Friday, August 1, 2008

Premiership Preview--19. Hull City

The most profitable single game in the world was won, not Manchester, not the New York Giants...Hull City last season, as the Tigers' 1-0 Coca-Cola Championship playoff final victory over Bristol City at Wembley will net the East Yorkshire club an estimated $120 million when all is said and done. Longtime Hull player and hometown boy Dean Windass scored the winning goal for his club, allowing the 39-year-old striker, who was once sent off three times in one game, to experience the joy of playing in the Premier League one more time.

That large profit has barely been tapped into so far this summer by manager Phil Brown, but he's still managed to bring in seven players, several of whom will play significant minutes this season. George Boateng's arrival from Middlesbrough gives the club a solid, reliable defensive midfielder, a must-have for a team that simply doesn't have the quality to go toe-to-toe with many of the other Premiership outfits. Geovanni came off the bench a whopping 17 times for Manchester City last season, where he was blocked by more talented central midfielders like Stephen Ireland, Michael Johnson, Elano, and Dietmar Hamann, but he'll be a useful, experienced player for Hull. Bernard Mendy should start immediately at right back, and the on-loan Anthony Gardner will fight it out with Wayne Brown to start alongside Michael Turner at center back.

Jay-Jay Okocha, who was great for PSG, Bolton, and Nigeria as an attacking midfielder in his prime playing days, was released this summer, but appeared in only 18 games for Hull last season and is now 34 years old. He's the only loss of any note, so Brown has the same core group back and he'll look to make further improvements if necessary.

As Hull's defensive record last season will indicate -- 47 goals conceded in 46 games was third-best in the Championship -- their back line is their strongest asset and it'll only improve this year with extra competition for places. Tony Warner came over from Fulham on a free transfer, but he'll back up American-born Welsh international Boaz Myhill, the club's Player of the Year in 2005-2006, in goal. The 6'4" Turner started 47 games for Hull last year, and either Brown or Gardner, at 6'5", will play next to him, as I mentioned earlier. Ricketts is the incumbent at right back, having also started 47 matches a year ago, but he can also play left back and take over for Andy Dawson, who is decent but could get exposed by Premiership wingers. That would allow Mendy, who has plenty of top-level experience from his time at PSG, to slide in at right back, as I mentioned earlier, and the already-solid back four would improve even more.

Projected Starting Lineup (4-5-1):
GK: Myhill

RB: Mendy
CB: Turner
CB: Gardner
LB: Ricketts

RMF: Richard Garcia
DMF: Boateng
CMF: Ian Ashbee (captain)
CMF: Dean Marney
LMF: Geovanni

ST: Windass

Expect this lineup to change regularly, as Bryan Hughes will play some games at left wing, Nicky Barmby will play in central midfield, and Caleb Folan and Craig Fagan will also get their chances up top.

Hull's schedule opens nicely; they'll have a good chance to pick up points in at least three of their first four games, if not all four: Fulham, @Blackburn, Wigan, and @Newcastle. The Tigers have only three sets of consecutive games all year against teams that finished in the top six last season, with Everton and Arsenal involved twice each (November 20/27 and January 10/19, with a game against Aston Villa right before that on December 28), and Villa twice as well (Dec. 28 and then May 2, a week after Hull goes to Liverpool). This helps Hull considerably because there's no real long stretch of matches where they can't pick up points, but aside from that opening run and one in March (Mar. 4 @Fulham, Mar. 14 vs. Newcastle, and Mar. 21 vs. Wigan) there's no real long stretch where they can rack some points up either.

Bottom Line: There's a clear gap in talent between Hull and Stoke City, so expect the Tigers to be closer to safety than the basement. This team doesn't have any individual standouts but are 15-16 players deep, which helps considerably when the fixture list becomes congested during the winter. If they go into January with a chance to stay up, expect them to buy some more reinforcements, but unless someone can score upwards of 10 goals, I just can't see how they can escape the drop. They'll be an interesting, scrappy team to watch, but don't have the necessary offensive firepower.

Remember to check back tomorrow as the countdown to the top continues with my predictions for 18th and 17th place. Not much separates the two spots in terms of points, but they're worlds apart in terms of financial benefit.

Premiership Preview--20. Stoke City

August is finally here, and with it comes the final run-in to the start of the 2008-2009 Premiership season. You all know my preview plans by now -- I'll cover all 20 teams in the next 10 days -- and it all starts today. Without further ado, let's light this candle.

20. Finishing 2nd in the Coca-Cola Championship last season was a great accomplishment for Stoke City, the second-oldest club in the Football League after Notts County. The Potters hadn't played in England's top flight for over two decades, and their last showing -- 17 points in 1984-1985 -- set a record for futility that lasted 21 years. They'll be hoping for a better run this season, but the gap between the Premiership and the Championship is larger than it ever has been and it's going to be tough sledding for Stoke.

Tony Pulis is in his second stint as manager, taking the reins again in June of '06 after already leading the club from November 2002-June 2005. He's brought in striker Dave Kitson from Premiership-relegated Reading for $11 million, a record signing, and tall Nigerian midfielder Seyi Olofinjana, who's played the last four seasons for Wolves. Thomas Sorensen joined up on a free transfer from Aston Villa, where his services were no longer required after Brad Friedel and Brad Guzan were signed, and the Danish international should overtake the incumbent, Steve Simonsen, for the starting goalkeeper position.

Pulis hasn't lost anyone of consequence; he released club captain Dominic Matteo, but Matteo played only sporadically last season and had no place in this team. With Matteo gone, right back Andy Griffin will wear the armband in his third go-around with the club.

Midfield will be Stoke's strongest area, with Olofinjana set to occupy one of the central roles. Former Liverpool player Salif Diao will play in the "Makélélé Role" just ahead of the back four and behind his fellow African. Liam Lawrence, Stoke's Player of the Year last season, will be on the right wing, with the versatile Danny Pugh opposite him on the left. Depending on the opponent, you could see five in the midfield and a lone striker, and when that's the case, playmaker Glenn Whelan will be alongside Olofinjana in the center.

Projected Starting Lineup (4-5-1):
GK: Sorensen

RB: Griffin (captain)
CB: Leon Cort
CB: Ryan Shawcross
LB: Carl Dickinson

RMF: Lawrence
DMF: Diao
CMF: Olofinjana
CMF: Whelan
LMF: Pugh

ST: Kitson

Stoke jumps right into the thick of things; after starting the season at Bolton, the Potters will play eight consecutive games and 10 of 12 in which they'll be the clear underdog. Those 10 (in order): Aston Villa, @Middlesbrough, Everton, @Liverpool, Chelsea, @Portsmouth, Tottenham, @Manchester City, Arsenal, @Manchester United. In between the City, Arsenal, and United games, Stoke will need to win at home against Sunderland and get a result at Wigan. After their match at Old Trafford, Stoke gets four winnable games, the first two of which are at the Britannia Stadium against their fellow promoted clubs from the Championship, Hull City and West Brom.

January will be an extremely difficult month for Pulis' side, as away games at Chelsea and Tottenham are sandwiched in between visits from Liverpool and Manchester City.

The last two months of the season are where Stoke is really going to have to make a run at survival, and out of the eight games they'll play in that time, 12 points is certainly realistic and anything above 15 would be a bonus. That stretch brings home dates with Newcastle, Blackburn, West Ham, and Wigan, as well as manageable road games at West Brom, Fulham, and Hull City. Stoke finishes their season at the Emirates against Arsenal, so they'll want to be safely out of the relegation battle before making the trip to North London.

Bottom Line: Stoke City has very little chance to stay up. I think they'll give a better account of themselves than Derby did last season, but that tough opening stretch of games will put them in a hole that could very well be impossible to climb out of. There isn't as much talent in this team as there is commitment and work rate, which could be beneficial over the long 38-game schedule, but for Stoke to have a prayer, Kitson will need to take the team by the horns and score 10-12 goals.

Check back this afternoon for my second preview of the day, #19.

Liverpool Draws Standard Liège, Arsenal Draws FC Twente in Champions League Third Qualifying Round

Just as its junior brother, the UEFA Cup, conducted a qualifying round draw this morning, the Champions League did as well with its Third Qualifying Round. We won't know the full slate of matchups until August 6, when the Second Qualifying Round finishes up, but the opponents for Liverpool and Arsenal have already been determined. While the two Premiership heavyweights should get through to the Group Stage, it's not going to be easy.

The road to another deep run in Europe's top club competition for Liverpool starts in Belgium, where they'll meet the defending Jupiler League champions, Standard Liège. We saw earlier that American defender Danny Califf and his club, FC Midtjylland, will be playing Manchester City in the next couple weeks, and Standard Liège has another American defender on their roster. Oguchi Onyewu, whose tenure at Newcastle in 2007 was uninspiring to say the least, is now back at Standard Liège, where he's appeared in 135 games since 2004 and been named to the Belgian First Division's Best XI twice and been Foreign Player of the Year once.

Standard Liège's captain is Steven Defour, a 20-year-old future star whose playmaking skills have earned him a starting role in the center of Belgium's midfield. He is probably his club's best player, but his teammate Milan Jovanović has scored 36 goals in 73 league games and is the domestic league's reigning Player of the Year. Alongside Defour in the midfield is Axel Witsel, the reigning Young Player of the Year in Belgium at the age of 19, who scored in his first senior international appearance for Belgium on March 26. You'll also find three Brazilians on Standard Liège's roster, including both starting full-backs and the vice-captain, who can play as a striker or on a wing.

Rafa Benitez has added some pieces to his team in an effort to seriously contend for the Premiership title this season. He'll be without Ryan Babel, Javier Mascherano, and Lucas for this tie as they are all taking part in the upcoming Olympics, but there is more than enough depth in the squad to adequately replace them for a short-term period. Benitez is well-known for tinkering with his lineup anyway, so it's no guarantee that those three would've played in both legs even if they were available.

Arsenal's opponent is also from a Benelux country; FC Twente finished second in the Dutch Eredivisie last year and is now managed by a familiar face to English soccer fans, Steve McLaren. The former Middlesbrough manager and England head coach had been rumored to take over at Twente since early May but was only formally hired on June 20. After the disgrace at Wembley against Croatia, confirming England's non-participation in Euro 2008, McLaren was fired. You can bet he has something to prove to the English media and to the country's fans, but his squad simply isn't good enough to beat Arsenal over two legs.

McLaren has a young Serbian center back, Slobodan Rajković, on loan from Chelsea, and Nikolay Mihaylov on loan from Liverpool. The former will likely start in this tie and have a large role for Twente this year, the latter sits behind 37-year-old club stalwart Sander Boschker on the goalkeeping depth chart but could compete for some playing time. Australian international Luke Wilkshire plays as a center midfielder for Twente, and former Everton youngster Bjarni Viðarsson will factor into the mix in that area as well.

Arsenal should overpower McLaren's team in this tie but because young players typically don't play their best on the road, you could see the Gunners struggle in the first leg. I have no doubt they'll win back at the Emirates, so it's just a matter of what the scoreline reads after the first game.

The following is the complete draw for this round. First legs will be played August 12 and 13, with second legs 14 days later on the 26th and 27th. As always, home teams are listed first, and the score in parentheses is the aggregate heading into the second leg of the Second Qualifying Round:

Anorthosis Famagusta/Rapid Wien (3-0) vs. Olympiacos
Vitória Guimarães vs. IFK Göteborg/Basel (1-1)
Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Domžale/Dinamo Zagreb (0-3)
Schalke 04 vs. Atlético Madrid
Aalborg BK/Modriča (5-0) vs. Rangers/FBK Kaunas (0-0)
Barcelona vs. Beitar Jerusalem/Wisła Kraków (2-1)
Levski Sofia vs. Anderlecht/BATE (1-2)
Standard Liège vs. Liverpool
Inter Baku/Partizan (1-1) vs. Fenerbahçe/MTK Hungária (2-0)
FC Twente vs. Arsenal
Spartak Moscow vs. Drogheda United/Dynamo Kyiv (1-2)
Juventus vs. Tampere United/Artmedia Petržalka (1-3)
SK Brann/Ventspils (1-0) vs. Marseille
Fiorentina vs. Slavia Prague
Galatasaray vs. Steaua Bucureşti
Panathinaikos/Dinamo Tbilisi (3-0) vs. Sheriff Tiraspol/Sparta Prague (0-1)

Winners in this round move on to the Group Stage, in which 16 teams have already booked places through their final league positions last season, including champions Manchester United, Lyon, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, PSV Eindhoven, FC Porto, Zenit St. Petersburg, Celtic, and CFR Cluj. The draw for the Group Stage will take place on August 28, and once again, you can find full coverage and increased analysis here. Once the draw is made, I'll post my predictions to advance to the knockout stages.

Manchester City Draws FC Midtjylland, Aston Villa Draws FH in UEFA Cup Second Qualifying Round

The draw for the UEFA Cup Second Qualifying Round was conducted this morning, and the two English clubs involved at this stage in the competition couldn't have come away happier. Both should defeat their respective Scandinavian opponents and advance to the First Round without too much difficulty.

After seeing off EB/Streymur in the last round, Manchester City will open this tie at home against FC Midtjylland. The Danish club finished second in their domestic league last season and have 4 points after 2 games so far in the '08-'09 campaign. Here in the US, they're most well-known for having former LA Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes defender Danny Califf on the roster. Califf has carved out a nice career for himself in Denmark, having just moved to Midtjylland after spending two seasons at Aalborg BK, where he was the captain and and played in an Intertoto Cup with the club. He's played both of Midtjylland's games so far and has 20 caps for the US National Team.

Aside from Califf, there's no real recognizable name unless you're a fan of the club or the Danish Superliga. Three players on the roster, including Califf, have represented their countries at the senior level, and five Nigerians can be found on the first team.

As I said earlier, City should progress with relative comfort. Mark Hughes would like his side to effectively end the tie in Manchester before going to Denmark for the return game, so expect him to field a full-strength side on August 14 in the first leg.

Villa is coming off a 3-2 aggregate victory against pesky Odense BK, another Danish side, in the Third Round of the Intertoto Cup. Their 1-0 second leg victory was marred by a horrific injury to left back Wilfred Bouma, who looks likely to miss the first half of the upcoming Premiership season with a dislocated ankle.

Their opponent in this tie is Icelandic club FH, short for Fimleikafélag Hafnarfjarðar (you can see why no one uses their full name!). They finished 2nd in the 2007 Úrvalsdeild Karla, Iceland's top flight, season, and sit on top of the league by a point this year after 13 of 22 games. Because of Iceland's harsh winter climate, the league schedule runs from May to September, so FH will be in full form against a Villa side just getting the new season underway.

That advantage still won't be enough for FH, however. The club is comprised solely of Icelandic players outside of two Danes, and needed a 5-1 victory in the second leg just to put away CS Grevenmacher from Luxembourg in the First Qualifying Round. Villa has the quality to finish this thing up in the first game. With the small first team roster that Martin O'Neill has right now, I wouldn't doubt that he'll use a number of backups and young players in the second leg if the end result isn't in doubt.

Villa and FH have both requested the order of games to be switched; right now, the first leg would be played at Villa Park with the return match at Kaplakriki, which holds 6000 spectators but seats only 2200. According to a press release on Villa's official website, "both clubs must now speak to their individual football associations before making a formal request (to swap home games) to UEFA."

Here's the complete draw, with all first legs to be played August 14 and the second legs played exactly two weeks later on the 28th. Teams listed first are home first:

Southern-Mediterranean Region
Široki Brijeg vs. Beşiktaş
Braga vs. Zrinjski Mostar
Lokomotiv Sofia vs. Borac Čačak
Vojvodina vs. Hapoel Tel Aviv
Aris Thessaloniki vs. Slaven Belupo
Litex Lovech vs. Ironi Kiryat Shmona
Deportivo vs. Hajduk Split
APOEL vs. Red Star Belgrade
Vllaznia Shkodër vs. Napoli
Maccabi Netanya vs. Cherno More
Omonia vs. AEK Athens

Central-East Region
Liepājas Metalurgs vs. Vaslui
Zürich vs. Sturm Graz
Stuttgart vs. Győri ETO
Lech Poznań vs. Grasshopper
Slovan Liberec vs. MŠK Žilina
WIT Georgia vs. Austria Wien
Young Boys vs. Debrecen
Legia Warsaw vs. FC Moscow
Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk vs. Bellinzona
Interblock Ljubljana vs. Hertha BSC
Sūduva vs. Red Bull Salzburg

Northern Region
Djurgården vs. Rosenborg
Queen of the South vs. Nordsjælland
Gent vs. Kalmar
Manchester City vs. FC Midtjylland
Honka vs. Viking FK
Haka vs. Brøndby
Stabæk vs. Rennes
Copenhagen vs. Lillestrøm
Elfsborg vs. St. Patrick's Athletic
Aston Villa vs. FH

The 32 winners from this round will advance to the First Round, in which they'll join the 32 teams that are already entered and the 16 losers in the Champions League Third Qualifying Round. The draw for the First Round will be made on August 29, and you can find full coverage of that here on English Soccer Talk.