January’s Giraffes and Lemons

With Chelsea seemingly marching on towards the title the main talking points in the Premier League for the following months will no doubt revolve around the battle for survival and the chase for those elusive European places. With Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool all stumbling recently Spurs seem the best placed to secure one of the Champions League places and you never know Jose could just manage to sneak Manchester United into the top four.

Indeed, my Team Giraffe for January goes once again to last month’s winner Manchester United, who are still in the hunt for four trophies, although the Premiership has to be the least realistic as Chelsea seem unstoppable at the top of the table.

At the other end of the table what looked like a four-way fight for the safety of 17th place now looks like a six-way tussle to avoid relegation with both Middlesbrough and Leicester City being dragged into a relegation dog fight. However, I think both of these teams will survive as their respective owners have not pushed the panic buttons by firing their managers and this continuity will keep them safe. The same, I am afraid, cannot be said for Sunderland, who although they have also kept faith with their manager, have had an abysmal January and as such win my Team Lemon of the month.

Here then is my updated prediction for the end of the season (and how it has changed since the start of the season):

  1. Chelsea (2nd)
  2. Tottenham Hotspur (6th)
  3. Arsenal (4th)
  4. Manchester City (1st)
  5. Liverpool (5th)
  6. Manchester United (3rd)
  7. Everton (7th)
  8. Stoke City (8th)
  9. Southampton (10th)
  10. West Ham United (9th)
  11. West Bromwich Albion (13th)
  12. Watford (14th)
  13. Burnley (17th)
  14. Bournemouth (16th)
  15. Leicester City (12th)
  16. Middlesbrough (11th)
  17. Swansea (15th)
  18. Hull City (20th)
  19. Crystal Palace (18th)
  20. Sunderland (19th)

In a month where transfers dominate the footballing news I was tempted to go for “Grab the Cash” Sam as my Individual Lemon of the Month but Palace’s first win under the Greedy One’s reign on the last day of the month just saved him. Instead my Individual Lemon of the Month goes to Claudio Bravo, more for an accumulation of goalkeeping errors since he arrived at the start of the season than the numerous statistics which have been bandied about this month, which only confirm what I have been saying since Pep shipped Joe Hart off to Italy.

In handing out my Individual Giraffe of the Month I wanted to showcase the magic of the FA Cup, which only really exists during the first month of the year when the third and fourth rounds give the minnows a chance to shock the big boys, just think of Wolves managing to knock out both Liverpool and Stoke! One of the biggest fairy tales has been Lincoln City’s cup run as they knocked two Championship teams out of the cup and in the case of Brighton, convincingly. Therefore, my Individual Giraffe of the Month goes to Theo Robinson who terrorised the Brighton backline in the second half.

Advertisements

October’s Giraffes and Lemons

Another month gone and, at the top, the Premier League looks like it could go down to the wire as no team seems able to gain an advantage over any of their rivals. However unlike in previous seasons I fear there will be no fairy tale to follow with the top five places filled with teams who you would expect to be challenging for the Champions League places come May.

It is a similar scenario at the bottom of the table with two of three relegation places filled by the teams I predicted to finish bottom and after seeing Stoke beat both Sunderland and Hull City convincingly I can’t see either of these teams playing in the Premiership next year. So bad were Sunderland when we played them at the Bet365 they are my Team Lemon for October an award they easily justified at the weekend after they were hammered by Arsenal.

For the Team Giraffe for October there have been a number of contenders from Chelsea and their impressive run of clean sheets to the attacking delight that has been Liverpool over the opening weeks of the season but instead of the obvious my Team Giraffe for October goes to Watford. Whilst not playing the most attractive football in the division Watford have sneaked up the table to 7th place and even though I don’t think they’ll make the European places come the end of the season I wanted to reward them for the little bit of fantasy they are providing and also for being a place above Manchester United.

Here then is my updated prediction for the end of the season (and how it has changed over the course of the month):

  1. Manchester City (1st)
  2. Chelsea (2nd)
  3. Liverpool (6th)
  4. Arsenal (4th)
  5. Tottenham Hotspur (3rd)
  6. Everton (7th)
  7. Manchester United (5th)
  8. Southampton (8th)
  9. Leicester City (9th)
  10. Watford (10th)
  11. Stoke City (14th)
  12. Crystal Palace (11th)
  13. West Bromwich Albion (12th)
  14. Middlesbrough (15th)
  15. West Ham United (13th)
  16. Bournemouth (16th)
  17. Burnley (18th)
  18. Swansea (17th)
  19. Hull City (19th)
  20. Sunderland (20th)

From an individual perspective I feel I have to reward Manchester City for keeping the title race interesting by awarding my Lemon of the Month to one of their players and as a protest at Pep’s insistent on playing football from the back, no matter the cost! Therefore, my Lemon of the Month goes to the poster boy of this movement, Claudio Bravo, not for anything he did in the Premiership this month but instead for his display against his old team mates at the Nou Camp.

Finally my Giraffe of the Month is a nod to Stoke’s move out of the relegation zone and whilst Joe Allen has been in fine goal scoring form the Giraffe goes to Xherdan Shaqiri, who has been the real difference for Stoke in their recent run of good form.

Stoke City 2 – Sunderland 0

With no Glenn Johnson due to injury, me and The Boy sat down to study Mystic Mark’s team selection with trepidation. Would Hughes switch Clumsy from the centre of midfield, where he had been responsible for an upturn in Stoke’s fortunes or would Mame get the nod after his heroics at fullback last year? In the end the Stoke manager opted to bring back Phil Bardsley who I felt had been unfortunate to be dropped for Clumsy earlier in the season, maybe Mystic Mark’s bingo machine has broken down once and for all!

Everybody knows the next seven games are vitally important for Stoke’s season and we have to be thankful that this run of fixtures kicked off with arguably the worst team in the division up first. In short, Sunderland were woeful, even though they showed more attacking attempt than at any time this season they hardly created a decent chance and when Van Aanholt limped off, after trying to push Shaqiri off the ball, they were spent as an attacking force. This is not to say Stoke were perfect, against better teams we will have to work harder and be a lot more clinical with any chances that we create but for once it was fun to sit back and watch a match where Stoke were totally in control.

And the funs started early as a slick move involving Stoke’s trio of tricksters, with Shaqiri splitting the Sunderland defence to find Arnie, who looking up and spotted Joe Allen running into the space made by Wilfried. One delightful chip and an equal ably courageous header later Stoke were one nil up after only eight minutes.

At the other end if Sunderland had any hope of an equaliser then it would have had to have come from the boot of Jermaine Defoe but The Beast and Shawcross managed to keep the diminutive striker quiet apart from a snap shot which was brilliantly blocked by the Stoke captain. Up front Stoke’s forwards played more cohesively than in any other game of the season, led by the ever willing Arnie who seemed to be taking glee in his torment of the Sunderland right back and the Austrian can feel unlucky that he didn’t get on the scoresheet. Another who can feel disappointed at not registering a goal is Clumsy who was picked up by the impressive Shaqiri and after having his first shot blocked could only look on in frustration as Jordan Pickford somehow managed to save his follow up.

To add to the Stoke forward line’s menace Wilfried had his best game in the red and white, holding up the ball for Allen and co to run past him and linking up play well. One such instance almost allowed Arnie to get on the scoresheet as Bony played a wicked return ball into the penalty area which Arnie narrowly missed getting a foot too. Stoke’s second came just as Sunderland were looking towards there halftime oranges as Shaqiri found Shawcross in the box and although the Stoke skipper’s shot was blocked Joe Allen, who else, was there to drive the ball past a despairing Pickford.

With Van Aarnholt off the pitch Sunderland looked bereft of ideas as Stoke looked for a third which would surely have opened the floodgates even Shawcross somehow found himself with the ball at his feet on the edge of the Sunderland box but no matter what Stoke tried the goal that would have settled the game was not forthcoming, not even when a curling shot by Bony was parried into the path of Allen. Maybe the Welshman is human after all.

As the clock ticked over to the hour mark myself and the boy watched with dread for Mystic Mark to make his usual substitution and we were not disappointed when after sixty-four minutes the Stoke manager replaced Phil Bardlsey with Charlie Boy and moved Clumsy to right back. I can only hope that Bardlsey had picked up an injury otherwise I am unable to fathom this change. Why mess with an obviously winning formula? And why play two players, Allen and Clumsy in positions where they have hardly excelled this season?

The result of this substitution was apparent straight away as Stoke lost their dominance in the middle of the park and whilst I am critical of Hughes for his initial change I must applaud him for half of the double substitution which restored some normalcy to the game. Replacing Joe Allen for Muniesa allowed not only Clumsy to revert to his usual place next to Glenda but with the game surely won gave our goal machine a bit of rest before the Hull match next weekend. The second part of the double substitution though exposed the flaws in the bench that Mystic Mark persists with each week. Although Super Jon has performed heroics for Stoke since we returned to the Premiership both he, and Two Meter Peter, do not provide the same threat as they did in their younger years and on Saturday this was evident once more.

With all of Stoke’s substitutes used the home team continued to push for a third and although Charlie Boy hit the crossbar and Arnie was left fuming as Super Jon failed to find him with a return pass, Stoke were unable to breach the Sunderland back line and the rest of the match was relatively uneventful as Stoke managed to pick up their first three points of the season.

A first win under the belt will fill the Stoke squad with much needed confidence but even though we have a number of winnable games there are still a few things Mystic Mark be aware of as we head to Hull:

  • The brief five-minute cameo of Clumsy at right back demonstrated this is not his best position. Whilst Johnson is out injured Bardsley has to be our right back. He may not be the best going forward but he is the best defender and Shaqiri is not the best at tracking back.
  • Sort out the subs bench! Only one of Super Jon or Two Meter Peter needs to be on the bench which would free up a space for Ramadan or another young player to gain first team experience.
  • Please don’t drop Wilfried. He may not have scored since he joined Stoke, or even this year, but Stoke have looked less of an attacking threat after he has been replaced in the last three matches.
  • Don’t get complacent, this Sunderland team was shite!

Stoke Giraffe of the Week           Arnie

Stoke Lemon of the Week           Super Jon

Match Ratings

Lee Grant – 6                    Didn’t have a lot to do. Needs to communicate better with his defence

Phil Bardsley – 7               An old fashioned full back who did what was required and did it well

Ryan Shawcross – 8         Outstanding block to deny Defoe and even got an assist for Allen’s second.

Bruno Martin Indi – 8     Building an impressive understanding with Shawcross

Erik Pieters – 7                  Not a lot to do but like Bardsley did it well

Glen Whelan – 7              Another good job plugging the gaps when his teammates streamed forward

Clumsy Cameron – 8       Once again worked well with Glenda and is increasingly finding himself with goal scoring opportunities

Joe Allen – 9                      Two more goals for the Welsh messiah, let’s just hope he stays fit

Shaqiri – 8                          Popped up everywhere and seemed to split the Sunderland defence at will with his killer through balls

Arnie – 9                            Set up the first goal and could have scored a couple himself if his teammates had been on his wavelength. Never stopped running.

Wilfried – 8                        Held the ball up and linked the play well. That first goal must surely arrive soon

Substitutes

Charlie Boy – 6                 Apart from hitting the cross bar was disappointing and gave the ball away too often and too cheaply

Muniesa – 7                      Looked at home on the wrong side of defence and even managed a surge or two into the opposition half

Super Jon – 5                    Not his best game and his performance was nowhere near as good as the man he replaced

Manager

Mark Hughes – 6              Glad he didn’t tinker with Clumsy in midfield and played two fullbacks at fullback but his substitutions are too predictable and am I the only one who sees that they are not working?

Referee

Mike Jones – 6                  Let a few hefty challenges on Wilfried and Shaqiri go in the opening exchanges but on the whole a decent game. Our lucky ref!