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.

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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.

The Vicente-Factor provides the spark for Brighton’s Play-Off charge

Last night’s virtuoso performance from Vicente may not have seen him get his own name on the score-sheet but the constant threat he provided in the role of playmaker was something rarely seen at Championship level.

Vicente Rodriguez Brighton

Vicente's return to fitness has lit up the AMEX

His footwork and vision was the cause of much indecision and worry for the Derby County defence on the night and this performance was just the latest Man-Of-The-Match performance from the Spaniard, which helped to extend the impressive run that the Seagulls are currently on.

With just one defeat in their last fourteen league games Brighton have pulled themselves back from a mid-season slump and right into play-off contention. They currently reside in fourth place which, of course, would see them contest the end of season play-offs but with a queue of teams lining up just a point or two behind them and with a game in hand a-piece ‘Good Old Sussex By The Sea’ know that they are just a couple of slip-ups away from mid-table mediocrity again.

This is why Vicente’s timely first run of fitness and regular action for the Albion is proving so crucial. Manager Gus Poyet has been keen to emphasise the impact of ‘Vice’s’ return to fitness and has gone on record several times in the past few weeks to highlight how he and his squad know that they have a “special player” on their hands.

Sadly though for Vicente, Brighton, and in-fact the football community as a whole, his career has been plagued with injury. His previous club Valencia enjoyed several high profile successes in his time at the club but eventually they were left with little option other than to let him go.

Though he had contributed strongly in every stint of his Valencia career where fitness and injury problems were briefly put to one side, in his last couple of years in Spain he was left so short of match fitness that he barely managed a run of games.

Had his fitness held during the most crucial time in his career it is entirely possible that he could have had several more domestic Spanish titles to his name and that he may even have become a World Cup and European Championship winner with Spain. As it is though, injury has robbed him of his prime  and all the opportunities that would most likely have accompanied it and now he finds himself as the poster boy for a Championship club.

Vicente Rodriguez

Vicente has a decent amount of international caps, but could have had many more

This isn’t to belittle Brighton as a football club or the fantastic recent progress that they’ve made, but Vicente’s fleeting return to form and fitness on the South Coast has highlighted just how special a talent he once was and just how sad it is that his still very present technical abilities have been constantly undermined by the fragility of his body over the past decade.

Poyet has said this week that he thinks Brighton would be ten to fifteen points better off this campaign if Vicente had been fit for the majority of it to date and these additional points, as it stands, would have seen the Albion challenging for the title.

It is rare to witness such a quality player plying his trade outside of Europe’s top divisions but all Albion fans will be hoping that these current circumstances are soon to change.

If Vicente maintains his fitness for Brighton’s remaining games then Poyet believes they have “a great chance” of making the top six and this sentiment is being echoed from the stands at the Amex.

If only Brighton can keep their prized asset out of the Physio’s room and instead have him out on the pitch on a regular basis for the next two to three months then the South-Coast fairytale may continue to grow. Not only could the delight of promotion back to the Championship last year be coupled with the relief of finally moving into and enjoying their first season at their new home in Falmer, but they could also soon be a Premier League side.

If they do reach the play-offs then it will surely be, in no small part, down to the inspiration provided by the return of ‘Vice’ to their side just as they’ve started to hit the home straight and perhaps their star player could once again get the chance to exercise his on-field powers in one of Europe’s most prestigious leagues if Brighton were to go up.

A couple of years ago the thought of Brighton becoming a Premier League side by 2012 seemed beyond ridiculous, as would the thought of Vicente strutting his stuff in the blue and white of the Albion. Now though, Vicente is lighting up the Championship and the play-offs are within touching distance.

What a difference a couple of seasons can make.

 

Manchester homes in on the title, but which of the city’s teams will triumph?

As Sir Alex Ferguson is always so keen to point out, when it comes to March and the title race really hots up, Manchester United tend to come good.

So here we are, March has arrived and what better time for the United’s veteran squad members to find their best and contribute the potentially title deciding goals in a tricky, hard-earned and last-gasp away victory?

Manchester City soundly did their side of things last weekend and put the pressure firmly on the shoulders of Manchester United with just about as comfortable a victory as is possible to come across in the Premier League, winning 3-0 at home to Blackburn. As such, United needed to find an away win over this season’s surprise package Norwich, and as it turned out they were pushed to within an inch of their powers in order to come up with the goods.

United’s eventual 2-1 win was a far-cry from the ‘walk in the park’ City had enjoyed the day before, but sadly for City the reward for their for more domineering win was just the same as United’s for their lacklustre performance; a crucial three points.

The Champions have therefore managed to cut the points difference back to just two points and with only a third of the Premier League season remaining are still well on the case of their bitter rivals. These two wins accrued by the Manchester club’s last weekend may have left them both battling hard for the title but third placed Tottenham saw their challenge effectively ended by their humiliating 5-2 defeat against arch-rivals Arsenal.

Will it be Ferguson or Mancini that comes out on top?

So, seeing as Spurs have fallen by the way-side and that we have reached ‘crunch-time’ in Manchester’s dual-pursuit of Premier League glory I have decided to make predictions for the remaining rounds of fixtures and have worked out where my predictions would take the Premier League trophy. Will it be the Etihad for the first time, or, will it go back to it’s second home (Old Trafford) once again?

  • (A) = Away Fixture
  • (H) = Home Fixture

12 Games Remaining:

Manchester United 2-2 Tottenham (A)

Manchester City 3-0 Bolton (H)

11 Games Remaining:

Manchester United 3-1 West Brom (H)

Manchester City 2-1 Swansea (A)

10 Games Remaining:

Manchester United 2-0 Wolves (A)

Manchester City 2-1 Chelsea (H)

9 Games Remaining:

Manchester United 3-0 Fulham (H)

Manchester City 1-1 Stoke (A)

8 Games Remaining:

Manchester United 2-0 Blackburn (A)

Manchester City 3-1 Sunderland

7 Games Remaining:

Manchester United 5-0 QPR (H)

Manchester City 2-1 Arsenal (A)

6 Games Remaining:

Manchester United 3-1 Wigan (A)

Manchester City 1-1 West Brom (H)

5 Games Remaining:

Manchester United 2-1 Aston Villa (H)

Manchester City 3-1 Norwich (A)

4 Games Remaining:

Manchester United 1-1 Everton (H)

Manchester City 3-0 Wolves (A)

3 Games Remaining:

Manchester City 2-1 Manchester United

2 Games Remaining:

Manchester United 3-0 Swansea (H)

Manchester City 1-2 Newcastle (A)

Last Day of the Season:

Manchester United 2-1 Sunderland (A)

Manchester City 3-1 QPR (H)

 

Predicted Final Standings:

If things were to go as I’ve predicted then the eventual look of the Premier League table would be as follows…

1. Manchester City (92 Points, Goal Difference of +64)

2. Manchester United (90 Points, Goal Difference of +57)

 

So, if my predictions are there or thereabouts then City will win their first Premier League title and they would do so by the narrow two point margin that they currently boast over their rivals heading into the final third of the season. Regardless of the outcome, it is fair to say that the rest of this season is set to be very interesting indeed!

Relegation Watch: ‘Big Mick’ Perishes as Steve Kean battles on

Having succumbed to a horrific 5-1 derby defeat at the weekend, Wolves have decided to part company with Mick McCarthy after a stay of five and a half years.

McCarthy was left apologetic in his last public appearance as Wolves boss

McCarthy’s period of charge at Molineux has on the whole been a positive one for the football club given that they were a Championship club when he joined, but ultimately a lack of Premier League progress is what has cost the former Republic of Ireland manager his job.

It took ‘Big Mick’ three years to drag Wolves through what initially seemed as if it would be a difficult period for the club and up into the Premier League and though it seemed they had established themselves in the top flight over the past couple of campaigns, this season has proven very tough.

It is often very easy for the directors of a football club to apportion the blame for a lack of progress on the manager, but this move to dismiss McCarthy can’t exactly be described as a ‘knee-jerk reaction’. It may have come in the wake of a humiliating performance and defeat at the hands of one of their fierce rivals but really this decision had been in the offing for some time.

After two successive seasons of survival upon their return to top flight football Wolves, under McCarthy’s tutelage, invested strongly in the most recent summer transfer window in a move to try and move the club forward from persistent scrapes with relegation.

Birmingham stalwart Roger Johnson was brought in  for a sizeable £7 million despite rumoured interest from far more glamorous clubs and the future of Jamie O’Hara was secured in the wake of a very promising loan spell at the club. These two signings were seen as the move that could make-or-break McCarthy’s future at the club and so it has proved.

O’Hara has struggled with form and fitness in his quest to replicate his significant contribution whilst on loan from Tottenham and Johnson ,who was brought in and immediately made captain of the club by McCarthy, has too struggled to match up to the lofty reputation that preceded his arrival from rivals Birmingham City.

While these introductions have failed to settle, established forces from within the Wolves squad have also struggled to find their best. Stars from previous campaigns such as Kevin Doyle and Matt Jarvis have been short of any level of consistency and Doyle in particular has been bereft of his best form throughout the campaign. Such difficulties have led to Wolves failure to move on from being a club entangled in relegation worry and McCarthy’s struggles to cope with his squads stuttering form have eventually led to his removal.

Meanwhile, the season’s most maligned Premier League manager Steve Kean continued on his unlikely rescue mission by guiding Blackburn to a crucial 3-2 home win in their relegation ‘six-pointer’ against fellow strugglers QPR.

Kean's faith in Yakubu and his own managerial ability is paying off for now

This most recent victory was most timely and it elevated Blackburn to a slightly rosier position outside of the ‘relegation zone’. Wolves, formerly managed by McCarthy of course, were the team that slipped into the dreaded drop-zone in place of Keane’s resilient Blackburn who continue to owe an awful lot to Yakubu who scored again on his continuing, to this point, season-long run of goalscoring form. Once again ‘Yak’ scored a vital goal in a huge win for the club, the sort of conquest that might see them overcome all the odds to reach their end-goal of survival come May.

This victory of vital significance in their relegation battle provided the perfect response to their 7-1 hammering against Arsenal just a week earlier and was further proof of Steve Kean’s unrelenting determination to defy his numerous and volatile critics that have been baying for his blood over the past few months. If Blackburn and Yakubu in particular, continue to pull results out of the bag in this tricky mid-season period then they may well just do enough for the club to stay in the league and for their manager Steve Kean to avoid the same fate as Mick McCarthy at Wolves.

Transfer Window Watch: Cisse’s signing furthers the International appeal of Pardew’s Newcastle

Newcastle’s latest signing, Papiss Demba Cisse of Senegal, is the latest in a long line of potentially very astute purchases on Tyneside. It is a signing that is demonstrative of manager Alan Pardew’s ever-increasing ambitions to return Newcastle to the higher reaches of the Premier League and ultimately the excitement of high-end European football. This move is also suggestive of the Newcastle hierarchy’s own desire for progression and to quell any talk of them becoming a selling club that live to survive only upon their own financial incomings.

Newcastle's new no.9

Cisse’s arrival has also stirred up great excitement amongst the Toon Army who are relishing the prospect of him teaming up with compatriot and fellow striker Demba Ba, who has been a major hit on Tyneside since his summer move.

Couple this latest signal of intent with the array of international and diverse talent at Alan Pardew’s disposal and it appears Newcastle have the makings of an exciting and potentially very successful squad. Though it may seem premature to talk of them as a major Premier League force of the forthcoming years, they have performed with great confidence and assurance this season (with the exception of their second half collapse against Fulham) and deserve to be fighting it out with the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool. The assembly of a rather cosmopolitan squad including a decent English contingent has seen Newcastle develop tremendously in recent months and is perhaps comparable to the early era of Arsenal under Arsene Wenger’s tutelage.

Wenger’s early Arsenal sides were founded upon a stern defence with a major English influence, a hard-nosed French partnership in the middle of midfield and an array of pacy international options in the advanced roles. Upon these foundations Wenger then widened the net a little and over his years at Arsenal he has looked in depth at bringing in African talent such as Nwankwo Kanu, Lauren, Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Eboue, Emmanuel Adebayor, Alex Song and Gervinho. The similarities between his transfer targets whilst at Arsenal and those of Newcastle in recent times are apparent.

There appears to be similarities between Wenger and Pardew's transfer policies

Newcastle’s defensive unit is currently comprised of a Dutch first-choice keeper, English options in either full-back position and a further two competing for a central berth, a prodigiously talented if unproven Brazilian full-back and a hugely experienced Argentinian international leading the side from centre-half.

Tim Krul in goal has been the recipient of an enormous amount of praise for his performances over the past year having been thrust into the limelight by Chris Hughton and he has been very ably supported by those  in front of him. Newcastle’s defence has been lauded as the key to their increased success since their relegation to the Championship in 2009, and skipper Fabricio Coloccini has marshalled the defensive unit with exemplary leadership.

The diverse and international appeal of Newcastle’s current set-up also extends to the more advanced areas of the field. Take their midfield options which now boast an impressive global appeal, including three young French talents, an Ivory Coast international, an experienced Argentinian wide man and a couple of decent English options to boot.

Tiote and Cabaye have excelled since Pardew brought them together in midfield

Their key performers in the central midfield area, Cheick Tiote and Yohan Cabaye, have been superb so far this season since the alarming departures of Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton. One might even go as far as to say that they could grace any Premier League side’s starting XI, given their contribution to date.

With this wealth of international options in midfield and Cisse and Ba now in place as their potentially lethal strike force, Newcastle must be looking forward with enormous anticipation.

Their comparably multi-national make-up to the Arsenal squads throughout Wenger’s successful era really bodes well for the club as they embark upon what they hope will prove to be a period of accelerated development which could once again see them dining at the top table.

Newcastle’s revolving door casts a cloud over their recent successes

The Toon Army have been put through more than most football fans

Living on the periphery of Newcastle teaches you a thing or two about how the locals look upon their duty to support their football club. Often their fervent support is referred to as a religion, but in truth it is more like an occupation. It is a job that they love, a job that they are immensely passionate about, but ultimately a job that causes them an immense amount of stress and torment.

This stress has become an infamous part of their relationship with the club in recent times, but after years of managerial departures and arrivals, boardroom unrest, relegation, and promotion it seems that the club has finally found some peace. However, while the Newcastle fans are on the crest of a wave, there still remains an unmistakeable sense of caution.

The reason for such tentativeness at present is presumably down to the perpetual rumours surrounding the futures of their star players and their manager who’s stock has risen enormously since he came to the club. In the wake of a summer that saw them lose three of their best players (Luis Enrique, Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton) for a combined fee of around £10 million, Newcastle’s fans are justifiably concerned about the buy in and sell on culture that appears to be developing at the club.

Carroll has struggled for form since his astronomically expensive transfer

Couple these high profile losses with the departure of local lad Andy Carroll, who at the time was considered one of the hottest young properties in English football and things do appear a little anti-progressional. To sell on four of your finest assets in just over half a year, with three of them going relatively ‘on the cheap’, doesn’t exactly reek of ambition.

However, Newcastle have re-generated from within as well as investing wisely in order to move up a level from last season. Some of the players who were already on the books prior to the departure of their former protagonists, such as Cheikh Tiote, Tim Krul and current skipper Fabricio Coloccini, have all excelled in the club’s magnificent season to date. In addition to this, Demba Ba (a free summer signing) and Yohan Cabaye (another astute buy) have been of paramount importance to the Toon’s brilliant spell.

The combination of internal progression and the successful integration of newly acquired talent has guided Newcastle as far as the quarter finals of the Carling Cup, the forthcoming 4th Round of the FA Cup, and most importantly 7th place in the Premier League. Though there is a long way to go yet, it does seem that this season will go down as a huge success for a club that are theoretically still in recovery mode following their shock relegation to the Championship just three years ago.

With the wounds of this footballing atrocity for the City of Newcastle still so raw, it is easy to comprehend their tempered excitement at the moment. They have dealt magnificently with the loss of several star players and have managed to fill the voids thus far without breaking the bank. How long though can this method of recycling keep pushing the club forward?

Just imagine if Demba Ba, Hatem Ben Arfa, Cheick Tiote, Yohan Cabaye, Fabricio Coloccini and Tim Krul all decided that they wanted to move to stronger footballing and financial institutions. What would this do to the club?

Sure, they would get a decent chunk of money for such a group of talented players, but up to this point Mike Ashley hasn’t exactly delivered on his promises to re-invest all the money brought in from previous outgoings.

If this trend of buying cheap, selling big and not re-investing the profit continues then surely there is only so far the club will go in near future. At present the team are performing out of their skins and their scouting network are producing an impressive success rate, but you would forgive the Toon Army if they were harbouring some residual doubt and apprehension about the pattern emerging at the club.

The revolving door seems to still be in motion at St.James’ with rumours of high profile departures, but if they do want to hold on to their star players then I suggest they try and keep them sweet. May I suggest a new contract for Demba Ba that doesn’t have a paltry release clause and that includes a strawberry syrup reward-per-goal (see the now infamous Ba interview with Sky Sports’ Geoff Shreeves).

FA Cup Third Round: My Manchester XI

With the dawn of another epic Manchester derby on the horizon I have taken a close look at those available for the 3rd round FA Cup tie and picked my first XI out of the combined match day squads. My team is as below…

The club's two managers would surely love to pick players from each other's squads if they could

(4-1-3-2)

GK: Joe Hart

An easy pick. Neither David De Gea or Anders Lindegaard have really taken command in their respective bids to become Sir Alex’s number one and have both been under question for error-strewn performances. On the other hand, Joe Hart has revelled in his role of huge responsibility at City and is fast becoming one of the stand out goalkeepers in world football.

RB: Micah Richards

When he burst on the the scene a few years back Micah Richards looked set for stardom for both club and country. Though things haven’t exactly gone to plan since then, he has had a very decent season so far and will surely break Fabio Capello’s resolve eventually and make it into his Euro 2012 squad. One of his biggest rivals for a place in England’s squad is United’s Chris Smalling who after a very promising start to the season has tailed off a little. Richards would get my vote for the right back slot in the national team and he gets my vote here too.

CB: Vincent Kompany (c)

Kompany has been outstanding for City throughout 2011 and looks set to carry such imperious form into the new year. He is to City what Nemanja Vidic is to United, and the injury-enforced absence of Vidic from United’s plans is arguably the difference between the two sides at present in the Premier League title race.

CB: Phil Jones

God knows where this hugely talented young man will end up playing for club and country, but he has had a brilliant first season at United no matter where they’ve been playing him. In spite of his great promise, he has endured a couple of very tough outings this past fortnight and his inexperience and naiivity was exposed at times by Newcastle. He might not be at his best at the moment, but Jones is a fantastic young player and will surely go on to be a major success story for United. In this line-up his pace and ball playing ability would compliment Kompany’s strength and discipline very nicely.

LB: Patrice Evra

Though I am one of many who thinks that Evra is perhaps something of a fading force, there is no questioning his remaining ability. He may not be in great form at present, but he is immensly experienced and still has the pace to fly up and down the left flank. For me he is still a far better left-back than Gael Clichy or Aleksandar Kolarov of City.

CDM: Nigel De Jong

In the absence of the suspended Gareth Barry and Yaya Toure who has left for international duty Nigel De Jong will be a hugely important player for City in the coming weeks. In my eyes he is a stronger option than the absent Gareth Barry even when he is available, so to slot him into City’s holding role will hardly weaken their side. In this role United barely provide any competition to De Jong.

Nani excelled against City in the Community Shield

RAM: Nani

The word mercurial is certainly applicable to Nani. When he is at his best he is damn near unstoppable as City found out in the Community Shield in August, but when he is at his worst he is wasteful, greedy and a bad influence on his team mates. Putting to one side for a moment his more irritating tendencies, Nani has become one of the world’s best wide men over the past two seasons. His electric pace, fast-feet, improved delivery and ability to score match-winning wonder goals has seen him rise from a frustrating talent to being one of United’s most potent attacking forces. There isn’t a side in the Premier League that he wouldn’t get in to.

CAM:David Silva

The brilliant little Spaniard has been a little quiet of late but there is no doubting his quality. If there is no Premier League side that Nani wouldn’t get into, then there is no side in world football that Silva couldn’t. United will still be having nightmares about the ‘magicians’ role in the 6-1 win at Old Trafford.

Silva was key to the 6-1 demolition of United @ OT

LAM: Samir Nasri

Like Nani of United, Samir Nasri has phenomenal ability and can at times be a match winner in his own right. His form this season though has failed to live up to his impressive showings in an Arsenal shirt. The man who it seems had the choice of the two Manchester clubs in the summer has a point to prove to the City fans and his manager Roberto Mancini. What better time for him to produce the goods than against United in the cup?

STR: Sergio Aguero

With Mario Balotelli set to miss out with injury, and Edin Dzeko too, the burden of leading the line for City is likely to fall upon Aguero’s shoulders. The Argentine live wire has been instrumental in City’s success so far this season and has racked up a very decent goal count for his first half-campaign of Premier League football. He would comfortably make it into United’s line up at present.

STR: Wayne Rooney

There are few more dangerous forces in world football than a hurt Wayne Rooney. Off the back of disciplinary troubles with United and an abject performance against Newcastle, Rooney will no doubt be more determined than ever to play a part in the demise of United’s local rivals. A partnership of his creative self and the electric Sergio Aguero would be about as good as it gets in world football.

Honourable mentions:

Chris Smalling: A good start to the season seems to have left a lasting impression both upon Sir Alex Ferguson and national team manager Fabio Capello, but on recent form Micah Richards is worthy of getting the nod ahead of him at right back.

Luis Antonio Valencia: A slow start to the 2011-2012 campaign seemed to indicate a struggle for form and fitness, but Valencia has had a good month. His role in the back-to-back 5-0 wins in December and the win over QPR will have gone some way to once again endearing himself to the Old Trafford faithful. He pushes Samir Nasri very close for a place in my line-up.

James Milner: I can’t quite find a way to include him in my combined team, but he seems to have finally found his place at City. It seemed initially that he was struggling to find his best for his latest club, but the England international has impressed when called upon this season.

Javier Hernandez: Hernandez is enormously talented but for me he lacks technical ability. There are few better operators inside the 18 yard box in world football but when required to drop in or pull wide in order to create, Hernandez just isn’t quite up there with the likes of Aguero who also possesses the ability to score from range unlike ‘Chicarito’. Lets look forward to a 30 yard winner from Hernandez tomorrow then!

Could the January transfer window offer United and Chelsea a lifeline as they are found wanting on NYE

Having managed to finally catch up with their local rivals in the race for the Premier League title, Manchester United yesterday committed the cardinal sin of throwing away cheap points at home. The fact that their opponents Blackburn Rovers were best priced at around 28/1 to win the game says it all really, and there is no doubt that the now 70 year-old Sir Alex Ferguson will be fuming at his sides miserable display.

One very minor consolation for Sir Alex and the United fans will be that their former main title challengers Chelsea also fell to a miserable home defeat to end 2011. The performances of both sides were equally disappointing and given their superiority over the past few seasons it was alarming to see their major weaknesses laid bare.

 

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AVB is praying for a turn up in Chelsea's fortunes

 

If they weren’t already intending to spend this month then these performances were indicative of a dire need for both sides to do so. Chelsea it seemed were always likely to go shopping this January due to various planned departures and an ongoing battle for consistency, but Manchester United’s need for signings was being made less obvious by some very encouraging recent performances.

Back-to-back 5-0 wins and a run of 8 wins in 9 league games had seemingly quelled the need for drastic transfer movements this month, but their ongoing injury crisis was for the first time yesterday truly exposed. Michael Carrick looked uncertain at centre back, their scraped together centre midfield partnership of Park and Rafael looked horribly lacking in every department, and David De Gea’s woes continued in goal. Couple these shortcomings with the recent dip from stand-in captain Patrice Evra and one of Nani’s notorious off-days and it is clear to see why United succumbed to defeat. Put simply; they were there for the taking and Blackburn knew it.

Chelsea’s performance was similarly shoddy and highlighted some fairly comparable shortcomings to United. They too were looking disorganised at the back, weak and creatively lacking in midfield and short of goals and confidence in attack.

Admittedly the performances of United and Chelsea yesterday were uncharacteristic, but the worry for Chelsea in particular will be the increasing frequency of such flat displays.

For United, this showing will rank fairly closely up there with their humiliating 6-1 thumping at home to City, but it was only their second defeat of the season so it is hardly panic stations just yet. Nevertheless, they are looking uncharacteristically lacking in depth at the moment and they might just need a couple more high-class performers if they are to keep up with the blue side of Manchester over the remainder of this season.

Below is my breakdown of potential signings and departures for both clubs this transfer window and how it could affect the look of their line-ups.

Manchester United:

Potential Outs: Darron Gibson, Federico Macheda (loan)

What they need: Desperately need a centre back, could do with two midfielders (one in the holding role and another more creative option)

Rumoured Signings: Wesley Sneijder, Luka Modric, Daniele De Rossi, Mats Hummels, Mario Goetze, Eden Hazard, Jack Rodwell

Recommended Signings: Gary Cahill (worth a pop if Chelsea haven’t yet made it an entirely done deal), Daniele De Rossi, Mario Goetze

What the team could look like with those signings: (4-1-3-2)

David De Gea

Patrice Evra

Phil Jones

Gary Cahill/Rio Ferdinand

Chris Smalling

Luis Nani

Daniele De Rossi

Mario Goetze

Ashley Young/Antonio Valencia

Wayne Rooney

Javier Hernandez/Danny Wellbeck/Dimitar Berbatov

Chelsea:

Potential Outs: Endless… Nicolas Anelka (confirmed), Didier Drogba, Florent Malouda, Fernando Torres, Salomon Kalou, Frank Lampard, Paulo Ferreira, Alex, Romelu Lukaku (loan), Josh McEachran (loan)

What they need: Arguably a goalkeeper if Petr Cech continues to slip up, a central defender, a right back, a box-to-box midfielder (Frank Lampard with a new set of legs), and at least one striker (if not three!)

Rumoured Signings: Hulk, Gonzalo Higuain, Kaka, Luka Modric, Alvaro Perreira, Gary Cahill, Jack Rodwell

Recommended signings: Gonzalo Higuain (£25m), Neymar (£40m), Mario Goetze (£20m), Jack Rodwell (£10-15m), Gary Cahill (£6m), Gregory Van Der Wiel (£15m)

What their team could look like after these suggested signings and the potentially huge amount of departures: (4-1-2-1-2)

Petr Cech

Gregory Van Der Wiel

John Terry

Gary Cahill

Ashley Cole

Oriol Romeu

Jack Rodwell

Ramires/Raul Meireles

Mario Goetze

Daniel Sturridge

Gonzalo Higuain/Neymar

Stars of the Premier League season so far…

With the Premier League readying itself for the busy festive season and the season reaching it’s mid-point I felt it was time to pick out my players of the season so far. With Manchester City currently ruling the roost it is hard to look beyond their star turns but I have endeavoured come up with a few alternative selections that I feel are also worthy of significant recognition. First up: The man who would make everybody’s list…

David Silva:

What can I say about Silva that hasn’t already been said by a thousand pundits and sports writer’s in 2011? Well, in truth, very little indeed. So here goes a rather predictable homage to the brilliance of the man that is known by his team mates as “the magician”…

Couple speed with superb balance, great feet, and an almost unrivalled eye for a defence splitting pass and you have the make-up of the Spaniard’s game. His majesty in the roaming central midfield role for City this season has inspired their charge to the summit of the Premier League and if he continues in the same vein for the remainder of the season then it is hard to see how anyone will be able to handle either him individually, or him as part of an entirely potent attacking force at the Etihad. I can’t recall a single player ever to grace the Premier League that has provided so much in terms of creation in the first half of a season as Silva has so far and there really is no greater compliment that I could afford him than that.

Yaya Toure:

When he signed for the club I was entirely sceptical about the sum of money that City parted with to secure his services and the reported weekly wage outlay of over £200,000 that they were set to give him. Add to this Mancini’s seeming desire to turn him into a more attacking central force than a defensive one and I became even more of a synic, but as it turns out my scepticism was wholly unfair.

Mancini’s decision to give him far greater attacking license than that which he had been afforded at former club Barcelona has proved to be an inspired move. Since joining City, Toure’s ability to gobble up the yards with consistently strong and rangy surges has become a trademark of his both in attack and defence and it has demonstrated his immense value all over the field of play. Many have delved deep to lavish his more celebrated team mate David Silva with every superlative they can find, but I believe that Toure has been equally brilliant for City this year. He has very rarely failed to deliver a high-class performance this season and his strength, determination and appetite for getting from box-to-box has been utterly essential to City’s rise to prominence.

Michel Vorm:

Unbelievably the man between the sticks at Swansea City (the team most fancied for the drop at the start of the season) has managed to keep eight clean sheets in sixteen games this season. Such statistics sound befitting only of teams harbouring serious aspirations of competing for the title, but Mr.Vorm has risen from anonymity amongst Premier League fans to become a cult figure in Swansea and one of the most respected keepers in the English league.

Following his low-key summer transfer to the Premier League new-boys he has fast-established himself as their number one and arguably the most impressive keeper of the season so far. His penchant for saving penalties and making some quite frankly outrageous reaction stops has endeared himself to all who follow the Premier League, and sadly for Swansea, his form has been so good that it is hard to see him staying when the bigger fish of the footballing world come circling in as they inevitably will.

Robin Van Persie:

Fifteen goals in sixteen Premier League games pretty much tells you all you need to know about RVP’s most impressive season to date and there is no team in world football who wouldn’t benefit from his presence when he is in this kind of form. Since being handed the Captain’s arm band at the start of the season the Dutchman has elevated his already brilliant game to a new level. If it weren’t for his inspirational goalscoring exploits then I shudder to think where Arsenal would be in the league. The technical genius that he demonstrated in his match-winning strike against Everton this month epitomised all that has made this season one to remember for a man who is undoubtedly one of the world’s finest centre forwards.

Phil Jones:

Whether it be at right back, centre back or centre midfield Phil Jones has surpassed all expectations so far in his first season at Manchester United, and he has made a complete mockery of his £16 million transfer fee.

In the modern game it is hard to buy any player of real quality for anything less than around £20 million, but in recruiting Jones from Blackburn Sir Alex Ferguson has managed to pull off an absolute steal. Not only has he signed someone of real quality, but in Jones he has landed a player that I think could go on to be one the best players of his generation. His speed and technical ability must be the envy of all other defenders in world football at the moment, and they’re enabling him to demonstrate something of an ‘X-Factor’. Couple these defining characteristics with the more stock abilities for a central defender such as strength, awareness and aerial ability (all of which he has in abundance) and you can see why he is fast becoming United’s man for a crisis.

When you consider the premium placed on the head of English footballers in the transfer market (for example: Andy Carroll to Liverpool £35 million, Stewart Downing to Liverpool £20 million and Jordan Henderson to Liverpool £20 million… spot the trend…) it is verging on miraculous that United managed to land Jones for such a reasonable price, and the more he continues to impress the more of a coup it will become.

Other close contenders: Wayne Rooney, Scott Parker, Gareth Bale, Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge, Demba Ba, Yohan Cabaye, Fabricio Collocini, Joe Hart, Sergio Aguero

Team of the season so far: (4-1-1-2-2)

GK: Michel Vorm

RB: Micah Richards

CB: Vincent Kompany

CB: Phil Jones

LB: Luis Enrique

CDM: Scott Parker

CM: Yaya Toure

AM: David Silva

AM: Gareth Bale

STR:Robin Van Persie

STR: Sergio Aguero