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Best of the Premier League: Starting XI

It was a big year for the big Serb

Manchester United’s record-breaking 19th league title is a testament to their manager. Sir Alex Ferguson did not have the same calibre of players as in the past. But the old gaffer leads his teams to trophies… and he would not be denied an opportunity to overtake his Merseyside nemeses. While they did not dominate, United players produced some fine individual efforts, along with their rivals Citeh and Chelsea.

Here are my starting XI for the 2011:

MIghty bright future for young Joe

GOALKEEPER
Joe Hart (Manchester City) — For some, the verdict is still out on the young Englishman. Playing for McLeish’s Birmingham and then Mancini’s Citeh means he had the benefit of great defences in front of him. But he made more saves than any other EPL keeper, except for his England understudies Ben Foster and Robert Green. The future looks bright for Old Blighty: Joe Hart is only 24.

On the bench: Petr Cech (Chelsea), Edwin Van der Sar (Manchester United)

Hot cross Baines...

LEFT BACK
Leighton Baines (Everton) — Why wouldn’t Miroslav Klose want to come to Goodison Park, where he could have Baines send over cross after cross after cross? Baines started every single game for Everton… netting seven goals and providing 12 assists. Ashley Cole’s perpetual presence on England’s left may be in jeopardy.

On the bench: Ashley Cole (Chelsea)

CENTRE BACKS
Nemanja Vidic (Manchester United) — The big Serb won Barclay’s Player of the Year, and rightly so. Vidic terrorized defences as he marshalled United to the title. If Old Trafford was a fortress this year, than Vidic was its mighty rook.

Kompany's calling...

Vincent Kompany (Manchester City) — It wasn’t easy to score goals on the other side of Manchester either.  Vincent Kompany was a consistent leader in a back eight that tied Chelsea for stingiest defense. At only £6.7 million, he was a steal… especially compared to what Citeh paid for his teammates.

On the bench:  John Terry (Chelsea), Brede Hangeland (Fulham)

Calm down, son, calm down!

RIGHT BACK
Branislav Ivanovic (Chelsea) — One of the most fouling — and carded — players in the Prem, Ivanovic is one of those sought after backs that scores, yet still plays defence. A genuine pest whose temper could get away from him, Ivanovic made it onto almost every one of Ancelotti’s team sheets.

On the bench: Bacary Sagna (Arsenal)

Arsenal's Song... and prayer

DEFENSIVE MIDFIELDER
Alex Song (Arsenal) — The Gunners didn’t lose because a lack of firepower… they lost because of the glaring holes in the centre back and goalkeeping positions. That should be reason enough for Gooners to thank Cheebus for Alex Song. The Cameroonian is a bruising DM who has embraced the old-school English philosophy of getting stuck in. Now if Arsene Wenger decides to go and buy himself a couple of solid defencemen, silver and joy might actually start to seep back into the red side of Norf London.

On the bench: Michael Essien (Chelsea)

You'd be smiling as well...

LEFT WING
Florent Malouda (Chelsea) — Crosses, runs, goals… what more do you want from a winger on a team that plays with three strikers named Drogba, Torres, Anelka? Fantastic, fantastic player.

On the bench: Ashley Young (Aston Villa)

Citeh certainly got their Yaya out...

ATTACKING MIDFIELDER
Yaya Toure (Manchester City) — Reportedly the highest-paid player in the league, Toure is a box-to-box midfielder who was all over the park. The only Citeh player who scored more Prem goals than him is Tevez, who’s goal count pipped Toure for the squad’s Player of the Year.

On the bench: Kevin Nolan (Newcastle United)

"Stop... or I will stare at you a second time..."

RIGHT WING
Nani (Manchester United) — This season has been a revelation for the Portguese winger. (Ed Note: I know he also played a lot on the left. I just wanted to put him on the team.)  Last year, he was whingy, ineffective and prone to giving away the ball. This season, Nani was still whingy — mimicking another one of his countrymen who played for United — but at least he found the net, and helped others to do the same. Nani led the league in assists while scoring 10 of his own. His on-field antics are probably the only thing from getting named as POY.

On the bench: Stewart Downing (Aston Villa)

FORWARDS
Dimitar Berbatov (Manchester United) — The debate rages: is he a precision finisher… or just a cherry picker? Spurs fans spit his name, calling him lazy and opportunistic. But he did end the season with 20 goals, enough to share the league’s Golden Boot… albeit almost all of them were at Old Trafford. Check out Berba’s second goal in their 3-0 defeat of Liverpool… and then make up your mind.

Adios Tevez

Carlos Tevez (Manchester City) — Despite his tally of 23 goals (which would have likely been higher, had he not been injured), Tevez is in danger of doing something even more impressive: pissing off both sides of Manchester. He wanted to stay at United but SAF decided to sell. Yet after only two seasons, the captain of the “People’s Club” says he wants to move on. It may be an ideal time for the club to sell him… but what a shame for the supporters.

On the bench: Robin van Persie (Arsenal), Darren Bent (Aston Villa)

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Nemanja Vidic

Brent Lanthier

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The Bulgarian Question

Berbatov tightens his grip on the Golden Boot

It is damn near irresponsible to count out Manchester United this season, as they once again showed in their comeback away to Blackpool. But it is within the realm of reality to question whether their Number 9, Dimitar Berbatov, will maintain his torrid pace.

After the first half of Tuesday’s match, it looked the Seasiders might record a famous win against Sir Alex et al.  But the Unconvincing Invincibles served up something special in the second 45 minutes, and the cherry on top of that Mancunian sundae was Berbatov.

The striker scored the first and third goals against Blackpool, awakening the Red Giant and giving Man U just their third away win this season.  The goals make it 19 in 20 games for the Bulgarian.  It was the fifth time that he scored more than once this season, and it followed his third hat-trick performance just three days before against Birmingham. 

What is so impressive about Berba is how he does it. For the most part, he embodies the classic Centre Forward, waiting at the end of a series of passes to put the ball in the net… and he rarely makes a mistake.  Most of his goals are one-touch beauties, efficiently simple without great movement, but lovely to watch all the same.

Of course, he is also able to put on a show… especially when he knows he is in control.  Look back at his second goal of five against Blackburn.  Berbatov practically wills the ball in and then walks away, as he if knew it was going in all along. 

His third in that game is even more impressive.  He starts with the ball back at his own box, passes it to Patrice Evra, who then gives it back to a rushing Berba at the half. After kicking far and right to Nani, the No. 9 casually trots up the middle and into Blackburn’s box, madly signally for Nani to give him the ball.  The right winger agrees and Berbatov easily slots it in. 

But those goals pale against his performance against Liverpool at Old Trafford.  Never mind the enormity of the occasion. Never mind that he became the first United player in 64 years to score a hat trick against the hated Merseysiders.  His technique, his finishing were flawless.

His second against Liverpool might have been Goal of the Season

Case in point: the second goal.  Berbatov is in the outer box and takes an Evra pass from the right corner.  Sidling up to a wall of Liverpool players, the Bulgarian takes the ball on his knee, turns his back and scissor kicks the ball into the back of the net.  Jaw-dropping stuff that just might win Goal of the Season.

But there are things he is not.  He is not Wayne Rooney, United’s wayward son, who has yet to find the form he had before his injury last March.  And he is not fellow countryman — and fellow CSKA Sofia grad — Hristo Stoichkov.  The elder was a burly, volatile man who played well off the wing… not unlike Rooney.

He is not someone who seems to enjoy life away from Manchester: fifteen of his 19 goals this season have come at Old Trafford… and eight of those were against Blackburn and Birmingham.  His life doesn’t get any more pleasant on the continent.  Berbatov has appeared in five of United’s six Champions League games this season, without scoring a single point.

It is easy for observers to put qualifiers on his success, and it’s easy to question his enthusiasm, interpreting his calm demeanour as a lack of heart.  As a Liverpool fan, I am obligated to loathe him.  But every time the ball comes to Berba, I always secretly question my loyalty and think, “Oh this one might be bit special…”

Brent Lanthier

This is a great Youtube video of all 19 goals this season:

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Fergie’s Fantasy: What I Did and Why I Did it…

Barton elbows Parker out of Ferg's lineup.

So here’s where I stand.  I’m running sixth in the table right now in my fantasy league… but it’s a mere 30 ponts or so from the top spot so it’s still a very tight racel.  I’d feel great if I was Bolton trying for a Europa league spot, but I picture myself more of a Manchester United or Chelsea type when it comes to fantasy football.  After all, I need not remind all those in my pool that I am the defending champ.  The title holder cannot be satisfied with anything but a repeat… so it’s time to play my wild card. 

I figure if At the Rails allows me to give my opinions and advice on how to win your fantasy league, then you may at least want to know how I spent my wild card this transfer window.  The January wild card means you can make as many transfers as you want for one week, but it’s only good for another month.

So I made some moves.  Because really, who wants to read a fantasy column by a guy in sixth?

THE BIG SIGNINGS

First thing to do is figure out who the players are that you don’t have and feel you need, regardless of the cost.   For me, I added high-priced members of Manchester United: Dimitar Berbatov, who I think will continue to score — especially if Rooney stays healthy — and Nani, who has been one of the top point-getters this year. 

To make room, I let go of Johan Elmander who seems to have turned cold after a hot start to the season, and I dropped Samir Nasri.  Dropping Nasri could turn out to be a mistake, but I felt Nani will outscore him and Man United make a push for the title.

THE SACRIFICES

Unfortunately this left me in the hole moneywise.  My big sacrifice was dropping Joe Hart.  His high price has scared off many from picking him up but I have had him from Week One and watched as he more than earned the high price, leading all goalies in fantasy points. 

Scottish and cheap... it's like saying it twice!

But I had to save money for what I felt was a great option out there: Craig Gordon.  Gordon has been injured so his price is low. But since he’s been back, Sunderland have been regularly keeping clean sheets.  I saved some more money at the goalkeeper position by dropping the injured Paul Robinson and picking up Steve Harper who seems to back in the top job for Newcastle. (Ed. Note: I always thought he was a right-winger!  Ahahahahahaha… I’ll shut up now.)

To make it work right down to the penny meant dropping Scott Parker from West Ham for Newcastle’s Joey Barton.  Barton, like many Newcastle players, is still a little undervalued in my opinion… though I will likely keep him mainly on the bench.  And I got rid of Birmingham defender Roger Johnson (whose team I appear to have put a curse on ever since acquiring him as they stopped keeping clean sheets) for Kevin Foley from Wolves.  That move was done purely for cost reasons, but it’s good to know Foley is a cheap starter if I ever need to put him in.

KEEPERS

Rounding out the squad I kept pricey defenders Nemanja Vidic and Leighton Baines, who I think are worth paying top dollar for.  I also kept Everton’s Seamus Coleman (who is really a midfielder so a good buy since the game has him slotted as a defender) along with Fulham’s Aaron Hughes.  I also held on to the stars of the Tottenham midfield Gareth Bale and Rafael Van der Vaart along with Stoke’s Matthew Etherington. 

Up front I couldn’t part with Carlos Tevez, despite his high price and his constant snood wearing.  I also held on to Andrew Carroll hoping his current injury woes are not too serious.

Will these changes take me to the top of the table? Short answer.  I hope so.  I’ve already spent all the money I collected.

Scott Ferguson

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Fergie’s Fantasy: Rating the Dream Team

Betcha he wishes he had a wild card...

It’s the January transfer window! While it’s not as exciting as the summer transfer window, it is a good opportunity for fantasy managers to revamp their teams. That’s because, for the first time, the Premier League fantasy game offers a January wild card where you can make as many transfers as you like.   Here’s the top 11 in terms of points for the season so far, and whether you should transfer them in or out…

Goalkeeper

Joe Hart –  Manchester City – 110pts.
He’s pricey but worth every penny.  Just ask Arsenal.  He made five brilliant saves to hold a clean sheet against them away from home.  IN

Defenders

No-nonsense Vidic

Nemanja Vidic – Manchester United – 90 pts. 
The rock on Manchester United’s back four has been as solid as ever lately. While does have three goals this year, you can count on him for clean-sheet points as Man U has been very stingy when it comes to conceding goals.  IN

Ashley Cole – Chelsea – 89 pts.
Nothing against Cole personally but Chelsea are in a freefall (Ed Note: He’s a tw@t).  Nobody on the squad is scoring consistently and they aren’t keeping many clean sheets either.  If the veterans start to turn on each other it could get uglier.  OUT unless Chelsea turns it around.

Leighton Baines – Everton – 92 pts. 
The Everton defender had 138 pts last season and now has 92 at the halfway point.  He’s on fire.  Yes he’s pricey, but worth it.  IN

Midfielders

Nani has been more than OK for FFL points

Nani – Manchester United – 116 pts.
Nani has thrived in the absence of Valencia from the Man United lineup. He also seems to score whether Wayne Rooney is in or not. In addition to his goals he gets piles of assists from his crosses. Did I mention he and Tevez are tied for the fantasy scoring lead? IN. Make him your captain.

Tim Cahill – Everton – 107 pts.
Cahill plays almost as high up the pitch as a striker, but he’s still classified as a midfielder…. so in that sense is an interesting choice.  He’s an unstoppable force in the box this season but since he’s now at the Asia Cup, you need to ditch him.  If he stays healthy think about grabbing him again later on.  OUT

Florent Malouda – Chelsea – 105 pts.
I thought this was going to be Malouda’s year.  He seemed to be an explosive offensive force throughout the early portion of the season, but like Ashley Cole, his fantasy numbers have tanked during the team’s recent struggles.  OUT

Rafael Van Der Vaart – Tottenham – 108pts.
If it weren’t for some injury trouble, he would surely be leading the league in fantasy points.  He does it all: scores goals, sets up goals, takes corners, takes free kicks.  Combined with the strong play of Gareth Bale, Spurs have an increasingly deadly midfield.  IN and make him your captain (if for some reason you haven’t picked up Nani.)

Strikers

Tevez breezes by Captain Schtupping

Carlos Tevez – Manchester City – 116 pts.
One of the few players who seems to be able to leave any off-field issues where they belong: off the field.  He performs against great competition and weak teams both and can score almost any time he touches the ball.  IN

Dimitar Berbatov – Manchester United – 113 pts.
Maybe I’m bitter because I dropped him the night before he scored his five goals in one game, (Hey, can you blame me? He hadn’t scored in ten games or so.  But that still didn’t stop me from weeping as I watched.  No one was buying my ‘tears of joy’ excuse.) but I don’t think Berbatov can score without playing alongside Wayne Rooney.  He slumped the first time Rooney was injured this year, and I wouldn’t advise picking him up until they are reunited. OUT

Andrew Carroll – Newcastle – 113 pts.
A walking advertisement for the quality of the Championship, Carroll waltzed into the Premier League and immediately became one of its most deadly strikers.  He’s injured now but if you have him, I’d keep him.  If not, wait until he gets healthy, which should be in a week or two, and then transfer him. IN

Scott Ferguson

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Fergie’s Fantasy – Et Tu Rooney?

We're bloody sick of him, anyway...

First, as a fellow Ferguson, I’d like to declare my bias towards football’s greatest manager Sir Alex Ferguson (Ed. Note: For the love of Pete, give it a rest!)  Bias now declared, I would to say to Wayne Rooney… why? Why must you correct Sir Alex about your ankle injury? You know you are injured… you have been since late last season. Remember when you came back too early and ended one of your best seasons with a whimper? Remember when you were basically useless during the World Cup? Remember when you had ice on your ankle in a photo recently and were carted off the training ground this week on a stretcher? Yet, when Sir Alex tries to defend you by saying you aren’t scoring because you are injured, you say you are fine and you now say you want out.

So where does this leave me? I’m now the owner of an embarrassing Man United jersey with AIG on the front (you remember they planned to give employees millions in bonuses while getting billions from a government bailout) and Rooney on the back… who may end up at — of all places — Manchester City (can we have Carlos Tevez back then? Pretty please?).

Not since Wayne Gretzky left Canada for Los Angeles has a man named Wayne disappointed me so much. If this was a hand-written note, the words would be smudged with a few of my unsuccessfully repressed tears…

But back to my fantasy column. I think it goes without saying that, as a fantasy owner,  you need to get rid of Rooney now and never start him again. No player performs well under these kind of off-field distractions. You need only look at how average Cesc Fabregas has been this year for the Gunners as an example of what happens when a great footballer no longer wants to play for his team.

Top Performers

N'Zogbia: Hard to pronounce, hard to predict

The three big point getters from last week were Wigan’s Charles N’Zogbia with a pair of goals, Manchester City’s Carlos Tevez — also with two goals — and Arsenal’s Marouane Chamakh, who had a brilliant goal along with an assist.

The best long-term bet of the bunch is Carlos Tevez. On a team filled with talent, he has carried the offence and is a huge reason why Man City are currently second in the table. That said, he may not be the best choice for this week. His manager is musing aloud that Tevez needs a rest. I suspect he doesn’t play in the Europa League game and is in this weekend… but you never know.

You also never know what you’ll get from Charles N’Zogbia. He is wildly inconsistent but has the skills to be on a much better team than Wigan (sorry Latic fans). His price is low enough that he is worth taking a chance on.

The best bet may actually be Chamakh. He is exactly what Arsenal has needed this year in the striker role: a talented player who will bury it, given the chance. Even when he isn’t scoring, he always looks dangerous.

Scott’s Subs:

I’ve been making these recommendations every week but I feel the need to somehow track whether the players I’m telling you to pick up are actually serving you well. From this week on, I’ll offer three subs a week and track them for five games versus a) the league average, and b) the players I suggest you take out. If I do very badly, I will pretend I never promised to do this.

IN

Shrek's Loss... Dimmi's Gain

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Berba brilliant in preseason opener

It cost Manchester United 26 million pounds to buy Dimitar Berbatov from Tottenham Hotspur (or steal him away from Man. City, depending on how you look at it), but in games that matter the silky and sometimes sulky Bulgarian has not matched those millions on the scoresheet, notching 21 goals in all competitions in two seasons. He hasn’t satisfied many of the Red Manc supporters, often unable to deliver in the biggest of moments. But when the games don’t mean as much, like Friday’s pre-season friendly against Celtic in Toronto, he’s a magnum-winning Man of the Match.

Berbatov bagged one goal and set up two more, Danny Welbeck’s winner and Tom Cleverley’s deflected third, as United opened their 2010 tour of North America with a 3-1 victory over Celtic in front of an alleged 39,139 at SkyDome (screw the corporate name).

According to my man Ryan Johnston of Sportsnet.ca, the match would have been played at BMO Field if not for the Indy race going on in the vicinity this weekend. Speeding race cars and drunken football supporters don’t mix very well, but it’s a shame they had to play on a pitch that was only laid the day before (the only day free after the CFL’s Argonauts played at home on Wednesday).

I thought the place would be packed with Scotsmen, but instead it was a tiny Toronto Theatre of Dreams, a sea of red with just a few thousand Celtic supporters in the “away end” in one corner. Perhaps Bhoys fans were put off by the fact their squad came into this one fresh off a 1-0 defeat at the hands of the lowly Philadelphia Union, an MLS expansion team.

A banner behind United’s first half goal that read ‘Love United, Hate Glazer’ was gone within 20 minutes and I saw some of Toronto’s finest walking away from the section when I noticed it was gone. There were also more than a few vuvuzelas in the crowd, but they were by no means deafening.

Berbatov played a full 90, unlike Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, subbed off at half and cheered back to the bench already wearing their warm-ups five minutes after the interval. The Bulgarian opened the scoring in the 34th minute, neatly taking down a pass from Mame Biram Diouf and firing it home.

Chris Smalling hauled down Celtic’s Joe Ledley in the box and substitute Georgios Samaras tied it from the penaly spot in the 61st minute, but United won it in the 79th minute when Berbatov broke into the box and squared the ball for Welbeck, who lunged to slot it home.

No idea why the stadium crew felt compelled to play pounding dance music after every goal…do they think North Americans don’t know when to cheer? Pretty weak.

Man. United were dominant throughout most of the match, showing their class with some early great touches by Giggs and an end-to-end run by Berbatov after a Celtic corner.

Berbatov missed wide after breaking into the box in the 29th minute, less than 60 seconds after Gabriel Obertan had also fired past the post for United.

Sir Alex Ferguson bailed out of Thursday night’s presser at the Four Seasons Hotel for a family reunion on Toronto’s outskirts, flying in ahead of his team, who were delayed by bad weather in Chicago. Only Darren Fletcher was ever brought out to face the media masses, or the five (fool)hardy souls who stuck it out through the two-hour wait for five minutes of questions before the team press flak whisked him away. I got smart and went to the bar with Brent and Hadi…no regrets there.

But Ferguson did answer a few questions after this one, talking about the importance to Scottish football of Celtic and other domestic teams fielding homegrown players (you listening, English FA?), Celtic’s match-up with Braga in Champions League qualifying and Berbatov’s top class performance. And when the flak tried to wrap things up before Sir Alex had spoken to the Scottish media, Fergie was quick with the rebuke, saying “He’s Scottish, for chrissake!” Brilliant.

Ian Harrison

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