The first to fall
Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds. Under the microscope this week: the future of Sunderland after Steve Bruce's position became too precarious, a winnable December ahead for Liverpool, increasing pressure on Owen Coyle, and the indestructible Steve Kean.
Steve Bruce: Final nail in the coffin
So, the end was nigh. Just an hour or so before Sunderland "parted company" with Steve Bruce, I had typed words, in preparation for this week's edition of Premier League Spotlight, predicting that another slip-up this weekend could prove the final nail in the manager's coffin. Turns out the hammer was already on its way down.
"I have never given up on anything, certainly not in football anyway. My intention is not to walk away or quit. That's not in my nature," reflected Bruce, a 50-year-old who was managing his sixth club, in the wake of Sunderland's last-minute 2-1 home defeat to one of his former teams, Wigan. To lose on your own turf against a side who headed into the meeting having lost eight of their last nine made for an ill and ultimately terminal feeling on Wearside. Fans vented, having had just about enough of Bruce as their club's boss. "Bruce out" and "You fat Geordie *******, get out of our club", they chanted. And so, in spite of Steve Kean's unbreakability at Blackburn, supporter pressure proved it usually yields.
Post the loss to Wigan, Bruce also said the following: "I will try to turn it around ... but patience in football doesn't last very long." This was a peculiar and misplaced statement for a coach two games shy of 100 matches in charge of the Black Cats. Two-and-a-half years into his Sunderland tenure and the period of patience had been served; Bruce paid the price for making the wrong noises at the wrong time.
There was a case, albeit a flimsy one, for Bruce to stay. His team finished tenth last season, and 13th the campaign before - sturdy final standings, with progress tangible. And this term, their position two points above the drop zone aside, Sunderland boast a defensive record bettered by only four clubs. Yet a lack of clarity in the team's direction - an annual carousel of players in the summer hardly helping - left fans disillusioned. Now that Bruce's ride has run its course, the focus falls on the new red and white striped tie wearer (perhaps Martin O'Neill) to restore Sunderland pride.
Liverpool: A reason to be cheerful
Whisper it ever so softly, for Liverpool fans need little encouragement to get carried away, but the club's recent run of results has been hard for even the staunchest of scrooges to turn his nose up at. To come through two matches at Chelsea and a home encounter versus Manchester City with two wins and a draw merits praise. Their manager, Kenny Dalglish, whose record was only recently being compared with the infamous Roy Hodgson's, has refreshed, rather than revived, the sense of optimism at Anfield, with a Wembley date possible and the race for a top-four finish well and truly back on track.
"The way we're progressing is more significant than reaching the semi-final," Dalglish poignantly said after the Carling Cup scalp of Chelsea, which was, however, marred by the injury to the club's 2010-11 Player of the Season, Lucas Leiva. Suggestions Lucas, who has been ruled out for the remainder of the term with a serious knee injury, is some recent phenomenon or 'under-rated' are ignorant, as the Brazilian has been a key cog in the Reds' midfield for a while now, with his aforementioned award evidence of that.
Next, a very winnable December awaits. Matches against Fulham, QPR, Aston Villa, Wigan, Blackburn and Newcastle could see Liverpool oozing momentum for their trip to the Etihad Stadium on January 3. And of the six Premier League fixtures this month, half are at home, which presents the Reds with a chance to address their current Achilles' heel. Just two wins have been accrued on their own patch this term, the same number as, say, Wolves. Draws have been the issue, with five of their seven games on Merseyside having ended in frustrating stalemates. Beyond four goals scored by Luis Suarez in 13 outings - more is rightly expected of the gifted yet profligate Uruguayan - only Charlie Adam and Andy Carroll have managed more than one goal. If Liverpool do find their shooting boots (perhaps Maxi is the answer) then expect the likes of Chelsea to perspire that little more.
Owen Coyle: Lies, damned lies, and statistics
Bolton haven't drawn a game this season. Not one. But they've lost ten. That's the caveat. And with this unwanted record, which could be exacerbated had we felt evil enough to include the tail end of last season, Owen Coyle's stock has plummeted, as indeed Norman Hubbard pointed out this week. Plucked from Burnley by the Trotters in January 2010, it was hoped the club's unsightly football would be eked out and replaced by Coyle's pretty passing game. There has been evidence of the latter - although not as strong a case as some would have you believe - yet with it have come rotten results. Statistics can sometimes be misleading, serving to paint a rosy picture when the skies are grey. These following stats, however, do nothing of the sort: Bolton lost 45% of their games under the infamous Gary Megson. They have lost 48% of their games under Owen Coyle.
There of course needs to be a dose of realism served at each club, with their genuine expectations taken into account. Yet fans are entitled to ambition, the expectation their club will evolve and develop. Under Coyle - who has, in fairness, had wretched luck with injuries this campaign - there is susceptibility for capitulation. In their most recent outing - when, granted, they were reduced to ten men - Everton enjoyed 19 shots on goal, as Bolton slumped to a 2-0 loss at the Reebok Stadium. That type of sandcastle-like resistance bodes ill for the Trotters, who face Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday, a team playing with the type of swagger of one who knowingly has a winning EuroMillions ticket in their back pocket.
Steve Kean: Verbal diarrhoea
Kean continues to do himself few favours, the words frothing from his mouth continuing to bewilder. Prior to Tuesday night's Carling Cup quarter-final tie at Cardiff City, Kean talked up his side's chances of winning the competition. Then, after his team were defeated 2-0 by the Championship outfit, the Scot said: "We are in a position where we have forfeited going through and having the chance to reach a cup final. We have games against sides within touching distance of us in the league. We need to treat those games as cup finals." Now, it is arguably understandable that the league takes precedence, such is their top-flight plight, but Kean's juggling and jumbling of comments has left him with yet more egg on his face. And one wonders whether Bruce's omission, the first of the season, could be the catalyst for chairmen to act. Kean, beware.
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