Saturday, 13 December 2014

Gerry The Octopus

Time for some predictions!

Burnley v Southampton
This is probably going to be tighter than it looks. Southampton rolled in to town at Aston Villa a couple of weeks ago and were expected to blow their at-the-time beleaguered hosts away. Since then, Burnley have shown signs of life to claw themselves into contention for survival. Southampton, by contrast, are battling for survival in the big battles at the top of the league. Champions League football seemed on the horizon not so long ago and even after one point from four games, the Saints remain handily placed in fifth.
Graziano Pelle broke his barren streak against Man United and while Southampton can have few complaints at defeat, given their profligacy in front of goal, they may find opportunities harder to come by against a well-drilled outfit here at Turf Moor. However, their own defence has remained relatively tight, with only Manchester City really blowing them away.

Chelsea v Hull
This one will not be tighter than it looks! Hull are in the form of relegation candidates. The signings which were supposed to add a bit of flair to last season’s relegation-dodging, cup final-reaching Tigers have instead coincided with a huge slump in form, which in truth stretches back to the end of last campaign. Hatem Ben Arfa is out in the cold, yet will be relatively warm in the stands while he contemplates another missed opportunity, but it is those out on the pitch who must arrest the slump of no wins in eight and no more than two shots on target in the last six league games. Gaston Ramirez will at least give a bit more class to the midfield on his return from suspension.
There’s not much you can say about Chelsea. Despite their invincibility being breached by Newcastle’s cow last weekend, they reminded everyone of their quality by dispatching Sporting Lisbon 3-1 midweek. Diego Costa will be in the mood to silence critics of his recent form, while Peter Cech will be looking to keep a clean sheet on a rare appearance in goal. No Cesc Fabregas would be disastrous for most teams, but Eden Hazard will sense easy pickings as Chelsea aim to cement their place at the top.

Crystal Palace v Stoke
Not the most attractive looking of fixtures on the card, Crystal Palace would bite your hand off for a scrappy 1-0 win as they look to edge further away from danger. Neil Warnock has reprised the sort of spirit that Tony Pulis instilled last year to drag the Eagles from trouble and there has been some wonderful counter-attacking football at Selhurst Park, not least to pile on the misery for Liverpool in the 3-1 win.
However, Stoke have caught the eye themselves, with Bojan really starting to turn on the style. Victory against Arsenal has almost come to be expected over the years, but if Stoke want to progress into a European-challenging team they must learn to win these sorts of games. Mid-table seems inevitable for this year, but Mark Hughes will want more, starting with three points this afternoon. That may be beyond them, but it may be a surprisingly entertaining encounter.

Leicester v Man City
Could this be the game where Leicester upset the odds all over again? Their thrilling 5-3 victory over the other Manchester team was supposed to be the catalyst for Premier League domination, but instead only two points from 30 have seen the Foxes plummet to rock bottom. Along the way, boss Nigel Pearson has found himself on the wrong side of fans as it all threatens to go horribly wrong.
They will not be expecting much against a Man City side with the best away record in the division. Victories against Southampton, and more recently, Roma, to book their place in the Champions League last 16, will ensure confidence is sky high. Last week’s results will remind them that the title is still possible if they can keep up their own form. Sergio Aguero has not been missed as much as you would think and even if fit, you suspect he may have been rested for this one anyway.

Sunderland v West Ham
Here we have another litmus test for West Ham’s European ambitions. Sunderland are a side who have frustrated many superior opponents in the past 12 months, but their game plan will be interesting against a Hammers side who rarely come out all guns blazing away from home. Andy Carroll has re-discovered his golden touch lately and Diafra Sakho is in contention for a return to the side.
Sunderland will be expected to get at the opposition and give the crowd something to get excited about. Five goalless draws already this season is not something to get bums on seats. The danger for the Black Cats is that a more attacking game plan could play into Sam Allardyce’s hands. Counter-attacking is his new forte, and you’d fancy his side to outscore their hosts, with Steven Fletcher not in the most ruthless of form this season.

West Brom v Aston Villa
Alan Irvine and Paul Lambert may exchange wry smiles this afternoon. Both have felt the pressure in recent weeks and while Lambert appears out of the woods for now, Irvine is in desperate need of a win. The Baggies are sliding and Saidio Berahino needs to re-discover his form. Aston Villa are not the worst of opponents to try and arrest a slump against, but Villa are often better away from home.
Lambert will be delighted with their recent revival and they lie only four points off the top six, which seems astounding given their start to the season. Christian Benteke was the scourge of Albion last season, and he may push yet another West Brom manager ever closer to the trap door.

Arsenal v Newcastle
This is a battle between two teams with horrible injury lists and another two managers who’ve experienced the ups and downs of security in their job. Arsene Wenger seemed secure as ever after his FA Cup win, while Alan Pardew looked certain to be fired over the summer after a woeful first half of 2014. Now, roles are reversed. It would take a brave man to predict Wenger’s departure any time soon, but an equally brave man to put money on him remaining for next season.
He is perhaps fortunate to be facing a Newcastle side who will be shorn of their midfield talisman Moussa Sissoko. He is the centre of their counter-attacking style and goals have not been easy to come by for the Toon, aside from the return to form of super-sub Cisse. It will be a tight game, but Arsenal should edge this one.

Man United v Liverpool
This will be quite the full-blooded encounter and with Steven Gerrard approaching the twilight of his career, he will relish the opportunity to get at what remains a shaky United defence. Raheem Sterling will also be licking his lips. The trouble is, there remains little other threat in the Liverpool arsenal.
In further troubling times, Liverpool’s defence is just as leaky. Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney will fancy their chances against a defence manned by the unconvincing Simon Mignolet. Mario Balotelli is fit for the visitors, but you could argue what difference that even makes, given the Italian’s lacklustre start to the season.

Swansea v Spurs
To round off what will be an entertaining Sunday is two teams who will be aiming for Europe next season. You could argue that Spurs fans are sick of the Europa League and want more glitzy encounters, while Swansea would happily take their place in the much-maligned second European tier. One point separates the two going into the weekend.
Swansea will see this as a test of their own ambition. With Spurs coming off the back of another un-welcomely interrupted midweek tie, this should be the perfect time to strike. Wilfried Bony is having another strong season and Spurs will have to wait another week to haul themselves out of their mid-table rut.

Everton v QPR
Given the fact that Everton rested most of their first-team in the mid-week Europa League defeat, fatigue should be no excuse here, even for an ageing team such as theirs. QPR’s away record is what will keep them endlessly fighting against the drop, and away to Everton is a time to dig in.
Ross Barkley should be fresh and ready to take on Harry Redknapp’s men and Everton need points badly. Sitting in 12th, if they do not put a run of form together soon they will need to win the Europa League to get back into Europe next year. This should be a good place to start however, but a scrappy game could be on the cards.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Calm Before The Storm

As we trundle towards Christmas, there is no manager whom you could safely predict is one game away from the sack. In an age where trigger-happy chairmen have been vilified by sections of the media as impatient and clueless, and the awful ‘look how much time Fergie was given’ cliché is wheeled out every few weeks, the only managerial departure so far is Tony Pulis and that was very much of his own volition.

Alan Pardew, dead man walking eight weeks ago, is now man of the hour, if not quite manager of any months. Big Sam Allardyce rides high in third place after showing a previously unfathomable ability to play something other than hoof-ball. It is great to see, managers adapting even in their later years. Not every personality is as fixed as some people like to paint. It’s easy for anyone writing about a football manager to revert to a character, as if sport is a sitcom with a satisfying narrative where no one ever changes. I can imagine Pardew and Allardyce had a chuckle over the very same points last week after the match. Well, maybe Allardyce was a bit more in the mood for a joke having stolen the points.

Football being an extremely political game, any manager with half a chance of surviving longer than two minutes must surely develop the thickest of skins. If you make the wrong subs, you’re clueless. If a sub works wonders, why didn’t he start the game? Win all your games and it’s all down to the players. Lose all your games and you’re the worst person ever, let alone manager. Brendan Rodgers is being hounded closer to the exit door after the Luis Suarez departure, yet wasn’t there a stat floating around last season which showed Liverpool had a higher points average without the hungry Uruguayan? Perhaps Daniel Sturridge was equally as essential to the Anfield attack? The 3-0 drubbing of Tottenham with Sturridge in the team and playing with ten men (well, Balotelli WAS playing) is Liverpool’s sole bright spot this season. Yes, the Suarez money could have been spent better, but that’s just it. It’s not the lack of Suarez, it’s the poor transfer window and inability to get the best out of what players are there which is costing Rodgers. He may get the time to turn it around and he probably will eventually, even if this season ends up a write-off.

Unfortunately, some managers don’t seem to help themselves. Arsene Wenger thought he had ridden out the storm after fending off Hull in May’s FA Cup final but he merely raised expectations one last and possibly fatal time. January will be Wenger’s last throw of the dice for some Arsenal fans. As a Newcastle supporter, I hate to say this but Moussa Sissoko is a must-buy for the ailing Londoners. You can buy all the forward flair in the world but if you’ve lost the battle in the centre then what’s the point? On second thoughts, Yohan Cabaye please. He’s already ex-Newcastle and he can put a foot in rightly!

As for Paul Lambert, Alan Irvine, Harry Redknapp, and all the other bottom-half dwellers, they will bounce from crisis to crisis, hopefully learn a thing or two along the way, and reach that point where the pressure becomes second-nature. This season is becoming one of managerial resilience. Cue the inevitable mass-sacking which renders this article as useful  as a chocolate teapot.