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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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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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Fergie’s Fantasy: What I Did and Why I Did it…

Barton elbows Parker out of Ferg's lineup.

So here’s where I stand.  I’m running sixth in the table right now in my fantasy league… but it’s a mere 30 ponts or so from the top spot so it’s still a very tight racel.  I’d feel great if I was Bolton trying for a Europa league spot, but I picture myself more of a Manchester United or Chelsea type when it comes to fantasy football.  After all, I need not remind all those in my pool that I am the defending champ.  The title holder cannot be satisfied with anything but a repeat… so it’s time to play my wild card. 

I figure if At the Rails allows me to give my opinions and advice on how to win your fantasy league, then you may at least want to know how I spent my wild card this transfer window.  The January wild card means you can make as many transfers as you want for one week, but it’s only good for another month.

So I made some moves.  Because really, who wants to read a fantasy column by a guy in sixth?

THE BIG SIGNINGS

First thing to do is figure out who the players are that you don’t have and feel you need, regardless of the cost.   For me, I added high-priced members of Manchester United: Dimitar Berbatov, who I think will continue to score — especially if Rooney stays healthy — and Nani, who has been one of the top point-getters this year. 

To make room, I let go of Johan Elmander who seems to have turned cold after a hot start to the season, and I dropped Samir Nasri.  Dropping Nasri could turn out to be a mistake, but I felt Nani will outscore him and Man United make a push for the title.

THE SACRIFICES

Unfortunately this left me in the hole moneywise.  My big sacrifice was dropping Joe Hart.  His high price has scared off many from picking him up but I have had him from Week One and watched as he more than earned the high price, leading all goalies in fantasy points. 

Scottish and cheap... it's like saying it twice!

But I had to save money for what I felt was a great option out there: Craig Gordon.  Gordon has been injured so his price is low. But since he’s been back, Sunderland have been regularly keeping clean sheets.  I saved some more money at the goalkeeper position by dropping the injured Paul Robinson and picking up Steve Harper who seems to back in the top job for Newcastle. (Ed. Note: I always thought he was a right-winger!  Ahahahahahaha… I’ll shut up now.)

To make it work right down to the penny meant dropping Scott Parker from West Ham for Newcastle’s Joey Barton.  Barton, like many Newcastle players, is still a little undervalued in my opinion… though I will likely keep him mainly on the bench.  And I got rid of Birmingham defender Roger Johnson (whose team I appear to have put a curse on ever since acquiring him as they stopped keeping clean sheets) for Kevin Foley from Wolves.  That move was done purely for cost reasons, but it’s good to know Foley is a cheap starter if I ever need to put him in.

KEEPERS

Rounding out the squad I kept pricey defenders Nemanja Vidic and Leighton Baines, who I think are worth paying top dollar for.  I also kept Everton’s Seamus Coleman (who is really a midfielder so a good buy since the game has him slotted as a defender) along with Fulham’s Aaron Hughes.  I also held on to the stars of the Tottenham midfield Gareth Bale and Rafael Van der Vaart along with Stoke’s Matthew Etherington. 

Up front I couldn’t part with Carlos Tevez, despite his high price and his constant snood wearing.  I also held on to Andrew Carroll hoping his current injury woes are not too serious.

Will these changes take me to the top of the table? Short answer.  I hope so.  I’ve already spent all the money I collected.

Scott Ferguson

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Fergie’s Fantasy: Mr. Popularity

You're always picked last when your name starts with "Z"...

Just like in high school, Mr. Popularity is not your friend.

The only difference is that in high school you really hoped he would be. As a fantasy manager, you might want to have the same players as everyone else in order to keep pace, but to make a move up the table you are going to need to do some scouting and grab point-getters the other teams don’t have.

In fantasy terms, Chelsea’s Didier Drogba is the most popular player owned by 45% of all fantasy teams. He’s closely followed by teammate Florent Malouda and Tottenham’s Gareth Bale, both of whom are above the 40% mark. These are great players and great picks. I have all three on my personal fantasy team. But I have done some digging for you and found four solid players chosen by a mere 1% of all fantasy teams. When you see them score on Saturday you won’t have to worry that you are sharing those points with half the pool!

The One Percenters:

Carlos Salcido – The Fulham right back has kept John Pantsil on the bench for good reason. His accurate crosses are turning into goals for Craven Cottagers like Clint Dempsey.

Greek Love...

Sotirios Kyrgiakos – A bright spot on Liverpool’s back line, he’s got two goals already and is still pretty affordable at 5.1.

Nikola Zigic – The massive Birmingham striker was on the bench for the early part of the season but has played every minute of the last three games. With goals in two of three of those starts, he will likely remain a fixture of their starting 11.

Marcus Hahnemann– Wolves have had problems keeping clean sheets this year, but Hahnemann has played every minute of the season. He could be worth picking up as your backup keeper, starting him when WW play weaker teams at home (Yes, technically, I know only West Ham is weaker right now… but you know what I mean…)

Scott’s Subs
Here’s who you should bring in and keep out this week.

Nolan has been "duck"ing praise up on Tyneside

In: Kevin Nolan – Newcastle United — It’s never a good idea to pick up a player right after he gets a hat trick, but how can you resist Nolan? He already has 7 goals and will still only cost you 5.8 to pick him up. You’ll enjoy his duck-like arm-flapping goal celebration more if he’s earning you fantasy points.

Out: Charlie Adam – Blackpool — His numbers are very good for what he costs, but I’m thinking Blackpool are going to flame out pretty soon and start edging their way towards the bottom of the table rather than the top.

In: Clint Dempsey – Fulham — Another knee jerk reaction on my part? Perhaps. He did just score two goals last week… but he’s also among the top scoring midfielders this season in terms of fantasy points overall. His price of 7 at the beginning of the season was a bit high — he’s now at a more reasonable 6.7.

Out: Michael Essien – Chelsea — A wonderful player, but there are just too many other scorers on the champions for Essien to make a great offensive impact. And with Frank Lampard coming back soon, one can only presume he’ll see the ball even less.

In: Sotirios Kyrgiakos – Liverpool — For all the reasons I’ve stated above… and because I’ve recently been very hard on Liverpool players…

Out: Luke Young — Aston Villa — In the past, he’s been an average fantasy pick… but as his price creeps up to 5.2, I think it’s time to let him go. He is coming off a clean sheet performance but I doubt Aston Villa have a pile of those coming in the future.

My Form

Over the past two weeks, the players I’ve recommend have scored an average of 5.25 points a game. The average starter has scored 4.15 and the players I’ve told you to avoid have averaged 2 points.  Note that I was not asked to show my work on those calculations.

Scott Ferguson

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Fergie’s Fantasy: Winning Strategies

We’re a few weeks into the season now and you are either feeling good about the start of your team’s season… or perhaps you feel a bit like West Ham, searching for answers on how it all went so wrong so quickly.

Unfortunately for you, firing the manager early on to get the attention of your lacklustre players is not an option. So the only way to get your mates — who have clearly been more lucky than clever — to shut up is to grin and bear it and fight your way back to the top!

Here are some proven winning strategies that you can apply whether you are at the top of the table or in danger of being relegated.

1. Steady as she goes with the Captain
You don’t see Steven Gerrard passing around the captain’s armband each week and neither should you. You’ve likely selected one of the highest-priced players to captain your squad like Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney, Fernando Torres, Gerrard, Cesc Fabregas, or Carlos Tevez.

If you have done that, it means you’ve locked up more than ten percent of your available money into one player. That alone makes it worthwhile  to keep them as your captain. I’m not saying keep them forever but all of those players are proven performers…  and the week you transfer them out of your squad is the week they likely get a hat trick.

2. Watch the fixture list
This goes without saying: check to see who is playing who each week. One day you may feel like starting Matthew Upson or Robert Green from West Ham… just not this week when Chelsea is coming to town (I know, I’m picking on West Ham, but so is everyone else who plays them). On the other hand, it’s a good week to get your Fulham defenders out there as they are home to Wolves.

You especially need to watch the fixture list when it comes to choosing your starting goalie and defenders. Those players who have home games will serve you well.

This is also why it’s important to make sure your bench is filled with players who start, and not just cheap throwaway players. Having low priced starters on the bench gives you more flexibility in choosing your line-up.

With offensive midfielders and strikers, home field advantages appears to be less pronounced. The good ones bulge the twine regularly on the road as well as at their home ground.

Brunt: A Matter of Time?

3. You are your own scouting department
Sure you have me to tell you what to do, but there really is no better substitute than watching your players in action.

Taking in the full 90 minutes or the highlights, or reading a description of the game on the web, you’ll get a sense of who is ready to go on a hot streak and whose numbers may be deceiving.

For example — and I’ve yet to be proven right about this — I’ve been watching West Brom’s Chris Brunt ring balls off the woodwork. It’s only a matter of time before he puts a few into the net.

4. Don’t pay for transfers
Yes, I know you watched Asamoah Gyan at the World Cup… and now that he’s on Sunderland you need him on your team. But at the same time, you may be an Arsenal fan who has really missed Alexander Hleb and you want him as well. Don’t pay the four points to pick up both. It’s never worth it.

Trust me, when you look back at the end of the season and see how many points you spent on transfers, it can be the difference between a top five finish and being mid-table. If you need to add more than one player in a week because of injuries, then play your wild card. You get another wild card to use during the January transfer window so don’t be shy about using it.

Whatever you do, don’t pay for extra transfers now. Wait a week until you have another free transfer at your disposal.

5. Read the tabloids (or at least, more than just the box scores)
You need to know about any external pressures or distractions facing your squad. You might not care that Wayne Rooney is getting a red card from his wife for scoring away from home, but you need to know how it will affect his game this weekend.  Sure, he scored in Switzerland for England, but I think the Everton fans are going to give him a much rougher time which may rattle him a bit. Mea culpa here though: despite this, I do plan to keep Wayne on my team this week.

What about Cesc Fabregas and his badly-wanted non-transfer to Barcelona? I believed him when he said he was ready to give Arsenal his full effort, but we have yet to really see it on the pitch.

Foster may have something to prove

On the more positive side, players like Birmingham’s Ben Foster have something to prove after not fitting in with Manchester United’s plans and he has shown some strong work in goal so far this season.

Admittedly, this is not an exact science. But you want to look for players with extra motivation and shy away from those with off the field drama.

FERGIE’S FIVE TO WATCH:

Captain: I’m sounding like a broken record here, but it’s hard to have a better start to the season than Didier Drogba. This week he has another favourable match up with Chelsea visiting struggling West Ham (okay, next week I promise to lay off West Ham).

Bargain Bin: I’m sure he’ll slow down eventually, but there’s no better bargain right now than Newcastle’s Andrew Carroll. His squad are home versus Blackpool so we may see him put a few more in the back of the net.

Also, Alexander Hleb is available for a good price as he returns to the Premier League. I presume he’ll get a lot of minutes with Birmingham but you may want to hold off a game or two before adding him just to see how he fits into the squad.

In Form: It really hurts me to write nice things about Chelsea players but honestly: who is playing better than Florent Malouda? He has scored in every game this season.

X-Factor: Will Louis Saha of Everton finally get on the score sheet? Normally I wouldn’t pick a striker to take advantage of Manchester United coming to town. But don’t forget that United is his old club, so there could be some extra motivation this week. And if he doesn’t show up this week it might be time for a transfer out of your team.

Scott Ferguson

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Fergie’s Fantasy: So You Got That Promotion…

Newcastle's Steven Taylor will likely play every week

In your regular life outside of fantasy football, you probably find those who have been recently promoted rather annoying and smug.   But in the fantasy world, you need to make friends with them and bring them on to your side.

On paper, the three newly-promoted squads may look like the Premier League equivalent of the kids who always got picked last on the playground pitch. But in reality, even if the teams are getting beat up on a weekly basis in real life, Newcastle, West Bromwich Albion, and Blackpool all have players that are affordable — that will play every week — and that will even chip in points on occasion.

You want the grinders that will earn points on the cheap so you can afford the big stars. What you are looking for is someone who will give you the performances we saw last year from Wolves defender Jody Craddock — Birmingham’s Lee Bowyer — or Joe Hart, who shone in goal for Birmingham while on loan from Manchester City.

Anybody can pick Steven Gerrard or Wayne Rooney.  But it takes skill and guts to pick up and start the right players from the newly promoted
squads. Here are some players worth considering…

Goalkeepers:
This is a risky proposition…  but it should be noted that after only two weeks, all three keepers from the promoted sides have one clean sheet. Sure, two of the three also let in six goals in their other game (eep!)…  but let’s focus on the clean sheets.

Newcastle’s Steven Harper is a quality premier league goalie and with his team likely poised to avoid relegation, he is the pick of this group.

Scott Carson: Man of Constant Sorrow? Or Points?

That said, I also like West Brom’s Scott Carson.  He has Premier League experience, comes at a very low price, and is guaranteed to face a lot of shots. He may not get many clean sheets, but in most games, he will get you a bonus point for making three saves.  And he’s already played his road game against Chelsea so you don’t have to worry about that fixture.

I would avoid Blackpool’s Matthew Gilks.  I just don’t trust that Blackpool are going to have the kind of success their drubbing of Wigan in Week One would suggest.

Defenders:
Again, assuming Newcastle have a strong season, you can count on Fabricio
Coloccini being a constant presence along their back four.  You can’t miss him, he’s the one with the huge mane of curly hair.

Jonas Olsson had a pair of goals and lots of playing time during West Brom’s last season in the Premier League two years ago.

Catchart traded Devil Red for Tangerine

And if you want to take a chance on a real cheap player, there is the rock bottom price for Craig Cathcart of Blackpool.  I do think Blackpool will concede the most goals in the league this year, but Cathcart spent years training with Manchester United.  Though he played very little with the Red Devils, he has played every minute of this young season with Blackpool.

Midfielders:
I have sung his praises in previous columns — and it has yet to pay off — but Chris Brunt of West Brom is a pleasure to watch.  He signalled his intentions last weekend with a long range strike that was only kept from the highlight reel by the woodwork.  He’s the most expensive player you can buy from West Brom — but still very cheap when compared to quality midfielders on other teams.

Barton: Solid tash, solid points earner

With two goals last week, Kevin Nolan is off to a strong start for Newcastle. The Magpies boast a solid midfield that also includes Joey Barton and Jonas Gutierrez.  Barton scored a highlight reel goal last weekend, and there’s every reason to think we could see more of the same from him.  Jonas is more of a grinder but does get a ton of playing time.

Strikers:
I don’t really trust any of West Brom’s strikers to score a lot of fantasy points and I still don’t know what to make of Blackpool’s Marlon Harewood.  He’s puzzling.  He’s kicked around on a few different teams in the Premier and Championship leagues over the past few seasons, but his two goals in Week One showed he could prove himself as a player who belongs in the top flight.  At this point he is still a bit of a risk… but at least he’s a cheap one.

The cream of this crop is Newcastle’s Andrew Carroll.  I feel a bit stupid on this one, because I gave strong consideration to putting him on my team based on his strong numbers in the Championship last season. But I didn’t do it, fearing what I’ve seen from other strikers who have flopped in the Premier League after good Championship seasons (Sylvan Ebanks-Blake for example).  Nothing like a hat trick to boost your confidence though, and with his performance last week I think Carroll will continue to have a fine campaign.

And not to gloat but…

I selected five players for you to consider last week and four had huge weeks. Didier Drogba, Florent Malouda, Gareth Bale, and Joe Hart all
put up big numbers.  Only Marlon Harewood was a bust.

This week with Chelsea at home to Stoke City, you still can’t go wrong with Malouda or Drogba.  Fulham’s David Stockdale may be a fine bargain — he is on the road in net against Blackpool. The only risk with him is whether Mark Schwarzer returns to his starting role, but rumours persist that he will be transferred to Arsenal.

Speaking of the Gooners, Theo Walcott is looking good after his hat trick last week.  His price is rising and now may be the time to pick him up while it’s still reasonable.

Scott Ferguson

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