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Fergie’s Fantasy: Winning Strategies

We’re a few weeks into the season now and you are either feeling good about the start of your team’s season… or perhaps you feel a bit like West Ham, searching for answers on how it all went so wrong so quickly.

Unfortunately for you, firing the manager early on to get the attention of your lacklustre players is not an option. So the only way to get your mates — who have clearly been more lucky than clever — to shut up is to grin and bear it and fight your way back to the top!

Here are some proven winning strategies that you can apply whether you are at the top of the table or in danger of being relegated.

1. Steady as she goes with the Captain
You don’t see Steven Gerrard passing around the captain’s armband each week and neither should you. You’ve likely selected one of the highest-priced players to captain your squad like Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney, Fernando Torres, Gerrard, Cesc Fabregas, or Carlos Tevez.

If you have done that, it means you’ve locked up more than ten percent of your available money into one player. That alone makes it worthwhile  to keep them as your captain. I’m not saying keep them forever but all of those players are proven performers…  and the week you transfer them out of your squad is the week they likely get a hat trick.

2. Watch the fixture list
This goes without saying: check to see who is playing who each week. One day you may feel like starting Matthew Upson or Robert Green from West Ham… just not this week when Chelsea is coming to town (I know, I’m picking on West Ham, but so is everyone else who plays them). On the other hand, it’s a good week to get your Fulham defenders out there as they are home to Wolves.

You especially need to watch the fixture list when it comes to choosing your starting goalie and defenders. Those players who have home games will serve you well.

This is also why it’s important to make sure your bench is filled with players who start, and not just cheap throwaway players. Having low priced starters on the bench gives you more flexibility in choosing your line-up.

With offensive midfielders and strikers, home field advantages appears to be less pronounced. The good ones bulge the twine regularly on the road as well as at their home ground.

Brunt: A Matter of Time?

3. You are your own scouting department
Sure you have me to tell you what to do, but there really is no better substitute than watching your players in action.

Taking in the full 90 minutes or the highlights, or reading a description of the game on the web, you’ll get a sense of who is ready to go on a hot streak and whose numbers may be deceiving.

For example — and I’ve yet to be proven right about this — I’ve been watching West Brom’s Chris Brunt ring balls off the woodwork. It’s only a matter of time before he puts a few into the net.

4. Don’t pay for transfers
Yes, I know you watched Asamoah Gyan at the World Cup… and now that he’s on Sunderland you need him on your team. But at the same time, you may be an Arsenal fan who has really missed Alexander Hleb and you want him as well. Don’t pay the four points to pick up both. It’s never worth it.

Trust me, when you look back at the end of the season and see how many points you spent on transfers, it can be the difference between a top five finish and being mid-table. If you need to add more than one player in a week because of injuries, then play your wild card. You get another wild card to use during the January transfer window so don’t be shy about using it.

Whatever you do, don’t pay for extra transfers now. Wait a week until you have another free transfer at your disposal.

5. Read the tabloids (or at least, more than just the box scores)
You need to know about any external pressures or distractions facing your squad. You might not care that Wayne Rooney is getting a red card from his wife for scoring away from home, but you need to know how it will affect his game this weekend.  Sure, he scored in Switzerland for England, but I think the Everton fans are going to give him a much rougher time which may rattle him a bit. Mea culpa here though: despite this, I do plan to keep Wayne on my team this week.

What about Cesc Fabregas and his badly-wanted non-transfer to Barcelona? I believed him when he said he was ready to give Arsenal his full effort, but we have yet to really see it on the pitch.

Foster may have something to prove

On the more positive side, players like Birmingham’s Ben Foster have something to prove after not fitting in with Manchester United’s plans and he has shown some strong work in goal so far this season.

Admittedly, this is not an exact science. But you want to look for players with extra motivation and shy away from those with off the field drama.

FERGIE’S FIVE TO WATCH:

Captain: I’m sounding like a broken record here, but it’s hard to have a better start to the season than Didier Drogba. This week he has another favourable match up with Chelsea visiting struggling West Ham (okay, next week I promise to lay off West Ham).

Bargain Bin: I’m sure he’ll slow down eventually, but there’s no better bargain right now than Newcastle’s Andrew Carroll. His squad are home versus Blackpool so we may see him put a few more in the back of the net.

Also, Alexander Hleb is available for a good price as he returns to the Premier League. I presume he’ll get a lot of minutes with Birmingham but you may want to hold off a game or two before adding him just to see how he fits into the squad.

In Form: It really hurts me to write nice things about Chelsea players but honestly: who is playing better than Florent Malouda? He has scored in every game this season.

X-Factor: Will Louis Saha of Everton finally get on the score sheet? Normally I wouldn’t pick a striker to take advantage of Manchester United coming to town. But don’t forget that United is his old club, so there could be some extra motivation this week. And if he doesn’t show up this week it might be time for a transfer out of your team.

Scott Ferguson

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Whither withering Albion…

As if on cue, the English handwringing has begun. Once more, The Three Lions have failed to reach the final of a major tournament… and once more, the finger-pointing and navel-gazing has started in earnest.  Football analysts will speculate for the rest of the summer on why this “golden generation” failed to make it past the second round, after failing to qualify for Euro 2008 altogether.

Was it fatigue? Don Fabio claims his players were tired from an overlong Premier League season.  Most of his players were selected from teams playing in cup runs or in European leagues.  Some pundits argue the team which qualified so easily by the autumn of 2009 was a shadow of itself, come summer of 2010.

Was it the ball? John Terry was caught out on the first goal yesterday when the ball sailed over his head, allowing Miroslav Klose to score the first tally.  Terry may have been out of position, but the Jabulani seems to have taken some players by surprise. Some observers say it is more favourable for the quick short-pass game of the South Americans… who have seen great success in this tournament so far.

Was it the manager?  Little Englanders say an Italian manager can never understand an English player. Of course, Schteve McClaren was English… and he was pants. Also it’s a little suspect that some of those calling for an English manager are looking for the job themselves.

Was it the selection? When Capello was hired, he said he would pick players based on form. But it soon became clear that the usual cast of characters would be appearing. A brittle Ferdinand was selected, along with players like Carrick, Upson, Heskey, James, Green, Walcott, SWP and Joe Cole… players who didn’t have the best seasons but seemed to have been chosen simply because they had all been capped before.  In-form players like Birmingham’s Roger Johnson, Stoke City’s Etherington and even Wolves’ Jody Craddock weren’t even given a glance.  They may not have international experience… but after this dismal World Cup, would it have mattered?

Was it age? England’s oldest-ever World Cup squad looked slow and random against a positively juvenile German team who looked more organized and experienced yesterday.  Was too much faith put into a group of players who — despite all their club success — have never achieved at the international level?

Is it English football itself? The Premier League has become a sporting Tower of Babel, a marketplace for the world’s players to make their fortunes on the global stage. But with big clubs buying — rather than developing — their players, England’s national team seems to have suffered. Witness the thin pool of talent available to Capello in goal and across the back four.

Many of the current players will likely call time on their international career, come Brazil in 2014.  Gerrard, Lampard, Terry, Ferdinand; they will join the ranks of Lineker, Gascoigne, Shearer, Owen and Beckham before them.  All of them were great players who will never know what it feels like to win the greatest tournament on the planet.

For England fans, there is still 2012… and 2014… and so on. The faithful will wring their hands, hold their breath, and whisper, “Please don’t let us down again.”

Brent Lanthier

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Best of the Prem: Starting XI

Brent Lanthier

After one of the closest seasons in years, the EPL produced some breakout superstars, as well as some familiar faces who are almost guaranteed to perform.  Here is my dream team for 2009-10.


Brent’s choice for Player of the Year. Sorry, Wayne…

GK: Joe Hart (Birmingham City)
Despite facing the third most shots in the League, Hart still had the second best save percentage, and starting every game in his loan to Birmingham. At 23, he is simply a better keeper than Shay Given, which says a lot. Look for Man City to tighten up at the back as Hart returns to Lancashire.

On the bench: Brad Friedel (Aston Villa), Petr Cech (Chelsea)

LB: Patrice Evra (Manchester United)
France’s newly crowned capitaine, Evra is a left-back who is a pure defender. Fierce and fiery, the Senegalese-born defender has disrupted the attack of many a right winger this season, and turned play around quickly on the counter-attack.

On the bench: Leighton Baines (Everton)

CB: Richard Dunne (Aston Villa)
One of Martin O’Neill’s most important pieces of business last year was the purchase of Manchester City’s former captain, Richard Dunne. The mighty Irishman is simply scary, but he’s also a leader on the pitch and proved invaluable in Villa’s drive for European football.

CB: John Terry (Chelsea)
Despite all of Captain Schtupping’s off-field problems, Terry eventually regained his composure to captain Chelsea to the rare double. Despite the unfortunate game against Everton, despite the sending off against Tottenham, and despite the poor showing against Inter Milan, Terry is still the bedrock of one of the best defences in the Premier League.

On the bench: Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal), Jody Craddock (Wolverhampton)

RB: Carlos Cuellar (Aston Villa)
The Spanish defender is a centre-half-cum-right-back, a common occurance in a league that seems to have little regard for the position. Picked up by Villa from Glasgow Rangers, Cuellar is the only member of Martin O’Neill’s preferred starting XI to not have been capped by his country. Villa will likely buy a natural RB after South Africa, but Cuellar has done an admirable job out of position.

On the bench: Bacary Sagna (Arsenal)

LW: Florent Malouda (Chelsea)
This Frenchman experienced a rebirth under Carlo Ancelotti. He was utilized as defensive midfielder — and even a left back — under Avram Grant and Big Phil Scolari. But this season, he had 14 goals and 10 assists, and was an important part of Chelsea’s double-winning season.

On the bench: Ashley Young (Aston Villa)

CM: Frank Lampard (Chelsea)
Twenty-two goals and 14 assists, Lampard is the complete player, year in and year out. He’s the engine of HMS Chelsea.

CM: Cesc Fabregas (Arsenal)
Arsenal’s captain and best player at only 23 years old, the Gunners suffered when he got injured. Arsene Wenger needs to hang on to the Catalan in order to maintain his club’s Champions League spot.

On the bench: James Milner (Aston Villa), Steven Gerrard (Liverpool)

RW: Antonio Valencia (Manchester United)
This Ecuadorian had a bit of a slow start, but he came round once the season began to pick up.  The mirror image of Ryan Giggs on the right side, Valencia is a playmaker, spraying the ball with lethal accuracy, while picking up a smattering of goals along the way.  Wayne Rooney has said that Valencia is the reason why he scored so many goals this year. Shades of a posh former United player….

On the bench: Dirk Kuyt (Liverpool)

F: Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)
What else can be said about the Scouser in Manc clothing? He runs at defenders, he never gives up, he finds ways to score. One of the best players in the world.

F: Didier Drogba (Chelsea)
His World Cup-ending injury is a loss to football fans everywhere. This year’s Golden Boot winner simply wills his way into the box. His humanitarian efforts alone would make him easy to cheer for, if he didn’t pout so much, or engage in so many false theatrics.

On the bench: Darren Bent (Sunderland), Carlos Tevez (Manchester City)

That’s it for the Prem until next month. We’ll see how the trades play out over the summer. Enjoy the World Cup!

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England’s Pain: Germany ’06

Kevin Hoggard

My married friends relish telling me that having a child is the best thing that can ever happen to you. My reply is that the World Cup is the best thing that ever happens to you. Unfortunately for England fans, the World Cup is like having a child, except when you cradle it in your arms for the first time and you brush back the blanket… and catch your first glimpse of ginger hair. You’ll still love it… but there’s always that tinge of regret. I can imagine it’s how my parents felt.

The more the years progress, the more I have used alcohol to dull the pain of misspent patriotism. During Germany 2006, I would reach new levels of debauchery. There would be professions of love, incidents with a lamp shade, people locked out of pubs, and friends waking up in boxers in their driveway. I’m waiting for maturity to kick in but it’s taking its sweet time.

In 2006, I was back in England, staying at a friend’s place. My wife (at the time) was in Costa Rica, staying at her aunt’s house and acquiring my crazy Latina cat. They are both still biting and scratching me to this day.

Steve and I developed a routine for England games. Dressing smartly was the first order of the day: always look good. Then we would convene in the living room, open the windows and put the Killers on the stereo. The song would build slowly as we stood side by side, nervously shifting our weight from one foot to the other. “I’ve got Soul but I’m not a soldier” would be softly spoken at the start but as the song progressed it would grow in intensity and so did we. By the end, primal screams of “COME ON ENGLAND!” would echo around the lazy suburban neighbourhood. The song would end, the stereo would be switched off, the windows were closed, and the march down to the pub would begin. It was our day, we were pumped, and nobody could defeat us. But The Killers are false prophets.

We chose our first pub badly. We thought a cool chic place would be good for the opener against Paraguay. It was not. I stood out like a sore thumb. My swearing and general abuse of alcohol was so out of place that my friends started to become embarrassed by me. A third-minute own goal won us the game. England was comfortable, unlike the rest of the bar’s patrons.

After the game, I drank until The Men in Black zapped me and erased 4 hours of my life that has forever remained a mystery. I awoke the next day and gingerly made my way down to the kitchen to put the kettle on.

“Enjoy yourself last night?”

Leaning against the doorjamb behind me, Steve posed a question. A look of puzzlement crossed my face.

“The lamp?”

“I have no clue what you are talking about fella. After 10pm, everything is a blank.”

“You don’t remember the lamp?”

“What in God’s name are you talking about?”

“Last night I get in and find my lampshade sitting in the middle of my bedroom door.”

“Strange,” I replied.

“Indeed. In your inebriated state you must have found it amusing to go into my room,” — I had never, so much as once, been in Steve’s bedroom during my stay — “Then you teetered on the edge of my bed, unscrewed the light bulb, unscrewed the plastic casing, removed the lampshade, screwed the plastic casing back, screwed the light bulb back in, and then carefully placed the lampshade in my doorway.”

Apparently I’m a comedy genius, even in unconsciousness!

We moved locations for our second game. The Phantom and Firkin was our destination and it was jammed with degenerates who made our behaviour look positively upper class. We were home. England eased past Trinidad and Tobago 2-0. With six points and no pressure, we were unsure what to do. Drink was the answer.

Our final game mattered. Lose to Sweden and we would most likely face Germany in the next round. Win or draw and our game would be easier. Michael Owen twisted his knee in the first minute and his tournament was done. Joe Cole scored a 35-yard volley that screamed into the top corner. Beer flew everywhere. We were soaked but happy.

Sweden equalized but Stevie G put us ahead… only for Henrik Larsson to grab a last minute goal. It didn’t matter. We smelt of lager and we were ready to take on the world.

Steve drank himself into a state where his legs betrayed the relay signals sent by his brain, meaning I had to carry him home. We tumbled several times as his weight dragged me down into bushes and grassy knolls. Up we got and onwards we travelled. Steve told me several times I had saved his life and that he loved me – like a man loves a man after a case of beer. I did save his life because I literally turned down several offers to pimp him out into prostitution. He’s a good-looking boy.

We finished the night by sitting out on his back patio downing a final beer. It was still toasty. The effort to get him upstairs was too much, so I left him muttering quietly to himself, entrusting his fate to God and Stella Artois. He awoke at 5a.m., lying in his driveway in just his boxers, his neighbour tipping his cap to him as he left for work. The Men in Black had done their job again.

Our first place finish had earned us a match against Ecuador. The pub was heaving again. Intimidating bouncers lined the entrance, their knuckles creating sparks as their rings scraped the ground while they paced. There was always violence waiting to erupt. A wrong word, a spilt pint and you’d find yourself eating pavement, thanks to our evolutionary-challenged guardians.

England played poorly but they did the job. We survived an early scare when Ecuador hit the bar but Beckham became the only Englishman to score in three different World Cup Finals. It was a trademark free kick. What else could it have been?

So it was the last eight again. All the classic teams were there; Argentina, Brazil, Italy, Germany, France, Portugal –our opponents – plus the surprise package of Ukraine.

As we had progressed, our entourage grew. We were joined by wives and girlfriends and friends who didn’t even like football. The World Cup had brought us all together. Texts pinged back and forth as people asked us to reserve spots and order pints. One of our party was locked out when the pub closed its doors: it was over maximum capacity by a couple of hundred people. The distraught face of our stranded friend was pushed up against the window, pleading for entry. He would later sneak in the back way, to much rejoicing. The bar was about eight deep and getting a pint was longer and more hazardous than Frodo’s quest to Mordor.

What can you say about the Portuguese? I personally find their team despicable. During their exit from Euro 2000, their players assaulted the linesman and referee. Three players received bans of five months or more. Their previous match against the U.S.A. had resulted in four red cards. And of course, they have the most punchable man in football – Cristiano Ronaldo. With the tension already palpable in the pub, losing to them just didn’t seem like an option.

The game was so familiar to England fans. We lost Beckham to an injury just before half time and, on 62 minutes, we lost Rooney. Two Portuguese players harangued him, hacking at him as he tried to break free. His frustration boiled over and he stamped on Carvalho’s nuts. Ronaldo – Rooney’s teammate at United – led the rest of his team in calling for Rooney to be sent off. How they played together at United the next season, I’ll never quite fathom. But our hearts sank with the dismissal. Here we go again. The inglorious bastards were about to beat us.

But the sending-off galvanized us and we fought with the ferocity of the three English lions on our chests. There were so many English fans at the match, it felt like a home game and they roared our players on. Owen Hargreaves was magnificent. He was England’s MVP for the tournament and he led by example that day.

Like a prisoner on death row, we delayed our execution. But our exit, like theirs, was inevitable. Penalties!

We all watched with bile rising in our throats. Portugal scored. Lampard had his penalty saved… but Viana hit the post and Hargreaves cemented his place in our hearts by bringing us level. Petit then missed and Gerrard had a chance to put us ahead. Ricardo saved. Postiga scored and Carragher levelled it, but then the referee ordered him to retake it. We knew he’d miss the second time. Ricardo saved again. So it all came down to the most hated man in football. Steve just couldn’t watch. He turned away, shaking his head, hands on his knees, looking ready to throw up if we were defeated by this arrogant son of a bitch. I held his hair back as Ronaldo knocked us out.

The pub cleared out quicker than if a bomb threat had been called in. We retreated to the outdoor picnic tables. All the lads were silent. All the girls chatted about non-football related matters as if nothing had just happened. We all had a case of Football Tourettes. Every so often one of us would blurt out “Fucking Portuguese” or “FUCK RONALDO!” Our group slowly broke up and silently we returned to our lives.

The final was famous for Zidane’s head-butt. But what was better for me was the bet my friend Steve had with our Italian friend, Ronnie. Before the tournament, Italy was in complete disarray and Ronnie told us they would win the tournament. Steve sprayed his pint out onto the lawn as he laughed. He took a beat and then said, “If Italy wins the World Cup I will run naked down the high street”.

Steve, we’re still waiting for you to pay up.

Kev remains ever-hopeful that his beloved Three Lions will end their 44-year drought.  England’s campaign kicks off Saturday against the USA in Rustenburg.

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Best of the Prem: Burnley to Hull City

Brent Lanthier

Don’t get yer knickers in a bunch, we’ve got more World Cup coverage coming! But you should probably keep the Premier League in the back of your mind, since the backroom machinations are still ongoing. Several clubs can’t wait for the tournament to end to start their wheeling and dealing.

Burnley: Wade Elliott (ENG)
Burnley’s Player of the Year, At The Rails has already sung the praises of Wade Elliott. He created width down the right while adding some grit to the Clarets: he led the team in both fouls and yellow cards. A team leader on last season’s version of Blackpool.

Future: While Burnley descends back into the Championship, Elliott will likely remain behind with one of the Prem’s lesser lights. Reports say his former boss Owen Coyle will offer Burnley 750,000 pounds to bring the winger to Bolton.

World Cup-bound? No, but at least it would have been nice to see him get a taste. Alas, playing on a relegation-bound club shut him out of Don Fabio’s plans immediately.

Chelsea: Frank Lampard (ENG)
This is going to bring the wrath of my fellow ATR writers: Fat Frank should have been the league’s Player of the Year.  After a shaky start, he was the real leader of Chelsea when Captain Schtupping was busy…. um, getting busy. The axis around which the entire team rotates, Lampard had 22 goals (as a central midfielder!) and led the league with 14 assists. Rooney had a stunning season but Frank was the complete player.

Future: Stamford Bridge, Fulham Road, London, SW6 1HS.

World Cup-bound? Yes but where to play him? And who with? Barry or Gerrard?

Everton: Leighton Baines (ENG)
Last Monday’s performance notwithstanding, Baines was a model of consistency this season.  He started more games than any other Everton player and proved to be a force on the left side, defending and attacking with equal measure.  He also led in time of possession for the Toffees.

Future: A Scouser who grew up in Wigan’s system, he seems to finally be home.  Let’s hope his England experience will leave him with something to prove next season.

 World Cup-bound? No.  Apparently Baines is painfully shy… and now the whole world knows. Ugh.

Fulham: Mark Schwarzer (AUS)
The Cottagers allowed one more goal than Manchester City this season, and Schwarzer was a big part of that. The big Aussie faced a barrage of shots this season in the League, not to mention the club’s improbable run to the Europa Cup final. In fact, the last two seasons have been improbable for tiny Fulham. Guess when Schwarzer showed up?

Future: Schwarzer has one more year on his contract. But there are rumours Arsene Wenger wants to bring him to the Emirates… because Almunia is sh!te.

World Cup-bound? Yes. Pim Verbeek has built his team around Schwarzer and a strong back-four.  Many a punter has picked the Socceroos as their dark horse this tournament.

Hull City: Stephen Hunt (IRE)
Is he a bad luck charm or is he just unlucky? Hunt has been relegated from the Premier League twice… but it’s not been his fault.  The Irishman led the Tigers in scoring, even though he was injured for the last two months of the season. An intense midfielder, he was voted Player of the Year by the Hull faithful.

Future: Hull will be selling and he doesn’t appear to want to go back anyway.

World Cup-bound? Ask Thierry Henry.

Up Next: Liverpool to Stoke City

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