Thursday, August 14, 2008

Look to the future

High time we assessed the summer comings and goings at St James's Park and looked forward to our prospects for the season ahead, so without further ado...

Paul: After a pre-season that can, at best, be described as mixed (some promising signings but not enough to give us the creativity or depth the squad needs), Sunday sees us facing the joy of a trip to Old Trafford to start us on another slog in the exciting race to see who finishes fifth. Seriously, does anyone apart from Sky Sports presenters, and fans of Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal or Man Ure (and let's be honest, with the exception of Monkey Hanger Jeff Stelling, and Torquay fan Helen Chamberlain, those two phrases are pretty much synonomous) give a shit about who wins the league? It's not going to be us, so let's not bother ourselves with that.

In reality, I think we currently form part of the middle tier of Premier League teams, who aren't going to get relegated unless something goes badly awry, but unless the draw is as kind as Pompey's was last year, aren't going to win a trophy, and the limit of their ambitions is fifth. That isn't to say that fifth wouldn't represent a massive step forward for us, because it would, but equally it represents the sum of our ambitions for the season.

In truth, I suspect finishing that high is probably beyond our current squad, and without a few more bodies before the end of August, a bad run with injuries could see us worrying about how well the likes of Stoke and West Brom have adapted to life in the top flight.

However, if we can get the creative midfielder we've been tracking since Spurs gazumped our bid for Modric at the start of the summer, and can also add some depth to our defence - rumours of Stephen Warnock continue, but until some more players arrive, we're still going to be relying heavily on kids when the games start to take their toll - then we should be OK, and a top half finish is well within our grasp.

What happens in the next two weeks really will have a massive impact on our season. More new arrivals are required, and while the departure of Smith or N'Zogbia wouldn't be the biggest surprise, they should only be allowed to go if they are replaced, and our numbers are augmented. If we don't get more bodies then it's going to be a long slog through to New Year's Day, by which time all we'll have to look forward to in 2009 is worrying about survival.

Ben: Hmm, what tack to take this time around? Glass half-full, or glass half-empty? A bit of both, I think.

Assuming Fabricio Coloccini eventually does put pen to paper before the transfer window shuts (amazingly, the deal's still to be confirmed at the time of writing - it's fast becoming as tortuously protracted as Gareth Barry's), then we'll have landed the commanding central defender we've been looking for since Jonathan Woodgate hobbled off to the Bernabeu. Another uncompromising and rugged centre-back, Brian Kilcline, was King Kev's first signing in his first stint as manager, and it's obviously to be hoped that the Argentinian proves to be as much of a cornerstone.

With Carlos Cuellar having pitched up at Villa Park, the man likely to be tasked with helping Coloccini offer Messrs Given and Harper an unprecedented level of defensive protection is Steven Taylor, whose wrangling over the terms of a new contract came to a mutually satisfactory conclusion over the summer. If only the same could be said of Michael Owen - sadly, we don't seem to be any nearer persuading the man who more than anyone else kept us safe last year to stay on Tyneside.

As has been well-documented here, I'm not quite so concerned about ASBO sticking around - in fact, I'd go so far as to say that, given the chance, I'd gladly shove a rocket up the little runt's arse and fire him as far away as possible. Having served his time at Her Majesty's pleasure for assault, he's now admitted the FA's charge of violent conduct and is waiting to find out his punishment. Perhaps West Ham'll do us another favour and take the one remaining Borstal Boy off our hands?

Likewise, I wouldn't exactly go into mourning if Alan Smith was allowed to leave. Unfortunately, Keegan seems to feel differently and this, reportedly, is a point of friction with Mike Ashley - as is the owner's apparent willingness to contemplate flogging James Milner to Villa against the manager's wishes. Of course, if this was all just media mischief-making then it wouldn't come as much of a surprise, and I'd hope Ashley is savvy enough to realise, as most of us do, that someone with Keegan's invigorating enthusiasm and passion for the game is to be prized.

It may be that we do need to sell before we can buy big again, though, but Ashley did at least give Keegan sufficient financial backing to bring in Jonas Gutierrez from Real Mallorca, and all the signs from a disappointing pre-season campaign - deceptive though they very often are - are that Coloccini's compatriot will be a handy asset (once his registration is finally complete, that is...). The only other additions to the squad, Danny Guthrie and Sebastien Bassong, arrived without much fanfare and, unburdened with the weight of expectation, could just turn out to be a pleasant surprise.

With the acquisition of Spiderman, and with Milner, Damien Duff and Charles N'Zogbia all still on the books (for the time being, at least), our cup of wingers runneth over - but, as Paul mentions above, we remain short of a genuinely creative force through the centre of midfield. It was a role the now-departed Emre was supposed to fill, but he too often seemed to get bogged down in sideways passing. Luka Modric would have been ideal, but then he was never likely to choose us over a side with realistic ambitions of cracking the top four nut.

And so we come to predictions. Even erring on the side of caution, I'm quietly confident we can finish somewhere in the top half, possibly even as high as sixth - though only if we can get the right people in in the last two weeks of August and if Keegan can alight on a formation that makes the best use of the forwards at his disposal. The fact that some of our closest rivals - Everton, West Ham, Blackburn - have either trod water or even gone backwards over the summer should hopefully stand us in good stead. But, as ever, ultimately it comes down to us and how we perform - and of that there are no guarantees.

To come tomorrow: my thumbnail assessments of the 19 sides we'll be doing battle with over the course of the next ten months, and Paul's prediction for the final league table.


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