Thursday, August 12, 2010

Know Your Enemies: Part 2

In which I assess the remainder of our Premier League foes. (Click here to read the first instalment.)

Man City

Setting aside for a moment any scruples about the rights or wrongs of foreign investors pumping gallons of cash into sleeping giants and thereby rendering the playing field about as level as the Wembley turf, Chelsea's unceremonious gatecrashing of the cosy Man Utd-Arsenal duopoly was good for the Premier League. For the same reason, I wouldn't be too unhappy (at least initially) for Man City's millions to allow them to barge their way to a spot at the trophy trough. And with somewhere in the region of £75m splashed on four world-class players - David Silva, Yaya Toure, Aleksandar Kolarov and Jerome Boateng - a trophy of some description will surely be theirs. Certainly Roberto Mancini will be only too aware that failure to land any silverware of note will be rewarded with his P45.

And that pressure and expectation isn't Mancini's only problem. He's a man spinning a lot of very expensive and fragile plates, and hoping none of them crash to the ground. The season hasn't even begun and already there are rumblings of discontent, most notably from two players formerly of this parish: Shay Given - still, for my money, the best 'keeper in the top flight - is disgruntled about the prospect of playing second fiddle to Joe Hart, while the No-Necked One may also seek a loan move if (unjustly) frozen out of City's first-team picture. Bellamy has probably stirred up too much ire and burned too many bridges to walk back into St James' Park - but you can't deny he would be the sort of loanee we could use...

Man Utd

City's chances of securing silverware appear all the better because close rivals Chelsea and even closer rivals Man Utd don't look to have taken forward strides of anything like the same magnitude. Javier Hernandez aka "Chicharito" has hit the ground running, with goals in pre-season friendlies and a comical strike on his competitive debut in the Community Shield, but Chris Smalling seems ungainly and error-prone and Bebe would represent an even bigger gamble. Still, as a horse-racing man Taggart likes a flutter, resulting in a transfer record markedly more patchy than Arsene Wenger's.

But discount the Red Devils at your peril. Just as Paul Scholes showed at the weekend, Ryan Giggs probably still has plenty to offer at this level, while Darren Fletcher and Jonny Evans (the latter often partnered by the nearly infallible Nemanja Vidic) have both developed from callow lightweights into key players. Dimitar Berbatov will surely enjoy a better campaign this time around, in Antonio Valencia and Nani they have arguably the two most dangerous right-wingers in the country (after David Cameron), and Shrek will be determined to put an awful World Cup firmly behind him. You've got to fear for whoever they play first, haven't you? Oh...


Amidst all the clamour acclaiming Alec McLeish's improbable achievements with an unfashionable and unfancied Midlands side, you could have forgiven one baseball-capped man a little way up the M6 for being rather peeved. For Birmingham's relative success rather overshadowed the fact that Tony Pulis managed to follow up Stoke's 12th place in 2008-9 with 11th last term. How to set about going one better again this season?

Well, Pulis' masterplan still seems to revolve around recreating the Sunderland side of a few years ago. Record signing Kenwyne Jones has followed no fewer than five others - Liam Lawrence, Danny Higginbotham, Dean Whitehead, Danny Collins and (via Villa) Thomas Sorensen - in swapping red and white stripes for, well, red and white stripes. Jones is likely to be partnered by the underrated Ricardo Fuller, with Tuncay mystifyingly underused last term and James Beattie and particularly Dave Kitson continued thorns in Pulis' side. Rory Delap's Exocet throws are their main weapon, but we would do well to keep a closer eye on old boy Abdoulaye Faye than we did back in November 2008 - those two points squandered at the death were effectively the difference between survival and relegation.


We've had to stomach his grating "I'm-a-Geordie-and-all-my-family-are-Geordies" schtick for so long - but now, at last, Ol' Cauliflower Face's behaviour suggests it might actually be something more than the plasticky platitudinous claim of a charlatan. Exhibit A: the sale to Stoke of the aforementioned Jones, the one player most likely to bring the best out of Darren Bent. Exhibit B, of course: the recruitment of Agent Bramble from former club Wigan, which has made Mackem fans want to crawl back under the rock they came from.

But it's not all good news for those of a black and white persuasion. Bent has proven an irritatingly well-judged buy (although the most notorious of his 24 goals last season should properly have been credited to B Ball), they have a pair of promising young midfielders in Jordan Henderson and David Meyler, and two of Brucie's other summer purchases are enviable: Cristian Riveros, who enjoyed a good World Cup with Paraguay, and Marcos Angeleri, who could find himself up against compatriot Spidermag when the forces of good and evil meet on Halloween. Bragging rights are rightfully ours and we want them back.


While international tournaments can put some players in the shop window, they can also serve to remind clubs of the neglected or hidden talent they already have buried within their squads. Giovani dos Santos, an ever-present for Mexico in the World Cup, was nominated for FIFA's Young Player of the Tournament award and yet has hardly figured at Spurs. His attitude has been in part to blame for his limited opportunities ('Appy 'Arry's quipped: "If he could pass a nightclub as well as he can pass a ball he would be alright") - but so have a clutch of attacking midfielders almost on a par with those of north London foes Arsenals: Luka Modric, Niko Kranjcar, Aaron Lennon and David Bentley. John Bostock's response to a similar frustration was a misguided rant that made him sound like a petty Little Englander but probably helped in securing him a loan move to Hull, while Adel Taarabt has cut his losses altogether, signing permanently for QPR.

For a notorious wheeler-dealer, 'Arry has been remarkably inactive this summer - the only new addition to the squad being young Brazilian Sandro (actually signed back in March), who will vie with Wilson Palacios and Tom Huddlestone for the midfield anchor role. But the fact is that Spurs are strong in every area of the pitch, and their only real concerns are (as ever) over the fitness of Ledley King and Jonathan Woodgate, England's two classiest central defenders. Still, whether this will be enough to take them back to fourth (or higher) is debatable, not least because they don't yet have that crucial knack of grinding out wins when off-colour.

West Brom

Unlike our own automatic promotion, which was very much a collective triumph, West Brom's was largely thanks to the efforts of one central protagonist: Graham Dorrans. Baggies' fan Frank Heaven may neglect to mention it in his assessment of their Premier League prospects over on The Two Unfortunates, but arguably the most significant of chairman Jeremy Peace and manager Roberto Di Matteo's close-season achievements has been the retention of the Scottish midfielder's services in the face of persistent and cheeky interest from West Ham.

Promoted four times in eight years but too often turning out to be worryingly soft-centred if pleasing on the eye, they've thus far opted to invest in goal-savers rather than goal-getters: Boaz Myhill, Nicky Shorey, Gabriel Tamas and Pablo Ibanez should all represent good value for money, and Steven Reid will add steel to midfield. Since the first of those four promotions they've survived for more than one season at the top level just once (and then by the skin of their teeth and in spite of Captain Lager's stewardship) - this time around, much depends on the rigidity of this new backbone, as well as on whether the supporting cast are able to respond to Dorrans' cues and stage directions.

West Ham

Dorrans' suitors West Ham have faced a battle of their own to cling onto a star midfielder, Scott Parker, and the hypocrisy of the dastardly Davids Gold and Sullivan - swiping at any hint of an attempt to unsettle the Toon old boy while submitting derisory bids for Dorrans - has succeeded in making them even more dislikeable. Their choice of replacement for Gianfranco Zola - well-loved but out of his depth last season and bundled out of the door without sentiment - shows a certain degree of nous, though. Avram Grant was unlucky to get the boot at Chelsea and performed miracles at Portsmouth in circumstances that were extraordinary even by our own chaotic standards, and so for the Hammers to snare him just as a vacancy opened up at Liverpool was a real coup.

Mexican winger Pablo Barrera, German international midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger (formerly of fellow claret and blues Villa) and French striker Frederic Piquionne are handy signings, though the rumoured £5m spent on Kiwi defender Winston Reid is risky, despite his World Cup displays. But good sense is clearly in finite supply at Upton Park: having declared an end to the lunacy that saw Freddie Ljungberg and Kieron Dyer handed contracts that crippled (and, in Dyer's case, continue to cripple) the club, Gold and Sullivan are now keen to offer David Beckham one last bumper payday...


Hard to believe, I know, but this will be Wigan's sixth season in the Premier League. Class acts like Wilson Palacios, Antonio Valencia and, ahem, Emile Heskey are long gone while the players who last summer followed Roberto Martinez from Swansea like obedient puppies, Jason Scotland and Jordi Gomez, have made no impact whatsoever. The Latics' squad is one of the smallest in the division, and the trousers-down whippings administered first by Spurs (9-1) and then by Chelsea (8-0) last season suggest that perhaps their spell in the big time is drawing to a close.

But to predict nothing but gloom would be to ignore Charles N'Zogbia's continued presence at the club and a trio of buys that bears witness to a quietly efficient scouting operation. Maverick striker Hugo Rodallega is likely to be partnered by free-scoring former Estudiantes forward Mauro Boselli, while at the back another South American, Paraguay's Antolin Alcaraz, will plug the hole left by Calamitous Bramble's sizeable arse and Dutch squad player Ronnie Stam, previously with Steve McLaren's FC Twente, will slot in at right-back. Needless to say, though, that with that gobshite Dave Whelan still at the helm and the litany of horrible JJB Stadium defeats festering away in the memory, we'd rejoice at the opportunity to wave them off to the Championship.


You've got to love Mick McCarthy, haven't you? Dry-as-a-bone wit, massive falling-out with Roy Keane, guiding the Mackems to what was at the time the lowest-ever Premier League points total... Wolves supporters must be rather fond of him too, given that he has secured their promotion and then survival in the last two campaigns. For the latter, thanks are due largely to the goals of Kevin Doyle, but this is a side for whom there are no real stand-out stars.

The board hasn't been shy in backing McCarthy with substantial amounts of cash, presumably with consolidation as the target, but at a combined cost of around £12m Stephen Hunt and Steven Fletcher look overpriced. While rangy right-back Ronald Zubar has become a firm fans' favourite, Serbian playmaker Nenad Milijas was used only sparingly and Sylvain Ebanks-Blake, prolific in the Championship, failed to adjust to the step up in quality. It's a measure of Wolves fans' generally pessimistic outlook that one of their warmest and most enthusiastic chants proclaims "There's only one Jody Craddock / One Jody Craddock / He used to be shite / But now he's alright / Walking in a Craddock wonderland" - but if they perform as badly as they did in the pre-season friendly at Elland Road then worrying times lie ahead.

To follow over the weekend: a View From The Away End assessment of our own prospects, courtesy of the The Two Unfortunates.


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