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The Weekend 10: Things Get Dioufy

Bridge to nowhere. Get it? Wayne Bridge? It's funny 'cause he's awful...

1) West Ham Bad Decision #1: There’s a prevalent theory that Wayne Bridge is terrible when playing on good teams… but great when he plays on mediocre team.  That theory was rubbished on Saturday.   Best 90-thousand pounds/week they ever spent…

2) West Ham Bad Decision #2: The Hammers were going to hire Martin O’Neill behind Avram Grant’s back, before they fired the Israeli manager. But they mucked it up, O’Neill gave them the V, and now Grant will likely stay put knowing his bosses tried to turf him.  Awwwwkward.

3) Blackburn are thinking of dumping El-Hadji Diouf, because they realized what Liverpool, Sunderland and Bolton also found out the hard way… he’s a liability.

Dude, where's my team?

4) Speaking of model citizens, Derby County captain Robbie Savage could be on his way to the MLS.  Savage has twittered that he has been requested by the Vancouver Whitecaps.  Huh. A long-haired loud-mouth with an accent. In British Columbia.  How novel…

5) Manchester United: The Unconvincing Invincibles. Best nickname I’ve heard in a while…

6) Liverpool is reportedly chasing Uruguay’s Luiz Suarez from Ajax.  I can only assume they want him as a backup to Pepe Reina

7)  Win, Lose or Draw. Or Draw. Or Draw. Or Draw.  No honours in the Birmingham, Merseyside or Tyne-and-Wear derbies… and the “classic” match between Spurs and United wasn’t…

8 ) Crystal Palace are looking to move stadiums.  They might want to hang on until after the Olympics when White Hart Lane becomes available.  Or not. North is South, East is West, cats and dogs living together…

The Qataris celebrated by ordering shots

9) Qatar has refused to schedule the 2022 World Cup during winter.  FIFA officials are aghast, wondering how players and fans will cope in 53 degree Celsius heat, and may be secretly rueing their decision to let the sheikhs host the event.  I suspect it’s an Arab plot to sell more $20 pints of near-beer at matches…

10) For the first pick in the MLS Super Draft, Toronto FC picked a kid with multiple sclerosis.  What the… ?!?  If this was a move to guilt me into going back into the gym: mission accomplished.  Thanks for nothin’…

Brent Lanthier

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The Middling Midlands

Coventry ended its punchline status in 1987

Midlands teams haven’t had much to sing about lately.  They don’t have the glitz and glamour of clubs from Swinging London and they don’t have the pedigree of the Northern teams.  The teams from England’s soft creamy middle have almost made a habit of being also-rans. 

There are exceptions, of course.  Brian Clough took little Derby County and won the league with them in 1972.  He would outdo himself at the end of the decade, taking local rivals Nottingham Forest to the League title… and then on to two consecutive European Championships.  Aston Villa then followed with  League and European wins in 1981 and 1982, respectively.  But since then, there has been a distinct lack of silverware… unless you count the League Cup… which I don’t. 

In fact, in the last 50 years, a Midlands team has only won the league four times, and the FA Cup three times.

Here’s the current breakdown of the nine major teams:

Aston Villa (currently 8th)
The biggest of the Midland clubs,  Villa appears to still be in turmoil, months after Martin O’Neill left the club over a disagreement with owner Randy Lerner over transfer funding. They have finished 6th the last three seasons, qualifying for the UEFA Cup each time.

But O’Neill was right: the squad is small and injuries have devastated the side that Gerard Houllier now helms. A string of recent draws and near-misses show that this young team gets tired easy and are prone to taking their foot off the gas.

Trophy Case: 7 Titles, 7 FA Cups, 1 European Championship, 5 League Cups
Last Trophy Won: 2000 League Cup
Last Time in Contention: 2010 League Cup final

League Cup: It kind of looks like Mickey Mouse...

Stoke City (currently 10th)
Now entering its third season in the Prem, the league’s second-oldest club is hanging in there by playing tight defensive football.  In fact, last season was their best finish in 30 years.  No one expects the former club of Sir Stanley Matthews to do much except survive.

Trophy Case: 1 League Cup
Last Trophy Won: 1972 League Cup
Last Time in Contention: 2010 FA Cup Quarterfinals

West Bromwich Albion (currently in 12th)
Like many of the Midlands teams, the Baggies’ best years are behind them. They used to be the darlings of the FA Cup, with five… as many as Everton and more than Manchester City.  But they’ve become a yo-yo club, having been relegated three times in the last seven seasons.  They have taken some impressive scalps this year: a draw at Old Trafford and a win away to Arsenal.  Those are a far cry from their opening game: a 6-0 loss to Chelsea.

Trophy Case: 1 League Title, 5 FA Cups, 1 League Cup
Last Trophy Won: 1968 League Cup
Last Time in Contention: 2008 FA Cup Semi-Finals

Birmingham City (currently in 18th)
The second team in the Second City, Birmingham are not the most glamourous club. Although they had their best finish in over 50 years last season, the same old Brum seems to be coming out. The Blues sit in the relegation zone, and will need to get over their confounded habit of drawing games to pull themselves up.

Trophy Case: 1 League Cup
Last Trophy Won: 1963 League Cup
Last Time in Contention: 2010 FA Cup Quarterfinals

Wolverhampton Wanderers (currently in 19th)
Mick McCarthy’s side is a far cry from the mighty Wolves teams of the 1950’s, that finished in the top 3 in eight of nine seasons. They barely survived relegation last season, and look destined to drop in May.  They can’t score and they can’t defend. ‘Nuff said.

Trophy Case: 3 League titles, 4 FA Cups, 2 League Cups
Last Trophy Won: 1980 League Cup
Last Time in Contention:  2003 FA Cup Quarterfinals

Derby County (currently 4th – Championship)
The team that Cloughie built has since gone through tough times. They were relegated from the Premier League in March 2008, after only one season. It was the earliest ever relegation from the Prem, with the lowest-ever points total (15), and the Rams equalled Loughborough’s 108-year-old record of only one win in a season. But so far, they are scoring in an extremely crowded Championship. Let’s see if they can sustain it until the playoffs.

Trophy Case: 2 League Titles, 1 FA Cup
Last Trophy Won: 1975 League Champions
Last Time in Contention: 2009 League Cup Semi-Finals

Nottingham Forest (currently in 10th – Championship)
The other side in the Brian Clough derby, Forest have perhaps fallen the farthest.  The two-time European Champions were relegated in the Premier League’s inaugural season, bounced back up the next year, finished third the following season, and then dropped two years later.  They would make a final appearance in the top flight again in 1998-1999, but went into free fall after that.  They lost their playoff tie last season to Blackpool, who are now scrapping with the big boys.

Trophy Case: 1 League Title, 2 European Championships, 2 FA Cups, 4 League Cups
Last Trophy Won: 1990 League Cup
Last Time in Contention: 1996 UEFA Cup Quarterfinals, 1996 FA Cup Quarterfinals

Coventry City (currently 11th – Championship)
Before they were relegated a decade ago, Cov spent 34 straight seasons in England’s first division.  It wasn’t always pretty but they found a way to stay up.  They even found a way to win the 1987 FA Cup, ending their legacy as the punchline of a Monty Python bit. That trophy is the last major title won by a Midlands team.

Since their drop, they’ve kept to the same formula in the Championship: not good enough to go up, not terrible enough to go down, just enough to stay in the middle. It’s kind of like Goldilocks, frankly.

Trophy Case: 1 FA Cup
Last Trophy Won: 1987 FA Cup
Last Time in Contention: 2009 FA Cup Quarterfinals

Leicester City (currently in 15th – Championship)
At the turn of the millenium, Leicester kept themselves in the top half of the Premier League table, won a couple of League Cups, and made brief appearances in the UEFA Cup.  But then they started to yo-yo more than West Brom, and even spent a season in League One.  Last season, they lost their playoff tie with Cardiff on penalties. This year, they started poorly, winning only one of their first nine games.  But they seem to have experienced a bit of resurgence under Sven-Goren Eriksson.

Trophy Case: 3 League Cups
Last Trophy Won: 2000 League Cup
Last Time in Contention: 2005 FA Cup Quaterfinals

Brent Lanthier

Cloughie is gone... and so are the dynasties he built

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Premonitions for the Premier League

Will it be two in a row for the boys from Stamford Bridge?

By Kevin Hoggard & Brent Lanthier

It seems like only yesterday that Chelsea beat out United on the last day of the season, while Arsenal sputtered through the last six weeks without Fabregas, and Spurs squeaked into the Champions League… pushing out the other so-called “Big Four” team all the way into seventh place.  

Not much should change at the top this year. For the last seven seasons, the Blues and the Red Devils have swapped Premier League honours. Can we call them the Big Two now? The newest Manchester millionaires — City — may beg to differ.  

Here then are our picks for top eight:

Kevin’s picks Brent’s picks
1. Chelsea 1. Chelsea
2. Manchester United 2. Manchester United
3. Manchester City 3. Manchester City
4. Arsenal 4. Tottenham Hotspur
5. Everton 5. Arsenal
6. Tottenham Hotspur 6. Liverpool
7. Liverpool 7. Everton
8. Aston Villa 8. Aston Villa

Chelsea – Kevin, Brent: Champions  

Kevin: Liverpool, ManU and Arsenal just haven’t strengthened their squads to challenge Chelsea over a long season.  The Blues are old, they’ve lost Ballack… but Essien is back to full fitness. Drogba is one of the best strikers in the world in Drogba.  Lampard still puts out 20 goals a season. What other big clubs are getting that output from a midfielder? An experienced and settled squad who just know how to get the job done.  

Brent: Essien’s return will more than compensate for Michael Ballack… but the real story with Chelsea is goals. 103 of them, actually.  It was a veteran squad that broke the Premier League record for goals in a season… and it was a veteran squad who shelled West Brom this weekend. Potential problem: what to do with the squad’s stable of foreign stars under new League quotas.  

Manchester United – Kevin, Brent: Runners-Up  

Kevin: Ferguson has failed to fill a glowering hole in the centre of midfield. Scholes and Fletcher are good… but they’re far from world-class, and beyond them the cupboard is a bit bare.  The defence is creaky with perma-crock Ferdinand and lumbering Vidic (what’s the over-under on his red card count this season?).  Strength in attack with Rooney, Nani, Valencia… with Berbatov and new signing Hernandez in to give some relief.  

Brent: Scholes and Giggs showed this weekend that they’re not ready to hang up their boots just yet.  But Giggs came off the bench, and Scholes certainly won’t start every game. Which Rooney will show up this season? Valencia should shower him with crosses… and Berbatov looks like he has something to prove.  Defense is worrisome.  Last year, they were the league’s stingiest.  But Rio is hurt, Vidic is undisciplined and got caught looking several times last season.  Good… but not good enough.  

Not this year, Roberto

Manchester City – Kevin, Brent:3rd   

Kevin: The title is a step too far for Man City at this early stage. You can’t buy a complete squad and expect them to be cohesive. Another couple of years before they are truly challengers for the title but it will come, barring any financial meltdown. You can’t spend this much money and be disappointed forever. Although Amsterdam 2001 springs to mind… but I blame that on the beer.  

Brent: Not cohesive, but check out the parts of the sum. City poached other supposed “big clubs”, offering untold riches to those who came to Manchester proper.  But who will see the pitch on a regular basis… and who will see the back of Mancini’s fine Italian coif? Besides, the manager used three holding midfielders on Saturday and three forwards, begging the question: who will feeding the ball to the attack? Shades of Maradona… which worked out well for Argentina, didn’t it?  

Arsenal – Kevin: 4th; Brent: 5th  

Kevin: It’s hard not to like Arsenal unless you’re a yiddo.  Their fluid attacking football is the closest thing English football has to Barcelona.  But Arsenal’s downfall is Wenger’s reluctance to open the purse strings and buy some bloody players.  He needs a decent goal keeper and a quality center-back to partner Vermaelen before they can challenge for the title. Arsenal are being fiscally sensible and and paying off debts from the new Emirates. But Arsenal fans must be tearing their hair out, knowing that until the debt is paid, they’re forever the bridesmaid and never the bride.  

Brent: Arsenal looked ordinary this weekend at Anfield. Almunia is, well, Almunia… and they lacked the flowing football they’re known for.  Their two best players — Fabregas and Van Persie — are perpetually hurt… and Fabregas doesn’t even want to be there.  Arsenal were in the title hunt last season until Fabregas picked up an injury in the last six weeks, and I don’t see his replacement yet. Wenger’s only edge may be in the new league quota rules, due to his long-standing policy of scouting young players. But I don’t think they will be playing in the Champions League next season.  

"Why won't anyone sign?!?"

Everton – Kevin: 5th; Brent: 7th  

Kevin: David Moyes might be the best manager in the Premiership.   Despite dealing with a lot of injuries and poor early form, Everton still managed to finish two points behind Liverpool.  With more luck this year, I think Everton can push on.   They have a solid settled side that are just hard to beat, and with Cahill fit they have a match winner on any given day.  

Brent: The Prem’s third-longest lasting manager, Moyes can wring the best out of his players.  After an awful start to last season, Everton were among the best after Christmas: only Chelsea and Man U had better records. But they are still a small squad and can’t seem to sign anyone.  They will fatigue and drop off, as better teams push for the finish line.  

Tottenham Hotspur – Kevin: 6th; Brent: 4th  

Kevin: I like this Spurs team a lot. They have flair, creativity and one of the best goalkeepers in the Premiership.  If they get past the Young Boys (and that’s never easy: ask my uncle!),  they’ll be fighting on four fronts and I think it will be a stretch too far.  They have a big squad — thanks to their massive spending in the last few years — but I think inexperience will tell and the Champions League will affect their league results.  

Brent: No one expects Spurs to win the Champions League.  But everyone on this North London team expects to be back in it next year. ‘Arry hasn’t signed anybody (except for Sandro?!?) but Tottenham has a solid and offensive-minded starting eleven.  If they can get some super-sub performances from Keane, Pavlyuchenko, dos Santos and Palacios — along with regular displays from Defoe, Crouch, Bale, Lennon and Huddlestone — look out. Let the kids play in the cups… these boys have gotten a taste and they like it.  

Liverpool – Kevin: 7th; Brent: 6th  

Kevin: I’m going to stick my neck out here and predict another season of struggle for Liverpool.  Unless the Chinese take-over is imminent and Roy has oodles of Yen to spend, I just can’t see them being better than last year.  I know the Scouse fans are optimistic but I just don’t like their side.  They are a Torres injury away from trouble.  He is the class act in a workmanlike team.  

Brent: Liverpool were not that bad last season.  Their defence was top-notch: only Chelsea and Man U allowed fewer goals. But off the pitch, the team was in turmoil and on the pitch, they relied too much on Torres and Gerrard.  Worse, the team only scored 15 times away from Anfield.  Hodgson has done some nifty little bits of business, bringing in Joe Cole and a cast of others. But this is not a squad of title winners… and other teams are catching up. Liverpool pride will return this season… Liverpool’s form might not.  

Aston Villa – Kevin: 8th; Brent: 8th  

Kevin: Martin O’Neill transformed Villa into perennial contenders for Europe.  They have finished 6th for the last three seasons.  But O’Neill has gone, the coffers are bare at Villa Park and Milner has to be sold before acquisitions are made. The team has a huge wage bill and must trim their ranks, but they can’t unload those players to create some wiggle room.  I think this will be Villa’s worst season in a while.  

Brent: Saturday’s 3-0 victory over West Ham must seem like a cruel joke to Villans. Wantaway Milner scored the final goal, showing why he would (will?) be missed in the Midlands.  But Villa is not known for its goal-scoring and their huge wage bill doesn’t make up for their shallow squad.  They are playing without a manager… with his replacement rumoured to be the biggest court jester in all of football.  It might be generous to pick Villa at eighth, when all is said and done.

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Capello’s Dilemma

Fabio Capello announced his team selection on Saturday, his version of England Redux for this week’s friendly against Hungary that no one seems to want. The thinking was the game would prove to be cathartic for players, fans and the gaffer himself… a chance for brave Albion to regain their dignity and confidence.

But of course, no one is happy. Capello brought in several players who didn’t make the trip to South Africa, including something we haven’t seen for years: the selection of more than one Arsenal player.  However Theo Walcott, Kieran Gibbs, and Jack Wilshire weren’t exactly starters last year. None of them played more than 16 games apiece.  It’ll be interesting to see how Capello uses them, especially after Walcott’s uninspired performance this summer.

The media had called for wholesale change after the Bombing of Bloemfontein.  But Capello was as defiant of the pundits as he was of John Terry’s “rebellion”, keeping Captain Schtupping and Co. in the side despite his insolence.  Don Fabio also tried to soothe feelings… but some players didn’t forget their World Cup snub.  Both Wes Brown and Paul Robinson said “Thank you, no”.  In this writer’s opinion, no big loss.

Capello has found out that being England manager is a thankless task… trying to appease a nation full of unrealistic expectations with a team of mediocre millionaires.  Some sections of the media already believe that Capello is a dead man walking.

O'Neill's Villa frustration boils over

Those rumours are given even more weight because his supposed successor is suddenly free of  his club obligations now that Martin O’Neill has quit Aston Villa just five days before the start of the Premier League season. The bookmakers have him at two-to-one odds that he will be next to lead the Three Lions.  But he may find Randy Lerner’s stinginess preferable to the smothering expectations of the top job in England.

Brent Lanthier

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