Monday 23 April 2018

'How will John Terry respond?' - 10 questions ahead of the Premier League weekend

As the Premier League returns to action for the third weeked of the 2015/16 season, we ask some key questions: Can Palace start beating the teams they should now be beating? How much is #LevyTime going to cost Tottenham? And when will the match officials learn the new offside rule? We will answer them all, as well as seven more, because three plus seven equals ten.

1. Can Palace beat the teams they should be beating?

There is an excitement around Crystal Palace at the moment. A renovated training ground, a re-laid turf, and the acquisition of Yohan Cabaye has got the Palace fans dreaming of a European charge. There is now a genuine sense of belief, both inside and outside the club, that when Yanick Bolasie is at his marauding best, and Scott Dann at his meanest; that Palace can give the big boys one or two things to think about.

“But the question is not the big teams, because we know that on our day we can beat them,” Pardew said at his press conference before the Arsenal game, which Palace only narrowly lost 2-1. “No, the question is the other teams, when you need a win when the pressure is on. Games like West Brom at home, Stoke and Swansea.”

Aston Villa are another team that would sit nicely alongside the three clubs Pardew listed. A team with a longer Premier League history than Palace, and with traditionally more spending power, Villa are symptomatic of the staunch mid-table clubs that Palace believe they have leap-frogged. Whether Palace can beat such teams on a truly consistent basis, is the marker of whether they truly have or not.

Yannick Bolasie is reportedly a target for Totttenham

2. How much will #LevyTime cost Tottenham?

Along with #MaryBerry and #4YearsofLittleMix, #LevyTime found itself briefly trending this week. Ironically, the hashtag was first coined by Tottenham fans delighting in the hard-headed business acumen of their Chief Executive (prime example: purchasing Benjamin Stambouli for £4.7 million to largely sit on the bench before selling him on for a year later, to PSG, for £6 million).

However, the expression has been somewhat reappropriated over the last few days, and is now being used to negatively refer to the period of time between the start of the season and the shutting of the transfer window, a time when Spurs have struggled in recent seasons as Levy closes his business deals at the very last moment, in the hope of saving a few pennies.

This season proves to be no different. Spurs are desperately short of options up-front, with Harry Kane under-rested and over relied upon, Roberto Soldado on his way back to sunny Spain, and Emmanuel Adebayor doing whatever it is that Emmanuel Adebayor does. Two games into the season and Clinton Njié has arrived from Lyon, whilst the Saido Berahino saga promises to rumble on to the final few hours of the window.

These delays could prove the decisive blows to Tottenham’s Champions League hopes as last season they missed out on qualification by six points, two years before that by one. This season they have already dropped five, which begs the question: just how much expense does #LevyTime save, really?

Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy has come under fire over the club's poor run of form

3. Have the match officials had time to learn the new offside rule yet?

About three and a half seconds worth of googling offers up this explanation of the new interpretation of the offside rule, taken from official guidelines published by IFAB (International Football Association Board – the bods who make the rules) earlier this year:

A player is offside when he clearly attempts to play a ball; (the ball is) close to him; and when this action impacts on an opponent.

According to these rules, Philippe Coutinho wasn't just offside in the build-up to Christian Benteke's winning goal, he was offoffoffside. And yet Craig Pawson let the goal stand, and Liverpool won the three points.

In defence of the referees, it has been argued that they were only informed of this worldwide amendment to the laws a month ago, which has not provided them with enough time to absorb the change.

And, yet, they have had a month. A month to fully understand and reflect on a crucial change to the way in which the game is officiated, knowledge that they will draw upon in every single game that they officiate this season.

Referees are often given a bad press, and frequently criticism of them is unwarranted. However on this, the officials must approve. The integrity of the Premier League cannot afford another incident like it.

Christian Benteke scores on his home debut for Liverpool at Anfield

4. Will the real Slaven Bilic please stand up?

West Ham have played eight competitive football matches already this season. They have won exactly 50% of these. They twice defeated FC Lusitanos- a club formed only in 1999 without their own stadium- and also beat Birkirkara of Malta, before beating Arsenal at The Emirates in front of over 60,000 people.

And yet West Ham lost to the mighty Birkirkara, too. They were also dumped out of the Europa League after twice failing to beat Astra Giurgiu , and last week they missed out on a chance to consolidate their victory against Arsenal by slipping to a 2-1 home defeat to Leicester City.

Their inconsistent; that is basically the point we are trying to make here. So it will be fascinating to see how the Hammers equip themselves in their match against Bournemouth. Win- as they are widely expected to- and West Ham will have six points from nine, and their disastrous European jaunt will be written off as a blessing in disguise with the Hammers in the hunt for top half of the table glory. But lose, and that Arsenal result will begin to look more like a freakish anomaly, with difficult games against Liverpool, Newcastle and Manchester City next up.

West Ham United manager Slaven Bilic

5. So when does this Tiki-Taka-on-Trent business get underway, then?

Rome wasn’t built in a day. And so the transformation of Stoke City from a bunch of barbarian blood and guts cloggers to a team of ball-playing, entertainment providing artistes will take a little time.

However, their fans, buoyed by the announcement of signings such as Joselu, Ibrahim Afellay and Xherdan Shaqiri, could have been forgiven for expecting a slightly more exuberant start to the season.

Stoke were unable to follow up on their 6-1 paddling of Liverpool on the final day of last season, instead slipping to a 1-0 defeat, whilst the point they grabbed at White Hart Lane wasn’t so much a case of a point won, as a point Tottenham lost.

Against Norwich, Stoke will come up against a team with a staunchly admirable commitment to playing football the way the fans want to see it being played.

Alex Neil is a young manager and his gruff exterior belies the streak of idealism that permeates the way he organises his team: Norwich keep the ball on the deck, and want to stay up through playing up.

This sort of match should suit Stoke, and gives their array of sort-of-Champions-League-final-players a chance to shine, with Stoke still seeking their first win of the season.

Xherdan Shaqiri is poised to make his Stoke debut on Saturday

6. Just what are Leicester made of?

Inler has represented his country 83 times and was a key figure in a Napoli team that repeatedly made the knockout stages of the Europa League, and in 2011/12 made the Champions League Round of 16.

He is a canny signing, purchased to plug the large gap left by Esteban Cambiasso, and joins fellow Leicester new boy Shinji Okazaki, the best Japanese player currently in the game, who netted against West Ham last week.

Along with the club’s new manager, Claudio Ranieri- who has managed at Atlético Madrid, Chelsea and Juventus, amongst others- Leicester are yet another mid-table Premier League club stuffed full with staff of an international calibre. And they have only been in the top flight for one season.

The question is now, how far can they go? Along with Palace, Stoke and West Ham, hopes are high, and their perfect start to the season certainly offers encouragement.

Spurs will pose a stiffer challenge, but with confidence low at the London club, the Foxes have a very genuine chance of pinching a win, and moving 8 points ahead of the London club. It’s early days, of course, but if Leicester find a way to maintain the form they have shown over recent months, there’s no reason why this gap cannot be maintained.

Gokhan Inler has moved to Leicester after four years at Napoli

7. How will John Terry respond to his substitution against Manchester City?

Okay, so under Tony Pulis West Brom aren't going to become the Brazilian team of the 1970s anytime soon, but the Baggies have an impressive roster of attacking talent.

Brown Ideye, Rickie Lambert, Callum McManaman, Salomón Rondón, Saido Berahino (just) and Victor Anichebe (we're pushing the boat now) are all solid forward options, and all can pose a threat on the counter attack.

That threat shouldn't prove especially dangerous to a defence as accomplished as Chelsea's, but Mourinho will be well aware of the potential repercussions of slipping up at the Hawthorns. It's the stadium, after all, that witnessed the falls of both the AVB and Di Matteo reigns.

So it will be fascinating to see how John Terry equips himself, after his substitution last week. A commanding performance may just convince Chelsea that Stones can wait, and that the defence- which was so imperious last season- can meddle through until January. Another poor showing, however, could make the transfer of Stones an even more pressing inevitability.

Chelsea's John Terry sat on the bench after being substituted at half time Action Images via Reuters / Carl Recine

8. Have Everton turned a corner?

Weren’t Everton good last week? Fans of the Toffees haven’t had much to smile about over the last few months, with a disappointing league campaign last term, a fairly terrible fans fly-by protest, and the ongoing John Stones transfer saga. But against the Saints Everton were fantastic, with Romelu Lukaku in particularly encouraging , marauding form.

Free from the demands of the Europa League, unlike Southampton, Roberto Martinez can now fully concentrate on getting Everton’s league form back on track. It won’t be easy, but despite reservations over Martinez’s management, Everton did finish last season with six wins out of ten.

Following up last week’s win with three points at home to Manchester City—who are comfortably the best team in the league at present—would be a serious statement to make.

Everton's Romelu Lukaku scored twice against Southampton on Saturday

9. Which club will Austin turn to first?

QPR are eager to hold onto him—can you really blame them when he hit an impressive 18 goals in the Premier League last season?—but it is clear that if the club receive a bid in excess of £12 million, the English hitman will be allowed to leave before the transfer window shuts.

True, he has his injury problems (as David Sullivan was only too happy to point out on a West Ham podcast, to Austin’s ire), but proven Premier League goalscorers for under £20 million are hard to find, especially when they are of the English variety.

It is difficult to think of too many clubs outside the top four that Austin would not improve, and with a number of clubs rumoured to be interested in his services struggling desperately for goals—step forward Tottenham, West Brom and Aston Villa—another relatively barren week in the League could tempt a last minute transfer bid.

QPR striker Charlie Austin has defended his fitness

10. Will the Europa League takes its toll on Southampton?

Despite every Tom, Dick and Harry attempting to force through a transfer to a Champions League team last season, Southampton excelled last season, and delighted their fans by finishing in the Europa League spots.

However, Europe’s secondary continental completion is a fickle beast, and Southampton, like West Ham, have already shown signs of struggling with the increased demand on their squad.

Their 3-0 home defeat to Everton was nothing short of shocking in its comprehensiveness, and now the Saints face a tricky away tie against a resolute Watford, after being held at home by FC Midtjylland.

It is the sort of game the club simply has to win if they are to finish in the coveted European spots once again, and with the club once again fending off interest in their best players (Mane has been linked to the Pedro-less Manchester United, and Wanyama to Tottenham), Koeman will be eager to bolster the mood of the club before the transfer window swings shut.

Jay Rodriguez of Southampton scores from the penalty spot during the UEFA Europa League Play Off Round 1st Leg match between Southampton and Midtjylland at St Mary's

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