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My team stinks

By Jeremiah Paschke-Wood | Only Love Soccer

I began watching soccer in earnest around the time of the 2006 World Cup. I’d always enjoyed it, but prior to that time I hadn’t sought it out. But for some reason, when the World Cup started, I was entranced. I remember sitting at a Greek restaurant ignoring the person I was eating with, because I was watching Cristiano Ronaldo flop around and prance and preen in the way that he is now famous for – somewhat interestingly, I think the only world cup match I missed was the final where Zinedine Zidane head-butted Marco Matterazzi, essentially giving Italy the title (though they’d have to win it on penalty kicks). After the world cup, I added the DirecTV sports package solely so I could watch Fox Soccer and Setanta. The maxim I usually give to new fans is that you’re forced to pick a team after one year of following a league religiously (though I have to admit I haven’t followed that with the MLS). So after a year of watching English Premier League, Italian Serie A and Mexican Primera Division matches, I settled on Aston Villa, the “slumbering giant” of English football.

Villa are historically one of the most successful teams in England – one of only five clubs to win what is now known as the Champions League, seven-time first division champions, seven-time FA Cup winners, five-time League Cup winners and European Super Cup winners – more England internationals have played for Villa than any other team. In 2006, after a rough couple seasons, they had a new owner – Randy Lerner, one of the richest people in the world and owner of the Cleveland Browns. They had just hired manager Martin O’Neill, who had led Scottish club Celtic to the final of the UEFA Cup, Europe’s second-tier cup competition. And they had a team comprised of young, hungry players on the verge of being called up to the England squad. So I picked Villa as my team. I mean, it couldn’t be an established power like Chelsea or gag, Manchester United or a nouveau riche club like Chelsea (or soon to be Manchester City). Villa had the right mix of history and potential. Early on, it was quite a ride. O’Neill’s first season was mixed – the team started off undefeated after 11 matches, then slumped and was in the bottom half of the table before a late run had them finish 11th. With new signings like Ashley Young and John Carew, the 2007-08 season looked promising, and it was. The team shot up the standings and briefly flirted with a Champions League spot before finishing sixth. The next season? Well, we were competing in the UEFA Cup and once again fighting for a Champions League spot, before, again, finishing sixth. The third season? More of the same. And people started to complain. Had Villa reached its ceiling under O’Neill? Three sixth-place finishes. One League Cup final loss to Manchester United where we felt undone by a bad refereeing decision. Another FA Cup semifinal. The UEFA Cup knockout round tie against CSKA Moscow where we fielded a youth team in the snow and were knocked out. Were players like James Milner, Young, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Stewart Downing good enough to take Villa to the next level?

Well, O’Neill left. A week before the 2010-11 season. After the chaos of not having a replacement for a few weeks, we signed former Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier, who was vastly experienced, but also, well, old. Houllier attempted to change the culture of the team and bring in his own players. It backfired. Villa struggled all year and only made a good run at the end of the season once Houllier was on leave for illness to finish 9th. Houllier was dismissed amid doubts over his health. Carew left. Young was sold. Milner was gone. Downing was sold. Villa hired Alex McLeish, who had just managed Villa’s hated rival Birmingham City to relegation from the league (and a League Cup victory, but still). McLeish brought in his players. It didn’t go well. In fairness, he would never have been accepted, but the team’s middling play and his reactive tactics didn’t help. Villa finished with their lowest point total in the Premiership era and only avoided relegation thanks to other teams performing more poorly. McLeish was dismissed in favor of Paul Lambert, manager of a Norwich team that beat Villa on its final day. Optimism was back, but not money. Neither was captain Stiliyan Petrov, diagnosed with leukemia. Gone were the days of signing players with the likes of Valencia and PSV and AC Milan on their CV in favor of youngsters from lower divisions. Petrov-Barry in midfield was now replaced with Delph-Westwood (who?). Mellberg-Laursen in the center of defense had poor imitators in Clark and Vlaar. With only Agbonlahor the holdover of the “glory days” of the late 2000s, Villa fans were now forced to cheer for the likes of Brett Holman and Jordan Bowery. And Villa stink. How bad do Villa stink? Three wins at home in 2012. The entire year. 30 points from 38 matches in 2012. Eighteenth in the Premier League table. (Anywhere below 17 gets you relegated at the end of the year). Agbonlahor has scored 10 goals the last three years total after scoring 44 the four years before. Villa gave up 8 goals to Chelsea. Four to Tottenham Hotspur. Five to Manchester City. They blew 2-0 leads to Manchester United and West Brom. They conceded three goals to Wigan. They gave up four to Southampton. Bradford became the first fourth-division team ever to beat a Premier League team in the League Cup semifinal by beating Villa. At one point, Villa had scored the fewest goals in the top four divisions of English football and given up the most. We stink.

So where does that leave me now? Well, I stopped watching Aston Villa matches this season, choosing instead to check Twitter for updates. I’ve largely stopped watching the Premier League at all, choosing instead to focus my time on the MLS and the German Bundesliga, both of which are much more competitive and less money-driven. If Aston Villa survives this season (or maybe even if they don’t), they’ll probably be much improved next year when their bevy of young players has a full season of Premier League play under their belts. We’ll also have successfully shed the team of all the enormous contracts that were probably signed with the hope of Champions League football and its big payday. And then maybe one day the team will start competing again with the big boys. Maybe.

Premier League Picks: Aug. 18-20

Saturday

Arsenal 3, Sunderland 0

Fulham 2, Norwich 1

Queens Park Rangers 2, Swansea 0

Reading 0, Stoke 0

West Brom 1, Liverpool 1

West Ham 2, Aston Villa 2

Newcastle 2, Tottenham 1

Sunday

Wigan 1, Chelsea 3

Manchester City 5, Southampton 0

Monday

Everton 1, Manchester United 1

Only Love Soccer’s No Holds Barred, All-Encompassing English Premier League Preview

This is of course without knowing what other players might be brought in before the end of the transfer window on Aug. 31.

Prediction

1. Manchester City. Hate to say it, but can’t see anyone beating them.

2. Manchester United. Haven’t added to their squad like their 900 billion fans might like, but still have more money and better players than most everyone else.

3. Chelsea. Chelsea finishing third and competing again in the Champions League is largely dependent on whether Fernando Torres returns to the player he was before he came to Chelsea.

4. Arsenal. The Gunners are a good shot for finishing here even if Robin Van Persie leaves. Their summer signings have been astute.

5. Liverpool. They’ll be better under Brendan Rogers, but just lack the quality of the the teams above them.

6. Tottenham Hotspur. It’s very possible Spurs will make some big signings before the end of the transfer window, but with their current squad, finishing even this high might be too much to ask.

7. Everton. Don’t they finish here every year? It hasn’t been as terrible a summer as it usually is. With Jack Rodwell heading to Man City, can they avoid losing anyone else?

8. Newcastle. With the lack of new signings, for Newcastle to have a similar season to last year, they’ll need Demba Ba and Pappa Dembiss Cisse to have huge years again.

9. Fulham. If they can hang on to Clint Dempsey, which looks increasingly unlikely, Fulham is one of the better mid-table teams in England.

10. Sunderland. The Black Cats haven’t really signed anyone, but if I know Martin O’Neill, they’ll bring in about four players on Aug. 31 at 9 p.m.

11. Aston Villa. Renewed optimism at Villa Park thanks to the departure of Alex McLeish (and hiring of Paul Lambert) can’t mask the fact that this team will be heavily reliant on very young players unless they sign someone late.

12. Wigan. Could we finally have another Wigan season where they aren’t fighting off relegation all year long? Well, new signing Arouna Koné certainly won’t hurt.

13. Stoke City. Stoke are always pleasantly, boringly decent. This year should be no different.

14. West Ham. Aside from their every few years relegation, West Ham tend to be a fun, attacking side. Oh wait, Sam Allardyce is their manager now. Nevermind.

15. Queens Park Rangers. I want to pick QPR as a team to get relegated. I think with their mix of so-so players and aging, mediocre veterans (Park Ji-Sung aside), there is a very good chance. Nonetheless, they have enough quality to escape. Right?

16. Reading. I don’t know much about Reading, but they were impressive in the Championship and have made some good signings in the summer.

17. West Brom. How good West Brom is this year is largely dependent on whether Steve Clarke turns out to be a decent manager or not. They have a team that should be good enough to escape relegation.

18. Norwich City. I’d love to say the Canaries will be safe this year, despite Paul Lambert joining Villa, but it will take quite an effort from Chris Hughton to keep what is a fairly weak squad from getting relegated.

19. Swansea City. I think Michael Laudrup is a pretty good manager, but he has a big job to do, taking a team that overachieved last year and keep them playing well enough to stay in the EPL without really signing anyone.

20. Southampton. Southampton were dominant in the Championship this year, but look destined to go down in a blaze of glory.

Player of the Year: Mario Balotelli, Man City

English Premier League transfer rumours: The best defenders of 2011/12

Europa League next year? Money, take me to my happy place.

Editor’s note: Today we’re debuting a story from Andy Topping from the UK site Orange Sport. Welcome Andy, and let him know what you think of his picks.

By Andy Topping | Special to Only Love Soccer

It’s sad but true, with the end of the Premier League season we must now face the fact that there will be no weekend football fixtures to look forward to – certainly not at club level – for a few months.

Of course, there will be the Olympic team’s efforts and Euro 2012 to keep our hunger at bay, but for many the buying and selling action that takes place over the summer will be more than enough to keep them happy. But which of those solid centrebacks, reliable right-backs and linchpin left-backs will be at a different club come August? And which will be tempted to stay?

Fabricio Coloccini

Coloccini has been excellent for Newcastle United this year in helping them to prove they are a force to be reckoned with and to surprise a few big teams and pundits too. At the age of 30 he has a few years left in him yet, but it seems unlikely he’ll be the subject of a big money swoop over the next few months. This will be of great comfort to the Toon faithful, who have seen Fabricio emerge as a captain who has been key to some of their most impressive wins.

Vincent Kompany

There has been an incredible level of excitement around the Etihad Stadium throughout the season, even when Manchester City went through a dip in form. One thing that has been constant though is Vincent Kompany. Not only has this central defender been a captain capable of holding down the defensive line and commanding his troops to victory, but he has also entered City folklore by scoring the only goal in their recent win over local rivals United. Kompany seems to love the club and is an undeniable fans’ favourite, so it seems unlikely he’ll want to give all that up.

Ashley Cole

He’s sometimes in the newspapers for all the wrong reasons, but the truth is this England left-back is a solid part of Chelsea’s defensive strategy in a role that is notoriously difficult to fill. On the national stage, this will likely make him the only real choice and while Roman Abramovich will inevitably look at his itinerary over the next three months, he’d be a fool to think of offloading this talented player.

Kyle Walker

At the age of just 21 with his whole career ahead of him, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Tottenham Hotspur’s Kyle Walker splashed across the back pages in the latest round of transfer rumours this summer. Having made a name for himself as the 2011/12 PFA Young Player of the Year, Walker has come back from a season in the shadows last year to being one of Harry Redknapp’s most reliable players. Walker will be central to the team’s plans next year too, but with so much money being around in the Premier League, there’s every chance he could be tempted away.

So what do you think? Could any of the above be easily replaced? Would you like to poach them for your own side?

Swansea City 0, Aston Villa 0: What we learned

By Jeremiah Paschke-Wood

All things considered, a 0-0 draw at Swansea, where only Javier Hernandez, among visiting players, has scored this season, isn’t necessarily a terrible result. Nonetheless, with six more matches coming up this year, four of them against the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal, and the only obviously winnable matches away ones, (Against Bolton and Stoke) a point won’t be seen as good enough for Villa, especially in light of how much they dominated the second half.
Record: 3-7-3, 16 goals scored, 17 goals conceded, 16 points, 9th place
Goal scorers: none
Assists: none
Man of the match: Gabriel Agbonlahor, as usual this season, the best player on the pitch for Villa
Next up: Manchester United on Saturday

1. A new midfield pairing? With captain Stiliyan Petrov injured, Fabian Delph, who had a run of starts early in the season, was paired with current first-choice defensive midfielder Chris Herd. The two of them played pretty well, actually. Both were tidy in possession and did a good job of harrying Swansea players, particularly in the second half. One drawback to the two starting is that neither offers much in attack, which is a shame, because Petrov, who is having a good year, is painfully slow.

2. Villa need to press more.  Manager Alex McLeish has come under quite a bit of criticism from Villa fans due to the fairly defensive-oriented strategy of the team. This doesn’t bother me, though. What does bother me is the team’s tendency to sit off opponents in the first half. Tottenham was the benefactor last week and picked Villa off at will in racing to a 2-0 first-half lead. Swansea doesn’t have the same quality of players, though, and was unable to create much. In the second half, Villa pressed much higher and dominated accordingly. Unless Villa wants to drop into the bottom half of the table, the team needs to start being more active without the ball, particularly with the murderer’s row of teams coming up in the next few weeks.

3. Swansea will struggle not to get relegated this year. Swansea are a nice team that passed the ball around well, but they rarely make passes to open up the opposing team’s defense. After watching them this week, it’s hard to see them scoring many goals this year – why it’s not surprising to see them tied with 19th place Wigan for the fewest. Upcoming matches against Blackburn and QPR – both of which have to be considered “must-win” games, will go a long way toward determining whether they’re in the EPL next year.

4. Is Alex McLeish in trouble? In a word, no. Villa owner Randy Lerner failed to fire Gerard Houllier last year when the team was near the relegation zone most of the season, so he’s probably not going to fire McLeish with the team still in the top half of the table (for now). Failure to pick up at least six points from their next six matches (probably still not good enough, but given the quality of opponents, is probably an optimistic number) will only increase calls for McLeish to be fired, even among some of his more ardent supporters. And with Villa’s attendance dropping with each passing match, you get the sense that Lerner will have to choose between either investing more in the squad or finding a new manager. I pick the former.

Match grade: B

Aston Villa 3, Blackburn 1: What we learned

By Jeremiah Paschke-Wood

Kind of a dull match, really, but one where Blackburn rarely threatened and Villa probably could’ve won by a few more goals.
Record: 1-1-0, 3 goals scored, 1 goals conceded, 4 point, 1st place
Goal scorers: Gabriel Agbonlahor (1), Emile Heskey (1), Darren Bent (1)
Assists: Darren Bent (1), Gabriel Agbonlahor (1)
Man of the match: Gabriel Agbonlahor
Next up: Hereford (Tuesday, Carling Cup); Wolverhampton Wanderers (Saturday, EPL)

1. Villa are going to be a good defensive team. This was my same No. 1 from last week, but I thought I’d recycle it. Blackburn did score a goal, but aside from that, they never looked like scoring. This is partly due to the fact that they’re anemically bad, but it’s also because Villa have a strong defensive backbone – one that became unglued last year under Gerard Houllier but is back to the effectiveness of the season before, where they were probably the best defensive team in the league. Is it pretty? No. Can they qualify for Europe with it? Probably. Will they? Stop asking so many questions.

2. Gabby Agbonlahor scores a curler. What? I feel like Gabby is often unfairly vilified by Villa fans, mostly because he has never evolved into the 20-goal-a-season striker that many have hoped he’d become. Though, like last season, he’s been shunted out onto his unfavored left wing, he did a fine job of attacking the Blackburn backline and twisted and turned the defense before curling a shot into the back of the net to get Villa off and running. Though he still all too often runs aimlessly and wastes good break chances with poor decisions, it shows that he still has some good attacking instinct. And lots of pace. He did leave the game at halftime after suffering a knock, though.

3. Fabian Delph might be good enough to start. I was a little surprised that manager Alex McLeish elected to start Fabian Delph over Jean Makoun or Steven Ireland in midfield, but he’s played pretty well so far – certainly better than his partner Stiliyan Petrov, who has long been a good player for the team, but is slow and more notable for his unstable temperament than anything else. Anyway, Delph was my runner-up for man of the match. He was calm in possession and tackled well. My one complaint about him might be that he doesn’t seem to often look to attack, instead passing the ball around. But there are certainly worse traits than that in a midfielder.

4. Charles N’Zogbia still struggling a bit. N’Zogbia got mentioned last week as having a bit of a rough game, and though I don’t think he had a bad match this week, he has yet to look like the offensive dynamo he’s supposed to be. But with that said, he’s only played a couple matches, so hopefully once he reaches full match fitness …

5. Albrighton, Makoun and Ireland? Marc Albrighton has played in the two matches so far, but has started neither. Jean Makoun and Stephen Ireland – both expected to be integral parts of the team – haven’t played at all. I’m not sure what that suggests, other than McLeish seems fairly happy with Heskey on the wing – for some reason – and Delph in midfield, which is fine. You’d have to think all three, as well as forward Nathan Delfouneso, will start Tuesday in the Carling Cup.

Match grade: A-

Fulham 0, Aston Villa 0: What we learned

By Jeremiah Paschke-Wood

Villa drew 0-0 at Fulham in a match that was fun to start, then turned into a boring, slogfest with few chances in the second half. A point is a point, I guess, right?
Record: 0-1-0, 0 goals scored, 0 goals conceded, 1 point, 4th place
Goal scorers: none
Assists: none
Man of the match: Shay Given, GK

1. Villa are going to be a good defensive team. After the nightmare of a season last year that saw Villa give up 59 goals – 40 on the road – there was no place to go but up, really. And after shutting an OK attacking team in Fulham, Aston Villa certainly look better than at any point last year on defense. Part of the key was Shay Given, who was rarely tested in the first half and took care of everything Fulham threw at him in the second half.

2. Charles N’Zogbia has to be better. Right? N’Zogbia is Villa’s big money signing of the summer and scored 10 goals from the wing for Wigan last season. His debut for Villa? Not so much. After a couple nice crosses in the first half (as well as a shot he ballooned over the bar), N’Zogbia was ineffectual at best in the second half. He looked nervous, and we all know he’s a better player than he showed today. Or he better be, or this is going to be a long season.

3. Emile Heskey isn’t good enough. I guess what worries me about this match is the level of caution we played with – which isn’t surprising with new manager Alex McLeish. But the team never set out to get three points in the second half. Most endemic of this was the fact McLeish left Emile Heskey in for the entire match. Heskey is a veteran player who has logged thousands upon thousands of minutes in the Premier League. He also is a forward who rarely scores, and he showed why today, heading well wide or over in two good first half opportunities and then passing up a good chance to shoot and then losing the ball in the second half. I get the point of playing a player known for setting up teammates along with one of the better forwards in the league in Darren Bent, but Heskey offered very little to justify his inclusion.

4. Villa need better wing play. As noted, N’Zogbia struggled. Gabriel Agbonlahor was game on the left wing, but he’s not a winger – he’s a forward. I’d much rather see him play up front with Bent and let Marc Albrighton (who was substituted in for N’Zogbia in the second half) play on the left wing (or right with N’Zogbia on the left). It doesn’t do much good to have one of the league’s premier goalscorers if there is no one there to give him the ball – and that was the big concern with Ashley Young and Stewart “I’ll do anything for a buck” Downing leaving.

5. Warnock is back! Stephen Warnock was frozen out under previous manager Gerard Houllier, but he’s back in the team under McLeish, and, aside from Given, was probably Villa’s best player. Nice to see him out there and playing well.

Match grade: B

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.

JK’s Premier League Round-up: Dec. 18-20

By John Kennedy

With many areas of Britain suffering the heaviest snowfall in two decades, the Premiership fixtures were decimated over the weekend. Only the games at Blackburn, Sunderland and Manchester City survived the weather.

Blackburn 1 West Ham 1: Junior Stanislas struck late in the game to earn a deserved point for West Ham at Blackburn on Saturday. Ryan Nelsen had put the home side in front just after the break, taking the second of two attempts to beat West Ham debutant keeper Ruud Boffin. West Ham remain anchored at the bottom of the Premiership, two points adrift of second-bottom Wolverhampton Wanderers. Blackburn moved up one place to 12th.

Sunderland 1  Bolton W  0: Danny Welbeck scored the the only goal of the game with a stunning diving header to take all three points for Sunderland against Bolton. The visitors certainly had their chances to tie the game, but victory for the Black Cats sees them move up to sixth place in the Premiership, level with Tottenham on points, and flirting with the unlikely prospect of European football at the Stadium of Light next season.

Manchester City v Everton: Manchester City missed out on a chance to lead the Premiership for the first time when they lost at home to local rivals Everton. Goals from Tim Cahill and Leighton Baines put the visitors two up inside the first 20 minutes and, in a lively second half, Everton were reduced to 10 men when Victor Anichebe was sent off on the hour. The home team pulled one back with an own goal from Phil Jagielka with 18 minutes still left to play, but Everton held on to take the spoils. City remain in third place, while Everton move up two places to 14th.

Postponed Matches

Arsenal v Stoke City
Birmingham City v Newcastle United
Blackpool v Tottenham Hotspur
Chelsea v Manchester United
Liverpool v Fulham
Wigan Athletic v Aston Villa
West Bromwich Albion  v Wolverhampton Wanderers

Christmas Fixtures

Sunday, 26th December; All kick-offs Pacific Standard Time (PST)

Fulham v West Ham Utd., 4 a.m.
Blackburn Rovers v Stoke City, 7 a.m.
Blackpool v Liverpool, 7
Bolton Wanderers v West Bromwich Albion, 7
Everton v Birmingham City, 7
Manchester Utd. v Sunderland, 7
Newcastle Utd. v Manchester City, 7
Wolverhampton Wanderers v Wigan, 7
Aston Villa v Tottenham Hotspur, 7

Monday, 27th December
Arsenal v Chelsea, noon

Tuesday, 28th December
Manchester City v Aston Villa, 7 a.m.
Stoke City v Fulham, 7
Sunderland v Blackpool, 7
West Bromwich Albion v Blackburn Rovers, 7
West Ham Utd. v Everton, 9.30 a.m.
Birmingham City v Manchester Utd., noon

Wednesday, 29th December
Chelsea v Bolton Wanderers, 11.45 a.m.
Wigan v Arsenal, 11.45
Liverpool v Wolverhampton, 2 p.m.

Jeremiah’s Weekend Picks: Dec. 10-13

By Jeremiah Paschke-Wood

This weekend is a little strange, because, unlike most, there aren’t a lot of exceptional matches going on involving the major leagues in Europe, except for England. In Spain, Real Madrid travels to Real Zaragoza for what should be a relatively easy game, and Barcelona hosts Real Sociedad, another one they should win without too much fuss. Italian table-toppers AC Milan travel to Bologna on Sunday as well. In Germany, league leaders Borussia Dortmund host Bremen, who have been struggling recently, and Bayern hosts St. Pauli. At the Club World Cup, they’re still in the preliminary stages, and Internacional makes the first appearance of the “big boys” on Tuesday. Here are other games to watch this weekend:

Saturday

Newcastle United v Liverpool. (English Premier League) This match is interesting because it’ll be the first one with Newcastle being managed by Alan Pardew (above), who was appointed after the popular Chris Hughton was sacked. Several Newcastle players have spoken out publicly against the change, so it’ll be interesting to see how the team performs. Will it be “new manager syndrome” or will Newcastle start a slide down the table? Liverpool has been better recently, though they’ll need to win matches like this to keep Roy Hodgson in his job.
Prediction: Newcastle 1, Liverpool 2

Sunday

Tottenham Hotspur v Chelsea. (English Premier League) If Spurs have truly have aspirations of challenging for the title, this match is a perfect opportunity for them to make their claim against a faltering Blues side who have only won one of their last six in all competitions, scoring only three goals in the process. Tottenham recently broke their long, long duck against Top 4 sides by beating Arsenal. This is their chance to show it isn’t a fluke.
Prediction: Chelsea has to break out of their slump at some point, don’t they? Spurs 1, Chelsea 1

Juventus v Lazio. (Italian Serie A) Amazingly, the Old Lady haven’t lost in their last 15 matches in all competitions, though seven of those have been draws. They’re facing a Lazio side who showed with a 3-1 thrashing of Inter Milan last week that they aim to stay in the title hunt all season long. Midfield signing Hernanes in particular has been inspirational for the Biancocelesti. With AC Milan visiting Bologna, Lazio is hoping a win and a Milan loss will put them back level on points.
Prediction: Juventus 1, Lazio 1

Mainz v Schalke 04. (German Bundesliga) After a dream start of eight wins in their first nine matches, Mainz has faltered a bit, winning only two of their last six. Enter Schalke, the ultimate Jekyll-Hyde team. They have surprised their way to winning their group easily in the Champions League, but they have struggled mightily in the Bundesliga, getting hammered by Kaiserslautern before somehow beating Bayern 2-0 in one of the most one-sided displays you’ll ever see by a team on the losing side. Mainz has to win to even contemplate closing the gap on Dortmund.
Prediction: Mainz 3, Schalke 1

Estudiantes La Plata v Arsenal de Sarandi; Racing Club v Velez Sarsfield (Argentinian Primera Division) You can’t really dream up a better final weekend of the Primera Division, which features all of the top four involved in two matches on Sunday. Estudiantes needs just to beat Arsenal to win the title, but Arsenal is no slouch, undefeated in their last three and third in the table. Velez Sarsfield, undefeated in nine straight in which they’ve only conceded three goals, will win the title if they win and Estudiantes loses. They visit Racing Club, who is currently in fourth place and undefeated in their last eight.
Prediction: Estudiantes 2, Arsenal 0; Racing Club 0, Velez 2

Monday

Manchester United v Arsenal. (English Premier League) Yeah, I know, another English game, how boring. Sorry, I didn’t make the schedule. It seems like every year there is much hand-wringing and debate over whether this will finally be Arsenal’s year. Usually matches like this are the ones where you find out that, oops, it’s not. Well, this year, Manchester United look as shaky as they’re probably ever going to look, so it’s an opportunity for Arsenal to move four points — you heard me right, four points — in front with a win. Will it happen? Ehh…well…let’s say yes, for once.
Prediction: Manchester United 1, Arsenal 2

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