Thursday, August 16, 2012

Know Your Enemies 2012/3: Part 2

Time for the second instalment of our look at the teams we'll be facing this coming season...


"There is no way we will be in this situation again in my time here". So said Mark Hughes in the wake of QPR's final-day escape from relegation, and their feverish transfer activity over the summer certainly bears out that determination. No doubt nettled by the fact that they had been promoted as champions and yet saw their Championship inferiors Norwich and Swansea both survive in comfort and no little style, the West Londoners have gone into recruitment overdrive. Astute acquisitions are everywhere. Mark Hughes returned to his old stomping ground Old Trafford to pick up the crumbs from Taggart's table (the ever-reliable and hard-working Ji-Sung Park and loanee Fabio) and was a key factor in persuading Blackburn's much sought-after out-of-contract Junior Hoilett to sign. Samba Diakite is a significant upgrade on Shaun Derry, while in Djibril Cisse, Bobby Zamora and Andrew Johnson they've assembled a trio of strikers who, though all the wrong side of thirty, certainly know how to find the net in the top flight.

This coming season Hughes has every right to expect much more from two of his flair players, Adel Taarabt and Shaun Wright-Phillips, but also has the managerial migraine that is ASBO to contend with, our old boy beginning the campaign banned, fined and stripped of the captaincy for his misdemeanours in that sensational game at the Etihad. If there's a worry for the club as a whole, it's hubris - they may be in danger of overreaching and overstretching themselves in pursuit of success. Just ask Portsmouth how that can pan out.


I'd imagine it feels pretty good to be a Reading fan right now. Having hit form at exactly the right time and surfed the wave to secure the Championship title, the Royals are now returning to the Premier League under new ownership, with the promise of significant investment that that entails, albeit in a stadium still bearing the former owner's name. The team's achievements have been accomplished under the calm, methodical stewardship of Brian McDermott, an excellent example of the value of old Liverpool strategy of promoting from within.

McDermott's greatest transfer coup has been to persuade Pavel Pogrebnyak that, despite a fruitful loan spell with Fulham, his future lies in Berkshire. His was the marquee signing that served as a statement of intent, but Reading have also been canny in recruiting less flashy reinforcements across the back line in the form of Chris Gunter, Adrian Mariappa and former Royal Nicky Shorey, while Danny Guthrie will add experience (if not class and dining etiquette) to the midfield. However, it's doubtful that some of their most impressive Championship performers will be as effective at the higher level. Jimmy Kebe, for instance, will find life much tougher faced with Premier League full-backs. Adam Le Fondre, meanwhile, is a throwback to the days of predatory fox-in-the-box poachers, when the modern Premier League striker needs to be a much more complete footballer.


How things change. In autumn 2008 Portsmouth were taking on and nearly beating AC Milan in Europe, while south coast rivals Southampton ended the season in administration and relegated to League One. Fast forward three years and, while Pompey are in League One without a single senior player on their books and the threat of liquidation hanging over them, the Saints are back in the big time. If they can get beyond the Schadenfreude and start looking for inspiration, then Norwich are proof positive that survival after two consecutive promotions is possible. Star striker Rickie Lambert will no doubt have noted Grant Holt's success at bullying and breaching Premier League defences while the more celebrated likes of Rocky floundered.

Lambert's strike partner is likely to be former Burnley man Jay Rodriguez, for whom Southampton perhaps unwisely smashed their record transfer fee. Throw Billy Sharp, another Championship stalwart, into the mix and it's clear that the Saints are taking a considerable gamble on goalscorers unproven in the Premier League. They've done well to snap up highly-rated Palace youngster Nathaniel Clyne, and already boast the talented Adam Lallana and Team GB representative Jack Cork in midfield, but question marks hang over their strength in depth. It'll be interesting to see whether manager Nigel Adkins can keep up his Mr Nice Guy persona in the face of the stresses, strains and psychological mind games he'll endure in the top flight. It might not be long before he's missing his Football League Show banter with Mark "Clem" Clemmit - and there's a chance they might get to resume their pally encounters in a year's time.


If you're looking for subtlety, finesse and grace and find yourself at the Britannia Stadium, then either you need to invest in a new satnav or you've arrived on false pretences - Jonathan Woodgate was let go earlier this summer. Even when Stoke scored a contender for goal of the season (as Peter Crouch's effort against Man City was, until Papiss Cisse took aim against Chelsea), it's notable that the ball never touched the ground from the 'keeper's kick to hitting the back of the net. Yes, the Potters have a system and they're sticking to it - unsurprisingly, given that it's proven brutally effective for four successive seasons now and enabled them to survive and flourish despite minimal financial outlay. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" seems to be the club's motto - though things do often break when they're around, namely noses...

Last summer Crouch replaced Kenwyne Jones as the large of Stoke's little-and-large strike partnership, and Tony Pulis is now looking to upgrade on the little, eager to land Little Saint Mick as an improvement on Jonathan Walters. The baseball-capped Welshman is nothing if not pragmatic, having responded to the hefty price tag Wolves hung around Matt Jarvis' neck by promptly signing fellow winger Michael Kightly instead. The good news for Stoke's opponents is that bogeyman Rory Delap is nearing the end of his career; the bad news is that his protege Ryan Shotton is developing his own version of the Irishman's fabled throw-in, capable of causing as much panic in defences as the sight of salad in a kebab does in Sunderland.


Speak of the devils. The Mackems seem to have been having great trouble attracting players to the Dark Place. Funny, that. Most pressing was a new striker - Niklas Bendtner has returned to Arsenal and Asamoah Gyan has sealed his escape, while of those left Stephane Sessegnon couldn't make it into double figures last season, Connor Wickham has failed to live up to even the most modest expectations and Fraizer Campbell is far more familiar with the physio than he is with his teammates. Little wonder, then, that they were so desperate to sweet-talk free agent Louis Saha into joining and remain keen on snaring Wolves' Steven Fletcher. To date, their only other new signing has been Carlos Cuellar, another past-his-best defender to keep Wes Brown and John O'Shea company.

Nevertheless, there remains some hope even for these most hopeless of wretches. Sunderland are strongest on the flanks, where Sebastian Larsson provides Beckham-esque delivery and recently unearthed talent James McClean offers energy and penetration, and in Martin O'Neill they're undeservedly blessed with a potential saviour. How long before he acknowledges that having Lee Cattermole - a player who makes ASBO look like a tranquillised Buddhist - as captain is a car crash just waiting to happen?


Through the tenures of Roberto Martinez, Paulo Sousa and Brendan Rodgers, Swansea have developed a footballing philosophy that is the complete antithesis of Stoke's, and the new man charged with its exposition is Michael Laudrup. The Dane has called upon his connections in pursuing a transfer policy that has seemed largely focused on players with single names who either sound like Pokemon characters (Michu) or conjure up deeply unpleasant repressed memories of X Factor contestants (Chico). One exception is Dutch midfielder Jonathan De Guzman, borrowed from Villareal and set to make a big impression at the Liberty Stadium.

As a former winger himself, Laudrup will presumably be keen to ensure the Swans continue to use pacy wide men Scott Sinclair, Nathan Dyer and Wayne Routledge to their best advantage. He's no doubt less than enamoured of his predecessor's attempts to lure his best players to Liverpool - Joe Allen has already left, and Rodgers is rumoured to be lining up a bid to take Ashley Williams to Anfield too. Together with Angel Rangel, Neil Taylor and Spurs loanee Steven Caulker, Williams was critical in creating the circumstances in which Swansea's rightly lauded total football could thrive last season - if Laudrup and chairman Huw Jenkins allow that supporting wall to be removed, the whole edifice might collapse.


How very typical that Spurs should trounce us 5-0 immediately before embarking on a catastrophic run of form that ultimately deprived them of Champions League qualification and cost 'Appy 'Arry his job. That resulted in Andre Villas-Boas being granted a second crack of the Premier League whip, and he was soon at loggerheads with Luka Modric, the Croatian the subject of intense transfer speculation for the second successive summer and someone who Chelsea, under the Portuguese, were eager to recruit. Thus far Spurs have just about won the battle, as they have with Gareth Bale, but Modric now looks increasingly likely to be lining up for Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid.

In between trying to fight off unwanted attention for the pair, Daniel Levy has spent much of the summer wrangling with Emmanuel Adebayor and his representatives, still unable to agree personal terms on a deal for the man who spearheaded the attack last term. Jermain Defoe might be itching for more regular first-team football, but without Adebayor (or a suitable alternative) Spurs look woefully short-staffed up front. On a more positive note, Belgian centre-back Jan Vertonghen is an excellent addition, especially in light of Ledley King's retirement, and may perhaps be partnered by Steven Caulker, who's on the cusp of a major breakthrough. Gylfi Sigurdsson, fresh from making a huge impact on loan at Swansea, has chosen Spurs over Liverpool and bolsters an already impressive midfield in which Sandro continues to look more assured. Factor in Kyle Walker, arguably the best right-back in the division at present, and Rafael van der Vaart, desperate to put the Netherlands' dismal performance at Euro 2012 behind him, and Spurs have the potential to mount a reasonable title challenge - assuming they aren't fed any dodgy lasagne, that is.

West Brom

Though 'Arry had looked odds-on to land the England job, it eventually went to Roy Hodgson, leaving West Brom seeking a replacement. They found one in the form of Steve Clarke, once of this parish and until recently Kenny Dalglish's number two, who followed Hodgson's footsteps from Anfield to the Hawthorns via a brief period of unemployment. Whether he is able to make himself comfortable or barely has time to singe his buttocks on the managerial hotseat depends partly on the success of his signings.

A primary objective appears to have been to beef up the front line, with disgruntled Chelsea youth Romelu Lukaku and experienced Swedish marksman Markus Rosenberg set to give the likes of Peter Odemwingie and Shane Long serious competition. Midfield recruits Claudio Yacob and Yassine El Ghanassy are a more unknown quantity, while Ben Foster has now swapped Birmingham for the Black Country on a permanent basis. However, it's largely players like Chris Brunt and Jonas Olsson, unheralded by many other than Baggies supporters, who have been instrumental in the club's survival - and may well be again.

West Ham

When West Ham clinched an immediate return to the top tier through the play-offs, the overriding emotion was probably one of relief. Had the Hammers not squeaked through against Blackpool, their retention of players on Premier League wages and riskily substantial January expenditure might well have resulted in financial meltdown. The crucial goal that day was scored by Ricardo Vaz Te, a mid-season recruit finally coming good on the early promise he showed at Bolton. Fat Sam doesn't seem to have much faith in his other strikers Carlton Cole, Nicky Maynard and Sam Baldock, having taken the gamble we weren't prepared to take on Modibo Maiga and expressing unrequited love for Rocky.

QPR's acquisition of Robert Green led to the purchase of not one but two new 'keepers, veteran Jussi Jaaskelainen and Stephen Henderson both happy to be offered escape routes from relegated Bolton and Portsmouth respectively. Fat Sam's sides are rarely a soft touch - usually quite the opposite - and the addition of Mohamed Diame and Alou Diarra to the midfield should ensure that the Hammers are combative where it matters most. Mark Noble and James Tomkins are both a year older and wiser, and, with our former skipper Kevin Nolan adept at the art of popping up unexpectedly in the six-yard area like a mole with an unerring sense of timing, Upton Park probably won't be playing host to Championship football for at least another year.


Just what is it that's keeping Roberto Martinez at Wigan? Surely it can't be the prospect of yet another season of struggle, working alchemical magic to turn base metals like Franco di Santo into something with at least the occasional lustre of gold? Maybe Dave Whelan shackles the Spaniard in his cellar every May. With attractive vacancies aplenty in the Premier League this summer (Liverpool, Spurs, Villa), it's remarkable that one of the division's shrewdest and most likeable managers will once again begin the season in the DW dugout.

Survival last season was secured without the assistance of Hugo Rodallega, the contract rebel frozen out of the first team (potentially a classic case of cutting off your nose to spite your face) and now at Fulham. His replacement is Arouna Kone, fresh from a productive loan spell at Levante. The Ivorian striker might not be the most loyal of players, though - he'd only inked a permanent deal with the Spaniish outfit in May... Martinez has also looked to La Liga to stiffen up his defence, stealing Real Mallorca's Ivan Ramis from under Fat Sam's snout, while (thus far successfully) fending off Chelsea's menacing approach for midfield gem Victor Moses. Given the Latics' extraordinary ability to scrape to safety against all the odds, only a fool would predict relegation - so allow me to do the honours.

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