The 6 Nations 2014

The 2014 6 Nations has the potential to be one of the most intriguing in recent memory.  There is no clear favourite and realistically, any one of Ireland, Wales, England or France could take the crown (depending on which version of Les Bleus turn up).  Having not endured a gruelling Lions tour, expect Les Tricolores to feature strongly.  Ignore the fact they have only won two of their last eleven Test Matches, and the fact that they finished bottom last year.  In the year after Lions tours, the French have won the 6 Nations title every time since 1998 so they have history on their side.  Italy managed an impressive two victories last year and are no longer the rollover they used to be.  Scotland have made significant improvements since Scott Johnson replaced Andy Robinson.  Wales are possibly favourites given that they are the reigning champions and are going for an unprecedented third championship in a row.  However they don’t have the player depth of England who have some exciting talent coming through the ranks.  Ireland too have always been strong in recent years and with their teams doing so well in Europe, their form may easily translate to the international stage.  Here’s a lowdown of the teams:

 

Wales:

The Welsh have a very settled line-up that are not only in their prime but also vastly experienced.  The likes of George North, Toby Falateau, Leigh Halfpenny and Sam Warburton are all 25 or under but have been playing regularly for the past 3-4 seasons.  The losses of Ian Evans, Ryan Jones and Jonathan Davies are big blows because they are real physical presences and in the case of Jones especially, his experience and versatility would have been a real asset.  Wales have the advantage of playing at home for three of the five fixtures but still have not sorted out the pivotal position of fly-half.  Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland both started the Autumn Internationals without convincing totally.  Expect Biggar to start and (hopefully) the world’s most underrated rugby player James Hook to come off the bench and pick off tiring defences.

Prediction: 2nd

 

England:

Logic dictates that England should be miles better than the three other home nations given the vast resources available to them, both financially and player-wise.  However they have been remarkably adept at evening out this so called advantage since lifting the World Cup in 2003.  Stuart Lancaster has slowly but surely been building England up to be a world force in international Rugby Union once again.  Lest we forget, they were only 80 minutes away (admittedly, probably the most naive 80 minutes of rugby I have ever seen) from a first Grand Slam since 2003 so the re-building process is well and truly in full swing.  England have finally seen sense and jettisoned the king of missed tackles, Chris Ashton, and should be all the better for it.  This leaves a rather inexperienced back three, albeit one brimming with potential.  I am particularly excited by this whippersnapper Anthony Watson from Bath.  This could be his international breakthrough season a la Stuart Hogg two years ago.  Perhaps the two most significant decisions have been the restoration of Brad Barritt to midfield (he is to tackling what Ronnie O’Sullivan is to snooker/Chris Ashton to not tackling), and the discarding of Ben Youngs.  I pray to God that Danny Care takes this chance to finally realise his enormous potential on the international stage.

Prediction: 1st

 

Ireland:

Given that three of the four Irish provinces have progressed in the Heineken Cup, they should maybe be regarded as the favourites this year.  A side boasting the talents of Cian Healy, Rob Kearney, Jonny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell will always be a formidable prospect, as shown by the Irish’s hearbreaking defeat to New Zealand in November, even if the latter two players are in the twilight of their careers.  The loss of both Sean O’Brien and Stephen Ferris through injury though is a huge blow, given the pair’s immense ball-carrying ability.  Sexton is key for me because at his best, he is the best fly-half in the northern-hemisphere (sorry James Hook), and also he offers a significant running option.  If he can bring the likes of D’Arcy, O’Driscoll, Bowe and Kearney into play then Ireland have a big attacking threat.  However, I think the absence of their two experienced flankers will count against them.

Prediction: 4th

 

France:

Ah the enigma that is French Rugby.  One moment; astoundingly brilliant, the next; total merde.  Unfortunately for Les Bleus, they have been doing a lot more of the latter in recent internationals, much to the chagrin of their coach, Philippe Saint-André.  They have the strongest domestic league in Europe, yet, as the England football team knows all too well, a thriving league doesn’t always translate to success on the international stage.  The steady stream of imports from abroad has unduly affected the national side who, with the resources they have, should be beating every other team in the 6 Nations out of sight.  They still have world class players in captain Thierry Dusautoir, no. 8 Louis Picamoles, scrum-half Morgan Parra and centre Wesley Fofana but as always with France, it’s a case of whether they can all perform together as a coherent unit.  First of all they need to return to their audacious style of play from four or five years ago.  In the last 6 Nations championship they were painfully one-dimensional, lacking in any invention or creativity.  If they can re-capture the old French spirit and get the ball to Fofana in space, a lot can happen.  Or they will implode spectacularly.  Either way it will be fun to watch.

Prediction: 5th

 

Italy:

The Italian squad is vastly experienced, especially in the forwards.  With the Azzuri, you more or less know what you are going to get: A lot of forward power, distinctly one-paced in the back-line, except for my new favourite player: the mercurial fly half, Luciano Orquera.  Now the little number 10 has the ability to win a game in a flash as well as lose one, but isn’t it exciting to watch someone who is willing to take risks?  Someone will throw the audacious pass because it might lead to a try?  Modern day rugby has very few players of Orquera’s ilk and he should be applauded.  To be honest, with a back row of Alessandro Zanni, Sergio Parisse (surely the greatet number 8 ever) and Mauro Bergamasco (pretty sure he played in the ’99 World Cup, he must be about 50 now), the Italians have the ability to triumph over anyone on their day.  The problem is that they have sweet FA out wide so when Orquera does open the defence up like a can of beans, they don’t have the players to finish moves off.  Could cause a surprise but also, could not.

Prediction: 3rd

 

Scotland:

The Tartan Army have recently played rather attractive rugby without attaining the results their play has deserved.  Nevertheless, the schooling by South Africa in the Autumn was a stark reminder of their standing in World Rugby.  In Stuart Hogg they have the best running full-back in the competition, and with Seans, Lamont and Maitland on the wings, they have speedsters who know where the whitewash is.  Scotland’s problem has always been a dearth of creativity and tries.  Since the mighty Gregor Townsend retired, they have lacked the subtlety and creativity required to open up defences.  They also don’t have battering ram centres so they don’t force themselves over the gain-line either.  The resultant combination means lots of huff and puff but precious little end product which is a shame because Greg Laidlaw is a talented scrum-half and deserves to show what he can do with a pack on the front foot.  I can maybe see Scotland winning one match but no more.  They simply don’t have the requisite quality over the field, save for Hogg.

Prediction: 6th

 

As with all thealternativesportsblog’s predictions, they almost universally turn out to be incorrect.  Do not under any circumstances run down to the bookies and put money on any of our predictions.  You will end up disappointed, resentful and out of pocket.  Do however revel in the joy of five weekends of uninterrupted, (possibly) world-class rugby on your doorstep.  It might not be pretty but it will (probably) be exciting.

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The Transfer Window

It’s the start of the silly season.  For the next month, all of the 20 Premier League clubs will be linked to all and sundry.  Don’t be surprised to see Buzz Lightyear mooted as Cardiff City’s new saviour, or Winnie the Pooh touted as the answer to Manchester United’s defensive frailties.  In January, in the words of Cole Porter, anything goes.  Chairmen, managers and agents are all working overtime in a bid to find the right formula for a final push for the title/to stave off relegation (delete as appropriate).  The January transfer window is rarely a good time for buying clubs.  Inflated prices mean that they often pay over the odds for players that they don’t really need.  Andy Carroll to Liverpool for £35m is a classic transfer window move, as is Fernando Torres to Chelsea for £50m the same season.  But there are bargains to be had: Luis Suarez cost a paltry £22m when he moved from Ajax to Liverpool in 2011 and Christophe Dugarry was the first real January transfer bargain when he helped save Birmingham City from relegation in 2003.  So who will make their move?  Expect to see clubs further down the table splashing the cash in a bid to avoid a relegation dogfight.  There may be one or two significant transfers amongst the top eight clubs but I would be surprised if a major signing was made.

 

Arsenal

Top of the league, through to the knock-out stages of the Champions League, and into the 4th round of the FA Cup, life could be worse for the Highbury club, all the more so if you consider the discontent around the Emirates a year ago.  They have turned round their fortunes with basically the same playing squad with two major additions – Mesut Özil and Mathieu Flamini.  However, with Theo Walcott and hairdressing’s Nicklas Bendtner both injured and Olivier Giroud struggling for fitness, Lukas Podolski is Arsene Wenger’s only fit forward (himself having only recently returned from injury) so the Gunners may require extra back-up in that area.  Wenger is loath to do business in January but needs must if he is to secure Arsenal’s first trophy since 2005.

Linked to: Karim Benzema and Alvaro Morata (both Real Madrid), Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid), Pedro (Barcelona)

 

Aston Villa

Villa’s recent form has been poor, culminating in an embarrassing FA Cup loss at home to Sheffield United at the weekend.  They should have enough in reserve to avoid relegation and if they can get Christian Benteke scoring again they will be absolutely fine.  Villa haven’t splashed the cash recently, preferring to promote from within and have assembled an impressive array of home-grown talent.  They could probably do with a bit more quality in the centre of the park to complement Fabian Delph (Tom Huddlestone would be a good fit) and if Joleon Lescott becomes available he would be a good steadying buy for Paul Lambert’s team.  Villa may have to sell before he can buy though.  If that is the case, fringe players like Charles N’Zogbia (whatever happened to him?) and Alan Hutton may be vulnerable.

Linked to: Joleon Lescott (Man City), Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United), Wes Hoolahan (Norwich)

 

Cardiff City

Fuck knows why Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants to be part of Vincent Tan’s Flying Circus of Nutjobbery but who am I to judge.  He seemed to galvanise the team in their 2-1 FA Cup victory at Newcastle at the weekend.  Scoring goals (and letting too many in) has been Cardiff’s achilles heel this season but if they re-discover their home form they might just stay in the division.  A proven goalscorer is a priority but they don’t exactly grow on trees.  Solskjaer is apparently bringing a couple of his countrymen in (midfielders Magnus Wolff Eikrem and Mats Moller Daehli since you ask) and I know shit-all about them so I can’t tell you if they’re any good or not.  I think someone like Darren Bent would be a good shout for the Bluebirds.  He knows where the goal is and can’t get a game for Fulham so he could be available, as might Jermain Defoe.  Equally someone like Jordan Rhodes from Blackburn would be a more long-term fix.

Linked to: Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United), Tom Ince (Blackpool), Magnus Wolff Eikrem (Heerenveen), Mats Moller Daehli (Molde)

 

Chelsea

Despite not playing anywhere near their potential, The Special One’s team are still in the title hunt, the Champions League and the FA Cup.  Their defence has been uncharacteristically porous and I can see Thibaut Courtois (currently on loan at high-flying Atletico Madrid) replacing veteran Petr Cech between the sticks next season.  Tellingly, Chelsea’s leading scorers this season (Edin Hazard and Oscar) are both midfielders.  The Blues do have plenty of striking talent (Fernando Torres, Demba Ba, Samuel Eto’o and Andre Schürrle) but they have not been doing the business and if their particularly turd record at signing strikers in the January window is anything to go buy, they would be well advised to keep their cash in the bank.  They need a long-term successor for Ashley Cole, though that will probably wait until the summer unless someone world-class becomes available.  They may also look in to a replacement for Frank Lampard when he finally hangs up his boots.  Both Juan Mata and Kevin de Bruyne have been linked with moves away from Stamford Bridge so another creative midfielder may be on his way to West London.  With Roman Abramovich running the show, expect the unexpected.

Linked to: Luke Shaw (Southampton), Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid), Nemanja Matic (Benfica), Radamel Falcao (Monaco), Jackson Martinez (Porto), Xabi Alonso (Real Madrid), Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)

 

Crystal Palace

Tony Pulis has certainly improved Palace’s results since his appointment in October.  They proved they really can play in their plucky 1-0 defeat to Manchester City in December.  Their defence has been pretty solid, but any side that regards Danny Gabbidon as a first choice needs to strengthen.  The Eagles also need more inspiration from midfield to ease the burden on Jason Puncheon.  A proven goalscorer wouldn’t go amiss either (they are the lowest scorers in the Premier League).  Dwight Gayle has only impressed in fits and starts, Marouane Chamakh has done OK but Cameron Jerome doesn’t have the goals in him to keep Palace in the Premier League.  On the bright side, they don’t need a new goalkeeper.

Linked to: Demba Ba (Chelsea), Jordan Rhodes (Blackburn), Joe Ledley (Celtic), Tom Ince (Blackpool), Nikica Jelavic (Everton)

 

Everton

Roberto Martinez’s appointment has been an absolute masterstroke.  Everton are playing with confidence and flair – something that was lacking under David Moyes.  This transfer window will be focussed on holding on to their prize assets such as Ross Barkley and Leighton Baines, rather than bringing new ones in.  Nevertheless, a new striker would be nice given the injury to Arouna Kone and the fall from grace of Nikica Jelavic.  They could also do with a bit more cover all over the pitch.  However that goes against their policy of promoting from within so whoever comes in will have to be a good fit.

Linked to: Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United), Aiden McGeady (Spartak Moscow), Shane Long (West Brom)

 

Fulham

The Cottagers (interesting choice of nickname) have been well below par this season.  Their defence has been leakier than a leaky tap aided in no small part by the ever (un)reliable Philippe Senderos.  New goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg hasn’t covered himself in glory since his move from Ajax – for me, the number two keeper David Stockdale is a safer pair of hands.  Another big problem has been Fulham’s home form.  Craven Cottage has not been as much of a fortress as it usually is.  Confidence isn’t exactly sky high though after their 6-0 humiliation against Hull.  The return of Clint Dempsey should help.  Rene Meulensteen has an important month ahead of him, even if it is simply instilling belief into his players.

Linked to: Phil Bardsley (Sunderland), Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United)

 

Hull City

The Tigers have been a revelation this season, basing their success on a solid defence and strong home form.  Apart from the Fulham thumping, goals have been hard to come by but they do have a strong midfield lead by the rejuvenated Tom Huddlestone.  Again, like most teams in the relegation zone, a proven Premier League goalscorer is top of their wish-list.

Linked to: Shola Ameobi (Newcastle United), Shane Long (West Brom), Steven Fletcher (Sunderland)

 

Liverpool

Brendan Rodgers has transformed Liverpool’s fortunes since they were languishing in mid-table at this point last season.  I think the Premier League title is beyond them this year but a Champions League spot is definitely within their grasp.  Maybe another young striker is required as back-up for Daniel Sturridge and Suarez.  Simon Mignolet in goal has not exactly convinced and the defence has been a little suspect recently after starting the season with three clean sheets, but with the free-scoring Suarez in their ranks, that hardly matters.  Perhaps their most important signing was tying the Uruguayan down to another long-term contract.

Linked to: Mohamed Salah (Basel), Arda Turan (Atletico Madrid), Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu (Udinese), Danny Ings (Burnley)

 

Manchester City

The richest team in the Premier League don’t exactly need much in the transfer window.  City’s attack is purring like a contented cat and when all their squad is fit, they could play two world class teams and beat almost anyone in the world.  Their central defence isn’t completely watertight however, and the continued absence of Vincent Kompany has not helped matters so another centre-back would be ideal but is not compulsory.  Joleon Lescott may have to leave to make space for a new arrival.  Joe Hart seems to have got over his bout of poor form so the goalkeeper position seems tied up.  The title is theirs to lose.

Linked to: Asmir Begovic (Stoke City), Nemanja Matic (Benfica), Eliaquim Mangala (Porto), Douglas Costa (Atletico Madrid)

 

Manchester United

Nothing has gone to plan for David Moyes in his a debut season as Manchester United manager.  Their big problem was the lack of world-class re-enforcements in the summer.  Instead they splurged £27m on Marouane Fellaini and £12m on Wilfried Zaha.  The injury to last season’s top scorer Robin van Persie has not helped matters and consequently the team has been relying too heavily on Wayne Rooney who is currently struggling for fitness.  The return of Nemanja Vidic to central defence should sure up the defence.  The main area that needs strengthening for me is the midfield.  Wesley Sneijder is always mentioned at this point every season but he is pushing 30 now.  Ross Barkley is the ideal signing but I doubt Everton will sell another one of their prized players to the Old Trafford club.  United are still sniffing around Leighton Baines like a randy dog and Fabio Coentrao is still on their radar but I would be very surprised if either of them were to move.  They have a real job on their hands getting into the Champions League next season.

Linked to: Fabio Coentrao (Real Madrid), Leighton Baines (Everton), Wesley Sneijder (Galatasaray), Marco Reus (Borussia Dortmund), Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid), Ross Barkley (Everton), Luke Shaw (Southampton), Koke (Atletico Madrid), Ilkay Gundogan (Borussia Dortmund), Eliaquim Mangala (Porto)

 

Newcastle United

The Magpies have had a promising season so far after a slow start.  On-loan striker Loic Remy has started banging in the goals and he has been ably backed up by Yohan Cabayé and Yoan Gouffran.  The ever-reliable Tim Krul has been solid between the posts and when Fabricio Coloccini is fit, the defence becomes a lot stingier.  Newcastle do not have any desperate need for re-enforcements but another reliable centre-back to partner Coloccini would be a welcome addition.  Cabaye seems to no longer be on Arsene Wenger’s radar anymore which will please manager Alan Pardew.  If they do buy someone, it’s a safe bet that they will be French.  Comfortable in mid-table and pushing for Europe.

Linked to: Luuk de Jong (Borussia Monchengladbach), Bafetimbi Gomis (Lyon), Ola Toivonen (PSV Eindhoven)

 

Norwich City

Chris Hughton’s men have had a strange season.  They play attractive football yet the results have not matched the performances and they find themselves just three points above the relegation zone.  Their midfield is very strong and Gary Hooper has been a fine acquisition from Celtic.  Like most teams in the relegation zone, Norwich can’t stop conceding goals.  Goalkeeper John Ruddy hasn’t been in his finest form and the central defensive partnership of Sebastien Bassong and Michael Turner currently isn’t cutting the mustard.  A centre-half is a priority because they need to find a tough backbone if they are to remain in the Premier League.

Linked to: Ola Toivonen (PSV Eindhoven), Chris Samba (Dinamo Moscow)

 

Southampton

The Saints’ bright start to the season has been tempered somewhat recently amid a run of tough fixtures.  However they continue to play a wonderfully slick brand of football and Mauricio Pochettino’s men have been a breath of fresh air in the top flight.  Their footballing philosophy requires a certain type of player, technically gifted and intelligent, and I am not sure that player is available to them at the moment with the budget they have.  Their biggest fight in this transfer window will be keeping hold of Mark Clattenburg’s favourite man, Adam Lallana, hotshot forward Jay Rodriguez, and two of the country’s most promising full-backs, Luke Shaw and Nathaniel Clyne.  The defence has not recently been as mean as previously but given where they were last season, most Saints fans would bite your hand off for their current league position.  An added bonus would be to get summer signing Dani Osvaldo scoring regularly.

Linked to: Ever Banega (Valencia), Diego (Wolfsburg)

 

Stoke City

Everyone’s least favourite team are doing a frustratingly competent job of staying in the Premier League.  I was hoping that the departure of Tony Pulis in the summer would lead to an inevitable slide into the Championship but so far my hopes have been dashed.  The Potters haven’t exactly been impressive this season (save for the 3-2 defeat of Chelsea) but Liverpool loanee Oussama Assaidi has been a bright light, as has the evergreen Peter Crouch.  Asmir Begovic continues to excel in goal but Stoke have not quite been as solid defensively as under Pulis.  They have a good spine to their team but not too much back-up if one of Robert Huth or Ryan Shawcross gets injured.  A forward or attacking midfielder is also a priority if they are to improve on their rather meagre tally of 19 goals so far this season.

Linked to: Michael Mancienne (Hamburg), Ivica Olic (Wolfsburg), Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United), Joleon Lescott (Manchester City)

 

Sunderland

I don’t know what Paolo Di Canio was doing during the summer because he seems to have worsened Sunderland’s squad, rather than strengthening it.  They have an OK midfield – slightly light on creativity but with plenty of fight – but it is up front where they have the real problem.  Leading striker Steven Fletcher has been injured for part of the season, and has not been firing since his return.  The back-up options are simply not good enough for this level.  Jozy Altidore has only scored two goals this season and their joint leading scorer is their right-back David Bardsley with three which tells the whole story.  Also, when injury-prone pair John O’Shea and Wes Brown don’t play, the central defence looks like an accident waiting to happen.  Furthermore, they have the hindrance of having to sell before they can buy.  Marcos Alonso has been brought in on-loan but they need high-quality first-team players, not fringe players.  Gus Poyet has done a good job in galvanising the Black Cats but it may be too late for them to save themselves from relegation.

Linked to:  Darren Bent (Fulham), Wayne Bridge (Reading),

 

Swansea City

Michael Laudrup’s team have endured a trickier second season in the top flight.  They still play attractive pass-and-move football but teams seemed to have worked out how to beat them.  Michu is not the force of last season and I think their squad has been stretched by their European jaunts.  Another striker to relieve the burden on Wilfried Bony and the injured Michu would not go amiss as would a top centre-back.  The Swans have been a bit leaky at the back and this has not been helped by the absence of Dutch stopper Michel Vorm.  Replacement keeper Gerrard Tremmel just isn’t in the same league.  Not totally out of the relegation scrap but should have enough quality to survive with comfort, as shown by their win at Old Trafford on Sunday.

Linked to: Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United), Tom Ince (Blackpool)

 

Tottenham Hotspur

Spurs, rather unwisely, decided to spend all the proceeds from the sale of Gareth Bale on every midfielder ever.  Consequently left back and up front are looking a bit bare.  Danny Rose has recently looked a bit suspect at defending (rather important for a left-back) so that is a priority.  In the striking department, the return from exile of Emmanuel Adebayor has been a godsend and Tim Sherwood has found Tottenham’s attacking mojo again.  Still, if one of Soldado or Adebayor gets injured then an uncharacteristically lacklustre Jermain Defoe and not-all-that-talented Harry Kane wait in the wings.  It will remain to be seen just how much money the notoriously frugal Daniel Levy makes available for transfers.  He may have to dig into his pockets if Spurs are to get into Europe next season.

Linked to: Luke Shaw (Southampton), Mohamed Salah (Basel), Alex Buttner (Manchester United), Ezequiel Lavezzi (PSG), Paul-Georges Ntep (Auxerre)

 

West Bromwich Albion

The Baggies are pretty comfortable in mid-table although whoever takes up the reigns at the Hawthorns will not have a lot of money to play with.  To be honest he won’t need it because West Brom have a good squad and plenty of cover for all positions.  They arguably could do with another right-back as cover for the injury-prone Steven Reid.  The Midlands club have a jewel in Saido Berahino and they will have a job keeping hold of him in the coming months.  They should also use the transfer window to buy Nicolas Anelka a brain.

Linked to: Aaron Cresswell (Ipswich), Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United), Craig Gardner (Sunderland)

 

West Ham

The Hammers have some serious problems.  I watched their 5-0 drubbing to Nottingham Forest at the weekend and it was embarrassing.  Forest could have easily scored 10.  I know West Ham have some defensive injuries but to lose in such a fashion to team from a lower tier is inexcusable.  They need Andy Carroll fit and playing (and scoring) to have any hope of arresting their current slide.  They have been unfortunate to have so many injuries to key players (Collins, Tomkins and Reid) and actually, overall, at the back, they have been fairly solid.  It’s in the final 3rd that they’ve been pretty pathetic.  If Big Sam can do a bit of wheeling and dealing, if he doesn’t play Stewart Downing, if they get their defenders back in time and some decent service to Carroll, and some magic dust, they might just avoid relegation.

Linked to: Asamoah Gyan (Al Ain), Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United), Demba Ba (Chelsea), Andre-Pierre Gignac (Marseille), Chris Samba (Blackburn), Jermain Defoe (Tottenham Hotspur), Nikica Jelavic (Everton).