Matchday 4 Review: Rooney's Penalty, Eboue's Dive, Sean Davis's Sendng Off, Manchester City Continue to Roll

30 August 2009

Manchester United v Arsenal: This game is not about the penalty. I have to admit laughing at all the stupidity on the net this weekend about “Rooney’s dive”. It was never a dive. Yes, Rooney was never going to get a shot on goal. Yes, Rooney was never going to get to the second touch. Yes Rooney looked like he was going down. The fact remains that Manuel Almunia came out and took Rooney completely out of any play. That is a letter of the law penalty.
Instead this was about three things; the first being the ridiculous own goal by Diaby. That header was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen in a game of football. It should also be a lesson to every other defender that it would never be wise to try said header. Secondly, THE ACTUAL DIVE by Emmanuel Eboue. Do people actually forget that? Oh yea, they do. Finally, this is about the farcical way Mike Dean handled the end of this match. He would have been best to blow for full time, taken an earful from Wenger, and then pressed charges. Instead, Keith Hackett is the one having to apologize to Wenger.

Tottenham Hotspur v Birmingham City: One would have to wonder if Birmingham City would have won had Cristian Benitez been on the park sooner. They were even with Tottenham all game long. After the fast start Tottenham had to the season, they have been a bit found out. In the last two games, Spurs have needed too many chances to score. Peter Crouch should have converted on one of his first three golden chances before finishing the fourth. Make no bones about it; Tottenham stole two points here when they should have in fact, one. City have got find a way to start Cristian Benitez over ninety minutes, not fifteen to twenty a match.

Bolton Wanderers v Liverpool: I’m still trying to figure out why Sean Davis was sent off. Letter of the law, his challenge in the second half was only a foul, not a booking. It wasn’t even persistent infringement. Bolton up until the sending off were deservedly in the lead. Once Davis was sent off, it was only a matter of time before Liverpool won it. Leave it to Steven Gerrard to get the game winner. This performance for Liverpool is only a band aid on a gushing wound of problems as they should win 11 v 10. The defense is still weak and the midfield is barely together. I feel bad for Megson. I understand why he was political in his post match response, but fact is they were robbed of at least one point.

Everton v Wigan Athletic: After the first half, I was just ready to deem this game a nil dray where both sides couldn’t the broad side of any body of water. The second half proved me wrong. Wigan may have gone ahead against the run of play, but they had their chances to put this game away. It took a wonderful set piece to see Everton equalize, and a bad tackle by Emmerson Boyce to concede the game winner from the spot. When you have your chances, you have to finish them. It ‘maybe unfair’ on Wigan that they got no points out of this game, but Everton took their chances and look to be back on track.

Chelsea v Burnley: Oh what would have been for Burnley had Patterson finished his chance early in the first half. After that it was all Chelsea. The Blues had plenty of possession, plenty of well timed passes, and perfectly executed goals. When Michael Ballack and Ashely Cole are scoring on the day, something’s gone right. Burnley will be happy with the six points from their previous three matches and grateful the score here wasn’t worse. As strange as this may sound, Brian Jensen was the man of this match despite giving up three goals.

Portsmouth v Manchester City: If Manchester City could sort out its defense, which is still allowing too many dangerous chances, they would be title contenders. Had Howard Webb called just one of the three penalties that should have been called late, that’s not a potential talking point. Portsmouth only looked slightly better under the new ownership today. I am curious to see what moves can be made between now and the end of the transfer window.

Stoke City v Sunderland: Sunderland’s set piece defense has to get better. It’s the biggest weakness on their team. Dave Kitson should never have that much space to finish, even if the corner kick leading to the goal was partially cleared. They also need a third and fourth option to score. One can’t rely on Kenwyne Jones and Darren Bent all by themselves. Stoke City again do what they do best at home; work from strength to strength while picking apart the weaknesses of their opposition. They also look like a side that is going to be in the Premier League for some time to come.

Aston Villa v Fulham: Villa started and ended this three game in six day stretch with six points in the league. Fulham won midweek, but then made it twenty-seven years without a win at Villa Park. When Eddie Johnson is your only tactical change in a game, you’ve given up the ghost. Yes, the trip to Russia was no fun, but Fulham could have shown a little more life. Clint Dempsey was the only one who looked to be trying. Agbonlahor’s goal in the second half was a thing of beauty.

Wolverhampton Wanderers v Hull City: Hull starts the first half quick, Wolves start the second half quick. Wolves controlled much of the second half, with Jozy Altidore rendered useless in his role off the bench. Hull will also consider themselves lucky they got a point in this game; Wolves had two golden chances in the second half they should have finished on.

Blackburn Rovers v West Ham United: Ninety minutes played, yet both sides had only two legit chances on goal. Money should be refunded for having to watch that drivel. I had expected West Ham to bounce back better. Scott Parker is lucky the man in the middle didn’t see his trip on David Dunn in the box as that was a stone wall penalty. Blackburn better find someone who can score; because right now, no one can.

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Housekeeping Notes: Champions League Discussion on Mad About Futbol, Steven Cohen Interview

29 August 2009

EDIT: Steven Cohen has asked that we postpone the interview at least one week. We will still release a podcast tomorrow night talking Bundesliga, thoughts on the weekend's Premier League action, and a few other tidbits.

It has been a busy three days for me here at The Third Half.

After the Champions League Draw, I had the absolute pleasure to be on Mad About Futbol to discuss it. You can listen to our Champions League discussion here. We also talked about the events at Upton Park amongst other free flowing topics. You can listen to that segment here.

I also will be speaking with Steven Cohen of the soon to launch World Football Daily. We will be talking about the closure of World Soccer Daily, why start up again so soon, and what they hope to make World Football Daily. If time allows, we'll talk the start of the Premier League. If you have ANY reasonable questions, you have until 7pm Eastern Sunday night to either post them here, or send them to thethirdhalf@thethirdhalf.org.

My goal will be to release this week's edition of The Third Half late Sunday night. I'm also trying to get a hold of 'the most honest German in all of Germany' Jens to discuss the past weekend of the Bundesliga. Depending on how long I speak with Steven Cohen, I may combine the two. If I go long with Cohen, I'll be posting the Bundesliga segment on Tuesday evening.

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UEFA Champions League Draw: What Could We See

26 August 2009

With the conclusion of the UEFA Champions League Playoff-Round, all of our attention turns to the draw that will be taking place tomorrow in Monaco at 18:00 CET (12:00 noon Eastern/9:00 Pacific). The draw will be broadcast on both Fox Soccer Channel and Setanta Sports.

Here is how the four pots will look based on UEFA Coefficient
Pot 1: FC Barcelona, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United, AC Milan, Arsenal, Sevilla and Bayern Munich.
Pot 2: Olympique Lyon, Internazionale (Inter Milan), Real Madrid, CSKA Moscow, FC Porto, AZ Alkmaar, Juventus and Glasgow Rangers (Rangers)
Pot 3: Olympiakos Piraeus (Olympiakos), Olympique Marseille (Marseille), Dinamo Kiev, VfB Stuttgart, Fiorentina, Atletico Madrid, Girondins Bordeaux (Bordeaux) and Besiktas.
Pot 4: VfL Wolfsburg, Standard Liege, Maccabi Haifa, FC Zurich, Rubin Kazan, Unirea Urziceni, APOEL Nicosia and DVSC Debrecen.

Looking at each pot, there are obvious wild cards in each.
In pot one, Bayern Munich has started this season looking very poor (poorer than Liverpool) but always do well in the group stages in the Champions League. However, with the system Louis Van Gaal has installed at the German giants, it's not gone down well. If they start out poorly in the first three group games (along with continued bad league form), we could see a shock sacking. Yes, it is doubtful, but it has to be in the discussion.
Ironically enough, pot two has two obvious wild cards in it. Instead of choosing Rangers, I'm picking CSKA Moscow. Right now they are level on points for the final Champions League spot in Russia, and that I feel will put them under alot of pressure. They also don't play all that well away from Russian soil. I have a feeling here CSKA will be more focused on league play than in the Champions League.
This is the tightest pot three I can ever recall. To me, the wild card is Atletico Madrid. Call it just a gut feeling. If you're looking for any other reasons, I just simply cannot provide them.
Pot four has two interesting choices as well. I am going with APOEL Nicosia. Considering the run Anorthosis Famagusta had last season (still being in contention on match day six), I think they will be stronger than most expect. Their football was attractive in the qualifying rounds at home. Away from Cyprus, they have the mentality of playing damage control and it has worked getting them to the group stages.

With all of that said, let's take a look at a few scenarios.
The Ultimate Group of Death: Liverpool, Real Madrid, Bordeaux and Wolfsburg. Any group of death will have to have at least Real Madrid and Wolfsburg in it. Wolfsburg has been playing good football of late (the 4-2 loss to Hamburg aside) and will be looking to prove themselves further in the Champions League. Bordeaux are the class of France right now and the Champions League will be a good test to see how far they have come. Liverpool is an interesting choice. Based on their early start, one would think they should be in a group of death talk. However, they always step it up on European nights. Real Madrid; well they only purchased all the big names in Europe they could find.
Tricky For The Top: Sevilla, Rangers, Dinamo Kiev, Debrecen. I don't think Sevilla or Rangers would want to take a trip into Eastern Europe, let alone two trips.
Just Enough Names To Keep Interested: AC Milan, Lyon, Olympiakos, Standard Liege. All four teams have been around the block a time or two, but despite Lyon's start to the season, I don't see them getting out of the group stages. Standard Liege are just classic group stage fodder.
Quick, Call Our Travel Agent: Manchester United, CSKA Moscow, Besiktas, Maccabi Haifa. If anything, all four teams could rack up enough frequent flyer miles to make the third trip less painful on the wallet.
Life in the Big City: Arsenal, Inter Milan, Atletico Madrid, FC Zurich. It's a pity this trip would be for business, not pleasure.

Yes those five mythical group scenarios above are just that, myth. We won't know what the group stages will have in store for us until tomorrow. But I'm going to leave it to you. What do you think is the group of death? What groups would you like to see? Let us know in the comments below.

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The Third Half 6: The American Sports Fan and Bundesliga Recap

25 August 2009

The weekly show is back and I am happy that it is. On this edition of The Third Half: I speak with my best friend Jason Freeman on the American sports fan and giving the sport a legitimate chance. The conversation then turns to the Bundesliga with Terry Duffelen from Some People are on the Pitch and The Onion Bag. Topics covered are the shocking start to Bayern Munich's season, how competitive the league is at the top, and thoughts on the German teams in European play so far.

You can always get in contact with the show at thethirdhalf@thethirdhalf.org. You can also schedule to download the podcast from iTunes here. You may also directly download from here.

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The Third Half 5: Ode to World Soccer Daily

22 August 2009

This show is a tribute to World Soccer Daily. Myself, along with Kartik Krishnaiyer, Matthew Semisch, and Kevin Walker just talk about what World Soccer Daily meant to the North American audience, will we see another national daily radio show, and other assorted topics as we vented our frustrations about the show going off the air.

If you want to contact me regarding this podcast, you may do so at thethirdhalf@thethirdhalf.org.

You may directly download the show from here, or subscribe to iTunes to get the latest shows.

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Is Wenger Off His Rocker With Super League Comment?

18 August 2009

Instead of waxing poetically about how Arsenal were going to go into Parkhead and getting a result in their upcoming Champions League qualifier against Celtic, Arsene Wenger went down the path I wish talk would stop about...an European Super League.

While saying he's not one hundred percent sure about the proposition, Wenger feels that the amount of money coming in now from the Champions League will not even placate the biggest of clubs due their need to spend. I can't argue with Wenger there; just look at the Real Madrid project. Manchester City are trying to do the same thing in hopes of getting into the Champions League: and we all know what happened when Leeds United attempted the feat.

What Wenger's vision of a 'super league' could be I think is bogus. There is no way on earth these teams would potentially play both in their domestic league on the weekend and in this 'league' midweek. If a super league is to form, I doubt they will ever play in their domestic league again. Why play in two competitions risking injury, even if you have two totally different squads to play with. These teams will only want to play the thirty-eight games against the best. I don't even think the TV executives would want to sign on a super league contract if it meant having a devalued competition with all the teams still playing their domestic competition. Logic just says if they are going to play in two competitions, you may as well keep the competition format in place that is now being used.

When it's all said and done, the European super clubs had their best chance at forming this mythical super league. The only problem is, they allowed themselves in the G14 to disband. As much as I dislike Platini, he was absolutely brilliant in getting them to disband last year. Wenger may continue to think it, but it only goes to show how much he continues to live in the past.

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West Ham United: Is The Price Right?

Just when I thought West Ham United maybe stabilizing, it comes out of the blue that James Collins is set to be sold to Stoke City for around five million pounds. It also appears that the selling of Collins brought about a hell of alot of contention. While the rumors that Gianfranco Zola and Steve Clarke thinking about quitting were quickly quashed, it seems they are now resigned to the fact Collins will be leaving the club.

It almost screams of 'they doth protest too much' with Zola now in the press saying 'We are looking to buy not sell players'. Matthew Upson has admitted he would be willing to move if it meant easing the financial uncertainties around the Upton Park outfit. While no official offer has been made for Upson, it does make a person wonder.

West Ham United have a squad of thirty players with an average age just under twenty-four and a half years. For a club in West Ham's position (uncertain financial situation, the bankruptcy of the previous ownership group not finalized meaning West Ham United could still end up a part of it), the squad is ripe for the picking. Selling players for maximum profit should be their MO. Upson at thirty is valued as highly as he will ever get. James Collins at five million is about two times the amount I value him at (I rate Collins at around three million). If teams are willing to put up the money, West Ham United would be fools not to take it.

In the end, a few more players could realistically be sold. I could see Upson leaving, but he is a critical piece to the Hammers back line. Lucas Neill's unwillingness to drop certain demands could possibly see him sold before this window is out as well. I do also feel, however, that bench warmer Eidur Gudjohnsen could end up at West Ham before the transfer window is over.

When it's all said and done, I do think the price is right for teams to potentially pick off West Ham United players. The future is just too uncertain. The media, while seemingly getting the main story here incorrect, could end up correct by proxy. All it would have to take is selling more players before the transfer deadline than buying.

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Weekend Realities: Roberto Martinez, Big Four Slow Start, Promoted Sides Not Welcome

17 August 2009

So the opening weekend of the Premier League has come and gone. For the most part it was pretty much by the book, with two 'upsets' and one massive outlier scoreline in Everton's 6-1 whipping by Arsenal. There is still plenty to talk about however.

Roberto Martinez Gets Wigan Athletic Off on the Right Foot
If you read my preview on Wigan Athletic, I was curious to see how Roberto Martinez would adjust the tactics he used at Swansea City to his new position at Wigan Athletic. Well based on first game judgment, that answer was pretty damn well.

Fact of the matter is this: Wigan Athletic took Aston Villa behind the woodshed and dominated the entire match. They dominated the stat sheet, and made Aston Villa look like relegation fodder. Wigan were metered in their attack and soaked up pressure immensely. Chris Kirkland was only tested once in the ninety minutes.

Both goals were pretty impressive in their own right. Hugo Rodallega's volley was goal of the weekend (sorry Didier Drogba), and an impressive individual effort. Charles N'Zogbia perfectly laid the ball off to Jason Koumas on the second; Koumas took full advantage of the tight angle.

It was not the start Villa needed. However, when key pieces leave during the summer, it will take a while to get the balance of the squad back.

Besides Arsenal: the Big Four Start Slowly
This was a not a good weekend for three of the four 'big' clubs. Yes three of them won, but they were less than impressive in doing so. We'll talk about Manchester United in the next segment.

Chelsea opened the season and quite frankly better be thanking their lucky stars the game didn't end 1-1. Sure, Chelsea 'dominated' the game from minute one, but there are massive flaws right now to the system Ancelotti wants to use. In effect, there is no width to it. The game winner was nothing more than a fluke cross ala Frank Lampard in the Champions League against Barcelona. If you want another shocker, I expect Chelsea to not get three points in their trip to Sunderland on Tuesday night.

Liverpool on the day were just shocking against Tottenham. Had Robbie Keane decided he was going to actually try and score, Liverpool would have been done and dusted by halftime. Yes they were denied a stone wall penalty late, but that doesn't deny how bad they were. It was evident how much they missed Alonso as the midfield looked lost all day. Mascherano was not his usual self. Credit has to be given to Tottenham; they deserved it.

Arsenal were just brilliant, taking advantage of an Everton side that is still torn about Joleon Lescott and made the typical Everton slow start slower than usual. Thomas Vermaelen and William Gallas were not only solid at the back, but in the attack as well. While it's difficult to judge the rest of the season based on this performance, the positive signs are there. Everton just need to tell Joleon Lescott if he wants to leave, he can in January when Jagielka is fully fit.

Promoted Sides Get Bigger Than Expected Wake Up Call
Stoke City simply toyed with Burnley in the second half after schooling them in the first. Sure Burnley had a few opportunities on goal in the second half, but they were never in the match. Owen Coyle is right about the margin for error being razor thin in the Premier League, but the football on the park showed they have way too much to improve on.

Wolverhampton Wanderers just have no strikers who can do it in the Premier League. West Ham, however, were just wasteful in front of goal. Robert Green was very good in goal, but was never truly tested (meaning he didn't have to move much when 'threatening shots' were coming his way). If Wolves can find one striker of any quality, they will be just fine.

Birmingham City were the only promoted side who impressed me all weekend. Yes Manchester United was banged up, and saw Nani and Evans leave due to injuries, but they are lucky Birmingham City didn't have Christian Benitez on the park for ninety minutes. This game had the same feel to Chelsea/Hull City without the Hull opener. Ben Foster had to come through big late to prevent it from being a draw. Based on this opening weekend, I may have been wrong about which promoted side would be going right back down.

Other Thoughts
* Portsmouth looked worse than even I expected them to be against Fulham. If Fulham had wanted to (and abandoned their typical game style), they could have named their scoreline.

* Manchester City were shaky at the back, but got the job done getting three points where they should have. Mark Hughes though needs to work on the back four.

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Premier League Preview Number 1: Chelsea

14 August 2009

Chelsea

Biggest Ins: Yuri Zhirkov on the left side of midfield should give Chelsea a steady, reliable option. Ross Turnbull will make a competent backup to Petr Cech. Daniel Sturridge could play the super-sub role off the bench when Chelsea needs a late goal, but I see him as a fringe forward.

Biggest Outs: Absolutely no one. Everyone who left were on the extreme outside fringe. Scott Sinclair, Franco Di Santo, and Michael Mancienne went off on loan to gain game experience.

Easiest Month: August. Chelsea could easily have the best stretch of four games coming out of the gate. After hosting Hull City, Chelsea have a tricky tie at Sunderland. A trip to Fulham awaits before hosting Burnley at the end of the month. 10-12 points are possible.

Toughest Month: November. After hosting Manchester United and Wolves, Chelsea travel to Arsenal. At best, this is a five point month. At worse, this is a three point month.

Five Questions About Chelsea This Season
1) Will Carlo Ancelotti adapt his midfield diamond if it does not work early in the season? During preseason, it was effective on narrow pitches; even narrower that most Premier League clubs have. During the Community Shield, that diamond was exposed. If Ancelotti is a one trick pony, expect him to be the next Scolari.
2) Can Joe Cole come back at full fitness to secure the right side of the midfield? If he can, Chelsea have no concerns.
3) Can Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba work together up front? Guus Hiddink showed it could work. I think Ancelotti will get it to work as well. I also think a little friendly competition between the two to see who can score the most goals could get interesting.
4) Who starts alongside John Terry at center back? If Ricardo Carvalho is healthy, I think it has to be him. Alex is a very strong option, but I rate Carvalho higher.
5) Will the age of the starting core and their nagging injuries be a hindrance come the end of the season? John Terry’s back is failing him, while Carvalho seems to lately always be on the injury table. Joe Cole is coming off a knee injury, and I always question how a player will be coming back from one of them. Michael Ballack is just old while both Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka are north of thirty.

My Ultimate Reality: Full disclosure, I am a Chelsea supporter. I just feel that Chelsea haven’t lost any key pieces while Manchester United lost Ronaldo and Liverpool lost Alonso. I do worry about the age of Chelsea’s core, along with yet another new manager. However, these players know how to play with each other. Zhirkov I think will end up a flop at Chelsea and Malouda will be starting on the left in no time. Chelsea’s schedule balance is also very favorable because other than November, there are no other major high/low points. It will be nip and tuck all season long, but in the end I think Chelsea will win the title with two games to spare.

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Premier League Preview Number 2: Manchester United

Manchester United

Biggest Ins: If Michael Owen can stay healthy, he will be the biggest signing of all the Premier League this summer. Luis Antonio Valencia looks to be the man brought in to replace Cristiano Ronaldo on the right. Gabriel Obertan should provider cover up front.

Biggest Outs: It’s all about Cristiano Ronaldo. As much as I hate his antics on the pitch, he is the second best player in the world (I still think Messi is number one).

Easiest Month: The four game stretch between the last game of December and before the last game of the January. In that four game stretch, they host Wigan before a trip to Birmingham City. This period ends with home ties against Burnley and Hull City.

Toughest Month: The four game stretch between the middle of October and the middle of November. In that time period, Manchester United travel to Liverpool and Chelsea. Between those games, United host Blackburn and Everton. It’s possible to only have four points in that run. It’s also possible United could get seven.

Five Questions About Manchester United This Season
1) How does Manchester United replace Cristiano Ronaldo? The simple answer is Ferguson can’t. I think they went the right route by getting someone that doesn’t play anywhere near the same style as Ronaldo with Valencia.
2) Will Michael Owen stay healthy? As I mentioned above: if Owen is healthy for the entire season, he is the pick-up of the summer. With Owen, does he start, or is he someone that comes off the bench in the final half hour when a goal is needed? I could see him start about fifteen games, coming off the bench in about twenty. That is if he is healthy.
3) How does Edwin Van der Sar’s injury affect Manchester United early in the season? Thomas Kuszczak and Ben Foster were shaky in their five appearances last season. While they got off to a slow start last season and ended fine, I don’t think they can afford to do so this season.
4) Who starts on the left side of midfield? Nine different players started on the left side last season. I feel that this is the season where Nani takes that position and makes it his.
5) Can Berbatov and Rooney form the partnership up front needed to make up the goals Ronaldo scored? I think Berbatov has been found out in the Premier League. If Berbatov doesn’t get off to a strong start, I could see Owen replacing him on a game in game out basis.

My Ultimate Reality: While it was coming from a mile away, I still think this could be a year of minor adjustments at Manchester United. With a major center piece gone, Manchester United almost have to form a new identity. I know it’s a cop out: but because of the fact Ronaldo is gone, I think that’s why they don’t win the title. I see a few more draws in United’s future, a couple of key losses, and a second place finish.

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Premier League Preview Number 3: Liverpool

Liverpool

Biggest Ins
: Glen Johnson comes in to replace Alvaro Arbeloa. Alberto Aquilani comes in to replace the departure of Xabi Alonso.

Biggest Outs
: Arbeloa and Alonso are the big losses, but Rafa Benitez has brought in adequate replacement. Sami Hyypia and Jermaine Pennant were fringe starters and have gone elsewhere.

Easiest Month: September. After hosting Burnley, Liverpool travel to Upton Park. The month ends with Liverpool hosting Hull City. Baring major injuries, this is a nine point month.

Toughest Month
: February. After hosting Everton, Liverpool then travel to Arsenal. A trip to Manchester City awaits before the month closes out against Blackburn Rovers. It’s a tricky month due to three consistent teams to start. It’s possible they only get four points out of the month. It’s also possible Liverpool get seven.

Five Questions About Liverpool This Season
1) Can Liverpool get wins where last season they would have gotten draws? Five nil-nil results were to the likes of Villa, Fulham, West Ham and Stoke City (twice). Their four one-one draws: Arsenal (granted away), Everton, Wigan and Manchester City. These were all draws at the most inopportune times and that has to change this season if they want even a sniff at the title.
2) How long does it take for Alberto Aquilani to adjust to his new surroundings? When it became apparent that Alonso was Real Madrid bound, Aquilani became Rafa’s target. If he seamlessly transitions into the squad, that erases plenty of worry.
3) Could Glen Johnson end up Robbie Keaned? Johnson, when he was at Chelsea, always seemed to be at the low end of the right back totem pole; while at Portsmouth he flourished. If he doesn’t adjust rapidly to life at the big club, how fast is he written off? For the record, I think he will be just fine now that he has the in game experience.
4) Can Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres both stay on the park together this season? There was a vast difference in how Liverpool played with either one, or both, out of the starting eleven. If both play together for at least thirty games, I feel they have an outside shot at the title.
5) Who partners Jamie Carragher at center back? Skrtel and Agger shared the responsibility last season. I expect Martin Skrtel will be the every game starter alongside Carragher.

My Ultimate Reality: Until Xabi Alonso left for Real Madrid, I seriously thought Liverpool could win the title. With Alonso gone, I think we could see the same old same out of Rafa. After a period while Aquilani adjusts to the Premier League, I see Liverpool going in a tear. Once the new year hits, I expect Liverpool to trip over themselves. Along with Manchester United and Chelsea, I expect this to be a tight title race. However, just like last season, draw’s will be this teams Achilles heel. After a tough fight, I think Liverpool will end the season in third.

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Premier League Preview Number 4: Arsenal

Arsenal

Biggest Ins: Thomas Vermaelen has been the only signing for Arsenal this summer. He should nicely fit the role Kolo Toure had before departing for Manchester City.

Biggest Outs: Obviously the two biggest losses are those to Manchester City in Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure. Toure started the most games at center back last season while Adebayor, pouting or not, was still a major scoring threat. Toure has been replaced; Adebayor however has not.

Easiest Month: March. After hosting Burnley, Arsenal travel to Hull City. West Ham United visits the Emirates before Arsenal end the month at Birmingham City. This should be a ten to twelve point month. I expect a clean sweep.

Toughest Month: February. The month starts with a trip to Stamford Bridge before Arsenal host Liverpool. The month ends with Sunderland and a trip to Stoke City, where Arsenal lost 2-1 last season. I expect this to be a three to five point month.

Five Questions About Arsenal This Season
1) Will Arsene Wenger bring anyone else in before the August transfer window closes? Wenger keeps saying he is happy with what he has, and I can’t fault him for that. However, I am surprised that he isn’t thinking of at least one more signing before the summer is out.
2) Could this be the season Carlos Vela breaks out at Arsenal? This summer, Vela has shined for the Mexican national team. With Adebayor leaving, he could possibly be in the mix to start up front. If not, I expect to see him in some sort of super sub role.
3) Can Walcott secure the right midfield role on an every game basis? Last season he played fifteen games on the right, the most for anyone at the position. If Walcott can settle in for 25-30 games, it should set Arsenal’s midfield in stone.
4) Can Almunia or Fabianski keep goals out of the net? I know that sounds like a stupid question, but of the top four teams, they allowed thirty-seven. The only teams outside the top four to allow less were Everton (they allowed thirty-seven as well) and Fulham (who only allowed 34). Almunia and Fabianski seemed to, at the most unwanted times, leak goals that should have been saved.
5) Can Arsenal win more way from home? Last season they had seven draws away from the Emirates. If they can turn a few more of those into wins, they might have a chance to keep up with the title race.

My Ultimate Reality: I expect to be slated for picking Arsenal fourth, but I honestly feel of the ‘top four’ they are the most likely to slip out. They have a tricky Champions League qualifier against Celtic (I do expect them to get through…but it won’t be easy) and if they are not in a good position coming out of that, I could see one or two more sold. I think Wenger is starting to wear down in the Premier League, something that not winning the title will eventually do. With two good teams pushing them all season, I expect them to stay in fourth if only because Wenger has proven he knows how to stay inside the top four.

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Premier League Preview Number 5: Everton

13 August 2009

Everton

Biggest Ins: No one of major note has come in for Everton this summer…that is unless you are a fan of the PDL. Cody Arnoux and Anton Peterlin come in with David Moyes giving them a one year look to see if they work. If what happened last season happens again this season, we will see one of them in action.

Biggest Outs: Nuno Valente, Lars Jacobsen and Andy van der Meyde were surplus requirements and were moved on.

Easiest Month: March. After hell month (see below), Everton get Hull City at home before a trip to Birmingham City. Bolton come to Goodison Park before Everton ends at Wolves. This is a potential ten point month.

Toughest Month: February. Any time you have to play three of the ‘top four’, you are in for a month of hell. After starting across the way at Anfield, Everton host Chelsea and Manchester United. The month ends away at Tottenham. At best, this is a four point month, but three is looking likely.

Five Questions About Everton This Season
1) Can David Moyes keep a striker healthy this season? It almost became a running joke last season that whenever someone up front would get healthy, someone else would go down. Everton have three good strikers should they stay healthy.
2) Will Tim Cahill continue to be Mr. Clutch? Whenever Everton needed something big to happen, it always seems to be Tim Cahill at the center of it all.
3) Can David Moyes keep Joleon Lescott? With Lescott handing in a formal transfer request, it just got much more difficult. However if Lescott does leave, Everton have a major problem at center back. Other than that, It’s Phil Jagielka and Joseph Yobo. It’s a position that depth is needed at pronto considering Jagielka won’t be around for at least the first third of the season.
4) Where does Mikel Arteta end up playing? Last season he was plugged wherever he was needed. He missed the end of the season with a knee injury, so it will be interesting to also see how he plays coming off that injury.
5) Who starts at right back? With Tony Hibbert being injury prone last season, can he stay fit? If he cannot, can Phil Neville adequately fill the role?

My Ultimate Reality: I love David Moyes as a manager. Should Everton stay healthy for the whole season, I expect this team to be the one that pushes the top four all season long. It will be difficult with the Europa Leauge being in the mix, but Moyes knows these players well. If Lescott goes, I expect that money to be spent on the back. When the dust settles in May, I think that February will end their push for the top four. I do, though, expect them to pip Manchester City for fifth spot.

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Premier League Preview Number 6: Manchester City

Manchester City

Biggest Ins: Carlos Tevez and Emmanuel Adebayor add goal scoring power up front. Roque Santa Cruz thrived under Hughes at Blackburn, and will look to do the same at City. Gareth Barry comes in to the central midfield while Kolo Toure should provide a good partner to Richard Dunne.

Biggest Outs: Elano is off to Turkey, but not after dispensing plenty of attitude while at the club. I think Hughes made a mistake letting Sturridge go. Darius Vassell, Michael Ball and Ched Evans ended up surplus requirements.

Easiest Month: August. Before their Europa League trip, City opens at Ewood Park. After the UEFA Cup they host Wolves before going to Portsmouth. Considering the squad, this should be a nine point month.

Toughest Month: February. After an away trip to Hull, City host Bolton. The month ends with a visit from Liverpool before a trip to Stamford Bridge. They should get at least six points here, but four seems realistic.

Five Questions About Manchester City This Season
1) How short of a leash does Mark Hughes have? With the talent assembled, the ownership group will be thinking top four or bust. If Hughes starts off slowly, or has a run that see City falling out of the top six, I could see him sacked. If Hughes is in the job at the end of February, I’ll be surprised.
2) What does the starting midfield look like? If Hughes uses a four man midfield, I expect it to look like Shaun Wright-Phillips, Vincent Kompany, Gareth Barry and Stephen Ireland. If Hughes uses five, I expect Robinho to be the fifth. With this team midfield heavy, it will be interesting to see how Hughes placates.
3) Which Adebayor will we see? Will it be the pouting Adebayor we saw towards the end of last season or will he be out to prove every doubter of his wrong? I expect Adebayor to play like a man possessed this season.
4) With Kolo Toure coming into the fold, does the back four sort itself out? I expect the back four to look like this: Micah Richards, Richard Dunne, Kolo Toure, Wayne Bridge. However, I do expect Javier Garrido to give Bridge a run for his money at right back. It will make Shay Given’s job so much easier to have a set back four.
5) How big of a loss could Joe Hart be? Yes I know he went to Birmingham City on loan; but if Shay Given goes down to injury, can Kasper Schmeichel or Stuart Taylor pick up the slack?

My Ultimate Reality: Of all the teams in the Premier League, I thought about this prediction the longest. I still think Manchester City are a year away from ending up in the top four. I just don’t feel Mark Hughes is the man to take this club to the next level. They have all the talent in the world, but until Manchester City has a manager who has dealt with big egos before, I can’t pull the trigger on them in the top four. I expect them to be close until the final couple of months of this season. But in the end, City will end up in the Europa League next season.

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Mexico 2 USA 1: Nothing Accomplished

12 August 2009

Fans of the Red, White and Blue went into the 'Showdown at the Azteca' thinking not only was a result possible, but that result would be a win. Yes, I said the US would lose 3-0, but the fact remains I never thought the US would get a result. When it's all said and done, the United States again show they are the same old same and lose 2-1.

Looking at the starting eleven, why on earth was Jose Francisco Torres left on the bench? I could understand leaving Altidore on the bench, as we were going to need someone to come on late in the game that could run on defenders. Mexico puzzled everyone leaving Vela on the bench in favor of Franco, but nothing out of the ordinary stuck out to me.

The opening few minutes were the only positive to the game for the United States: yet at the same time it was also the part of their downfall. Mexico was content to let the US run around and chase everything. They weren't expecting Landon Donovan to catch Charlie Davies on the perfect run to make it 0-1 in favor of the United States.

Mexico though did look to get down after the opening goal, but the United States were starting to show cracks in their game plan. While the US had two lines of four, the spacing was atrocious and too deep. Israel Castro took full advantage of the space and in a matter of only eleven minutes, the score was level and the United States was screwed.

People will debate when the legs went for the United States; I think they went in the thirty fifth minute. Mexico had all day to do whatever the hell they wanted. By the half, I was expecting Vela to come on for Franco. That, though, did not happen.

The second half started with Mexico dominating possession again and the United States doing whatever it could to defend. Javier Aguirre drew the first tactical move by bringing on Carlos Vela for Blanco. What does Bob Bradley counter with? Bradley counters by going 4-5-1 taking Ching off for Feilhaber and Ricardo Clark for Stuart Holden. Again, another wasteful set of substitutions by Bob Bradley.

It was obvious that the United States were happy to get a draw. By the hour, the United States had no shape, no form, no anything. The US had only one decent effort in the second half, and Charlie Davies didn't have the energy to get one yard forward to put his head to a Stuart Holden cross.

When you play for a draw, you are going to lose. Aguirre finished off his second half tactics lesson for Bob Bradley by bringing on Nevy Castillo and Miguel Sabah. Castillo frustrated the hell out of the Americans (and could have been sent off at least twice) and Sabah got into perfect position for the game winner. When it was all said and done, the United States was lucky to only lose 2-1.

As for the big picture, what exactly has the United States done this summer? While they made the Confederations Cup final, they ended the competition with more losses (3) than wins (2). They struggled to get results in the Gold Cup and were flat out embarrassed in the final. They were humbled at Costa Rica and struggled mightily against Honduras at Soldier Field. At Azteca, we were the same old flat American side.

Bob Bradley continues to prove how inept an in-game manager he is. To those who say he got his tactics right at the start I laugh in your face. All the early game running killed them before halftime. Why the partnership that proved a success at the Confederations Cup in Davies and Altidore didn't get more time together up front today was a joke. Why Jose Torres, who's played at Azteca more times than most of this squad put together, didn't start is a joke. Michael Bradley was useless today. The rate we're going we may as well miss the World Cup. It would be better than going three and out in South Africa. At least missing the World Cup may see the USSF to completely overhaul the entire system.

No the refereeing didn't cost the United States this game, the US beat themselves. Anyone thinking that needs to go find another blog to cry on.

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Premier League Preview Number 7: Aston Villa

11 August 2009

Aston Villa

Biggest Ins: Stewart Downing should give Ashley Young a run for his money at left midfield once he returns to full fitness. Fabian Delph is an investment for the future in the midfield. Habib Beye will provide cover at the back.

Biggest Outs: Zat Knight was a competent center back; nothing more, nothing less. Gareth Barry was a critical piece to the midfield that Villa are hoping can be filled in a few years time by Delph.

Easiest Month: April. Aston Villa travel to Bolton before hosting a tricky home tie against Everton. A trip to Portsmouth is next followed by an end of the month meeting with Birmingham City. This is potentially a ten point month.

Toughest Month: October. This will be a month that could easily set the tone for the rest of the season. Villa host Manchester City and Chelsea before going to the Molineux. The month ends with a trip to Everton. Best case scenario is five points; however, I expect this to be a three point month.

Five Questions About Aston Villa This Season
1) Who replaces Gareth Barry in the midfield? Stilian Petrov is a lock as the other center midfielder. The problem is the only other players who are a natural in the position are Nigel Reo-Coker and Steve Sidwell. I honestly don’t remember seeing Downing in that role; and with him injured right now, that’s not an option yet. Fabian Delph is the future, but it’s all about now. I expect Reo-Coker to start the season alongside Petrov.
2) Can Nicky Shorey and Emile Heskey stay healthy? Shorey is vital at left back and when he was out, Luke Young had to take his place. That threw off the balance of the back four as Young is a natural right back. Emile Heskey, despite what people want to think, is a good man to not only score goals but to create them as well.
3) How deep are Aston Villa? With a total of twenty-four players, it’s a very thin squad. Add the Europa League to that mix, and should injuries pile up, there is no dependable cover. If Villa can figure out a way to add depth either before the transfer window is out, or in January, it will vastly improve their chances.
4) Will Aston Villa take the Europa League seriously? Once Villa’s season started to take its toll on the squad, Martin O’Neill got out of the competition as quickly as possible. If Villa don’t want to take European football seriously, do the world a favor and just get out now.
5) Who makes the biggest impact off the bench? Can a Craig Gardner or John Carew make a difference when goals are needed late? Can Carlos Cuellar tighten up a defense? With depth an issue, the bench only becomes that much more important.

My Ultimate Reality: Make no mistake about it, Martin O’Neill is a very good manager. However, this season he has the task of keeping the squad together with the heart and soul selling out for a few extra quid. I like this squad, but the depth is an issue I cannot overlook. They were top four fodder until their legs went last season. I don’t expect them to be that high in the table again this season, but have a season where they stay between sixth and ninth. When it’s all said and done; should the cards play out like last season, Villa will be playing European football again after this upcoming season.

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Premier League Preview Number 8: Tottenham Hotspur

Tottenham Hotspur

Biggest Ins
: Sebastien Bassong should provide ample cover at the back. Peter Crouch took a while, but ended up back with Uncle Harry. What he’ll do in the attack, I’ll never know.

Biggest Outs
: Didier Zokora was a decent player in the midfield. Darren Bent decided to let Twitter speak his mind. I don’t think either are that big a loss.

Easiest Month
: October. Tottenham travel to Bolton and Portsmouth, before hosting Stoke City. Tottenham end the month with Arsenal away. Yes three of the four are away, but Tottenham can get nine points out of this month. Lest we forget the 4-4 draw last season at the Emirates?

Toughest Month
: April. After an away trip to Sunderland, Tottenham host Arsenal and Chelsea. If that wasn’t bad enough, Spurs then have to take a trip to Old Trafford. At best this is a four point month; realistically, Tottenham only gets three.

Five Questions About Tottenham Hotspur This Season

1) Who ends up as the starting partnership up top this season? With Roman Pavlyuchenko, Robbie Keane, Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch in the attack, keeping all four happy is going to be an impressive balancing act.
2) Who does start in goal? Let’s face it, Heurelho Gomes was so bad at times last season, Redknapp went and got Carlo Cudicini from Chelsea. I expect Gomes to start the season, but be on a very short leash.
3) Can Ledley King’s knees sustain him throughout the season? If Redknapp can rotate him and get 30 games this season, the center back partnership with Jonathan Woodgate will only get stronger. If Ledley’s knees give him more grief than usual this season, can Dawson be a good enough replacement?
4) Where does David Bentley play in order to get regular starting time? Aaron Lennon is the starter on the right while Modric is the starter on the left. Could this be a case where Bentley leaves in January?
5) Can Tottenham’s form away from White Hart Lane improve? Last year they lost eleven matches away from home; it was just enough to see them miss out on Europe.

My Ultimate Reality
: Tottenham will miss out on Europe again. I don’t trust Gomes in goal and it’s been a while since Cudicini was an every day starter. The midfield, while individually talented, just doesn’t seem like a unit that has gelled together. I worry about what rotation policy Redknapp will use with his forwards. You simply cannot have four forwards that are use to regular playing time and keep two of them on the bench. When it’s all said and done, expect another year of close but no cigar.

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Premier League Preview Number 9: West Ham United

10 August 2009

West Ham United

Biggest Ins: Luis Jimenez comes in on loan from Inter Milan to give depth in the center of the park. That’s all for signings.

Biggest Outs: Gianfranco Zola cleaned house this summer. Lee Bowyer left, but Jimenez is a like replacement. Diego Tristan did nothing up front and ended up in the Spanish second division. Freddie Sears shouldn’t have left, but went off to Crystal Palace. Matthew Etherington ended up at Stoke City. Craig Bellamy was sold off to Manchester City.

Easiest Month: The easiest four game stretch comes at the end of January into February. In that four game stretch, they host Blackburn before an away trip to Burnley. The stretch ends with visits from Birmingham City and Hull City. This should lead to ten, if not twelve points. They will need them because… Toughest Month: The next four games. A visit to Old Trafford awaits before Bolton visit Upton Park. This stretch ends with West Ham traveling to Stamford Bridge and the Emirates. They should get three points in that stretch. However, that will be all.

Five Questions About West Ham United This Season
1) How have the off field money issues affected this group? There is still plenty of uncertainty around the future of West Ham United. There is still at least one more court date to decide the bankruptcy of the previous ownership group. As long as the ownership is in flux, expect plenty of questions to be asked.
2) Who solves the problem on the left side of midfield? No player had more than 10 appearances on the left side. If Boa Morte or Collison can lock in the role, West Ham will be in much better shape. 3) Can Carlton Cole pick up enough goals up front? Better yet, can Carlton Cole stay healthy? Diego Tristan is advancing in years, and Carlton Cole is just too injury prone. If either goes down for any stretch of time, West Ham is in a world of trouble.
4) Who can secure the role of partner next to Mathew Upson? It was the biggest problem at the back last season and it caused Robert Green plenty of grief. I would not be surprised if James Collins got that spot.
5) Can Gianfranco Zola prove last year was not a fluke? He came in with next to no management experience and ended up holding his own. This year he has a little less at his disposal and will have a much bigger challenge ahead of him.

My Ultimate Reality: I think Gianfranco Zola is a good manager who can build what he has into something that can compete for Europe. However, with no one I trust in the attack, I’m not pulling the trigger on them making it there. I think the back and midfield will be just fine, but when you have to rely on 1-0 results in the Premier League, you won’t get enough points. They will be safe for sure, even push for Europe in the first half of the season. But the depth up front will see them slide late in the season. They finished ninth last season, I see them there this season as well.

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Premier League Preview Number 10: Bolton Wanderers

Bolton Wanderers

Biggest Ins: Zat Knight and Sam Ricketts should provide ample cover at the back. Sean Davis at defensive midfield should be the starter day one.

Biggest Outs: No major losses as James Sinclair and Dlerim Dzemaili were nothing more than squad players.

Easiest Month: September. Yes it is a bit tricky with road fixtures to Portsmouth and Birmingham City. Sandwiched in between is a home tie with Stoke City. Considering how bad I think Portsmouth and Birmingham City will be, there is a chance at seven points this month.

Toughest Month: October. Bolton open the month hosting Tottenham before a visit to Old Trafford. The month ends with visits from Everton and Chelsea. At best they get three against Tottenham.

Five Questions About Bolton Wanderers This Season
1) How long will it take for Bolton Wanderers to get off Gary Megson’s back? Last year he was unjustly crucified due to his tactics. Yet, when it mattered, Bolton were never close to the relegation zone. Maybe it’s just time for Bolton supporters to lay off and let Megson do his job. It’s obvious he can do it well.
2) Does Megson have an answer on the right side of midfield? Megson used ten different players on the right side last season. Kevin Davies should be the natural starter, but he was put up front almost as many times as he played in midfield. If Megson can get that decision right, the midfield five will be a solid group.
3) Can Bolton get consistent? Last season Bolton had only one winning streak that was longer than one game. That streak was a whopping two games. Yes they had a four game draw streak at the end of the season, but they need the ability to put a winning streak together that is longer than two games.
4) Can Johan Elmander do more up front? Last season he went missing up front, only scoring five goals and creating two more. He was brought in to do more up front than that. If he doesn’t do much in the first half of the season, is he sold to bring someone else in?
5) Will Bolton win more away? Last season Bolton only won four times away, losing twelve. For a midtable side, Bolton was just fine at home. They just need to vastly improve the away form.

My Ultimate Reality: I expect Gary Megson to prove plenty of doubters wrong. He has a rock in Jussi Jaaskelainen and a decent back four. I expect the right side of midfield to sort itself out, making the midfield a tight unit. I expect Johan Elmander to excel in his second season in the Premier League. The away form is a bit worrisome, but I think it will be better than last season. All in all, Bolton will prop up the top half of the table.

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Premier League Preview Number 11: Sunderland

09 August 2009

Sunderland

Biggest Ins: Paulo Da Silva is a very good center back and will be a key piece to Sunderland’s defense. Fraizer Campbell and Darren Bent will add to what was a very incompetent attack. Lorik Cana is a much better player than Dean Whitehead and comes from the League Un runner ups.

Biggest Outs: Dean Whitehead was a key cog in the Sunderland midfield. Michael Chopra and Greg Halford also left, but they were surplus requirements.

Easiest Month: September. Sunderland host Hull City and Wolves with a trip to Burnley sandwiched in-between. This is realistically a nine point month.

Toughest Month: October. It’s the only month Sunderland play big four teams back to back. It starts at Old Trafford before Liverpool comes to town. Sunderland then head off to Birmingham, ending the month hosting West Ham United. At best it’s a six point month; at worse it is a four point month.

Five Questions About Sunderland This Season
1) Is Fraizer Campbell or Darren Bent the answer up top? Last season Sunderland only scored thirty-five times in the league. Fraizer Campbell and Darren Bent last season at Tottenham only scored thirteen times. Sadly Darren Bent’s 12 would have been tops on this team.
2) How much time does it take Paulo Da Silva to adjust to the Premier League? The FMF is just as physical a league, if not more physical as the Premier League is. If he comes in and quickly adjusts, the partnership of Anton Ferdinand and Da Silva should be very formidable.
3) Who is the answer on the left side of the park? Thirteen different players either played in left midfield or at left back last season. Stability is needed there badly because I still feel it is still a bit of a liability.
4) Who partners Lorik Cana in the midfield? If I had to guess, Kieran Richardson will get that nod; however, Teemu Tainio is just as good a player as Richardson.
5) Can Steve Bruce’s tactical set up to football keep them from leaking the goals they did last season? While they only gave up 54 goals, they still finished the season sixteenth. We know what we are going to get with Steve Bruce. A tight set up at the back. Four midfielders who will have to go box to box, looking to spring counter attacks. If the players buy into Bruce’s philosophy, the goals allowed will drop considerably.

My Ultimate Reality: This is the type of job that typifies Steve Bruce’s managerial career. However, this maybe the most talent Steve Bruce has had walking into a club. Paulo Da Silva and Lorik Cana are signings of the highest order. The forwards however are still a major concern. Expect plenty of games that end in either 1-0, 0-0 or 0-1. I expect Sunderland to be this season’s draw specialists, but grind out enough wins to finish in the top spot of the lower half of the table.

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Premier League Preview Number 12: Stoke City

Stoke City

Biggest Ins: Stoke City have only brought one player in: Dean Whitehead. He’s a competent defensive midfielder and should be a day one starter.

Biggest Outs: Seyi Olofinjana. I like him in the midfield, yet Tony Pulis saw him as only an occasional starter. Vincent Pericard was only a fringe player at Stoke, and was allowed to move on.

Easiest Month: February. Stoke City opens the month hosting Blackburn before road trips to Wigan and Portsmouth. Stoke City ends the month hosting Arsenal. Considering Arsenal lost at the Britannia Stadium last season, this is a month where Stoke City could get 10 points in.

Toughest Month: The final three games of the season. Stoke’s final three games are away to Chelsea and Manchester United, with a home game against Everton sandwiched in-between. I would not be surprised if they only got a point against Everton at the end of the season.

Five Questions About Stoke City This Season
1) Will familiarity breed content? With the exception of Whitehead coming in and Olofinjana leaving, this is the exact same team as last year. If anything, this team should click right from the start. However, everyone should know exactly how to break them down.
2) Does Tony Pulis have a plan C? After teams figured out his long ball tactics that got them to where they were by Christmas, teams got the picture and Stoke went into a mini-slump. It was only after Pulis found a plan B did Stoke City get out of the slump they were in and finish safely away from relegation. Pulis will need another one or two of those same tricks this season.
3) Can Rory Delap find his long throw-in form that killed teams early last season? Once he got tendonitis in his shoulders, that weapon quickly left the Stoke arsenal. If it’s back this season, Stoke can stay in any game.
4) Is Liam Lawrence a 38 game starter? Last year he only started seventeen games and missed plenty of action due to an injury that you’ll see on the oddest injuries ever (falling over his dog). If he is able to start a bulk of the season, Stoke City solves their problem on the right side of the midfield.
5) Will the Britannia Stadium crowd again make a difference? Last season, despite the stadium capacity, they were the loudest venue I heard. Add to that the narrower than usual pitch size, it is one of the ultimate home field advantages. Again, expect the stadium to give clubs grief.

My Ultimate Reality: I will be the first to admit I thought this team would be one and done in the Premier League. Stoke City, however, proved a lot of people wrong. I expect Tony Pulis to continue to make just enough minor tweaks to his tactical set up to keep teams guessing. With two good lines of four at the back and Ricardo Fuller up front, this team will finish where they were last season. I don’t even expect this team heading into April to be a relegation threat at all.

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Premier League Preview Number 13: Blackburn Rovers

Blackburn Rovers

Biggest Ins: Gael Givet’s permanent move after his loan at the end of last season adds much needed stability to the back. Elrio van Heerden is someone who can come off the bench and be that burst of speed in the midfield. Lars Jacobsen can provide depth in defense, while Franco Di Santo’s loan from Chelsea gives them additional options up front.

Biggest Outs: The loss of Andre Ooijer and Tugay are massive losses in terms of leadership. Roque Santa Cruz did nothing in his second year in the Prem, so his loss can’t be anything more than a good profit. Matt Derbyshire was competent cover up front, and moves off with a chance to get regular starting time.

Easiest Month: November. Blackburn open hosting Portsmouth before traveling to Bolton. The month ends with Stoke City coming to Ewood Park. In November, seven points are possible.

Toughest Month: October. This month is just brutal. Blackburn open the month at Arsenal before hosting Burnley. Rovers then go away; first to Chelsea, and then Manchester United. The only place I see Blackburn getting points is against Burnley.

Five Questions About Blackburn Rovers This Season
1) Who is Sam Allardyce’s answer in center and right midfield? Nineteen different players ended up in those two positions last season, and off the top of my head I can’t think of any injury problems. The back four was pretty stable last season and need the midfield to get it’s act in gear.
2) Will Paul Robinson keep his mistakes down in goal? Robinson just makes too many mistakes to be considered a reliable keeper and is a reason I think Blackburn struggled so much last season. If Robinson cuts down on just one-third of his mistakes, Blackburn are in a much better place this season.
3) What is the partnership up front? As much as I like Jason Roberts, he is a striker who is better off used later in matches. If Blackburn in January are able to extend Franco Di Santo’s loan, I think you have to use the partnership up front of McCarthy and Di Santo.
4) Is Lars Jacobsen the answer at right back? He was only a squad player at Everton and with the loss of Andre Ooijer, he’s it. I just don’t think he’s all that good.
5) Will Blackburn Rover fans be accepting of Sam Allardyce’s tactics? Look they worked at Bolton whether you want to admit it or not. He never got a proper chance at Newcastle United because of inept management. This is the perfect job for Allardyce to prove everyone who doubted him (hint: English media and Newcastle United fans) wrong.

My Ultimate Reality: Sam Allardyce knows how to keep teams up. Last season, he was put in one hell of a situation and came through it with flying colors. Now he can slowly build on last season’s success. I think this squad needs one more year together before they start to rise the ranks again with Allardyce at the helm. That said, after a bit of a brutal early season schedule, they will balance themselves out and finish comfortably away from the relegation zone.

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Premier League Preview Number 14: Wigan Athletic

08 August 2009

Wigan Athletic

Biggest Ins: James McCarthy coming from Hamilton in Scotland is a long term project but is the typical Roberto Martinez mold of a midfielder. Jason Scotland comes in up front, hoping to replicate the goal output from Amr Zaki. Scott Sinclair coming in on loan should add depth.

Biggest Outs: It’s all about Luis Antonio Valencia leaving for Manchester United. He was the heart and soul of the right side of midfield. Amr Zaki’s loan expired and after his attitude, it may just be a god send.

Easiest Month: Yes I know it’s difficult to think an easy month has three away fixtures in it, but October is that month. Wigan start by traveling to Hull City before hosting Manchester City, ending the month at Burnley and Portsmouth. This is a four game stretch they can potentially get seven to nine points from.

Toughest Month: September. After a tricky home fixture against West Ham United, Wigan travel to Arsenal before ending the month hosting Chelsea. It is a one point month.

Five Questions About Wigan Athletic This Season

1) How does Wigan Athletic cope with the loss of Luis Antonio Valencia? He was the engine of the midfield and a key reason for much of their goal output. James McCarthy was brought in to be that replacement, but it will take at least a season for him to adapt to Premier League life.
2) Does Jason Scotland have the pace for the Premier League? We know he’s got the upper body strength, but even in the Championship he seemed to lack pace needed to get behind defenders. In the few games I saw him play, he never seemed to be able to run in behind defenders.
3) Can Roberto Martinez replicate the beautiful football he played with at Swansea on Wigan’s shoe string budget? Steve Bruce’s handprint is still all over this team, and it will take at least two more summers to turnover this squad to something Martinez can truly work with.
4) How does the left side of midfield sort itself out? It was by far the weakest part of the field for Wigan. If Michael Brown is healthy, that sorts out the center left. Can Scott Sinclair work the left side of midfield and do so effectively?
5) Will the DW Stadium pitch hurt them this winter? Yes, that question can be asked until the end of time. Last season however, it was the worst I’ve ever seen it. If the pitch can marginally hold up, Wigan won’t have what should be an asset become a liability.

My Ultimate Reality: Roberto Martinez is on step one of what should be a three year plan. If he gets those three years is a question I just don’t know the answer to. There are just too many unanswered questions about Martinez as a Premier League manager. I am probably buying too much into the hype that Martinez will work at this level, but he will have to take plenty of lumps this season. This will be a team that starts slow, and gets progressively better throughout the season, being safe with about 4 games to go.

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Premier League Preview Number 15: Fulham

Fulham

Biggest Ins: Bjorn Helge Riise will provide good depth on the right side of midfield, if not pushing Simon Davies for the starting spot. Stephen Kelly at the back is simply a guy to fill numbers.

Biggest Outs: Squad players Collins John and Moritz Volz are the biggest losses for Roy Hodgson’s men this summer.

Easiest Month: February. After an away trip to Bolton, Fulham host Burnley and Birmingham City. The month ends away to Sunderland. It’s possible nine points can be had out of this month.

Toughest Month: December. After possibly finishing up with the Europa League (still have one more qualifying round to go), Fulham host Sunderland before two difficult away trips to Burnley and Stoke City. The hell part of this schedule is hosting Manchester United and Tottenham before a trip to Stamford Bridge. Four points is the best case scenario out of this month.

Five Questions About Fulham This Season
1) How does the Europa League affect this team? If Fulham go out in the fourth round of qualifying, it could devastate them all season long. If they get through their first jaunt into Europe advancing to the knockout stages, we will hear two months of ‘how serious do you take this competition now’. Does anyone remember Aston Villa last season? If you make it to the group stages and beyond, enjoy the ride in Europe just as Middlesbrough did…all the way to the final.
2) Can Fulham stay relatively healthy for the second year running? Last season, they had eight players play at least thirty games in the same position and Clint Dempsey played in twenty eight games all over the midfield and forward line. If the injury bug hits this team, the depth on board hasn’t been tested in the top flight in a long time.
3) Is this the last ride of Roy Hodgson at Fulham? If he has another good season in the Premier League, does a major club come calling his name? Yes he’s advanced in years, but if a major international club came calling one more time, would he take it?
4) How does the back four look should Brede Hangeland leave? He has been targeted by Arsenal and while for the moment interest has backed off a little bit, until the window closes it is a worrying prospect.
5) Will this be a breakout year for both Eddie Johnson and Clint Dempsey? Dempsey’s stock rose in the eyes of the English media after the Confederations Cup. Eddie Johnson, by all accounts, has impressed in preseason training. If there is anyone in England who can get Eddie Johnson to fulfill his potential, Roy Hodgson can do so.

My Ultimate Reality: This will be a season of frustration for Fulham. I just have a feeling the injury bug will bite and the added games of European football will make life difficult on what was almost a set squad by Hodgson. Roy Hodgson is a masterful tactician and can keep up with the best managers in the game. I don’t see Fulham in relegation trouble at any point this season, but I don’t see them leaving the lower third of the table after February. As for Europe, I do expect Fulham to shock a lot of people in making at least a round of sixteen or quarterfinal run. They have the perfect man for the job to guide them.

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Premier League Preview Number 16: Wolverhampton Wanderers

07 August 2009

Wolverhampton Wanderers

Biggest Ins: Marcus Hahnemann, even in reserve, is an experienced goal keeper who will help the young crop Mick McCarthy has. Kevin Doyle is a good depth purchase up top while Greg Halford is a good right sided box to box midfielder.

Biggest Outs: No one major left Wolves this summer, Lewis Gobern and Liam Hughes the only two of note.

Easiest Month: September. Wolves go away to Blackburn and Sunderland between a home tie against Fulham. It’s possible Wolves will be able to pick up seven points out of this month, giving them a good early bumper against the relegation zone.

Toughest Month: November. Wolves host Arsenal before a trip to Stamford Bridge. The month ends with a midlands derby match at home against Birmingham City. If one point is gained, it will be considered a success for Mick McCarthy.

Five Questions About Wolverhampton Wanderers This Season

1) Has McCarthy recovered from his last time in the Premier League with Sunderland? When he was sacked after only 27 games, he had a whopping ten points. Everyone knows what happens with that points per game ratio. He has done well to get Wolves to this point, however if he fails like before, he will become a tainted manager.
2) Who will be the day in and day out starter on the left side of midfield? While I don’t have every lineup at my disposal; in the 22 lineups I do have of Wolves last season, they used eight different left midfielders. If Premier League clubs can exploit any weakness, they will take advantage of it. For now, it’s the left side of midfield.
3) Has Mick McCarthy picked a true number one in goal? Wayne Hennessey and Carl Ikeme split plenty of time last season. Now with Hahnemann in the mix, based on last year’s form, we could see three different starting keepers rotated. If I had to guess, Hennessey will start in goal but will be on a short leash. Hahnemann has regained the form he had during his first season in the Premier League with Reading, so using him shouldn’t be quickly discredited.
4) Can the forwards on this squad get goals in the Premier League? Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, Chris Iwelumo, and Kevin Doyle all proved they could score in the Championship. Transitioning that to the top flight will prove a difficult order.
5) Will the defense hold? Wolves gave up fifty-two goals last season in winning the league. However, they still managed fourteen shutouts. Giving up goals in bunches in the top flight will not work. If the defense can steady the ship, they will be just fine.

My Ultimate Reality: Of all the promoted sides, Wolverhampton Wanderers have the most balanced schedule. Only one major peak with a couple of valleys will help prevent things from spiraling out of control. If the forward line can score like they did in the Championship, they will have no problem staying up. However, that just won’t be the case. With the experience of Hahnemann helping in goal, and keeping the defense in line, I think this team will stay up. Yes, it won’t be an easy ride. But I see them heading into the final few games of the season with a safe enough point total that while close to the relegation zone, will never be a threat to go down.

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Premier League Preview Number 17: Burnley

Burnley

Biggest Ins: Steven Fletcher coming from Hibs gives them a steady option up front. Tyrone Mears may want to forget his time in the Premier League when he was with Darby County. However, between David Edgar and Richard Eckersley (also defenders), Burnley have brought in defenders who have Premier League experience.

Biggest Outs: Burnley only sold bit players with Gabor Kiraly, Alan Mahon and Besart Berisha leaving.

Easiest Month: October. After hosting Birmingham City, Burnley travel to Blackburn. They end the month hosting Wigan Athletic and Hull City. October is a month they could realistically get eight points out of.

Toughest Month: Between August 19 and September 12. In that four game stretch, they host Manchester United and Everton before trips to Stamford Bridge and Anfield. If they get one point out of that stretch, it will have to be considered a success.

Five Questions About Burnley This Season
1) Will Burnley keep the beautiful attractive football that warmed neutrals hearts during their deep Carling Cup run last season or will they hunker down? We all know what happened when West Bromwich Albion did so last season and Burnley don’t have quite the collection of talent they had.
2) Will the strict pay structure Burnley have set up come to bite them in the backside? Right now Burnley’s squad valuation is the lowest in the Premier League (according to transfermarkt.co.uk). I think it will have the opposite effect and it will only bring the squad together.
3) Can Burnley’s spine sort itself out? Last season the center of the park was Burnley’s biggest weakness. It was something Coyle was able to overcome and it will be something they will have to do again this season. Joey Gudjonsson will be a focal point if that is the case.
4) How does Burnley cope with their early season schedule? If they can get through the first five games with a positive attitude considering the circumstances they will be in, the rest of the schedule paces itself perfectly to possibly stay in the Premier League for a second season.
5) Is Owen Coyle the manager everyone thinks he is? His head was turned early in the summer with all the talk of him possibly moving to Celtic. Obviously he thinks this is the challenge that will make him as a manager. With the way he wowed over the last two seasons, Coyle wants to show he is able to not only keep this side up, but keep them up for years to come.

My Ultimate Reality: I can only call this a gut feeling, but I think Burnley survives by the scruff of their neck. After the early start, they have stretches of games where they can put unbeaten runs together; even if it is just draws. As I mentioned with Birmingham City, I think the magic number is in the mid thirties to survive. Coyle had the element of surprise during the deep cup runs over the last two seasons; he doesn’t have that now. However, I do think Coyle is an excellent motivator and will keep this side up on the last day of the season.

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Premier League Preview Number 18: Birmingham City

06 August 2009

Birmingham City

Biggest Ins: Christian Benitez from Santos Laguna is a proven goal scorer in Mexico. Barry Ferguson and Lee Bowyer should form a decent partnership as the spine of the midfield. Joe Hart coming in on loan should provide him plenty of starting opportunities.

Biggest Outs: I’m going to be honest; it’s difficult to nominate biggest outs based on the fact those who left did so on free transfers or returned to the clubs they were loaned from. Radhi Jaidi and Mehdi Nafti were bound to leave as the midfielders brought in were of a higher class.

Easiest Month: Birmingham City have no true easy month, but the closest one to comfortable is February. They start at home to Wolverhampton before two trips to London, taking on West Ham United and Fulham. They end the month at home to Wigan Athletic. It is possible they could get seven points out of the month.

Toughest Month: January. They host Manchester United and travel away to Chelsea. Between that, Birmingham City travel to Portsmouth. The month ends with a visit from Tottenham. At best, I see Birmingham City getting 2 points from this month.

Five Questions About Birmingham City This Season
1) Has the relationship between ownership and Alex McLeish been patched up? There was talk towards the end of last season they were not on the greatest of terms. However with the spending done this summer, will McLeish shut up and manage; or will McLeish run with the same old same when things go bad?
2) Has Craig Ferguson learned his lesson? At 31, this is his last chance at making an impact for any club. He flourished with McLeish at Rangers and one would assume that Ferguson is ready to return the favor McLeish showed in signing him.
3) Can their close to the vest style of play keep them up? Last year in the Championship they only scored fifty four goals, yet only gave up thirty seven. In forty-six games, they scored more than twice on four different occasion (all four times they scored three goals) and had seven 1-0 wins. Furthermore they had three nil draws and lost one nil five times. Birmingham City could get away with this in the Championship. It won’t work in the Premier League.
4) Who starts in goal? Joe Hart in short spurts played well at Manchester City and looks to be England’s keeper of the future. However Maik Taylor has been around the block or two and has proven to be a valuable asset to the club. One thing McLeish cannot do is rotate.
5) Which pairing up front gives Birmingham City a chance? Christian Benitez will start given his transfer fee, but is it James McFadden or Cameron Jerome who partners him?

My Ultimate Reality: Of the three teams to come into the Premier League this summer, my feeling is McLeish has tried to do too much with this squad to keep them up. The midfield has been completely overhauled and will take time to adjust to each other. I still fear for their goal scoring even with Benitez up top. Good keeping will get them so far, but when it’s all over, I see them being relegated on the last day of the season with a point total somewhere in the mid thirties.

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Premier League Preview Number 19: Hull City

Hull City

Biggest Ins: Seyi Olofinjana is a good box to box midfielder who will provide a positive spine for Hull City. Steven Mouyokolo is a nice young center back who could possibly end up forming a great pairing with Michael Turner.

Biggest Outs: No massive losses for Hull City as they cleaned out some of the extreme fringe players. Sam Ricketts doesn’t exactly set the world alight, and Paul McShane is just as capable at right back to take his place.

Easiest Month: October. Wigan Athletic comes to town before the international break. Hull City then travel to Fulham before hosting Portsmouth, ending the month away to Turf Moor and Burnley. It is possible Hull City can get eight points in October.

Toughest Month: January. After the FA Cup third round proper, Hull City host Chelsea. Two straight road adventures see them go to White Hart Lane and Old Trafford. The Tigers end the month hosting Wolves. At best, Hull City can only get three points… at the end of the month.

Five Questions About Hull City This Season

1) Can Phil Brown keep a set starting eleven and not panic rotate? Once it went downhill for Phil Brown, it was everything he could do to rotate the squad. It killed any chance Hull City had at momentum. If Phil Brown gets off to a slow start and panic rotates, he will lose this dressing room.
2) Has Geovanni’s attitude changed? Let’s be frank about it, it wasn’t exactly the best in the world last year and when he threw his toys out the pram, it led to some seriously awkward moments. If he’s changed his attitude and regains his early season form, Hull City won’t even sink this low in the table. If it is the same as the end of last season, the midfield will be fractured.
3) Do Hull have a reliable keeper? Boaz Myhill doesn’t exactly give confidence at the back for Hull City and it will be up to whatever partnership is in front of him to bail him out.
4) Who is the up front partnership? If I had to guess, it will be Daniel Cousin and Craig Fagan to start the season. Sure Jozy Altidore is coming in, but I don’t see him touching the first team unless Richard Garcia or Caleb Folan are hurt. Other than Cousin, there is really no reliable second option.
5) Which Hull City shows up? Will it be the Hull City side that took the Premier League by storm or will it be the Hull City that made Derby County look like Manchester United? As you will see, I think it’s the latter instead of the former.

My Ultimate Reality: Sorry to depress Tiger fans, but Phil Brown has taken Hull City as far as he can. Sadly, I don’t think Hull City management will be willing to pull the trigger. Yes, they have the talent to stay up, but they don’t have the manager to do so. I think they will end up with something in the high twenties to low thirties, but they will be confirmed to go down before the start of May.

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Premier League Preview Number 20: Portsmouth

05 August 2009

Okay so I'm calling an audible. After starting on the team I thought would finish 20th in the Premier League, it was just better to do these team by team twice a day. So each team until next Friday will be covered as I count down 20-1. I'm sure by the title you can tell who I expect to finish dead last in the Premier League.

Portsmouth

Biggest Ins: Aaron Mokoena from Blackburn Rovers. Mokoena is a slight upgrade from Sean Davis in the holding midfield role. Steve Finnan coming in at right back will provide leadership and a competent replacement to Glen Johnson.

Biggest Outs: Glen Johnson to Liverpool. Johnson is slightly under rated at right back. Sean Davis was a key piece to the midfield; however, Portsmouth were able to find a better replacement.

Easiest Month: January. Fulham will have just come off the UEFA Europa League right into the month of doom. Home times to Birmingham City and West Ham United could yield four points before a trip to Manchester City. Sure the last game of the month isn’t easy, but if they have 5-7 points by then it will be considered a success. That is if they survive…

Toughest Month: December. A home tie to Burnley should see them have a good start. However Portsmouth then goes up the country to Sunderland, followed by a midweek trip to Chelsea. Then they have Liverpool at home before West Ham United away. Two days later, Arsenal will come a calling. They will be lucky to get 3 points out of this month.

Five Questions About Portsmouth This Season
1) How many more will be sold between now and the start of the season? This squad is already thin to begin with, and if players like David James, Niko Kranjcar and John Utaka are sold off, Portsmouth have no chance this season.
2) Will Portsmouth be sold in time for new ownership to make necessary moves to keep the club in the Premier League? The owners as it stands now don’t have the funds to purchase new players. With it getting as close to the start of league play beginning, it will be difficult to secure players on loan.
3) Who scores the goals up front? Frederic Piquionne is coming from League Un, but can his goal scoring form in France translate to England?
4) Can the midfield stay healthy? Ten different players played down the right side and the center of the park, while only six played on the left. There has to be more stability in the midfield this season if Portsmouth want to stay up.
5) Can Paul Hart pull another rabbit out of his hat? Paul Hart went 4-5-5 in his games in charge (17 out of a possible 42 points) and saw them finish fourteenth. However, up until the 3-1 win against Sunderland, Portsmouth were still hanging around the relegation zone. As long as Portsmouth keep a 1.08 points per game average they had under Hart, they should be safe.

My Ultimate Reality: This club is doomed. There is no depth, only one proven Premier League goal scorer in Kanu, and David James is advancing in age. If David James does end up going, this team could very well pull a Derby County. I don’t think it will be that bad, but I see Portsmouth finishing twentieth, just getting 13-18 points with the squad that is assembled as of now.

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Quick Notes

03 August 2009

So my self imposed mini vacation is over. After a summer of fun fun fun for everyone, the fun is over. With the Bundesliga/English Football League starting this Friday, the Premier League starting next Saturday; oh and that little matter known as Mexico v USA at Azteca and on Mun2/Telemundo sandwiched in between, it is time to get down to serious business.

I am hoping to get a guest on the The Third Half Podcast this week to preview the upcoming Bundesliga season. Should I get confirmation of said guest, I will be posting it on my Twitter page. If you haven't followed me, now would be a great time to do so.

As for my previews of the upcoming Barclays Premier League, I'm going back to the method I did last season. All twenty teams, fit into five categories. Those categories: relegation hell, late season survival, mid table mediocrity, the push for Europe and who wins the title.

I will be releasing each section of my preview on the following dates:
Relegation Hell: Wednesday, August 5th
Late Season Survival: Friday, August 7th
Mid Table Mediocrity: Sunday, August 9th
The Push For Europe: Tuesday, August 11th
Who Wins The Title: Thursday, August 13th

Also don't forget to sign up for my Premier League I Know The Score. The code to join the league is FBA7B-ENX.

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About This Blog

Johnathan Starling, the self proclaimed 'most brutally honest man on the net, dishes out his own unique brand of opinions, and analysis on the Premier League, Bundesliga, and all things US Soccer.

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