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.

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

Chelsea’s FA Cup triumph: The collapse of King Kenny as the Blues ride their luck

A resilient backline and a spectacular attacking force made a wonderful day for Chelsea fans and club, as the Di Matteo turn-around was finally credited with a domestic trophy, leaving Kenny Dalglish’s management, once again, under huge criticism.

If there was one way to describe the FA Cup Final this year, it would be a game of two halves, as we saw the first half dominated by the men in blue, until the 60th minute when substitute Andy Carroll scored a revitalising goal that transformed the Anfield outfit into a dangerous attacking force. The first 45 minutes held a sense of déjà vu for Liverpool fans, as they saw a performance lacking creativity, chances, and momentum. Not only were the forwards under-performing, but another weak defensive performance was to blame, when Ramires slotted a strike home in the 11th minute, beating Spanish goalkeeper Pepe Reina at the near post, who was once again to blame with poor judgement and positioning.

More chances came from the Blues after Salomon Kalou made a steaming run through Liverpool’s defensive third but was stopped by a desperate Martin Skrtel tackle inside the box. Early into the second half another goal came for the west London side as a beautifully measured pass by Frank Lampard saw Drogba into a dangerous position, who in turn hit it perfectly into the far right corner of the net. A few minutes after Chelsea had a great chance to finish it off when a fluid attacking move from the Stamford Bridge outfit saw Kalou into a dangerous position, but the Ivorian put it high and wide, leaving him hoping that he wouldn’t come to regret that opportunity.

The turning point of the game was the substitution of Andy Carroll for Jay Spearing, and many will be wondering why the huge powerhouse did not play from the start. Chelsea’s first scare came half-way into the second part of the game, when the substitute scored a reasonably lucky goal after a tackle by Stewart Downing swooped the ball out from the feet of Jose Bosingwa and favourably into the path of the £35m target man, who converted with an unstoppable shot above Petr Cech. For the last 25 minutes, the Blues were once again playing a back-against-the-wall performance, suffering wave after wave of attacks from a newly-revived Liverpool side. Countless crosses were delivered into the box before another great chance came when Carroll got his head onto a back post ball and thought it was in, but the Liverpool forward was denied by Petr Cech, who made a fantastic goal-line save to keep Chelsea in the game and allowed them to go on and secure their victory.

There is no doubt, Kenny Dalglish will be harshly criticised for picking a very wrong starting XI – playing an inexperienced Jay Spearing at the important role of holding midfielder, and assorting themselves in a 4-5-1 formation with Luis Suarez playing a very isolated role upfront. When Carroll came on, it allowed the Uruguayan to drop deeper and play a creative role as a second striker, as well as having the danger-man in the box waiting on those vital crosses – all in all giving Liverpool an eye for goal. Taking nothing away from Chelsea, Didier Drogba had a particularly good game, and was crucial in holding the ball up and bringing the midfielders into play with his awareness and experience; complemented by the creative Juan Mata, and speedy wingers Salomon Kalou and Ramires, the Chelsea forwards were a force to be reckoned with. Their sturdy defence should not be overlooked, with captain John Terry putting in a stunning performance to keep the Blues in the game.

Dalglish will be worrying about his future with the Reds, whilst Di Matteo will be over the moon with his team. Chelsea fans will be hoping that the Blues can ride their luck to Munich in the Champions League final, which will surely be the deciding factor in the Italian’s chances of landing the manager’s role on a permanent basis.

By Jacob Tucker

England and Euro 2012: Who will be in the squad, and how will they fair in Group D?

England interim manager Stuart Pearce has this week revealed that the nation’s squad for Euro 2012 will be named before the end of the Premier League campaign, whether a new permanent boss is in place or not. With the last game of the season on Sunday 13th May, it is reasonable to expect the successful and unsuccessful players to be unveiled a couple of days before this. With this date only two weeks away, who will be stepping out for the Three Lions in Ukraine and Poland?

Goalkeepers – Joe Hart is a shoe-in, and the Manchester City stopper is an outside shout to be the next national captain. Consistent, agile and assured, Hart is a real attribute to the home nation.

GK to go: Hart, Carson, Stockdale

GK to miss out: Ruddy

Defenders – John Terry’s inclusion or exclusion could well depend on the new boss, with the consideration of Rio Ferdinand also entering into the equation; the Chelsea centre half is to stand court for racially abusing the Manchester United man’s brother Anton. Other central defenders to be included should be Gary Cahill, Phil Jones and Joleon Lescott.

At left back Ashley Cole will travel, whilst Leighton Baines is currently injured but will recover in time. On the right, PFA Young Player of the Year Kyle Walker will expect to be included, as will seasoned international Glen Johnson. Micah Richards has been an outcast under Fabio Capello, but under-21 boss Pearce would surely select his former player, potentially to the detriment of the Liverpool man.

DF to go: Walker, Richards, Cahill, Terry, Lescott, Jones, Cole, Baines

DF to miss out: Ferdinand, King, Johnson, Dawson, Smalling

Midfielders – England will most likely play four across midfield, and this will be the most tightly-contested element of the squad. Scott Parker and Frank Lampard are almost certainties, Steven Gerrard hangs in the balance depending on fitness, Paul Scholes is an outside shout, whilst Tom Cleverley, Jack Rodwell and Jack Wilshere will miss out through injury.

On the flanks, Ashley Young will travel if he stays fit, as will Stewart Downing despite an inconsistent campaign. Aaron Lennon needs to get back to his best, Jordan Henderson looks unlikely whilst Arsenal team-mates Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain may well be in direct competition for a place.

MF to go: Young, Downing, Barry, Parker, Lampard, Gerrard, Scholes, Walcott

MF to miss out: Wilshere, Rodwell, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Lennon, Henderson, Joe Cole, Cleverley, Carrick, Milner, A.Johnson

Strikers – Although Wayne Rooney will be suspended for the first two group games of the tournament, it will take a brave manager to leave out the Manchester United forward. Darren Bent faces a risk against time due to his knee injury, whilst Andy Carroll will need a strong end of season to convince the selectors. Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge should be included, whilst Jermain Defoe is a 50-50.

ST to go: Rooney, Welbeck, Sturridge, Defoe

ST to miss out: Bent, Carroll, Crouch

Group Games

England vs France, June 11: Old enemies renew their rivalry in the Group D opener, and these two will be favourites to progress. Without Rooney England may lack direction in attack, and will need to be regimented to stave off the advances of Ribery, Benzema and Remy.

Prediction: 0-0

England vs Sweden, June 15: The Three Lions have suffered disappointment against the Scandinavian nation in international competitions in the past, and Sweden are a slightly unpredictable entity. Led by AC Milan’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Swedes will be no pushover.

Prediction: 1-1

England vs Ukraine, June 19: With a tight group likely to go down to the wire, England will face co-hosts Ukraine in the last round of fixtures in what will be a test of their character and resolve. Rooney’s return will be a boost, but England must be at their best to quell a pumped-up opponent and crowd.

Prediction: 2-1 win

Published – Soccerlens

FA Cup semi-final against Everton key to Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool future

“Although we have won something today, that is not us finished. We don’t want to stop here, we want to keep going.” – Kenny Dalglish, speaking after Liverpool’s Carling Cup triumph over Cardiff City on 26th February.

It was the generic post-match sound-bite, conventional wisdom, almost, with one point that needed hammering home – to make sure fans knew that winning their first trophy for six years would not mean a slip back into the slumber for Liverpool Football Club.

Influential defenders Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger also chimed in with the official line and club captain Steven Gerrard added: “We won’t accept just this, we need more, we want more.”

However, since that victory at Wembley, the Reds have won just two of the eight league games played, with embarrassing reverses at the hands of QPR and Wigan Athletic. At the time of writing, the Reds sit eighth in the Premier League, 13 points behind fourth placed Tottenham and a point behind local rivals Everton.

So just why has LFC’s season unravelled?

Over £100 million has been spent on players who have so far, failed to live up to the expectations of playing for one of the biggest clubs in England. Players such as Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson and Andy Carroll (signed for a combined £71m) have flattered to deceive so far in their Anfield career and the jury is very much still out on all three north-east natives.

The departure of Damien Comolli this week, perhaps highlights the notion that all is not well in the corridors of power at Liverpool. Comolli’s sacking has been viewed by some, as an admission of fault on the transfer strategy by LFC owners Fenway Sports Group.

The clear blueprint of buying young British talent has so far yielded little; only Uruguayan international Luis Suarez, Spaniard Jose Enrique and the ageing Craig Bellamy have been unequivocal successes during the FSG reign.

Then there is manager Kenny Dalglish, who has come in for some criticism despite his legendary status at Anfield. The fans have reluctant to be overly critical of a man nicknamed ‘King’ but the Scot is not infallible and there have been groans of discontent aimed the manager from The Kop. The famous ‘Dalglish’ chant has been conspicuous by its absence in recent weeks.

Since the turn of the year, Liverpool’s form has dipped so dramatically that the only team with a worse points tally is bottom of the table Wolves, it is something that desperately needs addressing.

When the Reds overcame a spirited Cardiff at Wembley in February, there was still a realistic hope of securing a Champions League spot at the end of the season – something owner John W. Henry claimed would be a ‘major disappointment’ if they failed.

With just five games left to play, that coveted Champions League spot is far away in the distance, and the Reds have just the FA Cup to play for – they meet fierce rivals Everton at Wembley on Saturday.

If Dalglish wins a domestic cup double, it could hardly be considered a poor season for Liverpool. After all, teams with ambitions as lofty as Arsenal (and save for a remarkable finish to the Premier League, Manchester City) will finish the season without a trophy, but it is, and was Dalglish’s remit at the start of the season to finish in the top four.

Their season rests on the FA Cup. Win on Saturday; Dalglish has one last cup final to perhaps save his job. Lose – to their rivals – and finish below Everton in the Premier League, and Fenway Sports Group might be forced into action.

By Paul Gorst

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.

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