KRC Genk – Champions of Belgium

After 40 games of typically mad Belgian football, KRC Genk won the ‘winner take all’ tie against Standard Liege last night to claim their 3rd Pro League title in their history and their first since 2002.

The playoffs, as controversial as they are, did manage to throw up a perfect finale to a gruellingly long season. Standard Liege who finished 6th after the regular season of 30 games, hit perfect form at the business end of the season. They came into the game at Cristal Arena with 8 wins from 9 playoff games, whilst Genk had stuttered after a 3-0 beating against Club Brugge.

The unique situation regarding the playoffs meant that Genk and Standard went into the game on level points, but Genk were theoretically 0.5 points ahead. When the points were halved, any team on a odd number were rounded up to a full number, so Standard were given an extra half point. Yes, this is the only league in the world (probably) with this formula. This meant that Genk needed only a draw to lift the championship.

Standard Liege started the game the brighter, with their five man midfield holding the ball well. Former Wolves player Jelle Van Damme, who has been Standard Liege’s catalyst in the second half of the season, was allowed too much space and hit the bar with a cross.

Then the sickening turning point. Nifty winger, Mehdi Carcela was knocked out after a stray boot from Liverpool loanee, Chris Mavinga, and he hit the floor violently. Medical staff immediately rushed onto the field. It was rather similar to the John Terry incident at the League Cup final, in that Carcela’s face felt the full force of Mavinga’s boot. It left the Standard players stunned, notably Mémé Tchité who had to be consoled by a team-mate. Carcela was taken straight to hospital, and diagnosed with a broken nose and fractured jaw.

Genk took advantage and went close with two efforts, one of which was a terrible miss by Marvin Ogunjimi. Their star young-gun Kevin De Bruyne, supposedly the target of many clubs, never stopped trying and was the main creative threat for Genk.

But then the pendulum swung back to the away side right before the end of the half. A curling free-kick by Steven Defour, hit Mavinga on the leg and Eli Mangala got the final touch, sending the away end into raptures. The perfect time to score as well, 2 minutes into injury time.

The second half began as expected with a Genk onslaught. They controlled the game looking for that vital equaliser. Standard keeper Sinan Bolat was in fine form though; first stopping Ogunjimi then tipping a De Bruyne free kick around the post.

Vercauteren then rolled the dice with an attacking substitution, taking off masked captain David Hubert and replacing him with Nigerian Kennedy Nwanganga, who had been on the fringes after signing this year. He’s certainly written his name into Genk folklore now though, with a fantastic header 2 minutes after coming on. The Cristal Arena erupted and the tide turned once again.

The Standard fightback ensued, searching frantically for a goal. But Genk can thank their 19 year-old keeper Thibaut Courtois for producing three excellent saves, two of which from close range. He’s been sensational this year, playing every minute of a title-winning campaign. There have been rumours that Manchester United has scouted him, and I hope they were watching this performance – tremendous composure for a teenage goalkeeper.

Genk held out  and the Genk fans invaded the pitch before the trophy was lifted. Manager Franky Vercauteren ran onto the pitch fist clenched to celebrate with his players. He left Anderlecht in 2007 after poor results and a forgettable spell as national team coach, ‘The Little Prince’ has exorcised the demons of the past with this campaign. His policy of integrating youth players with a solid core at the back has paid dividends and many would agree that Genk deserve their title this season.

As for Standard Liege, they should be commended for a tremendous comeback in 2011, but it looks like the end of Dominque D’Onofrio’s tenure as manager. At times it seemed that Sérgio Conceição was the one doing the motivating from the bench. It would have been tremendously ironic that the team most opposed to the league format would lift the trophy at the end but it wasn’t to be. It will be interesting to see whether they can hold on to their two prized assets in Defour and Witsel during the summer. Likewise, scouts seem to swarming around the Cristal Arena too, with Genk’s stock rising. It was quite fitting that they wore shirts with ‘Mine for Talent’ on them.

Both clubs will be in the Champions League qualifying round, and if Genk keep their spine of their team, they could upset some European giants. That being said, they will be in the Champions side of the 3rd round so could face Rangers or Copenhagen for example. Standard Liege will be in the unseeded side and could face FC Twente, which would see Michel Preud’homme return to the club that he made his name at. Just merely draw speculation at the moment of course.

But what a season in Belgium – coincidently the first I’ve had the pleasure of watching. I’ve seen a player throw a duck off the field and recieve death threats. I’ve had trouble getting my head around 3 sets of playoffs. I’ve seen Charleroi sack umpteen number of managers and Wesley Sonck score an overhead kick in the snow. It’s been an experience, one which you can now follow on the Belgian Waffle – once I’ve sorted out a good logo. Watch this space.

Finally, congratulations to Genk fans. Deserved champions.

Top 10 Goals from Centre-Backs

After a long hiatus (thanks to uni work and work placements), I’d thought it was best to actually keep this website running a bit. So what better early Christmas present could I give than ten of the best goals from central defenders.

Of course, we’d rather see a centre-back make a last-ditch sliding tackle that keeps the team in the game or fly in with a diving header deep into stoppage time. But it’s even better when your favourite lumbering oaf at the back unleashes a rasping 30 yard screamer, confusing the entire ground.

There are a few rules though. No free-kicks so that rules out every goal by Chelsea’s Alex. Also, Dion Dublin can’t qualify since he’s clearly a striker and was only playing centre-back because he’s huge. No headers – most centre-backs can do that. I’ve also tried to mix the type of goals a bit to add a bit of variety as well.

I apologise in advance if they are slightly Premiership-centric as well, but I’ve included AEK Athens in this so…

Tony Adams vs Everton 03/05/1998

The goal that got me thinking about this Top 10. It gets even better when you consider it was fellow centre-back Steve Bould whose lovely chipped through-ball that sent Adams in with acres of space. Sure, you could criticise the entire Everton team for being as static as a caravan park, but Martin Tyler’s commentary sums up that entire season for Arsenal. Wonderful stuff.

Gerard Pique vs Inter Milan 28/04/10

This game will no doubt be remembered for the Inter Milan masterclass at the back to keep Barcelona at bay and secure their place into the final. But it’s easy to forget how good this goal was. Slight suspicions of offside but I don’t care, Gerard Pique’s deceptive turn and finish is magnificent and left Ivan Cordoba on the deck, after he left Pique in the first place. Shame it didn’t count for anything other than me loving Pique more.

Philippe Albert vs Manchester United 20/10/96

Slight ambivalence to this goal. It was scored against Manchester United but it’s from a Belgian. But what a fantastic goal, leaving Peter Schmeichel knowingly lobbed and the final goal of a crushing 5-0 defeat for Manchester United. The Great Dane just watches it glide over his head compiling more misery on the side.

Edmilson vs Costa Rica 13/06/02

The award for most outrageous piece of innovation has to go to Edmilson at the World Cup against South Korea. An overhead kick that most strikers would want on their greatest hits Youtube video, Edmilson performs some sort of zero-gravity flip and scores a fantastic goal. His only strike for Brazil but an absolute pearler.

Ugo Ehiogu vs Celtic 11/03/07

If there’s one man I’d not expect to score an overhead kick, its probably Ugo Ehiogu. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him score at both ends at a charity match but this goal was quite superb in the Old Firm derby. Such power, such grace, so very not Ugo Ehiogu.

Daniel Agger vs West Ham 26/08/06

Little was known about Liverpool’s newest centre-back in 2006 but he announced himself very early on to the Anfield crowd. The curve on the 30-yarder is glorious as Agger unleashes a thunderous strike, leaving Roy Carroll stranded. Hardly his fault this time though. Just remember, allowing Agger space is very Dane-gerous (please shoot me in the head)

Roland Juhasz vs AEK Athens 21/10/10

Another contender for the innovator award, after Hungarian Roland Juhasz met the end of Mbark Boussoufa’s cross with a sensational back-heel volley. Pick that one out. Have a feeling he could be on the move soon, so keep an eye out.

Williams Gallas vs Spurs 11/03/06

A vital goal from London cab driver William Gallas, this time from his Chelsea stint. He scored this in the last minute against his current club Spurs after a fiercely contested game. It proved pivotal in the run-in for Chelsea’s second title win.

Jason Cundy vs Ipswich 30/08/1992

I’m no fan of Mr Cundy. Let’s forget about his media work and celebrate this unintentional hoof from near the half-way line against The Tractor Boys. Certainly Cundy’s best moment in football, but there’s not much else to compete with.

Gary Cahill vs Birmingham 16/04/06

And finally we visit the West Midlands derby and Gary Cahill’s creative volley against Birmingham City. Maik Taylor didn’t have a chance. Not bad for your first goal.

 

So there we have it. If you want to add some to the list, comment below. Although I was going to add Distin’s goal against Charlton where he ran about 80-odd yards, but the footage is missing. That means it never happened.

Manchester United – A dissection of 2010

Manchester United still remain unbeaten this season, despite being put through the wringer. Crippling debt, several draws, uninspiring performances and a certain striker allegedly wanting out of the club. Dave Stubbings looks in-depth at United’s problems on the field.

Another match and another draw for Manchester United. Two more goals conceded as questions are asked again about their defence, questions which failed to be answered.

It is worth pointing out that United have not lost yet this season. However they’ve conceded two goals or more in five games already this season, something that happened only six times in the whole of last year.

Wayne Rooney’s form (or lack of) continues to be a hotly debated topic with many wondering what happened to the player who, before Man United’s quarter-final against Bayern Munich appeared to be scoring for fun.

Rooney’s problems though appear to be much more than just a lack of form as he continues to be a shadow of the player he was last season. His ability to control a ball and run with it have deserted him and his shooting has been just awful at times this season. The cliché ‘can’t hit a barn door’ would be a suitable one to use, however after recent performances Rooney would be lucky if he even hit the barn.

Two goals in 21 games and only one this term for his club after 34 in the 09/10 season is a shocking return by any striker’s standards.However the poor performances of United’s number 10 are distracting from other areas which could harm their chances of picking up silverware this season.

Let’s start with the defence.

 

Patrice Evra: now becoming the French national side version for club.

 

Three years ago Patrice Evra was being raved about by the United fans. His tackling, constant running and persistent attacking threat made him an Old Trafford favourite with some claiming he was the best left-back in the world. However since France’s disastrous World Cup he’s lacked most of these qualities as mistakes come thick and fast.

You only have to watch the build up to the West Brom equaliser last weekend to see what I mean, as he failed to clear his lines not once but twice and just ambles back after giving away possession, a far cry from a few years ago. His other habit of 2010, attempted overhead clearances have also failed dismally. Ronaldinho’s goal at the San Siro and Pienaar’s strike last month are two examples of a terrible idea, poorly executed.

On the opposite flank though, things are much worse. John O’Shea’s season has been poor to say the least, both when playing right back and centre midfield.

Whereas Chelsea’s full backs, Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic get forward and provide crosses and even goals, without abandoning any of their defensive responsibilities (usually as the other stays back and helps the centre-backs), it’s a skill O’Shea simply doesn’t have as he timidly passes, match after match. O’Shea’s inability send over a decent cross restricts the winger ahead of him (whether it be Nani or Valencia) and whenever he does decide to venture into the opponents’ penalty area, he turns into a hindrance for his team-mates.

From one extreme to the other though, as Rafael is the opposite. While some of his crossing at times is superb, he appears to forget that he is a defender and constantly wanders off leaving a huge hole on United’s right flank, dragging one of the centre backs out wide.

Rafael is Old Trafford’s version of Glen Johnson. Yes he’s good at crossing and can occasionally score but doesn’t track back enough and rashly dives in for many a tackle; both players play like wing backs in a 4-4-2 formation and it simply doesn’t work. In other European leagues, Rafael would excel but unfortunately the Premier League isn’t a forgiving mistress and you get found out quickly when not in line with the rest of the back four.

What about the other two right backs? Well Wes Brown never appears to be fit enough while Gary Neville is past it and should no longer be considered for most matches.

The centre backs are exactly blameless either. Rio Ferdinand may be fit now but he’s been in and out with injuries so often he struggles to find consistency. However a half-fit Ferdinand is still better than a fully fit Johnny Evans, a man who brings a wonderful air of panic to the United defence the opposition come forward. Also, if anyone can explain the definition of the word ‘mark’ to the Northern Irishman, please write to Carrington Training Ground, Birch Road, Manchester.

This ramble about the defences lets the midfield off however. Owen Hargreaves must surely have a season ticket with Virgin Atlantic now, with his frequent flying to America to see his knee specialist.

 

 

Fletcher and Scholes: dynamic midfield for 70 minutes.

 

Ferguson’s first choice midfield partnership this season of Darren Fletcher and Paul Scholes are solid but perhaps no longer good enough to help United push for the league or European success.

Whilst Fletcher remains as tenacious as ever, he lacks that presence which other top teams have. Chelsea’s Michael Essien is a shining example of the sort of midfielder United need; a tough tackler who can dominate a game. His partner Paul Scholes still has the vision to pick out a fantastic pass, but at 35 is getting on a bit and struggles to play 90 minutes, let alone play week in week out.

Don’t get me wrong, Scholes is a fantastic player and he’s still a joy to watch with his range of passing and shots but he can’t run like he used to, and it’s plain for all to see, especially in the last 15-20 minutes of a game.

However the lack of depth in midfield is apparent as Scholes’ younger team-mates struggle to make a case to be picked. The out of favour Anderson and Michael Carrick, both bought for large amounts of money, continue to frustrate with neither ever given a run of games long enough to force their way into Fergie’s plans.

As for Darron Gibson, one long range shot on target every other match does not constitute a top quality midfielder. He may have scored nine goals in a United shirt but strikes against Southampton, Derby and Scunthorpe make up a third of this tally with two of his league goals coming against Hull and West Ham.

This air of nostalgia around Old Trafford and a misguided belief that the likes of Scholes and fellow midfielder Ryan Giggs can dig United out of a hole whenever the going gets tough.While Giggs and Scholes can still link up wonderfully, as shown by the Welshman’s volley against Newcastle in August, it is worth mentioning that against quicker, more skilful opponents they will not have the time and freedom offered by the Magpies/James Perch.

The lack of outstanding replacements means that they are still being picked regularly, when at other clubs they’d be considered squad players by now. Can United afford the replacements?

The Glazers have always said they can afford any player Sir Alex chooses. However the common consensus appears to be that the Old Trafford coffers are running dry. How true that is remains to be seen. After all Ferguson did splash out £16m on Valencia in 2009 and £7.4m on Bebe this time round (quite why remains to be seen) hints that there is some money there.

Maybe questions should be asked of the manager’s judgement. Shocking as it may sound, he may not be quite the master he once was. Stagnant performances against Rangers and Sunderland as well as a subdued second half against West Brom were a far cry from the United of years gone by.

The decision to replace Fabio da Silva with another defender in the 0-0 draw against Rangers while overlooking Anderson and striker Federico Macheda was a curious one.

While the 1-0 win in Valencia was achieved through the classic counter-attack, it was against the run of play and a type of goal rarely scored by United at the moment; a far cry from the free-flowing football which was common as recently as 2008.

The gap left by Cristiano Ronaldo is evident. If you want an example of the classic counter attacking football United played when he was there, cast your mind back to the 2006/7 season when he and Rooney ripped Bolton to shreds.

A season later United had a strike force of Rooney, Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez  and Nani which was boosted in the summer of 2008 with Berbatov and Macheda (for two matches anyway). Add to the mix an in-form Carrick plus Scholes and Giggs, both two years younger and it was a much more free flowing United side.

However with the loss of Ronaldo and Tevez (officially £105m worth of talent) has made United a much more rigid side. Valencia and Nani are much more orthodox wingers, and as good as they are, do not have that ability to roam which Ronaldo did. There’s no point in asking them to be like Ronaldo but it appears United did not prepare for life after the £80m man and have become too predictable.

This air of nostalgia could hamper United moving forward in the next few years. It’s worth noting that nobody is infallible and as good as the likes of Ferguson, Scholes and Giggs have been for Old Trafford, nothing lasts forever.

Just ask Liverpool.

Follow Dave on Twitter @dstubbings14 and read his brilliant motorsport blog, Hitting the apex, if you are that way inclined.

Champions League group draw thoughts (Group A-D)

Europe’s premier footballing competition once again welcomed the officials of the elite clubs across the continent to the Grimaldi Forum, for what is quickly becoming the most comedic and most drawn out football draw ever . Even I would welcome Jim Rosenthal into the proceedings in an attempt to make it a little bit quicker than Ben Hur. The faux-drama of the event was astounding whilst the Inter players who won the club awards looked uninterested at the format. Meanwhile Gary Lineker was called upon to pick letters, a task he seemed utterly bemused by continually picking out Group C. Conspiracy? No of course not, just coincidence.

Unfortunately UEFA General Secretary David Taylor was replaced by The Hook from Thunderbirds for this year's draw. Also absent, Liverpool FC

But rather than ramble on about how convoluted and tedious the hour was, I shall discuss the group draw in full, looking at player reunions, the obligatory group of death and of course rate the British clubs chances of progressing.


Group A – Internazionale, Werder Bremen, Tottenham Hotspur and FC Twente

Where better to start than with the holders, Inter. Now Mourinho-less, it will be interesting to see what sort of system Rafa Benitez adopts at the club, and obviously we shall get a glimpse tomorrow evening for the Super Cup Final. My theory is if it ain’t broke , don’t fix it. But as we know Rafa surely won’t be keen on adopting the style of a manager he hasn’t exactly seen eye to eye on key issues, though he has managed to keep the bulk of that winning side. He could well strengthen it if he gains the services of Javier Mascherano, although apparently he has no authority. Like at Liverpool.

This isn’t an easy group for them by any stretch of the imagination. Werder Bremen have always promised much over the past few years but ultimately never delivered, and they marginally edged past Sampdoria 5-4on aggregate this week to make the groups.  Thomas Schlaaf may have lost World Cup star Mesut Oezil but in the first leg, Aaron Hunt played well in that ‘trecarista’ role. They have a resolute back-four (although they were poor in mid-week) and some great midfielders in Torsten Frings, Marko Marin and Tim Borowski. Not to mention forwards, Hugo Almeida and Claudio Pizarro (nothing like his Chelsea version). They shouldn’t be underestimated.

Especially by the next team, Tottenham Hotspur. Harry Redknapp’s first Euro-trip outside of a 2004 booze cruise to Dieppe. Spurs were caught cold by Young Boys in the first leg, citing the pitch but it was mainly down to Redknapp’s insistence on 4-4-2 away from home. If Spurs dare use that formation here, they will be ripped to shreds, especially by Bremen. The lack of Champions League experience could also be problematic, with only Heurelho Gomes and Peter Crouch having games at this level.

Finally, FC Twente, the Dutch champions (who were in pot 4, whilst runners up Ajax were in pot 3). Again, a decent side, but question marks remain over whether new manager Michel Preud’homme, with Champions League experience with Standard Liege last year, can replicate Schteve McClaren’s results at the club. They’ve kept top-scorer Bryan Ruiz, but I don’t seem them making it out of the group unfortunately.

Winner: Inter Milan Runners-Up: Werder Bremen

Group B – Lyon, Benfica, Schalke, Hapoel Tel-Aviv

Possibly the weakest group of the eight, but certainly one of the toughest to predict position-wise. Olympique Lyonnais now under the tutelage of Claude Puel, will be hard pressed to improve last year’s semi final appearance but so far things look good for the French side. Some great buys this summer particularly in Yoann Gourcuff and Jimmy Briand replacing the deadwood in Sidney Govou plus the emergence of youth talent from the U19 France squad (the only French national side to do well this summer) such as Alexandre Lacazette. Add to that safehands Hugo Lloris and Lyon look as strong, if not better than last year.

Benfica in contrast have been raided over the summer. Their best players, winger Angel Di Maria and Ramires both have joined Real and Chelsea respectively in big money moves. What’s behind is a shell of that free-flowing attacking side of last year who lit up the Europa League with style although Nicolas Gaitan is a super replacement, signing from Boca Juniors. I think they may be heading to Europa League once again.

Schalke’s big summer signing came in Real Madrid legend Raul, who finally departed from the club after 550 league appearances and becoming their top scorer of all time. Guess he wanted something new. He’ll revitalise this side up front, who finished runners-up in the Bundesliga. Unfortunately for them, they sold Heiko Westermann to Hamburg in the summer, which makes them look a bit weak at the back. But Felix Magath will certainly sort that out. Look out for Ivan Rakitic, who looks a tremendous good midfielder at 22.

Israeli champs Hapoel Tel-Aviv make their Champions League debut after beating Red Bull Salzburg in the qualifier and are relatively based on unknown Israeli players (I won’t claim to know them) but do have stand-out keeper Nigeria’s Vincent Enyeama who single-handedly tamed Lionel Messi at the World Cup.

Winners: Lyon Runners Up: Schalke 04

Group C – Manchester United, Valencia, Rangers, Bursaspor

Sir Alex Ferguson will be licking his lips at this group. Mark my words. United couldn’t have got a better draw really. Over the summer, United have strengthened slightly with the arrival of Javier Hernandez, the other emerging player from the summer tournament. Other signings include Chris Smalling, who probably isn’t at this level yet, and the man who can’t make a reserve squad. Bebe.

Valencia, in serious debt, offloaded their star players David Villa and David Silva. They aren’t as strong as last year but shouldn’t be overlooked in this group. They should still progress though, since Juan Mata and Ever Banega will finally get their chance to shine, you’d hope. Unai Emery is more than capable of producing great things from this side. Sure they aren’t up there with the other Spanish giants, but still a trip to the Mestalla will be tough for United.

But not as tough as the Turkish trip, the pot 4 team I personally wanted to avoid. A mid-week game away in Turkey is never an ideal situation, but in contrast Arsenal and Chelsea have it worse. Bursaspor won the Turkish league last year, (in fact the first time they have finished in the top 3) and are a slightly unknown quantity, although United scouts should find that they are a side with a lot of decent Turkish players such as Ozan Ipek, a tricky winger. Their manager Ertuğrul Sağlam however led Besiktas to an 8-0 defeat at Anfield two years ago.

Rangers, as Charlie Nicholas rightly said on Sky Sports News, should only realistically look at this as a money-spinner. The squad has effectively been the same for 2 years now, and if last year’s campaign is anything to go by this could go awry for them. James Beattie has joined to bolster the attacking options, but I don’t see Rangers making it far.

Winners: Manchester United Runners-Up: Valencia

Group D – Barcelona, Panathinaikos, FC Copenhagen, Rubin Kazan

Just like Sir Alex, Pep Guardiola will be delighted with today’s proceedings. This should be a cake-walk for Barca with lots of goals.

Barca look frightening this year with the addition of David Villa up front. If he doesn’t bag 30 goals with the supporting cast behind him, he’s a failure. Bold claim, but it should happen really. Also, the fact that Pedro should be even better than his debut season and it looks a lock that Barca will go far in this competition. In fact, they are my pick, although I made similar claims last year. There’s also that Lionel Messi lad too.

Panathinaikos qualify as Greek champions, and they really started to adopt a Franco-Greek Connection with the acquisition of Sidney Govou. He could link up well with top scorer Djibril Cisse in the 4-2-3-1 system, especially with influential Greek captain Giorgos Karagounis in the hole. Other Greek nationals to look out for are Giourkas Seitaridis at right-back and Kostas Katsouranis, both very capable players on their day. Not to forget Gilberto Silva of course, in the holding role and I think possibly Panathinaikos could be this year’s surprise package. Maybe

Copenhagen aren’t as good as the side from a few years back, who were in United’s group. But saying that, there are some decent players knocking about particularly young centre-back Mathias Jorgensen who seems destined for a bigger club after scouting from several big clubs. Martin Vingaard is a decent wide midfielder, with a few international caps to his name as well. They also have a few Brazilians, like so many European clubs, such as Cesar Santin who has grabbed 25 goals since his arrival in 2008 and also midfielder Claudemir, signed from Vitessa Arnhem this year, who again looks very good for his age.

Finally, Rubin Kazan who pulled off some astonishing results in last year’s competition, notably that win in the Camp Nou. Can they do the same this year? I highly doubt it is the answer. They aren’t as big a force in Russian football 12 months on although the addition of Obafemi Martins could be pay dividends for them. Turkish journeyman Fatih Tekke, who looks past his best now at 32. Other than that, no real notable names in the squad, and they will be lucky to escape this group

Winners: Barca Runners-up: Panathiniakos

So, after perusing the first 4 groups, I shall return tomorrow to discuss the fates of Arsenal, Chelsea and the scariest group of death I’ve ever seen (weekly hyperbole). I shall leave you with that Rubin Kazan win last year and my new favourite footballer song.



6 Players to Watch in Premier League 2010/11

Well it’s time for that obligatory Premier League Preview. However due to lack of time and the fact that several esteemed journalists (and some not at all esteemed) have previewed the league, I feel it’s best to highlight 6 players who have all the tools needed to be proficient and efficient in the Premier League.

It’s been a strange transfer window really. Very quiet bar the big spenders Manchester City and also a case of ‘chase the hottest prospect around Europe’ game (Loic Remy, Mesut Ozil) in which several managers have participated in and ultimately coming up with no signing.

I’ve imposed certain rulings here. Firstly I cannot go with obvious suggestions that media darling pundits have, so this means Javier Hernandez will not be selected due to the fact the world and his dog know he will be good this year and if you’re a eagle-eyed World Cup viewer, you’ll know exactly what he will bring to Manchester United. This also means no David Silva, Jack Wilshere, Gareth Bale, Joe Hart et al.

The other ruling is that I’m going to try and highlight players outside the Big Four if possible unless I feel a certain player at a big club deserves attention. So sorry Joe Cole, but I wouldn’t have picked you anyway despite the fact that you are clearly more  skilful than Lionel Messi, according to your club captain (surely a contender for Biggest Heaping of Pressure on an Overrated midfielder.)

So here we go, 6pointer’s guide to 6 players you should put into your fantasy football team if you can:

1. Mauro Boselli (Wigan)

I’ll be honest I was worried about Wigan at the beginning of this transfer window. Several players have left the club after their contracts expired, such as Mario Melchiot (who was beginning to become a liability anyway) and Paul Scharner. Other key players had jumped ship too, like Titus Bramble joining his former manager Steve Bruce at Sunderland.

Martinez had a massive summer scouting mission ahead of him. Fortunately, he’s managed to make some great signings. Antolin Alcaraz from Club Bruges, was instrumental in Paraguay’s World Cup success, forged upon a tightly knit defence. Ronnie Stam has signed from FC Twente, who’s continually improved there as a right-back and got a Holland call-up too.

But one thing that Wigan have always lacked at this level is an out and out frontman, who’s capable of consistently performing. Step forward Mauro Boselli. Signed from Estudiantes for an estimated £6.5million, he swaps the bustling streets of Buenos Aires for a wet and windy Wigan.

He’d managed to build quite a reputation for himself in Argentina, scoring 32 goals in 57 appearances for Estudiantes. He’s an intelligent striker, who knows exactly where to be at the right time.

Martinez describes him as ‘a goalscorer, who lives to put the ball in the back of the net’ and if he links up well with Hugo Rodallega or Jordi Gomez, I feel we might see a barrage of goals at Wigan this year.

Why Terry Venables thinks they’ll be 19th I don’t know, when Martinez has added some quality to a pretty ropey side. Boselli has even made a Argentinian call-up. You may see this as Diego Maradona experimenting, after all he’s used about 50 players in the last 2 years, but you have to some sort of quality to challenge that front-line.

He could flop like so many South Americans before him in this league, but I feel the top scorer in the Copa Libertadores in 2009 might just be this season’s best purchase, and will warrant a big move the year after.

EDIT – 23/9/10 – After seeing Mauro Boselli, live in the flesh, discount any information you see here. He looked sluggish against Preston. Sean St Ledger kept him in his pocket the entire night pretty much. Don’t listen to me, I have sinned.

2.Daniel Sturridge (Chelsea)

Ok, I’ve broken the Top Four amnesty. But I don’t think many people realise the quality of this young English centre-forward. This decision was mainly down to his performance in last week’s Community Shield, where came on 2nd half replacing Nicolas Anelka. I feel this might happen a lot this year, since I think Anelka is under serious threat of finding himself at another club. He’s hardly had a good summer either, and I think his time at a top level is coming to an end.

This is why I feel Daniel Sturridge is an ideal replacement. He has power and pace in abundance and Carlo Ancelotti found opportunity to play him a lot in the later months of last season, particularly in Chelsea’s FA Cup winning side. He ended up with 4 goals in the FA Cup and finished as the leading scorer for Chelsea.

If Carlo Ancelotti integrates him more this season, we may well see Sturridge challenge for national selection. The future’s bright for this young man I reckon.

3.Jerome Boateng (Man City)

If you were to ask me last season where City needed strengthening, the answer is obvious. The back four last year began superbly but then collapsed as the season progressed. For all your attacking options, you need players capable of offering protection to a solid goalkeeper. Roberto Mancini has acted this summer and brought in German international Jerome Boateng from Hamburg. Of course £11 million isn’t cheap but compared to the £24million City paid for Joleon Lescott, it looks a bargain.

Boateng is a strong and versatile defender, capable of playing really anywhere across the defence. He’ll thrive in this league, as he’s renowned for last-ditch defending. He was unsung really in Germany’s World Cup exploits, the plaudits of a free-flowing attack were well noted but it was underpinned by a strong defence. City should be improved this season as I think their major weakness has been sorted out to some extent.

4.Dani Pacheco (Liverpool)

He’s often been touted as the next best thing at Liverpool, but former manager Rafa Benitez never really used him or got the best out of him when he did. I think under Roy Hodsgon we may see that change. Pacheco was instrumental along with Sergio Canales in the Spanish side that were runners-up in this year’s U19’s European Championship in France. What Dani lacks in height, he makes up double in creativity and all-round trickiness, a general requirement of any Barcelona youth player.

If given the chance this season under Hodgson, he could link up well with a fully fit Fernando Torres (will this ever happen?) and we should see more of the man nicknamed The Assassin by team-mates due to his ability to score from anywhere.

5.Graham Dorrans (West Brom)

I feel it’s only fair to highlight someone from the promoted teams, and while Charlie Adam seems a good pick, I’ve decided to go with the Baggies playmaker. He was unbelievable last season in the Championship, and certainly worthy of his place in the Team of the Year. He’s the linchpin of the side, and his partnership with Chris Brunt was key to West Brom’s promotion last year. He’s an all-round central midfielder with a sweet shot on him too.

I still think West Brom are relegation candidates, after all the club is a yo-yo side, but if they want to avoid the drop look no further to their young midfield driving force. All they need a good striker and they may have a chance to get mid-table. Even if West Brom go down, I get the feeling he won’t find it hard to garner some Premier League interest.

Scotland, there is something to get excited about from a upcoming star.

6. Pablo Barrera (West Ham)

Another player to shine in Javier Aguirre’s exciting Mexican side, this winger could prove a real handful for some Premier League teams. The thing I remember most about Barrera at the World Cup was the torrid time he gave Eric Abidal in the France game (arguably Mexico’s best performance at the World Cup). He looks nippy and a decent crosser too, something that West Ham will need to feed Carlton Cole up top, or maybe Frank Nouble if he’s given a chance.

The 23 year old moved from Mexican side Pumas for £4 million. I’m not totally convinced about West Ham’s plans under Avram Grant but I think Barrera could be a hugely influential midfielder for them.

So there we have it. Let’s see next May how badly wrong I was.

Community Shield Preview – Chelsea vs Manchester United

At last the discussion over England’s worst World Cup in the history of all time can temporarily cease, as we prepare ourselves for the traditional curtain raiser: The Community Shield.

This will be the 88th Community Shield and the 5th contested between these two heavyweights. Chelsea of course won the double last year so United qualify as league runners-up. This is the first real opportunity to see how the two of the big sides will do this season, and more importantly for Chelsea and Manchester United to claim first blood in what is sure to be an interesting campaign.

Both have had contrasting pre-seasons. Ancelotti’s Chelsea have suffered 3 three straight defeats whilst travelling through Europe (against Ajax, Eintracht Frankfurt and Hamburg). Defeats on pre-season are never an indication of how things will turn out for a side clearly, but it was the manner of these defeats that must irk Carlo Ancelotti. Particularly against Ajax, a Chelsea fringe team were outplayed by Martin Jol’s side.

More worringly however is the fitness of goalkeeper Petr Cech who will certainly miss this game, and is in a race against time to make the Premier League day opener. He will be replaced by Hilario as Ross Turnbull who has been deputising in recent weeks hasn’t impressed.

The Bison is back

One real bonus for Ancelotti is the return of Michael Essien in midfield. Missing most of last year, he will link up well with Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel in the midfield engine-room.

For Manchester United, pre-season has been considered a success with some impressive results against ‘All-Star’ sides. The recent 7-1 victory over the Airtricity League XI allowed United to make proverbial mince-meat of inferior opposition and turn on the style. Of course this tie won’t be so easy.

They’ve also accumulated some injuries, most notably Michael Carrick (ankle) and Ferguson’s side will certainly miss his technical attributes. He may have had a reasonably poor season last time out, but his passing in one of the best in the league in my opinion, and he is the epitome of the underrated central midfielder as highlighted by Zonal Marking recently. He also allows United to retain possession well too. I don’t see being a major issue as Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher can operate well as the two holding midfielders.

Other players missing for Manchester United are Gabriel Obertan (ankle), Anderson (knee and stunt driving), Rafael and Fabio (food poisoning) and Owen Hargreaves and Rio Ferdinand are long term injury concerns. On the subject of Anderson, I think his days are limited at Manchester United following his near-death experience. Shame, but two major injuries at a young age could curtail a promising career.

Summer savings

Neither side has really been on a pre-season splurge over the summer months. Chelsea have added Yossi Benayoun, who will fit nicely into the Joe Cole mould of squad player. Roman Abramovich has yet to break the bank with a signing but the £17m transfer of Benfica and Brazil winger Ramires is certainly imminent.

Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez - the next big thing?

Ferguson on the other hand decided to delve into the market early with the signings of Chris Smalling from Fulham and Javier Hernandez. The decision to bring in Chicharito for £7million pre-World Cup looks to be a Ferguson master-stroke after he excelled in South Africa. His positioning and off the ball running look superb and a friend likened him to a young Michael Owen. I whole-heartedly agree that this guy looks a hot prospect. The only area where Manchester United really need some strengthening is at right-back (Gary Neville and Wes Brown don’t help) and on the left side of midfield, unless Nani finally realises his potential. His inconsistency wasn’t as bad last year however.

Strikeforce options

Speaking of which, if Owen does start it will mark the first competitive game he’ll have played since the League Cup final in March. I doubt this will happen however as risking him on a Wembley pitch before the season starts could turn out disastrously. Expect Rooney and Berbatov to start, with Owen and Hernandez making 2nd half appearances possibly. Then again Ferguson could decide to play Rooney up to with 2 of Valencia/Nani/Park making up the support. This would likely match Chelsea, allowing flexibility to match their 4-3-3 formation in attack or 4-5-1/4-2-3-1 in other situations.

Rooney will need to hit the ground running again this season in a attempt to mask the performances in South Africa where he looked lethargic and uninterested. I have no doubt that this will happen.

Carlo Ancelotti has named his side this afternoon. He’s decided to leave Drogba on the bench, favouring Nicolas Anelka. He will be supported by Salomon Kalou and Florent Malouda on the flanks.

Teams

Chelsea (4-3-3) – Hilario; Paulo Ferreira, John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Ashley Cole; Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel, Frank Lampard; Salomon Kalou, Nicolas Anelka, Florent Malouda

Verdict – As expected. Near full strength. Interesting to see if Ivanovic can continue his improvement in the centre-back role alongside the increasingly outspoken and erratic John Terry.

Manchester United – TBA

Prediction

It will be tight and possibly a tense affair. I have an inkling that United will win here, mainly due to Chelsea’s pre-season form being sketchy. Ancelotti has complained that his players aren’t showing good enough fitness levels yet and that showing of his deck could prove costly. It might end with a penalty shoot-out but I think United will edge it 1-0.

Community Shield Trivia

  • The last three winners of the Community Shield went on to win the league that year. Will that trend continue this year?
  • Also the last three games have ended in a penalty shootout.
  • Andre Marriner will take charge of the game on Sunday. Not exactly one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s favourite referees after sending off Nemanja Vidic at Anfield last season.
  • A win for Ryan Giggs on Sunday would mean 8 Community Shields, the same as Everton have won.

To whet your appetite, here’s last season’s game highlights. Featuring general Nani goal.

The Premier League Fashion Fix – Kits for 10/11 (Manchester City to Wolves)

Manchester City

Rather begrudgingly, I have to admit City have got their shirt spot on once again this year. They have changed their kit maker to Umbro, which seems to be a good move. Once again the phrase simplicity crops up Sky blue, white arm trim. Done. Very similar to England’s away kit with the fabric and look used.Also like the nice touch inside of the collar, of the classic City scarf. I think that was Mancini’s idea, he just loves striped scarves that fella.

Good work Umbro though, I’m liking your shirt philosophy. Man City are again sponsored by Etihad Airways will reveal their away kit on Friday (but it’s likely going to be red and black)

Verdict – 8/10

Manchester United

I’ve got mixed opinions on these two offerings by Manchester United. The home shirt is a big improvement on last year in my opinion, with Nike dismissing the black chevron for the traditional all red. Not that keen on the white sleeve stripes as it reminds me of the Umbro kit from 99/00. But other than that, it’s an above average effort boosted by the return of a collar. Eric would be proud

The away kit on the otherhand is hideous. I’ve always preferred a black away kit for United. White ones rarely work and the shoulder/sleeve design here is just weird, with the red stripes just tacked on there. Actually maybe United should be sponsored by Red Stripe. No that’s a bad idea.  Manchester United are now sponsored by Aon

Verdict – 6/10 (away kit drags it down)

Newcastle United

After last year’s shirt show-stealing performance for all the wrong reasons. Newcastle opt for a more conservative option this time round in their return to the top flight. The Championship winners of course have their black and white striped shirts, but it’s a pretty rubbish shirt. Puma have gone for some weird fabric that doesn’t look high quality, plus they’ve kept with the unorthodox collar (I like it but many don’t). The back is all white, which goes against the Geordie grain.

Also don’t really like the black shoulder design. There’s too much black there and it’s very reminiscent of the kit they wore to relegation. The away shirt is a peculiar shade of blue and to be honest I prefer the 3rd kit to it.

Newcastle are once again sponsored by Northern Rock.

Verdict – 4/10

Stoke City

Oh dear. Stoke’s new agreement with Adidas couldn’t have produced a more unsatisfying shirt. It looks like a patchwork quilt. Too many ideas are meshed together to create a monstrosity. Harsh?

The red and white stripes are accompanied by dashes in between. Why, I do not know. The neck/collar area looks strange and again Adidas have had to put a space for a Premier League badge. Speaking of badges, the Adidas one on the left is weirdly places. Yes, it is safe to say I hate this kit. The away kit arrives on the 2nd August, I’m hoping for something better.

Stoke continue their sponsorship with Britannia for this season.

Verdict – 2/10

Sunderland

Umbro make it a three peat of superb kits. As you can tell by the promo shot of Darren Bent with a ancient football, Umbro have gone for the classic look. The new sponsor, bingo website Tombola is put onto the shirt, without it looking out place. Interwoven if you will. The red and white stripes are complemented by a good red collar look.

The away kit as you can see is all white with a subtle hint of burgundy. I really like this kit as well. Fantastic effort.

Note- Tombola will not appear on junior shirts to comply with UK law

Verdict – 9/10

Tottenham Hotspur

Puma have gone a bit crazy with the Spurs shirt. Once again, don’t understand the decsion to move the Puma badge up to the shoulder on the home kit. The diagonal navy blue strip across the top of the shirt would be fine apart from the white stripes added along it. It just looks a bit off to me. The change strip is now sky blue. It’s been a while since it has and I think it’s a move for the better.

Overall not terrible but not great either. Spurs have a new sponsor in Autonomy

Verdict – 5/10

West Bromwich Albion

Well we finally have one Umbro kit I don’t like. The Baggies have bounced back to the Premier League for the umpteenth time and brought a polostyle home shirt with them. I don’t like polo shirt in general so I may be biased here, but the contrast between that and the sponsor Homeserve offsets the vintage look Umbro went for. Shame really.

The away kit however is a lot better. Subtle black stripes are simple and effective. Only downside for me as a traditionalist is West Brom not having green and yellow in their away kit.

Verdict – 6/10

West Ham United

It was unavoidable. This promotional picture had to be used. Mark Noble and Thomas Hitzlsperger eating a full English down a East Lahndan caff. Not fulfilling any Cockney stereotypes there then are we, West Ham PR department. The kit itself is unique in a way. The claret and blue hoops around the middle of the shirt seem to be in honour of Sampdoria possibly. Then again maybe not. Overall, not a bad away kit although slightly tarnished by Macron’s logo on the sleeve.

And of course away days are very much like this. Hash browns and bacon at a service station in your change strip.

West Ham have yet to reveal their home kit but they’ll still be sponsored by Sbobet

Verdict – 6/10 so far

Wigan Athletic

Wigan have finally unveiled their kit, in a friendly with Oldham last night. The cost-cutting decision to make their kit ‘in-house’ with company Mifit seems to have paid off. I really like this kit. The off-centre vertical stripe is different and I think it sets them apart. The sponsor slightly ruins a very good shirt as it looks out of place

The wait was worth it I guess. Wigan are sponsored by 188Bet again for 10/11.

Verdict – 7/10

Wolves

They are Premier League but not in the shirt stakes. Burrda have poorly imitated Umbro in the traditionalist approach but this could well be Mick McCarthy’s desire to hark back to the Molineux of old.  Muddy pitches and parasite football as Mick moaned all summer long.

Anyway, the shirt is not too bad until you realise that the retro idea is ruined by the Sportingbet sponsor. Alternatively buy the kids shirt since it won’t have. Although this might arouse suspicion.

The away kit is the reverse sans the silly collar.

Verdict – 5/10

There we have it. The Champions League places belong to Blackburn, Man City and Sunderland (Umbro). The fashion police have relegated Bolton, Stoke and Everton. Enough with this fashion facade. Back to normal running soon