Chelsea vs Sunderland 17:00
The blues have lost the core of their team to the African Nations; they will partly be hoping that Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria all drop out early so they can have their players back. January is the worst month in football; it is bitterly cold, cloudy and gloomy.
Yet the month of January could be kind to Chelsea, they play Burnley, and Birmingham before hosting Arsenal in early Feb.
Carlo Ancelotti is not looking to sign any players come this transfer window so he has to improve what he has. Chelsea has problems all over the pitch, Cech is no longer dependable, Terry and Carvalho are no longer clicking, the midfield is feeling its age.
For Sunderland it has been Darren Bent who has saved them from relegation trouble, their good early start to the season has evaporated since they lost Lee Cattermole to injury.
He was one of the best holding midfielders according to stats before he was injured. He is now returning so it looks good for Sunderland, but one cannot expect them to win.
Chelsea will have to dip into their squad for marginalised players on the fringes. The likes of Daniel Sturridge, Florent Malouda, Gael Kukuta and Joe Cole will benefit from the forced changes.
The biggest problem will be in adapting a holding midfielder with Mikel and Essien gone, Ivanovic can play that role but that leaves open the right-back role.
I imagine the Chelsea line-up to be as follows,
Cech, Terry, Carvalho, A. Cole, Ferreira, Ivanovic, Malouda, Lampard, Deco, Ballack, Anelka.
Ancelotti cannot afford to change the side too much, but one wonders if the players coming off the bench are good enough.
For Sunderland, they will set up their team to counter-attack and will rely on the pace of Darren Bent to catch Chelsea off guard. Kenwyne Jones has had poor form since his earlier exploits but he will occupy both center-backs meaning Chelsea need a separate marker for the stealthy Bent. In defence they are solid with the likes of Turner and Cana ahead of him is good cover.
Expect Sunderland to absorb pressure and physically match Chelsea for strength and commitment. Sunderland will hope for set-pieces as their main chance. Corners, headers from free-kicks, penalties are their best shot as well as a quick counter-attack.
Chelsea will look to dominate possession but might not have the anchor-man to do so. Sunderland will have to play deep to check the pace of Anelka and this might invite a Chelsea barrage.
I still see a 3-1 win to Chelsea, Sunderland is terrible away and Chelsea raise their game at home.
Underdogs defy pedigree at Nations Cup
I have seen all the teams now play at the African Nations Cup and I now think that an underdog is likely to win this time. All the major teams who could be classed as favourites have stumbled or been too complacent to play their serious game.
The opening match was killer, 4 – 0 up and Angola was cruising but Mali made the greatest comeback ever thanks to suicidal defending.
That match was a blessing in disguise for Angola, the terrible incident with Togo having their bus shot at was threatening to overshadow the tournament.
What is of no doubt is the quality on show, Africa now has some 10 teams that could be seen as world-class or getting there. Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria and Cameroon.
The bulk of their players are professionals in Europe and the Middle-East. What is even more surprising is lower ranked teams like Malawi and Gabon are looking better than the favourites.
The European-based players have come with an air of arrogance, expecting defences to merely tremble at the sight of them. Samuel Eto’o was well-marshalled by a nameless Gabonese defender, and Drogba was also made to look ordinary.
The best prepared team is Egypt without a doubt, and this time they have God on their side it seems, they were all bowing to pray to Mecca after every goal.
The major teams will have to wake up or the Pharaohs will be crowned again. What this tournament often shows is the bias between Arab and Black African countries. As much as I like the solid yet flowing style of Egypt, I find myself longing for an “African” team to win.
It has been a while since a black African team has won it, but during the last 8 years there has been tremendous progress as African players have gone abroad but the talent in administration and couching is still far behind Arab countries.
Nigeria worries me because they no longer have the creative talent they used to, they now play with 4 strikers all trying to score on their own.
Ghana remain my favourite team of the tournament because they have rewarded their U-20 team with 11 places in the squad. While Ivory Coast seem to be peaking Ghana look like they can only get better.
The standard of football in Africa has risen to a level comparable with most European countries in terms of tactics and technique. We used to complain that it was held too often but now I’d vote to play the ANC every year.