Premier League preview: Wigan v Tottenham

Wigan Athletic will hope Tottenham Hotspur’s Champions League adventure proves a distraction when they meet at the DW Stadium on Saturday.

Wigan are bottom of the English Premier League, but they managed a vital 2-0 win over Birmingham in their last match and are only two points off the safety of 17th place.

Ordinarily, Tottenham would be expected to account easily for lowly Wigan, but their form has suffered in the past two months, possibly as a result of the demands placed on the team by European competition.

Spurs’ last win was a 1-0 victory away to AC Milan in the Champions League round of 16.

Since then, they have lost 3-2 away to Blackpool, drawn 3-3 away to Wolves and been held 0-0 at home to West Ham.

Another 0-0 draw at home to Milan in the round-of-16 second leg secured their progress to the quarter-finals of the Champions League, where a daunting tie against Spanish giants Real Madrid awaits.

Tottenham boss Harry Redknapp is sure to take the trip to Real’s Santiago Bernabeu on April 5 into consideration, meaning he may be forced to field a weakened team on Saturday.

Redknapp is likely to be without centre-backs Younis Kaboul and Jonathan Woodgate.

Another central defender, Ledley King, is rumoured to be nearing a return from a persistent groin complaint, but the trip to Wigan is likely to come too soon.

Defensive midfielders Wilson Palacios and Tom Huddlestone are also sidelined.

Further forward, wide men Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale were both forced out of international competition last week for England and Wales respectively with hamstring problems.

They may be rested against Wigan to ensure their readiness to face Real.

If the pair are absent, Redknapp is likely to retain the pacy Jermain Defoe in attack, while relying on the creative talents of Dutchman Rafael van der Vaart.

Wigan boss Roberto Martinez has a full complement of players to call upon.

Colombian striker Hugo Rodallega and forwards Victor Moses and Charles N’Zogbia will need to fire if Wigan are to gain a positive result.

Wed 30 March, 2011
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Premier League preview: West Brom v Liverpool

Roy Hodgson will be on a revenge mission when his West Bromwich Albion side host Liverpool in the English Premier League on Saturday.

Hodgson was sacked by Liverpool in January after just six months in charge at Anfield – the shortest managerial reign in the club’s history.

The 63-year-old took over at West Brom the following month, charged with keeping the promoted club in the top flight.

The Baggies are unbeaten in five matches under Hodgson, with one win and four draws seeing them climb to 16th on the table, one point above the relegation zone.

They should have beaten second-placed Arsenal in their last match on March 19, but let a two-goal lead slip to 2-2.

Liverpool turned to former player and manager Kenny Dalglish to replace Hodgson and the crowd favourite has presided over a considerable improvement in the team’s fortunes.

The Reds have moved up to sixth place on the table, recording victories over Manchester United and Chelsea in the process.

The club’s new American owners spent big in the January transfer window to bring in strikers Luis Suarez from Ajax and Newcastle United’s Andy Carroll.

Carroll has made just a handful of appearances for his new side due to injury, but has now returned to fitness and scored his first goal for England in a 1-1 draw with Ghana on Tuesday.

Liverpool benefited from a contentious penalty decision to defeat Sunderland 2-0 at home in their most recent outing, with Dirk Kuyt and Suarez on target.

Dalglish will be without his captain Steven Gerrard for the trip to the Hawthorns due to a groin injury.

Young midfielder Jonjo Shelvey is also unavailable, while fullbacks Martin Kelly and Fabio Aurelio are in doubt with hamstring problems.

West Brom have the majority of their squad available, with only defender Pablo Ibanez (hamstring) and Graham Dorrans (ankle) expected to miss out.

Wed 30 March, 2011
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Premier League preview: Stoke v Chelsea

Chelsea need all three points from their trip to Stoke City if they are to have any chance of retaining the English Premier League title.

A terrible run of form mid-season appeared to have cost the reigning champions any chance of defending their crown.

But three consecutive wins in the league, including a 2-1 victory over leaders Manchester United, puts the West London club in with a slim hope.

They are nine points behind United, but have played one match fewer and still have a meeting with Sir Alex Ferguson’s team to come at Old Trafford in May.

Stoke meanwhile are 10th on the table. With 37 points and eight matches left to play, they should not find themselves in danger of relegation.

Nevertheless, they are a less-than-comfortable five points above the drop zone, meaning manager Tony Pulis will demand that his team try to take something out of all of their remaining matches, particularly at home.

Pulis has close to a full squad of players to choose from, with Mamady Sidibe – who is out for the season with an Achilles injury – the only long-term absentee.

Defender Abdoulaye Faye is nearing a return from a hamstring problem, but striker John Carew remains in doubt.

Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti is equally fortunate, with Yossi Benayoun, who is a nearing a return from a serious Achilles injury, the only member of the Blues squad with a long-term issue.

Brazilian defender Alex will soon be available after recovering from a knee injury.

Both sides come into Saturday’s match on the back of wins.

Chelsea beat immediate rivals Manchester City 2-0 at home in their last match, while Stoke hammered Newcastle 4-0 at home, the first time Pulis’ side have score four goals in the top flight.

In the first meeting between the teams earlier this season, Chelsea won 2-0 at home in August.

Wed 30 March, 2011
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Premier League preview: Newcastle v Wolverhampton

Newcastle and Wolves head into their English Premier League clash at St James’ Park on the back of contrasting runs of form.

For Alan Pardew’s Newcastle, March was a month they would rather forget with two losses from their only two fixtures, including a 4-0 mauling at the hands of Stoke at Britannia Stadium.

More troubling for Pardew is the fact his side have won just once in their past nine league games, and are 11th on the table, just four points clear of the relegation zone.

The relegation zone is where Mick McCarthy’s Wolves side have spent the bulk of the 2010-11 season, but they head into Saturday’s game on the back of their most promising form of the campaign.

Wolves are unbeaten in their past four league games and have claimed 11 out of a possible 18 points since February 5 – the day they memorably snapped Manchester United’s 29-game unbeaten streak with a gritty 2-1 win at Molineux.

For Newcastle, Pardew is sweating on the fitness of left-back Jose Enrique, after the Spaniard limped off during the drubbing at Stoke with a hamstring injury.

Striker Leon Best is a chance to return from an ankle problem, while Argentine winger Jonas Gutierrez is also under a cloud with a thigh strain. Cheik Tiote misses out through suspension.

Wolves, meanwhile, will be without Kevin Doyle after the Irish international injured knee ligaments in his country’s 2-1 win over Macedonia in Euro 2012 qualifying over the weekend.

Irish winger Stephen Hunt is a chance to resume after overcoming a calf strain, and defender Michael Mancienne is making good progress after a knee injury.

Wed 30 March, 2011
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Premier League preview: Everton v Aston Villa

Two of this season’s underachievers meet when Everton welcome Aston Villa to Goodison Park on Saturday.

Heading into the 2010-11 campaign, both Everton and Villa were considered realistic contenders for European football, but things have not worked out as they would have hoped.Villa had, in fact, already secured a Europa League play-off berth with their sixth-place finish last term, but after Martin O’Neill’s walkout on the eve of the season, they slumped to a 4-3 aggregate loss to Rapid Vienna in August to dash their hopes of an extended European run.Everton finished in eighth place in 2009-10, just outside the European spots, but after failing to register their first English Premier League win until October, David Moyes’ men never really got going this season and find themselves in eighth place, nine points behind fifth-placed Spurs.The situation is far worse for Villa boss Gerard Houllier, who was brought in to replace O’Neill in September. With just one win from their past six league games, Villa are in 14th place, just one point clear of the relegation zone.In their most recent league game they slumped to a 1-0 loss at home to fellow relegation contenders and Midlands rivals Wolves, prompting some supporters to voice their displeasure with Houllier after the final whistle.The Frenchman has almost a full squad to choose from heading into Saturday’s match, with defenders Richard Dunne and Luke Young a chance to return from their respective shoulder and knee injuries, although fellow stopper Ciaran Clark is out through suspension.The news from the treatment room is not quite so good for Moyes, with striker Louis Saha, midfielder Jack Rodwell and defender Seamus Coleman all carrying ankle complaints, while midfielder Mikel Arteta is battling a hamstring problem.

Wed 30 March, 2011
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Premier League preview: West Ham v Manchester United

West Ham must overturn English Premier League leaders Manchester United if they are to continue their climb away from the relegation zone.

After going unbeaten in their last four league matches, Avram Grant’s side have escaped the bottom three, albeit on goal difference only.

They managed an impressive 0-0 draw away to Tottenham Hotspur in their most recent outing and also secured impressive wins at home to Liverpool and Stoke City.

United meanwhile are five points clear of Arsenal at the top of the table.

They could only scrape a narrow 1-0 win at home to Bolton Wanderers last time out and are likely to have one eye on Wednesday’s Champions League quarter-final against Chelsea.

Sir Alex Ferguson – whose side is fighting for trophies on three different fronts – is faced with a defensive crisis at a critical point in the campaign.

Rio Ferdinand may not return this season as he battles a calf injury and is joined on the sidelines by John O’Shea and Rafael.

Nemanja Vidic has also been troubled with a calf problem, but is in contention to return for Saturday’s match at Upton Park.

Northern Ireland centre-back Jonny Evans will miss the next three matches through suspension after being sent off against Bolton.

Further forward, Owen Hargreaves’ injury nightmare continues with a shoulder problem now ruling the defensive midfielder out of action.

Paul Scholes is suspended for the West Ham match, while Brazilian Anderson is in doubt with a knee injury.

In comparison, West Ham’s squad has a relatively clean bill of health.

Fringe goalkeeper Peter Kurucz and midfielders Jack Collinson and Junior Stanislas are set to miss out, while Frederic Piquionne could return from a foot problem.

United will be seeking revenge after losing 4-0 away to West Ham in the Carling Cup on November 30.

Ferguson’s side won the first league encounter of the season between the teams 3-0 at Old Trafford last August.

Wed 30 March, 2011
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Brazil blast Blatter over World Cup comments

Brazil’s 2014 World Cup officials have hit back angrily at FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s suggestion they are behind schedule.

“Blatter mustn’t worry, the (construction) timeframe will be met,” Rio de Janeiro state sports secretary Marcia Lins said on Wednesday.

Blatter criticised on Monday what he called Brazil’s day-after-tomorrow attitude to their World Cup preparations.

He said political infighting was delaying work especially in Rio, which is to host the final at the Maracana stadium, and Sao Paulo where work has not yet started on a venue for the opening match.

The Brazilian government and the local organising committee also invited Blatter to see for himself.

“If (FIFA) have doubts they can be clarified. They can come here and watch the work going on at the Maracana,” said Lins, repeating the invitation to Blatter.

“We have cameras monitoring the works and the local organising committee have access. There are daily visits and inspections that will show the Maracana won’t be a problem for the (2013) Confederations Cup,” Lins added.

“The stadium will be ready in December 2012. There’s no risk of that not happening.”

Lins said she was working on the basis of the Maracana being the main arena for the Confederations Cup which will act as a dress rehearsal for the World Cup a year later.

“It’s a natural thing. One of the objectives of the Confederations Cup is to test the stadiums for the (World) Cup. The Maracana, apart from staging the final, will be used for other matches,” she said.

“Rio is also the gateway to Brazil which gives the stadium even more relevance.”

The project for the stadium’s refurbishment will be unveiled on April 19.

It will detail all the work to be undertaken including whether the run-down upper tier will be restored or rebuilt from scratch, which is expected to more than double initial estimates.

“If we opt for restoring (the Maracana) it will get a new lease of life of something over 10 years,” Lins said. “If we decide on reconstruction, that time could be 20, 30 years depending on the materials we use.”

Wed 30 March, 2011
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Does Lucas Leiva deserve a contract extension?

Liverpool midfielder Lucas Leiva has signed a new long-term contract at Anfield.

His form this season has persuaded the Liverpool hierarchy to hand him a longer deal.

He has made over 100 Premier League appearances for the Reds since his arrival in 2007 from Gremio and become a first team regular.

Scapegoat

Liverpool fans have used the Brazilian as a scapegoat in the past for the clubs poor performances.

Every local radio phone in had people ringing in and saying that the Brazilian wasn’t good enough for Liverpool or he wasn’t a Liverpool quality player.

However this season he has changed the mind of a lot of his critics and performed at a far higher standard. His performances this season have shown that he has got decent ability.

He was just 20 years of age when he arrived from Gremio. He was highly-rated but very raw and it’s took him a long time to adapt to the English game. He is now looking like a player that could be important in the clubs future plans.

He has worked really hard to try and fulfil his potential. And the hard work has really paid off this season with his form vastly improved. He deserves great credit for the fact that despite being heavily criticised he didn’t let it get him down. He got his head down and worked his way into form.

International

Lucas has won 12 caps for his national side and was in the Brazil side that beat Scotland 2-0 last weekend. He acquitted himself well and didn’t look out of place in the centre of the Brazilian midfield. He has now featured in his countries last five international games.

Delighted

His club boss Kenny Dalglish is delighted that the Brazilian has extended his contract. He told Sky Sports:

“We are delighted. He is a smashing lad to have around the football club but he hasn’t been signed for that, he has been signed because of what he does on the pitch.

“Certainly since I came in he has been a great asset to the team and has done tremendously well. He’s happy to be here and play for the club and he’s getting everything that he deserves at the moment – including being a fixture in the Brazilian team – because of what he’s done on the pitch.”

Confidence

Under Kenny Dalglish Lucas’ confidence has gone from strength to strength. Lucas seems like the sort of player and person who needs to be confident to produce his best form and since the Scot has arrived Lucas he has been playing at the top of his game.

Turnaround

If you would have told Liverpool fans at the start of the season that Lucas Leiva would be one of their best players this season they would have laughed at you. However a lot of those fans who were on his back last season are now praising the midfielder.

He still isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but he has now many more backers than he had this time last season among the Liverpool faithful. Some Liverpool fans may not agree with me but I think 24 year-old deserves his contract extension.

Are Liverpool right to offer Lucas Leiva a contract extension?

Wed 30 March, 2011
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Falling crowds hit Serie A hard: Milan

AC Milan director Umberto Gandini has warned that the Serie A could become a second-tier European league unless crowds rise.

His bleak analysis came after poor performances in Europe this season, meaning Italy will lose a fourth Champions League qualifying spot to Germany in 2012-13 after being overtaken in the UEFA rankings.

“Italian football has a very big problem,” Gandini said.

“There is disaffection among fans about going to grounds and more and more are watching games on television.”

“Maybe Italy will have to change its role and become more of a second-tier league than one of the top three in Europe,” said Gandini, who is also vice-chairman of the European Club Association.

While Serie A’s TV income will rise 20 per cent this year to more than one billion euros thanks to a new collective rights sale, crowds have been on the decline with half-empty stadiums a common sight.

The average attendance last season was 24,603 — less than Germany’s Bundesliga (42,441), the English Premier League (34,150) and Spain’s La Liga (27,699).

“The problem is the opportunity to increase revenue and turnover,” said Gandini. “We have a fairly good TV contract even if the centralisation of rights penalises top clubs.

“We have good, though not exceptional, commercial revenues but very poor match day revenues from the stadium, concessions, and merchandising. There is a huge gap between Italy and especially England and Spain.”

Serie A’s tag as the sick man of European football was brought into sharp focus last year by Deloitte’s Money League where Italy’s top earners AC Milan ranked eighth.

In 2005 a total of three Italian clubs — AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus — were among the top seven.

Performances on the pitch have waned too.

While the 2003 Champions League final featured AC Milan and Juventus, this season only Inter’s last-gasp heroics against Bayern Munich have kept the Tricolore flag flying in the quarter-finals.

AC Milan and AS Roma were eliminated in the first knockout round while Sampdoria failed to reach the group stage. In the Europa League Napoli were knocked out in the last 32.

“We’ve not been very good in the Europa League. German clubs have been excellent which has had a clear effect on the UEFA ranking,” said Gandini.

“The reasons are probably because our clubs in the Europa League do not have enough depth in their squad to play in two competitions which comes down to a lack of matchday revenues.

“The ability to invest is key to bringing in the top players. We had all the best players in Italy back in the early 1990s and then there was an escape to Spain.”

Wed 30 March, 2011
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Cruzeiro take control, Internacional roll on

Cruzeiro took the outright lead at the top of the Copa Libertadores Group 7 table with a 2-0 win over Guarani in Asuncion.

The Brazilian outfit took the lead in the 17th minute through Thiago Ribeiro, and Cuca’s men sealed the three points when Jose Ortigoza doubled their lead in the 92nd minute.

For the Paraguayans, it was their fifth loss in as many games and it will keep them anchored to the bottom of the group table.

In the remaining Group 7 clash, Deportes Tolima were held to a 1-1 draw with Estudiantes at their Estadio Manuel Murillo Toro home in Ibague.

The visiting Argentines went ahead after 23 minutes when Federico Fernandez scored, but the Colombians equalised eight minutes later from the penalty spot through Felipe Noguera.

Estudiantes are in second spot in the group, three points from leaders Cruzeiro, while Deportes Tolima have taken five points from five games.

Internacional thrashed 10-man Jorge Wilstermann 3-0 at the Estadio Jose Pinherio Borba in Beira-Rio in their Group 6 encounter.

Oscar, Andres D’Alessandro and Ze Roberto all got on the scoresheet for the Brazilians, and Lucas Fernandez was sent off for the Bolivian club.

Internacional remain top of the group on 10 points, while Jorge Wilstermann prop the group up with no points from four matches.

Wed 30 March, 2011
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