Liverpool Set Up to Deliver Knock-Out Blow in Title Fight

As the Barclay’s Premier League roars down the home straight in 2013/14, two of the three title contenders come face to face on Sunday in a duel which will have an immense impact on the final destination of this year’s Premier League crown.

Manchester City will arrive at Anfield second in the table knowing, in this unprecedentedly open and somewhat bizarre campaign, that a loss against Brendan Rodgers’s inspired Reds could spell the end of their title hopes. In Manuel Pellegrini’s first season in charge at the Etihad, City will enter the arena in the unenviable position of being favourites to win the league, yet underdogs in the match betting.

That Liverpool are narrrow favourites to win this crucial clash is a testament to the performance of Brendan Rodgers’s team over the course of the season, particularly at home. Liverpool have lost just once at Anfield in 2013/14, winning 15 of their 17 games to date. Unbeaten home and away in 2014, the Reds have racked up 19 goals in their last five home games against the likes of Arsenal, Everton and Tottenham, whilst conceding just five in reply.

Manchester City’s away form has improved in recent weeks, after a poor start to the campaign. Kompany and co. won once in their first six attempts on their travels, losing four. That trend has been reversed somewhat, as Pelligrini’s side have been unbeaten away since November 10th, however two draws in the last four (against Norwich and Arsenal) are bound to have sewn a few seeds of doubt in the minds of the champions of two years ago.

Liverpool were beaten 1-2 in the reverse fixture in late December, however it was widely recognised that the Reds were the better team by some distance. Poor officiating and an unfortunate Mignolet error were costly that night, whilst the absences of Steven Gerrrard and Daniel Sturridge from the squad hardly helped matters. At Anfield though, there are no such injury worries and, in fact, the shoe may well be on the other foot. Sergio Aguero, whose been out for some time, only has a 75% chance of starting, with Fernandinho also a major doubt for the vital encounter.

The latter would be a major loss for City, should he be ruled out. The screening and protection that Fernandinho provides the back four is key to the way Pelligrini’s side plays, and Javi Garcia, his likely replacement, whilst being a top player, doesn’t have the same mobility or energy as his Brazilian counterpart. With Liverpool’s relentless high pressing game likely being carried out by Sterling, Henderson and Allen (if not Coutinho), whoever plays in the defensive midfield position for City on Sunday is sure to come under immense and often sustained pressure. This is likely to be the key area of the game, and if Liverpool can pressure City and nick the ball back high up the pitch, then the pace and quality of Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling could cut City’s back four to ribbons.

Liverpool should have no fear going into this game. Of course, it’s a huge match which could determine the outcome of the Premier League race this year, but the Reds are under absolutely no pressure. Unlike City, who’ve spent hundreds of millions over the last couple of seasons in the specific aim of becoming the Premier League’s (and Europe’s) dominant force, Liverpool have already achieved their aim for this season. By ensuring a top four finish and achieving Champions League football, the primary target has been hit, and at a canter too. Unlike Manchester City’s, the Liverpool players have already vastly exceeded most fans’ expectations and can make an assault on the title from a position of relative freedom, the freedom that has made them such a joy to watch this season.

Prediction: Liverpool 3-1 Manchester City

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Get Smart!

In this shorter than usual post, I’ll be looking at a topical talking point which has been thrown up by this week’s Champions League matches, specifically those involving English clubs.

 
The issue in question is (in case you hadn’t already guessed) that of the professional foul, the one denying a clear, goal-scoring opportunity, which produces a red card and, if the offence occurs within the penalty area, a penalty kick too.

 
Both games involving English teams produced incidents which saw the home teams (Manchester City and Arsenal), reduced to ten men, whilst simultanaeously conceding a penalty. The subsequent clamour from pundits and the media, about the “unfairness” of the punishment has been all but deafening. But why, and why now?

 
The rules have been enforced in this way, for almost as long as I can remember, the best part of the last twenty years certainly, so how can anybody claim that it is unfair? Granted, the award of a penalty and a red card may be harsh, but unfair? I think not. Talk of a double punishment may also hold some water, however there is a reason for this – namely to stop these kinds of fouls from occuring; to eradicate them from the game, through fear of the consequences.

 
The last man/red card rule was thought up for precisely this reason; to stop defenders and/or goalkeepers from cynically taking out the attacking player, with the intention of preventing a clear goalscoring opportunity, a la Schumacher on Battiston for example. Before its introduction, these type of “professional fouls” were all too common in the game. Needless to say, the introduction and enforcement of the, now well understood, rule has not rid the game of these challenges completely, but it has significantly limited them in number, and that can only be a good thing.

 
The desperate, last ditch challenge is nearly always a dangerous one, often a reckless lunge. It’s very rare that one of these lunges is successful, and, even if the defender gets a slight touch on the ball, they can result in serious injury – Wes Brown on Gaston Ramirez being a recent example of this.

 
These desperate challenges need to be removed from the game, defenders and goalkeepers need to re-evaluate their approaches to these one on one situations. Jockey the forward, show him down the side you want him to go down, stay on your feet, don’t throw youself at the forward’s feet, don’t lunge in, and (in a defender’s case) if all else fails, trust your goalkeeper to make the save.

 
Referees have this week been accused of “ruining the game as a spectacle”, by pundits and disgruntled managers alike. Not normally one to defend referees too much, I’d have to completely disagree with this perceived wisdom. The referees in both games simply applied the laws of the game as they are, and they were one hundred per cent right on both incidents. Both De Michelis and Szczseny attempted desperate challenges, when very unlikely to win the ball; both took the respective forwards out, both denied clear goal-scoring opportunities. Unfair? Not a chance.

 
If you want to accuse somebody of “ruining the game”, the only people you can look at are the players that made those ill-advised challenges. Simply put, they should’ve known better. It’s the culture of the sport, particularly in England, to blame referees and managers, absolving players (in the most part) of all reponsibility, in order to progress, the balance needs to be redressed somewhat.

 
When the referee applies the laws of the game objectively and correctly, he is in fact doing the opposite of ruining the game. If more referees, particularly in England (Mr. Webb) applied the rules in such a way, rather than refereeing context (effectively making a mockery of the game), then football would be a lot better.

 
Should the rule be changed? Well, if it was changed, the number of Wes Brown style challenges would surely increase, along with the number of likely injuries. Forwards would get even less protection than they have now, the quality of football would likely diminish, along with the number of goals scored.

 
The only way a change might work would be to award a penalty goal (similar to a penalty try in rugby), to the attacking team in a situation where a goal-scoring opportunity has been denied, and give the defender a yellow card. The severity of this punishment might also act as deterrent enough, however I’m fairly certain most football fans wouldn’t really want to go down that route.

 
In conclusion then, while the rule may anger and upset some, it is understood and acknowledged by all. That being the case, and having been so for twenty odd years, it’s not the rule that needs to change, rather the players’ approach to dealing with desperate one on one situations. As Michael Ballack says “The player knows if he touches him, it’s a red card. He must be smarter.”

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Gone in 54 Seconds: Out-Gunned and Blown Away

Pre-game nerves, lingering doubts over top four credentials, residual post transfer deadline blues, concerns over squad strength, fears of being overrun in midfield, pessimistic predictions of an “inevitable” slide down the league, were all cleansed from the minds of Liverpool supporters within 54 seconds of kick-off at Anfield on Saturday, along with Arsenal’s hopes of remaining atop the Premier League for another weekend.

The moment that Luis Suarez stole in behind Per Mertesacker to nick possession after Aly Cissokho’s long throw, the omens appeared to be good – Suarez’s nimble mind and matching feet too quick for the giant German, who could do nothing but concede an early free-kick. LFC fans rubbed their hands with glee, this was Gerrard territory, and held a long breath in anticipation. The Captain did not disappoint, his unerring delivery just begging to be turned home, and so it was by Marin Skrtel. 1-0 Liverpool, 54 seconds gone.

(Gerrard has long been hailed for his set piece delivery, but this season his quality from dead balls has risen almost immeasurably, and in particular his delivery from slightly deeper, wide free-kicks is a bonafide weapon which Liverpool are exploiting to great effect.)

What followed Skrtel’s opener was, quite simply, the finest first half of football ever witnessed; one that will go down in the annals of Premier League history as just that.

Arsenal, the league leaders, and in possession of the best midfield in the Premier League (on paper certainly), were completely thrown out of their stride by the speed and agression of Liverpool’s pressing game. Coutinho, Henderson and Sterling led the way, but every man in red was sharper, hungrier and quicker to the ball than his opposite number.

Martin Skrtel powered home a header from another Gerrard delivery (this time a corner), arching his thumping effort majestically into the top corner, beyond the despairing leap of Oxlade Chamberlain on the line. The corner, a result of Jon Flanagan’s effort having been saved by Szczesny, at the end of a free flowing move which originated from a thumping tackle by Liverpool’s other fullback, Aly Cissokho. Cissokho’s honesty and hard work is beginning to win over the Anfield crowd after a frosty initial period, and the former French international is improving with every game he plays.

Liverpool’s third came after just sixteen minutes, however it’s no exaggeration to say that by the time it did arrive, it could’ve been the Reds’ fifth. Phillipe Coutinho, tenacious, aggressive but yet fantastically skilful and in possession of velvet boots, combined deliciously with Suarez to put Daniel Sturridge through on Szczesny, a chance which the striker skewed wide. Almost immediately afterwards, another Gerrard corner found Suarez on the edge of the box. He took one touch, and unleashed a 25yard volley that rattled the post with such ferocity and velocity, that Szczesny was left waiting for a postcard. The rebound fell to Kolo Toure who steered it wide, with the goal gaping.

Raheem Sterling it was who supplied the third goal for Liverpool, another move born out of the home side’s agressive pressing. Jordan Henderson hustled the hugely disappointing Mesut Özil off the ball, and carried the it forwards before releasing Suarez, whose low cross was perfectly angled and weighted for Sterling (who’d sprinted flat out to get to the far post) to tap home ahead of Sturridge.

 
Two minutes later it was four, and again Coutinho was involved. This time, the Brazilian pilfered the ball thirty yards from his own goal, before releasing a perfect throughball for Daniel Sturridge (already on his way), to race onto and calmly slot past Szczesny, low into the bottom corner.

 
Liverpool 4 – 0 Arsenal, inside twenty minutes! Anfield in raptures, and the expressions on Arsenal faces said it all. Bemusement, shock, surprise, disbelief, even despair. The Gunners simply blown away! That Arsenal arrived as league leaders, having won eight and drawn two of their last ten, had been rendered an irrelevance, along with Wenger’s men’s impressive defensive record (just four goals conceded in their previous ten games in all competitions), as the Reds swashbuckled and rampaged their way to the fastest 4-0 lead in Premier League history.

 
The rest of the first half settled into a pattern of deep Arsenal defending, brought about by sheer, unadulterated terror, until the the whistle finally sounded brief respite for the eviscerated Gunners.

 
Raheem Sterling added a fifth for Liverpool early in the second half, as he sprung the North Londoners faulty offside trap yet again, to race clear and slide past the a beleaguered Szczesny at the second attempt. Suarez, who’d revelled in his more creative role, came oh so close to getting on the scoresheet; first from a 30yard free-kick which Szczesny did brilliantly to claw out from underneath the angle of post and bar, and then after combining with Sterling, before slotting home- only for Sterling to be correctly flagged offside.

 
(At this stage, Raheem Sterling will be singled out for praise. Unlucky not to complete his hat-trick in the second half, the nineteen year old was the stand-out player on a pitch resplendent with international talent. Since his return to the starting line up, he has been a revelation. His pace, trickery, work rate, strength and movement, make him a real worry for any defender. His performances are improving with every game, and as his confidence has grown, so has his level of consistency, now seeing him regularly weigh in with assists and goals.)

 
Arteta grabbed a morsel of consolation, coolly chipping home from the spot, after Steven Gerrard’s botched tackle on Oxlade Chamberlain had seen Michael Oliver point to the spot. That the Arsenal fans cheered the goal like it was a match winner, went a long way to illustrating the utter dominance which Liverpool had displayed on the day; Jack Wilshere’s petulance and indiscipline in defeat, crystallising that sense still further.

 
A watershed moment then: for Liverpool Football Club, whose fans can say with certainty that their team is back amongst the Premier League elite. For Brendan Rodgers, whose detractors, and there have been a vocal few, no longer have sticks with which to beat him. Resounding victories in big games against rivals such as Tottenham, Everton and Arsenal have seen to that. And for Arsenal? Who knows? It’s historically true, that this is the month when recent seasons have fallen apart, and with a daunting fixture list ahead, they’ve gotten off to the worst possible start. Their fate is in their own hands however, they are still in the argument, albeit slightly quieter now.

Signing off with stats.

Liverpool remain unbeaten I.A.C. this calendar year.

Liverpool have the top two goal scorers in the Premier League: Suarez 24, Sturridge 15.

Coutinho has the most completed through-balls in the Premier League: 12. Suarez 11.

Liverpool have scored the most goals from set pieces in the Premier League: 23

Liverpool have scored ten more 1st half goals than any other Premier League team: 40

Liverpool have hit the woodwork five more times than any other PL team: 19

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Reds Look Like The Real Deal

Face of the Bill Shankly statue at Anfield, home of Liverpool FCTrying to evaluate where Liverpool Football Club are, on the pitch, has been somewhat tricky so far this season. Saturday’s resounding victory over Fulham though, poor as the Cottagers were, along with the last two league results and performances (including defeat at Arsenal), have gone some way to shedding some light on the matter.

 

 
It’s been a season of different styles and results for LFC far. From dogged performances at the beginning of the campaign – three hard fought 1-0 victories in a row – to chaotic away days (Newcastle and Swansea particularly spring to mind). Comfortable victories at home to West Brom and Fulham, and a couple of lacklustre performances in defeat against Southampton and Arsenal.

 

 
With the absence of Luis Suarez for the opening six games, the varying form of new signings, the plethora of injuries which have afflicted the squad, and the pool of talent available to him, Brendan Rodgers has employed several different formations thus far too. After beginning the season with a 4-2-3-1 (in the absence of Suarez), Rodgers adapted to a 3-5-2 upon the Uruguayan’s return.

 

 
This seemed a great fit, given the players at Rodgers’s disposal- an abundance of good centre backs for example – and it is a good option, particularly if Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique are fit to play the wing back roles. However, without those two stretching the play and providing options, the midfield can become overrun, leaving the defence vulnerable. This is borne out by the fact the the side failed to keep a clean sheet whilst employing three centre backs.

 

 
As mentioned already, it’s a good option to have, and it’s good that Rodgers is keen to have different methods of playing, to be employed as and when required. However, it’s no coincidence, for me, that the Reds best team performance of the season came with a switch back to a 4-3-3 cum 4-1-2-1-2. With Coutinho back in the side, a player who contibutes hugely to Liverpool playing well, not just through his individual ability but also because of the partnerships he forms with others around him (notably Jordan Henderson), this is surely the Reds’ best formation.

Much has been made of the problem in central midfield at times for LFC this season. As mentioned above, the 3-5-2 can highlight shortcomings in this area, however some have been quick to point accusatory fingers at Lucas and Gerrard, even calling for one or other to be dropped/replaced. Saturday highlighted, for me, that a slight shift in formation and the addition of Coutinho along with Henderson, makes all the difference to Liverpool’s central area.

 

 
With Lucas allowed to sit as the one real defensive midfielder, he can drop in and cover when the full-backs push on and the centre-backs split, this is a role he relishes, and there are few better at it in the league. Jordan Henderson’s pressing, in tandem with Coutinho pressing at the apex, allows Gerrard more time on the ball, and the freedom to pick passes – which he does better than anyone. Coutinho and Henderson, as alluded to above, work fantastically well as a pair, affording opposition players no time to settle. Each knows where the other is and where he will be, they inspire each other with confidence, and both play better for having the other in the side.

 

 
With that midfield quartet, operating in a somewhat flexible sort of narrow diamond (as they did vs Fulham), Enrique supporting on the left, Johnson on the right, doing what only he can in his position, Suarez and Sturridge up front, and the strength in depth the club now has at the back, the Reds look like the real deal. The formation and personnel (along with the poor quality of the opposition) allowed Liverpool to utterly dominate possession, and therefore totally control the game at the weekend. A fact shown up only to clearly by looking at the stats – 32 attempts (more than any other team this season), 10 on target, 68% possession, 722 passes – 260 of which were in the final third.

 

 
The other advantage that the switch to 4-1-2-1-2 brings is on the bench. Whilst the idea behind LFC playing 3-5-2 is to get all the best players on the pitch, it often means not playing players in their preferred positions, and (earlier in the season in any case) led to the bench being made up of players unlikely to change a game. 4-1-2-1-2 allows for players to play in their best positions, whilst maintaining a strong bench – if Skrtel and Agger play, Toure and Sakho will be on the bench, along with Moses, Luis Alberto, Sterling and Joe Allen, all players who can come into a game and have an effect on it.

 

 
Regardless of formation, Liverpool have started the season well. Being clear in second place after almost a third of the season, should have met the expectations of even those with the most exacting of standards. There are those who will say that the toughest tests are still to come, and they may be right, however this season has shown us already that even those who’ve topped the league for the last few years, and longer, are not to be feared in 2013/14.

 

 
Where the Reds can go from here is largely up to them. Liverpool may not yet be good enough to go to the Emirates and win, but truth be told, to win the league, that isn’t necessary. There are plenty of points to be gained from beating the bottom twelve or thirteen sides home and away, and Liverpool’s record at Anfield against the top sides is formidable. The spirit within the camp is better than it has been in years, the squad has largely returned to full fitness, and with FSG seemingly likely to invest again in January, there should be no limit to Liverpool’s ambition this season.

 

Shankly statue image by Ben Sutherland

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Reds Can Dare to Dream

Liverpool FC photowall

2014: The Next Chapter?

The new Barclays Premier League season is (almost) four games old, and at this early stage of the campaign, Liverpool Football Club sit in joint first position. It’s been a long time since the Reds occupied the top spot, even for a short while (2009 to be precise), however, providing Brendan Rodgers’s band of brothers avoids defeat in Wales this evening, their ownership of this coveted position will be confirmed for another week at least – but can this last? In this article I’ll examine whether Liverpool’s great start is just that, or whether Reds can expect their team to secure a top four spot, or even push for that elusive first Premier League crown.

At the beginning of the season, before a ball was kicked, breaking into the top four was the specified aim for Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool. In the second year of his three year contract, Brendan Rodgers will be acutely aware that only the achievement of a Champions League berth, or at the very least, a very strong challenge which falters at the last will see him afforded the chance to conitinue his work. Tough ask as it may be, it is a task that this Liverpool squad, and its management team, look capable of achieving.

As a subscriber to The Tomkins Times, I took part in a survey which involved predicting the outcome of every Liverpool game this season, win, lose or draw. Upon completing the list of results and tallying up the points, I arrived at a grand total of 74. Optimistic, I thought as I reviewed the list, casting a more scrutinous eye across the predicted results. Eventually, and still somewhat disbelievingly, I accepted that perhaps this total was more readily achievable than I had imagined, and submitted my findings. So far the results have gone as predicted – nine points from the first three games.

A points total of 74, should it be achieved, would virtually guarantee the Reds Champions’ League football. In fact, since the Premier League was awarded its fourth Champions League place in 2001/2, only once has that threshold been breached by a team finishing fourth (Liverpool 07/08-76 points).

So, what looked possible before a minute was played, now looks readily achievable given the Reds’ fine start -three games, three wins, maximum points and no goals conceded. This last statistic could prove to be particularly crucial this year, if Liverpool are to be successful. From what’s been seen so far, the league as a whole looks incredibly tight. With the financial implications of dropping out of the division so stark, and the added factor of extra television money being splashed around by many of the traditionally “smaller” clubs, competition is fierce, and so far goals have been at a premium as a result. Having a solid defensive unit, and the ability to keep plenty of clean sheets, will be a necessary skill set for a team with aspirations of climbing the league this year.

It’s perhaps of little surprise that the teams looking the most confident at the top of the league thus far, are the teams who’ve enjoyed stability in a managerial sense over the summer. Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool lead the way (the latter the only team still with a 100% record in tact), while those who’ve made changes at the top, are struggling at the moment to find their identities under their new bosses.

Manchester United look laboured under David Moyes. Without a goal in open play since the opening day of the season, and with players seemingly lacking that extra edge they used to find when inspired by Ferguson, it could be a long season at Old Trafford. Across Manchester at the Etihad, City have spent big on both players and manager. Manuel Pellegrini brings great European pedigree to Eastlands, and will undoubtedly be a success there in the long term. However, as any new manager does, he’s taking time to adjust to the Premier League, and this together with City’s new signings taking time to bed in, and an ongoing, poor away league record (4 wins in 11), could leave the door open for rival clubs.

Jose Mourinho is facing difficult times at Stamford Bridge too. It looks like the squad he has doesn’t suit his preferred style of play. He has few wide options for example, and he lacks a commanding centre half, with John Terry well past his peak. On top of that, allowing Lukaku to go to Everton on-loan appears a hideously bizarre decision, given that Ba has been largely unconvincing, Torres remains a shadow and Samuel Eto’o has been grazing for the best part of three seasons. In short, Chelsea are great between both boxes, but appear to lack conviction in either penalty area.

Turning attention back to the club at the heart of this article, Liverpool have been quietly making their case for some time. Since December 30th 2012, the Reds have lost just three Premier League games out of twenty two, picking up 48 points from a possible 66, that’s more than Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, City or Spurs have garnered over the same 22 game period. Liverpool have also scored the most goals in the league since January 1st 2013, upto and including this weekends fixtures, the Reds, of course, yet to play.

This article comes with the caveat (to be expected) that the season is only a few weeks old, and that things can change, but at the moment the signs are good for LFC. Rodgers has been assembling the squad he desires for some time now, and three windows in, it’s beginning to look stonger on quality and deeper in talent.

The acquisitions of Luis Alberto and Aspas offer technical ability, quality on the ball and a goal threat off the bench, traits which Moses serves to enhance, as well as providing a more direct, pacy and physical element to play in the final third. While Mignolet has been brought in to replace Pepe Reina, who had possibly lost a little hunger, the defence, seen as the weak link last season, now has a plethora of great options. Sakho is widely regarded as one of the most promising centre-backs in Europe, Ilori adds pace, youth and coolness on the ball, whilst Kolo Toure brings, a wealth of experience, wonderful charisma and leadership, and a winning mentality to boot.

The one area in which the club was seen to fail in the summer’s transfer window was in signing another top attacking talent. Mkhitaryan wanted Dortmund, Costa was oh so close, and Willian reverted to type and followed the £s to Chelsea. Disappointing as it may have been, for some, not to snare any of these big names (dodged a bullet on Willian imo), the Reds did keep the biggest name of them all.

That his name hasn’t been mentioned in this article until now, is a testament to what a great job the club has been doing without him, however in nine days the Liverpool faithful will welcome back the man who scored more than twenty league goals for the Reds last term. It may be a cliche, but Suarez’s return will seem like a brand new signing and, given the man’s talent and stature, it’s the best attacking signing that Liverpool could possibly have made.

Suarez’s return can help the Reds to maintain their fantastic start to the season. His trickery, flair and goals, will add that extra zip and unpredictability to Liverpool’s attacking play. A friendly fixture list (on paper), the fantastic team spirit fostered by Brendan Rodgers, the work ethic, a strong squad, well rounded with youth and experience can all help propel Liverpool up the league this season, but how far?

A top four spot seems a real possibility, but can Liverpool fans dare to dream of more? Yes, why not? The accepted wisdom says it’s impossible for team to come from outside the top four to win the title (there have only been very rare exceptions in the Premier League era). However this is an exceptional year, with some exceptional circumstances and, with that, and the stats for the last six months in mind, the dream, however unlikely, is most certainly still alive.

Image by Ben Sutherland

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Premier League Predictions 2013/14

José Mourinho

Mou’s Back: But Will It Be Enough for Chelsea?

The Barclays Premier League kicks off tomorrow and after a temporary hiatus during “silly season”, It’s All in the Game is back to cover all the action over the next ten months.

As is customary in the run up to the big kick-off, I’ll be beginning this season’s coverage with a brief predictions piece (which you’re in the midst of reading). Last year’s predictions (as ever) proved to be hit and miss. We were spot on with our claim the Southampton would surprise a lot of people by having a great season, for example. However we were plum wrong about City being able to retain their title. It’s debatable whether this year’s efforts will prove to be more or less accurate than those which came before, but that’s not going to stop us from having a bash anyway.

The season ahead promises to be one of the most open for the best part of two decades. Why? Quite simply, it’s because of the managerial change at Old Trafford. Managers come and managers go, but Alex Ferguson’s retirement combined with the appointment of David Moyes is the most significant change of the modern football era (in England), and could ultimately prove to have a profound effect on the race for the title for years to come.

I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that David Moyes is not the right man for the job, and that as a joint consequence of losing Ferguson, and replacing him with Moyes, Manchester United will struggle. Of course everything is relative, and the transfer window is still open so things could change, however at this stage it seems to me that United will have to fight for the top four much harder than they’ve ever had to since the dawn of the Premier League era.

Let’s not forget that Moyes, in ten years at Everton, never won a trophy, never beat a top four side away from home, and never won at Anfield. Never! That’s pretty shoddy for an Everton boss. He’ll take time to adapt to being in the spotlight, but he’d need to start doing that soon, because his comments on Rooney were tactless and heavy handed to say the least and he faces a job on to keep the striker that he so famously fell out with at Everton.

The rest of the challengers for the top six will be the usual suspects. Mourinho’s return, will at least remind Chelsea fans of who they really are, but will all be rosy between Roman and Jose? I can’t see it being plain sailing. “The happy one” will be worth a few points to Chelsea’s overall total, however a lack of real improvement (at this stage) in terms of first team personnel, and continuing worries both in the central midfield and striking departments should see them fall short of winning the title.

Manchester City, on the other hand, have added quality to their squad both in terms of playing staff – Jovetic, Negredo, Jesus Navas – and in replacing Mancini with Mauricio Pelligrini. City have the strongest squad and a manager who’s tactically aware, cunning and hugely respected by the players that he’s worked with. They are, definitely, my favourites to win the league.

Tottenham and Arsenal are two clubs whose seasons’ could be very much determined by their transfer windows’. Tottenham have strengthened well -Soldado, Paulinho,Chadli – and look to be intent on gunning for the Champions’ League; if they manage to keep Gareth Bale, they might just make it. They still face the possibility of losing Bale though, and if that happens they could very well find themselves sorely lacking in the creativity department. Add to that the stark contrast between their form with and without Bale last year, coupled with the number of points he won them with last gasp goals/assists, and a case can easily made for Tottenham to drop back without him.

Their North London rivals have had a shocking window. Reportedly in for Higuain, Bernard, Luis Gustavo, and of course Luis Suarez, the Gunners have bagged none of their main targets and have only signed Yaya Sanogo from Ligue 1. Gooners are irate, particularly with Wenger’s apparent lack of desire to go out and secure improvements to a squad which performed to a level greater than the sum of its parts in the second half of last season. Arsenal will drop out of the top four this season unless at least two first team players are added. In truth, their entire back five could do with being upgraded.

Liverpool look an interesting proposition this season. Brendan Rodgers and his staff acted very early in the window to bring in four players, who each add to the squad in their own way. Luis Alberto’s technique and creativity, Aspas’s unpredictability and sharpness over the first five yards, Mignolet’s one on one prowess and Kolo Toure’s experience, organisational skills and winning mentality, all augment a squad which has also been successfully trimmed of it’s less productive players – Shelvey, Carroll, Downing, Spearing.

Coutinho Goal

Phillipe Coutinho: Can Help Liverpool to the Champions League

First eleven players have proved harder to land, with the Reds losing out to Dortmund in a bid to land Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and being unable to prize Diego Costa from, Champions’ League outfit, Athletico Madrid. However, Luis Suarez appears to be staying put, in what will be a massive boost for Brendan Rodgers, and the club’s chances of attaining a top four spot this year. Liverpool only lost twice in 16 games at the back end of last season, with Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge starring. Keeping those two fit will be vital, but if this can be achieved and the pair replicate the form they displayed last year, a top four spot is certainly within reach.
Looking further down the table, Everton could slip back a few places as Roberto Martinez attempts to adapt their style with much the same squad that Moyes had at his disposal. Don’t get me wrong, I think Martinez will do well there long term, it may just get worse before it gets better though.

Southampton and Swansea should see their stock rise even higher. Both have good managers who employ a philosophy which is ideally suited to the Premier League as it is now, and both have made what look to be shrewd signings in strengthening their squads. The top eight or nine should contain both of these clubs without a problem.
Villa are a club back on the rise too, as the second half of last season showed. Lambert stuck with his youngsters, and they’ll be all the better and stronger for having come through last season’s travails bloodied, but still standing. Lambert’s style of football reaps rewards and, if Benteke and Weimann reproduce their form as a partnership, Villa will be in the top 12.

West Brom could consolidate their position in the top half this year, after some more canny wheeling and dealing by Steve Clarke during the summer so far. Vydra (loan) and Anelka are both decent signings, and should go a long way towards replacing Lukaku’s goals, while the Premier League is all to aware of the defensive prowess of a Clarke eleven.

Norwich and Sunderland are two teams that won’t fare to badly. Chris Hughton’s investment has been sizeable and, on the face of it, sensible. Toivonen, Fer and van Wolfswinkel are all respected on the continent and should add a little flair and a lot more goals to an already solid outfit. At Sunderland, Paolo di Canio’s sheer strength of will and force of character will push Sunderland up the table in my opinion. Sunderland is a club whose players have been riddled with complacency and a sense of entitlement over several years under different managers. Under Di Canio, that is no more, and I expect to see a leaner, meaner, hungrier and much more committed Sunderland this year.

So, on to the strugglers, and there will be a few. Newcastle, under Pardew, have had their trip to the stars, and it’s been all downhill from there. Last year’s scattergun transfer policy in January succeeded in netting one or two Premier League quality players at the most. They have too many players with no connection to the club, and without the requisite commitment to grind out results as a club like Newcastle must. Add to that, the one dimensional nature of Pardew’s tactics, the boardroom insanity, and the speed with which the home crowd turns on its own, and you have a recipe for disaster. The Magpies might not go down, but they’ll definitely be in the shake up again.

Fulham, Stoke and West Ham could also be in for a very long season. Fulham are notoriously bad away from home and have a pretty poor defensive record. However, Martin Jol has largely failed to strengthen in this area, choosing instead to add luxury players such as Taraabt to other luxury players such as Berbatov and Ruiz. Darren Bent can add goals, quite a few at his best, however it’s been the best part of two seasons since he’s been anywhere near that. Stekelenburg has arrived from Roma to replace Schwarzer but he’s likely going to have to reach heights he failed to scale in the eternal city, as Fulham are likely be awful without the ball.

This is the year, for me, that hoofball and physicality will no longer be shown to work in the Premier League, and not before time either. The reason being, that more and more teams are adopting a much more continental approach to the game, relying on quick inter-play and movement, rather than the rugby league tactics employed by the more traditional and cynical of top flight managers (mentioning no names). For this reason, I can see West Ham, Stoke and Hull suffering, and while I think Hull will go down, I fancy Stoke and West Ham to make up part of the bottom six.
Relegation this year looks like a foregone conclusion. Hull will go down. Firstly; for the reasons stated in the previous paragraph, secondly; because they don’t have enough goals in the side, and finally; because none of Steve Bruce’s new signings are up to producing the standard of football required for the Premier League on a consistent basis – Huddlestone & Curtis Davies being prime examples.

Palace will also go down. This is a certainty for me because Ian Holloway sides, despite being loads of fun to watch, cannot defend for toffee, and I don’t see that changing. And yes, my third candidate for the drop is Cardiff. Another newly promoted team, and another team that doesn’t score enough goals and will rely too heavily on its home form. Cardiff have added some quality, Medel for example but, for me, its their goal-scoring which will let them down. They might escape, but only if Newcastle, Stoke or West Ham do particularly badly.

There we have them, the team predictions for the 2013/14 season as foreseen by It’s All in the Game. All that remains is to do some individual predictions now. Golden Boot – Daniel Sturridge. Player of The Year – Juan Mata. Young Player of the Year- Phillipe Coutinho. Most Assists – Juan Mata, Manager of the Year – Mauricio Pelligrini, Golden Glove – Petr Cech.
With all that said and done, join us in looking forward to the new season, and get behind your team no matter what the season brings!

Mourinho Image by Ronnie Macdonald. Coutinho image by Dean Jones

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Liverpool Close in on Armenian Superstar

Mikitahrian5

Red Armenian?

According to various reports, Liverpool Football Club have intensified their efforts to land, three times Armenian player of the year, Henrikh Mkhitaryan from, Ukrainian champions, Shakhtar Donetsk. The Guardian newspaper reported yesterday that Mkhitaryan remains high up on the club’s summer shopping list, with Brendan Rodgers willing to spend big and meet the reported £22m asking price.

Since then, several sources, including Armenian state radio, have reported that talks have been taking place between representatives of the two clubs over a fee. It has also been claimed that a deal is very close to being struck for a fee of £18m, and that the player is ready to join the Anfield club.

Sports journalist, Tariq Panja,  tweeted earlier that Ian Ayre has cancelled his proposed trip to Brazil, due to begin on Monday, in order to attend to some urgent club business. With Ayre known to be the Reds leading negotiator, speculation has been mounting that the change of plans is in order to secure the midfielder’s signature.

Today, Sky Sports have picked up on the story in the UK, reporting that Liverpool have made contact with Shakhtar and that a deal seems likely to be concluded sooner rather than later.

Mkhitaryan scored 25 goals in 29 league games for Shakhtar last season, as well as finding the back of the net twice in eight Champions League games. He also weighed in with ten assists in the league, numbers which are excellent in anyone’s book. His, versatility is a huge asset too; primarily an attacking midfielder, Mkhitaryan can  play further back, and across the front-line, including as the main striker.

A full  international at seventeen years old, Mkhitaryan has represented his country thirty nine times and scored eleven goals, including six in Armenia’s ultimately failed Euro 2012 qualifying campaign. Revered in his homeland, the midfielder was named Armenian player of the year in 2009, 2011 and 2012.

Liverpool have acted quickly in the transfer window thus far, with deals already agreed for Kolo Toure and Iago Aspas, and Luis Alberto and Tiago Ilori looking all but certain to join them at Anfield very soon. The signing of Mkhitaryan, a much coveted talent, would lay down a real marker of intent as Brendan Rodgers prepares his squad for an assault on the top four this season.

Image by Валерий Дудуш

This article was first published on http://live4liverpool.com/

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