Monday, July 14, 2008

3 Questions Ahead of The Premier League 2008-09 Season, Vol. 6

An occasional Pardew's Guardian feature leading up to the August 16th kickoff ...
1) Will Mark Noble fulfill his potential in the heart of West Ham's midfield? The local East Londoner (pictured above, top) is one of the gems of Tony Carr's famed Youth Academy, and Hammers supporters warm to him even more than most because he was born and bred as one of them. But while Hayden Mullins has cemented the role of holding/defensive midfielder from as far back as the winter of 2003, Noble has had to bide his time behind the likes of Nigel Reo-Coker, Nigel Quashie, Yossi Benayoun and Scott Parker at different points as Mullins' more attack-minded partner. Noble is a better passer than any of those, and he has that special "something" when it comes getting forward. When Carlitos Tevez really clicked in Hammers' lineup over those last nine games of the 2006-07 season, he and Noble seemed to enjoy a sort of telepathy out there. But it hasn't all been good news. Noble seems to disappear for stretches of some games, he gets booked a little too often and he's never been able to fully gain a manager's confidence -- whether it be Alan Pardew or Alan Curbishley. Still, the reported interest from Arsene Wenger and Arsenal has to tell you something about the quality of the lad.
2) Will any side figure out how to muscle Bolton Wanderers out of the Premiership? Under manager Sam Allardyce, midfielder Kevin Nolan (pictured above, middle) and his Trotters teammates mastered the art of winning "ugly" -- relying on set pieces, brute strength, defensive solidity and the goalkeeping of Jussi Jaaskelainen to get by. Their experiment with Sammy Lee in charge nearly ended in tears, but the grit of Gary Megson righted the ship. And, in the interest of accuracy, there have been some skill players taking to the pitch in the white shirt the past few seasons: Jay-Jay Okocha, Youri Djorkaeff, Ivan Campo and Nicolas Anelka to name just a few. The Reebok is one of those "new" stadiums that seem to lack the feel and atmosphere of a ground like the Boleyn, but Bolton have made playing there a tough assignment the last few years. Just ask Arsenal.
3) Can Stoke survive in the top flight with players like Rory Delap? The Irish midfielder (pictured above, bottom) was quite a useful player a few seasons back in his Derby heyday, and he's continued to show some snippets of quality in stints with Southampton and now the Potters. But as Derby exhibited last spring (and Sunderland under Mick McCarthy in spring 2006), making the jump from the Championship to the Premiership is more difficult than ever. You'd like to think that Stoke manager Tony Pulis can rely on team spirit and tactical nous to give it a real go, but the hard fact of the matter is that his roster doesn't look to have the pedigree to do much more than hover around the 25-point mark when the final table is printed. Stoke's fans may not want to hear such talk, but that's the reality of English football these days.