Saturday, 20 August 2011

Strike forces cancellation of opening fixtures


A meeting between the Association for Spanish footballers (AFE) and the league (LFP) today reached no agreement on the players’ strike planned for the first two rounds of La Liga fixtures. As a result this weekend’s games will definitely not go ahead, whilst discussions will continue next week to try and salvage next weekend’s games.

The AFE announced their intention on strike on August 11 after a number of Spanish clubs failed to pay their players last season. According to José Luis Rubiales, President of the AFE, the amount of unpaid wages to players totalled €50m last season.

Rubiales wants the league to supply a find which will guarantee all unpaid players’ wages, however as of yet the LFP have only agreed to a fund in the region of €10m.

Part of the problem is seen as the lack of a sporting sanction for clubs who seek the protection of voluntary administration. Twenty-two clubs in Spain’s first two divisions have passed through administration of the past few seasons and four (Real Zaragoza, Racing Santander, Rayo Vallecano and Real Betis) will start this season in the Primera whilst in administration.

The most ludicrous example of the failings in the system is that of Zaragoza who failed to pay their players and other clubs for transfer fees last season and shortly after securing Primera Liga status on the final day of the season protected themselves by going into administration. That meant they couldn’t be docked points or relegated for not paying players wages, they didn’t have to pay other creditors to the club such as local businesses either and (here comes the most infuriating part) were still allowed to sign other players over the summer, bringing in five players whilst wages and fees are still owed to players and clubs.

Talks regarding a resolution will continue tomorrow however with many players signalling that the strike could be extended if no solution is found it appears that finally the financial mismanagement of so many clubs in Spain is coming home to roost.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Mixed fortunes for Spanish sides in Europa League


A victory, a draw and a defeat on Thursday evening wasn’t the greatest start to the Europa League for the Spanish sides involved, but all three will still harbour hopes of making it to the group stages next week.

Athletic Bilbao 0 Trabzonspor 0

Athletic suffered a disappointing draw in the first competitive match of Marcelo Bielsa’s reign. Things appeared to be going Athletic’s way when as early as the seventh minute the Turkish side were reduced to 10 men; Burak Yilmaz seeing red for a kick out at Iker Muniain.

Fernando Llorente had already gone agonisingly close in the first minute but it was to be a frustrating evening for the Spanish striker as he missed a host of chances. Athletic were also denied by some fine goalkeeping by Tolga Zengin who saved brilliantly from Markel Susaeta and Llorente in the second-half.

Trabzonspor remained dangerous on the break and Paulo Henrique nearly gave them an away goal but his delicate chip over Gorka Iraizoz landed
just wide.

Hannover 96 2 Sevilla 1

Sevilla also face an uphill struggle to get through to the group stages after losing 2-1 in Germany. Jan Schlaudraff put the home side in front after only five minutes with a calm low finish beyond Andres Palop.

Sevilla responded well and Alvaro Negredo nearly had them level on the half hour but Robert Zieler in the Hannover goal tipped his long-range deflected shot onto the post. The 2007 winners did get the crucial away goal minutes later after neat play from Jorge Coke and Negredo left Freddie Kanoute free to fire into an empty net. However, just as Sevilla were looking comfortable they fell behind again when a fine Hannover move was rounded off by a sweet finish from Schlaudraff, this time low across Palop into the far corner.

In a second-half of few chances Hannover’s Sergio Pinto came closest with a shot from distance but both sides seemed content with a scoreline
that leaves all very much to play for in Seville next week.

Atletico Madrid 2 Vitória Guimarães 0

In the only positive result for Spanish sides in Europe this week, Atleti took a firm grip of their tie with Vitória after two goal from Elias in the second-half.

The Brazilian who had been linked with Porto this week as part of the Falcao transfer showed he could have a big role to play at the Calderón this season with two fine finishes, the first a powerful header at the back post and the second a cool side-foot from the edge of the box. Both goals were set up by Adrián who again demonstrated that although he may lack a killer instinct in front of goal he can play a vital role in linking the play up front.

Among the other positives for Gregorio Manzano was the performance of Gabi in the midfield who already looks very comfortable in his new surroundings and also combined well with Thiago.

However, there may be some concern that the goals didn’t arrive until Vitória had been reduced to 10 men after Joao Paulo was sent off for a wild challenge on Adrián. The exclusion of Diego Forlan from the side could also be significant with the Uruguayan set to follow David De Gea and Kun Aguero as high-profile departures from Atleti this summer.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Positives for both sides but Messi decisive in the Supercopa


Four months on from the Champions League semi-final fixtures of last season, Barcelona may have again emerged as victors in the Supercopa and Real may have again seen the red mist and consequently red cards, but this was a very different two-legged encounter.

Both sides have served up a mixture of the good, the extraordinarily good and inevitably the ugly in the past four days but both can also reflect positively on two games that restored the reputation of these two sides as the two best footballing teams in the world.

That we saw two high-scoring, free-flowing games was down to two principal factors. Fristly, Jose Mourinho realised (and hopefully will continue to do so) that his idea of the “bloque bajo” that he implemented successfully with Inter against Barcelona is unlikely to succeed again against Pep Guardiola’s side with any team over two-legs, but even more so when he has an incredible array of attacking talent that can hurt Barca at the other end of the pitch. Secondly, of course for all that this mattered – we saw just how much at the melee at the end – it was the Supercopa, a competition which when you win is a fantastic springboard and when you lose is a pre-season friendly.

In both of these ties Real have taken the game to Barca in a way they didn’t in any of their five matches last season. And it could have worked, it should have worked, at least at home where they were rampant in the first-half only to somehow still be behind to a moment of brilliance from David Villa and a slip from Pepe (who we will get to shortly).

They did a Barca to Barca, pressing intensely high up the field to pen the European champions into their own half and at times succeeding in winning the ball high up the field.

Ronaldo finally scored at the Nou Camp, Benzema finally scored in against Barca, but the fact that Mourinho is still to win in the Nou Camp exemplifies certain flaws that still remain when Real match up against Barcelona.

Pepe was lauded for his impact as part of an athletic and combative midfield three in the games against Barca towards the end of last season until an untimely, if characteristic, lunge on Dani Alves saw him see red and his side’s chances fall apart in the Champions League. However, time and again he has been caught out when playing at centre-back against Guardiola’s side. In particular Leo Messi playing as a ‘false nine’ causes the Portuguese international all sorts of problems. The dual problem for Pepe and indeed his colleagues in the centre-back position over the past couple of seasons were demonstrated by Barca’s first and third goals last night.

On the first goal Messi drops very deep, cuts inside and delivers the most fantastic through ball for Andres Iniesta to run onto. Pepe and Ricardo Carvalho are marking no one because they can’t. They are caught between pushing right up and giving Messi endless amount of room to play passes into, as shown by the fact Iniesta’s goal last night was highly reminiscent of David Villa’s two goals in the 5-0 Clasico last year, or sitting very deep and allowing Messi, Xavi and Iniesta room in front of them to unpick the lock.

The other problem for Pepe playing against Messi is that the Argentine’s movement is simply too good for him. In Barca’s third and winning goal, Pepe has Messi in front of him and thinks he has him covered but as the ball is pulled back Messi has pulled off the back and found space to hammer home.

If Pepe’s position and discipline is becoming questionable in these fixtures then Marcelo’s actions have made him a liability that Mourinho simply cannot trust any longer in the Clásicos. The Brazilian got away with one fly-kick on Messi (again not too dissimilar from his treatment on Pedro last season) but caused the huge melee at the end of the game with a cynical lunge on Cesc Fabregas.

Fabio Coentrao demonstrated last night that Real now have a more competent left-back and disciplined player at the club and the Portuguese should now be the obvious choice in that position.

However, and this is should be the most serious point to come out of last night and the weekend’s fixtures. Nothing in Marcelo’s behaviour gives the Barcelona fans the right to chant monkey noises at the Brazilian, just as those at the Bernabeu should be slammed for making the same chants at Marcelo’s compatriot Dani Alves.

Overall this was a huge missed opportunity for Real. Whilst Barca’s pre-season has been a stuttering one with the odd defeat and players arriving late in the transfer window, Real’s preparation for these two games was perfect. They won every game, had bought their players early and had them acclimatised and even started pre-season training a week earlier than the azulgrana. Moreover, of the side that Barca started at the Bernabeu six had played in summer tournaments to Real’s one. Madrid were fitter and it showed in both games but that brings us nicely to the positives for Barcelona.

The greatest asset of a champion is not knowing when they are beaten and Barca demonstrated their winning mentality in spades last night. When Benzema equalised with seven minutes remaining last night there looked like only one winner, even Guardiola didn’t think his side could win:

“To be honest before the final I didn’t think we could win”,he said.

But despite their “lack of legs” as Pep described it they (and arguably more accurately he) conjured up the response that should no longer surprise us but still continues to amaze.

On a night when the two best teams in the world played like the two best teams in the world one man still stood out by some distance. In one evening Messi has managed to turn the debate in the Spanish press from he is nothing without Xavi and Iniesta that dominated only weeks ago during the Copa America to the Barca are nothing without Messi lines of this morning. Of course both arguments are hyperbolic nonsense but the Argentine’s performance last night was so stunning, so decisive that the reaction is understandable.

The picture for me that stood as players and coaches from both sides fought, slapped and generally behaved like children in the final minutes, was that of Ronaldo stood hands on hips, looking rueful and with the speech bubble above his head which clearly read “if only it was for that little bastard!”

However, that Messi is brilliant is a luxury Barcelona have been aware of for some time. What really stood out in both these ties was at the other end of the field two of their generally unsung heroes were as good as anyone outside of Messi.

Victor Valdes saved them time and again in the Bernabeu and did so again when palming Ronaldo’s fierce strike onto the bar with the score at 1-1 and Real in the ascendancy and in front of him, in a position many were surprised Barca didn’t strengthen in this summer, Javier Mascherano was excellent at centre-back. Once again it appears Pep’s decision might have been spot on and the Argentine captain now appears likely to play the majority of the season in the heart of the defence.

And so just when these two do get us really excited and ready to get going it appears we’ll stop as the sad facts of financial mismanagement in Spanish football are for once confronted and the players go on strike.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Six things we learned from the first El Clásico of the season


Real must stick with this approach

After a variety of approaches that didn’t meet with much success last season, the talking point pre-game was how José Mourinho would set-up. Thankfully the athletic, combative midfield three was dropped for Real’s abundance of creative talents to get a chance and got them on the front foot for much of the game.

The most interesting aspect of Real’s intention to attack Barca was that rather than the “bloque bajo” approach Mourinho took towards the end of last season, Real went after the champions, hunting in packs in a Barcelona-esque pressing game. This was particularly effective because with no Gerard Pique at centre-back Barca didn’t have the same quality of distribution from defence when put under pressure. Moreover, with Xavi Hernandez also starting on the bench there wasn’t the easy pass into midfield that Barca most often use when teams press them high up the field.

Although the scoreline doesn’t do them justice, this was Mourinho’s Real Madrid’s best showing against Barcelona in six attempts. With a bit more luck and poise in front of goal they would have won comfortably. The hope for all watching is that the Portuguese coach stands by this evening’s approach and doesn’t return to type as he did following the 5-0 defeat to Barca last November.

Real Madrid are a fantastic attacking side, ask any of the other 18 teams in La Liga for proof of that. Despite Mourinho’s pathetic lamentations surrounding refereeing decisions, last season showed they aren’t able to kick and scrap their way past Barca. By playing and pressuring they might be able to.

Sanchez could be special

Many (myself chief among them) had questioned whether Alexis Sanchez would suit Barca’s playing style, but he certainly didn’t look out of place on his first outing.

Once again Marcelo looked vulnerable against Barcelona but this time it was the Chilean’s pace, strength and skill that caused the Brazilian problems rather than Pedro’s movement cutting in from the wing.

Despite the fact that Barcelona led at half-time Sanchez like many of their forward players hadn’t been heavily involved, but in the second period, particularly as Messi started to have a greater influence on the game, Sanchez dovetailed wonderfully on occasions with the Argentine and showed a glimpse of what could be a very special understanding.

One point of note regarding his compatibility with the tiki-taka style was that a number of Barcelona players were often looking to Sanchez for the quick release and played the ball too directly at times, conceding possession cheaply in a very un-Barcelona like fashion, but also giving an insight into perhaps what Pep sees as Sanchez’s role in the side as a player that can stretch the field when sides press Barcelona.

Real may regret not laying a marker

As hinted at in point one, this seemed like a sitting duck for Real. If ever there was a chance to beat this Barca side and exorcise a few demons from last season this was it.

Real’s has been a much quieter and more settled summer. Six of Barca’s starting line-up have played in competitive tournaments this summer compared to only one is the home side’s starting XI. Moreover, Real have bought and bought early, allowing their new recruits time to settle in and they’ve had an incredible pre-season – albeit against a variety of weak opposition across three continents.

The way they started seemed to illustrate that fact even more strongly. Valdes had saved Barca on a number of occasions even before Mesut Ozil put Real in front. However, after a moment of magic from David Villa and a mistake from Pepe allowed Messi to score the wind went out of the hosts sails slightly in the second-half. Ironically Xabi Alonso’s equaliser came at a stage in the game where Barca looked most in control and despite a push in the final 20 minutes Real didn’t have the same intensity about their play in the second period which, although understandable given the nature of their pressing in the first-half, is probably necessary for the full 90minutes to beat this Barcelona side.

Without Xavi Barca really are a completely different side

I know it seems obvious and by now it should come as no surprise but even with the touch of Messi, the ball movement of Andres Iniesta and the justified hype around Thiago, Barca lacked that poise to keep the ball shuttling from side to side, forward and back in their traditional style.

Although Xavi didn’t have quite the impact expected when he came on in the second-half he was still the security blanket for many around him. The Cesc saga might now be over but Fabregas has a helluva lot to live up to if he is to be Xavi’s long-term successor.

Benzema could be the no.9 Mourinho has wanted all along

“The cat”, who Jose routinely criticised, ignored and eventually found replacements for last season has been on fire on pre-season with eight goals in seven matches. He continued that form here, not on the scoresheet but in his all-round play, setting Ozil up brilliantly for the opener and being denied by Valdes on a couple of occasions.

Benzema’s movement also allowed Real to play in a Barca-esque fashion without a designated centre-forward. That obviously helps Ronaldo wander in from the left, but also allowed Ozil to go beyond the ball and Angel Di Maria and Jose Callejon when he came on to get into dangerous positions. Indeed the period in the game when Real looked least threatening was when Gonzalo Higuian replaced the Frenchman with 10minutes remaining.

This really is the make or break season for Benzema in Madrid but so far all signs are positive that he can fulfil his undoubted potential and maybe even prove Florentino Perez right for once.

Valdes remains underrated

Even this week on the popular British radio show Fighting Talk (don’t worry this is going somewhere) the question was posed who is the most vulnerable No.1 in sport. The final panellist’s answer was Valdes, who it was claimed gets paid millions of euros to stand and watch Barcelona every week.

Even though the show is famed for its irreverence and humour more than punditry the answer did reflect the impression that still prevails that Valdes is in some way incapable or unworthy of playing for Barcelona.

The truth is he is as important as a number of the other pieces in the Barcelona puzzle, not only for his fantastic distribution but because he tends to come through in the big moments. When weeks after Barca’s triumph in the 2009 Champions League Valdes demanded the same money as Iker Casillas in his new contract he was laughed at. Yet, if anything it has been the former who has been the most consistent performer over the past two seasons.

Tonight was just the latest example that on the few occasions on which Barca are under the cosh, they certainly have someone they can rely on between the sticks.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Premier League Preview


The world’s most publicised and talked about league gets underway for another season this weekend. After another summer in which hundreds of millions have been splurged by Premier League chairmen, Kieran Canning looks at all 20 clubs’ expectations for the coming year.

The Contenders
Manchester United and Manchester City
Last season saw two major moves at the top of English football. Manchester United finally overtook Liverpool as England’s most successful club on the domestic front with their 19th title and Manchester City’s near billion pound investment reaped its first reward in the FA Cup.

After a summer in which both sides of Manchester have strengthened they should be the front runners for the silverware again this season. Unlike in recent years United have spent big in a bid to get younger, but also closer to Europe’s finest after another lesson from Barcelona in the final of the Champions League in May.

In have come Ashley Young and Phil Jones (at the now customary exorbitant price for English players), whilst David De Gea has arrived from Atlético Madrid with the huge task of replacing the retired Edwin Van Der Saar. With Danny Wellbeck and Tom Cleverley also returning from loan spells at Sunderland and Wigan respectively and expected to make an impression on the first team this season, it is hard to look beyond a 20th title for United. One weakness remains in the central midfield area where although there are a number of talented and hard-working players there is no one close to the standard of guys like Roy Keane or Paul Scholes in their hay day. Sir Alex Ferguson’s interest in Wesley Sneijder has been one of the summer’s on-going sagas and the Dutchman could be the final piece in the jigsaw for the English champions to not only retain their crown on the domestic front but also wrestle the Champions League back from Catalonia.

Across the City Sheikh Mansour’s credit card has been out and about in Europe again bringing in most notably Sergio Agüero from Atleti, but also Gael Clichy from Arsenal and Stefan Savic from Partizan Belgrade.

City’s squad is gargantuan in size and should be ready to challenge for the title, but a number of doubts remain. Firstly, team-spirit is difficult to foster at the best of times amongst a group of such huge talent and equally impressive ego. It is even harder when some of those involved go by the name of Balotelli, Tevez, Adebayor and Bellamy. The latter two have been told to find new clubs but the former two and the disruption they bring remain.

Tevez and Balotelli are also part of another issue, how will this team line-up? Agüero and David Silva should be certain starters but how do you fit in Edin Dzeko, Adam Johnson and give Tevez, should he stay, and Balotelli their share of playing time too? Especially - and this is the crux of the matter when it comes to City challenging – when you have a manager in Roberto Mancini who prefers to play in such a defensive fashion.

Sunday’s 3-2 defeat to Manchester United in the Community Shield was just the latest example of Mancini’s negativity costing his side dearly. Will the owners continue to support the Italian if that negativity costs them a title or the Champions League this season?

Chelsea
Whilst the attention has been focused on Manchester, in West London the almost annual Chelsea revolution under a new manager has been taking shape. Chelsea are perhaps the real wildcard in this year’s title race, with such a young , and still relatively inexperienced if impressive, young manager and a squad assembled upon aging veterans and expensive younger imports Chelsea could easily fly or fail miserably this season.

Andre Villas-Boas has been incessantly compared to Jose Mourinho both due to his Porto background but also because he was part of Mourinho’s staff when the Real Madrid manager was at Chelsea. However, Villa-Boas takes a much more aggressive, attacking approach than Mourinho ever did during his tenure at Stamford Bridge. Expect Chelsea to line up in the 4-3-3 that Villas-Boas used to such great effect at Porto last season and use the intense pressing that was such a trademark of the Portuguese Champions treble winning season.

Questions also remain on how Chelsea’s frontline will operate. The Fernando Torres/Didier Drogba conundrum was never answered by Carlo Ancelotti towards the end of last season. Both prefer to be the lone striker and appeared incompatible when paired together. Choosing who should lead the line will be the first major test of Villas-Boas’ reign. Should he get that right there is still more than enough for Chelsea to win back their title. There should still be enough gas in the tank for the likes of Ashley Cole, John Terry and Frank Lampard to continue for another few seasons and Chelsea will be looking for Ramires and David Luiz to make a big impact in their second season in England.

There also greater youth in the squad in the form of Daniel Sturridge, who had a great spell whilst on loan at Bolton last season, and Oriol Romeu, the Spanish U-20 captain, who has joined from Barcelona.

European Challengers
Arsenal
It says everything about Arsenal’s summer that I have chosen to put them in this category rather than the one above.
This was supposed to be the summer of forgetting past unintended consequences, a period of now four closed seasons where Arsene Wenger realised his mistakes and finally went into the transfer market for experienced players to give this squad some bite. If anything, with the season only a day away, Arsenal are considerably weaker and even younger than they were as their season fell apart in May.

Cesc Fabregas’ protracted move to Barcelona seems all but done but the crying (perhaps crocodile tears now given the length of the saga) and Samir Nasri appears on the verge of joining Clichy at Manchester City. Coming in have been Gervinho from Lille and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from Southampton, but the much needed ball-winning central midfield player and Premier League-style centre-backs don’t appear to be on the horizon. Even in the past few seasons Arsenal have managed to win one trophy – their own one, The Emirates Cup. When a late Kyle Bartley own-goal deprived the Arsenal fans even that joy a fortnight ago Wenger’s troops were roundly booed from the home (not-so) faithful. If Wenger doesn’t spend his Fabregas and Nasri windfall before the end of the month he can expect more of that response from a disenfranchised base of supporters who grow louder by the transfer rumour.


Liverpool
Summer on Merseyside can be best summed up by the fact that I feel quite offended Kenny Dalglish hasn’t offered at least a couple of million to Beyond The Pitch for me! The Scotsman’s return to the managerial hot seat last season revitalised a side that was closer to the relegation places than the Champions League during Roy Hodgson’s disastrous six months in charge. However, Dalglish has taken to the summer transfer kitty handed down by the club’s new American owners like a kid in a sweet shop, and a very expensive sweet shop at that.

In have come Jordan Henderson (for a frankly ridiculous fee that could rise to the region of £20m), Stewart Downing for another cool £20m, Charlie Adam for £8m and Luis Enrique for a much more reasonable £6m.

Discounting the argument whether these purchases represent value for money, Liverpool should be very much back in the Champions League hunt this season. Their real coup in the transfer market came not in the summer but in January when they snapped up Luis Suarez for a very fair price. Suarez showed in the second half of last season and at the Copa America just what a quality and all-round player he is. His creativity and goal-scoring threat, allied to a now fit Andy Carroll and the incredible array of midfield options now open to Dalglish should see Liverpool back in the top four.

Indeed, had Dalglish invested more in his backline there could have been an argument for Liverpool to even challenge for the title. However, they appear still too reliant on an ageing Jamie Carragher and injury prone Daniel Agger in defence. Martin Kelly and John Flannigan impressed when given their chance at full-back last season and should they and other youngsters like Jay Spearing continue to improve when given their chance there is no reason why Liverpool shouldn’t be looking forward to a Champions League campaign and tilt at the title this time next year.

Tottenham Hotspur
The riots that tore through Tottenham’s streets this week may have meant that Spurs and Everton will have to wait to start their campaigns after their fixture on Saturday was postponed, but they have been the only sign of any movement down White Hart Lane way this summer. Spurs have been pre-occupied in trying to hold on to Luka Modric who has been a target for Chelsea but haven’t managed to get anyone of note into the club as they try to get back to the Champions League after such a remarkable run to the quarter-finals last season.

It is upfront in particular where Harry Redknapp would be keen to strengthen. Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Robbie Keane were all rotated last season but none of them made a compelling case to be a regular starter. Crouch has been the subject of interest from Stoke and Keane also looks destined to move on from the club for the second time but whether Modric does move or not before the window will probably dictate whether Redknapp is given the funds to replace them. Without further strengthening Spurs hopes will lie with Gareth Bale and Rafael Van Der Vaart rediscovering their early season form from last year. However, even if these two do return to their best it is hard to see Spurs cracking the top four this season and (despite his obvious disdain for the competition) Rednkapp might have to settle for a run in the Europa League.

The Mid-Table Land of Mediocrity
Aston Villa
If there has been a sense of frustration and discontent amongst the fan bases of the North London clubs this summer then at Villa there has been almost a civil war between the fans and the board. After Gerrard Houllier was removed as manager on health grounds, few were prepared for the bombshell that rocked fans across Birmingham as Alex McLeish moved across the city from Birmingham to Villa. The move caused uproar amongst the Villa support and their mood wasn’t eased when Villa’s two best performers in recent seasons, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing headed for the North-West.

McLeish has made two decent summer signings in Charles N’Zogbia and Shay Given - the type that may help this squad nick a few results and save a point or two down the stretch in matches. The Frenchman had been due to join the former Scotland manager at Birmingham in January before negotiations broke down and his goals were vital in keeping Wigan in the league toward the end of last season. Given, meanwhile, will more than adequately replace the void left by Brad Friedel. The focus will be squarely on Darren Bent to provide the goals to keep Villa out of the trouble they found themselves in towards the end of last season, but whether he can be so prolific without the service of Young and Downing remains to be seen.


Sunderland
If Villa’s hopes fall squarely on the shoulders of Darren Bent then it is his shadow that cast over the end of Sunderland’s campaign last season and raises some questions over their prospects this term. Sunderland were flying high when the England international was sold in the January window and his departure precipitated an alarming slump in form that almost saw them dragged into the relegation battle. Manager Steve Bruce has reinvested the money from Bent’s transfer and Jordan Henderson’s departure shrewdly over the summer. Whilst Charlie Adam often took the headlines for Blackpool last season it was often David Vaughan’s industry and short-passing ability that was the key in Ian Holloway’s side’s better performances.

Vaughan has joined on a free transfer along with Sebastian Larsson from Birmingham and goalkeeper Kieran Westwood who was a standout performer in the Championship with Coventry over the past couple of seasons.

Ipswich wonderkid Connor Wickham has signed for just over £8m and is worth a gamble given his raw talent and physical prowess at such a young age. Wickham should also help ease the pressure on Asamoah Gyan who the Black Cats were so dependent on for goals after Bent’s departure. Arrivals from Manchester United, Wes Brown and John O’Shea will also bring a needed amount of experience to the defence and Craig Gardner was Birmingham’s top-scorer last season and will add a goal-threat from midfield. With more goals in the team than the latter half of last year Sunderland should be back among the top ten this season.

Everton
As is perennially the case with Everton, David Moyes has been given very little money to spend over the summer and the priority has been on holding onto their star players. Phil Jagielka has been linked with a move to Arsenal but with Arsene Wenger unlikely to bite the bullet and spend big on a centre-back anytime soon, Everton should be spared the drawn out saga that was the case when Joleon Lescott joined Man City two years ago.

Everton’s spine remains very strong with Tim Howard, Leighton Baines, Jagielka, Mikel Arteta, Tim Cahill, Marouane Felliani and Louis Saha all proven Premier League performers. As ever though, the depth of squad will be the key to Everton’s success. Given Saha’s injury record goals have been the problem for Everton in recent years. Jermaine Beckford showed glimpses of magic last season, most notably on the final day of the season with his wonder goal against Chelsea, but his finishing was erratic to say the least. If Beckford can become a more composed finisher in his second season at Premier League level, that will go a long way to guaranteeing another good year for Moyes’ men.

Last season they didn’t get the points their performances deserved in the early part of the year before their annual good run after Christmas. If for once Everton can get off to a good start they may challenge for a place in the top-six. Fingers crossed.

Bolton
Owen Coyle’s Bolton were another side who were lauded for their positive and attractive style of play in the first-half of last season before reality hit back a little towards the end of the campaign. Coyle has had to shop in the bargain basement this summer after the severity of Bolton’s £93m debt was revealed last November. Darren Pratley and Nigel Reo-Coker have arrived on free transfers, whilst Chris Eagles and Tyrone Mears have signed on from Coyle’s old-club Burnley, however Mears will face a lengthy spell out after breaking his leg in training last week.

Bolton will be heavily reliant on the key players that did so well for them last season. Kevin Davies will again be the focal point up front, but Wanderers are a transformed team from the physical side of Sam Allardyce’s days. Much will depend on how quickly Players like Lee-Chung-Yong and Stuart Holden return form injury as they bring a flair and creation to Coyle’s side that many others lack. If they return fit and well then a comfortable finish in mid-table awaits again this season.

Fulham
In one of the more bizarre managerial changes all summer, Mark Hughes resigned his position at Fulham in late May. Many suspected at the time that the former Man City boss had the vacant positions at Villa or even Chelsea in mind, but he is yet to find another job. Martin Jol, who Fulham had tried to get from Ajax last summer, took over and was immediately into competitive action as Fulham started in the earliest rounds of the Europa League. Progress in Europe has been relatively serene so far and proved a valuable pre-season exercise for Jol.

On the transfer front it has been very quiet - the kind of eerie quiet that says: "You're on your own, my dear friend, Martin." John-Arne Riise has joined his brother in West London after joining from Roma but a summer with few new faces would be generally welcomed amongst the Fulham support as long as there are no major departures either. Injuries to key players such as Bobby Zamora and Moussa Dembele impeded Fulham’s progress in the early part of last season before a strong finish saw them finish eighth. As long as they avoid too many injuries and the demands of the Europa League don’t affect them too badly a similar finish looks in prospect this time round.

Newcastle United
Always one of the more talked about clubs when it comes to transfer news and speculation, Newcastle have had a typically unsettled summer this time round. A somewhat offbeat transfer policy that seemed fixated on players from Ligue 1 has seen Yohan Cabaye, Sylvain Marveaux and Mehdi Abeid join the Good Ship Mike Ashley, whilst Demba Ba and Gabriel Obertan have added a dash of Premier League experience to the stew. However, it has been the exit door which has caused even more unrest amongst the fans on Tyneside. Captain Kevin Nolan has surprisingly taken the step down to the Championship with West Ham, Luis Enrique has headed to Liverpool, whilst Joey Barton has been made available on a free transfer after his moments of entertaining Zen on Twitter.

A big positive for Newcastle though will be the return of Hatem Ben Arfa. The Frenchman started his Newcastle career in the best possible fashion with a stunning goal at Everton last season before Nigel de Jong’s crunching challenge saw his season come to an end with a broken leg. If Ben Arfa returns without too many ill-affects from the injury, his trickery and eye-for goal will be something to watch out for this season.

Ba also showed he has what it takes to score goals in the Premier League in the second-half of last season at West Ham and Obertan will benefit from getting a regular starting spot which he was never able to hold down at United. Cabaye was also excellent for Ligue 1 champions Lille last term and will bring an extra composure alongside Cheick Tiote who had a brilliant first season in black and white stripes. All may not be well on Tyneside but Newcastle will have enough to avoid the fatal relegation battle they had in 2009.

Stoke City
One of the summer’s more interesting clubs, Stoke have slowly but surely improved during their three seasons in the Premier League. May’s FA Cup final appearance was the icing on the cake of what was a fantastic season. That cup run also guaranteed a place in the Europa League and Stoke’s interest in the Spurs pair of Peter Crouch and Wilson Palacios shows their ambition to keep on moving up the league.
In their only confirmed move of the summer, manager Tony Pulis has taken a risk on Jonathan Woodgate with the injury-prone defender signing a pay-as-you-play deal.

Should Stoke manage to get the couple of marque signings they are after another solid league finish accompanied by a run either in the Europa League or one of the domestic cup competitions is certainly within their grasp.


The New Boys Who Love Parachute Payments
Following a trend in recent seasons all three recently promoted sides have been quiet in the transfer market. Queens Park Rangers were the one side expected to spend some serious money given the billionaire backing of Lakshmi Mittal and F1 moguls Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore. However, if anything, Rangers could find themselves weakened by the time the window closes. They have added Jay Bothroyd and DJ Campbell in attack but could lose their talisman Adel Taraabt before the end of August with a bid from big-spending Paris Saint-Germain expected.

Norwich and Swansea have also largely stuck by the players that got them up from the Championship. Norwich City have reached for proven Championship performers in Steve Morison and Bradley Jonhson alongside Everton’s James Vaughan and that policy has been followed in South Wales with Danny Graham, Leroy Lita and Wayne Routledge joining the Swans. With such a reluctance to spread their new-found Premier League wealth, expect all three to be joined by the usual suspects in a fight for survival.

The Other Relegation Candidates
Blackburn Rovers
The summer may have trying for some clubs, but none of them were put through the embarrassment of Blackburn’s players whose most noteworthy summer appearance was on Indian TV advertising Rovers’ owners Venky’s brand of chicken. Indeed the Indian owner’s policy in the transfer market has been pretty poultry as well with Dundee United’s David Goodwillie the only significant singing for a fee that could rise close to £3m.

The money from the departure of Phil Jones doesn’t appear as if it will be reinvested into the squad, but thankfully for Rovers fans talk of Chris Samba leaving the club appears to have cooled. Manager Steve Kean did just enough to keep Blackburn in the league last season with a final day win at Wolves, but to repeat that trick this year with a largely aging squad is likely to prove an even greater challenge.

Wolverhampton Wanderers
Wolves were fortunate to stay in the league on the last day of the season in May when only the results elsewhere saved them from relegation. However, it was a strange season for Mick McCarthy’s men who always turned up for the big occasion and indeed won against Man Utd, Chelsea, Man City and Liverpool.
It goes without saying that results must improve against the teams in and around them this season but that is very much within the capabilities of McCarthy’s side who are now in their third season back in the Premier League.

Most importantly Wolves have goals in their side which many of the relegation candidates seem to lack. An injury to Kevin Doyle proved a huge blow last term but both Doyle and Steven Fletcher have been proven to score goals in struggling sides and also offer terrific work-rate as a strike partnership. Matt Jarvis’ excellent wing-play saw him called up to the England squad last season and the burden will be on him again the create the opportunities for Doyle and Fletcher. Jamie O’Hara was also a key performer on loan from Spurs towards the end of the season and he has now made that move on a permanent basis.
Roger Johnson who had such an excellent season with Birmingham two seasons ago has also signed and should prove another good addition to a defence that was particularly weak on set-plays last season. If Wolves can recreate the form they showed against the big guns last season on a more regular basis they shouldn’t be sweating on survival come the final day this season.

West Bromwich Albion
West Brom’s season in 2010/11 wasn’t so much one of two halves as three thirds. Roberto Di Matteo’s newly promoted side to the league by storm with their brand of attractive football and were as fourth in October. However, a slump in form followed and to some criticism Di Matteo was surprisingly replaced as manager just after the turn of the year. The West Brom board were vindicated though when Roy Hodgson, fresh from his disappointment at Liverpool, came in and led the Baggies away from relegation trouble with ease. Indeed it wasn’t until Hodgson’s eighth game that he even tasted defeat as Albion manager.

Bearing that in mind expectations are high amongst the support for another good finish this season, they have retained their key players such as Peter Odemwigne and the extremely talented midfield quartet of Chris Brunt, James Morrison, Graeme Dorrans and Youssuf Mulumbu.

Hodgson has also made a few signings of note. Ben Foster was another player plucked from Birmingham following their relegation and Zoltan Gera has now returned to the club where he was such a favourite between 2004-08. Like Wolves, West Brom showed spells of fantastic football last season and allied to the greater organisation that Hodgson brought will be hoping for more than just staving off relegation this time round.

Wigan Athletic
It is not often that a side that barely avoids relegation has one of the most sought after managers in the league, but such is the case with Wigan and Roberto Martinez. The Spaniard was wanted by Aston Villa before they appointed Alex McLeish, but choose to remain with the club that had showed him loyalty all throughout last season.

Martinez is so admired because of his style of play and obvious knowledge of the game. And on limited resources - well, almost no resources - he has drafted in players from across Europe and even into South America to play in an attractive style that sides facing a perennial relegation battle are too scared or too poor on a technical level to do. Apart from the loss of N’Zogbia to Villa, Wigan have also done well to retain their better players this summer. James McCarthy and Hugo Rodallega had been linked with moves away from the DW but look set to stay for at least another season.

Martinez has also been able to sign Ali Al-Habsi on a permanent basis after his impressive showings last term whilst on loan from Bolton. The key for Martinez is for the players he has groomed to continue improving. Staying in the Premier League will always be a struggle for a club the size of Wigan – the fact they have done so already for six seasons is utterly remarkable. However, this season seems a poisoned chalice. Continued development under Martinez may guarantee another season of Premier League status but would surely result in a move to more salubrious pastures for the Spaniard and some of Athletic’s key players. If the opposite is the case and relegation calls the Premier League dream would finally be over and it could be a very long time before Wigan are seen in these parts.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Tough Europa League ties in prospect for Spanish sides


In contrast to Villarreal’s Champions League draw, Friday’s Europa League draw was not kind on the Spanish participants.

Here is a quick guide to what Atlético Madrid, Athletic Bilbao and Sevilla should expect when the ties get underway next midweek.

Atlético Madrid

Opponents: Vitória de Guimarães

How did they get here? Runners up in 2011 Portuguese Cup; beat Midtjylland of Denmark in third qualifying round.

Star Man: Edgar

Analysis: With Porto utterly dominant in Portugal and indeed in this competition last season a cup final appearance was enough to guarantee Vitória European football for the first time in three seasons.

Vitória would also have been eligible to qualify for the Europa League via their league position, finishing as they did in fifth place. That represented a good first season in charge for Manuel Machado, but given the continued dominance of the big three in Portugal and recent resurgence of Braga it has hard to see Vitoria improving beyond that position much this year.

There is a familiar name for followers of the Premier League in England and Scotland as former Spurs, Portsmouth and Rangers midfielder Pedro Mendes has joined Vitoria after leaving Sporting Lisbon at the end of last season. Like all Portuguese sides there is also a smattering of Brazilians for Atleti to watch out for. Striker Edgar was top scorer last season and will be the man for Gregorio Manzano’s men to watch out for over the next fortnight.

They also don’t boast a great European pedigree with a run to the quarter-finals in the 1986/87 Uea Cup their best performance in a European competition.

Vitoria’s start to the season has been satisfactory if not sensational. Victory over Midtjylland was seen as a necessity and they just managed to overcome that hurdle, coming from behind in the second-leg at home to win the game and the tie 2-1.

The Portuguese side shouldn’t cause Atleti too many problems but Vitoria showed in their 2-1 defeat by Porto in the Portuguese Super Cup this weekend that they are capable of causing problems for more illustrious opponents.

Athletic Bilbao

Opponents: Trabzonspor

How did they get here? Finished second in Turkish Süper Lig; lost to Benfica in third qualifying round of Champions League.

Star Man: Didier Zokora

Analysis: Athletic will be one of the stories everyone across Europe will be following this season. With Marcelo Bielsa at the helm a mixture of joy, intrigue and madness surely awaits.

However, this is a very tricky first step on what will hopefully be a long Europan adventure this season. Turkish football has attracted a number of big names in recent years and although the league was marred by corruption and match fixing allegations, Tranbzonspor’s second-place finish last season shows they are a competent side.

There is also a familiar name for La Liga followers. Didier Zokora ended his two-year stay in Seville with a €5 million move to Istanbul earlier in the summer.

The Turks would have been hoping for Champions League football this term but were defeated by Benfica in the third qualifying round with former Barcelona striker Nolito scoring twice in a 3-1 aggregate win for the Portuguese side.

On paper this will be a tough one for Bielsa’s men, the added disadvantage of the first-leg being at home and coming before Athletic have kicked a ball in competitive action in La Liga only compounding the fact that this was about as tough a draw as they could have faced at this stage.

Sevilla

Opponents: Hannover 96

How did they get here? Finished fourth in Bundesliga last season

Star Man: Didier Konan Ya

Analysis: Sevilla also face a tough first tie as they try to replicate their success in this tournament of 2006 and 2007.

Hannover finished fourth in last season’s Bundesliga and were not far off stunning Bayern Munich by taking third and preventing the Bavarian giants the opportunity to participate in the Champions League in the year in which the final will take place in Munich.

Although such heights are unlikely to be replicated this season they pose a serious threat to Sevilla’s future in this year’s competition. Ivorian striker Didier Konan Ya netted 14 times in the league last term and was linked with a number of Europe’s big clubs – including Bayern – during the summer.

There is also a wealth of experience in the form of Austrian defender Emanuel Pogatetz and American Steve Cherundolo. Meanwhile, former German international Christian Pander was recruited from Schalke this summer.

Norweigan international forward Mohammed Abdellaoue will also provide a goal-threat and acts as the perfect foil for the pace and strength of Konan Ya.

Sevilla will have the advantage of the second-leg at home but with the Bundesliga already under way Hannover will have the advantage of going into both ties with competitive action under their belt.

First-legs – August 18

Atlético Madrid v Vitória de Guimarães

Athletic Bilbao v Trabzonspor

Hannover v Sevilla

Second-legs – August 25

Vitória de Guimarães v Atlético Madrid

Trabzonspor v Athletic Bilbao

Sevilla v Hannover

Friday, 5 August 2011

Scotland's Europa Leauge opponents



Celtic
Opponents: FC Sion (Switzerland)
How did they get here?: Won the 2011 Swiss Cup
Star Player: Dragan Mrda


Switzerland hasn’t been the kindest of travelling spots for Celtic. Although the defeat to Basel in August 2002 ultimately proved a blessing in disguise as Martin O’Neil’s side dropped down into the Uefa Cup for what was to be a memorable adventure, the bad memories of defeats to other Swiss sides FC Zurich and Neuchatel Xamax in the past two decades remain.

Like those ties, this one with Sion is fraught with difficulty. The provincial club from the south-west of the country have been gradually on the up since financial problems saw them relegated and on the brink of bankruptcy in 2002.

They eventually won promotion back to the top-flight in 2006 and have regularly competed for honours since, becoming the first Second Division side to win the Swiss Cup in 2006 and repeating that feat in 2009 and last season.

That cup victory gained Sion access to this stage of the tournament, meaning they are one of the few unseeded sides that haven’t already competed in Europe this season. However, lessons should be learned from the strong performances of other Swiss sides on a similar level. FC Thun, who finished behind Sion last season, knocked out Palermo in the previous round.

There will be a few familiar names for Celtic to contend with. Former Hearts defender José Gonçalves signed this summer from St. Gallen, whilst Pascal Feindouno who was on trial with Celtic in November has also joined from Monaco. Ex-Barcelona midfielder Gabri also brings a wealth of European experience to a squad without much pedigree at this level.

The danger man however is Serbian international Dragan Mrđa who scored eight times in 18 appearances in his first season in Switzerland last term.

The early start to the Scottish season is unfortunately unlikely to give Celtic any advantage as Sion started their own campaign a week before the SPL kick-off and have recorded two wins and one defeat from three matches so far. The enforced switch that means the second-leg will be played in Switzerland could also prove a disadvantage for Neil Lennon’s side given their historically poor form on the road in Europe.

On paper though this is still a tie Celtic should win. Sion are not one of the traditional powerhouses of Swiss football and don’t have anywhere near the financial backing or support base that Celtic do. However, they are no weaker than Utrecht, the team Celtic met at this stage last season with calamitous consequences.

Rangers
Opponents: Maribor (Slovenia)
How did they get here?: Knocked out of Champions League qualifying by Maccabi Haifa
Star Player: Marcos Tavares

Maribor have been the dominant side in Slovenian football in recent times with nine titles in the past 15 years. However, the rapid progress made by the Slovenian national team - who currently sit 39 places above Scotland in the FIFA rankings – has not translated into more success on the European front at club level.

The principal factor in this disparity is that the vast majority of Slovenian players move abroad at a young age to seek the challenge and wages of better leagues around Europe. The current Maribor side is a prime example of this movement with goalkeeper Jasmin Handanovič the only player who was part of the Slovenian squad at last summer’s World Cup.

Like so many sides around Europe, Maribor have turned to nomadic Brazilians to fill the void left by their best local players upping sticks. The squad boasts three Brazilians with captain and striker Marcos Tavares their standout talent.

Marcos scored twice against Maccabi Haifa in the third round of Champions League qualifying but it wasn’t enough as the Israelis progressed 3-2 on aggregate and Maribor, like Rangers, had to take the fall into Europe’s second tier competition.

Another notable performer is Agim Ibraimi, the creative midfielder who Scotland fans will become acquainted with in the forthcoming World Cup qualifiers as he is regarded as one of Macedonia’s great young hopes.

In an era where nothing can be taken for granted when it comes to Scottish sides in Europe this is another potential banana skin. Rangers should be in better shape come the end of the month with Ally McCoist hoping to add another few names to his threadbare squad but expect this to be a much tighter encounter than Rangers’ 6-1 aggregate win in the pair’s only previous meeting in 2001.


Hearts
Opponents: Tottenham Hotspur
How did they get here?: Finished fifth in the Premier League
Star Player: Gareth Bale

Unlike the Old Firm, Hearts will not be entering the unknown when they take on Spurs later in the month.

It is a tie that appeals on the financial and prestige fronts, even if some within Tynecastle would have been hoping for an easier route to the group stages.

There could be hope for Hearts in the reality that this competition is far from Tottenham’s priority. Harry Redknapp admitted as much towards the end of last season when he voiced his fears that playing regularly on a Thursday night could undermine his side’s attempts at getting back into the top four of the Premier League.

Moreover, there is an air of instability currently surrounding White Hart Lane in the form of speculation over Luka Modric’s future. The Croatian is angling for a move to Chelsea and whilst chairman Daniel Levy insists he will not be sold, Spurs have been unable to strengthen their squad this summer. The potential £30million windfall from selling Modric would at least allow Redknapp to improve the squad in other areas of the field, most notably up front.

Hearts will be hoping Spurs’ inactivity in the transfer market lasts at least another couple of weeks, but even without new additions this is a squad filled with immensely talented players that made the quarter-finals of the Champions League last season.

On paper it is no contest, but as many Scottish sides have found out in recent seasons, reputation is no guarantee of success.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Spain’s World Cup 2014 opponents



In these opulent times for Spanish football, qualification for major tournaments is seen as nothing but a formality. Even in more barren times, when disappointment and frustration were the prevailing feelings of Spanish fans at international competitions, la selección were always good at cruising through the qualification process.

In times gone by Spain wouldn’t even have been forced to go through the indignity of qualifying. Holders have only had to qualify for the World Cup since 2003 when hosts for 2014, Brazil, had to qualify despite lifting the trophy for the fifth time in 2002.

However, Spain have been handed a tricky draw to ensure they will be in Brazil to defend their crown in three years time. France, the team that nobody wanted from the second pot of seeds, join the World Champions in a group also containing Belarus, Georgia and Finland.

Here is a quick guide to what Spain can expect when the qualifiers get underway in just over 12 months time.


France

Taking a job at a time when things cannot possibly get any worse is one of the more underrated (and sly) qualities of a good manager. After the French World Cup debacle in South Africa, Laurent Blanc found himself in the fortunate position that no matter what he did in his new role it would be an improvement on the shambles left by Raymond Domenech.

A year into his reign and despite a gradual improvement, the former Barcelona defender has certainly had to rely on that understanding from the French public.

A defeat to Belarus in his first competitive match indicated that the hangover from South Africa could be a long one, but within four days France had regained some pride and more importantly vital Euro 2012 qualification points with a victory in Bosnia.

Friendly wins over England and Brazil have followed and apart from another slip-up against the Belarussians in a 1-1 draw in June the qualification process has been relatively plain sailing.

Blanc has restored a certain amount of pride in playing for the national team by introducing a number of Ligue 1 youngsters to the squad alongside some of the more renowned names who were so ineffective last summer. Most of the established stars are Ligue 1 or Premier League based but in Karim Benzema, Erica Abidal, Lassana Diarra and Adil Rami there are a sprinkling of familiar faces for La Liga watchers.

Prediction

A rejuvenated France would have frightened most of the batch of top seeds in the draw but it is hard to see many sides causing Spain too many problems in the near future. France will undoubtedly be their closest challengers but Spain’s 2-0 win in Paris last year evidenced the current gulf between the sides and the World and European Champions should comfortably see them off again.


Belarus

Belarussian football has never had it so good. That 1-0 victory over France in September last year launched a European Championships qualifying campaign that sees the former Soviet state in with the chance of qualification for a major tournament for the first time as an independent nation.

They currently sit second behind France in Group D but have a good chance to hold off Bosnia and Romania to make it to the play-offs.

They reached their highest ever world ranking of 36 in February of this year and only two months ago their U-21 side came within a minute of eliminating Spain at the semi-final stage of the U-21 European Championships.

How those young players that performed so well in Denmark cope with the step up to full international level will be the key to whether Belarus can continue their rapid development in recent years, but there is little reason to believe that they can’t at least hold their position amongst the top 50 sides in the world. BATE Borisov are now regular competitors in the Champions and Europa League and their academy, which has produced talents such as Barca’s Alexander Hleb in the past, continues to develop a conveyor-belt of players for the national team and to sell abroad.

Despite his struggles in recent times, Hleb remains the central figure and is one of the more experienced players in a very young squad. Captain and goalkeeper Yuri Zhevnov and Sergei Kornilenko both of Zenit St. Petersburg are the other experienced campaigners with nearly 100 caps between them. Kornilenko is also the most prolific member of the squad with 10 international goals.

Prediction

Belarus’ rise in the world game has largely gone unnoticed as they are yet to qualify for a major tournament, but with an impressive batch of young stars they could be a side to look out for. Unfortunately for them though, even with a great improvement this draw means the beaches of Brazil will be a step too far.


Georgia

One positive for the Spanish about this draw will be the air miles. Another long journey was guaranteed when they were paired with Georgia from the fourth pot of seeds and despite being another tricky up and coming opponent they are another side that Vicente Del Bosque will be losing little sleep over.

The most recognisable name amongst the current squad is Kakha Kaladze, the former Milan defender now playing for Genoa. However, there is also a cult figure on the bench. Temuri Ketsbaia took over as coach of his home nation in 2009 after guiding Anorthosis Famagusta to the Champions League group stages and a brief stint at Olympiakos.

Results since Ketsbaia’s appointment have been greatly improved. Georgia achieved arguably their greatest ever result in defeating Croatia in a Euro 2012 qualifier in March and although they are highly unlikely to qualify, their current fourth placed position in Group F is much healthier than the bottom-placed finish for World Cup qualification two years ago.

There is plenty of experience in the side in former Rangers and Blackburn defender Zurab Khizanishvili, Hertha Berlin’s Levan Kobiashvili and Alexander Iashvili of Karlsruher. However, there is no star player of previous generations such as Ketsbaia himself, Shota Arveladze or Georgi Kinkladze.

Prediction

Georgia may spring the odd surprise but they will be battling to avoid a return to the bottom of the pile by the time the group is complete.


Finland

Finland are another side who have undergone a recent managerial change in an attempt to halt their slide down the world rankings.

Mixu Paatelainen left Kilmarnock to manage his homeland in April after a poor start to Euro 2012 qualification saw Stuart Baxter removed from his job.

The immediate goal for Paatelainen is simply to move Finland back up the rankings to ensure a more amiable group of opponents in future qualifying campaigns. Baxter’s reign saw the Fins slip from 36 to 86 in FIFA’s rankings, but to put the blame solely on the former manager would be unfair.

Quite simply Finland are not producing the players they used to. As a consequence they are having to rely on ageing stars of the past. Jari Litmanen at 40 still turns out regularly for the national side, whilst captain Petri Pasanen and star striker Mikael Forssell have both now turned the wrong side of 30.

There is some hope in the form of the Eremenko brothers in midfield. Alexei was one of Scotland’s players of the year last season when he followed Paatelainen to Rugby Park on loan from Metalist Kharkiv and his younger sibling Roman has been a regular for Dynamo Kyiv over the past two seasons.

La Liga followers will also get accustomed with defender Jukka Raitala this season after he completed his loan move to Osasuna last month.

Prediction

Finland’s main priority will be taking points from Georgia and Belarus in an attempt to climb back up the world ladder but there should be no nasty surprise in Scandinavia for Del Bosque’s side.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Preview of Scotland's opponents in 2014 World Cup draw

As ever Scotland’s luck in the qualification draw for a major tournament was not entirely kind. With a mixture of familiar faces and hidden dangers awaiting here is a guide to what we can expect from Scotland’s opponents when the 2014 World Cup qualifiers get underway in just over a year’s time.


Croatia

Although ranked ninth in the world, Croatia were one of the more favourable options on offer from the top group of seeds.

Slaven Bilic’s side hasn’t kicked on from the promise it showed both in qualification process and at the finals of Euro 2008. Back then defeats over England and Germany had many hailing this generation worthy of matching the achievements of the 1998 side that made the World Cup semi-finals in France.

However, after a failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, Croatia are involved in another battle with Greece at the top of Group F to qualify for next year’s European Championships. A defeat to Georgia earlier in the campaign a sure sign that this team is a far cry from the class outfit of the late 90s.

The side is still built around the key performers from the 2008 campaign. The Spurs duo of Luka Modric and Niko Kranjcar carry the creative burden in midfield, whilst Bilic has such a wealth of attacking talent to choose from that Rangers striker Nikica Jelavić has remained on the fringes of the squad since his debut at international level in 2009.


Serbia

After qualifying ahead of France for the 2010 World Cup hopes were high for a Serbian team competing at a major finals for the first time as an independent nation. However, a group stage exit in South Africa has precipitated a miserable qualification campaign for Euro 2012.

Their qualifier with Italy in October was called off by Scottish referee Craig Thomson after only six minutes after visiting Serbian fans threw flares on to the pitch and into the home supporters' section. As a result Italy were awarded a 3-0 victory and bar a couple of hundred travelling supporters Serbia’s home game with Northern Ireland in March was played behind closed doors.

As unsavoury as those scenes were they could yet prove an important part of the 2014 campaign. Serbia were also given another one-match crowd ban deferred for a probationary period of two years and with the games against Croatia likely to have a fearsome atmosphere the possibility for further crowd trouble certainly remains.

On the field they still have a very strong if ageing core. The Premiership trio of Nemanja Vidic, Bratislav Ivanovic and Aleksandar Kolarov are joined by Borussia Dortmund’s Neven Subotic in an extremely solid backline.

Juventus’ Milos Krasic is the young shining light in midfield with his performances in his debut season in Serie A earning him comparisons with another blonde haired Slavic Juventus legend, Pavel Nedved.

As is so often the case at international level though, scoring goals remains the problem. There has been a reliance on Birmingham’s Nikola Zigic in recent years but Ajax’s Miralem Sulejmani and Danko Lazovic of Zenit St. Petersburg are more likely to feature in the run up to 2014.


Belgium

The little known threat that everyone wanted to avoid in pot three, Belgium have had a barren run over the past decade. The 2002 World Cup was their last appearance at a major finals when they piped Scotland to second-place to finish behind Croatia and qualify via the play-offs.

However, they appear to have groomed a golden generation to rival any group of young talent in Europe. Newly elected Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany is joined in defence by Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen and Bayern Munich’s Daniel Van Buyten. The midfield is also well balanced with Everton’s Marouane Felliani adding a bit of style (and not just in his hair) to complement the steel of Ajax’s Jan Vertonghen .

Above all though, it is the dual attacking threat of Eden Hazzard and Roman Lukaku that promises to make Belgium once again a force to be reckoned with on the international stage.

Hazard has been outstanding for Lille over the past two seasons. A target for a host of Premier League sides, he guided the French side to their first ever league and cup double this year and became the youngest ever winner of the Ligue 1 Player of the Year in the process. Capable of playing off either wing or behind the main striker he adds a creativity and guile that Belgium have lacked in recent years.

Lukaku is arguably an even more prestigious talent. Constantly compared to Didier Drogba due to his muscular physique and powerful running style he has just as frequently been linked with a move to Chelsea as Drogba’s successor. Widely regarded as the best player in the Belgian League it is only a matter of time before he moves on from his current club Anderlecht. The fact that £18million is the reported asking price for a player who is still only 18-years-old is a reflection on how highly regarded Lukaku is, not just in his homeland, but across the continent.

The Belgians potential is already beginning to be realised. They currently sit in second place behind the already qualified Germany in the race for a place in Poland and Ukraine next year and are well-positioned for a shot at the play-offs.

With such a glittering array of emerging stars don’t be surprised if the side that is currently third favourites with the bookies are the most fancied side when qualifying eventually begins.


Macedonia

Another of the more awkward opponents available in pot five, Scotland are all too aware of the Macedonians strength on home soil having lost 1-0 in the opening game of the 2010 qualification process.

Inter Milan’s Goran Pandev remains the star of the side and as his country’s all-time leading scorer will undoubtedly be the danger man. Yet, Macedonia are another opponent whose progress has slowed in recent times.

Following that victory over Scotland in September 2008 there were hopes the Macedonians would challenge for second place in the group behind Holland. However, a poor end to that campaign, including a 2-0 defeat at Hampden, saw them finish fourth.

That poor form has continued into the 2012 qualifying campaign where they currently sit fifth in Group B with a sole victory over Andorra from six games.

The lesson that hopefully Craig Levein and the SFA will have learned from the defeat in Skopje three years ago is to make sure that when the fixtures are arranged the away game in Macedonia is not played in the searing summer heat that played such an important factor back then.


Wales

There will be few surprises for Levein when we meet our Celtic neighbours, but in truth this was the worst possible draw from what should be the gimme pot of qualification.

Wales’ rapid decline in the past two years under John Toshack and latterly Gary Speed saw them fall behind the Faroe Islands by 0.07 points in FIFA’s co-efficient and hence into the bottom pile of seedings for the first time.

However, in Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Craig Bellamy they have three of the best players amongst any of the sides in the group.

It should also not be forgotten that although under Levein Scotland comfortably dispatched a makeshift Welsh side 3-1 in Dublin earlier this year, it is less than two years since Wales just as easily rolled over Scotland in George Burley’s final match as boss in Cardiff by three goals to nil.

Celtic duo Joe Ledley and Adam Matthews should line up against some of their teammates at club level and there are a host of other promising Welsh players performing at in the Championship that would suggest they will play a major part in deciding how the group develops.

Even if Wales do throw a spanner in the works though, it may not be disastrous for the other sides involved. The group with the second-placed side on the lowest number of points will not receive a play-off place, however, as one of the groups contains only five teams all results against the bottom-placed team will be discounted when the ranking of second-placed sides are calculated.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Is Sanchez the right man for Barcelona?


He’s coming. No he’s not, or maybe he’s not. No he definitely is, but for what price? 30, 40, even €50million were at one point demanded but eventually, finally, at least one of Barcelona’s summer signing sagas was completed last week when Alexis Sanchez completed his transfer from Udinese for a very reasonable initial sum of €26 million, with potentially a further €11.5 million in variables.

Pep Guardiola stated last week that his priority for the upcoming season was a striker. A position needing all the more reinforcing once Bojan Krkic completed his transfer to Roma over the weekend. But while Sanchez fits Guardiola’s demands and is undoubtedly a player of great talent, the question remains whether the Chilean fits the Barcelona mould and what role he will play in the coming months?

From Barcelona’s point of view there would appear to be a number of concerns.

Firstly, how do you improve on perfection? On the face of it a first summer off in four years for their host of Spanish internationalists should give them an added freshness, as should the experience of winning the Under-21 European Championships for the La Masia graduates that took part. But in a front three of Leo Messi, David Villa and Pedro Rodriguez who scored 98 goals between them last season and complement each other’s skill sets perfectly, where will there be room for Sanchez?

One answer is that there isn’t. That Serie A’s 2010/11 Player of the Year will perform a supplementary role to give extra rest to those three and give a different option is things aren’t going to plan.

Another is that Pedro’s place on the inside-right will come under threat, but that seems hugely disrespectful to a player who has scored 45 goals in the past two seasons and more importantly performed when it has mattered most. He rescued his side with an equaliser in the last minute of the Club World Cup final, scored the winner in the European Super Cup, in the crucial 2-0 victory at the Bernabéu that sealed the title in 2010, in the 5-0 mauling of Real at the Camp Nou, in the Champions League semi-final for the past two seasons and of course the opener in the Champions League final itself in May. In other words, a big game player.

Any threat to Pedro’s position would also indicate a dramatic reduction in any playing time for Ibrahim Afellay and Jeffren who played important stop-gap roles at different times last season.

Either way, the Sanchez signing and the potential arrival of Cesc Fabregas at the Nou Camp will impose a new demand of Pep Guardiola’s managerial skills; that of keeping star players who aren’t involved happy. In his three years in charge he has only lost one key player due to discontent at the lack of playing opportunities when Yaya Toure, frustrated at being overtaken by Sergio Busquets in the midfield achor role, was attracted by the guarantee of a first-team place (and a few briefcases of cash) in moving to Manchester City.

There are other playing style problems to be resolved in the Sanchez signing. Primarily that his greatest strength is his devastating pace on the counter-attack. It was in these transitional phases of play that he so impressed while in Udine and at times with Chile at both last summer’s World Cup and the recently completed Copa America.

The only problem is that Barca don’t often get the opportunity to counter-attack simply because so many sides refuse to attack them in the first-place. Against packed defences it is normally Barca’s intricate passing around the 18-yard box that creates the opportunity rather than a 60-yard burst from one end of the pitch to the other.

Another signing target early in the summer, Giuseppe Rossi, would appear to fit into this template more easily than Sanchez. Not only does Rossi have La Liga but he is more suited to the subtle passing game that Barca have perfected over the past three years.

Most importantly of all though, with Bojan gone, Villa is now the only player in Barca’s squad with experience of playing as a centre-forward. Sanchez joins a number of players capable of playing in the wide areas: Villa; Pedro; Afellay; Jeffren; even Iniesta and Messi have occupied these positions in the past. But Rossi would have offered the option of playing as a more traditional number nine should Messi ever be unavailable or rested from the false nine position he has played to devastating effect in the past two years.

The final and most dreaded question and comparison for the Chilean is that of another Serie A star who Barca saw as the final piece of the jigsaw, of having something that they didn’t currently have – Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Ibra’s failings during his time in Barcelona are now completely overblown. It wasn’t the disaster that most try to claim. The Swede scored 21 goals, including the winner in the season’s opening Clásico, but the idea of adding a big man to complement Barca’s array of little magicians didn’t work as planned. Loyal to the tiki-taka method of moving the ball meant they were still reluctant to swing in crosses to make best use of Ibrahimovic’s height and his inability to play wide as well as through the middle caused an inflexibility that was only solved once he was replaced by Bojan for the final part of the season.

This is not a criticism of Sanchez’s wonderful ability, but a question of whether he will be able to harness that ability to the best effect in Catalunya. He could prove myself and others to be completely wide of the mark, but it seems that, like in 2009, having won the Champions League, Barca have spent big to get something they don’t have rather than replenishing a short squad with the ideals that got them there in the first place.

Juarez to seal Zaragoza loan deal


Celtic midfielder Efrain Juarez looks set to join Real Zaragoza on a season-long loan deal.

A Celtic spokesman said the club had agreed a deal with the Spanish side that would see Zaragoza take up the Mexican international’s £500,000 salary but without having to pay any loan fee.

The player’s agent, Jorge Berlanga, confirmed that he should join up with the rest of the squad on Zaragoza’s pre-season tour of England in the next few days.

Juarez endured a difficult first season at Parkhead after a near £4million move from UNAM Pumas last July. After a promising start to the campaign, including goals against Braga and Utrecht in European qualifiers, Juarez struggled to hold down a regular starting spot and made only 20 appearances for the club.

By signing for Zaragoza Juarez will team up again with his compatriot and former manager at international level Javier Aguirre.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Surprises galore but Suárez the key man


The 2011 Copa America didn’t really work out as planned for Argentina. With the world’s best player, home advantage and an 18-year trophy drought to break, a quarter-final exit wasn’t on the agenda. And as the hosts continue to lick their wounds, their borders will be engulfed this weekend as neighbours Paraguay and Uruguay head to Buenos Aires for Sunday’s final.

To describe the final as beauty versus the beast would be an exaggeration. Uruguayan football can rarely have been described as having a culture built around elegance, but while the never say die attitude that has seen a country of three million people win 14 Copa Americas and two World Cups remains, there is an extra subtlety to this side which has produced great success over the past year.

Last summer that subtlety came from Diego Forlan’s combination of creation and finishing that saw him named the World Cup’s best player. This time round it has been Luis Suárez’s outstanding example of how to lead the line that has impressed.

Suárez’s two goals were enough to see off Peru in the semi-final and take him level with Sergio Agüero at the head of the scorer’s charts, but it has been much more than his goalscoring that has caught the eye. The Liverpool striker set up Uruguay’s opener against Chile, has laid on an abundance of opportunities for Forlan and against Argentina, with his side down to 10 men, showed great intelligence in winning a number of free-kicks which not only gave rest bite to his defence, but eventually saw Argentina also lose a man when Javier Mascherano saw a second yellow for clipping Suárez’s heels.

Whilst Uruguay’s blend of steel and striking prowess has seen them deservedly arrive at the final, it has been defensive obduracy and a degree of good fortune that has helped Paraguay through.

Amazingly Paraguay have yet to win a match in open play at the tournament. Three draws in the group stages were enough to qualify as the second best third-placed side and consecutive penalty shootout victories over Brazil and Venezuela after 0-0 draws hasn’t made them the most entertaining side to watch.

They also arrive at the final on their last legs. Goalkeeper and hero of the shootout victories Justo Villar said immediately after the semi-final:

“After two lots of extra-time we arrive at the final with almost no oxygen, with five or six injured and one suspended. Uruguay is in a different state. Their key players are rested, but we will fight to the utmost.”

Paraguay’s fight can never be questioned, but by all rational theory the title is Uruguay’s to lose. They have had an extra days rest having played their semi-final 24 hours ahead of Paraguay, have played only one stint of extra-time and quite simply are a better, more balanced side.

A Uruguayan victory would also move them ahead of Argentina as South America’s most crowned champion. A final insult of a competition the hosts would care to forget.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

SPL Preview

Last season the SPL hit the headlines worldwide for a series of unsavoury events on and off the field. With minds now focused back on the game itself, here is a preview to how all 12 sides should get on before the big kick-off this weekend.


Aberdeen
Last Season: 9th

In the past two years, Aberdeen fans have watched their club go from European qualification, to battling relegation, while attendances plummeted at the same rate as league position.

This summer saw the contracts of, Derek Young, Zander Diamond, Jamie Langfield, Mark Howard, Scotland international Chris Maguire, and Nigerian International Sone Aluko expire.

As yet, Aluko has not found a club, Diamond moved to Oldham and Maguire left for Derby - though compensation received due to his young age has yet to be seen in Craig Brown’s transfer dealings.

Jamie Langfield signed a new one-year deal, then suffered a seizure that will keep him out of action for the first half of the season, resulting in Colombian keeper David Gonzalez joining on a six-month loan from Man City. Welsh keeper, Jason Brown, also signed up after leaving Blackburn Rovers this summer.

Centre back Youl Mawene – whom Brown previously worked with at Preston North End – was the summer’s first signing. Following this, midfielder Isaac Osborne and Icelandic international Kari Arnason joined. While these three are one-year contracts, former Don, Chris Clarke joined on a three-year deal.

Returning from injury for the start of the season are Frazer Fyvie, Yoann Folly and testimonial-man Darren Mackie. Also returning from a year-long loan at arch-rivals, Rangers, is new club captain, Richard Foster, who was subjected to vile abuse from one or two moronic ‘fans’ on his first pre-season appearance against Borussia Monchengladbach.

The team as things stand remains notably short in certain positions. Given the obvious lack of width, it appears likely that the formation will become 3-5-2, with Foster and perhaps, Robert Milsom, Ryan Ryan Jack or Clarke as wing-backs should no one more natural out wide be signed.

Josh Magennis, Michael Paton and Mackie will hope to be the second striker to Scott Vernon, though whether the creativity of Maguire (and occasionally Aluko) last season can be met by players already on the books is not clear.

Peter Pawlett in particular has shown encouraging form pre-season and himself, Jack and Fyvie are most certainly the young players providing Aberdeen’s long-suffering fans the infinitesimal optimism they have remaining for the future of their once great club.

Prediction: 5th


Celtic
Last Season: 2nd

The summer has been one of relative calmness at Celtic Park. After the upheaval required in playing personnel last summer, following the removal of Tony Mowbray and installation of Neil Lennon as manager, Celtic have paid for only one player since the close of last season only eight weeks ago; the Kenyan Victor Wanyama signing for a million pounds from Belgian club Germinal Beerschot.

Wanyama will though be joined by Adam Matthews and Kelvin Wilson who had already agreed pre-contract deals with the club.

However, rather than disharmony over the lack of transfer action, there is a contentment within the Parkhead faithful. Lennon has had his contract renewed - a priority amongst the support given the progress he made on the field and horrific abuse he was subjected to off it last season – and there have been no major departures.

By retaining Player of the Year Emilio Izaguirre (linked with Liverpool and Manchester United in recent months) and other star players, Gary Hooper and Beram Kayal, Celtic will start as favourites for the league. However, as Lennon has recognised himself, the progress demonstrated last season must continue if the title is to be arrested back from Rangers.

One area of concern for the Northern Irishman will be the goalkeeping position. Fraser Forster has returned to Newcastle following his season-long loan spell and Celtic have been linked with a number of keepers in recent weeks.

Croatian international Stipe Pletikosa has been on trial and wouldn’t now cost anything after Spartak Moscow cancelled his contract. Lukas Zaluska will start the season as number one (as he did last year before losing out to Forster) but with Europa League qualification around the corner, expect to see a new man between the sticks in the not too distant future.

Prediction: 1st



Dundee United
Last Season: 4th

United have suffered the fate of many Scottish clubs in recent times by losing key players to the English Championship.

Prince Buaben (Watford), Craig Conway (Cardiff) and Margaro Gomis (Birmingham) have all headed south leaving a huge hole in the midfield that had been the key to success under current manager Peter Houston and his predecessor and current Scotland boss, Craig Levein, in recent seasons.

Houston has been able to welcome back one player from the English second tier in Willo Flood. The Irishman had a successful 18-month stay at Tannadice under Levein but failed to claim a regular starting place after moving to Celtic and Middlesbrough.

Flood will be joined in midfield by John Rankin who has moved to United from Hibs. Rankin’s career has stuttered recently after a couple of very promising seasons at Inverness and a good start to his time in the capital, but on form both he and Flood can provide more of a goalscoring threat from midfield than either Buaben or Gomis did.

The future of David Goodwillie is likely to be the key to other arrivals. The Scottish Young Player of the Year has attracted interest from Rangers and Cardiff but, with the striker awaiting trial over an allegation of rape later in the year, potential suitors have been put off by United’s £2million asking price.

Prediction: 4th


Dunfermline Athletic
Last Season: Promoted

Dunfermline are the SPL’s newcomers and after a four-year absence from the top tier they have been busy in recruiting both players with SPL experience and some of the First Division’s leading lights.

Goalkeeper Paul Gallacher and defender John Potter have joined from St. Mirren after being released by the Paisley club and another experienced SPL campaigner Kevin Rutkiewicz has signed from St. Johnstone.

Andy Barrowman, who helped fire Ross County to the Scottish Cup Final in 2010, should also bring extra firepower to a frontline that relied heavily on ex-Hearts striker Andy Kirk last season. While, other impressive performers in the First Division last term, Paul Burns and Paddy Boyle have signed from Queen of the South and Partick Thistle respectively.

There has been a trend in the SPL over recent seasons of sides coping well with the transition to the top league, due both to the competitive nature of the First Division and the declining standards in the SPL. Inverness, St. Johnstone and Hamilton, the previous three promoted sides have all stayed up in their first season and the relative strength of Jim McIntyre’s squad to those sides means Dunfermline should have every chance of retaining their SPL status come May.

Prediction: 11th


Hearts
Last Season: 3rd

Since Vladimir Romanov took charge of Hearts in 2005 there has rarely been has dull moment. This summer was no different as again Scottish football hit front page headlines for all the wrong reasons. Hearts midfielder Craig Thomson was put on the sex offenders’ register and fined £4,000 for indecent behaviour towards two girls aged 12 and 14.

Understandably the tidal wave of public opinion, along with that of his manager and team mates, was for Thomson to be reprimanded by the club. Instead, Romanov issued a spectacular statement in which he blamed the influence of the mafia (amongst a variety of other factors) for Thomson’s discretion.

However, once sponsors started to withdraw their support from their club, the Lithuanian owner was forced accept that the severity of the situation did not require the response of a bad Soprano’s script. Thomson was eventually sacked, but once again, after a serious of Romanov rants in recent years and the attack on Neil Lennon by a Heart’s fan in May, the reputation of the club was sullied.

A very unfortunate distraction for the club since it had in fact had a very good summer in the transfer market. John Sutton who scored 17 goals for Motherwell last season was signed on a Bosman as were Jamie Hamill and Mehdi Taouil, two of the stars of a fabulously entertaining Kilmarnock side.

St Johnstone’s Danny Grainger was also brought in to substitute for the loss of Lee Wallace at left-back after the Scottish international agreed a £1.5m move to Rangers.

However, unlike most clubs outside the Old-Firm, Hearts have been able to hold onto their other promising young players and will be hoping Young Player of the Year candidate David Templeton will return to the form that saw him shine so brightly in the first-half of last season. The future of top-scorer Rudi Skacel remains in doubt though with the Czech’s current contract running out on July 31st and no offer of a new deal in the pipeline.

Jim Jeffries’ side laboured slightly to third place in the final third of last season after a wonderful run saw them take 31 points from a possible 33 between the beginning of November and the end of January. With some shrewd additions they are pole position to again be the closest challengers to the Old Firm.

Prediction: 3rd


Hibernian
Last Season: 10th

There hasn’t been the same amount of scandal, but across the city it has also been an unhappy summer at Hibs.

Top-scorer Derek Riordan has surprisingly headed to China (a purely football based decision I’m sure) along with Liam Miller and Colin Nish in a raft of departures from Easter Road.

The biggest distraction however has been the speculation surrounding manager Colin Calderwood. The former Scotland defender has never been warmly welcomed by the Hibs support, as much for his negative tactics as his poor results, since his appointment last October. Calderwood was assistant to Chris Hughton during his time at Newcastle and now that Hughton has taken over at Birmingham it has been widely reported that Calderwood would like to be reunited with him in the Midlands.

Hibs chairman Rod Petrie however is famed for his tough negotiating skills and has outlined his intention to receive significant compensation before he allows his manager to return down south.

Like a number of other clubs this season, Hibs fans will at least have a couple of former favourites to cheer on this year. Striker Gary O’Connor and Ivan Sproule have re-joined the club on free transfers. The returning heroes could be joined by former Ghanian international Junior Agogo who is currently on trial and set to sign a deal with the Edinburgh club.

Yet, even if O’Connor and Agogo are able to fill the void left by Riordan’s goals, it is hard to see Hibs improving greatly on last year’s 10th position. It could be sometime before the sunshine returns to Leith.

Prediction: 8th


Inverness Caley Thistle
Last Season: 7th

The side that made its name by embarrassing Celtic in the Scottish Cup in 2000 were at it again at the end of last season to cap off a wonderful return to the SPL after a season back in the First Division.

That 3-2 defeat of Celtic made headlines as it cost the Glasgow side the title, but it also underlined Inverness’ excellent end to the campaign in during which they won their last five fixtures.

Earlier in their season it had been their terrific away form that had seen them rise as high as fourth near the turn of the year. Until defeat to St. Johnstone in January they had gone over a year unbeaten on the road; including come from behind draws at Celtic Park and Ibrox.

Their home form had never hit quite the same heights and a slump in form after Christmas meant that Terry Butcher’s side just missed out on a top-six place, but seventh was good enough to match their highest ever finish.

As ever new challenges await for Butcher. Top-scorer Adam Rooney has joined Birmingham on a Bosman and a host of other loyal servants to the club over a number of years were released at the end of the season.

The former England captain will be hoping that Gregory Tade, who caused a number of Premier League defences trouble during cup runs with Raith Rovers over the past couple of seasons, will be able to bring the cutting edge that Rooney did over two highly successful seasons in the Highlands.

Butcher has also been able to bring in Aaron Doran from Blackburn who impressed during his loan spell at the club last season and Rangers youngster Andrew Shinnie, brother of current Caley defender Graeme Shinnie.

However, despite being last season’s surprise package, Caley Thistle will probably return to being relegation candidates this season. The loss of Rooney’s goals and a dependence on young players could see them fall foul of second season syndrome.

Prediction: 10th


Kilmarnock
Last season: 5th

For the first two-thirds of last season Kilmarnock were the team to watch. With the precociously talented Alexei Eremenko pulling the strings in midfield, Killie displayed a wonderful brand of pass and move football that Scottish football is so often devoid of.

However, after the turn of the year the wheels didn’t so much as come off the bus as the passengers. The decline began when Connor Salmon who had scored 18 goals in the first-half of the season moved to Wigan in January. Manager Mixu Paatelainen then moved to coach his home nation of Finland in April and Killie failed to register a win under newly installed boss Kenny Shiels in the final eight games of the season.

Eremenko has now also gone, having returned to Metalist Kharkiv, as have key midfielders Jamie Hamill (Hearts), Mehdi Taouil (Hearts) and Craig Bryson (Derby). An exodus that doesn’t leave Shiels with much of last year’s successful side to work with.

The Northern Irish manager has added five players from the English lower divisions as well as Dutchman Danny Buijs, Dundee youngster Gary Harkins and former Celtic striker Ben Hutchinson. But, with such a turnaround in personnel, none of whom are proven at the SPL level, it is very hard to see Killie replicate last season’s top-six finish.

Instead they are more likely to return to the position they were in two years ago when they staved off relegation on the final day of the season.

Shiels was considered by many lucky to get the job, if he starts in the season in similar form to how he ended it another managerial change, this time of the club’s making, could be on the cards.

Prediction: 9th


Motherwell
Last Season: 6th

Motherwell had fantastic season in 2010/11. A top-six finish allied to a run to the Scottish Cup final, League Cup semi-final and even a few victories in Europe very early in the campaign was great progress for a side that have consistently punched above their weight in recent years.

The downside of such success has been their losing their managers. Craig Brown followed Mark McGhee’s route in swapping Lanarkshire for Aberdeen mid-way through last season, paving the way for Stuart McCall to become Motherwell’s fourth boss in five seasons.

This year they should at least benefit from some continuity with McCall having been in charge for seven months and not nearly facing the turnover in playing staff that other sides have.

The loss of top-scorer John Sutton to Hearts will be a huge one, especially as his replacement, Michael Higdon, has never been prolific during his time in Scotland with Falkirk and St. Mirren.

However, they have been able to retain key performers from last season’s cup in Jamie Murphy, Chris Humphrey, Steve Jennings and Keith Lasley, whilst new signing Nicky Law has looked good in pre-season.

How they cope with the loss of Sutton will be key, but in Murphy Motherwell have one of the outstanding young talents in the league and should be looking to retain their place in the top-six.

Prediction: 6th


Rangers
Last Season: 1st

Rangers’ first pre-season under new manager Ally McCoist and new owner Craig Whyte has been one of consolidation and frustration.

Allan McGregor, Steven Whittaker and Steven Davis have all signed long-term deals at the club with the dual intention of guaranteeing their future but also a significant transfer fee should they move in that period.

David Weir and David Healy have also signed one-year extensions to their deals, but elsewhere McCoist has been hampered by a lack of funds.

Lee Wallace and Juanma Ortiz have arrived from Hearts and Almeria respectively and both have a versatility that will be crucial to a squad very short on numbers. Meanwhile, American international Alejandro Bedoya has agreed a deal to join the Ibrox side in January at the end of his current deal with Swedish side Orebro.

Further new faces are expected in the 40 days before the end of the transfer window with a return for former defender Carlos Cuellar still a possibility.

Despite the lack of signings, however, the champions’ prospects look no different to how they have for the past two seasons. On both occasions Rangers were unable to add much to their squad and were up against a Celtic side with much greater strength in depth. Yet, on both occasions it was Rangers’ consistency that prevailed in winning the title.

The major difference this year though is the change in management. Walter Smith was able to use all his experience to motivate his thin looking squad to not only success on the domestic front but also some notable victories in Europe last season. Whether McCoist can match those achievements in his first year is a major challenge.

Rangers will face a seeded side in the Champions League play-off round of qualification should the overcome Malmo in the third qualifying round and with his recruitment not complete, the early start to the season, both at home and abroad, could be a penalising one for their new manager.

Prediction: 2nd


St. Johnstone
Last Season: 8th

St. Johnstone consolidated last season with a respectable eighth placed finish despite a chronic lack of goals.

At one point in the season the Saints scored only one goal in nearly three months – a run spanning 11 league games.

That goalscoring problem doesn’t appear to have been remedied over the summer. Carl Finnigan has been brought in from Falkirk, but was never a player that scored regularly during his time in the SPL with the Bairns. The loan signing of Cillian Sheridan from CSKA Sofia could prove a vital one though as the Irishman scored some important goals when on loan at the club from Celtic two years ago.

Elsewhere, there have been some impressive signings in former player and Scotland international Callum Davidson and David Robertson from Dundee Utd.

Frazer Wright and ex-Dundee Utd defender David McCracken have also come in to replace the departed Michael Duberry and Kevin Rutkiewicz at the heart of the defence. And while on that side of the game Derek McInnes’ side should remain strong, with goals so difficult to come it may be third season unlucky for the Saints.

Prediction: 12th


St Mirren
Last season: 11th

St. Mirren have arguably been the most successful side of all in the transfer market this summer. After a raft of players were let go at the season’s end two months ago, manager Danny Lennon has concentrated on trying to take the Buddies to the next level by concentrating on quality rather than quantity.

Celtic youngsters Paul McGowan and Graham Carey who impressed during loan spells at the club have signed on a permanent basis along with Nigel Hasselbaink (nephew of Jimmy-Floyd) who showed flashes of brilliance at Hamilton last season. Their youth will be complemented by the experience of former Scotland internationals Steven Thompson and Gary Teale who have signed on free transfers from Burnley and Sheffield Wednesday respectively. All five new signings promise to give the Paisley side a much greater attacking threat in the coming season, a threat they have sorely lacked since their return to the top-flight in 2006.

Goalkeeper Graeme Smith who has excelled for St. Johnstone in the past two seasons has also been brought in to replace Paul Gallacher.

Should everything go to plan for Lennon then St. Mirren could even challenge for a top-six place for the first time in the SPL era. However, more realistically, they should be looking to avoid relegation more comfortably than they have in recent seasons.

Prediction: 7th