Tag Archives: English Premier League

Five Things We Learned From Manchester United vs. Arsenal

1. Defense is the best form of attack – Three defenders in a four man midfield? Such a team sheet reeks of negativity, but not in Manchester United’s case. Fergie proved once again he still knows best as John O’Shea had an effective performance alongside Darron Gibson while Fabio and Rafael Da Silva were dangerous all game long and at times uncontainable. With speed on the flanks and Rooney dropping deep, United were given the perfect platform to counter attack and continuously stretch Arsenal’s defense.

2. United have depth – Any honest United fan will tell you they probably cringed when they read the team sheets prior to kick-off. News circulated that Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher had joined Anderson on the injury list while Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs could only make the bench. United demonstrated the depth of their squad today as truth be told, that was probably Ferguson’s third choice midfield. You wouldn’t know it though.

3. Arsenal needs Fabregas and Song – You would know that Alex Song and Cesc Fabregas were absent, however. With Denilson having a quiet game in midfield and Diaby failing to make an impact, Wenger must have been cursing his luck to not have been able to call on his favored midfield pair. Song was missed in helping the Gunners close down United’s midfield and win back possession while the Arsenal captain could have made a difference in helping Arsenal maintain possession and use it effectively.

4. Van der Sar irreplaceable, Almunia capable – The most disappointing aspect of United’s win was that it was another reminder of how much they will miss the big Dutchman next season. An absolutely superb performance saw Van der Sar deny Arsenal time and time again, including a clutch save from Koscielny moments before Rooney doubled United’s advantage. The next United ‘keeper has some big, big shoes to fill. As for Arsenal, Almunia took another huge step in rebuilding his reputation with another assured performance in place of Fabianski and Scensny. Kept the score down with several vital saves.

5. The FA Cup still has its magic – Following Bolton’s dramatic last-gasp win earlier in the day, United and Arsenal didn’t fail to disappoint as both sides played their part in a highly entertaining match that sees United make the FA Cup semi-finals for the 10th time under Ferguson’s reign. With so much to lose after a dreadful week for both clubs, credit to Ferguson and Wenger for fielding their strongest teams possible and ensuring their players attacked rather than throw caution to the wind.

Written by: Jeff Harbert

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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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After Barcelona Devastation, Arsenal Need Change in Philosophy

The mere fact that Barcelona attempted more shots on their own goal than Arsenal managed themselves (0) over the entire 90 minutes on Tuesday tells you about all you need to know. Yet in a sense, it really doesn’t. Arsene Wenger’s men were outplayed by an irresistible Barcelona side at the Nou Camp for the second straight year. Last campaign it was the magic of Messi – scorer of all four goals in a 4-1 win – that ended Arsenal’s search for a first Champions League triumph while this year saw an incredible combination of precision passing, off the ball movement and inexorable individual skill send the Gunners packing once again.

 After pulling off an improbable yet stunning comeback in the first leg, Wenger claimed the win was also a victory for Arsenal’s philosophy. If that was the case, Tuesday night was a major defeat. No one can question the North Londoner’s attractive style of football, but Pep Guardiola’s team put forth a masterclass in attacking football that completely overshadowed any claim to an effective passing game, known as  ‘liquid football’ by Arsenal. It may have only been 3-1 (4-3 on aggregate), but Arsenal have the Catalonians to thank for being wasteful, as well as substitute goalkeeper Manuel Almunia for pulling off a string of fine saves. 

The truth is we’ve seen it all before. All too often Arsenal has prioritized playing the pure, flowing football that has the football purists reveling in every pass, awing at every attacking move, and praising the club for reminding us why it is called the ‘beautiful game’. Unfortunately for Arsenal, this has not won them any trophies. The last piece of silverware to make its way into Arsenal’s trophy cabinet was the 2005 FA Cup. And who was it who lifted that trophy that day? None other than Patrick Vieira, the epitome of everything Arsenal stood for during its most successful periods since the beginning of the Premier League: A strong, physical, dominating force.

 Arsenal’s title winning sides of 1998, 2002, and 2004 were full of players just like Vieira; players not afraid to get ‘stuck in’ and allow their physical attributes and sheer determination and passion for the game outweigh their ability to play patient, attacking football. The likes of Tony Adams, Ray Parlour, Martin Keown, and Lee Dixon were all dependable and resolute players, capable of intimidating any opposition they faced. Am I saying Arsenal’s current squad is not determined and passionate? Absolutely not, but it has to be said they lack the same key ingredients the club’s title winning sides possessed. 

On a day night when Arsenal needed to do nothing more than contain Barcelona’s midfield, they were run ragged and ripped to shreds. Disrupting Barcelona’s fluid passing game is no easy task, but it isn’t impossible. And preventing the free-scoring La Liga champions from picking and choosing what type of goals they feel like scoring that day is no easy feat either, as every club in Spain can attest to, including Real Madrid. Once again though, it’s not impossible. 

The clubs who have all experienced success against Barcelona in Europe have focused on completely disrupting their midfield, even if it meant compromising its attacking tendencies in order to disallow Andres Iniesta and Xavi any room to weave their magic. Jose Mourinho’s Inter demonstrated the perfect example of ‘parking the bus’ at the Nou Camp last season and it resulted in them progressing to the semi-finals and eventually winning the final. Two years earlier Manchester United utilized the work rates of Park Ji Sung and Darren Fletcher to leave Barcelona’s defense without any breathing space. The plan paid off as Barcelona failed to score in both legs and United ended up lifting the trophy several weeks later.

 To be fair, Barcelona have progressed immensely under the guidance of Guardiola, as United would discover in the final the following season. But against Arsenal, Iniesta and Messi were untouchable at times. Iniesta excelled in his freedom and all too often sprayed passes across the ptich or skipped by defenders with ease. The Gunners made just two touches inside Barcelona’s penalty area, while the home side had a total of 47, demonstrating the ease in which Barcelona moved forward. It shouldn’t come as a surprise at how much Barcelona dictated play and retained possession, but is a surprise at which ease they did so. 

Arsenal’s greatest criticism is they are too soft, a word probably never once used to describe Wenger’s title winning sides. Although they boasted plenty of attacking options in Thierry Henry, Sylvain Wiltord and Dennis Bergkamp, Arsenal’s main identity was being able to run the midfield and give any opposition striker nightmares. Where are those same qualities? 

Arsenal currently boast plenty of attacking flair, but the ingredients of the most successful Arsenal teams in the Premier League’s history have long been transformed. If the Gunners really wanted to offset Barcelona and give themselves a chance of progressing, they needed to harass Iniesta and Xavi off the park and give Messi a taste of what it is like to play in the Premier League against teams like Stoke or Bolton. Instead, Arsenal allowed Barcelona to play its game and it resulted in the loss of yet another trophy opportunity and the rise of more question marks over their ability to win when it counts. 

To rub salt in Arsenal’s wounds, Xavi has claimed the Gunners ‘made no intent to play football’. The statistics certainly back the Spaniard’s assertions, but so does the manner in which Arsenal allowed Barcelona to play their style of football. The absence of Alex Song hurt Arsenal, as it was evident they had no one up to the task of offsetting Barcelona’s rhythm. With the home side fielding two makeshift central defenders, the opportunity was there for Arsenal to take advantage. Instead, Barcelona were allowed to dominate once more, providing every reason to question Wenger’s failed philosophy once more. Fortunately for Arsenal, they could still resurrect their season on Saturday against Manchester United in the FA Cup sixth round. If that is to happen, however, a change in philosophy similar to the days of Vieira is a must.

Written by: Jeff Harbert

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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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Premier League Preview: Week 29

Saturday

Birmingham City vs. West Bromwich Albion

What a week for Birmingham City. After waiting 48 years for another piece of silverware, Alex McCleish’s men pulled off the impossible by defeating Arsenal 2-1 in the League Cup final at Wembley. Six days later and Birmingham are back in action against West Brom and will be buoyed by their cup success. The mood around St. Andrew’s could change dramatically if the Blues fail to get a result, however. Birmingham sit in 16th place, just one point ahead of the Baggies and just one point separating the two sides. A loss could see Birmingham slip into the relegation zone. Roy Hodgson will have his work cut out for him though as West Brom haven’t won in seven matches dating back to January 15 (3-2 vs. Blackpool) and have only won two away matches all season (vs. Arsenal and Everton). Kick-off at 7:45 ET

Form guide: Birmingham – LDWWL          West Bromwich – DLDDD

Prediction: 2-1

Arsenal vs. Sunderland

After blowing the chance to win their first major trophy since 2005, Arsenal bounced back with a 5-0 demolition over Leyton Orient in Wednesday’s FA Cup fifth round replay. Following Manchester United’s defeat to Chelsea in midweek, the Gunners can close the gap on the league leaders to one point. Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas are both injured but don’t be surprised if Nicholas Bendtner builds on his hat-trick from Wednesday night. Sunderland’s injury problems are even more serious as Steve Bruce will hope to see his side end a four-match losing streak. A draw would be a bonus for Sunderland, but the odds are firmly stacked in Arsenal’s favor. Kick off at 10:00 ET

Form guide: Arsenal – WWDWW              Sunderland – WLLLL

Prediction: 3-0

Bolton vs. Aston Villa

Gerard Houllier made eight changes ahead of Aston Villa’s 3-0 defeat to Manchester City in the FA Cup on Wednesday claiming “We have a big game against Bolton on Saturday.” Well, he’ll be inviting heavy criticism if his side can’t earn a result against Bolton. The last meeting between these two sides ended in a 1-1 draw but Bolton will be looking for a win to keep their Europa Cup hopes alive. Kick off at 10:00 ET

Form guide: Bolton – LWLWD     Aston Villa – WLDDW

Prediction: 2-1

Fulham vs. Blackburn Rovers

Level on 32 points in the standings, both clubs desperately need a win to push themselves further away from the relegation zone, which is anybody’s guess as to which three teams will face the drop this season. Fulham are coming off a positive result at Manchester City last weekend while Blackburn are still reeling after their 4-1 defeat to Aston Villa. The last meeting between both sides ended in a 1-1 draw, but with Dempsey in good form and Andy Johnson playing well up front, Fulham will most likely be favorites. Kick off at 10:00 ET

Form guide: Fulham – LWDDD    Blackburn – WLLDL

Prediction: 2-0

Newcastle United vs. Everton

Jermaine Beckford’s brace last weekend has given David Moyes some renewed hope of a top 10 finish in the league. His side will need to bounce back from the disappointment of exiting the FA Cup at the hands of Reading, however, and they face a difficult test at St. James Park. Everton have only lost three of their last 12 league games and are more than capable of making amends for a 1-0 loss to Newcastle earlier in the season. Kick off at 10:00 ET

Form guide: Newcastle – LDDWD             Everton – DLWLW

Prediction: 0-1

West Ham United vs. Stoke City

At last West Ham find themselves off the bottom of the league. But for how long is the question? West Ham was buzzing on Thursday after the announcement that their bid for the Olympic stadium has been approved by the government and mayor of London and they will be on cloud nine if they can gather all three points on Saturday. Scott Parker has been in inspiring form of late but Stoke City will be no pushovers. This one has a draw written all over it. Kick off at 10:00 ET

Form guide: West Ham – DWLDW            Stoke City – LWLLD

Prediction: 0-0

Manchester City vs. Wigan Athletic

With Manchester City’s title hopes already appearing bleak, at best, the news of Kolo Toure facing a two year ban for taking an illegal substance will have sent shockwaves through the blue half of Manchester. Failure to gather all three points against Wigan will only make matters worse as it will all but end any dreams of a league title. Wigan, meanwhile, now find themselves at the bottom of the table and will be desperate to lift themselves off the relegation zone as quickly as possible. Judging by their form against bigger clubs, however, they might have to wait. Kick-off at 12:45 ET

Form guide: Manchester City – LDWLD  Wigan – LDWDL

Prediction: 3-0

Sunday

Liverpool vs. Manchester United

A hat-trick and stunning overhead kick by a brilliant Bulgarian, a game-deciding penalty decision in the FA Cup third round followed by this picture on twitter… this season’s fixtures between these two bitter rivals has already provided plenty of talking points. With so much on the line, the latest clash between both sides will most likely be no different. Still reeling after a contentious loss to Chelsea in midweek, Sir Alex Ferguson will be viewing this as a must win match – and not just because Liverpool are the opponent. United’s lead at the top of the league could shrink to one single point if Arsenal win on Saturday and Liverpool are the very last club willing to do the Red Devils any favors. Kenny Daglish has Liverpool finally climbing the table, mainly behind Raul Mereiles match-winning performances. Another match-winner could be on the field for Liverpool too in the form of 35 million pound Andy Carroll. The former Newcastle striker could not ask for a better platform to announce himself at Anfield and make himself an instant hero. Kick-off at 8:30 ET

Form guide: Liverpool – WWWDL             Manchester United – WLWWL

Prediction: 1-2

Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Tottenham Hotspur

Out of the top four and with a gigantic Champions League tie next week, how will Harry Redknapp treat his side’s trip to the Molineux on Sunday? Spurs will undoubtedly have one eye on Wednesday’s clash with AC Milan but can ill-afford to underestimate Wolverhampton. Mick McCarthy’s team have already beaten Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United at home this season and will be desperate to add Tottenham to that list in order to boost their survival chances. Redknapp has already claimed it will take a ‘miracle’ for his side to finish in the top four and if Spurs don’t come away with a victory against Wolves, he may end up being right. Kick off at 11:00 ET

Form guide: Wolverhampton – LWLDW Tottenham – DWWWL

Prediction: 1-3

Monday

Blackpool vs. Chelsea

Finally back in to the top four and buoyed by a vital win over Manchester United, Frank Lampard insists Chelsea can still reclaim their title. Carlo Ancelotti is slightly more realistic, focusing his attention on Champions League qualification but whichever their ultimate aim, they will need a win at Bloomfield Road. Blackpool will also bode well with a win after suddenly finding themselves just four points off the drop zone. With Chelsea showing signs of returning to form, a win will be a big ask for Ian Holloway though. Knowing Blackpool, however, they will play as if they have nothing to lose and will look to push Chelsea all the way. The Tangerines will be boosted by the return of Charlie Adam, but even that will unlikely be enough to offset Chelsea. Kick-off at 3:00 ET

Form guide: Blackpool – LLDWL Chelsea – WWLDW

Prediction: 0-2

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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