Manchester XI

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

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

Manchester United Manchester City

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

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

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

My selection is as follows:

(4-2-3-1)

David De Gea

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

Pablo Zabaleta

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

Rio Ferdinand

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

Jonny Evans

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

Patrice Evra

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

Yaya Toure

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

Michael Carrick

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

David Silva

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

Wayne Rooney

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

Danny Welbeck

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

Robin Van Persie versus Manchester City

Robin ruled triumphant at the Etihad

Robin Van Persie

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

United 8 -3 City

Real Madrid Vs Manchester United – How the sides compare

With United set to take on fellow European giants Real Madrid tonight in the first leg of their Champions League second round clash at the Santiago Bernabeau, here is a look at how the teams match up.

Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho

Which of these two great friends and managerial giants will come out on top at the Bernabeau?

Real Madrid likely line-up:

(4-2-3-1)

Diego Lopez

Alvaro Arbeloa, Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane, Fabio Coentrao

Sami Khedira, Xabi Alonso

Mesut Ozil, Cristiano Ronaldo, Angel Di Maria

Karim Benzema

 

Manchester United likely line-up:

(4-3-2-1)

David De Gea

Rafael Da Silva, Nemanj Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra

Michael Carrick, Phil Jones

Antonio Valencia, Tom Cleverley, Wayne Rooney

Robin Van Persie

 

The Goalkeepers:

David De gea hasn’t exactly been in sparkling form of late for Manchester United but he has continued to demonstrate and underline his undoubted shot-stopping ability. He is still vulnerable when under attack from crosses but he has arguably been the recipient of some unfair criticism recently as he is still young and still will make mistakes and particularly in the Premier League which is renowned as being one of the most physical in world football.

At the other end of the field to De Gea will be Diego Lopez who has recently made a January return to the Santiago Bernabeau. Having spent the vast majority of this season warming the bench he has found himself thrown into the limelight back in Madrid having been signed following the broken hand which Iker Casillas suffered shortly before the close of the transfer window.

He may not have played a great deal of football this season but he has built a fine reputation throughout his career in Spain and he has impressed since his return and the lack of high pressure action doesn’t seem to have had too much of an effect on him.

 

Player Rating:

De Gea: 8/10

Lopez: 8/10

 

Form Rating:

De Gea: 8/10

Lopez: 8/10

 

The Defences:

Manchester United started the season looking incredibly shaky at the back and this wasn’t helped by the number of injuries they suffered in the heart of their defence. Now though they have a full compliment of centre-halves back in action and with all their options returning they have gradually steadied the ship. They have picked up a few more clean sheets of late and they will be particularly pleased with the increased maturity of right back Rafael this season as well as the return to prominence of Patrice Evra who has been back to his best after a shaky 2011/12 season.

Madrid too have struggled defensively this term and have yet to work out exactly what is their best four man combination at the back. Amidst the gloom though, Sergio Ramos has emerged as the shining light of the Madrid defensive unit and young starlet Raphael Varane is coming along nicely in Ramos’ company, so much so in fact that he might ge the nod ahead of the more experienced Pepe this evening.

 

Defence Rating:

Manchester United: 9/10

Real Madrid: 8/10

 

Defence Form Rating:

Manchester United: 8/10

Real Madrid: 7/10

 

The Defensive Midfield Area:

Though this area of the field isn’t exactly United’s strongest department, they have been strengthened by Michael Carrick who has had a fantastic season and the recent return to fitness and form of defender-come-midfielder Phil Jones who has done a fantastic job of man-marking the likes of Luis Suarez and Marouane Fellaini in recent weeks. The trouble for United in this area though is that tonight they will be faced with the task of trying to nullify the potent threat of Cristiano Ronaldo whilst not ignoring the other attacking talents that Madrid possess.

Madrid, like United, are not deeply stocked in this area of the field but fortunately for them their two best operators in these positions, Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso, are both available tonight. This pair will have to be at their very best tonight to cut off the creative source from Wayne Rooney who I think Jose Mourinho will earmark as the greatest threat to his defenders this evening.

 

Player Ratings:

Michael Carrick: 8/10, Phil Jones 7.5/10

Sami Khedira: 8/10, Xabi Alonso 9/10

 

Form Rating:

Michael Carrick 9/10, Phil Jones 8/10

Sami Khedira: 8/10, Xabi Alonso: 8/10

 

Attacking Midfield:

This is the area of the field in which both of the sides are most capable.

So strong indeed that there is only one must-pick for each side in this area of the field and those are Wayne Rooney for United and obviously Cristiano Ronaldo for Madrid.

The way the rest of the line-ups will look in this area of the field though is less predictable as United have Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, Nani, Ryan Giggs, Danny Welbeck and Shinji Kagawa to pick from and Madrid have the likes of Angel Di Maria, Mesut Ozil, Luka Modric and Jose Callejon to choose between.

 

Player Ratings:

Antonio Valencia: 8.5/10, Tom Cleverley: 8/10, Wayne Rooney: 9.5/10

Mesut Ozil: 9/10, Angel Di Maria: 8.5/10, Cristiano Ronaldo: 10/10

 

Form Ratings:

Valencia: 7/10, Cleverley: 8/10, Rooney: 9/10

Ozil: 7/10, Di Maria: 7/10, Ronaldo: 9.5/10

 

Up Top:

Manchester United capture of Robin Van Persie in the summer has improved the look of their squad no end. He has carried on his stunning form from last season at Arsenal and he has boosted the United squad to the point where it looks the best it has since they last won the Champions League and since the departure of Ronaldo to Madrid.

Leading the line for Madrid is Karim Benzema who has as many natural attributes as a centre forward could ever wish to have but it is hard not to feel as if he still hasn’t fully realised his potential. He has played against United before in his days at Lyon and has caused them a lot of problems so he will likely get the nod ahead of Gonzal0 Higuain.

 

Player Rating:

Robin Van Persie: 9.5/10

Karim Benzema: 8.5/10

 

Form Rating:

Van Persie: 9/10

Benzema: 7/10

 

The Totals:

 

Player Ratings (out of a total of 80):

 

Real Madrid:

69/80

Machester United:

68/80

 

Form Ratings (out of 80):

Real Madrid:

61.5/80

Machester United:

66/80

 

Score Prediction for tonight’s game:

Real Madrid 3-2 Manchester United

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

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

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

Hodgson England

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

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

Joe Hart, Rob Green, John Ruddy

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

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

Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Daniel Sturridge, Andy Carroll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The  ‘Downs’ of Hodgson’s squad selection:

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

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

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

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

The winners and losers of Pearce’s week at the helm

In a week where England Under 21’s boss Stuart Pearce was asked to fill the Fabio Capello sized hole as the full international side’s caretaker boss, England have been defeated by one of the stand-out favourite’s to win the European Championships.

It has been a big week for Pearce and several England hopefuls

No surprises to be had then really… England were fairly soundly beaten by a top-class, experienced and much fancied side when their own team are in a period of managerial transition and were also hampered by several key absences.

In truth, this friendly match was less about seeing how a settled England side could compete with top-class opposition but more a chance for some less experienced players to continue their education as international footballers and for the squad to try dealing with adversity.

Due to the nature and circumstances of last night’s game I have decided not to look too in-depth at the performance as a whole but rather pick out a few significant events and performances in Pearce’s week of stepping into the breach. My picks for the winners and losers of ‘Psycho’ ‘s week of charge are as follows…

The Winners:

Stuart Pearce:

He may not have got the result he was hoping for on his first outing as Manager of the full international side but his team did show some spirit and resolve and ultimately won’t be too disappointed with the outcome.

It was win-win really for Pearce as he has stated that he doesn’t think he is ready for the job full-time, but he will have learnt from the experience and it will certainly have helped any long-term ambitions he may harbour of eventually taking the role on a permanent basis.

Scott Parker:

His international stock continues to rise and after last night’s characteristically brave and battling performance he will not only have secured his place in England’s starting line-up for the Euro’s but he has also made himself favourite to lead the team out in Poland and Ukraine this summer.

John Terry:

He may be injured and his public and footballing image may be left tarnished by recent events but last night England’s defence looked bereft of the grit and experience which Terry possesses by the barrel-load. England’s defensive backbone needs a John Terry-esque figure and there seems to be little in the way of alternative options.

Rio Ferdinand:

He may have spent a fair period in the international wilderness now but, like John Terry, it is hard to deny the experience and quality that he possesses and that could yet earn him a call-up to the Euro’s squad if he is fit for duty.

It is yet to be seen whether he would be happy to part of a squad including his long-term central defensive parter John Terry though, given the offence taken by Ferdinand to Terry’s alleged racial abuse of his brother. For me, the England squad will be stronger if they can put aside their differences and regain the necessary fitness and form to earn their call-ups as I think they are probably still our best central defensive partnership.

Micah Richards:

He was overlooked consistently throughout Capello’s reign but he returned to the side last night and looked every bit an international footballer. He does look a little indisciplined in defence at times but his strength and determination in the challenge and when breaking forward provides something different for England at the back. He would definitely make my England squad for the Euro’s.

Daniel Sturridge:

Came off the bench early on for the injured Steven Gerrard and played a part in most of England’s good attacking play. He may have even done enough to jump Danny Wellbeck in the race to start up top for England in the absence of Rooney for the first two games at the Euro’s and Darren Bent’s potential absence for the whole tournament with injury.

Ashley Young:

Four goals in his last five international appearances now for Young and he is beginning to look comfortable at this level. He may have been fairly quiet throughout last night but his goal was sweetly taken and his set-piece was a constant threat. He now seems the most likely of England’s wingers to make the starting line-up come June.

Holland (obviously):

Winners in a literal sense on the night but also in terms of the threat and killer instinct which they seem to possess going into a big summer of international football. Not many teams in world football could come back from throwing away a two-nil lead in the last five minutes of normal time away from home  and against strong opposition to producing a winning goal in additional time. They demonstrated great self-belief in coming back to win the game late on after enduring a few late minutes of defensive indecision themselves and they impressed with their play throughout the ninety-odd minutes at Wembley last night. It was the sort of performance and result which serves to underline their reputation as one of Spain’s strongest challengers this summer.

The Losers:

Manchester United and Chris Smalling:

With Chris Smalling picking up a pretty gruesome head injury, Manchester United’s never-ending defensive injury crisis seems set to continue.

Aside from Patrice Evra and David De Gea, pretty much every member of United’s defensive unit have spent considerable stints on the sidelines this season, Smalling included, and now he is set for another spell out of the game. Incidents like this do warrant sympathy for the players themselves and for their club managers and I’m sure Sir Alex Ferguson will be bemoaning his luck with a huge game against Spurs lying in wait at the weekend. Hopefully for his and United’s benefit, the injury picked up by Smalling will not be as bad as it looked and he will make a speedy return to action.

Steven Gerrard:

Most people were expecting a swift return to the England captaincy for ‘Stevie G’ but it wasn’t to be as Scott Parker was picked for the job.

Not only will Gerrard be disappointed by this but he will also be irked by his short stay on the field after being named in England’s starting line-up. His stay of action lasted barely 20 minutes and was hardly what he was hoping for having barely played any international football over the past year due to injury.

It seems likely that Gerrard will be picked if fit and available but the brevity of his contributions last night certainly won’t work in his favour when it comes to squad and first XI selection at the Euro’s.


Terry loses the captaincy again; Have the FA made the right call?

The breaking news this morning that John  Terry has been removed from his post as England captain for a second time will no doubt be a matter of significant debate up and down the country today, but regarding England’s and the FA’s long-term well-being I think that the right decision has been made.

Of course, everybody will have their own opinion on the matter but I think his position of leadership and huge responsibility had become entirely untenable in light of recent events.

Many will argue that ‘he shouldn’t be stripped of the captaincy unless he if proven to be guilty’ but the truth is that this decision has been made with the best interests of all parties in mind. At least in the short term this decision has moved to appease those baying for Terry’s blood and it has removed Terry from the sharpest glare of the media and the public in the build-up to the Euros.

Many will view this move from the FA as a punishment for Terry but really this decision has been made for his own good. He is a world class centre-back who has been terrific on the field for his club and country but this move to strip him of the captaincy will hopefully enable him to play his best, uninhibited football if and when called upon in the lead up to European Championships.

In spite of my belief that the FA have made the right call, I am under no illusions as to how big a risk this was from them and I’m sure that they’ll be painfully aware of the significances too. Whether they like it or not, this decision has called into question their support of Terry who has after all been captain of their country for two lengthy periods. They may not be going as far as to say they doubt him, and the decision to stand him down from the captaincy may well have been made with great integrity in order to protect him but neither does it demonstrate a huge show of faith in his innocence either.

Now the question has been answered as to whether he will remain as England captain, there remain many questions still unanswered about Terry’s future and the future of England without his leadership. Will he even be a part of England’s forthcoming squads for friendly matches and the European Championships? Who will take over the captaincy for England? Will Rio Ferdinand shake his hand when they come head-to-head in the Chelsea-United game this weekend? Will Terry’s remaining presence in the squad mean that Ferdinand will retire from international football? And, will the England players be able to function as a squad while he is present and under such intense pressure?

For now of course, we will have to wait for the answer to these huge questions to unfold but here are my brief views on the highlighted issues…

I think Terry will be taken to the Euros and in terms of his ability he more than deserves his place in the squad, however, his presence will surely ruffle a few feathers and Capello is just fortunate that there are no QPR players likely to be in his plans (bar Bobby Zamora who is only a recent recruit at Loftus Road).

I  think that Rio Ferdinand will shake his hand if he plays against Chelsea this weekend as he is, generally speaking, very professional and will go ahead with the formalities regardless of what has gone before. I do however think that Ferdinand will find it hard to play alongside Terry at international level if asked, as his only public murmurings on the subject seem to suggest that he is firmly in support of his brother and it is hard to see how such support will manifest itself in a way that will see him partner up with Terry in England’s defence again.

Regarding Capello’s next choice of England captain, I hope he opts for Scott Parker even if it is just on a short-term basis given his advancing years. Parker is a real ‘leads-by-example’ sort of skipper and has led notoriously difficult clubs such as Newcastle and West Ham with great dignity. He also seems to be a dead-cert to make England’s starting line-up this summer if fit and well so that makes him a very strong candidate.

Other contenders include experienced options like Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, though I would argue that both of them are far from assured of a guaranteed place in the starting line-up, which is perhaps the most important of all the criteria needed to lead the side. Other interesting candidates include Rio Ferdinand, if he can stomach playing alongside Terry (and if he even makes the squad) and Joe Hart who like Scott Parker is relatively inexperienced on the international stage but is confident, popular and possesses great quality. If Parker doesn’t fit the bill for Fabio, then I hope Hart is given a crack at leading from the back.

Whatever does happen regarding the Terry-racism-saga over the next few months, we know it will be very interesting indeed. For what it’s worth, I commend the FA for their handling of the situation so far but this story is clearly one left ‘To Be Continued..’

The FA’s Captain Crisis: Should Terry be removed and if so then who should replace him?

As the John Terry race-row continues to simmer away the FA have one heck of a dilemma to resolve.

Terry has now been charged and given a court summons that means he will have to defend himself in a legal capacity, but in the mean time his professional situation hangs in the balance. The FA are still in the process of carrying out their enquiries into the alleged events at Loftus Road and they are still yet to have formally punished the England Captain.

If John Terry is found guilty in court come the beginning of February it will make his position as England Captain untenable, and it will even bring into question whether he should be playing football for club and country. To be found guilty by a court of law of having performed racially abusive actions would arguably take Terry’s career and societal standing beyond the point of return.

His current stance of committed denial and his quest to “fight tooth and nail” to prove his innocence would on the surface suggest that he has nothing to hide. However, if he is on the wrong end of the verdict both in court and from the FA then his defiance will simply add to the torrent of abuse that he will be subjected to.

With events rumbling on but still yet to have fully transpired it is unclear exactly what the outcome will be, but it seems increasingly feasible that the FA will have to look into choosing a replacement as the national side’s Captain with just 6 months to go until Euro 2012. Below I will suggest a few different options and their likelihood of landing the role if Terry is deposed.

Leading Candidates:

Steven Gerrard – The Liverpool man makes for the obvious replacement if a short term choice is seen as the responsible move looking ahead to Euro 2012, but there are huge question marks over his fitness. Having returned to action against Manchester United earlier this season after a six month absence, he managed only a couple of appearances before again succumbing to injury and it is unclear just when he will return again and whether this return will be less short-lived.

Scott Parker – Having Captained Newcastle and West Ham in the past, Parker is more than used to leading sides and fighting fires on and off field. Having almost guaranteed his place in England’s starting line-up for the Euro’s after a very successful and very overdue run in the side he seems to be a very strong contender. He would be my choice as a potential replacement.

Frank Lampard – A very willing leader on and off the field, Lampard stands out as a decent choice to take the reigns as a short term option. Whether or not he could be given the role might well be dictated by whether he can even get in England’s first XI. In recent times ‘Super Frank’ has struggled to hold down a place in the starting line up of either his club or national sides, but if he is going to be a crucial member of Capello’s side then I’m sure he would be immensely proud to be at the forefront of it’s leadership.

Long Shots:

Wayne Rooney – Anyone with as many caps as him should be taken into account, but his fiery temperament may put pay to any aspirations he might have of leading the national side. If he was to be chosen then it would have to be viewed as a long term option, as in the short term how could you choose a replacement that is unable to lead the two games most immediate in England’s competitive future?

Phil Jones – Young, passionate, committed; he might not be a bad option you know… However, it would be an enormous shock if the FA or Capello would consider a 19 year old to lead the national side into a major tournament. His long term hopes of one day being Captain look very strong though, time is definitely on his side in that respect.

Jack Wilshere – If he’s fit and he’s playing well towards the end of the Premier League season then Arsenal’s young gun could feasibly be considered. Though on the face of it he would be less shocking a selection than Phil Jones when considering their age and experience it is still unlikely that he would get the nod. The fact that he has been injured and unavailable all the way through this season certainly doesn’t help his cause in terms of being a realistic option.

Rio Ferdinand – The forgotten man of English football. At present it seems Rio would be doing well to even make the squad for the Euro’s given his recent omissions from England squads, but a a recent run of game time will have brought him back into Capello’s thoughts. If he were to be considered for a return to the Captaincy then it would of couse only be short term move as he is reaching the closing years of his career. It is  even possible that he would decline the role if offered it in the wake of Capello’s controversial handling of the United defender in the past.

Joe Hart – Is there anybody more assured of their place in England’s starting line up than Hart? The answer is ‘probably not’. He is also renowned for his strong character and his likability which could further any hopes he might have of one day landing the job. Other goalkeepers such as Oliver Kahn have led their national side’s effectively in the past so maybe Hart would be worth a shot?

 

The encouraging thing for the FA amidst the current turmoil is that if they have to retire Terry from the Captaincy that they have plenty of willing options. Not only are there many people who could be in the running, but there are also many different types of option, ranging form long to short term potential replacements and this is demonstrative of the mixture of youth and experience in the England side at present. We await the outcome of the John Terry saga with a mixture of sadness, optimism and great anticipation…

 

 

Fabio Capello: ‘Iron Sergeant’ or ‘Corporal Calamity’

The past couple of weeks have yet again done nothing to advertise the poisoned chalice that is the England managers job. However, I can’t help but feel that poor old Fabio the ‘Iron Sergeant’ Capello has brought this one upon himself.

Lost the plot?

It has been another tumultuous little period for the England boss, accused of going behind captain Rio Ferdinand’s back in handing the captaincy back to the much maligned John Terry. Capello of course is the manager and is entitled to make such decisions but his judgement is rightfully coming under question yet again.

Think back to pretty much all major moments in his tenure and there is one beacon of hope there for all to see. Ex and now reinstated skipper John Terry was caught out for his immensely disruptive off-field antics and was relieved of his duties. This decision to highlight and make an example of poor behaviour was met with a very positive media and public backing. Well done Fabio, brave decisions require brave men to implement them.

How ironic it is that the famed ‘Iron Sergeant’ has now reversed this decision then. Football management tends to be a pretty fickle business, but this is an incident which again has been met pretty unanimously by the media and the public. Moral panic is rife regarding the manor in which Rio Ferdinand has had the Captaincy stripped from him.

Will this decision see the end of a world-class defensive partnership?

Sure Ferdinand has injured pretty much ever since taking on the role, but if he is no longer your chosen leader then at least have the respect to let him know in adult fashion. Ferdinand himself has sailed too close to the wind on occasions in his career but has come out the other side a greater player and a better role model, a captain’s captain, a player who demands respect. It must then have come as a major disappointment to realise he was no longer his nation’s leader via the press. The ultimate embarrassment for a skipper who has not put a foot wrong in his brief time in charge.

Popular opinion seems to be that Capello’s latest decision reeks of regret and that it demonstrates a weakening mind-state of an under-pressure manager. But it is undoubtedly the manner of it that has caused greatest concern. Affairs like this, even in such a media-heavy country, should be carried out behind closed doors and only publicised when every one involved knows where they stand.

Capello has yet again been provided a chance to demonstrate authority and innovation. It is OK to have concerns over the welfare of the team when captain Ferdinand was such an liability in terms of fitness. But to hand the captaincy back to Terry after just “a year of punishment” when initially it was described as an “irreversible” decision appears an example of great frailty. Capello like so many England managers before him has not showered himself in glory thus far in his stint and to make such a misguided decision in such a misguided fashion will certainly not have aided public perception of his capabilities. When there are options such as Steven Gerrard available why would you turn to a controversial figure who is bound to divide opinion?

Why has Gerrard been overlooked?

My personal choice would be Scott Parker every time, but I am fully accepting that you can’t name a player captain if they aren’t an established member of the side. Personal agendas aside though Gerrard would appear by far the most popular and sensible decision. He has a proven record as captain of his club, he is passionate and he has captained England.

Terry may possess many skills that make him a very good on-field captain. But how Capello justifies this decision to the fans and players having gone back on his word is hard to fathom. I fear the damage is done already, and the England squad have been placed under unnecessary pressure to demonstrate what could be perceived as an artificial united front. England should and probably will beat Wales this weekend, but even if they do this has certainly been a case of great distraction at an important juncture in England’s qualification campaign.

England’s youth and fringe to the forefront

This week England battled back from an early deficit to defeat a decent Denmark side in their own backyard. A great deal of resilience was demonstrated by a seemingly thread-bare England side in the wake of the rather standard international week drop-outs.

Notable absentees were captain Rio Ferdinand, vice-captain Stephen Gerrard, Adam Johnson, Jermain Defoe and 35 million pound-man Andy Carroll. It was perhaps these absences that provided the much needed spark and motivation that was evident in England’s approach to the match.

Start of something special?

It was as is often the case in international friendly matches, a chance for the youth and fringe players to impress, and that they did. Manger Fabio Capello handed Arsenal talent Jack Wilshere his full-debut and duly praised the youngster’s contributions in his post-match addresses. Though Wilshere was rather disappointingly withdrawn at half-time his replacement Scott Parker came on and impressed.

Parker has been omitted all too often given his consistency in club colours

Parker was referred to as one of the “unluckiest England players” of the current generation by ex-England international Paul Merson on Sky Sports’ punditry based coverage of the match. I for one also find it hard to believe that a player of Parker’s character and technical ability has only made four caps for his country. He is a player I admire greatly and I think he is more than deserving of a run in the side. His performance of great commitment and control against Denmark will surely have earned him further opportunities in the role of England’s midfield linchpin.

Other fringe players and young talent also impressed having been given a run-out. None more so than Ashley Young who at half time replaced the seemingly still out-of-sorts Wayne Rooney. Young filled the void in behind Villa team-mate Darren Bent with great aplomb and  real attacking verve. His marauding runs caused the opposition serious problems all half and he was fittingly rewarded by scoring the winning goal, his first in international football.

So, was this encouraging display in a friendly the dawning of yet another era of failed promise or was it in fact the start of something a little special? We all hope that the latter  is true but the jury is certainly still out in force.

One thing certainly transpiring from the game is that England do indeed have strength-in-depth, England’s so-called ‘dead-certs’ in the line-up should no longer be considered to be so. We have young and hungry players coming through the production line in addition to more experienced and match-ready options like Scott Parker and Darren Bent, and it seems they are ready to take the step-up whenever called upon.

In summary, it was a good match, a strong performance and their was certainly some indication of a new and more committed era in English football. Let’s all cross our fingers now in unison.

My England XI: (4-2-3-1)

Joe Hart

Glen Johnson

Rio Ferdinand

John Terry

Ashley Cole

Parker

Gerrard

Walcott

Wilshere

Johnson

Rooney

Squad:

Foster, Robinson, Jagielka, Cahill, Baines, Bentley, Lampard, Milner, Young, Carroll, Defoe, Bent