Friday, December 31, 2010

Chelsea - 1 Bolton - 0

Chelsea had a spell of about five minutes in the second half of this match where they really looked a threat. They scored their goal, had an effort cleared off the line, and forced a good save out of Jussi Jaaskelainen.  Other than that, they looked a lot like Arsenal at their absolute worst.  Loads of possession, but no cutting edge, no chances created, no evidence of even the desire to score a goal.

Bolton on the other hand, looked fairly good, especially during the first half.  One of the TV analysts even argued that Wanderers had created the better chances.  A lot of this was down to Fabrice Muamba and Stuart Holden (Pictured, Below).  Chelsea's three-man midfield of Michael Essien, Ramires, and Frank Lampard is probably worth £60 million, and they were dominated by the two central men in the Bolton midfield.

Muamba and Holden covered more ground than the Chelsea three, snuffed out any threats they made, and created some chances at the other end.  Just an epic, box-to-box performance, from two players under 25 who cost a combined £5 million.  Both have recently signed contract extensions, and neither has shown any desire to leave Bolton.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Bolton Wingers

At the start of the season many analysts thought that the biggest strength of this Wanderers team would be its wingers, Lee Chung-yong and Martin Petrov.  That has not quite come to pass.  But the wing play has been important.  Matt Taylor scored today, and he will be very important over the next several weeks, as Lee will be playing for South Korea in the Asian Confederation's championship.

Petrov has had an up-and-down season, and there is no guarantee that he will start against Chelsea on Wednesday.  It may be time for young Rodrigo Moreno to get his chance.

No matter who comes into the starting XI for Lee, they will have to shoulder a lot of responsibility, as the Korean winger has become an integral part of Bolton's attack.

Owen Coyle has some big decisions to make.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Bolton Wanderers v West Bromwich Albion (or That Damn Peter Odemwingie)

The Nigerian striker will be fit again to play Bolton on Boxing Day.  He is pivotal to what West Brom do, and will make things difficult for the Wanderers.  Not only does he score (6 goals in 11 matches), but his presence and intelligent movement creates space as well as opportunity for the Baggies' midfielders.

If I am honest, Odemwingie (pictured, right) is exactly the type of player Bolton tend to struggle against.  Of course, we have only kept one clean sheet all season, so I think it would be fair to say we struggle against most strikers.

These two clubs played to a draw a couple months ago, in a wide-open attacking match that was one of the finest spectacles of this season.  West Brom will have had two weeks to prepare for this match because of weather-related postponements, while Bolton are coming off an away loss in one of only three matches played last weekend.  Whether this provides an edge to either side on Sunday I am not sure, but going into a run of four matches in eleven days, we may see some squad rotation on both sides.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sunderland

There is no doubting the talent of this Sunderland squad, and they have shown that talent, especially at home, against several clubs in the top half of the table.  They looked very good while beating Bolton on Saturday, yet it was only 1-0, and the Trotters had several chances late that could have very easily lead to an equalizer.  To make my point, this is what I wrote about Sunderland in my season preview;

This Sunderland squad is actually pretty close to Steve Bruce's Wigan and Birmingham squads. He always puts a talented group of players together, they always finish pretty comfortably mid-table, analysts always expect them to push on into the top half, and they never do. 11th sounds about right for this club.

And I am afraid that about sums it up.  They are flying high now, but Steve Bruce teams are just a tease, not the real deal.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Bolton Midfield

Fabrice Muamba was dropped to the bench today in favor of Stuart Holden and Mark Davies in Bolton's central midfield.  Mark Davies was sent off for 2 yellow cards.  Muamba and Holden scored Bolton's goals.

Holden just turned 25, Mumba and Davies are both 22, and all three have exhibited substantial improvement as the season has progressed.  Going into the season, it was thought by many (including me) that Bolton's strength would be their wingers.  Yet Lee Chung-yong and Martin Petrov have both displayed uneven form through the first 16 matches in the premier league.  The spine of the team (Strikers Kevin Davies and Johann Elmander, Holden, M. Davies, and Muamba, central defenders Zat Knight and Gary Cahill, keeper Jussi Jaaskelainen) has been Bolton's strength this season.

Today's performance against Blackburn was good overall, not great, but the important thing, three points, was attained, and the Wanderers still find themselves riding high, sixth in the table for another week.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Martin Petrov

It's a big match for the Bulgarian winger against his former club.  He left under a black cloud, and he was not shy about criticizing the weatherman.  Petrov had some problems with injuries while at Eastlands, but he was always impressive when he was able to get on the pitch.  I am sure he is dying to prove a point this Saturday, but it is up to Owen Coyle to decide how Petrov can do so most effectively for the team.

Petrov generally doesn't play 90 minutes.  He has only completed one game in nine starts for Bolton this season.  To be fair he has competed all three that he has started for Bulgaria, so he is certainly fit enough to play the whole match if need be.  Coyle has to make the decision on how to best use Petrov's energy and emotion.  Will he start him, hoping that he can create mayhem straight on from kickoff, or will he save him for the 60th minute, an impact sub in the last half hour of what promises to be a close, hard-fought match.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Manchester City

Bolton will be visiting Eastlands this weekend, and it will be an interesting clash of styles between the Wanderers and the Citizens.  Bolton have shown themselves to be an attacking, free-flowing offensive club this season.  Man City, on the other hand, have been a very defensive-minded group, a tactical philosophy which has generated a lot of criticism for manager Roberto Mancini.

Just park in front of the goal...
City have 26 points from 15 matches, Bolton have 23, but they have gained their points in very different manners.  Bolton have outscored their opponents, a leaky defense allowing 22 goals, yet scoring for themselves 28 times, fourth most in the league, and only one goal behind mighty Chelsea.  Manchester City have only scored 20 goals, middle of the pack, but they have conceded a miserly 12 goals, 2 more than Chelsea, but 4 less than anyone else.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Blackpool

Blackpool currently sit twelfth in the league table, with a relatively impressive 18 points from 14 matches.  They have been a scoring threat, with 21 goals, but they have conceded 27, the most in the league.  It has been a wild ride so far though.  Way back on August 4th, I wrote this about the Seasiders;

There will be a draw against a big team, maybe even a home win against a top 4 side, an inspiring performance away from home in London or Manchester, and a lot of fun afternoons that the supporters should make sure they enjoy, because this is a one season adventure.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Brilliant!

Bolton Wanderers are showing themselves a force to be reckoned with in the Premier League.  The dismantling of Newcastle on Saturday was just phenomenal to watch.  So what has changed in the past month or so to move Owen Coyle's men up the table.

Most notable change, consistency throughout the match.  Early on in the season, Bolton would look good in the first half, but terrible in the second, or vice versa.  Sometimes it was even more severe, a dominating 15 minute spell followed by a mistake-filled 20 minutes.  Things slowly improved, but poor spells were still leading to goals, and often these goals left us with draws instead of wins.

In the case of the Liverpool match, we lost after being the better team for about 85 minutes of the 90.  I think that is when things changed.  We were held without a goal for only the third time this season.  That is when the identity of this team became clear.  We have to be a dynamic, attacking team.  Instead of trying to hold our opponents scoreless, we need to score more than them.  Spurs came to town, we steamrolled them 4-2, and haven't looked back.

But enough analysis, for the next few days, I just want to enjoy it.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Starting XI v Wolves

Johann Elmander and Matt Taylor have both been under the weather this week, yet have made it onto the team sheet.  I am not a big fan of this.

If a player is trying to recover from an ankle sprain or something like that, OK, a trainer can put him through a fitness test and say he is able to play.  But a stomach bug or cold just saps stamina.  Starting two players who will probably have to be subbed, especially as Taylor and Elmander both run miles, really handcuffs Owen Coyle's ability to change things around during the match.

Most important, we have ready-made replacements for both these players.  Martin Petrov is fit again and can easily slot back in on the left side.  Ivan Klasnic has scored a couple goals recently and can certainly come in for Elmander, although to be fair, he will probably have to be taken off as well.  The wild card in all this is Rodrigo Moreno.  I would have loved to have seen the electric young Spaniard playing up top alongside Kevin Davies.  Finally, someone with pace to run onto all the flicks from Davies winning headers.

At the very least, I would like to see Moreno come on at half time, no matter the score.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The League Table

I have a rule about the league table.  I don't look at it until after my birthday (November 9).  Given that, after yesterday's draw between Bolton and Everton at Goodison Park (heartbreaking to give up such a late equalizer, but a draw at either side of Stanley Park is a good result) I went to Sky Sports website and took a look.

I was right about a few things.  I thought Wolves would be relegation fodder and they are.  Some of the clubs I thought would be establishing themselves mid-table are struggling (such as Wigan and West Ham), but I still think they have time to pull out of it.  I appear to have been dead wrong about Newcastle, but let's just wait and see about that.

As for my beloved Bolton Wanderers, they find themselves in a lofty position not seen since the days of Sam Allardyce.  Sixth in the table with 16 points from 12 matches and a positive goal differential.  They are unlikely to remain there, I don't have any delusions of grandeur, and the defense needs to tighten up or a slide down the table could come quickly, but it looks as though a top half finish is not out of the question.  Considering the mess Gary Megson left behind, and recent financial news out of the Reebok, a top half finish would be a stunning achievement for Owen Coyle this season.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Owen Hargreaves

I always liked Owen Hargreaves.  He was a very good, very under-rated player.  He could play several positions, and play them well.  He was good on the ball and could attack, he was also a great tackler and could defend.  He scored goals and created goals for other players.  He played at right back for England in the 2006 World Cup and was probably their best player.

All that aside, Hargreaves has played 8 minutes of top flight football in the past three seasons.  To see him limp off the field after five minutes on Saturday was, more than anything else, sad.  Let's face it, it was a stupid move by Alex Ferguson to start Hargreaves after being out for so long.  No one was surprised at the result.  And you have to think there is a very good chance that this is it for Hargreaves.

If he is done it has been a great career.  He has won just about everything there is to win in club football, and he has always been a selfless player willing to do what is best for the team.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Tom Huddlestone

There is no questioning this players raw physical abilities, and he has been touted as the next big thing, especially by Spurs fans, for a while now.  He is still only 23 (24 next month), but I am beginning to wonder if it will happen for him.  I think he is as well, because more signs of frustration have been finding their way into his game.

The latest came yesterday, when he maliciously, and very late, chose to stamp on Johann Elmander's crotch as Elmander was laying prostrate and nowhere near the ball.  It was a disgraceful act (I don't see how you can even call it a challenge) and if the referee had seen it he would have been sent off.  But because the referee didn't see it, the Football Association will have jurisdiction.  I can't see anything less than a three match ban, and Huddlestone might deserve more.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Gareth who???

Bolton Wanderers picked the perfect time to make a statement to the rest of the league.  On ESPN for the lunch time kickoff in England (Breakfast in the US), with everybody watching (including Fabio Capello), Owen Coyle's men looked magnificent.

Spurs defenders did not know what to do with Kevin Davies, who was dominant in scoring two goals while creating a third, but I want to focus on another player, Matt Taylor (pictured, right).

Taylor was making only his second start of the season in the league, and he looked very similar to what we saw from him last season.  No one is ever going to mistake him for a defensive stalwart, but he covers a lot of ground on the left side, and he did a good job tracking back to defend because, let's face it, Paul Robinson needs all the help he can get.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Bolton Wanderers v Liverpool

We don't like to admit that randomness plays a big part in our lives.  Sure, we make comments about luck, or "the rub of the green," maybe even "the way the ball bounces," when we don't get what we want, but we hate to acknowledge, especially when things go well for us, that a part of it comes down to chance.

We could (unfortunately) see this a lot.
As far as football goes, a lot of that chance is dictated by schedule.  Bolton managed to get Manchester United and West Ham when they were struggling, and we got good results from those matches.  We also got Arsenal when they were going well, and we didn't get a result.

Sunday's match against Liverpool is shaping up that way.  The Reds look to finally be shaking out of their early season funk.  Fernando Torres is rounding into form.  A new ownership group has (temporarily I suspect) calmed their fanatical supporters.  Watching Liverpool's last few matches, I have just got the feeling that at some point, someone is going to get a hiding.

Ivan Klasnic

In a bit of disturbing off the pitch news, Croatian international Ivan Klasnic was apparently retained by the Greater Manchester Police and questioned regarding the alleged rape of a 17-year-old woman in Manchester City Centre.

Rape is a disgraceful action, and if Klasnic is guilty he should certainly spend a long period of time, if not the rest of his life, in prison.  At the very least, and this is before any confirmed information has been revealed, Klasnic is guilty of stunningly bad judgement.  Being alone with a 17-year-old girl at 4 AM is not a good idea in general, and really cannot lead to anything good.

Jim Brown is a former American football player, now in his 60's, who often counsels young athletes, particularly African-Americans from the inner city.  One of the first things he tells them is that between midnight and 6 AM, nothing good ever happens to a public figure, and if they stay home during this period of time, they are unlikely to have any off the field problems.  Footballers would be wise to follow this advice as well.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Wigan Athletic v Bolton Wanderers

The two Lancashire clubs split the points at the DW Stadium.  If only they were so gregarious with the meat pies and sausage rolls...

This was probably a fair result.  Wigan's goal was offside, but they did have a few other opportunities.  Bolton on the other hand barely sent in any shots, when you would think the instruction going out on to the pitch would have been to shoot early and often, from all distances and angles, to test the shaky and dropped in August goalkeeper Chris Kirkland.  I would say he played a good game, but he didn't, he just wasn't tested at all.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Ali Al-Habsi

Wigan and Bolton play each other this week, and Wigan will not be allowed to use their on-loan goalkeeper.  This is a big blow for them.  Al-Habsi nearly single-handedly beat Tottenham at White Hart Lane earlier this season, and his insertion into the starting XI really kicked off a surge in form for the Latics.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Brazilians in Europe

There are so many of them!  Everyone from AC Milan to Shahktar Donetsk has at least one or two Brazilians, often as many as seven or eight.  Some of the lesser known clubs from places like Romania have more than half of their team consisting of Brazilians.  Not a lot of defenders in that group though.  Or more importantly, holding midfielders.  Now I am not talking about destroyers, everyone has those, I am talking about cultured ballplayers who get stuck in, as the English would say, but also pull the strings and play the passes that create the opportunities for the more attacking players.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Bolton v Stoke City

Many people are blaming the referee for Ivan Klasnic's eventful yet brief appearance on Saturday, particularly his flurry of yellow cards and resulting dismissal.  But I really don't see that the referee did anything wrong.  Klasnic (pictured, left) probably should have been sent off for grabbing a Stoke player by the throat before his first yellow.  He was out of control and has only himself to blame.

But back to the football itself.  This was a great game to watch, open and attacking on both sides.  And Bolton were able to grab all three points at the end following Klasnic's superb finish.  I suspect this may be the Croatian hitman's best role, that of a super sub in the final half hour or so.  In all honesty, I would rather see Kevin Davies make way for Klasnic at about the 70 minute mark, but we are unlikely to see a Johann Elmander and Klasnic partnership anytime soon.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Some Event at The New Wembley

At the start of England's match against Montenegro today Kevin Davies was the only forward on the bench for Fabio Capello.  This was because of injuries more than anything.  Gary Cahill was also on the bench, and you could argue, on current form, he has been better than either of the players in the starting XI this season.  Whether he is or not, one would have to say, the inclusion of 2 Bolton players in the England team verifies Capello's claim that he would choose his squad based upon the amount of playing time each player is receiving at his club, and what he is doing with those opportunities.

Davies did get off the bench, Cahill did not, and England were held at home.  I must admit, given the arrogance and sense of entitlement England supporters display, results like this are pretty enjoyable.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Stuart Holden Starts for The USA

I thought Holden would be a breakout star for the US at the World Cup, but he didn't get on the pitch.  In hindsight, he wasn't really fit after a rushed recovery from a broken leg.  However, he has been a revelation for Bolton in the center of the midfield through the first two months of the season.  Holden gets to show his versatility tonight though, as he is starting on the right wing for the US against Poland. 

I just hope he doesn't get injured again on international duty.  His poise on the ball and distribution in midfield is critical to the way Bolton play under Owen Coyle.  And let's face it, in between World Cups the US has a 3 year lull until qualifying for the next tournament begins.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Kevin Davies for England!!!

A few years ago Bolton beat Manchester United 1-0, and Kevin Davies, playing wide to the right of Nicolas Anelka, absolutely battered Patrice Evra.  There were several questionable challenges and incidents of the ball between the two players, and in all honesty both deserved to be sent off.  It was Davies at his best and worst.

I was feeling the need to gloat about this victory on the following Monday, so I phoned World Soccer Daily, a North American call-in show, to taunt one of the hosts, Howard, who was a Manchester United supporter.  As soon as I got on the air I shouted, facetiously, "Kevin Davies for England!"  Howard, irritated at his team's defeat, proceeding to rant about Davies' inadequacies for a good long while before his broadcast partner explained to him that I was joking.  Unfortunately for England fans, the joke is on them.

Monday, October 4, 2010

West Bromwich Albion v Bolton Wanderers

The second half of this match was some of the best football you are ever going to see.  Just a thrilling, end-to-end affair, the technical ability, the tackling, managers matching wits, it was all there.  A great advertisement for the game, as well as for the new positive attacking mentality that has been present at many clubs who would have previously been expected to pack it in and play for a draw.  In all honesty, it was far greater spectacle than the Chelsea v Arsenal snoozefest down in London.

A draw was probably a fair result, although both clubs had several opportunities to secure all three points.  Martin Petrov may have got a deflected goal against Manchester United, but he appears to have left his scoring boots in a brothel somewhere outside Sophia.  One player I really want to mention for West Brom is Peter Odemwingie (pictured, below).  He has been a absolute revelation since he arrived, and it was a real coup for Roberto Di Matteo to sign him.

In my season preview, I wrote of West Brom;

They count on midfielders Chris Brunt and Graham Dorrans to provide the goals, as principal striker Roman Bednar just can't get it done at this level. Brunt is only 25, a Northern Irish international who has always shown a knack for scoring goals, and Di Matteo will rely heavily on him.


Saturday, October 2, 2010

Will the Real Wigan Athletic Please Stand Up?

Many people had Wigan dead and buried after they opened the season with a 4-0 loss to Blackpool and a 6-0 shellacking by Chelsea, but I was confident in my preseason prediction that they would finish somewhere between 13th and 16th, as long as they kept their best players and dropped goalkeeper Chris Kirkland for on loan Bolton stopper Ali Al-Habsi (pictured, right).

Well, they kept their best players, Al-Habsi came in against Tottenham, where he played an absolute blinder and led them to an epic 1-0 victory, and today the Latics played a huge match at home against fellow lower table club Wolves.  It is too early in the season to panic, but it is this sort of match, at home against a relegation struggler, that teams look back on and regret not getting three points from in May.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Champions League Thoughts

Partizan Belgrade and Arsenal played a very strange match.  Three penalties, two missed, as well as some strange goals, and other questionable challenges, all added to Arsenal's usual reluctance to punish inferior teams.  The big question for Arsenal, other than why didn't Wenger buy a better keeper this summer;  Was Gael Clichy rested with Chelsea coming on Sunday, or has he been dropped for Kieran Gibbs (pictured, right)?

Ajax looked good, as I thought they would.  They didn't have enough to turn over Real Madrid in Madrid, but AC Milan have no answer for the young legs and silky skills of the Amsterdam lads. Milan were extremely lucky to hold on for a point, it should have been 4-0.  I really think Ajax kept Martin Jol and kept their World Cup stars because they think they are good enough to make a serious run in Europe this season.  Can they win the Champions League?  Probably not.  If they go out in the group stage will they sell their five best players in January?  Probably.  But if I am one of the big clubs, I do not want to see Ajax in the round of sixteen.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Good Result for Bolton!

But they probably deserved the win.  Nemanja Vidic and Johnny Evans struggled against Johann Elmander and Kevin Davies, and Bolton had several opportunities to secure all three points.  The referee didn't allow Fergie time, the customary 47 additional minutes for Manchester United to steal an undeserved victory, because Bolton was showing more of a threat, and the added time would have been a disadvantage for Mr. Ferguson and his merry band of misfits.

Seriously, Manchester United's midfield is only occasionally impressive (because Paul Scholes is old, and can't perform in every match anymore), and they lack the depth to affect the game from the bench.  Stuart Holden bossed the game from the center of the park, and Lee Chung-yong, along with Martin Petrov, finally had the effect Bolton fans have been waiting for.

All in all, a good result for Bolton, a lucky point for United, and some momentum for the Wanderers heading into and important run of (winnable) fixtures.  There are worries (no home wins, a tendency to concede soft goals), but Bolton have seven points from six difficult games thus far, and their play is continuously improving and evolving as the squad becomes more comfortable with Owen Coyle's system.  Things are looking up.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Formation against Manchester United

Strange as it sounds, this may be a good time to play United for Bolton.  Just before a big Champions League match-up, teams can be distracted from the job at hand.  And United have a big one at Valencia on Wednesday night.  Alex Ferguson may decide to rest some players against Bolton, which has proved disastrous in the not so distant past.  But there is another reason I think Bolton could get a result here.

Wanderers strength, the midfield, especially central midfield, is Manchester United's weakness.  Either Scholes or Fletcher will be rested on Sunday, but Ferguson doesn't even have the personnel to rest both.  And the replacement will be Michael Carrick, who is useless.  Bolton can exploit this weakness, but I believe that to do so Owen Coyle will need to abandon his beloved 4-4-2.

Coyle will also need to switch around some players in the team, which he does usually seem willing to do, even after a good performance against Aston Villa (The performance against Burnley was not as good, but given the 8 changes that were made, it's not really relevant to the form of the first team).  I think he will have to go with a different formation to create the best match-ups against Manchester United.  Basically, a 4-1-2-3.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Kickoff!

My prediction for the starting XI was spot on, and after a scant 9 minutes, young Rodrigo Moreno has already had a shot on goal.  If the early action is any indication, this is going to be an open match...

Monday, September 20, 2010

Carling Cup - Burnley v. Bolton Wanderers

The home supporters will have nothing better to do than shout obscenities at Owen Coyle, but I don't think that will really have any bearing on the match itself.  I think Brian Laws will play his entire first team, as his aforementioned supporters will be baying for blood.  Owen Coyle, on the other hand, will send out what is essentially a B team for this one.  The thing is, I like our B team.

Adam Bogdan will continue in goal, and the lad has shown definite potential, it will be no surprise if he is our number one keeper in a few years.

Due to injuries and suspensions, the back-line will be very similar to what we will see against Manchester United in the league on Sunday.  Gretar Steinsson at right-back, as usual, a partnership of Zat Knight and Sam Ricketts in the middle, and the one change, Marcus Alonso  at left back.  All eyes will be on Alonso, as many in the Bolton universe would like to see him replace Paul Robinson in the first team, and the sooner the better.

The midfield is where we will see some big changes.  We know that Mark Davies and Matt Taylor will start, and it is very likely Tamir Cohen will be in the first eleven as well.  And given the players available to Coyle, I think he will play a 4-2-3-1.

Manchester United v Liverpool, Who Cares?

At the risk of enraging a large portion of northwestern England, this match is just not that big a deal anymore.  Liverpool is just not a threat in the league.  It is no different from when Manchester United play Everton, or Aston Villa, or even Sunderland.  It is a club with  large fan base, a few really good players, and a good deal of money to spend on transfers, but realistically, a club that will finish between fifth and tenth.  Maybe they can beat one of the big clubs on their best day, but over the length of the season they just don't have the talent or depth to compete at the highest level in England.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Wanderers Draw

Bolton fans have a long history of blaming Mike Dean for everything from Kevin Davies' lack of goals to global warming and fluoride in their drinking water.

In the first half of today's match, they may have had a point.  Both Lee Chong-yung and Johann Elmander were brought down in the box. Neither is a player known for going down easily.   The first penalty claim, involving Lee and Stephen Warnock, was debatable.  It looked quite obvious that Warnock brought the Korean winger down, but Lee's touch had been heavy.  You could argue that he had lost possession and was not going to get to the ball either way.  I am not saying I agree with this argument, but it can reasonably be made.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Aston Villa v Bolton Wanderers

Apparently, some day soon, Aston Villa will have a new manager.  He is a good manager, and the club's performances will probably improve under him.  If the past is any indication, all that will do is create unrealistic expectations for the managers that come after him.  Bolton have also been down this road.  Only now, under Owen Coyle, is the club finally starting to emerge from the shadow of Sam Allardyce.

This weekend's match could give us a preview of this new era, as club captain and aerial warrior Kevin Davies looks very unlikely to feature.  Now, you never want a player to get injured, but Wanderers are not going to be able to have a full break from the Allardyce team until Davies rides off into the sunset.  The truth is, it is hard to argue that he still deserves an automatic place in the starting XI.  Unfortunately, he is only one of several Bolton absentees this week.  The Bolton team will look something like this;

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Champions League Upsets

I could also call this entry "How the Mighty have Fallen."

AC Milan and Read Madrid are both at home against clubs one would normally expect them to beat.  But not this season.  AC Milan have been in decline for quite some time.  Italian football observers, myself included had been saying Milan were too old for a couple season's when they won the Champions League in 2007.  That triumph was a combination of smoke, mirrors, luck, guile, and the brilliance of Kaka.

Several of the players from that squad are still around, but they are well past their sell-by date.  The Italians have tried to prop themselves up by bringing in some younger players (young being relative), but none of them have really worked out, and financial considerations forced them to sell Kaka.  In a desperate attempt to appease their supporters (especially the ultras, who will throw their flaming Vespa at you if displeased), Milan have brought in some big name attackers, although none of them live up to their reputations very often.

Milan barely qualified for this competition last season in Serie A, and I think they are in danger of missing out once again this time around.  Their priority early in the season will be to advance past the group stages of the Champions League, and that will not be an easy feat in this group.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Champion's League a Distraction???

This coming Tuesday and Wednesday mark the triumphant return of the group stages of the UEFA Champion's League, always a glorious and wonderful thing.  At least until clubs like AC Milan and Liverpool decide that boring 0-0 draws are the best way to advance.  Wait, you mean they weren't doing that on purpose?  Ohhhhhhhhh.

Anyway, for some clubs, it seems that the World's biggest club competition may have led to subpar performances this weekend.  Barcelona lost to, and to be fair, were soundly beaten by, newly promoted Hercules.  AC Milan also lost to a new member of Serie A.  AS Roma drew on Saturday, and I think we all know (and took immense pleasure from) what happened to Manchester United.

Most of the clubs in European competition, at least this European competition, are pretty much guaranteed to be dwelling in the upper echelons of their domestic league table, so they often put an almost irrational emphasis on the Champion's League.  Given the prestige involved, as well as the financial benefits, it is hard to blame them.

Calm down calm down!!!

Honestly, Bolton was not going to beat Arsenal today.  It was a solid performance for the first 60 minutes or so, and yes, the sending off of Gary Cahill was unjustified, and yes, it changed the whole match.  But really, Arsenal were eventually going to finish one of their 653 chances.

So put the noose away Bolton supporters, Stuart Atwell did not cost us this match.  The boys from north London are just a better team than us.  No surprise really.  I suppose you could say that a free kick on the edge of the box rather than a Cahill red card would have led to us tying things up at two and then charging on to victory, but I think you would be wrong.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Everton v Manchester United

This match is interesting on many levels.  The English media is focusing on the Wayne Rooney circus, but I don't really care about that.  You see, Manchester United play Glasgow Rangers in the Champion's League next week, and I am sure Alex Ferguson would love to rest some players ahead of that match.  But Everton won this match last season, and they always play their best against big clubs.  It's not hard to imagine a scenario where Everton finally get their season started with a win and Manchester United get beat by overlooking an opponent.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Arsenal v Bolton

If anyone is interested in joining me, I will be watching this match live at the Baker Street Pub, at the corner of 63rd St. and 1st Ave., on the scenic island of Manhattan.  And just to warn you, I will be accompanied by an Arsenal supporter.

As for the match, I must admit I am not especially confident of Bolton getting a result.  I think Bolton will defend fairly well, and I think we will create a fair amount of chances on the break.  Arsenal will have somewhere in the neighborhood of 70% possession, and they will look lovely in their movement and control about 40 yards from Adam Bogdan.  It will be a joy to watch.  Of course, the problem arises when the gunners fail to turn that possession into goals.  Two of the players who specialize in turning the pretty passing into points, Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott, are out with injuries.  That may not be enough to get Bolton any points, but it could help make things nervy for Arsenal fans.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Playing for England...

I understand why a player such as Kevin Davies, Matt Taylor, or even Kevin Nolan wants to play for England.  In addition to the measure of pride in representing your country, it is a very public recognition for reaching a certain level of performance.

I understand all that, but international football is a harsh mistress.  And once she casts her spell on you, it is nearly impossible to leave her.  For every Paul Scholes, who manages to retire with dignity and career intact, there is a Michael Owen, an Owen Hargreaves, or a David Beckham, a player who ravages his body and derails his career in continued search of those elusive England caps.

This brings me to Gary Cahill (pictured).  I understand his desire to play for England, and I am very curious to see how it will affect his career.  Michael Ricketts career is in ruins because of his reckless pursuit of international recognition.  Shawn Wright-Phillips spent several years warming the bench at Chelsea because he thought it would help his England career.  The same is true of Wayne Bridge and Steve Sidwell.  Michael Dawson is going to be out for months because of an injury he got playing for England.  Theo Walcott, still a very young player in need of match experience, will probably miss a month after getting hurt today.

Monday, September 6, 2010

International Break


I know some people will complain about the break this week, but I don't agree with them.  There are international tournaments, and qualifying matches have to be played for them.  Those matches need to be scheduled at times when it is possible, weather-wise, to play all around the world.  Sometimes you have to accept the reality of the situation.

That said, I like the new game days for the internationals.  Having the matches on Fridays and Tuesdays gives the players enough time to return to their clubs and prepare for the next weekend's matches.  This is especially important for countries in places such as Asia and South America, as well as big clubs in Europe.  These competing interests are never going to see eye-to-eye, but anything FIFA can do to make the relationship less antagonistic is a positive development.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Gary Cahill v Martin Petrov


Some may claim that Bulgaria visited the new Wembley Stadium in London last night to play a UEFA 2012 European Championship qualifier, but all I was paying attention to were the Bolton Wanderers players that featured in the squads on either side.

Martin Petrov started on the left wing for Bulgaria, just as he does for Bolton, and he saw precious little of the ball, just as he does for Bolton. Now, some players always seem to be in open positions, but as you look closer you realize they have put themselves in an area where it is almost impossible to give them the ball. Petrov is not doing that, he is getting himself into threatening and available spots with great frequency for club and country.



So why isn't he seeing more of the ball? The answer is a bit strange. He is too clever. At least, he is too clever for his current teammates, many of whom are talented enough to find him in these positions, but rather young and inexperienced. There are also some veteran players who should be able to find him, but just don't have the technical ability to do so.

I think this will sort itself out. As youngsters such as Lee Chung-yong, Fabrice Muamba, and especially Stuart Holden become more accustomed to playing with Petrov they will learn how to find him in space. When that happens, Bolton will start to look a threat going forward, at least much more than they do now.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Arsenal


Arsene Wenger only named a 20-man-squad for the first half of the season, primarily because so many of his players are under 21 and do not need to be registered. But it doesn't matter how many players he named in the squad, because none of them is a top class goalkeeper. And without a top class goalkeeper, Arsenal are not going to win the Premier League.

This club certainly has the talent on the field to compete for the league title. But Manuel Almunia is a disaster waiting to happen. I don't know why Arsene Wenger doesn't see it. It must be extremely frustrating for the fans. Hell, it frustrates me, and I am not even an Arsenal fan.

Apparently Wenger finally upped the offer for Mark Schwarzer to £4 million, which Fulham found acceptable, but it was too late for them to find a replacement and get that deal done. This deal could have been done three months ago! Why wait until the last minute and take the chance that it won't go through?

I was almost going to pick the Gunners to win the league this season, especially if they managed to bring in someone like Schwarzer, or even better, Shay Given, but I have zero faith in Almunia, so it looks like another third place finish for the boys from North London.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Bolton Wanderers v Birmingham City


There is good and bad to be taken from this match, the last before the international break. Bolton went down 2-0 and had their keeper sent off in the 37th minute, so to fight back for a 2-2 draw is an excellent example of this team's doggedness.

On the other hand, Bolton have two points from two home matches so far this season. It is also a draw, and overall a poor performance, against a club who will be right around us in the table and improved themselves on transfer deadline day.

But still, five points from three matches going into the break is not too bad. Now, several days of frantically reading Korean news reports, terrified that one of our best players will get injured while playing for his country.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Carling Cup - Southampton vs Bolton


Bolton are through to the third round of the league cup after beating League One side Southampton 1-0. Ivan Klasnic (pictured) scored the goal for Bolton, who were not really recognizable from the team that beat West Ham on Saturday. Owen Coyle made nine changes, keeping only captain Kevin Davies and Zat Knight in the starting XI.

There were two notable debuts for the Wanderers. 21-year-old Hungarian goalkeeper Adam Bogdan has been with the club for several years made his first senior appearance in place of Jussi Jaaskelainen, who received a well-deserved rest after his heroics at Upton Park. But the player everyone who supports Bolton wanted to see was Marcos Alonso, the 18-year-old product of real Madrid's academy who made his Wanderers debut at left back.

The consensus seems to be that Alonso is an attack-minded fullback, and that it will take some time for him to acclimatize to his new country, as well as adapt to the Premier League style of play. Many thought he lacked positional sense against the Saints, but that may be more due to youthful exuberance than anything else. Bolton's current left back, Paul Robinson, is a hard worker, but very limited technically as well as athletically, and quite honestly, he is a red card waiting to happen who is lucky when a match passes without him conceding a penalty. My best estimate is that Alonso will win the starting job by Christmas. His presence and attacking flare will give Wanderers a whole new dimension on the left wing, and make it much more difficult for clubs to focus on Martin Petrov, as they have the last two weeks.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Newcastle United


I said this about some clubs last week, and I say it about the Geordies this week; Don't get carried away. They were absolutely destroyed at Old Trafford in week 1, and they have that shiny 6-0 scoreline to show off after week 2. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Newcastle are not as bad as they looked against Manchester United, nor are they as good as the score would indicate against Aston Villa.

In fact, the score against Villa is very deceiving. Villa missed a penalty and had a seemingly good goal disallowed. Newcastle then padded the goal tally with a couple of late scores. And it must be said some of their goals were of the dubious variety.

Long story short, Newcastle supporters, be happy with the result, but don't fool yourselves, the club is still going to be involved in the relegation scrap.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Manchester City


There has been a lot of criticism of Roberto Mancini's tactics the first couple weeks of the season, and I have to say I don't particularly care for what he is trying to do, but I can at least see what his plan is. He is putting the emphasis on defense and possession. Apparently, his mindset is something along the lines of, "We have the talent to score whenever we want, and that is what the impact substitutes will be used for, but our first priority is keeping clean sheets."


In actuality, Man City's system is very similar to Chelsea in their final season under Jose Mourinho, the height of the "boring, boring Chelsea" era. The ingredient that Man City is missing in this comparison is Frank Lampard. All of their central midfielders are defensive, there is no one pushing up right behind the striker and chipping in with goals from late runs into the box. Against Liverpool today, both Yaya Toure and Gareth Barry (pictured) appeared to get forward more than one would expect, but neither is ideal for that role.

Once a club reaches the talent level that the Blues have, so much depends on mindset. And all Mancini wants them to think about is preventing goals, retaining possession, and scoring when they need to do so. There are going to be games like today, where they put several chances away, but we will see a lot more 1-0 than 3-2 at Eastlands this season. Eventually they will have to find the equivalent of a Lampard, a Steven Gerrard, a Cesc Fabregas, or a Paul Scholes, that is, an attacking central midfielder who scores goals as well as creating chances for teammates. This club is going to win a lot of matches this season, and probably will qualify for the Champion's League for next season, but they are not going to win the lead until they get that big piece in central midfield.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Wigan Athletic


Roberto Martinez's boys were hammered again yesterday, and it is only the fact that other clubs have also been hammered so far that is keeping many from banking on relegation for Wigan.

The score-lines have been ugly, but I still think this club will have a decent chance to stay up IF they hold on to all of their players, not to mention change the goalkeeper. Charles N'Zogbia wants away, and he may be their best attacking player. Fullback Maynor Figueroa as well as forward Hugo Rodellega have also been mentioned as possible departures. That is probably Wigan's three best players. A club of this size and scope cannot afford to lose their three best players ten days before the transfer window closes. Chairman Dave Whelan (who named the stadium after himself) has never sold players for purely financial reasons, especially this late in the window, and I just can't see him starting now.

The second issue Wigan have is that they are shipping goals at a shocking rate. It is hard to blame one player when it is this bad, but goalkeeper Chris Kirkland has been dire thus far this season. Truth be told, he has never been more than an adequate keeper. The fact that he made some appearances in goal for England says more about the sorry state of that countries goalkeepers (Joe Hart excluded) than about his own abilities.

The strangest part of the saga in goal is that Wigan have a very good keeper on the bench in Ali Al-Habsi, who has shown when playing for Oman as well as in limited appearances for Bolton that he is a very reliable figure to have in the net. I thought he might be in the starting XI this week, but there is no way he is still on the bench next week.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

West Ham United 1 Bolton Wanderers 3



Great match! West Ham dominated the first half, but Jussi Jaaskelainen was epic in goal, making several outstanding saves and stopping a penalty.

Bolton really came into the game in the second half, spurred on when Kevin Davies scored a somewhat dubious goal. But the story today was Johann Elmander. He has had a rough two years in Lancashire; However, there was really a feeling this summer that he was finally ready to establish himself as a Premier League striker. He has had two outstanding matches, and scored a brace today at Upton Park.

Stuart Holden was also very good in midfield today. As capable as he is of playing in the center of the park, he has spent most of his career as a winger and still has some things to learn. I think the Holden-Muamba partnership is going to be outstanding, but it is still a work-in-progress.

The defense was a little shaky today, and Jussi needed to be great. It was obvious the Hammer's attacking philosophy was to go after Paul Robinson, and that is the right plan when playing Bolton. He is probably the worst left-back in the league. Hopefully he will not be in the team much longer. I think Sam Ricketts should replace him in the short-term, and Marcus Alonso in the long-term. We will soon find out if Owen Coyle agrees with me. Either way, it was a good three points away from home today, and four from the first six on offer. Bolton have a league cup match Tuesday against Southampton, and I hope it will be a chance to give some of the squad players a game.

West Ham United vs. Bolton Wanderers


The Wanderers travel to Upton Park having won on their last three visits there. This makes me nervous, as runs like these have to end at some point. A club like Manchester United or Arsenal can have runs of 20 matches against a particular club without losing, but there is not a substantial talent gap between these two clubs, so this kind of dominance is very unlikely.

Owen Coyle has named an unchanged side from that which drew 0-0 against Fulham last weekend. Avram Grant has made a few changes, and a couple of his new acquisitions are starting today. It is an attacking line-up for the Hammers, Scott Parker, who is a pretty offensive minded player, looks to be serving as the holding midfielder. Kieron Dyer and Pablo Barrera are the wingers, and neither is known for his defensive work.

Given this team, I think Martin Petrov and Lee Chung-yong really have a chance to shine. Both were less than stellar last week, but Fulham were set up specifically to deny the wingers space. This will not be a problem today. If you are a big picture sort of person, this is really a test of Coyle's system.

Neither team is outstanding on the defensive side, so it will be a shock if there aren't goals on both sides today. I am predicting a 2-2 draw. Look for Johann Elmander and Frederique Piquionne to get their first goals of the season.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Don't be fooled...


At about this time last year Burnley beat Manchester United. I am just saying, I am sure the Blackpool supporters had a wonderful day out on Saturday, but don't be expecting any miracles.

As for Wigan, expect to see Ali Al-Habsi, an Omani goalkeeper on loan from Bolton, starting in goal sometime very soon. Either way they are going to struggle.

Wolves beat Stoke City by playing a good first half and getting a little luck. It was actually a pretty even match. Given that, I still expect Stoke to finish several spots ahead of Wolves.

West Brom are not going to get beat 6-0 every time out, but I predicted they would go down, and I have seen nothing to make me even reconsider that prediction.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Title Contenders (Arsenal)


Last season Liverpool Keeper Pepe Reina would have made a simple catch of a Theo Wolcott cross deep in injury time, and Anfield would have exploded in celebration of a 1-0 win over Arsenal. This season new signing Marouane Chamakh went in for a challenge on Reina, caused him to spill the ball, and Arsenal salvaged a 1-1 draw.

We all know Arsenal's biggest problems, the things that have kept them from winning the league the last few seasons, when they clearly had enough talent to do so. I think they have addressed, or are trying to address, all of these issues, and if they do, they will be right in the thick of the title fight come May.

The first and most obvious problem is Manuel Almunia. That's a little harsh on him actually. He is not a horrible keeper, and would probably be adequate at a club like West Brom or Wigan, but he is nowhere near good enough for Arsenal. Arsenal have been linked with Mark Schwarzer, who is slightly better but a lot older, and Shay Given, who is a lot better and a similar age to Almunia. If Arsene Wenger weren't so stubborn he would give Man City whatever they want for Given, but the man is ideologically opposed to paying large transfer fees for older players, and that seems to be particularly true for goalkeepers.

The second problem is the lack of depth in the center of defense. Thomas Vermaelen is an outstanding defender, and new signing Laurent Koscielny looks quite good as well, but there is really nothing beyond that. And I mean nothing. Johann Djourou is the only other senior player with any experience at central defender. After him, Wenger will have to drop a midfielder such as Alex Song into the back line. As luck would have it, Koscielny has already picked up a red card and will be suspended this weekend. Now, I don't think that will impact Arsenal's ability to unceremoniously bring Blackpool back to earth, but eventually they are going to need to cope with injuries and/or suspensions for a more difficult match. As soon as he sorts out the goalkeeping situation, Wenger needs to buy another centre-half, probably two.

Many are a bit more perplexed by the third problem. That is that during a given match, the Arsenal players do not seem particularly interested in scoring goals. This sounds absurd, but you can't watch them play and not come away with this feeling. This team absolutely dominates possession. The technical ability, the pace the movement, the accuracy, it is all a sight to behold. And they create chances, loads of chances, but they so often pass them up, and it is infuriating to watch.

The unwillingness to shoot is so ridiculous at times that it is frustrating for people who don't even support Arsenal. They ping the ball around, 15 or 20 yards from goal, creating opening after opening, yet never taking a shot. The second half against ten-man Liverpool was a prime example. Arsenal were down 1-0 to a Champion's League rival, and they barely took any shots. If Manchester United or Chelsea were down 1-0 and a man up in the second half, they would be taking a shot every 15 seconds. You watch these clubs and you see 25 or 30 efforts on goal, every match. With Arsenal it is shocking if they reach double digits in shots on goal.

There are some players in the squad that will shoot, particularly from distance. Most important are Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie. Let's face it, we all know how different Arsenal play when those two are fit and on form. And I think this is why Chamakh has been brought in. He is a goal scorer, in talent and in mindset. All the Gunners have to do is take a few shots early in a match from 25 or 30 yards out. Just the threat of it forces defenders to come out and attempt to close them down, which leaves more room for them to get behind and create the tap-ins they seem to prefer.

All things considered, this club is a threat to win every trophy it is competing for this season, but I just can't see the succeeding with an upgrade at goalkeeper and two new central defenders. I doubt Arsene Wenger values my opinion very much, but he has two weeks to convince me Arsenal will win the title this season, and end their well-publicized drought.

Champions League Hopefuls (Liverpool)


Roy Hodgson and Liverpool seem to have succeeded in their most important summer assignment. That is, Fernando Torres is staying at Anfield.

Let's take a look at Liverpool's likely starting XI.

Pepe Reina in goal is outstanding, they are in trouble if he gets injured though.

Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger are very good in the middle, although Agger is average or below at left-back. Jaime Carragher is awful, I don't know how long Hodgson can keep playing him based on name recognition. Glen Johnson is one dimensional, a threat going forward but terrible defensively. I am not quite sure who will start at left back long term, but they have nothing notable available. They still have Fabio Aurelio and Emiliano Insua on the books, but they have tried to jettison both of them.

Javier Mascherano started in the holding role next to Steven Gerrard against Arsenal, but
Mascherano wants to leave England. I guess Gerrard will keep playing deep, with Lucas or Christian Poulsen next to him. None of these players is a true defensive midfielder
or playmaker. So they will have gotten rid of a class central pairing of Xabi Alonso and Mascherano, with very little to show for it.

The attacking midfielders look pretty good though. Dirk Kuyt does all of the dirty-work. Joe Cole and Ryan Babel will have their moments, and if he can get fit Alberto Aquilani will make a big impression on the Premier League this season. Milan Jovanovic and Maxi Rodriguez will not make a lot of starts, but they are solid.

Young David Ngog scored against Arsenal, and he will have some role to play this season, but he is really a massive drop-off after Torres.

Any depth beyond the players I have mentioned is pretty unremarkable. It just doesn't look like a Champion's League club to me. There are a lot of mediocre players who will be counted on. I think Liverpool will be fighting to hold off neighbors Everton for sixth place.

Blackburn/Everton Notes


Good win for Rovers. Have to say, I still think they will have trouble scoring enough, but today both young forwards, Nikola Kalinic and Mame Biram Diouf, looked very impressive. Another good performance, perhaps surprisingly, was had by El Hadji Diouf. For some reason, Sam Allardyce is able to get the best out of the enigmatic talent from Senegal. If these three can find some good form and score some goals, Blackburn will have a hell of a season.

As for Everton, not a very good performance from them. Most alarmingly, Mikel Arteta was not able to create anything going forward. The team was also set up tactically in a less than convincing manner. I like David Moyes, and he is one of the better managers in Europe, but he has made one decision that I just don't understand. Marouane Fellaini was a brilliant signing a few years ago, and the youngster has done an outstanding job all over the pitch for Everton, but he has always been at his most effective in an attacking midfield role, pushing up just behind the main striker. So, given this, Moyes played him in a holding midfield role, right in front of the defensive back line. Fellaini didn't play badly, but he failed to influence the game in any substantial way. I think Moyes will have to push him much further up the pitch for Everton to reach their potential.

West Ham Notes


The hammers looked bad, I mean really bad. They could have easily conceded four or five, and they never looked like they were going to score. I am not going to change my prediction based on one match, but Rob Green looked shaky in goal, and the whole back line just looked terrible. Could be a really bad start, then a whole season spent digging out of that hole.

Europa League Hopefuls (Aston Villa)



A few weeks ago, Villa might have been a Champion's League hopeful, at least for some people. I thought they were a candidate to take a step backwards, and I think Martin O'Neill agreed with me. When it became clear he wouldn't be able to make any big signings, and that a few players may leave, he jumped off a sinking ship. To be fair though, Villa have spent quite a bit of money under Randy Lerner's ownership, and there was nothing honorable about the timing or manner of O'Neill's departure.

This situation really leaves me unable to make a prediction as to what will happen at Villa Park this season. There have been reports that man y of the players were quite happy to see the manager leave, and their predicted plunge down the table without him may give the squad a sense of togetherness, as well as a chip on their shoulder. They came out on fire for their first match sans O'Neill, and absolutely dominated the first half against West Ham yesterday.

Depth has been a problem the last couple seasons, as Villa has faded late, but some cynics say the manager's unwillingness to use his bench was more to blame than the quality of that bench. I will withhold final judgement until a new boss is appointed, but it is safe to say Villa have a wide range of possible results this campaign. If they get in the right manager, and keep hold of their best players, another top 4 challenge and top 6 finish could be on the cards. On the other hand, if they get in the wrong manager, they could fall out of the top 10 altogether.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Champions League Hopefuls (Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City)



This match was a good opener to the season. Really end-to-end attacking stuff, especially early on.

Tottenham looked the much better side on the first half, and really should have gotten a goal, but Man City's defense held firm. This may not have been very surprising, as Roberto Mancini chose to play three holding midfielders in a very defensive formation. His tactics owed very much to the "We don't want to lose" school of management.

I think these clubs will both finish in the top five, and one of them could even push up into the top three. Here is what I took from their performance yesterday though. In their first match of the season, at home, against a big rival for fourth place, Spurs came out on fire, which they really should do. But they couldn't convert that into three points. Man City, on the other hand, were composed, withstood the early siege, grew more into the match as the second half went on, and got a good point away from home against an important rival, and they nearly stole all three points late, thanks to the ability to bring sheer quality such as Emanuel Adebayor and Adam Johnson off the bench.

As far as the managers go, I think Roberto Mancini has it all over Harry Redknapp tactically, although when it comes to motivating players for one match, 'arry probably has the edge.

To sum up, Spurs gave a quality performance fitting for a club whose ambitions include Champion's League football. Man City gave a composed and gritty performance, fitting for a club who might be ready to challenge for the Premier League title.

Europa League Hopefuls (Everton)


Another club with a great manager in David Moyes. It is really amazing what Moyes has built at Everton, similar to Arsene Wenger or Alex Ferguson on a smaller scale. And to be honest, his club has not given him a great deal of support. There has been some money spent, but for me, Everton are a real sleeping giant in England. They may not be capable of Manchester City or Real Madrid level spending, but the squad should certainly be deeper than it is. This lack of depth places a definite ceiling on the club's potential.

The top 14 players at Goodison Park can compete with any team in the world, but winning a Champion's League spot over the 38 game league season is a test of an entire 25 man (plus youngsters) squad. When the inevitable injuries, suspensions, and fixture pile-ups arrive, can Everton cope with the demands? I can't see it. At some point in the season, they will wobble. Last season, it was a slow start. This wobble, which often coincides with an injury to Mikel Arteta (there is no Landon Donovan to replace him this time), will cost them a Champion's League spot, and might keep them out of the Europa League, depending on who wins the domestic cups.

If everyone stays healthy, and I mean every single player in the squad, for the entire season, Everton may even put a scare into the clubs fighting for a top 4 spot. But everything would have to break perfectly for that to happen. I would guess they will finish seventh or eighth.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Europa League Hopefuls (Blackburn Rovers)


He is not everyone's cup of tea, and I may be biased given how well he did at Bolton, but I think Sam Allardyce is a hell of a manager. He has his typical squad of hardworking veterans at Ewood Park, and I think another overachieving top ten finish is in the cards. The biggest challenge will be scoring goals, as Nikola Kalinic and new loan signing Mame Biram Diouf are an unproven strike partnership to say the least.

Blackburn's schedule is a bit unfavorable, as they play Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester City, and Chelsea in their first ten matches. The defense is solid, but aging, and vulnerable to pace, especially through the middle of the park.

Several players in the Blackburn midfield would be big names if they played at other, more fashionable clubs, but they toil in anonymity in the northwest. These players, such as Christopher Samba, David Dunn, Vince Grella, and Steven Nzonzi, have to continue to perform at an extremely high level for Blackburn to be successful. If they manage to do that, 10th place. If not, 15th, or worse.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Established in the Top Flight (Fulham and Bolton Wanderers)


These two clubs play each other in the opener on Saturday, so this will be a season/match preview. These two clubs and Blackburn were promoted to the Premier League in 2001. They are the only group from the last 20 years to see all three members stay up. And ten years later, none have been relegated, and all have qualified for Europe on multiple occasions. They have also all gone through several management shifts and some big-time relegation scares. But they are still here.

Mark Hughes has just taken over at Craven Cottage, and most think he is the right man for the job. I agree. He is a good manager, and not only will he stabilize a club that was in danger of regressing after Roy Hodgson left, he will also push them forward, possibly even into the top half of the table. He does have some issues to deal though.

At the moment, the defense, a real strength for them last season, seems to be falling apart. Two particular pieces of rather bad news have come out int he past few days. Phillippe Senderos, whom the cottagers were hoping would be an upgrade over Aaron Hughes and an excellent partner for stalwart Brede Hangeland, has snapped his achilles on international duty for Switzerland, and he will be sidelined for at least six months. This hurts, but not as much as the latest statement from goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer. The big Australian was very good last season, and without him they could have slipped further down the table. He has been linked to Arsenal for most of the summer, and now he has come out and said he wants to go. Trouble is, Fulham have absolutely nothing behind him. This is a squad with a solid and deep attacking midfield, a good variety of forwards, and some hard tacklers in the middle of the park. They have to sort the situation in goal out quickly though.

As for Bolton, Owen Coyle has stabilized the club just in time for their tenth season in the top flight. Whereas Fulham will be looking to push back into the top ten this season, I think the Wamderers will be trying to consolidate their position, a move further up the table will be the goal next season.

Bolton's strength is in the midfield. Lee Chung-yong and Martin Petrov are both pacey and skillful, and they will be counted on to keep Fulham on the back foot. There is an abundance of power and technique in the middle, with young destroyer Fabrice Muamba winning ball after ball with his, uh, uncompromising style. As soon as he wins it, he passes it off to silky smooth Stuart Holden, who will use his pace and passing ability to bring it forward and allow the wingers to get ahead of play and put in quality crosses for big Kevin Davies to win in the air.

Fulham have their own hard man in the midfield, Dickson Etuhu, partnered by skillful (but aging) Danny Murphy. The match up in the middle, Etuhu and Murphy versus Muamba and Holden, could determine who takes the points on Saturday. I think it will be a fast paced, end to end affair, with a lot of chances created on both sides. Whoever displays better finishing will take the three points. I think Bolton may win the battle on Saturday, but Fulham will win the war, by finishing one spot ahead of Wanderers in the league table come May.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Established in the Top Flight (Sunderland and Stoke City)


These two clubs have a lot of similarities. They both have good managers, they are both coming off solid mid-table finishes, and they have both spent (or are trying to spend) a good deal of money. In fact, Kenwyne Jones just made the switch from Sunderland to Stoke City for £8 million.

Both have solid defenses and a good selection of attacking talent. I doubt Darren Bent will match last season's goal output for Sunderland, but I think he will still be somewhere in the mid to high teens for the season. Stoke don't have one high volume scorer, but whichever two start from Jones, Dave Kitson, Tuncay, Mamady Sidibe, Ricardo Fuller, and James Beattie should reach double digits.

This Sunderland squad is actually pretty close to Steve Bruce's Wigan and Birmingham squads. He always puts a talented group of players together, they always finish pretty comfortably mid-table, analysts always expect them to push on into the top half, and they never do. 11th sounds about right for this club.

Tony Pullis has only been in the Premier League with Stoke City for a few seasons, but he has done a tremendous job bringing them stability. Some even believe they will break into the top ten this season. I am not ready to go that far, in fact I think they may struggle a little bit, especially considering their early season schedule. They start at Wolves, which has draw written all over it. Then they play Spurs and Chelsea back to back, followed by Aston Villa just as they are getting a new manager bump. If they only have one point from their first four matches some supporters might start to panic, but they will recover, so 14th sounds about right for me.


Sunday, August 8, 2010

Established in the Top Flight (Wigan Athletic)


Let me just say right from the start that I like to see Wigan do well. In fact, as a Bolton supporter, I like to see most smaller clubs from the northwest do well. Perhaps it is because I didn't grow up there, but I don't feel the animosity toward local rivals that some do.

That said, Roberto Martinez is a decent manager. I don't think he is going to lead Wigan to a top ten finish, how Paul Jewell did that once upon a time is still a mystery, but but I expect him to keep them up without too much trouble.

Wigan may still lose some players before August 31, but they seem to have put together a brilliant scouting network in South America, and seem to restock with a few gems every year or two. In the last few summers they have sold Wilson Palacios and Antonio Valencia, but Maynor Figueroa and Hugo Rodallega have stepped in without missing a beat. The latest candidate for this is defender Antolin Alcaraz, who was outstanding for Paraguay in the World Cup.

A couple injuries and some bad breaks could pull the Latics down into the relegation battle, but more likely they will have one or two good runs of form that will be just enough to safely ensconce them in the 13-16 range of the table.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Established in the Top Flight (West Ham United)



Going into the summer West Ham were thought by many to be in dire straits. They finished in 17th position, a late season swoon bringing them dangerously close to relegation. Ownership declared that every player save Scott Parker was for sale, and the firing of manager Gianfranco Zola left many with a sour taste in their mouth.

What a difference a summer makes. The ownership group, led by former Birmingham City chairmen David Gold and David Sullivan, seems to have stabilized. The underrated Avram Grant has been appointed manager, very few players have left, and several useful pieces have been brought in.

I have to admit I like the Grant hiring. I think he handled an impossible situation at Portsmouth with a lot of class, and he has shown an ability to get solid performances out of his players. A team with Grant leading them will finish where they are supposed to, based on the squad available to him. West Ham probably have the twelfth best squad in the league, and it is very likely that they will finish twelfth, provided the previously threatened fire sales do not take place.

Robert Green will still be in goal. He is a fair keeper, nothing special, adequate for West Ham's position in the table. I imagine he will be severely booed the first few matches of the season because of the part he played in England's World Cup adventure. Will it get to him?

The back-line is fairly poor. Mathew Upson is overrated because he is English, and no one else stands out. I wish I could talk up Jonathan Spector, but his performances last season at a variety of positions were not good.

The midfield is the Hammer's strength. I already mentioned Scotty Parker, and he will anchor a midfield three, probably alongside Mark Noble and new signing Thomas Hitzlsperger. There is also depth in the center of the pitch with Jack Collison, Radoslav Kovac, and Valon Behrami.

Attack is a problem. Carlton Cole will be the central striker, and he is good for 10 goals or so, but he isn't a prolific scorer, and he doesn't create goals for his teammates. Cole wil be flanked by some combination of flawed players. The candidates are Luis Boa Morte (well past his prime and injury prone), Kieron Dyer (has not played 30 games in a season since 2002-2003), Alessandro Diamanti (makes Ronaldo look unselfish), Benni McCarthy (older version of Cole), Frederic Piquionne (31 year old's career high for goals in a season is 7), and Fred Sears (only 20, but 1 goal in 60 appearances).

There are 2 attacking youngsters on West Ham's books that I do rate rather highly, but i think both are a year away from having a major role to play. One is Zavon Hines, a lightning quick 21-year-old who still needs to learn how to use his speed. The other is 23-year old Pablo Barrera, the Mexican winger who impressed in three substitute appearances at the World Cup. There have been a few Mexicans in England, but none of them have settled well. Barrera may be the first, but he is raw, and I think it will take a season for him to settle in. He will provide some entertainment, and a few moments of shear brilliance, but I don't think he will truly make an impact until 2011.

When all is said and done, West Ham United will still be in the Premier League. They may give their supporters a scare, much like last season, but I think they will ultimately be pretty comfortable. They could finish as high as tenth, or as low as fifteenth. I will make one provision to my prediction. If they sell Parker or Cole in the next few weeks, there could be big trouble. As in, praying they finish 17th trouble.

Relegation Fodder (Newcastle United)


Newcastle is a big club in many ways. They have a lot of money and a large, rabid fan base. They have also been hopelessly mismanaged over the last several years. Unrealistic expectations on the part of supporters as well as ownership groups has led this club to opt for big names past their primes and frequent manager firings instead of systematic team-building.

Newcastle came right back up after one season in the second division of English soccer. They did so with several of the same players who had been relegated the season before. And that is a problem. Kevin Nolan, Danny Guthrie, Fabricio Coloccini, Jonas Gutierrez, Steven Taylor, Steve Harper, Jose Enrique, Andy Carroll, Alan Smith,
and the like are just barely good enough to finish 17th. Unfortunately, that list is very close to what Chris Hughton will run out as his starting XI every week.

I actually like most of those players, and they are not without talent. But the hard truth is, they are complementary players on good teams, and squad players at best on top level clubs. Take Kevin Nolan for example. I love Nolan, and he was a great servant to Bolton Wanderers when he was with them. When Nolan was surrounded by the likes of Jay-Jay Okocha, Ivan Campo, Gary Speed, and Nicolas Anelka he looked great. He had a well-defined job on the pitch involving tasks he was well-suited to complete, and he did so with aplomb. But when those players left and he was asked to lead the club on and off the pitch, his flaws were exposed. Nolan had a great season in the Championship, scoring 17 goals, starting every week, and leading the Geordies to promotion. But it is ill-advised to expect him to do the same thing on a much higher level.

Do I think Newcastle will go right back down? Probably not, but I have a hard time seeing them finishing higher than 15th. Especially considering they have a very inexperienced manager whom a large portion of the support do not have any faith in. St. James Park will be packed to the gills every week, and a few big home wins in the latter stages of the season (they host Everton in March, Wolves in April, plus Birmingham and West Brom in May), should lift them into the 40 point range and keep them safe for another season.

Relegation Fodder (Birmingham City)



Birmingham City were last year's Cinderella story, finishing ninth in their first season after promotion. Of course this will be their seventh season in the top flight out of the last ten, so they weren't exactly neophytes, most of the players had a fair amount of Premier League experience.

Alex McLeish did a great job in leading this club to a top half finish, given how limited the squad was, and, quite honestly, still is. The primary reason for their success was a solid, tremendously consistent, and shockingly injury-free defense. Birmingham's best run of form coincided with them being able to start the same back four and keeper for something like 15 matches in a row. On top of that, combative midfielder Barry Ferguson started 37 matches, and given his playing style, the 32-year-old is unlikely to duplicate that feat.

Even more significant is the loss of keeper Joe Hart. Hart started 36 matches last season, was Birmingham's best player and, in my opinion, the best keeper in the league. His loan deal has expired, and he has returned to Manchester City. McCleish has contacted his Scottish mate on the other side of Manchester and come up with Ben Foster. Foster was once expected to be what Joe Hart is now, but he has not played more than 15 matches since the 2006-2007 season, which he spent on loan at Watford. He is only 27, so a re-emergence is not out of the question, but he is unlikely to be as good as Hart was last season. He is a good shot-stopper, but makes questionable decisions in other aspects of the game, and decision making was one of Joe Hart's strengths.

Cameron Jerome and new signing Nikola Zigic will form a solid partnership, if McCleish chooses to play them together, but this team will never be prolific in its goal-scoring. I think the defense will really regress, and there exists very little creativity in the midfield, I can't see players like James McFadden and Sebastian Larson repeating their performances from last season.

So I believe the cynics call it "second season syndrome," and Birmingham City seems like a prime candidate in my opinion. Will they go down? Probably not. But I think they will be in or near the bottom three all season, and if they survive it will be by a scant point or two, possibly even on goal difference. They will end up with a point total in the high 30's, and whether that is enough will depend on clubs such as Wolves, West Brom, and (wait for it) Newcastle. More on that to come.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Relegation Fodder (West Brom)



The promoted clubs are always going to be the favorites to go right back down, and West Bromwich Albion has been the definition of a yo-yo team for the last decade. This season will be their fifth in the top flight over the last ten years. Only once did they manage to stay up, and they went back down the next season. The season they stayed up they did so with 34 points, and despite being rock bottom at Christmas.

This club has a likable, yet inexperienced manager in Roberto Di Matteo. I don't have the statistics at my fingertips, but I am fairly certain that promoted clubs led by young managers with no Premier League experience tend to have a rather steep learning curve. This is compounded by the fact that they play at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea and at Anfield against Liverpool in August.

West Brom allowed roughly a goal a game last season in the Championship, while scoring nearly two a game. They are certainly not going to score two goals a game in the top flight. Unfortunately, they might concede close to that. I think they will put up more of a fight than Blackpool, and they might have a chance if other clubs pick up some injuries and struggle, but I can;t see this team getting more than 35 points at the most, and they will probably be closer to 30.

They count on midfielders Chris Brunt and Graham Dorrans to provide the goals, as principal striker Roman Bednar just can't get it done at this level. Brunt is only 25, a Northern Irish international who has always shown a knack for scoring goals, and Di Matteo will rely heavily on him.

Dorrans is only 23, and really provides the Baggies with a creative spark. He had 19 assists last season in addition to his 13 goals. The problem for West Brom is that they need Dorrans to repeat this type of performance in a much better league, but if he does repeat the performance, they will have to sell him in January.