Sunday 4 December 2016

High-flying Magpies genuine contenders for seat at top European table

Published 04/02/2012 | 05:00

CHELSEA

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The lack of goals lately must worry manager Andre Villas-Boas, as must the seemingly endless travails of Fernando Torres.

Finding the answer is proving quite hard, no matter how many chances the Spaniard receives. With the shape Chelsea play, a misfiring lone striker does not help at all.

The John Terry issue continues to distract, what with the defender now being axed as England captain. Maybe it would have been better all round if Terry's trial had not been put back.

More pressing, however, is the need to find some rhythm on the pitch, preferably when Manchester United visit tomorrow. With Terry still injured, perhaps Gary Cahill will get his first game to shine a light on the future under Villas-Boas.

This was always going to be a transitional season as the new manager went about building his own team. If they can finish fourth under such circumstances, that should be regarded as something of a result. If they cannot, a certain Russian won't be too pleased.

NEWCASTLE UNITED

It has been, and still would be, easy to discount Newcastle as genuine contenders for a top-four finish.

Lined up against the more traditional powerhouses of English football, this team would appear to come up short.

Yet Alan Pardew's side just will not go away. Here we are in February and the team remain in contention, thanks to some fantastic contributions and an excellent team spirit.

Who would have thought that Demba Ba could prove such a runaway success? Who could have predicted the consistency of Fabricio Coloccini?

Not many, I can tell you, just as not many thought Newcastle could cope when Ba and Cheick Tiote disappeared to the Africa Cup of Nations. But two league wins out of three has been an impressive response, even if they were a bit lucky at Blackburn on Wednesday.

More encouraging still, Ba is back now and will be joined up front by Papiss Demba Cisse, the January signing from SC Freiburg.

So if the team can get by without the suspended Yohan Cabaye over the next two games, Newcastle could surprise us all with their staying power.

LIVERPOOL

It is difficult to work out Kenny Dalglish's side. One minute they are losing at Bolton in worrying style, the next they are thrashing Wolves to give everyone hope.

In between, the two Manchester giants were dispatched in the FA Cup and Carling Cup.

Maybe, then, this team have turned the corner to banish the inconsistency previously holding them back. Because, if Liverpool had managed to do better at home rather than drawing with too many sides, they would be chasing Tottenham in third, never mind fretting over fourth.

Defending certainly has not been a problem. It is up the other end where Liverpool must improve -- where Andy Carroll must kick on from his goal at Molineux, where the returning Luis Suarez must add more goals to his otherwise brilliant overall game and where Craig Bellamy must try to maintain his spectacular form.

If Liverpool can achieve that, and the midfielders can also chip in with a few more goals, Monday night's match against Spurs at Anfield and next Saturday's trip to Old Trafford do not look so forbidding. You are looking at a team capable of competing.

ARSENAL

Starting with the good news, Bacary Sagna and Thomas Vermaelen have returned to the back four, which should make the side a bit more resilient as long as Per Mertesacker avoids getting exposed at centre-half.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has added something different in attack with his strength, speed and well-developed football brain.

Less encouraging is the over-reliance on Robin van Persie to provide the goals. As shown at Bolton on Wednesday, if he does not score, the team lack alternatives.

The move to bring in Thierry Henry on loan has not worked in the Premier League as yet.

Three league defeats on the spin plus that goalless draw at the Reebok have seen confidence levels dive over recent weeks.

This team need to bounce back quickly, starting with Blackburn's visit today; otherwise a disgruntled crowd will make things really difficult.

Five points behind fourth-placed Chelsea, Arsenal still stand a decent chance of qualifying for the Champions League. But they have got to cut out the schoolboy defending.

They have got to be more organised without the ball. If they are not, manager Arsene Wenger will be treading some very strange ground. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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