English Cricket’s Dominant Present Matches Up To It’s Majesterial History

The recent success of England in the most historic and prestigious form of cricket should be the source of much national pride. In their recent 4-0 drubbing of the previous World number one Test side they demonstrated a level of conviction and authority rarely seen in English cricket’s more recent past.

The current success has brought with it an enormous amount of comparison drawing between England’s current crop and the most dominant Test outfits of the game’s long and illustrious history. To this point England have achieved a great deal under the guidance of Andy Flower and have earned a great deal of respect amongst their peers in the International game, but there is an awfully long way to go before they can be considered one of England’s very best sides. So far they have demonstrated the form and talent required to reach such historical heights but sustaining this period of domination over a longer span of time will be the ultimate test for them.

The Home of Cricket

This week I was fortunate enough to pay my first visit to the ‘Home of Cricket’. Not only did I visit Lord’s but I was fortunate enough to gain entry to the Members Pavilion courtesy of attending as the guest of a friend who holds an MCC membership. This was a fantastic experience and furthered my passion for the game and it’s history.

Some might say that the ‘old boy’ and ‘aristocratic’ nature of Lord’s and the Pavilion End is far too elitist and perhaps too stuffy for a modern era of increased equality and opportunity, but I must confess that I loved it.

Where else in British sport could you be seated in and around plump, middle-aged gentlemen wearing a glorious mish-mash of boldly coloured pinstripe suits accompanied by a flower-filled top jacket pocket and the classically coloured red and mustard tie of the MCC? It may seem way over the top, but it truly is a sight to behold.

You wouldn't wear it yourself, but it's brilliant...

I personally wouldn’t be seen dead in their chosen attire, but I didn’t half enjoy seeing them trying to pull it off and in a bizarre sort of a way they kind of managed it. The pride gained from showing off the traditional colours of the MCC is comparable to that of the most passionate football fans who couldn’t bare to be without their replica shirts come match day. It provides a great sense of identity for the game and pays tribute to the it’s very colourful past through remembering and representing it’s upper-class roots.

Warney's Tribute in the Pavilion

Aside from those filling the Pavilion End the place itself is so utterly and fantastically British. It is a structure of extreme civilisation containing a library, a food court, squash courts, lounge rooms, real tennis courts, a committee meeting room and of course the infamous Long Room. The place is filled with paintings and images of Cricket’s history and not just that of the home nation. Even the old-enemy Australia have their fair share of wall space with players such as the great Shane Warne honoured with a portrait.

The ‘Home of Cricket’ is a magnificent tribute to the enduring gentleman’s sport and underlines the value and traditions of Test cricket. In the modern era where shortened forms of the game are beginning to take greater precedence than they once did I think it is hugely important that the foundation of Test cricket is not forgotten or belittled.

Gladly, England’s current combination of extroverted characters suited to the modern era such as Kevin Pietersen, Graeme Swann and Stuart Broad, and more classical, old-fashioned cricketers such as Alistair Cook, Jonathan Trott and Andrew Strauss has seen them rise to the top of the world’s Test pecking order and has provided the longer format with a much needed boost.

Swanny has become a key part of England's modernised line-up

The world of Test cricket has been lacking the sort of superiority and character provided by the all conquering Australian sides of the 90’s and early 2000’s and it is entirely appropriate that England, cricket’s country of origin, are responsible for the current re-invigoration of the sport’s most important format. Though my first visit to Lord’s was to see a one-day match between home side Middlesex and the visitors Sussex you can’t help but feel the presence of the International game within the Pavilion. I am now very much looking forward to the day when I get to witness the ground in all it’s majesty at an England Test match, hopefully this moment shan’t elude for too much longer.

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Premier League Team of the Coming Weekend; Ones To Watch

You may well be used to seeing or reading about football pundits teams of the week but here is my team of ‘Ones To Watch’ for this weekend’s forthcoming round of Premier League fixtures. The reasons for the following team members’ selection could be many and varied; whether it be a recent run of blunders, a run of supreme form, a return from injury or a Premier League debut all comers are to be considered.

The players I have ear-marked for an important weekend are as follows:

Goalkeeper:

David De Gea:

The new Schmeichel or the new Taibi?

Who else could it possibly have been? Following in the footsteps of Premier League greats such as Edwin Van Der Sar and Peter Schmeichel was always likely to be a tough ask, but the young Spaniards’s apparent lack of awareness and footwork in his first two competitive starts for United has heaped a whole heap of unexpected pressure on to his shoulders. Of course there are reasons for Sir Alex’s and Man United’s great faith in De Gea’s potential as a world class stopper and such reasons are probably those responsible for having thrust him from being an unknown Athletico Madrid third choice keeper to an Under 21 European Champion with Spain and Man United’s new £18 million number 1.

He is a real talent, of that there is no question, but is he just that for now? In an Athletico Madrid side prone to some interesting defensive lapses perhaps De Gea’s frailties were either more acceptable or less noticeable, take your pick. One thing is for sure though, and that is that Sir Alex Ferguson and the Old Trafford faithful won’t be so relaxed if he has another howler on his home debut against Spurs on Monday night. United fans keep your fingers crossed.

John O’Shea:

New Sunderland skipper John O’Shea is currently only rated a 50/50 chance to make his Premier League debut for the Mackems due to injury but if he does make the cut then what a start to his reign! A home debut against their fiercest of rivals Newcastle is bound to get to get the blood pumping and the butterflies a fluttering even for someone so experienced as O’Shea. At Manchester United he developed a reputation for being a man to call upon, a very competent and versatile defender capable of holding his own against many of the world’s finest wingers. Despite having never really set the world alight at United he gained invaluable experiences at one of the world’s greatest clubs and picked up a hatful of silverware along the way.

Fabricio Collocini:

For similar reasons to O’Shea, he of the outstanding mane of curly locks makes the cut. In the wake of former Newcastle Skipper Kevin Nolan’s summer departure the Argentine centre back has taken the reigns as Captain and in only his second game of leadership he is coming up against local rivals Sunderland. One thing he does have over his opposite number is his prior experience of this particular derby and he will be hoping that this serves him well on Saturday.

Leighton Baines:

At left-back is the much sought after Baines. After a fantastic season last year, rumours are rife that he may soon be leaving the cash-strapped toffees for Arsenal and if he is to depart then I’m sure that he is the sort of player who would love to leave a positive lasting memory of what he has to offer. Last season saw him establish himself firmly as Ashley Cole’s deputy at international level and after Everton’s opening weekend postponement he will be even more keen to hit the ground running and to contribute to a first win of the season.

Samir Nasri:

Whether he likes it or not it seems that Arsene Wenger is determined to make the most of his most-prized remaining asset Samir Nasri while he still has him. Arsenal vs Liverpool is the first real glamour fixture of the season and it is not a game for those not committed to the cause, if Wenger goes ahead with his reported plan to field the unsettled Frenchman then we may just get to see how professional Nasri is. He is a player of questionable temperament off the field at times but he was brilliant on the field last year and maybe a starring role in a big game like this could be enough to peruade him to stick around a little longer.

Luka Modric:

We are all still in the dark as to whether Modric will remain a Spurs player or not beyond the 31st August but this Monday could provide him with a reminder of how the club have helped him develop into one of the world’s most feared playmakers. If the papers are to be believed then Roman Abramovic is lining up a bid in excess of £30 million for the Croat and this is testament to the fine ability of one of Spurs’ star men and speaks volumes about how he and the club have progressed in tandem since he moved to White Hart Lane. If this is his farewell game for Tottenham then it could provide the perfect platform for his departure, it doesn’t get much bigger in the Premier League than Man United at Old Trafford and contributing to a victory would also be of great benefit to his potential new employers at Stamford Bridge.

Joey Barton:

The Usual Suspect

‘Nuff said, but I’ll plough on regardless. Last week was a shambles for Barton, amidst an actually pretty good performance his attitude was shocking. Twittering aside, if he was hoping to settle back into Premier League action quietly after an outspoken summer then he certainly didn’t go the right way about it. In fairness, his rather acrimonious return to action last week was not all of his own doing. First of all he was blatantly stamped on by Alex Song and then I genuinely believe that he thought Gervinho was trying to cheat his way to victory. What followed though was pretty pathetic, not content with sparking a 22 man brawl by aggressively heaving the Ivorian to his feet he then proceeded to hurl himself to the ground in apparent agony when the same member of the opposition gave him a little tap on the head. Surely this weekend will see a more reserved outing for Barton… Oh dear.. it’s derby week on Tyneside. More of the same then for Joey.

Gareth Bale:

Last year’s PFA Premier League player of the year got off to a flyer last season. This year is set to provide a more testing challenge with an opening day clash against the Champions but Bale will be determined to prove his continued worth, what better way to do so than inspiring Tottenham to a major opening game scalp.

Robin Van Persie:

Captain Fantastic?

Huge game for the Gunners this weekend and new Captain Van Persie will be looking to mark this occasion with a performance which has the fans forgetting who Cesc Fabregas was. A hard-earned 1-0 win over Udinese in midweek will have gone some way to appeasing the fans but this weekend will provide a real acid-test of whether Arsenal can recover from the loss of their talisman and still compete with title challenging sides in the Premier League. With Fabregas gone and Nasri potentially on his way an awful lot could rest on Van Persie’s shoulders this season and I’m sure he will be relishing the challenge.

Sergio Aguero:

You would be forgiven for thinking that Manchester City have signed the greatest footballer of all time given the hype surrounding Aguero in the week following his brilliant debut against Swansea, but the Argentine will be more aware than anybody else that his magnificent cameo has just added to the weighty pressure that is upon him. City spent an awful lot of money securing his signature, as they tend to with most of their signings, but that doesn’t mean to say that he is a finished product. He is a truly brilliant prospect and could be the difference for City this season, but there is a long way to go yet and  Aguero mustn’t get complacent. First things first though he must go out this Sunday and try to replicate some of the genius evident in last week’s debut.

How will the Gunner’s cope with the loss of their Arsenal?

This has to go down as one of the most difficult weeks in the recent history of Arsenal football club. Cesc Fabregas, their talismanic skipper has gone and their strongest performer from last season, Samir Nasri, appears to be on his way out of the exit door. So where next for Arsenal? Surely now is the time that Arsene Wenger needs to spend big, because if he doesn’t then the Gunners will quite simply be a much weaker team than they have been in recent seasons, and even that hasn’t been enough for most of their fans.

I believe that if Nasri does leave in this transfer window and sufficient replacements aren’t brought in to replace him and Fabregas that the current Arsenal squad will be left short of the mark in all areas. Before now the attacking midfield positions are where Arsenal have excelled in recent years, but the loss of their two key playmakers would mean that they are playing catch up to match their rivals in this area too.

I think that Arsenal still need to make major signings in goal, in their central defence, in holding midfield and up front in addition to re-stocking the attacking midfield void if they are to keep pace with the three sides that finished above them in last year’s Premier League. Serious investment will be required if they are to come even vaguely close to competing with the best the Premier League has to offer and maybe the more urgent problem for the Gunners to face will be holding on to a place in the top four.

Here is my analysis of Arsenal’s current shortcomings and my suggested transfer targets for Mr.Wenger:

Goalkeeper:

I think that Wojciech Szczesny is a real prospect in goal for Arsenal, but here in lies the problem. He is a talent, a young and inexperienced keeper in need of serious guidance and not a proven performer over a decent stretch of time. I think that in order to get the best out of him that Arsenal need to sign a more experienced keeper who can aid his development and perhaps teach him a trick or two. If, and it is a big ‘If’, Wenger assembles a top class central defensive partnership then this may be enough to protect the vulnerable youngster, but at the moment this must be considered a potential area of weakness. It is a similar case to that unfolding at Manchester United where big money summer signing David De Gea appears to be struggling for confidence in goal. He too is a young and talented keeper who needs some serious guidance, difference is he is playing behing Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic so he is unlikely to be anywhere near as exposed as Szczesny.

In not signing Shay Given I think that Arsenal have missed a major opportunity. He is a top quality keeper with an abundance of experience including over a hundred caps for his country and a taste of Champions League football at Newcastle and he was available at a very reasonable price. As it turns out Aston Villa were the lucky side to secure his services, but I am utterly convinced that he would have moved to Arsenal if given the chance.

Defence:

Arsenal desperately need a top class centre-back and it seems that Wenger has identified Phil Jagielka as his major target. This would be a decent buy if he can pull it off but it seems that Arsenal will have to part with around twenty million if they want to get their man. For me this is way over the odds and Gary Cahill would be a far better alternative at around the same price. Cahill’s added height and pace would be a great asset for the Gunners and Bolton boss Owen Coyle has as good as said that the club would have to consider a healthy offer for their star man if it came along.

Holding Midfield:

In Alex Song Arsenal already have a promising player in this position but a bit of extra support and experience wouldn’t go amiss. One option, and I accept this would be a huge punt, could be Owen Hargreaves. The England international is currently a free agent having endured an agonising few years of injury woe at United, but he is determined to prove that his time hasn’t yet passed and that he is still a world class performer. I accept that a move for a man who justifiably has his critics regarding his fitness levels could come across a little desperate and perhaps a little lacking in ambition, but Wenger would love his work ethic and ultimately he is available on a free transfer. If they did take him in and show faith in his undoubted ability then maybe Hargreaves’ body would hold out and if it did then they could have an absolute steal on their hands. In spite of the obvious risk involved in signing a player with his injury record I am still a little surprised that nobody seems tempted to take a chance on him, particularly a club like Arsenal which has just come into a bit of money after the Fabregas sale.

Another option that might be of interest is Raul Meireles of Liverpool. After a slow start last season he began to find his feet in English football but it seems that the likes of Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam and Lucas Leiva might be ahead of him in the pecking order. If this is the case then maybe his services are available for a reasonable price.

Attacking midfield:

If Nasri goes then Arsenal desperately need to bolster their options here. One man persistently being linked with the club is Juan Mata of Valencia and I think he would be a signing of real quality and intent, but he may prove to be pricy amidst the clamouring to secure his services. Another good option which would also be in-keeping with Wenger’s apparent youth only policy would be Marek Hamsik. He like Mata would be a real coup for the club as it seems their are plenty of potential suitors out there waiting to make their move for the talented Slovak. Again he is likely to cost a fair bit but Arsenal and Arsene Wenger must be willing to spend big if they are to lose their two best players.

Striker:

Robin Van Persie is World Class but who have they got to support him? It appears that Wenger has given up on Nicklas Bendtner coming good and Marouane Chamakh has failed to stake his claim really so what are their options?

An unlikely but tantalising prospect could be Carlos Tevez who might just hate the City of Manchester so much that he might consider a move back to London where his Premier League career began at West Ham. I can’t think of many players in world football who Arsenal would benefit more greatly from than Tevez but it is incredibly unlikely that City would allow him to make a move to a rival club even if it did mean that Nasri went the other way. This sadly is just the dreamers option.

Maybe Germany could provide  more realistic option for Arsenal in this position. A Wenger-type option would be young Thomas Mueller of Bayern Munich but this could be hard to pull off given German footballer’s tendency to believe that there could be no greater club honour than playing for Bayern. Another option could be Cologne’s Lukas Podolski who has proven himself to be a major threat at the peak of club and international football. He is quick, strong and versatile and is one of those players who is much younger than you might think. He is only 26 years of age but seems to have been around for an eternity, and recently his club have conceded that they may have to sell their star player.

Porto could also prove a good feeding ground for Arsenal where the likes of Falcao and Hulk are rumoured to be available at the ‘right price’. This price is likely to be a very costly one but if Arsenal bought in either of these two then the fans would be likely to feel much more optimistic about their chances this season.

If Arsenal fail to tackle their weaknesses right the way through their squad then I think that this could be their year to drop out of the top four. For years now they have been the best side to watch but even that could be in jeopardy in light of recent losses and potential losses. I think the next two weeks could make or break their season.

My World Cup Countdown.. My England XV

With under a month to go until the World Cup this is the start of my run down to the big kick off, and just in case you were wondering… I can’t wait!

I like many will be glued to my television at various ungodly hours the follow the fortunes of all the many gathered nations in Kiwi land, and hopefully I will be presiding over another nerve jangling but ultimately successful campaign for England. The men in white have done their country more than proud in the previous two gatherings of rugby world and more of the same would be very much appreciated.

If their two warm-up matches are anything to go by though then this campaign could be rather painful to watch. I must say I derived very little pleasure from casting an eye over the back-to-back clashes with the Welsh, but ever the optimist I will be putting this down to the fielding of unfamiliar and experimental line-ups that contained some players who won’t even be making the trip around the world.

Anyway, here is my starting England XV that I would take into the World Cup, enjoy and feel free to have your say.

Front Row:

Andrew Sheridan

Solid as a rock. Come scrum-time Sheridan comes into his own. I think the Wallabies pack are still piecing together their vertebral columns after the memorable shunt and grind dealt out this time four years ago in the Quarter Finals. His name on the team sheet might well be enough to put the them off their breakfast if they come face-to-face in the Semis (might be getting a little ahead of myself here..)

Dylan Hartley

On the field he is relentlessly nasty, naughty and a lot of fun to watch. The beauty of Hartley is his will to win which at times does boil over, but England need some mean machines amongst their ranks if they are to intimidate the Southern Hemisphere sides and Hartley is wired up for this challenge.

Dan Cole

The man is a work-horse. Strong, snarling and prepared to put his neck on the line, he really is formed of the ideal Prop-making ingredients. I don’t for a second profess to be a front-row expert but he seems to have the mental and physical strength to tough it out against the world’s strongest front rows.

Second Row:

Tom Palmer:

The Stade Francais man has blossomed over the past couple of years and has turned in some consistently commanding performances. He is a good option in the line-out and provides great stability in the scrum. One of the easiest selection for me.

Courtney Lawes:

He has started well as an International player and I think he is worth his place. Along with club mate Hartley he provides a menacing presence in the English pack and his mobility is hard to find amongst the world’s elite group of locks.

Back Row:

Tom Croft:

If Croft and James Haskell are present in England’s back row then it is likely that England will carry a major scoring threat in the forwards. Both men have an eye for the try-line and Croft excels as a suport runner and line-out target. His pace is outstanding and provides a potentially match-winning edge at times.

Lewis Moody (if fit): (C)

When he is fit and at his best he can be utterly immense. He is a great character and when on top of his game he is one of those players who can carry a team even through the most adverse of circumstances. More committed Test match performers are very much few and far between and I think that if his fitness remains an issue that England could struggle to demonstrate the grittiness and mental strength that strikes fear into the Saffers, Kiwi’s and Aussies.

James Haskell:

I am a big fan of Nick Easter and think he offers a great deal, but with physicality and athleticism more important than ever before I think it is time for a change. James Haskell got the chance to show what he can do at 8 in the first warm-up against Wales and he made a strong impression. He seems to have a real edge about his character and I think he is the man to counter the big, bad, back-rowers of the Southern Hemisphere.

Half Backs:

Danny Care:

Big call this one. After the year he had in 2010 it seemed impossible that aything other than injury could come between Ben Youngs and a clear path to the number 9 shirt in the 2011 World Cup, but for me he has slipped back to second choice. After an outstanding start to last season and a strong showing in the autumn internationals Youngs was well on course, but his 6 nations showing was of concern to me. I think that after a bright performance on the opening day against Wales that his form became progressively less impressive and maybe just maybe he has played himself out of what was his place to lose. On the other hand Danny Care used the back end of last season to inspire club side Harlequins to an against the odds triumph in the European Challenge Cup. He followed this up more recently with a good performance in the first warm-up game against the Welsh, for me he starts at 9.

Jonny Wilkinson:

If you need a big stage player then look no further. He has been there, done that and kicked a “dead-duck” of a World Cup stealing drop-goal. He called it that, not me… His form since a change of scene in club rugby has been impressive and it finally seems that the worst of his injury demons are behind him. In 2003 he was our star, in 2007 his return seemed to galvanise an apparently hapless England side and in 2011 I believe he should regain the right to be first-choice at 10.

He seems very happy in his own skin again and has such control over his emotions, I think he remains the cool head that England need to make them tick. Toby Flood has on the whole been impressive since usurping Wilkinson a couple of years ago but has a tendency to lose his battle when the going gets tough, Jonny is a safe choice, but for me the right choice.

Centres:

Manu Tuilagi:

For me he is a must. Purists might play the ‘he isn’t actually English’ card but the young Pacific Islander could provide a much needed spark in England’s otherwise rather robust back line. Recent England gambles on hot-headed and inexperienced young players seem to working out well in the form of Northampton’s Dylan Hartley and Chris Ashton and maybe now is the time for Manu to set the world alight with his combination of pace, strength and sheer athleticism. If he does get his chance from the off then he could make a massive impression.

Mike Tindall:

Thought long and hard about this one but Tindall just about gets it. I have to admit that I’m a little disappointed that England haven’t managed to produce a player of similar qualities to Tindall but with greater speed and imagination rather than having to resort to a player about seven years past his prime, but that is just the way it is. The fact that he is a captaincy option supports his claim for a starting berth and if Tuilagi plays then the newest member of the Royal Family could well be the man to keep the young dynamo in-check.

Back Three:

Mark Cueto:

Solid, reliable and experienced. These are three words you can certainly attribute to Mr.Cueto but ‘prolific try scorer’ is a three word title that doesn’t quite match up. He may be short of tries in recent appearances for England but he is strong in defence and possesses a pretty strong kicking game. As such he is a nice compliment to the more exciting and dangerous Chris Ashton on the other wing, and World Cup purists would love to see Cueto exact revenge for being denied the infamous ‘try that wasn’t’ four years ago against the Saffers in the final.

Chris Ashton:

Whether he is ‘Swallow-Diving’ his way over the line or touching down in more conservative fashion, one thing you can be sure of is Ashton’s unrelenting hunger for try scoring. His penchant for superb on the shoulder support runs has seen him explode on to the scene since switching codes and has driven him to be considered one of the best finishers in the world.

His form in the red rose has been just about as outstanding as his domestic form with Northampton since he made his debut. He simply hasn’t looked back since given his start in international rugby and if he is fit then he is probably the easiest selection of the lot.

Ben Foden:

Given their contrasting fortunes over the past eighteen months it seemed improbable that Delon Armitage could make a stab at ousting Ben Foden who in the aforementioned period was simply irrepressible. Whilst his form surged in the right direction Armitage’s career took a mini slump which resulted in disciplinary shortcomings, injury problems and ultimately just a lack of game time and form. However, the two recent games have highlighted a potential readiness for Armitage to return to Test match rugby and a somewhat indifferent performance from Foden on his return to the fold.

In spite of Armitage’s late surge, I think that Foden has done too much over the past two years and Armitage too little for selection. Ben Foden gets the 15 shirt, but keep your eyes on this one as Armitage is likely to get the chance in the group’s ‘easier’ games and may well impress.

Area of Concern:

One area of real concern for England must be the centres. Though Tindall was once world class he now lacks the pace and subtlety of the world’s elite in his position, sadly though there doesn’t seem to be a host of other options. As I see it we can’t continue with Tindall and Hape as our first choice in midfield as they are far too similar. As such Tuilagi got the nod alongside Tindall for me as the combination of these two blends excitement and freshness with familiarity and experience.

One interesting alternative though could be to select Wilkinson and Flood together in the same side, meaning that one of the two fills the inside centre role. In reality it seems unlikely that Martin Johnson will switch to this mindset so close to the World Cup and that is why I didn’t stump for it in my selection, but if given time I believe that it could work. Flood has experience at 12 for England alongside the likes of Wilkinson so it wouldn’t be an entirely alien concept, and it is one which people more in the know than myself are in support of. Aussie legend Michael Lynagh has gone public in his belief that England should use the time they have left to try this option out, but Johnson is perhaps too wary of introducing this at such a late stage.

Opening Weekend Premier League Predictions

Blackburn 1-1 Wolves:

Can’t pick this one either way. Both sides scraped their way through to Premier League survival last year and could both face more of the same this time around.

Talented youngster Mauro Formica could be a creative spark for Rovers this term

Fancy a punt: Kevin Doyle first Goalscorer

Fulham 1-2 Aston Villa:

I fancy both sides to do reasonably well this season. Could be a tough period of adaptation for Villa under new boss Alex McLeish and having lost some of their star players, but I can see them winning this one.

N'Zogbia had a great season for Wigan last year

Fancy a punt: Charles N’Zogbia to score on debut

Liverpool 3-2 Sunderland:

Game of the weekend for me. Two of the Premier League’s most active clubs in the transfer market go head to head at Anfield and I’m predicting a thriller resulting in a narrow Liverpool win.

It should be really interesting to see how many of the new recruits get a game and if they do how they settle into life at their new clubs. One to keep an eye on will be young England prospect Jordan Henderson who is immediately facing up to his former employers after a £20 million pound move.

Henderson will be looking to further his England ambitions this season

Fancy a punt: Jordan Henderson to score against his former club

QPR 2-2 Bolton:

Another good game on paper as QPR make their long awaited return to the top flight of English football. Since Owen Coyle took over at Bolton there has been a greater emphasis on keeping the ball at feet and playing ‘real’ football, a philosophy also suited to the playing staff at QPR.

Adel “mercurial talent” Taarabt is QPR’s super star after a magical year in the Championship and it will be intriguing to see if he can make the step up to the big time after failing to bowl over the Spurs hierarchy in his last spell in the top flight. If his head is in the right place then he could be the key to QPR’s survival this year, I’m backing him to start brightly and contribute to an opening day point.

Can Taarabt switch it on?

Fancy a punt: Taarabt last goalscorer

Wigan 1-2 Norwich:

Tough one to call with new-boys Norwich full of enthusiasm on their return to the promised land. Last year surprise Premier League newcomers Blackpool stunned Wigan on the opening day and this year’s surprise arrival in the Premiere League could follow suit. I don’t think Wigan will quite as abject or shambolic as they were this time last year but I fancy a narrow victory for the Canaries.

I have Paul lambert's Norwich down for an opening victory

Fancy a punt: Norwich to win from behind

Newcastle 1-1 Arsenal:

Both sides have had a bit of a nightmare in the recent transfer windows. In January Newcastle lost their ‘local boy done good’ up top and this summer’s window has seen the departure of their skipper Kevin Nolan and top quality full-back Jose Enrique. Likewise, Arsenal look like they are on the verge of losing their two best players in one fell swoop.

I foresee a morale boosting draw for the hosts, and a morale sapping draw for the Gunners.

How will Arsenal get on while facing up to two major losses

Fancy a punt: Home win for the Toon

Stoke 0-2 Chelsea:

I am backing Chelsea to win after a hard battle on Andre Villas-Boas’ first taste of Premier League action. No win at the Brittannia ever comes easy, and I expect a typically resolute showing from Tony Pulis’ men on opening day. I am not ruling out a shock in this one though as Stoke have dealt pretty well in the transfer market so far this summer and it sounds as if another couple of high quality players could be on their way also, so confidence levels should be pretty high at the club.

Pulis is showing great ambition in the transfer maket

Fancy a punt: 0-0 at half time

West Brom 1-3 Man Utd:

I can see this being a pretty routine win for the Champions. West Brom have decent options up top if everyone is fit to play so I think they might put one past new recruit David De Gea in the United goal, but the confidence taken from an exciting win in last weekend’s Community Shield should be enough to see United to a comfortable victory.

Is Ashley Young the new poster boy at United?

Fancy a punt: Wayne Rooney to score a brace

Swansea 1-3 Man City:

The Premier League’s first Welsh representatives will be very excited about what is in store this campaign but I think they might just get their first reality check this Monday evening. There is a good chance that Swansea’s positive approach could take city by surprise early on, but I think the FA Cup holders will prove a scalp too far for the Swans once they are into their rhythm.

Debut for Aguero?

Fancy a punt: Aguero to score on debut

Premier League Preview: Title battle, Relegation fight or Mid-table mediocrity

With the Premier League returning this weekend here is my run down on what is to come for each of this year’s teams…

Arsenal:

How Arsenal fare is dependent entirely upon the result of the next few weeks regarding the transfer window. If Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri leave the club then Arsenal could be battling for a place in the top 5. It really could be that bad. However, for now they still do have these two truly world class players and with them they are title contenders.

Sadly for them it seems a formality that Fabregas will depart as soon as Barcelona meet Arsenal’s asking price, I think that they need to act fast and sell Fabregas in order to allow them time to spend his money wisely on players who could just about keep them in the hunt for silverware.

Arsenal must endeavour to hold on to their best players

Key Players: Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri (if they stay!)

Ones to watch: Gervinho and Jack Wilshere, Prediction: Struggling to make the top four

Aston Villa:

For a club with European ambitions Villa underachieved by far last season and have now lost their two best players from the last campaign. Downing and Young have moved on and this is a huge blow for the club, but replacement signing Charles N’Zogbia is a great coup. He has been outstanding for Wigan and I believe he will shine at Villa Park, and if new gaffer Alex McLeish manages to bring in someone of Shaun Wright-Phillips’ calibre on the other wing then we could see a return to the top 7 for Villa.

A strong centre-back pairing of Dunne and Collins should thrive under McLeish’s guidance, and ‘Big ‘Eck’ will hope that record signing Darren Bent can cash in at the other end of the pitch in his first full season at Villa. Another great piece of business is the signing of Shay Given, he is a world class keeper and will more than fill the void left by Brad Friedel’s departure.

Villa’s marquee signing of the summer

Key Players: Charles N’Zogbia and Darren Bent

Ones to Watch: Shay Given and Marc Albrighton, Prediction: Pushing for Europe

Blackburn Rovers:

This season could be a long hard slog for Steve Kean. He was left to deal with the aftermath of Sam Allardyce’s unjust sacking last season and from the moment he took over the club were on a progressive downhill slide. However, eventually Kean did manage to exact some character from his troops and they narrowly avoided the drop.

This time out Kean should be hoping for at best a return to mid-table mediocrity but I’m not sure that will satisfy the new owners. It is absolutely essential that Chris Samba remains at the club, as they would probably have finished bottom last season without his defensive qualities. If he does go then the replacement must be top class or Kean could soon be out of a job and Blackburn could be struggling to survive.

Key Players: Chris Samba, Paul Robinson

One to Watch: Mauro Formica, Prediction: Relegation battle but ultimately survival

Bolton Wanderers:

Last season was a very strong year for Owen Coyle and his charges. I’m sure that more of the same would content most Bolton fans, but Owen Coyle is a man who is unlikely to rest on his laurels. His drive to make Bolton succeed as a club that can play ‘real’ football rather than as a ‘long ball’ outfit is incredibly admirable and thus far it seems to have been a roaring success. A top half finish is again attainable, but they will greatly miss the services of Daniel Sturridge who was outstanding whilst on loan at the club from January.

Key Players: Gary Cahill and Kevin Davies

One to Watch: Chris Eagles, Prediction: Mid-table

Chelsea:

How will A-V-B cope with following in Jose’s footsteps? The comparisons are certainly their to be drawn but it would be unfair to expect Andre Villas-Boas to have the same impact upon the club that Mourinho did. Jose was a phenomenon and happened to time his arrival at the club perfectly to receive the greatest of Abramovic’s financial generosity whereas A-V-B has thus far not been able to explore the full depths of his owner’s bank account.

This season will be a huge test of character for Chelsea who just about managed to save an immensely disappointing campaign last season with a late charge back up into second place. For a while it seemed that they may not even make the top four, but it is testament to their experience and character that they did recover. At present they have a very good squad but maybe one more world class ball player wouldn’t go amiss if they hope to challenge on multiple fronts this time out. The major concern for their new manager must be the fitness and form of Fernando Torres, who could be the key to their title challenge if he begins to fire.

Can A-V-B put Chelsea back in contention

Key Players: Frank Lampard, Fernando Torres

Ones to Watch: Romelu Lukaku, David Luiz, Prediction: Title hopefuls, 2nd place

Everton:

You can’t help but feel a little sorry for David Moyes. Year upon year his thread-bare squad keep coming up with the goods and keep finishing in and around the European places. For a lot of clubs this would provide the foundation for challenging for bigger and better honours, but the limited funds at the club have persistently prevented such a rise to prominence.

I have no doubt that David Moyes and his squad will again do well this season and a top 8 would yet again be a great achievement. One can only wonder how long such a quality manager can put up with a lack of resources, a shortcoming which has scarcely allowed for any real progress in recent years.

Key Players: Leighton Baines and Mikel Arteta

One to Watch: Jack Rodwell, Prediction: Mid-table

Fulham:

Martin Jol is a very good manager and a very likeable man. He is the sort of manager who people want to do well, as he did with Tottenham, and I think he will do well again at his new club. If Fulham can hole on to their key players like Bobby Zamora and Brede Hangeland then they can expect to challenge for a top-half finish this season.

Key Players:

Bobby Zamora and Brede Hangeland

Ones to Watch: John-Arne Riise and Andy Johnson, Prediction: Mid-table

Liverpool:

More big spending from King Kenny seems to have breathed new life into the Anfield faithful. For the first time in quite a while there is real reason for optimism and a return to the top 4 is not out of the question.

The new signings made my the Kop hero need to be given time to gel and as such it could be a tricky start to the forthcoming campaign, but I can see this being a strong campaign for Liverpool. The players that Kenny has brought to the club are not only high-class players but they are also full of Premier League experience. It will be exciting to see how they get on this time around and the budding partnership of Carroll and Suarez should be looked forward to with particular relish.

Could Adam prove another major Scottish success at Anfield

Key Players: Steven Gerrard, Charlie Adam and Luis Suarez

Ones to Watch: Andy Carroll and Jordan Henderson, Prediction: European qualification

Man City:

As much as it pains me to say it City are genuine title contenders. I personally believe that this year might be little too soon for them but their squad is far too strong to rule them out.

If they can hold on to Carlos Tevez and keep him sweet for at least half the season then they have a real chance of keeping pace with the likes of Chelsea and United throughout the season. Their squad now boasts an impressive array of talent and they will only improve with time, if the likes of Aguero settle quickly then they are a force to be reckoned with.

Will he stay or will he go?

Key Players: Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany and Carlos Tevez (if he stays!)

One to Watch: Sergio Aguero, Prediction: Title battle, 3rd

Manchester United:

The champions look like the favourites again this season and their second half performance in the Community Shield was full of promise. It seems that the youthful new signings are out to prove a point, and the products of their youth system likewise.

Trying to fill the void left by super stars Van Der Sar, Neville and Scholes is a thankless task but Sir Alex’s young hopefuls seem to be up for the challenge and they’ll need to be. Once again it seems that Ferguson has moved smartly in the transfer market and if the rumours are true then Wesley Sneijder could yet be on his way to Old Trafford. At present United might be short of one more truly world class player is they are to challenge Barca for European honours but Sneijder could go some way towards bridging the gap between them and the current kings of Europe.

The man to fill the Paul Scholes void?

Key Players: David De Gea, Luis Nani and Wayne Rooney

Ones to Watch: Ashley Young and Tom Cleverley, Prediction: Title defence

Newcastle:

Will quarrels between Newcastle fans and the board ever end? Probably not if the club keep offloading their best players and fail to bring in suitable replacements…

If the likes of Joey Barton and Jose Enrique follow Kevin Nolan and Andy Carroll out of the exit door then Newcastle could be in for a tough season. The four previously mentioned players were amongst Newcastle’s best performers last season and if they were all to leave then it would be a terrible shame. On the plus side though, they have managed to bring in some quality. Young Frenchman Yohan Cabaye looks a good buy if he settles in quickly and Gabriel Obertan could also be a steal at £3 million. The former Manchester United player never quite broke through at Old Trafford but he has shown more promise in their pre-season campaign.

More tough times ahead for the owner

Key Players: Cheick Tiote and Joey Barton (if he stays!)

Ones to Watch: Yohan Cabaye and Gabriel Obertan, Prediction: Mid- to-lower table, potential relegation threat

Norwich City:

The surprise package of last year’s Championship season have it all to do to maintain their Premier League status this season. Anything 17th or higher would be a great result for Paul Lambert and his players and they must make a couple of late signings if they are to achieve this.

At the moment Lambert’s squad looks a little lightweight and lacking in real quality. They desperately need to find an ace in the pack just as Blackpool did last season with Charlie Adam and David Vaughan and even that might not be enough to keep them up.

Key Players: Ritchie De Laet and Grant Holt

Ones to Watch: James Vaughan and Simeon Jackson, Prediction: Straight back down
QPR:

Last season was a real triumph for Neil Warnock as QPR romped to the Championship title. Now Mr.Warnock finally has the chance to avenge his misgivings over how his former club Sheffield United were relegated from the top division last time he was managing at this level.

If the club can keep the super-talented Adel Taarabt happy then they could very stay up on their return to the Premier League.

All the ability in the world, but can QPR get the best out of their main man?

Key Players: Adel Taarabt and Jay Bothroyd

Ones to Watch: Alejandro Faurlin and Kieron Dyer, Prediction: Survival

Stoke:

Tony Pulis has built a reputation for upsetting the odds with his Stoke team which is founded upon a strong defence. This pre-season has proved that more of the same is set to continue as Pulis has brought in two more proven quality centre-backs in Woodgate and Upson both of whom have a great wealth of Premier League experience.

In addition to this strong defence Pulis will be replying on their other major strength in the wide positions to provide the attacking threat. Another top half finish is possible for the Potters.

Key Players: Ryan Shawcross, Matthew Etherington

One to Watch: Jonathan Woodgate, Prediction: Mid-table

Sunderland:

The revolving doors at the Stadium of Light have certainly been in use this summer. 11 signings have been made and 14 players have left the club in what has been an exciting summer for the club.

Often when clubs have such a high turnover in a transfer window it can mean that marquee signings are few and far between but no one can acuse Steve Bruce of a lack of ambition in the market. He has managed to bring in two top quality defenders with Champions League experience from Manchester United and he has beaten the likes of Liverpool to the signing of young Conor Wickham who could be part of a dangerous front pairing alongside Asamoah Gyan.

Key Players: John O’Shea and Asamoah Gyan

One to Watch: Conor Wickham, Prediction: Top half

Swansea City:

Last year Swansea proved that you can be successful in the nitty gritty of the Championship when employing an attractive brand of football. Like QPR I think that Swansea have a real chance of staying up this year and they have an array of attacking talent.

This season is an incredibly exciting prospect for Wales’ first ever Premier League team and it will be down to likes of Scott Sinclair to carry the burden of scoring the goals that they will need if they plan on hanging around at the top of British football.

Key Player: Scott Sinclair

One to Watch: Leroy Lita, Prediction: Relegation battle, could stay up
Tottenham Hotspur:

This season will be a true test of Spurs’ desire to cement themselves in the group of teams at the peak of English football. With the re-emergence of Liverpool as a threat and the ever-improving Manchester City it will be a tough scrap for Tottenham to keep themselves  in the top 5.

It is absolutely essential that they manage to keep a hold of their best players and Luka Modric is certainly one of those. If Chelsea were to prise away Spurs’ star playmaker then they could struggle to pose any real threat to the top 4.

Wanted Man

Key Players: Rafael Van Der Vaart and Luka Modric

One to Watch: Gareth Bale, Prediction: 4th-6th

West Brom:

Last season’s dismissal of manager Roberto Di Matteo came completely out of the blue and at the time seemed rather unfair. However, once Roy Hodgson took over at the Hawthorns the team really seemed to fire.

The Baggies will be looking to build on their promising second half of the season and have made a couple of very useful signings this summer. The arrivals of Ben Foster and Shane Long could well be enough to see further improvements this season.

Could Mr.Hodgson impress the FA in their search for a new England boss?

Key Players: Ben Foster and Peter Odemwingie

One to Watch: Shane Long, Prediction: Bottom half
Wigan Athletic:

Roberto Martinez worked wonders last year to keep a lacklustre Wigan side in the Premier League. What price a similar story this season?

Well.. it looks set to be another tough one for them following the departure of there best player, Charles N’Zogbia, to Aston Villa, but as ever Martinez is confident in his ability to keep them up. Another major loss is that of last year’s loaned in Tom Cleverley who has returned to parent club Manchester United after a very useful spell at the JJB. They will do well to avoid relegation again.

Key Players: Ali Al-Habsi and Hugo Rodallega

One to Watch: James McCarthy, Prediction: Relegation battle

Wolverhampton Wanderers:

Big Mick McCarthy has his work cut out again if Wolves are to avoid relegation for a third season in a row. New Captain Roger Johnson looks like a very decent signing from Birmingham City where he was very impressive but their squad still looks short of real quality.

Key Players: Roger Johnson and Kevin Doyle

One to Watch: Matt Jarvis, Prediction: Bottom

London Riots: Could the terrible scenes impact upon Britain’s Olympic dreams?

With now just less than a year to go until London hosts the Olympics it is time for panic stations, and sadly it is for all the wrong reasons. For now forget the fear-mongering that 2012 will attract an international terror threat, put aside the criticism of the much scrutinised ticketing system and focus on the more present and dangerous threat to our games and to our lives.

Mark Duggan; the deceased man behind the riots

Since Londoner Mark Duggan was reportedly shot dead by the police last week there has been a sense of societal unrest brewing slowly across Britain, but now the host city for the 2012 games has become a scene of widespread rioting and mindless thuggery.

Protests which began in more sedate and peaceful fashion in the immediate wake of Duggan’s death have escalated since Last Thursday’s revelations. Now, in areas in and outside of the capital, events of a far more malicious and infectious nature have begun to take place. The death of Duggan is being cited as the motivation for such criminal acts, but it is not unreasonable to suspect that many are not acting in the interests of the deceased. In the same breath it would be unfair to presume that the majority aren’t acting in protestation, but the agendas seem to be more personal.

There will be those acting on behalf of the deceased, there will be those pursuing their own acts of protestation, but most unfortunately of all there will be those that are using this as an excuse to perform evil deeds. The actions of these individuals are beyond unacceptable, they are stupid, outrageous, moronic and venomous.

People’s homes, possessions, livelihoods and lives are being ruined and for what reason? What cause is worth inflicting intentional and directed criminal acts upon innocent human beings? There is simply no justification for such inhumanity.

Terrifying scenes in Tottenham, the former home of Mark Duggan

This whole ongoing episode reeks of something stretching beyond the realms of a direct response to the loss of a life, and an air of disillusionment seems a more likely motivation. The progress of the active unrest in London and areas such as Birmingham over the last couple of evenings is terrifying and fear is rife that the trouble could stretch further still.

Beyond the physical damage that has already been done there are other huge considerations for our nation and for our government. Though the immediate concern must of course be to preserve the safety and well-being of the British population there are other huge issues that the rioting could cause.

Unsurprisingly the glare of the world is presently directed upon Britain in preparation for next year’s Olympic games, and this week’s panic in London will have done nothing to aid preparations. This may seem a minor problem amidst the more urgent concerns caused, but our hosting of the games are of immense political, economic and societal significance.

There has been an enormous amount of money invested into the games which will generate astronomical levels of revenue, thousands of jobs have been created and our country has been granted the privilege of working towards a major event. This global gathering that is to be so proudly hosted next year is a chance to showcase everything that is great about Britain, but some members of our population are causing huge levels of upset and are diminishing the hard work and efforts of others.

Trouble brewing in Hackney, near the Olympic Stadium

It is sickening to think that members of our society are so unappreciative of what this country has to offer them. If such selfish and frankly disgusting behaviour continues then lives will be lost and our nation will be disgraced. Thus far there has been little movement from Olympic officials in public response to the rioting, but we can be sure that the violence and unrest will have scarred public and global perceptions of our ability to play host to the world’s most prestigious sporting spectacle.

The Tales of ‘Bad-Boy’ Barton: Indispensable or just a Complete ‘Twit’?

Never one to blend into the background, Joey Barton has again found himself subject to major media scrutiny over the past fortnight over comments made through social networking site Twitter.

Barton has consistently maintained a role in British football’s media circus since coming on to the scene early in the 2000’s, and generally speaking it has been because of his off-field antics.

Under the glare of the media as always

His career has at times descended into chaos as a result of his behaviour but until this latest saga there had been major signs of a revival and a reformation of character.

The personal changes being undertaken by Barton seemed to be reaping the rewards both on and off the pitch and last season he was outstanding. He was the heartbeat of the Newcastle side that were promoted back to the Premier League and continued this form upon their return to prominence. While team mates Kevin Nolan and Andy Carroll may have taken the majority of the headlines in the North-East for their goal-scoring exploits, Barton went rather uncharacteristically under the radar en route to being rated their most consistent performer over the campaign.

Barton was subject to huge praise for his form last season

It is this improvement in character and on field performance which makes the current situation all the more bizarre. Of course football club’s in modern society are about more than just performances on match-day but this time around has Barton really done that much wrong?

Personally, I don’t think he has. Sure he has voiced his concerns in recent times but if you don’t want that to occur then why on earth would you have a player like Barton on your books in the first place? It seems odd to me that the Newcastle hierarchy would be so perturbed by Barton’s recent statements on Twitter and a potential character clash with manager Alan Pardew when in the past they have shown faith in him and supported him in the face of criminal charges. Couple this mystery with the fact that he is now a far more mature and clever footballer and you start to see why Barton’s agent Willie McKay is describing Newcastle’s desire to offload his client as “suicidal”.

Waving Goodbye?

One must feel that such an opinion is evidence that McKay shares the concerns of his client in disagreeing with the club’s recent decisions to sell on two of their very best players. They aren’t alone in this view either, with Barton’s Newcastle team mate Jose Enrique having also faced scrutiny for airing his frustrations regarding a seeming lack of ambition.

It seems that ‘Bad Boy’ Barton is for the first time in his controversial career on the receiving end of a barrage of sympathy, when he is far more accustomed to dealing with a lack of support. He has repaid the faith shown in him by the board at Newcastle with a high level of performance and has developed a real affinity with the club’s fans and the City of Newcastle. However, it is apparent that the Newcastle board are prepared to lose such a great asset in order to demonstrate authority and a show of solidarity.

As well as being outspoken on the board, Barton has also expressed his love for the football club

Though the Newcastle board have acted strangely on several occasions before, this moral crusade might just take the biscuit. Ask any Newcastle fan who their best four players have been over the past two seasons and the response will be Andy Carroll, Kevin Nolan, Jose Enrique and the man in question Joey Barton. The first two of these have already left the club and the latter two appear to be on the verge of doing so.

Some might argue that it is hard to hold on to such players when you’re not at the peak of European football but it really is hard to have any sympathy for the Newcastle board. The reasons being cited for them losing their top performers seem to be focused on a perceived lack of ambition and lack of desire to hold on to the cream of their crop, Barton and Enrique are just the latest subjects of such frailties.

If Newcastle do part company with the likes of Barton and Enrique then they are set to endure a very tough season. As yet signings haver been few and far between and their has been little evidence of the board fulfilling the promises made to spend the entirety of Andy Carroll’s £35,000,000 transfer fee on new signings.

Mike Ashley and his supporting staff are not exactly backing up their reported desire to impress the club’s fans by selling their prized assets, or in the case of Barton simply letting him go for free before the end of his contract. It is therefore easy to see why their top players are beginning to feel the need to go public with their worries, and who could blame them for seeking pastures new?