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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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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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The Wild Rovers No More?

Chimbonda gives his final regards to Lancashire

The putting of pen to paper today by “nice guy” Steve Kean seems to indicate a turning point for Blackburn Rovers: that Ewood Park is shedding its image as a Home for Wayward Boys.

Indeed, the news seemed to cap off what looked like a week of redemption for the club.  Rovers have sold off poor sport Pascal Chimbonda, a whiny wantaway from every team he’s ever played for.  Kean also wondered aloud to reporters whether it might be time to let go of the Human Camel, El-Hadji Diouf.  Those words come just a week after Diouf allegedly stood over QPR player Jamie Mackie, taunting the player as he writhed in pain from a double leg fracture.

Diouf: Couldn’t meet a nicer fella…

The truth is that  — in the history of the Premier League — Blackburn has been a place for boys who behave badly.  Out of the players in the top 50 for all-time Premier League fouls, 10 spent time at Rovers.  Out of all-time Prem yellow cards, 12 wore the blue and white.  Of course, it’s also what they do off the pitch that makes them such problems.

Jason Roberts (2006 – ) – He lit up what is now League One for Bristol Rovers over two seasons.  But when they failed to get promoted, Roberts handed in a transfer request to a bitter Ian Holloway.  He was just as fickle to ex-manager Sam Allardyce.  Now Roberts can’t find the bright side of a barn door and is hated by the Rovers faithful.

Paul Dickov (2004-2006) – Nicknamed “The Wasp” and “The Pest”, Dickov’s role as a second striker was more to irritate central defenders. At only 5′ 6″, the cranky Scotsman did his job but picked up a weeee bit of fouls along the way.

Brett Emerton (2003 – ) – The Aussie plays the same style as many of his countrymen (Neill, Cahill, Kewell, Viduka): nasty.  The midfielder seems to find his way to a yellow card or two internationally, including this weekend in the Asian Cup.

Emerton, Neill: Model Citizens

Lucas Neill (2001 – 2007) – The epitome of Blackburn Rovers football in the last decade, Neill is also the epitome of the phrase “See You Next Thursday”.  A dirty player, he broke Jamie Carragher’s leg in 2003… an incident that literally made him a marked man on Merseyside. Neill is now playing for Galatasaray, so if Blackburn is a stop on the Road to Perdition, then Welcome to Hell, you Aussie git!

Morten Gamst Pedersen (2004 – ) – Alternating between pest and crybaby, Pedersen made a meal of Joey Barton’s punch this season. Barton is no angel but Pedersen made it handbags at dawn.

Robbie Savage (2005 – 2008) – By all accounts a nice fella when he’s in civilians, the Welshman is probably the most hated man on the pitch.

Bonkers Bellamy

Craig Bellamy (2005-2006) – Another Welshman,  Bellamy never shuts up, irritating “friend and foe” alike.  He pissed off former Blackburn boss Graeme Souness when both were at Newcastle. He went after Liverpool teammate John Arne Riise with a golf iron. He can’t stay at one club more than a season and a half.

Of course, one only has to look at the managers over the last ten years to see why the team is built like it is.  The seeds were likely sown with Souness’ arrival in 2000.  The Scotsman earned his reputation as the Godfather of Hard during his playing days at Liverpool. When he arrived at Blackburn he attempted to build the team in his own image.  After the Neill-Carragher incident, Souness refused to apologize for 48 hours.  Just this fall, Carragher returned the favour, saying that Souness’ time as Liverpool manager was the beginning of the end for the once-great club.

Sparky points out the Road to Perdition

But the man who probably had the most influence was Mark Hughes.  The irritable striker was a superstar for Manchester United… but it was at Blackburn that he ended his prolific career.  Sparky — another Welshman, by the way — brought in the likes of Roberts, Dickov, Pedersen, Savage, and Bellamy during his tenure.  While successful — Blackburn made two UEFA Cup appearances because of their League finishes — they were often the most penalized team in the Prem.

After Hughes left for the greener pastures of Manchester City (snicker), another bad boy took his place: Hughes’ former United teammate Paul Ince.  But Blackburn soon realized what lots of people already know: that ex-players without their coaching badges are almost always awful. Plus, the players couldn’t stand him.  Ince had a cup of coffee in Lancashire and then made way for Big Sam, who brought the same philosophy of “stuck-in” football that he used at Bolton… which leaves us where we are today.

A quick note: Even when Kenny Dalglish was managing the club, there were players getting up to no good.  Many members of the 1995 league-winning side were as familiar with the referee’s book as they were with the opposing goal.  That season, Tim Sherwood got 10 yellow cards, Graeme Le Saux got eight, Chris Sutton seven.  And just months after winning the Premier League, teammates LeSaux and David Batty fought each other during a Champions League match.

I’m not saying the arrival of the Indian Chicken family, and the permanent hiring of Kean, will make Blackburn a kinder, gentler team.  But after watching the club over the last ten years, it may be that a more attractive brand of football is on its way.

Anyway, it could be worse.  Could be Millwall…

Brent Lanthier

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