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

Euro 2012: Prediction for The Final

Spain Vs. Italy:

So, here we are. It is time for the final and time for us to find out who will be crowned either the kings of Europe or the new kings of Europe.

Spain Vs Italy

Spain will of course go into the game as favourites but Italy should be hopeful that they can cause an upset

Spain head into the final hunting a third straight success in major tournament football, a feat which has never before been achieved and Italy are looking forward to trying to prevent the Spaniards from taking the title and also continuing their uncanny run of achieving major tournament success in the wake of or in the midst of major match-fixing scandals within their national game.

So far many have deemed Spain’s performances a little lacklustre when considering their enormously high standards but such thoughts and pessimism regarding the Spanish must be unfair given that they have once again made it all the way through the tournament and into the final.

Italy on the other hand have been the recipients of an enormous amount of praise for the way in which they have surprised people not only with their ability to carve out important results but also the way in which they have gone about their business on the pitch, playing with perhaps a greater emphasis on the attacking side of the game than has been evident in former Italian sides in major tournaments.

The man behind most of Italy’s attacking play has been Andrea Pirlo who has had an astonishingly good tournament and who has shone above the likes of Xavi and Iniesta of Spain each of whom have become the benchmark for creative midfielders to aspire to over the past few years. Pirlo’s range of passing has been at the forefront of Italy’s success in each and every one of their matches thus far and Spain will have to deal far better with the threat he poses from deep in the Italian midfield than either England or Germany managed to do in the previous two rounds.

Contrastingly, Spain have struggled to decide upon their ‘go-to man’ in this tournament and perhaps that is why they haven’t been quite so fluent as people have come to expect them to be. Some of their best attacking play has though been provided by Andres Iniesta who has been given a more forward-thinking role over the past couple of years by the Spanish coaching team and they will need him to be at his very best if they are to make history this weekend.

I have a feeling that this will be a very close game indeed and I think that things will unfold in similar fashion to how they did when these two sides met in their opening group game where Italy took the lead and were pegged back by Spain. I think that normal time will again see these two sides locked at 1-1 and I think Spain will win in extra-time in spite of a brave Italian performance.

I actually think that Italy could well be the side creating the bulk of the game’s best chances but I am backing Spain to fight their way to the narrowest of victories courtesy of some clinical finishing.

Euro 2012: Semi-Finals Predictions

Portgual Vs. Spain:

Though the reigning champions Spain will go into the first semi-final as big favourites to win and progress to a third straight final in major tournament football, their opponents and next-door neighbours Portugal are arguably in better form and will be keen to get one over on their more celebrated neighbours.

Ronaldo Casillas

This international ‘derby-match’ makes for a mouth-watering semi-final clash at the Euros

It isn’t as if ‘getting one over’ on Spain is Portugal’s only huge incentive to take this run further either, they are also hugely driven by their failure to capitalise on their run to the final on home turf in 2004 and to some extent are still embarrassed by their loss to huge underdogs Greece in that final and they are more than keen to try and erase such bitter memories with an incredible rise to prominence at this tournament.

If Portugal were to defeat Spain and then whoever would be lying in wait in the final then the Portugese will have landed the trophy in the most spectacular of fashions having come through the ‘group of death’ defeating Denmark and Holland along the way and then having defeated rivals Spain and then either one of footballing super-powers Germany or Italy in the final.

Typically, to win a major tournament you have to have overcome some serious opposition along but with their quarter-final draw aside, if Portugal were to win the tournament come Sunday evening then they would surely have had one of the more amazing runs ever seen in a European Championships.

Portugal will need to keep their dreams in check though for now, as they must try and do what nobody has done since France in 2006 and find a way to get the better of Spain in the knockout stages of a major competition.

Spain have been on the receiving end of a wave of criticism in this tournament for their perceived negativity in not selecting an ‘out-and-out’ striker  in half of their games but their record stands up against any criticism and scepticism as they have won three out of their four matches and drawn with fellow semi-finalists Italy.

Arguably their most criticised performance was their quarter-final showing against France but the facts are that they won the game 2-0 against very strong opposition and that they hardly ever looked even remotely troubled throughout. People have begun to turn against Spain as they do with many sides that are successful over a long period of time, as success does grate on some and any complaints about Spain’s strategy at this tournament and also the lack of excitement for the neutrals in a couple of their matches is just grown out of bitterness.

It is very hard indeed to justifiably have a pop at Spain and Vicente Del Bosque’s preferred tactics as they have once again found themselves unbeatable up to this point of the tournament. However, if Portugal harbor real hopes of becoming the first team since France to get the better of Spain in a major tournament then they would do well to follow in the footsteps of Croatia who may have ended up losing to Spain but along the way they caused some major concerns for their more celebrated opponents and could really have won the game had they made the most of their chances.

I think Portugal are actually quite well set up to cause Spain some issues and I think that inspired by Cristiano Ronaldo they will draw the game 1-1 in normal time. If this predicted score is to materialise then I will back Portugal to win either in extra-time or on penalties even if just to make this score prediction a little more ballsy.

 

Italy Vs. Germany:

The second of the semi-finals is set to be a very intriguing game indeed and in the wake of Germany’s performance against Greece in the quarter-finals which was full of attacking intent and ambition, their coach Joachim Loew now has some very tough selections to make in his side to face an Italian team who are likely to pose a greater threat and greater defensive resistance than Greece were capable of.

Pirlo Italy

Pirlo’s ‘Panenka’ spot-kick capped a wonderful night’s work against England both for him as an individual and for Italy as a whole

Arguably the toughest of Loew’s decisions regarding his line-up for the semi-finals will be whether he can find a place for the very impressive Marco Reus. Reus was behind much of Germany’s best play against the Greeks and he got his name on the score-sheet in emphatic style and may well have played his way in Loew’s thinking ahead of the Italy clash, as this individual performance was arguably more impressive than any other by one of Loew’s usual first-choice trio of attacking midfielders Thomas Mueller, Lukas Podolski and Mesut Ozil thus far in this tournament.

It seems a formality that Mario Gomez will come back in for Miroslav Klose as the lone striker and Germany will be heavily reliant upon Gomez to prove himself just as clinical this time around as he was in the opening two games of the tournament, which saw him score three goals having had possession of the ball for just 22 seconds throughout these two matches. This conversion rate was staggering and it proved many of Gomez’s doubters very wrong indeed and now Germany will hope he can return to the side in similar goal-scoring fashion.

Germany’s opponents Italy may not have frightened the life out of any potential opposition at this tournament with their failure to score over 120 minutes of football against England who they had on the back-foot for much of Sunday night but they did play well and they will be hugely encouraged by Andrea Pirlo’s glorious exhibition of passing football and one of Mario Balotelli’s more persistent, determined and perhaps most importantly mature performances in an Italian shirt.

Italy are under no illusions about the task lying ahead of them if they are serious about winning the Euros and they know they will have to be more clinical if they are to have any chance of doing so but there were many more positives than negatives to come out of their quarter-final performance and consequentially they will head into the Germany game with greater self-confidence.

I think that Italy will find it hard to adapt to being fronted up to when it comes to possession and in terms of territorial domination in this semi-final clash after the dominance they experienced in their game against England and what I think will hurt them the most is that Andrea Pirlo in particular is far more unlikely to have a huge say in this game as Germany are better equipped to deal with the significant threat which he poses.

I think Germany will win the game 2-1 and I still have them down as my favourites to win the tournament as I have throughout the entirety of the competition.

Euro 2012: Quarter-Final 3 Prediction

Spain Vs. France:

Throughout the group stages both France and Spain struggled for fluency at times and both flirted with elimination from the competition on match-day three of the groups when they were each given a real scare by ‘inferior’ opposition.

Spain France Euro 2012

Spain and France have struggled to find their best form so far in the competition

France in particular struggled to find form in the group stages and qualified from group D as runners-up having managed a total of just four points from their three matches, their most disappointing performance of all coming in their final game against Sweden where they were beaten 2-0 by a side already assured of elimination from the competition.

Arguably their best performance of the groups was against England in their opening game where they dominated the game for long periods but even with the amount of territory and possession they managed against the English they still didn’t look hugely threatening as they were all too often limited to long range strikes at goal.

If France are to have any hope of shocking the reigning European and World Champions Spain then they will have to find much more fluency and will have to find ways of getting in behind their opponents which is something they have really struggled to do in their group matches against England and Sweden.

When the French are at their best they find a way of getting their danger men into the action on a regular basis and it is essential that they provide the likes of Samir Nasri and Franck Ribery with plenty of ball so that they can use the full width of the pitch and stretch the game. If they don’t manage to do so then it is likely that Spain will be allowed to play within their comfort zone in the narrow areas of the pitch where they can really hurt France with their tight and slick passing.

If Spain have their own way then they will try and dictate the play as mentioned and keep the game in the central areas of the field where they are arguably more blessed than any other nation. In their final group game against Croatia they may have eventually snatched the points through Jesus Navas’ late tap-in but for long periods of the game they looked fragile against the counter-attacking willingness and talents that Croatia had at their disposal and they should really have been punished in the last half an hour when Ivan Rakitic failed to head home the easiest of his side’s chances.

Had Rakitic applied the finishing touches to Croatia’s most threatening break then Spain could well have been the tournament’s biggest opening round casualty but they managed to pull through in the end and they will be hoping they can re-find their best form in the knock-out stages where it really counts.

Spain’s finest performance of the competition thus far came when they defeated the Republic of Ireland by four goals to nil. In this match they found a balance between their suffocating midfield play and their ability to stretch the game when required and as such they created several good chances and made their opponents look horribly out of their depth.

Tonight Spain will have to do much the same if they are to get the better of a France side who will arguably provide Spain with their toughest challenge so far in tournament if they can find anything like their best form. I think that Spain will just about get the job done but I expect them to find the going tough throughout periods of the match before coming out of the game on the right side of a 2-1 final scoreline.

Euro 2012: Day 11 Predictions

Croatia Vs. Spain:

This fixture places the top two teams in Group C against one another and if either side wins the match then they will top the group and face the runners-up in Group D in the quarter-finals.

Torres Spain

Torres found his best form against Ireland and will be hoping to keep it up against Croatia tonight

Up to this point Croatia have surpassed the expectations of many and they have been well worth the four points which they have gained so far in the group stages. Their opening  3-1 win against Ireland was clinical and then they followed this result with a strong second half fight-back against Italy to earn themselves what could prove to be a crucial point.

They will again have to dig deep if they are to get anything out of their match against Spain and given their  opponents’ suffocating style of possession-play Croatia are likely to have to be even more clinical than they have been already in their opening two games. The key to Croatia getting a win or a draw will be the solidity and stubbornness of their defensive play and the link play between star player Luka Modric and their two impressively clinical front-men Mario Mandzukic and Nikica Jelavic.

Having struggled to break down a stubborn Italian side in their opening game, Spain will have been buoyed by their thumping of Ireland four days ago. Vicente Del Bosque decided to ditch the ‘4-6-0’ formation from their opening fixture and opted for a recognised front man in the form of Fernando Torres. He then had to do little more than sit back and reap the rewards of his decision as Torres bagged himself a couple of confidence boosting goals in an emphatic victory, which sees them head into the last game of Group C as the favourites to win the group.

They may be the favourites to win the match and win the group but Spain will have to be very wary of the threat which Croatia have posed to the other sides in Group C and this match is unlikely to be anywhere near as comfortable as the other night against Ireland. I’m going for a 2-1 win for Spain with Torres to add to his goals tally for the tournament.

 

Italy Vs. Ireland:

Up to this point Ireland have failed to do themselves justice at the Euros and as old and stubborn as he may be, Giovanni Trapattoni will surely be left ruing his side’s missed opportunity to announce their return to tournament football with real gusto. Two games and two unimpressive losses is a record which Ireland will be determined to nip in the bud and they will be very eager to put things right by at least going home with a point courtesy of their final group game tonight.

Dunne Given

Ireland have disappointed thus far and Italy will be confident of inflicting another defeat upon them

Their opponents today are Italy who will be fairly satisfied with their first two games of the tournament in spite of only having picked up two points. Their opening day draw against Spain will have been of particular satisfaction as they matched ‘the world’s best side’ for long periods of the match and as well as negating much of the threat of their much-vaunted opposition they also created some very decent chances of their own and could even have won the game had they been a little more clinical. Their second game of the group stages will have been have been less pleasing, as a win would have put them in contention to win the group and they failed to push on from what was a very impressive first half performance against the Croats and ended up with another 1-1 draw.

This record of having led both of their matches but having failed to win a game so far in the tournament will be a real concern for Cesare Prandelli and his Italian side but they know that they must win against Ireland tonight  if they are to have any chance of progressing to the last eight and I think they will do so. I think Italy will win the game 3-1.

Euro 2012: Day 3 Predictions

Italy Vs. Spain:

Spain and Italy could hardly be going into this tournament having had more contrasting preparations for the tournament.

Spain Italy football

Spain will be big favourites to defeat Italy and are the favourites with the bookies to win the tournament

Spain have won both of the last two major tournaments and are heading into the Euros with a strong, familiar and for the most-part experienced squad and as such are very much being targeted by the rest of the field as ‘the team to beat’ to.

Italy on the other hand have disappointed on their two most recent outings in major tournament football, have a younger and more inexperienced look to their squad than usual and their domestic leagues have once again been embroiled in a wide-scale match-fixing scandal.

On the plus side  though for Italy, the last time their nation was under scrutiny amidst match-fixing issues they went to the World Cup in Germany 2006 and they came home as champions of the world. Also, as much as Spain may possess a squad packed with talent, class and depth they are missing a couple of the key players from their recent triumphs, Carles Puyol and David Villa, both of whom have failed to recover form injuries in time for the defence of Spain’s crown.

In spite of their high-profile injury absences Spain still have an embarrassment of riches at their disposal and I expect them to win 2-1 in the opening game of Group C. Just as an aside to my score prediction, I think it will be intriguing as it always is to watch Mario Balotelli and to see whether he looks like producing the sublime or the ridiculous at the Euros, both of which we know he is all too capable of…

If Balotelli and fellow front-man Di Natale can link well with each other then don’t write off Italy’s chances of getting themselves a draw but I think Spain will be a little too good for them on the day.

Croatia Vs. Ireland:

The second match on the opening day for Group C sees Ireland return to the big time and although they have a very tough looking group draw they will head into the tournament with great enthusiasm and the hope that they can spring a few surprises.

Giovanni Trapattoni Slaven Bilic

The opening game for Ireland and Croatia will depend much on the respective strategies of their two managers

Their opening game pits them against Croatia who have at times really impressed in tournament football since returning as an independent nation in the early nineties and who possess a few of European football’s most sought after and most in-form players.

The two names that spring to mind immediately with Croatia in terms of their biggest assets are Luka Modric, who is on the radar of several European super-clubs, and Nikica Jelavic who has proved an instant hit in the Premier League with Everton. If Modric is at his superb best then it is likely that Jelavic and his fellow forwards will have plenty of scraps to feed on and if they do then Ireland could be in for a torrid evening.

Ireland are likely to set up in typical fashion as their manager Giovanni Trapattoni is very sure of his first XI and how he thinks they can be most successfully deployed. The manager tends to side with defensive responsibilities and his Ireland side are expected to soak up pressure and to try and produce match-winning chances on the break with the likes of skipper Robbie Keane ready to pounce at the top end of the field as and when chances might come his way.

It is essential that Ireland try and keep Modric under wraps as he has the potential to pull the strings and eventually pull Ireland apart with his clever running and eye for a killer pass. I think Ireland will give a decent account of themselves in this game but I expect Croatia to triumph either 2-0 or 2-1.

 

Euro 2012 Group C: Can anyone topple Spain?

Italy:

The Italian national side may have endured a few years of indifferent form but they remain the most recent side to have won a major trophy aside from Spain who accompany them in group C.

Spear-headed by ‘Super-Mario’ Balotelli the Italians will go into the Euros knowing that in being drawn with the reigning champions they have immediately become only the second favourites to progress from their group but also that they have a huge chance to send out a statement of intent by either beating Spain or by finishing above them in the group.

Balotelli Italy

Balotelli will have to keep his emotions in check if he is to deliver for Italy at the Euros

As ever with the Italian national side there is plenty of experience to call upon in the form of players like Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgo Chiellini, Daniele De Rossi, Anrdrea Pirlo and Antonio Di Natale but the squad they’ve named for the Euros is arguably their most exciting and refreshing selection for quite some time in major tournament football.

In and around the experienced figure-heads of the squad there is plenty of youth and plenty of talent and it isn’t limited to just one area of the field either. At the back the likes of Angelo Ogbonna and Ignacio Abate look like big prospects and up top they have included the likes of Fabio Borini and Sebastian Giovinco to support the ever-eccentric Balotelli.

One to watch… Mario Balotelli: It may well feel like Balotelli has been around forever given the antics on and off the field which have made him so well known but this will be the very first major tournament appearance for Italy. There is no doubting his ability to succeed and be a star at the Euros but huge questions still remain about his temperament and it will be interesting to see if he can keep his emotions in check.

Euros nostalgia: Italy have a rich history in World Cup football but their Euros record is poor by comparison. In two of the past four tournaments they have failed to get out of their group but they did reach the final in 2000 when they were felled by an extra-time winner from France’s David Trezeguet. The only time Italy have won the tournament was way back in 1968.

Tournament prospects: It appears to me as if Italy will be hugely reliant on the ability of Balotelli up-front as he is their real stand-out player. There is a decent blend of youth and experience at Italy’s disposal for the Euros and in spite of the turmoil in domestic Italian football at the moment it would still be a surprise if they weren’t to make it out of the group.

Spain:

Reigning champions Spain have an awful lot to live up to this summer given their fantastic performances in the last two major international competitions but their technically gifted squad should be confident of landing a third straight piece of silverware.

Iniesta Xavi

Spain’s ‘Golden Duo’ in midfield will team up once again

One area which could be exploited by other teams is their defence which will be missing their rock of a centre-half and the man that would have been their captain, Carles Puyol. Any potential problems at the back for Spain may not just be caused by Puyol’s absence but also the form and versatility of their other defensive options.

Their other truly world class centre-half, Gerard Pique, hasn’t enjoyed his finest season with Barcelona this year and he may well be partnered by Sergio Ramos, a man far more accustomed to playing at full-back, in the heart of Spain’s defence.

Another potential creak in the Spanish rear-guard is their lack of a natural left-back. They will probably opt to play Valencia’s Jordi Alba in this position but he isn’t exactly a natural defender. He is very strong going forward has the pace and stamina to get up and down the left flank all game long but it is unclear up to now whether he possesses the discipline to play in such an important position on one of world football’s biggest stages.

Another major miss for Spain this summer is that of David Villa who hasn’t recovered in time from a broken leg suffered at the back end of 2011. However, as much as Villa is a big loss one would have to think that Spain have more than enough in reserve to cover his absence as their squad still possesses so much attacking strength and depth that players such as Cesc Fabregas, Pedro and Fernando Torres all might struggle to find a place in the starting line-up.

One to watch… Fernando Llorente: The powerful Athletic Bilbao forward has played a huge part in his clubs impressive cup runs both in Europe and in domestic football this season and in the absence of David Villa and the absence of Fernando Torres’ best form it could be down to him to lead the line for Spain and to provide the bulk of goals needed to win a tournament like the Euros.

Euros nostalgia: The previous European Championships in 2008 saw Spain underline their undoubted potential. Inspired by the coinciding rise to prominence of Barcelona and their famous ‘tiki-taka’ brand of football, Spain passed their way to the most elegant of major tournament victories sealing their triumph with a 1-0 win over big-tournament specialists Germany in the final.

Tournament prospects: Given their recent successes in major tournament football Spain will go into the Euros as the team to beat and rightly so. They may appear a little damaged by a couple of major injury-enforced absences but the depth of quality at their disposal should allow them to cope with such losses and go deep into the competition. I have a hunch that this might be the tournament where they are finally denied victory but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them get to the final once again.

Republic of Ireland:

This is the first time that the Republic of Ireland have qualified for a major tournament since the World Cup in 2002 and their Italian-heavy coaching contingent deserve an enormous amount of credit for the work they’ve done in getting their side back to this level.

There are a few survivors from the World Cup in 2002 still present in Ireland’s squad for the Euros and they will be hoping that these more experienced players can help them try and stand up to the likes of reigning champions Spain in the group stages.

James McClean Ireland

McClean has been a great find for Sunderland and he hopes to be much the same for Ireland

To be drawn in the same group as Spain on their return to major tournament football might appear a little unlucky for Ireland but their players and their fans will just be delighted to be back at this level and to be being thrust into direct competition with the world’s best side.

One to watch… James McClean: Sunderland’s power-house of a winger was plucked from the relative obscurity of the Irish leagues last summer and since Northern-Irishman Martin O’Neill has taken the helm at the North-East club McClean has been thrust into their starting line-up and has excelled . The youngster’s meteoric rise to prominence was sealed when Giovanni Trapattoni named him in Ireland’s squad for the Euros and now he has the opportunity to impress on an even bigger stage.

Euros nostalgia: Ireland’s only previous taste of the Euros came under Jack Charlton’s management back in 1988. They narrowly missed out on a semi-final place but took away with them the precious memory of defeating England 1-0 in their opening game of the tournament.

Tournament prospects: Ireland go into the Euros as huge underdogs and most people, myself included, will expect them to end the group stages propping up the rest of teams in Group C. The excitement surrounding them competing in one of world football’s biggest competitions will undoubtedly inspire them and I expect them to give everyone in their group a good game but ultimately I can’t see how they will get enough points on the board to challenge for a place in the quarter-finals.

Croatia:

Ever since Croatia took their first steps into international football as an independent nation in the early 1990’s they have never looked back and they have often impressed and punched above their weight in major tournaments.

Modric Croatia

Modric will be key to Croatia’s hopes at the Euros

This time around the Croats will head into the Euros armed with a squad including one of world football’s most highly-rated attacking midfielders in Luka Modric and they will hope that their chief playmaker can help them compete strongly in the group stages and get them into the reckoning for a place in the last eight.

Though they might not possess one of the more eye-catching squads in European football Croatia should not be underestimated as they have a lot of very decent players to accompany the likes of Luka Modric and perhaps none more so than their striker Nikica Jelavic who has been a major hit at Everton since signing from Rangers in January.

One to watch… Nikica Jelavic: Having established himself as the most threatening striker in the SPL in his time with Rangers, Jelavic has now made the big move south of the border and into Premier League football and in his first few months in England he has proved himself time and again and his form towards the end of the season was as good as pretty much any other striker in the league. If the Croatian front-man can carry this form into the summer then Croatia could spring a few surprises once again.

Euros nostalgia: Croatia are responsible for one of the most famous nights of English football’s recent history after defeating them by three goals to two at Wembley in the final game of their qualification group for the 2008 tournament. This victory saw Croatia become one of the teams to qualify at England’s expense and thus denying one of Europe’s finest sides on paper a place in the previous European Championships.

A brief summary of Group C:

On paper it appears as if reigning champions Spain will be the huge favourites to win Group C and I can’t see anybody preventing them from doing so.

Beyond this though I am struggling to work out exactly what the outcome of the group will be but I suspect that Ireland will finish bottom of the group and therefore I think that it is between Italy and Croatia in the battle to qualify for the latter stages of the tournament.

If it were simply down to the quality of the sides on paper then I would plump for Italy every time but Croatia have demonstrated several times in the past that they aren’t afraid of a challenge and Italy may well be inhibited by the ongoing investigations into corruption and match-fixing in their domestic leagues. It is a really tough call and I am clueless as to who will progress alongside Spain.



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)

 

 

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)

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.