Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Fighting for survival
Ahead of the 2011-12 Premier League campaign, ESPNsoccernet takes a look at the six sides, excluding the three newly-promoted clubs, that could be in most danger of being sucked into a relegation dogfight in the new season.
Ambition is admirable. Over-ambition, however, sets you up for a fall. Rovers manager Steve Kean this summer: "Trying to deliver European football in three or four years for this club is achievable." Blackburn finished 15th last campaign. Granted, Kean acknowledges this: "To jump from where we were last season into the top four would be unrealistic." Yet, the aforementioned soundbite puts you under the microscope.
Blackburn owners Venky's, the Indian Poultry giants, have released a succession of statements over the summer which have done little to clarify the club's direction. There have been murmurs of eye-catching signings - Ronaldinho, Kaka and Luis Fabiano - tempered with mutterings of realism. That the 22-year-old Dundee United striker David Goodwillie is a recent acquisition points to the latter. Kean, meanwhile, has received the backing of Venky's, despite, at the time of writing, the Scot being the bookmakers' favourite to be first for the chop. "He is there for good. We are very positive about him," co-owner Venkatesh Rao said.
The talented Phil Jones has departed for Manchester United for £16.5 million, while conjecture remains over fellow defender Christopher Samba's future with Tottenham and Arsenal reportedly interested. The agent of Nikola Kalinic, meanwhile, has strongly criticised the club, all-but confirming his client will not be a Blackburn player in the new season. These are key names; Kalinic having finished as joint-top scorer (with a mere total of five goals, mind) for the club in the league last season.
Perhaps the scrutiny of Kean is harsh. He did guided Rovers to survival last campaign after going the final four matches of the season unbeaten. But, considering the owners' apparent ambition, Kean, operating in his first managerial position, seems a peculiar fit for Venky's. The club's beginning to the 2011-12 season presents winnable fixtures (Wolves, Aston Villa, Everton, and Fulham) but with that presents expectation of points accrued. A sloppy start could see Kean ousted early while the season in its entirety looks an arduous one for Rovers.
Last campaign, Bolton's manager, Owen Coyle, was praised for implementing a more easy-on-the-eye style of play whilst guiding the club to safety without any real heart palpitations. Yet their form, late in the season, was woeful as the thinness of their squad was exposed. Of their final ten matches of the term, they lost eight. Ultimately, the Trotters finished 14th in the table, seven points above the drop zone, with their away form of desperate concern - the joint-second worst in the division. Conversely, at home, Bolton were decent, winning more games on their own turf than, say, Tottenham, and scoring more goals than, say, Arsenal.
As touched upon, the size of Bolton's squad is the greatest worry, with the impressive Stuart Holden's injury in April last season coinciding with their dip in form. And this summer the likes of Johan Elmander, Matt Taylor, Jlloyd Samuel and Tamir Cohen have all left, meaning the cracks have become more gaping. To make matters worse, the excellent Lee Chung-Yong has been ruled out for the whole campaign ahead due to a serious leg break.
While Lee's injury is a blow for Coyle, he has been active in the transfer market, despite limited funds. Chris Eagles and Tyrone Mears - who has, painfully for him and Coyle, recently also suffered a leg break - have both arrived on three-year deals while Nigel Reo-Coker and Darren Pratley have joined on free transfers. Shaun Wright-Phillips has been linked, and the Manchester City winger would arguably prove a canny addition to Coyle's squad. The search for firepower, however, remains ongoing and a priority, after Daniel Sturridge returned to Chelsea following his superb loan spell in the North West.
Uncertainty also rages over Gary Cahill's future amid continual claims in the press of interest in his services, despite, at the time of writing, there being no offers forthcoming, according to Coyle. Certainly Coyle would prefer to have Cahill in tow come their very tough start to the season, with Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea among their first eight fixtures. Bolton should have a enough come May, but the regularity of that backs-to-the-wall feeling will be injuries suffered/signings added dependent.
This section is being typed in the week that the Joey Barton situation has simmered, reached boiling point, and bubbled over. Barton is not the be all and end all for the Magpies, but his likely exit will see him join a growing list of talented footballers who have departed Tyneside in recent months. Powerful striker Andy Carroll left the club for Liverpool in January, albeit for a princely sum of £35 million, key midfielder Kevin Nolan has joined West Ham, while, if reports are to be believed, Barton could be followed by left-back Jose Enrique in heading for the exits.
The Magpies' odds for relegation this season have of late been shortened from 7/1 to 4/1. This speaks volumes. Last campaign, after a controversial change of manager from Chris Hughton to Alan Pardew, Newcastle avoided relegation without any real drama, intimating the decision was vindicated. They finished seven points above the drop zone, in 12th position. Yet, after several minutes spent counting, it emerges Hughton won five of his 16 Premier League matches in charge of the Magpies, a win percentage of 31. Yet Pardew won six of his 22 top-flight games at the helm, a win percentage of 27.
Pardew's bolstering of the squad has been intriguing, with the former Southampton boss largely targeting players from abroad. Mehdi Abeid, Demba Ba, Sylvain Marveaux and Yohan Cabaye - whom, like Barton, was denied access to the US during the club's pre-season tour - have all arrived at St James' Park, where Newcastle were oddly poor last term, winning just six times on their home turf. Indeed, they drew far too many of their matches on Tyneside: just under half.
The past six months have hardly painted a picture of a happy camp within the dressing room walls at Newcastle. Pressure is, therefore, on the team to start strongly in the new season, which begins at home to Arsenal, and for the new additions to impress, thus cooling the fears the club is on yet another downward spiral. Pardew is under pressure to unite the players, while the animosity towards owner Mike Ashley and managing director Derek Llambias is growing.
West Brom's decision to bring in the experienced Roy Hodgson for Roberto Di Matteo in February proved a fine example of judgement, and also trust, after Hodgson's reputation had taken a hit at Liverpool, as he won five of his 12 games in charge, guiding the Baggies to a comfortable 11th placed finish. Hence, if Hodgson can continue this record then the club should in theory be fine in their quest to remain in the top flight. There are concerns, though, over the size of West Brom's squad
Goalkeeper Scott Carson has left for Bursaspor, but Hodgson has reacted by bringing in Ben Foster on loan from Birmingham. And the move demonstrates a smart piece of business by the ex-Fulham coach. Indeed, Foster was named Birmingham's Player of the Season and Players' Player of the Season for the last campaign. Creative midfielder Zoltan Gera has completed his return to the club on a free transfer, although he is not expected to be fit until mid-September following an ankle injury. Holding midfielder Youssouf Mulumbu, meanwhile, has penned a new deal this summer.
Speculation has emerged over key striker Peter Odemwingie's future, but the Nigeria international looks set to remain at The Hawthorns, a boost after he netted 15 Premier League goals last season. No other Baggies player managed double figures last term in the league, with Mulumbu their second-highest scorer with seven strikes. Indeed, Marc-Antoine Fortune, scorer of just two goals in the top flight last term, needs to take some pressure off Odemwingie in 2011-12.
Last campaign, West Brom's weakness was their defending, the club conceded a total of 71 goals in their 38 league outings - a tally only 'bettered' by Blackpool. And Hodgson is aware a marked improvement is essential: "You can't go every year into a Premier League season letting in as many goals as we did last year and expect to survive." Good job they begin their season versus champions Manchester United then, eh?
Manager Roberto Martinez is a likeable chap. He is articulate, dignified in defeat while his footballing principles are admirable. That said, his side's dramatic brush with relegation on the final day of last season indicated work needs to be done if a repeat is not to be endured this time around. A look at last term's table reveals too many games drawn, too few goals scored and a very poor home record, leaving the Spaniard with much to contemplate this summer.
The loss of tricky winger Charles N'Zogbia leaves Martinez's side one quality player lighter. And such an exit hurts more on a squad which is thin at best. Wigan received £9.5 million for N'Zogbia from Aston Villa, although it remains to be seen just how much of that money will be reinvested. Indeed, the £6 million spent on Mauro Boselli last summer for a return of no league goals followed by two subsequent loan moves serves as a reminder not to get all giddy with the income injection.
Striker Hugo Rodallega, scorer of the goal that kept Wigan up on the final day, looks poised to remain, which is an obvious boost as the Colombian was their joint-top (tied with N'Zogbia) league goalscorer last term, with nine to his name. In terms of incomings, David Jones has arrived from Wolves while goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi, who enjoyed an impressive 2010-11 season, has been signed on a permanent deal following his loan spell from Bolton.
The fixture computer has handed Wigan an unusual start to the season, lining them up against all three promoted sides in a row. Their second match marks Martinez's return to his former club Swansea while the Spaniard will hope to have a decent points return in the bag come their trip to Manchester City in September. It'll likely be another testing campaign for the Latics. But, with Martinez at the helm, at least it will be an entertaining ride.
Wolves finished the 2010-11 Premier League season in 17th, a point above the drop zone as Stephen Hunt's goal on the final day versus Blackburn proved decisive despite the club losing 3-2. It may have been exciting but it is certainly drama that boss Mick McCarthy will be eager to do without in the new campaign. Tightening up in defence and sharpening up in front of goal are both required - not too much to ask, eh. Their home form was not bad but 13 defeats on the road were disappointing, in particular with only 16 goals registered in 19 away trips.
As has been the recurring theme for the sides that could struggle in the new term, their squad is dependent on one or two key personnel. And should one of those suffer an injury, then their absence is felt. Kevin Doyle may not have been prolific last term, scoring just five times in the league, but his presence when leading the line cannot be questioned. Indeed, of Doyle's last five league appearances for Wolves, the club accrued 11 points. Thankfully for Wolves, when he suffered injury in March, a late spell of form from Steven Fletcher handed them a lifeline.
McCarthy has made some shrewd additions to his side already this summer, first tying down midfielder Jamie O'Hara on a permanent basis, and then bringing in Roger Johnson from Birmingham, for a tidy fee of around £4.5 million, before making the defender captain of his side. Those signings combined with an expansion to the stadium paint optimism for the club. Indeed, this summer, McCarthy said: "I would still like to be sat here in five years' time. But with us as a solid team performing in the Premier League - a top 10 club and upwards."
It's the club's spirit, instilled by McCarthy, that should ensure they avoid demotion. Last campaign they did not often enough turn encouraging performances into results. It's up to their manager to ensure they go the full distance in matches this time around.
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