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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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Best of the Premier League: Manchester City to Sunderland

Bent's departure left a bitter taste in Bruce's mouth.

They are now the Kings of England, the most winning club side in domestic history. But Manchester United captured their 19th league title with arguably their weakest side since they started claiming silverware again in 1990. Here is my pick from that team, along with four others.

Tevez: The footballing version of Kung-Fu's Kane...

MANCHESTER CITY
Carlos Tevez (ARG)— Should he stay or should he go? Despite clashing reports of where Tevez will play next season, there was no doubt that the Argentine was the head of a very gifted (and expensive) class. He shared the Golden Boot with Dimitar Berbatov this year, but it just feels like Tevez deserved it more. He scored more in all competitions… and he scored in more games as well.

Vidic won Barclay's Player of the Season

 
MANCHESTER UNITED
Nemanja Vidic (SER) — It may seem strange to not pick a Golden Boot winner on a Championship team, but Berbatov seemed like a poacher to Vidic’s Big Game hunter. The Serb terrorized attacking opponents, while scoring five of his own. He has eclipsed Ferdinand in the backfield, earning him the captain’s armband.
 
 

Nolan keeps puffing away for the Geordies

NEWCASTLE UNITED
Kevin Nolan (ENG) — Nolan’s production tapered off after the departure of Andy Carroll, and he missed the last part of the campaign through injury. But the former Bolton player captained the newly-promoted Magpies to 12th place (it would have been ninth if not for a collapse on the final day to West Brom). Many argue that a club as big as Newcastle should aim high… but this is a team in constant chaos with a nefarious owner. A glut of young options in Fabio Capello’s midfield means Nolan will likely never earn an England cap. Pity.

Slack-jawed Shawcross is bound for Europe

STOKE CITY
Ryan Shawcross (ENG) — Here’s a shock: Stoke’s best player is a defender. Tony Pulis’ side is boring and negative, but they got the job done. Shawcross captained the Potters to a surprise FA Cup final, earning them a taste of Europe next season. Shawcross was one of the most penalized players in the Prem… fitting for a Stoke team that puts the Pulis in “pugilist”.

Will Henderson follow Bent out the door?

SUNDERLAND
Jordan Henderson (ENG) — You can’t help but tie Sunderland’s fortunes to the departed Darren Bent.  Before he left, the Black Cats were chugging along in a very nice seventh place.  But then he went south, and so did Sunderland’s fortunes.  The good news is that Steve Bruce was able to rely on young Henderson for the entire season.  The bad news is that the big clubs are knocking on the door of Wearside… and Henderson may follow them through it.

Tomorrow: Tottenham Hotspur to Wolverhampton Wanderers
Wednesday: My Premier League Starting XI.

Brent Lanthier

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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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Weekend 10: The Misery of Others

Ow ow ow ow ow ow ow

My Mum always taught me not to revel in the misfortune of others, that it could be me getting the bad end of the stick.  Then my French-Canadian father taught me the age-old tradition of dancing gleefully on your enemies’ missteps.  Vive le Schadenfreude!!

1) Manchester United’s Unconvincing season of Invincibility has come to an end, after the Mancs lost 2-1 at Molineux to the league’s last-place team.  United has had this annoying habit of grasping points from the jaws of defeat…. instead they were left grasping their ankles on the weekend.  The loss meant the title race would have been broken wide open except…

2) Arsenal blew a 4-0 lead at Newcastle United.  The Magpies were supposed to be distraught over the loss of Prince Andrew, and probably were after conceding three goals in the first 10 minutes.  But then they remembered that Arsenal’s defence is pants, and let Joey Barton chew at the Gooners’ ankles.  But Arsenal were not alone in their misery because…

3) Chelsea thought they were making a massive move of football irony, playing newly-acquired Fernando Torres against his former club.  But the aging — and fading — champions were bereft of ideas against Liverpool’s back five, losing 1-0.  Three centrebacks! Two wingbacks! One of them is Glen Johnson! And he’s cut his hair AND he’s playing on the left!  It must have been confusing for the old buggers.

It hurts right heeeeeerrreeee...

4) Torres looked like a high school freshman who couldn’t find his first class.   This particular John Hughes movie saw Jamie Carragher starring as the school bully, taking the ball — and lunch money — away from the Spaniard, who thought he was joining the gifted programme, but instead accidentally showed up at remedial gym class.

5) Speaking of audacious debuts, El-Hadji Diouf appeared in his first Old Firm game, less than a week after joining Rangers on loan.  Never a favourite with the green side of Glasgow, The Human Camel was the subject of constant taunting by the Bhoys. Celtic captain Scott Brown received a yellow card for his efforts, calling it “the best booking I’ve had in my life.”

6) Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley says he will freeze ticket prices for the next 10 years.  A club spokesperson says, “We know these are tough times for everyone so we’re trying to do all we can for the fans. Mike is fully on board with this… it is a good way of showing commitment back to the fans… ”

In the words of Homer Simpson, “It takes two to lie: one to lie and one to listen…”

Um, doctor, it's my, er...

7) Schteve McClaren has lost his job at VfL Wolfsburg, after the Bundesliga team only won one match in the last 12.  But rumours abounded that McClaren was really turfed by a faux pas.  Ever the cunning linguist, McClaren was keen to show off what he learned from his German Made Easy cassettes, but then answered a question auf Deutsch about squad formation by mistakenly threatening the “annexation” of the owner’s wife…

8 ) Fabio Capello’s policy follows his predecessors: pick a player for their badge rather than their form.  A hugely slumping Wayne Rooney is getting a game against Denmark, as is Carlton Cole.  Of course, players like Blackpool’s DJ Campbell and Bolton’s Kevin Davies have more goals than them this season, but England managers have never been ones to let success get in the way…

9) West Brom fired manager Roberto Di Matteo after a run of bad results.  No doubt the newly-promoted team will replace him with a gaffer comparable to their other talismanic figures, like Bryan Robson and Gary Megson.  Hey, Roy Hodgson’s available!

10) Cristiano Ronaldo is still a horse’s arse… and I’m not the only one who thinks so

Brent Lanthier

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Carroll: Bad Bargain, Good Buy

The Geordie and the General

Alright, now that the dust has settled — and the incredulity has been reduced to simple head-shaking — let’s get this out of the way: Andy Carroll is not worth £35 million right now.  He’s 22 years old, he has only ever scored 34 goals at the senior level, and is carrying a thigh injury.  He has one England cap.  One.  And he has already been in the papers several times for the wrong reasons.

That doesn’t make him a bad buy.

The long-and-short of it was that Liverpool’s situation was dire.  Last year’s mediocre campaign became the millstone for this year’s disaster.  The Reds are down 10 points from this time last year, a season that saw Liverpool plummet 23 points from their almost-title winning finish in 2009. (This is the point where you can hear the collective snorts from the crimson side of Manchester).  It’s because they couldn’t score. For all intents and purposes, Liverpool had no strikers.

Over the last 10 seasons, Liverpool averaged about 62 goals a season in the Prem. In the early part of the decade, a peaking Michael Owen shouldered much of the load. When he started to get hurt, Liverpool’s goal totals slumped and so did their form.  After he left for sunny Spain, other players managed to fill in the gaps, and Rafael Benitez’ stingy formations meant Liverpool were always contenders.

Then Fernando Torres arrived and the goals started to come again.  In the 2008-09 EPL season, Liverpool scored 77 goals… their highest total since they were winning the League. (In fact, they came two goals away from doing it that season. If Liverpool had scored a goal in two of their drawn games, they would have tied United on points, but pipped them to the title on superior goal difference).

Torres brought the goals — and so did mighty midfielder Steven Gerrard.  But the team began to rely too much on the pair.  An infuriating tinkerman early on, Benitez eventually built his formation around Torres and Gerrard, neglecting the development of other forwards.

Both players wanted to play all the time: Premier League, Champions League, cup ties.  The result was that Torres and Gerrard got hurt… a lot.  Combine that with the departure of defensive keystones Xavi Alonso and Javier Mascherano, and the team fell into shambles.

Fast forward to this month.  The team is trending to top out at 50 goals this season.  Top that with an atrocious goals-against and they are looking at a paltry +3 goal difference.  That would almost certainly rule them out of the lucrative Champions League again… and maybe even the Europa League.

Unhappy Torres

So when the transfer window was closing, an unhappy  Torres handed in his transfer request. He wanted to play in Europe. He wants to win titles (which he never did on Merseyside.  Not one piece of silverware.).  The team’s shiny new owners realized they had both an opportunity and a dilemma. Free-wheeling Chelski was willing to pay top dollar for the Spaniard… but that would have left the Reds without a paddle, in the popular parlance.  If Torres goes, there is no one.  The cupboard is bare.

Enter Newcastle United.  The perfidious Mike Ashley had to have known what Liverpool were doing with Torres. He is simply desperate for cash so he pounced, jacking up Carroll’s price.  The overlords of Anfield paid and made the young Geordie the most expensive British player ever.

He ain't pretty, he just looks that way...

The reality is it would have been foolish not to take him.  Liverpool are replacing Torres with England’s best striker this season. Who has more goals? Not Wayne Rooney, the man who was considered to be among the best in the world.  Not Peter Crouch or Jermaine Defoe or Emile Heskey.  In fact, no England player has found the back of the net this season as much as Carroll — and he hasn’t played since Christmas.

Carroll is not a pretty goal scorer.  He doesn’t have Rooney’s skill on the ball.  But he’s tall like Crouch, big and strong like Heskey and heads the ball like Tim Cahill… only he doesn’t have to jump.

Instead of Joey Barton or Kevin Nolan to feed him the ball, he now has Steven Gerrard, Dirk Kuyt, Maxi Rodriguez (don’t laugh, he’s come along this season!) and Luis Suarez.  That last one could be telling.  There are big hopes that Suarez and Carroll could be the new Owen and Heskey (except a Heskey that actually scores).

Finally — and this is important — he is only 22-years-old.  He will learn the game — and learn discipline — from Dalglish, one of the finest strikers to ever play the English game.

The club paid far, far too much for him.  I admit that, even with my red-tinted glasses on.  But Andy Carroll could end up being the finest money that Liverpool ever threw away.

Brent Lanthier

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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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Northeast gets Sweet FA from Cup ties

Winning never hurt so good...

The world’s oldest football tournament almost never disappoints, with its share of cracking matches, and sometimes… cracking bones.  Here are some of the highlights from Saturday’s FA Cup fixtures:

– Arsenal will have to travel to the hostile Elland Road for a replay, after barely drawing Leeds United 1-1 at the Emirates.  The only reason the Arse are still alive is because of a penalty given after a Walcott dive.  Kids today…

As if! Diouf can't believe what Neil Warnock said about him

– Speaking of dirty cheaters, El-Hadji Diouf did his best impression of a human heel in Blackburn Rover’s 1-0 win over Queen’s Park Rangers.  According to QPR gaffer Neil Warnock (who is no stranger to jackassery himself),  the Blackburn player stood over Jamie Mackie and taunted him as the young Scot writhed in pain from a broken fibula and tibia.  Diouf should thank his lucky stars it wasn’t Jamie Carragher

– League Two side Stevenage were the giant killers of the Third Round, taking out Newcastle United 3-1.  The Toon Army does not suffer fools — or managers — lightly, but apparently they aren’t as bad as the Stevenage fans.  They get upset even if their team wins!

–  The Newcastle loss means the FA Cup is going nowhere near the Rivers Tyne, Wear, or Tees this season. Sunderland lost 0-1 to Notts County, while Burton Albion beat Middlesbrough 2-1.

– A resurgent Southampton took down a reserve-side Blackpool 2-0.  Saints’ fans taunted Ian Holloway with chants of  “Premier League, you’re having a laugh.”  They should know…

Where Once We Watched King Kenny Play: Liverpool head to Old Trafford with Kenny Dalglish once again at the helm.  The Reds legend takes over from Roy Hodgson, who left after mutual dissent.  Unfortunately for Liverpool, he didn’t take Christian Poulsen, Paul Konchesky or Joe Cole with him…

Also on the Manager Merry-Go-Round:  Ipswich Town head to Stamford Bridge, sans Roy Keane.  They meet a Chelsea team whose manager might be joining Keane in the unemployment line, if the cup holders don’t beat the Tractor Boys, who sit 19th in the Championship.

Manager Merry-Go-Round, Part III: Tottenham Hotspur are hosting a gaffer-less Charlton Athletic  in what will surely be a second-string run-out for ‘Arry’s adolescents.  Look for goals from, um… that guy… off a cross from, uh, that fellow over there…

Brent Lanthier

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