The Manchester United Survival Pack: 5 Ways To Avoid The Slump Becoming A Crisis

With Manchester United currently suffering one of only a few sticky periods in the recent history of the club, things are veering dangerously towards the word crisis coming into play.

Here, therefore, is a five-pronged attack for United, as a football club, to avoid their early season slump becoming something far more serious, more lasting, and more worthy of that naughty C-word.

David Moyes Manchester United

Continue The In-Stadium Support Of David Moyes:

Though plenty of doubters are starting to loosen their jaws, and threatening to unleash on Moyes, the in-stadium support of the new manager at Old Trafford has so far been pretty decent given the lack of form being shown. If Moyes, and United are to succeed as a happy couple then this must continue.

Old Trafford has a nasty knack of becoming ghostly when things aren’t quite going to plan, but so rarely have things not gone to plan at the Theatre of Dreams over the past 20 years that this has never really escalated into a serious problem.

There have already been instances of awkward silence creeping in over the past few weeks, and a touch of booing and derision after the West Brom defeat, and it is essential that the home faithful avoid these and instead vocally back up their new man in the face of adversity.

Avoid All Media Outlets As And Where Possible:

Take a peek at the sports section of any website, of any magazine, of any newspaper, or at any sports television coverage at the moment and it won’t take you long to come across Manchester United and crisis in the same sentence.

Seeing is believing, so if you want to avoid convincing yourself that United are set firmly on the path to cataclysmic failure, then you’re probably well advised to fix your gaze elsewhere.

The media are a powerful tool in any high profile demise, and boy oh boy will Moyes be becoming painfully aware of that right now.

Bring In Support For Moyes And Woodward:

Most coverage of United’s mini-slump post-Sir Alex Ferguson has focused on the departure of the Scottish legend, but perhaps a greater loss though, given the circumstances, was that of David Gill from the role of Chairman.

Gill formed a formidable relationship with Sir Alex in so many respects during their time together at the club, and though both men still play a role at Old Trafford, their reigned-in prominence has had a telling effect.

This was never more painfully evident than in the transfer market during the summer, where many were expecting United to bring in a host of big name recruits to support Moyes’ settling in period.

Names such as Fabregas, Ozil, and Baines were linked to the club during a frenetic period, but ultimately United only made one high profile signing in the form of Moyes’ old Everton battering-ram Marouane Fellaini.

You’d have to think that the likes of Fabregas, Ozil, and Baines wouldn’t have all escaped the clutches of United had Gill and Ferguson still played the lead role in negotiations rather than the new double act of Moyes and the so far thoroughly disappointing Ed Woodward.

To that effect, perhaps the next big move for the club needs to be towards bringing someone in to help such negotiations, or perhaps even giving good ol’ Sir Alex a say in transfer dealings going forward.

Increased Trust In Youth And Creativity:

There are some names in the current United squad that simply can’t be ignored. The likes of Robin Van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick, and Nemanja Vidic should be, and indeed are, the mainstays of any United team-sheet.

The support cast for the headline acts has however been shrouded in far greater doubt, and indecision so far under Moyes.

Injury, illness, and match fitness have a big say in the opening weeks of a league season, and shouldn’t be underestimated in any manager’s seeming indecision, but greater faith in the more youthful, exciting, and creative members of the United squad surely wouldn’t go amiss.

Moyes seems stuck in two minds as to whether he should stick or twist. Should he keep faith in United’s old heads, or should he take a more maverick approach? This is certainly up for debate, but in the short term he must get behind one of the two.

How much more positive and exciting does the following line-up sound than the slightly muddled sides that have featured so far this season for United?

(4-2-3-1) David De Gea, Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic, Phil Jones, Rafael, Michael Carrick, Marouane Fellaini, Shinji Kagawa, Wayne Rooney, Adnan Januzaj, Robin Van Persie

It’s easy to go all Championship Manager, but this doesn’t sound like a side that would lose at home to West Brom, or 4-1 away to Manchester City does it?

Win In Donetsk This Week, And Continue The Sound European Work So Far:

It sounds simple doesn’t it? Win their next game and all will be right with the world…

It isn’t exactly true, and it won’t exactly be easy, but it is essential for Moyes, his allies, and his players that they at the very least avoid defeat away to Shakhtar.

If United can avoid defeat then they’ll be very well placed in their developing Champions League group, and Moyes will be armed with an essential form of defence in the early stages of his tenure at United.

If he has to face up to criticism regarding their underwhelming league position as it stands, then he will need a fallback, and there is perhaps no better out there than to be able to refer to some encouraging form, and results on the continent. Win in Ukraine, and Moyes’ life will be a hell of a lot easier.

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Manchester XI

I will begin by stating on record for those that don’t know, that I am a Manchester United fan.

Sure, it is easy therefore for my judgement on this particular line-up to become a little clouded. I have though tried my utmost to keep my bias under control and have tried to deliver here what I honestly believe to have been the best Manchester XI up to now this season based on a combination of form and statistics.

Manchester United Manchester City

City’s fans may be on top in this picture, but…

In order to counter those who think this will be based purely on a huge bias towards United, I will remind you that I predicted that City would win the title this year and that I believe that one to eleven that they have just as good a side as United.

I would also hasten to add that I would have picked a similar imbalance of City and United players this time last year, but the imbalance would have been in favour of City and the team would have included the likes of Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Joleon Lescott, and Sergio Aguero along with the City representatives who have also made the cut this time around.

My selection is as follows:

(4-2-3-1)

David De Gea

Joe Hart my have out-statted De Gea in terms of clean-sheets, 14 to nine, but he has also been far more error-prone and cost his side more points than De Gea has. The fluffy-lipped Spaniard has come one leaps and bounds this year and has arguably been the best keeper in the league.

Pablo Zabaleta

Zabaleta is probably the only must-pick from City in this entire XI. His form has been so steady all year and he has continued from where he left off last season where he became the bedrock of City’s title push. He has been outstanding this term, and that can’t be said for a single other City player.

Rio Ferdinand

He may not be in favour with most English football fans after his recent antics, but he has had a great season, of that there is no doubt. I have always been a huge admirer of what Rio offers, but even I had thought that we had seen the best of him before this season, but he has had a bit of a renaissance and has been terrific.

Jonny Evans

I never thought I’d say this, but Mr.Evans has grown in to a cracking centre-half. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but I have always found it hard to put much faith in Evans until this season. He and Rio have gelled superbly and this has helped David De Gea no end.

Patrice Evra

One of the easiest selections of the lot. City haven’t contributed a great deal in the left back department this year, Patrice Evra of United on the other hand has been outstanding. As well as sharpening up his defensive game, which had waned a little last year, Evra has also chipped in with four league goals, and five league assists, a fantastic and well deserved return for the Frenchman.

Yaya Toure

He hasn’t been quite as good as last year when I would have rated him as my player of the year, but Yaya is a huge asset for City and has still contributed five goals and three assists despite his lengthy absence caused by the African Cup of Nations. It will be a great relief to City fans that his contractual wranglings appear to have been sorted out, as they desperately need him in the heart of their midfield.

Michael Carrick

He may not have scored a single goal this season, but that is almost the only criticism you could target at Michael Carrick this season. He has been consistently brilliant all year, and the four assists to his name don’t do him any justice. The number of important interventions he has made this season, and the number of goal-scoring moves that he has started or played a big part in must be through the roof. First name on this particular team-sheet.

David Silva

Silva, like Toure, hasn’t quite been at his best this year but he has still been a vital cog in City’s attacking machine and not many have played better in sky blue this term. Four goals and seven assists certainly doesn’t make for bad reading.

Wayne Rooney

Many have targeted a lot of criticism at Mr. Rooney this season, and have indeed suggested that this is to be his last at Old Trafford, but I can’t see why. He has only managed 21 appearances this season, but in these appearances he has scored twelve times (as many as any of City’s players), and has notched an impressive haul of 9 assists (more than any City player). He hasn’t been as good as last season, but his role has changed since RVP’s arrival and he has had some injury bother. Nevertheless his contribution has still been sizeable and I think we are slowly seeing his transition into one of the best attacking mids in world football rather than an out and out striker.

Danny Welbeck

Stats may well be the best indicator around for form and contributions made, but in this case ignore them. He hasn’t been banging in the goals, and he hasn’t been a prolific assist maker either but his work ethic has been immense. So rarely has Welbeck failed to contribute this season, so much so that Ferguson has picked him in most of the big games this year and Welbeck has never let him down. This may just be a personal preference pick, but I think he has had a very decent season in spite of what the stats might tell you.

Robin Van Persie versus Manchester City

Robin ruled triumphant at the Etihad

Robin Van Persie

If Michael Carrick wins the nod for the ‘first name on the team-sheet’ in this line-up, then RVP runs him a close second. He has scored 19 goals in the league and made 8 assists, a brilliant contribution and the sort that must irk Roberto Mancini beyond belief as he tried to sign the prolific Dutchman last summer before United beat them to their target. The brilliant thing about Van Persie’s season has been that most of his goal have been important. Many have been winners or goals that turned the tide in matches. He has been off the boil of late, but don’t hold that against him.

United 8 -3 City

Premier League Summer Transfer Window XI

(Formation: 3-2-3-2)

Hazard Chelsea

Hazard has been the biggest money move of the window at the time of writing this post but he is already looking worth every penny

Goalkeeper:

Ben Foster: (Undisclosed)

He may not come across as a new signing to many having been on loan to the Baggies last season but Ben Foster has now signed a permanent deal with West Brom and he looks set to play a huge part in West Brom’s attempts to avoid a hangover period in the wake of former manager Roy Hodgson’s departure from the club.

Defence:

Nathaniel Clyne (Crystal Palace to Southampton – Compensation Not Yet Agreed)

He is very much a raw talent at present but Nathaniel Clyne has great potential. He burst onto the scene with Palace last year and I am surprised that a bigger club than Southampton weren’t tempted to have a punt on Clyne as he seems to have the strength, physique, speed and technical ability necessary to drive him on to become one the best full-backs in the country.

Jan Vertonghen: (Ajax to Spurs £10 million)

Vertonghen Tottenham

Can Jan be the perfect heir to Ledley’s throne?

It is early days for Vertonghen as a Premier League player but there was a great amount of interest in him from some very big clubs over the summer and Andre-Vilas Boas and Tottenham did very well to secure the signature of the Belgian in what appears to be a great bit of business. £10 million isn’t a great deal to pay for a top-class centre-half in the modern game and Spurs will hope that he can quickly become a very able replacement for Ledley King who sadly had to retire over the summer as a result of years of injury woe.

Jose Manuel Flores: (Genoa to Swansea £2 million)

Swansea’s charismatic new centre-half is well known to their new manager Michael Laudrup from their time together at Mallorca and his start at the club has been a very good one. Since his £2 million arrival he has been involved in back-to-back clean-sheets and has been a major part of the Swans’ great start to the campaign as they look to continue their reputation from last season as one of the Premier League’s meanest defences.

Midifeld:

Oscar: (Internacional to Chelsea £25 million)

A lot of South American players have struggled to adapt to life in the Premier League but given time and sufficient guidance I think Oscar will prove himself to be a huge hit for Chelsea. I don’t necessarily think he will get a huge amount of game time in the short-term but as a long-term prospect there are few better talents plying their trade in the Premier League. He has great movement on and off the ball and has a tremendous eye for a pass as his performances in the Olympic Games demonstrated and I think he’ll shine over the next few years if Chelsea can settle him into Premier League life.

Santi Cazorla: (Malaga to Arsenal £16 million)

He might not quite have come up with the necessary goods to land Arsenal their first win of the season in their opening two games but Cazorla already looks like he could be their best player this season as he possesses many of the qualities that they have been lacking since the departures of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri last summer. It is only because Spain have been blessed with probably the greatest group of midfielders that one country has ever possessed at one time that Cazorla hasn’t become a bigger name by now but he has still managed to amass a total of 46 international caps to date as well as 7 goals for his country and I think we will see this season why he is so highly thought of back in Spain.

Attacking Midfield:

Eden Hazard: (Lille to Chelsea £32 million)

He may only have made three Premier League appearances since moving to the Bridge but Chelsea’s new boy has already made six assists and scored a goal from the penalty spot. Having seen him struggle to assert himself in Belgium’s friendly against England before the start of Euro 2012 and then again in Chelsea’s Community Shield loss to Manchester City, many thought that in spite of his undoubted technical qualities that it might take Hazard a little while to settle into English football but he has firmly quashed any such thoughts with three outstanding displays straight off the bat in the Premier League. He looks like one hell of a player and Chelsea could be propelled back into title contention this season if his current form continues.

Shinji Kagawa: (Dortmund to Man Utd £12 million)

He might not have had quite the impact of Eden Hazard at Chelsea but Kagawa who operates in a similar position to the Belgian has already looked very assured as a Premier League player in his first couple of outings and in addition to having already opened his scoring account against Fulham at the weekend he has also been right at the heart of nearly all of United’s best forward play in their opening two games. Like I say, he might not have matched Hazard’s blistering form thus far but he did cost United £20 million less than the Belgian set Chelsea back and he too looks a great attacking midfield prospect.

Adam Johnson; (Man City to Sunderland £10 million)

I think this signing represents a fantastic bit of business for Sunderland. Not only is Johnson immensely talented but he already has a Premier League winners medal to his name, a smattering of England caps and already a couple of international goals to boot, so at £10 million he looks an absolute bargain by today’s premium on English talent. He is versatile and can operate strongly on either flank and with his combination of speed, skill, trickery, decent two-footed delivery and an eye for goal I expect him to play a huge part in Martin O’Neill’s plans this season. If Steven Fletcher is even half as lethal in front of goal as Martin O’Neill thinks he is then he will score a hat full this season with the likes of Johnson, Stephane Sessegnon and James McClean providing him with great servie from all angles.

Attack:

Robin Van Persie: (Arsenal to Man Utd £24 million)

RVP United

RVP has settled quickly into the OT limelight and is looking forward to proving any doubters wrong

Many have had their say on Van Persie’s summer move to Old Trafford and though some thought the £24 million transfer fee looked a little too grand for a player nearing his thirties and with only one year remaining on his contract at Arsenal but if anybody needed convincing that his acquisition was a great one for United then last weekend should have been sufficient. In a game which saw United’s talisman Wayne Rooney suffer a nasty injury which looks set to keep him out of the side for at least a month, Van Persie came up trumps netting a fine finish for his first goal for United in a narrow 3-2 win. The finish was exquisite and it was Van Persie’s very first shot in a United shirt. One shot, one goal, he is a lethal finisher and his signing puts United in great stead to challenge Manchester rivals City for the title.

Emmanuel Adebayor: (Man City to Spurs £5 million)

This comes within the the same bracket as Ben Foster’s move to West Brom in that this deal was a conversion from loan signing last season to a permanent transfer this summer and at a cost of just £5 million and with his hefty wages being subsidised by his former club this deal looks like a cracking bit of work by Daniel Levy. Adebayor is a proven scorer and assist-maker over several years at Premier League and Champions League level and if he can re-create anything like his contribution to Spurs’ cause last season then AVB will be delighted that they now have him as a more permanent fixture on their books.

Subs:

Cesar Azpilcueta: Chelsea’s punt on the young Spanish full-back looks like a good one as he has impressed in the French Ligue 1 and also with the Spanish youth side.

Joe Allen: £15 million seemed an inflated fee at the time and in spite of an MOTM performance against City it does still look a little hefty but Rodgers knew full-well what he was getting when he signed Allen and he has the potential to grow into one of Europe’s best possession-players. He could be the long overdue replacement for Xabi Alonso in Liverpool’s engine room.

Michu: Three goals in his first two Premier League starts means he has as good as repaid his £2 million fee already. The midfielder-come-striker looks well designed for the rigours and physicality of the Premier League and has shown that he is a quality finisher.

Moussa Dembele: The ex-Fulham man endured an injury blighted first few months in English football but since finding his feet he has grown ever stronger. He has gradually become accustomed to a deeper role in Fulham’s side having originally been signed as a front-man and the now midfielder has looked every bit worth his suspected £15 million transfer fee throughout the past year.

Matt Jarvis: Though I think his transfer fee is a little high for a man only about seventh or eighth in England’s pecking order of wide-men and for a man coming from a Championship side, Jarvis has demonstrated over the past couple of seasons just how decent a Premier League player he is. Last season he stood out from the crowd on Wolves’ sinking ship and he more than deserved his immediate return to the big-time, I’m sure he’ll be a big asset to West Ham.

Kevin Mirallas: He may only have been making his debut against lower-league opposition but he bagged his first two Everton goals with no time wasted at all and he looks an exciting prospect. I think Moyes might have pulled yet another managerial masterstroke with this lad.

Pavel Pogrebnyak: He is far from a glamour-signing in terms of his style of play but he is such a huge presence on the field and he has genuine goal-scoring ability at the highest levels of football. I think his signing was a major coup for Reading given the interest in him from all around Europe and I think his contributions could be the difference between Reading staying up and going down.

 

The best completed and potential deadline day signings:

Stephen M’Bia (QPR), Charlie Adam (Stoke), Maicon (Man City), Scott Sinclair (Man City), Joao Moutinho (Spurs), Clint Dempsey (Liverpool), Daniel Sturridge (Liverpool), Andre Shurlle (Chelsea), Michael Owen (Stoke/Everton), Dimitar Berbtov (Fulham), Michel Bastos (Fulham), Keiran Richardson (Fulham)…

Premier League 2012/2013: Team by Team Preview

Arsenal

Key Player: For me, Alex Song was second only to Robin Van Persie in terms of Arsenal’s best players last season and I think that they must do absolutely everything in their power to keep him at the club amidst rumours that Barcelona are on the verge of a securing a move for the dynamic midfield player. I think that losing Song would represent a greater loss to Arsenal than losing Van Persie as the Dutchman’s departure was always expected and therefore planned for whereas Song’s departure would leave Arsenal requiring some quick-fire work in the latter stages of the transfer window.

Alex Song Barcelona

Signings: Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud

What they still need: If Arsenal are planning on offloading either Marouane Chamakh or Nicklas Bendtner then I think they need to invest in another striker but Arsene Wenger seems to think otherwise. They will also need to line up a very decent replacement for Alex Song if he is to be lured to the Nou Camp.

Prediction: 5th

Aston Villa

Key Player: Villa had a pretty dire season last year in almost every way but they certainly had their reasons. I can remember very few Premier League sides ever having endured such a terrible season of injury woe than Villa last year and the major loss of the bunch was Darren Bent who missed the most crucial part of the season as they were sucked into the relegation dogfight. With Bent back on the field they will stand a far greater chance of avoiding relegation worries this season as he remains their only major goal threat.

Bent Villa

Signings: Karim El Ahmadi, Brett Holman, Ron Vlaar, Matthew Lowton

What they still need: Villa could do with someone to help Bent out on the goal scoring front as Gabriel Agbonlahor’s contributions have never been consistent enough. Last season Villa also looked desperately short of creative sparks in their midfield and they would benefit from adding a creative player out wide. Someone like Matt Jarvis of Wolves or Gabriel Obertan of Newcastle would prove a decent addition to their squad and they are prbably both available at the right price.

Prediction: 13th

Chelsea

Key Player: Fernando Torres has struggled for form and fitness over the past few seasons but towards the end of last season there seemed to be a bit of an upturn in form for the once prolific Spaniard and this form followed him unto Spain’s successful Euro 2012 campaign where he won the Golden Boot. In the wake of Chelsea hero Didier Drogba’s departure Torres will need to step up to the plate and take on the bulk of their goal scoring burden and I think we will see something more like his old self in this campaign.

Torres Chelsea

Signings: Oscar, Marko Marin, Eden Hazard, Thorgan Hazard

What they still need: Chelsea need a right back to compete with Branislav Ivanovic and perhaps they could also do with another holding midfield player as Michael Essien seemed to struggle to reach his former heights last season. Don’t rule out a move for a striker either as they aren’t exactly over-stocked in that department.

Prediction: 3rd

Everton

Key Player: Everton are always brilliantly drilled and organised by their fantastic manager David Moyes but the only area in which they have truly struggled during his time at the club is in the goal-scoring department. Never before have they had a striker with such an eye for goal as Nikica Jelavic and if his first half season at the club is anything to go by then they may well have finally found themselves a 20 goal a season man.

Jelavic Everton

Signings: Steven Pienaar, Steven Naismith

What they still need: They were surprisingly active in the January transfer market and have already brought Steven Pienaar back to the club this summer so expect little more movement from Everton. Having said that though, I think a rumoured move for Michael Owen would represent the sort of low-risk move which might take David Moyes’ fancy and he could prove a decent addition if he can keep fit.

Prediction: 8th

Fulham

Key Player: Fulham’s star man is Clint Dempsey. He is far and away their best player and his ability to score a huge haul of goals from midfield has been the difference between them being a mid-table club rather than a side battling to avoid relegation in recent times and it is of paramount importance that they hold on to him if they are to have any chance of progressing. It does however sound like he is at the top of Liverpool’s wanted list and one would have to think that the move will probably go through.

Dempsey Fulham

Signings: Mladen Petric, Hugo Rodallega, Sascha Reither, George Williams

What they still need: If Dempsey decides to move to Liverpool then Fulham will need to either invest in a striker who can take on the task of replacing the void left by Dempsey’s departure in their goals tally or alternatively a midfielder in the Dempsey mould who can score and create goals on a regular basis.

Prediction: 12th

Liverpool

Key Player: He may well be the most, or at very least one of the most, maligned players in the league but Luis Suarez is undoubtedly Liverpool’s best offensive player and they will rely heavily upon him to try and re-assert themselves as a real Premier League force this season. In terms of his contribution in purely football terms Suarez has enjoyed a very decent first season and a half in English football but he needs to score a greater bulk of goals than he has done so far if he is to be truly regarded as one of the most highly revered strikers in world football.

Suarez Liverpool

Signings: Joe Allen, Fabio Borini

What they still need: If Daniel Agger moves to City then Liverpool will definitely have to replace him with someone like Steven Caulker and they could also do with adding more bite to their midfield. It sounds as if they are keen to secure a deal to sign Clint Dempsey and I don’t think there are many sides in the league who wouldn’t benefit from adding him to their squad. Christian Tello and Nuri Sahin are both very firmly on their radar also…

Prediction: 6th

Manchester City

Key Player: Yaya Toure had a sublime season last year and was  arguably the key component of their first ever Premier League winning side. He has adapted his game so easily since joining the club and he has transformed himself into one of the most dynamic roaming midfielders in world football. If City are to make it back-to-back titles then they will need Toure to keep fit and to reach the same levels as last season.

Toure Man City

Signings: Jack Rodwell

What they still need: Do City really need anyone? They could perhaps do with some more competition in central defence as replacement centre half Stefan Savic didn’t look up to the task last season and Daniel Agger would be a great signing if they could pull it off.

Prediction: 1st

Manchester United

Key Player: He may not seem the obvious choice but I think Michael Carrick could and should have a huge part to play in United’s season. At his best he is one of the Premier League’s finest distributors of the ball and he possesses the ability to relieve his defence of an enormous amount of pressure with his very efficient positioning and shielding of the back four. When he is high on confidence he is a totally different player than when he is in and out of the starting lineup and I think it is of little coincidence that United are at their best when Carrick is thriving in the heart of their midfield.

Carrick Man Utd

Signings: Robin Van Persie, Nick Powell, Shinji Kagawa

What they still need: Signing Van Persie has given their chances of gaining revenge on City a huge boost. They could however still do with some more defensive cover and perhaps a holding midfielder.

Prediction: 2nd

Newcastle

Key Player: Since joining Newcastle Cheik Tiote has become one of the most sought after midfield players in English football as his destructive and combative talents have proved completely vital to Newcastle’s successful return to top-flight football. It seems as though Newcastle have done a fantastic job of keeping him happy at the club as I’m sure there would be a whole host of suitors for one of the Premier League’s best holding midfield players if he was ever to declare anything other than his enormous affection for the club.

Tiote Newcastle

Signings: Curtis Good, Romain Amalfitano, Vurnon Anita, Gael Bigrimana

What they still need: Newcastle still need some defensive cover having looked threadbare at the back throughout the second half of last season, other than that though their squad is looking pretty well set for a challenge at securing European qualification for the second season running.

Prediction: 7th

Norwich

Key Player: Last season Grant Holt not only realised his dream of playing Premier League football but he also became perhaps the surprise success story of the entire Premier League season as he banged in the goals which kept Norwich clear of danger. If Norwich are to avoid danger again then Holt will surely again have to reach a similarly decent goals tally.

Holt Norwich

Signings: Michael Turner, Robert Snodgrass, Jacob Butterfield, Javier Garrido, Steven Whittaker

What they still need: Norwich need to bring someone in who can share the goal scoring burden with Grant Holt and they would benefit from investing in a quality centre half.

Prediction: 20th

QPR

Key Player: One of the more interesting transfer deals of the summer has seen Park Ji-Sung leave Manchester United for Queens Park Rangers. Not satisfied anymore with life on the periphery of the United side Park decided to ‘up sticks’ and he signed for Rangers in what could prove to be a great bit of business for the West-Londoners. He became well renowned for his tremendous attitude and work ethic at United but when he was at his best he was more than just a dedicated squad member. He has terrific off the ball movement and if he can just make more of his uncanny ability to pop up in great areas then I’m sure he’ll prove to be a big hit at Loftus Road.

Signings: Park Ji-Sung, Fabio, Ryan Nelsen, Samba Diakite, Andy Johnson, Rob Green, Junior Hoilett

What they still need: QPR need to make improvements in defence having looked very leaky at the back last season and they would be wise to add further defensive recruits as they have the potential to become a top-ten side if only they can find a bit more stability throughout their squad.

Prediction: 10th

Reading

Key Player: Any new Premier League sides desperately need a striker who can reach at least double figures on the goals front and in signing Pavel Pogrebnyak Reading way well have found themselves one. Pogrebnyak’s arrival at the club appears to be a real coup as a couple of more established Premier League and European Clubs were after his services and if he can re-create his start whilst on loan at Fulham last season then he will prove to be a crucial part of Reading’s bid for survival.

Pogrebnyak Reading

Signings: Chris Gunter, Pavel Pogrebnyak, Danny Guthrie, Adrian Mariappa, Nicky Shorey, Gareth McCleary

What they still need: Reading have done pretty well in the transfer market so far having beaten more established sides to the signatures of Pogrebnyak and Guthrie but they could still do with adding some Premier League experience to their squad right across the board. Many are tipping them for the drop but I think they could have a pretty good season.

Prediction:15th

Southampton

Key Player: Rickie Lambert has proven himself to be a lethal marksman at football league and championship level but it remains to be seen whether he can emulate the likes of Grant Holt and make a success of himself in the Premier League. Southampton haven’t invested much in new signings so far this summer so if they are to re-establish themselves as a top-flight side then they will be reliant once again on Lambert finding the back of the net on a regular basis.

Lambert Southampton

Signings: Jay Rodriguez, Steven Davis, Nathaniel Clyne, Paolo Gazzaniga

What they still need: Southampton must add greater numbers and a greater amount of experience to their squad as they look a little lightweight in every department at the minute. The signings they have made so far have actually been pretty good but they definitely need to invest more if they are to have any hope of staying up.

Prediction:18th

Stoke

Key Player: Tony Pulis put a lot of faith in Peter Crouch last summer when he splashed over £10m on the ageing England international but his faith was repaid as Crouch led the line admirably for the Potters. Hopes will be high again for Crouch to deliver and if he scores ten to fifteen goals then Stoke should be in decent shape to avoid being lured into a relegation battle.

Crouch Stoke City

Signings: Michael Kightly, Geoff Cameron, Jamie Ness

What they still need: Stoke have done a great job establishing themselves as a Premier League club and now they need to ensure that this remains the case. If they are to steer clear of any flirtations with trouble then I think they need to sign a creative central midfield player as they are short of genuine playmakers.

Prediction: 14th

Sunderland

Key Player: Last season Stephane Sessegnon was far and away Sunderland’s best player. The diminutive midfielder is an elusive off the ball runner and he has the ability to unlock doors in any opposition’s defences so he will always be a major threat. If they can keep him sweet and team him up with a new front man then he could well continue to establish himself as one of the Premier League’s finest playmakers.

Sessegnon Sunderland

Signings: Louis Saha, Carlos Cuellar

What they still need: They may have added Saha to their ranks but they still desperately need another striker and it sounds as if they are trying their utmost to land Steven Fletcher from Wolves. They could also do with more cover across all positions at the back.

Prediction: 9th

Swansea

Key Player: In the wake of Joe Allen’s departure from the club, Swansea are left without arguably their best player from last season but up until now at least they have managed to hold on to Scott Sinclair who has also been fantastic for them over the past couple of seasons. In his attacking midfield role Michael Laudrup will need Sinclair, his star man, to contribute heavily both in terms of goals scored and assists made otherwise the Swans could struggle to remain a Premier League club come the end of the season.

Sinclair Swansea City

Signings: Michu, Jose Manuel Flores, Jonathan De Guzman, Itay Shechter

What they still need: Swansea could do with replacing the playmaking talents of the departed Joe Allen and it wouldn’t hurt them to try and sign a new striker to compete for a place with Danny Graham as well. If Scott Sinclair is tempted away in the coming weeks by Manchester City then it would also be of paramount importance that they find a suitable replacement.

Prediction: 17th

Tottenham

Key Player: New signing Jan Vertonghen has impressed greatly in his time at former club Ajax and Spurs will need to him to settle very quickly in London if they are seriously challenge for the top few places in the league. Now that their defensive rock Ledley King has finally had to call it a day for his injury-plagued career there is a huge void left in Tottenham’s defence which creaked at times last year and Vertonghen will be required to fill it.

Vertonghen Spurs

Signings: Jan Vertonghen, Gylfi Sigurdsson

What they still need: A replacement for Luka Modric is a must and they could do with a couple of strikers also. They will still be hoping they can make a deal for Emmannuel Adebayor work and they may also try to land either one of Loic Remy or Leandro Damaio who have both been on their radar for quite a while. Andy Carroll could also be an option…

Prediction: 4th

West Brom

Key Player: Ben Foster has proven himself to be a very decent Premier League goalkeeper at a few different clubs now and though he is a keeper with an error-prone streak in him he is also a keeper capable of match-winning performances. Sometimes there seems to be absolutely no way past Foster and West Brom will need him to have several of these days in the forthcoming season if they are to avoid a post-Roy Hodgson era hangover under new manager Steve Clarke.

Foster West Brom

Signings: Markus Rosenberg, Ben Foster, Yassine El Ghanassy, Claudio Yacob

What they still need: West Brom’s squad could do with the addition of a striker who could bag them 15-20 goals a season and a midfielder capable of providing the service necessary to make this possible. Matt Jarvis might be a good option as he is a proven creator and scorer of Premier League goals from wide positions.

Prediction: 19th

West Ham

Key Player: James Tomkins has already had a taste of Premier League action having featured regularly in West Ham’s relegation season but this time he will be hoping to prove that he has developed his game sufficiently to help West Ham avoid the drop this time around. He has been the recipient of a lot of praise since West Ham found themselves back in the Championship and he will be desperate to continue his strong rate of development at the highest level this season.

Tomkins West Ham

Signings: Modibo Maiga, James Collins, Alou Diarra, Mohamed Diame, Stephen Henderson, Jussi Jaaskelainen, George McCartney

What they still need: The Hammers have recruited very well so far this summer but if they have aspirations of doing more than just staying up then they could do with one or two more faces. Their midfield now looks packed with strength and combative players but they still look slightly lightweight in terms of creative forces.

Prediction: 11th

Wigan

Key Player: New signing Arouna Kone notched an impressive 17 goals in 34 appearances for former club Levante last season and if Wigan are to steer clear of their now annual relegation battle then he will need to be similarly potent for his new club. Wigan have always struggled to find a consistent goal scorer in their years as a Premier League club but in Kone they may finally have found one. We’ll have to wait and see…

Kone Wigan

Signings: Arouna Kone, Fraser Fyvie, Ivan Ramis

What they still need: They could do with strengthening their defence and adding toughness to their midfield, they ideally would like to add players who already have Premier League experience. Another must for Wigan is either holding onto Victor Moses or alternatively spending the money made from any deal involving Moses wisely on a player or a couple of players who are capable of replacing his considerable talents.

Prediction: 16th

The Key Head-to-Head battles in Munich

This evening’s Champions League final pits firm-favourites Bayern Munich against underdogs Chelsea both of whom have had to defy the gods en-route the final.

Heynckes Di Matteo

Bayern’s Manager and Chelsea’s Interim Manager will have a huge say in tonight’s final

Bayern Munich, who I tipped as my Champions League winners in a blog post at the start of the season, will have the huge advantage of playing the final of European football’s showpiece event on their own pitch, in front of a lot of their own fans and in the comfort of their own stadium.

As nice as it is for Bayern to be playing on home turf, if some were to level criticism at them for winning the trophy in favourable circumstances then that would be grossly unfair given that they have overcome the likes of Real Madrid en-route to the final.

Madrid who early in the second leg of their Semi-Final clash had a 3-2 aggregate lead and a 2-0 lead on the night, were eventually out-gritted and out-done by the kings of German football who somehow found the strength to claw their way back into the tie and win it on penalties.

It is also hard to estimate just how much of an advantage it will prove to be for the giants of German club football to be playing at the Allianz Arena given that their home fans will theoretically have a far smaller ticket allocation than they would usually have for matches in their own ground. However, given that Munich are hosting the final it is more than likely that the ‘neutral’ sections of the ground will be awash with the red shirts and this anticipated wealth of support should give them the edge if they didn’t already have that in terms of their arguably superior playing personnel.

Opponents and ‘visitors’ Chelsea have endured a very strange season indeed. They have already slumped to a pretty dismal sixth-placed finish in the Premier League but they have also managed to land themselves some silverware in the FA Cup.

The other major positive in Chelsea’s season of contrasting fortunes has been their rise from the ashes in this season’s Champions League which has seen them recover from 3-1 down against Napoli after the first leg of their Second Round tie and from 2-1 down and a man down half an hour into their Semi-Final against a much-vaunted Barcelona side.

The man who must receive the most credit for dragging Chelsea’s season up from the cusp of a crisis is undoubtedly their Interim Manger Roberto Di Matteo. The young Italian has led the side he once played for with admirable calmness and confidence and should he fulfil the Chelsea Owner, Roman Abramovic’s, dream of landing the Champions League then surely he will be named the full-time boss come next week.

The outcome of the final could well be result of the team selection’s which both of the manager’s make and the reason for this is that both of them will be without several key players due to suspension.

Bayern will be without youngsters Holger Badstuber, David Alaba and Luis Gustavo who all would have been probable starters and Chelsea are missing their captain, John Terry, the ever-reliable Branislav Ivanovic and energetic midfielders Raul Meireles and Ramires who performed brilliantly against Barcelona in the Semis.

The probable line-ups for tonight’s game are as follows:

FC Bayern: (4-2-3-1)

Neuer

Lahm

Tymoschuk

Boateng

Contento

Schweinsteiger

Kroos

Robben

Muller

Ribery

Gomez

 

Chelsea FC: (4-2-3-1)

Cech

Bosingwa

Luiz

Cahill

Cole

Mikel

Lampard

Kalou

Mata

Bertrand

Drogba

 

I think the key battles to look out for tonight at the Allianz Arena will be as follows:

 

Bosingwa Vs. Ribery

Chelsea’s probable selection at right-back will be Jose Bosingwa who isn’t exactly renowned for his exemplary defensive strength and discipline but in the absence of the suspended Ivanovic he has to play ahead of Paolo Ferreira as he has the pace to try and deal with the rampaging runs of Franck Ribery.

Ribery Robben

Ribery and Robben will give Chelsea a lot of problem’s down each flank

Ribery is one of the the most talented players in the Bayern side and although he has failed to truly prove himself on the very biggest stages of world football thus far, maybe tonight will provide him with the chance to shine. Going up against Bosingwa will have it’s difficulties in terms of Bosingwa’s speed which should help him keep with the Frenchman but Ribery’s craft and dribbling ability could cause the Portugese full-back to have a torrid evening. If Bosingwa keeps Ribery in his pocket then much of  Bayern’s threat will be negated.

Boateng Vs Drogba

In the absence of first-choice centre-halves, the versatile German international Jerome Boateng provide’s Bayern with their only obvious option to command the central area of their back-line and the task ahead of him could hardly be more difficult than having to deal with Drogba.

Drogba Boateng

Drogba looks to have the beating of Boateng but the young German could emerge as the star for Bayern if he keeps Drogba quiet

There is arguably still no better player on the planet than Drogba when it comes to playing up top as a solitary front-man and if he is at his best then I would be surprised if Boateng and co keep him quiet for long. If Boateng is partnered at centre-back by an out of position and perhaps more importantly rather short Anatoliy Tymoschuk then much of the defensive burden may fall on his shoulders and he could be almost solely reliant for taming the undoubted threat which Drogba poses.

Schweinsteiger Vs. Lampard

Two of this final’s veteran players could have a huge say in the outcome of the match as both of them hold the key to their side’s passing games.

Lampard Schweinsteiger

Could these two decide the outcome of the final with their possession-play in midfield

Both Lampard and Schweinsteiger are seen as their side’s dictators of play and much will rest on each of their shoulders as they seek to win the possession battle which could prove very significant on the night.

Cahill Vs. Gomez

Having played very little football over the past few weeks due to injury, tonight could go one of two ways for Chelsea’s January recruit Gary Cahill. One possibility is that this short-term absence has kept him fresh and ready to take on Bayern tonight, but the other possibility is that he may be under-cooked which he simply cannot afford to be when taking on the likes of Mario Gomez who has already scored 41 goals this season in all competitions.

David Luiz

Gary Cahill will need to be at his very best after a brief injury lay-off

Gomez has some similarities with Chelsea’s target-man Didier Drogba in that they are both part of a rare-breed of tall and strong strikers who aren’t merely physical presences but who are also very mobile and very technically sound footballers. If Gomez performs to something like the best of his abilities then Cahill will have to produce an epic performance to try and keep him under wraps as his likely parter at centre-back will be David Luiz who in spite of an improving level of awareness still represents something of a liability.

 

My Prediction:

I think that both sides will provide a threat due to their respective absences of key players in key positions but I think Bayern will come out on top and deny Chelsea from winning a first Champions League title.

Score: Bayern 2 – 1 Chelsea:

Scorers (In order) : Gomez (First Half), Robben  (Early Second Half), Drogba (15 minutes to go)

 

 

England’s Euros Squad: The Ups and Downs of Roy’s first squad and what I would have done differently

In the wake of one of the most protracted squad releases ever known to man, the world and his wife have begun to let their feelings be known about Roy Hodgson’s first England squad selection and it must be said that most are a little bit irked by a few omissions and selections.

Hodgson England

The headlines in short are that Steven Gerrard has been named captain, Rio Ferdinand misses out, John Terry makes the cut in spite of the on-going race row, Kyle Walker misses out through injury, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and John Ruddy are in despite never having played for the national side and Micah Richards, Peter Crouch, Darren Bent, Daniel Sturridge and Phil Jagielka have all missed out.

If I were in charge my squad would be as follows:

Joe Hart, Rob Green, John Ruddy

Glen Johnson, Phil Jones, Gary Cahill, John Terry, Joleon Lescott, Rio Ferdinand, Ashley Cole, Leighton Baines

Theo Walcott, Frank Lampard, Scott Parker, Steven Gerrard, Michael Carrick, James Milner, Ashley Young, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain

Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Daniel Sturridge, Andy Carroll

Reserves: David Stockdale, Phil Jagielka, Adam Johnson, Aaron Lennon, Peter Crouch

I think the goalkeeping selections in ‘my squad’ are the same as what Roy’s because, quite frankly, there are only very few other viable options. The likes of Ben Foster and Paul Robinson would be hard to tempt back into international football given that they would only be back-up options to Joe Hart who in reality will probably start every game of the tournament even if he plays really poorly.

My defensive selections are also very similar to Roy’s. I too would have ignored Micah Richards as he hasn’t been able to find a place in City’s line-up in recent weeks which I believe speaks volumes about a lack of faith in his ability to be trusted in big games. The only alteration between my selection and that of Hodgson is my inclusion of Rio Ferdinand as an eighth defender. I think Ferdinand has performed admirably at times throughout the latter half of the Premier League season and if his omission is down to “footballing reasons” and not an unwillingness to partner John Terry then I would still have him alongside JT in my starting line-up.

My midfield selections are also fairly similar to Hodgson’s. I though would never even have considered Stewart Downing for a place in the squad given his dismal form this season and I would have instead taken an extra central midfielder in the form of Michael Carrick who I think has had a very strong season in Manchester United’s midfield. Another player who has made Hodgson’s squad but would fall short of making mine is James Milner who has struggled to find a starting place at Manchester City over the second half of this season. I know his omission would be a little controversial given his very strong and determined character and his versatility but I am wary of taking too many players that are either out of form or struggling to get into their club sides.

My four striking options would consist of Rooney, Welbeck, Carroll and Sturridge. Rooney and Welbeck are must haves after their respective campaigns at Manchester United, Carroll would provide a direct, target-man option and Sturridge would provide flexibility and versatility with his ability to play either through the middle or out a little wider as part of a front three. I would omit Jermain Defoe from my squad for the same reasons as I stated about James Milner, he is undoubtedly a very good finisher and he does have decent experience of international football but I struggle to see him making a huge impact when he has been limited to a place on the subs bench for much of the Premier League season.

In summary I think the positives of Roy’s selection are as follows:

John Ruddy’s selection as the third keeper: It is nice to see Ruddy’s development this season rewarded with a call up and I think his form has warranted acknowledgment of this nature.

Micah Richards’ omission: I think Micah Richards offers a lot in the Premier League but when up against the world’s best wingers and full-backs I still think he lacks discipline. I think he will be a part of England’s World Cup squad for Brazil in 2014 but for nowI think he still needs to do more.

The selection of Gerrard and Lampard in midfield: Many were calling for one or both of England’s veteran centre midfielders to be axed in favour of a promotion of younger options but they are both still well worth a place in the squad for me.

Picking Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain: This was a decision that took a lot of guts and I definitely think it’s the right call. I would go as far as to consider the Ox for a starting berth as I think he has the ability to provide a real surprise factor at the Euros. If he were German or Dutch then I think that their coaches would be throwing him straight into their line-ups as their policy of promoting young talent on the big stage in recent times has proven successful.

Andy Carroll taken as one of England’s strikers: Many will point to Carroll’s poor form since moving to Anfield in arguing that he isn’t worth a place but I think his more recent signs of life and in particular his strong performance in the FA Cup Final as a second half substitute are enough to suggest that he could be a key player for England next month.

And now for my thoughts on what I think are the glaring mistakes in Hodgson’s selection…

The  ‘Downs’ of Hodgson’s squad selection:

The omission of Rio Ferdinand: He may not be the force of old but I think Rio is definitely still one of the four best centre backs in the country and should therefore have been selected.

Stewart Downing making the cut: I don’t understand how a player so horribly out of sorts can make England’s national squad in a position which we are actually quite well stocked in. I simply cannot fathom how he has been preferred to other wide men such as Adam Johnson and Aaron Lennon. For me this is the worst selection in the whole of Roy’s first squad.

The omission of Michael Carrick: I have forever been fighting the corner of Michael Carrick as being someone worthy of a place in the international set-up but it seems that yet another England manager doesn’t much fancy him. I may be a touch biased given that I am a United fan but I think he has had a very decent season and that he offers the defensive qualities of someone like Gareth Barry whilst also offering a superior ability to distribute the ball. Sadly it now appears as if he is ready to turn his back on international football.

The omission of Daniel Sturridge: He may have struggled to hold down a place in Chelsea’s starting line-up since Di Matteo took over at the club but before that he was arguably one of Chelsea’s best players this season. Versatility is crucial for sides hoping to go deep into major tournaments and I think he would provide that in abundance.

Premier League Predictions: The Final Weekend

Rooney Aguero

Rooney and Aguero will be hoping to score the crucial goals in the title deciding games this Sunday

 

Chelsea 3-0 Blackburn

In the grand scheme of things this game means very little as Chelsea are resigned to relying on a Champions League final win to secure Champions League qualification and Blackburn are already relegated after their loss to Wigan in the week.

The game will however provide both managers with a chance to prove why they deserve to keep their jobs. Di Matteo has done a fantastic job with Chelsea since he took over but the success he has delivered to the Blues in the Champions League and the FA Cup hasn’t quite been replicated in the league. His opposite number, Steve Kean, would be well advised to wear a tin hat as he sits in the dug out at the weekend as his own fans are sure to give him yet another rollocking off the back of their slump to certain relegation. I think Di Matteo will sign off in style at the Bridge and hopefully in doing so might convince Abramovic that he is right for the job.

Everton 1-1 Newcastle

Newcastle’s loss to City last weekend has probably ruled them out of grabbing a Champions League spot but that should do nothing to dampen the praise that Alan Pardew and his men have been rightfully receiving for their efforts this campaign. I think that they will struggle to break down David Moyes’ Everton who could live to regret not defeating the likes of already relegated Wolves as they may just miss out on finishing higher than bitter rivals Liverpool. I think this will be a really close game and I wouldn’t be surprised if star January signings Nikica Jelavic and Papiss Demba Cisse score a goal apiece in a score-draw.

Man City 2-1 QPR

Surely the pick of the games on the final Sunday of the season! City must win to secure the title (bar a cricket score at the Stadium of Light where United take on Sunderland) and QPR must draw to guarantee survival (bar another cricket score at the Britannia where Bolton travel to Stoke).

I think City will come out all guns blazing, for want of a better cliche, and will create plenty of chances but I wouldn’t be surprised if the nerves get to them a little on the day and they miss a few gilt-edged chances en-route to a victory by perhaps a smaller margin than should be the case.

I think QPR must try and score because I can’t see them shutting out City at the Etihad. If they can produce a similarly uncompromising and forward thinking performance as they managed earlier this season at home to the champions-elect then maybe, just maybe, they can make this one of the most memorable final days of all time. I reckon City will go a couple ahead within the first hour but that QPR will get one back and send some jitters around the Etihad.

Norwich 1-1 Aston Villa

I can’t see this game setting the world alight and now that Villa are effectively safe from the drop there is actually very little riding on it.

Norwich have had a fantastic season and deserve an enormous amount of praise as I am one of many who though their squad was way too lightweight for them to survive let alone find themselves in mid-table come the end of the season. On the other hand I thought that Villa would have done a lot better than they have this campaign but in fairness to their manager Alex McLeish they have had a rotten season on the injury’s front. This game could even prove to be a scoreless bore-draw.

Stoke 2-2 Bolton Wanderers

I think Bolton will push the home side all the way in this one as they try desperately to avoid the drop but I think their efforts will eventually prove to be futile.

I am surprised to see them struggling so low in the table but they have got themselves stuck in a rut and now I think they will go down. For the sake of the fans and in fact the club as a whole I truly hope they don’t get relegated as they have had an awful lot to deal with this year given the stress and mental torment caused by the Fabrice Muamba’s heart-breaking (no pun intended) collapse against Spurs. I also think that the loss of Stuart Holden and Lee Chung-Yong to injury has been fatal to their hopes of Premier League survival as they were both very impressive throughout last season.

This game will give the likes of Peter Crouch the opportunity to prove that they are worth a place in England’s squad for the Euros and I expect to see his name on the scoresheet in a score-draw.

Sunderland 1-3 Manchester United

United need to win to have any hope of leap-frogging rivals Manchester City on the final day of this year’s title race and I think they will get one against a Sunderland side who appear to be playing just for pride.

Sunderland won’t simply bow down and they do have players that can harm United but I think the stakes are too high for Manchester United to fluff their lines so I can see it being a decent win for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men as they hope for a slip-up at the Etihad Stadium.

Sir Alex will hope for a couple of early goals in order to try and send a message of intent and to try and send a wave of nervousness and tension back home to Manchester where the worries of the City fans could translate into impatience and panic on the field.

Swansea 1-2 Liverpool

Swansea have had an amazing season and their manager Brendan Rogers must surely have attracted the interest of some higher powers at some of the Premier League’s more established clubs. The way he has encouraged Swansea to play ‘real’ passing football and made it a successful match-winning strategy is truly admirable and I think he would make for a fantastic replacement to Arsene Wenger at Arsenal at some point in the future.

Liverpool’s league campaign has been dreadful but their emphatic win over Chelsea in midweek will have instilled them with confidence and I expect them to win this game and finish one point ahead of rivals Everton in the race to be the highest placed club on Merseyside. Watch out for Andy Carroll in this one as he aims to continue his half decent form and push for a place in Roy Hodgson’s England squad.

Tottenham 3-1 Fulham

Tottenham have struggled over the past three months but have shown major signs of a revival in their past couple of games as their Champions League hopes have got back on track. They may now need Chelsea to miss out in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich but that is certainly better than not having any hope at all which would be the case if they dropped out of the top four.

Fulham have done very well to have a chance of reaching what could yet be a record points tally for them in the Premier League after a tough start to the season but I think they will lose out to Spurs who have a far greater prize to play for on the final day. If Bale and Lennon find their marauding best as they have done in the last couple of games then Spurs should win.

West Brom 1-2 Arsenal

West Brom have had a very good campaign en-route to further establishing themselves as a Premier League club and departing boss Roy Hodgson must be praised highly for his role in their development…oh wait, he already has…

However, I think the Baggies will lose out in a game which is of far greater importance to their opponents Arsenal who will be keen to finish third and avoid the uncertainty of potentially missing out on the Champions League if Chelsea were to beat Bayern in the Champions League final.

Without the brilliance of Robin Van Persie I think Arsenal would have finished outside of the top five this season but I expect him to score yet again in this crucial final game of the season. If they do secure a Champions League place then it is vital they hold onto their captain as the prospect of him partnering new recruit Lukas Podolski up-front next season is pretty tasty.

Wigan 2-0 Wolves

The visitors to the DW this weekend, Wolves, have endured a pretty torrid season and they might be glad to get this last game out of the way as they plan for life back in the Championship.

Their opponents on the final day, Wigan, might have feared that this weekend would also mark the day that they dropped back out of English football’s top flight given the precariousness of their league position a couple of months ago but manager Roberto Martinez has worked wonders.

Neither side has too much to play for given Wigan’s guaranteed survival and Wolves’ certain departure from Premier League football but I expect Wigan to keep their staggering run of form going with a comfortable win. Martinez might actually want to use this game as something of a scouting mission as Wolves do have a couple of very decent players on their books such as Matt Jarvis and they could be within budget for Wigan over the summer as they try to build on their season of flirting with relegation.

 

 

The Summer Sales: Benfica, Dortmund and Bilbao amongst those likely to pay for their success

As the summer draws closer and the vast majority of Europe’s domestic leagues are winding up for the summer break and the transfer window that comes with it, rumours are rife about who could go where and why they might seek pastures new.

It is the time of year when all sides who have either performed beyond their means or who have been outgrown by their leading lights fear the most as they head into the year’s most lengthy and protracted period of transfer-related vulnerability.

We have already seen clear examples of what this summer’s transfer window may have to offer as the Bundesliga’s relegation threatened Cologne have lost their talismanic local hero Lukas Podolski to Arsenal for what appears a bit of a bargain. Arsenal have also moved to try and avoid last season’s mad rush for recruits on deadline day by attempting to secure a deal for Yann M’Vila who is also fast becoming too big a fish in the small pond that is Rennes.

Podolski

Podolski has a fantastic international record

In addition to  players like Podolski and M’Vila shining at their clubs and attracting attention from ‘Big-Time’ clubs from around Europe, there are also whole clubs around Europe who may pay the price for their success and they could be set to lose multiple players over the forthcoming summer.

Benfica, having forced their way ahead of Porto in Portugal’s domestic pecking order for much of the Portugese league season and having entertained en-route to a place in the last eight of the Champions League are now surely set for a summer of fending off interest in their most-prized assets.

Gaitan impressed against United and will have attracted interest from SAF

Arguably the hottest property at the club is their versatile attacking midfielder Nicolas Gaitan who has attracted many potential suitors with his strong performances both in Portugal and in the Champions League. It is the creative talents of the 24 year-old Argentine which have earned himself a now regular slot in amongst Argentina’s rather special attacking contingent in the national squad and that have drawn interest from huge club’s like Manchester United who have been linked more closely with securing his services than any other side.

Another huge talent plying his trade at Benfica is Swiss international Axel Witsel who has this season emerged as one of Europe’s most talented and

Witsel has shone this season and a big club will surely come calling

combative central midfielders. His consistently strong and disruptive performances amongst Benfica’s talented midfield impressed has I’m sure impressed many scouts at the top European clubs, and perhaps never more so than in Benfica’s Champions League group games which resulted in them outdoing both Manchester United and FC Basle.

Benfica’s impressive displays this year may have gone some way towards re-building their reputation and improving their financial outlook but if they don’t manage to hold onto the likes of Gaitan and Witsel then it could well have cost them dear when it comes to the strength of their playing personnel.

Another club who could come under the radar of many of Europe’s top clubs are Borussia Dortmund who have for the second season running overcome Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga title race.

Shinji Kagawa

Kagawa and Gotze both look set to fly the nest at Dortmund

Already it is being said that Shinji Kagawa might have agreed a deal with Manchester United which would be a major loss for the German club and others may well follow him out of the door as Dortmund have failed to cash in on their domestic success with a strong return to European football.

Centre-backs Neven Subotic and Mats Hummels have both impressed greatly over the past couple of seasons and have also become key players in their respective national set-ups and it would be absolutely no surprise if Europe’s major forces tried to recruit either one of them.

The jewel in Dortmund’s crown though is Mario Gotze the diminutive, young attacking midfielder and he again is being linked with a move away having featured regularly in transfer talk throughout much of the past two years. If he were to part company with Dortmund it would perhaps be the greatest loss of them all as he is very much the golden boy at the German Champions and he is the very embodiment of all that has been positive about their re-emergence as a major force in German football.

Another side likely to be the subject of a lot of transfer attention are Athletic Bilbao who have won many admirers during their European adventures this season. Though their Europa League campaign ultimately ended in major disappointment when they lost 3-0 to fellow Spanish side Athletico Madrid, many of their young and talented squad have caught the eye of on-looking scouts and as they are a side struggling to break into La Liga’s upper echelons and into real contention to secure Champions League football they will surely lose a hold of some of their stars this summer.

Iker Muniain Javi Martinez

Bilbao have entertained in the Europa League

The two most sought after members of their squad would appear to be versatile holding-midfielder and captain Javi Martinez and their star striker Fernando Llorente both of whom were a part of Spain’s world cup winning squad in 2010.

Martinez, who has for a long time been linked with Real Madrid and Barcelona, has starred for Bilbao and has demonstrated great maturity in captaining a side who have impressed under his leadership in spite of his relatively tender age. Not often is one so young placed in such a position of responsibility at a football club but Martinez has led by example providing much of the thrust which has made his Bilbao side such a dynamic force this season. He may be reluctant to leave such a prominent and valued role at his boyhood club but he will also be aware that he must be playing Champions League football if he is to fulfil his ambitions of becoming a regular in Spain’s line-up.

The same can also be said of Llorente who’s sublime volley against Manchester United in the Europa League will live long in the memory. If his talents aren’t also taken onto the next level, which is surely regular Champions League football, then perhaps he will miss out on the opportunity to stay ahead of the likes of Fernando Torres in Spain’s pecking order.

It would be a surprise if Bilbao managed to hold on to both Martinez and Llorente in the wake of their hiccup in the final of the Europa League and their consequent failure to secure Champions League football for next season but perhaps they can be hopeful of holding onto another of their prodigious talents Iker Muniain who is maybe a step behind the likes of Martinez in terms of his development.

The diminutive forward has provided great support for Llorente over the course of this season and though Bilbao have the means to hold onto him for now it might well be beyond their power if he decides that he is already primed for a first crack at Champions League football. There will certainly be no shortage of sides willing to look into the possibility of tempting him away from the San Mames if he does want out so expect rumour a plenty about where his future might lie this summer.

A big factor in Bilbao’s attempts to hold onto their emerging stars could be whether they manage to hold onto their Coach Marcelo Bielsa who has a fine record since taking charge and could perhaps be on the hit list for many of Europe’s top clubs. The club’s directors will though be breathing a huge sigh of relief that Barcelona have turned to Tito Vilanova as Pep Guardiola’s successor as Bielsa was the name on everbody’s lips as soon as the job became seemingly up for grabs.

If Bilbao’s agonising shortcoming in trying to secure Champions League football hasn’t already proved enough for their skipper and other key players, then surely the loss of Bielsa would put the final nail in the coffin in terms of sealing their respective decisions to part company with the Basque club.

It is indeed sad for football that many emerging sides tend to lose the best of their playing crop every time they show any major signs of development and bridging the gap that lies between them and the more dominant clubs in Europe but that is the nature of the modern game. Money talks and so does the opportunity to play at a higher level on a more regular basis, so expect the likes of Benfica, Dortmund and Bilbao to pay for their success and have to fight valiantly in order to hold onto their most prized assets.

Other names to watch out for in this summer’s transfer market:

Radamel Falcao (Athletico Madrid), Hulk (Porto), Papiss Demba Cisse (Newcastle), Cheick Tiote (Newcastle), Eden Hazard (Lille), Loic Remy (Marseille), Gonzalo Higuain (Real Madrid), Dani Alves (Barcelona), Robin Van Persie (Arsenal), Ricky Van Wolfswinkel (Sporting Lisbon), Ola John (FC Twente), Luuk De Jong (FC Twente), Cristian Eriksen (Ajax) Gregory Van Der Wiel (Ajax), Leighton Baines (Everton), Stephane Sessegnon (Sunderland), Didier Drogba (Chelsea), Edinson Cavani (Napoli), Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Ezequiel Lavezzi (Napoli)

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

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.