soccer

Top 10 English Premier League Storylines

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Mathematically, a mere five percent of the 2010-11 Premier League season is in the books. The transfer window is still active, though closing rapidly.

Better yet, the calendar still reads August.

Can we all say we've learned anything since the European club season got into full swing earlier this month? Probably nothing declarative, yet there might be a couple trends or early-season discoveries worth tucking away. There not quite issues or trends or even storylines, but things to keep an eye out for.

Without any further ado ...

10 Early Premier Leagues "Issue-lines":

1. Tottenham: Got it Done -- Quick, redder, more jowl-y face, Harry Redknapp or Larry the Cable Guy?

Though it's not directly Premier League related, Spurs did the business Wednesday in the final Champions League playoff with Young Boys at wet, rainy White Hart Lane. Spurs avoided the same pitfall as Everton, the last non-"Big Four" qualifier for the competition, as the Toffees were knocked out by what proved to be a very good Villareal side five years ago in the final playoff round.

It's hard to see Tottenham being able to mount a sustained challenge on the top four of the Premier League, whilst playing six matches vs. Inter Milan, Werder Bremen and FC Twente from September through December. That said, the mega-millions lottery ticket the Champions League represents, certainly will help even if it is a drop in the bucket toward closing the gap between Manchester City.

The question is, will Redknapp revert to his wheeling-and-dealing ways in the next four days, or will he pocket the cash and bide his time? Spurs certainly need a warm body at forward, with Jermain Defoe possibly out for a couple months (Friday reports said he canceled his groin surgery), and after Wednesday Redknapp certainly can't afford to sell Peter Crouch, personal problems notwithstanding.

Redknapp did make a smart buy, bringing in William Gallas for nothing, as the Frenchman should give him some flexibility across the back four. The rumored move for Lass Diarra would make sense, too, since he's a certain upgrade over Wilson Palacios in the middle, especially with guys like Estenban Cambiasso and Torsten Frings awaiting Spurs in Europe.

As for a forward, Spurs need a dynamic, week-in, week-out goal-scorer -- something Crouch can't do by himself for a sustained amount of time, although he hasn't been given that chance in recent years. A move for Luis Fabiano (Cup-tied by Sevilla), or someone of that ilk would make sense, but trying to integrate him in the middle of the season might not work.

Spurs, at least, have a season to give their fans.

Had they choked against Young Boys, they'd be back in the Europa League and fighting for fourth or fifth in the League. In other words, 10 months of hard work down the proverbial drain.

2. Chelsea are the Boston Celtics -- Perhaps this is the fact Kevin Garnett is admitted Blues fan, but the comparison is apt. The Celtics of recent vintage won behind their "Big Three" of Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. Chelsea has won with it's own three-headed monster of John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba.

More than that, the Celtics were able to bring along young players like Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins, as Chelsea did with Flourent Malouda and Jon Obi Mikel, along with other younger squad players and galvanize them with a refuse-to-win/winning edge.

Chelsea and the Celtics each expect to win and have the knowledge of what it takes to win in the back of their heads. Sure they might be aging, but when it counts would you bet against them when the money is on the line?

3. Will the real Wayne Rooney please stand up -- Fair question to throw out there, as Manchester United is currently constructed: where best does Wayne Rooney fit in? Lone striker? Playing behind Dimitar Berbatov? Drifting wide or deep? Free roaming?

Since limping off vs. Bayern Munich last spring, Rooney hasn't been the same. No, he's not eating canned beans in a trailer park, but he's not the best player in England at the moment, either.

United still possess as much quality central and wide midfield talent as any team in the League, yet without Rooney's goal-scoring and conjuring ability, the team isn't nearly as frightening to opponents.

Not sure, without Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez at Old Trafford anymore if Sir Alex Ferguson can afford to allow Rooney to float around the field and instinctively make play. Rooney needs to shake off whatever has taken him out of his game, shave the proverbial beard and get back to being Rooney Tunes.

Suppose a dude that's been tearing up the Premier League since he was 16 is due a slump. Every athlete is human, even those of the "Playstation Man" ilk, right?

Still, 13 games without a goal from Rooney is hard to fathom.

4. Eddie Johnson: Proof is in the Pudding -- Credit Eddie Johnson for speaking up earlier this week to a Fulham in-house magazine about his perceived stigma clubs have against American players plying their trades in England.

At the same time, coming from the one-time, "Grown Ass Man," it's a fairly ludicrous point of view.

Let's break it down:

a) Above all Premier League managers would play an albino Martian if he helped them on the field.

b) Remember, Johnson arrived at Fulham in January 2008, right after Roy Hodgson took over for Lawrie Sanchez. Now with Mark Hughes in charge, he's got another manager who isn't beholden to play him. The people that would have scouted him aren't there. He's got nobody there left in his corner. (Also, Fulham's pro-American player policy seemed to be the brainchild of Cookie Coleman, who's been gone from Craven Cottage for a couple years now.)

c) Johnson: 30 matches on loan at Cardiff City ... two goals.

d) Stuart Holden came to Bolton last winter and stepped right into the Trotters' starting lineup, after a slight delay thanks to that jerk, Nigel de Jong. Does Holden not count for the argument since he was born in Scotland?

e) Overall, American players aren't the value buy they were around the turn-of-the-century. MLS certainly wants more money in transfers for established players, plus there are work permit issues for youngster ones. Throw in the new EPL "home grown" limitations and Americans aren't exactly as much an asset for club's with modest cash reserves as they were five years ago.

So yeah, it's a nice way to draw some attention when you claim a bias against Americans, but in this case, sorry Eddie, it seems like a smokescreen to cover up your failure to impress in two years and two managers at Craven Cottage.

5. Roy Hodgson won't be a miracle-worker at Anfield -- Until the Liverpool ownership dilemma is sorted out, the club will remain stuck in flux, thought not totally crippled on the field. It's hard to believe the Kop's loathing toward the two American idiots running the club trickles down to the players themselves. Of course, like Walter Sobchek said, you can't bring this negativity into the tournament, so maybe the players are slightly affected by burning effigies of Tom Hicks. Maybe.

On the field, it's going to take some time for Hodgson to meld his own lineup from the amalgamation Rafa Benitez left him. Converting from the Spaniard's 4-2-3-1 to Hodgson's preferred 4-4-2 isn't as simple as it seems. When you don't have the personnel, a manager has to amend, right? More than that, the easiest way to attack Benitez post Istanbul-2005 was his rotational squad policy, meanwhile at Fulham Hodgson had one of the most static starting XIs in the Prem.

At issue, seemingly always, is where exactly to best play Steven Gerrard and how long it'll be until Fernando Torres can play for 90 minutes in back-to-back matches. On top of that, is Torres best utilized in a two-striker system, or does he need to be alone up top? And is the much-maligned David N'Gog that player?

On the plus side, at least Liverpool found a way to win at Trabzonspor on Thursday giving them some addition Europa League revenues to offset their Mount Everest-sized debt.

If Liverpool realizes it can't pass Chelsea or Manchester United this season, sets its sights on fourth place, it might be okay long-term -- debt/ownership issues aside. You'd have to think with the job he did with journeymen at Fulham, Hodgson will find players who can think and react in his preferred system. Or at least if you're a Liverpool fan that's what you have to talk yourself into.

And if Hodgson does indeed bite the bullet and sell Javier Mascherano for the benefit of team unity, so be it. Xabi Alonso isn't coming back, so it might be time to try a new midfield that you can win with going forward, anyway. It's time for Liverpool to pull off the remaining Rafa band aids.

The scars left by the increasingly clueless Spainard, will take some time for Doc Hodgson to heal laser blast off.

6. Newcastle United: Team Fun -- It's not going to be all 6-0 results at sunny St. James Park, but through two rounds we're all better off with the Magpies back in our lives.

Put it this way, when was the last time you saw players growing and shaving mustaches become this big of an issue(*), or at least one that actually was picked up by the press and became a talking point? More than that, led by Joey Barton, the players had fun with it.

Who knows where Newcastle ends up. At least, unlike most of their bottom-half of the table brethren, the Magpies ooze with personality.

(*) On a semi-related note, caught the final season "Seinfeld" premiere, which kicks off with George and Jerry with 'in take mustaches? Post-Larry David episodes are, eh, too wacky all these years later.

7. Arsenal is, well, Arsenal -- Groundhog day comes early at the Emirates. Promising August, palpable Champions League draw, young players excelling, Theo Walcott teasing us with his potential.

Haven't we all heard this before?

Until Arsenal shows what it can do against Manchester United, Chelsea and maybe Man City and Spurs, the Gunners remain in the "Unsolved Mysteries" file.

And once that England weather takes a turn ...

8. Manchester City: Men at Work(*) -- Maybe Roberto Mancini's master plan comes to fruition by the end of September and City make an immediate assault at the top spot.

More likely we'll see plenty of listless weekends like we saw at Spurs and blinding displays like we saw Monday vs. Liverpool.

You can't just plop half a dozen new, high-profile players on the field and expect them to click immediately, can you?

In a perfect world, City would be given time to gel and work on its ideal XI.

In the year 2010, that isn't allowed in the instantaneous society we live in. Nor when the club outlays transfer fees approaching the billion dollar range. That makes it less likely for us fans to give them a pass.

Barring Mancini catching lightning in a bottle, City's best case scenario is a top three finish, building toward a true title challenge in 2011-12. There are definite pieces coming into place at Eastlands.

Also, anyone else find it bizarre that Sheik Mansour, the "man behind the curtain" at Eastland had never attended a match until Monday?

(*) I didn't force a strained "Who Can it Be Now?" joke here. Progress.

9. Roberto Martinez, con man? -- Just about everyone in American loved the Wigan Athletic coach's understated work on ESPN during the World Cup. Is it possible he should have stayed in Northwest England to work on his team?

Wigan are taking their lumps now and club chairmen David Whelan says Martinez is safe. Maybe that's simply because Martinez is biting his lip on Whelan's profitable transfer policy.

Yet, was it wise to let veterans Mario Melchiot, Paul Scharner, Titus Bramble (yes, really) and Jason Koumas all leave in the same offseason? And Charles N'Zogbia, one of his few remaining proven players is rapidly forcing an exit for the DW to Birmingham City.

Pinning your hopes on unproven players at the Premier League level is a fast ticket to relegation. Wigan play at Tottenham Saturday. There's the international break next week. The Latics may be looking at a zero next to their name for a long time. Not good for morale.

Maybe he can sign Alexi Lalas.

10. Fox Soccer.tv is great ... when it works -- Okay, for $14.99 a month you expect flawless performance. Hiccups aside, the streaming product this year is a major upgrade from last season, especially since you can stream every game on Saturday morning not being shown on FSC or ESPN2.

Champions League Draw Quickee:
Weird thought surfaced the other day. When we're rooting for teams , in this case, Tottenham to reach the Champions League, what exactly are we cheering for? No disrespect, but the odds have to be around 75-to-1 for Spurs to win the competition, maybe lower. So, in essence, we're rooting for a club to add that sweet UEFA money cake revenue stream.

Not to sound too cynical, but the Champions League until we get to the knockout stages is not that much different than a UEFA endorsed cash cow. Yeah, you have a situation this year where Ajax had to get the extra money or face financial ruin, but most of the time it's just the rich getting richer.

Should we be so blindly happy with this?

Okay, some less cynical thoughts:

* Amending my Twitter draw chatter, Manchester United might have the easiest cakewalk, compared to Arsenal and Chelsea. Valencia sold David Villa, David Silva. Rangers is Rangers and Sir Alex isn't about to lose a "Border War." Bursaspor might be a tough trick, but the Turkish champs are lightweights.

Arsenal didn't get a "power" club in its group, but on second thought games against Shakhtar Donetsk and Braga (at least away from the Emirates) won't be as easy as they looked on first glance. Gunners still should qualify with relative ease.

* Don't forget, we're good for maybe one or two at most upsets into the knockout rounds. By the same token, I'd probably be willing to risk my life, condo, car and collection of Panini stickers that Barcelona advances out of a group of Panathinakos, Rubin Kazan and Copenhagen.

* Milan (aka Meeeeelan) might be the only No. 1 seed in jeopardy of failing to qualify. Adding Zlatan Ibrahimovic won't help dissuade me from this line of thinking.

* Bayern Munich ends up with a soft group and could make another run to the final, though the Bavarians haven't improved the team all too much from last season, especially in the defense. Oh, and any chance Arjen Robben survives the knockout rounds healthy this time around?

* Does anyone care all that much about Schalke 04 since Jermaine Jones and his qasi-American status is in the mix?

* Over-under Champions League minutes for Oguchi Onyewu for Milan is 45.

* As always with the Champions League, the drama swirls around "The Special One." Wonder if the soccer gods are lining up knockout round matches for Real Madrid against Chelsea and Inter Milan?

Round Three (EPL) Picks:

Saturday:

* Blackburn Rovers v. Arsenal -- (Live, 7:45 a.m., ESPN2) A game like this all depends on if Blackburn shows up for the first 15 minutes and can frustrate Arsenal, who probably expect a stroll. Blackburn seem to have settled on 4-1-4-1, which could clog up Arsenal's passing lanes, plus Steven N'Zonzi has the size and physicality to match the Gunners midfield. Unfortunately for Sam Allardyce, if he plays ancient Miguel Salgado, Andrey Arshavin and or Theo Walcott might have a field day on the flanks. Blackburn, which has played well through two matches, is actually a tougher test for Arsenal that it looks, again, they just can't give up a early goal or the floodgates will open. Wonder if the Arsenal goalkeeping wobbles show up here? ... Blackburn 1, Arsenal 2

* Wolves v. Newcastle United -- Wolves aren't half bad ... now let's see how the league adjusts. Mick McCarthy, to his credit, has established an ethos of hard work and determination at the club, who seem to thrive in underdog roles. Will it be classic Newcastle? Post a 6-0 win then fail to show up the next week? Certainly opposing defenses are Andy Carroll high alert. ... Wolves 1, Newcastle United 0

* Chelsea v. Stoke City -- (Live, 10 a.m., Fox Soccer Plus) Stoke aren't a bad team, but are getting hit by the injury bug at striker (Jones, Sidiby). After back-to-back tight 2-1 losses, the last team Tony Pulis needs to see is Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Rightly or wrongly, the press might seize on Pulis and artificially place him on the hotseat. Can Chelsea run riot at home once again? ... Chelsea 4, Stoke City 0

* Blackpool v. Fulham -- This match will actually give us a pretty fair assessment of where Blackpool is going to be this season. Fulham are a good team, not exactly world beaters but quality, proven Premier League players. If the Cottagers stroll up to Bloomfield Road and mush the Tangerines, the goodwill of that Wigan upset might go out the window. ... Blackpool 1, Fulham 3

* Tottenham v. Wigan -- (Live, 10 a.m. Fox Soccer) This one ended 9-1 last year. Probably not in the cards this week. And wouldn't it be typical Tottenham shenanigans to blow this match? Couldn't happen, could it? Spurs do have injury concerns with Gomes limping off at halftime in the midweek. Does Wigan has any fight left in them, or if they'll mail in the final 36 matches? Perhaps playing on the road is a good thing in the Latics case. ... Spurs 2, Wigan 0

* Manchester United v. West Ham United -- (Live, 12:30 p.m., Fox Soccer) Unlike Stoke City, which probably drops to 0-0-3, West Ham is likely looking at the same record and has major issues, as Avram Grant tries to piece it all together, seemingly linked to half the players in Europe. At the moment what would West Ham's assets be? Scott Parker (a soup kitchen Frank Lampard/Steven Gerrard), Carlton Cole, Robert Green? You look at the roster and it should be better, but the performance doesn't show up on the weekend. Rudderless is the best way to put it. Grant needs to make it so every 90 minutes isn't a life-and-death struggle. Guessing it doesn't happen at Old Trafford. ... Manchester United 5, West Ham United 1

Sunday:

* Bolton v. Birmingham City -- (Live, 8:30 a.m., Fox Soccer Plus) Big opportunity for Bolton here. A win at the Reebok and it's seven points from three games to open the year. Could the Europa League await? When you factor in Birmingham City's workman-like, fighting spirit this could be a fun match since the mid-season doldrums have yet to set in. This might be a match for set pieces ... and one waking up early for on Sunday if you like glamor-free, gritty English teams. ... Bolton 2, Birmingham City 1

* Sunderland v. Manchester City -- Remember last season? City needed that uber-crafty Adam Johnson curling goal to salvage a draw? Sunderland are decent at home, but have only played one quality half so far this season. City are flying high after making Liverpool question its faith on Monday. At halftime, we should get all the players to line up around the center circle and allow Lee Cattermole and de Jong to an ultimate fight to the finish. Everything is legal except biting. ... Sunderland 1, City 1

* Liverpool v. West Brom -- On paper, Liverpool can exhale here, yet they're certainly in no position to take West Brom lightly. If anything, this is a match where Torres could announce his re-arrival to the Prem. ... Liverpool 2, West Brom 0

* Aston Villa v. Everton -- (Live, 11 a.m., FSC) We're all penciling in Everton and Aston Villa as "good" teams, or at least sides that could challenge for the top six. Right now, though, the evidence isn't there. Aston Villa don't have a manager and don't even have the Europa League any more. Everton have looked toothless the first two weeks. One of these two can allay some of those doubts at Villa Park. ... Aston Villa 1, Everton 1.

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