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Oct 29, 2009

Cracks beginning to appear in Coyle's Clarets

The problem with giving goalkeepers nicknames like 'The Beast' is that it sounds doubly ridiculous when the man in question is lying flat on his face with the ball in the back of the net. Certainly the image of David Seaman signing his name 'Safe Hands' does not sit well with that of him stumbling comically backwards as Ronaldinho's speculative free-kick nestled in the goal behind him during the quarter-final of the 2002 World Cup.

At least Brian Jensen does not market himself on a moniker given to him by others, which is just as well because in recent weeks the Burnley goalkeeper has been most un-Beast-like. Anybody who witnessed him floundering around in the East Lancashire derby at Blackburn, tumbling to the floor when challenged by players considerably smaller than his ample frame, and the horrible moment of indecision that cost Burnley a goal against Wigan on Saturday will know that all is not well with the man from Denmark.

The sight of Jensen, such a key figure in Burnley's rise to the Premier League and victories over Manchester United and Everton this season, falling over his own feet before Hugo Rodallega tapped Wigan's equaliser into an empty goal would seem to symbolise the current slump in fortunes at Turf Moor.

Not that it is time to start ringing the alarm bells just yet. In a Premier League table where so many teams are staking a claim for the relegation places, the battle to stay up looks as though it will be every bit as tight as the title race. But clearly the honeymoon period is over for Owen Coyle and his boys.

That heady night when Robbie Blake's thunderbolt knocked United out cold and the victory over Everton just four days later will no doubt be immortalised on DVD, but they suddenly seem a very long time ago. Predictable away defeats to Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham have followed - at a cost of 12 goals without reply - as well as a Carling Cup exit at Barnsley and the derby disappointment at Blackburn. And now Burnley's impeccable home record has gone after Jensen's slip against Wigan triggered the course of events that saw Turf Moor fall for the first time this season.

Resurrecting the barricades and turning it into a fortress once again is crucial, starting with the visit of Hull this weekend. If Burnley are to emulate Stoke by building a successful first season in the top-flight on a foundation of solid home form, then teams like the struggling Tigers must be sent home empty-handed. The problem for Coyle is that his squad has neither the strength nor depth of Stoke's, which is why the first cracks have started to appear at such an early stage.

Long-term knee injuries to Chris McCann and Martin Paterson have exposed the paucity of replacements at his disposal, and that has not been helped by the ankle ligament damage Jensen suffered in his calamitous fall.

Replacement keeper, the unproven Peruvian Diego Penny, had only played one League game prior to taking over from Jensen on Saturday and that was in a 4-1 defeat at Sheffield Wednesday last year when he was beaten twice in the first four minutes. Although captain Steven Caldwell has returned in central defence, after missing the opening nine games of the season through injury, it would appear he has made little difference to a team that simply cannot win on the road and is now coming under increasing pressure at home.

In spite of his Premier League experience with Manchester City, left-back Stephen Jordan looks like a Championship player struggling to cut it in the top-flight, as does veteran Graham Alexander who has faded dramatically after some commanding performances shielding his back four earlier in the season. And aside from a wonderfully well-taken goal against Birmingham, new signing Andre Bikey has struggled to fill McCann's shoes in central midfield having been pushed further forward following Caldwell's return.

That Steven Fletcher is Coyle's record signing at £3 million tells its own story about the limited finances available to the Burnley boss, and the former Hibernian striker has often found himself shunted out onto the right flank to accommodate first Paterson and then David Nugent in the lone striker's role, which might explain a Premier League goal return of two. And then there is the Chris Eagles puzzle.

Why, one might ask, does a winger who was persuaded to sign from Manchester United and swell his already considerable fortune by becoming one of Burnley's highest earners - surprising his team-mates by turning up for pre-season in a white Lamborghini which he regularly swaps for a customised Range Rover - not warrant a place in the team?

Eagles was on the bench for Burnley's Championship play-off final win over Sheffield United at Wembley in May, and had not started a Premier League game until Coyle picked him against Wigan at the weekend. Two Carling Cup appearances against Barnsley and Hartlepool were hardly befitting a winger who made his Champions League debut for United at the age of 18.

Accommodating the attack-minded Eagles into his line-up without exposing Burnley defensively is one of many issues Coyle must consider when picking a team to face opponents who are more often than not stronger in all departments. Thank goodness for Robbie Blake, a player of genuine quality who could yet make the difference between Burnley staying up or going down.

Coyle is to be congratulated for sticking to his principles of passing football, as are Burnley's supporters for turning Turf Moor into one of the most intimidating venues in the country. But even Stoke know that loud noise and team spirit will only get you so far.

Whether Burnley can emulate the Potters and survive on home comforts alone, or follow the path of another of last season's Premier League newcomers, West Brom, and pass their way back into the Championship remains to be seen. If they are to stay up, they will need 'The Beast' back to his best and a whole lot more besides.

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