The Gin-Drinking, Folk-Rock-Digging Premier Previews

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When is a top four not a top four? When eight teams are battling to be in it.

As if Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Aston Villa, Spurs and Manchesters United and City weren’t enough, West Ham are the latest to announce their lofty ambitions, following a very English takeover at Upton Park.

Gold and Sullivan, who sound like they should have been a '70s folk-rock group, have admitted they have a seven-year plan to break into the top four.

It's a bold ambition from two men of such admirable honesty and openness.

Comparisons with the upwardly mobile Manchester City aren't absurd.

The difference is that while City's owners sacked a manager in the midst of fulfilling his promise (top-six finish; competitive in the knock-outs), West Ham's new men are fans and, more importantly, actually understand football.

That's always a bonus.

Still, it's one hell of an ask, isn't it? The likes of Spurs and Villa find it hard enough, let alone a club in £110 million of debt and battling relegation.

Yes, this season a Champions League spot is seriously up for grabs.

Yes, all of the Big Four are dropping points like Tiger Woods drops his pants.

And yes, only one of them remains in the FA Cup before even the quarter-finals – but all it takes is one look at the Premier League's 10-point gap between third and fourth to make you suspect it is just a glass ceiling after all.

Ah well. No harm in trying, eh?

Speaking of which, let's take a look at our midweek fixtures.


Wolves vs Liverpool

Anyone loudly laughing at LOLerpool lately should remember they've garnered 10 points from a possible 12 in their last four league games.

Dirk Kuyt's finishing against Spurs was enough to make you wonder why Rafa played this natural striker on the wing so David Ngog, a natural house-painter, could take his place up front.

Did you know Ngog was born on April Fool's Day? Probably tells you all you need to know.

Actually, it's been pointed out to me, quite reasonably, that this blog has been unfair to the young Frenchman.

It's not his fault he's the second striker in a big team at the tender age of 20.

FloSiPo would have jumped at the chance before you can say Florent Stephane Sinama Pongolle.

David, we're sorry. Go get 'em, tiger.

Oh, and some team news (since that's probably what this blog should be about): having trained every day since Saturday, Stevie G might return ahead of schedule.

New Wolves signing Geoffrey Mujangi Bia should start, but travelling companion Adlene Guediora is still awaiting international clearance.

What is he, a Boeing 747?

What won't happen: Wolves are about as close to a win here as Haiti is to hosting the Olympics. Liverpool will continue to prove they're strongest when backed into a corner with a fourth win in five.

What will happen: Benitez to stay at Anfield. Thanks to his loose-lipped agent, rumours abound around the bearded Spaniard and the Old Lady – that is, Benitez taking the Juventus job as opposed to entering a sordid tryst with Madonna – but ignore them. As Coldplay once warbled over a derivative New Order riff, it’s just talk.

Portsmouth vs West Ham

After beating Sunderland thanks to an Attack Of The Utaka, Pompey have a fiery FA Cup Fifth Round match with local rivals Southampton to look forward to - if they can field a full XI, that is.

Almost unbelievably, Avram Grant's weary warriors will not number the 18 usually – OK, always – seen in a Premier League fixture these days.

This blog would love to say it's a protest against excess or a tribute to the glory days of the Premier League when three subs were plenty, but sadly, it's a lot grimmer than that.

Thanks to a transfer embargo, injuries and the Africa Cup of Nations, just three subs will warm the bench, as Grant opts against picking youth-teamers to fill the gap.

So, if you want to give your mates a story, turn up to Fratton Park with your boots in your bag. You might get a game in defence alongside Betty from the bar.

What won’t happen: Harry Redknapp, the man who saw the iceberg coming, to help out for old time’s sake by smuggling a couple of Jamie O’Hara-likes into Fratton Park.

What will happen: Pompey lose two more players to injury inside the first half. Sod’s law, innit? Hammers win.

Bolton vs Burnley

Hoo hoo, this didn't take long to come around, did it?

The manager's chair at Burnley is still warm from Owen Coyle's bum and already he faces his old club, spurned like the ugly girl at the disco (but with a better chance of scoring).

It adds some extra spice to a Lancashire derby that's already on a kind of Chicken Madras level, albeit inside a Lancashire Hotpot. Could really go for one of those right now.

Oh, and if Bolton win they leapfrog Burnley in the relegation battle. Make that a Vindaloo.

Burnley haven't yet scored under Brian Laws, but with Bolton netting four goals in their last two matches Coyle has made a decent start in adapting from free-flowing Burnley to a team whose main striker holds the Premier League record for committing fouls and whose top scorer this season is a defender (Gary Cahill with seven).

What won't happen: Kevin Davies to mellow with age.

What will happen: The ugliest draw since Picasso got drunk on gin.

Spurs vs Fulham

We've seen a lot of high-scoring matches this year (the official statistic of goals per game is A Lot.75) and if one match is to keep the flag flying for netbulging English football this weekend, it could well be here.

This blog has fallen into optimism bordering on psychosis in predicting Spurs success over the last week.

But then it hadn’t banked on Michael Dawson, Gareth Bale and Jermain Defoe (who hasn’t netted in his last four spot-kicks and may be stripped of his penalty-taking duties) deciding what Spurs really need this season is an extra trip to Elland Road and Liverpool breathing down their necks.

And yet...

What won’t happen: This, now I’ve predicted it…

What will happen: …Spurs take three points


Aston Villa vs Arsenal
Chelsea vs Birmingham

Both Arsenal and Chelsea have the chance to knock Manchester United off the top, though the Blues will still have a game in hand over both their rivals, who play each other at the weekend.

That makes these skirmishes with second-city sides even more important than usual, as the Gunners travel to play a Villa side that hasn't scored in three league games (yet has bagged nine in two cup matches) and the Blues take on their nicknamesakes at the Bridge.

Compare Villa's woes to erstwhile relegation candidates Brum's 15 – FIFTEEN – matches without defeat and it's not so much a tale of two cities as two tales of one city – uh, Birmingham.

Although each Brummie team's upcoming game against a London outfit would suggest it's really two cities we're talking about, and therefore two tales of two cities.

Or, given it's four different teams in total, perhaps four tales of two cities, which doesn't have the same ring to it although it may or may not have been a sequel once planned by Charles Dickens before his death from a stroke in 1870.

Gary Lineker makes these links look so easy.

What won't happen: That Match of the Day job we keep applying for.

What will happen: London 2, Birmingham 0. McLeish's run comes to an end; O'Neill prays for his to start.

Blackburn vs Wigan

If there was a new British football film about the battle for the slightly higher end of mid-table mediocrity (it could happen), you couldn't ask for much more stereotypical leads than Sam Allardyce and Roberto Martinez.

The no-nonsense Brit? The smooth Spaniard? This film is begging to be made.

Vinnie Jones is the obvious choice to play Big Sam, though I can see Kenneth Branagh going method by managing a lower-league side, piling on the pounds ala Robert de Niro in Raging Bull and checking into hospital every three months.

Benicio del Toro plays Martinez. Morgan Freeman cameos as Christopher Samba.

Oh, good news: Samba’s suspended for this match, so Blackburn might actually have to play a real striker.

Chances are it won't be Benni McCarthy, who is rumoured to be on the move after not turning up to training twice running (so not running at all in fact).

What won’t happen: Jaws to hit the floor at the news that Wigan’s injury-prone Chris Kirkland, targeted by Sunderland until now, is out for three weeks after knackering his collarbone in training. The man’s an insult to glassware.

What will happen: Wigan snatch an unlikely three points.

Everton vs Sunderland

You know how Soviet governments used to send awkward so-and-sos to Serbia, or how the Met Police sends Simon Pegg's troublemaking character to the middle of nowhere in Hot Fuzz?

This blog is starting to wonder if Everton have a similar deal going with Turkey, as Jo, suspended from the club earlier this year, follows Lucas Neill to Galatasaray.

Sure, the deal was made by Manchester City, but David Moyes has clearly had a word there.

But when Moyes slams the door to Goodison shut, he opens a window.

Any defensive worries (Jagielka and Hibbert injured; Yobo at the Africa Cup of Nations; Neill bound and bleeding on a slow boat to Turkey with a one-way ticket stuffed in his mouth) should be shored up by the loan arrival of Philippe Senderos. Maybe.

Sunderland, meanwhile, need to stop a slide that’s seen them take just three points from eight games and only won one league game since the beachball's goals dried up. Yowser.

What won’t happen: Tony Blair to get nailed in the Iraq inquiry.

What will happen: Everton’s rise and Sunderland’s fall continues.

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