FA Cup Final Focus: Stoke City


Pulis has transformed Stoke this season, can he finish it in style?

I wrote a guest blog, back in early November, where I suggested that Stoke were coming a little bit unstuck because Tony Pulis was attempting to take them away from their tried, trusted and maligned formula of direct football. Looking back now, it’s easy to think I was talking nonsense – Stoke are preparing to compete in the FA Cup Final today, and they sit a very comfortable 8th in the Premier League.

But back when I wrote that, Stoke had made a pretty average start to the season and you could really see them struggling to retain the Premier League status they had fought to retain, almost literally, for two seasons before this campaign. Pulis spent some decent money in the summer, bringing in some talented players who somewhat broke the mould of what we’d come to expect from Stoke City previously.

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Premiership Conclusions


You might well say it’s a bit early to be drawing conclusions from this weekend’s Premier League action given that there’s still plenty of fixtures to be played tomorrow and Monday, but I think we can safely say that Saturday’s action both on and off the pitch has given us plenty to be discuss to be going on with. Plus, tomorrow is likely to be both my last day with an internet connection for some while and very busy, so there’s no time like the present.

To business at hand then and as I said yesterday, this season’s Premier League action is proving to be nigh on impossible to predict. We’ve now had two weekends full of surprise results and the established order that has developed over so many years seems to be quickly unravelling. It’s hard to know what to make of it at times but I think at least some conclusions can be cautiously made.

Click through to find out what they are…

Premier League Preview: Part Three


Premier League Preview
One week to go until the big kick off, so welcome to Part Three of my Premier League Preview ahead of the highly anticipated ’09/’10 season. In Parts One and Two I’ve looked at the first 10 teams who will be scrapping it out this season, from Arsenal to Hull, so if you missed them make sure you check them out. Also, remember to get yourself a Fantasy Football team and join the ‘Ttiao… league’!

Today’s penultimate part of the Preview should be an interesting one, as I look at title challengers Liverpool and Manchester United, as well as the club that everyone now loves to hate and who could do absolutely anything this season: Manchester City. Completing today’s lineup are Portsmouth and Stoke, who will be looking to build on last season’s survival… can they do it?

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Premiership Predictions



Portsmouth vs. Everton
Last week Portsmouth and Middlesbrough played out a draw that did neither side much good, and they’ll see it as an opportunity missed. Pompey’s game against Everton today should be much tougher, but the Toffees will not be taking their trip lightly as they know that they face a team scrapping for their survival, and that can bring out the best in some teams. Everton’s injury list continues to hamper them with Yobo the latest to squeeze into the treatment room, with Tony Hibbert and Tim Cahill also nursing knocks. Who knows how Moyes will squeeze a side together, but so far this season they have kept producing results and I believe they may repeat the trick again today. It’ll be a battle though.
Prediction: 1-2.

Blackburn Rovers vs. West Ham United
West Ham sit pretty in seventh in the Premier League and can look at Blackburn’s perilous position with smug glee all over their faces: it could so easily have been them. Zola has worked his magic, but this will be a tough trip for the little Italian’s side. They’re starting to pick up some end-of-season niggles as the season catches up with them and they may not fancy it today against a physical Rovers side. Allardyce will have his team fired up for their scrap for survival and home games will be the key. They will want to make the most of a home advantage and will probably outfight the Hammers today.
Prediction: 1-0.

Click through for all of this week’s predictions…

Premiership Conclusions



1. Smokin’ Hot Reds
Well, of course the main talking point from saturday’s fixtures is Liverpool’s walloping of United, and you have to admit, they look good. Really good. Which as an Everton fan, is bad. They’re performance against Madrid in midweek wasrightly doused in superlatives and though today’s was less extravagantly dominant, it was against better opposition and at Old Trafford. I must admit I didn’t think they’d be able to repeat the trick, but how very wrong I turned out to be. Fortunately for me, I think Liverpool have left it too late to explode into life, as United still have a four point lead and a game in hand. If they play as they did today though, you never know.

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FA Cup Magic: Five Conclusions from the Third-Round games


Kettering... can they go all the way?!

Kettering... can they go all the way?!

Manchester City 0-3 Nottingham Forest
Obviously the result of the round was at the City of Manchester Stadium where Forest, strugglers in the Championship, upset the Richest Club In The World to add more misery to Mark Hughes at the beginning of 2009. Hughes will be worried about the lack of passion and fight shown by his side against opposition they should have been able to beat quite comfortably. I am beginning to wonder, given the performances of the likes of Richard Dunne and Micah Richards and other players who were so impressive last season,  whether Mark Hughes has ever really earnt the respect and loyalty of the dressing room. I think it was clear that they enjoyed playing under Sven last season (the last result of the season proved that much), and I wonder if that, combined with the uncertainty that such wealth brings to a club, is the root of City’s problems. Congrats to Forest though, a club of their size and history deserve to be in the top tier, I hope Billy Davies can turn things round there.

Hartlepool United 2-0 Stoke City
The other major upset happened at Geoff Stelling’s beloved Hartlepool, where the lowly League One club showed that Stoke aren’t too much cop really. There is also an argument that this is perhaps not too much of a shock result. Given that the football league is generally acknowledged to be a far more physical and tough place to play than the flair-filled Premier League, it was perhaps obvious that United would be able to handle Stoke’s bully boy long throw tactics – after all they deal with it every week. Combine that with the fact that Stoke lack much variety going forward, and Hartlepool may have been confident of keeping a clean sheet.

Chelsea 1-1 Southend United
This still counts as an upset, as though Chelsea are not out of the competition, neither are Southend, and before the game anything less than a comfortable Chelsea win would have been deemed improbable going on impossible. However, Southend showed a lot of grit and character against Big Phil’s flamboyant side, and they got their reward. Serious questions are now starting to be levelled at the jolly Brazilian over his ability to manage at the top level domestically, and at times he does seem to be struggling to get Chelsea ticking. He has had international success, but in a tournament, teams can’t really ‘work you out’ as they can in a longer league campaign, and I think Chelsea have been sussed out this season. If you can defend solidly and frustrate them you have every chance of getting a result and as yet, Scolari hasn’t shown the tactical nuance to over come such obstacles.

Gillingham 1-2 Aston Villa
When will Aston Villa’s luck run out!? Although they were apparently comprehensive in their dominance over Gillingham in today’s clash, they were struggling to break the 1-1 deadlock as the game ran towards it’s close. Step up Ashley Young, surging into the box and falling over after running into the Gillingham defender. You won;t see many softer penalties than that, the defender made no attempt at the ball, no challenge whatsoever, he simply put his hands up and let Young past. Young didn’t fancy trying his luck though, and after bumping into the obliging defender, the penalty was duly awarded. I’m not saying that Villa shouldn’t have won, by all accounts they did more than enough to progress, but Gillingham can feel very hard done by I feel. It is these sort of decisions that change the look of a season and if Villa keep getting the rub of the green, they could have a very good one indeed. If it changes… things could fall apart.

Congratulations to Torquay and Kettering
The two non-league cups in the fourth round hat deserve a lot of praise. Torquay picked up an impressive win at league side Blackpool, and Kettering overcame fellow non-leaguers Eastwood Town to make the draw too. In this day and age we really and truly shouldn’t see any non-league teams this far into the competition, such is the advantage held in all aspects by the Premier League clubs in particular, but the spirit of the under-dogs is invincible and is what makes this such a great competition. The FA Cup is all about upsets, and though they haven’t knocked out world famous opposition, these two sides are flying the flag for the little clubs in the fourth round, reminding everyone that it is possible and showing just what the FA Cup is all about.

Football Evolving


After Spain won the Euopean Championships playing lovely flowing football, and the Netherlands and Russia had good tournaments doing the same, it seemed like the world of football was moving back towards a ‘total football’ style of play. For many years, the domination of 4-4-2 formations has seen a target man deployed alongside a speedy striker, and direct football has oft been considered to be most effective. I for one was delighted to see the shift in style over the summer, but I’m not sure if this season in the Premier League is backing it up.

For a start, one must consider Arsenal’s current plight. Few will argue that when they are playing well, Arsenal are probably the best team in the world to watch. Such quick and fluid movement at times comes close to recreating the iconic Dutch ‘total football’ and it is nigh on unstoppable. All too often though, Arsenal overplay their style of football, searching for the perfect ball, and they also are very easily roughed up, as proved by their recent dip in form.

On the other hand, we have of course, Stoke City. Stoke are to ugly football what Arsenal are to the pretty stuff. But while we lament it, they are getting results, and the Stoke fans will be happy with that. At the end of the day the three points are the objective, and any pretty football is simply a bonus. And Stoke are doing reasonably well. They are well in touch with the teams in mid-table, and if the results keep coming in such a mixed bag every week, the relegation battle come the end of the season will involve half the teams in the division, a rare thing indeed.

Contrary to Stoke are another promoted team, West Brom. They are trying to play nice football, indeed they were branded last season as the Arsenal of the Championship, but they are having much less success. Their players naturally aren’t if the same calibre as Arsenal’s and so their passing game isn’t quite as sublime. Yet Stoke’s players aren’t as good as Arsenal’s either, and yet they beat them, and are causing upsets against many sides who are far superior on paper.

This tells me that in the Premier League at least, we are not yet to see the teams who play ‘total football’ rewarded with ultimate success and silverware. But neither are we going to see a whole host of teams sticking with the direct approach, because though Stoke are doing OK, perhaps better than expected, they’re not doing well. What we will see in essence then, is a blending of the two. Arsenal won’t win the league because they are too good at playing the passing football. And Stoke won’t stay up because they aren’t good enough at it. The successful teams will create a mixture of the two.

This is proved to some extent by the current dominance over English football of Manchester United and Chelsea. Both teams like to pass the ball around and have good width, looking to play fast flowing football, but both also have players who aren’t afraid to get stuck in and rough it up a bit, as well as having front men who are up for being used as something of a target man, in Berbatov (for United) and Drogba and Anelka (for Chelsea. Scolari came in and got the Blues playing great flowing football, but he soon realised that he would have to keep a solid spine to the team, epitomised by John Terry.

It seems to me then that at domestic level at least, the game will be undergoing less a reversion to the free-flowing football of the past, but more another evolution to a combination of the last two dominant styles of play. In a way this shows how football continues to be reflexive of our society in general, with today’s global climate one of a great deal of retro and contemporary pastiche and postmodernism. Whether this trend will eventually apply to the international game too could be a telling question for the fortunes of the English national team, as I feel we may benefit from it if that were to be the case, as the more flamboyant teams like Brazil, Argentina and Spain would suffer from a lack of physicality, much like Arsenal are at the moment.