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Best of the Prem: Newcastle United to Sunderland

Mere seconds later, Chelsea staff tried to explain to Frank that there was no chocolate inside…

Part three of the series comes in the shadow of some event that occurred in Munich, where Chelsea won some minor trophy or other.  Congratulations to the Blues on their European victory (he mumbled, with his head tucked into his chest as he half-heartedly kicked at stones).

And now for something completely different…

Demba, take a Ba… er, bow…

NEWCASTLE UNITED
Demba Ba (SEN) – When the Geordies sold off Kevin Nolan, Jose Enrique and local hero Andy Carroll, the St. James faithful screamed for owner Mike Ashley’s head.  Fast forward a year, and Ashley looks like a genius.  Part of that is down to the arrival of Alan Pardew.  But the purchase of Senegalese forwards Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse for a pittance was a revelation.  And while Ba’s production tapered off with Cissé’s arrival in February, it was because Ba was willing to play the no. 10 that created Cisse’s industry in front of goal.  Note that you didn’t hear as much as a little Ba peep about the position change either…

Canary at the goal line…

NORWICH CITY
Russell Martin (SCO) – You have to give credit to Paul Lambert.  He could have parked the bus and hope that Norwich hovered above the relegation zone.  Instead, the Canaries played the same free-flowing football as they did in their Championship campaign, finishing a very decent 12th.  The downside was that their defence had to endure a few humiliations.  But right-back Martin was ever present, playing out of position in the centre, where he withstood more than one onslaught.  Sure, Grant Holt scored the goals but Russell Martin typifies Norwich City’s season… and he hasn’t requested a transfer either.

Thumbs down for QPR, indeed.

QUEEN’S PARK RANGERS
Bobby Zamora (ENG) – Zamora was having a decent season… until he moved up the road to QPR during the transfer window. But who else do we pick? Helguson, maybe? Cisse showed flashes of brilliance when he wasn’t sitting out suspensions. Taarabt or Barton? I think not…  Zamora it is, then.

Etherington’s bored face

STOKE CITY
Matthew Etherington (ENG) – I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Stoke City aren’t that good.  The myth that they are tough to break down is bull. Their defence was in the lower half of the table, and their keepers faced a barrage of shots. Meanwhile, their offence was the worst in the league, save for one of the Potters’ bright lights: Matthew Etherington.  The winger ran at defences and provided crosses… well, as much as Tony Pulis let him.  Etherington should have received at least an invite from Roy Hodgson, especially when you consider who will be playing on the left for England this summer.

Sessegnon loves Sunderland… and jazz hands.

SUNDERLAND
Stéphane Sessègnon (BEN) – When Steve Bruce picked Sebastien Larsson from the ashes of Birmingham City’s season, I thought it was a shrewd move… and the Swede didn’t disappoint.  But Sessègnon (who is from Benin.  Where is Benin? It’s not quite Togo, it’s not quite Nigeria… but it comes with a slice of cantaloupe at the end) was the engine for Sunderland.  He scored the same amount of goals as Larsson but set up many more, including two in an effort against Manchester City that almost derailed the Citizens’ championship run.  The club awarded him Player of the Season and it was well-deserved.

Brent Lanthier

Up Next: Swansea City to Wolverhampton Wanderers

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Second Chances: West Ham

"Don't cry for thee, Kevin Nolan. The truth is you're leaving Tyneside..."

Ooooo… it’s the silly season again, when every Tom Dick and Neymar is associated with every so-called “buying” club.  Today, the Premier League released it’s “retained” and “free transfer” list… and to no one’s surprise, the relegated clubs jettisoned several players.

The Premier League offers financial cushions to those teams that fall through the trap door… but many clubs still look to shed expensive players, in an effort to keep Championship-lean.  As well, some players who were considered lower league material will have a good season in the top flight… and become wantaway.

Here then are some names that could be thrown a life vest from another club.

West Ham United
I have to admit, I am absolutely flabbergasted by the Hammers’ signing of Kevin Nolan.  Newcastle’s captain had a fantastic season, and at 28 years old, I thought he would head to an EPL team in need of some attacking power.  I understand that he would want to play for Big Sam again, but he’s there for five years with no guarantee of returning to the top flight.

Parker is expected to play 'Arry's game next season

Nolan is expected to serve as a replacement for Scott Parker.  The midfielder earned the FWA Player of the Year — despite playing for the worst team in the league.  Parker is reportedly heading to Tottenham Hotspur (which would be his fourth London club).  That is, of course, if ‘Arry sells Luka Modric.  Which he says he won’t. Wink wink, nudge nudge.  Nowotahmean?

Sensational Senegalese striker (10 points for Slytherin!!!… sorry) Demba Ba is out.  So out.  Except he’s reportedly going to Newcastle to replace Kevin Nolan.  Weird.

Robert Green is supposedly heading back to his first club, Norwich City.  This makes sense because a) they need a good keeper, and b) despite howls of protest from several English fans, Green IS a good keeper.  He faced the most shots in the Prem last season, while making the most saves.  His goals-against average isn’t great… but neither was the team in front of him.

Sigh. Is Carlton Cole any good?  Depends on who you ask…   The sometime England international scored 11 goals in all competitions.  He’s strong, good in the air… just not always in front of the net.  Definitely a second striker, he’s getting a sniff from Stoke, who score… um… well, good luck Carlton!

Meanwhile, Matthew Upson has been released by the club.  He’s 32, which isn’t ancient for a centre back, but his performance in South Africa didn’t do anything for his resume.  He may still get snapped up on a free.

Up next: Blackpool and Birmingham City.

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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Hammer Time?

Ba Humbug for West Ham's opposition...

It doesn’t happen very often.  But sometimes, I get it wrong.

Now I know what you’re thinking.  You’re saying to your computer screen, “That’s not true, Brent.  You’re being modest.  Give your head a shake and have a beer on me…”

Alas, faithful readers, I have erred. It turns out that I am not the reliable prognasticator I once thought I was.  And it’s all thanks to a certain Israeli manager who manages a certain East London club.

I had predicted in early December that Avram Grant would be fired by Christmas.  West Ham were at the bottom of the table and were up against the wall.  I said how the holiday swing was going to kill the team — and the career of the gaffer.  Indeed, through December and the first half of January, with the Hammers going 2-3-3, it seemed like curtains for both Grant and the club’s Premier League hopes.

But then a couple of cup runs seemed to give the Irons a spark.  They won their 3rd round FA Cup tie against Burnley 2-0.  Then three days later, they beat fellow Premier League strugglers Birmingham in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final.  Since then, they have gone 5-2-3 in all competitions.

It could be that Avram Grant finally has a team that is “too good to go down”.   The team has scored thirteen goals in their last four games.  It’s likely no coincidence that this spurt is due to the arrival of striker Demba Ba (you don’t say his name, so much as let it spill out of your mouth) from TSG Hoffenheim in February.  In the five games he has played, both Ba and strike partner Carlton Cole have each scored four goals.

Parker does his Christian Bale impression...

But the keystone of West Ham’s mini-turnaround has to be Scott Parker.  The midfielder and captain has been bossing the centre of the park, marshalling his teammates both physically and mentally as they have clawed their way out of the relegation zone… at least for the time being.  Many of his teammates — as well as English pundits — say Parker should be named Player of the Year for his pluck in the face of West Ham’s dreadful first half of the season results.

I’m not going to say that they won’t go down.  West Ham are only just above Brum in the relegation zone… and the Blues still have two games in hand.  The Hammers still have to face Spurs, Chelsea and Man City away, as well as play first-place Manchester United at home. Plus, they still have to continue their FA Cup run, facing sinking Stoke again for the second time in a week.

With the Boleyn Ground averaging about 33-thousand fans a season — and the brand spanking new Olympic stadium waiting to be taken over — West Ham is a biggish club that thinks it has a brighter future.  I’d tell you where that future lies… but I’m afraid of being wrong again.  That would be just scary…

Brent Lanthier

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Fergie’s Fantasy: Hot Strikers

Goals don't come much better than Rooney's bicycle kick

Everybody needs a hot striker.  No, I don’t mean hot as in attractive or sexy… because that would mean leaving Wayne Rooney off the list.  I mean players who are on a hot streak, as in they look like they can score any time they get the ball.  So far, you have been pretty well served if you have had Manchester United’s Dimitar Berbatov or Manchester City’s Carlos Tevez up front. But if you want to catch the guy in front of you, it’s time to take a chance on one of the men below who are all in top form.

WAYNE ROONEY
Was last week’s bicycle kick winner over Manchester City the greatest goal of all time?  Yes, I’m biased as the owner of a Rooney jersey… but even I have stayed the heck away from him this year on my fantasy team.  After a mopey World Cup performance for England, and a sulky first half of the season, Rooney finally scored a goal that lives up to his billing as the current top team’s top player.  He now has three goals in his last three games so it looks like the slump is over.

Sturridge: Better than Torres

DANIEL STURRIDGE
Hey Chelsea, here’s the striker you need. The problem is you loaned him to Bolton.  His three goals in three games for his new squad makes the massive payment for the thus far goal-less Fernando Torres look a bit silly.

ASAMOAH GYAN
I love this guy.  He impressed last summer in the World Cup for Ghana and he’s the reason Sunderland could afford to sell Darren Bent… and he just keeps on scoring.  And while this isn’t the most manly sentence I’ll ever write, you have to admire his groovy post-goal dances as well.  Two goals in his last two games put him on a streak… and the best part for fans of the Black Cats is that he seems to score key goals when the club needs them most.

ROBIN VAN PERSIE
As far as hot streaks go, no one in the Premier League is in better form than this left-footed Dutch striker. He has nine goals in his last six games. That’s right, nine goals in his last six games: you read it correctly.  (and he has to keep scoring as 4-0 has proven not to be a safe lead for Arsenal anymore… I know, it’s a cheap shot after their big Champions League win but I couldn’t resist)

Zigic is not a robot, as far as we know...

NIKOLA ZIGIC
Birmingham’s 6 foot 7 inch striker has taken over the crown from Peter Crouch as the top-scoring ridiculously tall striker.  Three goals in the last four means you might want him on your team as well because he is available at a pretty low price.  (Yes, but can Zigic do the robot?  Crouch is still superior at  that dance/celebration as far as I can tell)

HONOURABLE MENTIONS:
Two more for your consideration… Luis Suarez looks deadly for Liverpool.  One goal so far but only a crossbar prevented another last week.  And can you have a better debut than Demba Ba?  He transferred from Germany to West Ham and notched two goals in his first start for the club.  Expect to see more of him as the Hammers fight to stay in the Premier league.

Scott Ferguson

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