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.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Relegation Fodder (Blackpool and Wolves)

The last shall be first and the first shall be last in this Premier League Preview!

This season there are more than three clubs who fall into this category. That means some of them, despite their lack of talent, will remain in the top flight for another season. I think everybody knows where this list starts, so let's head to the northwest for a weekend of drunken deba
uchery and cheap stag do's.

For those who don't know, Blackpool is a shore-town with a decent sized amusement park, rather uninspiring beach, and a rather large quantity of casinos (the cheap, penny slots type) and bars. It also has a small football stadium, which holds about 14,000 people and only has stands on three sides. In order to reach minimum requirements for a Premier League stadium, Blackpool are installing a temporary stand on the fourth side. In fact, they had to swap home games with Wigan because the construction will not be finished before the season starts.

Ian Holloway is a good manager, always quick with a funny quote, and willing to play attacking football. Unfortunately, he just doesn't have the horses. There is no goal-scoring threat, shaky goal-keeping, and their best defender from last season was on loan from Everton and will not be returning. Even the manager himself has admitted they could be relegated by Christmas.

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. Blackpool is going down, and they may set a record for fewest points in doing so.

Wolverhampton Wanderers, affectionately called "Wolves" by their supporters, managed to stay up last season despite only earning 38 points and conceding 24 more goals than they scored. They signed two players from Hull City, who were relegated, and they will not be bringing Michael Mancienne back from Chelsea on another loan deal.

The defense is passable, anchored by goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann, big defender Christophe Berra, and hard-tackling midfielder Karl Henry. Kevin Doyle will provide some goals, although not enough to carry a club. The midfield is poor though. New signing Stephen Hunt could possibly provide a spark, but he is injured and won't feature until October.

I think Wolves will struggle to match last season's point total, and they may be relegated by March. Several of the clubs that struggled in the Premier League last season were in transition. I think several of them will bounce back this season and push on towards mid-table. A few who were able to survive, such as Wolves, will be moving in the other direction, as they are not able to compete, financially or otherwise.