Category Archives: English Premier League

Survival Sunday: Battle at the Britannia

Nowadays all the fuss in the depths of the Premiership basement is over crazy Ollie and his Tangerine army. To the neutral onlooker, they’re the underdogs, defying all expectations after initially given all but the death sentence upon their promotion to the English top flight. However, with their buccaneering style of play they’ve quickly become everyone’s favorite charity case, adopting Mr. Alex Ferguson (sorry, until Shankly gets a knighting, you’re still Alex to me) us against the big bad world philosophy.

Crazy Ollie has even gone as far as to say that the Premiership is conspiring against them and secretly want them to go down (which is about as believable as the rapture happening tomorrow). I find this extremely funny, seeing as every single person I’ve talked to (through my extensive contact list of players and experts), and pundit I’ve read is praying that they remain in the league.

Amidst all this Tangerine fog, one team has been forgotten, even by it’s own people at times. They are the complete polar opposite of the media darlings that are Blackpool United. Wigan Atheltic is a club that is also fighting for it’s life on survival Sunday. Currently perched on 39 points, they are far from safety. Throughout the season, Wigan has been terribly inconsistent, putting some sterling performances in right next to some utter tripe.

But that being said, the club represents, at least to me, the perfect cause of the underdog that you want to survive. Wigan is one of the most poorly funded teams in the Premiership, with Roberto Martinez stuck looking for bargains and loan stars to fill his ranks (although he did splash the cash on Mauro Boselli, but I’m sure Wigan supporters don’t need to be reminded), but still has managed to somehow survive the drop season after season. If not for a Charles Insomnia late winner the club may already be down.

So on Sunday, I implore you to move your attention towards the battle at the Britannia, because while Wigan may be unassuming the Premiership is much stronger for having a team that, like Blackpool is always willing to give it a go, but while drawing much less media attention to themselves. To me, they are the blue collar version of Blackpool, lacking the Hollywood flavor, but full of ingenuity and for that, I applaud them.

Written by: Geoff Stellfox

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History Could Repeat Itself Between Manchester United and Arsenal

Consecutive defeats to rivals Chelsea and Liverpool in the space of a week has diminished Manchester United’s lead at the top of the table to three points and suddenly thrown the title race wide open. Arsenal suffered an equally miserable week, drawing at home to Sunderland before a morale crushing defeat to Barcelona in midweek left the Gunners with only the League and FA Cup to play for. With United’s lead narrowed and Arsenal possessing a game in hand, Arsene Wenger and his players will still be confident of capturing their first piece of silverware in six years.  

After a winless week for both clubs, it goes without saying the next match will make or break both team’s seasons. Coincidentally, the table toppers go head-to-head on Saturday in a titanic FA Cup clash at Old Trafford, a match that brings back memories of an unforgettable and extraordinary semi-final replay between both clubs almost 11 years ago during United’s treble winning season. A certain Ryan Giggs was the hero (or one of several) that day, scoring one of the most incredible goals ever seen in extra time as United eliminated Arsenal and set themselves on the road to further glory before the season’s end.

When the draw for the quarter-finals was made on February 20th it was that remarkable game at Villa Park that emerged in my mind. But as Arsenal continued to edge closer to United in the standings, it was no longer the epic replay in 1999 that came to mind. Well aware that a win could give either side the boost required to go on a winning run and simultaneously derail the other’s title challenge, all I could think about was another historic but more recent match between both clubs in February 2008.

With United chasing league leaders Arsenal, a Darren Fletcher inspired Manchester United sent out a huge statement of intent to the North Londoners and the rest of the league. Playing as a lone striker, Wayne Rooney was in fine form and opened the scoring before two headers by Fletcher sandwiched a delightful finish by Nani to give United a monumental 4-0 win. Arsenal were crushed. United’s win was more than just a sharp riposte for those who doubted their title credentials, but was the fuel they needed to overtake Arsenal in the standings and end the season in a flourish. After a failed attempt to blame the pitch, Wenger painfully admitted United were the superior side, by far. The ‘Professor’ particularly singled out Rooney for praise.

“Against us I thought Rooney was fantastic. He was sharp, mobile, quick, aggressive, even good in the air. He did everything.”

What United supporters would give for a similar performance on Saturday from their number 10. And oh how Manchester United would give anything to have history repeat itself. Following the win, Rooney and co. went on to win seven out of their next eight league games and would eventually clinch back-to-back Premier League titles.

Speaking on the performance against Arsenal, which came just a week after an agonizing home defeat to Manchester City, Sir Alex Ferguson said: “They (his players) have made amends for that (City defeat) with a marvelous performance.”

Strange that United find themselves in the exact same predicament. Another marvelous performance by United on Saturday will go a long way in helping United overcome its disappointing loss to Liverpool last weekend and spur them on for the remainder of the season. The Red Devils may have exited the FA Cup the following round after beating Arsenal in 2008, but United gained the ultimate prize by advancing all the way to the final of the Champions League and beating Chelsea in penalties. Prior the cup win over Arsenal, United had drawn Tottenham before suffering the painful defeat at home to Manchester City on the day marking the 50th anniversary of the Munich disaster. With United in a dip of form and losing ground in the title race, it’s amazing what a big win over your title challengers can do.

And in Arsenal’s case, it is incredible how a monumental loss can completely derail your season. After being outplayed and humiliated at Old Trafford, Arsenal failed to record a win in their next five league matches. Wenger’s side would only win two out of their next 10 games, including a 2-1 loss to United in April which effectively ended their chances of winning the title. Favorites for the title in February and trophyless in May, Arsenal’s season fell apart after their FA Cup humiliation, paving the way for a miserable end to the season.

Fast forward three years later and although Arsenal are not necessarily favorites for the title, they are certainly in the running, and according to Samir Nasiri have ‘one hand on the trophy’. If history should repeat itself on Saturday and Arsenal suffer another defeat against Manchester United, Arsenal may slowly drift further and further away from the title while United storm forward in pursuit of their record 19th league title. And as every supporter is most likely well aware of, the two clubs will go head-to-head again in a potential title decider on May 1st at the Emirates.

If ever history needed a platform to repeat itself, this is it. Will Arsenal allow themselves to suffer the same fate as 2008 while United claim an unprecedented and highly sought 19th league title? Saturday could tell us just that…

Written by: Jeff Harbert

United 4-0 Arsenal highlights (2008)

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Return of the King

History has a very funny way of repeating itself.

In August of 2004, Michael Owen, announced that he wanted a transfer Real Madrid. He ended up moving to the club for a paltry sum of £8m. Not only did a local boy turn his back on the club that made him the player he was and force the move to the Spanish capital, but in return the club essentially received pocket change. Now this was a very tough pill to swallow for the club and supporters alike, but his departing words (and his eventual move to United, of all places) are what destroyed his legend status, and earned him the tag ‘Judas’. “I would like to say a special thank you for being given the opportunity to play for the best team in the world.”

But fate can be a very cruel thing to the coward. The “feeder club” that Mr. Owen had left went on to be crowned kings of Europe in the most dramatic of fashion. Captain Fantastic and a much more spry Jamie Carragher will receive most of the plaudits for the victory over Milan, but the Istanbul final may never have been if it wasn’t for the heroics of the man brought in to help replace Owen: Luis Garcia.

Standing 5’10 with a rather slight build, he was by no means the most imposing of players. But as Mark Twain wrote, “it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” Luis was the Derek Jeter of Champions League football. When the occasion arrived to stand up and be counted, you needn’t look further than Liverpool’s Spanish number 10. King Luis scored two massive, massive winners against both Juventus and that blue team from London without any history, whose name escapes me at this time. The winner against Juventus was a brilliantly struck volley from next to nothing, knocking out, who at the time was one of the tournament favorites. The goal against the Chavs, was admittedly less brilliant, but is, in my opinion one of the most significant goals in Liverpool history.

But King Luis not only showed his class on the pitch but off it as well. In the summer of 2007, his proposed move to Athletico Madrid (as a makeway for my next subject) was completed. Upon leaving Luis delivered a letter to the club and supporters about his time with the club, and what we all meant to him, and there’s one section that stick out to me the most.

“A football club isn’t just made up of players, coaches and directors. More than anything else it’s the supporters who make a club, and that perhaps is the ingredient which best distinguishes Liverpool Football Club from every other team. The supporters. Because if one thing has remained obvious to me after these few years, it’s that with supporters like you, Liverpool Football Club will never walk alone.”

Luis Garcia gets it.  He understands what it means to be a Red, gave everything to the club, and most importantly appreciated and respected us. In the body of this letter, King Luis showed more class than either Michael Owen, Steve McManaman, or Fernando Torres could ever dream to in their entire life. That’s why you’re a legend, Luis.

Several years have passed and we Reds find ourselves in a similar position. Our former golden boy, Fernando Torres, or Judas mark II has turned his back on the club for the plastic landscape that is west London. Not only does this seem an eerily similar situation, but the departing words bring up even more bad memories of Owen. “This is the target for every footballer – to try to play for one of the top clubs in the world. They [Chelsea] are one of the biggest teams in Europe and are always fighting for everything.” At the time, everything seemed pretty bleak, but as mentioned earlier, fate is a funny thing. We now have a new hope and a new Luis to celebrate. If his performance against United is anything to go off of, we may have a King Luis II on our hands, who could lead us to similar glories. There’s big hopes, and only time will tell.

Written by: Geoff Stellfox

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EPL Team of the Week

Week 29

Mingonet

Jagielka      da Costa      Cahill

Duff      Hitzlsperger      Kalou      Jarvis

Kuyt

Defoe     Suarez

GK – Simon Mingonet: The Emirates witnessed one of the best goalkeeping displays we’ve seen all season. And for some it will come as no surprise it was from a member of the opposition. The Sunderland ‘keeper was in inspired form as he repeatedly thwarted Arsenal, particularly Nicholas Bentdner and Samiri Nasiri. His save from Nasiri’s free-kick was world class and Bentdner is probably still wondering how Mingonet stopped his fierce volley that looked destined for the back of the net. Hard to believe he’s just 22.

RB – Phil Jagielka: An impressive performance by the English defender. His match-winning goal was a piece of fine skill to direct Leighton Baines’ in-swinging free-kick in off the crossbar. Not only did he provide the match-winning goal, but he was vital in preventing Newcastle from finding an equalizer in the second half.

CB – Manuel Da Costa: Any defender will tell you that playing Stoke City is anything but a walk in the park. Da Costa did brilliantly to cope with Stoke’s physical prowess and his goal doubled West Ham’s advantage to send them on their way to another important three points.

CB – Gary Cahill: The former Aston Villa defender provided the equalizer moments before the break and his second headed goal of the match with 20 minutes remaining ensured Houllier’s side paid the full price for a penalty miss only minutes earlier.

RM – Damien Duff: It had been almost seven years since the last time Duff scored in consecutive games in the Premier League. Duff’s brace against former club Blackburn finally ended the wait and helped the Cottagers to a 3-2 win. Both goals came off him cutting inside from the right wing onto his left and sending a low and powerful drive past Paul Robinson.

CM – Thomas Hitzlsperger: West Ham supporters will wonder just how much further up the table they could have been had Hitzlsperger not been injured from the start of the season. His midfield play against Stoke was what the Hammers have been missing this season and he linked up effectively with Scott Parker. His fierce bullet put the icing on the cake for the home side and maybe, just maybe, forced Avram Grant to crack a smile.

CM – Salomon Kalou: Days after indicating he might leave Stamford Bridge this summer, Kalou stepped off the bench to help Chelsea beat Blackbool 3-1 on Monday. His introduction completely changed the game for Chelsea, who had allowed Blackpool to gain a foothold in the game. Not only did he earn his side a penalty but he set up Lampard’s second goal of the game to complete an important victory for the Blues. Came close to scoring on several occasions and contained Blackpool’s midfield.

AM – Dirk Kuyt: The Liverpool midfielder’s hat-trick was far from the most stunning of trebles ever seen in the Premier League this season, but it will certainly be one of the most memorable. Two tap-ins sandwiched a simple header and had Liverpool cruising to a big win over rivals Manchester United. It is difficult to decide who contributed to his hat-trick more: Luis Suarez tricky play or United’s defensive errors.

LM – Matt Jarvis: Wolverhampton’s impressive 3-3 draw with Tottenham was arguably their best performance of the season. Much of that had to do with the threat posed by Jarvis. His wing-play was excellent and his delivery of crosses into the box was a danger for Spurs all afternoon. Did well to get to the by-line on several occasions and set up the equalizer with the perfect cross towards Steven Fletcher.

ST – Jermaine Defoe: 323 days had passed since Jermaine Defoe’s previous league goal. Injury has kept him on the sidelines for much of the season but his stunning brace against Wolverhampton was well worth the wait. Both of his goals were powerful and well-placed shots from outside the box, leaving Wayne Hennessey no chance. Defoe was even denied a hat-trick by the post in the second half.

ST – Luis Suarez: The Uruguayan gave United’s defense its most torrid afternoon of the season. Twisting and turning in the box and somehow eluding three United players, Suarez was the architect of Liverpool’s opening goal and his dipping free-kick in the second half was spilled by Van der Sar, allowing Kuyt to secure his hat-trick. Only a few matches into his Liverpool career but he is already proven himself to be in an extremely important signing.

Manager – Kenny Dalglish: Just after his 60th birthday, the Liverpool hero could not have asked for a better birthday present. Took a big risk in fielding such an attacking side but reaped the benefits as he saw his side tear apart Sir Alex Ferguson’s men. The victory will only enhance his reputation with the Liverpool supporters.

Written by: Jeff Harbert

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Carrick Criticism Unwarranted

Following the news of Michael Carrick signing a three-year contract extension for Manchester United, a substantial amount of criticism has been directed towards the former West Ham and Tottenham midfielder. But why? ‘He doesn’t score enough goals’ or ‘he only passes sideways and backwards’ are some of the complaints I’ve heard, mainly from Manchester United supporters.

Purchased for 16 million pounds from Tottenham in July 2006, I’d be willing to go out on a limb and say he has justified his price tag. I’m also willing to somewhat boldly claim that Carrick has been a key figure in helping United win three consecutive Premier League titles, a Champions League and World Club Championship title, as well as a League Cup trophy. He also has a pivotal role to play if United are to finish the season with another trophy or two in their cabinet. Carrick may never end being considered a world-class midfielder, but he certainly deserves credit for being a reliable figure in United’s midfield. If you don’t believe me and prefer to think of Carrick as an unnecessary member of the United squad and a midfielder incapable of having an influence on games, let the statistics tell you otherwise.

Carrick has completed 830 out of 959 attempted passes this season for a pass success rate of 86.5%. He also has the highest amount of interceptions for a midfielder in the Premier League with an average of 4.38 interceptions per game. These two statistics alone indicate that he can pass and he can win back possession, two key traits of any center midfielder. His ability to win back possession is even more remarkable when you consider that the player at Manchester United with the second highest interception rate is Anderson with 1.9 interceptions per game.

United’s style of play depends so much on retaining possession and being able to pass the ball. Carrick may lack speed in his game and he may not be a goal scoring threat, but he gets the job done in his assigned position. After all, he’s not an attacking midfielder but plays more as a defensive midfielder. You never saw Claude Makalele banging in the goals, did you? What you did see in Makalele was a tendency to pass the ball sideways and backwards more than forward, similarly to Carrick. And for a player whose role is to retain possession and protect the back four, nothing is wrong with having to pass the ball back. I can already picture Sir Alex jumping out of his seat if Carrick was to constantly attempt the type of long ball we are accustomed to seeing from Paul Scholes.

The truth is, Carrick does his job and he does it effectively. In his 15 league starts this season, United have only conceded 10 goals. In the other 13 matches he didn’t start, United have conceded 15 goals. Ferguson sees Carrick as an ideal cover for the back four and it shows in the position Carrick has played this season. He’s the perfect man for the job, too, especially when considering he has had a tackle success rate of 70% this season.

Ferguson is well aware of the quality Carrick brings to his squad and it shows in his decision to keep him at the club until at least 2014. We all know that Carrick lacks the flair and aptitude of Xavi and Iniesta, but it has been somewhat strange to hear the criticism surrounding the deal. After all, wasn’t Carrick partly responsible for keeping those two players at bay in United’s Champions League semi-final victory in 2008? Also, how often has Ferguson been in the wrong when it comes to extending a player’s contract? Sure, he’s had a few miscues, but don’t expect Carrick to be one.

Written by: Jeff Harbert

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David Luiz: Abramovich Gets It Right This Time

Roman Abramovich is anything but shy when it comes to the transfer market. After all, here’s a man who paid a combined 48.43 pounds for Didier Drogba and Michael Essien and most recently splashed 50 million pounds for the purchase of Fernando Torres from Liverpool. Drogba and Essien have been integral figures in Chelsea’s recent success, and despite his stuttering start, few will be betting against Torres to have a similar impact.

Abramovich’s money has not always been well spent, however. In May 2006, Chelsea bought Andriy Shevchenko from AC Milan for 30.8 million pounds. Soon later Shaun Wright-Phillips arrived from Manchester City for 21 million pounds. Both players failed to live up to their price tags and both players returned to their previous clubs with a sense of disappointment hanging over their heads, as well as that of the Chelsea owner. Who could blame him though, especially after great things had been promised, particularly for the Ukraine forward.

“I think Shevchenko is the type of player we would like. At the end of the day to improve what we have got, it has to be a great player and Shevchenko certainly comes into that class.” These were the words of Peter Kenyon, Chelsea’s Chief Executive.

Fast forward to January, 2011 and similar things were being promised for another mega signing by Abramovich.

“He is one of the great defensive prospects in world football,” Chelsea chief executive Ron Gourlay said. “I am sure he will prove a valuable addition to the Chelsea squad.”

Also adding to the hype was Chelsea Chairman Bruce Buck, who claimed: “It is a delight to have completed this transfer for a fantastic young footballer who we have admired for some time and will hopefully serve us well for the rest of this season and going forward.”

This time, however, Chelsea appears like being spot on in their assessment of their latest acquisition: David Luiz Moreira Marinho.

The 23-year-old Brazilian international, purchased for 21 million pounds from Benfica, already looks like being a bargain buy for Chelsea. His performances for the reigning champions have already caught the eye and few players have managed to justify their price tag as quickly as Luiz has. In the short span of a month he has proven that not only can he handle the demands of the Premier League, but he can excel as a strong defender who is a big danger going forward. Simply ask Manchester United.

Luiz has demonstrated an admirable work rate and impressive ability and composure with the ball at his feet. It has quickly become apparent how much the former Benfica centre-back enjoys bringing the ball forward from the back and setting up attacks for his side. Luiz may have only scored four goals in 72 appearances for the Lisbon club, but he is more than willing to get forward and is fairly capable in front of goal, especially for a defender.

Judging by his three performances so far, Luiz may be exactly what Chelsea need to finally turn the corner. His debut consisted of a half-hour substitute cameo in a 1-0 loss to Liverpool and although he conceded a last minute penalty in his next match against Fulham, Luiz was still awarded with the Barclays Man of the Match award. His performance against Manchester United, which included the equalizing goal, was worthy of a second Man of the Match – although some will argue he was slightly fortunate not to be sent off for a second yellow card for a foul on Wayne Rooney.

Luiz’ performances certainly haven’t been flawless, but they have been more than enough to prove his quality. With the more games he plays, the more experience he’ll gain and learn how to cut out the mistakes in his game, such as an over eagerness to dive right in and a tendency to stick too close to his man. Overall, Chelsea has found themselves a top notch defender and a real difference maker, not just on the defensive end.

Written by: Jeff Harbert

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Michael Bradley: Treading the American Path

American footballers are often forced to take the long route before playing for a big European club. Michael Bradley is no exception. But once many players do reach that point, they are not always as successful as hoped. Michael Bradley, who is currently on loan at Aston Villa, is one American who is an exception.

Born in Princeton, New Jersey, Bradley has added his name to a growing list of American players who have moved to small European clubs before climbing the ladder. After making 30 appearances for the New York Metro Stars, now known as the New York Red Bulls, Bradley set off for Europe in hopes of furthering his development. His transfer to Eredivisie side SC Heerenveen in January, 2006 made him the youngest MLS player to ever be sold. The amount of the transfer remains undisclosed.

After making four starts for the Dutch club and helping them earn a spot in the UEFA Cup in his first season, things would only get better for the American midfielder. The following season saw him earn a permanent starting role in central midfield and in his third season with the club Bradley scored sixteen goals, including 21 in all competitions. His goal tally broke Brian McBride’s record of most goals scored by an American in a European first division.

On the penultimate day of the summer transfer window in August 2008, Bradley signed a four-year deal with Bundesliga side Borussia Monchengladbach. In two and a half seasons Bradley has made 81 appearances and scored 11 goals. His biggest highlight thus far has been a match-winning free-kick against Hannover 96. Bradley found himself on the move once again in January 2011, this time on the final day of the transfer window. Aston Villa agreed a deal with Monchengladbach to loan the American midfielder for the remainder of the 2010-11 season.

Bradley has made his biggest impact on the pitch for the United States National Team, earning 50 caps and scoring eight goals. His influence during the 2010 World Cup was a key factor in helping the US advance past the group stages. His late run into the penalty area to poke home Jozy Altidore’s knock-down gave the US a 2-2 draw and provided the platform for a dramatic win against Algeria. Bradley won more second balls than most of his teammates and his work rate throughout the tournament was second to none. Age the young age of 23, Bradley has already established himself as a key figure in the US National Team. One of the biggest compliments to Bradley is how much he was missed by the US in its 3-2 loss to Brazil in the final of the 2009 Confederations Cup. Having greatly impressed for the team coached by his father, Bob Bradley, the former Metrostars midfielder was suspended for the final after receiving a late red card in his side’s 2-0 win over Spain in the semi-finals.

Time will tell if Bradley can translate that same influence onto the club scene. One thing is for sure, and that is the fact that Aston Villa is the perfect platform for him to do so. After finishing in the top six of the Premier League for three consecutive seasons, the Midlands club is currently in 12th place and just five points clear of the relegation zone. Gerard Houllier’s side is in need of some help and Bradley has the opportunity to be the answer they are in need of.

After all, it was only five years ago that another American by the name of Clint Dempsey made the move to a relegation threatened Fulham and helped save them from the drop. Fast forward five years and Dempsey is Fulham’s leading scorer and integral part of a team who finished runners up in the UEFA Cup last season. And although a completely different type of player than his compatriot, Bradley is facing a very similar prospect.

Aston Villa’s new number 13 made his first start for the club in Villa’s 3-0 loss to Manchester City in the fifth round of the FA Cup on Wednesday. Despite the loss and failing to really cope with City’s mega-rich midfield, Bradley still has plenty of time to demonstrate his influence for Aston Villa and prove that he really is an exception to the Americans who have gone before him and disappointed on some of Europe’s biggest stages.

Written by: Jeff Harbert

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