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Fergie’s Fantasy: Safe Bets for Big Four (Five?)

Flashback all the way to last Saturday morning. The Ferguson household was quiet. Manchester United was playing the early game, so I snuck downstairs with my Rooney jersey on, eager to see the Red Devils take on Everton (it takes more than cheating on your pregnant wife to before I’ll stop wearing your jersey… I also own a Tiger Woods hat).  

But lo and behold, there was a very unexpected decision from my distant relative Sir Alex Ferguson (an unconfirmed presumption of mine): Wayne Rooney would not be playing. 

While, for roughly 85 minutes or so, it seemed like the idea would work out, it was always going to be bad for fantasy managers like me. It turned out to be bad for Man United as well, as they gave up two late goals and settled for a draw.

The decision to rest Wayne Rooney was made more to protect him from the jeers of fans of his former club. But Sir Alex likely also had the Champions League in mind…  as did other top teams who rested or limited minutes to stars to get them ready for games in Europe.

Few players are hotter than Florent Malouda but he only played about 10 minutes last week for Chelsea. This is the danger you run into, choosing players from the Big Four and Tottenham. You pay a high price for the players and these teams are deep enough — and play in enough competitions — that they rotate bench players into the lineup more often than mid-table squads.

However, there are a few players (besides the goalkeepers) that manage to keep their spot in the lineup every week… even on these teams. Remember, they can’t earn you points if they aren’t playing… and yes, I still count Liverpool in the Big Four.

Essien and Cole have been fantasy league gold

Chelsea
Defender Ashley Cole and midfielder John Obi Mikel have played every minute of this season so far, while John Terry is not far behind. Michael Essien, Didier Drogba, and Nicolas Anelka have all shown offensive flair this year along with playing most of every game this season.

Arsenal
No one has played every minute of every game for Arsenal… but midfielder Andrey Arshavin and new striker Maroune Chamakh have come close. Some discipline and injury issues have caused Arsene Wenger to rotate defenders but Bacary Sanga and Gael Clichy are likely to be there for most games.

Manchester United
There’s been a lot of consistency on the back line for Man United so far this season, with John O’Shea and Nemanja Vidic playing every minute along with midfielder Darren Fletcher.  Patrice Evra has been a constant presence at left back and Dimitar Berbatov has logged a lot of time up front. Some thought the signing of Javier Hernandez would limit his minutes, but that hasn’t been the case so far.

Gareth Bale's a bit "special"... just look at 'em...

Tottenham
The main stalwarts for Tottenham have been midfielders Gareth Bale and Tom Huddlestone. Close behind them is midfielder Aaron Lennon. The defenders are settling into a pattern… but no one has played more than the equivalent of three out of four games this season and the strikers are being rotated a lot, due to injuries.

Liverpool
With Rafael Benitez gone, fantasy managers have enjoyed a more consistent lineup from Liverpool with a few players logging the full 360 minutes of the season so far. They include defenders Glen Johnson, Martin Skrtel, and Jamie Carragher, and midfielder Steven Gerrard. Also logging a lot of time are strikers Milan Jovanovic and Fernando Torres, who will be a fixture as long as he’s healthy.

FERGIE’S FIVE:

Let’s review last week’s column. Even in a week where there were few goals, I gave you some gems to add into your fantasy team. Did any other fantasy column in the world predict that West Brom’s Chris Brunt would get on the board against Tottenham? Ahem… Or how about that sage advice that Birmingham’s Ben Foster had something to prove this season? Foster rewarded myself and the managers who chose him with a clean sheet vs. Liverpool.

Here are five players to watch for this weekend:

THE CAPTAIN: I promise to pick someone different next week… but how can you go wrong with making Didier Drogba your captain when Chelsea is at home to Blackpool (and is it me or has Chelsea had a very friendly schedule so far this season…). If you don’t have Drogba, make any other Chelsea player your captain!

HOT STREAKS:Bolton’s Johan Elmander is finally living up to his potential as a goal scorer. Surprisingly he’s been more deadly around the net than Kevin Davies this season, giving Bolton a strong attacking duo up front.

One Dembele... there's only one Dembele...

Fulham’s Moussa Dembele has two goals and two assists in his last two games and will be asked to carry an even heavier load after the injury to Bobby Zamora.

BARGAINS:Even though he’s going up against Chelsea, it must be said that Blackpool’s Charlie Adam has been one of the most efficient players early in the season. Adam has a goal and two assists in the first four games from the midfield position.

And though he’s only owned by only 4% of teams in the fantasy league, Birmingham midfielder Craig Gardner already has three goals. Can he keep it up? Probably not, but it won’t cost you much to find out.

Scott Ferguson

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Man. City in need of Sheikh-up

Yet another away game, yet another below performance for the Citizens. If Sunday’s defeat at Sunderland proved one thing, it’s that Manchester City still have a long way to go before they can pose a serious threat.

Though the argument that money doesn’t buy you success seems a fragile one, it does seem to be ringing true for the club that spent over $200 million this summer.  The more you watch City, the more you realize that it’s not the money that’s the problem; its the way it’s spent.

Yes, James Milner is very good. A pacey winger who’s delivery credentials was evident when he found Gareth Barry out of nowhere last week against Liverpool. But is he really worth just under $50 million? For half that money Arsenal invested in Samir Nasri, a proven playmaker who is about quantity, not quality. And what about Mario Ballotelli? Sorry, but this is a man who managed to alienate the people of Milan with his lacklustre performances and still ask for a pay increase. He could start a fight in an empty room.

It’s easy to criticize any team that has just lost, but it was the manner in which defeat came that showed the issues at hand. Even with Carlos Tevez’s shocking twelve yard miss, City never really looked like scoring, nor did they even look like mustering an attempt on goal.

Yaya Toure is another example of how poorly the money’s been spent. There is little doubt that teams add 50% to the price when City ask for an evaluation. Instead of the amount they spend each week on keeping him on the payroll, a cool $350,000, Man. City could surely have dangled the same sum in front of the best striker in the world and employed the services of Fernando Torres, especially given that cash-strapped Liverpool are hardly in a position to haggle.

Imagine it, Torres alongside Tevez. The proverbial lambs to the slaughter comes to mind.

But look at this from another angle as well. Every player linked with City this summer was also courted by someone else. If you can afford to buy a player so a rival can’t have them, why wouldn’t you?

Of course, from a player’s perspective, you’d like to think no amount of money would be enough when it comes from a club that, at least right now, can’t even offer the promise of Champions League football. Sadly, it seems that’s not true for everyone.

It could be another slow year for Manchester City, and when owner Sheikh Mansour gets bored and wants to buy an island instead, they’re going to be left with a hefty wage bill of players who are good, but not good enough.

Sam Saunders

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Liverpool’s Summer of Love

Three months ago, I wrote that Liverpool faced a bleak off-season. Arrogant owners had plunged the club into obscene levels of debt, while bragging how they would reap record profits from its sale. The team finished a dismal seventh, ending another season where the trophy case remained dusty and unopened.  And Liverpool’s major stars — Gerrard, Torres and Mascherano — all appeared headed for the door.

Oh, what a difference three months has made.  Instead of panic, there has been a steely determination to weather the storm.  Roy Hodgson — a candidate by default, some would say — was hired to manage the team, if only for a little while. But instead of being a lame-duck leader, Hodgson started manning the phones.  He convinced Joe Cole to leave the safe confines of London… and then everything seemed to fall into place.

The commitment of Steven Gerrard to the club was an important step. Never mind the cynics who said he was unwanted abroad. The pledge showed that Liverpool’s captain — and heart and soul — believes there is a future on Merseyside.  But there was still a problem of finances.

Enter Kenny Huang.  It seems the Chinese businessman doesn’t see a club in turmoil, he sees a massive opportunity. Huang remembers that Liverpool is still the most successful English club in history… indeed, one of the most successful in the world.  He saw the survey that shows Fernando Torres shirts sold more units worldwide than any other Premier League player.  He knows owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett are mucking about… and thinks he can do something about it.

Huang is being aggressive. The billionaire claims that the club’s debt is so massive, it’s made shares virtually worthless. If he successfully buys that debt from the bank, it’s curtains for Hicks and Gillett.  Good riddance.

Torres has said all along that the club needs new investment, and implied that new owners would be required to get him to stay.  Today, he committed his future to the club… another tremendous psychological boost.  Huang has promised to bring in big players and start in on a new stadium — promises heard from the current owners that ended up ringing hollow. But the rapidly dwindling millions of Hicks and Gillett are drops in the bucket when compared to Huang’s billions.

They say money can’t buy happiness. I think the Anfield faithful beg to differ.

Brent Lanthier

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It could happen…

Kevin Hoggard

10 Things that I hope will happen in the Premiership this year:

1.       Roy Hodgson’s new cuddly approach will involve having a sleepover for his squad.  All the players will get dropped off by their mothers and they’ll all share one big bed.  Gerrard will suck his thumb and fight with Torres over his teddy bear while Woy reads them a bed time story about one night in Istanbul.  Dirk Kuyt will run around the room for 90 minutes without actually achieving anything.

Granddad Woy shows the lads what the CL trophy looks like…

2.       That all players have to grow facial hair, of their own choosing, until they score a goal.  Note to Fat Frank: “Deflected goals do not count.”

3.       Rory Delap has an operation to make his shoulders double-jointed.  He will now be able to launch a throw into the area from any position on the pitch.  A sign in the Stoke tunnel will read you must be 6’4” to go on the pitch.

4.       Penalty kicks will no longer decide cup matches.  The match will now be decided by a cage match involving four players from each team.  Players will have suitable monikers and be required to wear skin tight lycra.  John Terry, or ‘The Terry-nator’, will be a figure of hate as numerous WAGs grab the microphone and tell of how they’ve cheated on their man with the Chelsea captain.

5.       A two-week winter break is introduced and the top 10 managers in the Premier League will go into the Big Brother house and battle it out for the public’s vote.  Big Sam will spend every waking minute in the diary room complaining about everything.  Harry Redknapp will constantly tell people that the food in the cupboard is down to the bare bones.  Alex Ferguson will be found in his bedroom with every bottle of alcohol stacked in the corner, whispering the words “My Precious” and clawing at anybody coming within range.

6.       Rio will roofie Wayne Rooney two hours before the game.  Whilst asleep Rio will paint Rooney’s face green and wake him up 5 minutes before kick-off and he will run onto the pitch in complete ignorance to the sniggers of his team mates.  Donkey will be in the technical area shouting out instructions.

7.       Shaun Wright-Phillips will run out of the tunnel at the Eastlands only to have a sharp steel girder drop down and take his head off.  He will continue to run around for 90 minutes and nobody will notice the difference.

8.       Arsene Wenger is affected by the same truth wish that Jim Carrey had in Liar Liar.  When asked after the game if he saw an incident, Arsene will reply “Yes of course I saw it.  Why wouldn’t I?  I was watching the game.”  “So do you think Bendtner took a dive?”  “Definitely!  I’ve seen it on the monitor and nobody touched him.”  Arsene will look bemused as if he can’t believe he just said that out loud and, on parting, he will turn to the camera and say “And before you ask, Walcott really isn’t very good.”  Arsene will leave shaking his head.

9.       The British Government will kidnap Lionel Messi and put him into a village, like in The Prisoner.  He will be kept there by a big bouncing Jabulani ball.  The only other residents of the village will be 300 fertile young women.  2028 will be the start of 16 years of dominance by a pint sized England team and David James will still be in goal.  England shirts will be sold for $10 as they all have the same name on the back and are purchased in a massive job lot from China.

10) Shakira is given an honorary season ticket for Blackburn.  Her love affair with football finishes by the end of August 2010. 

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Ole, ole ole! Spain wins World Cup!

Andres Iniesta’s extra-time goal gives Spain their first World Cup title with a 1-0 victory over the Netherlands, the fourth straight 1-0 win for Spain in the knockout round of World Cup 2010. The Dutch picked up eight yellows and defender Johnny Heitinga saw red from English referee Howard Webb in what was a hard-fought final that didn’t produce too many highlight moments. The much-maligned Fernando Torres came off the bench and helped set up Iniesta’s goal, making the reigning champions of Europe the eighth team to win the World Cup. The last country to hold both titles simultaneously was France in 1998 and 2000. Congratulations to La Furia Roja. Time to party on College Street and in Espana. We’ll be back with more later.

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Sweet 16 set in South Africa

Here’s the problem boys: You can’t score with your eyes closed

It was South American Colonies vs Former European Colonial Masters on the final day of group stage play at World Cup 2010, with Brazil facing Portugal to decide the top spot in Group G in one of the early games and Chile taking on Spain for first place in Group H in the late games.

As captivating as it looked on paper, the Brazil-Portugal clash didn’t really live up to the hype, finishing in a 0-0 draw that saw both teams go through, with Brazil securing first place. A shame, really, that this game didn’t come up earlier when both sides had more to play for…a draw was always on the cards given that it was enough to put the two teams into the knockout round.

Portugal have yet to concede at this tournament, but just as tellingly they haven’t put a goal past anyone other than North Korea. Good for them that they put seven past Kim Jong-Il’s boys, who may never be seen again after they bowed out with a 3-0 loss to Ivory Coast. Afterwards, Sven said goodbye to the Elephants, who were always going to need a big scoreline to keep going, but couldn’t pull it off . Sadly, the team many felt was Africa’s best but one that was consigned to a Group of Death for the second straight World Cup, finished one point behind Portugal, leaving Ghana as Africa’s lone representative in the second round.

David Villa’s cheeky goal pointed Spain into the second round

Later, while I was out covering a G20 protest march through downtown Toronto, Chile became the first South American team to taste defeat at this tournament, falling to Spain 2-1 thanks to an audacious first-half strike by David Villa and a well-struck shot by Andres Iniesta, and aided by an harsh sending off by Mexican referee Marco Rodriguez (the same guy who chased Australia’s Tim Cahill) after Marco Estrada clipped the heel of Fernando Torres, who disappointed again and was substituted early in the second half. Despite La Roja’s defeat, all five South American teams have reached the next stage, with a combined record to date of nine wins, one loss and five draws.

Finally, Switzerland’s bank-vault defence didn’t concede against Honduras in a 0-0 draw that gave the Central Americans their first and only point of the tournament, but did nothing to send the Swiss through.

So, it’s Brazil vs. Chile in an all-South American clash at Ellis Park Stadium in Jo’burg on the 28th, and Spain vs. Portugal in Cape Town on the 29th, our correspondent’s final match of his World Cup tour.

Ian Harrison

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Dirty shirts, little men… and Sven

Brent Lanthier

No one’s having more fun than this guy…

England players are used to talk of their millionaire lifestyles and misbehaving WAGs, so this next tidbit begs a “dirty laundry” joke about a sewage leak soiling their kits .  Look at me! I’m punny just like the British press!

And just when you couldn’t watch it anymore, I thought I’d post the Guardian’s Lego recreation of Robert Green’s Hand of Clod.

OK, back to the real matches. New Zealand and Slovakia opened up the day with a 1-1 draw. Last week, I publicly called the All Whites “filler” but they played well enough today. Both goals were headers… although Robert Vittek was offside when he put his in the net.  Winston Reid’s goal off a Shane Smeltz cross (deflected by a Slovakian player) was New Zealand’s first World Cup goal since scoring against Scotland in 1982 (Ed: Thanks Adam).

Next up in the so-called Group of Death: Ivory Coast vs. Portugal. The hope was that superstars Cristiano Ronaldo or Didier Drogba, who is pulling a Gary Lineker, would light up the pitch. But neither looked very Group of Death-y. Ronaldo did manage a cracker that went off the post, and then got a yellow after he was taken down a few minutes later. Tee hee.  Final was 0-0.

Sven-Goran says he’s having more fun as manager of Ivory Coast than he ever did as England boss. So are England fans.  But he also says he wants to return to England to coach Liverpool.  Make up your mind, Sven….  Oh, and he also wants a summit to discuss the ball.

Final match was Brazil vs. North Korea and everyone was expecting a blood bath in Jo-burg. But on a cold night, the Koreans held firm, playing not to lose. The “defensive-minded” Brazilians still managed 10 shots on net, with Inter Milan’s Maicon scoring first, on a goal that almost came from the touchline. Then Elano made a nifty little run, scoring again.  Not so fast! The North Koreans managed to pull one back in the 89th minute. However, I have no idea who scored because Kim Jong-Il is a power-mad dictator who rules with an iron fist, controlling all information in and out of his impoverished nation. So there.

Torres: New ‘do, new team?

Tomorrow, European Champions Spain start their campaign against Switzerland. Both Iniesta and Fernando Torres have been declared fit to play. That news comes amid reports that Chelsea offered Liverpool 50 million pounds for Torres.  And so it begins…

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