Friday, 27 April 2012

The Biggest Manchester Derby

When Sir Alex Ferguson grudgingly agreed that this was the biggest Manchester Derby of his tenure, you knew (at least then, if not already before) the Premier League had been given a right old shake-up by the Sky Blue Citizens.

The Noisy Neighbours have made quite a din this season

This is the tail-end of yet another fantastic title race in the Premier League where Manchester felled everyone in the way as the Red and Blue halves of the city slugged it out in a bid to outdo each other. It went beyond bragging rights or the two ‘big’ derby matches every season. It was a full-blown, dominant title charge, with the local rivalry adding extra spice.

The beginning of the story is easily summed up in one sentence - City were cruising to the title. They had dealt United and their fans a horrid shock with the 1-6 win at Old Trafford. Generally, all fell before Mancini’s men. It mattered not whether Balotelli or Dzeko started; 3 points were almost always achieved.

THAT moment

Then, something odd happened. All was rosy as long as Silva, Aguero and Kompany were fit and in form and cruising. But after defeats at Chelsea and Sunderland, City suddenly found themselves unable to buy an away win. Their newfound woeful away form culminated in defeats at Swansea and Arsenal that saw them first surrender their lead and then, seemingly, the title.

The princely Spaniard's strike looked to have written United's name on the trophy

Then, something odd happened. Manchester United were crushing teams underfoot, and one would’ve thought that once the 8-point gap was opened up, the last few games would be a procession for the Red Devils. But in the next two games, they lost to Wigan for the first time in Premier League history, and then scored four and failed to win at Old Trafford for the first time in my (and I suspect, most people’s) memory. The gap was nibbled down to 3 points.

Wigan pulled off a shocker, beating United for the first time ever in the Premiership

United’s recent ‘choking’ hasn’t been pretty watching for their fans, but it has given this fixture an unexpected new significance and generated interest among the neutrals. It has exposed frailties in the United squad that need addressing. But crucially, unlike what City fans would love to believe, it’s no indication at all that United are falling to pieces at the wrong time.

I say that because we’ve been here before. As recently as last season in fact. Chelsea had made up impossible ground from 15 points behind in February to just 3 points behind in late April. They had to play leaders Manchester United with 3 games to go. A win would’ve seen The Blues go top on goal difference. Chelsea had beaten Man United in their previous league fixture against each other. Does the scenario sound familiar? How did that end?

This season may be different though. City have a great squad, and are unbeaten at home. Motivation isn’t lacking. Having previously silenced the sniggers among the Old Trafford faithful who hardly ever regarded this as anything close to their biggest game of the season, City will now look to cement their place as United’s new biggest rivals, and write their name on the trophy. Given United’s experience, habits and nature though, the game is impossible to predict.

All I can say for sure is this: This is the title decider. The biggest Manchester Derby, ever. Be it myopic referees, beach balls, over-thick woodwork or dodgy ball shape, get your excuses in now, because the winner of the game probably takes the title, and will do so deservedly.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Fantasy Football: Gameweek 36

It has been a fantastic week of football so far. A 4-4 draw at Old Trafford and a team coming back from 2-0 down at the Nou Camp are both spectacles the football world has been fortunate to witness in a space of three days. That has set the stage for an ending to the season that would’ve had the best pundits laughing at you had you predicted such things two weeks ago. As it stands, City could regain top spot by Tuesday, and the Champions League Final will not have a Spanish club in it.

Enough rambling, moving on to business...

Gameweek 36 fixtures:

Chelsea v QPR
Everton v Fulham
Norwich City v Liverpool
Sunderland v Bolton
Stoke v Arsenal
Wigan v Newcastle
West Brom v Villa
Swansea v Wolves
Tottenham v Blackburn
Manchester City v Manchester United

Stoke v Everton
Chelsea v Newcastle
Liverpool v Fulham
Bolton v Tottenham

NOTE: This is a double gameweek for Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham, Everton, Stoke, Bolton, Newcastle and Fulham

Player picks:

The big game this gameweek is the Manchester Derby, no contest. Sir Alex grudgingly agreed that this is the biggest match between the two sides in his reign, and City will be tasting blood after finding the dominant side of their game just as United look like losing theirs.

It’ll be a match with goals, and that is something both sides have no problems with, so it should be quite some spectacle. Expect a straight shootout between the electric English pair of Wayne Rooney and Daniel Welbeck, and the electric Argentine pair of Sergio Aguero and ex-Red Devil Carlos Tevez.

Chelsea head into the double home gameweek on the back of some incredible cup results against Tottenham and Barcelona. They are four points off the top 4 and will now start hacking away at Newcastle’s lead in earnest. Two home games means untold joy for Juan Mata, who has thrived in the surroundings of the Bridge. Points could come from Frank Lampard and Ramires too.

Newcastle are doublers of their own, and as always, their players are easy to name – Papiss Cisse, Hatem ben Arfa and Yohan Cabaye. Both games are away to opponents who have had a great April, which is all that stops me from suggesting the excellent and consistent Krul. He will have to face Chelsea, and the duo of Shaun Maloney and Victor Moses at the DW stadium.

It’s a double home gameweek for Stoke as well. That is no guarantee of anything, but surely Peter Crouch and Matthew Etherington will fancy themselves. Stoke are strong at home, and van Persie (and therefore Arsenal) hasn’t been ‘the usual’ lately. I do fancy points for the Arsenal captain though.

Everton are other doublers who have testing games against the awesome Fulham and away to Stoke. They have one player in form who is something of a must-have – Nivica Jelavic. Points could also come from Marouane Fellaini who is good at making a nuisance of himself up front. Fulham’s double Merseyside adventure will be spearheaded by the in-form Clint Dempsey. Pogrebnyak netted last week and could do so again.

Liverpool have been as awful in the league as they have been awesome in the domestic cups. Tempting as it may be, do not buy many of their players. The only one worth taking a look at is Luis Suarez. Norwich City and Grant Holt in particular will relish a match against Liverpool, as will anyone.

Spurs play two relegation battlers, and if this doesn’t shake them back into nick, they have no right to be in the top four anyway. This should be a big kick in the backside (and the points tally) for Adebayor, Bale and van der Vaart.

Bolton won’t take anything lying down from now. To aid them will be Martin Petrov. Sunderland will not be silent themselves – Sessegnon is due a good game, pointswise.

Finally, the 100% single-gamers tie: West Brom-Villa. Villa have been dire of late and are in danger of relegation , while Roy’s boys are coming off a 0-1 win at Anfield. Easy pickings for Odemwingie and Brunt.

Hunch of the Gameweek:

This gameweek’s stab-in-the-dark is Steven Gerrard

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The Amazing Blue Revival: A Season to Remember

Even as John Terry and his men go through the motions prior to their biggest match in 3 years, the very fact that they are contesting this tie must be scarcely believable to those who have followed the exploits of The Blues this season.
Chelsea's season appeared finished after defeats at Napoli and West Brom

The run of 15 games in 7 weeks following the 1-0 defeat at West Brom and Andre Villas-Boas' sacking was supposed to have sapped an already low-on-morale Chelsea side of fuel and fight. Indeed, it would’ve been little surprise had Chelsea made early exits from the FA Cup and Champions League, and finished a good distance from a Champions League qualification place. Instead, they are in the FA Cup Final at the back of a 5-1 semifinal win, and take a 1-0 lead to the Nou Camp. They are not far off 4th place in the league either.

The humble Italian has been key to Chelsea doing a Lazarus

Much of this would not have been possible without the work of Roberto di Matteo. Brought in to steady the ship, the Chelsea legend has gone on to do far more than that. His squad rotation policy and tactics have been spot on, and he has got Chelsea winning. Much as Andre Villas-Boas tried to change the system to make Chelsea aesthetically pleasing, his attempts to ape Barcelona with endless passing and the high back line went horribly wrong at both ends of the pitch, and nearly ended Chelsea’s season by February. di Matteo recognised that physical, efficient play is what makes Chelsea click and suits the squad's strengths, and re-introducing that philosophy has rekindled Chelsea’s season beyond all expectations. Surely he has made a good case for taking the job on a permanent basis.

Players like Meireles came to fore following the Napoli debacle

Players like Kalou and Lampard who were sidelined in the earlier regime have come to the fore and performed under the Italian. Underwhelming performers like Meireles and Torres picked up. The performances from the seniors have been particularly noteworthy and crucial to this revival. After a largely forgettable first half of the season, Cech has racked up the clean sheets, defenders have fallen in Drogba’s wake, strikers have fallen in Terry’s wake and records have continued to crash at Lampard’s feet.

Chelsea's old guard can never be written off

It culminated in a sensational April for Chelsea, where a run of fixtures that had consecutive matches against Spurs, Barcelona and Arsenal saw Chelsea score 6 and concede 1, and also saw them make up ground on 4th place in the league. Chelsea are unbeaten for over a month, and have lost just once under Chelsea's Italian legend. They head into a Champions League tie with a desperate Barcelona who have suffered back to back defeats, and an FA Cup Final with Liverpool who can't buy a point in the league.

Now I'm not saying that Chelsea will win a double. There are no guarantees about fourth place, or the results of the matches against Liverpool and Barcelona (and if they’re beaten, the Champions League finalists). Chelsea may yet end the season empty-handed and out of the top four. But the Blue Phoenix have risen from their ashes and given themselves a fighting chance of making this a season to remember, if it isn’t already so.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Fantasy Football: Gameweek 35

We're at a most interesting point in the Premier League. The run-in might still heavily favour the Red Devils but City's newfound form has certainly maintained interest in the title race. The race for the Champions League places remains as hot as ever with Wigan's win at the Emirates ensuring there are still 4 teams fighting for 2 places. And staying on topic, Wigan are another team that have found form out of nowhere to pull away from the bottom three.

Enough of that, on to business now:

Gameweek 35 fixtures:

Blackburn v Norwich
Bolton v Swansea
Fulham v Wigan
Aston Villa v Sunderland
QPR v Tottenham
Newcastle v Stoke
Arsenal v Chelsea
Man Utd v Everton
Wolves v Man City
Liverpool v West Brom
Aston Villa v Bolton

NOTE: Aston Villa and Bolton have a double gameweek. What’s more, Bolton have a double gameweek next week too, so getting in their players may be wise.

Player picks:

The Premium Players

The standout fixture this gameweek is the early kickoff on Saturday – Arsenal hosting Chelsea. Arsenal are coming off a shock home loss to Wigan, while Chelsea are buoyed after their big wins against Spurs and Barcelona. You sense, though, that it is adrenaline that has dragged Chelsea through the last two games and this game might be where the fatigue starts getting to the players.

Robin van Persie hasn’t been himself for about a month or so, but he could get back to form here. Theo Walcott is another player in good nick for the Gunners. Didier Drogba has been Arsenal’s tormentor since he set foot in England, and given his recent form, he could carry on with that role. Juan Mata will likely thrive in the space this open game will surely provide.

The plum tie of the gameweek is rejuvenated Man City’s trip to flailing Wolves. The names in form are easy to list: Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez and David Silva.

Liverpool’s win against Everton in the FA Cup was a bit of an anomaly given the form that was before. They have won just two league games at Anfield this season, and West Brom are no pushovers. There are points in store for the in-form Luis Suarez. Liverpool’s defence is more porous than a sieve, and there should be some joy for Peter Odemwingie and Chris Brunt.

Manchester United are the league’s form side. They’ve been imperious of late, and I can see another win + clean sheet on the cards for them. Get in your choice among de Gea, Jonny Evans, Antonio Valencia and Wayne Rooney.

Spurs travel to QPR in what is sure to be a tough game not only because QPR will be scrapping for every point they can get, but also because Spurs have been rather despondent since the trip to Arsenal in March. Zamora and returning bad boy Djibril Cisse will fancy their chances against Spurs who were beaten at home by Norwich last gameweek before their mauling at the hands of Chelsea. Spurs will, as usual, rely on Bale and Adebayor to get them out of this inexplicable rut.
Newcastle are the league’s hottest team in form after Manchester United, and their home game against Stoke should be another win. Again, the form players are easy to name: Hatem ben Arfa and Papiss Cisse

The Ones You Don’t Think About

Aston Villa play two home games, against Sunderland (probably a loss) and Bolton (probably a win). Either way, you should take a good, hard look at Barry Bannan and Gabriel Agbonlahor for this gameweek. Sunderland offer a good investment in Stephane Sessegnon.

Bolton are double gamers too (double double-gamers, given that next gameweek holds a similar schedule for them). It’s hard to pinpoint good value from teams fighting relegation as they will scrap and points can come from anyone. I will, however, plump for Miyaichi and Petrov. They host Swansea in their first game, and they will no doubt be tormented by Sigurdsson, who has to be the best winter signing of the season.

Rejuvenated Wigan travel to Craven Cottage to face a sturdy Fulham who’ve been steadily racking up the points. Clint Dempsey is in form for the Cottagers. Wigan’s points have come from everywhere (as pointed out earlier about relegation strugglers), but the most in-form players have been Victor Moses and Shaun Maloney.

Blackburn desperately need a win against Norwich to keep their survival hopes alive, and Yakubu and Hoilett are both 50-50 to make the game. They will look to David Dunn for inspiration. Norwich have their own form player in Grant Holt.

Hunch of the Gameweek:

This edition’s illogical pricking feeling comes from Kevin Davies.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Fantasy Football: Gameweek 34

With impending FA Cup semifinal ties at Wembley (both of them ridiculously timed) on the cards, the 4 Premier League teams that will be involved in the semis (and therefore, their 4 league opponents slated in for this gameweek) will not play in the league this weekend. Their fixtures have been moved to Gameweek 36 (which means these 8 teams will play twice that gameweek).

Now, on to this diet gameweek of FPL:

Gameweek 34 fixtures:
Norwich v Man City
Sunderland v Wolves
Swansea v Blackburn
West Brom v QPR
Manchester United v Aston Villa
Arsenal v Wigan

A FEW WORDS OF ADVICE: Try picking Villa players now despite the fixture. They have a double gameweek next time round, and both are home games. Also try getting Bolton players in and bench them. They may not play this gameweek, but they have two double gameweeks in a row after this.

Player picks:

City are almost out of the title race, but will still fight till the (surely inevitable) bitter end. Sergio Aguero is back and firing, and should trouble the Norwich defence with his trickery and pace. I suspect Edin Dzeko might start this one, and score as well. City might find winning a bit hard thanks to in-form Grant Holt.

Sunderland v Wolves is a mismatch given the teams’ form over the last 10 games or so. Looks like an easy one for Sunderland. Sebastian Larsson, Stephane Sessegnon and Nicklas Bendtner should enjoy themselves. Wolves will rely on Matt Jarvis, as usual.

Blackburn will be looking to bounce back from the Liverpool defeat, but Swansea away is hardly the ideal fixture for any team. Swansea are where they are due to their brilliant loan signing Gylfi Sigurdsson (who, I should tell you, will be fixture in these blog posts till the end of the season). Scott Sinclair should get some joy against a weak Blackburn defence. Blackburn can but turn to Yakubu, who found form against Liverpool.

West Brom will look to cement their position in the table with a win against QPR. They can do that if, as I expect, Chris Brunt and Peter Odemwingie have good matches. QPR are in a relegation fight and will look to grab anything that comes. Adel Taarabt and Bobby Zamora are the best men for this.

Manchester United will hope to maintain their stranglehold on top spot with a win at Old Trafford. De Gea, Evra, Valencia and Rooney (yes, again I’m going full package where United are concerned) should be in great nick. Villa can but throw all they have at United, mostly in the form of Barry Bannan and Gabriel Agbonlahor.

Arsenal have an agenda of their own, wanting to lock up 3rd place ahead of Spurs. A home game against Wigan seems easy enough for the Gunners. Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott could be in for more of the points they’ve been scoring lately. Wigan are fighting though, and that fight is being led by Victor Moses and Jean Beausejour, who could trouble an Arsenal defence missing Koscielny.

Hunch of the Gameweek:

This week’s wild guess is Swansea’s Danny Graham

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Fantasy Football: Gameweek 33

Not much pre-advice rambling from me this time. The biggest games haven’t yet been played but this post has to be made as the next gameweek’s deadline is tomorrow (Monday)

On to number 33.

Gameweek 33 fixtures:

Everton v Sunderland
Newcastle v Bolton
Tottenham v Norwich
Villa v Stoke
Fulham v Chelsea
Blackburn v Liverpool
Man City v West Brom
Wigan v Man Utd
Wolves v Arsenal
QPR v Swansea

Let me offer a bit of forward thinking here. Gameweek 34 has only 6 matches because 4 Premier League teams are involved in the FA Cup semifinals to be held next weekend, so they (and their four opponents) won’t be part of GW 34. They will play double matches on Gameweek 36, so overall, no difference made. But with astute transfers, you can make the most of both gameweeks.

One thing you might want to keep in mind is that Aston Villa play on GW34, and also have a double gameweek on GW35. Just some food for thought.

Player picks:

The Premium Players

The plum tie is Man City hosting West Brom. It’s a home game for City, and that means Sergio Aguero. West Brom’s best chances will probably come from set pieces, so Chris Brunt should be a busy man.

After the squad rotation against Wigan, Chelsea should return to a stronger lineup against Fulham. Ramires will lend much-needed energy to the midfield and maybe pick up a few points. It’s not like Fulham aren’t in form. Certainly, nobody will deny that Clint Dempsey is in form.

Manchester United have a cakewalk (apart from the City away game), and Wigan shouldn’t prove too big an obstacle for Valencia, Rooney and Evra.

Spurs slipped up at Sunderland and will be looking to hold off Newcastle and Chelsea with a win against Norwich. They will need Gareth Bale to be better than he was at the Stadium of Light, and also hold off the in-form Grant Holt.

Arsenal should beat Wolves. Matt Jarvis will try his best but Robin van Persie should put Wolves’ form into perspective.

Blackburn are probably one of the few teams that might lose to Liverpool at present. The Reds will yet again be dependent on Suarez and Gerrard. Blackburn’s forward line hasn’t been much good of late but I feel this might be the game Yakubu gets his act together.

The Ones You Don’t Think About

Newcastle are hot, and host Bolton. It could be points across the board for the Geordies, with Krul, Simpson/R. Taylor, ben Arfa and Papiss Cisse all expected to score big.

Everton and Sunderland are two very similar teams – disciplined, structured and not big scorers by nature. The game looks like a score draw to me. Nicica Jelavic and Nicklas Bendtner will be the scorers according to me.

The aforementioned Aston Villa recently ended their losing streak at Anfield (not a bad place to end winless runs it would seem), and seem primed to take on Stoke. For reasons mentioned at the start, it would be a good idea to get in some Villa players. The best among them are set-piece specialist Barry Bannan and Gabriel Agbonlahor. Peter Crouch is the form man for the Potters.

QPR – Swansea would’ve been a rather even tie considering they’re both promoted. But this season, the gulf in class couldn’t be more apparent. Gylfi Sigurdsson is the main man for the Swans and should be again. QPR will rely on Bobby Zamora.

Hunch of the Gameweek:

The first player to re-appear in this section is the man who has burst into life and found form recently – Fernando Torres.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Fantasy Football: Gameweek 32

This Fantasist’s Gameweek 31 (both in terms of blog post and team) resembled Chelsea’s match against Villa a bit. Cruising at the start, then an unbelievable rut on Sunday before a bang at the end (thanks to Manchester United). Last week saw Man United extend their lead at the top to 5 points after City slipped up against Sunderland. Meanwhile, Arsenal’s defeat to QPR and Spurs’ win sees the race for 3rd and 4th heat up.

Onto number 32, a tricky one.

Gameweek 32 fixtures:

Swansea v Newcastle (Friday)
Sunderland v Spurs
Bolton v Fulham
Chelsea v Wigan
Liverpool v Villa
Norwich v Everton
West Brom v Blackburn
Stoke v Wolves
Man United v QPR
Arsenal v Man City

Please note that Swansea-Newcastle is on Friday, so the deadline is 11:30 AM UK time (4:00 PM IST). Those of you who wait till near the deadline for the latest team news (which is, in fact, a very good practice), do take note of this.

Player picks:

The Premium Players

The blockbuster matchup this time is Arsenal hosting Manchester City. No worries about rotation here: There’s too much at stake for both teams to change their best lineups for this one. This means more points from Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott. City have been a bit of a fantasy enigma of late, nobody consistently scoring points. I suspect Mario Balotelli will be hard to drop after his brace, and he has shown up at all the big games this season. If Sergio Aguero returns, he will be key but keep your eye on the team news before you jump into this one.

Tottenham finally broke their winless Premier League run last week, but a visit to a good Sunderland side could see them come undone. Of late, Gareth Bale has got back among the assists and should continue that run. Emmanuel Adebayor also looks back in form. The best picks from Sunderland should be the trio that ran City’s defence riot last week – Sessegnon, Bendtner and Larsson.

There’s nothing ‘premium’ about Liverpool players apart from their prices (which is why they even feature in this section anymore). Aston Villa are crocked in all areas of the pitch though, and after Chelsea’s stroll last week, the stage is set for Luis Suarez to run Villa riot. Barry Bannan and Marc Albrighton will be Villa’s creative machines and after Shaun Maloney’s performance at Anfield, what’s to say they can’t get anything out of this game?

Chelsea v Wigan is one of the gameweek’s plum ties, but with the best 11 having played a tough Champions League game midweek, and also with a visit to Fulham on Monday, squad rotation could be something to look out for. Raul Meireles, Daniel Sturridge and Didier Drogba can expect to start (and score points) in this one. Also, if you fancy the clean sheet, take a look at Gary Cahill, who could deputise for Terry who is said to have injured ribs. Oh, and Petr Cech too.

The other plum tie is Manchester United hosting QPR. Would another win, another clean sheet be any surprise? Big points from De Gea, Evans, Valencia, Rooney are on the cards. Tuck in.

The Ones You Don’t Think About

The Friday kick-off is an intriguing one. Swansea are strong at home, hosting joint 5th Newcastle who have a good chance of making Europe (maybe an outside chance of Champions League football?). Hatem ben Arfa and Papiss Cisse have been on fire for the Geordies. Gylfi Sigurdsson must be the best loan signing of the season by far, and his points record shows why.

Bolton got stuck into Wolves last week, but Fulham will pose much harder opposition. Clint Dempsey might find some joy, but his team might be troubled by Martin Petrov.

Norwich welcome back skipper Grant Holt for this game, and he should get right back into the points. Steven Pienaar will look to get Everton something from the game, and might get points for himself on the way.

Wolves desperately need a win at Stoke to have any hopes of staying up, and right now the only man who seems capable of doing it is Matt Jarvis. Peter Crouch’s recent form may prove too much for Wolves to handle though.

A home game to Blackburn may be just what West Brom need to get back on track. Peter Odemwingie and Chris Brunt should have a good one.

Hunch of the Gameweek:

Been a long time since my illogical hunches have worked, but is anyone up for a little bit of Ryo Miyaichi?