Monday, December 15, 2008

They Think It's All Over...EPL GameDay 17: Owen, Keane, Gomes, Gabby & Ince....

Gameday 17 of the English Premier League was all about managers and strikers, on and off the pitch. Michael Owen continued his return to form with a goal that set up Newcastle's 3-0 win over Portsmouth.

Gabriel Agbonlahor scored a couple for Aston Villa to enhance his already growing reputation, Didier Drogba came off the bench to change the complexion of the tie against West Ham, and Robbie Keane was firmly rooted to the bench as Rafael Benitez defied all known logic in leaving a £20M striker on the sidelines getting splinters while he made three baffling substitutions.

All good talking points, so let's move on...

The early kick-off on Saturday was between Middlesbrough and Arsenal, a 1-1 draw. Not the greatest of games, and following Roy Keane's resignation from Sunderland, the youngest manager in the league kept up his hoo-doo over Arsene Wenger. Middlesbrough are now five games unbeaten against Arsenal.

Gareth Southgate's team were well worth the point, with ex-Arsenal boy Jeremy Aliadiere coming back to haunt his old club with a predatory header following Tuncay's bullet like cross. Arsenal had taken an early lead after an un-marked Adebayor headed home from a corner.

This was another case of Arsenal failing to take the "bit beteen their teeth." Middlesbrough's back four had been decimated through injury in the days leading up to the match and Southgate had no choice but to go with a team lacking the experience of heated battle this season.

Unfortunetly for Arsenal fans, some of their younger players, Diaby, Denilson and Song in particular look frail at this level, and one wonders how long Wenger will persist with his "experiment" as they begin to drift from 4th place security.

With that in mind, Villa have capitalised on Arsenal's up and down season. When most football afficianado's thought that Spurs would be challenging for fourth, it is the silently built team at Villa Park who look closest to breaking that domination.

Gabriel Agbonlahor was in breathtaking form on Saturday, as an on form Bolton were brushed aside 4-2 after they had the temerity to take an early lead though Elmander.The big Swede enjoying his best run of form since his big money move in the Summer.

But the game was all about "Gabby." Bolton hadn't an answer to his power and pace, and Villa tore them apart with ease. Martin O'Neill has put together a good side at Villa Park. The spine of the team is one of the strongest in the league, Friedel, Laursen, Sidwell, and Agbonlahor.

Although, one must throw a critical eye on Gary Megson and draw attention to Bolton playing a high line and offside against the fastest attack in the league. Playing this kind of tactic against the likes of Ashley Young and Agbonlahor is tantamount to playing "Russian roulette" and Bolton paid the price on Saturday as Villa gained the points to leap-frog Arsenal into fourth.

Hull have been a breath of fresh air this season, and have had a real go in every match they've played, noted scalps being Arsenal and Spurs. But heading into Saturday's game against Liverpool, most pundits conventional thinking was that Rafa's tactical awareness would be a step too far for Phil Brown and his boys.

How wrong they were...

Hull took an early two goal lead before "Mr Liverpool" himself, Stephen Gerrard, scored a brace to peg Hull back. And as Liverpool chased the game, Rafa chose to give Robbie Keane the biggest "vote of confidence" he could by bringing on El-Zhar, Ryan Babel and Lucas for "tactical reasons" leaving their £20M striker on the bench.

When considering the implications of this snub by Rafa, you must factor in that Fernando Torres is going to be out for another three to four weeks, so in effect Robbie Keane is their main striker.

Despite Rafa's midweek protestations that Robbie Keane was going nowhere in the face of mounting speculation that he could end up at Spurs, Newcastle or Bayern Munich, this latest snub would seem to indicate that the Dubliners days at Anfield are numbered.

Adding fuel to the fire, Stephen Gerrard who shares an agent with Keane, admitted on Saturday night that his agent feels that Keane will move in January. If he goes anywhere, it will be Spurs, here's why...

In the Summer, Liverpool bought Robbie Keane from Spurs for £20M, but so far they've only paid £8M, should Spurs buy him back as speculation suggests for £6M, his time at Anfield will be remembered as a six month loan deal worth £2M. For Bayern or Newcastle to purchase Keane they will have to stump up at least £15M to £18M to make the deal worthwhile for Liverpool as they still owe £12M.

Personally, I think he'll stay. The reasoning behind this, is that Rafa's tenure at Anfield has come under the microscope lately, and the board are growing frustrated with not challenging for the league after substantial financial backing. Benitez has spent £172M during his reign at Liverpool and only re-couped £66M.

Selling Keane would add a nail to his coffin, and would be seen by the board as an admittance of poor dealing in the transfer market. I think Rafa will persist with Keane, but the Irish man is a model pro, and lest we forget, when Martin Jol took over Spurs, Keane found himself surplus to requirements for almost a full season. Keane eventually became a main stay in the team and was also rewarded with the captaincy, so impressed was Jol with Keane's professionaliam.

Spurs have almost certainly missed Keanes influence, but since Harry Redknapp took over after the new-Madrid coaches ill fated reign, things have started to look brighter at White Hart Lane.

In 13 games in charge, Spurs have only lost three under Redknapp, they are one of the leagues form teams, are on the verge of qualifying for Europe and now look like they have a keeper of some class.

Four weeks ago Heurelho Gomes couldn't "catch a cold" and every set piece that found it's way into the box looked like it had a goal on the end of it. Gomes confidence was shattered and he looked a shadow of himself, from when he looked so secure for PSV.

Four weeks later and Gomes form is superb, he has kept successive clean sheets and recieved a standing ovation after his man of the match performance against United.

So what has changed?

A new coach, plain and simple. A month ago, Harry Redknapp sacked Juande Ramos' goalkeeping coach Hans Leitart and brought in Spurs legend Tony Parks. While Harry felt that Leitart was a top class coach, he felt his approach was a European style one, and that Gomes needed to be coached by someone well versed in English football, enter Tony Parks in Redknapp's new style backroom. Simple eh?

The Spurs match against United was a great game for the erstwhile football fan, and was reminiscent of a European style game where both sides probed the other for weakness.

And with both keepers being in outstanding form the 0-0 result masked a highly entertaining game, the highlights of the keepers work being superb saves at either end from free kicks that looked destined for the net.

For the moment, Spurs problems is in the striking department. United look like they will recall Frasier Campbell in January, so Spurs will only have two recognised strikers, Darren Bent and Roman Pavyluchenko. So it looks almost a certainty that Redknapp will add another forward to his line up come the transfer window. Who could it be?

Speak no further, Michael Owen ahs been in great form since he returned to the Newcastle starting XI, scoring three in his last two games, and despite today's revelations that he has been offered a new contract, conventional wisdom would suggest that he will move as Newcastle look to trim their substantial wage bill.

Currently the fifth highest in the Premier League at £62.5M a year, Mike Ashley has tried to reduce costs to make his "package" a more viable option. Michael Owen earns £110k a week at Newcastle, roughly £5M a year before bonuses, should he be sold for £2M, Joe Kinnear would have £5M to spend on players come January.

So who are the likely suitors?

Man United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Spurs, and Man City.

Should any of the top three bid for Owen then Spurs and City haven't a hope of getting him.

Liverpool looks an unlikely destination, Owen's relationship with Benitez could be described as frosty at best, United are top heavy after signing Berbatov, so that leaves Chelsea, Spurs, and City.

Big Phil is in search of a striker, that much is known, whether Owen fits Scolari's profile as an ideal forward is unknown, but his class in un-doubted so Chelsea are an option.

As for Spurs and City, Owen would fit the bill at White Hart Lane perfectly as a foil for either of the main strikers, he also fits the profile of players that Redknapp often signs so that too looks like it could have legs.

City can match his wage demands but they already have a "small" striker in Robinho, and Roque Santa Cruz looks a more likely proposition as Mark Hughes searches for a partner for the little Brazillian.

Speaking of Hughes, he is now in under real pressure to move City up the table. This time last year, City were in fourth place with 33 pts, now they're amongst the battle in midtable where two bad results could leave them in the relegation mire.

There is a ticking clock on Hughes time as manager at the Eastland's and with City being the richest club in the world with the ability to "afford" anyone it is only a matter of time before he is sacked.

Who will be his successor?

City can afford any manager who is available, but again I have a feeling in me water that the next manager will be none other than...Roy Keane.

Meanwhile at Ewood, Keane and Hughes' ex-team mate struggled under the growing pressure at Blackburn. After going eight games without a point, Blackburn are hovering dangerously close to the relegation zone.

Last evening, Blackburn's chairman, his name escapes me now, gave an interview to the Lancashire Post, in the interview, he lambasted the teams performance against Wigan on Saturday, and more importantly he distanced himself from Ince and refused to give him support, so it came as no surprise when Ince was given his marching orders today, Roy Keane and Sam Allerdyce being installed as the early favourites.

Who'd be a manager? eh.

Another manager under intense pressure is Gianfranco Zola, West Ham now only have one win from the last two months worth of action action, but they have picked up draws against Liverpool and Chelsea.

Zola went back to his spititual home on Sunday and masterminded a great result for his team. Only the late introduction of Didier Drogba and a reversion to 4-4-2 swung the tide in Chelsea's favour.

Ricky Sbragia did himself no damage what so ever with Niall Quinn compiling a list of successors to Keane, the ex-Bolton and United man's reputation as a coach is what tempted Keane to bring him to Wearside in the first place, and if performances keep up to the standard they showed in their 4-0 demolition of West Brom then he is sure to be in the running.

In a week that saw strikers return to form, managers on the brink and Robbie Keane removing splinters from his bum, I would like to issue a get well soon to Rafa and Big Phil who both had gall stones removed.

Rafa obviously had the "gall" to leave Robbie on the bench...

(guess I'll stick to the day job)

twitter / WillieGannon