As I finish writing this the All Whites have just been comfortably beaten 4-2 in the WC qualifier 2nd leg in Wellington. It is a bit of a shame to see Ricki Herbert go out on such a result but I believe it is time for a change - which he himself has admitted. Ricki has been in charge since 2005, where the likes of Noah Hickey and Harry Ngata were still running round!! 8 years in charge of any side in world football is a great feat, considering Mexico have gone through 3 in the last year and most EPL managers struggle to last a 2 year contract these days. This sport is results based. It is as simple as that. With NZ only facing the pacific nations and the odd international friendly, it is hard to judge Ricki Herbert. Beat the small nations and no one cares as it's a given; lose to most other international sides and no one cares because we’re so small we’re not meant to beat them anyways. Ricki has the ability to blend a group together into a team that consistently punches above its weight but he struggles in drawing the line when it is needed and make the tough decisions. This is what makes top managers. Giving him the benefit of the doubt it is tough to build a team when you have access to the players a week before a big match and they all come from different teams around the world. However I don’t think he has made the tough decisions since the last World cup to push NZ football forward. What has NZ gained in the last 3 years? Marco Rojas has been a standout. What else? Winston Reid is faring well at West Ham, but with constant exposure to such a high level that was bound to happen. Maybe Herbert wasn’t given the credit he deserved after the 2010 World Cup, but he certainly doesn’t warrant any credit over the last 3 years since that big dance.
Stoke City vs Sunderland:
Two struggling teams look to battle it out early Sunday morning (NZT) for a chance to clear themselves from the congested relegation zone, where only 4 points separates 10th place from 18th on the table. Under former Man City manager Mark Hughes, Stoke have transformed their style of play from the bullish ‘long ball’ approach to a more tight and controlled passing game. But has this been detrimental to the results they are producing? Where the Potters used to grind out 1-0 results based on a solid and unforgiving back 4, their new style is not achieving such positive results. Stoke have scored 10 goals in the first 11 games, with their 3 premier strike options, Peter Crouch, Jonathan Walters and Kenwyne Jones scoring a combined 2 goals all season. That is seriously not good enough. Britannia Stadium hasn’t been the fortress it has been previously with only 6 points gained at home so far and time is ticking on whether Stoke can stick with this system or not. Are the players starting to accept the system now or is this leading them down the trail to the Championship next year?
Life has been looking up for the Sunderland faithful after the dreadful start the Black Cats endured under Paolo Di Canio losing 6 of their first 7 games. 2 wins in their last 3, especially the rousing 1-0 win over City, has buoyed the supporters and given the club new life as they look to climb out of the relegation zone. I believe the clubs future success lies in the hands of Seb Larsson and Steven Fletcher. So far this year they have both underperformed with Fletcher slowly coming back from injury and Larsson struggling to find his first touch and precision set piece taking thus far. Sunderland have only scored 2 goals in a match once this year, and have conceded 3 or more goals 5 times, which does not stack up well when trying to fight off relegation. For Sunderland to start winning games they need to be scoring goals and this is where Larsson and Fletcher come to the party. On his day, Larsson is one of the best dead ball artists in the game. He can put the ball on a dime and more often than not supplies crosses that cause chaos in the opposition 18 yard box. So far it hasn’t eventuated, but once it does, you can put your house on it that the serial goal poacher, Mr Fletcher, will start pouring in the goals to the delight of the fans.
The Deciding Factor:
If Stoke can build on the last performances, where they have scored 6 goals in their last 3 games then they could be well on their way to putting away the Black Cats. However I have a feeling that Sunderland are starting to get over the Di Canio tenure and are going to be a tough test for the Potters. If either Crouch or Fletcher find their range, they could well decide this match.
For me this game is a coin toss. Both clubs need the 3 points desperately but they are both playing the type of football that oozes a fear of losing. I’m going safe with a 1-1 draw, which will inevitably not help either side.
Man City vs Tottenham
This should be a cracker of a match at the Etihad, as these two title contenders do battle to push themselves back into the top 4. Man City should feel more comfortable at home after their well documented issues on the road thus far. With the international break over, the City fans would have forgotten the embarrassing 1-0 loss to Sunderland and will be looking to make a fresh start in the run in to Christmas. With David Silva out till mid December, whoever fills the wide rolls will be crucial to how the team fares in the next few fixtures. Samir Nasri and either Jesus Navas or James Milner will likely fill these rolls and will be looking to supply the in-form Aguero and Negredo. Their defensive work will also be tested with the likes of Andre Townsend from the Spurs side continually making runs down the channels. With the back 4 still looking suspect without club captain and stalwart Vincent Kompany, City will look to outscore their opponents through their wealth of talent, rather than boring sides with an unyielding defence.
As a few people have pointed out recently, Spurs can’t buy a goal at the moment. With only 9 goals in the first 11 matches, only Sunderland and Crystal Palace have scored less. What is keeping Spurs still in title contention is their amazing 7 clean sheets already recorded this season. With the likes of Michael Dawson and Jan Vertonghen marshalling the troops from the back, Spurs have looked at ease when defending their goal and are duly backed by French number 1 Hugo Lloris, who is fast becoming one of the Premier League's top shotstoppers. If Spurs want to strive further in this competition they will need to sort out the stage fright some of the players are getting in front of goal and also sort out their preferred striking option. In Roberto Soldado and Jermain Defoe, Spurs have strikers of different strengths, however both have been inconsistent when it comes to finishing this year. So far Soldado has got the nod to start, but Defoe is knocking on the door with more entertaining cameos off the bench and his knack for finding a ‘lucky touch’ when needed. With Townsend and Sigurdsson starting to find form, there shouldn’t be any shortage of opportunities, but it is a matter of someone on the end of the chain bulging the back of the net. Against a City side looking vulnerable, this could be the game where Spurs look to find their attacking nouse and kickstart their pre Christmas run.
The Deciding Factor:
If Nasri has a big game and creates chances for City, I believe they have the finishers up front to catch Spurs out. However it takes one goal for the floodgates to open, and seeing how vulnerable City look on defence, if Soldado or Defoe can finally find some form they could put a few past embattled keeper Joe Hart.
With the loser of this game falling further outside the top 4, I can see this being a cagey affair with both teams feeling the nerves of such a big game in the context of the season. In saying that I can see goals being scored, so I am going with a 2-1 win to City with Aguero being the chief destroyer.