Wednesday, 29 February 2012

International week - 3 things we have learned

England – They could lose Gerrard just as they did with Scholes

As Stuart Pearce handed the captaincy to Scott Parker it left a lot in the game more than confused.

Steven Gerrard is England’s vice captain and therefore has to be the man for the job. He has been there and done it at club level and has one so many occasions turned the game for Liverpool.

Steven Gerrard 
There cannot be any argument about age both men are 31 years old, and importantly tonight Gerrard won his 90th cap for country as Parker picked up only his 10th.

Over the last twelve months Parker has become an integral part of the team and the makeup of the midfield but he really doesn’t offer that much to the team apart from his tough tackling.

If you compare their career’s Gerrard has led Liverpool to everything (apart from the obvious) Parker has on the other has struggled. Mid table mediocrity at Charlton was followed by failures at Chelsea and Newcastle. His West Ham side were relegated and now he does a job for Tottenham.

The big risk for England is that it is likely that after the European Championships Gerrard will turn his back on his country just as Paul Scholes did and it would be far too early.

He has been rushed back into action by Liverpool and at times has looked tired but has shone with a match winning performance against Newcastle being the most memorable.  

He would be 33 if England qualify for Brazil and what a stage it would be for him to bow out on, the FA need to sort the managerial mess out and install Gerrard as captain for the campaign.

Wales – Craig Bellamy needs to give the fans one more campaign

On an emotional night in Cardiff, Craig Bellamy lead out his nation at Gary Speed’s memorial game and he provides new manager Chris Coleman with his first challenge.

He needs to ensure that Bellamy is part of the team ahead of the qualifying campaign that kicks off against Belgium in September.

Craig Bellamy
Since his summer move back to Liverpool he has been reborn and is now seen as an integral part of Kenny Dalglish’s side. With injuries a constant worry for Bellamy it would perhaps be easy for him to call it a day on his international career to ensure the longevity of his club career.

Coleman will over the next couple of weeks have to sit down with Bellamy and outline a plan ahead of the qualifying campaign. It is key that the issue is resolved relatively quickly as Wales need to carry on the momentum from the end of their last qualifying campaign.

Far too many campaigns have come to a premature end as a result of poor starts and let’s be honest if Coleman does not have all of Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Bellamy in his first competitive XI they will struggle. Bellamy is integral and certainly has one more campaign left in him. 

Other business – England’s group opponents gear up for the Euros.

Right around Europe England’s group opponents were in action and as England has no manager and no permanent captain they all impress with memorable victories on the road.

Laurent Blanc’s France recorded a famous victory over Germany in Bremen. Goals from Olivier Giroud and Chelsea’s Flourent Molouda getting the goals to continue their impressive run.

Sebastian Larsson
No one expects much from the French at the tournament but for me they must now be considered as dark horses and will pose a tough start for England come June.

Sweden recorded a 3-1 win over Croatia in Zagreb as Sunderland’s Sebastian Larsson grabbed two goals after Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s first half strike as they dismantled Slaven Bilic’s side. It is a result that will encourage the Republic of Ireland who tackle the Croats in their opening game of the tournament on June the 10th.

England’s tournament may well be over by the time they take on hosts Ukraine in their final group game as they beat Israel 3-2  in Petach Tikva. Goals from Oleh Gusev and Yevhen Konoplyanka gave the visitors a two-goal lead at the break before substitute Tomer Hemed reduced the deficit from the penalty spot ten minutes into the second half. Andriy Yarmolenko's close-range finish made it 3-1 just past the hour and although Ben Sahar pulled one back for the hosts, Ukraine held on to ensure their preparations for the summer continued.

A tough night for Wales

An early strike from Arsenal front man Joe Campbell condemned Chris Coleman to defeat in his first game in charge on what was an emotionally charged night in Cardiff.

No one will be taking notice of the result as this game served as an opportunity for players and fans alike to pay tribute to the late Gary Speed following his tragic death back in November.

The late Gary Speed 

The grand tributes beforehand were epic and there was not a dry eye in the house and once again magnified the respect Speed had in the game. But everyone at the Cardiff City stadium would have given anything to be somewhere else.

As for what new manager Chris Coleman described as the tough part the football. Wales were clearly distracted early on as Campbell made the most of a defensive lapse and finished smartly past seven minutes in.

For much of the game Wales pushed with Steve Morison hitting the woodwork before half time but in honesty it was not about the result.

The whole night was a wonderful memorial for Speed, with Costa Rica being the nation he made his international playing debut against.

Great players past and present were in attendance tonight to pay their final respects. Coleman will be judged when his side take on Mexico in New York and will not take anything from this game.

Thanks for the memories Gary, an inspiration for all Welsh football fans gone but never forgotten.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Carling Cup Final 2012 - 3 things we have learned

As Liverpool ended their six year wait for Silverware after sneaking past Cardiff City, we take a look back at the game and pick out three things we have learnt from the first show-piece final of 2012.

Martin Skrtel – is finally maturing into the complete centre half 

One of the most improved players in a red shirt this season has been the Slovakian international who has matured immensely and can be looked upon as Liverpool’s Mr reliable.

Daniel Agger & Martin Skrtel
This season was very much make or break for the twenty seven years old, who after four largely unimpressive campaigns came into this season needing to improve of face the exit at Anfield.

Finally he has been given the opportunity to form a partnership with Daniel Agger
A source of frustration for Liverpool fans he has added that bit of class to his overall game. The trust Kenny Dalglish has instilled into him cannot be underestimated, there was amble opportunity for him to sign a big name into the summer and move him on. Although he has kept him on his toes with the signing of the talented Sebastian Coates who has impressed in his outings this season.

He has contributed with goals from set pieces but crucially he is now reliable and no longer seen as a liability. At Tottenham he was dismissed in Liverpool’s poorest showing of the campaign and it looked as if his early season promise would fade into just that.

He recovered from the early season set back and has put a run of impressive performances together. He looks calm cool and collected and alongside Agger Liverpool now looks to have a solid and reliable pairing at the back, something they have not had in recent seasons.

Dirk Kuyt - good things come to those who wait 

He looked to have won the game for the reds in extra time as he smartly shot past Tom Heaton at the second attempt despite Cardiff’s late equaliser he was not be denied his first piece of silverware at Liverpool.

Dirk Kuyt
An integral part of the team last season, he has had to make do with been very much a bit part player this season. Despite this he is still very much a man for the big occasion with a late winner in the FA Cup against United in January and at Wembley he came up big. 

After his goal he held his cool from the spot at a key point in the shoot out after two earlier misses Liverpool needed him to deliver and his celebration proved how much he finally wanted to be the winner. 

No one deserves success that Kuyt who unselfishly has worked tirelessly for the cause since his arrival from Feynoord in 2006. At the age of 31 his best years are certainly behind him. Certainly not the most naturally talented players who has ever worn the red shirt, despite his inefficiencies he has worked at his game and as a result has played in a World Cup and a Champions League final.  

He has provided reds fans with a number of memorable memories including his hat-trick against Manchester United last season and his part in securing the Athens final of 2007.

One of the nicest men in football has been rewarded finally with a winners medal and no one looked happier than the Dutchman and I for one am delighted for him.

Cardiff City - under Malky Mackay will flourish 

They played a huge part in a memorable League Cup final and will have won over many fans with their passion and never say die attitude.

A fine early goal from the impressive Joe Mason stunned Liverpool into submission and showed that they were not there just to make up the numbers.

Joe Mason & Kenny Miller 
Malky Mackay had talked up his side’s ability throughout the build up and they certainly did him proud.

The centre half partnership of Ben Turner and Mark Hudson was hugely impressive and they will be pivotal if the Bluebirds are to finally make the step up to the top flight.

Aron Gunnarson ran the midfield and was on his last legs during extra time and looked very comfortable in the company of Steven Gerrard.

Many at the South Wales club will have seen the final as a ‘nice’ distraction and the manner of the defeat will hurt but the must out the hurt to one side and push for promotion. 

Mackay’s post match interview for me summed up the man ‘what doesn’t kill us will make us stronger.’ What he has achieved in such a short space of time has been nothing short of remarkable and he is set for big things in the game.

Under his guidance Cardiff will come back from this stronger and he the man to finally end the long wait for promotion and join their Welsh rivals in the Premier League. 

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Sinclair set for big things

Despite being overlooked by Stuart Pearce for England it is surely only a matter of time before he gains international recognition.

Back in May he smashed a hat trick past Reading to seal a return to the Premier League after he was sold by Chelsea in what looks like the best piece of business done by the Swans.

Scott Sinclair
He was not wanted by Chelsea having been restricted to a handful of outings and spent the vast majority on time on loan. Having joined the club from Bristol Rovers back in 2005 he was seen by many as the future of the English game.

Since then it has not gone to plan loan spells at six different clubs including stints in the Premier League with Wigan. His move to South Wales came as a surprise but the initial step down has paid dividends.

He is now getting plaudits right around the league as a result of his dazzling performances. Many Chelsea fans will be left scratching their heads at his exit as he is the kind of player who would make a huge difference to their struggling team.

He has chipped in with seven goals a fantastic return for a winger and his assist record has been impressive.
Brendan Rodgers 
 A lot of credit must go to Brendan Rodgers who has instilled a style of football that allows Sinclair to flourish. A number of clubs around the country will be chasing a number of Swansea players this summer and Sinclair will be right at the top of the list for most.

He has missed out on his first call up to the national set up but in time it will come. Perhaps the European Championships will come to soon the qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup could see him making the break.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Lambert sets sight on big scalp

On Sunday afternoon two Glaswegian manager’s at different ends of their managerial career’s go head to head, with the youngest looking to land his first blow in the top flight.

Paul Lambert’s Canaries have impressed immensely in their return to the Premier League and now find themselves only needed five more points to reach the magic forty point mark.

Paul Lambert
Despite last week’s cup defeat against Leicester, Lambert’s men have played an attractive style of football and on Sunday they will look to get their first scalp against once of the big boys and they do not get much bigger than the champions.

Sir Alex Ferguson will have been delighted at United’s win at Ajax last week, meaning he would not have to risk his best players as he prepares for the battle at Carrow Road.

The move to rest Wayne Rooney is credit to Norwich as Ferguson realises that if his team are not at their best they will fall short on Sunday.

In what is a crucial game for United as they look to keep up the pressure on leaders Manchester City, in contrast there is no pressure on the Canaries, but Lambert will be keen to secure a landmark victory.

There will be goals on Sunday the only real concern for Norwich is the fact that they have only kept one clean sheet this season but their front men have ensured that they have outscored their rivals on a number of occasions.

Lambert is now really starting to make headway in the managerial game and in winning the Champions League as a player he has the drive and determination to make a significant mark as a manager.

Grant Holt
He has bought very well in an age where big fees are paid for players he has an eye for an bargain. In Steve Morison and club captain Grant Holt they have provided the goals required to survive in the top flight. Elsewhere he has made smart acquisitions and has spent very well and has instilled an ethos in his team and they have reaped the rewards in what has been a fantastic return to the Premier League.  

From where Norwich where two years ago fans must be pinching themselves that they are heading into a clash with England’s biggest club with a real chance of winning. Regardless of the result on Sunday what Lambert has achieved in Norfolk is remarkable and he is set for big things in the game.  

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Hughes looks for goals to survive

The arrival of Djibril Cisse and Bobby Zamora on the final day of the transfer window remarkably means Mark Hughes has nine strikers to call upon at any given time in the fight for Premier League survival.

A number have failed this season to find the net notably Jay Bothroyd who just does not seem able to cut in the top flight, following his summer move from Cardiff. DJ Campbell showed last season showed that he knows where the net is last season having fired thirteen goals in an impressive first full season at the highest level. At first glimpse he looked a shrewd acquisition by Neil Warnock but has been beset by injuries and has struggled for a run in the team on his return.

Bobby Zamora

Heidar Helguson has carried the burden this season, the Icelandic international has bagged eight league goals and once in the FA Cup, but at the age of 34 his best years are behind him.

The opening of the window kicked off with the arrival of Federico Macheda from Manchester United on loan but he has struggled to impress and has lost his way following his great start to life in English football. A return to Manchester United will be on the cards for the Italian youngster, followed by a swift move back to his homeland in the summer.

As for the others injuries have played a huge part and a lack of consistency in the forward line selection resulted in the lack of goals and ultimately Warnock’s job. Jamie Mackie has impressed but cannot be relied upon to score.

Rob Hulse’s surprise selection at Villa Park on Wednesday raised a few eyebrows but according to sources close to the club he has been ‘flying’ in training and will be another key option for Hughes and his team to call upon during the run in.

Jay Bothroyd

There is no doubt that Zamora and Cisse are the men Hughes will entrust with the job of finding the back of the net and secure a mid table finish come May.

Today's game at home to Wolves is a massive game for all concerned. Wolves have endured a torrid run of late, without a win since the first weekend in December in the league and with their second half collapse against Liverpool prompting fury amongst the fans; they are there for the taking.  

Zamora will be paired with his new strike partner for the first time and they could not have asked for a better game to start with. A run of three home games in their next four and a trip to Blackburn could see them move clear.

Both players are controversial and have had issues throughout their careers’ but together they can be lethal and will do the business for QPR as they look to secure survival and then establish themselves as a force.

Swans looking to keep defensive rock

Swansea City’s attacking style of football on their return to the top flight has impressed many but their rock at the back Ashley Williams looks set for a bright future and Brendan Rodgers looks to ensure it is in South Wales.

Described this week as invaluable to Swansea, the former Stockport County player has been integral to the Swans rise since his arrival in 2008. He has since gained international recognition making his debut against Luxembourg and has led the team also.

Ashley Williams
He is one of the first names on the team sheet for club and country and with a number of top clubs struggling to keep clean sheets it looks certain that he is going to attract attention from the ‘big boys’ sooner rather than later.

Alongside Joe Allen and Michel Vorm, he has played a key role in securing their current position of fourteenth eight points clear of the drop. Unlike many before them Swansea have got a solid defensive rock in Williams who looks at ease in the league. He has come away with man of the match performances against Liverpool, Tottenham and as recent as Wednesday night against Chelsea.

Michel Vorm
He adds calm and class to the backline and alongside Tottenham loan signing Steven Caulker has ensured a number of clean sheets which is sure to continue well into the season. 

Rodgers will be keen to ensure that his side preserve their top flight status and then the players that have done the job for him. A number of clubs will be sniffing around his club and there is no doubt that Williams will top the bill.

Lambert keeping feet on the Ground

Despite Wednesday’s crushing defeat at Sunderland, the Canaries look to ensure Premier League survival sooner rather than later and they can rely on their potent strike force.

Norwich’s unbeaten start to 2012 came to an end at the Stadium of Light as they were blown away by Martin O’Neill’s resurgent team.

Jonny Howson 
The transfer window was a quiet one for the Canaries and the only major singing was that of Leeds United captain Jonny Howson looks a player ready to make the next step up and will learn under the tutorship of Lambert.

Despite the midweek blow fans can be confident that they will be watching Premier League football come next season. The main concern has to be at the back with only one clean sheet against Chelsea a couple of weeks ago, they have to ensure that they score more than the opposition to pick up the points. Unlike Swansea who defensively are very sound.

In Steve Morison and Grant Holt share a rare quality the fact that they can score in the top flight having done so down the leagues. Between them they have found the net on fifteen occasions and have been aided by Canadian international Simeon Jackson who has chipped in with four strikes including the winner at West Brom in the Cup last weekend.

Former Everton youngster James Vaughan has been unlucky with injuries this season and will be a useful player for Lambert to call upon as the season progresses.

At the back the centre half pairings of former Liverpool youth products Zak Whitbread and Daniel Ayala are improving and will only learn from their experiences this season. Encouragingly in between the sticks the future looks bright with three English keepers all impressing, most recently nineteen year Jed Steer who on debut produced a man of the match performance at the Hawthorns last week. 

Daniel Ayala
Lambert has the right mix of players with a British backbone the vast majority have come though the leagues together and slowly bit by bit he will add that bit of extra class or experience where required. This transfer window just gone was very much a case of if it isn’t broken don’t fix it.

A Champions League winner with Borussia Dortmund, Lambert as a player tasted success right at the top of the game. Now as a manager he is revelling in his first season in the top flight and is refreshing to see a team blended with youth and experience prosper proving that by sticking to your beliefs and through endeavour you can achieve. 

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Midweek Round-Up

On a mixed week for all involved saw Swansea being denied a famous victory, Norwich's unbeaten run come to an end and QPR throw away a two goal lead. 

After new boy Djibril Cisse struck early on to become an instant hit with his new fans,
Aston Villa recovered from a two goal deficit to deny the R’s a crucial three points in their battle to avoid the drop. 

Djibril Cisse
Mark Hughes gave Rob Hulse a surprise start after impressing in training and alongside Cisse impressed early on and the former Liverpool man opened the scoring  following Shaun Wright Phillips’ blocked shot.

Fellow debutant Taye Taiwo’s cross was bizarrely turned in by Stephen Warnock to give the away side a two nothing lead.

Goals from Darrent Bent and Charles N’Zogbia late on ensured the home side took the share of the spoils. Hughes will be left disappointed that his side were not able to pick up a crucial three points, but with Blackburn’s defeat at home to Newcastle they now find themselves two points clear and will be confident of putting a run together to ensure survival.

With Bobby Zamora set to add even more muscle and class upfront in time for the vital clash at home to fellow strugglers Wolves, the futures of DJ Campbell and jay Bothroyd look uncertain as they are set to watch on from the sidelines as Hughes decides to go with others.

They have been desperate for goals this season and now with nine strikers at his disposal Hughes will be confident that they will score enough goals to secure survival and trim his squad down and add further class in the summer.

Elsewhere it was a tough night for Norwich as their unbeaten start to 2012 was blown apart by a rampant Sunderland. A fine goal from the returning Fraizer Campbell and then a great header from Stephane Sessegnon saw the Canaries go two behind at the break.

An own goal from David Ayala compounded a bad night for the away team and they will be keen to pick themselves up in time for the visit of inform Bolton. The result sees Sunderland leapfrog the Canaries into the top half but still eleven clear of the drop zone.

Scott Sinclair 
And finally it was heartbreak for Swansea on Tuesday as ten man Chelsea pegged back Brendan Rodgers’ men deep into added on time. A stunning striker from former Chelsea man Scott Sinclair looked to have set up yet another famous victory and when Ashley Cole was dismissed his side looked to set to leave South Wales empty handed. A wicked deflection of Neil Taylor, from Jose Boswingwa’s shot left Michel Vorm with no chance.

The Swans are now fourteenth in the league and will need to ensure that they are not dragged into the dogfight at the bottom as they are currently nine points clear.