Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Already, my post from yesterday is outdated. Things are moving so dast, Mertesacker is in at Ashburton Grove, Cahill is definitely not.

So with the planet scouring airports, petrol stations, training grounds and Little Chefs up all over, I thought I'd cut my losses and give you a run down of the rumours for lunchtime along with the chances of them actually happening. May my integrity be judged in future days by what is now written...

Owen Hargreaves - Man City 9/10
Frank Ribery - Chelsea 1/10
Raul Mereiles - Chelsea 3/10
Alvaro Pereira - Chelsea 8/10
Luka Modric - Chelsea 2/10 (0/1,000,000 according to Harry!)
Wilson Palacios - Stoke 9/10
Cameron Jerome - Stoke 6/10
Nicolas Bendtner - Stoke 8/10
Lukaku - Stoke (loan) 0/10 (this is against league rules, apparently)
Peter Crouch - Stoke 3/10
Peter Crouch - Sunderland 3/10
Papiss Demba Cisse - Sunderland 2/10
Papiss Demba Cisse - Newcastle 3/10
Federico Macheda - Newcastle 5/10
Davide Santon - Newcastle CONFIRMED
Craig Bellamy - QPR 5/10
Anton Ferdinand - QPR 5/10
Shaun Wright-Phillips- QPR 7/10
Armand Traore - QPR CONFIRMED
Bryan Ruiz - Fulham 8/10
Zdenik Grygera - Fulham 7/10
Andre Pierre Gignac - Fulham 0/10
Scott Parker - Tottenham 9/10
Lassana Diarra - Tottenham 4/10
Gary Cahill - Tottenham 4/10
Gary Cahill - Arsenal 0/10
Mikel Arteta - Arsenal 1/10
Marvin Martin - Arsenal 4/10
Keisuke Honda - Arsenal 0/10
Per Mertesacker - Arsenal CONFIRMED
Andre Santos - Arsenal CONFIRMED
Park Chu-Young - Arsenal CONFIRMED
Wesley Sneijder - Man Utd 0/10
Yossi Benayoun - Arsenal }
Yossi Benayoun - Tottenham }   9/10 combined
Yossi Benayoun - Liverpool }
Sebastian Coates - Liverpool CONFIRMED
Scott Dann - Blackburn 5/10
Luca Toni - Blackburn 3/10
Yakubu - Blackburn 4/10
Alan Hutton - Aston Villa 8/10
Steven Davies - Aston Villa 7/10
Joe Cole - Aston Villa 4/10
Joe Cole - Lille (loan) 4/10
David Ngog - Bolton 7/10
Nedim Onuoha - Bolton 5/10
Sebastian Bassong - Bolton 2/10
Gerhard Tremmel - Swansea CONFIRMED
Shaun Maloney - Wigan 8/10
Jean Beausejour - Wigan 6/10
Albert Crusat - Wigan CONFIRMED
Eljero Elia - Juventus CONFIRMED
Clint Dempsey - *various 3/10
Sulley Muntari - *various 4/10
Eden Hazard - *anywhere 0/10
Liam Ridgewell - *anywhere 1/10
George Samaras - *anywhere 1/10
Mario Balotelli - *anywhere 0/10

Other tentative rumours: Mauro Zarate linked with a number of clubs including Liverpool and Villa; Bentley may be used as a makeweight by Spurs, likewise Malouda or even Alex by Chelsea; Joseph Yobo might be on the move; much confusion over James Milner, but I can't see anything happening.

Word is that Stoke boss Tony Pulis is currently abroad, and that Spurs are due to make a big name signing today. Swansea are also said to be active.

Think back to last time, Torres £50m? Carrol £35m? Hold on to your swivel chairs.

I leave you with this hilarious report:

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Transfer deadline incoming!

Plenty to write about after a busy Bank Holiday weekend, including my double bill at MK Dons and Watford, and the story of the week - the 8-2 thrashing Arsenal received at the hands of the reigning champions. But its about to get a whole lot busier with just under 36 hours left of the transfer window. With multiple clubs looking desperate to complete the makeup of their squad at this late stage, this is where the focus lies.

Clearly the game's most desperate character today is Arsene Wenger. Since the post published on 15/08 ('You Are What You Spend'), Wenger has signed two players for definite: young Costa Rican striker Joel Young and also
Park Chu-young, a striker from Monaco. However, this last deal hijacked a bid from Lille, who may now be too peturbed to let an agreement come to pass over Belgian winger Eden Hazard. Fenerbahce left back Andre Santos is also to join them for £6.2m, abandoning the troubled ship dealing with match fixing allegations. Great news for Everton who get to keep hold of Leighton Baines for the time being.

It was reported on Friday that Bolton had turned down a bid of £6m for Gary Cahill, apparently insulted by the offer. Wenger has refuted the quoted figure, but in any case, he would have to be a good deal more serious to convince Bolton to sell. It makes sense to start low in making offers, but Arsenal's dire need for a quality defender is obvious - they are far too thin on the ground to last the season and compete for the top four. Gartside doesn't need to sell, Arsenal must make an attractive offer to push this deal through. They might be looking at £12m minimum.

The current theory, however, is that Per Mertesacker is more likely to sign at around £8m. A little surprising actually, given that Mertesacker is not the most mobile. With him partnering Vermaelen though, we could be looking at a different Arsenal, certainly featuring a serious threat from corners, and with Koscielny another option, guarenteed height at the back and finally, at long last some serious defensive cover.

QPR have another kind of urgency. Despite being off the mark with their first win, it has been a shakey start to the season. There is clearly the need for improvement, and it seems quite feasabile that they can. With the Fernandes takeover, funds have been made available to Warnock, and he cleverly snapped up central midfielder Joey Barton. Rangers' physical presence in midfield has been reliant on one of Warnock's right hand men, Shaun Derry. Derry has a great engine on him and has signed a new contract today, but is aging and not greatly experienced at this level. Barton can provide for all of this, and add extra drive to create the chances QPR need. Initial reaction from onlookers had mostly addressed the famous personalities of Barton and Warnock, but it should work well. Barton is far more mature and professional now than he was three or four years ago, and a relentless drive to overcome odds and critics to succeed will be shared between them.

Luke Young from Villa should be another astute signing to shore up a defence in shock with more valuable experience. Warnock has declared a hunt for another 'four or five players at least', so expect to hear more news from Loftus Road by tomorrow. Who else could be on the shortlist? Surely Shaun Wright-Phillips is a potential target, being on the far end of City's conveyor belt of talent. His reserves teammate Roque Santa Cruz is out of the picture after sealing a loan move to Betis, but whether Craig Bellamy is a possibility is unclear. Certainly a player in need of a new home, but one has to wonder whether his joining forces with Barton and Warnock would be cramming too many giant personalities into little Loftus Road's home dressing room. Still, watch this space.

There is much more likely to happen. M'Vila to Arsenal? Possibly, certainly a central midfielder is required there. Benayoun and Malouda remain possibilities, if Chelsea are willing to sell, and another longshot is Mario Goetze. Arsenal are lodging massive bids for him, but Dortmund would need to be pushed an awful long way to sell a young star that made them such a great force last season.

Stoke are likely to be making positive moves (Palacios deal still on, Lukaku on loan more likely than Peter Crouch), Newcastle (Santon from Inter a great potential replacement for Enrique), perhaps Sunderland too (Papiss Demba Cisse from Freiburg for a brave £14m?). Tottenham are always, always active, and one of the latest wealth hotspots of Europe, Anzhi of Russia, might just throw a few spanners in the works - a £25m offer for Vidic has been rumoured!

Either way, keep your eye on this for the next day and a half!

Friday, 26 August 2011

Malcontented in Milton Keynes

Afternoon all. So I'm in Milton Keynes now, and I'm staying here until tomorrow, getting some rest and going to the match - MK Dons vs Stevenage, a true glamour tie. The reason I'm resting here now is this: I am going to attempt to walk to Watford in time for their Sunday game against Birmingham. Yes I'm a glutton for punishment and I couldn't get enough of them following last weekend's goalless draw at Coventry. Apparently its a 32 mile walk and I'll have to do it either side of nightfall and find somewhere to stay in Leighton Buzzard or someplace, should be fun!

Potential route pictured.

So the Champions League draw was made yesterday. Man City got drawn the toughest group of all in Group A, although mostly because they were in pot 3, being new to the Champions League. Bayern and Villarreal were not the hardest teams to get ahead of them, but Napoli from pot 4 will be distraught as they complete the group. Frankly all of these teams could find it tough in what looks to be a close group.

Man United had a different story, as they face Benfica again, and need to overcome Basel and Otelui Galati (who I confess to never having heard of). Chelsea have Valencia, Bayer Leverkusen and Belgian champions Racing Genk, not a straightforward challenge but a manageable one none the less. Arsenal face Marsille, Olympiakos and Dortmund, perhaps a more evenly matched group, as the other strong side from pot 4 is drawn against another English hopeful. Arsenal would be disappointed not to advance, though.

But the big guns were all drawn in Group H. One by one they came out, first pot: Barca; second pot: Milan; third pot..... BATE Borisov. Viktoria Plzen of Czech Republic completes the group. And herein lies my problem with UEFA's system.

The seedings for these draws are decided by coefficients that set teams into seperate 'pots' from which they are picked. The coefficients are a points system, based partly on the quality of the domestic league a team comes from, via that nation's club's past performance, but mostly by the club's own performance in European competition over the last 5 years. If a team is new to European competition, they will have a very low coefficient, and can expect a tough draw in any group.

Not that there should be a problem with this. 'New' teams like City should not be offered a helping hand into the upper echelons of Continental competition. Of course, teams need to prove themselves to push further through a tournament. However, it leaves an uncomfortable feeling when you look at the group stage as a whole. Six matches for each team, and when it comes down to the draw, Manchester United are looking down the pots and grinning. They will avoid all the big sides until February at least. Only Milan sticks out as a potential obstacle, but they have a one in seven chance of drawing them (Inter's group cannot face them because of the national rule). Valencia may be tough, but over two games, United should get the better of them.

Beyond this, the only potential problems are a couple of strong teams recently absent to Europe: Napoli and Dortmund. They succesfully avoid them for one of the cannon fodder teams in the draw, Galati (I say this making assumptions, but reasonable ones). Another filler team fills in the third spot.

Now when Barca got drawn against Milan, there were sharp intakes of breath all round. Group of Death prospects were premature. It would have taken Dortmund and probably Lille to stir things up. Napoli could not have joined the group because Milan are also Italian. As it transpired, Group A is the toughest group, not because it contains multiple favourites for the tournament, but because the teams are of a good standard but closely matched.

The point is, it is almost impossible to be drawn a truely challenging group where the seeded team is put to the test at all. The seeding system is set up heavily in their favour, and if a newcomer from a strong league appears, they are prevented from having to face them. For every Milan there are seven CSKA Moscows, for every Napoli there are three APOEL Nicosias.

So if the other teams are worth anything, why aren't they moving up the pots? The reason being there is no mobility in this set up. By this I mean the football equivalent to 'social mobiliy' - the possibility for a well run club to improve and compete with previously higher ranked teams. Even before the prize money by round is considered, it seems as if UEFA are actively trying to keep any different clubs from making the knock out stages. Take Ajax for example, a big club fallen on hard times, largely due to the standard of Eredivisie. They are drawn against Real Madrid for the second year running, this time facing Lyon instead of AC Milan. Does that mean this is their opportunity? Lyon have made it to the knock out stages every year for the last eight years. They have found their place. It seems that place is not for Ajax.

Many would like to see an FA Cup style draw, completely at random. This certainly contains the excitement the Champions League sometimes lacks, but others raise the point that the latter stages could contain some rather mediocre teams, if they get the luck of the draw. This is a fairly unlikely outcome that we would be seeing Zenit St. Petersburg make it to the final to face Barcelona, but it is understandable that everyone wants to see the better teams face off in the latter stages.

The problem is that it is being decided in advance who is the 'best'. A lot of presumptions are being made by fans and UEFA are acting on it. In essence, a season of no surprises is perfect for them, in terms of profitability. But what football fan wants that? The 'best' team should be decided on the pitch on the day, and nowhere else. Actively trying to pitt the recently strongest teams against the recently weakest teams dilutes the competitive nature of this competition.

It would at least be helpful if the coefficient system actually took account of who teams lost to. If Benfica come third with six points, they will be rewarded exactly the same as BATE if they achieve the same record. And when you add the large sums of money awarded to the teams advancing each round, it simply acts as a cement to secure the dominance of the big clubs for future years.

Either way, the reality is that UEFA want to make the most money possible from running this ship, and that way is to get Barca, Real and English teams into the final, with Bayern and the Milan teams as a sideshow. Anything else is lost profits.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

So I go to Coventry by Saturday in time for the worst game of the weekend, a bore draw vs Watford. There were chances but the keepers were the best players on the pitch. Frankly neither team will be doing anything tremendous this season.

On I press then with some words on the Premiership last weekend.

By the way, when short on time, I may omit some detail on several games i order to get some more detailed analysis on others. Being midweek, these reviews assume some knowledge of the weekend's results, allowing some more meaningful words on selected talking points, all in a readable length.

Anyone watching Man City this season has to wonder just what they might be capable of. Seven goals in three games now, Dzeko is scoring, Silva is looking like easily one of the best attacking players in the league, and altogether a different approach from Roberto Mancini. City finally look serious about attacking, and its paying off so far, as it should with the resources they have. But these things are never as simple as a matter of resources, so all at the club should be pleased with the start so far. Even Gareth Barry was seen rocketing home a 25 yarder from a cheekily cut back corner, which he clearly enjoyed. If anyone was guilty of not producing, it was the previous weekend's star Aguero, who might have got another two himself.

Of course, Swansea...Bolton...hardly the litmus test for title winning teams. But do not underrate Bolton. They showed real character to get back into the game at 2-0 down after some serious backs-to-the-wall punishment and may have taken this further had Zat Knight not been guilty of some poor decision making to restore City's two goal lead. Normally when your front two both score, it counts as a good day, and this will be of value to Ivan Klasnic and Kevin Davies, as Bolton set out to improve on last season's 14th place finish without the benefit of Daniel Sturridge, who appears at risk of wasting away at Chelsea.

A look at Everton's worries and reaction from Man United's convincing home win against Tottenham to come very soon.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Weekend Review part 2

Part 2 of the Weekend Review...

Probably the most impressive performance of the weekend goes to Man City who in time demolished a reasonable looking set of Swansea Premiership debutants. Of course the headlines go to £38m signing Sergio Aguero who grabbed two goals and an assist. Surely he will be the ready made replacement for Tevez, swapping a little combative aggression for stylish grace. A long season looms ahead though, and he wouldn't be the first big name signing to fizzle away over the season for City. Hopefully Swansea won't take the scoreline to heart. Its unlikely they will disappear without a major fight - manager Brendan Rogers is full of promise.

The same scoreline hit home two days earlier for fellow newbies QPR. Their first appearance in the top flight in a decade and a half began painfully. Warnock's men were gradually belittled by an on-form Bolton, who opened the scoring with a wonderful strike from young centre-back Gary Cahill. Surely Bolton are too organised and talented now under Owen Coyle to become embroiled in a relegation battle, but those who tipped QPR for a surprise run must now be thinking things over.

The only promoted side to come away with a point was Norwich, who earned it in a hard fought tie with Wigan. Hardly a glamour fixture, this was overlooked by many, but who would doubt that these two could be competing for a Premiership place for 2012/13 come May? The Canaries will have to earn better results over the year, but a point away from home must always be considered a comfortable start.

One of the performances of the weekend must go to Shay Given who shut out Fulham for 90 minutes. This is a tremendous signing for Villa, but more must come from elsewhere to push them into the top half. Their fans must be hopeful of a busy fortnight in the transfer window, as the squad has some quality but further into the season could be relying heavily on the youth team. However good it may be, they will need some help from experienced heads.

Quite the opposite could be said for another debutante. Gervinho managed to get himself sent off in a disappointing opener against Newcastle. As mentioned before, Arsenal too need to get some signings in before the month is out. More and more pundits are tipping Arsenal to fall out of the top 4 this year, but will this pressure manifest itself in Wenger in any fashion? Without Fabregas and Nasri, and a host of players out for Saturday's tie against Liverpool, who are desperate now for Champions League football, this is likely to remain a major topic for weeks to come.

Along with the Arsenal game then, the North East derby is also set for an early kick off, before Everton open their season with a winnable home tie against QPR. Swansea will try to comeback against Wigan who are facing another relegation candidate in a potentially key early season fixture. Villa host Blackburn with both sides looking for a victory to kickstart their season, and the same goes for Chelsea, at home to West Brom at 17.30. A real testing start for the Baggies, if they can push Chelsea as far as they did Manchester United, they should take pride in it.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Weekend roundup 1: part 1

Well I made it to Birmingham. This is horrendous, I basically walked along the M6 and all its spectacular scenery, and got stupidly tired having made only made 9 miles progress. Birmingham's actually alright these days so I'll temper any insults I'm inclined to throw around haphazard.

I've moved on since then though. I'm heading to Coventry in time for the match at home to Watford. I've never been to the Ricoh before so I'm quite excited.

To fill you in on some details, I've budgeted mainly for Euro 2012 and tickets to any games I pass en route to Poland. The rest of my money is reserved for a little alcohol, and if necessary, food. My luggage is a laptop and a few changes of clothes, all stuffed into a large rucksack. I have made some tenuous arrangements for overnight accomodation, which so far is running smoothly.

Anyway, I shall press on with the season's first (and somewhat delayed) Weekend Review

For some time over the weekend it looked like a dour opening for the established top 6. Nothing could be more disappointing than a cancelled first game because the locality is suddenly too much of a disaster area. But fizzling out to a 1-1 draw at home to Sunderland was hardly the dreamy start Liverpool had in mind after their summer spending spree. Not to take anything away from Sunderland - Steve Bruce seems to be forming a solid team who should be expected to finish top half. What Liverpool can take heart from is that in Luis Suarez they appear to have one of the finest attackers in the Premiership, certainly with the ball at his feet.

Similar news for Chelsea on Sunday. The one positive they can take away from a 0-0 at Stoke (other than a point) is that Torres looked far sharper than he did over the second half of last season. No surprises of course that AVB had something to say about the physical nature of the Potters.
Again, Stoke too look like a tough prospect that should last the course of the season. Especially at the Britannia, but if Chelsea can't win there on a mild Sunday afternoon...

For those who are curious by the way, teams with scheduled midweek evening away fixtures at the Britannia:

31/10 Newcastle
28/11 Blackburn

Just the two, until games are moved due to weather or European competition. Presumably Blackburn are best built to deal with that wet and windy November evening, unless they go signing some Hollywood player in their mid-thirties. Raul rejected a move to Rovers after their 2-1 home defeat to Wolves. Not hard to comprehend, really. Venky's are trying to show more ambition than Man City but have got a long way to go yet. Clearly Samba and Nelson are two massive players to be missing together on the opening day, so alarm bells may be premature, but Blackburn would be best advised to focus on securing their Premiership status. If they have this money to spend offering contracts to Ronaldinho and the rest, why not sign a couple of proven and reliable attacking/creative players, rather than aged superstars with perhaps 1-2 seasons left in them?

Manchester United were a little more impressive than most of their rivals, themselves fielding a younger side. It's the cusp of a new generation, but it was new signing Ashley Young, now a relatively experienced player, who broke the deadlock with a tremendous run and drilled cross, which fortuitously deflected in. The main question for them hangs over the creativity in central midfield, with a lack of quality and consistensy in stark contrast to the riches they have on the wings. Young, Nani, Valencia, Park... how strange that former wideman Giggs may be relied upon at the ripe old age of 37 to move the ball to his modern replacements. Time will tell, but a steady three points should be good enough for Sir Alex. Few would bet against them at this early stage.

Tomorrow I will be looking at perhaps their new closest rivals Man City, as well as all the newly promoted clubs. For now, though, back on my feet.
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Monday, 15 August 2011

You Are What You Spend

So, to confirm, I am leaving Walsall by foot tonight and heading for the continental mainland. First stop: Birmingham!

But my ill advised life choices aside, todays big news is the conclusion of the painful transfer saga that takes Cesc Fabregas back to his hometown club Barcelona, after 8 years, 303 games and 57 goals for Arsenal. The whole ordeal was a matter of when, not if, but raises two points of debate: the conduct of the transfer and the future of Arsene and Arsenal.

The fee to add one of the finest midfielders in the Premiership to the finest footballing side in the world? Up to £35m, with only £25.4m coming initially. The rest is split between Cesc himself, contributing over his 5 year contract, and Barca depending on winning a very conceivable 2 la Ligas and 1 Champions League trophy over the same period. Not a snip exactly, but for all the hype its not a big ask in the current market either. Not for a 24 year old world class midfielder.

The truth is, Wenger knew there was no other option. This was clear many months ago but Wenger's pride may have be come an obstacle. Barca were initially offering £30m according to various reports, and refusing to bid any higher to edge closer to Arsenal's £40m valuation. To an outsider, it appeared he was not an essential signing for Barca (as if anyone is). Perhaps this is why the delay ensued.

The methods used by Barca were unsavoury to many. Arsenal expressed their willingness to sell, but the press releases, tweets and that post world cup photo turned the pressure on North London.

What this highlighted is the lack of power a selling club has when the player wants out, and the insignificance of player contracts.

The opposite may now apply to Wenger, as it is he who now needs players, and it is the selling clubs that can hold him to ransome. To make matters worse, even before the imminent sale of Nasri, the obvious problems of last season - lack of an experienced goalkeeper and a reliable defence - have not been addressed. Given has gone begging, even Wes Brown it could be argued was an opportunity. Cahill, Jagielka, Samba and Dann so far remain elusive seemingly because Wenger has not been prepared to pay the asking price for the right players.

Hypocrasy perhaps? The only difference being that Arsene hasn't used the cheekier tools at his disposal to unsettle a player as Barca have. Perhaps the lack of recent success nullifies this option, but the fact remains,if Arsenal want to be seen as a big club, they will have to spend as one.
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Euro 2012 is...nearly round the corner

Ok so not actually close, but this blog is set up in anticipation, something I have too much of. So much so that I've decided to drop my life, my job at Nando's, my horribly detached family, my indifferent friends, and walk across the continent to Warsaw by the 8th of June 2012. Can't miss the opening ceremony.

With ample time I should be able to drop by some of the great sites of European football, and bring you regular reviews from the domestic game in the mean time.

So I'm ready