Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Why So Many Empty Seats For Cup Competitions?

Coventry City hasn’t been in the Premiership since the 2000-2001 season, when they were relegated after finishing 19th with 34 points. The Sky Blues have spent every season since then in the Championship, so close to England’s top flight, but yet so far. They’re a proud club — they’ve been in existence since the early 1880’s, they were a founding member of the Premier League, and have won the FA Cup.

Before that dismal ‘00-’01 campaign, Coventry had spent the previous 34 seasons in the First Division/Premiership. Their fans had been used to seeing the best opposition in the world on a week-in, week-out basis, so the drop to the Championship couldn’t have been easy. They’ve come nowhere near promotion since then; in fact, they’ve nearly been relegated to League One on a couple different occasions.

The Carling Cup Second Round started today, with Coventry welcoming Newcastle to the Ricoh Arena. Newcastle is a popular team in England and despite their lack of success in recent years, they’re by no means a bad side. One would think that a chance to upset a Premiership team in a one-off game in a cup competition would be a draw for Coventry fans. One would think the crowd would really be up for this game, even if it’s just to see a team they don’t get to see anymore because the two clubs aren’t in the same league. It came as a bit of a surprise, then, when I turned on the game and saw a half-filled stadium with a crowd quieter than the ones at some of my high school games, at least until Coventry equalized right at the death through a long throw-in into the box (Newcastle eventually won 3-2).

This is the problem with both the FA Cup and the Carling Cup, though. For some reason, and I’m wondering what it is, matches in these competitions don’t ever seem to sell out unless it’s the quarterfinal stage or beyond. It doesn’t matter who the opponent is; a “Big Four” team could come to town and there still probably won’t be a full crowd.

I don’t understand this, and I’m hoping you can help me out. These are cup games. They have more individual meaning than most any game in a 38-match (Premiership) or 46-match (lower leagues) schedule. In the Carling Cup, one team will advance and the knock the other out on that given day. In the FA Cup, the same could happen unless the game ends up in a draw, in which case the tie is decided in the return leg. Victories propel a side one step closer to a trophy. If a Premiership team goes to one of those lower league sides, that’s the best, most talented opponent they’ll see all season. The Carling Cup winner and usually both the FA Cup winner and runner-up receive a berth in the UEFA Cup, which is no small consolation prize for many teams. The domestic cups provide another chance to win a trophy, and it’s hard to argue with that.

It doesn’t make sense to me. Is it because the games are played on weeknights? It’s not like they go on late into the night, meaning people can still get home at a decent hour and be ready for work the next day. It’s my understanding that ticket prices are lower for cup games and at lower-league clubs, so that can’t have much to do with it.

Why do I see so many empty seats like I did today?

A Few Days Off..

Tomorrow I leave for Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania, which will be my home for the next three school years. Move-in is Thursday, with the typical orientation/getting used to the campus/meeting people stuff going on the rest of the weekend.

I'll be busy with that, obviously, and just doing the things a new college student does. My blogging pattern isn't going to change -- I'll still be posting daily or as close to daily as possible based on what's going on in the soccer world -- but I am going to take these next few days off to immerse myself in everything up there and prepare for the start of classes next week. If I get a chance and there's something worth mentioning, I'll do a post here, but it's more likely that you won't find much here at least until this weekend.

Just wanted to give everyone the heads-up. Thanks for your understanding.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Premiership All-Star Team--Round 2

Manchester United's 1-0 victory at Portsmouth earlier this afternoon concluded the second round of fixtures in the Premiership. It would be foolish to read too much into the standings at this point in this season, but it's still interesting to see the likes of Hull City and Newcastle near the top of the table while Portsmouth and Tottenham are languishing at the other end.

This weekend was full of unexpected results and exciting finishes, from Steven Gerrard's 94th-minute curling effort to beat Middlesbrough to Mamady Sidibe's late header for Stoke City in their victory over Aston Villa. Fulham triumphed over Arsenal for only the second time in 16 meetings. Sunderland went to White Hart Lane and upset Tottenham -- a result that I told you to watch out for in my post on Friday night.

Here are the weekend's standouts, with the number in parentheses next to their name representing how many points they have in my personal competition. Remember, a player gets 10 points for being an All-Star, 15 for being the Player of the Week.

GK: Petr Čech (Chelsea) (10) -- Made five saves to earn the shutout in Chelsea's 1-0 victory at Wigan. These weren't just run-of-the-mill, low-difficulty saves either -- the Czech goalkeeper was sent sprawling in both directions to come up with his stops.

CB: Brede Hangeland (Fulham) (10) -- Hangeland's first goal for Fulham since joining the club last January turned out to be the winner against Arsenal, a game that ended 1-0. As a center back, Hangeland's main responsibility is to prevent the opponent from scoring, which he did, and it's not often that Arsenal fails to do so. Hangeland's goal was a huge bonus added on to his solid performance in defense.
CB: Nemanja Vidić (Manchester United) (10) -- United's win was mentioned earlier and it wasn't as close as the final scoreline would indicate, especially in the second half. Portsmouth generated absolutely nothing going forward, with Vidić the main reason why. He was United's rock at the heart of the defense, shedding blood (literally) for the cause.
CB: Jamie Carragher (Liverpool) (10) -- He was turned around a couple times early in the game (though neither mistake cost Liverpool on the scoreboard) but his fluke equalizer was a reward for his otherwise outstanding, if underappreciated, play. Gerrard won it at the death but without Carragher holding the back four together, the captain's goal wouldn't have mattered.

RMF: Stephen Ireland (Manchester City) (10) -- Had the assist on both of Elano's goals in City's comfortable 3-0 home win over West Ham. Forced Callum Davenport to clear the ball off the line with a shot in the 13th minute. You wouldn't know he's a central midfielder by trade based on his performance -- his crossing was great and he was able to get up and down the flank almost at will.
DMF: Vincent Kompany (Manchester City) (10) -- Made his City debut in style, picking up the Man of the Match award for his spectacular effort. Started out in the holding role, but moved to center back when Micah Richards had to be taken off on a stretcher with a head injury barely into the second half. West Ham didn't record an official shot on goal.
CMF: Darren Fletcher (Manchester United) (10) -- Fletcher's second goal in two games, United's only two tallies of the season, was all the Red Devils needed today. The Scottish international certainly wasn't flashy, but he and Paul Scholes pulled the strings in a midfield that led United to 64% of the possession, an extremely high figure for any Premiership game, much less an away fixture.
AMF: Elano (Manchester City) -- Two goals, two cool finishes from the Brazilian.
LMF: Kieran Richardson (Sunderland) (10) -- Fantastic strike gave the Black Cats a 1-0 lead over Spurs in the second half. Sunderland eventually won the game 2-1, and Richardson looked great on the left wing.

ST: Michael Owen (Newcastle) (10) -- If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Owen came off the bench in the 53rd minute, had a close-range header saved, then buried one from an almost-identical setup barely a quarter of an hour after he'd entered. Those were Newcastle's only two shots on goal, but they beat Bolton 1-0 anyway.
ST: Ricardo Fuller (Stoke City) (10) -- This guy scrapped and scrapped all game before being subbed out in the 87th minute. Made a beautiful turn around Martin Laursen and finished the play with a great goal from a bad angle to put Stoke up 2-1 at the time.

Player of the Week: Elano (15)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Harry Redknapp Interested In Coaching 2012 UK Team

Portsmouth boss ‘Arry Redknapp confirmed his interest in leading a Great Britain soccer team in the 2012 Summer Olympics, which will be held in London.

Redknapp is from London and spent a combined 15 years playing for and managing West Ham, a club based in the eastern section of England’s capital. The other teams he’s led — Bournemouth, Portsmouth, and Southampton — are all on the South Coast, also not far from London. This familiarity with the area clearly plays into his willingness to take the job if he gets the chance:

“I’m absolutely flattered that my name is being mentioned about managing the Great Britain team,’ he told the Sunday Mirror yesterday.

‘Would I take it if they offered it to me? Absolutely, I would be a fool not to.

‘I’ve had some great managerial jobs during my career but there is no doubt this would be the icing on the cake.

‘The fact it is being held on my old stamping ground in East London makes it even more appealing.”

As of right now, though, it appears unlikely that a combined team will even be fielded. The Welsh, Scottish, and Northern Irish FA’s are all opposed to the idea, which puts a huge damper on it seeing as those are three of the four countries that would be involved. There’s no doubt that most of the talent on the team would come from England, but it can’t be given the go-ahead unless those associations give their seals of approval. They feel that it would be a threat to the future of their respective national teams, which obviously operate independently of one another.

England’s Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, supports the plan:

“I hope there will be a team by 2012. It will be Team UK. I hope we can get an agreement on that.

‘I think when people are looking at the Olympics in 2012 - Britain, home of football, where football was invented, which we gave to the world - I think people would be very surprised if there is an Olympic tournament in football and we are not part of it.”

‘I am determined to work with the football associations and the Olympic Committee to ensure that when we come to 2012 we have a men’s football team and we have a women’s football team playing.”

There’s no doubt to me that the UK should have a team. These Olympics are in their backyard. Soccer is the most popular sport in the region, and its main competitors — rugby and cricket — aren’t Olympic events. If some sort of agreement has to be reached saying that Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales each have to be represented on the squad by a certain number of players, then fine. I don’t see why that should be too much of a problem, although as I hinted at before, the best players in Great Britain are English.

Redknapp would be a terrific leader for this team. Other than Martin O’Neill, I don’t think anyone is more of a “player’s manager” than Redknapp. He has the right personality and temperament to unite a multi-national side. He’s going to be 65 in 2012 so he may not have the same enthusiasm as he does now, but something tells me the thrill of playing in his home city would reignite the engines and give him a little pick-me-up, if he even needs one in the first place.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Waken Up! It's Time for "I'm on Setanta Sports"!

On the new season's second episode, Dimitar Berbatov's potential transfer to Manchester United is the hot topic. "The Boy" makes a special appeal to give the Bulgarian striker a home. Rafa and both Keanes -- Robbie and Roy -- all call in to give their takes on the "heartbreaking" plea.

"It", aka Mr. "WELL! wellwellwellwellwellwellwellwellwellwelluhhhh!!!", brings an old habit back to the forefront as well.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Games To Watch This Weekend

With a relatively lazy Friday as far as soccer news is concerned, I thought I'd put out a quick primer for the weekend's most interesting matchups. This is something I'll be doing sporadically throughout the year, though more so for domestic and continental cup competitions (when English teams are involved) rather than the Premierhip.

Tottenham vs. Sunderland -- Neither team got a result in their respective opening games last week, but Sunderland looked more impressive in their 1-0 loss against Liverpool than Tottenham did in their 2-1 defeat at Middlesbrough. The Black Cats were even with Rafa's boys all game long until a thunderbolt from Fernando Torres won it. Spurs needed an own goal in second half stoppage time just to account for the final scoreline. Boro played them off the park in that match.

The so-called "Tottenham trio" — Pascal Chimbonda, Teemu Tainio, and Steed Malbranque — will be returning to White Hart Lane for the first time since moving to Sunderland this summer. You can bet Chimbonda and Malbranque will be motivated to play well against the team that gave up on them. The three players each spent a couple seasons at Tottenham, though Tainio probably had the most success. He’ll miss this game with a muscle strain.

Tottenham made it clear through their summer signings that they're pushing for a place in the Champions League. Performances like the one they turned in last week aren't going get to it done, obviously. Sunderland, on the other hand, wants to stabilize their position in England's top flight and then push their way up the table. This is the perfect opponent for them -- one who struggles to defend. Sunderland won't score many goals without star striker Kenwyne Jones, but if they can find a way to steal one or two tomorrow, this is a game from which they can pick up points.

Manchester City vs. West Ham -- City opens their home schedule coming off a 4-2 shellacking at the hands of Aston Villa last week. That loss isn't the main concern at the Eastlands right now, though, as news broke tonight that owner Thaksin Shinawatra, one of the most corrupt men in all of soccer, is preparing to resign from his position or, at the very least, sell some of his stake in the club. Instability is the name of the game right now in that area of Manchester.

His team doesn't have much up front, which is a huge concern for manager Mark Hughes. Daniel Sturridge played very well off the bench at Villa, but he's not ready to be a full-time starter. Valeri Bojonov is injured once again, as are Benjani and Darius Vassell. Chedwyn Evans and Sturridge are all City has for the time being, at least until record signing Jô comes back from his Olympic duty for Brazil.

West Ham picked up three points in a solid 2-1 win over Wigan at Upton Park. Dean Ashton scored both goals and would've earned himself another look-in to the England national team, but the striker came off with a cramp in his lower leg and was not selected by Fabio Capello. He should be ready to play tomorrow against a defense that was torn to shreds by Villa's firepower.

If City loses on Sunday, make sure you turn up the volume when the final whistle is blown. Nothing like the clear sound of "boos" to get you going early in the morning, I always say.

Portsmouth vs. Manchester United -- Make no mistake: this is not the same Manchester United team that won the Premiership a year ago. Cristiano Ronaldo's absence affects United as much as the loss of any one player from any team in the world. Without him, Sir Alex Ferguson's team is vulnerable and struggles to score goals, which we saw in their 1-1 draw against Newcastle last week. No disrespect to Newcastle, but United beat them 6-0 at home last year when Ronaldo played (he had a hat trick), and Newcastle hasn't improved their roster that much since then.

For their part, Portsmouth looked nothing like they did last season in their 4-0 spanking at Stamford Bridge last Sunday. Chelsea dominated the game -- Pompey had a hard time advancing past midfield for stretches of the 90 minutes.

United and Pompey have developed a very nice little rivalry over the past few seasons, one that saw Sulley Muntari and Ronaldo get sent off in a two-minute span in the corresponding fixture last year, a game that ended 1-1. United won the second league game between the two 2-0, but Pompey returned the favor by knocking the Red Devils out of the FA Cup, a competition eventually won by the South Coasters. Just two weeks ago, United triumphed over 'Arry Redknapp's side in PK's in the season-opening Community Shield.

There's nothing like a Monday night game at Fratton Park. The crowd will be buzzing for an upset, one which wouldn't be too surprising from this writer's point of view.

Should be a good weekend in the Premiership.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Final Observations of England Friendly Against Czech Republic (2-2)

• It’s clear that England is really lacking in two positions – left wing and center forward. Steven Gerrard is a very good player and performed well on the left today, but that’s not his natural position and he doesn’t give England much width. He needs to play in the position Frank Lampard occupied today. Stewart Downing should be nothing more than a squad player. Wayne Rooney, as we all know, is not really a striker, and neither Jermain Defoe nor Emile Heskey (who has 5 goals in 45 appearances) are the answers for England long-term. Fabio Capello left the best options for those positions at home, in my opinion, in Ashley Young (left) and either Darren Bent or Peter Crouch up top. Bent or Crouch paired with either Defoe or Rooney and England would be in business. Young provides the pace and on-ball qualities that England just doesn’t have. Joe Cole is a versatile option who can play either wing and as a second striker, but I’m not sure if he’s consistent enough on the international stage to start.

• Wes Brown scored today, but I don’t think he’s the best option at right back. Glen Johnson brings more to the table than Brown while making half as many mistakes, of which Brown made two bad ones in this game. Luke Young isn’t a bad player. Phil Neville is still serviceable. It seems like Brown’s spot isn’t even up for contention, and that’s a problem.

• The Czech Republic were the better team in this match. They’re not half as flashy as England can be at times, but they get the job done. It was nice to see them rebound with a victory after that disastrous collapse against Turkey in Euro 2008, the last game they played. They deserved the victory and were harshly done by when Joe Cole scuffled home the late equalizer.

• As with the U-21’s, I was disappointed with the turnout at Wembley. Look, there aren’t too many international games played each year so when there is one, I’d expect it to be sold out or close to it. If you don’t think you’re going to get that at Wembley, move the game to a smaller stadium. There’s no need to have a “national stadium” anyway, not when there are other fully capable grounds in the country.

• England’s players didn’t have the same passion as their Czech counterparts. I can’t blame it on their new captain, John Terry, I just think they need to put a little more into their performances in the future. It’s hard to explain, really – it seemed like something was missing. They get plenty of credit for their two comebacks, though, because those are hard to come by at this level (unless you’re Turkey, of course!)

• All things considered, Capello can take some positives and negatives out of this game. As I said, his team came back twice from a goal down. David Beckham looked very good on the right side and still gets it done. Ashley Cole put in a solid 90 minutes. The negatives, though, outweigh the positives. England generated nothing up front. They were very, very sloppy at times. David James wasn’t at his finest, even though there was nothing he could do about Jankulovski’s fantastic free kick. There's a lot to improve upon, and I'm sure Capello knows that.

England is back in action on September 6, when they'll pay a visit to minnows Andorra. Andorra began their qualifying campaign for World Cup 2010 today with a 3-0 loss at Kazakhstan. It'll be England's first game in UEFA Group 6 and should be a victory for the Three Lions. They outscored Andorra by a combined 8-0 in their two games against the 182nd-ranked team in the world in Euro 2008 qualifying.

Observations of England Friendly Against Czech Republic--First Half

• Well, I had it wrong earlier when I said Gareth Barry would be on the left and Steven Gerrard in the middle. The two were reversed to start, though Gerrard ended up drifting inside anyway. Ashley Cole and Wes Brown, the left and right backs, respectively, both needed to get forward and provide some necessary width to the team.

• David Beckham can still hit a dead or slow-moving ball pretty well. Big shock, huh? He's still England's best option on the right side.

• I’m getting tired of seeing Wayne Rooney listed as a striker for England. He comes back so far to collect the ball that’s he virtually a fifth midfielder, and when you only have Jermain Defoe (hardly a target man) up front and the firepower that’s already in England’s midfield, Rooney doesn’t need to drop so deep. It hurts the team more than it helps, though you have to like the hustle and work rate.

• Well-deserved yellow card for Barry – reckless tackle.

• Good awareness from Wes Brown to clear the ball after David James made the one-handed diving save after a quarter of an hour.

• Even though Gerrard rarely plays on the left, he looked great bursting forward out there today. He tested Petr Cech early after cutting in and ripping a low, hard drive, won a corner kick in the 35th minute after having his shot deflected out of bounds, passed it very well, and drew a couple fouls in good position for England. When he came back inside, though, he struggled a little bit to connect his passes.

• After Brown’s good play earlier, he was largely responsible for the Czech Republic’s first goal, scored by Milan Baros. As a defender, Brown made the huge mistake of diving in and letting the attacker walk it right around him there at the corner of the 18. The ball was then passed to Baros, who made no mistake. The goal itself went in off Ashley Cole, an unfortunate bounce because it appeared that James was going to make the save before the ball could sneak into the corner.

• As match commentator Robbie Earle wisely pointed out, the width of the Czech Republic put England at a big disadvantage because the Three Lions have little of it. When the full backs have to go that far forward, they leave holes in the back that can be exploited.

• Frank Lampard was fortunate to not receive a yellow card for his sliding challenge in the 28th minute. He caught all man first, ball second, and it wasn’t even close.

• England’s best stretch of the half came between the 25th-40th minutes, but Cech was up to the task. Better finishing from Rooney and Defoe, in particular, was needed to equalize.

• Great long throw from James to his Portsmouth teammate, Defoe, just before halftime. Defoe then won a foul. The free kick from that foul resulted in an England corner kick, which was headed in by Brown, whose first international goal makes up for his earlier mistake.

Lampard Paired With Gerrard in England's Starting Lineup

Yes, you read correctly.

We've seen this story before. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard can't play together in the same midfield, but yet England boss Fabio Capello is going to give it another try in today's friendly against the Czech Republic. This should be interesting.

The other surprise in the starting lineup is Gareth Barry, not because of his inclusion but because of his position. Barry will be playing left wing, definitely not his best role or the one he's been so successful in for Aston Villa lately. Why play Barry, who has a great relationship with Gerrard and would allow the Liverpool captain to go forward, in the holding role, where Barry is best, when you can play Lampard, who gives you nothing defensively? Makes no sense to me.

Here's the full lineup:

GK: James

RB: Brown
CB: Ferdinand
CB: Terry (captain)
LB: A. Cole

RMF: Beckham
CMF: Gerrard
CMF: Lampard
LMF: Barry

ST: Rooney
ST: Defoe

More analysis later.

Final Observations of England U-21 Friendly Against Slovenia (2-1)

• I was disappointed to see how many empty seats there were at Hull City’s KC Stadium. I know this was only a friendly, but come on. These players are the future of England’s national team, and the already small stadium wasn't even half-full to watch them.

• I liked the 4-3-3 employed by Pearce. He showed some tactical flexibility by adapting the formation to suit his players rather than fit players into a predetermined formation, which too many international head coaches are guilty of. He then moved to a 4-4-2 when he introduced Fraizer Campbell on the hour, again demonstrating his willingness to change things around.

• I’m not entirely sure why Aston Villa’s Gabriel Agbonlahor wasn’t in the starting lineup. He’s coming off a perfect hat trick in seven minutes against Manchester City, and it isn’t just that – he played well in Villa’s European games before the league season kicked off. Matt Derbyshire, who can barely get a game at Blackburn, got the start ahead of Agbonlahor. The match commentator made the point that Agbonlahor was getting some “extensive treatment” for his groin on the field during warm-ups, so I would have to assume that that was the reasoning behind the decision to sit the pacey young striker.

• Nedum Onouha played center back even though he’s a better fit on the right with his blistering speed, and his Manchester City teammate Micah Richards played right back even though he plays in the center for the club. Again, it’s an assumption, but England U-21 manager Stuart Pearce probably knows he can’t count on having Richards for much longer, so the greater benefit to his team would be playing Onouha where he normally plays for the Young Lions instead of shifting him over to accommodate Richards, who is fully capable at right back. Richards’ future with the senior national team is probably at right back anyway.

• Michael Mancienne looked OK at center back. He’s on loan from Chelsea, where he’ll probably never feature, at QPR, where he’s one of the team’s best players. He seemed very calm and composed, especially under pressure, but he did back off and give Slovenia’s attackers too much room to operate at times. He was burnt badly by a through ball on Slovenia’s only goal as well.

• Derbyshire violated a cardinal rule of the game – play until the whistle blows – when he stopped on a dime, threw his hands up, and turned around at the referee when he did not award a PK in the 15th minute for a questionable tackle in the area. Derbyshire went down, popped back up, and didn’t pursue the ball. If he would have, Slovenia may not have been able to clear it. Yes, it should’ve been a penalty, but once it’s not called, it’s not going to be called. Don’t complain about it while the play is still going on.

• West Ham’s Mark Noble and City’s Michael Johnson (in the hour he played) really bossed the midfield. Both are regulars for their respective clubs, so I’d expect nothing less against the inferior Slovenian side.

• England did a good job winning their set pieces in the air, particularly Richards, who hit the post with a header off a corner kick early in the game and picked up his own rebound (which also came off a header) and scored a tap-in in the 25th minute. Richards was superb in the air all game long, looking like a man against boys. Onouha also looked lively.

• Tom Huddlestone was shaky in open play, especially in the first 30 minutes. To be fair to him, he hasn’t really gotten and isn’t going to get an extended run in Tottenham’s first team, and the rust was clearly evident. He had trouble passing the ball early and was constantly giving it away, both on the dribble and with his passes. He did play a nice through ball to Noble at the beginning of the second half, though Noble didn’t do anything with it. His play steadily improved as the game went on, which is a good sign. He also delivered some dangerous set pieces.

• James Milner’s terrific finish bailed out his bumbling and stumbling on the pass that led to his goal, the game-winner. The U-21 captain battled the same problem yesterday as he has for most of his career: inconsistency.

• The substitutes used by Pearce – Campbell, Michael Kightly, Fabrice Muamba, Martin Cranie, David Wheater, and Adam Johnson – were a mixed bag. Johnson was impressive and showed best out of those six. Kightly picked it up after he moved to the right wing. Campbell took a few minutes to get into the game and provided a bit of a sprak. I hardly noticed Muamba, Cranie, and Wheater. Tom Heaton replaced starting goalkeeper Joe Lewis at halftime but had very little to do.

• All-in-all, England put in a decent performance. Slovenia exploited a couple weaknesses in the first 15-20 minutes, over which they played well, but England dictated the game after that. For how strong of a Young Lions side this was, though, I don’t think they’re going to be too happy with the final scoreline. There was too much short passing in the back and then kick-and-chase, rather than individual skill, movement, and the use of incisive through balls. England was a man up for the last 25 minutes but didn’t do anything to capitalize on their advantage.

Man of the Match: Richards, with Noble a close second.

England's senior team plays later this afternoon against the Czech Republic. I'll be doing the same thing for that game as I did here, but my commentary will be posted immediately following the match rather than the day after.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

John Terry Should Not Be England's Captain

I'm sure you've all heard it by now: England manager Fabio Capello named John Terry captain of the Three Lions today.

If you believe the numerous media reports, the strong favorite to be handed the armband on a permanent basis was Manchester United center back Rio Ferdinand, whose steady, and at times fantastic, play tends to greatly overshadow his off-field transgressions over the years in the minds of many England fans. I've already dedicated a post as to why I didn't think Ferdinand should've even been considered (http://englishsoccertalk.blogspot.com/2008/03/rio-tabbed-as-england-captain-becks.html) for the captaincy, so I won't go into that again. Suffice it to say that I'm glad he was passed over by Capello, but I'm disappointed that he was, in fact, named vice-captain. Ferdinand is a very good player, but he doesn't deserve to lead out his country.

Again going by the media's prediction, Terry was the second choice for this honor. In that same post I highlighted above, I was all for the Chelsea central defender being given another chance to skip England when Capello was still rotating the captaincy in his first few games as manager. The credentials are there -- club captain, England's official captain for 14 games (though he missed five others due to injury), PFA Player of the Year for the 2004-2005 Premiership season, inclusion in the World Cup 2006 squad of the tournament, and two-time Premiership winner at Chelsea, among others. I didn't think then that he should be the permanent captain, but based on his past achievements on the field and his form at that particular time, I was in favor of him getting a sort of ceremonial final run-out with the armband.

Like Ferdinand, Terry has been responsible for a fair bit of controversy off the field. The day after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, Terry and a couple teammates, including Frank Lampard, went on a drunken binge in a hotel filled with American tourists and made insensitive, inflammatory remarks about the tragedy in New York City, stripping naked at the scene as well. Terry was fined by Chelsea. He spent a night in jail in 2002 after his involvement in a fracas at a London nightclub which left a doorman injured, although to be fair, Terry was later cleared of all charges. He was accused of making a disparaging racial remark towards an England teammate and Tottenham player after being sent off in Chelsea's 2-1 loss to Tottenham in 2006. He parked his expensive car in a handicapped spot in the middle of March, which may not seem like too big of a deal, but it symbolizes his arrogant attitude and blatant disrespect -- "I'm John Terry, I can park where I want. Why should I walk an extra two feet into the store when I can be lazy and make it easier for myself?" He is a known high-stakes gambler, and, like Wayne Rooney, has admitted to cheating on his significant other.

I understand that what a player does away from the field is his business. Still, being a captain has as much to do with your qualities as a person and your leadership ability as it does with what you bring to the game itself. Terry can motivate his teammates, he can get them up to put in a good performance. When things don't go his or his team's way, however, you see a petulant, juvenile side of Terry that suggests he has no business representing England as captain.

Let's see...there's the time Terry literally tried to grab a red card out of referee Mike Dean's hand in a game against Manchester United last September, again showing his disrespect for authority. Or the time he publicly questioned Graham Poll's integrity after that game against Spurs, for which he was found guilty of misconduct by the FA. And the numerous occasions in which Terry has physically accosted and intimidated referees when a big decision goes against him or Chelsea. Terry will make contact with officials, he'll bump them, he'll confront them, and instead of stopping his teammates when they do the same thing (which they're known for at Chelsea), he'll just jump in and do it himself. Remember when Ashley Cole turned his back on Mike Riley in a game against Tottenham last season? Cole had been told and signalled to come to Riley and receive his yellow card for a sliding challenge. Terry did nothing to help the situation like a captain should do.

Terry also isn't the same player he was back when he collected those awards I mentioned earlier. He's injury-prone now, and that's clearly affected the way he goes about his duty at center back. He seems a bit hesitant to get stuck into a challenge. He's still a presence in the air, but doesn't go up for balls any more than he actually has to. In the biggest game of his life, last season's Champions League final, he missed what would have been the trophy-winning PK in the shootout.

No, Capello made a mistake in appointing Terry as England's captain. He had his chance in the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign and didn't get it done.

I’ve said it several times before, and I’ll say it again: Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard was the only choice for the role in my mind. He is England’s best overall player, taking into account what he does both offensively and defensively. I can’t count how many times he’s put Liverpool on his shoulders and single-handedly carried them to victory in a game they needed to have. If it wasn’t for Gerrard, there’s no way Liverpool wins the ‘04-’05 Champions League final against AC Milan or the ‘05-’06 FA Cup final against West Ham. He was responsible for those comebacks. He’s the only player to have scored in all four major finals (Carling Cup, FA Cup, Champions League, UEFA Cup) possible for an English-based player to take part in. This guy, unlike Lampard, who couldn’t play alongside Gerrard for England because of his one-dimensional style, is a great tackler and tracks back better than any attack-minded midfielder in the world. He is a big-time player and steps it up when it matters most.

The personal recognition he’s garnered — awarded the MBE for his services to the game, three times in the UEFA Team of the Year, Champions League MVP in ‘04-’05, PFA Player of the Year, PFA Young Player of the Year, six appearances in the PFA Team of the Year, three-time nomination for FIFA Player of the Year — and his accomplishments with Liverpool, where he’s won every major trophy except the Premiership, serve to show just how influential of a player Gerrard is. He is the heart and soul of his club and will occupy 20th place on the list of England’s most capped players (ahead of famous names like Terry, Paul Scholes, Ashley Cole, Alan Shearer, Kevin Keegan, Paul Gascoigne, and Lampard) after tomorrow’s friendly against the Czech Republic, his 68th appearance for his country. He’s well on his way to 100, an accomplishment reached only by five players at this point in time.

He stays squeaky-clean off the field, where he’s settled down with his wife and two young daughters, aside from one minor incident that was not his fault in early October last year. You won’t find Gerrard in the headlines for anything he does outside the lines, at least not for anything negative.

It’s a shame that Gerrard wasn’t given the armband by Capello, and I’m sure it’s partly because he isn’t a center back or goalkeeper, the two most common positions for captains. That notion makes sense to me only to a certain extent. If I was a manager, I’d want my central midfielder as my captain. Everything goes through him; he’s the team’s linchpin. He’s the one who distributes the ball, he’s the one who plays a total game — attack and defense.

Gerrard was Capello’s first captain as England boss; his team beat Switzerland 2-1 in a game in which Gerrard played very well and set up the winning goal. It’s downright criminal that he wasn’t at least named vice-captain, and it doesn’t make sense that Ferdinand would be placed into that role when he isn’t even the captain of his club and England’s captain will be right next to him in the defense. Coupled with the questionable squad call-ups made for this game, I’m starting to lose a little faith in Capello in whether he can turn this England team around. If it happens with Terry and Ferdinand at the helm, I can tell you that it will be in spite of them, not because of them.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Premiership All-Star Team--Round 1

I'm going to do something new this season. After every round of games -- that is to say, after any league games that have been played between Tuesday of one week and Tuesday of the next (which takes into account the rare Monday night game) -- I'm going to name an All-Star Team based on that week's performances. I didn't do this last year, but I think this is a good way to recognize players that don't necessarily get much publicity over the course of 38 games.

I'm also going to make this a contest of sorts. For each time a player is an All-Star, he'll earn 10 points. My Player of the Week, who obviously will be in the team, gets 15 points. Most points at the end of the year wins, and that should give us a solid indication of who's in the running for Player of the Year in the Premiership and who's in line for other awards and international call-ups.

The formation isn't always going to be a traditional 4-4-2; it can be any "recognized" way to set up a team. I don't want my hands to be bound and have to choose players just to fit a formation, I want to be able to fit as many deserving players as I can into the team. It's not going to be anything outlandish, though, so don't worry.

Here's my All-Star Team for this weekend:

GK: Shay Given (Newcastle) -- Did you see those early, short-range saves on Wayne Rooney and Paul Scholes? He even took another off the ol' noggin when he denied Fraizer Campbell. Without Given, Newcastle loses that game.

RB: Grétar Steinsson (Bolton) -- Accidental or not, his tally will be a candidate for goal of the season. Also played well defensively.
CB: David Wheater (Middlesbrough) -- Scored the opener, had another disallowed (it should've stood), looked dangerous going forward, and spearheaded the unit that shut down Tottenham's vaunted attack all game long. Played right back in this game, but will move back into the center now that Justin Hoyte has arrived.
CB: William Gallas (Arsenal) -- The captain stepped up in Kolo Toure's absence, as it's usually the Ivorian who is the commanding presence in the center of Arsenal's defense. Arsenal didn't concede a goal, and Gallas was a big reason why.
LB: Stephen Warnock (Blackburn) -- Picture-perfect diagonal long ball to Santa Cruz for the equalizer, great free kick into the area to set up the winner.

RMF: Mikel Arteta (Everton) -- Scored on a terrific free kick from an acute angle in Everton's 3-2 loss to Blackburn. Was their shining light, by far.
CMF: Gareth Barry (Aston Villa) -- Everything goes through Barry for Villa. Had some chances going forward, and distributed the ball well to both flanks in a 4-2 win over Manchester City.
LMF: Ashley Young (Aston Villa) -- One direct assist and started two other goals. Terrorized City's defense the entire game.

ST: Dean Ashton (West Ham) -- Scored both goals in the Hammers' 2-1 victory over Wigan.
ST: Gabriel Agbonlahor (Aston Villa) -- Perfect hat trick in seven minutes. Enough said.
ST: Johan Elmander (Bolton) -- Celebrated his first game in the Premiership with a goal and looked very lively before being subbed out in the 76th minute.

Player of the Week: Agbonlahor

Saturday, August 16, 2008

England Squad Announced for Czech Republic Friendly

Fabio Capello has named his 23-man roster for England's friendly against the Czech Republic on Wednesday, and there were a couple of surprise absentees, one of which really bothers me.

I can't emphasize enough just how highly I rate Aston Villa's Ashley Young, who had a breakout season last year and was rewarded with a place in the PFA Team of the Year for his efforts. He's right-footed but plays on the left wing and has a good enough left foot, which he showed midweek on the terrific goal he scored in Villa's 4-1 victory over FH in the UEFA Cup Second Qualifying Round. England has a huge void on the left flank: Stewart Downing isn't good enough, Joe Cole doesn't bring much pace to the position, and there really aren't many options behind those two and Young.

Young was snubbed by Capello -- that's the only way I can put it. He should've been in the squad and should've started in the game. It's that simple. You cannot and never will convince me that Downing is a better player than Young. Cole should be on the field, but not at that position. If anyone watched Aston Villa last season, they'd know just how good of a player this guy is. His peers recognize his talent, hence the spot on that PFA team.

The other notable exclusion was that of Darren Bent, who lit it up in the pre-season for Tottenham with, I believe, 12 goals in 5 or 6 games. I understand that pre-season doesn't mean much but they're games. What else is Capello supposed to go on? The main issue with Steve McLaren was that he seemed to pick his team on reputation and name value rather than form, and Capello didn't do that when he took over. It's almost impossible to be playing better right now than Bent.

My surprise here is coupled with the fact that Capello selected Wayne Rooney as one of his three strikers. Rooney has been out for a couple weeks with a virus he contracted on Manchester United's pre-season tour of Africa. He definitely has the talent to be on this team, but he hasn't played in a while and is only just now near complete recovery. He has a tendency to drop back into midfield, where England is already loaded, to pick up the ball instead of staying up front to receive it. This is fine, and I wouldn't have as much of a problem with it as I do, but Capello also picked Jermain Defoe, who is another quick, slight striker, and only one center forward, Emile Heskey, whose best days are clearly behind him.

There's no way that Bent shouldn't be in this group based on his attributes and his current form. If you're going to play Rooney, it's like adding another midfielder with the way he plays for England, and if you're going to play Defoe, he's going to be alongside an unfamiliar face in Heskey. Bent and Defoe were teammates at Tottenham last season before the latter moved to Portsmouth in January, so they should have some chemistry. Defoe has been training with Peter Crouch, a perfect contrasting partnership, all summer, and Crouch also wasn't named to the England team.

West Ham's Dean Ashton certainly would've made the team after his two-goal performance today against Wigan as he's a solid center forward, but he's been ruled out with an injury problem, something that has plagued his career.

Here's the full squad, followed immediately by a couple additional thoughts on the team and my personal starting lineup based on the options available, not necessarily who Capello will use:

GK (3): David James (Portsmouth), Joe Hart (Manchester City), Paul Robinson (Blackburn)

DEF (8): Wayne Bridge, Ashley Cole, and John Terry (Chelsea), Wes Brown and Rio Ferdinand (Manchester United), Glen Johnson (Portsmouth), Jonathan Woodgate (Tottenham), Matthew Upson (West Ham)

MID (9): Theo Walcott (Arsenal), Gareth Barry (Aston Villa), Joe Cole and Frank Lampard (Chelsea), David Beckham (Los Angeles Galaxy), Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Stewart Downing (Middlesbrough), David Bentley and Jermaine Jenas (Tottenham)

ST (3): Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Jermain Defoe (Portsmouth), Emile Heskey (Wigan)

• Eight defenders and nine midfielders, but only three strikers? Interesting, considering Rooney has been sick lately.

• I have no idea how Wayne Bridge, who can’t even get a game at Chelsea and certainly doesn’t start on a regular basis, is the second left back ahead of guys like Nicky Shorey, Stephen Warnock, or even Joleon Lescott, a natural center back capable of playing on the left. Those three are all starters, play a lot, and are good players. Bridge doesn't fit into either of the first two categories, so how can be on the team?

GK: James

RB: Johnson
CB: Ferdinand
CB: Terry
LB: A. Cole

RMF: Beckham
DMF: Barry
CMF: Gerrard (captain)
LMF: J. Cole

SS: Rooney

ST: Heskey

Update (08/17-4:28 PM): An ankle injury suffered by Carrick in today’s Manchester United-Newcastle game has ruled the midfielder out of this upcoming friendly. Capello replaced Carrick with Jermaine Jenas. My original starting lineup included Carrick but has now been adjusted and based on Gareth Barry’s current form, he gets the nod.

"I'm on Setanta Sports" Is Back!

The Special One is back and better than ever this season. It would be difficult for an ordinary man to manage Inter Milan and host a hit TV show at the same time, but Senore Mourinho is no ordinary man. He is fantastic.

In this episode, José chats with his co-host, Sven-Göran Eriksson, aka "It", about managing Mexico and how the cultures in Mexico and England are different. The show's other co-host, Wayne Rooney, may have picked up a virus on Manchester United's preseason tour of Africa but he's healthy enough to make his usual appearance on the show. Don't worry, it's not malaria.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Premiership Preview--1. Manchester United

The two-time defending champion of England and current champion of Europe experienced quite the drawn-out saga this summer, as there were times when it seemed certain that Cristiano Ronaldo, the most talented player in the world, would be leaving Old Trafford for Real Madrid. He stayed put, delaying his inevitable move to the club he supported as a boy for at least another season.

It would be unfair to say that Ronaldo single-handedly led United to their second European Double, but without the Portuguese winger on board, there's no way that the Red Devils would've accomplished the feat. He will miss the first month or so of the '08-'09 campaign while recovering from the ankle surgery he had done in early July, though, and we saw what happened in the first couple of weeks last season to United when they didn't have him or Wayne Rooney in the lineup: United looked extremely sluggish, and scoring goals became a difficult chore rather than a sure bet.

Sir Alex Ferguson hasn't addressed that yet this summer. He hasn't brought in any new faces, though the on-again, off-again speculation surrounding Dimitar Berbatov's move from Tottenham seems to be in full force right now. Berbatov would address United's biggest need -- a true striker who can play with his back to goal. Unlike Rooney and Carlos Tevez, Berbatov doesn't drop back into the midfield to collect the ball, he stays up front and gets himself in a position where he can do the most damage. Fraizer Campbell is back from his loan at Hull City, where he shined last season in the Championship. Campbell is nowhere near Berbatov's level, obviously, but has scored wherever he's been. He'll get a chance to play up front this year; Ferguson really likes this kid.

Ferguson lost his right-hand man in Carlos Queiroz, who left Manchester to become his native Portugal's senior national team head coach. The two men had established a great relationship over the years, both personal and professional, and Queiroz's absence will be felt. As I wrote earlier this summer, Queiroz is largely responsible for Ronaldo still playing for United and played a major role in landing Nani and Anderson, both of whom speak Portuguese, before last season.

As far as players go, United hasn't lost any of importance. Gerard Pique has plenty of potential and can play at center back and right back, but the Spanish youngster never seemed to settle in England. He went back home to play for Barcelona after some nervous performances last season in fill-in circumstances.

The Red Devils are undoubtedly strongest in midfield, where they have nine players for four or five spots, depending on the formation and importance of a given game. The wingers are interchangeable and shift from left to right. Ronaldo highlights this group, this team, and this league, and his fellow countryman, Nani, will be given a larger role opposite him this year. Nani is a "mini-Ronaldo" and will step right into Ronaldo's shoes if and when he does, in fact, leave for the Bernabeu. The vastly more experienced Ryan Giggs, who has appeared in over 750 competitive games in 18 seasons and counting with the club, will play an important, but reduced, part this season, likely used in the big Premiership and Champions League games. The same applies to Anderson and Paul Scholes, though Scholes does have more in the tank left than Giggs and will play more often than the Welshman. Anderson is the heir apparent to that position, ahead of Owen Hargreaves and Michael Carrick, the two solid holding midfielders. Darren Fletcher and John O'Shea are two of the most valuable utility players in the league. Park Ji-Sung has a tough time staying healthy but when he's fit, Ferguson plays him and he's another one of the manager's favorites.

Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-2):
GK: Edwin van der Sar

RB: Wes Brown
CB: Rio Ferdinand
CB: Nemanja Vidić
LB: Patrice Evra

*RMF: Nani
**DMF: Carrick
CMF: Scholes
*LMF: Giggs

ST: Rooney
ST: Tevez

Again, the two wingers will swap sides throughout the course of the game. With Ronaldo out, both Nani and Giggs will start. When Ronaldo comes back, one of those two will obviously sit.

**Hargreaves may miss the first week or two with a knee injury, so Carrick will step in. Last season, Ferguson seemed to interchange Carrick and Hargreaves with neither one really getting a long stretch at a time in the starting lineup. Both will play significant minutes this year.

United opened the new year last Sunday, beating Portsmouth in PK's to win their second consecutive Community Shield. The game itself is basically just a glorified exhibition, but it's still a trophy, and it symbolizes what we've been waiting for all summer: the start of another Premiership season.

Ferguson's side kicks off their domestic league slate on Sunday with a home date against Newcastle. The same game last year finished 6-0 to United, and their fans would like nothing more than a repeat of that performance.

It gets tougher after that, though -- United visits Portsmouth next weekend, never an easy place to play, plays Zenit St. Petersburg in the UEFA Super Cup, another glorified exhibition, in Monaco on the 29th, then come home less than 24 hours later to play Fulham.

A trip to Anfield to take on Liverpool on September 13 is the highlight of their early season schedule, and it's followed up by another difficult game at Chelsea. Those two will be United's main competitors in the Premiership this year, so it'll be interesting to see how those three stack up with each other.

The first Manchester derby of the year comes at City on November 30, a week after United will be challenged at Aston Villa. City won both games against their crosstown rivals last year, which is unacceptable for United and a historical rarity. Ferguson hates losing more than any other manager in the league, especially in those types of games, so you can count on him lighting a fire in his team to put in an impressive performance and get a victory.

Stepping back and examining this league schedule from a broader sense, it shapes up favorably for the champions. Cup competitions and their Champions League will complicate things, sure, but United doesn't have any strenuous run of domestic games. Granted, they don't have a particularly easy stretch either. They host Arsenal and City before finishing up the year at Hull City, and that's a microcosm of their year -- a couple tough games but a very easy one right after, or two easy ones with a tricky match in between.

Bottom Line: With Berbatov, United is a slam dunk to win the league for the third straight year. Without him, they're still the clear favorite. This team is better top-to-bottom than any other in the Premiership, in both their starting XI point of view and their full first team roster. The key is keeping Ronaldo and Rooney in the lineup -- they're vulnerable without one and beatable without both. Ronaldo isn't going to have as good of a season as he did last year; that would be impossible, so someone or a combination of players has to step up. If it's Nani, watch out, because it's scary how much raw talent this guy has.

And that's a wrap, my second annual Premiership Preview is now complete. The new year gets underway tomorrow, though Sunday's games should be more entertaining. It's been a pleasure to write these capsules, and whether you agree with them or not, I'm glad you've checked them out. I appreciate the feedback as always.

Let the season begin!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Carling Cup Second Round Draw

For the most part, things went according to plan in the First Round of the Carling Cup, which was contested over a period of a couple days earlier this week. There were a couple upsets -- League Two side Rotherham United went to Sheffield Wednesday and bounced the favorite out in a shootout, and Yeovil Town made a trip to The Valley and beat Charlton Athletic 1-0 -- and some tricky games for the big boys at this stage of tournament -- Derby County needed extra time to put away Lincoln City, as did Wolves to overcome Accrington Stanley -- but other than that, the favorites held serve.

The 36 first round winners advanced to the Second Round, where they'll be joined by the 11 Premiership sides not playing in European competition this season and Manchester City, who is playing in Europe but got there through the Fair Play table and not last year's league position, thus not receiving a bye to the Third Round. In total, 48 teams from the Football League will continue their quest to pick up a nice piece of silverware.

The draw was held yesterday and the one-off matches will be played during the week beginning on August 25. Because of Manchester City's European commitment -- they'll be playing the second leg of their UEFA Cup Second Qualifying Round tie at FC Midtjylland in Denmark on the 28th -- the Blues' Carling Cup game against Brighton & Hove Albion has been pushed back to sometime between September 22-29.

There are some interesting matchups here, most of all being Nottingham Forest-Sunderland. Sunderland boss Roy Keane made his name as a player at Forest, spending the first three seasons of his English career there before moving on to Manchester United. The Irishman hasn't been back yet for a competitive game as a manager, although his current team did beat Forest in a preseason friendly there earlier this summer.

Fresh off their upset at Charlton Athletic, Yeovil gets another chance to pull off a shocker as they host Middlesbrough. Leeds United takes on Crystal Palace in a battle of former Premiership teams. Newcastle pays a visit to the Ricoh Arena and Coventry City

Here's the complete draw (home teams are listed first, Premiership teams are in bold):

Ipswich Town vs. Colchester United
Coventry City vs. Newcastle United
Hartlepool United vs. West Bromwich Albion
West Ham United vs. Macclesfield Town
Huddersfield Town vs. Sheffield United
Cardiff City vs. MK Dons
Swansea City vs. Hull City
Rotherham United vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers
Brighton & Hove Albion vs. Manchester City
Reading vs. Luton Town
Blackburn Rovers vs. Grimsby Town
Wigan Athletic vs. Notts County
Leeds United vs. Crystal Palace
Crewe Alexandra vs. Bristol City
Middlesbrough vs. Yeovil Town
Fulham vs. Leicester City
Queens Park Rangers vs. Carlisle United
Nottingham Forest vs. Sunderland
Burnley vs. Oldham Athletic
Southampton vs. Birmingham City
Bolton Wanderers vs. Northampton Town
Watford vs. Darlington
Preston North End vs. Derby County
Cheltenham Town vs. Stoke City

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Premiership Preview--2. Liverpool

For Liverpool FC, it's all about the Premiership this season. Another deep run in the Champions League would be nice, don't misunderstand, but the primary focus for Rafa Benitez and his team is the domestic league. Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, the two leaders of the club, have said as much since the middle of last year. Liverpool has won the most top flight titles in English history (18) but haven't added to their total since the 1989-1990 campaign. That's not good enough, no matter how much success they have in Europe.

The Reds have taken a major step towards their ultimate goal with the signing of Robbie Keane from Tottenham. It's no coincidence that Keane put up his best numbers in his last two seasons in North London (45 goals combined in all competitions; he benefited from playing alongside Dimitar Berbatov, who took a lot of the defensive pressure and focus off Keane. With that said, though, Keane was a solid striker before Berbatov's arrival for the 2006-2007 season -- the Irish national team captain scored 13, 16, 17, and 16 goals, respectively, in all competitions in the four years prior to linking up with Berbatov. He goes from strength to strength anyway, because his new strike partner, Fernando Torres, is even better than his last one and so is the cast of characters behind him. Keane gives Benitez some versatility up front; he can play in the middle behind Torres in the 4-2-3-1 that worked wonders for Liverpool in the second half of last season, or he can play right next to Torres in a traditional 4-4-2.

Liverpool also added two fullbacks -- Andrea Dossena (left) and Philipp Degen (right). If today's Champions League game is any indication, and I think it is, Dossena will get the lion's share of playing time at left back, allowing Fábio Aurélio to be used off the bench at either left midfield or in the back. Degen has more of a fight on his hands for minutes, as he has to compete with both Steve Finnan, who has been at Liverpool for a while and is liked by the fans, and Alvaro Arbeloa, a favorite of Benitez.

The departures of Harry Kewell and John Arne Riise are really addition by subtraction. Neither had any future with the club and were only hamstringing the wage budget, in Kewell's case, and on-field results, in Riise's case. Peter Crouch is a very good player and will probably be successful for Portsmouth, but he wasn't given the consistent opportunities he needed to be at his most effective by Benitez. Crouch didn't fit into the system, though he was a spark off the bench late in games, so he was sold off and Liverpool made a nice profit on the tall, lanky center forward. He was replaced by David N'Gog, a talented 6'3" striker who has scored at every youth level he's played at for France. Just 19, N'Gog has a real future at Liverpool and don't be surprised if he scores some meaningful goals this season as well.

Like many of the other teams in the Premiership, Liverpool is strongest in midfield, though their defense, anchored by Carragher and Pepe Reina in goal, is also very solid. Gerrard is the club captain and heart and soul of the team. He's a natural box-to-box midfielder and probably his country's best in that role. He played behind Torres in that 4-2-3-1 I mentioned earlier and really caught fire towards the end of the season, but will likely move to the right side this year if Benitez continues to use that formation. If he reverts to a 4-4-2, Gerrard will play in the center with the tough-tackling, hard-nosed Javier Mascherano behind him. Dirk Kuyt is a workhorse on the right wing and will run and run all day, which makes up for his lack of natural talent. Ryan Babel plays opposite his fellow Dutchman, using his pace and dribbling ability to either beat opposing defenders to the endline or cutting inside and launching an effort with his lethal right foot. Neither Kuyt not Babel are natural wide players, but they get the job done. Xabi Alonso is a great passer and plays in the center, as will Lucas and, to a lesser extent, Damien Plessis. Jermaine Pennant is a decent right winger when his head is screwed on right. Yossi Benayoun is extremely versatile and can be plugged in anywhere across the midfield.

Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-2):
GK: Reina

RB: Arbeloa
CB: Carragher
CB: Daniel Agger
LB: Dossena

RMF: Kuyt
*DMF: Mascherano
CMF: Gerrard (captain)
*LMF: Babel

ST: Torres
ST: Keane

*Mascherano and Babel will miss the start of the season due to their participation in the Olympics, but both are sure starters and will reclaim their places upon their returns. Lucas, too, is at the Olympics, but he's only one of a group of players that provide suitable cover in the middle. Benayoun should fill in for Babel on the left, and Alonso will do the same for Mascherano.

Liverpool's season got underway today with a 0-0 draw in the first leg of their Champions League Third Qualifying Round tie against Standard Liege. The game was in Belgium, and Reina bailed Liverpool out with a penalty save in the 11th minute. Benitez would've loved to have an away goal to take back to Anfield in two weeks, obviously, but his team will still get the job done in that return leg and progress to the Group Stage.

Counting that game, four of Liverpool's next six fixtures are at home. The most intersting of those six, though, is away on the last day of August, when they'll pay a visit to Villa Park. The corresponding game last season was very exciting, and Gerrard's terrific curling free kick won it for Liverpool late, just a few minutes after Gareth Barry had converted a penalty to tie the game. Villa will be a European contender this season, so expect this rematch to be another classic.

Liverpool will play their two biggest rivals, Manchester United and Everton, in September, sandwiched around what should be an easy win at home against Stoke City. The Reds host United the week before and contest the first Merseyside derby of the season at Goodison Park to finish up the month.

A six-day span in late November and goes a day into December will be tricky, as Liverpool plays at Chelsea, hosts Portsmouth, and travels back to London to take on Tottenham. After that, though, Liverpool welcomes West Brom to Anfield (win), oes to Bolton (win), and then play Fulham and West Ham at home (both wins).

Visits from Everton and Chelsea highlight Liverpool's January slate, which also includes games at Stoke and Wigan, a feisty little team that went to Anfield and came away with a draw last season.

After playing Arsenal on April 18, by which point Arsenal's title hopes will be no more, Liverpool finishes up their season with five games that should net them 15 points if they bring their best effort -- Hull City, Newcastle, @West Ham, @West Brom, and Tottenham. Liverpool will likely need all of those games to make one last push at the title, but again, they should get them.

Bottom Line: The combination of Gerrard, Keane, and Torres is good for 50 goals. Benitez needs someone else to step up, though, and that player could turn out to be Babel. Agger's return from injury is like another impact signing; he and Carragher are as good as any center back pairing in the Premiership. Reina is great in goal. The midfield is loaded, but could use a true winger. As I said earlier, it's clear that the Premiership is Liverpool's first priority, and with a little bit of luck, this is a team that can compete for the title.

Tomorrow, then, is my preview of Manchester United, who I believe will win their third Premiership trophy in a row. I know -- surprise, surprise, right? It's not an original pick, I'm not going out and taking a risk, I understand all of that. You know what, though? Too bad.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Premiership Preview--3. Chelsea

Chelsea has not finished outside the top two in five seasons, a span in which they're averaging a mind-blowing 88.5 points a season. They've won two Premiership titles, two Carling Cups, an FA Cup, and, for what it's worth, a Community Shield, during this stretch. They have an impressive, slightly overrated in my opinion because of the number of draws, unbeaten streak at home in the league -- 82 games and counting.

For all of that success, though, the one trophy most coveted by the West London club and its fans, the Champions League, has painfully eluded their grasp over that time. Counting last year's run, the Blues have made it at least to the semifinals of Europe's top club competition in four of those last five years, but they failed to win the whole thing every time.

Chelsea literally was inches away from putting an end to that on that rainy May night in Moscow against Manchester United, but as we all remember, John Terry slipped on his run-up and missed the penalty kick that would've won the final in a shootout, and Nicholas Anelka's effort was saved three rounds later by Edwin van der Sar to give United their third European Cup/Champions League title.

The big story at Stamford Bridge this summer is the hiring of Luiz Felipe Scolari, a former World Cup-winning manager with Brazil and two-time winner of Copa Libertadores in the '90's. Scolari doesn't have any experience with European club soccer, much less at such a high-profile post as Chelsea boss, but this is a man who can deal with big egos and make sure the team comes first. Unlike his predecessor, Avram Grant, Scolari has been around the block a few times and won't simply be a "yes man" for wealthy owner Roman Abramovich.

The problem with Scolari is his age -- almost 60. He's at a point in his career where most managers are leaving club jobs to either retire or take up less demanding international posts. Scolari is doing the exact opposite, and while there's no question that he's a fiery, passionate guy in spurts, which we've seen with Brazil and Portugal more recently, I'm not sure that he can bring the energy necessary to the position over the course of such a grueling season. He reminds me of a fire in a way -- when first lit and provided with kindling, he can burn quickly and the light and heat is there, but as the fuel runs out, the flame dies down. That's the scenario I expect to see with Scolari this season, one that may provide a shock to him as far as how difficult the transition from international to club management truly is.

He's brought a couple of the Portuguese stars he coached during his tenure with the Iberian country with him in Deco, who was a steal for $16 million, and Bosingwa, who will provide much-needed stability to the right back position that had become a revolving door under Grant and José Mourinho before him.

Those two were Chelsea's only acquisitions so far, but they haven't lost a whole lot either. Steve Sidwell never should have went to Chelsea in the first place. He was just a spare part at the Bridge and his talent was wasted there, so he moved to Aston Villa and will reap the personal benefits from doing so. Tal Ben Haim was nothing more than cover at center back but the emergence of Branislav Ivanović, who spent the past couple seasons at Lokomotiv Moscow, meant Ben Haim was surplus to requirements. Claude Makelele was a great player in his prime and is what all defensive midfielders aspire to be, but as age has caught up with him (he's lost more than a step) and Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel continue to develop, the Frenchman's services were no longer needed.

Essien and Obi Mikel are two cogs to a Chelsea midfield that is absolutely stacked. They don't have much quality on the wings aside from Joe Cole, who isn't even a prototypical wide player anyway. Florent Malouda and Shaun Wright-Phillips don't cut it at a club as big as Chelsea, simple as that, though they do have their good moments. Essien, Michael Ballack, Deco, and Frank Lampard are all great center midfielders, and Obi Mikel may be on his way to that status if he could manage to stay on the field and not pick up silly bookings. Scolari has to find a way to get as much of this talent on the field at one time as possible, so you could see a narrow diamond in the middle, similar to what AC Milan and the Italian national team employ, a 4-1-4-1 with Didier Drogba as the lone striker, or the same 4-3-3/4-5-1 that's been used in recent seasons.

Projected Starting Lineup (4-3-3/4-5-1):
GK: Petr Čech

RB: Bosingwa
CB: John Terry (captain)
CB: Ricardo Carvalho
LB: Ashley Cole

RCMF: Lampard
DMF: Essien
LCMF: Deco

RMF/RWF: Wright-Phillips
ST: Drogba

This midfield and front line will be very fluid based on fitness and form; Nicholas Anelka will get a chance to play up top or wide left, as will Salomon Kalou. Malouda plays there too. Wright-Phillips brings pace to the right flank. Scott Sinclair, like Kalou, is a speedy winger/striker that can make an impact. Obi Mikel can be brought on late to lock a game down in place of a more attack-minded player and clog up the midfield. Chelsea paid a lot of money for Andriy Shevchenko, so he's going to play up front at some point. Scolari has plenty of options depending on his strategy in a given game.

Chelsea's Premiership schedule sets up relatively comfortably through November; their road games (Wigan, Manchester City, Stoke City, Middlesbrough, Hull City, Blackburn, and West Brom) are all very winnable, and the other teams, who, granted, will provide stiff opposition for Chelsea, all come to Stamford Bridge and Chelsea just doesn't lose there. Those teams: Portsmouth, Tottenham, Manchester United, Aston Villa, Liverpool, Sunderland, Newcastle, and Arsenal. By no means am I saying Chelsea will waltz through the first half of their league campaign, but they do have the significant advantage of playing those tough teams at home.

The schedule balances out in the second half, obviously, so Chelsea has to visit all those sides at some point. However, there isn't one month that stands out above the rest from December on as being much trickier than another. December is Chelsea's easiest month -- they visit Bolton, Everton, and Fulham and host West Ham and West Brom. Their toughest month is probably March, because even though they play Manchester United and Liverpool in January, those are the bookend games of their four total and the middle two are at home against Stoke and Middlesbrough. In March, Chelsea goes to Portsmouth and Tottenham and welcome Manchester City to West London in between.

Bottom Line: I'm not exactly going out on a limb by saying this team is very, very good. There are no obvious weaknesses; they do need some more quality on the wings, but Scolari has the personnel to not even use wingers in the first place if he doesn't want to. Chelsea's fortunes depend largely on Scolari and how he adapts to the Premiership, because while the on-field talent is there, there's no question in my mind that Scolari is the least capable manager out of Arsene Wenger, Rafa Benitez, and Sir Alex Ferguson. If Scolari makes a seamless transition, Chelsea can make a run at their third title in five seasons and their first Champions League. If his act wears thin like I believe it will, Chelsea will find themselves out of the running in both competitions by February or March.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Premiership Preview--4. Arsenal

2008 hasn't been a great year for Arsenal and their fans. In February, they watched their hated North London rivals Tottenham win a major trophy (Carling Cup), something Arsenal hasn't done since winning the Premiership four seasons ago. They've watched Spurs bring in several high-profile players this summer already and significantly strengthen the team, whereas Arsenal has taken a step backwards with what they've done. As I detailed in an earlier post, they watch in frustration as their manager refuses to pay the going market rate for established players, either in transfer fees or salary, preferring to bring in youngsters and develop them for cheap. Tottenham, on the other hand, has spent money hand over fist for a solid combination of young players and proven veterans of Europe's top leagues.

Many Gunners fans keep the faith in Arsène Wenger and believe that he's the guy; he's the one to do the job. While Wenger certainly has been successful in the past, however, there don't seem to be any signs that he can turn the club's current "funk" around -- it's hard to call perennial top-four finishes, deep cup runs, and a place in the Champions League a funk, but for Arsenal, it is if they don't win anything. Purists of the game may not want to admit it, but soccer is as driven by money now as any other high-level sport in the world. Wenger refuses to spend it, other teams are, and the gap between the "Big Four" and the rest of the pack is getting smaller every year.

There is no doubt that Wenger is a great manager of the talent he has at his disposal. The problem is, though, that he simply doesn't have enough of it to make a serious title push, and while neither do Spurs, Aston Villa, and Portsmouth, those three are all capable of challenging Arsenal for a spot in the Champions League.

Wenger allowed arguably (depending on who you ask) the club's top performer last season, Mathieu Flamini, to go to AC Milan on a free transfer after refusing to increase the young French holding midfielder's wages. Flamini's backup and one of the last links to "The Invincibles", the Arsenal side that went undefeated in the Premiership en route to a title in 2003-2004, Gilberto Silva, left for Panathinaikos. Jens Lehmann, the most experienced, battle-tested keeper on the roster and Arsenal's number one before losing his job to Manuel Almunia last season, returned to his native Germany, going to VfB Stuttgart on another free transfer. Creative attacking midfielder Aliaksandr Hleb, one of the most technically gifted players in the Premiership, was shipped to Barcelona for a hefty profit.

Wenger has brought in three players up to this point, only one of whom will have a major impact on the team's fortunes this season. Samir Nasri is a star-in-the-making and has accomplished a lot in his career, both domestically and internationally, for a player of his age (21). He can play behind the striker/s or on the right wing, though Nasri should do more of the latter in North London. Aaron Ramsey becomes just another name in the dearth of young central midfielders already on the roster -- Fàbregas, Song, Denílson, Randall, etc. -- but appears to have a real future at the Emirates. Amaury Bischoff, who played for France's U-18 team but Portugal's U-20 and U-21 teams, never made a Bundesliga appearance for Werder Bremen, and will be hard-pressed to find playing time in Arsenal's crowded midfield as well.

Midfield is where Arsenal is strongest, though they are also very solid in the back. Fàbregas is a lock in the center, where his superb ball-distribution skills can be used most effectively. Denílson, Abou Diaby, Song, and even Johan Djourou give Wenger complementary defensive-minded options in that postion. With Diaby set to miss a month due to a thigh problem, Denílson should get the nod to partner Fàbregas. The return from knee surgery of Tomáš Rosický in September will give Arsenal a real playmaking threat on the left wing, which will be manned by Walcott to start the year. Nasri has battled a knee injury of his own this preseason, but could be fit to start this weekend on the right flank in Arsenal's first league game of the new campaign. If he isn't, Emmanuel Eboue will play there instead. Bischoff, Randall, Ramsey, Nacer Barazite, Henri Lansbury, and Fran Mérida, all youngsters with a lot of potential, may get a chance to prove themselves in the midfield during the Carling Cup and FA Cup.

Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-2):
GK: Almunia

RB: Bacary Sagna
CB: William Gallas (captain)
CB: Kolo Touré
LB: Gaël Clichy

RMF: Nasri
DMF: Denílson
CMF: Fàbregas
LMF: Walcott

ST: Emmanuel Adebayor
ST: Robin van Persie

Arsenal's season starts tomorrow with the first leg of their Champions League Third Qualifying Round tie against Dutch side FC Twente, managed by Steve McLaren. They'll come back from Holland and not leave London for the rest of August -- they're home to West Brom this weekend, at West London-based Fulham, home against FC Twente in the return leg, and will welcome Newcastle to the Emirates to close out the month.

Their soft schedule continues through September as they should win each of the three league games they'll play: @Blackburn, @Bolton, and Hull City.

The first truly tough game for Arsenal doesn't come until October 29, when they host "the scum", Tottenham, in the first of two North London derbies. The Gunners play Everton 11 days prior to the showdown with Juande Ramos' side, but it's not nearly the same Everton team as a year ago.

After a visit to Stoke City on the first day of November, Arsenal has a four-game stretch that is as difficult a run as any that a Premiership team will face this season. Wenger has to prepare his club for back-to-back home games against Manchester United and Aston Villa, who both were unlucky to not win in the corresponding fixtures last season, and then trips to Manchester City and across London to take on Chelsea to finish November. Out of those four games, Arsenal would have to feel fortunate to take six points.

Another tricky run comes at the end of December, when Arsenal will host Liverpool, go to Villa, and host Portsmouth in the span of eight days. The home advantage should be a huge benefit to Arsenal but remember, Portsmouth and Villa are on the rise and Liverpool stacks up favorably, at least on paper, to Arsenal, so none of those matches will be easy.

January, February, and March shouldn't provide many problems for Arsenal, but they finish the year with four more nightmarish games out of their last six -- @Liverpool, Middlesbrough, @Portsmouth, Chelsea, @Manchester United, Stoke. This stretch could very likely make or break Arsenal's season, provided they haven't dropped out of the title race by then.

Bottom Line: Again, I don't think Arsenal is good enough to win the league this season, and it's put up-or-shut up time for Wenger. He's stuck to this policy of using young players and not breaking the bank for veteran, established guys, which is fine, but he needs to provide some return to Arsenal's fans to justify his approach. I don't want to hear "one more year, wait 'til next year" kind of talk anymore; this is the year, this is it. Arsenal needs to show something this season, because if they don't, they're going to get passed by the field. They have the schedule to do it and the advantage of traveling less because of their geographical location. It all comes down to the players and the manager, and that's how it should be.

Also, I want to make another change to my preview plans. Instead of putting another one out tonight and the last two tomorrow, I've decided to put one out per day, meaning my projected winner will be posted on Thursday. This should provide a little bit more suspense as we get closer to this weekend and the start of the season, and it makes my life easier as a writer. It's the best of both worlds, really.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Premiership Preview Change of Plans

It's a busy weekend for me, what with the start of the Olympics, the Community Shield tomorrow, and finally attempting to get things organized for my move-in at college in a couple weeks. With those things in mind, I've decided to delay the release of my last four Premiership previews for a couple days.

You'll now be able to find places 4 and 3 on Monday and 2 and 1 on Tuesday. I think the timing is better anyway as we'll be in full Premiership mode early next week with the start of another grueling, entertaining season that weekend.

I may post once or twice before Monday if I see anything in the news that catches my eye, but if not, have a good weekend and the previews will resume on Monday.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Premiership Preview--5. Aston Villa

Aston Villa surprised many neutrals last season, and probably even some of their own supporters, with their 6th-place finish. In 2006-2007, the Villans checked in at a respectable 11th, a nice improvement from 16th the season before. Villa's emergence, led by manager Martin O'Neill, came with one of the smallest, if not THE smallest, first team rosters in the Premiership. Fortunately for O'Neill, that roster was full of fresh legs, and they carried Villa in style to a place in this summer's Intertoto Cup.

The Birmingham-based club has now advanced to the UEFA Cup Second Qualifying Round, where they'll meet FH, an Icelandic side that shouldn't provide much more than token resistance. If Villa does what they should do, they'll progress to the First Round proper.

O'Neill realizes he needs a deeper squad to account for the extra slate of games that the UEFA Cup will bring, and to make a serious run at a place in next season's Champions League. To wit, he's added five players and made permanent the acquisition of another, Curtis Davies. At least four of those six players will start for Villa this season, and five will see significant playing time.

Brad Friedel replaces Scott Carson, who had a terrific '07-'08 season on loan from Liverpool, in goal. Full-backs Luke Young (right) and Nicky Shorey (left) were both brought in yesterday for a combined $16 million. Young is the only pure right back on the roster with Olof Mellberg's departure and is coming off a solid season for Middlesbrough. Shorey takes the place of Wilfred Bouma, who started every game for Villa last season but suffered a horrific-looking dislocated ankle in the second leg of his team's Intertoto Cup Third Round tie against Odense BK on July 26. Bouma is scheduled to return just after Christmas if his recovery goes according to plan, but will now have competition for his old place. Curtis Davies' loan deal from West Brom was made permanent for nearly $20 million this summer. He is ahead of schedule on his return from a ruptured Achilles tendon on March 1 at Arsenal, having played 60 minutes in recent back-to-back friendlies. When fully fit, he'll compete with Zat Knight to start alongside Martin Laursen at center back at the very least, and he may very well win the job. Steve Sidwell never should've left Reading two summers ago; he had a season to forget last year at Chelsea, but his career could be revived at Villa.

O'Neill lost only one key piece -- Mellberg. The Swedish international was a fixture in Villa's back line and a rock on the right side. He didn't get forward like a traditional right back, but he won nearly everything in the air and just didn't make mistakes on defense. Carson went back to Liverpool as he was only on loan, and Liverpool wound up selling him straight away to West Brom for a discount price.

Villa is strongest in midfield, where the addition of Sidwell provides some insurance in case Liverpool does end up buying Gareth Barry before the transfer window closes. Ashley Young is a star-in-the-making on the left wing and very underrated by those outside of the club. He'll have more of a free role this season, and look for him to occasionally drift inside behind the strikers. If Barry stays, he'll play in the center. The versatility of Nigel Reo-Coker, a natural center midfielder, will allow him to shift to the right flank to accommodate Sidwell. Reo-Coker is nothing flashy but he's quick and as tenacious a ball-winner as they come. You'll see a few other players out there, though, too -- Shaun Maloney can play on either wing but typically is used to be a spark off the bench, Craig Gardner may get a chance, and Stiliyan Petrov can play either on the right or in the middle. Isaiah Osbourne provides solid cover in the center. Moustapha Salifou is a perfect fill-in for Sidwell. Wayne Routledge, like Maloney, is a speedy little winger but prefers to play on the right.

Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-2/4-3-1-2):
GK: Friedel

RB: Young
CB: Laursen
CB: Knight
LB: Shorey

*RMF/RCMF: Reo-Coker
**CMF/LCMF: Barry (captain)
CMF: Sidwell
*LMF/AMF: Young

ST: John Carew
ST: Gabriel Agbonlahor

*When Villa plays a 4-3-1-2, Young is the "1", with Barry, Sidwell, and Reo-Coker (L to R) as the "3". Because the attack-minded Sidwell is on board and they already have Young, they're more likely to use the 4-4-2. Remember, though, when Villa hit a great run of form towards the end of last year, O'Neill did use the 4-3-1-2.

**If Barry does leave, either Reo-Coker, the current vice-captain, or Laursen will inherit the captain's armband. Reo-Coker will shift into the middle with Sidwell, and either Petrov or Maloney will start on the right. If it's Maloney, Villa will surely use the 4-4-2. If it's Petrov, Villa can play either formation.

It's not as confusing as I know I just made it sound, so don't worry.

Villa has already started their season; they knocked Odense out of Europe as I alluded to earlier. They next play in Iceland against FH on the 14th, and their Premiership season kicks off three days later with an interesting home game against Manchester City. A trip to Stoke City and the return leg with FH follows those two matches. O'Neill's side finishes up the month with another appetizing match at Villa Park, this one against Liverpool. In the corresponding fixture last season, Steven Gerrard won the game late with a magical free kick that was one of the year's best goals.

October brings Chelsea (away) and Portsmouth and Blackburn (both at home), as well as a visit to Wigan, a must-win game for the Villans.

Arsenal and Manchester United headline Villa's November slate, and the "Big Four" opponents come on successive weekends. Home games against Middlesbrough and Fulham should be straightforward, though the game at St. James' Park to start the month is tricky.

Interestingly enough, Villa closes out the season with their most difficult stretch and their easiest stretch back-to-back. In a five-game span that comprises all of March and half of April, they'll play Man City (away), Tottenham (home), Liverpool (away), Manchester United (away), and Everton (home), but they follow that run with West Ham at home, Bolton away, Hull City at home, Fulham away, Middlesbrough away, and Newcastle at home to finish up.

Bottom Line: Holding on to Barry would be a major boost for Villa and at the same time, losing him would be a big loss. The increased number of games that comes with playing in Europe will test Martin O'Neill and the resolve of his team. There is plenty of talent on the roster so expect the team to be in the top six with or without their current captain. If they have him, though, they can compete for 4th place. American chairman Randy Lerner has pledged more money to O'Neill if he wants to go out there and buy a couple more pieces, and I'd expect the manager to strengthen this squad a little bit more in the back.