Aston Villa revamping its midfield; Spurs quest for a striker goes on
The fourth round of the FA Cup interrupted the Premier League calendar over the weekend, which meant the handful of eliminated top-flight clubs were not in action. Here are a few thoughts on some that were:
Half of Gerard Houllier's starting XI against Blackburn Rovers, a side renewed under the management of Steve Kean, was so young as to carry a small but detectable hint of surrender on Saturday. The manager had spoken about the importance of momentum in the buildup to the match, but the team sheet suggested this might be a game Houllier was prepared to lose. Of Aston Villa's back four, only Carlos Cuellar was older than 21.
The young side acquitted itself admirably, however, and in midfield, Robert Pires' 37 years dragged the average age up considerably. It had seemed that his best position for Aston Villa might be the dressing room -- the speed of its attacking play has been crucial, at times, and he has not played at much above walking pace when deployed. If his presence bears any responsibility for the performance of 21-year-old Barry Bannan, it will be worth it.
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"I was very pleased with him," said Houllier, who has tried to tame Bannan's pedal-to-the-metal instincts. "I said to him, 'If you play at 50 mph, you can see things, you can probably start a good move.' He is taking things on board."
With Jean Makoun already through the door and U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley believed to be on his way to Villa Park, Bannan has the opportunity to develop in a cultured and competitive midfield.
The Premier League fined Blackpool at the end of last week for the 10 changes manager Ian Holloway made to his team to play Aston Villa in November; his selection, apparently, represented a weakened team. I've
Sir Alex Ferguson -- who has criticized the Premier League's decision to fine Blackpool -- made eight changes to the side that started against Holloway's team four days earlier, and fielded an entirely different XI from the one that started at White Hart Lane this month. If the FA accepts such wholesale changes in its flagship, 139-year-old knockout competition, it seems bizarre and wholly unjust that the Premier League should hand out penalties to teams looking to manage their resources in the same way in a lengthier and more demanding competition.
Manchester United's 2-1 win also reminded us that "weakened" is a relative term. Holloway's 10 changes in November made a barely discernible difference to Blackpool's performance, and it lost only to an 89th-minute goal. By contrast, League One's Southampton looked comfortable against United's changed XI and took the lead on the stroke of halftime.
United's recovery has been credited in some quarters to Ferguson's tactical mastery, but he had an instant solution in replacing second-choice players Anderson and Darron Gibson with first-teamers Ryan Giggs and Nani. The difference in strength between Ferguson's options looks far greater.
Birmingham City has scored five league goals in the past two months; its attack ranks 19th in the league, having failed to score 36 percent of the time. Cameron Jerome hasn't scored in his last nine league appearances, and has only one in all competitions since mid-November. Nikola Zigic has five assists but has scored one goal since October. Matt Derbyshire doesn't have a league goal or assist. James McFadden is still out injured.
Which makes the lack of playing time afforded to Kevin Phillips -- he's had 40 minutes of Premier League action in that spell, and only 52 minutes all season -- a mystery. Yes, we ought to attach some caveats to Phillips' winning strike during the weekend: The Blues have rarely played so well against league opposition as they did to come back after conceding two early goals to Coventry, and he has always had a knack of scoring in local derbies.
But he took his goal beautifully despite being, by his own admission, extremely tired. "It was my first start for two, maybe two-and-a-half months," he said. "I'm surprised I got through 90 minutes, to be honest, because I had cramp after about 55 minutes."
He may be 37, but Birmingham could hardly do worse -- and the anticipated signing of Obafemi Martins isn't quite foolproof. If Alexander Hleb and David Bentley continue to fizz in midfield, Phillips is a more valuable option than Alex McLeish appears to give him credit for.
Much of the focus, in the wake of Fulham's record 4-0 win over Tottenham, has been on Spurs' very bad day at the office -- and its defense was indeed in a shambles of near epic proportions. But a great deal of credit must go to Fulham's attacking trio of Moussa Dembele, Andy Johnson and Clint Dempsey. Making a third consecutive start together, their combined power, intent and guile was impressive and could easily have helped Fulham to double figures. If all three can stay fit, Mark Hughes has the means to draw the club into the top half of the table.
Last season, Chelsea's pursuit of Fernando Torres looked to be a result of nothing more than avarice -- it scored 17 goals more than Manchester United and 36 more than Spurs, in fourth place. Now, however, it's starting to seem a necessity that Carlo Ancelotti adds to his attacking options. Chelsea lags behind United and Arsenal on goals scored, and though the previously reliable flow from midfield may be restored as Ramires makes himself comfortable, Didier Drogba, Florent Malouda and Nicolas Anelka are not in convincing form. Salomon Kalou's scuffed shot found the bottom corner in Saturday's 1-1 draw against Everton, but it was the Merseyside blues that will feel aggrieved, rather than relieved, to have to replay the tie in a few weeks.
Tottenham has shown no inclination to find the £50 million ($79 million) it would take to trigger Torres' release clause, but it urgently needs to identify a deadline-day deal for a striker of similar note. With Robbie Keane loaned to West Ham, Harry Redknapp's options are reduced to Jermain Defoe, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Peter Crouch. The gap between the midfield and the front was huge against Fulham -- a product of the match, but it highlighted the lack of a striker who can affect the game from a relatively isolated position. Spurs fans will hope that reports of a revived attempt to sign Atletico Madrid's foraging forward, Diego Forlan, are true.