Gareth Bale, both of whom are above the 40% mark. These are great players and great picks. I have all three on my personal fantasy team. But I have done some digging for you and found four solid players chosen by a mere 1% of all fantasy teams. When you see them score on Saturday you won’t have to worry that you are sharing those points with half the pool!

The One Percenters:

Carlos Salcido – The Fulham right back has kept John Pantsil on the bench for good reason. His accurate crosses are turning into goals for Craven Cottagers like Clint Dempsey.

Greek Love...

Sotirios Kyrgiakos – A bright spot on Liverpool’s back line, he’s got two goals already and is still pretty affordable at 5.1.

Nikola Zigic – The massive Birmingham striker was on the bench for the early part of the season but has played every minute of the last three games. With goals in two of three of those starts, he will likely remain a fixture of their starting 11.

Marcus Hahnemann– Wolves have had problems keeping clean sheets this year, but Hahnemann has played every minute of the season. He could be worth picking up as your backup keeper, starting him when WW play weaker teams at home (Yes, technically, I know only West Ham is weaker right now… but you know what I mean…)

Scott’s Subs
Here’s who you should bring in and keep out this week.

Nolan has been "duck"ing praise up on Tyneside

In: Kevin Nolan – Newcastle United — It’s never a good idea to pick up a player right after he gets a hat trick, but how can you resist Nolan? He already has 7 goals and will still only cost you 5.8 to pick him up. You’ll enjoy his duck-like arm-flapping goal celebration more if he’s earning you fantasy points.

Out: Charlie Adam – Blackpool — His numbers are very good for what he costs, but I’m thinking Blackpool are going to flame out pretty soon and start edging their way towards the bottom of the table rather than the top.

In: Clint Dempsey – Fulham — Another knee jerk reaction on my part? Perhaps. He did just score two goals last week… but he’s also among the top scoring midfielders this season in terms of fantasy points overall. His price of 7 at the beginning of the season was a bit high — he’s now at a more reasonable 6.7.

Out: Michael Essien – Chelsea — A wonderful player, but there are just too many other scorers on the champions for Essien to make a great offensive impact. And with Frank Lampard coming back soon, one can only presume he’ll see the ball even less.

In: Sotirios Kyrgiakos – Liverpool — For all the reasons I’ve stated above… and because I’ve recently been very hard on Liverpool players…

Out: Luke Young — Aston Villa — In the past, he’s been an average fantasy pick… but as his price creeps up to 5.2, I think it’s time to let him go. He is coming off a clean sheet performance but I doubt Aston Villa have a pile of those coming in the future.

My Form

Over the past two weeks, the players I’ve recommend have scored an average of 5.25 points a game. The average starter has scored 4.15 and the players I’ve told you to avoid have averaged 2 points.  Note that I was not asked to show my work on those calculations.

Scott Ferguson

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