My all-time Premier League Dream Team

I’m sure that if you’ve come across this Blog post that you too have been enjoying the fact that the BBC Sport website is currently littered with Premier League nostalgia.

Cantona

The lists and videos of the best managers, games, goals, saves and celebrations ever to grace the Premier League are a joy to watch and have of course been compiled into lists of contenders for several special awards in honour of 20 years of Premier League football.

Each of the different categories have several different contributors and all of the players nominated for the awards are up for public vote via the Premier League’s official website.

Anyway, down to the important business… Inspired by the memories these videos have conjured up, I have decided to name my all-time Premier League Dream Team. I understand this may be a little bit of a touchy subject given just how passionate people are about their favourite teams and favourite players, but please, whether you agree whole-heartedly or in fact hate my selection then please don’t hesitate to chip in with a comment or two…

My team is as follows:

GK – Peter Schmeichel (Manchester United, Aston Villa and Manchester City)

For me there is no questioning this one. Schmeichel is arguably the best keeper the world has seen in my lifetime and as such he is perhaps the easiest choice of all in this line-up.

RB – Gary Neville (Manchester United)

Many non-United fans will argue against this but I hold Gary Neville and his contributions to United and to England in just as higher regard as many Danish fans will with Peter Schmeichel. I can’t think of anyone who even runs Neville close for this position and that is quite something when you consider how famously unglamorous the role of full-back can be. Head and shoulders above the competition.

CB – John Terry (Chelsea)

Terry Chelsea

Love him or hate him, JT has been outstanding for Chelsea in the PL

Just when it seemed I was choosing this team with a United fan’s bias I have thrown-in Mr.Chelsea at centre-half. I thoroughly dislike Terry in all honesty but it is hard not to admire the way he plays the game. He is strong, fearless, consistent and actually a very decent ball playing defender who is very comfortable when advancing up the pitch and getting himself into attacking positions. It is important for all good Premier League teams to have a major threat from set-piece situations and JT has proven time and time again that he has a decent eye for goal, he might not quite rival someone like Steve Bruce in this department but he is certainly very able in front of the opposition’s goal.

CB – Tony Adams (Arsenal)

Tony Adams led Arsenal brilliantly from the back and will be remembered as one of the finest centre-backs ever to play for Arsenal and for England. In addition to his ever-reliable defensive abilities, he too was more than capable when he made any forays out of defence.

LB – Ashley Cole (Arsenal and Chelsea)

Just as I said about Gary Neville on the other flank, I cannot think of anyone who really rivals Ashley Cole at Left Back. He has been arguably the outstanding player in his position throughout the vast majority of his career and though he deservedly received a lot of flack for his arrogant and totally ignorant comments in his last days at Arsenal, he was a key player in their ‘Invincibles’ side and has been equally as reliable and important to Chelsea’s success since his move to the Bridge.

RM – Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United)

It would have been easy to go down the patriotic route here and pick David Beckham who is my absolute hero but when it comes down to it Ronaldo is quite simply a better player. Beckham’s contributions to United and to the Premier League may have lasted a little longer than Ronaldo’s before each of their move’s to Madrid but I would go as far as to say that Ronaldo is the best player ever to play in the Premier League and the really scary thought is that he has become an even better player at Real. Beckham has been an outrageously good footballer but Ronaldo is on another level.

CM – Paul Scholes (Manchester United)

Scholes is probably the most cultured footballer ever to have played in the Premier League. His passing game has been practically unrivalled throughout his entire career and it is no surprise that the modern day pass-masters Xavi and Andres Iniesta of Spain and Barcelona have both spoken out about their admiration of Scholes as a player. Also, Sir Alex’s decision to re-sign Scholes in January is enormous testament to his talents and it seems that the Scot’s faith is going to be more than repaid as his return has inspired United to take the upper hand in this season’s title race. Even at 37 he is setting the standards for other Premier League playmakers.

CM – Steven Gerrard (Liverpool)

This was a really hard call given how magnificent Patrick Vieira, Roy Keane and Frank Lampard have been  throughout the Premier League years but I have decided to pick Gerrard on the grounds that his individual contributions may have meant more to Liverpool than those of the aforementioned players to their club’s. All of them are as worthy as each other to gain a place in this line-up but I have had to go for one and live with the consequences.

LM – Ryan Giggs (Manchester United)

Manchester united

There is probably no better way to justify Giggs’ selection than to say that he has won twelve Premier League titles to date and could be about to win a thirteenth. At 38 he is still a regular feature in the League’s top side and I don’t think anyone could argue against him making my line-up.

STRIKERS – Thierry Henry (Arsenal) and Eric Cantona (Leeds United and Manchester United)

The front two of this side has probably been the hardest to pick so I have opted for a balancing act. I have gone for the two players out of the incredibly gifted group that were in contention that I think would have made the best strike-partnership.

Thierry Henry is probably the most talented all-round striker the league has seen and the number of wonderful goals that he has scored for Arsenal whether they have been from long range, close range or from solo running efforts, I think, sets him apart from all the other contenders.

I have been at a bit of a loss as to who to pick alongside Henry but perhaps my United bias has won out in the end. Cantona was magnificent for Manchester United and there have been few players in the Premier League that have possessed such an aura about them on the pitch. His maverick genius would compliment Henry’s more direct goal threat brilliantly and I think they would have scored even more goals than they did if they were at the same club as each other in the respective prime’s of their careers.


Manager – Sir Alex Ferguson: His record speaks for itself.

Bench –

Brad Friedel: He may have been second choice at Liverpool for too long but when he moved on we realised just how good he is.

Rio Ferdinand: Brilliant ball-playing centre-half who has been consistently brilliant for every club he has played for in the Premier League.

Roy Keane: The most tenacious midfielder the League has ever seen and one of the most inspirational captains.

Patrick Vieira: The ultimate box-to-box midfielder, could easily have been picked ahead of Gerrard.

David Beckham: My hero but just not quite as good as Ronaldo.

Alan Shearer: Probably the unluckiest man of all not to make my first XI.

Unlucky to miss out (honourable mentions)…

David Moyes, Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho, Harry Redknapp, Edwin Van Der Sar, David Seaman, Petr Cech, Shay Given, Denis Irwin, Jamie Carragher, Sol Campbell, Jaap Stam, Nemanja Vidic, Frank Lampard, Matt Le Tissier, David Ginola, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljunberg, Jay-Jay Okocha, Scott Parker, Arjen Robben, Denis Bergkamp, Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen, Gianfranco Zola, Didier Drogba, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Nicolas Anelka, Andy Cole, Jurgen Klinsmann, Teddy Sheringham, Dwight Yorke, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

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Why Carroll’s signs of life might just have come at the right time for England

With about a month-and-a-half until the start of the Euros we are now well immersed in the stage of the domestic season where all England hopefuls will be having their form, fitness and availability being monitored by all the England back-room staff as well as all football fans up and down the country.

Such focus has recently been targeted at the likes of Jack Wilshere who is still yet to play a game of football this season due to injury, Paul Scholes who many would like to see convinced out of retirement, and young Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who’s increased involvement in Arsenal’s first team at the start of 2012 has prompted calls for his inclusion as something of a wildcard or joker in the pack.

Andy Carroll winning goal

Carroll has enjoyed a good week in stark contrast to the majority of his time on Merseyside

One man though whose name has featured very little in recent times in terms of his chances of making England’s squad is Andy Carroll.

Liverpool’s number 9 has become a bit of a forgotten man in terms of his short-term England prospects and instead the focus of many back pages throughout his fifteen months at Liverpool has sadly, for him and for England, been on him lacking fitness, sharpness and the previously witnessed potency and threat in front of goal.

However, if the past week is anything to go by then maybe, just maybe Carroll’s confidence is on the up and we may have witnessed his long-term return to goalscoring form. I don’t intend to get carried away about a man who has indeed missed golden chances as well as scoring the winning goals in the last couple of games for Liverpool but it will certainly have done a world of good for him to have gone out and grabbed a couple of positive headlines for a change.

If this is to be the case and Carroll’s fortunes do take a long-overdue upturn then not only is it great news for Liverpool and himself but it could also be a major plus for the national side who at the moment are left bereft of any certain-picks for their striking department at the Euros.

Generally speaking, England tend to take four strikers out of a complete squad of twenty three players for major tournaments and at present it is very unclear just who will or who can force their way in.

Wayne Rooney is the pick of the English strikers but is suspended for the first two games of the tournament and Darren Bent who would be a near certainty if fit is out with a broken ankle and it seems as though he will miss out. So, what this means for England and those with the responsibility of assembling their squad for this summer’s tournament is that they are left with one hell of a selection dilemma.

Assuming that Rooney will be taken in spite of his suspension and that Bent will probably not recover from injury in time, there is three slots to fill in England’s striking contingent and it seems likely that the young, lively and versatile pair of Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge will both make the cut off the back of their strong seasons and their recent inclusion in England squads.

If the predictable happens and the aforementioned three players make the grade then that would leave just the one remaining spot to fill but one would argue that nobody else has really demanded selection for this final place.

The remaining contenders for selection are probably Peter “I have a great International goal-scoring record” Crouch, Jermain “I too have a half-decent International record” Defoe, Bobby ‘currently experiencing a goal-drought’ Zamora, Grant “Am I really in with a shout?” Holt and the big man himself, Andy ‘Hasn’t been able to hit a cow’s backside with a banjo for over a year’ Carroll.

Each of the above have a decent argument in their favour; Crouch really does have a fantastic International goal-scoring reputation and has been leading the line pretty well for Stoke. Defoe has a good amount of International experience and has managed 10 Premier League goals so far this season in spite of a lack of game-time.  Zamora was unlucky to miss out with injury at the 2010 World Cup when Fabio Capello says he would have taken him if he were fit and has scored a decent amount of European and Premier League goals prior to his rather baron past couple of months at new club QPR. Holt, who would be a real wildcard choice, has forced himself into some people’s favour for selection with an impressive goals return in his first season as a Premier League striker, and though he may not be experienced at the very highest level of football it is arguable that no one would be more appreciative of being selected.

And finally there is my point of focus, Andy Carroll, who is England’s only real ‘classic centre-forward’ who has experienced and looked comfortable in his tastes of full-International football and throughout his apprenticeship in the under-21’s setup.

In the absence of a line-leader for the first two games at the Euros while Rooney is left to stew on his petulance on ‘that night in Montenegro’ I think the squad is calling out for a Carroll-esque figure and if he can build on his two match-winning goals this past week in the red of Liverpool then surely he must be back on the radar.

His major competition if the powers-that-be decide to take a ‘big man’ is Peter Crouch and if I were charged with the decision of who to take to Poland and Ukraine then I think I would certainly consider opting for Carroll as I think he is a more rounded talent.

Crouch has experience and goals at the highest level on his side but Carroll has added strength, youth and the motivation of quashing those in the media and in the stands at Premier League grounds country-wide that have been baying for his blood over the past year.

Alternatively, it might even be worth considering taking both on the grounds that England are likely to go into the tournament having selected an initially suspended striker and two other strikers in Welbeck and Sturridge who would be able to provide cover out wide if the option of extra wide-men was turned down in favour of bolstering the strike-force.

One thing that is certain is that with little time remaining there is certainly still plenty to ponder for whoever is going to take England out on the continent this summer and there is still time to stake a claim for a place in the final 23. Andy Carroll is one of many with much still to prove but he is definitely still worth a second-look.

A tale of two diminutive Spaniards

As we all know too well, English football is deprived of creative attacking midfielders with superb craft and much sought after ‘end product’. One particular area of the world though is thriving in this department and you may not be surprised to hear that this is Spain.

Silva and Mata

Silva and Mata are amongst a wealth of creative talent at Spain's disposal

Think Xavi, Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, David Silva, Juan Mata, Thiago Alcantara, Sergio Canales and Javi Martinez and on the basis of the weekend’s performance Mikel Arteta and you arguably have a list of 8 or 9 experienced and/or enormously talented individuals capable of unlocking defensive doors, playing the killer pass and even getting themselves in the mix for plenty of goalscoring opportunities themselves.

In England on the other hand we are really limited in this crucial area. Gerrard and Lampard still have their moments but it would be hard to deny that they are past their best, Paul Scholes is re-emerging since his brief retirement period as arguably England’s best ball-playing midfielder but he too his way beyond the wrong the side of 30 and beyond this I’m struggling to think of any match-winning playmakers that we have at our disposal.

Jack Wilshere is probably England’s up and coming force in this role but he has already been on the receiving end of a string of injury concerns and may miss out on the Euros this summer and even putting such issues aside is he really better than the likes of Thiago, Canales, Mata and Martinez the emergent midfield forces in and around the Spanish squad? I personally don’t think so.

The other hope for England in this sort of role is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain but it is very unclear just where he will end up being best utilised in the future for club and country as he is very much in the developmental and fledgling stage of his career at present.

The lack of current and emerging options in this pivotal attacking role is alarming and perhaps why the major English forces in the Premier League have turned to Spain to find their diminutive playmakers.

Manchester City have David Silva operating ‘in the hole’ behind the forwards as their most trusted playmaker, Chelsea have Juan Mata fulfilling much the same role in their line-up and Vicente Del Bosque must be licking his lips when thinking about how two of his dead-certs for the Euros have plied their trade in the Premier League this season.

Juan Mata Chelsea

Silva and Mata have been two of the most impressive playmakers in the Premier League this season

At times, both Spanish attacking central midfield players have been the driving forces behind their team’s runs of form and when they have been at their best they have been almost impossible to handle.

Silva may have looked a little ‘burnt out’ in the latter stages of this season, which of course will be of concern to the Spanish management as well as Manchester City’s but perhaps this is just a knock-on effect of his fellow team-mates’ slumps in form? Even if it is just a personal form issue, one good thing for Spain to come out of Silva’s stuggles to light up the Premier League in the second half of the season is that City have been lost without him, which suggests that he is a hugely influential and instrumental player when he is at his best.

This theory might be for those of a sunnier, glass-half-full disposition but it is a theory that I’m sticking too. I think that as soon as Silva is re-united with his international team-mates before the Euros that he will feel refreshed and will have a new lease of life not often seen in City’s recent struggles.

While City have struggled in the absence of Silva’s best form, Chelsea have begun to flourish as a result of Mata’s rise to prominence.

Perhaps it is the way that Mata was being deployed by Andre Vilas-Boas that was slightly inhibiting the Spaniard’s form in his first few months at the Bridge or perhaps it is just a case of him taking a while to settle in but one thing is for sure and that is that Mata has now begun to express himself as we know he can and that Chelsea are reaping huge benefits as a result.

Mata has far outdone David Silva’s efforts of late and it is little coincidence that their two sides have had coinciding contrasting fortunes, so much so that Chelsea could yet be contesting a Champions League and an FA Cup final whereas Manchester City now look like ending the season trophy-less and dejected.

One might even go as far as to argue that Mata’s recent efforts mean that he deserves to jump Silva in the queue to be part of Spain’s starting play-making unit at the Euros. Whether this will be the case or not though, it is clear that Spain’s finest ball-players are a step ahead of England’s at present and that they have an embarrassment of riches in this role which could well drive them to a third consecutive major tournament win this summer.

One interesting point which I will make though is that England have no one closer to such talents and such attacking influence than Paul Scholes and that his contributions since returning to United this season mean that whoever takes the England to the Euros this summer simply must try again to persuade him out of retirement. If Scholes isn’t a part of the England squad then do we really have anybody who can compete with Xavi, Alonso, Iniesta, Fabregas, Silva and Mata not to mention a couple of other huge talents?

 

 

Masters 2012: Bubba bags the Green Jacket on Super Sunday

For a man born in Bagdad, winning arguably golf’s most glamorous and high profile major tournament ain’t half bad as achievements go.

Bubba Watson Masters 2012

Bubba, one of the game's real characters, was totally overwhelmed by his tense play-off triumph

This is Bagdad, Florida of course rather than a certain location which the American nation is a little less fond of but still, for a man of such humble beginnings and of such immense personality this was one hell of a win.

Not only has he bagged a Green Jacket, which by the way I think would go awfully well with a pair of dungarees (see attached video evidence) but the fashion in which he did so was enormously admirable.

Play-offs in any elite level golf competition, let alone The Masters, are arguably most suited to those who are composed, accurate, consistent and cool-headed. Bubba Watson though is a man hardly synonymous with any of the above, well, not until now anyway…

The manner in which he plays the game is, generally speaking and quite frankly, extraordinary. His temperament as we saw very clearly when he had a “mudball” on the first fairway is raw and unkempt at the best of times, his swing is in almost no way at all ‘technically sound’ and his game is renowned far more greatly for it’s staggering length rather than it’s deadly accuracy.

In nearly every way imaginable Bubba is an outstanding golfer and, perhaps a little unfairly, I mean that in terms of his character and his persona on and off the course rather than his game. Somehow though he has managed “without a lesson” to become one of the finest golfers on the planet and one of the finest players of his generation within a nation which is arguably historically the strongest golfing nation on the planet.

Bubba Watson Masters 2012 winner

If the Jacket fits...

Few lucky people can call themselves a major golf tournament winner and now Bubba has defied the odds and certainly some golfing logic to become one of this privileged bunch and as much as my previous tone might suggest that he is a little bit of a shock winner I don’t actually find his victory that much of a surprise. In fact, I did have enough faith in his abilities to place the princely sum of £2 on him to win the tournament after he had got himself in position after day one and it made me several quid richer. Thanks Bubba.

Though he may be unorthodox, and he may be pretty hot-headed and at times he may even be a little rash, it is these characteristics which have made him a major winner and that mean he could be a constant threat in the big four tournaments of golf’s calendar year for the foreseeable future.

Such character traits may not be befitting of a man who would reach the top of the world rankings (ie. a Luke Donald-esque player), or that of a man that always delivers when in position to charge to victory but they are the hallmarks of several players that have become icons of the game, most notably, Seve Ballesteros.

The likes of Seve have of course become the best player in the world and have topped the rankings and that is perhaps because they aren’t in the same league as someone like Bubba, they are in no uncertain terms the cream of the unpredictable crop.

Watson is indeed almost certainly more streaky and more unreliable than some of the game’s huge, exciting and at times over-the-top characters but it is his temperament and his playing quirks which give him the X-Factor which certain players lack.

On this, the day of his most significant golfing triumph to date, Bubba did keep a fairly cool head though and he did play pretty straight and pretty sensibly. There were no eagles, no long range hole-outs, but his relentless, punishing length of the tee was crucial as was the imagination and sheer outrageousness of his ‘tournament winning’ hook out of the woods with the wedge in the play-off.

Whether Bubba ever wins another major or ever has such a satisfying day in his career again is unclear but I think one and all can accept that he was a deserving winner and that he is now a Green Jacket holder because he showed extraordinary bottle, class, skill and character throughout the overwhelming majority of the four days at Augusta.

As per, The Masters have once again delivered a week of marvellous entertainment and the nature of Bubba’s win is something that most of us distant viewers won’t forget for quite some time so just imagine how Mr.Watson is feeling right now. The only problem now is that we and Bubba have to wait another year for it to come around again…

The Masters 2012: Who can produce their Sunday Best?

With just a day to go at ‘The National’ the Green Jacket is still well up for grabs as ‘Moving Day’ in Augusta more than lived up to it’s infamous billing.

Peter Hanson and ‘Big Phil” came storming through the field after starting the day three back on just 2 under, Louis Oosthuizen played beautifully en route to fine round in the sixties and Hunter Mahan and Matt Kuchar were amongst those that came out of anonymity on the first couple of days to find a decent launch-pad for Sunday glory. The likes of Bubba Watson and Henrik Stenson too played themselves right into the thick of things with further examples of why they are two of the best players to watch in world golf.

On the other hand though, the likes of Sergio Garcia and Rory McIlroy shared a totally miserable day in what most would have expected to be the best pairing to watch on the course. Others who endured a miserable day included Justin Rose who at one point had looked like being the story of the day when he shot himself up into the top three but coming home he made error after error and ended back on level for his round and for the tournament. Golden Oldie, Freddie Couples, too had a miserable day out there playing himself out of contention after starting the third round right on top of the leader board and another notable failure on ‘Moving Day’ was World Number One Luke Donald who had a shocker leaving himself way, way adrift at 7 over par for the tournament.

Many of the field made significant moves on Saturday whether it was up or down the leader board, so many in fact that it would be take a lifetime to mention them all but I have taken a look at the board going into the final round and picked out a few of who I think will be the main contenders.

Peter Hanson:

World Number 25 going into the Masters and with a best finish at Augusta of tied 64th who would have thought that the Swede would lead going into the final round?

Peter Hanson Masters

Well, if you did, and you wagered a couple of quid on him then hats off to you as I imagine his odds were pretty decent. It says something about the surprise nature of his challenge that I hadn’t even registered his pre-tournament odds but he is at the top and after shooting a superb round of 65 is amongst the favourites now to win.

If you’re capable of shooting a 65 on ‘Moving Day’ at Augusta then you’re capable of winning The Masters, all Hanson has to do is keep calm and carry on.

Score: -9     Position: 1st     Likelihood of winning The Masters: 8/10

Phil Mickelson:

‘Lefty’ had yet another day to remember on Saturday and like Hanson came out of nowhere, he was three back at the start of the day on 2 under and stormed his way round in just 66 blows seeing him shoot through to 8 under for the tournament.

Mickelson Masters 2012

Other than the one shot difference in their rounds and the one shot difference between their overall scores for the tournament, one of very few differences between Phil’s round and Hanson’s round was that no one was surprised by Mickelson.

He has such an aura around him when he starts to pick up a couple of shots around Augusta and arguably only Woods can rival him for his ability to build momentum over the weekend in Georgia. Phil has put himself in position and now all he needs to do is convert.

Score: -8     Position: 2nd     Likelihood of winning The Masters: 9/10

Louis Oosthuizen:

Saturday was further evidence of why Louis Oosthuizen is already a major winner and why he could go on to win a few more.

Oosthuizen Masters 2012

His beautifully balanced swing was used to it’s full effect right the way through his third round and a score in the sixties has seen him going into Sunday as one of the standout favourites. If he shoots a similar score on Sunday then I can’t see many going with him.

Score: -7     Position: 3rd     Likelihood of winning The Masters: 8/10

Bubba Watson:

You could watch mad-cap Bubba play all day long couldn’t you?

Bubba Watson Masters 2012

The man with arguably the most rubber-like wrists and digits on tour once again lit up Augusta with one of the quirkiest ‘solid’ rounds of 70 you’re ever likely to see. This useful Saturday score has thrust him to 6 under for the tournament and with the way he plays it could easily end in ecstasy or in misery for Bubba come midnight-ish on Sunday. Whether he charges right into contention or whether he bombs it is sure to be a great round to watch and I have a sneaking suspicion that he could be the man to come from behind and push the current leaders right to their limits.

Score: -6     Position: 4th     Likelihood of winning The Masters: 6/10

Lee Westwood:

Saturday may well have been one of Lee Westwood’s most frustrating days at Augusta.

Westwood Masters 2012

He may not have played himself right out of contention but boy did he try. For every birdie and every moment of positivity there was a slack chip shot and shocking short range miss with the short stick. He may not have managed to build any momentum but he did manage to get himself round and leave himself in OK shape going into Sunday. Those who have watched a fair amount of Westwood throughout his career both in majors and outside of majors know that he is more capable than most of going really low and it is simply a case of whether he can get some putts to drop.

Score: -4     Position: Tied 6th     Likelihood of winning The Masters: 4/10

Hunter Mahan: 

One of the best rounds of Saturday was Hunter Mahan’s sweet 68.

Hunter Mahan Masters 2012

This round saw the in-form American rise from mid-leader board mediocrity and up into the glare of a Sunday evening charge for the Green Jacket. His metronomic putting and recent tournament successes will hold him in very good stead as he tries to make up the five shot deficit between him and Hanson who leads the way and I think he is one of the most likely to break from the chasing pack  and  to post a decent clubhouse lead at some stage on Sunday.

Score: -4     Position: Tied 6th     Likelihood of winning the Masters: 4/10

Others to keep an eye on…

Matt Kuchar: 5th (-5). He has the steadiness of swing and of mind to put himself in contention but I think he’ll slump a little on Sunday.

Padraig Harrington: Tied 6th (-4). A wonderful back nine in round three has put the three-time major winner in amongst the chasing pack but I don’t think he’ll make a serious charge.

Henrik Stenson: Tied 6th (-4). Another entertaining round from Stenson saw him bag his best score of the tournament so far and he is one of those players that can rip a course to shreds when he is bang in form. For a player of his considerable talents he has been struggling along for far too long now and it would be great if he could get himself in the mix.

Ian Poulter and Nick Watney: Tied 11th (-2). Both Watney and Poulter are capable of scoring a hat full of birdies when they find their best form and if either of them can steer clear of any concentration lapses then I think they could post something like a 67 which could put them up there in the top few places when the heat is on tomorrow. For me, Poulter in particular is one of the players stuck seven or eight back who could get round in a low score and post a challenging clubhouse lead.

Sergio Garcia and Rory McIlroy: Out of the running… This may well be the case, but both men are capable of going very low on Sunday. They were poor on ‘Moving Day’, McIlroy in particular, but just keep an eye on two of the most talented players in the field as they play without the shackles of being in contention. It could be very fun to watch indeed.

The Masters 2012: Who’s up for the Green Jacket?

A year on from Charl Schwartzel’s under the radar capture of his first Green Jacket and Rory’s infamous back nine collapse, we have just one day to wait until the start of this year’s Masters.

Schwartzel Masters

With such a huge field competing and all the unpredictabilities of the Augusta National as a course it is hard to pin down just a few favourites or ‘Ones to Watch’ but Golf’s most glamorous major has people rushing to the bookies and their online betting accounts looking for some nice, tempting long odds to have a punt on.

Below I have made picked some categories and within these bounds have chosen some decent looking options to throw a couple of quid at.

The top two favourites:

Going into the tournament it is perhaps no surprise that Tiger Woods (Betfair 5/1) is the favourite with the bookies given his history at Augusta and his recent win at Bay Hill but last year’s nearly man, Rory McIlroy (Betfair 15/2), is arguably the people’s favourite going in.

Both Woods and McIlroy would relish a fourth round face-off with each other on Sunday

McIlroy’s record since his Augusta meltdown this time last year has been superb. In the twenty+ events that he has contested since he has finished in the top 10 about three quarters of the time, bagging himself four event wins, four second places and four third place finishes. This is a staggering level of form and consistency that Rory has shown over the past twelve months and when compared with Woods’ record in the same time period it is almost comical that Woods is favoured by the bookies.

Woods does of course have the most memorable of histories with the National but even he might admit that Rory’s the one to beat on current form.

Verdict: If you’re backing one of the top two favourites then go for Rory.

The Brits:

Aside from McIlroy there are some other attractive British options including the two players either side of Rory in the world rankings; world number one Luke Donald (Betfair 15/1) and world number three Lee Westwood (Betfair 22/1).

Other options include former US Open champion Graeme McDowell (Betfair 85/1) who has shown some encouraging recent signs that he might be re-finding some of his best golf, Paul Casey (Betfair 260/1) playing his first major since injuring himself snow boarding in Colorado, three-time former major winner Padraig Harrington (Betfair 110/1) who leads the par 3 contest as I write and Ian Poulter (Betfair 110/1) who has decent form at the Masters and is as confident as ever.

Other Brits in the field include Simon Dyson (490/1), Ross Fisher (370/1) 15th at Augusta in 2011 and Martin Laird (170/1) who perhaps wouldn’t be a bad shout for a top ten finish given his usually very consistent showings on the PGA Tour.

Rose golf

Justin Rose appears to be coming of age on the PGA Tour

Perhaps the canniest of all British bets though would be to put a fiver of Justin Rose (Betfair 33/1) who’s brilliant form has seen him win at Doral a few weeks ago as well as charging into the world’s top ten. He is in ship-shape at the moment and he has plenty of experience at Augusta where he has on a couple of occasions come flying out of the traps.

Verdict:

Back Rose at very generous odds, could look at Each Way bets on the likes of Casey, Laird, Poulter or McDowell as each would give a fair return. Or… back ‘Luuuuuuuuukkkkeeee’ Donald for a top 5 finish.

Long Shots:

As previously mentioned Paul Casey is well worth a look at on an Each Way basis and he isn’t the only one offering more than generous odds with Betfair…

Johnson Wagner (Betfair 200/1) may well not be a household name with us Brits but his season on the PGA Tour has been superb. He is currently second in the FedEx cup points list courtesy of some fantastic form which has seen him bag a PGA Tour win, a second place and two further top 10 finishes and at those odds he is a handsome Each Way option.

Wagner

Johnson Wagner is in great form on the PGA Tour

The mercurial Alvaro Quiros (Betfair 200/1) is also worth a real look.

Verdict: All worth a shout with an Each Way bet

Best of the rest:

Day Golf

Jason Day has a great recent record in majors but does have a niggling ankle injury

Other big name players that have been given generous odds by Betfair and several other bookmakers include Jason Day (45/1) who has three top ten finishes and two second placed finishes from the last five majors including last year’s Masters, Nick Watney (65/1) who likes it at the national, the only two-time winner on the PGA this year Hunter Mahan (37/1) and finally Adam Scott (33/1) who tied for second place with Day last year. One other decent option is reigning champion Charl Schwartzel (Betfair 45/1) who’s odds to win the tournament are staggering given how marvellously he played en route to victory last year.

Verdict:

Jason Day at 45/1 is my star bet for the whole tournament, he is also well worth a look at for a top ten or top five finish given his recent record in major tournament golf. He is a slight injury doubt though so beware… If Day doesn’t float your boat then look at Hunter Mahan as an Each Way option.

10 Players to watch out for over the closing stages of the Premier League

1. David De Gea:

After a miserable first few months in the Premier League, De Gea now finally seems as if he has got to grips with the considerable requirements of life as number one at Old Trafford.

Monday night’s strong performance including magnificent stops from Junior Hoillett, Martin Olsson and Scott Dann provided further proof that the young Spaniard is starting to look something like being worth the large sum of money that United decided to splash out on securing his services last summer. Had he not been there to make the sort of reaction saves he had become renowned for at previous club Athletico Madrid then Monday’s hard-earned win against Blackburn could have ended up being a lot different and as such United’s prospects of winning the title could also have looked totally different. If De Gea can keep his current run of form going and continue to adapt to the huge level of awareness needed by a keeper at United then he may well end up being lauded for his contributions towards winning the title come May.

2. Mario Balotelli:

What can I say that hasn’t already been said thousands of times about Super Mario?

He is a total and utter liability, but he is a genius. A flawed genius but a genius nonetheless. We don’t know for sure how swiftly Sergio Aguero will recover from his now infamous “stupid injury” but if he is missing for any more of City’s run in then Balotelli’s form will be crucial for City in their pursuit of their rivals and current league leaders, United.

Edin Dzeko has struggled for form after an electric start to the season and Carlos Tevez is still not right back in the thick of it in terms of his match fitness and sharpness, so, in the absence of Aguero it could be argued that Balotelli is the key player for City in their run-in. If he can keep his head and produce the sort of ruthlessness we know he is capable of in and around the opposition’s goal then he could fire City right back into the title race.

3. Hatem Ben Arfa:

Newcastle’s ultimate mercurial talent. Ben Arfa has finally found the sort of form that at one time had him being spoken about as one of Europe’s finest young players and had the likes of Manchester United and Real Madrid crawling over themselves to try and get him to sign for them.

His young career has been blighted with injury and has also been badly affected by the occasional period of indiscipline on and off the field but right now those troubles must seem a distant memory. His form off the back of an impressive performance when brought off the bench in the Tyne-Wear derby has been very impressive indeed and have drawn some fairly lofty comparisons with the likes of Lionel Messi (I think perhaps Alan Pardew was a little too euphoric when he said that) but, nevertheless, he has appeared as if he is back to the peak of his powers.

Newcastle have been superb this season and most neutrals will be willing them on to secure European football (and perhaps even Champions League football if miracles do really happen) and Ben Arfa will surely play a huge part in their charge to bring European nights back to St.James’.

4. Emmanuel Adebayor:

A couple of goals at the weekend for Adebayor after something of a lean period for him on a personal level and for Spurs as a collective will have done him and them the world of good.

The three points earned by Adebayor’s brace of headed goals took them back onto level terms with their fierce North-London rivals Arsenal and ended a run of poor form and results for Tottenham in their pursuit of automatic qualification for next season’s Champions League.

Aside from Adebayor, Spurs look a little thin on the ground up top so it is crucial that he builds on his match-winning goals against Swansea and takes this goalscoring form into the rest on Spurs’ league campaign if they are to guarantee that Champions League football returns to the Lane next season.

5. Fernando Torres:

We have all heard the negatives about Fernando Torres and the downwards spiral his career has seemed to be stuck in over the past couple of years but now there does seem to be some light at the end of the tunnel. A couple of very important recent contributions in the role of assist-maker have been coupled with a few more goals in recent weeks and maybe, just maybe, Torres is something like back to his best.

If he has desires on securing a place in Spain’s squad for the Euros and on helping Chelsea find a way of securing Champions League qualification for next season then he will have to build on his recent improvements and keep the positive momentum building in his game.

6. Theo Walcott:

Walcott has recently been given a more free-roaming role by his manager Arsene Wenger and has revelled in it. While goal-machine Van Persie is currently enduring the goal drought to end all goal droughts, stretching back an enormous three whole games (how embarrassing…), Walcott has started to get his name back on the score-sheet more regularly and has emerged as perhaps Arsenal’s key figure heading into their run-in.

If they are to hold Spurs and Chelsea off and secure a top-three finish then Walcott will need to keep his current form levels going and will need to continue his more recent trend of contributing strongly on the goals front.

Whoever is charged with taking England to the Euros this summer would be well advised to take note of Walcott’s recent improvements which have been a consequence of his increasingly more flexible and central role for his club.

7. Junior Hoilett:

Hoilett’s continuing progress this season has attracted the interest of some very big clubs such as Liverpool and Spurs and while his current Blackburn side might be plying their trade in the Championship next season he could well be enjoying his first taste of Champions League football.

In a side bereft of genuine quality, Hoilett has stood out as a beacon of hope all season and I am in no doubt that he will be crucial to any hopes they have of avoiding the drop.

8. Adel Taarabt:

Garth Crooks described Taarabt as the Premier League’s “most frustrating player” at the weekend and as much as I think of Crooks as the most annoying pundit I have to admit that he makes a very fair point.

Sure, Mario Balotelli is stiff competition for this crown but Taarabt’s piece of match-winning brilliance against Arsenal at the weekend was one of the first real demonstrations of his considerable talents all season.

Quite why it has taken him so long to produce a moment of such quality this term is a bit of a mystery as he has everything a player needs to be a success in the Premier League.

He has decent pace, he’s big, he’s strong and he has extraordinary technical ability but unfortunately he seems to have some deficiencies when it comes to his attitude on and off the field and that has held him back in what should really have been another major developmental year in his young career.

Perhaps his brilliant strike at the weekend could spark a run of form that could help QPR stay up, as when he is at his best he really is that good.

9. Luis Antonio Valencia:

Valencia’s return to prominence in recent weeks has come at just the right time for United in their late season assault on the title. Monday night’s relentless efforts down his right wing at Ewood Park almost single-handedly won the game for United and when finally he opted to take the shot on rather than trying to create chances for others in the consistently overcrowded Blackburn penalty area he succeeded in thumping it past Paul Robinson.

In the absence of Nani who has been struggling with injury problems in recent weeks, Valencia has taken the responsibility of being United’s chief creator and if he manages to maintain his electric form then I find it hard to see United not winning the title. He and his creative abilities are, quite simply, that bigger a factor for United at the moment.

10. Victor Moses:

Like Junior Hoilett at Blackburn, Victor Moses provides Wigan with a real touch of quality. His ability to run hard and fast at opposition defenders provides the Latics with a real outlet up top and if they are to have any hope of staying up then the goals and creative abilities of Moses will surely have to lead the charge.

This season has seen Moses grow into a player of real Premier League class and the last few games of the season may well end up being something of a shop window period for the young forward as he continues to impress in spite of his club’s tricky campaign.

Whether Wigan stay up or go down their is a decent chance that suitors will gather for Moses come the end of what has been a breakthrough season at this level for Moses.