Bank on him…
Newcastle’s defence has probably gone under the radar in recent weeks. But perhaps it’s time to give them their dues now the Joey Barton soap opera has moved onto Loftus Road. The Magpies have opened their Premier League account with back-to-back clean sheets. What used to be a problem and source of constant humour for Newcastle has no turned into something of a positive.
Reliable entities such as Tim Krul, Danny Simpson and Fabricio Coloccini are all good fantasy purchases but Ryan Taylor has muscled his way into the limelight. Taylor normally plies his trade at right-back and has found the ever-present Simpson immovable in recent years. But José Enrique’s departure has seen him fill in at left-back and he’s performed admirably.
Taylor’s biggest attribute is his devastating free-kick and this past week saw him score in not one but two dead ball situations. The first against Sunderland in the derby gave them all three points in the league and he followed that up with an equaliser against Scunthorpe in the Carling Cup which took them to extra time.
Taylor currently tops the list of defenders in the Fantasy Premier League with 18 points alongside namesake Steven. S Taylor (£4.5m) has had two three point bonuses but R Taylor’s (£4.1m) ability to curl a ball up and over a wall and into the net makes him a very plausible option. Newcastle have Fulham at home this week before a trip to QPR so both Taylors look good value for their third and fourth successive league clean-sheets. Ryan Taylor will continue to fill in at left-back providing Alan Pardew doesn’t sign a left-back before next Thursday so get him whilst he’s relatively cheap.
Roll the dice…
Everton are still the only Premier League team yet to dip into the transfer market this summer and could conceivably let the window shut without making any additions. The lack of funds will give those within the squad a chance to nail down first team spots as David Moyes has a small squad and he already has injury concerns. Séamus Coleman, a stand-out star last term, is out for a while and there are doubts over Tim Cahill, Jermaine Beckford and Magaye Gueye for this weekend’s game.
The Toffees didn’t get off to the brightest start. They were beaten by QPR, an ‘upset’ which many saw coming given Everton’s static stance this off-season and their history of slow starts. But there was a modicum of joy for Moyes and that came in the form of the performance of 17-year-old Ross Barkley.
“I’ve said to the players in the dressing room that I was disappointed with most of them, but not Ross he played well,” said Moyes.
“He needs a big pat on the back, because he’s not long 17.”
There is plenty of excitement about the development of Barkley and a genuine sense that he will be the finest talent to emerge from Goodison Park since a certain Wayne Rooney. The inevitable comparisons with him are futile, particularly given Barkley’s position, but he did give another glimpse into the reasoning behind the hype against Sheffield United on Tuesday, contributing two assists in a 3-1 win.
He is excellent value at £5m and there are several reasons to like him. The small squad and current injuries to the likes of Coleman mean Barkley is likely to see plenty of playing time. He is a confident player, good with both feet and not afraid to take a shot when an opportunity presents itself. David Moyes is protective of his youngsters but he won’t be afraid to utilise Barkley. Based on the strength of his first two performances, he may have no choice.
One to avoid…
Brad Friedel’s inclusion at Manchester United on Monday seems to have provided a definitive answer to the question of whether he would be Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp’s number one over Heurelho Gomes. The American put in a typical sturdy performance and it is unlikely that Redknapp will reinstall the erratic Gomes.
Friedel (£5.5m) is a reliable performer and Spurs do keep plenty of clean sheets but the time to choose him is not right before they face the irresistible Manchester City. United notched up three goals on Monday night and Friedel prevented them from grabbing plenty more, making a mammoth 13 saves. That earned him four points but you do not want your keeper that active every week. City have helped themselves to seven goals in the past two games and Samir Nasri has joined the cavalry to provide yet another attacking option for Roberto Mancini.
Carlos Tévez could start, Sergio Agüero and David Silva have started on fire and Edin Džeko looks like an entirely different prospect from the one which toiled last season. Brad Friedel may be a good option in the long run but don’t acquire him this week. If he’s already amongst your ranks, show him to his seat on the bench.
You can follow me on Twitter @liamblackburn.
“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future”
On the eve of the forthcoming Premier League season I have, like many others, foolishly left myself open to mockery and abuse by predicting this season’s big winners and losers. Still given the dominance of the ‘Big Four’ and the belief that it’ll be the usual names in the usual places, it should be easy, right? Maybe I should have used this quote to open instead:
“The groundhog is like most prophets; it delivers its prediction then disappears”
If you don’t hear from me come May you’ll know why…
CHAMPIONS = CHELSEA
Last time around the pitfalls appeared greater. January’s African Cup of Nations was supposed to upset the applecart and if that didn’t Michael Essien’s injury looked set to. But they soldiered on and when the title race really got going, Carlo Ancelotti’s men found the extra gear first. Their form at the end of the season was sublime and it bodes well for this season too. Ricardo Carvalho’s loss won’t be felt particularly hard with the excellent Branislav Ivanović a more than adequate replacement. Essien’s return only strengthens the league’s best midfield which won’t lose its aura even with Joe Cole and Michael Ballack’s departures. Ballack’s performances were steadily declining and Ancelotti has never taken a shine to Cole. Ramires will surely be an upgrade on Jon Obi Mikel and look for Daniel Strurridge to push on this year too; he has all the raw attributes to be a great player.The interesting situation will arise at right back. Ancelotti’s diamond formation does hinge on the production of his two full backs and José Bosingwa’s return from a serious injury will be something to monitor. Question marks remain about his defensive capabilties but Ivanović has proved adept in that slot too should Bosingwa fail to make an impression.
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE PLACES = MANCHESTER UNITED, ARSENAL, MANCHESTER CITY
Chelsea’s challengers remain strong but are still half a step behind. It is United who look likely to be their closest threat once more. For all their positives they did look frail and toothless when Wayne Rooney was out of the side last year. The hype around Chicarito is intoxicating but Dimitar Berbatov needs to finally justify his hefty price tag. Sir Alex Ferguson has done little to strength the midfield which may be their downfall. Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes cannot play every week and Owen Hargreaves’ continued absence meant Ferguson really needed to purchase an attacking midfielder and/or a strong anchorman. I expect Nani to really excel this year and some predictions indicating that they will fall outside of the top four are wide of the mark.
Arsène Wenger has addressed a glaring weakness by getting Marouane Chamakh and IF Robin van Persie can stay fit, they could be Chelsea’s biggest contenders. However I still have question marks about their ability to beat the big sides. They can’t win games ugly, they are susceptible to counter-attacking football and the naivety which has haunted them in the past shows no signs of leaving just yet. United, Chelsea and Barcelona all tore them to shreds last year. They remain a young, inexperienced team and even though they have kept hold of Cesc Fàbregas they still lack the leadership and know-how of Wenger’s previous title winning teams. The purists would love them to be crowned champions but they lack a steely resolve to beat the very best.
Preseason predictions and Premier League discussions never seem to veer far away from Manchester City. Few seem to be tipping them for the title but there are plenty predicting they can break into the top four and cause serious problems for the very best. I am among the believers. They have surpassed Aston Villa and Everton (taking some of their best players in the process) and now they have bigger fish to fry. City simply have too much money and too much talent to miss out on the Champions League again. After missing out on Kaka, Roberto Mancini has rightly targeted the next tier of quality players. Jérôme Boateng, Mario Balotelli and Aleksandar Kolarov are all young talents with blossoming reputations. Yaya Touré and David Silva, along with Balotelli, have been around extremely successful teams and know what it takes to win trophies. Time will be the biggest obstacle in Mancini’s path because it is a luxury he isn’t afforded. The owners have proved they are willing to pull the trigger quickly and Mancini needs to make sure he’s in prime position by Christmas or he could endure the same fate as Mark Hughes.
EUROPA LEAGUE = LIVERPOOL, TOTTENHAM, EVERTON
Liverpool will be better under Roy Hodgson but this may be more of a rebuilding year as Hodgson clears the deadwood. Spurs have done little to improve on last year’s team and you have to think City will overtake them particularly with Tottenham enjoying Champions League football and all its trimmings. Everton could do even better than 7th with Mikel Arteta and Phil Jagielka back this year. Goals may be a problem though, Louis Saha has persistent injury problems, Yakubu blows hot and cold and I’m not sure Jermaine Beckford is Premier League quality. The uncertainty of both player personnel and the next managerial appointment at Aston Villa should result in a drop in performance.
SURPRISE PACKAGE = BOLTON WANDERERS
Bolton are always a tricky team to beat and they have a good nucleus. Jussi Jääskeläinen, Gary Cahill, Fabrice Muamba and Kevin Davies represent a strong core and manager Owen Coyle looks destined for big things. Matthew Taylor had a superb season last year and the free signing of Martin Petrov adds some real creativity and an attacking threat. There’s little chance Bolton can achieve European qualification but a top half finish looks very achievable. Of the group of those who dodged relegation last season they look most likely to make the next step up. Coyle is certainly a shrewd operator and I believe Petrov could well go on to be the best bit of business a Premier League side did this summer.
RELEGATION = BLACKPOOL, WEST BROM, WIGAN
The critics are unanimous in their belief that Blackpool are merely on a sight-seeing tour of the top tier. Some sides, like Hull and Wigan, have stayed up and defied the odds but Blackpool’s squad possesses no Premier League experience (excluding Jason Euell) and their manager is a novice here too. Ian Holloway will ensure they are plucky and fight in each game but I don’t expect them to spring any surprises.
Playing great football and earning all the plaudits, West Brom will lure us all into a sense of déjà vu as they head straight back down again. Roberto Di Matteo’s squad is packed full of players who look like world beaters in the Championship but fail to make the step up. It would be nice to see them buck the trend but they are still miles behind West Ham, Fulham and Birmingham and Mick McCarthy has enough knowledge of relegation dog fights to ensure Wolves don’t get dragged under again this time around. Once again West Brom will live up to their yo-yo tag and cash in those all too familiar parachute payments. Of course they’ll be back in 12 months with the same crop of players, the same style and the same results.
Wigan really look like relegation fodder this time around. I stated last year that I believed they would be one of the more fascinating teams to watch due to Roberto Martínez’s arrival. Wigan over-performed under Steve Bruce and without Amr Zaki, Antonio Valencia, Emily Heskey and Wilson Palacios; I thought Martínez faced an uphill struggle. He did well to keep the team up but they were wildly unpredictable. They lost 9-1 to Spurs, 8-0 to Chelsea and 5-0 to United despite beating Arsenal and Chelsea at home. They also had the worst defensive record of a team ever to stay up in the Premier League. Had it not been for Portsmouth’s financial issues they may well have joined Burnley and Hull City in the Championship this year. Only Liverpool and Manchester City have more foreigners in their squad than Wigan right now, an issue they must resolve before September swings around. Titus Bramble and Paul Scharner, both regulars last term, are gone. Meanwhile Charles N’Zogbia has applied the stamp and is licking the envelope which contains his transfer request. Even if they manage to keep hold of Hugo Rodallega and Maynor Figueroa, they look likely to drop out of the league.
So there you have it, my tips for the top, the bottom and the surprising package in-between. It’s always interesting to see just how wrong you are when May comes around and these predictions make you look rather foolish. So I’m off to put money on Wigan sneaking a Europa League place and Bolton imploding on their way to the Championship. There’s nothing quite like hedging your bets.