The new Barclays Premier League season kicks off this weekend. Yes, it has only been a couple of months since Aguero’s injury time winner sealed the title for City and we’ve all had other sporting events to occupy our minds’; the Euros, the golf, the Olympics, but nothing quite makes up for the absence of Premier League football from our weekly schedule. What is only a twelve week break can seem like an eternity, however, the wait is finally over.
Last season saw, arguably, the most exciting Premier League campaign in history. Particularly in regards to the title race, with Manchester City leaving it until the last minute of injury time, on the final day of the campaign, to secure the Premier League crown for the Blue half of Manchester for the first time in the club’s history. The race for fourth place was also a hard fought affair between Spurs, Newcastle and Chelsea. It was won by Tottenham, although it proved to be immaterial in the end as Chelsea’s victory in the Champions’ League final secured them a place in this year’s elite European competition, at the expense of their rivals from North London.
As is normally the case, the relegation battle went right down to the wire again last term. Wolves were the first to go, a few weeks before the close of play, with Blackburn Rovers being sent down before the final day too. However, Bolton and Q.P.R. played out their final matches desperate to get the points that would keep one side up at the other’s expense. In the end, controversial decisions went against Bolton at the Britannia and they ended up drawing 2-2 with Stoke. That result was enough to see Rangers stay up despite a final day defeat at the hands of Manchester City.
So to the upcoming campaign and instantly so many questions spring to mind. Can City win back to back titles? Will Ferguson’s empire strike back or will it finally crumble? Will di Matteo be able to bring success to Chelsea over the course of a full season? Can Villas Boas find redemption at Spurs? Will the new boys, Southampton, Reading and West Ham go straight back down? Have Wenger’s signings addressed Arsenal’s problems? Can Newcastle build on last season or will they come unstuck with Europa League commitments? Is Steve Clarke a manager? Which team will surprise us all? Can Norwich and Swansea survive without Lambert and Rodgers? Will Brendan Rodgers restore Anfield to its fortress-like past? Does Moyes finally have a squad that can compete for the full campaign? These are just some of the posers that I’m looking forward to seeing answered over the coming ten months or so.
At this point, however, we have no real basis to provide well informed argument about how things may turn out this season. Many teams, as alluded to above, have brought in new managers and staff, other teams have lost managers and staff, all clubs have made changes in playing personnel (both coming in and moving out)- many of whom will be making their Premier League bows- and, of course, there are three new teams who’ll be involved in the action.
All of that being said, we’re only four days away from kick-off which means that it’s time to make some pre-season predictions, if only to return to this page at a later date for amusement purposes. In this first part of the season preview I’ll cast my eyes over those teams who are serious contenders for the top six places come next May.
Looking at last year, which is obviously the basis for most pre-season predictions coupled with any transfer activity which has already occurred, it is going to take a hell of a lot for any club to catch Manchester City this year. I know Mancini’s men only just pipped United last year, however, this year could well prove to be more comfortable. Having got that first title under their belts’ and proved to themselves that they have got what it takes to be champions, I can see the Citizens going on to record back to back Premier League titles.
Whilst City haven’t yet made any “marquee” signings, last year proved that their squad was much stronger than their rivals from across town. The arrival of Jack Rodwell is an interesting acquisition, which will add flair and unpredictability when required and there is every chance that others will be ushered in to Eastlands before the transfer window closes. The European fixture list is weighted in favour of Mancini’s team this year, with five home games out of six following Champions’ League group matches compared to five out of six away for Ferguson’s men. From my vantage point safely here in pre-season, this year’s Premier League is Manchester City’s to lose.
Manchester United performed remarkably well last year given the circumstances. As mentioned above City had much more strength in depth, however Ferguson managed to get the utmost from his players yet again as they recorded 89 points. Had it not been for their own shortcomings in the final weeks of the season, the Scot would surely have seen his side win the title again.
United have problems though which, as far as I can see, have not been fixed. Kagawa has been signed and is certainly a quality player, however, he is another along with Welbeck and Rooney who operates best as a second striker. A central midfielder remains a priority as Paul Scholes, now 38, surely cannot be expected to play week in week out. Patrice Evra is long past his best at left-back and Rio Ferdinand is surely on his way out too, certainly on last year’s form. Ferguson did an unbelievable job getting what he did from his squad last season, he may not be able to do any more this time around, especially with the club’s financial position limiting transfer funds.
Three of the clubs who’ll be vying for the top four have got new managers at the helm. Tottenham finished fourth last term for the second time in three seasons, however that didn’t stop them getting rid of Harry Redknapp and replacing him with Andre Villas Boas. AVB had a torrid time at Chelsea, upsetting just about everybody from the star players to the tea ladies, however, Spurs fans will be hoping that he’s learnt a lesson from that experience and that he can add to the success alresy achieved at White Hart Lane.
He’ll have his work cut out for him though, as Harry Redknapp achieved Tottenham’s three highest ever Premier League finishes in his time in charge and, given their contrasting man management styles, the players may have a tough job adapting to the new man’s style. Spurs have brought in Gylfi Sigurdsson who could prove to be an astute buy, however, they could well lose Modric to Real Madrid and even if they don’t AVB may have a job on to get the Croat to produce his best for the club. Adebayor is almost certain to leave as the player’s wage demands look likely to scupper any permanent deal. Given that Redknapp had them over-performing, in my opinion, and that the change in approach is likely to be so different, I think Tottenham could be battling for top six rather than top four come next Spring.
Chelsea also have a new man at the helm, former interim boss Roberto di Matteo. This is interesting because di Matteo came in after AVB was sacked, early in 2012, and did a great job in guiding the club to both FA Cup and Champions’ League glory, albeit by sacrificing any kind of attacking intent. However, Chelsea’s league form under him was actually worse than it had been under his Portuguese predecessor and now the Italian will have to address the problem of doing well over a 38 game season, as opposed to getting the team ready for show-piece occasions.
Added to this new problem are two further worries. Firstly: it was pretty obvious from the manner of his appointment that he was by no means Roman Abramovic’s first choice for the position. Rather the Oligarch owner felt that he had no choice other than to appoint the Italian, in the wake of his successes last term. Secondly: di Matteo must now try to implement a similar type of change as was being attempted by his predecessor ie. moving out the older players, bringing in younger players and developing the playing style at the club into one that is more continental, more modern and more attractive whilst, at the same time, getting results.
Eden Hazard has arrived, along with Marko Marin, both high quality players in the midfield area, however, Drogba has gone, Kalou has gone and di Matteo has already shown his distrust and/or dislike for Fernando Torres and Daniel Sturridge. All this adds up to a striker shortage at Stamford Bridge, Hulk has been linked all summer but that deal has not yet happened and should it stall permanently, Chelsea will need a contingency plan. All in all it’s hard to say how Chelsea will do but one thing is for certain, whilst they are bound to finish in the top six, they are not guaranteed a top four spot.
After letting Kenny Dalglish go at the end of last season, Liverpool’s owners appointed Brendan Rodgers to take over at the club. The Reds’ league results were poor particularly in the first half of 2012, however, many fans feel that last season was a little freakish, certainly in some aspects (like hitting the woodwork a ridiculous number of times), and that in reality the club finished in a false position.
So far Rodgers has impressed the vast majority of fans and there is an air of confidence and optimism around Anfield at the moment. Fabio Borini has come in from Roma and has already scored his first competitive goal, Joe Allen was confirmed as a Liverpool player last weekend, Lucas Leiva is fighting fit after recovering early from an injury that kept him out for over half of last season and Luis Suarez has committed his long term future to the club by signing a new contract. Rumours of Agger and Skrtel leaving Merseyside appear to be just that, with the latter set to sign a new four year deal and the former publicly expressing his desire to remain at the club and Steven Gerrard finally looks like he’s back to full fitness.
So what can Liverpool achieve under Rodgers in this his first season? The squad isn’t massive, however, it is likely that at least one more new face will arrive, if not more and, with the Rodgers philosophy beginning to take shape on the pitch, Liverpool could be a much tougher nut to crack this year. The boss’s first priority is to make Anfield into the fortress of old and if he can come close to achieving that then Liverpool certainly have a chance of getting that coveted fourth spot.
Arsenal had a terrible start to last year’s Premier League campaign. Stung by the losses of Fabregas to Barcelona and Nasri to Manchester City (the latter well after the season had begun), the Gunners and Arsene Wenger took a while to compose themselves and get back to winning ways. They did so however and, following a stellar season from front-man Robin van Persie, they finished the season in third place, ahead of bitter rivals Tottenham.
Arsenal face a similar transfer problem this time round as van Persie, the man who made a top six finish possible for them last year (leave alone a place in the top three), has publicly stated his desire to leave the club. With just one year left on his contract, the club are bound to lose van Persie in this window, unless they wish to let him leave for nothing next year, which means they’ll have to replace his goals somehow.
Wenger started his transfer activity early by signing Podolski from Cologne and Giroud from Montpelier, both of who notched up impressive tallies in their respective leagues last year. Neither is, however, as talented a footballer nor as prolific a goal-scorer as van Persie. Although the two certainly possess quality and in Podolski Wenger has picked up an incredibly experienced international with over 100 caps for Germany at just 27 years old.
Cazorla has been added too. The player from Llanera who many felt should have been part of the Spain squad for Euro 2012 (not that it mattered in the end), so perhaps the loss of van Persie may not hit Arsenal so hard, if and when it happens. The problem with Arsenal is in defence. Koscielny and Vermaelen are strong centre backs but back-up is extremely limited, Mertesacker is too slow and after that you’re looking at Song dropping back. Speaking of Song, he’s been heavily linked to Barcelona, although it remains to be seen just how much truth is in that rumour. Szczesny is good in goal and has a very bright future but is young and makes mistakes with his decisions and positioning, as you’d expect for such a young keeper.
The long and the short of it is that Arsenal need much more defensive cover. Gibbs is not the best left-back and is regularly injured, Sagna is very good but also a tad injury prone. Without more strength in depth in the defensive areas the Gunners risk having their “soft centre” exposed by teams who can cope with their attacking prowess. Top four is definitely possible but not a certainty, it will be extremely tight.
To the last two teams who’ll be fighting for the top six, in my opinion, are Everton and Newcastle United. The Geordies shocked everybody last year by finishing fifth, edging out Chelsea into sixth and finishing ahead of both the Merseyside clubs. A big feature of Newcastle success was the way that their new signings all hit the ground running in the Premier League and that Alan Pardew was able to get the absolute best out of his defensive players, even when coping with injuries and suspensions.
Cabaye, Ben Arfa, Ba and then Cisse were fantastic going forward in the famous black and white stripes with Krul, Danny Simpson and Colocchini excellent in defence. Mike Ashley has spent very little so far in this window, although the club has been heavily linked with France international Debuchy. However, they have managed, so far at least, to keep hold of their major assets which could prove to be very important.
The big question for the Magpies in the upcoming season is: can they cope with Europa League football? In the Group stage alone there are six extra fixtures involving plenty of travel and the Thursday/Sunday fixture schedule can also take its toll. Add to that the fact that the St. James’s Park faithful are never happy for their team to be “also-rans” and you begin to have a potential predicament.
Newcastle’s only problems last year tended to come when too many of their first-teamers were unavailable through injury, the added fixtures this year may make repeating last year’s Premier League form very difficult. Whilst I’m not writing them off by any means, it may be unrealistic to expect Pardew’s men to be able to reproduce the kind of form that saw them come from nowhere to stun everybody again this season.
Everton, on the other hand, had a pretty poor opening to the 2011/12 season. The Toffees got off to one of their famously slow starts, defensively they were sound enough, however, with a limited number of strikers on the books, little in the way of creativity and even Tim Cahill finding it difficult to score, results stuttered before Christmas, particularly at home. However the second half of the season was a different story entirely.
Some wily transfer dealings by David Moyes in January saw Louis Saha leave the club on a free and Stephen Pienaar and Nikica Jelavic come in. Pienaar arrived on loan (his transfer has since been made permanent) and instantly added the creative spark which had been missing in the midfield. Jelavic came from Rangers for £5m and almost instantly displayed the credentials for which David Moyes signed him, as the Croat went on to score nine goals in thirteen league appearances (eight with one touch finishes).
Everton finished the campaign in top four form and, if they can manage to get the start of the season right for once, I can see them getting into the top six ahead of Newcastle. The Toffees have some very exciting players in Pienaar, Fellaini, Baines and Jelavic and a solid core of experience with the likes of Tim Howard, Phil Neville, Heitinga, Phil Jagielka and Tony Hibbert still at the club. With no European football to worry about and, finally, a bona-fide goal-machine on the books sixth place is certainly a possibility.
In conclusion, this season it seems as if things will be tougher than ever to get into the top six. We’d expect the usual suspects to be involved but there is, now, no guarantee of order and there are certainly a couple of other teams who may cause a shock, Sunderland for example. The only sure-fire prediction that I’ll make in this part is that Manchester City will win the league, after that the other teams in this article will have to scrap it out for Champions’ League and Europa League spots. It promises to be very exciting viewing. Bring it on!
Trophy image by adewale-oshineye. Rodgers image by WBUR.
Moyes image by illarterate aka Dan Farrimond