Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Premiership Preview--11. Blackburn Rovers

In his four-season tenure at Blackburn, Mark Hughes guided the club to three top-10 finishes, including 7th place last year, and two appearances in European competition. He compiled an 82-47-59 record in competitive games over that span, and his team conceded over 50 goals only once. It's fair to say that he turned the fortunes of Blackburn Rovers around after their lean years in the late '90's. Hughes accomplished a lot with a small-market club, making his team very competitive without spending a lot of money to do so.

Hughes moved on, earlier this summer, to a better opportunity at Manchester City, where he'll have a bigger stadium to draw fans and more financial backing from the owner. In his place steps Paul Ince, a standout central midfielder in his playing days at Manchester United, Inter Milan, and Liverpool, among others, as well as England's first black captain. I did a post on Ince in the days after he was first hired by Blackburn, so I'm not going to rehash all the smaller details, but suffice it to say that he's been a successful manager at the lower levels with Macclesfield Town and then MK Dons, winning the Johnstone's Paint Trophy and League Two with the latter last season.

Ince has never managed above League Two and has only two seasons of experience in the head coaching capacity, so he certainly needs to justify this appointment to lead Blackburn. Soccer is soccer anywhere you go, I understand that, but going from League Two directly to the Premiership is a quantum leap up in quality and remember, Ince isn't exactly working on a large budget.

He came into the job guns-a-blazing, saying he fully intended to keep his best players. While no one is doubting that to be true, money talks, and Ince has already sold star right winger David Bentley to Tottenham for $30 million up front and Brad Friedel, who spent eight seasons at the Lancashire-based club, appearing in 287 league games in the process, to Aston Villa for $4 million.

Along with Roque Santa Cruz, those two were Blackburn's most valuable players a season ago. They combined to start in 75 of a possible 76 league games between them, with Friedel starting all 38 and conceding 48 goals. Bentley tallied 6 goals and 11 assists in the Premiership, the best numbers of his career. Santa Cruz scored 19 times in 36 starts, an impressive goal-to-game ratio, in his début season for Blackburn but without Bentley's set pieces and crossing ability from open play, there's no way the Paraguayan international would've been that prodigious.

Ince has brought in two players to replace Bentley and Friedel. Paul Robinson, formerly England's number one, was acquired from Tottenham for $7 million. How Robinson is worth more than Friedel is beyond me, seeing as the former is so much more error-prone and hesitant in the air. With that said, though, he was still one of the top keepers on the market and Ince had to snap him up. Carlos Villanueva has come to Ewood Park on loan (with an option to make the deal permanent next summer) from Chilean side Audax Italiano and will try to fill the void left by Bentley. Ince tapped into his Old Trafford roots to bring Danny Simpson in, also on loan, who will challenge Steven Reid and Brett Emerton for playing time. Reid is more naturally a central midfielder, but the addition of Johann Vogel late last season has pushed Reid to right back, at least in Blackburn's summer friendlies. Emerton started 25 games at that position last year, but the 21-year-old Simpson is the only pure right back of the three.

Blackburn is strongest in the back, a trademark of Hughes. There are no standouts amongst the back four; the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. They're not spectacular by any means, but they're efficient, sturdy, and get the job done. Stephen Warnock has crafted a nice career for himself at left back away from Liverpool, where he was unlikely to ever be first-choice. He's a guy that can get forward and chip in on the attack if needed. At 6'5", Christopher Samba is an intimidating presence for opposing strikers and can win most every aerial challenge in which he's involved. His partner in the center of defense is usually the club captain, Ryan Nelsen, although Andre Ooijer can play there too and may to start the season with Nelsen representing New Zealand in the Olympics, with Aaron Mokoena another candidate to fill in. Zurab Khizanishvili is good cover in case of injury to any of the starters.

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

RB: Reid
CB: Samba
CB: Ooijer
LB: Warnock

RMF: Villanueva
CMF: Vogel
CMF: David Dunn (vice-captain)
LMF: Morten Gamst Pedersen

ST: Santa Cruz
ST: McCarthy

Blackburn starts the season with two road games out of three in August -- at Everton and West Ham -- with a visit from Hull City in between. Two victories in those games would be a successful month for Ince, and it's important he gets off to a good start.

The Pride of Lancashire then welcome Arsenal, Fulham, and Manchester United to Ewood Park, sandwiched around a trip to Newcastle. That's a difficult stretch for Ince and his boys, even with those three home games.

After a home game against Middlesbrough on October 25, Blackburn hits the road for four of their next six matches, including tough games at Aston Villa, Portsmouth, and Tottenham, all participants in European competition this season.

It gets considerably easier after that, though, with an eight-game stretch comprising most of December and all of January in which it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility for Blackburn to take all 24 available points. Why? Well, the road matches aren't too imposing -- at Wigan, Sunderland, Fulham, and Middlesbrough -- and the home fixtures aren't either -- Stoke City, Manchester City, Newcastle, and Bolton. I don't think Blackburn will win all eight games, though I could see a 6-2-0 record there to push Rovers into the thick of things.

They close out the season against West Brom at home, a game that comes after tough assignments at Man City and at Chelsea with Portsmouth coming to town in between.

Bottom Line: For Ince, anything around 10th place would have to be considered an accomplishment in his first season as a manager in England's top flight. Ince needs to readjust the style and quality of the Premiership after spending the last few years as a player and manager in the lower leagues, where the "hoof-and-chase" kickball approach is often employed. Losing Bentley and Friedel could turn out to be a blessing in disguise as it may lower expectations for the club, which is still going to be very competitive.

We'll move into the top half of the table tomorrow, so check back in the morning and early afternoon for the previews.

Premiership Preview--12. Newcastle

When Sam Allardyce left by "mutual consent" in early January, Newcastle turned to a familiar figure to turn the club's fortunes around. I said it then and I'll say it now: Kevin Keegan, who spent over a decade away from St. James Park before returning to take the reins, is a blast from the past and isn't the answer going forward. When the "Geordie Messiah" took over, the club was in 11th place. They finished 12th, just a point ahead of arch-rival Middlesbrough.

Newcastle fans will continue to tell you that because they sell their stadium out for every game and their stadium is one of the largest in the Premiership, they support a "big club". They conveniently fail to tell you, however, that the last time their club won a major trophy of any kind -- and let me make this clear -- was 1955, when they won the FA Cup.

Sorry, but the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup doesn't count, at least not to me. The Intertoto Cup certainly doesn't count because it's not a lone-standing tournament, it leads into something else. The Anglo-Italian Cup doesn't count either, nor do the Kirin or Texaco Cups. To be considered a "big club", you have to win things! It's that simple; you have to win silverware! If you can't win a trophy, at least consistently challenge for one, either in the league or in domestic or continental cup competitions. Newcastle doesn't even do that anymore, so they're nowhere near "big club" status. At one point, they were, but that's no longer the case.

The fact that more than 50,000 fans turn up for every home game to watch a mediocre team is a testament to them, yes, but it doesn't mean the product they're watching can be compared to the likes of the "Big Four" by any stretch of the imagination. They're some of the best fans in the Premiership, but they're gluttons for punishment.

Now that that is over with, let's take a look at this season's edition of the Magpies.

It's been a pretty quiet summer on Tyneside. Keegan has brought in just two players so far, Jonás Gutiérrez and Danny Guthrie, both midfielders, although the permanent acquisition of young French defender Sébastien Bassong from FC Metz should be finalized within the next couple days. Five players have left St. James Park, including right back Stephen Carr and creative, but injury-prone, central midfielder Emre Belözoğlu, who returned home to Turkey to play for Fenerbahçe. All-in-all, the moves in and out have essentially been a wash, with Newcastle not losing much or gaining much.

They are undoubtedly strongest up front, where they have three strikers in Michael Owen, Mark Viduka, and Obafemi Martins who are each capable of scoring 15 goals a season. Newcastle closed the '07-'08 campaign in impressive fashion, going 5-3-2 in their last 10 games, including a seven-match unbeaten streak, to wind up in 12th after failing to win any of their first eight league fixtures under Keegan. It isn't coincidental that that good run of form for Newcastle started when Keegan switched from a 4-4-2 and began playing Martins, Owen, and Viduka all at the same time. Those three lit it up at the end of the season, giving the club's fans some hope heading into the summer and this season.

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

RB: Habib Beye
CB: Steven Taylor
CB: Abdoulaye Faye
LB: José Enrique

*RMF: Geremi
CMF: Nicky Butt
*LMF: Damien Duff

RF: Viduka
CF: Owen (captain)
LF: Martins

*The wide midfield positions are most up for grabs, and although those are my projected starters, others will see plenty of playing time. James Milner and Gutiérrez will both play on the right. Duff can play on either flank. Charles N'Zogbia is comfortable at both left back and left wing. Even Alan Smith can play anywhere in midfield, but he's used more up front. Joey Barton was played on the left during the club's late-season push, but he'll miss the start of the season due to his incarceration, so look for either Duff or N'Zogbia to open the year there. During that run, Geremi played on the right, and I'm not sure Keegan will mess with what worked. The only sure starter is Butt, who is still a quality defensive midfielder.

Two of Newcastle's first three matches are on the road, which is tough enough as it is, but these are even more difficult as they're at Manchester United and Arsenal. Newcastle was outscored by a combined 8-0 in the corresponding fixtures last season, so an ugly start to this year is highly probable.

If that does come to fruition, Newcastle will get a chance to make it up in September and October. Those months bring home games against Hull City, Blackburn, Manchester City, and West Brom, all winnable, and road trips to West Ham and Everton, which aren't extraordinarily difficult by any means. October 25 is the first of two Tyne-Wear derbies against Sunderland, with this one played at the Stadium of Light.

In an interesting schedule quirk, Newcastle will see West Ham, Blackburn, Man City, and Sunderland (in that order) again in January, and West Brom and Everton in the first two weeks of February. Everyone plays everyone else twice, but it's rare to see the same opponents you played in one long stretch like that at two different times. Usually teams are scrambled up on the schedule and this kind of thing doesn't happen, but it does in this case.

A brutal four-game stretch in March and early April brings matches against Man United, Arsenal, and Chelsea, all at St. James Park, broken up only by a visit to Hull.

Bottom Line: We'll see if Keegan can reignite the flame that propelled Newcastle to that 5-3-2 record to finish last season. His strikers are good, as I mentioned before, but there are question marks at the back aside from Taylor and on the flanks, where it seems to be a case of musical chairs to determine starting spots. If he can push the right buttons again, Newcastle has a chance to be a top-10 team. If not, North East rivals Middlesbrough and Sunderland will be right on their heels, which is unthinkable for Newcastle fans.