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Can Mark Hughes be a success at Stoke?

Before he went to QPR, Mark Hughes’ reputation was still strong after a good single season at Fulham, which followed what was widely regarded as an unfair sacking by Manchester City. The reason he had gotten the job at City was because he had managed Blackburn to a top-six finish in 2005-06, and he got that job because he very nearly took Wales to Euro 2004, which would have been their first tournament for 50 years.

This is a man with proper managerial pedigree. Really, Stoke are appointing him for his achievements in all his other positions. He did amazingly well with tiny budgets at Blackburn, with inferior players with Wales and maintained the Roy Hodgson momentum at Fulham. Blackburn and Fulham were mid-sized clubs who needed a steady hand at the tiller and a good eye for a bargain in the transfer market. Sounds like Stoke right? Well, not necessarily.

Mark Hughes

Hughes failed spectacularly at QPR and underachieved to some extent at Man City. Both of those jobs had exactly the same remit; big money, take the club on to the next level. At City, he tried to ease in Premier League players such as Joleon Lescott, Craig Bellamy, Gareth Barry, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Roque Santa Cruz so that City could more smoothly transition from mid table to top table. Also snuck in there were Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta. His plan was actually working pretty solidly, and despite the heinous amounts these players cost, they were heading in the right direction. However, they weren’t getting there quick enough for the new owners, and he was sacked.

At QPR then, baring his previous experience in mind, he tried to do things much quicker and at a club with much smaller cache than Man City. City had already been growing under Sven-Goran Eriksson so Hughes was adding better players to an already good squad. At QPR he was adding wholesale to a squad that barely survived relegation. He had to sign, or chose to sign, players who were only coming to the club because of the money offered. He went on a trolley dash, picked up whoever he could and tried to see what he could make of it. Unlike at Blackburn or even City, there was no plan, no end game.

This is what makes his arrival at Stoke so interesting. Stoke sacked Pulis because he can’t take them to the next level. They are the third highest net spenders in the league over the last five years and still haven’t cracked the top half. So, this is kind of similar to Hughes’ Man City job because at Stoke he will have a relatively big budget. The problem is, what is the next level? The top ten perhaps? The trouble is that the Premier League mid table is so congested and teams can’t sign from each other as they all have similar budgets and ambition.

Tony Pulis

Because of this, he will have to pay bigger sums to get minor improvements to his squad if he shops domestically, which is a very dangerous path and immediately puts a target on his back. It won’t be easy for him to decide on a coherent market strategy. However, he has now got the experience of this type of job and should now know what not to do, which gives him a real advantage. Stoke have more pedigree than QPR and thus this is more like the Man City build.

The other question is about the type of football he will play and in this sense he is a good bridge to better stuff. His teams never played beautiful football as such, but it was much nicer than what Stoke fans are used to seeing. But importantly, it’s not too different. He doesn’t need to change things wholesale to get them playing better, as someone like Roberto Martinez would. He will be comfortable with the more industrial players and more tolerant of the creative players. As a former striker he has an empathy for creators and goal scorers, something Pulis never had, always preferring industry.

Stoke City have a rock-solid defence and goalkeeper, which is a good foundation, similar to what Hughes had at Blakcburn and Fulham. If he can find the right attacking weapons then there is no reason why he can’t get Stoke playing better football in the top ten. He will have the money available to do so and in all his previous jobs has shown he can spend adroitly. He needs to remember what he’s learned about pacing the change properly and he can be a big success.

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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

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

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

Race for Premier League survival: Who will stay and who will go?

A scramble for survival at the bottom of the Premier League table is keeping five clubs on their toes and pushing them to the peak of their ability: Who will stay and who will go?

Wolves – 20th – 22 Points

Probably the only certainty for relegation at this stage; Terry Connor’s side have lost eight of their last ten Premier League games, and with a six-point gap separating them and Blackburn, survival seems a million miles away. Along with their position at the bottom of the table, Wolverhampton Wanderers have a particularly difficult run-in, with Sunderland, Manchester City, and an in-form Everton still to face. Given that the Molineux outfit are in terrible form, it looks like Wolves have no chance.

Blackburn – 19th – 28 points

A hard year for Steve Kean has been reflected in Blackburn’s shaky season, but hope can be found in the Rovers’ star men, Yakubu and Junior Hoilett. Although sitting in precarious 19th place, Blackburn will be facing much easier opposition in the next few weeks compared to other relegation candidates. The Lancashire club will come up against a vulnerable Swansea and Tottenham, and will also hope to grab some points against Norwich and Wigan at home. Despite this, Blackburn need to pick up some momentum and get the best out of their danger-man upfront if they are to stave the drop.

Bolton – 18th – 29 points

Although being awarded March’s Premier League Manager of the month award, Owen Coyle has not brought his side out of the drop zone yet; however with a game in-hand Bolton are on the path to survival. Bolton’s starting XI is not the strongest of the bottom five and with a weak attacking force and no prolific goal machine, they need to grit their teeth and play to the best of their ability. With upcoming matches against teams such as Swansea and Aston Villa, the Reebok Stadium side must be optimistic and maybe, just maybe, they could survive another season of top-flight football.

Wigan – 17th – 31 points

A recent run of fantastic form saw Wigan to a 1-0 victory over Premier League champions Manchester United in their last outing, giving the Latics hope. Despite only losing two of their last ten Premier League games, Wigan have one of the hardest run-ins of the bottom five and still have to face opposition such as in-form Arsenal, Fulham, and Newcastle. DW Stadium boss Roberto Martinez will hope his side can keep this run of good form up and will take hope from their “historic” victory over Manchester United. If Wigan can now end their goal drought and keep pushing and striving, they might just avoid demotion.

QPR – 16th – 31 points

A 3-0 win over Swansea City has moved the newly-promoted west London club to 16th. An upturn home form has given Mark Hughes’ side hope after beating Arsenal and Liverpool in consecutive fixtures at Loftus Road. Although having a hard run-in away from home, facing teams such as West Brom, Chelsea and Man City, QPR will hope to claim a scalp or two, and pick up as many points as possible from their home games against Tottenham and Stoke. If they carry on their good-form and keep playing the way they have, QPR could be well on their way to becoming a stable Premier League club.

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/

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