Who’s Staying Up?: Relegation Battle down to the Wire

Three in the Red: Bolton, Fulham, Derby

Derby County 

It’s clear. We don’t need to discuss Derby, but it’s safe to say Paul Jewell’s January acquisitions have done little to help the prospects of a club that should have paid more attention to trying to get the most of Robert Earnshaw – who has all but vanished – and the highly coveted Giles Barnes. All that’s left with the Rams is to see whether or not they can escape the shame of holding the record for fewest points ever by an EPL squad. Sunderland sits with that record at 15 points. Derby needs 6 points out of their last 7 and a game vs. Fulham at home this Saturday could be the first three points towards their homestretch.

On we go…Fulham.

The Cottagers sit in a position they undoubtedly put themselves in. Many times this year they carried a lead into the final 15 minutes of a match only to be overtaken. Roy Hodgson has done little to turn around a team and many have said, Hodgson needs the full year to do so. The schedule is working against him though…nevermind the opponents. The Cottagers might have games against Derby and Reading coming up, but one troubling fact remains. They are away. And this is a Fulham team that hasn’t won away all year. If it was based on the personnel alone, Fulham certainly have the tools as long as they can service Brian McBride, EJ, and Dempsey properly, but when 4 of your last 7 are away that’s big. Remaining fixtures: @ Derby County, vs. Sunderland, @ Reading, vs. Liverpool, @ Manchester City, vs. Birmingham City, @ Portsmouth

Bolton

I don’t care what Gary Megson has said or wants to say. Not having Nicolas Anelka in the homestretch destroys them. Not having Jussi Jaskaleinen in the midst of a relegation battle destroys them. The Wanderers’ only saving grace is Kevin Nolan, who continues to organize Bolton’s midfield well enough to grab points here and there. Truth is, though, that Bolton’s recent tie with Manchester City at home was their first point in almost two months. Their final games see Arsenal coming to Reebok Stadium and a visit to Chelsea, Tottenham, and Aston Villa. That doesn’t paint a pretty picture, and – in all honesty – it’s about time sparkplug El-Hadji Diouf is brought down to Earth. Bolton is on their way down. Remaining Fixtures: vs. Arsenal, @ Aston Villa, vs. West Ham United, @ Middlesbrough, @ Tottenham, vs. Sunderland, @ Chelsea.

Who will stay up…

Newcastle

Kevin Keegan is still cleaning up Big Sam Allardyce’s mess and, understandably, it’s hard to believe one has to do so when you have players like Michael Owen, Obafemi Martins, and Mark Viduka at your forefront. And that’s precisely why the Magpies will stay up…Keegan has decided to put all three of these boys on the field. With Barton and Butt in the midfield and these three on the forward line – even working at subpar rates – Keegan’s troupe can climb their way out of the darkness. Newcastle’s 2-0 win over Fulham this past Saturday was a testament to that. Owen had countless chances, Martins created chances, and Viduka dutifully took the ones he was  given. Keegan has opted to play himself out of relegation through offense and it will work. Plus, who doesn’t love a manager that wears his heart on his sleeve game in and game out. Newcastle sits 6 points clear of Bolton – the third relegation spot. Their remaining schedule includes – @ Tottenham, vs. Reading, @ Portsmouth, vs. Sunderland, @ West Ham, vs. Chelsea, @ Everton.

Reading

Anytime that bounces back from 9 consecutive defeats to start the new year gets my nod to resist relegation. The Royals weren’t just losing games, they were losing close games. The ones where you fight until the bitter end. Reading’s talent level and tenacity on the playing field set them up for that kind of disappointment in defeat, but sheer joy when the result goes in their favor. Their nine losses – 5 came in dramatic fashion, one goal thrillers, while others came at the hands Villa [twice], Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham. The Royals have been found out…they’re not being underestimated like last season. All clubs are firmly aware this year of the rapid development of Dave Kitson, Shane Long, and Stephen Hunt. No one has questioned the form of Marcus Hahnemann, who along with Tim Howard and Brad Friedel, looks poised to grab at least a top-three in GK of the Year tallies. Reading has won two out of three as of late, losing out only to Liverpool, but I wouldn’t peg them to slide any further into the abyss. Fixtures remaining: vs. Blackburn,  @ Newcastle, vs. Fulham, @ Arsenal, @ Wigan, vs. Tottenham, @ Derby County.

Birmingham

March 1st’s 4-1 drubbing of Tottenham could have been the three points that wind up keeping Birmingham from the bottom three. Hell, before that they took points from Arsenal and Newcastle. If there’s a clear loser when it comes to remaining schedule, the Blues have got to be it. Alex McLeish has done well to instill a hard-nosed approach to every game in his squad and that approach has helped them so far, but will it withstand meetings with Manchester City, Everton, Blackburn, Villa, and Liverpool? Yep. And believe it or not, if they had Fulham’s schedule remaining – the Blues would be on their way down. Fixtures Remaining: vs. Manchester City, @ Wigan, vs. Everton, @ Aston Villa, vs. Liverpool, @ Fulham, vs. Blackburn

Two teams primed to go down, but will escape…

Wigan Athletic

Five points separate the Latics with Bolton and who is worse off? Bolton. Wigan was able to grab a 1-0 win over . If there was a team next in line behind Fulham and Bolton to go down, it’s the Latics. But Wigan hasn’t been pisspoor as of late. Yes, they were routed by Blackburn even when they had a man advantage for half the game, but they squeezed points from Arsenal and beat West Ham and Derby. More than most of these relegation battlers can claim. Their schedule doesn’t help much with 5 games against top-half club. Wigan has also made it their habit to start slow and end strong, which will not fly against the likes of Pompey, Chelsea, and ManYoo. Both Emile Heskey and Marcus Bent have returned to the line-up which could provide the jumpstart needed to slip just above the relegation zone. Verdict: Up, but barely. Remaining Schedule: @ Portsmouth, vs. Birmingham, @ Chelsea, vs. Tottenham, vs. Reading, @ Aston Villa, vs. Manchester United

Sunderland

It’s Roy Keane people. He’ll fight managers on the sideline and kids in the stands to stay up. The Black Cats started admirably and have faded in the homestretch. Kenwyne Jones has been figured out and Keane’s talent pool has all but dried up. Still Keane has shown a knack for putting in the right people at the right time and Michael Chopra’s entrance this past weekend secured a 1-0 upset win over Aston Villa, a vital three points to have. This is not the 2005/2006 Sunderland team. The difference – a battling Keane personality, a will to win in the last 15 minutes of tough matches, and a discipline that sticks against the big competition. Verdict: the Cats will remain and an infusion of talent in the offseason will make them mid-table runners next year. Remaining Fixtures: vs. West Ham United, @ Fulham, vs. Manchester City, @ Newcastle, vs. Middlesbrough, @ Bolton, vs. Arsenal

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Big Fulham supporter, but if the mentality shown against Newcastle prevails – the Cottagers are going down. Bolton and Derby are locks with seven games to go, but Fulham has the chance if they play the way they did against Everton. Hodgson also has to let Dempsey play. Jimmy Bullard was the only real threat vs. Newcastle, I agree, but it was as if Hodgson set him up that way. He might have a long shot, but Dempsey will be able to open up McBride and Eddie Johnson with outlet passes, instead of passes to their feet with a defender in tow.

Final Verdict: the same three we got now, Fulham, Bolton, and Derby.

What do you think?

EPL Daily 10.17: Goodbye Sammy Lee; Terry out; Brad Guzan targeted by Gunners?

Less than a year after taking over at Bolton, Sammy Lee has parted ways with the Wanderers after just 9 EPL games in charge. Pretty easy to see why – when you have Nicolas Anelka, Kevin Nolan, Gary Speed, El-Hadji Diouf at your disposal and somehow ALL are underperforming at the moment, it is time to move on. Mutual consent is the word on the street and no word on the replacement as of yet. Bolton – in European contention last season at this time – sits right above league whipping boys Derby. Did anybody else think Lee’s appointment was a bit of a hasty one to begin with? He has a superb knowledge of the game, but can’t man-manage worth crap. It could be that he was faced with big egos like Anelka and Diouf from the get-go, but almost every EPL manager has to deal with that. Wonder where he’ll end up next.

John Terry is out against Russia for England’s second-to-last Euro 2008 Qualifier. Wayne Rooney has stated that not qualifying for Euro 2008 would be devastating and Terry’s injury certainly doesn’t help, but injury problems have plagued England as of late and yet they have still come up with results. A win versus Russia potentially guarantees a qualification and without Terry – Sol Campbell comes in. Don’t mean to jinx anybody, but England has been looking good and were without Terry against Estonia. Therefore, if the offense is firing – Campbell is more than capable of shoring up an ailing defense.

Apparently, Chiva USA’s Brad Guzan is being scouted by Arsenal and it looks like he is at the top of their keeper shortlist with a goalkeeper at 30 and 38 years old. Lehmann is ready to go and Almunia has been decent lately, but Guzan – 23 years old – would be well-suited for a career in the EPL and as many have seen, although he has been improving, Guzan has only begun to scratch the surface of his potential. At 6’4″, 215 lbs., Guzan possesses the size to be a goalkeeper but it’s his ‘wise beyond the years’ knowledge of the game that is extremely appealing to EPL scouts. An American in goal at Arsenal? That would cover three of the Big Four – Friedel at Liverpool, Howard at Man Utd, and Guzan?? What do you think of him? Does Guzan have the tools to make it across-the-pond? Other news from the Emirates is that the Gunners have launched a $20 million bid for the apparently unsettled Olympique Lyonnais striker Hatem Ben Arfa (Karim Benzema stealing all your thunder)?

EPL Daily, 10.9: Henk ‘so I’m the asshole?’ ten Cate, Bolton draws a giant

Henk Ten Cate held a press conference to say he wouldn’t be heading to Chelsea, but to no avail, the offer was too good to refuse. Ten Cate was given the go ahead to sever his ties with Ajax and head to Stamford Bridge to open negotiations. It’s not every day you see the Dutch powerhouses stamped upon and trampled over by a ‘bigger’ club or……………maybe they didn’t want to fight for ten Cate who has seen his grasp on the club slip along with Ajax’s form in European play. The bitter 1-goal Eredivisie championship loss to PSV last year was enough to turn many against the former Barca assistant. That’s not to say Ajax officials weren’t fuming…

“Henk presented it to us as a fact and we didn’t have any choice. We didn’t want to work with a coach who had his mind at Chelsea.Things should have been done differently. I don’t want to say more.”

Bolton, Tottenham, and Everton all found out their UEFA Group fates with Bolton grabbing a match-up against Luca Toni and Bayern Munich. Tottenham will face Anderlecht in a replay of the 1984 UEFA Cup final, while Everton will face Blackburn’s executioners, Larissa as well as Dutch big guns AZ Alkmaar. 

UEFA Group Draws

Group A
AZ Alkmaar
Zenit St Petersburg
Everton
Nurnberg
Larissa

Group B
Panathinaikos
Lokomotiv Moscow
Atletico Madrid
FC Copenhagen
Aberdeen

Group C
Villarreal
AEK Athens
Fiorentina
Mlada Boleslav
IF Elfsborg

Group D
Basel
Hamburg
Rennes
Dinamo Zagreb
SK Brann

Group E
Bayer Leverkusen
Sparta Prague
Spartak Moscow
Toulouse
FC Zurich

Group F
Bayern Munich
Bolton Wanderers
Braga
Crvena Zvezda
Aris Thessaloniki

Group G
Anderlecht
Tottenham Hotspur
Getafe
Hapoel Tel-Aviv
Aalborg

Group H
Bordeaux
Austria Vienna
Galatasaray
Panionios
Helsingborgs

EPL: Sven and Big Sam start with 3; Man Utd falters

Another slew of games this Tuesday and Wednesday as the Premiership starts with a bang. This past weekend’s slate however was chock full of entertaining matches – most of which I didn’t get to see. Some things that did stick out however:

 Derby 2, Portsmouth 2: Not many expected this I am sure but freshly promoted teams generally fight like hell for the first several games then sputter when it comes to the long-haul of the Premiership season. The Rams took the lead in this one thanks to a Matthew Oakley strike. Pompey fought back to take the lead 2-1 and it looked as of Derby was down and out. Former Blackburn Rover Andy Todd made it 2-2 in the waning moments to secure a point. If they can tie Portsmouth with a squad  that boss Billy Davies is vocally unhappy with – what can they do once strengthened? (is it too early to regret my decision of predicting a 5th place finish for Portsmouth?)

Sunderland 1, Tottenham 0: Spurs faithful have got to be incensed with this one, but looking back on it – why did I ever bet against Roy Keane in his Premiership managerial debut; Chopra doubters were treated to a nice serving of ‘I told you so’ as the former Newcastle dud provided the only goal in the 90th minute

Chelsea 3, Birmingham 2: the Blues struck first early with Mikael Forssell staking a claim for a starting spot but new Chelsea acquisition made his argument by striking less than 2 minutes later; the rest of the game was back and forth as fellow new Chelsea signing Florent Malouda also put his name on the scoresheet; Johan Djourou – plucked from Arsenal’s talent pool – worked all 90 minutes for Birmingham in the back; Michael Essien provided the game winner in the 50th minute and extended Chelsea’s home unbeaten streak; Drogba quelled Chelsea supporter fears with a solid 30 minute run-out

Arsenal 2, Fulham 1: David Healy pounced on a particularly embarassing screw up by Jens Lehmann; search it on YouTube – not quite Paul Robinson-ish but still borderline pathetic; the Gunners fought back for him though as two late goals – a PK from Van Persie and Aleksander Hleb – put Arsenal clear; McBride started up front and Bocanegra in the back, both played all 90 minutes while Clint Dempsey came on for new signing Hamuer Bouazza in the beginning of the second half and worked a serviceable half; Gunner fans have got to be excited about the play of Bakary Sagna and Emmanuel Eboue down the right wing

Reading 0, Manchester United 0: another giant held with unfortunate consequences for Alex Ferguson and all Red Devil fans; Wayne Rooney broke his foot and will be out 2 months at least; they do have Carlos Tevez to look forward to but Rooney looked primed to have a phenomenal year and his absence will make things a bit harder for that Red Devil offense to produce consistently; Reading played the last 20 minutes a man down after Dave Kitson’s ejection and proved pesky (though never threatening); Nicky Shorey was the best man on the field for the Royals and Giggsy for the Red Devils

Other results:

Liverpool 2, Aston Villa 1 – The Reds’ new signings start slow but Gerrard’s goal of the week give them the win

Manchester City 2, West Ham 0 – Spector plays all 90 minutes but can’t stop Sven’s new signings – Geovanni and Bianchi from finding  the net, while their newly crafted back line preserves the shutout and 3 away points

Newcastle 3, Bolton 1 – Sam Allardyce beats his former team as the Magpie offense is driven by the brace of Nigerian striker Obafemi Martins

Blackburn 2, Middlesbrough 1 – Brad Friedel worked well in a goal as usual while the young Derbyshire and new signing Roque Santa Cruz provide the goal scoring power to beat the Boro

Everton 2, Wigan Athletic 1 – Tim Howard held his own in net for the Toffees as they fought their way to a win at home thanks to a Leon Osman and young’un Victor Anichebe strike