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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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Best of the Prem: Swansea City to Wolverhampton

Roy Hodgson does his best George Bailey impression: “Well, I don’t have your trophy. It’s at Roman’s house… and Alex’s house… and Roberto’s house…”

Part Four takes us to a team that squandered their European dreams, another side that dropped like a stone, a third that pulled away from the edge of the precipice, and then two more that found the soft, creamy middle of the table.  Let’s have a look at their best, shall we?

The Dutchman did his part…

SWANSEA CITY
Michel Vorm (NED) – The first Welsh team in Premier League history was the mirror image of its fellow Championship graduate, Norwich.  Just like the East Anglians, the Swans’ gaffer opted for a wide-open system that had trouble on the counter.  Good thing Swansea had Michel Vorm.  The Dutchman faced a barrage of shots, but his save percentage remained in the top flight’s top five.  That’s why he will compete for the honour of being the Oranje ‘s No. 2 in the Ukraine this summer.

Ade wants to stay

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR
Emmanuel Adebayor (TOT) – I know that many Spurs fans — along with several neutral observers — will take issue with this pick. Why not Gareth Bale, or Luka Modric?  But the stats are pretty clear: more goals, more assists in the league, more possession, more clear chances on goal.  Sure the big man up front was a bit of lazy git at times, and Tottenham fans are worried that they have another Berbatov on their hands.  But the Togolese striker was lethal for the Lilywhites and, more importantly, he wants to stay.  The same might not be said for his teammates in midfield.

The Baggies’ Foster child…

WEST BROMWICH ALBION
Ben Foster (ENG) – Beware when your best player is a keeper.  WBA finished a positively decent 10th place under a positively decent manager, Uncle Woy.  Peter Odemwingie had a decent season with 10 goals in the league.  The Baggies were 12th in scoring, 14th in defence.  Foster was decent in the middle of the goalkeeper pack when it came to saves and goals against.  All of this bodes well for England, doesn’t it?… Doesn’t it?!?

NOT Gary Caldwell…

WIGAN ATHLETIC
Gary Caldwell (SCO) – Hey Wigan! Come here, you! No, go away! No, come here! No, go away! The Latics channeled the ghost of Alexei Sayle by dallying with relegation for the entire season (Editor’s Note: Alexei Sayle is not dead).  Wigan were bottom of the table as late as St. Patrick’s Day, so it was apropos that a former shamrock-wearing defender led the charge to safety.   Gary Caldwell’s team posted a record of eight wins and only two losses in their last nine matches, while only letting in seven goals.  That’s as many as the eventual champions, Manchester City.  (Ed. Note: Caldwell didna kill his brother — and former Wigan teammate — Stephen.  He’s at Birmingham City… )

Wolves say they won’t let Fletcher go…

WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS
Steven Fletcher (SCO) – One of the only above-average players on a very sub-par squad, Fletcher had more goals than Frank Lampard, Rafael van der Vaart, Chicharito and Gareth Bale.  ‘Nuff said…

Brent Lanthier

Up Next: Season’s Starting XI and ATR’s PoY!

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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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Fergie’s Fantasy: Crunch Time

Little Leighton feels comfortable at home....

Toffees and the Carling Cup Champs
We are heading into the home stretch and while I never, ever, recommend spending transfer money (maybe if you can’t field a starting 11 but even then it may not be worth spending four points), you have to start maximizing your weekly returns.  If you are watching the fixture list like a hawk, as you should be, then you have a spotted an opportunity.  Everton and Birmingham City both play twice this week so you should spend at least your free weekly transfer on a player from one of these teams.

Everton
Coming off a clean sheet last week, Everton’s defenders — as well as keeper Tim Howard — are pretty good bets. The Toffees are away to Newcastle and then home to Birmingham City.  Two of the top three fantasy performers on Everton are on the back line: Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman.  Baines gets lots of offensive points by being the primary corner and free-kick taker, along with making some decent runs down the left side.  He’s pricey but worth it.

More affordable and a bit of a fantasy rule-breaking grey area is Seamus Coleman. That’s because while he is listed in the game as a defender, he’s playing as a midfielder.  This means when he scores or gets a clean sheet, your team will be credited with more points than you normally would if he was listed correctly.

Saha may light up the league this week... if he can avoid the knock...

Up front, Everton also have a couple of in -orm strikers in Louis Saha and Jermaine Beckford. Beckford notched two goals last game to give him three in his last three games.  Saha came up empty but he is always deadly as he showed in his four-goal performance a few weeks ago.

The latest injury reports have the great Aussie midfielder Tim Cahill out for three weeks so avoid him, along with the giant afro-sporting Marouane Fellaini, who is out for the season.

Birmingham
The Carling Cup winners have likely just peaked on the year, but they do have some players worth considering.  This week, they are home to West Brom and away to Everton.  Their top player this season has been goalkeeper Ben Foster who would be a solid pick this week as well.

Johnson points out how he's a solid choice.

The most in-form player on the team has to be Nikola Zigic who has three goals in his last four Premier League games, including one in the Carling Cup final.  He’s also quite affordable.  Same for Barry Ferguson who is having a solid season, but he’s a better long term investment then someone who will score big points in one week. New signing David Bentley has also impressed, though I’d like to see how consistent he is before grabbing him for my squad.

Finally, if you need a defender, Roger Johnson is a solid choice at the back.  He won’t provide a lot of offence but he and Foster have a good chance of getting clean sheets against West Brom.

Scott Ferguson

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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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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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