Sunday, 13 December 2009

A Season Too Soon For Sunderland?

Apologies for the time that has elapsed since my last post - a break that even the politicians would find gratuitous. Let's get down to business sharpish: can Steve Bruce's Sunderland haul themselves into the top 8, the domain of the sides with real aspirations? Many of the club's playing and coaching staff are on record as expressing disappointment that they currently lie 10th after a highly promising start to the campaign. But are they labouring under delusions of grandeur, or can they really be considered as serious contenders in the chase for a Europa League place?

Certainly Steve Bruce has assembled a squad containing genuine talent. A fully fit roster possesses pace, power, refinement and commitment, and many excellent signings were made over the summer. Lee Cattermole and Lorik Cana are particular highlights - dynamic, passionate midfielders more than capable of holding their own against any other central midfield pairing in the league. Michael Turner continues to shine at centre-half and cannot be too far away from an England call up, despite the rude health of the pool in that department, and able backup exists in John Mensah and Paulo da Silva, full internationals who have displayed much competence thus far.

Then there is Darren Bent, who under Bruce now possesses two crucial ingredients that make up the productive athlete: confidence and regular opportunities. Bent has always been a fine finisher - unhelpful comments from Harry Redknapp notwithstanding - and playing every week has allowed him to more than pay off his significant transfer fee before Christmas. Bruce has also benefitted from the much improved fitness of Andy Reid, who now has the energy and desire to match his undoubted technical ability, and the rapid progress of Jordan Henderson, a homegrown talent who has acquitted himself marvellously when covering for the injured Cattermole in recent weeks. The youngster is now more than capable of making the XI on merit.

Sunderland, then, have the players to push for a place in the top half of the table at the very least. Two obstacles, though, currently stand in their path. The first is their away form: barring an excellent point at Old Trafford, the Black Cats have generally been below-par on the road, and their performances contrast vastly with those seen at the Stadium of Light, where both Arsenal and Liverpool have been dispatched. Bruce's recent demands that Sunderland adopt the mentality of Manchester United when on their travels express a fine sentiment but will require a great deal more time in order to bear fruit.

The second obstacle is the reality that Sunderland were certainly not the only club over the summer to back their ambitions with the cheque book. Aston Villa, Spurs and Everton all invested heavily over the summer, and then of course there is Man City. All four harbour realistic expectations of a top seven finish, and at present only Everton are below the Cats. To the mix we can also add Fulham and Stoke, both of whom seem capable of replicating last season's fine results, and a dark horse by the name of Birmingham City. A Sunderland side unable to travel well cannot be expected to finish ahead of many of their rivals, and would be well within their rights to be feeling Blue if Alex McLeish's surprise package manage to keep hold of their current 8th place.

On paper Sunderland look a solid bet for a top half finish, but having used up much of their quota of luck during 'Balloongate', Bruce's boys must strive to reproduce their home performances on the road if they are to convince owner Ellis Short to keep stumping up the cash and attracting real talent to Wearside.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Campbell's Departure Indicative Of The Times

Sol Campbell's hasty departure from League Two Notts County - five weeks into a lucrative five year contract - is a sad but unsurprising reminder that the modern footballer by and large deserves his reputation as a self-centred mercenary, unable to comprehend the eternal notion that the club is bigger than any player, especially one well past his best and with a history of bottling it.

Wednesday saw the astonishing about-turn fly onto the front pages of the nation's news sources, and the immediate reaction was one of disappointment (from County's perspective), tempered with the rapid realisation that the former England international really wasn't worth the 'hassle' - as Spurs chief Harry Redknapp chose to put it - and especially not the £45,000 weekly salary that he was reported to be receiving from the club's wealthy but mysterious owners. Campbell played a single game for the ambitious County outfit - a 2-1 defeat to Morecambe.

Today on, director of football Sven-Goran Eriksson confirmed that Campbell had decided the club's long-term project was not one he could adapt to, and questioned the centre back's motives, claiming that Campbell had had five weeks in which to familiarise himself with the various facets of the programme. Let us interpret this in the way which is probably intended: Campbell simply couldn't be bothered to wait for County's climb to click into gear, and attempted to mask this with an excuse that attempted - poorly - to call into doubt the foundations of the five-year plan.

Sometimes, of course, impatience can be a virtue (this at any rate was the thinking behind the recent Samsung mobile phone advert); the qualification is that it must be expressed in the right way. That is, we can admire a singleness of focus in a sportsperson if they are able to channel this into dedication and commitment on and off the field. But when it is manifested as the individual's express belief that he is being let down or in some way betrayed by those around him, then it is much more difficult to call up some appreciation for his situation. Moreover, crossing one's management invariably ends badly; we need only recall the decline of David Beckham after his departure from Manchester United, or more recently the pariah status enjoyed by Nigel Reo-Coker after his training ground tussle with Aston Villa boss Martin O'Neill.

A player who can use his frustration as a motivation for redoubled efforts on the training ground and increased application in the opportunities that he does get merits encouragement. But Campbell's early ditching of the project at Notts County, apparently because the facilities at Notts County do not rival those at Arsenal or Portsmouth, merely marks him out as a deserving recipient of further terrace ridicule. Sadly, it seems that we will have to wait until January before we can indulge in such behaviour. At least it gives us plenty of time to prepare our best material...

Monday, 21 September 2009

The Big Four: Will 2009/10 see the status quo maintained?

The weekend's Premier League fixtures gave the global audience the chance to see how the season's early frontrunners are shaping up, with the mania of the summer transfer window having died down and the fixture schedule beginning to bite as the cup competitions get into gear. Unfortunately for the fans of the pretenders to the crown shared by Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal, the latest round of games gave a clear indication that the Big Four will be resisting expansion, until 2010 at least.

The Big Four all helped themselves to 3 goals or more, and that was after all four got off to a winning start in the Champions League, though not necessarily convincingly. Moreover, the quartet's most promising challengers were among the sides to be leaking goals, with Spurs shipping 3 at Stamford Bridge and Manchester City conceding 4 in a classic derby with United. Consolation may be sought in the fact that away fixtures at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge may be considered the toughest games of the domestic season, but the problems facing City and Spurs lie in a crucial, but familiar, area.

That area is the defence. White Hart Lane is notorious for being the home of many a defensive clanger, and 'Arry's efforts to consign defensive unreliability to the past will not be helped by possessing three horribly injury-prone central defenders. Woodgate and King in particular; though both fine footballers, they are all too often to be found in the treatment room, rather than the Tottenham penalty area. Michael Dawson showed signs of improvement last season but remains inconsistent, while Sebastian Bassong has started well and was fortunate to escape serious injury after a nasty fall against Chelsea. In the full-back positions, first choices Vedran Corluka and Benoit Assou-Ekotto are solid but hardly excellent, while back ups Alan Hutton and Gareth Bale are both average at best as defenders, though good attacking weapons. It comes as little surprise to learn that Spurs have not kept a clean sheet in their first 6 Premiership games.

City started the season in fine defensive form, but like Spurs have shipped 6 goals in their last two games - games played against members of the Big Four. Clean sheets in the earlier clashes suggest that their backline is in finer fettle than their North London compatriots, even if those games were against Blackburn, Portsmouth and Wolves. Indeed, their problems are less serious than those facing Redknapp; captain Kolo Toure seems more focused than in his last days at The Emirates, while Shay Given remains magnificent between the sticks. The jury remains out on Joleon Lescott, who was unimpressive against United. Perhaps the price tag is weighing him down, but he is still a weaker defender than his previous defensive partner, the colossal Phil Jagielka. City rely on Given to bail them out with worrying regularity - though he regularly proves equal to the task - and may miss Toure when he joins a number of Chelsea stars (and suspended hotshot Emmanuel Adebayor) at the African Cup of Nations in January.

Apologies for neglecting fans of last season's fifth and sixth placed sides, Everton and Aston Villa. I personally cannot see either overhauling Spurs and City, so this may be the battle for seventh. Villa are coming into form after a poor start to the season, having made some good additions to their backline and seen John Carew return to fitness. The rapid trio of Milner, Young and Agbonlahor have plenty of goals in them, and they look a good bet for seventh, especially as they have already completed their European commitments for the season. Everton have yet to settle into their stride, and still miss the talismanic Mikel Arteta, but the return of Nigerian frontman Yakubu from injury will ease the burden on the likes of Cahill and Saha (who himself is surely due another injury). Everton are well stocked in defence and midfield, and when Jagielka returns they should be strong. Expect a season-long struggle for seventh, with both pushing hard at City and Spurs above them.

But, barring further extravagant strengthening in January from City, I cannot see the Big Four being broken up this season, even though three of the pretenders have no European distractions. Regarding the order of the Big Four, I find it difficult to look past Chelsea and United for first and second, with Arsenal and Liverpool in hot pursuit. Not sure about the order yet, but I do know that January will go a long way to determining it...