ESPN commentator Jon Champion on the Premier League
ESPN's man with the mic Jon Champion looks ahead to the
weekend's Premier League action. Watch exclusive coverage of Tottenham Hotspur vs Newcastle United live on ESPN from 4:30pm on Saturday...
February 8th 2012 will go down as one of the more extraordinary days in recent history of English football. People of a certain age will remember where they were when Don Revie walked out on England, and there are comparisons to be drawn with the way Capello has done the same.
Perhaps with a bit of persuasion from the FA, the Italian has left a job that had seen him make an awful lot of money, but not necessarily an awful lot of progress.
The front runner to replace Capello is Harry Redknapp, who was found not guilty on tax evasion charges on Wednesday morning to complete this most unique of days. I don’t think he’s the only candidate – Roy Hodgson would love to talk to the FA, as I’m sure Sam Allardyce would, though perhaps operating in the Championship seems too big a leap of a stage.
The top two English managers in the Barclays Premier League, in terms of league position, are Harry Redknapp and Alan Pardew, who meet in front of ESPN cameras at Saturday tea-time as Tottenham host Newcastle.
Pardew has had a few mentions recently, although his back catalogue is not yet sufficiently strong enough to mount a realistic challenge for the job. It will boil down to whether Harry Redknapp wants to do it, and it’s a foregone conclusion that he will.
The England job has become such a poisoned chalice; you look at a man who is enjoying his best success of a lengthy, 30-year career and the last three have brought him unparalleled success. He’s displayed an ability to buy and manage players at a level that he has not been able to operate at before.
Of course, if he goes to the England job, he doesn’t have that luxury to create a team in quite the same way, which is what he has loved doing. I just wonder whether he might look at it and think, “It’s a fantastic honour and I’d loved to be offered it – but I might just turn it down.”
The whole issue could act as something of as a distraction ahead of Saturday’s crucial match, but I think the overriding emotion at White Hart Lane would be one of relief that Harry Redknapp is still available to manage them in the short-term – even that wasn’t a given on Wednesday morning.
You could see the response of the fans to Harry when he walked out in a recent game against Wigan – he even remarked on that in his comments outside court on Wednesday and said it was one of his most emotional experiences in football. I think that’ll be doubled when he walks out on Saturday for two reasons; the court case is over and Spurs fans would want to show Redknapp how much he means to them and how much they want him to stay.
Newcastle are the side that refuse to go away as far as the battle for those top four spots goes, and I love the optimism of Alan Pardew. Many other managers would be tempering expectations, particularly with a fanatical following like the Toon Army, and trying to manager the fact that they probably won’t make the top four. But he is going for it hammer and tongs – he’s saying, “Let’s chase after Chelsea, we’re only a point behind – let’s really go for it!”
Isn’t it refreshing hearing a manager saying that, rather than coming out with managerial speak to try and dampen down expectations? It’s a real change to hear that and I think Alan Pardew has got his mojo back after a spell in the lower divisions.
I liken his success at the moment to a period he had at West Ham where he led them to an FA Cup final and into the upper echelons of the Premier League. This most unlikely marriage – a Londoner and the Toon army – is working out beautifully. It may be stretching the imagination to think they will finish in the top four, but clearly they are going to give it a go.
I was at Stamford Bridge last week to see Chelsea throw away a three goal lead - they’ve now drawn their last three Premier League games and will need to do better when they travel to Everton. In a rather sinister development, Roman Abramovich has taken to turning up at training sessions – he’s done it twice in the last week – which is never usually a good sign for an incumbent manager; it’s usually a sign that their time may be drawing to a close. To be fair to Andre Villas Boas, he’s missing Didier Drogba and he has a striker in Fernando Torres who still doesn’t know the route to goal. He had a glorious chance to score late on in the game against Manchester United, but decided to take four or five touches rather than hit it first time, which he would have done if he was playing to instinct rather than fear in his mind.Chelsea will find it difficult at Goodison Park, especially as the last visitors there, Manchester City, left with no points. The injection of new blood in Darron Gibson, Steven Pienaar and Nikita Jelavic has revived and enhanced a flagging, small squad. It’s just two defeats in 12 in all competitions for Everton now, and it’s one of the reasons that David Moyes will probably be one of the names thrown into the mix for Tottenham, should Harry Redknapp move on.
Meanwhile, Sunderland host Arsenal, and I really fancy the home side for this. Arsenal don’t have the best record at the Stadium of Light – they’ve struggled on occasions – and I think Sunderland, if not an unstoppable force at the moment, certainly are a side with as much momentum as any other team in the Premier League right now. At home, in front of a near 50,000 sell-out, I really think it’ll be another win – a fourth in succession in the Premier League – for Sunderland. They’re young, fit and playing for their manager – I don’t think Sunderland fans would have envisaged that four months ago.
Normally the headline game of any weekend, Manchester United vs Liverpool will no doubt be billed as Evra v Suarez, which is something of a shame. This is still the domestic fixture with the harshest edge to it – it’s not a local derby in the strictest terms, but this is the keenest rivalry in English football, and will remain so as long as Dalglish and Ferguson are at the helm of the two clubs. United showed all the abundant skill and character they have exhibited for the past quarter of a century under their manager to comeback from 3-0 down at Chelsea. Liverpool, meanwhile, showed their limitations against a Tottenham side who were restricted in terms of their selection by a whole host of injuries. Suarez came off the bench, but I’d expect him to start at Old Trafford, and he obviously gives Liverpool a little extra dimension. But I don’t think there’s enough in Dalglish’s squad for a top four finish, which would be the minimum requirement given the investment that’s been made.
The central figure of Blackburn’s home match against QPR, Chris Samba, could perhaps return. Sidelined because of his dispute with Blackburn, having nearly gone to QPR, he is fighting the Venkys who are unhappy at the way he was trying to engineer a move away from Ewood Park, and decreed that he wouldn’t be sold. Blackburn conceded seven at Arsenal, and have lost three out of five since their win at Old Trafford on New Years Eve, and are heading in the wrong direction again. QPR having only won one in four under Mark Hughes – Cisse’s suspended and the two sides lacking in confidence. But I’d pick Mark Hughes to win this against his former side.
Bolton have won three of their last eight games, including a memorable victory over Liverpool, but were really meek in going two nil down at Norwich last weekend. But Wigan are the ideal opponents – nine games without a win, losing four of their last five and five points adrift. Doomed, I think, because they just can’t score any goals – only 21 in the whole season. Bolton need to take full advantage.
Fulham against Stoke presents two sides who have enjoyed as comfortable a season as they both would have liked. Fulham were really poor at Manchester City last weekend – it just wasn’t a contested. However at home they are a different prospect, and Stoke could do with getting something because they’ve lost their last three and have dropped out of the top half. Tony Pulis will have them wound up as there is a sense of injustice over Robert Huth’s sending off, and subsequent unsuccessful appeal.
Swansea and Norwich are two promoted sides who are making a very good fist of things in the Premier League. Tenth against ninth – who would have thought that? I still think they need three more wins each just to guarantee safety, and I think Norwich will do well to come away with something because of how strong Swansea have been at home.
Moving on to the Black Country derby, West Brom are showing relegation form which is worrying for Roy Hodgson – one win in seven with four defeats in that spell. Wolves enjoyed a valuable win at Loftus Road, but West Brom have tended to get the better of Wolves in recent history. I think both will settle for a draw.
Manchester City at Aston Villa should be another three points for the league leaders – most top sides seem able to leave Villa Park with all three points, which wasn’t the case not so long ago. The growing discord around Villa and Alex McLeish will grow a little louder as I don’t see City having any problems on Sunday.
Jon Champion is lead football commentator for ESPN, broadcaster for
the Barclays Premier League. ESPN will provide live and exclusive
coverage of Tottenham Hotspur vs Newcastle United, Saturday, 4.30pm.
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