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Second Chances: West Ham

"Don't cry for thee, Kevin Nolan. The truth is you're leaving Tyneside..."

Ooooo… it’s the silly season again, when every Tom Dick and Neymar is associated with every so-called “buying” club.  Today, the Premier League released it’s “retained” and “free transfer” list… and to no one’s surprise, the relegated clubs jettisoned several players.

The Premier League offers financial cushions to those teams that fall through the trap door… but many clubs still look to shed expensive players, in an effort to keep Championship-lean.  As well, some players who were considered lower league material will have a good season in the top flight… and become wantaway.

Here then are some names that could be thrown a life vest from another club.

West Ham United
I have to admit, I am absolutely flabbergasted by the Hammers’ signing of Kevin Nolan.  Newcastle’s captain had a fantastic season, and at 28 years old, I thought he would head to an EPL team in need of some attacking power.  I understand that he would want to play for Big Sam again, but he’s there for five years with no guarantee of returning to the top flight.

Parker is expected to play 'Arry's game next season

Nolan is expected to serve as a replacement for Scott Parker.  The midfielder earned the FWA Player of the Year — despite playing for the worst team in the league.  Parker is reportedly heading to Tottenham Hotspur (which would be his fourth London club).  That is, of course, if ‘Arry sells Luka Modric.  Which he says he won’t. Wink wink, nudge nudge.  Nowotahmean?

Sensational Senegalese striker (10 points for Slytherin!!!… sorry) Demba Ba is out.  So out.  Except he’s reportedly going to Newcastle to replace Kevin Nolan.  Weird.

Robert Green is supposedly heading back to his first club, Norwich City.  This makes sense because a) they need a good keeper, and b) despite howls of protest from several English fans, Green IS a good keeper.  He faced the most shots in the Prem last season, while making the most saves.  His goals-against average isn’t great… but neither was the team in front of him.

Sigh. Is Carlton Cole any good?  Depends on who you ask…   The sometime England international scored 11 goals in all competitions.  He’s strong, good in the air… just not always in front of the net.  Definitely a second striker, he’s getting a sniff from Stoke, who score… um… well, good luck Carlton!

Meanwhile, Matthew Upson has been released by the club.  He’s 32, which isn’t ancient for a centre back, but his performance in South Africa didn’t do anything for his resume.  He may still get snapped up on a free.

Up next: Blackpool and Birmingham City.

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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Even Don Draper couldn’t sell this team

Draper gets a red card… for looking so damn good!

Well, so much for the MLS SuperDraft reviving the hopes of the Toronto FC faithful. On a day when clubs are expected to get better, the Reds appear to have gone in the opposite direction – trading away a potential double-digit scorer in Chad Barrett while bringing in a prospect with an interesting bill of health and Ecuadorian soccer Smurf Joao Plata.

The diminutive playmaker promises goals, but until he can prove it the mantle of secondary scoring falls to Maicon and his 2010 tally of three.

So, if the ad men who operate out of 170 Princes Boulevard are able to come up with a plan to sell its wares to the growing group of south end malcontents, I suggest AtTheRails acknowledge the impossible with a first-annual Don Draper Award.

With that in mind, ATR is here to help with a few suggestions on how to sell the Reds in Season No. 5.

(Disclaimer: If any of the ideas listed below are adopted in any shape or form, ATR is entitled to one set of tickets to a Toronto FC playoff game of its choice. Said playoff tickets can also be written into any will.)

Winter year-round

Has anyone mentioned to coach No. 5 that his surname is a Canadian marketer’s dream? That said, for Reds’ marketing purposes the idea of Winter all year is a positive, for it means there will be just one coach instead of the token two fans have come to expect.

Season F-I’ve seen better

In Season Four the Reds cleverly (no, not Tom Cleverley) took the ‘our’ from ‘four’ and made it theirs. Fail. So in Season Five why not take the ‘I’ve’ from ‘Five’ and market better days, like when the team won 10 games and missed the playoffs on the last day. Nostalgia is a powerful drug.

At Least Our Guys Are Eligible

Sometimes the best way to build yourself up is to tear down those around you. With that in mind, remember that with the first overall selection, the expansion Whitecaps FC chose 17-year-old striker Omar Salgado. Due to his age and FIFA transfer rules, Salgado likely won’t be able to play a game for Vancouver until he turns 18 in September.

Of course, this marketing campaign would only be good for one season. By summer 2012, I fully expect Salgado will single-handedly win the undercontested Nutrilite Canadian Championship.

Now for a bit of Prem chatter, with a side of pub-bashing.

This is where Rafael goes, "Lalalala, I can't hear you..."

The best part about Sunday’s goalless draw at White Hart Lane was that it confirmed my local is no longer a reliable place to watch a match. While the breakfast fare is fine and the Caesars are spicy, the suggestion that volume is not necessary and may bother the other patrons sealed the deal.

Anyhow, my audio-free observations of the stalemate are that as long as the Premier League continues to be hotly contested this season, goals will remain at a premium. There is far too much at stake for the big clubs to play the football fans want to see.

Biased Man of the Match: Nemanja Vidic. The captain’s partnership with Rio is arguably the only reason United remain unbeaten.

Ryan Johnston

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10 Things I Learned This Weekend

What, me worry?

1) Firing your manager before your team faces the defending champions and cup holders = stupid.  Chelsea 7-0 Ipswich Town.

2) Firing your manager before your side faces the team that ripped the World Club Champions a new one = also not smart.   Tottenham 3-0 Charlton.

3) Howard Webb likes to insert himself in games.  Questionable calls against Liverpool this weekend.  Not outrageous… but questionable. 

4) Kenny Dalglish has his work cut out for him at Liverpool, especially since he will be without Steven Gerrard for the next three games.  Blackpool away, Merseyside derby at home, Wolves away… Liverpool have lost to all three teams this season.

5) Arsenal need a keeper.  No kidding.

6) Lionel Messi wins the inaugural FIFA Ballon D’Or as the best player in the world.  No kidding.

7) All of the FIFA Pro XI were chosen from Italian or Spanish clubs.  Stop me when you are sick of me stating the obvious…

Andros Townsend: The Future of the Right

8 ) ‘Arry still hasn’t finalized a deal to bring Becks.  I don’t understand why Spurs would sign him in the first place.

9) Becks and Posh are expecting a fourth child.  Show-offs…

10) El-Hadji Diouf is still a knob.  Discuss.

Brent Lanthier

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Fringe benefits for Spurs

Which way to the pitch again? I haven't been there in ages.

As our ’Arry is so fond of saying, there are no easy games in the Premier League. With the possible exception of Werder Bremen circa late-2010, there aren’t too many gimmes in the Champions League, either.  And being drawn against local rivals Arsenal in your first Carling Cup match isn’t much of a party, not when you’re used to a diet of Port Vales and MK Dons in the early stages of that competition.

So at the risk of jinxing things, it’s fair to say that Charlton’s FA Cup visit to White Hart Lane this Sunday is the first time in a long time that Tottenham have had the luxury of giving a good number of fringe players in their deep squad a chance for some action. And it’ll be interesting to see just who Redknapp kits out for the 3rd round encounter.

The manager-less Addicks, having just pink-slipped former Colchester gaffer Phil Parkinson, sit some 45 places below Tottenham. They’re in the League One playoff zone, but they’ve got a bunch of teams breathing down their necks and they haven’t won in five matches. Seems like a super opportunity for Spurs to showcase some lads whose boots are gathering spider webs, especially those who might be pushed further down the pecking order if a certain Mr. Beckham moves from La La Land to the Lane this month.

After taking maximum points in all three holiday fixtures, and weathering a pair of sending-offs in the process, Tottenham lost at Everton in the week, their first EPL defeat since October. Gareth Bale left with a sore back, and the squad was far from sharp. Time for some R & R, lads. You’ve got Man. Utd and AC Milan on the horizon.

It was back in September’s 4-1 extra-time defeat to Arsenal in the Carling Cup when Redknapp last dug deep into the reserves to field a team. And even though Samir Nasri’s pair of late penalties killed Tottenham off that evening, it was still fascinating to watch youngsters Steven Caulker and Jake Livermore get their feet wet with the first team.

For players like Robbie Keane and David Bentley, whose twittering wife has provided yet another reason for ’Arry’s anger, the Charlton clash could be a chance to get in the shop window and line up transfers away from Tottenham this month. Birmingham have expressed interest in both, but only Bentley (17 million pounds and he can’t even drive the team bus!) looks likely so far.

It’s 99.9 percent not likely to line up this way, but here’s a Tottenham XI (and subs bench) I’d be curious to see take on the visitors from South London this Sunday.

GK Stipe Pletikosa: The Croatian hasn’t featured since the Arsenal defeat (if memory serves) and Carlo Cudicini is out with a sore shoulder. Give Heurelho Gomes a good rest.

RB Vedran Corluka: Banished to bench for long stretches after CL miscue in favour of Alan Hutton. Time to dust him off.

CB Bongani Khumalo: Redknapp might not think South African newcomer is ready for trial by fire but hey, it’s Charlton, not Chelsea. This is like trial by lighter.

CB Sebastien Bassong: Plays the least of THFC’s unfortunately few fit central defenders. Dawson and Gallas could use a break and Kaboul is banned for his recent red card.

LB Benoit Assou-Ekotto: Caulker and the Kyles are all away on loan so we’ll stick with a starter here.

RW Andros Townsend: Newly-sacked Roy Keane (suck it, you thug) didn’t want him at Ipswich so he needs showcasing for a new loan.

MF Sandro: The Brazilian beast has had too few chances since his switch from Internacional. We know what Palacios can do. Let’s have a closer look at this lad.

MF John Bostock: I know, even Hull didn’t want him. Give him a run and maybe someone else will fancy a longer look. The kid needs to play.

LW Niko Kranjcar: The other Croatian lost in the wilderness at Spurs. Plus my made-up team is pretty young and needs some veteran savvy. He’s got it in spades.

FW Roman Pavlyuchenko: The Russian donkey was in fine form at the end of last season when he got some regular playing time. If he finds his feet again, it would be a big boost.

FW Giovanni Dos Santos: Remember him? All kinds of rumours say he’s on the way out. How about one last look before he leaves?

SUBS: GK Heurelho Gomes (in case of emergency), CB Michael Dawson (same as Gomes), FW Robbie Keane (for when Dos Santos disappoints again), MF Jermaine Jenas (can’t hurt), MF Jamie O’Hara (unless his back still isn’t better), MF David Bentley (in case his Brummie deal isn’t done yet) and FW Peter Crouch (for when my Spurs XI go a goal down).

Ian Harrison

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Fergie’s Fantasy: Rating the Dream Team

Betcha he wishes he had a wild card...

It’s the January transfer window! While it’s not as exciting as the summer transfer window, it is a good opportunity for fantasy managers to revamp their teams. That’s because, for the first time, the Premier League fantasy game offers a January wild card where you can make as many transfers as you like.   Here’s the top 11 in terms of points for the season so far, and whether you should transfer them in or out…

Goalkeeper

Joe Hart –  Manchester City – 110pts.
He’s pricey but worth every penny.  Just ask Arsenal.  He made five brilliant saves to hold a clean sheet against them away from home.  IN

Defenders

No-nonsense Vidic

Nemanja Vidic – Manchester United – 90 pts. 
The rock on Manchester United’s back four has been as solid as ever lately. While does have three goals this year, you can count on him for clean-sheet points as Man U has been very stingy when it comes to conceding goals.  IN

Ashley Cole – Chelsea – 89 pts.
Nothing against Cole personally but Chelsea are in a freefall (Ed Note: He’s a tw@t).  Nobody on the squad is scoring consistently and they aren’t keeping many clean sheets either.  If the veterans start to turn on each other it could get uglier.  OUT unless Chelsea turns it around.

Leighton Baines – Everton – 92 pts. 
The Everton defender had 138 pts last season and now has 92 at the halfway point.  He’s on fire.  Yes he’s pricey, but worth it.  IN

Midfielders

Nani has been more than OK for FFL points

Nani – Manchester United – 116 pts.
Nani has thrived in the absence of Valencia from the Man United lineup. He also seems to score whether Wayne Rooney is in or not. In addition to his goals he gets piles of assists from his crosses. Did I mention he and Tevez are tied for the fantasy scoring lead? IN. Make him your captain.

Tim Cahill – Everton – 107 pts.
Cahill plays almost as high up the pitch as a striker, but he’s still classified as a midfielder…. so in that sense is an interesting choice.  He’s an unstoppable force in the box this season but since he’s now at the Asia Cup, you need to ditch him.  If he stays healthy think about grabbing him again later on.  OUT

Florent Malouda – Chelsea – 105 pts.
I thought this was going to be Malouda’s year.  He seemed to be an explosive offensive force throughout the early portion of the season, but like Ashley Cole, his fantasy numbers have tanked during the team’s recent struggles.  OUT

Rafael Van Der Vaart – Tottenham – 108pts.
If it weren’t for some injury trouble, he would surely be leading the league in fantasy points.  He does it all: scores goals, sets up goals, takes corners, takes free kicks.  Combined with the strong play of Gareth Bale, Spurs have an increasingly deadly midfield.  IN and make him your captain (if for some reason you haven’t picked up Nani.)

Strikers

Tevez breezes by Captain Schtupping

Carlos Tevez – Manchester City – 116 pts.
One of the few players who seems to be able to leave any off-field issues where they belong: off the field.  He performs against great competition and weak teams both and can score almost any time he touches the ball.  IN

Dimitar Berbatov – Manchester United – 113 pts.
Maybe I’m bitter because I dropped him the night before he scored his five goals in one game, (Hey, can you blame me? He hadn’t scored in ten games or so.  But that still didn’t stop me from weeping as I watched.  No one was buying my ‘tears of joy’ excuse.) but I don’t think Berbatov can score without playing alongside Wayne Rooney.  He slumped the first time Rooney was injured this year, and I wouldn’t advise picking him up until they are reunited. OUT

Andrew Carroll – Newcastle – 113 pts.
A walking advertisement for the quality of the Championship, Carroll waltzed into the Premier League and immediately became one of its most deadly strikers.  He’s injured now but if you have him, I’d keep him.  If not, wait until he gets healthy, which should be in a week or two, and then transfer him. IN

Scott Ferguson

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Seasiders Sitting Pretty

Lancashire's General Patton

Five months ago, guest columnist Colin Wood wrote a piece here, talking about the phenomenal rise of Blackpool FC as they prepared to enter the Premier League.  But no one could have predicted the achievements of Ian Holloway’s men as the second half of the season begins.

The Seasiders sit 11th in a crowded table, two games above the relegation zone alongside giants Liverpool and Newcastle United… and sitting above two clubs wishing for former glories, Everton and Aston Villa.  It is an astonishing feat.

Blackpool has been simply entertaining to watch, with Holloway ordering his once-anonymous side forward with gusto.  Their goals-against column suggests an offensive strategy that shows no concern for the Tangerine end of the pitch.  But discard a 6-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge, and a 4-0 defeat at the Emirates, and Blackpool start to look like Manchester City — a team they held to a 1-0 win on Sunday.

(Interesting side note: all three promoted teams — Blackpool, Newcastle and West Brom — are in the league’s top ten for goals scored.  The strategy may keep them all from going right back down, come May. If it happens, it will only be the second time in the history of the Premier League.)

The key to it all seems to be the gaffer himself, Mad ‘Ollie.  He has taken a rag-tag bunch of lower-league players and made them household names. Even followers of the Championship would have had trouble recognizing some of the Blackpool squad before the start of the season. That’s because players like Ian Evatt (BFC’s Man of the Season, IMO), Luke Varney and Charlie Adam were lads who put the “journey” in “journeyman”, struggling to even find the bench because of injuries and the inevitable rotation of lower-league managers and their particular strategies.

Charlie Adam: Headed for Manchester? London?

But Holloway has changed all that. He believes in his players.  And even if he doesn’t, he tells them that he does, which is the entire point. Witness ‘Ollie’s supposed comments yesterday to midfield wonder Adam, telling the Scotsman that he will get a chance to play for a top-four club.  Ian loves his players so much, he’s willing to set them free.

Blackpool’s unexpected success — and the manager’s unconventional comments — has given the Lancashire side plenty of television exposure.  But that has backfired somewhat for the tiny club.  Bloomfield Road is less than state-of-the-art — it held less than 10-thousand when the team was promoted — and brutal winter weather in England has forced the club to postpone three home games… a victim of its own meagre finances.

Critics say those postponed games will haunt the club, both financially (lost television revenues against big clubs Man U, Liverpool and Tottenham) and because the make-up matches will crowd Blackpool’s schedule.  But Holloway says his side is used to playing mid-week games in the Championship, so it’s no bother.

In another season, the Seasiders may have not elicited gasps of wonder, and would have instead been headed for the inevitable drop.  But these are topsy-turvy times for the world’s biggest league, and Ian Holloway should be commended… if only for sticking his neck out by getting his side to play exciting football, instead of looking down the ladder in fear.

Brent Lanthier

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