Prem Previews: The good, the bad and the bearded

Imagine the frustration if you can.

You start to craft the Premier League preview blog for this weekend’s fixtures, and at the forefront of your mind is the return of one Royston Q. Keane to his spiritual home where, if last weekend’s performance at home to Bolton is anything to go by, they’re going to get butchered like, well, dead pigs or something.

Then, in a flash not dissimilar to the one that saw him depart Old Trafford in the first place, that cursed yellow bar has appeared at the bottom of the television screen and Roy Keane has left the Stadium of Light.

Keano gets inspiration for the now legendary beard 

Granted, it wasn’t the biggest shock in the history of football, given the Irishman’s recent discontented murmurings. In fact, his leaving Sunderland is probably the tamest managerial departure in the Premier League so far this season. But is it good news for Sunderland?

Some Mackems have you believe so (and it is a minority, as the hearty Sunderland-supporting souls of our forum will testify), having given dear Keano a fair amount of clog for the last few months.

Keane fell out with a handful of fans after the team struggled to overcome Northampton in the Carling Cup in September, with some turning on the Irishman again during Saturday’s heavy home defeat to Bolton.

Mustard

There have been other issues too, 70 million of them to be exact, that being the number of pounds spent by Keane since the club were promoted to the Premier League. And while signings like Craig Gordon, Kieran Richardson and Steed Malbranque have, at one time or another, looked like good ones, others like Teemu Tainio and Pascal Chimbonda haven’t cut the mustard.

Chimbonda, who was quite possibly born in knitwear, was never likely to find the north-east to his liking and always looked likely to be at odds with Keane, especially after parking in the manager’s parking space on his first day at the club. Tainio, on the other hand – good player though he is – has an injury record that makes Darren Anderton (who retires tomorrow, fact fans) look like Captain Scarlet.

It could be said that Keane is, to an extent, a victim of his own success, having enjoyed remarkable success in his first 18 months at the club, inflating expectations on Wearside to unobtainable levels, and it wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened in the north-east.

Captain Scarlet? Captain Claret more like... 

Mackems may crow that Newcastle fans live in dreamland, but they're not so spotless themselves. Having twice lead Sunderland into the Premier League and built a side able to challenge for European places in the top flight, Peter Reid was rather harshly canned after sections of the Stadium of Light crowd grew impatient following a poor start to their 2002-03 campaign (although admittedly they largely failed to impress the previous season too).

In the three years and nine months between Reid’s departure and Keane’s arrival, Sunderland bungled their way from one farce to the next.

Be it scoring three own goals in one game against Charlton in 2003, their pitiful attempt to avoid relegation from the Premiership in 2006, or their humiliating FA Cup defeat at Brentford the same year; Sunderland were not a club many people took seriously.

If you took a straw-poll the day before Keane got his first job in football management, you’d most likely have found more people would have said Sunderland would be in League One than the Premier League by now.

Now we’re here and some people are talking about the possibility of them being relegated back to the second tier as if it were a footballing crime heinous enough to warrant a flogging at the hands of the stripy masses.

Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson (who incidentally has never needed to rely on the magic of facial growth for football success) was handed a timely reminder of Carlos Tevez’s abilities in midweek, when the industrious little Argentine scored four as a scratch United side swept Blackburn aside 5-3 in the Carling Cup.

With United still to hit first gear this season, it seems logical to throw Tevez, who seems to be chomping at the bit, into the mix, especially given the success United had with him, Rooney and Ronaldo in the side last season.

Muddle

Irrespective of who United play up front and who’s in the dugout for Sunderland (former United coach Ricky Sbragia, for now), the Wearsiders were always going to struggle at Old Trafford and despite newspaper reports that members of the Black Cats squad were celebrating Keane’s departure, it’s likely that they’re going to have been left in enough of a muddle to be even easier prey for United.

While we’re sure that the now eerily mild-mannered Keane will return to a top flight bench at some point in the not-too-distant future, it still leaves the Premier League a beard short in the meantime.

Facial hair, we believe, is the secret to Premier League success, and if you don’t believe it, take a look who’s around and about the top of the table - Liverpool (Rafa Benitez and his little Spanish goatee), Chelsea (Phil Scolari and his well-groomed ‘tache) and Hull (er, Phil Brown had a beard for a while earlier in the season).

OK so maybe we’re clutching a straws a bit with the last one, but there’s got to be a pattern there somewhere, surely? Look how well Bolton did under the initially moustachioed Sam Allardyce, and conversely how poorly he did at Newcastle sans facial appendage.

Perhaps West Brom might finally be able to lift themselves off of the bottom of the league if Tony Mowbray grew a beard (see our high-tech computer generated wizardry below). As it is, the Baggies' stubborn insistence on ‘playing the right way’ is most likely going to see them relegated with a whimper.

The many options for Tony Mowbray 

Now, correct us if we’re wrong, but we always thought that ‘the right way’ of playing football was to score at least one goal more than your opponent and build up a nice wodge of points? As admirable as it is that Mowbray’s side are resisting the pull to less aesthetically pleasing methods of obtaining those points, it’s perhaps time for a rethink.

On Sunday the Baggies host Portsmouth, themselves struggling for form since Harry Redknapp’s departure, despite Peter Crouch’s deluded insistence that Pompey have become a better side since the twitchy one had upped sticks.

Tony Adams’ side crashed out of Europe on Thursday, after David James's blunder handed Wolfsburg all three points in the UEFA Cup group match in Germany, and this could be the perfect chance to quickly restore a bit of confidence.

The Baggies have four home defeats to their name and have also conceded the most home goals so far this campaign (14, joint with Hull) and their reluctance to mix it up may give Pompey the chance to impose themselves on the match and come away with all three points.

FourFourTwo’s Premier League Predictions:

Saturday, December 6 2008Arsenal 3-1 Wigan Blackburn 1-1 Liverpool Bolton 1-2 Chelsea Fulham 1-1 Man City Hull 2-1 Middlesbrough Man Utd 3-0 Sunderland (Live on Setanta Sports, 5:30pm) Newcastle 2-1 Stoke

Sunday, December 7 2008Everton 0-0 Aston Villa West Brom 1-2 Portsmouth

Monday, December 8 2008West Ham 2-1 Tottenham (Live on Setanta Sports, 8pm)

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Footy15 Pundits Predictions:

Alan HansenArsenal vs Wigan - HOME WINBlackburn vs Liverpool - AWAY WINBolton vs Chelsea - AWAY WINEverton vs Aston Villa - DRAWFulham vs Man City - DRAWHull vs Middlesbrough - DRAWMan Utd vs Sunderland - HOME WINNewcastle vs Stoke - HOME WINWest Brom vs Portsmouth - DRAWWest Ham vs Tottenham - DRAW

John BarnesArsenal vs Wigan - HOME WINBlackburn vs Liverpool - AWAY WINBolton vs Chelsea - AWAY WINEverton vs Aston Villa - DRAWFulham vs Man City - AWAY WINHull vs Middlesbrough - HOME WINMan Utd vs Sunderland - HOME WINNewcastle vs Stoke - HOME WINWest Brom vs Portsmouth - DRAWWest Ham vs Tottenham - DRAW

Tony CascarinoArsenal vs Wigan - HOME WINBlackburn vs Liverpool - AWAY WINBolton vs Chelsea - AWAY WINEverton vs Aston Villa - DRAWFulham vs Man City - AWAY WINHull vs Middlesbrough - HOME WINMan Utd vs Sunderland - HOME WINNewcastle vs Stoke - HOME WINWest Brom vs Portsmouth - DRAWWest Ham vs Tottenham - HOME WIN

Graham PollArsenal vs Wigan - HOME WINBlackburn vs Liverpool - AWAY WINBolton vs Chelsea - AWAY WINEverton vs Aston Villa - AWAY WINFulham vs Man City - HOME WINHull vs Middlesbrough - HOME WINMan Utd vs Sunderland - HOME WINNewcastle vs Stoke - HOME WINWest Brom vs Portsmouth - AWAY WINWest Ham vs Tottenham DRAW

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