Wednesday, 5 January 2011

EPL's Half Term report

Man Utd
So far, so good for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men. United were always going to be there or there abouts, and the ominous thing for the rest of the league is they usually experience better second halves to the season. Despite their poor away record thus far (played nine, won two, drawn seven) they remain undefeated. What chance of them replicating Arsenal’s achievement in 2003/04? Grade: A

Man City
Man City’s spending prowess over the past three seasons has been nothing short of extraordinary. Since the Abu Dhabi United Group bought the club in August 2008, they have spent over £320 million. With Wolfsburg’s Edin Dzeko set to arrive in January, their spending shows no signs of letting up. Due to their financial muscle alone, they could and should be looking down on the league at this stage. With none of the title chasers taking command at the half-way stage, City could achieve what they haven’t since 1968, and spend their way to the title this year. Grade: B-

Monday night’s moral-boosting win over Chelsea will do wonders for The Gunners’ confidence. With visits to Eastlands, Old Trafford, Anfield and Stanford Bridge out of the way, not to mention a game in hand over City in second place, this could be the year the Wenger bus rides into town once more. Look out for their visit to rivals Spurs on 26 February. Grade: A-
The most impressive aspect of Spurs’ season to date has been their ability to excel both in their debut season in the Champions League and on the domestic front. The days of Tottenham fans lamenting inconsistent displays appear to have subsided for now, and game week 20 saw them overtake Chelsea into fourth place. Countless superlatives have been heaped on the Welsh wonderkid Gareth Bale and stand-out summer signing Rafael Van der Vaart, and justifiably so. The pair have quite simply been the outstanding performers of the season so far. Grade: A*

Chelsea made an explosive start in their campaign to retain the title, scoring 21 goals on the way to winning their opening five games. Their recent set of results, which has seen them fail to win in six, incurring three defeats, is relegation form and serious questions will be asked of Carlo Ancelotti’s future should they not win at Wolves tonight. Frank Lampard’s return to full fitness cannot come soon enough. Grade: C-

Perhaps Sunderland’s biggest strength this season has been the form of their strikers. Between Danny Welbeck, Asamoah Gyan and England International Darren Bent, the three have scored 20 of the Black Cats’ 24 Premier League goals. However, over the course of the season, they will need to find goals from all over the park if they are to continue to push for the European places. However, having three strikers who can find the back of the net is a big plus, and one that will draw envious eyes from several clubs around them. Grade: A-

Owen Coyle’s team have been the surprise package of the season. Relinquishing the shackles of a ‘long-ball side’ gained under the stewardship of Sam Allardyce, Coyle has The Trotters playing a brand of football that at times would not look out of place in the Champions League. With one or two astute signings in January, who knows where they could finish? Expect a dip in form at some stage, but with consistency failing most teams in the 2010/11 season, Bolton could well retain their current position and end up playing European football next term. Grade: A-

Tony Pulis is doing a sterling job at The Britannia and after cementing Stoke as a Premier League club, he is now in the process of taking them to the next level. He is slowly adding brains to his squad of brawn, with the technically gifted Matthew Etherington, Ricardo Fuller and Şanlı Tuncay able to turn a game in an instant. Perhaps their biggest compliment this season is they are where they are without having to draw as heavily on the human catapult, Rory Delap. He has started all but three of their games thus far, and yet his trusted arm has barely featured on Match of The Day. Despite it only being January, it is safe to say the Potters will be here next season. Grade: B+

Liverpool are a team in transition – but into what? Time will tell whether they are descending into the bleakest period in their illustrious history, or whether they are merely taking a breather. As perverse as it may sound, it may not be the end of the world if they were to sell one of Steven Gerrard or Fernando Torres in order to raise the cash needed to improve the overall quality of their squad. It is only now we are seeing the perilous sate Rafa Benitez left the club in. Those calling for his return better know what they are wishing for. Grade: D

Chris Hughton’s sacking was a shock to everybody, and was wholly unjustifiable. You have to wonder what more he could have done since taking over in the summer of 2009, when the beleaguered Toon had just suffered relegation from the top flight. Not only did he emphatically guide them back up at the first attempt, but, at the time of his sacking, had stabilised the club in mid table. Add to this impressive wins at Arsenal, Everton and Chelsea in the League Cup, not to mention the 5-1 hammering of rivals Sunderland, and the decision makes even less sense. What Mike Ashley expected from him is anyone’s guess. Will the knives be out for newly-appointed Alan Pardew should he not deliver European football this season? Probably not, but it would render his appointment totally unnecessary if they do not finish significantly higher than the 11th place Hughton left them in. Grade: B

Who says the romance of the game is dead? Blackpool’s start to life in the top flight has been nothing short of a fairytale. Their 2-0 win at Sunderland to cap off a remarkable 2010 for Ian Holloway was their fifth on the road in a season that has also included an outstanding 2-1 triumph at Anfield. Sitting comfortably at this stage in eleventh and playing attacking, carefree football, Ollie will hope his side do not capitulate as Hull did in their maiden season of 2008/09. Hull survived that year, but had to wait until the final day. Would Ollie take that? Probably. Grade: A*

Along with the departure of Chris Hughton at Newcastle, the sacking of Sam Allardyce shocked the club’s fans. It did not, interestingly, draw as much sympathy from the media, however. With Rovers sitting comfortably in mid table, only time will tell whether the new poultry owners from India, Venky’s, have made the correct decision. By appointing the untried and untested Steve Kean (an underwhelming playing career was followed by assistant managerial roles at Fulham, Real Sociedad and Coventry) they’re leaving themselves open to criticism immediately should results fade. Their challenge over the coming weeks will be keeping hold of skipper Christopher Samba, who has voiced his displeasure over Allardyce’s departure. Grade: B+

Last season’s UEFA Cup Finalists have been the draw specialists this time around, with a staggering ten of their 21 games yielding a point. But for long-term absentee Bobby Zamora, many fans will be wondering how many of these draws could have been turned into wins. On the plus side, they have not lost nearly as many games as those around them, and with the return of Andy Johnson and Zamora in the spring, their fortunes could take a turn for the better. However, should results go the other way, I wonder what price Fulham fans will be calling for a Roy Hodgson return should Mr Benitez be reinstated at Anfield? Grade: C

After yet another sluggish start, David Moyes’ side will again have it all to do in 2011 to salvage anything from their season. The main thing going in their favour is it is so tight this season in the Barclays Premier League and if they were to put a run together, you would not back against them finishing in a European place. Conversely, if they cannot sort out their inability to convert the amount of chances they are creating, they could find themselves struggling at the wrong end of the table. A striker is desperately needed in January, but who will Moyes sell to raise the cash? Grade: C-

Many would regard this as a par score for Alex McLeish’s side, but try telling that to the ambitious Scotsman. After finishing last season in ninth spot following promotion, any talk of second-season syndrome should be rebuffed. Firstly, they have spent six of the past nine seasons in the top flight and should know their way around this division by now. Secondly, the league is scintillatingly close and 15th could turn to top ten with two results. Never-the-less, there is undoubted quality in their ranks and perhaps McLeish’s biggest task is keeping hold of key midfielders Barry Ferguson and Seb Larsson, the latter approaching the final months of his contract. Grade: C

West Brom
The fact all three promoted clubs are well placed at this stage is phenomenal. Should West Brom, Newcastle and Blackpool stay up, it will be the first time since 2001/2002 this feat has been achieved (promoted clubs Bolton, Fulham and Blackburn maintaining Premier League status at the expense of Leicester City, Derby and Ipswich). The Baggies are perennially known as the ‘Yo-Yo Club’, but this year manager Roberto Di Matteo has them playing with confidence and a resilience that has escaped them in previous seasons at this level. Summer arrivals Peter Odemwingie and Somen Tchoyi have been revelations, as has the continued development of Chris Brunt, whose left peg has been striking the fear of life into opponents. Expect another nervous season climax, but there will be no need of a similar great escape of 2004/05, as survival will be wrapped up much earlier. Grade: B+

Aston Villa
Villa’s demise since Martin O’Neil’s exit in the summer should come as little surprise. When the Ulsterman took over in August 2006, he was inheriting a side who had just finished in 16th spot. In his final three seasons in charge, he restored the reputation of the club, guiding them to three consecutive sixth-placed finishes and a League Cup final. But was the fact O’Neil was not given a lavish summer transfer kitty in order to inject life into an aging squad, a squad he had constructed, the main reason for his exit? Or was he simply jumping ship, with the subsequent lacklustre performances envisaged? Either way, the start Gerard Houllier has endured has been average at best. The one positive is the success of their youth system, with Barry Bannan, Jonathan Hogg and Eric Lichaj all making their Premier League debuts, while recent graduates Ciaran Clark and Marc Albrighton have excelled. Expect a recovery of sorts, but not enough for top-six. Grade: C-

West Ham
A recent turn around in form has elevated the East London club from the bottom of the table. Only one other club, West Brom in 2004/05, has managed to survive when propping up the league on Christmas Day since the inauguration of the Premier League, so Avram Grant will still have it all to do to keep the Hammers afloat. It is imperative they keep star players Scott Parker and Carlton Cole, but with the latter’s form hit and miss this season, Grant may look to cash in to bolster evident weaknesses throughout his side. Too good to go down? Don’t count on it. Grade: D

You do feel for Wigan. You get the impression no matter how much money chairman Dave Whelan makes available for Roberto Martinez, they either won’t be able to attract the calibre of player they want, or those they do bring in see it as an opportunity to promote number one and engineer a move within a few seasons. As a result, progress is more or less impossible to achieve. The best they can expect is to hover around the mid to bottom end of the league and, to their credit, this is exactly what they’ve done since gaining promotion in 2005. Their player of the year last term, Charles N'Zogbia, made it clear he wanted out in the summer and he encapsulates this type of player. However, with few clubs interested this window, he may stay to preserve their top-flight status for another year. Grade: C

So much for my pre-season prediction of Mick McCarthy’s side having a successful year. Wolves have played some decent football at times, but like Everton have been unable to translate this into results. McCarthy was asked in November if he thought there were three worse-off teams in the division and his response was a resounding ‘yes’. Half-way gone, he will have it all to do to prove this to his supporters. Key players Kevin Doyle, Matt Jarvis, Steven Hunt and George Elokobi need to demonstrate why they are held in such high esteem. The problem is you need more than three or four players to hold your own in this division. Expect tears in May. Grade: C-

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