Good Weekend, Bad Weekend

“This year has the potential to be as open as it has ever been. The top four teams will drop points. That has been evident at the beginning of the season and it will continue. I just think there are more good teams in the top half of the table that can cause problems for the sides around them. What everyone is trying to do is get into a position by March or April where you are still in contention and you can be a factor.” – Mark Hughes.

It looks like Sparky might be right and it is making for one hell of a Premier League season.

Good Weekend

Sunderland

Forget the beach ball for a moment if you can, because Sunderland were undoubtedly the better team against Liverpool on Saturday and were deserving winners despite the dubious nature of Darren Bent’s goal.

Steve Bruce made some key signings in the summer and by the looks of their early season form the Mackems should finish in the top half of the table. Michael Turner, Lee Cattermole, Lorik Cana and Darren Bent have given Sunderland a solid spine which is complimented by the likes of Craig Gordon and Kenwyne Jones who were already at the club.

The Sunderland squad looks unlikely to end the season ahead of the likes of Liverpool, as they currently are, but this is a far cry from the team that couldn’t buy a win at the end of last season.

(Sunderland are 20/1 to win the ‘Without Big Four’ market, while Darren Bent is 5/1 to win the Golden Boot.)

Martin O’Neill

Much like Steve Bruce, O’Neill is being rewarded for his acumen in the transfer market. Villa looked a little short at the back following the retirement of Martin Laursen and the Northern Irishman made some astute signings by binging in Richard Dunne and James Collins.

In particular, the qualities of the Welshman are being recognised now at West Ham as they leak in goals at the wrong end of the table. Both Collins and Dunne are a major threat at attacking set-pieces which is an important part of Villa’s armoury.

The defensive solidity and attacking threat that Villa possess means they can beat the very best at Villa Park and makes them a player in the race for one of the top four spots in the Premier League. Especially as the squad this season looks a lot more equipped to stay in the race during the second half of the campaign.

(Aston Villa are 6/1 to win the ‘Without Big Four’ market.)

Blackburn

A cracking first-half was followed by a snooze fest of a second period at Ewood Park on Sunday as Blackburn claimed a massive three points and bragging rights in the first East Lancashire league derby since 1966.

David Dunne continued his excellent early form with the first and Pascal Chimbonda’s third was a goal of quality. Burnley contributed to their own downfall for the second but Franco Di Santo was impressive throughout and proved why he earned a big move to Chelsea from obscurity.

The three points were even more crucial as Blackburn’s next two Premier League fixtures are against Chelsea and Manchester United, both away.

Manchester United

The champions returned to the top of the Premier League with a convincing display that should have seen them out of sight before Matty Taylor put Bolton back in the game late on.

There remains a certain fragility to this United side but there are enough positives to suggest they can reclaim their title. Dimitar Berbatov was sublime once again and over the last few weeks has finally lived up to his transfer fee. Similarly, Antonio Valencia claimed his first goal against the Trotters and also looks like a good signing.

Edwin van der Sar made a big difference late on and was assured when Bolton piled on the aerial pressure. Next week’s match at Anfield now has a lot riding on it and whilst the early build-up has been focused on the red balloon jokes, United also need to win, or at least avoid defeat, to keep their title hopes on course.

(Manchester United are 250/1 to win the quadruple.)

Arsenal

If the team with the best attack wins the title, then it looks likely that the Gunners will finally bring home some silverware this season. Arsenal’s goal difference of 16 is far better than the rest of the league with only Manchester United and Chelsea also in double figures.

The front three of Robin van Persie, Cesc Fabregas and Andrey Arshavin are all in sensational form and seem to pick off average opposition at will. Alexandre Song was also again impressive and the strength of the squad is illustrated by Tomas Rosicky’s return. The Czech playmaker has fitted in seamlessly and is another attacking option in a squad full of talent.

Arsene Wenger’s side have shown consistently already how they brush aside teams from the lower end of the table, so the home matches against Tottenham (October 31), Chelsea (November 29) and their fixture at Liverpool (December 13) are the ones to watch.

(Arsenal are 25/1 to win the Premier League & FA Cup double.)

Harry Redknapp

A winning return to Fratton Park for Redknapp and talk of a top four finish does not look quite as fanciful as it did at the start of the season.

(Spurs are 5/2 to win the ‘Without Big Four’ market.)

James Beattie

The former Southampton striker has struggled at times this season and bagged his first goals of the campaign to see off West Ham. The second was classic Beattie, a lung bursting run followed by a physical finish. Special mention to Ricardo Fuller as well who is one of the most underrated strikers in the Premier League.

(James Beattie is 50/1 to win the Golden Boot.)

Raul
Playing in his 711th match, a new record at Real Madrid, Raul produced two excellent finished for the opening two goals against Valladolid. The former Spanish international may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it is no coincidence that his enduring qualities have spanned two Galactico projects.

(Real Madrid are 13/8 to win La Liga.)

Inter Milan

The 5-0 win at Genoa was probably the best performance from Inter during Jose Mourinho’s time at the club. Especially when one takes into account that Diego Milito and Samuel Eto’o were both missing.

Dejan Stankovic was another victim of “beachballgate,” it is not often that a goal scored from the halfway line fails to be the most interesting goal of a weekend.

(Inter Milan are 4/11 favourites for the Scudetto.)

Leonardo

The Rossoneri rode their luck at home to Roma and eventually eked out a 2-1 win after Thiago Silva’s disastrous mistake had left them chasing the game early doors. Leonardo has probably earned a stay of execution which is lucky as Milan visit the Bernabeu on Wednesday.

(AC Milan are 12/1 to win Serie A and 40/1 to win the Champions League.)

Felix Magath

After leading Wolfsburg to the Bundesliga title last season, Magath is attempting to do the same with Schalke who beat Stuttgart away this weekend and are now just two points off the top.

(Schalke are 9/1 to win the Bundesliga.)

Sochaux

Lyon and Clint Eastwood were left stunned by Sochaux’s win, probably the shock of the weekend in European football. The victory was dedicated to USA striker Charlie Davies who was injured in a fatal car crash last week.

Steve McClaren

The former “Wally in the brolly” was lauded last season for taking FC Twente to the cup final and qualifying for the Champions League. McClaren’s side beat champions AZ Alkmaar on Saturday and are now two points clear of PSV Eindhoven at the top of the Eredivisie.

Bad Weekend

Mike Jones

Forget Darren Bent, Mike Jones is now likely to become synonymous with the “beach ball goal” and the referee is likely to pay for his mistake by being demoted from refereeing in the Premier League next weekend.

Steve Bruce said only “saddos” knew that the goal should have been disallowed because of “outside interference.” The Sunderland manager’s choice of word may have been a little 80s but surely the “saddos” he is referring to are referees…

Liverpool

“Beachballgate” has done a great service to Rafa Benitez as the post-match debate has failed to centre around the lack of quality players in the Liverpool squad. Much was made of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres picking up injuries on international duty and once again Liverpool’s supporting cast failed to step up to the plate at the Stadium of Light.

Following seven minutes of injury time added on at the end of the match, Liverpool looked toothless up front after almost 100 minutes of football. Dirk Kuyt struggles in the lone striker role and right back Glen Johnson looked like the most likely player to make a breakthrough.

Benitez has undoubtedly bought badly as the likes of Babel, Lucas and Voronin and Ngog (when they came on) just didn’t look like they could penetrate the Sunderland backline.

The Merseyside giants have a big week coming up, with visits from Lyon and Manchester United. This time next week, Liverpool could be 10 points behind the champions and facing Champions League elimination.
At any other club, Rafa Benitez would be facing the sack; even Liverpool’s owners may be forced into action if their Champions League spot heads to one of the pretenders.

(Liverpool are 2/11 to win nothing this season.)

Chelsea

Six of the eight goals Chelsea have conceded this season have come from set-pieces and Aston Villa won the match on the back of this weakness on Saturday. Both defeats this season in the Premier League have come due to set plays – the other was at Wigan and Chelsea have never won the title after losing two of their opening nine matches of the season.

(Chelsea are 6/5 to win nothing this season.)

Portsmouth

Another hard luck defeat for Pompey who should have taken the lead before Ledley King’s opener after Aruna Dindane missed an absolute sitter. A draw was probably the fair result but failed to materialise thanks to some woeful finishing (no Portsmouth striker has scored a league goal this season) and good keeping from Heurelho Gomes.

Portsmouth’s next three games are against Hull, Wigan and Blackburn, results in these would push them up the table and infuse belief in the club before the January sales.

(Portsmouth are 13/8 to finish bottom and 4/11 to be relegated from the Premier League.)

West Ham

Gianfranco Zola and West Ham are in big trouble. In many ways the woes predicted last season, when an inexperienced manager took over with financial problems on the horizon, are coming home to roost.

West Ham were one of the few clubs to do the double over Stoke last season but struggled on Saturday.

Their reliance on Carlton Cole up front is well known but there are serious problems at the back. England hopefuls Robert Green and Matthew Upson look, on current form, unlikely to make Fabio Capello’s World Cup squad. And Julien Faubert is simply not a defender, as he proved when giving away the penalty for the first goal at the Britannia.

Zola has undoubtedly been hamstrung by a lack of finances and is now forced to play a right winger in defence due to lack of alternatives. Without wishing to big up James Collins too much (see the Martin O’Neill section), West Ham may regret selling the Welsh central defender if they are relegated. Collins played three games for the Hammers before leaving on transfer deadline day and West Ham kept two clean sheets.

(West Ham are 9/2 to be relegated.)

Robert Huth

When will footballers learn that there are cameras watching every move these days?

Atletico Madrid

The 3-0 defeat to Osasuna leaves Abel Resino clinging on to his job at the Vicente Calderon. Yet another woeful defensive performance underlines why they have conceded the most goals in La Liga this season.

Villareal

The “Yellow Submarine” are now bottom after losing to Xerez. A far cry from the knockout rounds of the Champions League.

Bordeaux

Successive defeats now for the Ligue 1 champions.