Shambolic Arsenal open the Champions League door for Fellaini-inspired Everton

Originally published for Goal UK on 10th November 2012.

It all seemed too easy. Olivier Giroud powered Arsenal into an 11th-minute lead and Lukas Podolski doubled it not long after. It was billed as a tricky, banana skin sort of game; the type of match they would have breezed through a decade ago, but equally it is the test Arsene Wenger’s side have regularly failed in recent times.

The complacency so synonymous with the modern Arsenal; the Arsenal that are accustomed to deflecting questions about their experience, fortitude and mental strength, all came to the fore on Saturday afternoon.

Fulham are a good side, but after carving out a two-goal lead, Wenger’s men should never have been left praying for one of their older heads to convert a last-gasp penalty. That the spot kick was missed, saved by Mark Schwarzer, will lend further weight to the suggestions that Arsenal are too fragile to mount any sort of title challenge.

Further dropped points instead call for a more severe critique of Wenger’s side. It is almost universally accepted that a Premier League challenge is beyond the Gunners, but what about their position in the Champions League?

Some 200 miles north of the Emirates, Everton, perennial contenders for the top four but so often nearly men, put together a rousing comeback at home to Sunderland.

The grit and determination so often attributed to David Moyes’ Toffees will no doubt be wheeled out as the defining factor in victory, but the difference now is that where once it was enough to keep Everton clinging onto the coat tails of their rivals, now it is pushing them to the front of the queue.

It is an unfamiliar scenario. Past years have seen Everton leave their charge late, often too late, with a bitter taste and thoughts of “what if?” prevailing. Yet this time the omens are good.

Marouane Fellaini and Nikica Jelavic’s goals propelled the club to the 20 point mark and ensured that along with West Brom, they sit firmly in fourth spot. The last time the Toffees hit the 20 point mark after 11 games, they finished fourth.

Careful planning on a small budget, coupled with a close-knit, purposeful squad of players has pushed Everton towards the holy grail, the Champions League. Consistency and continuity have ensured Moyes’ side have always remained competitive at the top end of the table, but it is perhaps only now, in a season in which fourth place is most certainly up for grabs, we are seeing a power shift.

The irony in all of this is Fellaini’s future. The Belgian has racked up six league goals already this season and embodies this modern Everton better than most; tough but fair and with an air of authority and pomp.

Unfortunately this has led to interest from bigger, better financed clubs and Fellaini has done little to shun the interest. But as the tides of power shift, he may find his thirst for Champions League football is best served at Goodison Park.

Wenger spoke after the 3-3 draw with Fulham of being pleased with his team’s second-half response. Arsenal played with intensity and diffused a threatening Fulham team for much of the second 45 minutes. But when it mattered, the Gunners slipped. They handed the effervescent Dimitar Berbatov a penalty and although Giroud hauled his team level, ultimately Arsenal failed to claim the three points they expected and indeed needed after a miserable run of results.

Complacency has set in – some would argue from top to bottom of the club – and it is a greater problem than just a fortnight of poor form. The club are paying for years of squad neglect and now find themselves in a state of semi-permanent transition, just as those around them near the completed article.

It is all good Wenger insisting he will “keep working on it” but unless they rediscover the ferocity and menace they have displayed in years gone by, Arsenal may find their coveted and almost guaranteed place in Europe’s top competition will vanish as swiftly as their lead did on Saturday.

Premier League Preview 2012/13 – Part 3 of 4 (QPR – Sunderland)

QPR
Prediction: 12th
Odds: 1500/1

One thing is for certain; under Mark Hughes QPR will not get relegated. After a dicey first year back in the Premier League, a summer of progress was needed to nudge the west London side from relegation candidates towards some semblance of an established Premier League side.

In shedding the remnants of their Championship-winning squad, Hughes already looks to be building a more than capable team as the likes of Park Ji-Sung, Junior Hoilett, Rob Green and Andy Johnson were all convinced to move to Loftus Road.

The group is more streamlined and that will breed focus as Hughes presumably targets a mid-table position in his first full year in charge.

The worry is goals. In Bobby Zamora, Johnson, Djibril Cisse and Jamie Mackie, QPR have a solid if unspectacular forward line. Only Cisse brings a touch of the unknown. But the addition of Hoilett and Park as well as Adel Taarabt (who underperformed in a goalscoring sense last year) should provide an able supporting cast throughout the year.

If Jose Bosingwa goes on to sign for the Hoops he will add further quality to a defensive line that is starting to take shape. The loan signing of Fabio from Manchester United is promising, as is the experience Ryan Nelsen brings to the table. And without missing an opportunity, if Joey Barton leaves the club, that can only be a positive step.

All in all, QPR have invested wisely this summer and I’d expect them to comfortably survive the threat of relegation and possibly even intrude on the top-half.

Key Man: Park Ji-Sung

This was a cracking signing and gives us a chance to watch Park a lot closer over the next year. He had a strange time at Man Utd – seemingly trusted and saved by Sir Alex for the big occasion – where he often delivered. At 31 he should still have plenty left in the tank and will be relied upon to grab his fair share of goals for QPR this year. Having said that, he wasn’t a prolific goalscorer at United, netting just 27 goals in over 200 appearances in his seven seasons, so the onus will be on him to be the inspirational figure Hughes hopes he will be.

READING
Prediction: 20th
Odds: 2500/1

They won the Championship last year with a relentless run of form in the second-half of the season, but I find it hard to see how Reading will survive in the Premier League this season. I don’t think you can doubt Brian McDermott’s quality and the speed in which he turned the Royals into a Premier League side suggests he is as astute as they come.

However, their summer transfer business just doesn’t reassure me that they’ll be able to grab the goals in attack or prevent them in defence. Pavel Pogrebnyak is their marquee signing and based on his loan spell at Fulham is capable of hitting double figures, but who will support him? Adam Le Fondre is the next best bet but Simon Church, Noel Hunt and Jason Roberts do not look likely to trouble the meanest defences this season.

At the back, Reading have added depth but not a great deal of quality. Nicky Shorey has returned to the club but at 31 is now nearing the latter stages of his career. Adrian Mariappa is untested at this level while Chris Gunter didn’t cut it when at Spurs (though he was in his teens).

In midfield, Danny Guthrie is a good signing and someone, who with a regular run of games, could rediscover the form that had him touted as a potential England international. However beyond him, there remains a sparsity in quality.

Predicting them to finish rock bottom may be a touch overboard, we shall see, but the only way I see them surviving is if they significantly strengthen in the next two weeks or in January.

Key Man: Pavel Pogrebnyak

A lot is going to be asked of Pogrebnyak this year. He’ll be expected to replicate the form that he showed in his six months at Fulham and will be McDermott’s primary source of goals. If he doesn’t bring that goalscoring touch – entirely possible given his mediocre record at Stuttgart – Reading will be in major trouble this year.

SOUTHAMPTON
Prediction: 16th
Odds: 2500/1

Back-to-back promotions usually spell bad news but if Norwich showed us anything, the momentum can carry into the Premier League and keep a club afloat. Nigel Adkins has done a remarkable job at Southampton, highlighted by the fact they remained in the top two of the Championship after their opening day win against Leeds last campaign.

This sort of consistency will be more than welcome in the Premier League and though I don’t expect the Saints to be anything more than relegation battlers, they carry more of a threat than any of their newly promoted comrades. Rickie Lambert was a revelation last year, while Billy Sharp provides an instinctive goalscoring knack. Record signing Jay Rodriguez will be one to watch too.

Perhaps most intriguing is the signing (imminent signing?) of Gaston Ramirez. This is a hell of a coup for the club particularly if they’ve nabbed him from under the noses of Liverpool and Spurs. He’ll add a creative spark that is likely to result in a welcome return of goals and assists. That said, he may find the lack of space he’s likely to receive a difficult hurdle to overcome in the early stages of his career. Don’t expect too much too soon.

But, backed up by quality in the likes of Adam Lallana and Jack Cork, the Saints should have a sturdy platform to build from.

Key Man: Rickie Lambert

The talisman last season will need to go some way to returning the amount of goals he notched last year and although he will have a tougher time of it in the Premier League, I expect Lambert to offer a direct threat that may prove the difference as the Saints battle relegation. If he can grab half the 27 league goals he managed last year, Adkins’ side will be in a healthy position.

STOKE
Prediction: 13th
Odds: 1500/1

Stoke are now an established Premier League side and though they finished 14th last year, that can be attributed to a demanding run in the Europa League and a relatively thin squad. Tony Pulis has turned the Potters into a tough proposition and an away trip no team in the league enjoys.

Though they have an air of predictability about their play, it remains effective, particularly after the addition of Peter Crouch. The signing of Michael Kightly looks astute given their reliance on effective wing-play and if he stays fit, Stoke will have yet another wideman capable of delivering the telling crosses Crouch and Co. relish.

At the back, Danny Collins and Jonathan Woodgate have departed but there remains a solid back four. The worry for me is in the middle of the park. Stoke have never attempted to play a possession-based brand of football, rather trusting their central midfielders to break up play and recycle the ball to the flanks.

However, the lack of quality in midfield means that even this can be a struggle at times. I don’t expect Stoke to be relegated but nor do I envisage them pressing for a top half place. A decent cup run is always possible and encouragingly you rarely see Pulis send out a weak side in a domestic game. Their game is based on commitment and intensity and that alone will keep them afloat.

Key Man: Peter Crouch

Two metre Peter has oddly never been renowned for his prowess in the air, at least not in a goalscoring sense, but he is adept at bringing in others – as was his primary use at Tottenham under Redknapp. But with Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington’s quality from wide positions it is hard not to expect Crouch to contribute significantly inside the box. If Pulis adds Michael Owen to his frontline, he could form a very effective, if unfashionable, strike-force.

SUNDERLAND
Prediction: 9th
Odds: 1000/1

Before the signing of Louis Saha, I wondered where the goals would come from. However, with the Frenchman on board, the Black Cats possess a reliable finisher capable of hitting double figures. Of course, appearances may be limited by an unwelcome injury record but if O’Neill can get him on the field for 75% of their games, he will be a valuable addition.

Behind him are two unproven strikers in Ji Dong-Won and Connor Wickham as well as the hot and cold Fraizer Campbell. All three will need to help ease the load on Saha but it’s far from certain if they will be able to.

That said, across the rest of the squad, Sunderland have good depth. Their midfield is packed full of capable central midfield options in the likes of Lee Cattermole, David Vaughan, Sebastian Larsson, Jack Colback and Craig Gardner. Out wide James McClean showed his class after being given a chance by Martin O’Neill while Stephane Sessegnon will deliver the creativity needed to unlock many a defence.

The worry is at the back where after the sale of Michael Turner and George McCartney leaves them looking a little light. But if O’Neill strengthens in the next two weeks, I feel he is a more than good enough manager to push Sunderland into the top-half.

Of all my predictions, this is the most up in the air though. The points highlighted above may well be telling me that they’ll do well to finish top-half but I have a feeling they’ll surprise a few next year.

Key Man: Stephane Sessegnon

It is a bit of a coup in itself keeping the Benin international at the club over the summer. He really came into his own last season, dovetailing nicely with Bendtner and grabbing his fair share of headlines. He is superb with the ball at his feet and has an accurate shot in either foot. At 28, he is entering the peak of his career and Sunderland will be hoping he can go better than the nine goals he scored last year.

A Prattling Premier League Preview – Weekend of 5/5/2012

As you can see I’ve timed this new feature superbly with it being the penultimate weekend of the season. In spite of that, here’s my slapdash take on this week’s Premier League fixtures:

Arsenal 3-1 Norwich

Definite home win. Norwich have basically decided it’s holiday time and after surpassing the magic number of 40 points, they’ve gone and lost their last three league games by an aggregate score of 11-1. They even lost to Blackburn AND failed to score against them (just the third team all year to do that).

However Arsenal are in a strange run of form, scoring just twice in their last three games and picking up just two points at Stoke and at home to Chelsea. Even the mighty Robin Van Persie seems a little jaded as the season comes to a close.

That said, if there’s one thing to galvanise a Dutchman it’s an award. Basking in the adulation of his peers and perhaps more importantly, the football writers, I fully expect Van Persie to lead Wenger’s side to a comfortable home victory.

Newcastle 1-2 Man City

The biggest game of the weekend sees Roberto Mancini’s side head across to the north-east and face Newcastle – surely team of the season. Alan Pardew’s side have already defeated Manchester United and Liverpool at St James Park (sorry, the Sports Direct Arena), as well as claiming a point from Arsenal and Tottenham.

Now, is Papiss Cisse the greatest finisher of my lifetime? At the moment – yes, quite considerably. Is he lucky? Yes, that too. His 13 goals in 12 games should strike fear into the hearts of all things sky blue but City seem made of sterner stuff this year. Captain Kompany looked incredibly focused immediately after the club’s win over Manchester United and I reckon this could be the man capable of stopping Papiss.

I just can’t see City passing up yet another chance to claim a maiden Premier League title. This will be a narrow away win.

Aston Villa 1-3 Tottenham

It’s hard to find crumbs of comfort for Alex McLeish – Aston Villa’s lame duck manager. It looks as though the Midlands club will survive relegation by default as QPR, Wigan and Bolton will have to find four points from six. Throw in a mischievous clubbing incident, some liberal fines and a team that have won just twice in 17 games and you have a problem.

That problem will likely be exacerbated by Harry Redknapp’s team on Sunday. They’ve rediscovered some semblance of the form that at one point made the north Londoners a foregone conclusion for a Champions League place. A flowing 4-1 win over Bolton on Wednesday, a team I view as having a better starting eleven than Villa, should provide enough support to predict an away win.

Bolton 1-1 WBA

A tricky fixture to call as we just don’t know how the Baggies will respond to the imminent departure of their boss Roy Hodgson. I’m going to throw it out there that they’ll want to sign off in style as a form of ‘thank you’ to a manager who has turned the perennial yo-yo club into a mid-table outfit.

Bolton had a brief period of 15 minutes against Spurs where they looked to have the courage and fight to battle against the increasingly magnetic pull of the Premier League trapdoor. I suspect they’ll be better against West Brom and at least keep it tighter at the back – they’ve only conceded once in four games at home…

Fulham 3-0 Sunderland

Pyjamas on, lights out. That’s the impression I get with these two teams. Both have had positive years – Fulham’s first with Martin Jol in charge must be deemed a success and only the uncharacteristic 4-0 humping by Everton prevented the Cottagers from pushing on for a 7th place finish (thought it is still an outside possibility).

Meanwhile an iffy start by the Black Cats, which led to the sacking of Steve Bruce, was arrested by Martin O’Neill. But without a win in six, they look perfectly content with their mid-table finish.

I doubt O’Neill will allow his side to head to a game and not put up a decent fight but a relaxed side under Jol should dominate this fixture.

QPR 2-1 Stoke

The hosts are teetering. They’re on the brink, but are just propped up by Bolton who have a much more inferior goal difference. The importance of the games at Loftus Road was something hugely emphasised on Mark Hughes’ arrival and to be fair his team have consistently delivered, beating the likes of Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea. The problem has been their away form – six consecutive losses.

But we won’t worry about that right now – it’s all about dealing with Stoke. Deputy sling-shotter Ryan Shotton hasn’t been nearly as effective as his mentor Rory Delap – hence the Irishman’s return against Everton. I do wonder if the narrow space between touchline and stand will cause him a problem?

Stoke are another side content with their campaign and should QPR match the commitment forever expected of a Tony Pulis outfit, I predict a massively important home win.

Wolves 2-2 Everton

Has Terry Connor burst into tears yet? Not quite actually and that’s largely down to the stirring comeback in Wales that saw Wolves snatch a point off the Swans. TC hasn’t had much fun in Mick’s hot-seat but it was pleasing to see him get a touch of fortune and even break out a smile. The pressure is off and this is the final game at home before the Championship calendar hangs in the offices of Molineux.

Finishing a season in vastly better form than they began it, we have David Moyes’ Toffees. Yes, once again, the late season rally from Everton has kept their season nicely entertaining. This year it’s particularly enthralling if you’re of a Merseyside persuasion as the battle for 7th – possibly the least talked about battle in a Premier League campaign – is actually interesting. Everton lead by three points over Dalglish’s Reds and although it ultimately will mean very little with Liverpool winning at least one trophy, it’s important to Evertonians. So a win here? No actually.

Man Utd 4-1 Swansea

Ah, the other Manchester club. A routine home victory? An ‘easy’ fixture as Roberto Mancini put it? I beg to differ. I think the Swans will give United a real test. I don’t think they’ll win, or even draw, but it will be a lot tougher than Mancini predicts.

United will need to be thinking about goal difference and on paper this is a great chance to spank a few hundred goals past one of those rubbish promoted sides. Thing is, they need the ball and little Joe Allen quite likes it himself. In amazingly contradictory shocker, I predict Swansea to dominate possession but United to win by three.

Blackburn 1-3 Wigan

The biggest battle at the bottom of the table this weekend and it is simply a must-win game for the home side. In fact, if Steve Kean’s side lose, they’d need a miracle in other results not only this weekend but on the final weekend too. So it’s a good job, he prepared his side correctly – playing a scarcely believable 5-4-1 away at Tottenham in a form of damage limitation. In his technical area last week Kean showed the body language of a man that has finally accepted that he’ll simply never be accepted. It’s hard to watch but ‘team Kean’ may finally be put to rest.

By who? Well those plucky Barcelona boys up in Wigan. Possibly playing the best football the league has seen this season, the Latics have done what they do best by springing into life a month before what seemed like certain relegation. Unconventional to the very end – who else plays a 3-4-3? – Roberto Martinez’s charges are playing their way from relegation. Oh yes, in a middle finger to the supporters of battling, long-ball survival football, Wigan are just passing the life out of anyone who dares step to them. Away win.

Liverpool 2-0 Chelsea

In one of those unfortunate fixture computer calamities, Liverpool and Chelsea meet again just four days after they duel at Wembley for the FA Cup. Given that this will be the last game of this round of fixtures, I’ll draw some quick conclusions from my predictions.

Chelsea will no longer be able to catch Spurs in the league and so everything becomes tailored towards the Champions League final. That means an immediate rest for anyone who played in the extra time win over Liverpool on Saturday – especially fatigued match-winner Fernando Torres – ooof what a story that was!

Liverpool are four points behind Everton and with just a League Cup to show for this year, must hunt their rivals down. Full strength team including a ludicrously petulant Luis Suarez. He may get sent-off but he got a goal and an assist before he did.