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Cash, caches, cachet and catches: A soccer comedy

30 August 2012

Berbasmoke

A poster on the Friends of Fulham message board made an interesting side point today about Fulham’s status as a mid-table feeder club. With so much focus on the sale of Moussa Dembele and how a quaint side like Fulham can’t afford to keep promising talent without the allure of Champions League participation or huge wages, the Cottagers actually have evolved into a club with a bipolar acquisition strategy. The last four seasons of solid league finishes along with the miracle run to the 2010 Europa League final have given Fulham enough cachet that the club is now able to attract slightly past-their-prime players who are still more-than-good enough to ply their trade at the top level.

The most interesting validation of this theory is the alleged snagging of former Premiership goal scoring champ Dimitar Berbatov, who appears set to move from Manchester United to the banks of the Thames for less than 5m pounds as United looks to shed Berbatov’s 100,000-pound-a-week contract from their wage bill. Martin Jol said earlier this month that Fulham was a club that couldn’t afford to buy talent when it was playing well, so he had to go find talented players who were coming off poor seasons. Mladen Petric is one example and Berbatov, a classy finisher who has been pegged as indifferent and glued to the United bench like a sponsorship logo, is certainly another.

There’s no doubt that Fulham should roll the dice on a player of Berbatov’s raw skill for such a small price, but what really intrigues me about this deal is that one of the people who stuck Berbatov with the indifferent label is … Martin Jol. Jol, who brought Berbatov to Tottenham as manager there, had a famous sideline snit with Berbatov after the Bulgerian maybe/sort of/kind of refused to warm up for a substitute appearance. After Jol was fired in 2007, he provided Sky Sports with a few choice words about that incident, and Berbatov in general:

“He never said he didn’t want to come on, but that’s how it has been perceived. But that’s Berbatov, he always seems reluctant to do anything.

Sounds like Jol enjoyed managing him. Oh wait, there’s more…

“Gifted, yes. But he is not a fighter. Perhaps you need others who are fighters to balance out the team.”

Ouch. Yes, it appears Fulham will be signing a striker that Jol essentially called a p—- five years ago.

That history adds an amazing dimension to what was a hilarious afternoon of reaction after Berbatov more or less blew off Serie A club Fiorentina to discuss a deal with Juventus, and then turned down the storied Milan Turin club for Fulham. Paraphrasing, here is the gist of the reaction from all interested parties:

Average soccer fan: “Wait, he’s signing with who? Seriously? WTFLOLROFL.”

Juventus: “Fulham? Again?? Dempsey’s chip wasn’t enough?!? Now we’re going to have to fix some more matches.”

Fiorentina: “BLEEP YOU. NO SERIOUSLY, BLEEP ALL Y’ALL. NO PURPLE FOR YOU!”

Martin Jol: “I have always loved Dimitar.” (slowly uncrosses fingers behind his back)

So, yes, marriages of convenience can be fun. Fulham takes a really worthy, cheap gamble on a talented striker who’s wife wanted to stay in England. Hopefully, there will be a press conference with a smiling Jol and Berbatov holding one of Fulham’s funky new orange kits, and neither will make any mention of what a simple Google search can yield. The Cottagers still need a central midfielder who can play on the ball, but for now, they’ll make do with the man who spawned an ongoing spoof column at Yahoo’s Dirty Tackle.

They say comedy equals tragedy plus time. In this case, 24 hours appears to have been enough.

City hope for better luck of the draw

29 August 2012

Tomorrow at 11:30 A.M. ET, UEFA will hold the draw in Monaco for the Champions League group stage. I’ll be watching the live broadcast on FOX Soccer Channel to find out who City will face in their second season in the world’s elite soccer competition — and to marvel at the multilingual skills of the show’s hosts.

Last year, City fans’ worst nightmare were realized as they were drawn into the Group of Death, along with Bayern Munich, Villarreal, and Napoli. We all know how that turned out. City have progressed from Pot 3 to Pot 2 over the past year, so hopefully the only big club the face in the group stage is their draw from Pot 1: Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Porto, or AC Milan.

Remarkably, there’s still a possibility of another Group of Death, with the champions of the four biggest leagues in Europe — Real Madrid, City, Juventus, and Borussia Dortmund — being drawn into the same group. The draw I’d actually fear even more would be Barcelona, PSG, and Málaga.

On the flip side, the easiest possible group probably would include Porto, Anderlecht, and FC Nordsjælland. Honestly, I’d be happy with either Porto or AC Milan from Pot 1, anyone except Juve and PSG from Pot 3, and anyone other than Dortmund, Málaga, and Montpellier from Pot 4.

We’ll find out in about 12 hours whether fortunate favors the Blues this season.

It’s the end of an era as we know it. Do I feel fine?

28 August 2012

Dembele

A few hours have passed since the rumored became (what appears to be) reality, with news breaking after Fulham’s desultory 1-0 Capital One Cup loss at Sheffield Wednesday that the club had accepted an offer from Tottenham for standout midfielder Moussa Dembele. The immediate aftermath of the announcement, both on Twitter and on Fulham message boards, was one of shock and sadness from Cottagers’ faithful and nearly universal belief from everyone that Spurs had done good business if the alleged price of 15 million pounds was accurate.

There’s no doubt, regardless of what happens in the next several days before the transfer window closes at 11pm in England Friday night, that Fulham will take a short-term hit. Clubs like Fulham don’t replace players who have developed into what Dembele had become; even if they wanted to throw the full 15 million or more at one target, whoever that is at this point, that level of player hardly ever wants to commit to a mid-table club like Fulham. While Martin Jol may manage to lure some promising players with this cash, they will not be the finished, Premier League-impacting product that Dembele is, and may not be for awhile. Fulham’s central midfield, and their overall creativity and threat, especially against better sides, will suffer for now.

What exactly happened here, though, may go a long way toward piecing together exactly how Fulham will move forward, and whether the club will remain at or near its current level. It’s always difficult to trust British media reports when it comes to player transfers, but there were some interesting tidbits thrown around the last couple of days that are worth discussing.

Did Fulham have an option on Dembele’s contract?
It was repeated numerous times that Fulham had, and may have exercised, an option year on Dembele’s deal. This would seem a crucial piece of information, as while teams often sell assets in the final year of their contract, it would be very surprising if Fulham had Dembele under control until Summer ’14 and still jettisoned him in this window, especially with the ongoing uncertainty over Clint Dempsey. Barring a long-term injury, there’s no way Dembele would have been worth less than 15 million next summer, after a full season as Jol’s engine in his newfound deep-lying midfield role. Saturday’s masterclass against Manchester United was a tantalizing taste of what was to come.

Did Dembele’s deal have a release clause?
If it did, this would answer the question about selling despite having an option, because a club is required to accept a deal if another club hits the release clause price. Then it’s up to the player and the prospective buyer to work out personal terms on a new deal. If there was a release clause in Dembele’s deal, it also means there’s a modestly larger chance that he declines to move to Spurs and either stays with Fulham for now, or hopes a more preferred club (Manchester United? Real Madrid?) come with a comparable or better offer.

There are a couple of problems with this theory, though. First off, today’s statement from Fulham (last paragraph of the link) made no mention of a release clause trigger. It simply said the club had accepted an offer for Dembele and that he was undergoing a medical at Spurs. Secondly, it was suggested to me earlier this week that Fulham had actually named a price of 15 million to Spurs. While it’s possible that was just the release clause price, the combination of that info and the language in the official confirmation today lead me to believe a) there was no option in Dembele’s contract, meaning Fulham could have lost him for nothing next summer; and b) that Dembele had quietly told Fulham he wasn’t going to resign with them; and c) Dembele told the club that he would OK a move to Spurs.

If that’s the case, then perhaps Fulham did decently well to lock up a 15 million fee for an expiring asset, even though it appears Spurs will get a good deal out of this between Dembele’s current skill and whatever sell-on price Spurs can get for him down the road. Also, if those assumptions are true, then it’s also reasonable to assume that Martin Jol had a contingency plan in place in case he had to pull the trigger on this deal.

So what is that contingency plan?
That’s the 15 million pound question at the moment. Jol *has* to be on the hunt for central midfield help. There is no way Fulham can roll with injury-prone Mahamadou Diarra, mediocre Steve Sidwell, even-more-limited Chris Baird, and inexperienced Patjim Kasami as his CM stable. That foursome would be a ticket toward a relegation battle. Is it possible Jol would consider moving Bryan Ruiz back into Dembele’s role, combining with Diarra? That plan makes some sense financially, as it may be more fiscally/logistically possible to land a supporting striker or help elsewhere, but Ruiz’s lack of pace and even more pronounced lack of strength (albeit improved this season) probably makes him more more suited for where he is — sitting on top of a deep-lying midfield pair as a conduit/creative attacking mid.

OK, so *now* what happens with Clint Dempsey?
This is the other question that people are going to ask for the next three days. In an exchange with SI’s (and soccer fan) George Dohrmann on Twitter today, I suggested that Dempsey actually could be a good fit in this revamped Fulham roster, either inside with Ruiz centrally in a 4-1-4-1 alignment, with Diarra shielding the back four, or in Ruiz’s spot as a withdrawn striker, with Ruiz dropping back into Dembele’s role. Either solution would keep Alex Kaciniklic in Dempsey’s old spot in left midfield, and with Damian Duff on the right wing, Dempsey probably would get significant service to attack from both sides. This also would put him in a role more similar to how Jurgen Klinsmann seems to want to use him on the U.S. national team.

There’s one problem to this theory, though: Several people who probably know more than is publicly available are strongly suggesting that Jol has been lying about the Dempsey situation and that Clint is utterly livid. With the market speaking loudly about what it thinks of Dempsey’s value (and perhaps his salary ask), it is possible that a return to Fulham — should the club re-table an offer — might be Dempsey’s best theoretical option. If the bridge has been napalmed, though, he may have to end up taking a deal with Sunderland or someone else just to get out of SW6, and Fulham may have to take whatever money it can get for him, lest they be stuck with a rotting asset that they can’t cash in until January.

Even assuming a cut-rate deal for Dempsey, Fulham should have more than 20 million pounds (theoretically) available for new purchases, without owner Mohamed Al Fayed dipping into his pockets during this window. Fulham already added three pieces (Petric, Riether and Rodellega) without spending a dime on transfer fees, and Jol has found decent talent when he’s made purchases (even if Ruiz isn’t worth 10 million at the moment), so there’s definitely brightness out there somewhere in the horizon. Fulham fans need to trust, for now, that there is a plan here, and wait until Saturday to see what the picture looks like.

The immediate reaction, though, is one of surprise and sadness. From a club standpoint, the old “ambition” question will arise again. Fulham, at this point, is simply a feeder club, destined to lose any good players they develop, which can jade a fanbase, especially when such a move comes at the club’s modern peak. I’m also disappointed for me. It’s rare for Fulham to have a talent like Dembele and I was really looking forward to watching him this season. He’ll still be tearing through the midfield wearing white and black, but my joy won’t be nearly the same.

Too cute

26 August 2012

With Glockner more fixated on The Dems than a Romney campaign worker, I promise this post contains no mention of Fulham or any of its soon-to-be-former players.

Earlier today, I watched City leave Anfield with a point, despite a pretty lifeless and sloppy performance. It was tough to watch my boys get outplayed after the first 20 minutes by a pretty mediocre Liverpool side. City looked fragmented, with little link-up play between defense and midfield and even less between the mids and the attackers. The result was a lot of cheap giveaways and way too many hopeful aerial balls hoofed upfield — and a showing difficult to reconcile with the title of Defending Champs.

Roberto Mancini has to bear the brunt of the blame for this one, as the subpar performance started with his team selection. He dropped David Silva to the bench following the Spaniard’s woeful match last weekend against Southampton. Even more curiously, he benched Joleon Lescott in favor of Kolo Touré, playing alongside Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta in a three-man back line.

It was the latest bit of defensive tinkering from Mancini, who seems intent on messing with a good thing. Not content with the most miserly defense in the Prem last season, Mancini decided to play around with a three-man defense in the preseason. Today’s poor defensive display speaks for itself.

Not having Lescott out there bit City in a big way on the opening goal, when Zabaleta was beaten in the air by Martin Škrtel. I’ll admit I’m not privy to the intricacies of Mancini’s zonal marking scheme on corners, but if it’s as simple as him occupying Lescott’s spot, that goal is on Mancini, as I’d bet the farm on Lescott getting to that ball ahead of Škrtel.

The second Liverpool goal was on Joe Hart, as he built just a four-man wall with two Liverpool players hovering over the free kick, and positioned that wall such that Luiz Suarez was able to circumnavigate it pretty easily with a free kick. Jack Rodwell didn’t crumble on that edge of the wall. He just wasn’t positioned properly.

Fortunately, the Reds were in a charitable mood, first with a pretty sloppy first equalizer, then with a second that was an absolute gift from Škrtel. I’m trying to think of any positives from this one or pick out any players who played particularly well, and I’m at a loss. Still, a point at Anfield isn’t the end of the world, especially when you play as crappily as City did today.

I’m just mostly concerned about a City defense that is leaking goals at an alarming rate, and that frankly has looked shambolic way too often in a young season only three matches old. I don’t know if by playing Touré, Mancini is attempting to make a point to Brian Marwood about the need for defensive reinforcements or what. If so, this is bordering on cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

Meanwhile, at The Banshee, where I watched the match with some fellow City fans and a bunch of Liverpool supporters, the final whistle was met with stoned silence. The Liverpool fans probably were thinking about the goals they gifted us. We were thinking about how poor our boys played today.

The two Dems and an anxious week ahead

26 August 2012

This weekend was consumed by the micro, by Fulham showing enough at Old Trafford to reinforce the good vibes from opening-day romp over Norwich even though they were justly punished for a bad 30 minutes in the middle of the match. There’s no shame walking away 3-2 losers at United, although it possibly was a point wasted on merit and moral victories don’t get you to Europe.

The match, though, through the absence of one stalwart and the star turn of another, also served to shine a blinding spotlight on the club’s two tenuous player situations. How Fulham is able to resolve them this week will go a long way toward setting the future of the club, let alone this’s season’s ceiling.

Clint Dempsey’s situation has been beaten to death in the media, with no one having the full story as to why the club’s leading scorer is rotting away with the youth players in training, iced out of the senior team. There are enough rumblings from well-placed (and/or sympathetic) American sources that this situation is not principally Dempsey’s doing, although then it’s reasonable to ask why Martin Jol would repeatedly kill Dempsey in the media, impacting both the club’s leverage in price negotiation and the ability to keep Dempsey should no deal be completed. Still, it’s never made sense to me that Dempsey would feel he could benefit from sitting out. It doesn’t help validate his last two seasons, disprove age concerns, enhance his status with the U.S. national team, etc.

Whatever the impetus, I have thought throughout this saga that Fulham held all the cards, principally because there’s no way Dempsey would willingly sit out until January. If they didn’t get a price for him, they would keep him and he would have to reinsert himself into the senior side. Now, as it appears Jol is backtracking on prior statements in a transparent attempt to create a market for Dempsey elsewhere, I’m starting to believe he will be shipped *somewhere* before Friday. Where that destination is will depend on Fulham’s resolve and Dempsey’s desire to escape (including wage demands) rather than land at a preferred club.

The bigger situation coming out of Saturday’s match, though, was the continuing emergence of Moussa Dembele from a deep-lying central midfield role. Simply put, he was the best player on the pitch yesterday (and that’s with United’s Shinji Kagawa putting in an excellent, impactful shift) repeatedly beating multiple men off the dribble and carving open the United defense. When RedCafe.net, United’s notoriously homer message board, is universally in awe of a visitor’s performance and United’s need to buy said player, you know it was a performance. Dembele’s elegance and power on the ball combined with his ability to track back and win tackles have made him a tremendous (yet still developing) player — and a very inviting target for major clubs.

With Dembele also on his final year of his deal (although there are mixed rumors that there’s a club option for a year beyond this season), Fulham have a massive decision to make. I have always believed heading into this season that Dembele was the guy Fulham couldn’t afford to lose, while Dempsey was at least replaceable thanks to some of the wing midfield talent coming through the club’s pipeline. Alex Kaciniklic has deputized well for Dempsey and looks promising, plus his tendency to stay wider than Dempsey has added more balance to Fulham’s attacks. Simply put, clubs like Fulham don’t have players like Dembele in the center of the park very often, and even if they manage to cash in on him, finding a suitable replacement who wants to play for a mid-table side will not be easy at all.

So what does Fulham do? Can they afford to sell both Dempsey and Dembele this week, pocketing north of 20 million pounds for the two, and have confidence that Martin Jol has contingency targets lined up? Can they convince Dembele to ink an extension with the club while dropping a sizable release clause in the deal along with a wink-wink understanding that the club would sell him to a UCL side should the right offer arrive after this season? Can they possibly afford to keep Dempsey at this point, relying on Clint’s professionalism and economic interests to override his obvious antipathy for the club and Jol at this point?

This is a massive week for Fulham heading into Friday’s transfer deadline. The moves that are made (or not made) will really impact the course of the ongoing overhaul being overseen by Jol. The upside for this club, based on two games, at least, is a top-10 finish and a reasonable chance to challenge for a spot in Europe. But life at mid-table clubs is not ever about one season. It’s about sustainability within transition. If the club could harvest 25 million pounds for the two Dems, they probably have to take it, with the significant risk that either/both could walk next summer for nothing.

Maybe not since the week heading into the final match at Portsmouth in 2008, the capper to the Great Escape from relegation, has a week been this important for Fulham’s future. It will be interesting to watch, albeit nervewracking to endure. In Jol we trust? We’ll find out by Friday how much trust we really should have.

Away matches and the fear of fear itself

24 August 2012

Rooney scoring against Fulham usually is a feature of matches at Old Trafford. Getty Images

In the book Scorecasting, authors Toby Moscowitz and Jon Wertheim determined that soccer has the largest homefield advantage of any sport, with a very large component of that advantage deriving from referee bias that benefits the home team. Anyone who follows soccer closely would believe that working theory, as in a low-scoring game, even one or two decisions — a dicey penalty, a second yellow resulting in a sending off — that shade toward the home side can greatly influence the result of a match. There is an additional posit among soccer fans that these calls abnormally favor larger clubs over smaller ones, creating a double-advantage of sorts for the best teams at home.

The former, statistically, is true based on the work in the book. The latter can hold true but probably is a decent part anecdotal, as well. Whatever the case, it’s exceedingly hard to win on the road in soccer, especially if you are not a megaclub and doubly especially if you are playing at a megaclub.

That brings us to the curious case of Fulham on the eve of their first away match of the new campaign, a visit to the mecca that is Old Trafford and a contest with a banged-up and ticked-off United side that already is three points off the pace after a single match. If Fulham are ever going to take the next step as a club, they have to solve their absurd road difficulties and there’s no better place to start than tomorrow.

As mentioned, winning road games is very difficult in soccer. United itself won the Premiership in 2010-11 despite winning just five of 19 away matches. For a relatively decent club with numerous top-10 league finishes over the past decade, though, Fulham takes road struggles to an implausibly bad level. Over the past decade (190 away matches), they have lost more than 50 percent of the time. Almost as damaging, the Cottagers have won just 27 of those matches (a 14 percent win rate), so they’re left trying to nick a point here and there. Last season’s “haul” of 18 away points was the second-highest mark of the last decade (after the 21 claimed in 2003-04).

It’s virtually impossible to join the regular mix for European competition if you can’t do better than that away. Fulham have a tremendous home record over those 10 seasons, with 93 wins and 322 total points (1.69 per match) at Craven Cottage. Still, even with claiming 35 or more home points in five of the 10 seasons, Fulham have only finished higher than eighth place once. Reminder: to qualify for Europe by way of league standing, you have to finish at least seventh.

Those who have watched Fulham for years don’t have a full explanation for the extreme home/away splits, but I can say with some certainty that a significant part of the problem is the team’s approach away from home. At Craven Cottage, Fulham typically plays some of the most free-flowing stylish soccer outside the truly top sides. When they hit the road, they become more conservative than Rush Limbaugh. Soccer is more complicated than this, but I fail to believe packing nine men behind the ball, ceding loads of possession, absorbing pressure and hoping for a counter is a sustainable strategy. The time has come for Fulham to show more ambition away.

This all ties in neatly to tomorrow’s contest, as United hold a 27-2-3 all-time mark against Fulham at Old Trafford and certainly will be expected to take the points at home lest they fall further behind Manchester City before August is done. Historically, this is one of those matches a side like Fulham chalks off in its head as a freeroll, and if you somehow nick a 0-0 or 1-1 result, it’s a golden point. This season, I say “Screw that.”

This is the first Fulham side since I started following the club in the 2004-05 season that has the on-ball quality in its front six to really make a go at this. Since the lineup (assuming the same/similar look to last week’s 5-0 win over Norwich City) lacks any type of aerial presence, the idea that hoofing long balls out of the back toward a target man to control against multiple defenders seems even more comical than normal. What this Fulham side can do is dribble and quickly pass the ball, and against a weakened United starting XI, they should be able to do some of that even in this most hostile of environments.

With Michael Carrick assumedly still deputizing in the central defense (and winger Antonio Valencia playing right back), that makes both the back four and United’s central midfield weaker. Fulham has its classiest central midfield combo in memory with former Real Madrid man Mahamadou Diarra working in clockwork with sublimely smooth Moussa Dembele, their yin/yang act working to control tempo and open up space for the cleverness of Bryan Ruiz and striker Mladen Petric. Add in balanced wing play now that Alex Kaciniklic is deputizing for Clint Dempsey, and Fulham’s front six should create numerous issues for a makeshift United side. That’s if they keep the ball. Which they should, if they’re not afraid.

With a stadium expansion project in place, managerial stability for the first time in four seasons and individual quality oozing from its first-choice side, even Mark Hughes would have to be impressed by Fulham’s current level of ambition. With that push now comes a choice. A decade of road ineptitude has to end. Fulham must come to play, come to expect something from every road match, come for the kill when it’s available. It won’t be easy tomorrow, but this is a match that this Fulham side can get something from. Now it just has to try.

Fearful predictions

23 August 2012

Since I guess we’re doing this again, I’m going to weigh in with some belated predictions for the now-current season.

Title race
So everyone knows it’s going to be the two Manchester clubs battling it out for the title, and some think Chelsea could make a giant leap back to near the top of the table and give them a run for their money. The pride of West London will narrow the gap, but not enough to be considered true title contenders. So if the Premier League trophy is staying in the Northwest, I’m going to say it stays in Manchester with The Only Club in Manchester. United might be feeling better about themselves after blowing nearly £70 million total on a 29-year old, injury prone striker, but I think a City side that now know how to win the league will avoid the swoon that made last season’s title race competitive to begin with.

Champions League spots
I like Chelsea for third after the two Manchester clubs. Then it gets tricky. I’m a big fan of André Villas-Boas and think he got the rawest of deals from Roman Abramovich last season. As we saw at Chelsea last year, it might take a little bit for his system to take hold at Spurs, which is why I’m balking at saying Tottenham will equal last season’s fourth-place finish. If Arsenal hadn’t just inexplicably sold the grossly underrated Alex Song to Barcelona, I’d like them for fourth, too, as Arsène Wenger seems to have bought well this summer. Then there’s last season’s big underachievers, Liverpool. I think Brendan Rodgers is one of the top young managers around, but I’m not sure he’s the kind of quick-fix guy to make the Reds instantly competitive again. I feel like he’ll need a few transfer windows to get his kind of players in the door at Anfield. Do I really have to pick one of those three clubs for fourth? Okay, I’ll say… Arsenal, because every time you write off Wenger, he makes you look silly.

Europa League spots
If we assume both domestic cups will be won by clubs in the top seven — and I think that’s a fairly safe assumption with the number of top sides in the Premier League these days — that leaves Newcastle and Everton and maybe a dark horse like Fulham or Sunderland battling it out for the third and final Europa League spot after Spurs and Liverpool. You have to love the players Newcastle have brought in over the last few transfer windows, showing a great eye for value. If they can hold on to all of them, they could repeat last season’s success. I really like Everton (aside from a very, very thin strike force), and if they can avoid the disastrous starts that have plagued David Moyes’s sides in recent seasons, they could have a very good season. Fulham aren’t bad at all either, but even after jettisoning Veteran of The Great War Danny Murphy, they’re still really old, and as Andy Glockner has pointed out to anyone who will listen, there’s still the small matter of some Texan wrangling for a move. Am I really going to pass on Everton even though I think they’re primed for their best season under Moyes in a while? I guess I am. Newcastle it is.

Relegation
So I can’t just be lazy and say the three promoted sides are going down? Okay, apparently that doesn’t really happen. But surely they’re not all going to survive this time around. Right? I’m going to predict that Reading go right back down. They’ve brought in a lot of players, but I’m just not convinced they’re Premier League-caliber players. West Ham will do well enough under Sam Allardyce to stay up and Southampton could be this season’s Swansea City. That means two top-flight holdovers will be plying their trade in the Championship next season. Wigan are an easy choice. Everyone loves Roberto Martínez, but a strike force that was pretty woeful last season managed to get even worse with the departure of the less-than-the-sum-of-his-parts Hugo Rodallega. That miraculous run of shocking wins late last season saved the Latics’ bacon, but I’ll say lightning doesn’t strike twice and they finally do go down. That leaves one final spot in the drop zone. Norwich City allowed more goals than any other club to survive in the Prem last season. They did score more than anyone outside the Big Six, and though I think Chris Hughton is undervalued as a manager, I’m going to say he doesn’t have the same success as Paul Lambert as far as goal scoring, and the Canaries go through the trap door.

Promotion
I don’t even pretend to follow the Championship closely enough to make anything resembling an informed prediction here. I’ll simply predict that “Andy Glockner’s” Bluebirds (Redbirds now?) once again find a way to stick around the second tier for yet another season. It’s what Cardiff City do best.

As for who is actually going  up, if I were going by most impressive transfers when I updated FIFA 12 squads, that would probably be Forest. But I’ll go with three Bs: Bolton, Blackpool, and Boro. (Okay, that last one technically is an M, but whatever.)

So there you go. Like Luke Haines, how could I be wrong?