Saturday, August 2, 2008

Premiership Preview--17. Bolton Wanderers

For everyone outside of Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Arsenal, success in the Premiership can be fickle. We saw it last year with Tottenham, who wound up an extremely disappointing 11th after two straight 5th-place finishes. We saw it last year with Reading, a club that was relegated a season after finishing comfortably in 8th place.

Bolton is a perfect example of this. In 2004-2005, Sam Allardyce led the suburban Manchester side to 6th and a UEFA Cup berth the next year. The Trotters ended the '05'06 campaign in 8th, narrowly missing out on Europe, but fought their way back into the UEFA Cup last season through a 7th-place finish in 2006-2007. They reached the Round of 16 in Europe's second-tier club competition, but only narrowly avoided relegtion from the Premiership as the sale of star striker Nicolas Anelka in January and the resignation of Allardyce at the end of the '06-'07 season crippled the team. The three consistent, top-half finishes were great for Bolton fans, but would've been little consolation if their team had finished with just two points fewer than what they'd earned.

Bolton has the dubious distinction of being the club who has spent the most seasons in the Premiership/First Division without ever winning the title (69). That isn't going to change this year either, and Gary Megson has spent more than $30 million, a relatively large amount of money for a small club like Bolton, on only three players, all of whom will likely be starters. With that said, Johan Elmander was the biggest splash in terms of name-recognition, and he's only slightly above average at best.

Fabrice Muamba brings some youth and exuberance to an aging Bolton midfield, which, to be fair, was made younger this summer with the release of Stelios Giannakopolus and Ivan Campo, both of whom are well past their prime playing days. Muamba is a quality young defensive midfielder and will feature immediately, as will Elmander, who was signed from Toulouse for a reported $20 million in a swap deal that saw Daniel Braaten go the other way. Elmander has a decent goalscoring record for Sweden and is coming off a good season in France, but based on what he's shown in the past, Bolton clearly overpaid for him. Riga Mustapha just signed from Levante, where he scored roughly a goal every five games, and his pace will be a welcome addition to Bolton's wings.

As mentioned earlier, the subtractions of Giannakopolus and Campo are no big losses to Bolton on the field, although both provided experience and leadership. El-Hadji Diouf, arguably Bolton's most dangerous player last year after Nicholas Anelka, was sold to Sunderland. He has a reputation for being a bit of a cancer in the dressing room at times, but there's no denying his natural ability and Bolton will miss what he does out there.

Muamba further reinforces the midfield, by far the strongest area of Bolton's squad. He'll sit in a holding role and allow Kevin Nolan to push further up the field as he likes to do. Matty Taylor mans the left wing after spending several years as an attacking left back at Portsmouth, and Mustapha will slide into Diouf's role on the right. Gavin McCann will occupy the space ahead of Muamba and behind Nolan, where his noted lack of foot-speed can be protected from exploitation, when Bolton plays a 4-5-1, which they'll do fairly often. The versatile Ricardo Gardner will get his share of playing time, likely swapping in and out with Taylor depending on the form of both players, and also at left back, where he's ahead of Jlloyd Samuel. Young Swiss international Blerim Džemaili should return from a severe knee injury and compete with Joey O'Brien for a backup role behind McCann.

Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-2):
GK: Jussi Jääskeläinen

RB: Grétar Steinsson
CB: Andy O'Brien
CB: Gary Cahill
LB: Ricardo Gardner

RMF: Mustapha
DMF: Muamba
AMF: Nolan (captain)
LMF: Taylor

ST: Kevin Davies
ST: Elmander

Bolton desperately needs to improve their play away from the Reebok Stadium; they had the worst road record of any of the 17 teams not relegated last year with a 2-5-12 mark and -23 goal differential. They weren't really competitive on their travels, and that may not change to start the new season as their first five road games are at difficult venues -- St. James' Park (Newcastle), Craven Cottage (Fulham), Old Trafford (Manchester United), Upton Park (West Ham), and White Hart Lane (Tottenham). You never know what you're going to get on any given day from Newcastle, West Ham, and Fulham, but Bolton still will need to bring their best game to pick up valuable points.

December is their toughest month, with games against Chelsea, @Aston Villa, Portsmouth, and @Liverpool all in a 20-day span. It doesn't get much easier in January as Bolton will visit Blackburn and Arsenal and play host to Manchester United and Tottenham before traveling to Everton in the first weekend of February. I could honestly see Bolton failing to win even one of those nine games, so it's critical they take advantage of a relatively easy slate in March (@Stoke, Fulham, @West Brom) and finish the year strong in May when Sunderland and Hull come to town. Also in May, Bolton will go to Wigan and Manchester City, both manageable games.

Bottom Line: You're going to see a Jekyll-and-Hyde Bolton team based on this schedule, which is excrutiatingly difficult for stretches and very forgiving in others. As long as they get the job done when they're supposed to, I think Bolton will be OK, but they can't afford to drop many points because West Brom will be nipping at their heels all year long. The key for Megson will be finding someone to score goals. Davies and Nolan combined for only 9 in the league last season, and that total needs to improve by 4 or 5.

Tomorrow brings 16th and 15th places to the forefront. Last year, that was the thick of the relegation fight. This year, I'm not so sure if that'll be the case..

Premierhip Preview--18. West Bromwich Albion

After two years in the Coca-Cola Championship, West Brom returns to the top flight of English soccer as the team best primed to make a run at survival amongst their fellow promotees. Tony Mowbray's club made a surprising appearance in the FA Cup semi-finals last year before being knocked out by Portsmouth, the eventual winner of the competition.

The Baggies have shown that they're going all-in towards staying in the Premiership, spending a combined $27.6 million on players so far this summer already. That sum has been offset considerably by the $18-20 million sale of Curtis Davies to bitter rival Aston Villa, but the fact that Mowbray and club chairman Jeremy Peace, who had been willing to sell his shares in the club to potential new investors not long ago, are aggresively pursuing extra reinforcements for the '08-'09 campaign is a very good sign.

WBA has won one, count 'em, one, Premiership/First Division title in their long history, and that was way back in 1919-1920. While this team clearly isn't in a position to make a title challenge any time soon, the fans are hungry for success at the highest level. To try and bring about that success, Mowbray has added some nice pieces to the squad that finished atop the Championship with 81 points last year.

After a terrific season in between the sticks at UEFA Cup participants Aston Villa on loan from Liverpool, Scott Carson has moved permanently to The Hawthorns and will take the starting job from Dean Kiely. Marek Čech played in the Champions League for FC Porto last year and can play as an attack-minded left back or at left midfield; either way, the Slovakian international is a sure starter for the Baggies. The club hopes right back Gianni Zuiverloon's impressive U-21 record for Holland -- he was named to the UEFA Team of the Tournament in the 2007 Under-21 European Championship and has made 17 appearances at that level -- will carry over to the Premiership. Luke Moore also came over from Aston Villa, and the striker has plenty of pace to burn.

West Brom did, however, lose two important players from last year's roster and a valuable extra piece. Despite missing six weeks with a knee injury, the well-traveled Kevin Phillips scored 22 goals in 35 league games (29 starts), good for a tie for second-most in the Championship, and was the club's Player of the Year as well as a part of the PFA Championship Team of the Year. He turned down a 1-year contract offer from WBA with an added year kicked in automatically if he appeared in 19 league fixtures to join Birmingham City for two years guaranteed.

Zoltán Gera played in 43 league games (33 starts) and contributed 8 goals and 7 assists from his attacking midfield position, but the Hungarian international also turned down a contract offer and instead joined Fulham on a free transfer.

Martin Albrechtsen can play anywhere in the back four; he probably isn't good enough to be a regular starter but his versatility allowed him to start 28 games last season. He left for Derby on a free transfer as he, too, couldn't agree to a new deal with West Brom.

Tony Mowbray's team played the "best soccer" in the Championship; his attacking, free-flowing, passing style was a change from the usual "hoof and chase" kickball mentality that has become famous in England's lower levels and with the national team, at least to a certain extent. It seems unlikely that West Brom will be able to continue playing that way against the big boys and be successful -- West Brom overmatched Championship teams, but they don't have the talent and quality to go toe-to-toe with many Premiership sides.

With the losses of Gera and Phillips, Tony Mowbray's strongest asset now becomes his defense with than his front line. Zuiverloon (right) and Čech (left) have the inside tracks to occupy the full-back positions, although Paul Robinson, who joined Phillips and club captain Jonathan Greening on that PFA Team of the Year, will give Čech some competition and Carl Hoefkins will do the same for Zuiverloon after the two incumbents both started over 40 games a season ago. Leon Barnett is a good young center back at 22 years of age, and Neil Clement could partner him in the heart of the back line. Robinson can also play center back if necessary, so look for him to get his share of games there alongside Barnett as well.

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

*RB: Zuiverloon
CB: Barnett
CB: Clement
LB: Čech

RMF: James Morrison
CMF: Jonathan Greening (captain)
AMF: Robert Koren
LMF: Kim Do-Heon

ST: Ishmael Miller
ST: Roman Bednář

*Zuiverloon will miss the start of the season as he's part of Holland's Olympic squad, but should start when he comes back unless Hoefkins fills in brilliantly.

After opening up at Arsenal, WBA doesn't see another "Big Four" team until October 18, when they visit Old Trafford and the two-time defending league champions. Also in October, though, they have three winnable games -- Fulham, Hull City, and @Newcastle. Back-to-back games against Liverpool (away) and Chelsea (home) come in the middle of November, followed by consecutive road games at Stoke City and Wigan.

The Baggies could either be doomed for relegation or saved from the drop in their final five-match stretch, which sees them hosting Sunderland, Wigan, and Liverpool, and making trips to Tottenham and Blackburn. That run-in isn't terribly difficult, but unless they take points from four of those games, winning at least two in the process, Tony Mowbray's club may be destined for a return to the Championship.

Bottom Line: West Brom can be exposed on the wings, particularly their left side, and their starting center backs aren't tall enough to win aerial challenges with or hold off big, strong center forwards like John Carew, Emmanuel Adebayor, Kenwyne Jones, Didier Drogba, Dimitar Berbatov, Roque Santa Cruz, Dean Ashton, and others. Their attacking style leaves them susceptible to being caught-out, and in the Premier League, one defensive lapse and the ball is in the back of the net. They're better than Hull City and Stoke City, but I don't think they're better over the long haul than teams like Fulham, Bolton, and Sunderland. It'll be close, but the Baggies are going down.