Ashes Report Card – England

Copyright Daily Mail

Copyright Daily Mail

Yesterday I gave my opinion on the performance of the touring Australian squad during this summers recently concluded Ashes series, and today I’ll be doing the same for the England side who prevailed 3-0. The same grading system applies, A* being the top mark available and F being the worst.

Alistair Cook: C-

The England skipper enjoyed a fantastic time with the bat during his first series in charge in India, however since then he’s struggled to score as prolifically as usual. Cook passed fifty thrice during the series, but never made it past 62 and his captaincy also left a lot to be desired. It’s not so much the cautious field placings that I dislike, more Cook’s lack of initiative with regards to bowling changes and the batting order. Still, 3-0 is 3-0 and on the whole Cook will be more than satisfied with his first Ashes in charge.

Matt Prior: D

Prior averaged a meager 19 with the bat and at 31 may have shown signs he is beginning to decline. Prior’s glove-work also left a little to be desired, although he may have become a victim of failing to live up to his own high standards behind the stumps. His place in the team at number seven and as vice-captain is still secure, nonetheless.

Kevin Pietersen: C+

While KP registered three fifties and a ton during the series he averaged just 38, which much like the two men above him is some way below his usual output. Pietersen’s innings on the fifth evening at the Oval threatened the spectacular, and had he perhaps lasted another five overs the game may have reached a conclusion. Worrying injury doubts linger, and the return Ashes series this winter could be the 33 year-olds last against the Aussies.

Joe Root: C

English crickets ‘golden boy’ had an up and down series, striking an imperious 180 at Lord’s but adding just 159 more runs in his other nine innings. When the new ball nips around it appears to give him serious problems owing to his propensity to hang on the back foot and it’s an area of his game which he’ll have to tighten up if he wants to succeed this winter. His bowling proved useful as he picked up three wickets at 11 runs apiece, so it was rather surprising that he only bowled 16 overs over the course of the five matches.

Jonathan Trott: C-

A relatively poor series for England’s Mr. Dependable, who scored two fifties but also registered two ducks including his first ever golden in test cricket. Trott’s form has been worryingly poor for a while now, so he’ll be keen to perform as well this winter as he did the last time he toured Oz. Another aging member (32) of England’s core.

Jonny Bairstow: C-

I was very surprised to learn that Bairstow and Trott’s averages during the series were almost identical (29 and 29.3, respectively). Clearly Trott’s track record brought him a little extra time, while Bairstow was dropped for the fifth test at the Oval in favour of Chris Woakes. The fact that Bairstow keeps being given opportunities and keeps blowing them doesn’t bode well for his future, although he remains Prior’s understudy with the gloves.

Ian Bell: A

If Ryan Harris stood out for the Australians, Bell was comfortably England’s best player during this series. Three tons and two fifties helped Bell average 62 as at times he almost single-handedly carried the hosts batting and without his centuries at Trent Bridge and Durham the result would have been different. Bell had a fantastic home summer against India in 2011 and though he has struggled since then this summer reaffirmed his class and you could reasonably refer to the series as ‘Bell’s Ashes’

Chris Woakes: D

Woakes only had one test to impress and unfortunately he failed to deliver. His bowling was actually quite sharp and he managed to crack 85mph on a couple of occasions, but he failed to make the ball talk and his accuracy wasn’t up to scratch. His batting looked slightly better, but it’s difficult to see him in England whites again any time soon.

Tim Bresnan: B-

Big Bres had a solid series, although he wasn’t selected for the first test and missed the fifth through injury. He appears to have regained his sharpness with the ball and his ten wickets came at under 30. Bresnan’s batting remains a valuable asset, and there probably isn’t a better number eight in test cricket. Andy Flower will be hoping he’s fully fit for the winter to take advantage of the rumoured green wickets that are being prepared by the Aussies.

Stuart Broad: B

Broad had an excellent series highlighted by several spells of hostile short bowling directed at the Australian captain Michael Clarke. He was a different bowler to the one who was humbled by the South Africans in 2012 and after he missed the final three tests in the previous Ashes series through injury it was encouraging to see him sustain a high performance level for all five tests. His contributions with the bat were welcome, unfortunately they were overshadowed by his decision not to walk in the first test at Trent Bridge (a decision which I fully support, by the way).

James Anderson: B-

The Burnley Lara began the series with perhaps his finest game in an England shirt, holding his nerve as he took 10 wickets to deny the Australians victory on that tense fifth morning. That day there was only one man who looked capable of taking the three wickets needed, and Anderson didn’t let his country down. Unfortunately his marathon spell that day appeared to take its toll as the series wore on and his output suffered as a result, but his contribution at Trent Bridge really was one of the great England bowling performances.

Graeme Swann: A-

Swann led the hosts wicket taking charts with 26 dismissals, clocking up a mammoth 249 overs in the process. Tina turners were prepared for Swann’s benefit and he made sure the ground staff’s hard work wasn’t put to waste. He may find it harder in Australia this winter, but significantly his elbow stood up to his heavy workload and with no obvious understudy he is still, in my opinion, the teams most valuable player.

Steven Finn: D-

When I saw Finn at Lords last summer against South Africa he looked like the sides most threatening bowler and looked like a matter of time before he took the next step in his development and became a world-class quick. Sadly Finn hasn’t fared nearly as well since and with a host of young bowlers shining in county cricket he’d better buck his ideas up soon if he’s to fulfill his enormous potential.

Simon Kerrigan: F

As unfortunate as it was to see Kerrigan yip up at the Oval, you’re not going to last long on the big stage if you can’t perform. When you look back at majority of the sides debuts they shone immediately: Swann took a wicket in his first test over, Cook scored a ton, KP made two fifties at Lords in an Ashes contest and so on. Playing Kerrigan was a gamble that backfired on the England selectors; don’t expect them to be bitten twice this winter by taking him as Swann’s understudy down under.

 

Thanks for reading, and as usual if you disagree with any of the grades I’ve given you can leave a comment or tweet me @fredjstanley.

 

 

Ashes Report Card – Australia

Copyright The Sun Newspaper

Copyright The Sun Newspaper

Last night saw the somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion of this summers Ashes, with England taking the series 3-0 to retain the little urn after a light affected draw at the Kia Oval. Below are my ratings for the touring Australians, with A* being the top mark and an F given to those who had a stinker, for want of a better word.

Michael Clarke: B-

Clarke had an inconsistent series with the bat and by his own lofty standards he’ll be disappointed with his final output. He scored 381 runs at 47, but those figures are inflated by two red inkers and his magnificent 187 at Old Trafford. His captaincy was enterprising and he tried his best to manufacture a result at the Oval, but ultimately the old adage that a captain is only as good as his players rang true.

Brad Haddin: C+

Named vice-captain before the tour, Haddin added a veteran presence and stability to a role that had previously been shrouded in uncertainty. With the bat Haddin didn’t perform as well as he might have, although his gallant 71 at Trent Bridge nearly produced a famous win for the Aussies. However despite normally being a bit suspect with the gloves Haddin’s keeping was excellent and he snared a test series record 29 dismissals, all catches. He should keep his position come the return series this winter.

Shane Watson: B

Having entered the series unsure of his place within the team and the batting order, Watson’s 176 at the Oval should earn him a run at number three this winter. His strike rate of 64 was impressive and aside from Clarke I’d reason that Watson is the one batsman Australia have with genuine world-class ability. His bowling was stingy, and the 85.3 overs he bowled at just 2.09 runs per over enabled Clarke to attack from the other end. He stayed healthy throughout, another positive for the all-rounder.

Chris Rogers: C

Rogers’ story is a nice one, and his return to test cricket after a five-year absence went better than most people would have predicted. Rogers averaged 40 over his nine innings and at the top of the order that’s a very solid return, especially with all the uncertainty surrounding the identity of his opening partner. I’d imagine Rogers will remain in the selectors plans for the foreseeable future, although he turns 36 next week.

Steven Smith: B

Not originally named in the touring party, Smith scored heavily in the warm up games to give Darren Lehmann no choice but to insert him into the suspect top six. Smith at times flattered to deceive and his technique is far from ideal, but his unbeaten 138 at the Oval was a thing of beauty. At just 24 he could be the closest thing Australia have to a future captain, and his world-class fielding adds to his value. Also picked up four wickets with his leg spin, including a three wicket burst at Lords on the first evening.

Phil Hughes: D

Unfortunately for Hughes he suffered through a third successive Ashes where he was unable to impact positively upon the series. The Aussies tour to India in the spring highlighted his weakness against spin and Graeme Swann exploited that happily during Hughes two tests in this series. He actually started well with 81 not out at Trent Bridge, but his next three innings mustered just two (!) runs. His test future looks bleak.

David Warner: C-

Whenever anyone mentions Warner and the 2013 Ashes in the same breath in the future, it’ll be impossible to not immediately think ‘Walkabout’ and ‘Joe Root’. Once Warner did eventually get on the field in the third test he showed glimpses of his potentially devastating batting at the top of the order, but his final average of 23 from six innings leaves much to be desired. If I’m being honest I think Warner lacks the necessary skill to open the batting in tests, although he’s worth persisting with when the alternatives are Hughes and Usman Khawaja.

Usman Khawaja: D

Like many of his compatriots Khawaja has a fatal flaw against spin. He actually looked very comfortable against pace, but his inability to rotate the strike compounds his flaws and he only passed fifty once in six visits to the crease. Once a very bright prospect, Khawaja is in danger of being overtaken in the pecking order by the likes of Shaun Marsh.

Ed Cowan: F

One test, two innings and 14 runs comprised Cowan’s Ashes. The 31 year-old struggled mightily at Trent Bridge and was immediately dropped. It’s difficult to see him getting another chance.

James Faulkner: B

The all-rounder made his debut at the Oval after the British public had to listen to Shane Warne bang his drum for two months, and he didn’t disappoint. His six wickets came in unusual circumstances with England pushing for a win before the light expired, but he did an excellent job of stemming the flow of runs with his canny variations and accurate yorkers. His batting looked explosive during his brief time at the crease, although as with his bowling it’s difficult to read too much into his performance because of the game situation. The one difficulty Faulkner should encounter as he looks to forge a test match career is that Australia already have an all-rounder in Watson.

Ryan Harris: A

Had Harris played at Trent Bridge the Aussies may well have won a test on this tour. The injury prone fast bowler picked up 24 wickets at just 19 apiece across four tests, staying fit throughout until he pulled his hamstring on the final evening of the series. The equation with Harris should be simple for the rest of his career; when fit he has to play.

Peter Siddle: C

Siddle was steady Eddie (or Peter) throughout the five tests, performing roughly as he was expected to. He averaged 31 for each of his 17 wickets and his economy was a good but not great 2.82 as he proved once more that he is Australia’s Mr. Reliable. Because of the rest of the attack’s fragility Siddle’s durability is probably his most valuable attribute.

Mitchell Starc: C-

The left-arm fast bowler was in and out of the side twice during the series, eventually playing three tests. His final statistics were a shade below the level of Siddle, but any southpaw who can crack 90mph on a speed gun retains great value. The slow, dry wickets didn’t suit Starc this summer, so look for him to be more succesful on faster surfaces down under during the winter.

Nathan Lyon: C-

Lyon appears to be just good enough to hold down a regular test position, but he also faces constant questions about his place thanks to his inability to skittle sides out on helpful surfaces. He reminds me a lot of Australia’s spinner on the 2009 tour, Nathan Hauritz.

James Pattinson: D

Pattinson disappointed before his tour was prematurely ended by injury, averaging a bloated 43 with the ball. He also went at 3.36 runs per over, although he demonstrated good pace. He could struggle to regain his place when healthy due to the performances of Siddle and Harris, although his natural talent will ensure he gets plenty more opportunities to pull on the baggy green. In a way he’s the Aussies version of Steven Finn.

Jackson Bird: D-

Bird played just the one test, at Durham, and didn’t make much of an impact as the tourists fell to another defeat. As with Pattinson the Austalians strength in depth in the pace bowling department will make life difficult for Bird as he looks to build on his three test caps.

Ashton Agar: C-

This was the most difficult grade to give, purely because of Agar’s incredible debut with the bat at Trent Bridge. He didn’t bowl well in either of his two tests, but time is on his side and if his bowling does develop he’ll have a future as a spin bowling all-rounder. Whatever happens, he’ll always have Trent Bridge.

So there they are, my final Ashes grades for the Australians. Let me know who you’d have graded differently in the comments, or tweet me @fredjstanley. I’ll be back with my grades for the victorious England side tomorrow.

 

My “Other” Blog..

Firstly, I’d like to thank those of you that have visited Fred Stanley Sport so far. I’ve been happy with the content I’ve produced, but it all feels worthwhile when I receive positive feedback from those who have read my articles or I look at my site statistics. Secondly, in case you didn’t already know I also operate another blog; “American Football Focus”. You can visit AFF here, or alternatively type americanfootballfocus.blogspot.com into your browser. As the title of the blog suggests I cover American football over there, so you can stay here for all my articles about any other sport. My latest article up at AFF concerns drug use in sport and the damage it causes to other professionals, and you can read it by visiting the site or clicking here.

Once again thank you for reading, and if you have any subjects or article ideas which you’d like to read about then please get in touch. My contact details are available in the “About Me” section at the top of the blog.

Why Von Miller, A-Rod and Other Drugs Cheats Damage More Than Just Their Own Reputations

Copyright CBS Sports

Sport can be a great thing. It promotes a healthy lifestyle. It promotes teamwork, a good work ethic and it also produces good role models for aspiring athletes and children. Unfortunately, sport and its participants have an unhealthy habit of shooting themselves in the foot. Occasionally one might get caught gambling on the outcome of a game they themselves are participating in. The most infamous example of this is the Chicago ‘Black Sox’ scandal of 1919, where several members of baseball’s White Sox bet on their own team to lose that year’s World Series. A more contemporary example is the spot-fixing scandal than engulfed cricket in 2010, when three members of the Pakistan team took illegal payments to bowl no-balls at a specific time during the match. However this article isn’t about gambling, nor is it about money. It’s about the recent rash of professional athletes across a variety of sports falling foul of illegal substance regulations and dragging themselves and their fellow professionals into disrepute.

Substance abuse within sport isn’t a new phenomenon. Baseball players commonly used amphetamines during the seventies and eighties, while anabolic steroids led to the downfall of many a track and field athlete during the 1990’s.  More recently blood doping, human growth hormone (HGH) and testosterone enhancers have become the performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) of choice, and while cycling may have reached its nadir earlier this year when Lance Armstrong confessed to taking part in a sophisticated doping program the last few weeks have seen a number of other sports come under the spotlight for very much the wrong reasons.

Denver Broncos star linebacker Von Miller received a six game suspension just yesterday for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Details on Miller’s offence have been vague so far, and while the league has acknowledged he did not fail a drugs test the severity of the punishment (players usually receive a four game ban for their first offence, which this is for Miller) suggests that Miller may have tampered with or attempted to tamper with a sample he gave to testers. Of course there is no good reason for this behaviour if you were certain the sample would come back negative, which implies that Miller feared a positive test. Because Miller has not been cited for a positive test he’s received a certain amount of sympathy from supporters and the media, as opposed to the usual vilification drug cheats receive. NFL Network host Rich Eisen tweeted that Miller is “a good guy”, adding that it’s a shame Miller will be suspended for the Broncos game against his hometown Dallas Cowboys. Unfortunately, I think Eisen completely misses the point here and fails to appreciate the impact that drug cheats, and in the eyes of league regulations Miller is one, have on an enormous amount of people. Miller has cheated his teammates, whose achievements with him in the line-up will now come into question over their authenticity. Miller has cheated his opponents and fellow professionals, who may have lost because of a play PEDs helped him make. But perhaps worst of all, Miller has cheated and influenced the millions of young (and old) NFL fans who look up to him. Hopefully those people don’t now think that it is ok to take illegal substances, or to lie and cheat in an effort to cover their tracks.

The other recent drugs scandal that has engulfed American sport concerns the Biogenesis clinic which supplied illegal substances to a number of Major League Baseball players. The two biggest names connected with Biogenesis were Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun, both sluggers who have made their money and earned accolades because of their ability to hit the ball out of the park. Some of you will remember Braun also tested positive for abnormal testosterone levels after a 2011 play-off game. On that occasion Braun got off on a technicality, as his sample was not handled properly according to protocol and his positive test was wiped. Braun vehemently protested his innocence, going so far as to allegedly call Dino Laurenzi Jr. – the man who mishandled his urine sample – an anti-Semite and a Cubs fan. While I can laugh the second allegation off, the first is completely outrageous and following Braun accepting a 65-game suspension two weeks ago (in relation to Biogenesis) the 29 year-old’s credibility is now shot. Again, what will Braun’s opponents in the 2011 play-offs be thinking now that they know he was juiced up at the time? The same goes for those who have competed against Alex Rodriguez over the past two decades, but it would take a whole other article for me to vent my feelings on his shamefully desperate situation.

One tweet that gained national attention concerning Biogenesis was made by former Major League pitcher Dan Meyer, who competed for a bullpen job with Antonio Bastardo back in 2011 with the Philadelphia Phillies. Bastardo was part of the Biogenesis investigation and received a 50-game suspension for his involvement with the clinic. Meyer tweeted “Hey Antonio Bastardo. Remember when we competed for a job in 2011. Thx (sic) alot. #ahole”. Meyer is now out of professional baseball, he’s playing in the Independent Leagues, and although he was and is an inferior pitcher to Bastardo (a fact which Meyer himself acknowledges) who’s to say that had Bastardo been clean in 2011, and whenever else he was juiced up, he wouldn’t have possessed the necessary juice on his fastball to get major league hitters out? The saying goes that cheats never prosper, but next spring it’s almost certain that Meyer will be grafting to earn a living while Bastardo, fresh off of his suspension, will be earning millions of dollars in the Majors.

As you can see, the collateral from PED use in professional sports is vast and potentially life altering. How many people didn’t win the Tour De France because Lance Armstrong was winning it at a HGH assisted canter? And how many pitchers suffered at the hands of a roided up Barry Bonds? The damage also extends beyond those competing against athletes convicted of using PEDs. Bradley Wiggins, Britain’s first ever Tour De France winner in 2012, wrote an entire chapter in his book “My Time” (2012) about the contempt in which he holds Armstrong and other cycling cheats such as Alberto Contador because his and other cyclists achievements since then will always come under a drug laden cloud. Unfortunately that is a stigma which all cyclists, athletes, baseball and American football players will have to live with for a few years yet – or until the positive tests cease – and it’s all because of their selfish fellow professionals. Armstrong was stripped of his Tour titles. Barry Bonds will never make it into baseball’s Hall of Fame. But Dan Meyer will never get that job opportunity back, and the vilification Dino Laurenzi Jr. received after he made a mistake with Braun’s test sample still took place. Many athletes pay a price for their misdemeanours. But next time you think that a six game ban is a bit steep, pause to consider the bigger picture.

A Tribute to Charlie Manuel

Copyright Philly Sports Central

Copyright Philly Sports Central

On Friday afternoon Charlie Manuel stepped down as manager of the Philadelphia Phillies after the team informed him of their decision not to renew his contract beyond the end of the 2013 season. Manuel had just won his 1,000th game as a manager and he sits atop the Phillies all time list for managerial wins, in addition to having lead the team to its second World Series title back in 2008. Although Manuel wasn’t widely expected to continue in his role for next season the timing of the move was a surprise and didn’t allow Phillies supporters to show their appreciation of Manuel’s efforts before he stepped down. I want to show my gratitude for Manuel’s work during his nine seasons with the team, however, and will do so in this article. I could use these words to explain why the teams poor performance is general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.’s fault as opposed to Manuel’s, but I’ll save that rant for another day.

When the Phillies hired Manuel at the conclusion of the 2004 season the move was greeted with caution and indifference. Manuel had enjoyed mild success with the Cleveland Indians towards the end of the twentieth century, largely thanks to a devastating offence containing sluggers such as Jim Thome and Manny Ramierez. Manuel received praise for his work as a hitting guru while with the Indians, and had been working with the Phillies as a hitting instructor and special assistant to the GM before he was hired as Larry Bowa’s replacement. The Phillies were coming off a season in which they had at one point led the National League east, only to be pegged back by the Atlanta Braves and also lose out on wild card entry into the post season. It was widely thought that Manuel was primarily hired because of his relaxed, laid back approach that would hopefully get the best out of the same players who had failed to respond to Bowa’s fierce intensity. Manuel’s relationship with Thome was also cited as beneficcial, and it was hoped that he could get the best out of the aging first baseman. However Thome was injured halfway through the 2005 season and in his place a young Ryan Howard emerged with a Rookie of the Year season that would prompt Thome’s trade to the Chicago White Sox later that winter.

History would eventually tell us that Manuel did indeed bring out the best of what had previously been an under-achieving core of players. Jimmy Rollins productivity reached new heights, including his legendary MVP season in 2007, Pat Burrell became a consistent run producer until his departure following the 2008 World Series, Chase Utley evolved into the best second baseman in the game and Ryan Howard erupted into an elite power hitter, winning the NL MVP in 2006 thanks to a 58 home run outburst. Manuel was also responsible for Jayson Werth’s surprise development into a top-tier outfielder, with Werth having struggled to make an impact in the majors before the Phillies picked him up on the cheap. Carlos Ruiz was another Manuel success story as the catcher peaked in 2012 hitting .330, after he had battled to hit above the Mendoza line during the opening couple of years of his major league career. Of course, Manuel was fortunate to inherit such talented hitters to work with. But he succeeded where others had failed and the strength of the lineup was what helped the Philliies reach the post season after a 14 years absence 2007 and win the World Series for the first time since 1981 in 2008.

As the Phillies became perennial NL east winners from 2007 until 2011 the teams hitting gradually regressed to league average and pitching became its strength. Cole Hamels was joined in the rotation by first Cliff Lee and then Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt, creating ‘the four aces’. Manuel often let all four pitch deep into games, and while it took little in the way of managerial innovation he deserves praise for simply letting his players do their jobs and not ‘over-managing’.

Perhaps Manuel’s finest moments came during the teams memorable 2008 season. While the lineup scored plenty of runs the pitching staff relied heavily on Hamels and newly acquired closer Brad Lidge. Lidge went a perfect 47 for 47 in save opportunities that year as Manuel used him almost exclusively for one inning at a time. However, when it came to the National League championship series against the Los Angeles Dodgers Manuel decided the time was right in game four to bring Lidge in for a four out save, which he duly completed. In the same game Manuel used Matt Stairs as a pinch hitter in the eighth inning, when the veteran lefty promptly launched a solo bomb to break a 1-1 tie. During that play-off run Manuel adjusted his lineup against left-handed pitching by moving Chase Utley into the number two hole as opposed to hitting third, another move that came off when Utley hit a two run homer in the first inning of World Series game one against then Tampa Bay southpaw Scott Kazmir. All of these moves may look small, and they were, but as a major league manager it’s often the minor moves that make all the difference and in this case they certainly did.

During that same play-off run Manuel’s mother passed away. Several stories about their relationship emerged, including how she would check up on him every day to find out how his teams were getting on. The story added a human element to a statistical sport, and further highlighted Manuel’s popularity with those close to him – including his players, and made the teams achievements that October even more remarkable. Manuel wasn’t a tactical magician, though he had his moments, and he isn’t the most eloquent speaker during press conference

s. He doesn’t have Bowa or Ryne Sandberg’s pedigree as a player. He is incredibly popular in Japan for his time spent playing there, where he excelled after a middling major league career. But his hitting expertise in addition to his calm demeanour helped get the best out of his players during the most successful era in Phillies history. He won with teams that hit. He won with teams with great pitching. And he won more games than any  other manager in the Phillies long history which began in 1883. From an unheralded hire in 2004 Manuel became a Philadelphia legend. And for that, he deserves mine and every other Phillies fans appreciation.

2013/14 Premier League Predictions

mourinho

I’ve been weighing up for a while now whether or not I should post an article offering my opinion on where I think each team will finish during the upcoming Premier League season, and I’ve finally decided to bite the bullet. I’m sure many of you will disagree with where I place certain teams, but please bear in mind that I’m simply offering an opinion and you’re more than entitled to question my sanity in the comments! I’ll go through each team alphabetically and give a subsequent brief analysis.  I’ll also list my picks for top goalscorer, signing of the season and the manager who I think will receive his P45 first. Obviously there’s still a few weeks of the transfer window remaining, but I thought it was impossible to speculate on which players would change hands so I’m making each prediction based on the players each team currently has.

Arsenal – 5th

Yet again the Gunners have failed to add to their squad over the summer, and this year I think Arsene Wenger’s side will pay the price. Arsenal were just good enough to take 4th and a Champions League spot last season, but this could be the year they finally miss out on the European jackpot. Jack Wilshere looks to be back to full fitness so that’s one positive, and although I think Tottenham will surpass their north London rivals I don’t see anyone else coming close to breaking the top fives supremacy.

Aston Villa – 15th

The Villains have had a fairly quiet off-season, with relatively few comings and goings. They did however manage to persuade star striker Christian Benteke to sign a new contract and stay following him submitting a transfer request earlier in the summer. Benteke aside I still think the squad lacks sufficient quality to improve too much on last years campaign, where Paul Lambert’s men narrowly avoided relegation. Villa do possess some promising youngsters and their development would go a long way to ensuring a more comfortable season this time around, although should Benteke suffer from second season syndrome it could be another difficult year for them. [Note: since I wrote this Benteke was injured on international duty and may have suffered a broken leg, so obviously that would alter my prediction if that is indeed the case]

Cardiff – 18th

Unfortunately for fans of the Bluebird’s, ahem, Red Dragons I think the Welsh club’s stay in the Premier League will be a short one. Although they’ve brought fairly well, Steven Caulker in particular looks a good capture, I don’t think there are many weak sides remaining in the division from last season and as you’ll see I don’t fancy any of the promoted sides chances of staying up. I think they’ll put up a good fight and it may well go down to the 38th game, but ultimately I’m not sure Cardiff possess the necessary quality to hold down a place amongst the country’s elite.

Chelsea – 1st

The special one has returned, and I believe he’ll return with a bang. The Premier League is there for the taking this season following Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement and Roberto Mancini’s sacking, which leaves Mourinho and Arsene Wenger as the only two managers with title-winning pedigree. Mourinho knows how to get it done in England, and he inherits a team full of quality all over the pitch. How he uses the midfield trio of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Juan Mata will be interesting but as problems go it’s a good one to have. The one question mark for the Blues is up front where Fernando Torres and Demba Ba will be supplemented by the returning Romelu Lukaku. Between the three of them I expect them to score enough goals to help Mourinho win the title in his first year in charge  – just as he did during his first tenure at Stamford Bridge.

Crystal Palace – 20th

Ian Holloway did an excellent job in getting Palace promoted via the play-offs following his appointment halfway through last season, but much like Cardiff I think Palace could be one hit wonders in the Prem. Glenn Murray led the clubs goalscoring charts last season and he’s out indefinitely  with knee ligament damage, while star man Wilfried Zaha has moved on to pastures new at Old Trafford. Marouane Chamakh has been recruited from Arsenal to lead the line, and that’s really all you need to know about Palace’s survival chances.

Everton – 7th

Another team under new management, Everton replaced the regimented David Moyes with the more adventurous Roberto Martinez from Wigan. Of course, Wigan were relegated last season and most of their troubles stemmed from a porous defense. Moyes had built a solid back four at Goodison Park, and it’ll be fascinating to see how the Toffees take to a manager with a completely different footballing philosophy. I think they’re in line for some regression, albeit not significantly, and another top seven finish beckons.

Fulham – 16th

Fulham have steadily turned themselves into a mid-table Premier League team over the past decade, but last season they became heavily reliant on Dimitar Berbatov’s goals to keep them away from a relegation battle. Adel Taraabt was signed on a season long loan from QPR, but seeing as he was inconsistent at best for Rangers in the Prem last season it is wishful thinking that he’ll excel at another west London club. Factor in Mark Schwarzer’s move to Chelsea and Fulham don’t quite look like the full package going into the season.

Hull – 19th

Another newly promoted side, another ‘one and done’ season in the top flight. Steve Bruce has done a fantastic job to get Hull where they are, but unfortunately I think that the newly re-named Tigers will be cut adrift at the foot of the table alongside fellow Premier League new-boys Palace.

Liverpool – 6th

Brendan Rodgers side showed one or two signs of progress last season, although ultimately they never threatened to break into the top four. I see the top five as being in a league of their own, with Liverpool probably the best of the rest. It sounds like Luis Suarez is staying, which obviously makes the Reds better on paper. I do think that new goalkeeper Simon Mignolet is a downgrade on previous stopper Pepe Reina.

Manchester City – 2nd

Manuel Pellegrini inherits last seasons runners-up from Roberto Mancini and he’s already made a few additions to his squad. Steven Jovetic, Alvaro Negredo and Jesus Navas will all add attacking flair to City’s ranks, although Carlos Tevez has left the Etihad to join Juventus. City were once again stingy at the back last season and conceded few goals so if they can convert more chances up top then they’ll once more challenge for the title. Pellegrini’s lack of experience managing in England could be the decisive factor as they challenge Chelsea, amongst others, for the title.

Manchester United – 3rd

As with City and Chelsea, United are under new management this year. David Moyes hasn’t had a summer to write home about as he’s had to deal with constant speculation about Wayne Rooney’s future as well as failing to secure any of his transfer targets. While Moyes does still have almost all of last years title-winning squad at his disposal there is a sense that United have stood still while their rivals have overtaken them with some shrewd signings. I actually think Moyes could come under some intense pressure this season, mainly because I’m not confident in his ability to succeed in Europe.

Newcastle – 14th

Just as it looked like Newcastle were beginning to achieve some stability, owner Mike Ashley decided to bring in Joe Kinnear as director of football. Kinnear has so far managed to insult half of his first team squad, and Loic Remy aside struggled to add to a squad that flirted with relegation last season. They did buy well last January and that should help them finish fairly comfortably in mid table.

Norwich – 9th

The Canaries have had, in my opinion, the best off-season of any team in the Premier League. Having added Leroy Fer in midfield and Gary Hooper and Ricky Van Wolfswinkel up top Chris Hughton has made some significant improvements to last seasons team, which itself finished 11th. Nathan Redmond is another new signing from Birmingham and he’ll provide much needed width. What impresses me the most about Norwich is the strength in-depth they now have, which in theory should help them continue to pick up points even if injuries and suspensions pile up.

Southampton – 10th

The Saints enjoyed a successful season back in the Prem last year despite changing manager half way through it, and I see them continuing their ascension this year. Ricky Lambert did an excellent job leading the line and scoring was never a problem. The back four was porous at times, so that’ll have to be corrected if they are to live up to my top half expectations.

Stoke – 17th

I can really see Stoke falling down the table this year following the appointment of Mark Hughes to replace Tony Pulis. Hughes’ managerial record has been mediocre recently and part of the reason Stoke have been able to survive for this long in the division was Pulis’s ability to get the best out of his players. I don’t think the Potters will be relegated, they have too much quality, but I expect them to struggle this season as they come to terms with a new manager playing a different style of football to the one they were previously used to.

Sunderland – 13th

Paulo Di Canio just about managed to keep them up last season, and he’s spent most of the summer wheeling and dealing in a way his former boss Harry Redknapp would be proud of. I predict a run of the mill mid table finish for the Black Cats, although their path their is likely to be anything but dull under the mercurial and controversial Italian.

Swansea – 8th

The Swans had an excellent campaign under Michael Laudrup last year, finishing in the top half of the Premier League as well as winning the League Cup. Michu was exceptional and wouldn’t expect him to repeat his goalscoring form from a season ago, but I also fancy new signing Wilfried Bony to compensate for that and then some. Persuading Laudrup to stay over the summer was key and I’d be surprised if he wasn’t able to engineer another top half finish.

Tottenham – 4th

Spurs have brought well this summer, adding the likes of Nacer Chadli and Roberto Soldado to an already strong squad. As I said in my introduction I’m basing everything on the assumption that each team remains as they are, which means that I think if Gareth Bale remains at White Hart Lane he’ll be able to help the club crack the top four ahead of their north London rivals, Arsenal. Full back remains a weakness but an abundance of attacking options should ensure AVB’s men don’t struggle to score goals.

West Brom – 12th

The Baggies relied heavily on Romelu Lukaku’s goals last year especially when Peter Odemwingie tried to force his way out in January and was ostracized as a result. Steve Clarke has them set up well at the back so despite Lukaku returning to Chelsea I don’t think they’ll struggle, although they won’t be as strong as they were last season.

West Ham – 11th

After a 10th place finish last term I’m going for 11th this time around for the Hammers. Sam Allardyce, like Steve Clarke, sets his teams up to not lose and while it doesn’t set the pulse racing it is effective and keeps his sides out of any serious trouble. Summer signings have been minimal with the exception of the permanent capture of Andy Carroll, but as he was on loan at Upton Park last season he won’t upgrade on what they already had. Outside of Carroll they do look light up front with just Modibo Maiga in reserve.

Top Scorer

This is a tough category to judge with the uncertainty surrounding so many top players including Luis Suarez and Gareth Bale, so the safe bet appears to be Robin Van Persie. United relied heavily on the Dutch hit man last season and he’ll have to be on top form again this season if United are to challenge for the title.

Signing of the Season

There are a few candidates for this prediction, Wilfried Bony and Jesus Navas to name but two. However I’m going for Norwich’s Ricky Van Wolfswinkel as he should lead the line for the Canaries. Van Wolfswinkel’s capture raised some eyebrows as he’s been linked with so called ‘bigger’ clubs than Norwich, and the pedigree with which he arrives at Carrow Road with should enable him to hit the ground running and become an instant hit in the Premier League.

First Manager to Leave

Alan Pardew has had to endure speculation about his future all summer following the curious appointment of Joe Kinnear at St. James Park, and unfortunately I don’t think he’s long for the job. Mike Ashley unceremoniously got rid of Chris Hughton to appoint Pardew himself back in 2011 when the former was performing more than adequately, so I don’t think it’ll take much for the Sports Direct owner to decide Pardew’s time is up.

So there you have it, my predictions for the upcoming season which starts in just two days time. Like I said in the introduction feel free to comment and offer your own opinion, but please keep it clean. That aside, all I have to say is I hope you enjoy what promises to be the most exciting season in years!

What Stewart Downing’s Move Means For Liverpool, West Ham and England

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Copyright Daily Mirror

As the first weekend of the Premier League season draws ever closer today saw one former £20 million pound man move south for a significantly smaller fee this time around. I am of course talking about Stewart Downing, whose move to West Ham from Liverpool has cost the East Enders a reported £6 million. But what impact will his latest transfer have, on clubs both new and old as well as England, whom he has been capped 34 times for.

Firstly, let’s look at his former employer. Brendan Rodgers wasn’t responsible for Downing’s arrival at Anfield; Kenny Dalglish was, so the £14 million loss on the winger won’t fall at his feet. However Dalglish’s reputation, and perhaps legacy from his second spell with the Reds is likely to suffer further following the significant loss the club took earlier in the summer on Andy Carroll, who was also sold to the Hammers. However £6 million is a fee that shouldn’t be laughed at, especially when you consider other transfers that have been recently completed. Nacer Chadli, the 24 year-old Belgium international, changed hands for just £7 million last month when Tottenham brought him from Dutch side FC Twente. Downing is 29, so all things considered I’d opine that Liverpool got a good deal for a player whose only contribution to their cause last season was to fill in at left back and left midfield when first team players were unavailable. The extra cash could be used to bring in another player or two before the transfer window shuts, or it could even serve as a deterrent to Luis Suarez’s potential suitors. With some loose change in the bank Rodgers and owner John W Henry can afford to up Suarez’s asking price by a few bob, or play the “we don’t need the money” card. Although I think Suarez is extremely unlikely to be sold within the country during this window as it stands, the insurance of a little extra revenue can only help the club hold onto their most prized asset.

On the field, Downing’s departure should have minimal impact for the Reds. The signings of Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge last January were a pretty strong indication that Downing had no Anfield future. Add in Fabio Borini’s return from injury and Liverpool appear well stocked out wide. Not that Rodgers favours a style that utilises traditional wingers, such as Downing. Having copied the continental style of play, much like the system Barcelona use, Rodgers favours mighty mites such as Coutinho who possess quick feet and an ability to move into central areas and remain effective, as opposed to hugging the touchline and whipping crosses into the path of an old fashioned number nine. This leads us nicely onto Downing’s new club, West Ham, who very much have an old fashioned number nine in the form of the aforementioned Andy Carroll.

Sam Allardyce signed Matt Jarvis from Wolves last summer to put balls on Carroll’s head, and by and large Jarvis did his job capably and consistently. However the Hammers lacked a second winger to roam the opposite flank, using the likes of Ricardo Vaz Te, Modibo Maiga, Matt Taylor and Joe Cole out wide at various points during the season. Vaz Te and Maiga struggled, while Taylor looked out of his depth in the top flight and although Cole played well he isn’t a natural winger and his fitness leaves something to be desired. Downing should start when he’s gained match fitness and is up to speed with Allardyce’s system. So where does that leave his new teammates? Taylor has been linked with a move away, and as I write it looks likely that he’ll be shown the door by August 31st. Maiga has surprisingly excelled during the pre-season, and following Carlton Cole’s departure he is currently the number two striker behind Carroll. Allardyce has said Carroll is not going to be fit for the clubs first game against Cardiff on Saturday, so chances are Maiga will get at least one opportunity to start up top before the pony tailed Geordie is back in the frame. Vaz Te should be relegated to warming the subs bench, but it’s Joe Cole’s predicament which interests me the most. His natural position is in the centre of the park, probably just behind the main striker, but that’s a role that Kevin Nolan has filled for Allardyce for the best part of a decade now. Mark Noble and Mohammed Diame operate in a deeper role, and fellow attacking midfielder Ravel Morrison may have forced his way into first team contention after he scored six goals during the pre-season. Cole shone when fit last season following his January move from Liverpool (again!). Where Big Sam will use the former England midfielder during this campaign remains unclear, and it’s a situation that very much bears watching.

Speaking of England, one of Downing’s motivations for making the switch will surely have been the opportunity to play regular first team football as he attempts to make an impression on England manager Roy Hodgson during a World Cup year. It’ll be difficult and the odds are against the ex-Middlesbrough man, but the simple fact that he’s left footed gives him an advantage over several other English wingers. While Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and James Milner amongst others are more talented than Downing they lack his versatility, so he’ll be keen to enjoy a productive season at Upton Park. His main competition for an England place could be another north east born winger, Adam Johnson, who played well under Paulo Di Canio at Sunderland towards the end of last season and has the added advantage of being three years younger than Downing. As the season progresses we’ll have a clearer picture of which side got the best of the deal, but right now it would be fair to say that for the player himself it’s a move that he had to make if he’s to resurrect his career – for both club and country.