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Premier League season preview

Norwich fans are excited about this season's Premier League, fat

By Jeremiah Paschke-Wood

Here are my (informal) predictions from the upcoming Premier League season. The teams are ranked in the order I (kind of) think they’ll finish in, plus I’ve included a little bit of info on each of the teams. Enjoy!

Player of the season: Wayne Rooney, Manchester United
Top scorer: Sergio Aguero, Manchester City

1. Manchester United
Last Season: 1st
Key Signings: Ashley Young, F, Aston Villa; David De Gea, GK, Atletico Madrid; Phil Jones, D, Blackburn Rovers
Key Losses: Paul Scholes, MF, retired, Edwin Van Der Sar, GK, retired; John O’Shea, MF, Sunderland; Wes Brown, D, Sunderland; Owen Hargreaves, MF, released
United come into the season again as favorites after adding Ashley Young to their attack. The big questions for the team are whether or not David De Gea or Anders Lindegaard prove an adequate replacement for Edwin Van Der Saar, and who will take the place of Paul Scholes in midfield. If Tom Cleverly or Anderson step up, this team should win, what, it’s 20th title?

2. Manchester City
Last Season: 3rd
Key Signings: Sergio Aguero, F, Atletico Madrid; Gael Clichy, D, Arsenal; Costel Pantilimon, GK, Timisoara; Stefan Savic, D, Partizan
Key Losses: Jerome Boateng, D, Bayern Munich; Shay Given, GK, Aston Villa
Manchester City fans are still waiting to see what happens with Carlos Tevez saga – rumour has it that he might go to Inter Milan on loan. If he does stay, that creates a bit of a logjam at forward, with him and new signing Sergio Aguero (who might be better than Tevez anyway), Edin Dzeko, Mario Balotelli, Emanuel Adebayor as well as wingers David Silva, Adam Johnson and possible Samir Nasri, if he ever signs from Arsenal. Regardless, City have a strong enough squad that you’d have to think they should compete for 1st in the Prem and make some noise in the Champions League. Anything less than 2nd would probably result in Roberto Mancini getting fired.

3. Chelsea
Last Season: 2nd
Key Signings: Romelu Lukaku, F, Anderlecht
Key Losses: Yuri Zhirkov, D, Anzhi Makhachkala
After lots of rumours of players being bought and sold by Chelsea, really no one has left the team and no one has been purchased except for Romelu Lukaku – and that hasn’t even been confirmed by the team yet. It remains to be seen whether Chelsea will add more to the squad; Lukaku probably won’t be a regular day-to-day starter. In their current position, Chelsea are one of the better teams in England, but it’s hard to see them sticking with the two Manchester teams without a couple high-profile signings.

4. Arsenal
Last Season: 4th
Key Signings: Gervinho, F, Lille; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, MF, Southampton
Key Losses: Gael Clichy, D, Manchester City; Denilson, MF, Sao Paulo
According to reports, both Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri are set to leave the squad very soon. Whether the Gunners remain viable contenders even for a Champions League spot is dependent on who is signed to replace them – as well as who is brought in to shore up the defense (Birmingham’s Scott Dann has been mooted). As things stand right now, though, no one has left, so they still edge out Liverpool and Spurs in my book.

5. Liverpool
Last Season: 6th
Key Signings: Jordan Henderson, MF, Sunderland; Stewart Downing, MF, Aston Villa; Charlie Adam, MF, Blackpool; Jose Enrique, D, Newcastle
Key Losses: Milan Jovanovic, F, Anderlecht
Reds boss Kenny Dalglish has indeed splashed the cash this offseason, buying a whole slew of players with experience in the Premier League. Perhaps not the flashy signings that many Liverpool fans would have wanted, but in some cases (Downing, Enrique), players who will improve upon what’s already there. But with that said, I don’t think any of the signings are likely to make the team title contenders, and they were woeful in preseason.

6. Tottenham Hotspur
Last Season: 5th
Key Signings: Brad Friedel, GK, Aston Villa
Key Losses: Jonathan Woodgate, D, Stoke City
Spurs haven’t changed their team much from last year’s team which reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League and finished fifth, but with the money spent by City and Liverpool, it’s hard to see them challenging that seriously for a Champions League spot. They were particularly frustrating in attack last year, with only Rafael Van Der Vaart (in midfield) scoring goals with any regularity. And you wonder if the team doesn’t get off to a strong start if he’ll want to move to another team.

7. Sunderland
Last Season: 10th
Key Signings: Ji Dong-Won, F, Chunnam Dragons; Connor Wickham, F, Ipswitch Town; Craig Gardner, MF, Birmingham; Sebastian Larsson, MF, Birmingham; John O’Shea, MF, Manchester United; Wes Brown, D, Manchester United; David Vaughn, MF, Blackpool
Key Losses: Jordan Henderson, MF, Liverpool; Steed Malbranque, MF, Saint-Etienne
The amount of good players Sunderland have signed in the offseason mean that anything less than a European spot this year will probably result in Steve Bruce losing his job. So the challenge for Bruce will be incorporating seven new players who all probably think they should be starting into what was already an OK team. If he can do that, they should be solid challengers for a European spot, though Champions League is probably a bridge too far.

8. Stoke City
Last Season: 13th
Key Signings: Jonathan Woodgate, D, Tottenham Hotspur; Matthew Upson, D, West Ham
Key Losses: Abdoulaye Faye, D, West Ham; Eidur Gudjohnsen, F, AEK Athens
Stoke have been one of the better managed – if not the most exciting in attack – teams in the league and have transitioned from being a borderline EPL team into a solid contender for Europe (where they’re playing this year). In Matthew Upson and Jonathan Woodgate, manager Tony Pulis has made a couple fairly astute signings of experienced English defenders. If they can stay healthy. They should once again challenge for a European spot.

9. Everton
Last Season: 7th
Key Signings: None
Key Losses: James Vaughn, F, Norwich City
Everton are generally solidly a 5-7th place team in the league and deservedly so. However, on the back of a summer which has seen no new additions – albeit also no big subtractions – and with the squad aging, it looks likely they will drop back a bit. Supposedly defender Joseph Yobo is on the verge of a move to Turkey as well.

10. Aston Villa
Last Season: 9th
Key Signings: Shay Given, GK, Manchester City; Charles N’Zogbia, MF, Wigan
Key Losses: Ashley Young, F, Manchester United; Stewart Downing, MF, Liverpool; Brad Friedel, GK, Tottenham Hotspur; Nigel Reo-Coker, MF, Bolton Wanderers; John Carew, F, West Ham; Robert Pires, MF, released
Villa somehow rallied at the end of a terrible season last year to finish ninth. Unfortunately, despite having a decent squad with the addition of N’Zogbia and Given, the amount of players that have left the team – and the quality, in some cases (that means you, Ashley Young) means the team will likely not improve on last year’s finish.

11. Fulham
Last Season: 8th
Key Signings: John Arne Risse, D, Roma
Key Losses: Zoltan Gera, MF, West Brom; Diomansy Kamara, F, Eskisehirspor; John Paintsil, D, Leicester City; Jonathan Greening, MF, Nottingham Forest
Fulham qualified for the Europa League by the most sexy of routes possible – the fair play table. Unfortunately, this means that they’ve already play something like 8 European games, which probably means they’ll get off to a good start and then collapse in March or so. They have a decent squad and decent manager, and they should be a mid-table team this year.

12. Bolton Wanderers
Last Season: 14th
Key Signings: Nigel Reo-Coker, MF, Aston Villa; Chris Eagles, MF, Burnley; Tyrone Mears, D, Burnley; Tuncay, F, Wolfsburg
Key Losses: Johan Elmander, F, Galatasaray; Matthew Taylor, MF, West Ham; Joey O’Brien, MF, West Ham; Ali Al-Habsi, GK, Wigan
Despite being often praised for playing a more attractive style under manager Owen Coyle last season, Bolton faded badly in the second half of the season – particularly when Stewart Holden went down with injury. After losing Johan Elmander and Daniel Sturridge (return to Chelsea from loan) this offseason, and with Gary Cahill potentially headed for Arsenal or another big club, it’s not hard to envision this team getting embroiled in another relegation battle.

13. Newcastle United
Last Season: 12th
Key Signings: Demba Ba, F, West Ham; Sylvain Marveaux, MF, Rennes; Yohan Cabaye, MF, Lille
Key Losses: Sol Campbell, D, released; Kevin Nolan, MF, West Ham; Wayne Routledge, MF, Swansea City; Luis Enrique, D, Liverpool
Newcastle have made some intriguing signings in the offseason, but have also lost some key players in Nolan and Enrique. Joey Barton could also be leaving after his very public feud with management. Unfortunately for Magpies fans – among the best in England – if the new signings don’t bed down   quickly, this could be a very long season.

14. West Brom
Last Season: 11th
Key Signings: Ben Foster, GK, Birmingham; Zoltan Gera, MF, Fulham; Martin Fulop, GK, Ipswich Town; Shane Long, F, Reading
Key Losses: Abdoulaye Meite, D, Dijon; Gianni Zuiverloon, D, Mallorca; Giles Barnes, MF, Doncaster Rovers; Scott Carson, GK, Bursaspor; Boaz Myhill, GK, Birmingham
West Brom rallied and finished the season strongly under Roy Hodgson. In Ben Foster, they have improved upon their goaltending, and Shane Long – signed from Reading – could be a good player in the Premier League, I’m not sure. The problem with this team is their defense. If Hodgson can fix that (they gave up 71 goals last season), they will be a mid-table club. If he can’t, they’re headed for a relegation battle.

15. Wolverhampton Wanderers
Last Season: 17th
Key Signings: Jamie O’Hara, MF, Tottenham Hotspur; Roger Johnson, D, Birmingham; Dorus DeVries, GK, Swansea City
Key Losses: Marcus Hahnemann, GK, released; David Jones, MF, Wigan
Wolves made two very good signings in Jamie O’Hara and Roger Johnson. Their play last season was extremely uneven, but if Kevin Doyle can stay healthy, they should be able to move ahead of the morass at the bottom of the table.

16. Queens Park Rangers
Last Season: 1st in Championship
Key Signings: Jay Boothroyd, F, Cardiff; Kieron Dyer, MF, West Ham; Danny Gabiddon, D, West Ham; DJ Campbell, F, Blackpool
Key Losses: Mikele Leighterwood, MF, Reading; Gavin Mahon, MF, released; Pascal Chimbonda, D, released
QPR have been one of the big spenders in the Championship for the past couple years, so it’s a bit of a surprise they haven’t bought many players this offseason. In DJ Campbell, they have a forward who has shown he can score goals against England’s finest, and Jay Boothroyd has been very productive in the Championship. And if Kieron Dyer can stay healthy (ha ha!), they’ll have a good player in midfield. But the success of the team pretty much solely rests on whether they hang on to Adel Taraabt. If he doesn’t leave for a bigger club, they can probably finish mid-table. If he leaves, they’re probably doomed.

17. Blackburn Rovers
Last Season: 15th
Key Signings: David Goodwillie, F, Dundee United; Raca Petrovic, MF, Partizan Belgarde
Key Losses: Phil Jones, D, Manchester United; Benjani, F, released; Zurab Khizanishvili, D, Kayserispor; Nikola Kalinic, F, Dnipro
It’s a bit of a toss-up between Wigan and Blackburn as to who is my pick to get relegated with the two non-QPR promoted teams. The thing that Blackburn has over Wigan is a couple shrewd spring signings in Ruben Rochina and Mauro Formica. And they better be good, because the team’s forward line (David Goodwillie, Jason Roberts, Rochina, Junior Hoillet) at least on paper, is probably the worst in the league. Though I do think Hoillet is going to be a good player. Eventually.

17. Wigan
Last Season: 16th
Key Signings: Ali Al-Habsi, GK, Bolton; David Jones, MF, Wolverhampton Wanderers; Nouha Dicka, F, Strasbourg
Key Losses: Charles N’Zogbia, MF, Aston Villa; Antonio Amaya, D, Real Betis; Daniel De Ridder, MF, Grasshoppers; Steven Caldwell, D, Birmingham; Tom Cleverly, MF, Manchester United (Return from loan)
News just recently came out that Wigan was attempting to sign West Brom’s Peter Odemwingie. Though he’d be a great signing, you’d have to think that A) West Brom wouldn’t sign him, and B) He wouldn’t want to come to Wigan. Nonetheless, it at least indicates that Wigan is attempting to buy a player to replace Charles N’Zogbia. They need someone, because as much as I like manager Roberto Martinez, forward Hugo Rodallega and defender Maynor Figueroa, the rest of the team is only marginally Premier League quality.

19. Norwich
Last Season: 2nd in Championship, promoted
Key Signings: James Vaughn, F, Everton; Steve Morison, F, Milwall; Ritchie De Laet, D, Manchester United; Bradley Johnson, MF, Leeds United; Anthony Pilkington, MF, Huddersfield Town; Kyle Naughton, D, Tottenham Hotspur
Key Losses: Jens Berthel Askou, D
I always enjoy promoted teams, because they play hard, and at least for half a season, it gives you the impression that, if players want it badly enough, they can compete with the overpaid, professional whiners in the top clubs. Unfortunately, it usually ends with them being relegated. But still. If I had to pick one of the three teams I would like to see stay up, it would probably be Norwich. They have signed a couple decent players – Vaughn, De Laet and Naughton) but their roster is still pretty woeful, and their attacking lineup is Blackburn Rovers-esque (Simeon Jackson, Morison, Grant Holt, Chris Martin). In fact, THIS is the worst attacking lineup in the league. Sorry.

20. Swansea City
Last Season: Won Championship playoff, promoted
Key Signings: Danny Graham, F, Watford; Wayne Routledge, MF, Newcastle United; Leroy Lita, F, Middlesbrough; Jose Moreira, GK, Benfica; Steven Caulker, D, Tottenham Hotspur; Michel Vorm, GK, Utrecht
Key Losses: Dorus De Vries, GK, Wolverhampton Wanderers; Darren Pratley, MF, Bolton Wanderers; Gorka Pintado, F, released
Swansea took care of their goaltender woes with the loss of De Vries by signing Moreira and Vorm. In Danny Graham and Leroy Lita, they’ve signed a couple players who have shown they are OK Championship players. Unfortunately, in Pratley, they have lost one of their midfield engines. I wouldn’t actually be shocked if this team started strong – possibly the best of the promoted bunch – before crashing and finishing in last place.

Seattle’s 7-0 loss to Manchester United wasn’t that bad … was it?

I’ve been reading some of the debate over the Sounders getting hammered in a friendly, at home, by Manchester United yesterday. A lot of the talk, unsurprisingly, has been along the lines of “Oh, MLS, you screwed this one up again!” Well, I don’t think that’s true, really. I mean, obviously losing by seven goals at home is terrible no matter who you’re playing, but I don’t think it’s a true representation of the quality of the league as a whole. And here’s why:

1. Manchester United are really good. I think some people who watch the Premier League (and aren’t Red Devils fans) get so caught up in the race for someone to knock United off their peg that they don’t realize how good the team really is. Manchester United are certifiably either the second- or third-best team in the world, as of last year. They certainly didn’t hurt themselves by signing Ashley Young or David DeGea, either. Do you think United would lose if they played a friendly at Osasuna (in Spain) or Fluminense (in Brazil) or Catania (in Italy)? Probably not. They might even win by seven goals.

2. The Sounders made eight changes at half-time. The Sounders were probably always going to lose this game, but they didn’t help themselves by taking eight of their starters out at half-time with the score 1-0. Would United have scored six goals in the second half against the starters? Maybe, but probably not – 3-1 would be my pick as the most likely result. And I know some will argue that United played several of their reserve players (Mame Biram Diouf, Macheda, whoever that goalkeeper was that played in the second half), but one thing you have to remember is, every player in Manchester United’s team would walk into the starting line-up of an MLS team. Heck, every player in Manchester United’s team would probably get some playing time for Everton, and they’re considered one of the better teams in England.

3. The Sounders have bigger fish to fry. I get the impulse to criticize Sounders management for not trying to win a game against one of the world’s top teams, but Seattle is in the thick of the supporter’s shield (best regular season record) race and starts Champions League play during the week next week, and is in the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup. There is just no incentive to risk injury on a team with so much to play for on one exhibition match, no matter who it’s against.

4. The MLS is getting better. No, really. It might seem weird to use such a pasting as an example of improved play in the league, but, at least for 45 minutes, Seattle did compete against one of the best teams in the world. If you look at MLS squads, you could make the argument that every team has at least one guy who, maybe wouldn’t play for a top English team, but would certainly see playing time on a lower-level Premiership team. In Seattle’s case, players like Osvaldo Alonso, Fredy Montero, Alvaro Fernandez and James Riley wouldn’t make United’s bench, but they’d almost certainly make the team at Norwich or QPR or Wigan. And to have a European team come to a match in the U.S. and play in front of 67,000 crazy fans would’ve been unheard of even a few years ago. That’s progress.

Backe choses the rest of all-star team and it’s … Tally Hall? Really?

OK, here are the other players chosen by coach Hans Backe to play in the all-star game July 27 against Manchester United. Some of the choices are quizzical, at best, but there is some logic to some of them. Some. Can I say some again?

First off, two teams (FC Dallas and Seattle) are playing in the CONCACAF Champions League on July 28, which is why you don’t see many players from those teams – though why the MLS didn’t put them as part of the inactive roster (which already has four players and will include six more chosen by the players) is a big question.

I want to criticize a couple things, though.

1. Tally Hall at goalkeeper. Maybe Backe sees something I don’t, but I certainly wouldn’t put the mistake-prone Hall in even the top half of MLS goalkeepers, particularly with vastly more deserving guys like RSL’s Nick Rimando (who will probably be a player pick as an inactive all-star), Colorado’s Matt Pickens, Toronto’s Stefan Freis or Columbus’s Will Hesmer available.

2. No Osvaldo Alonso. As noted, Seattle has a Champions League game the next day, but Alonso should’ve been voted to the inactive roster (which I assume the players will fix).

3. Four players from Houston? The Dynamo haven’t been the worst team in the league, but they’ve probably been, oh, the 12th best team. So why do they have four players on the team when, say, Philadelphia or Columbus have 1 and 0, respectively. Not deserving (except for Brad Davis, who is having a great year)

4. MLS favorites. This happens in every league, but the MLS continues to pick players as all-stars based on their name. I’m a huge fan of Omar Cummings, but he certainly doesn’t deserve to play after being injured most of the season – particularly when Eric Hassli is having such a great year. Neither Bobby Convey nor Heath Pearce have played well this season, yet both make the team ahead of players like Jan Gunnar Solli or Tony Beltran. You could say the same about midfield, where neither Kyle Beckerman or Shalrie Joseph have had amazing years yet both got picked.

Regardless, I’d be surprised if this team beat Manchester United.

Here are the players selected: Goalkeeper: Tally Hall (Houston Dynamo), Faryd Mondragón (Philadelphia Union)

Defenders: Corey Ashe (Houston Dynamo), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Geoff Cameron (Houston Dynamo), Bobby Convey (San Jose Earthquakes), Sean Franklin (LA Galaxy), Jámison Olave (Real Salt Lake),Heath Pearce (Chivas USA), Tim Ream (New York Red Bulls).

Midfielders: Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), David Beckham (LA Galaxy), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo), Jack Jewsbury (Portland Timbers), Shalrie Joseph (New England Revolution), Nick LaBrocca (Chivas USA)

Forwards: Juan Agudelo (New York Red Bulls), Omar Bravo (Sporting Kansas City), Omar Cummings (Colorado Rapids), Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)

Inactive All-Stars (Note that another six inactive All-Stars will be chosen via player voting): Kasey Keller (Seattle Sounders FC), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy), Rafa Márquez (New York Red Bulls), Brek Shea (FC Dallas)

MLS “First XI” All-Stars announced, and they’re mostly OK

Thierry Henry's beard will make an appearance against Manchester United

By Jeremiah Paschke-Wood

At halftime of the Timbers-Sounders game, they announced the “First XI” for the upcoming all-star game July 27 against Manchester United. It’s a bit of a misnomer, as these players won’t necessarily start – head coach Hans Backe will pick the actual starting 11 – but rather, they’re the ones chosen by fans. If you want to see the story, go here.

Most of the picks aren’t surprising. David Beckham will always be big in the fan voting, as will Thierry Henry, Landon Donovan and Kasey Keller. And in due credit to MLS fans, you can argue that all of the players deserve to be picked at least sort of – except for maybe Sean Franklin (Galaxy) who hasn’t been terrible, but certainly isn’t one of the Top 4 defenders in the league. I can quibble a bit with Beckham, who might be accused of not affecting a game, then sending in one cross that’s headed home, but he is leading the league in assists, so he’s not a bad pick either. It’s a bit curious to see the two central defenders from the gaffe-prone Red Bulls, but since they’ve missed … a couple games, I guess I’ll let it slide. It’s also good to see Brek Shea and Jack Jewsbury get picked. For the players I voted for, go here. See, mostly the same. I assume six more players will be picked, so you can expect Rimando, Osvaldo Alonso and a few others to join the team.

Here is the list of players:

MLS All-Star First XI

Goalkeeper: Kasey Keller (SEA)

Defenders: Omar Gonzalez (LA), Sean Franklin (LA), Rafa Márquez (NY), Tim Ream (NY)

Midfielders: David Beckham (LA), Jack Jewsbury (POR), Brek Shea (DAL)

Forwards: Landon Donovan (LA), Thierry Henry (NY), Chris Wondolowski (SJ)

Text Voting Winner: Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City)

Champions League recap: Day 7

By Jeremiah Paschke-Wood

Bayern Munich 2, Inter Milan 3 (Inter win 3-3 on away goals): An amazing result for Inter, who become only the second team (after Ajax in, oh, ’96 or so) to win a

The mountain lion is like "Get me the hell out of here!"

Champions League knockout tie after losing at home in the first leg. Samuel Eto’o opened with a goal for Inter to make it 1-1 overall, then Bayern seemed to take control with goals from Mario Gomez (who is having a great season, despite Bayern’s overall suckiness) and Thomas Muller. Inter rallied, though, Wesley Sneijder pulling them within a goal in the 63rd minute before Goran Pandev won the tie with a late goal. The match also featured an amazing goal line clearance from Andrea Ranocchia. You can see it here. Bayern dominated big chunks of the game, and have to feel sorely disappointed in being dropped out, particularly at home. It’s the final nail in the coffin of what has been a disastrous season (by their standards). Inter are happy to move on, and they will be a tough match for whoever they get next.

Manchester United 2, Marseille 1 (Manchester United win 2-1 overall). Not an amazing performance from United, who continue to struggle with Chris Smalling and Wes Brown as their defensive partnership. You don’t generally expect to see United on the back foot in a home match against a team like Marseille, but the Frogs dominated big chunks of this match without scoring. United’s two goals came from Javier Hernandez, who has been starting ahead of Dimitar Berbatov and doing well lately. As in the Premier League, United haven’t looked their best in the Champions League this season, but until someone actually knocks them off, they’re in contention to win three titles this year.

This week’s Carling Cup preview


Arsenal v Wigan Athletic: The Gunners helped erase their two-match losing streak with an occasionally impressive win over Aston Villa, in which they dominated for long periods, but still conceded twice and seemed nervy for most of the second half. Manager Arsene Wenger seems to more intent on getting something out of the Carling Cup this year, so don’t expect to see a starting 11 of youth players like cup teams of years past. Robin Van Persie, Nicklas Bendtner and Theo Walcott all figure to get some playing time, though Arsenal will still be without Cesc Fabregas or Abou Diaby. For Wigan, their hope is just to soak up Arsenal pressure and pull of a shock win, though they’ll have to do it without Hugo Rodallega, serving a three-match suspension, or Tom Cleverly, who is ineligible to play cup matches as part of his loan agreement. Manager Roberto Martinez did say he hoped to make Wigan the “Arsenal of the North,” and we wish him luck with that, though he might be doing it in the Championship next year.
Form guide: Arsenal, 3-0-2, 10 goals scored, 8 goals conceded; Wigan, 1-1-3, 4 gs, 8 gc
Prediction: Arsenal 3, Wigan 0

West Ham v. Manchester United: This match pits the bottom of the table against the top of the table. West Ham have been pretty terrible this season, but managed to get a stay of execution for manager Avram Grant in their most recent match with a win over Wigan. Grant will probably rest some players and make improving their Premiership play the priority. Injuries to midfielders may force Grant to start US defender Jonathan Spector in midfield for the first time in his career. Manchester United has yet to suffer a defeat this season, but have been perhaps the least convincing Red Devils squad in recent memory. It remains to be seen whether their 7-1 demolition of Blackburn at the weekend is a reflection of newfound dominance or how terrible Blackburn is. Dimitar Berbatov might be rested or on the bench after scoring five goals against Rovers, giving Javier Hernandez another chance to shine in front of goal. Edwin Van Der Sar will also probably be rested.
Form guide: West Ham,  1-3-1, 7 goals scored, 8 conceded; Manchester United, 3-2-0, 12 gs, 3 gc
Prediction: West Ham 1, Manchester United 2


Birmingham v Aston Villa. Birmingham is hoping that Wednesday’s Carling Cup match will be a chance to end the recent string of dominance by Villa in this derby, having not won a match between the two since 2005. They have particularly struggled in cup matches against the Villans, having never scored in five matches played. City fans will think this year is a particularly good chance to end the string against a Villa team that is below them in the Premiership table and is facing an injury crisis with the likes of Jonathan Hogg drafted into the first team for matches this season. Alexandr Hleb will miss the match through injury, so former Villa midfielder Craig Gardner, City’s top scorer this season, will likely replace him in midfield. City Manager Alex McLeish said he would field a stronger side than in previous Carling Cup rounds. For last season’s finalists Villa, striker Gabriel Agbonlahor will likely return after missing the loss to Arsenal at the weekend. Manager Gerard Houllier is hoping that Villa’s strike force – which has only scored three goals in total this season in league play, will start scoring. Young winger Marc Albrighton is still missing after having his appendix taken out.
Form guide: Birmingham, 1-3-1, 6 goals scored, 6 goals conceded; Aston Villa, 1-2-2, 8 gs, 11 gc
Prediction: Birmingham 1, Aston Villa 0

Ipswich Town v. West Brom. Ipswich, the lone Championship team still in the Carling Cup, and manager Roy Keane will be forced to field an under-strength side for the cup game in the wake of their recent struggles in Championship play, where they have lost eight of their last 12 matches. Keane will be without the services of the team’s four loan signees and is dealing with injury problems. For West Brom, who ended a poor run of three losses in four matches with an impressive 4-1 win against Everton, Youssef Mulumbu will be missing through suspension, which probably means Somen Tchoyi, who has scored three goals in his last five matches, will probably step in again in midfield.
Form guide: Ipswich Town, 1-0-4, 4 goals scored, 11 conceded; West Brom, 1-1-3, 6 gs, 9 gc
Prediction: Ipswich Town 0, West Brom 2


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