Saturday, 8 December 2012

‘The Beautiful Game: A Football Blog’

By Dave McArdle

Champions League

Undoubtedly the story of this week in football has been Celtic’s heroics in Europe. The Scottish side qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League in dramatic fashion on Wednesday night. Kris Commons’ late penalty on Wednesday ensured the Bhoys will be in the draw for the last 16 and will play European football at the highest level after Christmas for the first time since the inception of the Champions League. Perhaps even more importantly for Neil Lennon’s side is the financial windfall the club will receive as a result of their qualification. The Glasgow side are set to pocket upwards of £20 million – a significant sum in terms of investing in the playing squad and building the club into the future.

For Chelsea, however, the Champions League dream is over. Rafa Benitez enjoyed his first win as Chelsea manager as his side hammered Nordsjaelland 6-1 but Juventus’ result in Donetsk meant that the Blues attained the unwanted record of becoming the first Champions League holders not to make it out of the group stages. Benitez can instead look forward to another crack at winning the Europa League after Christmas.

Celtic will enter the draw in just under two weeks time knowing that a tough draw awaits them. The Hoops are in Pot 2 having finished in second place in Group G where they stand alongside some of the most illustrious names in European football with FC Porto, Arsenal, AC Milan, Real Madrid, Shaktar Donetsk, Valencia and Galatasaray all represented. These teams will be matched up against the sides who topped their groups in the last 16 draw – and the group winners comprise of PSG, Schalke, Malaga, Borussia Dortmund, Juventus, Bayern Munich , Barcelona and Manchester United.

The Champions League draw for the last 16 takes place in Nyon on Thursday the 20th of December.

Premier League Preview

Arsenal v West Brom (Saturday 3pm)
Arsene Wenger will be hoping to arrest a run of form which has seen them fail to win in their last four in all competitions. Steve Clarke’s West Brom side travel to the Emirates five points ahead of the Gunners and they will be looking to return to form after back-to-back defeats against Swansea and Stoke in their last two games. Arsenal will be without Andre Santos, Abou Diaby, Laurent Koscielny, Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott while Bacary Sagna is a major doubt for the game. Steve Clarke, meanwhile, has virtually a full squad to choose from with Ben Foster the only major absentee.

Aston Villa v Stoke City (Saturday 3pm)
Aston Villa welcome Stoke City to Villa Park on Saturday hoping to stretch their unbeaten run to four. They will be up against a stubborn Stoke side who have won their last three on the bounce. Paul Lambert is again expected to be without Joe Bennett, Richard Dunne and Gary Gardner while there are serious doubts over the fitness of Ron Vlaar and Enda Stevens. Lambert has confirmed, however, that Darren Bent will be in the matchday squad but it is likely that he will have to settle for a place on the bench. Stoke City will definitely be without Marc Wilson, Charlie Adam and Rory Delap while Peter Crouch, Cameron Jerome and Michael Owen are doubtful.

Southampton v Reading (Saturday 3pm)
Two of the bottom three in the Premier League square up in a crucial encounter at St.Mary’s on Saturday afternoon. Nigel Adkins has doubts over Frazer Richardson, Richard Chaplow and Danny Fox but the Saints will be boosted by the return of record signing Gaston Ramirez. Pavel Pogrebnyak and Danny Guthrie could return for Reading but Brian McDermott will have to do without the services of Jem Karacan, Jimmy Kebe and Alex McCarthy.

Sunderland v Chelsea (Saturday 3pm – Live on Setanta Ireland)
Rafa Benitez will travel to the Stadium of Light still searching for his first Premier League victory as Chelsea manager. Benitez will be buoyed by the fact that Chelsea have won 14 of their last 15 against Sunderland. Martin O’Neill’s men will be looking to stay out of the relegation zone with the Mackems in a seriously poor run of form stretching back to last season which has seen them win only 2 of their last 22 matches. John O’Shea and Steven Fletcher should be fit enough to feature for the home side while Wes Brown and Lee Cattermole will miss out. Chelsea captain John Terry will be absent along with striker Daniel Sturridge while John Obi-Mikel begins a three match ban. However, Frank Lampard is expected to feature for the Blues after recovering from a calf problem.

Swansea v Norwich (Saturday 3pm)
Two of the most in-form sides in the Premier League go head to head on Saturday with Swansea unbeaten in six and Norwich unbeaten in eight. Neil Taylor remains sidelined for the Swans while the game is expected to come too soon for Michel Vorm. Michael Laudrup also has doubts over the fitness of Wayne Routledge, Pablo Hernandez and Danny Graham. John Ruddy joins Michael Turner on the sidelines for Chris Hughton’s side after undergoing surgery which is expected to keep him out for up to three months. The Canaries will be boosted though as Sebastien Bassong should be ok to feature after suffering a knock last time out.

Wigan v QPR (Saturday 3pm)
Harry Redknapp travels to the DW on Saturday and he will be hoping for a first victory as QPR manager against a Wigan side who have lost four of their last five games. Roberto Martinez has plenty to worry about on the injury front as he is set to be without four defenders and four midfielders – with Antolin Alcaraz, Gary Caldwell, Maynor Figueroa, Ivan Ramis, Shaun Maloney, Ben Watson, Albert Crusat and Ryo Miyaichi all expected to miss out for the Latics. Harry Redknapp will have to do without strikers Andrew Johnson and Bobby Zamora once more while the game could come too soon for goalkeeper Julio Cesar.

Man City v Man United (Sunday 1:30 pm – Live on Sky Sports 1)
The game of the weekend sees the top two in the Premier League square up in another mouth-watering Manchester derby.  Man City are still unbeaten in the league this season but they go into the game trailing their rivals by three points. City are unbeaten at home in 2 years and Sir Alex Ferguson will have to shore up a leaky United defence if that record is to be overturned on Sunday. City will definitely be without Alexander Kolarov and Micah Richards while there are doubts over the fitness of Gael Clichy, James Milner and Jack Rodwell. Roberto Mancini will be hoping that David Silva can shake off a knock after being left out against Borussia Dortmund in midweek. Sir Alex Ferguson will be without Antonio Valencia, Anderson and Nani while Nemanja Vidic and Shinji Kagawa are unlikely to be fit enough to feature. Nick Powell and Tom Cleverly are also doubtful for the Red Devils but Robin Van Persie and Patrice Evra should return after being rested in midweek.

Everton v Tottenham (Sunday 3pm)
Two sides with European places firmly in their sides will meet on Sunday at Goodison Park.  Everton have not won in three to see them drop out of the Champions League places while Tottenham have been victorious their last three which has seen them climb into fourth place. Club captain Phil Neville remains on the injured list for Everton while Seamus Coleman, Kevin Mirallas and Victor Anichebe are also expected to miss out for the Toffees. Gareth Bale joins Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Younes Kaboul and Scott Parker on the sidelines for Spurs while Michael Dawson is also rated as seriously doubtful for Andre Villas-Boas’ side.

West Ham v Liverpool (Sunday 4pm – Live on Sky Sports 1)
West Ham welcome Liverpool to Upton Park in confident mood after an impressive 3-1 victory over Chelsea last time out. The Hammers sit 3 points and 3 places above the Merseysiders and will be hoping to build on the 22 points they have accrued so far. Andy Carroll will miss out for the Hammers through injury but even if he had been fit he would have been ineligible to feature under the terms of his loan deal. Sam Allardyce will also have to do without Alou Diarra, Jack Collison and Ricardo Vaz Te. Liverpool have been dealt a major blow as talisman Luis Suarez picked up his fifth booking of the season last time out and will sit out the game through suspension. Steven Gerrard and Jonjo Shelvey are the men most likely to feature up front in place of Suarez for the Reds. Brendan Rodgers has no fresh injury concerns with Martin Kelly and Fabio Borini still on the long-term injury list.

Fulham v Newcastle (Monday 8pm – Live on Sky Sports 1)
Fulham host Newcastle on Monday evening with the two sides separated only by goal difference in the league table. Both sides have been in poor form of late and they have both lost 3 of their last 4 games in the league. Bryan Ruiz will definitely miss out for the Cottagers while Simon Davies and Sascha Riether also doubtful for Martin Jol’s side. Steven Taylor, Ryan Taylor, Dan Gosling, Haris Vuckic and Johan Cabaye will all miss out for Newcastle while Alan Pardew has a host of doubts with the participation of Davide Santon, Hatem Ben Arfa, Jonas Gutierrez, Cheick Tiote, Gabriel Obertan and Demba Ba all uncertain.

Fantasy Football

Gameweek 16 seems a tricky week for us fantasy managers as lots of sides with similar ability face up to one another. There should be little to chose between the sides (and thus clean sheets are difficult to predict) in fixtures such as Man City v Man United, Everton v Tottenham, Fulham v Newcastle, Swansea v Norwich and Southampton v Reading. Even Arsenal and Liverpool are far from guaranteed victories in games against in-form West Brom and West Ham, respectively. Add injuries to high profile players such as Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale, along with the suspension of Luis Suarez, into the mix and fantasy managers are left with a real predicament this week.

However, Gameweek 16 also throws up an intriguing double gameweek for both Sunderland and Reading. Reading face Southampton away while Sunderland have Chelsea at home and the sides will also play each other, with Sunderland having home advantage. While Sunderland are unlikely to keep a clean sheet against Chelsea, a clean sheet against Reading looks a real possibility and investment in Carlos Cuellar on Simon Mignolet could prove profitable. Further up the pitch for Sunderland and Stephane Sessegnon and Steven Fletcher look the best options and should be strongly considered for the captains armband while for those of you with budget restrictions, someone like Craig Gardner could be a worthwhile addition to your squad. For Reading, it is hard to see clean sheets but even without clean sheets Adam Federici could be worthwhile with save points while Nicky Shorey and Sean Morrison have attacking potential which could prove profitable. Jobi MacAnuff and Hal Robson-Kanu are budget options in midfield for Reading but undoubtedly the main man to consider for the Royals is Adam LeFondre. LeFondre is in form, takes penalties and has scored 24 points over the last four game weeks and he should be seriously considered for those looking to profit on the double gameweek.

Back to players who have only a single fixture and the main contenders for the armband are probably Michu (home to Norwich) and Fellaini (home to Tottenham). Both players have been in lethal form this season and home games against similarly-rated opposition should hold little fear. Robin Van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez should not be overlooked merely because they feature in the Manchester derby  - players of this calibre can produce the points in any fixture. Some other possible contenders for the armband include Dimitar Berbatov (home to Newcastle), Santi Cazorla (home to West Brom) and Arouna Kone (home to QPR).

Enjoy the weekend and the Manchester derby and I’ll be back next week with more of the stories and news from the beautiful game.

 You can follow Dave McArdle on Twitter @DaveMidlands103


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