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English Premier League

Will the second half of the 2016/17 campaign be as intriguing as the first?



The end of 2016 sees most of Europe’s top leagues take a break from what has been a fascinating first half of the 2016/17 season.

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Teams in Spain, Germany, France and Italy will go off on their various holidays to refresh themselves while the Premier League hogs the festive spotlight. One can’t help but look out for the only source of quality football during that period with some sort of joy, amusement or, if you’re an Arsenal fan, apprehension. With a glut of games beginning on Boxing day through to the New Year, there’s a good chance we’ll see a surprise or two in the world’s most entertaining league.

Chelsea lead the pack by six points but only four points separate second place Liverpool from fifth placed Tottenham. Manchester United seems to finally be picking up some steam and can certainly challenge if they get through this period unscathed. Last seasons surprise title winners, Leicester City, are only three points away from safety but a period without Champions League football should bring some good results. Of the promoted sides, Middlesbrough and Burnley are almost halfway to the vaunted 38-point safety net.

There have been the usual eye-popping results in the Premier League so far this season with Leicester thrashing Manchester City, Bournemouth’s comeback win over Liverpool and the Swansea/Crystal Palace slug-fest among them. Arsenal, however, continue to be the enigma they are each season. There will likely be more twists and turns before the season ends but it might come down to a race between Liverpool and Chelsea given their lack of European commitment.

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While most of Europe’s leagues have a familiar look there’s no telling what will happen when the remaining leagues restart in January.

The biggest surprise so far is in France, where Nice hold a two point lead heading into the break. Lucien Favre’s side have done extremely well so far, beating Monaco, Marseille and Lyon at home while tying Paris Saint-Germain away. The French champions lie in third, behind Monaco and ahead of Lyon, while Marseille have moved up to sixth. PSG’s domestic form has been shocking, with four losses already to date, and the recently appointed Unai Emery is on the hot seat. Just like the leaders in the Premier League, Nice have no European commitments while their main challengers do. Monaco may just have the best chance to haul them in if Emery can’t right the ship but Nice have certainly made Ligue 1 much more interesting this season.

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Another team that has eyebrows raised are proving the motto of their majority owner. Red Bull Leipzig might not have adhered to the traditional ownership expected in Germany but that is one reason they have been so successful. The newly promoted club sprouted wings to quickly rise up the divisions and sit second in the league right behind Bayern Munich. That, coupled with Borussia Dortmund’s inconsistent domestic form, has the traditionalists in Germany breathing into a paper bag despite the challenge to Bayern’s hegemony. The other heavyweights in the league, Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke, are in eight and eleventh respectively while Wolfsburg languish in 13th place. As is the case in France, the defending champions have a new manager, Carlo Ancelotti, and their main challengers currently have no European commitments. Bayern’s talent and Ancelotti’s experience mean the Bavarians will still likely come out on top and they made sure to put their opponents in their place with a 3-0 win in final round of the year.

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While things in Germany and France vary from what was expected there’s definitely a familiar look in Italy and Spain.

Juventus haven’t been as dominant as in recent seasons but the Old Lady leads the league with a game in hand on her rivals. Roma and Napoli continue to fight it out for the role of challenger but Juventus has beaten both teams already this season. The surprise of the season in Italy is the resurgence of AC Milan. Vincenzo Montella’s reputation has certainly been enhanced by the work he has done reviving a fallen giant. Without much money to work with, and a mixed bag of talent at his disposal, Montella has his side sitting fifth and in the hunt for a Champions League spot. Only two point separate Milan from second place Roma and if they get a few reinforcements in January they could solidify a Champions League spot. While Montella hopes to end the season as he started a fellow Italian is trying to undertake a similar revival in La Liga with Valencia.

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Cesare Prandelli took charge of Valencia at the end of September but has been unable to stop the club’s free-fall. Los Che stand 17th in the league after only one win in their last nine games. Relegation is a strong possibility. At the top half of the table eyes may roll seeing the familiar names of Real Madrid and Barcelona occupying the top two spots. It hasn’t been all easy for either side though, as Madrid have yet to look particularly dominant while Barcelona have suffered some shock results, notably a loss to Alaves at home. Atletico Madrid’s luck seems to have run out as they trail the leaders by 11 points in sixth place with Sevilla, Villarreal and Real Sociedad above them and Athletic Bilbao right behind.

Each league has had its share of surprises in the first half of the season and there’s more to come.

There have been managerial changes aplenty at some of Europe’s top sides to go along with the usual player transfers. Those changes have undoubtedly played a role in the current scenario in Europe’s top leagues as new managers taking time adapting to new clubs and, sometimes, leagues has certainly had an effect.

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Emery and Ancelotti were targeted by PSG and Bayern to improve their clubs chances in Europe but that wasn’t expected to come at the expense of domestic success. Questions may continue to be asked of Emery as he tries to steer an extremely ambitious club but Ancelotti has the experience to see his side over the line. Whether they meet expectations in Europe as well remains to be seen. In England, Jurgen Klopp has benefited from a full preseason with his side and no European distractions. There are still kinks to iron out but Liverpool look well-placed to challenge at the top. Ditto for Antonio Conte and league-leading Chelsea. Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho are coming to terms with work that’s needed to fix their new teams but you would bet on both Manchester clubs to be in the running at the end. Real Madrid’s impressive streak certainly bodes well for Zinedine Zidane’s current and future prospects in the hottest seat of them all. Whether he can avoid the drop-off the team had the last time they went to the Club World Cup remains to be seen.

The first half of the 2016/17 season brought plenty of surprising moments on the pitch. The big teams each have their issues to deal with, whether it be new managers, players in poor form or navigating multiple schedules. There’s sure to be more in store as we get into the business end of the season.

Stoke City

It’s crunch time for Stoke City under Paul Lambert

The next two months are crucial for the future of Stoke City.

Martyn Cooke



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There are only eight games left of the Premier League season and with Manchester City running away with the Premier League title the attention now turns to the race for survival.

Stoke City began the season celebrating their tenth consecutive year as a top-flight club and yet the campaign could ultimately culminate in relegation to the Sky Bet Championship.

The warning signs were there in the summer when star winger Marko Arnautovic forced through a transfer to West Ham United and claimed that the Potters ‘lacked ambition’, something that the club hierarchy strenuously denied before forcing Mark Hughes to be reliant on free transfers and loan signings.

The further departure of club stalwarts such as Jonathan Walters and Glen Whelan was also a loss in the dressing room and behind the scenes, if not necessarily on the pitch.

The campaign actually got off to a promising start as Stoke secured four points from their opening two home fixtures against Arsenal and Manchester United, but the wheels quickly began to fall off.

Hughes had opted to deploy a new look 3-4-3 formation and, despite some early success, it soon became apparent that the Potters did not have the personnel or quality to make the system work.

The sight of Mame Biram Diouf, a striker by trade, stranded as a wingback pretty much summarises the tactical naivety of Hughes and his unwillingness to revert to a back four, despite poor results, saw the club slip into the relegation zone.

Ultimately, it has been Stoke’s inability to defend that has underpinned their demise this season.

At one stage, the Potters had the unenviable record of possessing the worst defensive record of any club in the top flight of European football, whilst only West Ham United have conceded more goals or kept fewer clean sheets in the Premier League this season.

(Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

The Manager

Mark Hughes was dismissed in late January after Stoke City had been knocked out of the FA Cup by fourth-tier Coventry City and were stranded in the Premier League relegation zone.

There is little doubt that the Potters were correct to part ways with the Welshman, although in hindsight the club hierarchy had remained too loyal for too long.

Stoke’s attempt to hire a successor was chaotic, disorganised and became something of a soap opera.

Gary Rowett was the first manager to publically turn down the job after being approached and was swiftly followed by Quique Sánchez Flores, who conducted a swift U-turn within twenty-four hours of reportedly agreeing to leave Espanyol, and Martin O’Neil.

Stoke supporters were eventually left with the uninspiring appointment of Paul Lambert who, quite clearly, was nobodies first choice for the role.

The former Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers boss has certainly had a positive impact since arriving in the final weeks of January and has undoubtedly made the team more organised and harder to beat.

However, Lambert has overseen just one win in seven fixtures, at a time when the club are desperate for points, despite having been handed a favourable run of fixtures that included Huddersfield Town, Watford, Brighton, Bournemouth, Southampton and Leicester City.

The 48-year-old will need to stimulate a dramatic improvement in results of The Potters are going to have any hope of avoiding the drop.

The Squad

On paper, the current Stoke City squad consists of a core contingent of proven international players that should have the quality and experience to pull away from the relegation zone.

Jack Butland, who is vying to be England’s first choice goalkeeper, Kurt Zouma, one of the most highly rated young defenders in Europe, Joe Allen, a central midfielder of undoubted quality, and Swiss superstar Xherdan Shaqiri make up the spine of the starting eleven, whilst Moritz Bauer and Badou Ndiaye arrived in January to add further quality.

However, there is an obvious lack of creativity in the current squad and the responsibility for facilitating goal scoring opportunities rests solely on the shoulders of Shaqiri.

In addition to this, Stoke lack a proven goal scorer with Mame Biram Diouf (inconsistent), Peter Crouch (one dimensional) and Saido Berahino (who has yet to score in over two years) the only options at Paul Lambert’s disposal.

This imbalance in the squad has been reflected in recent results. Since Lambert’s arrival in late-January Stoke have lost just once in seven games, against the champions-elect Manchester City, and have kept three clean sheets in the process.

However, in the same period, they have only won once, in Lambert’s first match against Huddersfield Town, and have found the net just five times – three of which were provided by Shaqiri.

It is the lack of creativity and goals that is undermining any shoots of recovery at the Bet365 Stadium.

Remaining Fixtures

Everton (H), Arsenal (A), Tottenham (H), West Ham United (A), Burnley (H), Liverpool (A), Crystal Palace (H) and Swansea City (A).

Stoke City have a semi-difficult run of fixtures but there are certainly opportunities to accumulate points over the closing weeks of the season.

Home games against Everton, Crystal Palace and Swansea City are ‘must win’ based on the fact that the Potters have the worst away record in England, having won just once on their travels this campaign, but trips to Olympic Stadium and the Liberty Stadium could provide a chance to rectify that.

Fundamentally, if Stoke can get to the final two games of the season and still be in with a chance of securing safety then they will be relatively pleased. It could all come down to the last day of the season with a mouth-watering fixture against Swansea.

(Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

Will They Survive?

Although Paul Lambert has certainly had a positive impact since being appointed in late-January, making the team more organised and harder to beat, it is difficult to see where Stoke City will secure the three or four wins required to guarantee safety.

The Potters have won just six games all season and the lack of creativity throughout the side and the absence of a proven striker leaves you wondering where the goals are going to come from.

There is certainly still hope for Stoke supporters, but Lambert will need to facilitate a dramatic improvement in performances if he is to guide the club to safety.

It will be an achievement if he can get the Potters to the final two games of the season, against Crystal Palace and Swansea City, and still be in with a chance of surviving.

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English Premier League

Paul Dummett’s Wales snub will please Newcastle United fans

The Welshman turned down an international call-up this week.

Jake Jackman



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Paul Dummett has been one of the standout players for Newcastle United this season and his performances haven’t passed Ryan Giggs by.

The new Wales National Team manager has admitted that he has spoken to the left-back with a view to a return to the squad. The Chronicle reported the following quotes:

“I had a conversation with Paul Dummett, because he hasn’t been in the last few squads, and he just felt that it wasn’t the right time to come back.

“He wanted to concentrate on his Newcastle career which I have to respect, and we move on.

“He (Dummett) said that he wanted to concentrate on Newcastle’s relegation fight so I have to respect that at the moment. In the future we will wait and see.”

That will be music to the ears of Newcastle supporters and Rafa Benitez, as Dummett has emerged as a key player for the team since his return from injury.

This season in the Premier League, the Magpies have conceded only 13 times in the 12 matches that the 26-year-old has started.

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That underlines how effective he has been and his importance to the team’s chances of staying in the top-flight.

Although he may not be the most exciting player to watch, Dummett is very good at carrying out a role for the team and it is no surprise that he has become one of Benitez’s most trusted lieutenants.

The Spanish manager enjoys to coach players that listen and carry out his instructions to the letter and his left-back certainly fits under that description.

A quick look at the stats shows how rounded Dummett is as a defender.

He averages 2.83 ball recoveries, 0.78 blocks and 6.85 clearances per ninety minutes. Meanwhile, he is very good in the air as shown by his aerial duels win rate of 57.41%.

He was once a scapegoat for Newcastle supporters and the focus of anger when things weren’t going well. The reason for that was his lack of technical skill, which would make him stand out on the pitch.

However, that side of his game has developed and he is now serviceable in possession. Dummett isn’t going to be cutting sides open with his attacking threat down the left, but he understands his own limitations and that has seen him improve as a player.

The 26-year-old has been part of Wales squads in the past, but he has only played once for his country and his lack of game-time may be a reason why he stepped away from the international arena.

(Photo by Lindsey Parnaby/Getty Images)

Last summer, Newcastle issued a statement to explain why Dummett withdrew from the squad for the World Cup qualifier against Serbia, which featured the following quote:

“After a gruelling campaign with the Magpies, in which he played through the pain barrier on several occasions, 25-year-old Dummett is keen to recharge his batteries and spend time with his family and friends in order to ensure he is at peak form and fitness for his hometown team’s return to the Premier League and what promises to be a big campaign for both him and the club.

“He has been supported in his decision by Newcastle boss Rafa Benítez. 

“However, Dummett – who has represented his country from youth level all the way to the senior team – has not closed the door on his international career and hopes to represent the Dragons again in the future.”

It is clear that Newcastle is the priority for Dummett, but it is interesting that he refused to close the door on Wales last summer.

A managerial change since then may lead to further opportunities for the left-back and it is easy to see why Giggs has already reached out to him.

The Newcastle full-back has developed into a Premier League calibre player under Benitez and he will offer an upgrade on the options currently in the Wales squad.

For him, as a player, it may be beneficial to play international football and gain experience at the highest level. Although he didn’t agree to come back at this time, it would be a surprise if he doesn’t return to the fold in the near future. Both parties would benefit from that.

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Salif Sane is the centre-back Everton must sign in the summer

The Senegal defender has been in fine form for Hannover 96 this season.



Salif Sane may not be a player well known to many fans in England, but this season he has emerged as a superstar in German football.

The 27-year-old has been in incredible form for Hannover 96 this season. According to the stats aggregator, WhoScored, Sane is rated as the second-best player in the Bundesliga, with only Bayern Munich’s James Rodriguez ahead of him.

His form should surely have caught the eye of Everton.

The Toffees have had a torrid time defensively this season.

Ashley Williams has been in awful form and has lost the backing of fans with his recent red card versus Burnley.

Michael Keane has struggled to replicate his Burnley form at Goodison Park.

Phil Jagielka’s age is catching up with him whilst Mason Holgate has been erratic.

The less said about loan signing Eliaquim Mangala the better. With Ramiro Funes Mori sidelined for most of the campaign, Everton have leaked goals.

Sane could be the perfect plug.

The Senegal defender, who came through the ranks at Bordeaux and later Nancy, is exactly what Everton need.

Sane is a no-nonsense defender whose main aim is to keep out goals. Defending is his first priority.

One area of his game where he is imperious is in the air. Not many players beat the 6ft 5 ins powerhouse in an aerial battle.

This season has been a breakthrough campaign for Sane.

This summer he will be in the Senegal squad at the World Cup in Russia, with plenty expected of a side containing the likes of Sadio Mane and Keita Balde Diao.

Sane would join his international colleague Idrissa Gana Gueye at Everton and would arrive more than capable of finally steadying the ship in Everton’s woefully inept defensive unit.

If not Sane, then someone else, but it is fair to say not many players in Everton’s price-range would be able to have the impact the Senegal defender might if given the chance.

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