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Premier League Starting XI – 2013-2014

Luis_Suarez_Liverpool-377452

Many pints have been bought/drunk/spilled while friends/strangers/adversaries debate the Premier League’s best players.  In my list, I’ve tried to avoid hype and reputation… but that’s not to say it’s all about the stats.  I’ve also been liberal with the positions, using a 4-1-3-2 but frankly putting players in to fit.   For example, Steven Gerrard was praised for his reinvention as a defensive midfielder, but let’s face it, he mostly played the same as he always has… he just had farther to run.

Here then are my Starting XI:

Mannone of the season for Sunderland

Mannone of the season for Sunderland

Goalkeeper
Vito Mannone (SUN) – There was a reason for Vito Mannone’s switch from the bright lights of the Emirates to the ironically-named Stadium of Light.   Like almost every other professional athlete, he probably expected to start.  So it must have been disappointing when Paolo di Canio went with Keiran Westwood, a man who had spent most of his career in the lower leagues.  The Black Cats’ start to the season was dismal — going  2-1-6 — with Westwood letting in almost one out of every two shots on goal.  Mannone got his chance when Westwood got injured, and the Mackems improved, finishing a stronger 10-7-11 with 11 of those games finishing in a clean sheet for Sunderland.  In fact, Mannone faced more shots on goal than any other keeper in the league, despite missing a quarter of the season.  Quite rightly, he was named Sunderland’s Player of the Season.

Bench: Petr Cech (CHE), Tim Howard (EVE)

Coleman, Baines were lethal from the back this season.

Coleman, Baines were lethal from the back this season.

Fullbacks
(LB) Leighton Baines, (RB) Seamus Coleman (EVE) – The Toffees seem to have an embarrassment of riches at the fullback position.  Under Roberto Martinez, Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman act as virtual wingers in an already offence-friendly side.  The pair fly in with crosses, complementing the Mirallas/Barkley/Osman contingent on the wings.  That leaves the two centre backs, along with a resurgent Gareth Barry and GK Tim Howard, to worry about any defensive issues.  It seemed to work: Everton had the third-best defensive record in the Prem, while the Scouser and the Irishman both scored as many goals as their colleagues in midfield.

Bench – Patrice Evra (LB), Bacary Sagna (RB)

Skrtel, Koscielny saw both highs and lows this season

Skrtel, Koscielny saw both highs and lows this season

Centrebacks
Martin Skrtel (LIV), Laurent Koscielny (ARS) – I can hear the howls of protests already.  Why not players from Chelsea or City or even Everton? How can you pick one player who set a record for own goals in a season, and another with a propensity to self-destruct?  Because the game-in, game-out stats tell a different story.  In a league where goals are up across the board, both players were on sides built to throw everything forward in attractive — but dangerous — football.  Martin Skrtel led the league in clearances and was tied for fourth in block shots.  Think back to the images of him racing back to clear the ball, because Brendan Rodgers had his team playing such a high line.  (Don’t forget Skrtel scored seven goals… he’s a centre back!).  Meanwhile, Laurent Koscielny was in the league’s top ten for both interceptions and offsides won, and he was in the top 20 for blocked shots.

Bench – John Terry (CHE), Per Mertesacker (ARS)

Jedinak might be the hardest man in the Prem.

Jedinak might be the hardest man in the Prem.

Defensive Midfield
Mile Jedinak (CRY) – Crikey! Mile Jedinak has maintained the fearsome reputation of Aussie footballers in the Premier League — Messrs. Emerton, Neill and Cahill come to mind (like a prog-rock band! Ha!).  The Palace player led the league in interceptions per game, and was 2nd in tackles per game.  That’s all the more impressive when you realize he started every single game.  A big reason why the Eagles had the league’s sixth-best Goals-Against.

On the bench – Gareth Barry (EVE)

Ramsey was one of the league's best midfielders, despite injuries

Ramsey was one of the league’s best midfielders, despite injuries

Right Wing
Aaron Ramsey (ARS) – Mr. Arsenal this season, Aaron Ramsey set the league on fire in the season’s first half, before he was twice sidelined by injury. He was Arsenal’s second-biggest goal-scorer in the league, and tied for third in assists, despite playing in only 60% of the Gunners’ matches.

On the bench – David Silva (MNC)

Yaya holds his birthday cake that's coincidentally shaped like a trophy

Yaya holds his birthday cake that’s coincidentally shaped like a trophy

Central Midfield
Yaya Touré (MNC) – What hasn’t already been said about Yaya Touré’s season?  The first midfielder since Frank Lampard to score 20 goals in a season, tied for fifth in assists, the Ivorian was Citeh’s talisman (an overused cliché, but in this case, true) and led the Citizens to their second title in three years.

On the bench – Steven Gerrard (LIV)

"Oh my God, I can't believe I made ATR's Starting XI!"

“Oh my God, I can’t believe I made ATR’s Starting XI!”

Left Wing
Eden Hazard (CHE) – José Mourinho had a rough relationship with his forwards this season, and sometimes played without a striker.  Enter the Belgian, Eden Hazard.  The attacking midfielder led his team in goals and assists, and was one of the league’s best passers.  An incredible player to watch (unless you’re a ball boy), Hazard will be a key part of Marc Wilmot’s plans in Brazil.

On the bench – Adam Lallana (SOU)

Suarez and Sturridge: 52 goals between the pair.

Suarez and Sturridge: 52 goals between the pair.

Strikers
Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge (LIV) – The picking of these two players was almost a no-brainer… almost.  Luis Suarez tied the Premier League record for goals in a 38-game season, despite missing the first five matches.  He was also second in the league for assists — just behind team mate Steven Gerrard — so it’s not like he was being selfish.  Love him or hate him, he had a brilliant season and propelled Liverpool into the most exciting title run in almost two decades.

Sergio Agüero was almost equally brilliant, scoring 17 in 23 appearances.  But injuries hampered an otherwise brilliant season, and young(ish) Daniel Sturridge found his own touch, scoring 21 of his own.   That’s why he would start in my XI.

On the bench – Sergio Aguero (MNC), Wayne Rooney (MNU)

Player of the Season: Luis Suarez

Brent P. Lanthier

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Best of the Prem: Sunderland to West Ham

Sunderland stay up under Poyet

Sunderland stay up under Poyet

None of these sides seriously challenged for a Champions League side… but a couple of them almost got relegated.  Here then, is the last of the club-by-club players of the year.

Johnson tries to comprehend Hodgson's England maths

Johnson tries to comprehend Hodgson’s England maths

SUNDERLAND
Adam Johnson (ENG) – It’s great sport in England to second-guess the national team manager, a thankless job if ever there was one.  For the most part, Roy Hodgson seems to have done the best he can with what he has.  However, his selection of a certain Manchester City player was flawed, especially when a former Citizen could have easily taken the spot.  Adam Johnson never shone in the team of stars that was assembled around him before Citeh shipped him back to the North East.  But the winger did a better job at the Etihad than James Milner has done… yet it is Milner who will get the World Cup caps.  What’s more, Johnson has been Sunderland’s best player for the last two seasons, even as they looked over the precipice during the Christmas break.  The Black Cats did a miraculous turnaround, not only staying in the Premier League but finishing 14th in the table.  Cue the Mackem applause for the man who led the club in goals, assists… and heart.

Bony was not puny for the Swans this season

Bony was not puny for the Swans this season

SWANSEA CITY
Wilfried Bony (IVO) Swansea City’s signing of this Ivorian striker was astonishing, and it paid off.  Although the Welsh club slipped in table position and stature, Wilfried Bony’s production far outweighed that of his team mates.  Tied for sixth in league scorers and making his contribution to Swansea’s admirable European adventure, Bony assured his club’s safety from the mire of the Premier League’s relegation fight.

The Prem hands Christian Eriksen a new challenge...

The Prem hands Christian Eriksen a new challenge…

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR
Christian Eriksen (DEN)  Where do you go when you’re 21 years old, and you’re already named the best player for club, country and league? Danish player Christian Eriksen chose an Andre Villas-Boas-led Tottenham Hotspur.    Spurs are one of the Premier League’s “big small clubs” (like Everton, Aston Villa, Newcastle and Sunderland), and Eriksen must have been caught off-guard at the turmoil that has engulfed the team’s front office.  Still, the young winger was the sole success amongst a splurge of Spurs signings.   He was second behind scallywag Emmanuel Adebayor for goals, and was the club’s best playmaker.

What has two thumb and is headed back to France? This guy!

What has two thumb and is headed back to France? This guy!

WEST BROMWICH ALBION
Morgan Amalfitano (FRA) – To be frank, it was hard to pick a best player on a side that was awful enough to challenge for relegation, but still managed to stay afloat.  This is a side that drew 15 times, had chaos at the managerial position and finished a hair above the drop zone, after spending the previous two seasons in the top half of the table.  Morgan Amalfitano shone for the West Country club in a fantastic performance against Manchester United, but was often subbed off, started on the bench… or not even used at all.  Luckily for the Frenchman, he’s back in Marseille to play under new manager, Marcelo Bielsa… while WBA remains a club in disarray.

"Whether it is Noble in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of Big Sam..."

“Whether it is Noble in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of Big Sam…”

WEST HAM UNITED
Mark Noble (ENG) – Sometimes, your best player is your folk hero… the man who creates story lines because of his links to the club that he serves. For years, that was Steven Gerrard’s role at Liverpool.  In London’s East End, Mark Noble is Mr. West Ham… a reliable central midfielder on a Sam Allardyce squad… which is to say that he is invaluable to Big Sam.  A goal here, an assist there… but a defensive asset through and through, Noble’s on-field performances outshone the reputations of the Tyneside Twins, Kevin Nolan and Andy Carroll.

Brent P. Lanthier

Up Next: My Starting XI

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Rovers and Wanderers: Who Will Likely Leave the Relegated Clubs

European football’s silly season began on Sunday, when the transfer window opened and the leagues finally recognized long-negotiated deals.  But there is still a lot of jockeying to come.  Rumours will fly, agents will promise that their clients are going to the biggest clubs, while the clubs deny everything.

It’s also the time when the newly-relegated sides struggle to keep their lineups together.  They all make the same noises about not letting players leave.  But money talks… and clubs don’t relish the reduced revenues that come with their lowered status.

Here then is a look at who could be on the market from the three clubs who fell through the Prem’s trapdoor.

Hoilett hasn’t said which club — or country — he will play for…

Blackburn Rovers
Let’s face it: it only took Venky’s 18 months to sink the Good Ship Blackburn.  Buying a team and then watching it do the drop is bad enough.  But doing it while watching your litigious ex-manager go the other way has got to, well, burn.   Meanwhile the owners are sticking with the guy who some say pushed the other guy out the door.

Meanwhile, the exodus has started as several players have left on a Bosman.  The two most prominent players are Yakubu and Junior Hoilett.  The Nigerian overcame everyone’s expectations (including mine) to score 18 goals for Rovers.  Meanwhile, Hoilett has yet to find a home, but that should be rectified shortly.  Other players that could get scooped up by top clubs include defenders Martin Olsson, Stephen N’Zonzi and Gaël Givet, as well as midfielder Mauro Formica.  But sub-par performances from Scott Dann and Paul Robinson mean they shouldn’t expect to get picked up by a top-flight club.

Bolton reluctant to let go of Davies

Bolton Wanderers
Bolton was another team where their management change wasn’t necessarily for the better.   Owen Coyle left newly-promoted Burnley in January 2010 to take the reins at Bolton.  He’ll now have to face the fans he left behind… likely with a different squad than the one that dropped in May.  Long-time keeper Jussi Jääskeläinen will fill in the gap left by Robert Green at West Ham.  Mark Davies was Bolton’s best player last season… and there are rumours that Liverpool have been sniffing him out.  Martin Petrov could get picked up by a Premier League minnow, and Stuart Holden may feel he needs a bigger stage to figure in Jürgen Klinsmann’s Team USA plans.

Tyrone Mears is too good for the Championship, but after spending last season mending a broken leg, he may feel the need to repay the club.  Both he and Chris Eagles may be reluctant to leave the man that plucked them from Burnley,  especially with former teammate Joe McKee set to play alongside Eagles.

“Now a show of hands please. Who wants to leave the club?…”

Wolverhampton Wanderers
Wolves have been quiet so far this summer, but don’t expect that to last long.   Steven Fletcher scored 30% of the club’s league goals last season, and the word is that Sunderland is tracking him, especially since no one exactly lit up the scoreboard for the Black Cats last season.  Fletcher would be a great target man for Stéphane Sessègnon and Sebastian Larsson at the Stadium of Light.

After spending five years as a loyal servant, Matt Jarvis deserves a chance to jump back into the Premier League.  Ditto Kevin Doyle… although his performance for Ireland at the Euros may not help.  That may also apply to another Irishman (there are seven in the Wolverhampton side), Stephen Hunt. But the left-winger always seems to show up in a lower-table side mere weeks after his former team suffers relegation (Reading to Hull to Wolves).

Brent Lanthier

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Best of the Prem: Newcastle United to Sunderland

Mere seconds later, Chelsea staff tried to explain to Frank that there was no chocolate inside…

Part three of the series comes in the shadow of some event that occurred in Munich, where Chelsea won some minor trophy or other.  Congratulations to the Blues on their European victory (he mumbled, with his head tucked into his chest as he half-heartedly kicked at stones).

And now for something completely different…

Demba, take a Ba… er, bow…

NEWCASTLE UNITED
Demba Ba (SEN) – When the Geordies sold off Kevin Nolan, Jose Enrique and local hero Andy Carroll, the St. James faithful screamed for owner Mike Ashley’s head.  Fast forward a year, and Ashley looks like a genius.  Part of that is down to the arrival of Alan Pardew.  But the purchase of Senegalese forwards Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse for a pittance was a revelation.  And while Ba’s production tapered off with Cissé’s arrival in February, it was because Ba was willing to play the no. 10 that created Cisse’s industry in front of goal.  Note that you didn’t hear as much as a little Ba peep about the position change either…

Canary at the goal line…

NORWICH CITY
Russell Martin (SCO) – You have to give credit to Paul Lambert.  He could have parked the bus and hope that Norwich hovered above the relegation zone.  Instead, the Canaries played the same free-flowing football as they did in their Championship campaign, finishing a very decent 12th.  The downside was that their defence had to endure a few humiliations.  But right-back Martin was ever present, playing out of position in the centre, where he withstood more than one onslaught.  Sure, Grant Holt scored the goals but Russell Martin typifies Norwich City’s season… and he hasn’t requested a transfer either.

Thumbs down for QPR, indeed.

QUEEN’S PARK RANGERS
Bobby Zamora (ENG) – Zamora was having a decent season… until he moved up the road to QPR during the transfer window. But who else do we pick? Helguson, maybe? Cisse showed flashes of brilliance when he wasn’t sitting out suspensions. Taarabt or Barton? I think not…  Zamora it is, then.

Etherington’s bored face

STOKE CITY
Matthew Etherington (ENG) – I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Stoke City aren’t that good.  The myth that they are tough to break down is bull. Their defence was in the lower half of the table, and their keepers faced a barrage of shots. Meanwhile, their offence was the worst in the league, save for one of the Potters’ bright lights: Matthew Etherington.  The winger ran at defences and provided crosses… well, as much as Tony Pulis let him.  Etherington should have received at least an invite from Roy Hodgson, especially when you consider who will be playing on the left for England this summer.

Sessegnon loves Sunderland… and jazz hands.

SUNDERLAND
Stéphane Sessègnon (BEN) – When Steve Bruce picked Sebastien Larsson from the ashes of Birmingham City’s season, I thought it was a shrewd move… and the Swede didn’t disappoint.  But Sessègnon (who is from Benin.  Where is Benin? It’s not quite Togo, it’s not quite Nigeria… but it comes with a slice of cantaloupe at the end) was the engine for Sunderland.  He scored the same amount of goals as Larsson but set up many more, including two in an effort against Manchester City that almost derailed the Citizens’ championship run.  The club awarded him Player of the Season and it was well-deserved.

Brent Lanthier

Up Next: Swansea City to Wolverhampton Wanderers

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EPL Transfer Winners and Losers

Nail-biting time at the transfer deadline

Hello, lovelies. Did you miss us? Sorry, we’ve been busy.  Ian decided that he wanted to get married and then cart the newly-minted Mrs. Harrison all around Turkey.  No Galatasaray or Fenerbahce for him though… unless those are also varieties of kebab.  Meanwhile, I was doing my best to produce quality news programming about the sh!t show in Tottenham.  How many times can one person talk to Bradford University’s Professor of Peace Studies? As many times as you like, it turns out.

With the labour troubles in Spain and Italy, and the always ridiculous August spending sprees, I decided to wait until today to wind the blog back up. So now that the dust is settling, let me tell you who I think did well in this year’s silly season, and who got what the Greeks called gamise‘d. (Look it up).

WINNERS

Liverpool – If you are Scouse — and have been cryogenically frozen since this time last year — you would think that you had died and gone to the Great Big Kop in the Sky, la.  Kenny Dalglish is manager again? Most of the starting line-up is English or South American? Over one hundred million pounds spent on players? No club debt? Craig Bellamy?!?  Over the last six weeks, King Kenny has dumped 17  players who were either mediocre or colossal mistakes.

The £35 million spent on Andy Carroll is starting to look like folly, and Meireles’ sale to Chelsea might bite the Pool in the bum when they visit Stanford Bridge.  But the acquisitions of Suarez, Coates, Adam, Downing and Enrique have all come up roses.  The Reds should qualify for the Champions League, while meeting both UEFA’s Financial Fair Play and the Prem’s homegrown rules.  Throw in a nice knock-out trophy and the season will be an unqualified success.

Manchester City – See above re: getting rid of dead weight.  The purchases of Aguero and Nasri are coups d’etat… no question.  The shock acquisition of Owen Hargreaves might be genius or ignorance, depending on whether City trainers can get the former England international fit again. Now Tevez’ agent says the wantaway Argie may stick around.  If you throw in Aguero, Dzeko and Balotelli, that is a scary forward line… plus Silva and Nasri on the wing.  The accusations of a middling Mancini team are dissipating rapidly.

Manchester United – I like to think of Sir Alex Ferguson as a Scottish Elmer Fudd.  Prone to fits of fwustwation… he has been vewy vewy quiet as he hunts for twophies.  De Gea, Young and Jones were bought early in the summer before the silly season started.  But unlike Bugs Bunny’s bald antagonist, Sir Alex usually gets his hare (insert tired Wayne Rooney joke here).  United had no movement at the deadline because there was no need.  Who cares about the rest of the Prem… Sir Alex is tracking Catalonians.

Crouchie beams after finding Stoke on the map...

Stoke City – Slowly, quietly, Tony Pulis has been building the Potters into legitimate competitors.  They have begun their third season in the top flight with a solid European campaign, after making it to the FA Cup final in May.  Now claims of boring, boring Stoke might be put to rest.  Twenty-two million pounds spent on Peter Crouch, Wilson Palacios and Cameron Jerome may not offer up oodles of goals.  But they are legitimate options and they are playing in front of a defense as good as any in the league.

Tottenham Hotspur – ‘Arry did a lot of wheeling and dealing this August, dumping lads that he wasn’t really playing away.  Only three new players have made their way to the Lane (perhaps because they were afraid of taking the tube into Tottenham).  Falque is untested.  But Scott Parker was magnificent in West Ham’s midfield… and Adebayor must be chomping at the bit to score goals against his former club, Arsenal.  PLUS… ‘Arry somehow managed to keep Luka Modric onside.  Not a wheeler-dealer, my eye.

Wigan Athletic – Not a lot of movement… but the permanent signing of Ali Al-Habsi may be enough to keep the bastards up.  This club is the “Boris the Blade” of the Premier League…

Wolverhampton Wanderers – Last season, Wolves allowed the fourth-most goals in the Prem.  Two of those other three teams were relegated.  But credit Mick McCarthy for buying Roger Johnson.  This season, Wolves have only allowed one goal in three games.  It’s early days yet but Wolves look tons brighter.  For the life of me, I still don’t understand why Johnson can’t get a call-up from Fabio Capello.

LOSERS

Aston Villa – Shay Given was an inevitable choice to replace Brad Friedel, and Villa Park is definitely a step up for Charles N’Zogbia.  But c’mon: Alan Hutton? Jermaine Jenas?  Things may have started well… but Villa fans will find yet more things to grumble about this season.

Yakubu shows how many pies he can eat in one sitting

Blackburn Rovers – Kudos to Steve Kean for kicking The Human Camel to the curb…. and Scott Dann should amply fill the hole left by the departed Phil Jones.  But so much for the supposed flow of superstars into Ewood Park.  Yakubu is a joke acquisition (who looks like he’s had a Venky’s chicken pot pie or two)… and since Jason Roberts has yet to manifest as the Second Coming of Alan Shearer, no one is left to score goals.  Look for the Red Rose of Lancashire to have fully wilted by Christmas.

Chelsea – Overshadowed by City’s bigger kitty, Chelski still seem intent to throw around their rubles.  Meireles is a good signing… and Liverpool will be happy to have made some money on him.  But the purchase of Lukaku and Mata has to mean that Villa Boas isn’t confident in a now-injured Drogba… or the misfiring £50 million mistake known as Fernando Torres.  I may eat my words… but Abramovich’s ego buy will haunt Chelsea for sometime.

Everton – If you don’t have much firepower to begin with, why would you part with any offensive players at all?  To pay the bank, that’s why.  It is a bad sign that the Toffees offloaded Arteta and Beckford.  Everton fans should be very afraid.

Newcastle United – Andy Carroll leaves his hometown club.  Kevin Nolan has a magnificent season and then abandons the team for a Championship outfit.  Then both Joey Barton and Jose Enrique tell the cyberworld how unhappy they are… and leave.  The Geordies should be up in arms… and Mike Ashley should be ashamed of himself.

Norwich City – They were quiet at the deadline, except to send a couple of players to the lower leagues.  That’s because Norwich is a lower league team.  They weren’t exactly losers at the transfer deadline; I just don’t expect Norwich to go anywhere except back to the Championship.

Swansea City – The Tafs should enjoy their Premiership ride while it lasts.

West Bromwich Albion – If you’re bleeding goals, why wouldn’t you try and sign a decent centre back? Oh, right… it’s because you’re West Bromwich Albion.

Too Early to Tell

Arsenal – Where is the real Arsene Wenger and what have you done with him? Nothing like an 8-2 loss to one of your biggest rivals to open up the purse, is it? Arteta, Benayoun, Mertesacker and Santos are not inspired buys… but they are players worthy of one of the world’s biggest clubs.  However, it remains to be seen if Arsenal moves on from Sunday’s humiliation… or if it lets the occasion cloud the rest of the season.

Bolton Wanderers – When I look at Owen Coyle’s side, I tend to make that Marge Simpson noise of disapproval.  The Scotsman has managed to keep Gary Cahill and he has brought in Tyrone Mears (a very decent right back) and some steel in Nigel Reo-Coker.  Klasnic already has three goals but David N’Gog and Gael Kakuta will have to start making an impact right away.  Despite the so-called “free-flowing” football, Bolton have a lot to prove…

Fulham – My dark horse at the beginning of the season, Fulham haven’t exactly flown out of the gates. But they have two excellent keepers, a great back line and a decent midfield.   The double-digits spent on Bryan Ruiz shows they are serious about trying to improve their offensive output.  Otherwise the Cottagers will have to depend on their defence.  That could result in a lot of draws… and look what happened to Birmingham.

Queen’s Park Rangers – Despite their victory against a struggling Everton, QPR have not had a great start.  However, they are owned by one of the world’s richest men and they are starting to spend a little of his money to make an impact.  With buys like Barton, Dyer, Gabbidon, Boothroyd, DJ Campbell, Luke Young, Armand Traore, Anton Ferdinand and Shaun Wright-Phillips, QPR has successfully transformed itself into a Premier League team.  Let’s see if it can stay that way.

Sunderland – I have to admit that I’m personally disappointed with Sunderland’s start to the season.  All summer, I watched Steve Bruce do what I thought were some tidy little pieces of business. He signed Elmohamady to a permanent deal.  He fought off bigger clubs for Conor Wickham.  He bought Gardner, Larsson and Vaughan, who were among the best players from their relegated clubs.  Bruce bought veteran players Brown and O”Shea from his old mentor, SAF… and he snatched young goalkeeper Kieran Westwood from Coventry.  Brucie has to turn it around or the Mackems will quickly call for his head.  Let’s see if the strike force duo of Nicklas Bendtner and Nicklas Bendtner’s Ego can do just that.

Brucie hails a taxi... just in case.

Brent Lanthier

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Second Chances: Birmingham City

Big Eck has a GOB moment: "I've made a huge mistake..."

Oh Birmingham City, we’ve seen this before.  After a 16-season stint in the lower divisions, the Blues were promoted in 2002… and then finished three seasons mid-table, before enduring four more yo-yo years into the Championship and back.  Yet last season was supposed to be different. Under the guidance of Carson Yeung and Alex McLeish, Brum finished a respectable ninth in 2010 with a stingy defence and a young keeper on-loan.  Who cared if they couldn’t score? It was a new era.

Ugh. Fast forward 12 months.  Despite their first trophy in almost 50 years, and an appearance in the FA Cup semi-final, Brum rode a train of mediocrity into relegation.  Before their historic victory over Arsenal in the Carling Cup final, City were 6-12-9.  The 30 points weren’t great… but it left them only a handful of wins away from the magic safety zone of 40.  But after that,  Birmingham only won twice in their last 12 matches… including three straight losses at the end to send them down, allowing Wigan (ugh) and Wolves to remain.

Now McLeish’s defection to hated Aston Villa has fans on both sides of Birmingham screaming Blue murder.   But unlike other serious rivalries, the teams’ exposure to each other has been spotty over the years… while the Second City derby features a couple of key players that have swapped shades of  blue,  with a lot of claret thrown in.

Ridgewell can't believe McLeish left him at City. COME. ON.

One such player is the sensational Liam Ridgewell, who joined Birmingham from Aston Villa in 2007.    The left back scored as many goals as the club’s strikers this season, which is probably a statement on both Ridgewell’s talent and the dire situation in Birmingham’s attack.  Ridgewell signed a new contract last summer… but West Brom have come calling, offering £3 million.   City thinks he’s worth more,  and so does this writer.  The big clubs could do worse than pick up him up.

After 200 matches, Sebastian Larsson is set to leave the Blues, having declined a new contract with the relegated side.  His father says the right winger has signed at Sunderland for Steve Bruce… the man who brought the Swede to St. Andrews in the first place. 

England back-up keeper Ben Foster is no youngster… but has always seemed a star-in-waiting.  Foster performed admirably this season, replacing his contemporary Joe Hart in net with one of the league’s highest save percentages, while facing the second-most shots.  Foster is a Premier League keeper, plain and simple.  I will make a call and say this West Midlander will follow McLeish to Villa.

Roger Johnson and Scott Dann would have received England call-ups, had it not said “Birmingham City” on their badges.  Roger Johnson started almost every match for the Brummies, while Scott Dann had his season cut short by injuries.  Both will likely get a sniff from the big clubs, including Dann, a Scouser whose name is creating rumbles at Anfield.  Meanwhile, Johnson is tough and good in the air.  Both made it onto the score sheet… and neither are afraid of a booking now and then.

Birmingham’s skipper — Stephen Carr — is 34… kind of up there in football years.  But the right back was the lynch pin for the club’s excellent defence: the Irishman started almost as many games as Johnson.  It’s likely he will stay because a) he has extended his contract by a year, and b) his former coach at Spurs and Ireland — Chris Hughton — is the front runner to take McLeish’s place.  Still… Carr’s performance this year merits another kick at the Premiership can.

Do you know which Villa player led the club in fouls and yellow cards? Ashley Young (stop snickering!).  Now that the team’s “hard man” (uncontrollable guffawing) looks bound for Manchester United, and Nigel Reo-Coker (a man who actually would give us nightmares, were we would good enough to play Premier League football) has been released, the club needs some steel in the middle.  Cue Barry Ferguson

Gardner tries the old hand-over-the-badge trick...

Finally, we have Craig Gardner — Birmingham’s answer to Steven Gerrard, circa Istanbul.  Gardner led his team in both goals and infractions this past seaon.  In a Robbie Keane-like obfuscation, Gardner has claimed to be a lifelong Villa or City fan — depending where he’s playing.  Yet he could still return to Villa Park.  After the vitriol that’s greeted Big Eck, the move would likely have Lions fans foaming at the mouth.   However, he has been linked with a move to the Northeast, either Newcastle or Sunderland.

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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Filed under English Football, Premier League, Uncategorized