Premier League: Teams Hopes and Fears

Premier League is back!

First blog posting in how many weeks. Someone pinged me during the week asking what was the story? The story is that this site is not a full time thing, it is a part time / hobby interest and for the last couple of months, I have been undertaking certification in PSM I and Financial Investment (CFA Investment Foundations). All passed with flying colors but the same cannot be said for the runners and riders who take to the start line for the commencement of the English Premier League. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the hopes, the fears and expectations of each side.

Arsenal:

The hope: secure top four football next season.

The fear: defensive and goalkeeping vulnerabilities exposed against the top teams; lack of leadership due to player departures in the off season. Can Pepe deliver immediately?

The expectation: Solid start to the season. An exciting strike force which should produce goals, the question marks are defensively and whether David Luiz in particular can provide the leadership and nous to settle the side in the key games against the top teams.

Aston Villa:

The hope: survival in the top flight. Home form is paramount. Tom Heaton signing was an astute buy, defensively upgraded after that deal.

The fear: Will the side be the Fulham of last season? Massive investment on numerous players who are unproven in the league. Will Dean Smith get the time to gel the side together before being given the dreaded vote of confidence by the board.

The expectation: Big club. Jack Grealish will provide the inspiration for Villa and I see them just about staying up despite squad depth issues midseason. John McGinn and Conor Hourihane could be prospective targets for the better teams come January; expect them to make an immediate impact.

AFC Bournemouth:

The hope: keeping Callum Wilson fit and healthy. Ryan Fraser to continue his good form of last season. Home form solid and away counter attack potent to nick points on the road.

The fear: defensively were stretched to breaking point last season; have the reinforcements at the club sufficient quality? Nathan Ake is a major cog in this side. Any injury or suspension for Ake and the side are in trouble.

The expectation: established side in the top flight; a good early start is essential, fancy Bournemouth for a top ten position this season.

Brighton & Hove Albion:

The hope: new manager, new ideas, new ethos, new philosophy. Potter will aim to excite the fans with an expansive style of play. Early wins should solidify his situation; otherwise could be in trouble and an early candidate for the push.

The fear: A poor start to the season. After their ruthless sacking of Chris Hughton, Potter could follow and the club could spiral out of control with a new manager with more new ideas to throw to the mix.

The expectation: The Maupay deal is make or break for the club. Glenn Murray dependency last season for goals was huge. Maupay has the talent and whether he can bring that form from Brentford to the top flight is another story. Relegation dogfight, will just about survive with a new manager in charge come the end of the season.

Burnley:

The hope: after a trying last season where injuries, lack of form and unusually generous defensive gaffes plunged the team into a relegation dogfight, it is hoped that this season will see a much improved side.

The fear: Squad depth is tight, hard working unit but the question remains on the goals front. Who will score?

The expectation: Sean Dyche will be focused on a good start to the season; no European football to contend with which hindered the side early doors. Mid to lower mid table is achievable. Turf Moor fortress will secure the forty points required.

Chelsea:

The hope: Frank Lampard era. The Chelsea playing legend returns to the Bridge, looking to galvanize the side.

The fear: The transfer embargo. Departure of Hazard who is huge, key player for the club last term. The owner and his thoughts on the club will be interesting as the season progresses.

The expectation: Early season form due to the new managerial arrive will make way for some trying results. The defensive side of the team looks vulnerable. Cahill and Luiz left the club; two solid professionals. Sixth place position for Chelsea.

Crystal Palace:

The hope: Wilfred Zaha’s head space is on point from this weekend. The player wanted out of the club but failed to secure a move away from Selhurst Park. He carries the attacking threat. Palace better hope that Zaha lights it up and secures as many points to forty before January before he goes to another club then.

The fear. Wilfred Zaha attitude. The squad need the player to deliver, a job for Roy Hodgson to energize and cajole the player.

The expectation: Palace and goals are always a problem. Apart from Michy last season, who else stood up along with Zaha upfront? Sufficient squad depth to just about survive but it won’t be pretty.

Everton:

The hope: more investment, more players, more potential and squad competition. Can Silva galvanize the new signings and make a concerted bid for top six this term?

The fear: the new acquisitions need time to settle. Are Everton defensively solid to keep clean sheets early in the season? The jury is out.

The expectation: Top eight position again beckons for Everton. Silva may be put under pressure early if the results are not good.

Leicester City:

The hope: Brendon Rodgers era. Attacking football philosophy, playing to Vardy’s strengths with early quick ball behind defenses.

The fear: Harry Maguire departure. There should be sufficient coverage with the likes of Evans in the squad but Maguire was a huge player for the club in previous seasons.

The expectation: Top ten finish for me. Leicester City have pace to burn on the flanks. If Vardy hits form early, there should be no relegation worries.

Liverpool:

The hope: can they go one better than last season? So agonizingly close. The players could not give anymore; the hesistation in January 2019 was decisive.

The fear: squad depth, interesting fixture calendar for Liverpool with the World Club championship in December. Can the squad sufficiently balance another competition to an already hectic calendar?

The expectation: unless City are taken off their perch, Liverpool are destined to be second again. They are the side who could topple City but need to take four points off City to secure the title.

Manchester City:

The hope: an incredible domestic season. Can they deliver this dominance in the Champions League? Keeping key players fit in the season. Sane out for seven months is an ominous start to the campaign.

The fear: Keeping key players fit in the season. Sane out for seven months is an ominous start to the campaign.

The expectation: they are the side to be beaten this season again. Pep and the squad are the best. The clear favorite again but a slip in form like in December could still happen.

Manchester United:

The hope: Harry Maguire signing is the catalyst to provide more stability at the back, improve the passing game from the back to boot.

The fear: lack of signings in central midfield and attacking positions. Herrera and Lukaku gone so the onus falls on the young squad players like McTominay and Greenwood to deliver.

The expectation: squad depth deadwood to be exposed at various points of the season. A sneaky top four if United beat Chelsea this weekend; otherwise Ole is under pressure along with Ed Woodward.

Newcastle United:

The hope: Mike Ashley leaves the club.

The fear: Mike Ashley stays at the club.

The expectation: Relegation dogfight. Wily Steve Bruce needs results past given his managerial resume which included a stint at Sunderland. The squad looks exposed if injuries play a part. Who scores the goals upfront with the likes of Perez gone to Leicester? Relegation beckons.

Norwich City:

The hope: Carrow Road fortress.

The fear: Squad effort not in doubt, squad quality is.

The expectation: Farke strikes me as a measured manager but he will have his work cut out for survival. Decent quality but don’t look like keeping enough clean sheets and scoring enough goals. A baptism of fire at Anfield tonight. Damage limitation. If they are thumped tonight, then they are doomed. Relegation.

Sheffield United:

The hope: Bramall Lane is a fortress. The home support is vocal and make an intimidating atmosphere.

The fear: Lack of goals becomes an issue early and often.

The expectation: Out of the promoted sides, Sheffield United may impress early doors but squad depth issues may surface. If sides can cope with Sheffield United uptempo game in the opening half of games, then Sheffield United could get picked off. Brave attempt to stay in the league but fear that they may be relegated.

Southampton:

The hope: new manager has had the summer to part his football ethos to the squad; got rid of Charlie Austin and Matt Targett surprisingly to spook the rest of the squad to perform.

The fear: If Danny Ings gets injured, who takes on the goalscoring mantle? Long is honest as the day is long but the goal / appearance ratio is low.

The expectation: Difficult season if Redmond fails to fire early doors. Just about will survive. The youth setup at the club will come to the club’s aid once more.

Tottenham:

The hope: Pochettino has a settled squad, no major squad inclusions and the side will look to rebound from the disappointment of the Champions League final. The first full season at the Lane; home form paramount.

The fear: The lack of transfer activity in the summer defensively. Trippier departure means that squad depth must deliver early. Can Dele be the key player for the club in midfield given Eriksen and an impending departure from the club in January?

The expectation: Flirting with a title race but will sit in third place again. Pochettino will look for pastures new come the end of the season.

Watford:

The hope: continue the good form of last season; early form was the platform. The attacking threat with Deeney and Success should pose issues for sides.

The fear: The chopping and changing at the club. What happens if there is an indifferent start to the season? Garcia immediately on the backfoot.

The expectation: Top ten position. Watford have sufficient quality to stay in the division yet not in the mix for top eight.

West Ham United:

The hope: the squad will galvanized after the departure of Marko. The squad looks settled for the most part and the emergence of Declan Rice as a leader this season. Felipe Anderson will be a key threat.

The fear: the love / hate relationship of the fans with the owners could influence matters on the pitch. An indifferent start to the season – take note.

The expectation: Midtable position again. Squad form inconsistencies key throughout the season.

Wolverhampton:

The hope: continue the form and quality of last season, an incredible debut season in the top flight. The football on show was sublime at times.

The fear: Europa League commitments means extra strain on the team. Burnley had challenges last season. Will the same fate fall on Wolves?

The expectation: Top eight / top ten berth would be considered a successful second season. Attacking qualities will pose opposition problems.

UEFA Champions League Final: Key Talking Points (Preview)

The waiting is finally over. Madrid. June 1st, 2019. An All England UEFA Champions League final showpiece between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the fixture, identifies the key talking points leading into this fixture.

Does Harry Kane start?

For me, the answer would be no but whether Mauricio Pochettino thinks so is an entirely different question. Kane is a potent striker but there are questions on match fitness here. If he is to start, then it is a massive gamble as if it is not fully right, an early substitution would derail Tottenham.

The performances of Moura and Son in this tournament have been excellent. Both players have pace to burn and would pose serious questions for Liverpool’s defensive back four. Pochettino has to trust his squad tonight, pick the players who are fully fit and ready to do a job. Kane can be left in reserve and brought on in the second half to score the vital goal.

Tottenham formation?

It is a tricky question to answer. There are issues in the full back positions for Tottenham to address. Can Rose and Trippier provide sufficient defensive cover from the threat of Mane to allow Tottenham to go three at the back? Mane and Salah are going to rotate and probe on the flanks all night and can Robertson and Alexander-Arnold provide the attacking threat to overwhelm the Tottenham flanks?

Liverpool midfield?

It is an area of the park that Liverpool have excelled in this season. Henderson, Fabinho, Wynaldum and Milner have provided the side with stability defensive while also supporting the front three consistently all season. You then add the likes of Oxlade-Chamberlain who is looking to impress and you have serious competition for those starting three midfield berths.

Milner is going to feature tonight, expect him to start ahead of Henderson who will be summoned to close out the contest. It is a tough, tough call for Klopp to make. Someone in this midfield engine room is going to be disappointed by the omission.

Liverpool Front Three

This is where the final is won or lost tonight for Liverpool. Firminho needs to be fully match fit and be on it from the opening minute. His work rate without the ball sets the tone for others around him to press. Mane and Salah can then look to probe more on the flanks to exploit Tottenham.

Will Daniel Sturridge provide a key cameo tonight? Firminho for me may only go sixty / seventy minutes tonight given his injury issues as of late. Sturridge is the type of player who revels in occasions such as tonight. Do not be surprised if Sturridge popped up and scored the winner?

Managerial Composure

The cup final record of Klopp is poor (lost last six finals). Pochettino has never won a managerial honor to date despite his excellent managerial resume. Can Klopp control his emotion enough tonight to allow his side to impress? Can Pochettino trust his squad to execute the game plan, stay compact for the opening hour to potentially allow Harry Kane to come on and win the final?

Verdict

As a neutral tonight, I am hoping for an early goal to set the tie alight. This final could get increasingly cagey and nervy otherwise. Liverpool will enter the final as warm favorites but I expect Tottenham to come into the fixture with no pressure and with Eriksen, they have a match winner in their ranks. If Tottenham Hotspur can keep in the game after sixty minutes, they are my tip to win with Kane to come off the bench and score the winner!

Euro 2020 Qualification Draw Reflections

Republic of Ireland up against it

When the Republic of Ireland were drawn in the dreaded Group C alongside Germany and The Netherlands today, the draw looked mission impossible for the draw hosts but thankfully given the host country status, Republic of Ireland were moved to Group D and renewing familiar acquaintances with Denmark, Georgia, Gibraltar and Switzerland. A competitive group but one that looks a bit better on paper than what Northern Ireland have to deal in Group C. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the draw. 

Group A: England stroll 

Nothing here to unduly worry England in this group. Kosovo should spring a couple of surprise results against their Eastern European rivals but this is a group setup for England to further experiment and use it to blood more underage prospects into the national squad. England to top the group and a toss up for the second placed berth. 

Group B: Competitive 

Take the minnows Lithuania and Luxembourg and this is a very competitive group. Portugal will look to be the favorites to the top the group but Serbia and Ukraine will pose problems for the Iberian side. Serbia disappointed in the World Cup 2018 and Ukraine will look to continue their good form in the League of Nations tournament. Will Serbia and Ukraine take points off each other and in doing so give Portugal a distinct advantage? I think this scenario may play out. 

Group C: Northern Ireland unlucky 

A group containing Germany and The Netherlands now faces Northern Ireland, an unfortunate chain of events given that it was the Republic of Ireland who were slotted in this group originally. NI will be well organized but they are up against it with two heavyweights opponents. Estonia and Belarus complete the group, little threat to the top three. Will NI shock a vulnerable Germany at Windsor Park to make this group interesting? Here is hoping. 

Group D: Acquaintances renewed 

Denmark and Republic of Ireland supporters will be sick of the sight of each other by the end of this campaign. Denmark have made their feelings known about the Republic’s style of play so it will be interesting to see what Mick McCarthy conjures up in this campaign. Switzerland look a solid bet to advance from the group; good squad core and with Xhaka and Shaqiri in good form, Switzerland will be tough opposition. Georgia are a dangerous fourth seed here; their recent form and ability to give opposition tough games in Tbilisi setting up an intriguing group. Throw Gibraltar into the mix as cannon fodder and this group looks like it will go down to the wire. 

Group E: Croatia look the class act 

A group which should produce plenty of easy football on the eye. Croatia and Wales will fancy their chances of progression but with a Slovakia side who will be competitive at home, a couple of surprising results could surface. Hungary and Azerbaijan look limited and should fall away quickly from this group. 

Group F: Spain to top this pool 

Spain look the class apart in this group. Enrique and the playing squad are gradually putting behind a shambolic World Cup 2018 behind them and this pool will offer a further chance for the side to build momentum and form. The second place berth looks interesting as Sweden, Romania and rejuvenated Norway will have merits for playoff progression. Faroe Islands complete the group and perhaps may nick a point or two from their Scandinavian brethren. 

Group G: Poland will be happy

Poland will be delighted with this group and should top the group. The chasing pack looks compelling with the likes of Austria, Israel and Slovenia in a three way battle for playoff progression. Macedonia potentially will provide away blues for teams in Skopje but their squad depth will hinder progress. Latvia look cannon fodder. 

Group H: Routine for Le Bleu 

France will be not losing much sleep on this group setup. Iceland will provide physicality and strong threat in the set piece but were well exposed in top seed opposition this year. Turkey or Albania may be poised to be the second place side in this group. Turkey are well overdue a tournament appearance. The other teams in this group are Andorra and Moldova, recent form indicates a slow painful group phase for both. 

Group I: Interesting Lineup 

Belgium the perennial team that tipsters will look for major tournament glory will be relatively satisfied with this lineup. Russia after an excellent World Cup 2018 were inconsistent in the League of Nations action. Scotland have  improved under Alex McLeish so the group looks evenly poised. Cyprus in Nicosia have never be taken likely either and could nick points from Russia and Scotland in particular. San Marino and Kazakhstan look out of their depth in this group. 

Group J: Italy rebuild to continue

A nice group for Italy to rebuild. The opposition will up their game against the Azzuri but Italy should advance as top dog in this group. Greece, Bosnia-Herzegovina will probably fight it out for second spot with Finland looking to push their weight around given their recent upturn in form. Armenia away could be a tough task for all sides as well so the fight for playoff progression looks the intriguing headline in this group. Liechtenstein have improved but they look outgunned in this class of opposition. 

Fantasy Premier League: Game Day 5

Hawkeye Sidekick after a meh round four (47 points) performance is under the cosh. The Hail Mary / Toca Me selection of Calvert Lewin last week got what it deserved; absolutely nothing. It is time to move the deck chairs and tables around this FPL selection in attack hoping for some more points from all three attackers. 

Mercenaries XI

Ederson continues in goal; seven points last week was a superb return, do not see any other keeper in my side (infamous last words).

The back three continues as last week. Alexander-Arnold continues to worry me, think his club colleague Robertson is the option going forward but will give it another week. Azpilicueta is a solid pick; will pick up clean sheets throughout the season.

The fixture list last week conspired a bit but expecting better from the midfield selected. Southampton are primed for a thumping and Mane and Salah should get sufficient chances to score and provide assists. Mane gets into so many great positions; if he only converted half those opportunities, jackpot time. Neves has being quiet in recent weeks but Wolves are so easy on the eye that they could upset Manchester United so retain him in the side. 

Sergio continues to produce superb numbers; fourteen points last week was just desserts and a trip to Cardiff City who look incapable of keeping a clean sheet bodes well. Zaha got off the turf and slayed Huddersfield Town last week on the road; seven points tally and with Newcastle at home, hopes are high for another good day out for Mr. Crystal Palace.

The Hawkeye Sidekick change or others will perceive as the ‘throw it on the team and sees if it sticks selection’ is my new best friend Mitrovic; he has had a promising start to the season with a couple of goals for club and country and I think a Watford team who lost last week may be a good pick. Watford after a strong start have a serious test of attitude this week and Fulham may be the benefactors. Mitrovic hopefully picks up the goals for the Craven Cottage outfit or he will be out on his ear (Barry Fry management 101). Fingers crossed for this week!

Fantasy Premier League: Game Day 4

A mediocre week for yours truly last week and Hawkeye Sidekick is starting to ponder team selection ahead of this weekend’s fixture list. 

Hawkeye Sidekick Mercenaries XI

No change in goal as Ederson continues to put solid performances; a near certain clean sheet last weekend denied by dubious officiating at Wolves. A game against under pressure Newcastle United should see more points from the net minder and his distribution to outfield colleagues could yield assists like in game day two. 

The back three continues as is for now; have my concerns on Alexander-Arnold, yet another booking to his name but was prominent in a couple of attacking opportunities for Liverpool. I will give him another week to impress; otherwise it could be time to look elsewhere. Azpilicueta and Vertonghen continue to impress and expect good numbers from each player with games against Bournemouth and Watford. 

The midfield four is unchanged, hoping Neves can impress against a clearly struggling West Ham United on the road. Neves is a class act and with West Ham United struggling to keep clean sheets (even against AFC Wimbledon) , Neves should be prominent.

Salah continued his good start to the season with another strike against Brighton Hove & Albion and I cannot see Leicester City defense able to contain the Liverpool attacking threat. Speed kills and Liverpool could give Leicester City a serious hiding. 

Sane is another player which I am pondering over. Minimal starts for City this season; will keep the faith for another week and hope Pep gives the German international the nod. If not, then time to look at my options. Newcastle United look so vulnerable right now and City could have the proverbial field day if they score early. 

Kante should be prominent against Bournemouth; consistent points throughout the season and he should chip in with additional goals this season as Sarri looks for the French international to contribute more from an attacking sense which is very much a work in progress. 

The key change this week is upfront. My patience with Rashford has gone; a player of serious ability but with the Manchester United crisis in full flow, it remains to be seen when Rashford will get more game time so is dropped from my squad.

Cenk Tosun comes into the lineup. He will replace Richarlison who is suspended and with a home game against a vulnerable Huddersfield Town side missing Jonathan Hogg in midfield, Tosun should get plenty of opportunities to score. 

Aguero lines the lead as always for City. Newcastle United at home and should be a good game to pick up additional goals and assists with Jesus providing searing pace alongside. 

Zaha has started the season really well and a home game against a Southampton side who are a mixed bag at present should see the key Palace attacking threat add to his goals and assist tally. 

The objective is clear this week, start to claw back points lost last week. If not, Hawkeye Sidekick may be looking at a long season of defending himself from his mates down the local!

EPL Review: Part 2

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In this review of the first eleven games of the EPL season, Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on teams ranked between sixth to thirteenth. It is a mixed bag with teams who have excelled while others who frankly have being extremely poor.

Manchester United

The Good: 

Struggling to find one, perhaps Zlatan’s good early form and goals which has dried up. De Gea’s performances again in the goals to rescue his increasingly under pressure back four. The emergence of Juan Mata in midfield chipping in with a couple of goals. Rashford continues to develop into a decent striking option for the club.

The Bad: 

Central defensive options currently at the football club.When has Phil Jones last featured in a league game? Bailly aside, distinctly average performance from this unit. The underwhelming start of Henrikh Mkhitaryan to his club career; another Borussia Dortmund bust? Wayne Rooney’s lack of form and rumors about his future. Increasing isolation of young players such as Lingard and Martial. The manager’s constant moaning about absolutely everything. Past season signings look more rubbish every single day. Fellaini, Darmian to name but a few.

Verdict: 

There is no quick fix; the club will need a couple of seasons to rebuild and buy the right players in the right areas. Ed Woodward’s transfer policy is coming back to haunt the football club; chasing the wrong players. The lack of defensive options in the squad is damning. A good cup run and potential top six finish is the objective. UEFA Europa League campaign is a hindrance at this stage.

Everton: 

The Good: 

The arrival of Ronald Koeman to the football club, a manager who given the right finances will build an improved footballing side. The retention of Romelu Lukaku, his goal tally so far has being impressive. Steklenberg’s form in goals has being superb at times; his cameo away to City was a standout. Ashley Williams’ signing was one of the most astute in the preseason. Everton’s win is Swansea’s massive loss.

The Bad: 

The continous spat between Everton management and Republic of Ireland with injured players. James McCarthy saga has being embarrassing. The end of Phil Jagielka as a viable central defensive option; his lack of pace is giving teams opportunities. The continuous rumors on Lukaku’s future this season. Can Ross Barkley fulfil his potential? All the traits are there but sheer inconsistency is plighting his game.

Verdict: 

A solid start to the season has stalled with recent losses to Burnley and the hammering at Stamford Bridge. Koeman will look to improve the squad defensively and central midfield in January and next summer with several long serving players being shown the door. Top eight finish beckons unless the team produces a couple of upsets against the top four currently in the league.

Watford:

The Good: 

Solid start to the top flight this season considering managerial departure at the end of last term. Troy Deeney continues to impress; leadership and creativity is to the fore.

The Bad: 

Defensively vulnerable when faced against pacy teams evident in their losses to Arsenal and Liverpool so far this season. Where has Ighalo gone? Second season syndrome. No goals and precious little to report from a player who was pivotal in the Hornet’s survival last season. The lingering club registration player issues from seasons gone by; this could become a story come the New Year.

Verdict: 

Top eight standing is misleading; squad depth in the next two months will be exposed and  the Herfordshire club will be looking at a relegation battle come Christmas unless Ighalo gets back to scoring form. January window will be pivotal for Watford to shore up gaps defensively and provide midfield depth.

Burnley: 

The Good: 

Sean Dyche, his man management and ability to make his side extremely tough to breakdown have led to this ninth position in the league. Tom Heaton has being sublime in goals; his saves against former club Manchester United were world class. Shrewd signings in the offseason. Gudmonson and Hendricks have added depth to the midfield. Michael Keane continues to excel in centre back; his partnership with Ben Mee has being pivotal to the club’s fine start to the season. Financially stable. Turf Moor is a tough place to get a result; ask Arsenal. Set piece is king; goal source.

The Bad: 

Apart from Sam Vokes, struggling to see who in the striking department will score goals. The midfield and defense have chipped in with a couple of goals. A problem area. Michael Keane’s future will the subject of much debate; will he go in January? Squad depth again may be exposed due to suspensions in the next couple of months.

Verdict: 

Given the points difference between Burnley and West Ham, a couple of bad results will have Burnley back in the relegation battle which is the forte this season. Burnley have learned from past mistakes in their first eleven games but whether their squad is good enough to score enough goals to get to forty points is a different story. Tough and go whether they stay in the top flight.

Southampton: 

The Good: 

Charlie Austin has provided goals a plenty since joining from QPR. Virgil van Djik has being sensational at center back; his partnership with Forte has being fundamental to the club recovering from a shaky start to the season. The club’s policy to bring home local underage talent to the first team is an example for the rest of the league. McQueen, another decent local youth player to be given his nod.

The Bad: 

Involvement in UEFA Europa League has hindered EPL form. The start of the season was a by product of European involvement. The form of Steven Davis has being inconsistent so far; his goals were pivotal in securing Europa League football last season. The constant transfer links to the club’s marquee stars. Tadic, Forester, Fonte and van Djik will persist. The transfer policy has being on point but there will be dud signings soon which will see the club suffer. Top eight spot is achievable provided that Europa League does not expose the squad.

West Bromwich Albion: 

The Good: 

Tony Pulis’ side has being typically abrasive defensively but have also added goals from the likes of Rondon and McClean. The set piece is pivotal; goals from corners and free kicks have being paramount. Their performance against Tottenham was a standout. Forty points will be secured by February.

The Bad: 

Creativity is sometimes limited with the Baggies but as long as forty points is secured, happy days? The goals scored is in the bottom five of the league; needs to improve.

Verdict: 

Survival will be secured with ease; top twelve berth would be a good acheivement. Experienced squad with Evans, Fletcher in the ranks so a potential cup run may be a bonus. Tony Pulis – Mr. Forty Points.

AFC Bournemouth

The Good: 

Eddie Howe did not bite on the England football job (nibble maybe). The acquisition of Jack Wilshere on loan has aided more creativity to the side. Exciting front three loaded with pace and power. Ibe could be an astute signing long term.

The Bad: 

Defensively vulnerable at times due to their footballing style. Sunderland loss was a poor result considering their recent form leading into this fixture. January defensive options need to be added. The front three’s goal record has being mediocre; need to up the goals tally as defensively, they look like a team who will not keep clean sheets.

Verdict:

Top ten finish is on provided defensively they can tighten up. Eddie Howe’s admirers to continue to wax lyrically about the manager. Arsenal link? England link? Club to establish themselves in the top flight but how do they grow financially?

English Premier League Mid-Year Review

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It has being an extremely strange EPL season to date. The traditional powerhouses of the league have struggled for consistency and form resulting in a number of keynote managerial departures with the potential of at least one more scalp before the year is out. We are two games from the midpoint of the season and I think it is high time to give out a few grades out for the EPL class of 2015 / 2016.

Grade A — Star Pupil

Four teams come into this bracket starting with the current league leaders Leicester City. It has being a terrific run from Claudio Rainieri’s charges who continued their emphatic end of season form last term this season leading to several key victories. Their work rate and ability to counter attack with such pace and intent have left opponents at sixes and sevens. Mahrez and Vardy will take the bulk of the credit (quite right too) but I think huge praise has to go to other players in the team starting with Drinkwater who has being a revelation in the middle of the park. The former Manchester United player has really stood out this season, solid in defensive work but also his ability to pick the right pass has caught the eye. Wes Morgan had his issues adapting to the league last season but the former Nottingham Forest stopper has had a superb season to date, defensively imposing and has chipped in with several set piece goals. Kasper Schmeichel for me has being the leading EPL goalkeeper this season, his save percentage and dominance in his area, his marshalling of his defense have resulted in comparisons with his legendary father. Leicester’s work rate, running and ability to support each other means that they are now a title contender. They will hit a bump or two in the next couple of weeks but this group of players have grown rapidly and with a manager who is perfectly suited to a football club of this profile, things can only look upwards for the East Midlands club.

Watford are my second team who have exceeded expectations this season. Flores’ appointment at the start of the team was greeted with muted feedback but the Spanish supremo has overseen a Watford team who ooze pace, work rate defensively and the ability to score goals. Ighalo has being a revelation for the Hornets this season. His goals have increased confidence in the team but his partnership with club legend Troy Deeney has seen Watford look an attacking threat both home and away. Their demolition of Liverpool last weekend was a marquee event but in truth, this performance and result has being coming for weeks now. They were incredibly unlucky to lose to Manchester United at home a couple of weeks ago. The group learned from those failings to produce a performance against Liverpool who struggled to break down Watford defensively where Cathcart and Ake have being superb and could not deal with the understanding and pace of Ighalo and Deeney. Watford’s decision to invest heavily in the first team squad has being merited and Flores’ links with La Liga should mean that several more arrivals to the club next month which will increase competition and performance levels at the Herfordshire club. Watford should be the success story of the EPL this season only for Leicester. Flores’ services will be noted by several continental clubs.

Arsenal have being the only traditional team who have turned up in any consistent fashion this season. Arsene Wenger has being ridiculed from pillar to post by many pundits for his lack of outfield investment before the start of this season but his decision to sign Petr Cech to me has being the masterstroke of the season. Arsenal’s acquistion has solidified a back four who were inconsistent at best last season. Koscielny is playing with a confidence and swagger not seen before. The emergence of Monreal and Bellerin at full back has added pace and solidity to the defensive flanks. Sanchez was a revelation at the start of the season and his injury could have being a fatal blow but enter stage left Mesmut Ozil who has mesmerized the league this season. Fifteen assists already with the record of twenty is one which will be easily broken. Ozil’s class was all over the MNF win over Manchester City, his first touch and ability to pick a pass was outstanding. Ozil and Sanchez’s form means that Arsenal are in prime position to win the league this season.

Crystal Palace’s best decision in the last decade was to appoint Alan Pardew as club manager. The Wimbledon native, a passionate Palace club man has galvanized all involved with the South East London club. The atmosphere at Selhurst Park is arguably the best in the league, an intense match day experience where Palace’s pace down the flanks (Bolasie, Zaha, Puncheon) is complemented with the game management of Cabaye who has being a standout midfield performer in the league this season. Palace have increased their defensive options and Dann, Delaney, Hangeland are pushing each other for first team spots. Speroni’s absence has being addressed well by both Hennessey and McCarthy, two keepers with massive potential. The departure of Glenn Murray was a blow and one hopes that Wickham can realize his potential at the football club. Palace are a top six contender given their threat away from Selhurst Park. Pardew’s managerial performance at the club speaks volumes. Newcastle’s loss is Palace’s gain.

Grade B — Good Performance

Several teams have emerged from this part of the season with enormous credit. Leading the queue is West Ham United whose form has faltered in recent weeks due to key injuries. January has come at the right time to replenish key absences. Payet and Reid have being key to the Hammers resurgence. Payet’s playmaker ability has caught the eye, instrumental in all that was good for the club early doors. Reid is a superb central defender. His pace and power complements James Tomkins perfectly. Adrian in goal has produced several key saves this term. Sakho upfront provided pace and threat for opposition defenses. Slaven Bilic has being shrewd in the transfer market and may need to dip into the market next month to increase competition defensively and attacking options to remain in contention for Europa League places.

After a slow start, Tottenham have come to the party in recent weeks. Apart from that unexpected loss at home to Newcastle, Pochettino’s side has shown observers with all the attributes required to take a claim for the top four. Kane has not had the dreaded second season syndrome, continuing to score and provide chances to colleagues. Ali has being the young player of the season so far. The former MK Dons players has oozed class throughout chipping with goals at regular intervals that England have called the player into the international fold. Eriksen and Lamela for me are keys to Tottenham’s future success; both players are incredibly gifted footballers who can create chances out of nothing. Their performances will be key like Lloris and Vertonghen defensively. Alderweireld acquisition has being a star turn but continued UEFA Europa League involvement late in the season could hinder top four league ambitions.

Manchester City conclude the list of teams in the good bracket. Yes, the form recently has being mixed but look at City’s early start to the year and one will understand the rationale. The repeated managerial reports have nothing to add the stability required at the football club. The squad on paper looks the best in the league. Aguero, Silva, De Bruyne have all shown quality early doors. Toure is warming to the season but their contributions are being undermined at present by a shaky back four who have being exposed in recent weeks without the services of Kompany. Otamendi and Mangala have struggled to contain opponents who have speed and physical presence leaving Joe Hart increasingly overworked in the goal. City will be a major player in the title run in but the issues exposed in recent weeks will be fatal if not remedied. Pellegrini’s uncertain future is also adding to the indifferent form. City talk about football project, but how can they acheive it if they decide to ditch their club manager after only three seasons.

Bournemouth’s recent run of results and footballing style has them edged into the Grade B group. Their memorable victories over Chelsea and Manchester United in recent weeks has shown resilience, determination and style of play which has caught the eye. Eddie Howe’s charges play the game in the right manner, on the deck and at times has cost them with several goals leaked. However, they have continued to play the right way and the players have adapted to the rigors of the EPL to produce this fine run of form. Glenn Murray will keep the South Coast side in the league but Eddie Howe needs reinforcements defensively and midfield to keep the tempo and competition in the squad. Nice story emerging here and one hopes Bournemouth are in the league next season. Eddie Howe, a manager on the up.

Grade C — Good but not good enough

Several teams fit into this category. Liverpool are flirting with the Grade B but have regressed in recent weeks. Klopp appointment is a big positive and his managerial style will only improve Liverpool long term. Klopp’s transfers will be scrutinized next month and particularly in the summer when several current players will be told that they are surplus to requirements. Liverpool’s lack of attacking width is an issue and has not allowed Benteke to make the necessary impact upfront. Liverpool’s demolition of Manchester City away last month showed what the side are capable of; incisive passing, tempo and movement. Milner acquisition has being a solid piece of business but Klopp needs to add to his squad to offset weak points defensively where the goalkeeping and central defensive options are limited.

Everton are a team who are flirting with the top six but their lack of consistency has them in this grade pool. Their defiance not to let John Stones leave for Stamford Bridge has being crucial with an impressive run in the League Cup. Lukaku has stole the show for Everton from an attacking perspective and with Barkley recapturing his form of his debut season, the blue side of Merseyside should look forward to a positive second half of the season. Martinez must review his goalkeeping cover to increase competition on Tim Howard who at times has being culpable for a couple of goals in recent weeks.

Southampton have faltered ever since their league cup drubbing at the hand of Liverpool. Their injury crisis has exposed depth chart issues defensively and in midfield. With Jay Rodriguez struggling for fitness, Pelle / Mane and Long have attempted to score the goals but it has being a struggle in recent weeks. Schneiderlein’s departure has being huge. Van Djik signing has being the highlight, pace and command of the position has caught the eye. Koeman needs money to add competition in striking and central midfield albeit Fraser Forster’s return in goal cannot come quick enough.

Stoke have shown flashes of brilliance this season against Chelsea, City have being undermined by several under-par performances at the Britannia. Mark Hughes’ side evolution from long ball merchants to passing is in progress and with the likes of Bojan, Walters, Arnautovic pose the attacking threat required. Fellay and Shaquiri acquisitions are excellent but the emergence of Jack Butland in goals has being key. Superb performances this season. If Stoke can improve their consistency in the second half of the season, the sky’s the limit. Shawcross continues to be the main talisman for Stoke defense.

Grade D — Inconsistency

Who has not being? Manchester United have being wholly inconsistent with recent weeks performances opening more questions on the perceived football philosophy being implemented by LVG. Zero pace, zero creativity, zero leadership on the park has led to a marked decline in fortunes. LVG may be the scapegoat but the current squad are hopelessly out of their depth. Martial, Smalling and De Gea aside, all other players have underperformed. 200+ million invested in the current squad looks like a costly mistake and with games against Stoke and Chelsea looming large, Ed Woodward will be under pressure to arrest the slide. Replacing the manager will only be one part of the solution. An effective transfer policy is also required and Woodward has failed to execute this policy, missing key acquisitions and putting Moyes and now LVG under immense pressure.

West Bromwich Albion, a club who with Tony Pulis at the helm will be in the top flight next season. The football style at times can be laborious but Pulis will get the coveted forty points. WBA’s endless saga with Berahino / Tottenham link continues to be an unwelcome distraction and needs to be resolved next month one way or the other. The acquisitions of Evans and Fletcher from Manchester United are shrewd purchases which provides experience to a squad who on their day can upset the odds. Their 2–1 win at home to Arsenal showed what this team is capable of, playing fast flowing football which had Arsenal’s back four in trouble for long periods. Pulis will look to remedy the indiscipline that has crept into the side. McClean needs to focus on his football and not get swayed into social media and media commentary. Rondon has massive potential and needs to hit goals early in 2016 to offset Pulis’ need to buy an experienced striker in January. The consistency of performance against teams around them is the key. Pulis, the shrewd operator will have the team perform and there is no fear that WBA are plunged into a relegation battle this season.

Norwich’s win against Manchester United has being the highlight of the season. Alex Neil is a manager destined for bigger things. His nonsense approach (laid into players after 1–1 draw at home to Everton) spoke volumes and his charges produced in Old Trafford in the next game. Norwich are not scoring enough goals at present and need their defense to keep as many clean sheets as possible. If they continue in the same vein, unfortunately a relegation battle will ensue and pressure will be put on the likes of Hoolahan and Jerome to create and score chances. Neil will need to dip into the January market to address the scoring concerns and perhaps add another quality central midfielder / defender to increase competition.

Grade F — Failed to Perform

The rest of the league is guilty of this charge. Chelsea’s season is the stuff of nightmares. Manager exits stage left after a series of embarrassing internal club incidents which exposed the medical staff, players to ridicule. Hiddink will steady the ship but the likes of Hazard, Costa, Fabregas have flat out not performed this season. Pedro’s acquistion is akin to Di Maria for Manchester United last season — inconsequential. The player power issues seen in recent weeks will be quick to resolve. Drogba’s influence around the dressing room in a coaching capacity is resolved as soon as possible.

Swansea, a club in crisis. Huw Jenkins has wielded the axe on Gary Monk and with no outstanding candidate emerging, Alan Curtis will continue. Swansea’s early form was excellent but something has happened in the club since September. Players are not working hard enough, goals have dried up. Montero who lit up the league early doors is nowhere to be seen. Did the Nathan Dyer loan deal derail Swansea’s first team morale? Something is not adding up. Swansea have being a huge success story in the league but they look incredibly vulnerable now. The leadership of Williams is required now. Swansea survival depends on the managerial appointment and key acquisitions in January.

Sunderland, the perennial strugglers. Big Sam will have them out of relegation trouble but how come that this club is consistently languishing in the bottom of the league? Cultural shift required at the club and Big Sam will take no rubbish from the squad as he steers a path out of the bottom three. Defoe’s goal will be key but defensively look wholly exposed at times and is an area of January transfer improvement.

If Newcastle played to live television cameras every game, there would be no issue. Steve McClaren has had a tough start to life in Newcastle but the team appear to be turning the over. Rob Elliott in goals due to the season ending injury to Tim Krul has impressed which in turn has allowed the back four to improve. Newcastle need to continue the work rate of recent weeks to continue the revival. Wijnaldum has being the star performer for Steve McClaren.

Bye Bye Aston Villa. Remi Garde may not a hope with this squad. Garde is looking for at least ten wins in the remaining fixtures, cannot see them getting even half that such is the porous nature of the squad. The elements of relegation are in abundance: do not score goals and do not keep clean sheets. Time for Villa to reflect over Christmas, review the squad and take action to prepare for life in the Championship. The behavior of Jack Grealish during this time has to be called out, an unwelcome distraction for a football club who I have a lot of respect for. Great stadium, great fans who deserve so much better.

Weekend Sporting Thoughts

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Before this tournament I had tipped both Ulster and Glasgow to make the last eight of the competition on the basis that both squads had the hunger, experience and know how to get the job done. Hawkeye Sidekick apologizes unreservedly for that judgement as both teams let themselves and their supporters down on a weekend where several teams chances of European Rugby Cup went down in smoke.

Ulster’s sheer capitulation against Saracens at Kingspan will hurt for some time to come. The hosts failed to show the application and organization required to compete with a Saracens who are well on the road to a home quarter final berth. Les Kiss has a tough job on his hands on the basis of this performance.  The team collectively collapsed in the second half of this contest starting with the sheer inability to nullify the rampaging Mako Vunipola at set piece and ball in hand. Vunipola’s performance set the platform for Saracens to exploit a defensive system which lacked the cohesion and organization required at this level; players not trusting their colleagues to make a tackle was evident in the second half as the visitors exposed soft wing defense from the hosts with Paddy Jackson and Craig Gilroy channels peppered throughout. Les Kiss is only in the Ulster hot seat a matter of weeks but even at this early stage, numerous issues are glaring. The lack of self belief in the team put out on the pitch in the second half was damning; several players immediately put up the white flag which must concern fans and management. The defensive speed was pedestrian at times and allowed Farrell to control passing plays at will. The Ulster pack were flat out destroyed in set piece and one questions how Ulster can rebound from this reversal with the trips to Toulouse and Oyonaax looming large. Opportunity lost for Ulster as the squad is well capable of competing at this level and you  would have thought that lack of performance in last season’s competition would be a motivating factor? Think again.

Glasgow’s inept first half performance proved fatal as a hungry Northampton Saints came away from Scotstoun with a huge win. Glasgow’s front five were bullied out of it in the set piece and Northampton Saints used the platform to score a decisive win that will turn their season for the better. Scarlets are as good as gone, pack were destroyed by a dominant pack by Racing Metro 92.

The good news for Leinster is that the performance at Bath was considerably improved to the one produced against Wasps last weekend. The bad news is that they lost a cliffhanger, even more miserable considering the Leinster second half fightback when Van Der Flier scored a superb try from an immaculate pass from scrum half McGrath. A tough afternoon  at the Recreational Ground to play any expansive rugby. The pundits predicted that Bath’s pack would struggle in the trench warfare, a stupid statement when you consider a pack containing Louw, Webber, Hopper. The game was tit for tat with the hosts edging a tense opening forty minutes. 6-3 at the interval with George Ford and Johnny Sexton dominating the scoring. The Bath try was all to do with promising prop Nick Auterac whose scrummaging resulted in Bath advancing to a certain try only for the match official to award the penalty try. Leinster could have given up but credit to the province and leveling the scores at sixteen with a superb Van Der Flier try; the running lines and passing on such a miserable day was the highlight. Sexton missed a long difficult penalty kick and he was made to pay for the miss as Bath’s pack yet again yielded a Leinster penalty concession at the death to give George Ford a penalty kick that he never looked like missing. I thought Leinster were out of this pool but then came the shock of the tournament so far today.

Wasps’ demolition of Toulon 32-6 was a big surprise. Yes, Toulon named a couple of fringe players but Wasps won this game with their exceptional pace in the back line. Their pace was too hot for Toulon to handle as Wasps score two quick fire tries to set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. Was this a bad day at the office for Toulon or are there issues with the squad this season (mediocre French League form). Leinster will find out in a couple of weeks with a trip to the Stade Felix-Mayol. If Leinster could manage a losing bonus point effort, you never know with Bath and Wasps likely to share the spoils in their games in December. Leo Cullen can be proud of his team’s efforts but the levels required to get over the line in these European games is well short currently. Leo Cullen has tough decisions to make; players who he has gone to war with are not performing at this time. Ross, Healy, Heaslip, Murphy, Dave Kearney, Boss and Reddan are struggling for form. Does youth and fringe players get an opportunity in this competition for the Toulon games? Does he play guys on form or does he go with the tried and trusted which has not delivered so far.

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Congratulations to Na Piarsaigh who won the Munster SHC Club final today at a pristine Thurles. Na Piarsaigh’s slow starts to matches continued as they trailed Ballygunner by 1-7 to 1-4 at the interval. Ballygunner were sharp in this opening period as O’Sullivan, Barron came to the fore. However, the Limerick City side have shown this season that their second half performances are emphatic with high quality and impressive score taking. This was evident in their run in Munster prior to the final with rampant second half displays against Sixmilebridge and Thurles Sarsfields securing passage to the provincial club final showpiece. The game today was decided in the first ten minutes of the second half as the Caherdavin outfit turned a three point deficit into a four point lead. Shane Dowling was to the fore with a dominant display in the air and dispatched frees over the bar. Dowling was ably assisted by David Dempsey, David Breen, Ronan Lynch (gorgeous long distance point at the death), Cathal King and Peter Casey (what a talent) as the team collectively snuffed out any threat from Ballygunner. The Waterford champions did score a goal from O’Sullivan to close the gap to two points with six minutes left but the manner in which Na Piarsaigh closed out this contest bodes well for the rest of the championship as they tacked on a further 1-3 in those last five minutes to win the provincial title. It was apt that Shane Dowling strode purposefully to dispatch to the net at the end of this contest to spark wild celebrations from Na Piarsaigh management, players and fans. Three Munster SHC campaigns and three Munster titles. Fantastic feat. This team have the right blend of youth and experience to go all the way to St Patrick’s Day honors. Physically imposing with no shortage of skill upfront where Dowling, Casey, Dempsey and Downes lead the line well, it is not impossible to envisage the Caherdavin outfit winning the All Ireland with the power houses of Ballyhale and Portumna are out of the equation. Oulart or Cuala await Na Piarsaigh in February for a place in the All Ireland club final and after this emphatic second half display, the Limerick side will be hard to beat. Another Limerick SHC club success, the talent is obviously there; hopefully all concerned with the intercounty panel focus and produce next season.

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This is a strange strange EPL season. Once you think that the form guide has settled comes this past weekend’s results. Arsenal are raising huge credibility questions on their title ambitions, a chance to go top and they yet again produce a flat performance. Arteta’s own goal to decide this contest summed up a misfiring performance but then Santi Cazorla stepped or tripped up to miss a penalty in the second half took the theme to even ludicrous levels. Leadership is required excluding Sanchez.

Manchester United were lucky to come away from Vicarage Road with three points; a promising start led to Memphis’ opener on eleven minutes, lovely volley but as the game wore on, United decided to rest on their laurels and defend. Watford were far more dangerous in the second half and De Gea’s performance was looked upon with envy in the Bernabeu as the Spaniard produced three world class saves before Rojo lazily fouled Ighalo in the box to allow Deeney to dispatch the penalty. Deeney was the focal point of the game as he unluckily turned Schweinsteiger’s cross into the net to spark huge celebrations in the United dugout. United will have to improve from an attacking perspective but to be in second with a limited attacking option outlay will be taken.

Liverpool haunted Raheem Sterling and produced the performance of the weekend. Make no mistake about it, this 4-1 drubbing of City was truly merited. Sharp incisive passing with Coutinho to the fore, Liverpool exposed the absence of Kompany at the heart of the City defense. Firmino’s confidence soared after his goal. The Liverpool midfield led by James Milner and Coutinho suggests better days are not far that far away for Klopp and Liverpool. Nathaniel Clyne gave an exhibition at full back, the best full back in the league this season.

Gary Monk is under pressure. Swansea’s 2-2 draw against Bournemouth emphasized a nervous not seen at the Liberty Stadium for quite some time. Swansea’s defending was non-existent for Bournemouth’s early goal salvo but the Cherries sheer inability to kept clean sheets was emphasized yet again with two late first half goals from Ayew and Shelvey (penalty). Swansea need a win soon, otherwise Huw Jenkins could be forced to hire an experienced football manager to aid Gary Monk.

As for Aston Villa, Remi Garde was given an insight on what will be required to get the team out of the drop this season. Everton’s pace was too much for Aston Villa and the four goal loss flattered them. Villa’s lack of potency upfront means that January cannot come quick enough to buy or loan reinforcements. Gestede, Ayew look well short for this level. Tottenham’s emphatic 4-1 win against West Ham is a statement of intent and suddenly six teams are vying for top spot currently held by Leicester City. Jamie Vardy’s dream season continues, his work rate and pace created the time to slot his tenth goal in a row. United next Saturday, who would back the former Halifax striker from scoring his eleventh goal on the bounce? An incredible feat and story.