Nick Albert

Five questions for the week ahead

Ole’s exploits to extend to Champions League too?

A sense of dread flowed through the veins of the Old Trafford hierarchy when PSG were revealed as Man United’s Last 16 opponents back in December. Just how would a lifeless team bereft of confidence and belief deal with Neymar and co.?

Simple. Remove the source of the problem - Jose Mourinho’s departure was announced just 24 hours after the draw incidentally - and replace him with a club legend.

The move couldn’t have worked out any better if they tried. 11 wins from 12 games in the league and cup has transformed United’s season to the point where they now are heavily fancied to get the better of the French Champions.

No Neymar and (potentially) no Cavani just adds to the intrigue of this tie - will the feel good factor created by OGS carry United through to the Champions League Quarter Finals?

Streetwise Spurs to keep up run? 

No Kane. No Alli. No problem for Spurs.

Ok this isn’t entirely true since Pochettino saw his side slide out of two domestic cup competitions in the space of four days.

But they still remain in contention for an, albeit unlikely, Premier League title following four straight wins, a run which sees them in good shape ahead of entertaining Dortmund on Wednesday.

Son and Eriksen have stepped up in Spurs' hour of need to leave the prospect of lining up without Kane and Alli not as daunting as it did initially. Can the influential pair maintain their impressive league form to keep Spurs in the hunt on the European stage too?

In-form ‘Boro to be blunted? 

Finally, Middlesbrough are starting to show some sign of life in the Championship promotion shake-up. An erratic December threatened to de-rail ‘Boro’s bid for the play-offs but Tony Pulis has managed to turn the tide to preside over an unbeaten run of six.

Next up though, he takes his side to Brammall Lane for a genuine six pointer: win and they close the gap on 3rd place Sheffield United to a point, lose and the difference is seven.

‘Boro will be buoyed by the Blades surrendering a 3 goal lead to Aston Villa on Friday night and will be hoping for Chris Wilder’s team to show more nerves as the race for the Premier League intensifies in a busy midweek Championship programme.

Can Chelsea win or even score away?

Following their humiliating defeat at the Etihad, Chelsea’s season is in danger of spiraling out of control. And if Mauricio Sarri refuses to change his ways then he’ll soon be out of a job.

That’s the short and fall out of it as the Blues head to southern Sweden to take on Malmö in the Europa League. A reaction of some sort, or, you know, even a goal away from home is needed to appease Chelsea supporters fast becoming frustrated at the lack of flexibility in the Italian’s methods.

It’ll be tough though. Malmö are busy preparing for their domestic season and can point to an impressive double over Besiktas in the group stage as an indicator of their ability to beat the bigger boys. Will the Swedish outfit inflict more misery on Blues fans?

Sarri

Could time soon be up for Sarri?

Will defensive frailties haunt Arsenal further still?

The Gunners last clean sheet came just a few weeks ago at home to Chelsea but as alluded to above, this is no mean feat currently.

The fact of the matter is Arsenal don’t really deal in clean sheets. Their perennial shaky backline was on show and horribly exposed at Southampton, Man. City and especially Liverpool when the defence folded as quick as a pack of cards.

Even shutting out basement side Huddersfield for 90 minutes at the weekend proved impossible. They may have managed to shut out relative unknowns in the EL group stage but Thursday’s opponents BATE represents a step-up in a competition which only gets harder from here on in.

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Nick Albert

Weekend Winners and Losers

Following another weekend of thrills and spills, here are the winners and losers from across England’s four divisions.

Declan Rice ⬆️

It’s been quite a couple of weeks for Declan Rice. Having ended all doubt regarding his future by signing a bumper 5 and a half year contract just after Christmas, the West Ham starlet delighted team-mates and Hammers fans alike by hitting the winning goal at home to Arsenal in Saturday's lunchtime kick-off.

He had already threatened Bernd Leno’s goal prior to the half time whistle, missing the target with a close-range header. However, the 19 year-old made no mistake shortly after the break, curling expertly past the German into the top corner for his first senior goal.

Cue wild celebrations at the Olympic Stadium as a clearly jubilant Rice was mobbed by his teammates who had been giving the holding midfielder a fair share of stick for his lack of goals so far!

Well, they can mock him no longer. With the winning goal, man of the match award and an upcoming 20th birthday to celebrate, Rice delighted the West Ham faithful further by heading down the pub with Irons fans to carry on the celebrating! 

Huddersfield ⬇️

David Wagner took his Huddersfield side to Cardiff knowing, realistically, only a win would see them with any hope of mounting a great escape. 

Although they managed a clean sheet and a point to stem a run of eight successive league losses, the same problem to blight their season was apparent once more as the Terriers drew another blank. In fairness, the league’s basement side were hugely unfortunate to be denied a penalty when Lee Mason pointed to the spot, only to then overturn the decision based on what his assistant had seen.

A sense of injustice perhaps but Huddersfield, for all their possession, appear some way short of the quality required to compete with the elite in England. 11 points and 13 goals scored in 22 games says it all and having failed to muster a win when they were most in need, the writing is now firmly on the wall for Wagner’s team.

Jarrod Bowen & Hull City ⬆️

Five consecutive wins has seen Hull spring out of the relegation zone to sit within just four points of the Championship play-offs. It was little surprise then to see Nigel Adkins named Manager of the Month for December but perhaps wasn’t so clear, was how this would affect Hull's next fixture given the award's tendency to act as a curse.

The Tigers aren’t one for shying away from a challenge though and instead notched up their sixth successive win. Against their Yorkshire rivals too. Striker Frazier Campbell rounded off the scoring but it was the goals and all round contribution of 22 year old Jarrod Bowen that proved decisive.

Having also been recognised for an outstanding December with the division's Player of the Month award, the youngster continued his fine streak with a further two goals, taking his tally to 13 in an impressive campaign so far. Not a bad time to be a Hull City supporter then! So long as they hang on to Bowen that is, the form of the former Hereford man hans't gone unnoticed by Premier League clubs.

Dean Smith & Aston Villa ⬇️

Villa sacked Steve Bruce and brought in Dean Smith in the hope of reviving a flailing promotion bid. As yet though, they’ve flattered to deceive under the self-confessed Villa supporter who admitted the defeat to an out of form Wigan on Saturday was the worst of his managerial so far.

With over 550 games under his belt, that’s a rather damning indictment of how Villa played and perhaps a hint of frustration that Villa haven’t yet kicked on during his reign.

They sit in exactly the same position (12th) as they did when Smith initially took over and having passed up the opportunity to close the gap, now have a mountain to climb if they’re to have any chance at all of reaching the play-offs.

Aston Villa

Luton Town ⬆️

Nathan Jones shocked many in the footballing sphere last week by turning his back on Luton in the midst of their promotion bid in order to take the reins just a few places up the football pyramid at Stoke City. Not only this, he did so before arguably the club’s biggest match of the season at Sunderland. Talk about timing and lack of loyalty!

Despite such adversity, the Hatters, led by former manager Mick Harford, caretaker manager while the club undertake the search for Jones’ successor, rolled up their sleeves to put in a performance full of mettle and show just why they’re serious contenders for a second successive promotion.

Portsmouth ⬇️

The smiles would’ve been wider still on the faces of the Luton players when they saw the score coming through from Fratton Park. Long-time leaders Portsmouth blew a golden chance to capitalise on their nearest challengers taking points off each other, going down at home to Blackpool.

Kenny Jackett’s men still the lead the way by four points but missed out on putting some clear daylight between themselves and their closest rivals. If Pompey’s promotion bid takes a turn for the worse, they’ll certainly look back at this weekend as a defining one.

Bury ⬆️

Scoring a goal in injury time to win a game 4-3 having been 1-3 down is one thing. But to do it against your promotion rivals and leapfrog them in the table is pretty special.

Losing by two with 20 minutes remaining, there didn’t appear much hope left for Bury. But a stunning comeback started by Dom Telford, continued by Danny Mayor and capped by Nicky Adams brought sheer ecstasy to those at Gigg Lane. Well, unless you were a MK Dons fans, of course!

The Shakers rose to second with their third straight win to close within three points of leaders Lincoln having played two games more.

Notts County ⬇️

English football’s oldest club are in grave danger of losing their football league status if they don’t turn around a desperate run of form which has seen them win just one of their last sixteen games.

County, now under the stewardship of Neal Ardley, their third manager of a chaotic campaign, could’ve closed the gap on their fellow strugglers to only two points had they beaten Cambridge at Meadow Lane in front of a bumper crowd of 15,000.

Instead, the prospect of The Magpies heading down into the National League is looking more and more likely following their latest loss. The gap to Cambridge in 20th is now eight points, while they’re still six points adrift of safety. 

To say, they need a miracle may be a bit excessive at this stage but if they fail to beat 22nd placed Yeovil next weekend, their 131 year-long stay in the EFL pyramid will soon be at an end.

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Nick Albert

FA Cup Third Round weekend: What to look out for

The FA Cup Third Round is always a standout in the football calendar with no end of drama guaranteed.

Here’s what to look out for from this weekend’s set of fixtures.

Dream tie for revitalised Tranmere

Mauricio Pochettino’s hunt for a trophy continues in another competition as Tottenham’s congested fixture list continues to churn out games. Following their New Year’s trip to Cardiff, Spurs are back on the road with a trip to League Two side Tranmere.

Having just escaped near financial meltdown by winning promotion to League Two and ending a three stay in the National League, there’s a romantic feel about play-off chasing Rovers hosting Tottenham under the lights at Prenton Park for a shot at one of the country’s best teams, as well as a big payday.

The game to kick off the weekend program is arguably the pick of the bunch.  And with Spurs expected to ring the changes given their demanding schedule, the upwardly moving hosts cannot be discounted entirely. 

Banana skin for fragile Fulham

Perhaps not a game that automatically stands out but intriguing nonetheless. Fulham’s focus has to be on Premier League survival but they won’t want the humiliation of going out the cup to a League Two side to further dent confidence among a delicate bunch of players.

As tends to be the case after sacking a manager, Oldham look to have a new lease of life and will pose a dangerous outfit for Claudio Ranieri’s side.

The Lactics have posted back-to-back victories under caretaker boss Pete Wild, who could write himself into Oldham folklore and become a genuine contender for the job on a full-time basis should his side make it three wins in a row at the Cottage.

Woking flying the non-league flag

Woking, of the National League South are the lowest ranked side left in the competition and fly the flag for the non-league sides (alongside Barnet) this year.

More often than not, the glamour ties tend to escape lower league sides but Woking boss Alan Dowson and a capacity crowd of just over 5,500 will be delighted at the prospect of welcoming Premier League opposition, by no means unbeatable in Watford, to the Kingfield.

The Cards are bang in form too. They’ve won eight of their last nine in the NLS including the last seven on the bounce to sit second, two points off the top with two games in hand.

However, the greatest performance in the club’s history is needed to overcome opposition six leagues above them. Watford are masters of overcoming similar situations having lost just once in nineteen cup games against lower league sides. The Hornets are also enjoying a fine season and will have half an eye on a good cup run this year given their safe mid-table position in the PL.

Woking

Will Woking be celebrating a famous result come full time at the Kingfield?

Robins to continue cup exploits?

It was in the League Cup Bristol City saw off four Premier League teams on their way to the semi-finals last season. They landed 4/5 home ties then and their luck’s in again with Huddersfield the next potential scalp for Lee Johnson’s men at Ashton Gate.

The hosts have managed to turn their season round of late thanks to an unbeaten run of eight, are now firmly among the chasing pack in the race for the championship play-offs.

In stark contrast, the Premier League’s basement side arrive on the back of 8 straight defeats, a new record low for the club. Their top-flight status appears to be slipping away and with a make or break game with 17th place Cardiff next up when league matters resume, it’s hard to see many of Wagner’s preferred XI being involved on Saturday evening. 

‘Tis the season for rotation 

After a demanding Christmas schedule, most Premier League sides that can afford such a luxury, will take the opportunity to rest those in need of a breather.

It’s a whole lot easier when you’re paired with lower league opposition too, as is the case with Manchester City (at home to Rotherham), Man.United (home to Reading), Chelsea (home to Nottingham Forest) and Arsenal (away at Blackpool) who will all apply an element of rotation to their respective line-ups.

Facing second string sides can take the gloss off a giant killing, yet it does at least give the aforementioned teams some hope against the big boys.

The potential for mayhem - VAR

Whether you're for or against it, from next season there will be a Video Assistant Referees (VAR) at each and every Premier League game. In preparation for this, it's going to be trialled in this years FA Cup. 

However, with all the technology involved, it will only be used in fixtures at Premier League grounds. Though this makes sense - you wouldn't expect non-league Woking to have the facilities to carry out such an operation for example - it comes away from the level playing field which makes this tournament special worldwide.

A Premier League team will have the luxury of being able to overturn a contentious decision through VAR, yet football league sides and potentially other Premier League clubs playing away from home won't have the same benefit, hence the title!

Staggered fixtures

Gone are the days of the traditional 3 o'clock kick-offs. This year sees a host of games starting at varied times with only 10 of the 32 fixtures in their usual Saturday mid-afternoon slot.

You may be thinking this means more games to watch on the box. But in fact, scattering the games over the weekend allows overseas broadcasters the chance to show the world's greatest cup competition at a more convenient time for them.

FA Cup 3rd round

Friday

Tranmere vs Tottenham (7.45pm)

Saturday

Bournemouth vs Brighton (12.30pm)

Burnley vs Barnsley (12.30pm)

Man United vs Reading (12.30pm)

Sheffield Wednesday vs Luton (12.30pm)

Shrewsbury vs Stoke (12.30pm)

West Brom vs Wigan (12.30pm)

West Ham vs Birmingham (12.30pm)

Accrington vs Ipswich (3pm)

Aston Villa vs Swansea (3pm)

Bolton vs Walsall (3pm)

Brentford vs Oxford (3pm)

Chelsea vs Nottingham Forest (3pm)

Derby vs Southampton (3pm)

Everton vs Lincoln (3pm)

Fleetwood vs AFC Wimbledon (3pm)

Gillingham vs Cardiff (3pm)

Middlesbrough vs Peterborough (3pm)

Blackpool vs Arsenal (5.30pm)

Bristol City vs Huddersfield (5.30pm)

Crystal Palace vs Grimsby (5.30pm)

Newcastle vs Blackburn (5.30pm)

Norwich vs Portsmouth (5.30pm)

Sunday

Fulham vs Oldham (2pm)

Man City vs Rotherham (2pm)

Millwall vs Hull (2pm)

Preston vs Doncaster (2pm)

QPR vs Leeds (2pm)

Sheffield United vs Barnet (2pm)

Woking vs Watford (2pm)

Newport vs Leicester (4.30pm)

Monday

Wolves vs Liverpool (7.45pm)

*UK times

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Nick Albert

Your EFL Five

It’s the calm before the storm for the 72 clubs in the Football League as managers and players prepare for a flurry of fixtures over the festive period. Before then though, here are your five standout matches across the three divisions this weekend.

Friday - Sheffield United vs West Brom (19:45)

The Championship

The Goal Poacher’s Derby: Third plays fifth in the latest meet of sides vying for promotion with just one point separating the Blades and the Baggies.

Few would have had Sheffield United down as promotion contenders prior to the campaign yet they’ve remained in the mix and merit their position with almost half the season played.

Success has come largely from a settled side led by mainstays Basham and Norwood. But it’s the goals of Billy Sharp that has United where they are. The 32-year old already looks likely to surpass last season’s tally of 13.

With 11 goals in 19, Sharp has been fully living up to his name in front of goal and is the go-to man for manager Wilder, a point proved at the Madjeksi last weekend when Sharp, afforded a rest, came off the bench to break the deadlock in the 83rd minute.

Fellow Championship goal poacher, Dwight Gayle, has also been demonstrating his goal scoring prowess. He’s on ten for the season, as is his partner in crime Jay Rodriguez, the two combing to good effect so far to see Darren Moore’s team as the most potent attackers in the division with 44 goals from their 21 games.

Former Baggies defender Moore will be seeking an improvement in his side’s defending though. They could be a lot closer to the top two as it stands but a fallible backline, without a clean sheet in 13 and breached more times than second bottom Bolton, continues to be their downfall.

Saturday - Aston Villa vs. Stoke (15:00)

The Championship 

Looking to kick-on: Two clubs expected to fight it out for the automatic places are only now mounting recoveries after shaky starts.

Changing a manager mid-season can sometimes prove a gamble. For Villa, though it seemed the inevitable option with things becoming stale under Steve Bruce.

His replacement, self-confessed Villa fan Dean Smith, has, so far, proven himself to be the up and coming manager which persuaded his new employers to prise him away from Brentford in the first place. He has Villa playing with an attacking verve absent from Villa Park for some time.

They’re not just scoring a hatful of goals though (17 in the last 5), they’re winning at a better rate and seeing off fellow promotion rivals with ease. Three wins in their last five, including comprehensive victories at Derby and Middlesbrough (no mean feat) and a derby thrashing of Birmingham sees Villa on the up and well placed in eighth.

Another managerial casualty looked likely at the Britannia too based on Stoke’s early season form. Pottering along with a series of draws and a handful of wins, Gary Rowett has demonstrated his knowledge of the league to see Stoke rise to tenth.

There are still too many draws than he’d like - three in the last five is far from ideal when trying to make up ground. However, they’re unbeaten in eight and have suffered just one defeat in twelve.

Pivotal figures in their revival have been Joe Allen and Tom Ince, both of whom have chipped in with crucial goals of late. They’ll need to be on their game against free-scoring Villa too, a defeat will be damaging and undo the hard work of the last few weeks, especially ahead of a favourable block of games to come. 

Aston Villa Vs Stoke City

Stoke are waking up to the challenge of the Championship

Saturday - Barnsley vs. Portsmouth (15:00)

League One 

Two unbeaten records on the line: Top of the table Portsmouth head to Oakwell having just suffered a first defeat in ten. The hosts are looking to get back on track too.

Daniel Stendel is making positive strides with Barnsley. The former Hannover boss has a been a breath of fresh air since arriving in South Yorkshire during the summer, turning The Tykes into one of the most attractive to watch teams in the league, while helping to lift the gloom that automatically comes with relegation.

His side, on a run of three without a win, host the league leaders, beaten for the first time in ten during midweek. Both will be desperate to return to winning ways but those expecting Pompey to turn it back on might not be aware of Barnsley’s unbeaten home record.

How Kenny Jackett’s players react to a first defeat in over two months adds to the intrigue of this clash. An unexpected defeat to Charlton in midweek, just their second loss of the campaign, was a stark reminder how competitive this league can be.

Fortunately for Portsmouth, top spot is still intact, while their unbeaten away record should stand them in good stead at Oakwell. But they would have preferred an easier game to get back up and running with.

Saturday - Macclesfield vs. Crawley (15:00)

League Two

Already a crucial week for Campbell: He’s only been in his first managerial job five minutes. Yet you could say Sol Campbell’s first home match as Macclesfield boss is a ‘must not lose’.

Having taken charge of the side propping up the entire football league, the former England defender is only too aware of the job on his hands. But he needs to get them winning. And quick. An average so far of one win every seven games isn’t going to stop The Silkman from hurtling straight back down to the National League.

An ineffective showing in front of goal at Colchester - nothing new given their paltry goal tally of 16 all season - cost Campbell his first defeat in his first game. He’ll be counting on back-to-back home games against Crawley and Port Vale to yield him his first points.

And it’s a golden opportunity when you consider the form of the visitors to Moss Rose. Crawley are on a rotten run on the road having lost their last five.

They too are adjusting to a new man in the dugout with Gabriele Gioffi taking over from Harry Kewell in September. The Italian has overseen five home wins but can’t seem to replicate the same form away from the Broadfield. There’s no doubt this fixture would’ve been identified as one they could profit from though.

Monday - Derby vs Nottingham Forest (19:45)

The Championship 

‘The Brian Clough Derby’: Rounding off the weekend in the EFL is the standout fixture between two clubs who have more in common than just their East Midlands rivalry.

Just three points separate the two great foes and while it’s the hosts who hold the slight upper hand in league position and recent form, Frank Lampard will recall his side being beaten twice before on the big occasion at Pride Park; early on to Leeds and most recently to Villa. He’ll hope both serve as a stark reminder to the threat of getting caught up in the atmosphere of a big game.

The Rams are in decent form though having accrued maximum points in four of the last six. Without tempting the same fate to fall on previous Derby teams, this side moulded by Lampard looks as if it has the right blend of youth and experience to endure the marathon of the Championship. In the short-term however, it’s all about beating fierce rivals Forest.

Aitor Karanka will also be aware of the significance of this derby match, not just for the Forest faithful but in terms of keeping within reach of the play-off spots. But trying to get Forest over the line in certain games is a quandary for the Spaniard. Even more so when you think he has the league’s top scorer, Lewis Grabban, in the ranks.

Amazingly, his 14 goals haven’t been enough to propel Forest into the play-off positions. A league high of 10 draws and a lack of consistency in results is preventing The Reds from picking up any momentum, the key for any side in this division. Will a famous win in this fixture be the kick-start they’re in need of?

Lewis Grabban

Much travelled championship hitman Grabban is doing what he does his best for Forest

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Nick Albert

Wayne Rooney fully deserving of final England cap

The decision made by the FA to award England’s all-time leading goalscorer a 120th and final cap against the USA tomorrow evening certainly came out of the blue. And it has been the source of much debate among ex-players, managers and fans alike despite thirteen years of loyal service, 119 caps and a record 53 goals for his country. But why?   

It could be argued because it’s Wayne Rooney who has never been truly appreciated by England supporters. And perhaps never will.

To be fair, it couldn’t have started any better for the kid who burst onto the Premier League scene at 16 years of age and was making his senior England debut just a few months later.

The old adage of being the ‘closest player we’ve seen since Gazza’ was bandied around at a fair rate with Rooney the country’s new superstar for whom we’d all pin our hopes on for the next decade.

At first, he could seemingly do no wrong, becoming the youngest player to ever score for England (at the time) at 17 years and 317 days in a Euro 2004 qualifier against Macedonia.

He then proceeded to take that particular finals by storm in Portugal, displaying every inch the fearless teenager with several eye-catching performances and four goals, the two against Croatia in the last 16 especially memorable.

“I remember the England fans in the crowd behind the goal going crazy when he scored. They knew what a gem we had" (John Motson)

It was all going swimmingly well until an injury sustained in the quarter finals versus the hosts put pay to Rooney’s involvement, and that of England too.

And as we all know, England’s tournament record in the era of Rooney never improved much beyond this, a fact constantly laid at the feet of the former captain.

But is he the only skipper or player to not win a major trophy with England through his career? I believe not.

And does his unrivalled goals record, level of consistency and years of service at the highest level not at least show Rooney as a class above anything this country has ever produced? You’d have to say, yes.

The reason most are so against the notion of honouring Rooney boils down to his association with an era of underachievement for the national side. It's the stick he is regularly beat with, yet is this something that can be attributed to just one individual? There's only one answer to that.

But for some there has to be a scapegoat and for many it's Wayne Rooney.

The numbers are quickly disregarded because his goals were against so called ‘lesser’ teams and there are certainly players with better goal to game ratios, of that there is no debate. 

Nonetheless, to have the hunger and the continued desire to go and claim the all-time record should be commended.

If it was so easy for players to score bundles of goals on the international stage, why has Bobby Charlton’s record of 49 goals stood for 45 years?

The answer to the debate lies here.

It’s not everyday such a record is broken and so, quite rightly, the achievement should be recognised and celebrated.

Perhaps when it takes another 45 years for the record to be beaten, we will all come to fully appreciate the efforts of Wayne Rooney in an England shirt.

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