Thursday, August 7, 2008

Premiership Preview--7. Portsmouth

Just like Manchester City and Everton, Portsmouth is coming off their best season in England's top division in years, and I'm not sure there'd be much argument from the South Coast side's supporters by saying it was the best season in club history. Portsmouth wound up in 8th place, their highest-ever finish in the Premiership (though not in the old First Division). They won the FA Cup for the second time in their 110-year existence, thereby earning a berth in this season's UEFA Cup, the first time Portsmouth will play in a European competition.

It was an amazing year for a team that seemed destined for relegation midway through the 2005-2006 campaign. At that point, Pompey's fortunes changed forever. Wealthy Franco-Russian businessman Alexandre Gaydamak became co-owner of the club in January, which was in the bottom three at the time, and invested money immediately, allowing manager Harry Redknapp, who'd only come back to Portsmouth in December following a short stint at arch-rival Southampton, to bring in much-needed reinforcements. Portsmouth hit a good run of form at the end of the season and managed to escape the drop. Gaydamak then became sole owner in July. The rest, as they say, is history.

The combination of Gaydamak and Redknapp has worked wonders for a small-market side with the smallest stadium in the Premiership in Fratton Park, which seats just over 20,000 people. Gaydamak has financed acquisitions -- Lassana Diarra, John Utaka, Sulley Muntari, David James, Niko Kranjčar, etc. -- that have made Portsmouth a considerably better side, and the $22 million signing of striker Peter Crouch this summer was a club record. Redknapp, for his part, is Portsmouth's most successful manager in terms of win percentage since Bob Jackson in the late '40's-early '50's, and in terms of total wins since George Smith, who was at the helm basically throughout the entirety of the '60's.

Most of Redknapp's big transfer moves have come prior to this summer's window, with the exception of Crouch, of course. He's lost only one player so far, Muntari, though the attack-minded Ghanian midfielder was Portsmouth's best field player last season, his only one in the Premiership. He will sorely be missed, but Inter Milan came-a-calling and offered significantly more money (around $10 million more) than what Portsmouth paid to sign him from Udinese in the first place. Redknapp and Gaydamak couldn't turn that quick profit down, which effectively offset Crouch's signing by half. Crouch and Defoe should form a lethal partnership up front; the pacey Defoe provides explosiveness and will run off balls won down from the air by Crouch, who has great body control and creativity for a man his size. Ben Sahar came on loan from Chelsea, and the Israeli international has made it clear that he intends to challenge for playing time on the front line.

With Muntari's departure, Portsmouth's strongest area shifts from the midfield to the defense, including David James, the league's best keeper last year. Pompey conceded just 40 goals, though James single-handedly kept anywhere from 5 to 10 more out by coming up with an incredible save of some kind. Sol Campbell is the club's captain and heart and soul of the back four. He's joined in the middle by the vice-captain, Sylvain Distin, who started 36 league games last season, an impressive total for a center back. Both men stand at 6'4" and are as physical as they come, so most aerial 50-50's played by the opposing team into the penalty area go for naught. Glen Johnson thrust himself into contention for the England national team with his play at right back, finally living up to the potential Chelsea saw originally when they signed him from West Ham a few years ago. As with Manchester City, Portsmouth's weak link in defense is at left back. Hermann Hreiðarsson occupies the position for Pompey. He's getting on in years (34), doesn't offer much going forward, and can be exploited by speedy right wingers, but he doesn't make too many mistakes.

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

RB: Johnson
CB: Campbell (captain)
CB: Distin
LB: Hreiðarsson

RMF: Utaka
DMF: Diarra
CMF: Papa Bouba Diop
LMF: Kranjčar

ST: Crouch
ST: Defoe

Portsmouth opens the season with as difficult an August as any team in the Premiership, with games at Chelsea and Everton sandwiched around Manchester United's visit to Fratton Park. It's the second straight year that Pompey has played those two "Big Four" giants in August; they took one point out of a possible six in the last go-around.

September and October are no easy feats either. Portsmouth will see Manchester City (away), Tottenham (home), Aston Villa (away), and Liverpool (away) -- all European participants -- along with Stoke City and Fulham in must-win home games.

After that tough run to start the year, Pompey will likely have to make up ground and have a perfect opportunity to do just that in November and December. Those two months bring 10 league games, and Redknapp's side can conceivably win 9 of those and take points from all 10. The opponents they should beat: Wigan, Hull City, Blackburn, Newcastle, West Ham (all at home), and Sunderland, West Ham, West Brom, and Bolton on the road. Each of those matches are winnable, so we'll see how Portsmouth does.

The South Coasters have to play Liverpool, Man United, and Chelsea in a four-game stretch in February and early March, an arduous task to say the least.

Portsmouth closes out the season with another straightforward slate of fixtures. Seven of their last eight -- @Hull, West Brom, Bolton, @Newcastle, @Blackburn, Sunderland, and @Wigan -- should be handled without too much difficulty, and a showdown against Arsenal at Fratton Park comes the first weekend of May.

Bottom Line: In terms of net loss and gain, the Muntari-for-Crouch tradeoff won't help or hurt Portsmouth too much. The two bring different skillsets to the table and while Muntari is probably the better player overall, Crouch adds a lot more to the front line, both directly and indirectly, with what he can do. Last season was the first that the majority of the starters had a chance to really get used to one another, and that working relationship should continue to grow in '08-'09. This is a talented bunch, but if Redknapp feels he needs an additional piece or two in January, Gaydamak will provide the money. It'll be interesting to see how much, if at all, the extra UEFA Cup games will affect Portsmouth's play in the Premiership. Expect no worse than another 8th-place finish, but I could see Pompey crawl up the table a bit higher than 7th as well.

Tomorrow I'll preview the teams just outside the top four, both of which have an eye on breaking the traditional stranglehold imposed by England's giants.

Premiership Preview--8. Manchester City

Manchester City's 2007-2008 campaign was their best since rejoining the Premiership after a few years of purgatory in England's lower levels. Manager Sven-Göran Eriksson compiled a very respectable 19-11-15 record in his first year on the job, guiding the club to a 9th-place finish, a trip to the Carling Cup quarterfinals, and a berth in the UEFA Cup through their fair play record.

Things were looking up with the global ensemble -- Elano (Brazil), Martin Petrov (Bulgaria), Vedran Ćorluka (Croatia), Rolando Bianchi (Italy), Javier Garrido (Spain), Gelson Fernandes (Switzerland), and Benjani (Zimbabwe) -- acquired by the Swede either last summer or, in Benjani's case, the January transfer window. The promise of the future, however, wasn't enough for impatient owner and accused human rights abuser and tax evader, among other things, Thaksin Shinawatra. The deposed, then exiled, former prime minster of Thailand relieved Eriksson of his duties in early June.

In effect, Shinawatra said that the job Eriksson did simply wasn't good enough, and then-Blackburn manager Mark Hughes was tapped to take the reins. Hughes was certainly a competent boss for Rovers and knows the surrounding area well, having spent the majority of his playing career at Manchester United and then leading Blackburn, located in suburban Manchester. Now he's back in the city proper and inherits the very solid roster left by Eriksson.

The Welsh manager has made one significant improvement, though, in the form of Jô, a terrific young (21) Brazilian striker with a prodigious strike record at CSKA Moscow, his last club. The transfer fee, a club-record, was undisclosed -- it was rumored to be in the neighborhood of $40 million -- and Jô brings explosiveness and goal-scoring ability that City didn't have in their forwards last season. Israeli international Tal Ben Haim was acquired from Chelsea, likely as cover behind the incumbent starting center backs, Micah Richards and Richard Dunne.

Hughes has trimmed some of the fat off the team as well, both literally and figuratively. Emile Mpenza (released), Georgios Samaras (moved to Celtic), and Paul Dickov (relased) were all part of that disappointing group of strikers a year ago, with those three combining for a miserable two league goals, both scored by Mpenza. To be fair, Dickov was shipped out on loan to two Championship clubs last season, Crystal Palace and Blackpool, but was on City's roster for a short time. Geovanni was a versatile utility player for Eriksson, coming off the bench 17 times in the Premiership, but Hughes opted to release him as well. Andreas Isaakson's injury-plagued tenure at City ended when he left for PSV Eindhoven, though he's no big loss either as Joe Hart has entrenched himself as the starting goalkeeper. After six seasons and 130 league appearances for Sun Jihai, the Chinese full back moved to Sheffield United on a free transfer.

All-in-all, Hughes has clearly improved his squad and lost no one of consequence. The back line, including Hart between the sticks, is his strongest asset. City conceded 53 goals last season, but that total is inflated by the 8 given up against Middlesbrough in the final game of the year. I personally felt like -- and still do -- that that performance was the City players' way of protesting the speculation surrounding Sven's future with the club, which was very much in doubt even then. This group isn't that poor, and the team truly looked as if they were barely going through the motions for the duration of the match.

Richards and Dunne, the club captain, headline the back four. Richards has enormous potential and great ability already for his age (20), and can also play right back, which he does with the England national team. Ben Haim provides capable depth behind the two and is good enough to challenge for playing time if either of the starters' form slips dramatically. At 6'4", Ćorluka isn't a prototypical right back, but he's very, very good and still only 22. He's physical, can get up and down the flank, and has a terrific "soccer IQ", meaning he really understands the game. Hart is just 21 and is regarded as England's keeper of the future, though Scott Carson may have something to say about that. Hart isn't as tall as others at his position, limiting his ability to claim balls in the air, but he makes up for it with his superior positioning. The weak link in City's defense is at left back, where Garrido and Michael Ball, who is best known for stamping on Cristiano Ronaldo's stomach in a Manchester derby two seasons ago, essentially shared the starting role last year. Both like to go forward, but neither chip in much on the attack. Nedum Onouha, another youngster, has sprinter's speed and can fill in in the center or on the right.

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

RB: Ćorluka
CB: Richards
CB: Dunne (captain)
LB: Garrido

RMF: Stephen Ireland
CMF: Michael Johnson
AMF: Elano
LMF: Petrov

*ST: Benjani

*Jô will miss the start of the season due to his participation in the Olympics for Brazil. Benjani has a thigh strain that could keep him out into September. In their places, you'll likely see Valeri Bojinov and Darius Vassell.

City's UEFA Cup commitment forces them to play five games in August, rather than the three that will be played by most other Premiership clubs. Three of those five come in a six-day span -- West Ham on the 24th, @FC Midtjylland on the 28th in the second leg of their UEFA Cup second qualifying round tie, and Sunderland two days after their return from Denmark. City starts the season at Aston Villa, which will be an interesting game between two European contenders.

September isn't as congested, but it's still difficult. City hosts Chelsea and Portsmouth before traveling to Wigan in a must-win game to end the month.

Liverpool comes to town on the first Saturday of October, the toughest game in a relatively straightforward month that also features Newcastle (away), Stoke City (home), and Middlesbrough (away).

The trend of home games against top teams continues in December, when Tottenham, Arsenal, and Manchester United travel to the City of Manchester Stadium to face Hughes' men. City also pays visits to Bolton and Hull City in that month and again, those are likely must-win games given the quality of those other three opponents.

It's because of that trend that the second half of City's schedule is tougher by far. Of course the opponents are the same but since the schedule balances out, City has to play each of the league's best teams on their home ground the second time around. The Citizens have to make hay during the first half of the year, which they did last season, because they're probably going to struggle down the back stretch to close things out.

Bottom Line: The defense is very capable, the midfield is above average, but the strikers are where this team will be made or broken. You have to score goals, and a ton of them, to compete with the likes of Tottenham, Aston Villa, Portsmouth, and each of those teams has better options up front than City. Jô needs to have a great debut season and carry the load, because I'm not sure how much they're going to get from Benjani, Bianchi, Vassell, and Valeri Bojinov. Shinawatra has shown that he can be quick on the trigger, so if City struggles this year, Hughes may find himself on the way out.