Saturday, September 7, 2013

Brazil 2014: How would England line up?

Should England qualify for the World Cup in Brazil, there are reasons to be optimistic. For the first major International tournament in almost 20 years, England won't line up with a predictable and easy to read 4-4-2 formation. For too long the traditional English formation has been our downfall. There are few countries worse than England at retaining possession, so to line up with only two central midfielders made it easier for our opponents to keep the ball. This was especially clear against the likes of  Schweinsteiger, Khedira and Ozil, the German trio that punished England so harshly in 2010. During England's 2014 qualifying campaign, Roy Hodgson has opted against the 4-4-2 that saw England fall short against Andrea Pirlo's Italy at Euro 2012. He has adopted a more compact 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 formation which makes England harder to beat and allows a deep lying midfield player to protect the defence and dictate the play when England are in possession.

Midfielder Steven Gerrard will captain England
should they qualify for Brazil 2014

Gerrard, Lampard, Rooney and Cole will almost certainly make the squad for Brazil, but the most problematic pair of England's 'Old Guard' have retired. England lined up with the central defensive partnership of Rio Ferdinand and John Terry for the best part of a decade. Both players have retired from the International set up, following a series of controversies, including the much documented race row in which Terry was found guilty of racially abusing Ferdinand's brother, Anton. Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka have now established themselves as first choice centre-halves. Many doubt whether the pair boast the natural ability of their troubled predecessors, but a seemingly harmonious partnership has formed, which can only be good for morale within the squad.

Hodgson's favoured line up in qualifying is likely to be his favoured line-up in Rio. Injuries and suspensions will inevitably play a part, but the team below is what I expect from England if they make it to Brazil. (This is the team I expect Hodgson to pick, not necessarily the one I believe to be the strongest).

GK: Joe Hart - Joe Hart will be first choice goalkeeper for the first time at a World Cup. He was given the number 23 by Fabio Capello in 2010, as David James and Rob Green played in goal for England. Despite making several uncharacteristic mistakes recently, Hart has little competition for his place. England have suffered from goalkeeping errors in the past, (Green against USA in 2010, Carson against Croatia in 2007) but provided he has a good season for Manchester City, there will be very few goalkeepers at World Cup 2014 that are better than Joe Hart.

RB: Glen Johnson - Glen Johnson is set to retain his place as England's first choice right back. Having worked with Hodgson at Liverpool, Johnson knows what is expected of him and has the ability to score goals from full-back. At 23-years-old, Kyle Walker has time on his side and will provide stiff competition for Johnson, especially if Tottenham beat Liverpool to a Champions League place. Phil Jones may also challenge after becoming Manchester United right back under David Moyes.

CB: Gary Cahill - When Jose Mourinho returned to Chelsea, it was difficult to predict which players he would favour. David Luiz had just had his best ever season in a Chelsea shirt, John Terry was set to be restored as captain and Branislav Ivanovic switched to centre-back to accommodate attacking right back Cesar Azpilicueta. However, Mourinho decided Gary Cahill was one of his best two central defenders and the former Bolton skipper has started alongside John Terry in every Premier League game this season. Cahill can now regard himself as England's first choice centre-back. His speed across the ground is important when playing alongside Phil Jagielka. An injury to Cahill would seriously weaken England.

CB: Phil Jagielka - Phil Jagielka's bravery has been noticeable throughout qualifying. It has been said that England players don't appear to care when playing for their country, but that cannot be said about the Everton defender. He is fearless, in the mould of John Terry and would put his body on the line to prevent the opposition from scoring. His lack of pace is a worry against top International strikers, he will be 31 in Brazil but so far deserves his place in the starting line up.

LB: Ashley Cole - Everton's Leighton Baines is in an unfortunately similar situation to Cristiano Ronaldo. No matter how well he performs, there always seems to be that one player who is just ever so slightly better. Ashley Cole already holds the record for the most tournament caps as an England player, and will further that record in Brazil, should England get there. Cole is widely considered as the only member of the so called 'golden generation' to have performed consistently in an England shirt.

DM: Michael Carrick - Michael Carrick currently occupies what is arguably England's most important position. His role is to protect the defence by breaking up opposition attacks and keep England in possession with passes into both full-backs who will push forward and try to create chances. Carrick also has the ability to find the striker with forward passes along the ground, something England have lacked in the past. However, Carrick has a less than impressive International record, having retired during a period he was rarely considered for selection. The United midfielder also missed England's recent friendly with an eye infection. His ability has never been in doubt, but he must remain available or risk losing his place to Steven Gerrard, who performed this role excellently in the recent qualifier against Moldova.

CM: Steven Gerrard - Steven Gerrard will captain England at the World Cup in what could be his last major International tournament. At 33-years-old, the midfielder has adapted in recent years and prefers a more withdrawn role for both club and country. His age no longer allows for the energetic, box to box performances of old, but that suits England and will work to Roy Hodgson's advantage when it comes to improving ball retention. He has developed a promising understanding with midfield partner Jack Wilshere and will always provide goal scoring opportunities with the quality of his delivery from set-pieces.

CM: Jack Wilshere - Jack Wilshere would have 25 caps for England by now if he could just stay fit. As it stands, he has 9, but will inevitably build on that should he finally have an injury free season for Arsenal. England fans will be crossing their fingers every time the diminutive midfielder flies into a tackle, which he has a tendency to do. England have not yet enjoyed the luxury of Jack Wilshere at an International tournament, and he could potentially be the difference between a quarter-final and a semi-final. Should Wilshere not make the tournament through injury, expect Manchester United's Tom Cleverley to take his place, which would significantly limit England's attacking threat.

RM: Theo Walcott - Theo Walcott has never quite fulfilled his potential. He famously experienced his first World Cup at the age of 17 without playing a minute of football at the tournament. He continues to threaten down England's right hand side, and there is no doubt that his pace troubles opposition full-backs. His crossing needs to be improved, as does his goal-scoring record. Five goals in 35 appearances isn't good enough for a player who considers himself a striker, especially considering three of those goals were scored in the same match against Croatia. Spurs winger Andros Townsend might be a surprise contender for a position on England's right wing, should he displace Aaron Lennon at Tottenham over the coming season.

LM: Danny Welbeck - Danny Welbeck has been in superb form for England recently. Few central strikers could adapt so well to playing in a wide position, but Welbeck has made the transition with apparent ease, contributing three goals in his last two matches from the left of midfield. David Moyes has challenged him to score more goals for Manchester United this season, and his all round hold up play has seen him start the season as first choice, ahead of Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez. Hodgson's management style is cautious, so expect Welbeck to start on the left hand side over the electric Daniel Sturridge, who has scored three winners in three games for Liverpool. Sturridge offers much less protection from a defensive point of view, so expect him to be used as an impact substitute or start against the weaker teams at the tournament.

ST: Wayne Rooney - Wayne Rooney is still England's most talented player. After another summer of discontent, the significance of his role at Manchester United remains to be seen. Should he come into the first team picture and play alongside Robin Van Persie, he is certain to start for England under Hodgson. Rooney's performances at major tournaments have been devastatingly below par, since he first broke his metatarsal at Euro 2004. Rooney often plays well during qualifying campaigns, but owes England fans a series of good performances should they reach Rio in 2014. Expect one of Andy Carroll or Rickie Lambert to challenge Rooney for the role of lone striker.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Five Talking Points from the opening day of the Premier League

 Benteke celebrates his goal after more poor Arsenal defending.
The Gunners gave away two penalties.

1. Arsenal still need to spend money.

A 3-1 home defeat to Aston Villa is not how most Arsenal fans would have expected to start their season. After a summer of positive rumours, the Gunners crowd were optimistic that Arsene Wenger might finally spend some money in order to strengthen the squad. However, several unsuccessful and misguided transfer attempts later, and the only new face at the club is 20-year-old striker Yaya Sanogo, who was injured for the opening day. The erratic performance of goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, the sending off of centre-half Laurent Kosielny and the injuries to both full-backs Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna prove once again, that the defence needs to be improved, despite Wenger’s summer of flirting with big name forward players such as Suarez, Rooney and Higuain. Queens Park Rangers goalkeeper Julio Cesar is still available for relatively little money as the Championship club seek to reduce their wage bill. Surely Wenger should bid for the Brazilian before the end of the transfer window, and sooner rather than later with a Champions League Qualifier away at Fenerbache on Wednesday night.

2. It was a promising day for England fans.

After England struggled to beat Scotland at Wembley on Wednesday night, there was understandably some negativity about their chances at the World Cup in 2014, should they even manage to qualify. However, on the opening day of the Premier League season, there was much cause for optimism. One of Roy Hodgson’s first choice strikers, Danny Welbeck, has seemingly taken on the advice of new Manchester United manager David Moyes, who has challenged him to score more goals this season. The forward played in a slightly withdrawn role behind Robin Van Persie during United’s 1-4 away win at Swansea. He looked hungry to get in more dangerous positions, resulting firstly in a tap in from Antonio Valencia’s clever first time cross, before doubling his overall goals tally from last season in just one game with a sublime chipped finish beyond Michel Vorm. Fellow countryman and striker Daniel Sturridge lead the line for Bredan Rodger’s new look Liverpool side, scoring the opening goal of the new Premier League season with a sweet left footed drive. Young, attacking midfielder Ross Barkley was given a rare start by his new manager Roberto Martinez and repaid the new Everton boss with an impressive all-round performance, capped with an exceptional left-footed strike from the edge of the box that most English players aren’t quite capable of producing, especially at the age of 20.  Jonjo Shelvey was also Swansea’s outstanding performer, as he dominated the Manchester United midfield in the opening stages of the game. He also delivered a series of dangerous set-pieces, creating many chances for his new club. Rickie Lambert once again made the headlines with his second late match-winner in a week, scoring in the 90th minute with a perfect penalty. Something else you wouldn’t usually associate with English players.

3. Di Canio didn’t get dream start he'd been hoping for.

After reports of an incredibly gruelling pre-season programme implemented by the Italian manager, many were expecting Sunderland to come flying out at the start of their match with Fulham with high tempo and attacking intensity. They did to some degree, with new signings Emanuele Giaccherini and Jozy Altidore looking dangerous in the opening stages as they dominated for most of the game. However, Sunderland failed to create any serious scoring opportunities throughout the duration of the match, and were undone by a set piece, a familiar theme carried over from last season. Young Fulham midfielder Pajtim Kasami headed in the winner from a corner in the 52nd minute, and Di Canio’s side failed to find an equaliser, despite substitute striker Ji Dong-Won going closest with a header.  The Black Cats were unlucky, but they need to avoid home defeats to the likes of Fulham if they are to stay in the Premier League this season.

4. New faces announce themselves to the Premier League.

There were plenty of new faces making an appearance in the Premier League for the first time after a busy summer of transfer window activity for the majority of clubs. Injury prevented a few new signings from making their debuts, but others took their chance at their new clubs with some eye-catching performances. Antonio Luna, or ‘Tony Moon’ as he’s hilariously known to the Villa fans, made himself an instant favourite with a solid performance at left back against Arsenal winger Theo Walcott, completed with an extremely well taken goal that compatriot Jordy Alba would have been proud of, as he finished an exciting Villa counter attack. There has been much excitement surrounding Swansea’s record transfer signing, Wilfried Bony. The Ivorian started on the bench against Manchester United as Michael Laudrup set up a cautious team, with Michu up front on his own. The £12m striker, signed from Vitesse Arnhem in the summer was eventually given a chance after being introduced at half time. In the 82nd minute, Bony opened his Premier League account, sweeping home a first time finish beyond David De Gea and in to the bottom corner. If he can score a goal in one half of football against Premier League Champions Manchester United, it’s easy to see Bony becoming a regular on the scoresheet in the coming fixtures. Norwich are another team to have spent boldly during the transfer window, and their club record signing Ricky Van Wolfswinkel was in the starting line-up against Everton. Facing English football veterans Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin in your first match as a Premier League striker is not the easiest of tasks, but Van Wolfswinkel claimed a point for his team with a perfectly guided header to make it 2-2. If he wasn’t already a cult hero at Carrow Road with a name like that, he soon will be if he keeps scoring such important goals.

5. Staying in the Premier League is the most difficult task of all.

Only one of the newly promoted clubs were in action yesterday, as Malky Mackay’s Cardiff City took on West Ham United at Upton Park. The visitors gave debuts to new signings Steven Caulker and Gary Medel, but were unable to get their first points of the season as an experienced West Ham side looked comfortable during their 2-0 victory. Premier League stalwarts Joe Cole and Kevin Nolan scored the goals, demonstrating that experience and know-how is key when you’re in this league. With Hull away to Chelsea on Sunday, and Crystal Palace yet to host Tottenham Hotspur, it is difficult to see anything but three defeats for the Premier League new boys. 

Monday, August 5, 2013

Cardiff City - Can they avoid the drop?

It is a recurring theme at the beginning of every Premier League season. The three teams to have just been promoted from the Championship are cast as the three most likely relegation candidates for the coming season. Cardiff City, managed by Malky Mackay and Championship winners last campaign will be looking to break that unfortunate trend as they compete in the top division for the first time since 1962.

Creative midfielder Kim Bo-Kyung could have an impact
 on the Premier League this season


Cardiff City have the strongest of the squads to have been promoted, which no doubt contributed to them finishing above Hull and Crystal Palace last season. However, there is a worrying lack of experienced Premier League playing staff at the club. Notable exceptions include Craig Bellamy, who has scored goals consistently in the Premier League for the past decade,  but at 34-years-old, he's lost the pace that was once so frightening. The club will look to Fraizer Campbell for goals, a player who only left top-flight Sunderland to join the Bluebirds last season, scoring a prolific 7 goals in 12 appearances. Tommy Smith, Peter Whittingham and Jordon Mutch have also had some involvement in the Premier League and will need to have a major influence on the rest of the squad if they are to stay in the top flight.

One player who has the ability to make an impact on the Premier League is South Korean Kim Bo-Kyung. The 23-year-old is an attacking midfielder who has demonstrated the ability to unlock top flight defences with his creative passing and technical ability. Added to that an eye for goal, with three pre-season strikes to his name, including the winner against an accomplished Chievo Verona side and it's clear to see why manager Malky Mackay has tipped him for a successful debut campaign in the Premier League.


Any newly promoted side need to spend well in the transfer market to have a chance of staying up. Their budgets are hugely limited compared to established top-flight sides, so need to be wise with the money available to spend. Bluebirds owner Vincent Tam may have received severe criticism for changing the club's badge and kit colour, but he seems happy to supply manager Mackay with a generous amount to spend on players.

First to arrive was Andreas Cornelius, a 20-year-old Danish striker, signed from FC Copenhagen for a club record fee of around £8m; a dangerous amount to spend on such a young player with no previous Premier League experience, but time will tell if he is capable of scoring goals in England. The club record fee was broken again in this transfer window, to secure the services of England International centre-back Steven Caulker from Tottenham. The 21-year-old will be determined to earn a place in the England squad for the 2014 World Cup and Cardiff are likely to benefit from such an incentive. If Caulker performs like he did for bitter rivals Swansea last year, he could be the signing of the season at £8.5m, a relative bargain in today's inflated market.

It has also been widely reported that the Bluebirds are in advanced talks to sign Toulouse midfield enforcer Etienne Capoue. Capoue has been linked with prestigious clubs like Arsenal and Valencia in the past, and with five France caps, he's exactly the kind of quality Cardiff should be looking to recruit if they hope to beat the drop this season.


On paper at least, Cardiff are stronger than their newly promoted rivals Hull City and Crystal Palace. However, the issue arrives when trying to find another team in the Premier League that are likely to finish below the Bluebirds. At a push you could argue Stoke City under Mark Hughes will be in for a tough season, as well as Fulham who have failed to strengthen during the summer. It will be a long season for the Welsh club, but I think they can narrowly avoid relegation, which should give them the opportunity to consolidate for future seasons in the Barclays Premier League.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Six Timid Transfers: Not quite Bale and Suarez, but just as likely to make a difference.

People cry tears of boredom and begin to fall asleep on the back pages of their morning newspapers as another one hundred column inches are devoted to Gareth Bale and Real Madrid, Luis Suarez to Arsenal and Wayne Rooney to Chelsea. As these extremely high profile transfer debacles continue to dominate the headlines, so many other transfer dealings have gone unnoticed. Take a look at some of the quietly astute signings to have been made under the radar;

Jose Canas - Real Betis to Swansea - Free 

The 26-year-old Spanish defensive midfielder was one of the earliest signings to have been completed this transfer window. He almost joined Swansea last January as Betis looked to cash in on the player during the final year of his contract but nothing materialised and he was picked up as a free agent by Michael Laudrup on June 6. Canas is one of three Spanish signings made by Swansea this summer, as Alejandro Pozuelo and Jordi Amat also join up with fellow countrymen and established regulars Michu, Pablo Hernandez, Chico Flores and Angel Rangel. This should create an understanding between a squad of real quality that will allow Swansea to build on their impressive cup-winning campaign last season. 

Dejan Lovren - Lyon to Southampton - £8.5m

Croatian defender Dejan Lovren has already received heavy praise from new manager Mauricio Pochettino during Southampton's pre-season schedule. The Argentinian described him as a 'quality defender with the ability to read difficult situations with a great on field presence'. The Saints were thought to have fought off extremely tough competition for his signature, with Tottenham and Inter Milan both interested in buying the International defender, who has made 17 appearances for his country at the age of 23. Southampton are looking to strengthen the spine of their high-pressing team, and with hard-tackling midfielder Victor Wanyama joining Lovren as a new arrival, they look set for a top-half finish next season. 

Diego Lugano - PSG to West Brom - Free

West Brom manager Steve Clarke seems to be in a competition with himself to find the transfer bargain of the summer. As if completing the signing of free agent and former Arsenal, Real Madrid and Chelsea exquisite finisher Nicolas Anelka wasn't enough, the Baggies have also signed Uruguay captain and no-nonsense centre-half, Diego Lugano. Lugano was named captain of the South Africa World Cup Team of the Tournament in 2010 and is known for his combative nature and merciless tackling style. Dubbed a 'natural leader' by Steve Clarke, it wouldn't be at all surprising to see Lugano given the armband on his competitive debut for the club. Lugano also has excellent European pedigree after recent spells with Fenerbache, PSG and Champions League quarter-finalists, Malaga. 

Leroy Fer - FC Twente to Norwich - Undisclosed

The exact amount Norwich City and Chris Hughton paid for Leroy Fer remains undisclosed, but it is thought to be in the region of £6m. The 23-year-old Dutchman is a box to box midfielder with the ability to dominate games and opposition players. His rangy tackling and incredible speed across the ground, combined with his build and physical appearance will draw inevitable comparisons to past and present Premier League favourites Patrick Vieira and Yaya Toure. There are continued concerns over his fitness after he failed a medical at Everton last January but if Norwich hope to progress, they can only improve with signings like Fer and the prolific Gary Hooper from Celtic. 

Dwight Gayle - Peterborough to Crystal Palace - £8m

The story of Dwight Gayle is an almost unbelievable one. The striker was playing as lowly as the Essex Senior League during the 2011/12 season, but finds himself an £8m signing for a Premier League side two years later after consistent goal-scoring spells with Bishop's Stortford and Peterborough United. If you are to have a chance of staying in the Premier League, you need to score goals, and it seems Palace manager Ian Holloway is putting a huge amount of faith in 22-year-old Gayle, telling Sky Sports News: "I think he'll score goals at Premier League level, I really do. He's born to score goals."

Steven Caulker - Tottenham Hotspur to Cardiff City - £8m

Cardiff City broke their transfer record to sign young centre-back Steven Caulker from Spurs in what could be the signing of the season. After an impressive loan spell with Swansea City last season and a first goal-scoring appearance for England, you could be forgiven for thinking Caulker would have been first choice at White Hart Lane. Andre Villas-Boas however decided to accept Cardiff's bid, thought to have been in excess of £8m. Caulker is a proven defender at Premier League level and Cardiff may have doubled their chances of staying up by securing his services. At only 21-years-old, Caulker has the potential to improve at Cardiff City under new manager Malky Mackay and push for a regular position in the England squad. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Well done Gareth Bale, but who's in the frame for next year?

Few would have contested the decision to award Gareth Bale a double victory at The 2013 Professional Footballers' Awards (PFA), as he claimed the prize for Young Player of the Year and Player of the Year. The Spurs midfielder became only the third player ever to win both awards in the same season, joining ex Sky Sports pundit Andy Gray and Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo.

Bale with PFA Chairman Gordon Taylor. Who will take his
place in PFA Team of the Season next year? 

This automatically meant that he was first name on the team sheet for the PFA Premier League Team of the Year, as voted for by fellow professionals.

Here's the team in full: De Gea (Manchester United), Zabaleta (Manchester City), Ferdinand (Manchester United), Vertonghen (Tottenham Hotspur), Baines (Everton), Carrick (Manchester United), Mata (Chelsea), Bale (Tottenham Hotspur), Hazard (Chelsea), Suarez (Liverpool) and Van Persie (Manchester United.

Congratulations to all of those players, it's hard to argue with any of their selections. However, I've decided to look ahead to next season, and line up the potential candidates for next year's PFA Premier League Team of the Season, based on their potential and performances so far this term.

GK - Hugo Lloris - Tottenham Hotspur

Hugo Lloris has made several saves during the early stages of his Spurs career that demonstrate why he is France's number one goalkeeper. Andre Villas-Boas has decided to rotate him and Brad Friedel throughout the season, due to Tottenham's involvement in the Europa League. However, with Friedel almost set for retirement, there will be no doubting the first choice goalkeeper at White Hart Lane come the first game of next season. If AVB can decide on a settled centre-back pairing and choose who will play alongisde Jan Vertoghen (who made the PFA team this year), Spurs will again challenge for the Champions League with Lloris set to shine.

RB - Cesar Azpilicueta - Chelsea

Azpilicueta was signed by Chelsea during the summer transfer window. Many believed he would play a secondary role to the already established Branislav Ivanovic at right-back, but the appointment of fellow countryman Rafa Benitez saw him become first choice full back at the club. He is strong, agile and quick and has adapted to the Premier League in a very short space of time following his move from Ligue 1. If Benitez's successor at Stamford Bridge shows similar faith in the 23-year-old, he will continue to grow as a player and could even displace Alvaro Arbeloa in the Spanish national side.

CB - Phil Jones - Manchester United

One of Phil Jones's greatest strengths is his ability to be utilised anywhere on the pitch. The fact he can play a holding midfield role, full-back on either side or centre-half means that he is consistently picked by Sir Alex Ferguson for Manchester United and by Roy Hodgson for England. Sooner or later, he is going to revert back to his strongest position at the centre of defence. That's where he was playing for Blackburn when Ferguson decided to spend £16.5m on the then teenager. Rio Ferdinand has played well through a series of reoccurring back injuries this season, but is unlikely to play as many games next year. Whether Jones plays alongside Ferdinand or instead of him, he could be influential to any success Manchester United might have in the future as they aim to retain their Premier League title.

CB - Vincent Kompany - Manchester City

Class is permanent, and Vincent Kompany is up there with the most complete centre-backs in world football. He has struggled this campaign with injuries and suspensions and his Manchester City side have not coped well with the pressure that comes from winning a Premier League title. They will be out for revenge next season, and if the Belgian can get fully fit over the pre-season period, he could form a formidable partnership alongside youngster Matija Nastasic for years to come.

LB - Luke Shaw - Southampton

Luke Shaw is frighteningly young at 17-years-old. Despite this, he has started 19 games for Southampton in the Premier League this season, and has rarely looked out of his depth. It may be a long shot to predict him featuring in next year's Team of the Season, but Southampton are only going to improve when Mauricio Pochettino gets a full pre-season with his side and is able to reinforce the high pressing style of play he has managed to introduce so far. Even if Shaw doesn't quite make the grade next season, he will be an integral part of whatever Southampton manage to achieve, as they do not look as solid or as threatening without him, even now.

RM - Shinji Kagawa - Manchester United

Shinji Kagawa is widely regarded as one of the linchpins of Borussia Dortmund's recent success. Before German wonder duo Mario Gotze and Marco Reus dominated the attacking midfield positions for the Champions League semi finalists, Kagawa was influential in his role just off central striker Robert Lewandowski. Kagawa showed early promise during his first few games for Manchester United, scoring on his home debut before a knee injury halted his progress at the club. If the Japanese midfielder can get back to full fitness in the closed season, he should be guaranteed a spot in Sir Alex Ferguson's line-up ahead of the inconsistent Nani and Antonio Valencia. Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney will benefit hugely from Kagawa's vision and passing range.

CM - Phillipe Coutinho - Liverpool 

Many Inter Milan fans must be scratching their heads as to why the club allowed Phillipe Coutinho to leave for just £8.5m, a price that can only be described as an absolute steal in today's transfer market. Since arriving at Anfield in January, the young Brazilian has lit up the Premier League, with an exciting flurry of goals and assists for Brendan Rodger's side and produced a Man of the Match performance during Liverpool's 6-0 thrashing of Newcastle. Provided he stays clear of injury and continues to enjoy living in England, Coutinho is also my tip to win the Young Player of the Year award next time round.

CM - David Luiz - Chelsea

Rafa Benitez has received nothing but stick from the majority of Chelsea fans, despite making many positive changes at the club, including the shocking transformation of David Luiz. Luiz had struggled in the past at Chelsea and was regarded by most as an error-prone centre-back, before Benitez pushed him forward into midfield. Since the Brazilian has lined up alongside Frank Lampard or Ramires, he has performed exceptionally well, making important challenges, dictating the tempo of matches and has even scored several sublime goals. Chelsea's new manager must keep him in this position, as he could grow to become one of the best holding midfielders in the Premier League, starting next season.

CM - Jack Wilshere - Arsenal

It must surely be time for Jack Wilshere to fulfil his potential. The young Arsenal midfielder has been described as the future of English football for as long as most of us can remember, but it is still yet to materialise. Fitness is the key for Wilshere, as it is for many of next season's potential candidates. If he can go a whole campaign unhurt at the centre of Arsenal's midfield, he will dominate teams both domestically and Internationally, as he has shown all too briefly recently against the likes of Bayern Munich and Brazil.

LM - Gareth Bale - Tottenham Hotspur

It is impossible to look beyond Gareth Bale. Provided he stays in England and isn't tempted by the likes of Real Madrid, there is little doubt that he will cement his place in next year's Team of the Season too. Whether he is deployed in a central role behind the striker or wide on the left, his combination of pace and fiercely accurate long-distance shooting means he has the ability to stand out, hence his double award this year.

ST - Romelu Lukaku - Chelsea

Admittedly, this position will probably be filled by an already established Premier League striker such as Suarez, Rooney, Van Persie or Aguero. Whilst it is hugely unlikely that Romelu Lukaku will feature in next year's Team of the Season, I don't doubt that he has the necessary ability. If Chelsea weren't too bust trying to justify spending £50m on Fernando Torres, the young Belgian wouldn't have even been loaned out this season. If however the striker was to be kept on by the new Chelsea manager, he could stake a claim for the lead role in Chelsea's attack. Lukaku has proved this season at West Brom that he is more than capable of scoring goals and playing up front by himself. If he has the magical trio of Oscar, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard behind him next year, who knows how many goals he could score in a young and exciting Chelsea team.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Football is primarily a business for Arsene Wenger

Arsene Wenger will soon be held accountable for Arsenal’s eighth consecutive season without a trophy. As fans continue to revolt against the Frenchman’s willingness to settle for fourth and a place in the Uefa Champions League, Wenger remains defiant over his careful management of the club’s finances.

Arsene Wenger is the perfect manager for an owner
who prioritises financial stability over trophy wins

Arsene Wenger graduated in 1971 with a first rate degree in Economics at Strasbourg University. It shows. After becoming Arsenal manager in 1996, Wenger made the club his own, and oversaw a transformation that changed modern day football as we know it. He altered the diets of his playing staff to the nearest calorie, and concluded through science and statistics the exact minute a player would begin to tire and therefore need substituting.

It soon became clear that Wenger’s brain worked differently to other managers. It worked on the basis of mathematics and logic, and where he really excelled, was in the area of financial management. The Frenchman sold troublesome striker Nicholas Anelka to Real Madrid for £23 million, and as a result was able to assemble ‘The Invincibles’, the most successful football team in Premier League history. Kolo Toure, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry were all bought in to form the spine of a side that would go unbeaten throughout an entire season, 38 games without defeat in 2004.

Arsenal enjoyed dominance under Wenger’s fast-flowing, eye-catching pass and move football. Other teams were unable to cope with the tempo of passing inspired by Arsenal’s midfield triangles. By this time, clubs had decided to compete in the only way they could; financial muscle. A certain Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich had taken over at Chelsea and was quick to make his mark on the transfer market, buying sought after players for hugely inflated transfer fees, which other clubs simply couldn’t afford, including Arsenal.

Even if Arsenal did have the money to spend, there was a feeling that Wenger would have persisted with his own transfer philosophy of buying players at extremely low prices and selling them on for profit after they had developed under his guidance. It was Wenger’s belief that players begin to digress at the age of 28, and so introduced his own age restriction policy. His ‘Invincibles’ side had finally lost to Manchester United, and things were never to be the same. It was time for a period of transition in English football.

Patrick Vieira, who was bought by Wenger for £2.5m, was sold for £14m. The trend continued, and the height of Wenger’s profit making transfer policy came following a deal that would see the club sell Cesc Fabregas back to Barcelona for a staggering £30m profit. Despite such an incredible return on the player, the move came at a price for Wenger. Fabregas was club captain of Arsenal and one of the best players in the Premier League. Wenger’s decision to sell the most talented and influential individual on his playing staff sent out a signal to fans that Arsenal were no longer able to compete at the highest level. Rival clubs took advantage of this fact and Gael Clichy, Samir Nasri and Robin Van Persie all followed Fabregas out of The Emirates, leaving behind them a set of angry Gunners fans demanding that Wenger should spend heavily on their replacements.

But he didn’t. Arsenal are rumoured to have a transfer fund of £136m, but Wenger didn’t spend more than £11m on a single player during that same transfer window. Simon Kuper of The Financial Times believes this is because Wenger thinks so deeply about football’s potential economic collapse, that he is trying to protect the future of the club: “Wenger and Arsenal think that the football economy is a bubble: clubs are spending beyond their means and risking collapse. The argument is at bottom one about football being a business. Wenger manages Arsenal as if he is going to be there for the next 100 years.”
Kuper is not the only one who has likened Arsene Wenger to a businessman. Many believe that Wenger has kept his job at The Emirates despite his lack of silverware because of his ability to bring money into the club. The aforementioned player sales will have compensated and replaced any outgoings from the pockets of board owners Ivan Gadiz and Stan Kroenke, so what reasons do they have to fire a man who has a proven track record when it comes to earning money?

Wenger has wrapped himself into the foundations of the club, literally. His visions and planning were an integral part to building Arsenal’s 60,000 capacity Emirates Stadium, following their move from Highbury. Arsenal Football Club now earn £3.3m each and every home game on ticket sales alone, making them the most profitable club in the country, further proof that Arsene Wenger sees football as a business. He played the game at an extremely low level for a modern day manager, so perhaps his management style isn’t clouded by blind passion and dressing room experiences of the past. He is able to analyse football from the outside, making decisions he feels will be of most benefit to the club, and it’s clear he chooses to place more importance on financial reward than titles and trophies.

“To other managers, £15m might be simply ‘a big number, but not to Wenger. When he weighs up potential signings, he judges like an economist pricing assets as much as like a coach seeking quick wins”says Kuper, the author of Soccernomics, a book based on football’s troubled financial underworld. Wenger’s rule at Arsenal has been fuelled largely by business, but also by stubbornness and strong personal morals. Arsene Wenger is so against the Abramovichs’ and Glazers of this world, spending money that they don’t have, funding wage bills on insurmountable debts, that he installed his faith in youngsters and products of the club’s youth academy. Whereas Wenger used to scour the globe to buy unknown young players from abroad, these same players are now choosing to go to ‘bigger’ clubs than Arsenal, such as Chelsea and Manchester City who are willing to offer the mind-blowing wages demanded by footballer’s agents and advisors.

Arsene’s faith in the club’s own youth academy has yet to be rewarded. An 18-year-old Denilson was expected to develop into a ready-made replacement for Gilberto Silva, a strong, combative midfield captain. It never materialised and the Brazilian has since been loaned back to his native South America, and is set to depart permanently in the summer. Nicklas Bendtner, Sebastian Larrson and Fabrice Muamba all promised to break through at the same time and form a new first-team spine, but were deemed not good enough and shipped out to various other Premier League clubs. Several promising Englishman also came through the ranks, Jay Simpson, an explosive striker, is now plying his trade with Hull City after failing to make an impact under Arsene Wenger. Kieran Gibbs remains at the club but has struggled with a series of muscle injuries that have prevented his development. Simon Kuper believes Wenger’s decision to rely on the club’s academy was a mistake. “Separately from economics, Wenger made another fundamental misjudgement. He dreamt of building a team produced in Arsenal’s youth academy, rather than bought as adult stars. Another truth of football is that it’s almost impossible to predict whether a great untried teenager will make a great adult footballer. Only really once a teenager has achieved success in actual professional football, like Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney or Gareth Bale, can you know he is the real thing, and by then richer clubs than Arsenal will be chasing him.”

Arsenal are unlikely to win a trophy again next year. Their playing squad is not good enough to compete with Chelsea, Manchester City or Manchester United, and those clubs are set spend sufficiently in the summer before FIFA’s Financial Fair Play rules come into fruition. As Tottenham and Everton continue to improve, they might even find it difficult to finish in the top four. That still won’t be enough to make Arsene Wenger open his chequebook and make ‘big-money’ signings. That is not his approach to business, or indeed life. Whilst he continues to oversee financial stability and generate such great revenue at The Emirates, his job will be safe. His bosses will be happy. Club owners and Chief Executive types in football boardrooms will always take money over cup wins and tournament glory. That’s why they are happy to make him the highest paid manager in England on £7.5m a year.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Tottenham need a striker to banish end of season curse.

Andre Villas-Boas has had a relatively successful first season in charge of Tottenham Hotspur as they sit fourth in the Premier League and occupy the final Champions League place. However, a poor result at home to Basel in the Europa League and an inconsistent run of domestic form, could see a season full of eye-catching performances and impressive results go entirely unrewarded.

Spurs have been far too reliant on Gareth Bale's
goals from midfield this season

Spurs often suffer from end of season syndrome, and have been known to implode at this time of season in the past, which usually means granting success to their North London rivals Arsenal, who sit two points behind with a game in hand. It has been well documented that Tottenham have been over reliant on Gareth Bale's goals season, and the Welshman may well be angling for a move away from the club during the summer transfer window. Emmanuel Adebayor was absent for over a month whilst on International duty with Togo at the 2013 AFCON and has struggled with league goals this season, scoring just three times. Jermain Defoe has a typically impressive goals to minutes ratio with 10 league goals in 25 starts for the club, but has struggled with a series of muscular injuries and doesn't always seem comfortable as the lone front man in AVB's preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. Tottenham need strength in depth up front and Daniel Levy must add to his strike force if his club are to challenge for honours until the final game of the season. Here's a look at some of his likely targets.

Loic Remy

Remy has taken no time to settle in England
and has always been a target for Spurs

Loic Remy only joined QPR in January but his agent secured a release clause of just £8m should the Hoops be relegated. That looks increasingly likely following Wigan's last minute equaliser at Loftus Road on Sunday to leave Harry Redknapp's side 7 points adrift of safety. Remy has adapted seamlessly to English football and has scored 5 goals since his arrival, making him the club's top goalscorer. Tottenham owner Daniel Levy had previously shown interest in signing the French striker from Marseille, but was deterred by the £15m valuation. His versatility could make him Tottenham's number one transfer target, as he can also be utilised on the right side of midfield to provide competition for Aaron Lennon should he not be first choice striker at White Hart Lane.

Christian Benteke

A move to Spurs would help Benteke become
Belgium's number one striker

The Aston Villa target man has been unstoppable at times this season. 15 league goals for a team that have been fighting relegation is an achievement that makes him a potential candidate for the player of the season award. Villa's young side have struggled under Paul Lambert and have often had to rely on the Belgian striker's goals and influential line-leading performances to get results. At just 22 and with three years left to run on his current deal, he won't come cheap, but it would be difficult for him to resist a move to Spurs and the lure of European football should they secure it.

Leandro Damiao

Damiao is a natural finisher and became top
goalscorer at the 2012 Olympics

The young Brazilian striker Leandro Damiao is another player Daniel Levy has been watching for some time. The Internacional forward was the top goalscorer at the London 2012 Olympic Games and is a reported target for a host of top European clubs including PSG, Napoli and Arsenal. Damiao lacks pace and is nowhere near Benteke and Remy in terms of speed, but he has an unteachable eye for goal and always hits the target when in and around the penalty box. He would add another dimension to Tottenham's strike force and provide a good alternative to either Defoe or Adebayor. He has the ability to operate alone up front, but whether he would be able to settle in England and adapt to the pace and physicality of the Premier League remains to be seen.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

England are still incapable of controlling matches against inferior opponents. Why?

England again proved their inability to control an International match during a 1-1 World Cup qualification draw against Montenegro. England have also failed to beat Poland, Sweden and Ukraine in their recent run of fixtures and have often been dominated rather than dominating. Why do England struggle so much to control these games against supposedly inferior opponents?

England couldn't contain Montenegro, a country with a population one tenth
the viewing audience of Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway

1. Lack of Frank Lampard

Frank Lampard has only started one of the aforementioned games England have failed to win. He scored an 87th minute penalty to save England from a disastrous home defeat to Ukraine and won the Man of the Match award. He has also scored the winning goals in recent friendlies against Spain and Brazil and was influential during the victory over Italy at Wembley. He is the form midfielder in the Premier League and has 12 league goals to his name. That's two more league goals than the preferred England midfield trio of Gerrard, Carrick and Cleverley combined. Chelsea managers have lost their jobs in the past as a result of undervaluing Frank Lampard, and the boardroom decision not to offer him a contract extension still confuses the vast majority of football supporters. His experience in important and difficult matches, including European Cup finals would surely help England take control of these games that they are expected to win.

2. Fear

Fear has had an impact on every England team since quarter-final elimination at Euro 2004. Fabio Capello cited it as the reason his team failed to perform on so many occasions when playing home fixtures at Wembley. It is a combination of fear of getting lambasted in the national press and a fear of public backlash from fans who pay so much money on tickets and travel to support their country. They are also under heavy pressure to perform at the same level they do for their domestic clubs, which has continued to baffle International managers for over a decade. This expectation is heightened when England play what are regarded as lesser opposition, and the players appear unable to cope with the increased pressure.

3. Central Defensive Partnership

All great sides capable of dominating matches have had strong and settled partnerships at the centre of defence. The Arsenal side of the 90's had Adams and Bould, Mourninho's Chelsea had Terry and Carvahlo and European and World Cup winners Spain had Puyol and Pique, who have an understanding formed over many years at Barcelona. Terry and Ferdinand were England's last settled centre-half pairing, and that fell apart in the most spectacular and controversial of fashions. It is difficult to believe Roy Hodgson even knows who his best two defenders are after constant injury problems, let alone his most effective partnership. Lescott and Smalling performed well in the air against Montenegro, but struggled with distribution and lack the necessary composure to keep possession for any team hoping to stamp their authority on an International match.

4. Michael Carrick is scared

Michael Carrick has the unfortunate tendency to go missing in an England shirt. When playing for Manchester United, Carrick protects the back four and retains possession of the ball in equal measure, allowing his attacking team-mates to express themselves as he takes responsibility of many league games. Carrick has been found wanting in the past against International players of the highest calibre, as displayed in the 2009 Champions League final when he anchored a United midfield that was embarrassingly outclassed by Xavi and Iniesta. Carrick believed that he was worthy of a first team place for England, and continued to get overlooked by Fabio Capello which led to him withdrawing from International selection. It seems as though Michael Carrick is too concerned with not making a mistake to have any real impact for England, and his place as a passenger would surely be better filled by the consistent Frank Lampard or a fully fit Scott Parker.

5. Hodgson slow to react

Roy Hodgson has united the England camp and reinstalled a sense of national pride in the players. However, during the draw against Montenegro, he had the opportunity to make substitutions that would have eased the pressure on England and given them a better chance of extending their lead. After striker Dejan Damjanovic had been introduced by the home nation, Montenegro had a sustained period of pressure as the quality of Jovetic and Vucinic began to stretch the England defence. There was a looming sense that England were going to concede that everybody was aware of, except it would seem, Roy Hodgson. Leighton Baines could have been introduced on the left side of midfield, to inject some energy into a lethargic England side, whilst still providing protection for Ashley Cole should he wish to bomb forward. Teams are judged on their results, and victories come as a result of scoring goals. Danny Welbeck put in a great defensive performance, but as a goal for Montenegro looked increasingly inevitable, perhaps attack would have been the best form of defence. Jermain Defoe guarantees you a goal at any level, and should consider himself unfortunate not to have featured at all after his brace against San Marino on Friday. Ashley Young was introduced by the former West Bromwich Albion manager, but too late, and only as a retaliation to the equaliser Hodgson should have foreseen.

6. Are they really inferior opponents?

The final question; Are these teams really inferior to England? Despite being ranked 4th in the FIFA rankings, England haven't won a major trophy since 1966. They have been eliminated from recent tournaments by the likes of Brazil, Portugal, Croatia and Italy, and never seem capable of surpassing the quarter finals. Countries like Poland, Ukraine and Sweden all have squads littered with talented players, some with far greater technique and ability than several England regulars. Maybe a draw is a good result at hostile away venues such as Stadion Pod Goricom in Podgorica, Montenegro. All week, England fans have been told that defeat would be catastrophic. Defeat was narrowly avoided, so perhaps a point is all we should expect from England sides of the future. Maybe we have found our level.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Michael Owen Announces Retirement

Owen had frightening pace throughout his youth and burst onto
the scene with a spectacular solo goal against Argentina in 1998

Stoke City striker Michael Owen has announced that he is set to retire from football at the end of this season.

The former England International had an illustrious career spanning seventeen years at a series of glamorous clubs including Liverpool, Real Madrid and Manchester United. More recent Premier League adventures have included Newcastle and currently Stoke City, who are destined to be his final club.

Owen will sadly be remembered for a career plagued by a series of injuries that never allowed him to fulfil his undoubted potential. He was touted by many as the most exciting England debutant ever and there is no doubt that he was the greatest English striker for several years. Ever since exploding onto the International scene with an infamous solo dribble and top corner finish against rivals Argentina in 1998, he was a permanent fixture up front for the Three Lions, earning 89 caps and scoring 40 goals, including a hat-trick against Germany in Munich.

Owen's fondest club memories will come from the eight year spell he spent at Liverpool. His record was exceptional, scoring 118 goals in just over 200 appearances after he had formed a successful forward partnership with Emile Heskey. Two of those goals were scored at the Millennium Stadium as his late brace earned Liverpool the 2001 FA Cup, the same year they won a treble including the League Cup and the Uefa Trophy.

Despite his history at Liverpool, Owen was talented enough to gain the support of Manchester United fans thanks to his first goal for the club, an injury time winner against bitter rivals Manchester City to secure a famous 4-3 away victory.

Few Englishmen have captured the hearts of the public in the same way as Michael Owen, so it is no surprise that today's news has been met with sadness by many. Tributes have flooded in on Twitter and from journalists across several national newspapers as they reminisce about watching Owen in action at his peak.

A statement confirming his retirement was released on his personal blog earlier this morning, which you can read here:

Expect more posts on Owen's official website later on this week, announcing his future ambitions. Many would love to see Michael Owen become a media pundit, but he is already a shrewd property developer and an expert on horse racing, so will have plenty of options as far as future career opportunities are concerned.

The very best of luck to him. Thanks for the memories.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Finally a goal for Nikica Jelavic as he bids to turn around wasted season

Jelavic has been dropped to the bench in recent weeks
due to poor form and a lack of goals.

Nikica Jelavic was the quickest player to reach 10 goals for Everton for a century. He scored vital goals against Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester United and became the first Croatian ever to win the Premier League Player of the Month award. He joined the Toffees in January for a relative bargain at £5m, and went on to become the club's top-goalscorer that same season, despite only featuring for half a campaign. It looked as though Moyes had finally found the final piece of his decade long jigsaw, in the shape of a striker that would score the 20+ goals needed for Everton to reach the next level.

However, under the weight of expectation, Jelavic has struggled hugely this season. Everton began well with some impressive attacking displays and goals were easy to come by as the Croatian netted 4 goals in the first six fixtures, including a brace on the opening day against Southampton. It looked as though Everton and Jelavic were all set to pick up from where they left off last season, but the striker's form rapidly declined. The goals dried up and his most baron spell in front of goal on Merseyside lasted for twelve league games and almost four months until he came on as a substitute to seal a 2-0 victory against Manchester City with a deflected finish in injury time.

The 836 minutes prior to that moment without a goal had a major effect on Jelavic's ability to lead the line for Everton as the drought began to affect his overall performance. David Moyes was left frustrated as his central striker was often put through on goal, only to produce a loose first touch or scuffed shot capable of making Fernando Torres look confident. Moyes was patient with Jelavic and clearly desperate for him to rediscover last season's prolific form, as it took seven games for the Scot to remove the forward from his starting line up. In recent weeks, Moyes has opted for Nigerian powerhouse Victor Anichebe to assume the role just in front of Marouane Fellaini. Anichebe is a target man whose game relies on hold-up play and ball retention, so his performances are rarely influenced by his ability to score goals.

It was Anichebe who made way for Jelavic against Manchester City as the Croatian raced clear in the 93rd minute to fire a shot past Joe Hart with the help of a deflection from Gael Clichy. Jelavic ripped his shirt off and ran to celebrate amongst the fans in the corner of Goodison Park. The ensuing yellow card won't have pleased his manager, but it was hard to begrudge the striker a passionate celebration after such a weight had been lifted. David Moyes will be hoping this is the goal needed to trigger several more as Everton begin their important run-in. Champions League football is still a serious possibility as they lie 4 points behind Chelsea in fourth place, and Jelavic will be influential if Everton are to have a successful end to their season.

Jelavic still needs two league goals to match last season's total. If he doesn't achieve a higher goals total during his first full season in England, it will have been a wasted season for the former Rangers star, showing his manager a distinct lack of progression. He is still Everton's major striking threat, and needs to start performing at a level that will take some of the goal scoring burden from team-mate Marouane Fellaini, who leads the statistics chart this season with 11. If Jelavic, Fellaini and Belgian winger Kevin Mirallas all remain at Goodison over the summer and stay fit throughout next season, Everton fans should have a great deal to look forward to providing David Moyes signs a new contract.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Barcelona should keep hold of David Villa

Barca celebrate their third goal;
Relief for Barcelona and David Villa.

Barcelona were 2-0 up against Milan, the scores were tied on aggregate and the next goal of a tricky Champions League encounter was surely going to decide which team progressed to the quarter finals. The ball fell to Xavi and his peripheral vision allowed him to slide a pass first time towards David Villa. The through ball committed Milan full-back Kevin Constant, and Villa's first touch swept the ball beyond the onrushing defender, leaving him in a heap on the ground before curling a deadly shot past Christian Abbiati and in to the far corner. Barca had breathing space, and it was thanks to Villa's prolific finishing ability.

The goal sparked mighty relief for David Villa, that much was clear from his celebration. It was the goal that re-announced the striker's return to form on the world stage after a devastating leg break that had kept him out of action for eight months. A snap to his tibia during a Club World Cup match in Yokohama meant he missed the entire 2011/12 season with Barcelona, and also Euro 2012, as the Spanish team continued their International dominance. After three consecutive La Liga titles with Villa fit and ever present, Barca surrendered top spot to Real Madrid during his injury plagued season, which looks to be far more than a coincidence. The striker, despite scoring against Real Sociedad on his return to competitive action, took some time to rediscover the form he was showing before that fateful injury, and there were even rumours that he might be sold in January to the likes of Arsenal or Manchester City.

The goal scoring exploits of Lionel Messi have rescued Barcelona in the absence of David Villa as the side continue to alternate their three forward players. Alexis Sanchez was signed from Udinese to try and ease the blow dealt by Villa's leg break, but the Chilean's first La Liga campaign was also mired with short-term injuries. His approach was seen as a little direct and it took some time before he was able to adapt to the pass and move philosophy of Barca, as Guardiola often used him as a central striker. However, the intelligence of Cesc Fabregas was sometimes preferred in a false number 9 role. Pedro has become an accomplished winger come striker and can operate on either wing for the Catalan side, but his goal threat and ratio are nowhere near the levels of his compatriot Villa.

Villa's left foot finish last night displayed that he has certainly not lost the killer ability to score goals. It is hard to stand out in a team that includes the record-breaking Lionel Messi, but this is a player who has won the European Championship Golden Boot, the World Cup and is Spain's all time top goalscorer. He has scored 53 goals in 86 appearances for his country, a ratio matched only by Alfredo Di Stefano. He was named the Spanish player of the year in 05/06 whilst playing for Valencia who finished third as he contributed 25 league goals.

Barcelona are on course to win the league title as they sit thirteen points ahead of Real Madrid and they are the strongest team left in the Uefa Champions League. If they are to claim a double, keeping David Villa fit is imperative. He showed his value to the team against Milan and his passion and work rate are hard to match. He has the ability to score important goals in important matches, which is exactly what Barca need during their challenging run in. To let him go would be a huge mistake. I bet they're glad they didn't in January.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Five Talking Points from Manchester United vs Chelsea

Eden Hazard celebrates his exquisite curler
with team-mate David Luiz

1. It has been a poor week for Manchester United.

Manchester United looked vengeful as Wayne Rooney's free-kick crept in to make it 2-0 inside the opening quarter of an hour. Sir Alex Ferguson had clearly told his team to go out and give a performance that would diminish the painful memories of defeat and Nani's red card on Tuesday night. Unfortunately, in an uncharacteristic second half display full of loose passing and a lack of urgency, Chelsea took advantage and scored twice to level the full-time result. United's inability to secure victory will have only provided more disappointment during a week their fans will want to forget.  

2. Mata, Oscar and Hazard should make up Chelsea's attacking midfield trio. 

Eden Hazard came off the bench to score a beautiful curling shot that kick started Chelsea's come back. After his introduction as a substitute, he showed better poise, balance and ball retention than Victor Moses had done throughout the entire first half. Juan Mata turned in another Man of the Match performance and is always guaranteed a starting spot, whilst Brazilian youngster Oscar has the ability to produce something unexpected that could win any match for his side. Victor Moses is still learning, and would be better utilised by Rafa Benitez as a late substitute, using his pace and direct running against defenders as they begin to tire. 

3. There is still doubt over Wayne Rooney's future at Old Trafford. 

Wayne Rooney was included in the starting line up to face Chelsea which would have gone some way towards easing his frustration at being left out of the Manchester United side that lost to Real Madrid. Ferguson picked the 11 players he thought were most capable of winning that tie, and they didn't include the English centre forward. His free kick found the far corner to double United's lead as things began to improve for the striker. However, as Chelsea's influence on the game grew, Van Persie was introduced and Rooney found himself moved to the left hand side of midfield. Sir Alex deployed Shinji Kagawa in the role behind Van Persie as he searched for the winner. There is still confusion surrounding the striker's importance to the club, as well as the relationship he has with his manager. 

4. Chelsea look like conceding in the absence of John Terry. 

Rafael Benitez is famous for his rotation policy, and John Terry was again left out of the Spaniard's first eleven. He opted for a partnership of David Luiz and Gary Cahill, with the former England captain having to settle for a place amongst the substitutes alongside Branislav Ivanovic. The absence of the club captain quickly had an influence on proceedings at Old Trafford as Michael Carrick's lofted through ball sailed over the head of Cahill and was headed in brilliantly by Javier Hernandez. Wayne Rooney curled in a free kick shortly afterwards that evaded the whole Chelsea back four and found its way into the back of the net. David Luiz missed a header in the scramble whilst under pressure from Jonny Evans, the type of header John Terry has dealt with in the past on numerous occasions. Chelsea have always relied heavily on leadership and since Didier Drogba has left and Frank Lampard is unlikely to be offered a contract extension, it is important that Terry plays in order to communicate and organise.

5. It was a refreshing Semi Final cup draw. 

Manchester City defeated Barnsley largely thanks to a Carlos Tevez hat-trick, but Roberto Mancini won't be pleased with his team's semi final draw. They will face the winner of the United Chelsea replay in a tie that promises to eliminate one of the strongest sides in the country, and could produce a Manchester derby semi final at Wembley, just as occurred in 2011. Wigan have been rewarded for their exceptional performance at Everton with an away fixture at lower league opposition, albeit in the tricky form of Blackburn or Millwall. Neutrals will be looking forward to a cup final that isn't contested by two of the top six teams in the Premier League. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Ashley Williams to Arsenal as Wenger Loses Faith in Defence?

Could Swansea centre-half Ashley Williams
be about to join Theo Walcott at The Emirates?

Arsenal find themselves out of every domestic cup competition, languishing behind bitter rivals Tottenham in the Premier League and unlikely to progress in Europe. This tournament capitulation is an all too familiar sight for fans of the Gunners as they look set to record their seventh year without a trophy. The team have performed well up front all season, as the attacking trio of Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski and the vastly improved Theo Walcott have contributed 45 goals between them.

The problem for Arsenal lies in defence. This was evidently clear during the most recent North London derby as a pacey Tottenham team took advantage of an unnecessarily high defensive line to record a 2-1 victory. Steve Bould has been drafted in as Arsene Wenger's number 2 but his influence is far from evident as the team continue to concede preventable goals in important fixtures. The departure of Alex Song to Barcelona has had a clear effect on the back four as they lack protection from a midfield littered with playmakers. Mikel Arteta plays a deeper role due to his age and experience, but he lacks the aggression and tackling ability of a natural midfield enforcer.

The lack of protection from midfield does not disguise the fact Arsene Wenger has struggled in the transfer market when it comes to defensive signings.

Per Mertesacker: £8m from Werder Bremen.

The Frenchman went against his stance on low transfer fees to secure the arrival of German International Per Mertesacker for a fee believed to be in the region of £8million. The defender is yet to display the ability that has earned him 86 caps for his country and often appears out of his depth against quick and agile opponents, such as Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale, as demonstrated last Sunday. At 6 foot 6 inches, he is of similar height to Christopher Samba, who many consider a faster defender of more muscular build, with previous experience of the Premier League. The decision to ignore the Congolese defender's availability in January is one that has puzzled fans, journalists and  ex-players as he was widely recommended as the perfect remedy to Arsenal's defensive headache.

Thomas Vermaelen: £11m from Ajax.

Vermaelen was the first of Wenger's latest defensive editions. Arsenal looked to rebuild after losing Kolo Toure and William Gallas and the Belgiun was purchased after some time on the Premier League radar. He had shown huge potential at Ajax as an exciting young player who could play in the centre or at full back, often operating on left for Belgium alongside Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany. Vermaelen caught they eye during his first season in England, but it was often for his goal scoring exploits or eagerness to join in and attack. The jury are still out on his defensive abilities and there is a worry at Arsenal that Wenger's decision to hand him the captaincy has made him undroppable. The arrival of compatriot Jan Vertonghen at neighbours Tottenham has done little to help the defender's cause, as Andre Villas-Boas appears to have made one of the signings of the season. 

Laurent Koscielny: £10m from Lorient.

Laurent Koscielny was bought by Wenger to add height to his squad and increase defensive options during the same transfer window Phillipe Senderos left for Fulham and Sol Campbell retired. Wenger returned to the French transfer market he studies so extensively to complete this deal, but several eyebrows were raised after Koscielny was sent off on his competitive debut for the club against Liverpool. However, a string of impressive Champions League performances endeared him to the Emirates crowd, especially against Barcelona where he was in inspired form and helped his team to an unlikely 2-1 first leg win. He has struggled to get a regular starting spot in the Arsenal back four this season which comes as a surprise considering he signed a new 5-year-contract at the beginning of the year. Arsenal look a much stronger side when he plays. 

Koscielny starting regularly would improve
the understanding of Arsenal's back four.

Andre Santos: £5.9m from Fenerbache.

The signing of Brazilian left back Andre Santos is one Arsene Wenger will want to forget. The 29-year-old moved to London in 2011 and was supposed to add depth to the squad due to his versatility and ability to play on the left hand side of midfield. Having originally deputised well for the injured Kieran Gibbs, he sustained a 3 month injury that prompted a huge dip in form that concluded with a dire first half performance against Manchester United. Santos was substituted at half time for playing so poorly, and also offered to swap shirts with United striker Robin Van Persie who had recently left Arsenal on bad terms, after his decision to reject a new contract and join the Red Devils. This angered Arsenal fans to such a degree that his future at the club was called into question, and a subsequent loan move to his home town team Gremio materialised. Arsenal still pay his wages, and he is yet to make an appearance for the Porto Alegre club. The only thing he is likely to be remembered for is a speeding ticket for travelling at 127mph in his Maserati through the streets of London. 

Nacho Monreal: £8.3m from Malaga. 

Spanish International Nacho Monreal was signed as a replacement for Andre Santos. With Kieran Gibbs still out injured, Monreal is expected to cement his position as first choice left back. At 27, he is far from one for the future and Arsene Wenger will be hoping he can get to grips with English football as soon as possible. His positional play looked suspect during Arsenal's 2-1 defeat to Spurs and he will be hoping to perform better in upcoming fixtures. Arsenal's success depends hugely on deciding a settled back four, giving them time to gel and develop an understanding. You cannot underestimate consistency, and Arsene Wenger needs to put faith in four players rather than his entire squad, or his side will continue to frustrate and disappoint. 

Arsenal are desperate for a leader and
Williams is the captain of his country.

Today's transfer rumours say that the latest candidate to sure up Arsenal's defence is Swansea captain Ashley Williams. It would be a different approach in transfer policy for the Gunners as Williams has only ever played for Hednesford, Stockport and Swansea. He is strong in the tackle, quick across the ground and is confident when starting moves from the back, a trait vital to the success of Swansea's eye-catching and superb league campaign. Williams is also captain of Wales and could be the leader Arsenal have desperately lacked for several seasons. There is no doubt he should fetch a more modest price than some of the aforementioned signings and would fit seamlessly alongisde Laurent Koscielny or Thomas Vermaelen. He would surely improve Arsenal's defence, it just depends on whether Wenger is prepared to gamble on a signing that could be considered unfashionable. 

£43.2m has been spent on the aforementioned defenders. Arsenal are a club that like to pride themselves on good business strategy, but spending such an excessive amount on five players with no sign of a title-challenging back four is a poor return for Arsene Wenger's investments. Gone are the days when he was able to attract quality players such as Lauren, Sylvinho and Gael Clichy for minuscule transfer sums and utilise them to the best of their abilities. 

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Premier League Preview

After this weekend's Premier League fixtures have run their course, there will be 10 games left of the current season. Manchester United hold a 12 point lead at the top of the division and look increasingly likely to secure their 13th Premier League title since its creation in 1993. If they do see out the rest of this season with the level of ruthlessness and professionalism we have come to expect from Sir Alex Ferguson's team, it will also be the 13th domestic league trophy of Ryan Giggs's evergreen career, after the Welshman signed a new contract to play beyond his 40th birthday.

Sir Alex Ferguson has offered Ryan Giggs a further contract extension.
Why won't Chelsea do the same with Frank Lampard?

Chelsea vs. West Brom

Rafa Benitez will be eager to record a positive result this weekend after his well documented outburst on Wednesday night. The previous two Chelsea managers have been sacked after matches against WBA, Benitez will be hoping he doesn't continue the trend. Steve Clarke, manager of West Brom is fondly remembered at Stamford Bridge for his time there as Jose Mourninho's number two, and is likely to receive the better reception of the two managers. West Brom are a difficult side to beat, but with their main goal threat Romelu Lukaku unable to play against his parent club Chelsea, the Blues should earn a narrow victory, especially if Demba Ba is preferred to Fernando Torres up front.

Everton vs. Reading

These are two teams with a lot to play for. Everton are pushing for European football as they are currently the 'best of the rest' in sixth place, five points behind Arsenal. Reading are second from bottom, 1 point adrift and will consider any points at Goodison Park a great result. Everton would usually be too strong for the Royals, but have already been in action this week after a cup replay against Oldham. Tiredness will play a part, especially when combined with Reading's desperation to survive. A score draw is the most likely outcome.

Manchester United vs. Norwich

With title rivals Manchester City not in action until Monday night, United will be hoping to put even more daylight between the two sides with a home tie against Norwich on Saturday afternoon. Ferguson is likely to have one eye on his team's second leg Champions League tie against Real Madrid so several first team players will be rested. Norwich are coming into the fixture after a dramatic 2-1 victory against Everton and have been lifted by the arrival of Kansas City striker Kei Kamara. This won't bother United, and a comfortable home victory is the only foreseeable result.

Southampton vs. QPR

Southampton continue to look impressive under new manager Mauricio Pochettino with their high intensity style of football, based entirely on pressing the opposition. Queens Park Rangers are a team with players such as Adel Taarabt and Esteban Granero who like to have time and space on the ball, which they won't be afforded against this rejuvenated Saints side. Bobby Zamora is injured for the away team, so Harry Redknapp, on his unwelcome return to St Mary's is likely to select Loic Remy from the start. There will be an intimidating atmosphere on the South Coast that will inspire Southampton to a comfortable home win.

Stoke vs West Ham

Stoke have been inconsistent this season but sit several places above the Hammers in the Premier League table. Both sides have enough quality to beat the drop, especially if Sam Allardyce continues to get the best out of January acquisitions Andy Carroll and Joe Cole. A gritty draw can be expected, as has been the case all too often at the Britannia Stadium this year.

Sunderland vs. Fulham

Sunderland have been hugely disappointing this year and Martin O'Neill will be worried that his side are not yet clear of relegation. A win against Fulham today however will see them move level on points with Martin Jol's team. Fulham have struggled away from home, ever since they gained promotion to the Premier League, but striker Dimitar Berbatov showed the kind of quality last week that could separate the two sides at The Stadium of Light. Danny Graham and Steven Fletcher are due to start up front together for the Black Cats, and one of them is likely to score the winning goal to grant Sunderland a hard earned 3 points.

Swansea vs. Newcastle

The most attractive fixture of this weekend's Premier League is also the most difficult to predict. Swansea are fresh from the first major trophy win in their history and Newcastle's string of French signings have been performing exceptionally well. Swansea play patient, possession based football, whilst Newcastle's tactics rely on pace and power on the counter-attack. It promises to be an exciting encounter, and one which relies heavily on the performance of two strikers, Swansea's Michu and Papiss Cisse of Newcastle United. Both could score in a probable high-scoring draw.

Wigan vs. Liverpool

Wigan Athletic love this time of season. They often struggle through the opening two thirds of a campaign, before hitting title-winning form around this point each year. It has become something of a habit for Roberto Martinez's side, and with striker Arouna Kone in prolific form, any result is possible against Liverpool at the DW Stadium. Liverpool's Luis Suarez is one of the favourites to receive the player of the season award and is likely to have a heavy influence on the result of this game. A flattering away win for the Reds is predicted, after a tightly contested fixture against the Latics.

Tottenham vs. Arsenal

Football fans will be relishing this tie, as the North London derby is often controversial and nearly always a great spectacle. Long gone are the days when the Gunners would regularly cast Spurs aside with the electrifying performances of Thierry Henry and Robert Pires. Tottenham are now the stronger of the two teams and find themselves in third place, thanks largely to the form of Gareth Bale, who continues to draw comparisons with some of the world's best players. This fixture is never straight forward, but Tottenham will be confident and I expect them to record a professional victory as Andre Villas-Boas continues his impressive spell in charge out of the spotlight.

Aston Villa vs. Manchester City

Aston Villa sit third from bottom of the Premier League table and have been relegation favourites all season. Paul Lambert has failed to perform in the same way that persuaded Villa owner Randy Lerner to offer him the job in the first place. The Midlands club are relying heavily on the goals of Belgium striker Christian Benteke during their bid for survival, but Manchester City are bound to be far too strong with both Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez in goalscoring form and captain Vincent Kompany likely to return from injury.