Premier League Preview – 2011/2012 (Part One)

9 08 2011

We are less than a week away from the start of another Premier League season and it can’t start soon enough. Whilst the Women’s World Cup, youth level World Cups and youth level European Championships have provided ample viewing over the summer, nothing comes close to the excitement felt at the beginning of a new league campaign.

The summer transfer window has been a relatively busy one so far which suggests we are in for another compelling and competitive season. The Premier League’s expenditure (at the time of writing) stands at £303.2million, second only behind Serie A whose expenditure is £334million. The net spend, however, offers a totally different outlook with the Premier League’s net spend standing at -£155million with its nearest rival, the Bundesliga, in second place with a net spend of just -£32million. These are the type of figures that suggest an English club has a good chance of challenging for this season’s Champions League.

Now, without further adieu, let’s analyse the first five teams for the coming Premier League season.


Arsenal have experienced a miserable 2011 so far. The Carling Cup final defeat against Birmingham was the beginning of the slide which saw their League and Champions League hopes dashed before finishing the season, which offered so much early promise, in a disappointing 4th position. Their troubles appear to have continued during the close-season with the departures of captain Cesc Fabregas and the influential Samir Nasri edging ever closer. Factor in a tricky Champions League qualifier against Italy’s Udinese and Arsene Wenger has plenty of food for thought. Wenger’s first major foray into the transfer market was to secure the signature of Ivorian winger Gervinho in a deal worth £10.5million and, yesterday, he completed the transfer of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from Southampton for an initial £12.1million. Are his two new signings adequate replacements for Fabregas and Nasri? Absolutely not. They are good signings nonetheless and it will be interesting to see how often they are utilised this season.

The main problem I see for Arsenal is their defensive frailties. Thomas Vermaelen is a terrific defender but he has

Photo of footballer Kieran Gibbs

Image via Wikipedia

picked up another injury during a pre-season friendly which leaves Wenger to pick two from Laurent Koscielny, Johan Djourou and Sébastien Squillaci. None of those three are good enough for Arsenal. There is, of course, still time for Arsenal to beef up their defence and there have been a plethora of names linked with Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka regularly mentioned.

It’s not just the centre of Arsenal’s defence which needs strengthening. Gael Clichy’s move to Manchester City means the injury-prone Kieran Gibbs (pictured) and returning loanee Armand Traore, if he remains with the club, will be fighting to fill the void and, in my opinion, Gibbs isn’t quite ready to handle the rigours of playing week-in, week-out at the highest level and Traore simply isn’t good enough.

There are a few positives for Arsenal fans this season. Jack Wilshere will continue to blossom and I expect Aaron Ramsey to make a big impact too. He’s a class individual with an eye for goal which should compliment the skills of Alex Song and Jack Wilshere perfectly. Avoiding injuries to key players such as Robin van Persie is of the utmost importance; the squad is not packed with quality and a prolonged spell on the sidelines for van Persie will be a bitter blow to their chances.

Key Man: Robin van Persie

Net Spend: -£15.7million

Prediction: 5th.

Aston Villa

Aston Villa have experienced a busy summer of comings and goings. Alex McLeish left bitter rivals Birmingham City to replace Gérard Houllier as manager and the playing staff has undergone a radical overhaul too. Villa have lost plenty of experienced players this summer with just two signings coming in. Ashley Young and Stewart Downing both left the club for big-money moves to Manchester United and Liverpool respectively, whilst the experienced quartet of Robert Pirès, Brad Friedel, Nigel Reo-Coker and John Carew all left the club on free transfers.

The incoming transfers should excite the Villa faithful despite the outgoings. £9.5million man Charles N’Zogbia was instrumental in leading Wigan Athletic to safety last season and without his goals and assists, it is highly likely they would be playing Championship football this season.  Shay Given is the other signing made by McLeish this season and he replaces the veteran American Brad Friedel who joined Tottenham Hotspur. Given’s acquisition is a very shrewd move. He’s consistently proved to be one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League and, at 35 years old, offers plenty of experience to a side with a good balance of youth and experience. Given was signed for £3.3million and could prove to be one of the best signings this summer.

Aston Villa do not have the biggest of squads so it is vital to keep their key men injury-free. The form of Darren Bent is paramount to any hope they have on improving on last season’s 9th place finish. His goals will be the difference between the Europa League places or a mid-table finish.

Key Man: Darren Bent

Net Spend: +£23.1million

Prediction: 7th

Blackburn Rovers

1995 Premier League champions Blackburn are in for a difficult season. New owners Venky’s have over-promised and under-delivered on numerous occasions. When they bought the club for £30m at the turn of the year, there was reason for optimism among the fans. The promise of David Beckham and Ronaldinho can be viewed as a publicity stunt by new owners unknown in Britain. Sacking Sam Allardyce and replacing him with the inexperienced Steve Kean was another disaster by Venky’s. It is arguably the second biggest mistake they have made. The biggest mistake can be seen here and it involves footballers and chicken. Feel free to recycle the Paul Gascoigne joke now.

Phil Jones has been sold to Manchester United for £16.9million and David Goodwillie has been brought in from Dundee United for £2million. The futures of Christopher Samba and Nikola Kalinic are still in doubt and there is a worry of where goals will come from. Junior Hoilett and David Dunn will be expected to chip-in with goals from midfield but Goodwillie, Jason Roberts and Ruben Rochina will struggle to carry the burden of leading the line and scoring the goals required to keep Blackburn away from danger.

The Blackburn defence looked shaky after Allardyce’s departure so it is important to keep hold of players like Christopher Samba. If Blackburn are to survive in the Premier League this season, Paul Robinson, Michel Salgado, Christopher Samba, Ryan Nelsen and Gael Givet need to remain fit and in top form throughout the season.

Key Player: Christopher Samba

Net Spend: +£15.2million

Prediction: 16th

Bolton Wanderers

Owen Coyle has done a terrific job since taking over from Gary Megson in 2010. Attractive football as well as a few shrewd signings have revitalised a group of players who seemed disillusioned under the previous management. Coyle has added Nigel Reo-Coker, Darren Pratley, Tyrone Mears and Chris Eagles to his ranks for a combined fee of £2.9million with Ali Al-Habsi, Matthew Taylor and Johan Elmander the most notable departures. It is the latter’s departure that could have the biggest impact on Bolton if a suitable replacement isn’t found. Elmander, along with Kevin Davies and Daniel Sturridge, formed a potent strikeforce with each striker possessing skills to complement the others. It is clear that Coyle is in the market for a striker and David Ngog, Jelle Vossen and Cameron Jerome have all been heavily linked. If a new striker can be signed and the influential Gary Cahill stays with the Trotters I fancy Bolton to achieve another respectable final position.

Key Player: Gary Cahill

Net Spend: +£3.1million

Prediction: 11th


Chelsea start the new season with a new manager in charge in the hope that he can deliver the Champions League for the first time in the club’s history. Andre Villas-Boas is a tactically astute young manager with a preference for the 4-3-3 formation with an attacking philosophy and his promise is clear for all to see. Ever since joining the late Sir Bobby Robson at Porto in 1994 as a 16-year-old apprentice coach, he has gone on to learn from the very best before branching out on his own to receive acclaim in his own right. Villas-Boas was sent by Robson to Lilleshall to study for his coaching badges before becoming an integral part of Robson’s youth team set-up. Villas-Boas went on to become Jose Mourinho’s opposition scout and a vital component in his backroom staff where his tactical prowess and attention to detail was key to Mourinho’s success. Fast-forward nearly two decades and Villas-Boas has won the Portuguese title and the Europa League with home-town club Porto before Chelsea met his £13million release clause to appoint him as Carlo Ancelotti’s successor.

Villas-Boas’ biggest problem will be the lack of time he will be afforded by owner Roman Abramovich. The Portuguese is under no illusions and acknowledges this to be the case. Abramovich is regularly criticised (and I’m as guilty as anybody of doing this) for the way in which he disposes of managers who have failed to win the Champions League but we must accept that this is his prerogative and part of the deal when a multi-billionaire buys a football club. It is the rough with the smooth that I’ve tweeted about many times before. He’s given Chelsea fans the billions of pounds needed to transform a mid-table club into one competing for major honours year-after-year. On the flip side, he can hire and fire whoever he wants, whenever he wants. That’s the deal on the table.

Villas-Boas has spent a sizeable amount so far. Belgian wonderkid Romelu Lukaku arrived from Anderlecht for £19.3million, Thibaut Courtois also arrived from Belgian side Genk for £7.9million and will spend the season on loan at Atletico Madrid as a replacement for Manchester United’s £17.6million new boy David de Gea, Lucas Piazon cost £6.6million from Sao Paulo and Oriol Romeu is a young defender who set the west-Londoners back £4.4million from Barcelona. The youth movement is something which was desperately needed at Stamford Bridge with many of the current first-team players on the wrong side of thirty. A blend of youth and experience should see Chelsea maintain a strong challenge on all fronts this season. Building the team around Fernando Torres is something which needs to happen; he’s a top class striker who will score goals. If Frank Lampard can remain fit for the majority of the season, Chelsea could well be the team to beat.

Key Player: Fernando Torres

Net Spend: -£17.3million

Prediction: 2nd

All transfer fees correct according to the excellent TransferMarkt. Don’t believe the exaggerated fees you see in newspapers and on Sky Sports News!


15/09/2010 – Wednesday’s Paper Round-Up

15 09 2010

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=mikel+arteta&iid=3206514″ src=”″ width=”234″ height=”333″ /] Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has earmarked Everton midfielder Mikel Arteta (left) as the man he wants to replace Cesc Fabregas – if the Arsenal captain moves to Barcelona in the future.

Fulham are bracing themselves for Arsenal to reignite their interest in keeper Mark Schwarzer in January by lining up a cut-price move for Crystal Palace’s Julian Speroni.

New Aston Villa boss Gerard Houllier looks set to make fitness coach Robert Duverne – who was involved in a heated training ground altercation with Manchester United’s Patrice Evra during France’s disastrous World Cup campaign this summer – his first signing at Villa Park.

Former Manchester United forward Giuseppe Rossi has ruled out a return to the Premier League, saying he wants to remain in Spain with Villarreal. The Italian was a reported target of Tottenham this summer.

Leicester have pulled the plug on a proposed £750,000 deal for Hull City centre-half Kamil Zayatte after problems with the Guinea international’s medical.

Ex-West Brom midfielder Enzo Maresca is eager for a return to England now he is a free agent following his release by Greek side Olympiakos.

Blackpool are plotting a January transfer window move for Portsmouth striker David Nugent after narrowly missing out on the former England international this summer.

Kilmarnock are set to snap up Portuguese striker Rui Miguel on a one-year deal. The former CSKA Sofia player has been training with the Rugby Park outfit.

Former France and Chelsea defender Marcel Desailly is being lined up to become the new manager of his native Ghana after Milovan Rajevac stepped down from the post.

Manchester City new boy David Silva has urged fans to to be patient with him as he adapts to the physical rigours of English football. “Physically, I am feeling better day by day,” said the Spanish winger, a £26m summer signing from Valencia. “I need to get a few more minutes on the pitch to get to optimum fitness levels and I am sure that will happen with so many games coming up.”

Silva’s City team-mate James Milner says the team must learn to win ugly if they are to push for a top-four finish in the Premier League this season. “It might take time for us to play our best football but hopefully we can get results while we’re getting to that stage and keep moving forward step by step,” said the midfielder.

City are to reopen talks with Shaun Wright-Phillips over a new £70,000-a-week contract. The England winger has two years left on his contract but initial negotiations broke down over the length of a new one.

Aston Villa have opened contract negotiations with England winger Ashley Young but the 25-year-old, a target of Tottenham during the summer, first wants to see how the club performs under new manager Gerard Houllier before being rushed into a new long-term deal.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has once again called for officials to protect his players after a tackle from Bolton’s Paul Robinson resulted in an injury to midfielder Abou Diaby, ruling him out of the Gunners’ Champions League game with Braga on Wednesday.

Reading keeper Mikkel Andersen wants to extend his loan at Bristol Rovers until the end of the season.

Mexican midfielder Efrain Juarez has likened his Celtic boss Neil Lennon to former Rangers midfield enforcer Rino Gattuso. “He was the same type of player as Rino Gattuso – strong committed. And that is how he asks us to play,” said Juarez.

Turkish football is in shock after the manager of Mersin Idman Yurdu, Yuksel Yesilova, was stabbed six times by his elder brother during the team’s match with Samsunspor in Turkey’s second tier. In his statement to the police, Yesilova’s assailant said “personal issues” were behind his actions.

Barcelona’s world player of the year Lionel Messi will be taken by helicopter to a mystery London football pitch to take part in a kids’ match as part of a competition organised by a football boot manufacturer on Wednesday.

For full stories, head over to the BBC website.

12/09/2010 – The Sunday Paper Round-Up

12 09 2010

Real Madrid are plotting to end Wayne Rooney’s Manchester United turmoil by setting aside £65m for a summer swoop.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=michael+owen&iid=9521856″ src=”″ width=”380″ height=”435″ /]Gerard Houllier wants to make Michael Owen (left) his first signing at Aston Villa. The former Liverpool boss was impressed with Owen’s form and fitness during Jamie Carragher’s testimonial and wants to sign the Manchester United striker either on loan or for a nominal fee during the January transfer window.

Manchester City are planning to smash the British transfer record by signing Argentine playmaker Javier Pastore from Palermo for £40m. The 21-year-old has also been a target for Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Portsmouth hope to wrap up a loan deal for Tottenham right-back Kyle Naughton, 21, this week, while Spurs boss Harry Redknapp could also loan out fellow defender Kyle Walker, 20, to Hull City.

Arsene Wenger is still eager to pursue his interest in Crewe midfielder Nick Powell and is willing to spend up to £2m on the 16-year-old attacking midfielder.

Holland goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg has emerged as Manchester United’s number one choice to succeed Edwin van der Sar.

Middlesbrough are monitoring Carlo Cudicini’s situation at Tottenham Hotspur with a view to a January move for the Italian goalkeeper.

Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho and Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti buried their differences over dinner in Geneva last week.

Former Liverpool boss Gerard Houllier had his heart tested before accepting the Aston Villa job.

Birmingham manager Alex McLeish is backing midfielder Alexander Hleb to prove Birmingham’s most influential signing since France World Cup winner Christophe Dugarry.

Co-owner David Sullivan claims he is at breaking point after revealing West Ham’s debts have gone through the £100m barrier.

Manager Roy Hodgson claims it will need a change of owners before Liverpool can hope to be champions again.

Wayne Rooney was desperate to confront the expected abuse from Everton, fans only for Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson to leave him out of the squad.

Gary McAllister, who is Gordon Strachan’s coach at Middlesbrough, is ready to answer Gerard Houllier’s call to be the Frenchman’s right-hand man at Aston Villa.

Uefa has given the green light for Great Britain and Northern Ireland to field an Under-23 football team for the first time in the Olympics.

Sir Alex Ferguson says Walter Smith is too young to quit as planned as Rangers manager at the end of the season and thinks owner Sir David Murray can persuade him to stay.

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson says Walter Smith “has kept Rangers alive” by winning the Scottish title at a time of financial crisis for the Glasgow club.

Rangers fans fear retribution from Greater Manchester Police for the trouble after the 2008 Uefa Cup final when they travel to Old Trafford for Tuesday’s Champions League tie.

Scotland coach Craig Levein says there is room for flair players like James McFadden in his team but that he needs every player to share the workload.

Birmingham manager Alex McLeish has defended James McFadden after the forward was criticised by Scotland coach Craig Levein for being lazy and selfish against Liechtenstein.

Scotland are looking into the possibility of ditching the controversial Jabulani ball after players complained about it in their last two internationals.

The Scottish Football Association faces a battle with clubs over plans to force them all to ensure their pitches are perfectly flat, with Motherwell having already sought legal advice.

Eidur Gudjohnsen may be deemed too overweight to make his Stoke debut against Aston Villa on Monday. The former Chelsea striker has been on an intensive fitness programme after piling on the pounds in the summer.

For full stories, head over to the BBC website.

18/08/2010 – Wednesday Transfer Talk

18 08 2010

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=edgar+davids&iid=7990695″ src=”″ width=”234″ height=”351″ /] Crystal Palace will attempt to lure former Ajax and Juventus midfielder Edgar Davids (left) to Selhurst Park. The Dutchman, 37, has been without a club since 2008 but is keen to settle in London.

Barcelona have invited Manchester City to make an offer for Sweden striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti has fuelled speculation that he may be preparing a bid for Everton midfielder Jack Rodwell after he picked out the 19-year-old for praise.

The Blues are also planning a move for Real Madrid midfielder Rafael Van der Vaart.

Chelsea are refusing to give up in their pursuit of Stoke goalkeeper Asmir Begovic..

Liverpool are to make a fresh bid for West Ham midfielder Scott Parker.

The Reds are also interested in Fulham full-back Paul Konchesky and are preparing a £3m offer for the 29-year-old.

Manchester United may bid for CSKA Moscow goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev as a long-term replacement for 39-year-old Edwin Van der Sar.

Everton are close to sealing a £4m deal for Sporting Lisbon midfielder Marat Izmailov.

Ajax financial director Jeroen Slop has admitted that the club may have to sell stars such as striker Luis Suarez, centre-back Jan Vertonghen and goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg to balance the books. All three have been linked with moves to the Premier League.

Inter Milan are considering a move for Tottenham forward Giovani dos Santos.

Fulham manager Mark Hughes has turned his attentions to Monaco striker Eidur Gudjohnsen after his attempts to land Manchester City forward Craig Bellamy were foiled by Cardiff. Gudjohnsen, who made his name with Bolton and Chelsea, spent the second half of last season on loan at Tottenham.

Middlesbrough striker Mido has wrecked a possible loan move to Turkish side Kayserispor after he made an unannounced visit to inspect their training facilities.

Marseille are in line to sign Wigan winger Charles N’Zogbia, who has been told he can quit the Latics.

West Brom are interested in signing Aston Villa midfielder Steve Sidwell and are also keen on Lokomotiv Moscow striker Peter Odemwingie.

Aston Villa have made an approach for Polish side Jagiellonia Bialystok’s 22-year-old winger Kamil Grosicki.

Sunderland centre-back Anton Ferdinand is set for a loan switch to Fiorentina after a deal to join Palermo fell through.

Tottenham are likely to make an offer on Wednesday for French striker Loic Remy, with Marseille also chasing the 23-year-old.

Spurs are battling it out with West Ham for the signing of Paris St Germain midfielder Stephane Sessegnon.

West Ham manager Avram Grant is set to raid old club Portsmouth for utility player Marc Wilson.

[picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=ryan+babel&iid=8337258″ src=”″ width=”234″ height=”274″ /] Former England manager Steve McClaren will offer midfielder Ryan Babel (right) a way out of Liverpool after lodging a £9m bid to take the Dutchman to German side Wolfsburg.

Liverpool might consider using Babel as part of a swap deal to land FC Twente’s Costa Rican striker Bryan Ruiz

Blackpool are hoping to sign Everton striker James Vaughan on loan – with a view to a permanent switch.

Portsmouth midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng is on the verge of a switch to Italian side AC Milan.

Newcastle are facing competition from AC Milan for Marseille winger Hatem Ben Arfa.

Arsenal are also interested in 23-year-old Ben Arfa, with Gunners manager Arsene Wenger set to make a £12m move for the 23-year-old.

And Werder Bremen are another club who are keen on Ben Arfa and have offered Marseille £6.5m for the Frenchman.

Notts County striker Luke Rodgers is on the verge of sealing a move to Major League Soccer side New York Red Bulls in the United States.

Stoke are eyeing a move for Frenchman Sekou Baradji, who has also been linked with West Ham.

West Brom are set to sign Lokomotiv Moscow striker Peter Odemwingie for £2.5m.

Middlesbrough manager Gordon Strachan is lining up a move for Ipswich forward Jon Walters.

Dundee United have told striker Francisco Sandaza, winger Danny Cadamarteri and midfielder Jeno Myrie-Williams they can leave the club.

Arsenal are in talks to sell 20-year-old defender Armand Traore to Benfica.

Inter Milan have not given up in their pursuit of Liverpool forward Dirk Kuyt.

Former Netherlands star Ronald Koeman claims to be on Aston Villa’s shortlist to replace Martin O’Neill, who resigned as manager earlier this month.

Manchester City will still pay striker Craig Bellamy £2.5m in wages this season, despite sending him on loan to Cardiff for the whole campaign.

Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini insists the door is not closed on Bellamy’s career at Eastlands.

Cardiff were threatened with the bailiffs on the same day they landed Bellamy.

Motherwell have threatened to put Cardiff out of business unless they pay the Scottish club the £175,000 they are owed from the sale of Paul Quinn.

Arsenal are to invite fans to buy shares in the club and play a role in its governance. Supporters will be invited to pay a minimum of £100 for one ‘fanshare’.

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson admits that he had never seen new striker Bebe play before the £7.4m recruit arrived at the club’s Carrington training ground.

For full stories, head over to the BBC website.

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Martin O’Neill Resigns as Manager of Aston Villa

9 08 2010

Martin O’Neill resigned as manager of Aston Villa earlier this afternoon.

As always, Sky Sports News was first to break the news. At this stage we are unsure as to why he has come to this decision but many journalists believe it could be due to players being sold, or due to be sold, without his consent. The players in question appear to be James Milner and more surprisingly Nicky Shorey.

Bob Bradley has been made 3/1 favourite with SkyBet to succeed O’Neill in the Villa Park hotseat with Sven Goran Erikkson at 7/1. Alan Curbishley, Martin Jol and Slaven Bilic are all 8/1.

Mark Jepson

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The Race for Fourth

24 03 2010

As the race for fourth place hots up, it is looking increasingly unlikely that Liverpool will finish in the coveted fourth Champions League qualifying spot. Currently lying in sixth place in the Premier League and having played one game more than fourth placed Tottenham and two games more than Manchester City and Aston Villa, it looks an increasingly uphill battle. That said, a look into the remaining fixtures perhaps suggests that Liverpool’s run-in is more favourable than that of our rivals.

The Champions League Trophy: The Race for Fourth.

Manchester City are for me favourites to clinch fourth place, largely due to them having nothing else to compete for and they have six of their remaining nine league games at home where they are yet to be beaten. They have two games in hand on Liverpool and one on Tottenham and despite the saying that you would rather have the points on the board, I fancy City to win their games in hand. This said, they still have to play Everton tonight, as well as their last five games being against Manchester United, Arsenal, Aston Villa, Tottenham and West Ham on the final day of the season, who themselves will be scrapping for their Premier League status. By no means are these easy games for City but if they have genuine aspirations of finishing fourth and even higher next season, these are the type of games they must find a way of winning.

Number One: Mancini's side are in pole position to challenge Europe's elite.

Moving on to Tottenham who have today announced the signing of Brazilian midfielder Sandro from Internacional. They face Fulham in the FA Cup replay at White Hart Lane tonight with the winner facing crisis-club Portsmouth in the semi final. Their Premier League race for fourth run-in is as difficult as Manchester City’s. Trips to Sunderland, Burnley and Manchester City, in what could essentially be a Champions League play-off, are tough enough yet they also have to face Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal in consecutive matches. Their record against the ‘big three’ is not too impressive and I struggle to see them picking up more than three points against the sides currently above them. When this is considered with their recent spell of injuries to key players such as Roman Pavlyuchenko, Jermain Defoe and Aaron Lennon, I think their most realistic chance of having a successful season is to win the FA Cup and qualify for the Europa League after a year without European football.

Defoe, with 17 Premier League goals, is out for three weeks.

This leads me on to Aston Villa who have already booked their place in the FA Cup semi final. I struggle to see them finishing fourth as for one reason, I don’t think their squad is big enough and they are suffering from a loss of form, particularly at home where they have won just once in their last six. Their squad is thin in the sense that when Gabriel Agbonlahor gets injured, they often resort to long balls for John Carew or Emile Heskey despite on their day playing attractive football. Their run-in is more favourable than Tottenham’s and Manchester City’s but they must still face City away, the only side yet to be beaten at home this season, as well as a trip to Chelsea and the Midlands derby with surprise package Birmingham City. Much like Liverpool last season, defeats haven’t been their downfall but they are picking up too many draws with the latest at home to local rivals Wolves proving this point. Villa have lost half as many games as Liverpool yet they have won two less. Their inability to turn these draws into wins could prove costly and I can only see them finishing seventh. The return of key players at Everton could even see them push for a top seven finish. As a result, like Tottenham, I see their best chance of having a successful season being an FA Cup win and Europa League football again next season.

The strain begins to show: O'Neill looks on as Villa drop two points against Wolves.

This leaves me with Liverpool. A season that offered so much hope after last season’s second place finish saw us crash out of the Champions League early and lose to Arsenal and Reading in the Carling and FA Cups respectively. The two-legged Europa League clash with Portuguese side Benfica is fast approaching and this is the last remaining trophy to aim for. However, given our current financial situation, a fourth placed finish would be received as warmly as a trophy itself. Our run-in is perhaps on paper the easiest out of the four sides battling for fourth with Chelsea the only side left to play above us. Yet our away form this season is woeful; we have only won four games away from Anfield so far. Four draws and eight defeats tells the rest of the story and proves this is where our weakness lies. Birmingham away will be a tough game after they came close to beating us at Anfield and will surely want revenge for David Ngog’s late dive that cost them all three points. However, the trip to St. Andrews aside, our only other two away games are Hull City and Burnley. No disrespect to either side but if we do not take six points from those two games then we simply do not deserve to finish fourth. Our remaining home games see us entertain Sunderland next before three visits from London sides Fulham, Chelsea and West Ham United. On paper, it looks like five or six wins from the final seven fixtures is not unrealistic. Football, as I’m sure you’re aware, is not played on paper.

The fitness of Gerrard and Torres is vital if Liverpool can maintain their push for fourth.

In a season of ups and (considerably more) downs and despite remaining optimistic it appears that the “Top Four’s” stranglehold over the Premier League is about to be broken for the first time since Everton finished fourth in the 2004-2005 season. The current squad have of course been there and done it before on club football’s biggest stage and this experience could prove vital. If we stay injury free and move on from “Rieragate” then who would bet against the masters of the comeback? Istanbul alone proves that anything in football is possible. I think it will almost likely go down to the wire but despite Rafa’s promise of a fourth placed finish; it is no longer in our hands.

Mark Jepson

So Long Rafa

15 01 2010

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Twelve points adrift in the Premier League, out of the Carling Cup, failure to progress in the Champions League and now out of the FA Cup at the first hurdle after an embarrassing defeat to Reading at Anfield. We should take nothing away from Reading as they deserved their win, but where does this leave us now? Shane Long’s extra time winner leaves us looking at the long road ahead.
In the space of nine months we have gone from title challengers, and almost winners, to scrapping for fourth place with Aston Villa, Manchester City and Tottenham Hostpur. Furthermore, Birmingham, Sunderland and Stoke are all cranking the pressure on us. In these nine months, not too much has changed. Alvaro Arbeloa and Xabi Alonso have left but they have been replaced by Glen Johnson and Alberto Aquilani. Whilst the off-field troubles are not helping, it’s Rafa Benitez’s tactics and team selection that are coming under scrutiny once again. His insistence on playing out of form players such as Emiliano Insua, Lucas Leiva and Dirk Kuyt week in, week out is not helping. Insua for one not only looks out of form, but looks rock bottom for confidence. In fact I would go as far as saying that Gordon Brown will be more confident of delivering Labour a fourth consecutive election win than Insua will be of delivering a good performance for Liverpool. His positional sense, heading ability and lack of pace all leave a lot to be desired but the squad is too thin for changes. Players are leaving so that the wage bill can be trimmed but replacements are not forth coming. Our owners insistence on selling players before we can buy is having a harmful effect on the club. In January Andrea Dossena has gone back to Italy for a small loss, and Andrey Voronin has also finally left for Dynamo with Ryan Babel and Philipp Degen also open to moves. Yet just Argentina winger Maxi Rodriguez looks like arriving in this window and after last nights toothless performance, he must be wondering what on Earth he has signed up for. An already thin squad is getting thinner. Take into account the injuries we’ve had and things do not look like getting any better. Once Fernando Torres gets injured, it’s left to David N’Gog or Dirk Kuyt to fill the void and provide the goals and quite frankly, they’re just not up to task. Performances like last nights will also leave Marouane Chamakh wondering whether a Bosman move to us is in the summer really is a good idea.
At least Rodriguez has signed to give us some much needed width as once again we are looking desperate in the wide areas. I don’t wish to keep singling out Kuyt as I think he is a good player, but creative right winger he is not. The same goes for wide left as Babel doesn’t look interested anymore and Riera keeps picking up injuries. Aside from Jose Reina, Gerrard and Torres we look distinctly average. Failure to qualify for next season’s Champions League means offers may have to be considered for our last remaining top players which is why qualification is imperative. Each loss that we suffer tightens the rope that is hanging around Rafa’s neck.
Yet as mentioned, the financial situation at the club means that sacking Rafa is almost impossible at this time as he has not long started a new five-year deal. As well as this, who could do a better job with the limited resources he would have? Whilst I am not suggesting that Rafa has not had money to spend, when you compare it to what our Champions League rivals are spending it looks an unenviable job guiding us to next season’s competition. Apart from Guus Hiddink, there isn’t really an abundance of managerial talent waiting for jobs although I assume Gary Megson is looking for an immediate return to management. He might be in our price range too. Although we all dream of the Jose Mourinho’s of this world managing our club it seems that managing Liverpool in this day and age is not as desireable as it once was. 
So after Shane Long’s winner last night, our FA Cup exit leaves me saying ‘So Long Rafa’, we will never forget Istanbul 2005 and Cardiff 2006 but perhaps you have taken us as far as you can.
Mark Jepson

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