Neal Thurman

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Late Fitness Check - Week 20

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Rather than spending column inches rehashing 2013 (I think I covered most of that in my Thanksgiving post anyway), I'm going to spend a few minutes discussing what I'm looking forward to in 2014.  Of course I'm looking forward to my son continuing to grow and develop - he's only 15 months old but thanks to a little encouragement from dad and watching a steady diet of Premier League matches on weekend mornings, he has been kicking a ball for months and has recently started something that reasonably approximates dribbling (without my prompting I'd like to add before anyone worries that I'm already turning into THAT dad).  No, what you are probably more interested in (outside of me stopping with the rambling and getting on to the injury and suspension news and analysis) is some thoughts related to sports, soccer, and specifically the Premier League so here we go:


1) I am looking forward to seeing what Manchester United and David Moyes can do with a roster that is befitting of a club of their stature.  While Sir Alex was an incredible manager and left with a great flourish he left things in a pretty miserable state of affairs roster-wise.  I don't know whether it will happen in January or over the summer but I'd like to see what Moyes can do with top class players.  Many are pointing out that Everton are performing better in the standings and on the pitch than their old bosses' new team but few are pointing out in the same breath that Everton's players are also better.  Can Moyes succeed at a "big club"? I'd hate to pretend we know the answer to that until he has "big club" players.

2) I'm interested to find out if Chelsea, and specifically Jose Mourinho, can win anything important without superior resources.  Mourinho outspent everyone to titles the last time he was in England.  I'm certainly not implying that he isn't a good manager because we've seen others do far less when given the same resources by Chelsea.  Still, given what is being spent in transfer fees and wages, the bar is incredibly high and Arsenal are currently ahead of them in the table and Manchester City are ahead of them with the oddsmakers.  There's also the feeling that it is finally time for the old guard at Chelsea to make way and it isn't clear that Mourinho has a plan in place for the transition.  That plan may make itself clear come January but unless Chelsea defy the oddsmakers and win this season it seems like it could turn into a bit of a wasted season. 

3) I'm interested to find out if Liverpool can sustain their first half results.  Luis Suarez is on an incredible scoring pace and has Liverpool near the top of the table.  Two concerns that jump out at me that I'll be interested to see play themselves out.  First, what happens if Suarez's form inevitably dips? Can Liverpool continue to win without him scoring at a Messi/Ronaldo-like clip? Second, is discovering whether Liverpool can manage to pick up some points against those around them in the table.  The Reds have been ruthless in beating the also-rans of the Premier League and hats off to them for that but with Manchester United starting to creep up and Everton showing that they are for real as well, Liverpool will have to get all three points from their big matches in the second half of the season if they are to secure Champions League football for next season. 

4) How can the league get any more interesting? If you look at the table, there is only one club that has more than a one match cushion between them and clubs above them and below them in the table (if you haven't looked lately, it is Southampton who is nestled securely in the nineth spot with five points to eighth and four points to tenth).  Every week brings the potential of upheaval in the table and with the possible exception of Manchester City if they can keep Kompany and Aguero healthy over the second half of the campaign, everyone seems flawed enough that things are likely to remain bunched regardless of what happens in January. 

5) The three teams I support the most are all at various stages of renaissance as we close 2013 and I can't wait to see what happens next.  Arsenal accumulated the most points in the Premier League over the course of 2013 (second half of last season and the first half of this season) and while no trophies are handed out for that, I'm endlessly curious to see how they approach the January window and the second half of the first season in ages where there is genuine hope around the Emirates and among Gooners everywhere.  The Eagles (that's NFL for those who don't follow American football) have a new coach, a new way of doing things, and have dramatically turned their fortunes around in a season where they were expected to be pretty poor.  With an unexpected playoff game this Saturday the season has already been a success but even though we're playing with house money, I'm intrigued to see how far it can go.  Finally, DC United of Major League Soccer has shown signs of life in the off-season after perhaps the most dismal season from any professional sports team I've ever supported (which is saying something since I grew up with some horrible teams across all sports in Philadelphia).  I don't think DC United will be world-beaters in 2014 but if they can be significantly better and get their stadium project on track then there will be reason to hope again for a franchise that was, at one time, the only one I supported that brought me any joy and certainly the only one that has brought much joy to the Washington, DC metro area in years. 

OK, now on to the final injury analysis of 2013 and it's going to be a big one with a fair number of high profile injuries: 


Arsenal v Cardiff City - Arsenal may have an appealing-looking match-up but there are a lot of injury issues here that may confound things.  Olivier Giroud, Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil, and Keiran Gibbs are all out.  Theo Walcott, Thomas Vermaelen, and Jack Wilshere have all been listed as questionable but all three trained today and should be available.  Walcott and Lukas Podolski should be particularly interesting for fantasy managers against a Cardiff City team that has been much better at home than on the road.  


Crystal Palace v Norwich City - Gary Hooper was listed as questionable at the Norwich press conference this morning but the late word is that he will be fit for the trip to Selhurst Park.  With Palace playing much better under Tony Pulis this seems like an ideal time to go for a Palace defender (ahem, Joel Ward).  


Fulham v West Ham United - Fulham and West Ham are both a bit of a mess at this point.  Fulham just let up six goals to Hull (yes, you read that right) and West Ham are riddled with injuries including all three of their center backs - James Tomkins, Winston Reid and James Collins.  What a mess.  You'd think Fulham might be able to capitalize on the Hammers' injury woes but they are uncertain over the availability of Dimitar Berbatov and Adel Taarabt who, while not world beaters, may be their two best attacking players.  Yikes. 


Liverpool v Hull City - I hate the word "could", as in Steven Gerrard "could" make his return to action.  If Gerrard were back against a Hull team that Liverpool will be out for blood against after losing their earlier match-up, I'd be in on him in a second.  The presence of that word "could" makes me feel a lot less good about things.  Line-up won't be announced until after the fantasy roster deadline so no help there either.  I'm going to stay away and hate myself for it later when he plays and scores. 


Manchester United v Tottenham Hotspur - Wayne Rooney hasn't trained since missing the match against Norwich which hasn't prevented David Moyes from listing him as a possible participant against Spurs.  Robin van Persie and Phil Jones are definitely out for United as is Paulinho, Sandro, Andros Townsend, Younes Kaboul and Jan Vertonghen for Spurs.  Rooney's presence or absence dramatically changes who I'm interested in fantasy-wise for United.  If Rooney plays then I'm interested in Rooney, Welbeck and Januzaj, if he doesn't play then I'm worried that they will look as bad as they did against Norwich except they'll be doing it against a better Spurs team.  Tough call but I'm likely to stay away. 


Southampton v Chelsea - Southampton are slowly getting fitter with only Boruc and Wanyama out among the preferred eleven while Chelsea are suffering from some key absences at the back with Ivanovic (injury) and Luiz (accumulation suspension) both out.  That will leave Chelsea's back four as the rusty Ashley Cole, John Terry, Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta (playing his natural position for the first time in a while).  Honestly, I don't like Chelsea's chances of a clean sheet on the road against the Saints so the real question is whether they (or my NFL Eagles) can outscore the Saints (sorry for another NFL reference but it worked well with the sentence and I'm really excited they're in the playoffs).  No real insight into who is likely to start in attack but it is hard to deny Eden Hazard given his recent form.


Stoke City v Everton - It is going to be tough for Stoke to go into this one missing Asmir Begovic but he's really the only significant absence for fantasy purposes.  Hard to imagine Stoke exploiting the absence of Phil Jagielka or fantasy managers being TOO interested in Jags regardless. 


Sunderland v Aston Villa - Not much of definitive use from the reports here.  Benteke is still uncertain as is Ron Vlaar who hold the keys to Aston Villa being a decent team at the front and back respectively.  Given that neither are definitely available, it is hard to get too excited about drafting players from either team into your fantasy squad. 


Swansea City v Manchester City - This is the early one so City's like-up should be available before the fantasy deadline which is good news.  Swansea is still without Vorm and Michu making City's chances to score a bunch and keep a clean sheet look better than they already were.  I'll be trying my best to be awake to see the City starting line-up and makes some changes as appropriate to take advantage of what I expect to be a convincing away win. 


West Bromwich v Newcastle - Shane Long is expected to be fit which is good news for the Baggies who need his goals as well as a reason to sit Nicholas Anelka after his run-in with good taste over the weekend.  It isn't clear what West Brom will decide on Anelka but the presence of Long and last week's strong performance from Berahino certainly gives them some options.  Nothing to report from the Newcastle side of this one.  Looks like an away win to me as Newcastle rebound after Sunday's narrow loss to Arsenal. 

Neal Thurman manages the Rotoworld's Premier League coverage and contributes to Never Manage Alone which he co-founded. He is also a diehard Arsenal supporter. You can find him on Twitter @NealJThurman.
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