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What does 2012-13 have in store for Aston Villa?

To say that 2011-12 was a blow-par season for Aston Villa is something of an understatement. The Midlands club avoided the relegation places by two points, struggled to score goals, and with the lowly total of seven wins all season, the Villa Park faithful suffered at the hands of mediocre performances for the bulk of the campaign. However with Alex McLeish being shown the door, what does 2012-13 hold in store for Villa?

Villa’s season seemed doomed from day one, as ex-Birmingham City boss McLeish’s appointment was treated with contempt from the fans, a lack of money was spent in last summer’s transfer market and main creators Stewart Downing and Ashley Young left the club. Despite a plucky start, the club quickly spiralled into lacklustre performances, too many draws and not enough goals.

The days of Martin O’Neill, where Villa on their day could go toe-to-toe with most sides in the division, especially at home, have felt like a lifetime ago. Under the Northern Irishman the side posed an attacking threat, were confident and proved dogged when their opponents were in possession – none of these traits seemed overwhelmingly evident in the recently-concluded campaign.

Randy Lerner’s appointment of McLeish’s replacement is now critical for the side’s future. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer emerged as a surprise candidate before turning his back on the club to stay in his homeland; this may well be a blessing in disguise. Although the Norwegian trainer would more than likely offer a more progressive style than McLeish, Villa need a boss with Premier League experience and a track record of success.

Wigan’s Roberto Martinez turned the job down a year ago, but he and Paul Lambert are being touted as possible contenders. The Spaniard was Lerner’s first-choice last year, but with the Liverpool job now available the Latics boss may reject Villa once more. Lambert would be a bold choice, whilst the likes of Steve Bruce and Alan Curbishley are available immediately; however there is no real frontrunner screaming out to be hired.

Whoever the new man is, there is work to be done at the Birmingham-based side. Looking at the side’s rearguard, experienced campaigners like Shay Given, Richard Dunne and James Collins provide a solid base for the team, however additional strength at full-back looks necessary. Despite 53 goals conceded in 2011-12 being too many, the core is there to shore up the backline but other areas needed more imminent attention.

In midfield, due to the departure of Downing and Young, added creativity is needed. Stephen Ireland and Charles N’Zogbia are able, but another winger to supply opportunities for the attackers would be a welcome addition. With the blow of Stiliyan Petrov’s fight against Leukaemia, Villa have been robbed of the bite in the centre of the park, and the side are crying out for strength in depth, with Fabian Delph and Barry Bannon needing an older head to lead them.

Up front, Darren Bent remains the side’s shining light in the hunt for goals, and the Villa Park faithful will hope the England man can return to fitness and form ahead of 2012-13. Gabriel Agbonlahor has been inconsistent but is still a threat, whilst Andreas Weimann has shown glimpses in breaking into the first-team squad. With Emile Heskey departing, Villa could use a new forward with an eye for goal to compliment the existing trio.

Australia international Brett Holman will join the side on a Bosman ruling this summer, and comes highly-rated after a successful spell at AZ Alkmaar. A move for Heerenveen targetman Bas Dost has been speculated also, without any concrete progression. The likes of Junior Hoilett, Matt Jarvis, Mohamed Diame and Steven Fletcher will be available and are names Villa should be monitoring, whilst other stars from the continent need to be unearthed by the side’s scouting system.

All in all, Randy Lerner needs to do two things this off-season to get Villa back into the top half next season; pick an experienced manager with an attacking outlook, and back him with money to strengthen in the summer.

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Manchester United, Liverpool and the biggest Premier League losers of 2011-12

Despite a fantastically entertaining season with a raft of Premier League winners this term, it has been a campaign to forget for some teams and individuals. Euro 2012, the Olympics and the summer transfer window are approaching, and for some 2011-12 could not come to an end quick enough. Here are Ninety Minutes Online’s biggest losers of 2011/12.

Liverpool

Despite lifting the Carling Cup with victory over Cardiff, 2011/12 has been the worst campaign for Liverpool for quite some time. The Anfield outfit’s fans expected their side to be challenging for a top four berth, but a eighth place finish, 17 points adrift of Tottenham in fourth, has been a massive disappointment.

From Fenway Sports Group’s ill-fated home-grown transfer policy, to Luis Suarez’s racism ban, defeat in the FA Cup final to embarrassing home defeats to some of the division’s lesser lights, Liverpool fans will want to forget 2011/12.

Andre Villas Boas

After leading Porto to an unbeaten league title and lifting the Europa League in 2010/11, Andre Villas Boas was heralded as the next Jose Mourinho and the man to lead Chelsea back to the summit of the Premier League. However, an at times bullish squad rotation system saw the senior players at the club alienated, the Blues floundering outside of the top four and Villas Boas given Roman Abramovich’s axe.

The £13 million Chelsea paid Porto for AVB’s services was not rewarded, and the young trainer is still out of work after seeing his stock drop in west London.

Wolves

Wolves have been in a fight to stay in the Premier League over the last number of seasons, but Mick McCarthy has led them to survival and commanded the respect of the squad. Steve Morgan’s decision to sack McCarthy, despite a poor run of form, was an ill-sighted one, and the appointment of assistant Terry Connor a disaster.

The Molineux club reportedly interviewed the likes of Alan Curbishley and Steve Bruce for the role, but were reluctant to offer the experienced pair long-term contracts. The appointment of Connor has backfired, with the club finishing bottom with a woeful five wins all season.

Sir Alex Ferguson

2011/12 will be a season to forget for Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United. The Old Trafford outfit are known for their will to win and mental toughness at the business end of the season, but the relinquishing of an eight-point lead is sure to give the legendary Scottish manager nightmares for years to come.

A lame Champions League exit in the group stages, a 6-1 hammering from City at Old Trafford and FA Cup elimination to Liverpool have been hard to take for the defending champions’ fans.

Alex McLeish and Aston Villa

Alex McLeish was a shock appointment at Villa Park last summer given his links to rivals Birmingham City, and the club’s supporters have not warmed to the Scot since. A toothless tally of seven wins, weak defending, a lack of creativity and the division’s second-lowest goal tally have had the Villa fans with their heads in their hands.

McLeish’s position as Villa manager must come under scrutiny this summer, but Randy Lerner must also invest in new players if the team are to have a better 2012/13 – Stewart Downing and Ashley Young have simply not been replaced.

Honourable mentions

  • Venkys – With Blackburn relegated this term, Steve Kean has received most of the flack from the media and the club’s fans. However, the Lancashire outfit’s Indian owners Venkys have not given the Scottish coach any funds to spend, and the side are now reportedly in financial trouble.
  • John Terry – Due to stand a court case in July for reportedly racially abusing Anton Ferdinand, the Chelsea skipper has lost the captaincy of his country and there is a train of thought that Terry may be excluded completely from Euro 2012. Add to this a sending off against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-finals for petulantly kneeing Alexis Sanchez, and Terry has had better years.
  • Jermain Defoe – The diminutive striker has proved time and again that he can score goals at the top level, but has simply not been given enough time on the pitch this season. Harry Redknapp’s preference for Emmanuel Adebayor and Rafael van der Vaart could cost Defoe a place at Euro 2012.
  • Jack Wilshere – The talented Arsenal midfielder has not seen one minute of action this season, with consecutive knee cruciate injuries keeping him on the sidelines throughout. Wilshere will also miss Euro 2012 due to injury.
  • Joey Barton – Barton is no doubt talented and able when in the correct mindframe, but stupidity, ill-discipline and a terrible attitude have continued to blight his career. A red card against Manchester City on Sunday cost his team the game and his constant abusive and opinionated Twitter comments should see Mark Hughes ditch his troubled ‘captain’ this summer.

Published – Soccerlens

Aston Villa need a win over Norwich to give their long-suffering fans something to cheer about

Aston Villa finish their 2011-12 season with a tricky trip to take on Norwich at Carrow Road on Sunday, but will know that their Premier League status is safe after picking up a point against Tottenham last weekend. Despite this, it has been a massively mediocre season for the Midlands club, one to forget even and Alex McLeish will look to give the travelling support something to cheer about before the summer break.

The main problem this season for the Villa Park club has been a lack of incision, which has meant few goals. With Darren Bent injured and potentially missing Euro 2012, the club have struggled to hit the back of the net, and with 37 strikes in 37 games have the second-lowest tally in the division after Stoke. Seven wins out of 37 games has been painful viewing for the club’s supporters, whilst 17 draws is five more than the nearest side this term (Sunderland have drawn 12).

Randy Lerner and the Villa board have some real soul-searching to do in the summer, and a few important questions to answer. The first originates around the team’s manager Alex McLeish, who started on the backfoot due to his ties to rivals Birmingham City, and has failed to capture the imagination with lifeless performances by his team on the pitch.

The Scot is not solely to blame for the poor season however, as the sales of Stewart Downing and Ashley Young were always going to take their toll, and replacement Charles N’Zogbia has found the pairs’ boots difficult to fill. Despite attacking midfielder Steven Ireland coming back into the fold, the club needs to replace the two creative players that it lost last summer, and the American owner should put his hand in his pocket and stump up some much-needed financial backing. The signing of Brett Holman from AZ Alkmaar is a start, but more new faces are needed.

The team face a stern test against Norwich this Sunday, who have been one of the standout sides in the division this season. Their fearless and attacking approach has drawn many plaudits, and Paul Lambert’s men have never even looked vaguely in danger of being relegated, which cannot be said for Villa. The Canaries boss has been mooted as a potential replacement for his countryman McLeish should a managerial change be in order, but the current incumbent will look to prove that he is the right man to lead the club forward with a win at Carrow Road.

Richard Dunne and co will have their hands full with Grant Holt and maybe Steve Morison, and the attacking threat of Anthony Pilkington and Wes Hoolahan in midfield should not be overlooked. However, with nothing but pride and a more flattering league position to play for, hopefully McLeish will send his side out to entertain and play free-flowing football; something the Villa faithful have seldom seen this season.

Published – Villa Talk

Villa to look to Marc Albrighton in the wake of Young and Downing departures

Aston Villa fans will not have enjoyed watching England international wingers Ashley Young and Stewart Downing leave the club to move to Manchester United and Liverpool this summer, and Alex McLeish will be slightly worried about his side’s lack of width in their absence. Although difficult and expensive to replace, the new man at the helm at Villa Park will be mightily relieved that he has the pace, versatility and quality of Marc Albrighton to call upon.

With Charles N’Zogbia’s transfer to the club from Wigan, Villa have replaced like for like, and the France international will harbour the responsibility of recreating some of Downing’s exploits down the left. The ex-Newcastle player contributed valuable goals to the Latics successful relegation escape last term, and like Downing likes to drift in-field and provide support to the strikers.

On the right of midfield the Scottish coach has the option to play someone like Stephen Ireland, but this would narrow the side’s play, and Albrighton offers a more dangerous option, as the team look to make chances for the frontmen. Ireland will find opportunities more forthcoming in the centre of the park, as Albrighton takes the step up to start for the team on a more regular basis on the right wing.

The 21-year-old progressed through the youth ranks to take his place in the senior squad along with a number of other promising youngsters, and has showed vast improvement over the last two seasons. The Tamworth born winger has pace to burn and a trickery that Premier League full-backs will not look forward to having to face, but the main attribute in the player’s locker is his delivery.

McLeish will most likely rotate Emile Heskey and Gabriel Agbonlahor in partnering Darren Bent in attack in 2011-12, and the trio have a physicality and presence in the box that will be difficult to contain. Villa have depended on the quality of service from the now departed England duo, but in their absence the level of supply to the attackers will not diminish, as Albrighton has is an excellent crosser of the ball.

With N’Zogbia on the left and Albrighton on the right, the pair are equally as comfortable in swapping flanks, and with Stiliyan Petrov and Ireland’s passing ability in the centre of the park, the Villa midfield should not be diminished too much from Downing and Young leaving. Despite this, more strength in depth is needed, as if one of the wingers was to get injured it limits the Midlands club as an attacking unit.

Scottish Football and the Search for Qualification for a Major International Tournament

Long suffering Scottish football fans still reminisce about Archie Gemmill’s wondergoal against the Netherlands in the 1978 World Cup and the Tartan Army have been starved of participation in a major international competition since the 1998 World Cup in France thirteen years ago. With the qualifiers for next year’s European Championships in Poland and Ukraine four matches in and the draw for the 2014 World Cup in July, what are Scotland’s chances of making the cut?
In their four qualifying games for the 2012 European Championship, Craig Levein’s side have won one, drew one and lost two and been dealt a difficult five team group that includes World Cup winners Spain and the Czech Republic. The celtic nation picked up four points from their first two games, with a 0-0 draw with Lithuania followed by a Stephen McManus injury time winner in a 2-1 victory over Liechtenstein. The fixtures have gotten significantly more difficult since, with a 1-0 defeat in the Czech Republic followed by a 3-2 loss against Spain at Hampden. The Scots have already lost ground on the two teams that have beaten them, and realistically need to win their remaining games apart from the Spanish return fixture to oust Michal Bilek’s Czech side and make the playoffs, a feat that given their current resources and performances seems unlikely.
Major tournament qualification attempts since France 98 have been varied, with the dark days of Berti Vogts stewardship being counteracted by close misses under Walter Smith and Alex McLeish. The now Birmingham manager’s reign was an exciting time to be Scottish, as Eck instilled an attacking and gutsy flavour of football into his team, and re-injected a pride and passion into the Scottish fans. McLeish’s side were unlucky not to make Euro 2008, as a tough qualification group containing both World Cup final participants from 2006, France and Italy, put an end to a enterprising campaign that included a fantastic 1-0 victory in Paris.
Levein’s side dropped 16 places in April’s FIFA rankings, falling from 50th to 66th. Not only does this leave a footballing proud nation out of the world’s top 50 nations, behind the likes of Guinea, Albania and Gabon, it also means losing their place among the third tier of European seeds and a tougher draw for the 2014 World Cup. Scotland have a proud heritage of competing at the top table of international football, and despite never getting past the first round of the competition, qualified for six out of seven World Cups between 1974 and France 98.
With a host of young players coming through the ranks at Scottish clubs and their equivalents south of the border it is a transition period for Scottish international football as the latest crop of players find their feet, with performances and the formation of a team more important than results. Despite this, the stars of tomorrow will need to learn quickly to stop Scotland’s drop down the FIFA rankings and give the Tartan Army Gemmill-like memories in World Cups to come.

Published – http://www.worldcupbuzz.com/scottish-football-and-the-search-for-qualification-for-a-major-international-tournament/

Relegation dogfight intensifies; the contenders facing the drop

Let’s face it; obviously no-one wants to get relegated, but a relegation scrap can be as exciting as the race for the title, and this year there are an added number of clubs in the mix to be demoted to The Championship. The cost of relegation from the Premier League is a massive one financially and emotionally; a club can lose up to £40 million worth of television money, attendances can drop, your best players will look to jump ship in order to retain Premiership football and well, there’s the heartbreak if you’re a fan of a team that finishes in the bottom three that will spoil your summer. 40 points has been stated as the expected target to survival; so who are this year’s relegation threatened clubs, and what chance do they stand of staying up?

Wolves

Mick McCarthy’s men sit bottom on goal difference at time of writing on 25 points, and can blame a terrible away record for their current predicament with only one win and five points away from Molineux this campaign. They have looked more of a threat at home, and gave their season a shot in the arm with a historic 2-1 win over leaders Manchester United a couple of weeks ago. Wolves fans will know they missed a glorious chance to steal a march on fellow bottom feeders West Brom  in their last outing,  the Baggies grabbed a injury-time equaliser. Wolves actually have a fairly good fixture list for the run-in, with only Spurs of the top six teams yet to play. They face Blackpool at home this weekend, and must win if they are to stand a chance of avoiding Championship football next season.

Prediction – relegated

Blackpool

The Seasiders have been a revelation in their first season amongst English football elite, with Ian Holloway instilling a passing football mentality and great work ethic to his team. Blackpool started the season well and up to Christmas showed no fear to record some memorable victories. However 2011 has been more of a struggle, and there are signs that Holloway’s men are running out of steam. However the Seasiders caught Tottenham daydreaming of European glory in mid-week, and claimed an invaluable three points that puts a buffer between themselves and the team in the bottom three. They have performed better away from Bloomfield Road than at home, and need a few more wins to secure safety. The game against Wolves at Molineux is an important one, and if they can escape without defeat should be safe.

Prediction – safe

West Ham

West Ham are a big team in big trouble; they currently are on 25 points and sit one place above Wolves on goal difference. They were bottom at Christmas, which is always an ominous sign, but will be boosted by a good win in the FA Cup in midweek. If they are to stay up they need to win home games, and have six of their last eleven at Upton Park. The defeat at home to Birmingham a couple of weeks ago was a massive blow to their chances, and Avram Grant’s men are staring into the last chance saloon. The fact that the Hammers’ board have backed Grant to lead them to safety should unite the London club, and they have their next two games at home against Liverpool and Stoke, which they need to capitalise on if they want to be playing in the Premiership when they move to the Olympic stadium.

Prediction – safe, but only just

Birmingham

Alex McLeish has done an excellent job at Birmingham given the limited resources at his disposal, but the Scot has one huge problem; his team does not score enough goals. The Blues have only found the back of the net 25 times in 26 games and must start converting chances to avoid being dragged back into the mire. Their form at St Andrews should be enough to keep them up, but McLeish will not be able to rest easy until his team win a couple more games.

Prediction – safe

Aston Villa

Villa are too big a club to go down surely? Right? Wrong. Gerard Houiller’s men have had a terrible first season post Martin O’Neill and are sitting precariously in 16th on 30 points. The Birmingham club have lacked bite in the final third and some flimsy defending has cost them points, drawing too many games and losing their proud home form from seasons past. Houiller has spent big to bring in Darren Bent in January, and the responsibility lies on him and fellow England men Young, Agbonlahor and Downing to get them out of this mess. Vitally, Villa have still to play West Ham, Wigan, Wolves and West Brom, which should decide their fate.

Prediction – safe, but still a very poor season for Villa

Wigan

Wigan have been one of the most inconsistent sides in the league this year, at times looking to play good football and young players showing potential to compete at this level, but mostly they have lacked direction in midfield and leaked soft goals. Roberto Martinez’s men are sitting in the dropzone in 18th, and alarm bells must be ringing around the DW Stadium. To boot, The Latics have one of the toughest run-ins, with their next two games against Manchester United and City, and still with Tottenham and Chelsea to play. To stand any chance of survival they must work together to grind out results, which at this stage are more important than the brand of football Martinez wants them to play.

Prediction – relegated, and may finish bottom

West Brom

Roy Hodgson has taken on a tough test, and will need to utilise all his managerial experience and know-how to avoid perennial yo-yo side West Brom from dropping back to The Championship. The Baggies are sitting in 17th place, one point ahead of Wigan and home draws against fellow strugglers Wolves and West Ham in their last two games have not eased pressure on the club from The Hawthornes. West Brom have a tough run in, and if they are to avoid the drop must continue their relatively strong home record, and will need the fans to get behind them, Adrian Chilles and Frank Skinner included.

Prediction – relegated

So in my opinion it will be the three W’s, West Brom, Wolves and Wigan who will face the agony of relegation and the heavy upheaval of trying to wade through The Championship to make it back to English football’s top tournament. A lot will depend on the games the struggling sides play against each other, but this season’s fight for survival should provide a very close and enthralling finale to the 2010/11 season.

Published – http://www.caughtoffside.com/2011/02/25/premier-league-relegation-dogfight-contenders-facing-the-drop-and-predicted-outcomes/

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