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An imaginative and fictitious rumour about Aston Villa’s Barry Bannan moving to Arsenal

Do all promising British players have to be linked prematurely to big clubs for exaggerated fees? Is that a rule? Because it does happen without exception.

Caught Offside are continuing their reputation for being probably the most inaccurate football site on the internet, with their ‘Barry Bannan is a £12m transfer target for Arsenal’ story today.

At this point I’d usually quote bits of the article and ridicule them, but there’s not really anything to quote – aside from the usual rhetoric about a bid being ‘prepared’ and Arsene Wenger being an ‘admirer’.

However, it does include the rather priceless snippet:

Manager Arsene Wenger is still understood to be in the market for a top class midfielder from Europe but is aware all his targets will be cup tied for the Champions League latter stages.

I’m not quite sure how we started at ‘top-class midfielder’ and got to Barry Bannan – and it’s also slightly far-fetched to suggest that spending £12m on an unproven commodity is top of Arsene Wenger’s priorities. No disrespect to Bannan, because he’s a good player, but let’s not get carried away.

“Wenger hopes a £10million plus £2million in add-ons will be enough to lure him away from Villa.”

Does he really?

Just a fine effort all-round, exceptional journalism.

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Best and worst of the weekend – Manchester City & Aston Villa

Best…

Manchester City’s performance at Old Trafford.

Perfect. It’s ironic given the typical concerns over big spending clubs, that this was result owed to the collective rather than the individual. From back to front this was a complete performance that showed off City’s diverse range of assets on the biggest stage of all.

The assurance of Joe Hart, the raiding and defending of Micah Richards and Gael Cichy, the presence of Vincent Kompany – all the way through to the delightful imagination of David Silva, and the high-octane qualities of Mario Balotelli.

The first twenty minutes aside, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a side leave Old Trafford having faced so little resistance. City were comfortable, there was no assault on their lead at any point – they were comfortable and in control. That’s a huge complement to Roberto Mancini, he’s built a team – or squad – capable of strangling the life out of the best that the league has to offer.

I wrote in the preview to this game that I hoped City didn’t freeze at Old Trafford, and that if they expressed themselves they could win this game. They did more then express themselves, for once we’re not talking about United’s failure to perform as a reason for a loss – it was the other team that just completely handled them.

How many times has that been said in the Premier League era? Put aside United’s anomalous results from the past – the Southamptons, the Middlesbroughs, and the Newcastles – this was different. This was not a team playing up to a home crowd, this was not a side showing ‘disgusting effort’, this was just a team going into United’s backyard and out-footballing the Champions.

Terrifying for the rest of the league.

Worst…

Alan Hutton’s tackle on Shane Long.

Yes the tackle, but also Alex McLeish’s attempt to explain it away.

“Shane Long was maybe favourite to get it, but Hutton’s gone from the ball and he’s collided in the follow through and that’s what’s injured him. Everybody doesn’t get injured from these challenges. He’s followed through and collided with the player. But how can you stop in mid-air?”.

Why was Hutton in ‘mid-air’ in the first place. Out-of-control, reckless, and incredibly dangerous – it’s indefensible. I’m all for managers showing solidarity to their players, but not when it’s at the expense of their own credibility.

A place well-deserved in this column for Alan Hutton, his manager, referee Phil Dowd for not sending the player off, and prematurely the FA – who will presumably be their usual spineless selves in not handing down retrospective punishment.

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Aston Villa vs West Brom: Preview

Villa Park, Saturday 3pm.

Aston Villa 21/20 Draw 9/4 West Brom 11/4

Time to bounce back for Villa, whose unbeaten start to the season came to an end at Etihad Stadium last weekend – and West Brom will be looking to make it two wins on the bounce against local rivals after their win against Wolves.

No new injury worries for either team, James Collins is fit to take his place at the heart of the home defence, but Jermaine Jenas and Nathan Delfouneso are both still unavailable. Zoltan Gera returns to the squad for West Brom, and Peter Odemwingie should be fit to start.

I was a bit disappointed with Villa last week, they should have done a better job of frustrating Man City. They’ve been unexpectedly resilient this season under Alex McLeish, and the nature of the goals that they conceded last week would not have pleased him. The white flag was out fairly early on. Expect more from them today though, and expect Gabriel Agbonlahor and Darren Bent to be far more prominent at Villa Park.

The danger areas are the same for both teams – how well are they going to deal with pace upfront. With Peter Odemwingie and Shane Long upfront, you know that West Brom are not going to be slinging the ball into the box, so it’s going to fall on Stilian Petrov’s shoulders to break-up the artistry in front of his back four. Those two forwards are amongst the most underrated in the league, so limiting their chances in front of goal is vital.

You know what you’re going to get with Villa, they’ll break quickly and down the flanks, and they’ll look to get Charles N’Zogbia and Agbonlahor isolated against their full-backs at every opportunity. For Long and Odemwingie, read the same for Darren Bent – he can’t be afforded opportunities in the opposition box. It’s a day that calls for concentration and organisation for the away team – with that in mind, and given how structured a Roy Hodgson team usually is, have a look at the under 2.5 goals market.

This will be tight, and probably won by a single goal – which I think Villa will get.

Aston Villa’s Emile Heskey receiving a digital hammering

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Honestly one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a long time…

Manchester City vs Aston Villa: Preview

Saturday 3pm, Etihad Stadium

Manchester City 4/11 Draw 15/4 Aston Villa 8/1

Beware this fixture, because some will be expecting a cricket score – I think Villa are more resilient than that. The home win is still the obvious option, but beware sticking any handicaps on this.

Under the Alex McLeish, Villa have very quietly started the season unbeaten, and they’ve proven to be a tough nut to crack – I do expect them to be eventually overwhelmed by City’s quality, but the away team will be very competitive at Etihad Stadium. They’ll sit back, invite City on to them, and use their pace to counter-attack. Everton tried to do the same thing a couple of weeks ago, and had they had a bit more firepower they might have taken some points out of that game – City are explosive, but they can still be frustrated.

The draw at half-time/Man City to lead a full-time market is a great price at 3/1.

Maybe also look at the 10/11 on offer for the first goal to be scored after the 22nd minute.

City 2-0, both goals in the second-half.

…and if you haven’t taken your free £20 bet off Paddy Power yet, then you need to sort that out.

Four things to expect from the new season: Aston Villa, Fulham, QPR & Blackburn

Villa could be just about anything

A couple of weeks ago there was some fairly damning opinions on this site about Villa, and while some of those are still valid, there is at least some reason for optimism.

Ashley Young’s departure for Manchester United was six months in the making, so when no obvious plan seemed to exist for replacing him alarm bells were ringing loud and clear. Similarly with Stewart Downing, Villa seemed to be stripping their parts and selling them off for no apparent reason. Charles N’Zogbia’s arrival has done a bit to temper fears around the quality in the first team, but as ever with N’Zogbia the fear will always be that good performances will soon lead to him agitating for a move to a bigger club – he’s just that kind of personality. Unfortunately for him, his off-the-field persona has sometimes overshadowed quite how good a player he can be – there’s no doubt that a forward trident of him, Gabriel Agbonlahor, and Darren Bent is exciting on paper, so let’s hope that it produces.

Concerns obviously still exist in midfield, because out of Petrov, Delph, Bannan, Albighton, Makoun and Ireland, there’s not a lot that would trouble the ‘good’ teams in the league. As with N’Zogbia, Stephen Ireland is a very capable player when he’s focused, Marc Albrighton is growing into a very solid Premier League performer, and Jean Makoun was once earmarked for big things in the game which he’s yet to achieve. These are the ‘what ifs’ with Villa, and if the stars align then it’s not inconceivable that they’ll be in the 7th to 9th range come May 2012.

At the back Shay Given has come in to replace Brad Friedel, and that might be more disruptive than anybody imagines. Friedel, despite his age, is an organiser at the back – his shot-stopping and ball-handling are welcome additions to that. He fits a team like Tottenham, because after Heurelho Gomes’ season they craved stability over more spectacular ,but unreliable, goalkeeping. Shay Given will rarely make mistakes, that’s the good news, but he is more of an outstanding shot-stopper than he is an all-round elite Goalkeeper. He thrived at Newcastle because that was an environment where he was peppered with shots, which plays to his strengths – but at Man City, where the more controlling and authoritarian attributes of goalkeeping were at a premium… not so much. That may very well turn into a ‘something of nothing’ comment as the season goes on, but it would be a concern, because it’s Given’s perceived inability to manage a defense that’s cost him a move to a very big club in the past.

There’s nothing conclusive here obviously, and add in the new manager-factor and it’s very hard to predict what kind of season Villa will turn in. There are far more positives than most imagine, the biggest of all being the guarantee of goals through Darren Bent. They’ll be hard-working which is good news, but I hope that Alex McLeish doesn’t turn Villa into the negative side that Birmingham were – because there’s far more talent in this squad, and his best bet would be to take the reigns off and get his wide forwards involved at every possible opportunity. Who knows.

Blackburn will really struggle

What’s happening to Blackburn at the moment should be used as a testcase for preventing foreign-owners entering English football without a clear set of objectives.

Venky’s management of the club is explored at greater length elsewhere, but the sum of their transfer activity looks very unimpressive. If Christopher Samba does head, as expected, to London, then outside of Junior Hoillet there are not very many positives left in that squad. They’re light up-front, they’re vulnerable at the back, and they’re not particularly imposing or creative in midfield. David Goodwillie may turn into the goalscorer that Rovers need him to be, but you can’t gamble on goalscoring records in Scotland – the standard of play outside of the Old Firm is so poor as to render them meaningless. Goodwillie is a good player, but not one that really fits into the mould of ‘global brand expansion’ that was promised by the Indian owners.

It would also be surprising if Steve Kean was still in a job at Christmas time. For all the upheaval and negative press the club incurred for dismissing Sam Allardyce, his replacement has only really taken the club backwards. The only thing that really protects Kean is that removing him would be a very embarrassing u-turn for the owners, and one that they would want avoid at all costs. But what you can’t escape, is that if you have a under-talented squad, then you need a motivating and experienced manager with proven credentials – Blackburn have only the former, so you have to think they’re going to struggle. It’s a shame, because the fans deserve far better, this is a proud football club and yet the way it’s being managed is self-destructive.

Martin Jol will do a great job at Fulham.

Martin Jol is the kind of manager that players love to play for, he’s a father figure and a motivator. This is someone, after all, that took Tottenham to the brink of the Champions League with a team containing Paul Stalteri and Jermaine Jenas.

What Fulham can expect, is a return to the way the club performed under Roy Hodgson. You always got the impression that Mark Hughes never really had his heart in the job during his year-long tenure, but you’ll get completely the opposite with Jol – he’s may not be the most tactically-astute manager, but he’ll get the very best out of what’s there.

It’s not as if the squad is short on talent either; Damien Duff, Bobby Zamora, Clint Dempsey, Moussa Dembele and Brede Hangeland are all very much good enough to be playing in the top half – and John-Arne Riise is a quality addition at left-back despite his age.

Nothing to fear on the River Thames this year, they’ll play some attractive football and knock-off some big teams at Craven Cottage – Jol is a perfect fit for a mid-level team that wants to step-up a level.

Adel Taarabt needs to have discipline if QPR are to stay in the Premier League

The phrase ‘luxury player’ is banded about all too liberally, but Taarabt is the picture underneath the dictionary entry. If you haven’t seen him before, he plays ridiculously low-percentage football; he passes when he wants to pass, he takes on defenders when he doesn’t need to, and he’ll never track back. To be fair to the Moroccan, he’s absurdly-talented, and so for Neil Warnock to build his entire team around him is fully-justified. However, the problem with this at Premier League level, is that you can’t give the ball-away like you can in the Championship. QPR are very much Taarabt plus ten other Championship-level players, and so surrendering possession will not lead to anything good. What Warnock must achieve is a situation where his playmaker’s penchant for the ridiculous is curbed slightly, whilst not sacrificing his level of influence – it’s a catch 22, and almost certainly impossible given how unmanageable the Moroccan is.

It’s quite a rare situation to have, but QPR’s hopes of survival rest almost entirely on Taarabt. He has the capability to be both the player that keeps them in the league, yet is also the one that most threatens their survival. Expect an awful lot of show-boating, probably some August bandwagon-jumping from Match Of The Day, and at least one goal of the month contender.

Joey Barton – Where next?

Newcastle today placed Joey Barton on the transfer list, and told the midfielder that he could leave St James’ Park for free. It’s been coming, the ownership at Newcastle and Barton’s sometimes ‘honest’ approach where never going to be a perfect fit.

So, Manchester City, Newcastle, and now where? Options please…

Arsenal

It would be sensational, and Barton would be the beast in amongst the beauty of Arsene Wenger’s midfield. But in a good way. What are the qualities that Arsenal lack? Physicality, desire, will to win, and rugged competitiveness – Barton has all of those qualities in spades, and has the ball-playing ability not to stand out in amongst the artistry. Should this happen, it’s hard to know how much connection there would be between player and manager – would there be an odder couple in the League that Barton and Wenger? Maybe it’s time Wenger imported the commodity that he fears so much, the tough-tackling that threaten his side’s fragility. It’s hard to see Barton getting intimidates when you’re away at Stoke.

Everton

There are very few players that David Moyes can actively pursue, in fact, such is the crippling lack of funds at Goodison Park that anybody who commands a fee is pretty much out of reach. Moyes is a long-time admirer of Barton, and tried to sign him from Manchester City before baulking at the price tag – whether the fire still burns, or whether there’s room in that midfield for Barton is questionable. Still, another body is always welcome, given how long the queue outside the treatment room always is.

Tottenham

Harry Redknapp loves a deal, and the way Spurs’ Summer has gone thus far he’ll do anything for new faces. You suspect also, that Redknapp and Barton may very well be a match made in heaven – troubled and sometimes unfocused player seeks strong manager with motivational qualities. Again, there’s no obvious place in the first team for the player, but that didn’t stop ‘Arry signing Steven Pienaar did it? The concern has to be though, that without playing every week, you’d be potentially giving Barton a lot of free-time – and you suspect that playing day-in and day-out is what keeps some of his demons locked away. Not a good idea.

Manchester United

Nope, paper talk.

Aston Villa

Not to quite the same extent as at Everton, but the purse strings are definitely tight at Villa Park – more so after the arrival of Charles N’Zogbia. Given the abundance of mediocrity that now ply their trade in and around Alex McLeish’s midfield, it’s hard to come up with too many reasons why this would be a bad idea. Stylian Petrov is a pale imitation of the player Martin O’Neil brought to the club, Jean Makoun is still in that ‘adapting’ period, and Fabien Delph was never anything but a media creation – there are far worse options than Barton, and far more expensive ones. Definitely a good bet this one, it makes sense for player and team – Barton gets a regular start, and Villa get some verve in that listless midfield.

For a few more thoughts in the general Joey Barton direction, try this… Yes, yes, hindsight’s a wonderful thing.

Aston Villa’s McLeish Statement – Some Highlights.

Aston Villa have released a statement this morning defending their decision to appoint Alex McLeish and really, it’s just the club insisting that they’re right to appoint the Scotsman, but without quantifying that with anything reasons that shows that they are. It’s very telling that the statement is so long – it’s almost as if Villa feel they need to justify employing a manager who recently relegated their cross-city rivals and then resigned by email.

Anyway, some highlights from the statement:

‘When his team beat Arsenal to win the Carling Cup four months ago at Wembley he became one of the only current managers in the Barclays Premier League who has won a major piece of silverware.’

You mean apart from Roberto Mancini, Arsene Wenger, Harry Redknapp, Sir Alex Ferguson, and Kenny Dalglish – you could also argue that the Championship trophy is as equally important as the League Cup, so we’ll add Neil Warnock into that list.

‘That Alex McLeish is a well-respected, well-rounded and accomplished football man is not in question.’

It most certainly is – in fact, how can the club credibly release a statement that says something like that?

‘Unquestionably, Alex meets the criteria we set out at the beginning of our search which was based on proven Premier League experience, leadership, a hard-working ethic and, most importantly, a shared vision for Aston Villa. Alex is someone with whom we will work close and work well together. With our strong squad combining the necessary virtues of experience and the exciting potential of our young players, our objective is to compete as strongly as we possibly can.’

If I was a Villa fan, that paragraph would terrify me – ‘compete as strongly as we can’ is a footballing euphemism for ‘invest nothing and hope for the best’. Brad Friedel has left, Ashley Young is leaving, and Stewart Downing will follow him – Randy Lerner and CEO Paul Faulkner want a manager who isn’t going to resist as they force the club into hibernation.

Aston Villa are 21/1 to be relegated next season, and while that still remains a long-shot, McLeish’s appointment and the impending exodus make it a punt worth taking. The fans deserve sympathy, because they’ve now had to sit and watch – and pay for – what is clearly a managed scaling-down of ambitions by Randy Lerner. Lerner is so ambiguous about what his intentions for the club are – and more importantly the reasoning behind them – that you have to wonder how low he’ll let the club sink now.

Not a good day for such a proud club – the full statement is here if you want to try and convince yourself of its sincerity. From top to bottom, football becomes more rotten by the day.

Early Morning Notes: Swansea, Bolton & Jerome, Tevez interview, and Roberto Martinez

Roberto Martinez has been given permission to speak to Aston Villa, and is now an even money favourite to be their next permanent manager. The sooner Villa have a bit of stability at their club the better, the uncertainty around the team’s future direction certainly didn’t make Ashley Young’s decision to leave any harder.

Another Villa player, Stewart Downing, has seen his odds of joining Liverpool slashed in the last twenty-four hours, the England winger is now a very short 1/3 to be at Anfield next season. On the basis that this happens, Kenny Dalglish’s transfer policy is a little bit underwhelming so far – Downing’s a good player, but like Jordan Henderson he’s not going to get you anywhere nearer the league title.

Marcos Senna‘s Villareal contract is due to expire in July, and Swansea are apparently eager to bring the 34-year-old along with them on their journey into the Premier League. That’ll certainly be a good way to test the resiliency of your club’s wage structure. Not the most sensible reaction to getting promoted.

Another playing is leaving the Liberty Stadium, Darren Pratley confirmed yesterday that ‘after five years I feel the time is right for a fresh challenge.’

The Ewood Park penalty spot has sold on eBay for a frankly pretty silly £6,100. What recession?

The Carlos Tevez interview in which he tells a chatshow host that he’ll ‘never return to Manchester’ is up on the BBC website – watch it here. The normal ‘misquoted’ excuse is probably on its way from Kia Joorabchian.

Bolton want Birmingham forward Cameron Jerome, but are only willing to pay £5m for him. Rightly so you say, but unfortunately Birmingham believe his value to be closer to £8m. Frankly, if Bolton agree to pay £8m for him then they deserve to follow his current club through the trapdoor. Silly money.

Early Morning Notes: Ashley Young, Chuck Blazer, West Ham, and Sergio Aguero

Perennial Chelsea Loanee Michael Mancienne has joined Hamburg on a three-year deal. The fee is supposedly just under £2m, and the player will rejoin Frank Arnesen who is currently Sporting Director at the German club.

The penalty spot from which Wayne Rooney secured the Premier League title has gone on sale on eBay – bid on it here if you have a real shortage of things to spend your money on.

More FIFA chaos; overnight, Lisle Austin – who is the acting head of CONCACAF in the absence of Jack Warner – tried to sack Chuck Blazer, the original bribery whistleblower and CONCACAF General Secretary. Austin was reminded by his organisation that he did not have the proper authority to do any such thing. You couldn’t make it up.

Sam Allardyce is about to be appointed manager of West Ham, obviously with a huge number of bonuses attached to his contract. Do you remember what we said this kind of appointment would mean…?

Atletico Madrid have ruled out the possibility of Sergio Aguero joining Real Madrid, confirming the existence of a gentleman’s agreement outlawing ‘hostile actions’ between the two clubs. In the words of Gil Marin, President of Atletico:

‘I called (Real president) Florentino (Perez) to ask him if we could maintain this commitment to not being hostile and he agreed. Either a club, that is not Real Madrid, comes in and puts €45m on the table or he stays at Atletico Madrid. We don’t want to negotiate with anyone.’

Next stop England.

Lille forward Gervinho, Ivory Coast International and muted Premier League transfer target, will be making a decision on his future this week.

Ashley Young has made the clearest statement yet about his future:

‘I watched Saturday’s game (Champions League Final) as a player that wished I was out there playing. As a kid you always want to play in the biggest competitions. I was no different. Of course Barcelona are the best team but, for Manchester United to get to the Champions League final as well, it must mean that we have got teams in this country that can match the best in Europe.Young insists his focus remains on England. Yet he is clearly not oblivious to the swirl of gossip going on around him.I have always said I am going to talk to the chairman and manager after this game, and I have given 100% in every game I have played for Aston Villa. I am away with England now and my focus is fully on Switzerland. We know it is going to be a massive game but it is always nice to have speculation.

Ah, the old ‘I need to be playing Champions League football’ justification rears its head again. If Young was going to stay at Villa, he’d already have committed to it – this is a foregone conclusion.