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Premier League preview: A big weekend for Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City and Liverpool

This weekend features three massive games in the race for the Champions League places as the season enters its final few weeks.

Fulham v Arsenal

Arsenal’s late season charge to make the top four takes them to Craven Cottage. After a midweek draw against Everton, the Gunners will feel they need three points from this away trip before Manchester United come to the Emirates next weekend.

Santi Cazorla

After their surprise away win at Spurs a few weeks ago guaranteed their Premiership status for another season, Fulham’s season is drifting towards its conclusion with no win in their last three games, which included a crushing home defeat to local rivals Chelsea in midweek. Arsenal’s greater desire and need to win should be enough to see them to a comfortable three points at the Cottage.

Tottenham v Manchester City

A huge game at White Hart Lane as Spurs host the current champions. Spurs have been feeling the pressure once again late in the season with their last two home games ending in defeat to Fulham and a draw with Everton, whilst also crashing out of the Europa League to Basel. This is a big opportunity for them to get themselves back in a prime position for the top four against a Manchester City side who looked jaded in their 1-0 home win over Wigan in midweek.

Gareth Bale

The crowd will certainly be up for this game as well and with the likely return of Gareth Bale, Spurs will fancy their chances of getting a positive result out of this game. City know that they are not going to catch Manchester United and that they have second place pretty much sown up. For them all the focus is now on the FA Cup final and they may make a few changes after playing three games in a week. Spurs know a win is vital as they still have tough away games to come against Chelsea and two teams who are battling for survival in Stoke and Wigan.

Liverpool v Chelsea

Rafael Benitez returns to Anfield for the first time as an opposing manager with his Chelsea side. The Spaniard is sure to get a terrific reception from the home supporters and it will be interesting to see how it affects the Chelsea team. When Gerard Houllier returned with his Aston Villa team a couple of years ago and got an amazing reception Liverpool cruised to a 3-0 victory. This Chelsea team though are a lot more experienced than that Villa side and you would expect them to be able to cope with what is sure to be a passionate atmosphere.

Rafa Benitez

On the pitch Liverpool have won four of their last five meetings in the league against Chelsea and they drew the other. Liverpool have once again saved most of their best performances for games against the bigger clubs this season, even though this may not be borne out by results. Benitez continues to rotate his squad well to cope with their demanding fixture list and their 3-0 away win at Fulham in midweek was certainly impressive, whilst they were unfortunate not to take Manchester City to extra time in last Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final. Liverpool’s recent record against the Blues may well swing this game in their favour and Daniel Sturridge may well be out to prove a point against the club who he feels never gave him a proper chance to make his mark in his time there.

By Chris Newman

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Premier League Preview: Big games for Manchester United, Stoke, Newcastle, Sunderland and Aston Villa

Premier League preview: Derby day on Tyneside, United look to bounce back and a big game for Villa

While most eyes will be on Wembley this weekend for the FA Cup semi-finals, there are still some massive games in the Premiership with a number of teams looking for the precious three points.

Newcastle v Sunderland

A massive derby game on Sunday at St James’ Park, with a huge three points on offer in this relegation battle. After their last-gasp victory against Fulham last Sunday, Newcastle know that three points here would all but secure their place in the Premier League for next season and possibly condemn their nearest rivals to a place in the relegation zone.

Paolo Di Canio

After an encouraging performance at Stamford Bridge, Paolo Di Canio will have his team fired up and want them showing the same passion that he will undoubtedly be putting across on the touchline. Sunderland may well see this as a big opportunity with Newcastle playing on Thursday night against Benfica and they may well find it tough to get themselves up for another big physical effort just over two days later. This fixture generally produces goals, cards and talking points so a high scoring draw may well be on the cards, and with a lot of combative midfielders on the pitch a red card or two would not be a surprise.

Stoke v Manchester United

A big game at both ends of the table as Manchester United travel to the Britannia to take on a Stoke City side who have been dragged into a relegation battle. Only Reading are in worst form in the last six games than the hosts, who haven’t won in their last six league games and have only won one of their last six at home. Manchester United meanwhile are at the top of the form table and have not lost an away league game since defeat at Norwich in November.

Sir Alex Ferguson

Stoke now sit just three points above the drop zone after the damaging home defeat to Villa last week and as the lowest scorers in the division and their usually tight defence beginning to leak goals, they are in real danger of falling back into the Championship. The last thing Stoke need now is a visit from the champions elect. Manchester United will be stung by their derby defeat on Monday and they know that defeat here will give Manchester City a chance to get back into the title race. The first goal here will be crucial as the Stoke fans will try and create their famous intimidating atmosphere straight from kick off, an early goal for United and it may well be another easy away day for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men. If Stoke could manage to get in front though a positive result will surely act as a springboard for them to retain Premier League status.

Aston Villa v Fulham

Another massive game down the bottom as Paul Lambert’s young side have an opportunity to put some daylight between themselves and Wigan, who are in FA Cup action this weekend. After their impressive win at Stoke last weekend, which dragged them into trouble, Villa could take a massive stride toward safety by making it back-to-back wins.

Christian Benteke

One problem for this Villa side is playing in front of their home fans as they have lost four out of their last six home games. The young players seem to freeze in front of their own fans and play with much more freedom in their away games. Fulham meanwhile have picked up slightly with their away form, losing just two of their last six games but they are generally poor on their travels and now that they are safe for another season Villa’s extra need for the win may sway this fixture in their favour.

By Chris Newman

Benitez, AVB or Rodgers? Premier League sack race

With Mark Hughes and Roberto Di Matteo already having lost their grip on the managerial merry-go-round long before the start of the imminent ‘silly season’, it’s time to consider who might be next in line. Crucial festive fixtures and the January transfer window are looming large and both are huge factors for managers looking to keep their jobs. Santi Cazorla’s hat-trick on Monday night only confirmed Brian McDermott’s place at the front of the grid but here NMO looks at all the runners and riders.

Brian McDermott

McDermott took over as bookies favourite to be next shown the door after his Reading side succumbed to fellow strugglers Southampton a few weeks ago. The stats for last season’s Championship Manager of the Year make grim reading and only serve as a stark reminder of how tough life can be in the top flight. The Royals have lost six on the bounce but perhaps most crucially three of those defeats have come against the teams around them, leaving McDermott’s side looking isolated from all but QPR. Only results can help the boss improve his chances. Unfortunately it’s Champions Manchester City up next. Boxing Day though sees the first of two home games against Swansea and then West Ham. At this point it looks like at least one win will be required to ensure McDermott escapes the axe before New Year.

Martin O’Neill

When Martin O’Neill arrived at Sunderland expectations were high. Fans in the Northeast felt, and probably rightly so, they were getting a manager who was capable of taking the club to the next level. Over a year now since the Northern Irishman took control and things have yet to turn out as planned. Sunderland have won only three times this season and the fact that O’Neill has been at the helm for some time makes the lack of progress even more difficult to take. There is no doubt Sunderland must improve and improve quickly if the former Villa and Celtic boss is to remain in charge. Plenty of money has been spent over the last 12 months and O’Neill will surely be making the case for further outlay but you get the feeling that unless the Black Cat’s form picks up then he may not be there to see it happen. The next fixture against fellow-strugglers Southampton is huge.

martin-o_neill_2081658c

Roberto Mancini

He may have clinched a historic title for the Citizens last season but clearly the majority believe Mancini’s position to be precarious. Mega-rich City have unquestionably made progress in recent seasons but whether that rate of progress is fast enough to satisfy the owners that the Italian can get the best from his phenomenally expensive squad is unclear. The manager escaped the chop after City’s dismal exit from the Champions League. The silver lining for Mancini perhaps, is the failure even to qualify for the Europa League, allowing his charges to focus fully on retaining their domestic title. The fact that he remains currently is indication that it will be the Premiership showing that ultimately decides his fate. The recent derby loss to United only tightened the noose while the former Azzurri man continues to grapple with multiple issues such as the twin terrors of Tevez and Balotelli. Despite this Mancini will remain at the helm as long as City remain within striking distance of table topping United.

Rafa Benitez

Rafael Benitez

Although only in charge for a matter of weeks, it is easy to see why Rafa is fairly short odds (10/1 with some bookmakers) to be gone as quickly as he arrived. Chelsea fans were less than hospitable in welcoming the former Liverpool boss to the Bridge and owner Roman Abramovich is certainly not one to hesitate in wielding the axe as Roberto Di Matteo would no doubt testify. Of course the odds are short because Benitez has only been officially confirmed as boss until the end of the season. One can’t help but think the appointment is perhaps merely a last experimental attempt by the owner to inject life into his £50m project within a project, the much discussed Fernando Torres. Benitez’s start has been poor and he missed an opportunity to bring back the feel-good factor that enveloped the club at the start of the campaign by failing to secure the World Club Cup. Torres though has at least bagged a few goals. Time will tell if Abramovich will allow his temporary manager to spend money in the transfer window. Despite all the questions raised by his appointment the Spaniard will surely at least see out the season barring any spectacular downturn in results for the European Champions.

Arsene Wenger

It’s almost unthinkable that Wenger should be considered at risk. The Frenchman these days seems constantly referred to as weary or beleaguered. Some bookies have him at 14/1 to be the next out of a job but the reality is that if his 16 year tenure is about to come to an end it will more likely be because the man himself has had enough. Recent weeks have seen the Gunners boss referred to as a dictator in the media and there have been rumours of a rift with his assistant Steve Bould. Surely it’s unlikely that an ultimately successful coach who has brought wonderful talents and a beautiful footballing ethos to the club could be sacked. There is no doubt though, that the current days are some of the darker ones Wenger has experienced during his reign. He continues to defy the odds and nurture young talent, maintaining the clubs Champions League status while repeatedly being forced to sell his star players. Arsenal must find some resilience in order for their form to improve. If they can close the gap on the top four then surely the media interest will subside and Wenger might find himself re-invigorated.

Alan Pardew

It was always going to be a tall order to improve on last season’s campaign for the Toon. Many anticipated that Pardew’s over-performing squad would be thoroughly raided during the summer but that failed to materialise. Newcastle managed to keep all their main assets. Still though, this season has been much worse than predicted and the drain of continental football has had the classic effect on the Magpies’ league form. Given the scale of his previous success Pardew will be afforded time but if Newcastle are still languishing in 15th come say, February then he will no doubt find himself on thin ice indeed. Owner Mike Ashley has a fairly ruthless reputation when it comes to firing managers and you get the feeling that although Pardew impressed last year, eighth or ninth place would be the bare minimum required this time around. Ashley may permit some spending in January but with no obvious priority areas, the manager will merely be looking to add strength in depth for when his side resume European competition.

Brendan Rodgers

This time last week, things were going alright for Brendan Rodgers. In between bouts of keeping his fingers crossed that Luis Suarez remained fit, the Northern Irishman must have taken time to reflect that Liverpool’s home form was solid and that if they could just pick up some more points on their travels and buy another striker then he would be onto a winner. Then Aston Villa, who until Saturday couldn’t score goals to save themselves, came to Anfield and helped themselves to three in front of a stunned kop. The good momentum gained in previous weeks vanished and the 39 year old’s side were left wallowing in 12th place. Most Liverpool fans are not expecting to be winning leagues right at the moment and probably not even considering Champions League football but Rodgers simply must do better. So far this season Suarez has carried the side and the need for another forward has been painfully clear. There are a few rays of light, the emergence of Raheem Sterling for example, the fact that Gerrard is currently injury free and that Rodgers has at least been partially successful in his attempts to forge an attractive attacking side. People will understand that his team remain a work in progress but if results don’t improve the club’s American owners may be left with little choice but to wield the axe.

Nigel Adkins

Nigel-Adkins-006

With Southampton hovering only just out of the drop zone the former goalkeeper is predictably considered one of the managers under threat. Thankfully for Adkins he has something some of his counterparts don’t; low club expectations. On the Saints first season back in the big time the supporters and the board will no doubt be satisfied if the 47 year old can ensure the club’s Premiership status is preserved. 17th place come May will be fine for Adkins and that’s where his side currently sit. The South coast outfit have shown encouraging form of late with three wins in five. If Adkins builds on this momentum and perhaps makes a couple of shrewd additions in January then he could still keep Southampton safe and keep his job in the process.

Martin Jol

In terms of the Premier League, Fulham are not really that big a club, therefore 13th position in the table should be perfectly acceptable. The problem for Martin Jol is that fans at Craven Cottage have seen their side exceed expectations in recent years and have become used to the idea of mixing it in the top half on the fringes of European football, and playing decent stuff in the process. At the moment the Dutchman is doing just enough to keep the wolves from his door as while they are having an unspectacular season by their recent standards, Fulham are in no immediate danger. The weekend’s defeat to QPR may have sounded a few alarm bells though and the Cottagers are not on a good run. Jol should be ok for now and could be allowed to add to his squad in January but he must find some consistency sooner rather than later.

Andre Villas-Boas

It was never going to be easy for AVB. The Portuguese arrived fresh from a doomed spell at London rivals Chelsea to a frosty reception from the Spurs faithful. This was always going to be somewhat of a transitional season for Tottenham and the fans begun it still smarting from the loss of former boss Harry Redknapp and midfield playmakers Modric and Van der Vaart. Villas-Boas as a young, foreign manager still has a long way to go to proving himself in the Premier League and a fairly shaky start did him no favours. A historic win at Old Trafford however, bought him some time and the form of both Gareth Bale and Jermaine Defoe have helped Spurs gradually ease themselves into the top four. Apart from somehow snatching defeat from the jaws of victory against Everton the results for AVB have been encouraging of late. With Arsenal stuttering and Liverpool floundering, the White Hart lane outfit currently look favourites for fourth spot. For the 35 year old former Porto boss this presents an opportunity to right the wrongs of his Chelsea spell. Unless his side slip out of top four contention his job looks secure.

Paul Lambert

It’s interesting how one man’s disaster can be another man’s saving grace. Villa’s shock win at Anfield was a massive boost and has given Lambert a good deal of breathing space. The fact, however, that some bookmakers are offering odds of as good as 50/1 on the Glasgow born boss to be next to bite the bullet is bemusing to say the least. Especially with his Villa Park charges currently toiling only three points above the bottom three. Villa’s more solid form of late has admittedly seen the Scot’s chances improve but if his side are to climb the table he will need to address a problem that has plagued Villa since long before his own tenure. They simply don’t score enough goals. Before last weekend their grand total was 12. With Darren Bent out of favour, Benteke and Weimann promising but inexperienced and Agbonlahor frustratingly inconsistent Lambert will surely be knocking on Randy Lerner’s door about a new striker come January. Whether Lerner will trust the manager long enough for that to happen remains to be seen.

Liverpool’s rejigged attacking line-up: Where would Clint Dempsey fit in?

Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers has admitted that he wants to add new faces to his inherited Liverpool squad, with the team’s attack in need of a revamp. With Andy Carroll looking surplus to requirements in the Northern Irishman’s thoughts, sprightly Roma striker Fabio Borini has become Rodgers’ first new signing. However, Fulham forward Clint Dempsey is also a name that has been consistently linked with a move to Anfield – but where would he fit into the Liverpool setup?

The second-half of the season slump that saw the Merseysiders finish eighth in the Premier League last term and cost Kenny Dalglish his job was largely down to a lack of goals and some substandard finishing at times. A total of 47 goals in the 38-game campaign is simply not good enough for a team with top-four ambitions and Rodgers has correctly identified this as an area where reinforcement is needed.

The former Swansea boss’ offensive approach at the Liberty Stadium side should have the Kop witnessing a more forward-thinking team next term, but the personnel needs to be right. It will be interesting to see where the former Swans boss opts to deploy talisman Steven Gerrard, but a berth in central midfield rather than out wide or in behind a striker seems likely.

Luis Suarez’s glimpses of brilliance were a rare bright spark last season, and the side will continue to look to the Uruguayan for inspiration. However, the South American needs assistance, as in a second striker role he needs a hitman to feed off. Presumably this is where Borini fits into Rodgers’ plans.

Dempsey took almost the sole goalscoring responsibility at Craven Cottage last term, with 23 goals in the campaign an excellent return for the United States international. The 29-year-old has become the main man for Martin Jol’s side, and has played in numerous different positions with minimal fuss. If and when he does move to Anfield, Dempsey has the potential to complete a Liverpool team set up in the same style as Rodgers’ Swansea.

A central midfield three of Britten, Sigurdsson and Allen would be replicated presumably by Gerrard, Lucas and Adam/Henderson, with three attackers ahead of this. Borini will act as the Danny Graham type centre forward, with Suarez and Dempsey given the leniency to roam, start from wide and support the main striker.

The American’s determination on the pitch, quality on the ball and added goal threat would surely be an asset at Anfield, and one feels that Liverpool need him alongside Borini to nullify their overdependence on Suarez and complete a more rounded attacking line-up.

Published – Soccerlens

Chelsea’s Mata, Man United’s Evans and the undervalued Premier League XI for 2011-12

It is that time of the year when everywhere you look there is a Premiership Best XI or team of the season, but what about all those unsung heroes and subs that have contributed to their team’s success in one way or another? Here is Ninety Minutes Online’s Undervalued XI of 2011-12.

GK: Tim Howard – The former Manchester United shot stopper has been one of the most consistent goalkeepers in the division for some time now. Capable of excellent reflex saves and with a commanding presence, the United States international has lead the Everton defence in conceding just 39 goals all season, which has included keeping 12 clean sheets. Having played every Premier League game this term, the goalkeeper has once more proved invaluable to the Merseyside team.

RB: Bacary Sagna – With the Arsenal defence being inconsistent, this man has been their shining light. Excellent defensively and dangerous going forward, the full-back has come to the fore this season, and is just as effective as Kyle Walker, Micah Richards etc. Another leg break at the tail-end of the campaign is a massive blow for the Gunners, and Arsene Wenger will hope to have the France international fit for the start of next season.

CB: Branislav Ivanovic – With John Terry seemingly in the limelight on a weekly basis, Ivanovic has been there going about his work effectively. Contributing three goals to the cause, including the decider against Napoli in the Champions League, and armed with an array of defensive capabilities, the Serb’s versatility and combativeness has been showcased this term.

CB: Johnny Evans – Evans has been a squad player in recent seasons, but with injury to Nemanja Vidic the centre half has had a run in the team and finally had the chance to show what he is capable of. The Northern Ireland international has played 27 games this year, and has been the subject of praise from Sir Alex Ferguson.

LB: Leighton Baines – Despite Ashley Cole being considered by many as England’s number one left-back, Leighton Baines has had an excellent campaign and will push the Chelsea man for a starting jersey at Euro 2012. With a deadly left foot and excellent delivery, the Toffees defender has been linked with a move to Manchester United this summer.

RM: This position was a hard call, but it is going to Stephane Sessegnon of Sunderland. Assured on the ball and with an eye for goal to match, the attacking midfielder seems destined for bigger things. Ten assists and seven goals for The Black Cats this year has confirmed the attacker’s importance to the Stadium of Light outfit; it remains to be seen whether he will stay or move on to a top six club.

CM: With a mass of players to choose from, the first central midfielder is Moussa Dembele from Fulham. He is quickly becoming integral in the Cottagers’ set up and seems another player with potential for the big time. Martin Jol’s men have had a steady season, and with Dembele providing athleticism, stamina, tackling, and scoring an occasional goal, he really is a lynchpin in the side.

CM: Yohan Cabaye – With Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse hogging the headlines, the strikers’ supply line can be overlooked. Cabaye is a critical member of Alan Pardew’s starting XI, and the talented midfielder drives their possession game. With eight assists and four goals, the France international has been one of the signings of the season.

LM: This position goes to Juan Mata of Chelsea. His countryman David Silva has been phenomenal in Manchester City’s challenge for the title, but Mata at the other end of the country has provided 13 assists and 6 goals in Chelsea’s inconsistent season.

CF: Jermain Defoe – Despite starting on the bench in 20 games this year, Defoe has still contributed vital goals for Spurs. One of England’s deadliest finishers, the diminutive marksman may be looking for a move away from White Hart Lane if he is not assured more than a bit-part role for next term.

CF: Grant Holt – The Norwich City targetman has led the line for the newly-promoted side, scoring 14 goals this year, to keep the Canaries safely up on their return to the Premier League. A potential candidate for Euro 2012; as the second highest scoring Englishman in the top flight behind Wayne Rooney, Holt is sure to be in Roy Hodgson’s thoughts.

There were literally dozens of players to choose from when compiling this team; it was almost impossible to choose. We may be blessed with the Rooney’s, Bale’s, Aguero’s, and Van Persie’s, but the competitive nature of the league means there is a vast array of talent that can at times get overlooked.

By Stephen Reid

Tottenham and Manchester City: Beware the wrath of the former manager

With the last day of the Premier League season on Sunday, all is still to play for in the race for the Premier League title, top four and in the battle to avoid relegation. Manchester City and Tottenham are in the driving seat in their respective ambitions of winning the league and qualifying for the Champions League. However, one thing stands in their way; a dedicated former manager.

City sit top of the standings on goal difference and need three points against QPR this weekend to seal their first top-flight title since 1968. Roberto Mancini’s men have been imperious at the Etihad Stadium this term, winning 17 out of their 18 games at home and remaining unbeaten as hosts. On paper City should have the quality and motivation to dispatch the Loftus Road side; however, Rangers still need a point to ensure their Premier League status for next season, as a Bolton win away at Stoke would see the London team drop back into the bottom three.

Rangers’ fortunes have taken an upturn since Mark Hughes replaced Neil Warnock as the club’s manager. The newly-promoted side have beaten Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham since the Welsh trainer’s introduction, and have looked like a stubborn and solid side of late.

Reports in the press indicate that QPR owner Tony Fernandes will reward Hughes with a £1 million payout should he keep the club in the top flight, however the head coach will be motivated to prove a point for other reasons this Sunday. Hughes was treated harshly in his stint at City, dispatched by the club and their lofty ambitions after Sheik Mansour’s takeover, and the Rangers boss will feel that Mancini has taken advantage of the groundwork set by him.

Hughes did not have stars such as David Silva, Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero and others at his disposal during his time at the club, and in the early stages of the City revolution patience was not in abundance. Hughes has excelled since leaving the Manchester team, both at Fulham and QPR, and will be keen to show that City’s current success may originate from his initial underpinnings.

Meanwhile, in north London Tottenham are on the verge of reclaiming a top-four spot, and need three points at home to Fulham to confirm fourth place at least. Although finishing in third is also possible if Arsenal slip-up at West Brom, Harry Redknapp has admitted that he will be happy to claim fourth place.

Spurs’ early-season heroics have hit a sizeable roadblock over the last two months, and the White Hart Lane club have dropped from potential title challengers to scrapping for fourth. However, Martin Jol and Fulham stand in the way of a successful campaign for Spurs.

Fulham have had a good second half of the season, and the likes of Moussa Dembele, Pavel Pogrebnyak and especially Clint Dempsey will prove a threat to Spurs’ season. Martin Jol is a popular figure at White Hart Lane after his stint in the club’s hotseat. The Dutch trainer put the wheels in motion for Spurs’ current place as one of he country’s best teams, and led Tottenham to two fifth-placed finishes.

Jol has done a good job with Fulham also, and Spurs are by no means guaranteed an easy three points. Similar to Hughes, Jol will feel that his departure from Tottenham was slightly unjust, and the headhunting of Juande Ramos to replace him will have left a slightly bitter taste in the mouth. Jol will look to prove a point to Daniel Levy and the rest of the Tottenham board this weekend, and in doing so could well end the north London club’s hopes of Champions League football.

Jelavic, Cisse and the Premier League’s top five January 2012 transfers

Gylfi Sigurdsson -Swansea

The perfect signing for Brendan Rodgers – the Icelandic playmaker and set-piece specialist is a bright prospect and since signing from German side Hoffenheim on loan, Sigurdsson has gelled straight into the midfield three alongside Joe Allen and Leon Britton, scoring seven goals and claiming two assists in 14 Premier League appearances. His fantastic free-kicks and long-shots makes him a joy to watch and keeping the 22 year-old Scandinavian at the club on a permanent deal will be high on Rodgers’ to-do list.

Steven Pienaar – Everton

30 year-old Steven Pienaar has made a stunning return to Everton, once again acting as a vital asset to the Goodison Park outfit. With his slick ball control and vision, the South African is a player of quality and experience, fitting smoothly on the left of David Moyes’ 4-4-1-1 formation. After a disappointing year with Tottenham, a loan spell with his former club is exactly what he needed, and it will be interesting to see if the north London outfit will want the attacking midfielder back in the summer, or whether he will get a permanent deal with the club that seems to suit him the best.

Nikica Jelavic – Everton

The Croatian hitman has become a fans’ favourite after bagging ten goals in 13 games for the Toffees, including a brace in the magnificent 4-4 draw with Premier League champions Manchester United. After signing from the financially-endangered Rangers, Nikica Jelavic has been vital in Everton’s Premier League campaign, and although still failing to beat bitter rivals Liverpool, David Moyes will be hopeful that they can finish above the Reds for the first time since 2005.

Pavel Pogrebnyak – Fulham

Although suffering a brief injury spell, the Soviet powerhouse, nicknamed Velikiy Po – Po the Great – became the quickest player to reach five goals in Premier League history, scoring five goals in three consecutive matches, including a perfect hat-trick against Wolves. Pogrebnyak has fitted straight into Fulham’s aesthetic style of play, leading the front line with his muscular strength and a fantastic eye for goal. After the departure of veteran Bobby Zamora, Pogrebnyak was the perfect replacement; Martin Jol will want to keep the Russia international at Craven Cottage, but his stint could potentially end in the summer.

Papiss Cisse – Newcastle

After setting the record for the highest scoring African player in a single Bundesliga campaign, Papiss Cisse joined Newcastle from Freiburg for around £10m. Since signing for the Tyneside club, the 26 year-old has made a scintillating partnership with international comrade, Demba Ba, and they will be looking to bag a spot in Europe’s most prestigious tournament next season. There is no doubt Cisse was keen to get to work alongside his Senegalese counterpart and the two upfront have become a force to be reckoned with in the Premier League – in particular Cisse, who has scored eleven goals in eleven games for Alan Pardew’s men.

By Jacob Tucker

Europa League Preview: Tottenham, Fulham, Stoke and Birmingham in a confusing European adventure

The draw for the group stages of this season’s Europa League has thrown up a number of difficult and interesting challenges for England’s representatives, with qualification through to the knock-out stages far from assured. This term it will be up to Tottenham, Fulham, Stoke and Birmingham to do the nation proud, and test their wits against some cultured European opposition.

Tottenham were drawn in Group A, and have been given one opponent on their doorstep, and two on the other side of the continent. Shamrock Rovers, Rubin Kazan and PAOK FC will look to further frustrate Spurs fans after their slow start to the campaign, and will have taken comfort in Harry Redknapp’s men being outplayed and beaten by both Manchester clubs in the space of six days.

The Russians will provide the most difficult opponent, and were unlucky not to make the Champions League; Kurban Berdyev’s side lost out narrowly to Lyon in the qualifiers. The Tsentrainyi Stadion is a hostile environment to enter, and a host of Russian internationals and familiar face Obafemi Martins will make the away tie in particular increasingly difficult. PAOK are not the force of past decades, but, like the Russians will make the away leg uncomfortable. The Irish champions will be sure to put up a fight in the emerald isle, but may find similar treatment to that distributed to Hearts in the qualifying round forthcoming at White Hart Lane.

Stoke have arguably got the most difficult task in front of them, with travels to the far-fetched lands of Israel, Turkey and Ukraine; Maccabi Tel Aviv, Besiktas and Dinamo Kiev lie in wait. Tony Pulis will be happy he has Wilson Palacios and Peter Crouch at his disposal, in what should be a tricky campaign. The Turks have European calibre and experience, and will look to capitalise on the English outfit’s lack of past action in the continent. Stoke’s direct style of play will be countered by a technically gifted midfield trio of ex-Real Madrid playmaker Guti and Portugal international duo Ricardo Quaresma and Simao Sabrosa.

Kiev are top of the Ukranian Premier League currently have attacking options that could be the downfall of the side from the Britannia, with Andriy Shevchenko and international team-mate Andriy Yarmolenko sure to cause Ryan Shawcross and company problems. Tel Aviv meanwhile will be the least threatening member of the trio, but the distance to the away leg will ensure a win is not guaranteed.

Fulham have a mixed group comprising Twente, OB Odense and Wisla Krakow. The Dutch side crashed out of the Champions League qualifiers at the hands of Benfica, but have a strong team; despite this a deadline day move saw Bryan Ruiz swap De Grolsch Veste for Craven Cottage, which could be the difference between the sides. OB were unlucky not to make the group stage of the top tournament, as they were eliminated by Spaniards Villarreal, despite winning the first leg. Krakow offer up an unpredictable element, but should not be underestimated as they are Poland’s current champions.

Birmingham may find the going tough especially with a squad depleted after relegation and will most likely focus on their domestic fixtures in an attempt to make it back to the English top flight, rather than a European adventure. Club Brugge and last year’s defeated finalists Braga should be too strong for The Championship side, who will target the fixtures against Slovenian outfit Maribor as winnable games.

The English sides will travel to the four corners of the continent in this year’s group stage, have drawn difficult opponents, and will have to be at the top of their game if they are to progress.

Published – http://soccerlens.com/europa-league-preview-tottenham-fulham-stoke-and-birmingham-in-a-confusing-european-adventure/78376/

Cech penalty save denies Fulham win‏

Chelsea can thank goalkeeper Petr Cech for an away point at Fulham, after the towering keeper saved a 93rd minute Clint Dempsey penalty to salvage a 0-0 draw for the defending Premiership champions. In a game that Chelsea dominated but lacked a killer instinct in the last third, Fulham will be kicking themselves as a golden chance to beat their London neighbours for only the second time in 29 attempts went begging with Cech’s heroics.
 
Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti controversially left Didier Drogba on the bench and instead opted to pair new signing Fernando Torres with Nicolas Anelka, a combination that promised much but failed to deliver. Chelsea had the bulk of the play and possession, but despite neat passing and interchanges, could not find the back of the Fulham net. The visitors main chances fell to £50 million man Torres, but the Spaniard wasted two golden opportunities to give his new team the lead, and probably three points.
 
Fulham’s Andy Johnson looked lively and was The Cottagers main threat, however Clint Dempsey did not capitalise on a great opportunity to give the home side a smash and grab victory with his extra time penalty miss. It was Chelsea debutant David Luiz who conceded the penalty; however fouling Dempsey in extra time was the only blemish on an assured and impressive performance by the new Chelsea defender. Dempsey hit the resulting spot kick straight at Cech, and missed the rebound in spectacular fashion, denying Fulham three points.
 

Published – http://www.1000goals.com/cech-penalty-save-denies-fulham-win%e2%80%8f

Chelsea’s stellar strike force out to wreck Fulham’s proud home record

Chelsea travel to Craven Cottage to take on Fulham on Valentine’s day but dont expect too much love between these London rivals as there are high stakes for both teams.

Chelsea find themselves in fifth place after Spurs won at Sunderland on Saturday, whilst Fulham are only three points above the relegation zone and will look to push towards the 40 point mark and Premiership safety.
 
Champions Chelsea have fallen from grace this season and are in a real battle to even finish in the top four and secure Champions League football for next season. The Blues are three points behind Spurs, and will look to bounce back after a 1-0 home defeat at the hands of Liverpool last Sunday.

The visitors main injury concerns are to defenders Alex and Jose Bosingwa, who are both ruled out of the fixture. Carlo Ancelotti faces a dilemma up front, as he has three world class strikers in Didier Drogba, Fernando Torres and Nicolas Anelka, but the trio did not gel in their defeat to Liverpool last weekend so the Italian may look to leave one on the bench, most likely Anelka.
 
Fulham are in good form and have recorded 11 points in their last six league matches, moving them up to 12th in the table. Due to terrible results on their travels, Mark Hughes’s men have depended on an excellent record at Craven Cottage, and have won their last three Premier League home matches without conceding a goal. Their record historically against Chelsea is terrible however, having recorded just one victory in 28 league and cup meetings.

The Cottagers are still without centre back Phillippe Senderos and although Bobby Zamora played for the reserves in midweek, he is still not match fit and will not feature. Fulham do have three ex-Chelsea men in their ranks however, and Eidur Gudjohnsen, Damien Duff and Steven Sidwell will look to impress against their former employers. On loan signing from Chelsea Gael Kakuta is ineligible to play.
 
Expect a passionate affair on Monday night, with both teams looking to attack and win the match. Chelsea have the firepower to win the game, and new signing Fernando Torres will look for a better performance than last week if he is to endear himself to his new supporters. Fulham’s home record is one of the best in the league however, and Mark Hughes will spur his men on to attack their local rivals and strive for three points.

Published – http://www.sportingo.com/football/a18511_chelseas-stellar-strike-force-out-wreck-fulhams-proud-home-record

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