Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Are the Nevilles set for an England recall?

With just three months to go until the World Cup the race to make the plane to South Africa is most definitely on.

For England a mini injury crisis has really opened things up for players who may have thought their international careers were over or that a chance to play at the tournament was beyond their reach.

Two of those players are the Neville brothers, Gary and Phil. Fabio Capello has had to deal with a host of injuries in the full-back positions with Ashley Cole and Wes Brown both out with long-term foot injuries and Glenn Johnson easing his way back after three months on the sidelines. Wayne Bridges' decision to declare himself unavailable after the John Terry scandal has only compounded Capello's troubles.

But in the Nevilles he has an experienced pair of heads who would slot into the side with no trouble. Older brother Gary has 85 caps to his name and his experience would be invaluable. He has come in for criticism this season for his lack of pace and although the 35-year-old isn't as quick as he once was, his recent steady performances, including an excellent game against Liverpool last weekend, have fuelled rumours of a recall and boosted Manchester United's Premier League title hopes.

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Hammers slip towards the relegation trap door

West Ham have done little to draw attention to themselves this season. Their manager, Gianfranco Zola, is one of football’s nice guys and won’t bow to media pressure and say anything controversial.

His side try to play neat attractive football, as is the expectation of the fans, so red cards and dirty tackles happen infrequently at Upton Park.

In fact the loudest people at the club have been the new owners, David Gold and David Sullivan, who since their takeover in January have appeared in the press almost daily, talking about the dire financial situation at the club and their hopes to move into the 2012 Olympic stadium.

However, their support for Zola has been conspicuous by its absence. It is clear the new men at the top are not sure about the Italian’s long-term future at the club, believing he is just too nice to fight his way through a relegation scrap. Despite words to the contrary from Zola, the lack of public support bound to affect the Italian.

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Can Everton gate crash the Champions League party?

For Everton fans it was probably the most satisfying result of the season.

The 2-0 win at the City of Manchester Stadium made it an impressive double over the side that caused so much unrest in the Everton camp last summer and, if David Moyes is to be believed, directly contributed to the Toffees poor start to the season.

Since then the insults have flown between the clubs' supporters. The nouveau riche City fans have lorded it over their poorer relations, while Evertonians have reminded them that despite their millions, they have achieved nothing yet.

David Moyes, who is very careful with his words in the press, stoked the flames still further by acknowledging that City have spent money wisely but their expensive imports still don't have the collective team spirit forged at Goodison Park.

But that didn't stop the press from previewing this game as "the chance for City to go fourth" rather an opportunity for the Toffees to press their European credentials.

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Claret and Blues

Three teams, two colours, and one disastrous weekend.

Fans of West Ham, Villa and Burnley will be forgiven for lying in on Monday morning, pretending it’s Saturday and the previous two days were just a horrible nightmare.

All three clubs shared more than just their kits colours with three shocking results that have left their fans bewildered and their seasons on a steep downward curve.

Working from the top down and Villa look to be paying the price for only playing about 16 first team players this season.

A marvellous run to the league cup final, FA Cup semi-final and the fight for fourth place now look to be taking their toll on Martin O’Neill’s men. Two home draws against Sunderland and Wolves suggested the wheels were wobbling but no one expected them to fly off so spectacularly at Stamford Bridge.

A severe case of defensive amnesia enveloped the Villains defence as each Chelsea attack almost inevitably ended in a goal.

It has been far from a disastrous season for the Midlands club but with another collapse seemingly underway the fans are beginning to grow frustrated at boss Martin O’Neill’s continued failure to address their annual end of season blues.

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Milner and Johnson to profit from Beckham’s injury

It was undoubtedly a blow to England’s World Cup hopes when David Beckham ruptured his achilles playing for Milan a few weeks ago.

The former England captain would have been a vital squad member whose influence would have extended beyond the playing field – as shown by Fabio Capello’s intention to include Beckham in the squad’s preparations.

But as the door closes on Beckham’s World Cup aspirations so another opens for a replacement, and for me there are two standout players who are showing the form and crucially the fitness to make the squad.

The first is James Milner. The former Newcastle winger has had an excellent season at Villa, hitting nine goals and helping the Villans to the League Cup final, the FA Cup semi-final and sixth place in the table, where they are battling for a spot in next season’s Champions League. The FA Cup betting suggests Villa are still in with a chance of bagging a trophy this season.

Milner also seems to have developed a maturity in his game that makes me believe he can handle the pressure of a World Cup, something many players cannot do. Able to play both on the left and right wing, he has a versatility that is vital in tournament football.

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Iain Dowie – a change for change’s sake?

I doubt Iain Dowie was the first name on Hull fans’ lips when former manager Phil Brown departed earlier this week.

The former Oldham, Crystal Palace and Charlton boss is not exactly the inspirational appointment they hoped for, or indeed expected, when chairman Adam Pearson promised not to “leave any stone unturned” in his search for a new boss.

Dowie seems a nice enough bloke, but it can’t be denied his Premier League record is worrying – the last three sides he has either coached or managed in the division ended up being relegated. There will be a huge question mark over whether the former West Ham striker can galvanise his side enough to climb out of the relegation zone.

Chairman Adam Pearson put a brave face on things, choosing to focus on Dowie’s hunger and desire to prove people wrong after relative failures at Coventry and QPR. But it seems Dowie wasn’t his first choice, with the likes of Mark Hughes and Alan Curbishley reportedly turning down the job.

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Saturday, 6 March 2010

Premier League Round 29 and FA Cup – PMP's Picks

remier League:
Arsenal 3 – Burnley 0
With all the drama surrounding Aaron Ramsay’s horror injury it would be easy to forget the Gunners claimed a valuable three points at the Britannia Stadium to keep themselves in the title race. Even though the Premier League betting odds make them third favourites, Arsenal have the easiest run-in of the three contenders. That includes this weekend’s clash with Burnley. Brian Laws’ side have collected just one point on their travels this season and lost to bottom club Portsmouth last time out. There’s only one winner for me.

West Ham 2 – Bolton 0
Both sides picked up vital wins in recent weeks to aid their survival bids – Bolton defeated Wolves 1-0 last weekend, while the Hammers have beaten Hull and Birmingham in successive home games. However, Owen Coyle’s Trotters don’t travel well and I fancy Gianfranco Zola’s improving team to make it three home wins out of three.

Wolverhampton Wanderers 0 – Manchester United 2
Man United recovered from the defeat at Everton in fine style, first beating West Ham 3-0 at Old Trafford and then lifting the Carling Cup at Wembley. Wolves are only out of the drop zone on goal difference and have lost their last two since beating Spurs on February 10th. They defeated United on their last trip to Molineux six years ago but I can’t see history repeating itself on this occasion.

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How does Crouch do it?

Along with crop circles and the pyramids surely Peter Crouch’s England goal scoring records should be up there with the world’s greatest mysteries.

This isn’t a slight at Crouch’s abilities, he is an established Premier League player, but his record in an England shirt is up there with the best.

Another two goals in midweek against Egypt brought his tally up to 20 in 37 appearances and he must be in contention for a starting role in South Africa. Granted he does tend to score goals against inferior opposition to boost the tally, but anyone who has a habit of putting the ball in the net is handy to have around.

However Crouch’s greatest asset – his considerable height – also works against him. Too often when he is on the field the ball is directed long to his head. Fabio Capello admits is a useful weapon to have in his armoury, but a direct game is not an effective permanent tactic at international level – the defenders are just too good.

Because of this he is often consigned to the bench along with another alternative, the speedy Jermaine Defoe.

But even in his fleeting appearances he makes himself hard to ignore. If Capello can ensure players aren’t lured into the temptation of playing it long all the time, he could yet be our (not so) secret weapon at the World Cup.

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