It is time to look forward to yet another season and look at what to expect from the sides in the top flight of English football. For me, and I’m sure many will agree, the league can be broken down into various groups, almost leagues within the league. You can make the divides almost anywhere but I am going split the teams into the following four groups: genuine title contenders, those with European ambitions, relegation candidates and, well, the rest. Of course these groups are not set in stone and, as always, there will be surprises along the way.
Where else to start but at the top and the sides battling it out for the big prize, the Barclays Premier League trophy. As was the case last year, many are predicting that the title will be heading to Manchester with pundits divided as to whether City will make it back to back titles or United can reclaim it from their ‘noisy neighbours’.
Manchester City seem to have stuck with what they’ve got although Roberto Mancini’s comments recently suggest he is far from happy about it, Jack Rodwell was swiftly brought in from Everton but seems likely to act as a back up for this season at least. A change in formation to three at the back means we can’t be quite as sure what we will see from City this term but what we can be sure of is that they’ll be strong. They have their first title together as a squad and will be stronger for it. They have to start as favourites but they will be pushed hard all the way.
The team pushing hardest of all will in all likelihood be from just the other side of the city, Manchester United. Sir Alex Ferguson has made three summer signings so far and the third, the added firepower brought by van Persie could help them overhaul their city rivals provided he manages to avoid the injury problems that have plagued his career to date. Also added to the squad are Shinji Kagawa and Nick Powell. No major outgoings mean that United look stronger and ready to challenge City all the way.
Now to the sides likely to be scrapping over the remaining Champions League and Europa League places. Firstly Chelsea, who would probably like to be seen as genuine title contenders. However, improving from a sixth place finish last season to champions this is a huge ask and one even signings such as Eden Hazard, Marko Marin and Oscar are unlikely to help achieve.
Tottenham themselves will feel very hard done by after missing out on a Champions League place this season despite finishing fourth last season after Chelsea’s win. Since May they have replaced media favourite Harry Redknapp with the aforementioned and altogether less chatty Andre Villas-Boas. The pair couldn’t be more different with Redknapp’s traditional methods replaced by Villas-Boas’s and his in-depth analysis of the smallest of details on the pitch. Up front Spurs look short and they will be hoping Adebayor will lower his wage demands to help push through the deal.
Also looking to grab one of the remaining and extremely lucrative Champions League places will be Arsenal and possibly Liverpool, if you listen to the most optimistic of their fans. For Arsenal’s part they have bought superbly. Santi Cazorla could be the signing of the summer, Lukas Podolski is a top class German international and Olivier Giroud has great potential after impressing at Montpellier last season. The loss of van Persie to rivals United will hurt but Arsene Wenger has dealt with the loss of star players before and Arsenal have remained competitive.
Liverpool are coming into the season with renewed optimism as Brendan Rodgers has talked a fantastic game since replacing Kenny Dalglish in the Anfield dugout and his side looked impressive in their Europa League qualifier albeit against lowly FC Gomel. Out have gone Kuyt, Maxi and Aquilani to be replaced by Borini, Allen and Assaidi as Rodgers looks to put his own stamp on the team. They will be aiming for the top four but realistically most at Liverpool would be happy with a top six finish and signs of improvement.
Also hunting for European places, although this time for the Europa League, will be Newcastle and Everton. Everton have had to do their usual summer transfer window unable to spend all that much, Steven Pienaar has rejoined the club from Tottenham permanently following his loan for the latter part of last season and Steven Naismith has been picked up from the wreckage at Rangers. Everton’s best bit of business was done in January with the arrival of Nikica Jelavic who finally gave the Toffees a cutting edge in front of goal, he will be crucial if they are to push on and secure a European place.
Newcastle were, without doubt, the real surprise package of last season. A 5th place finish was beyond their wildest expectations. Holding onto both Ba and Cisse will have pleased manager Alan Pardew and with Vernon Anita added to a midfield already consisting of the likes of Cabaye, Tiote and Gutierrez there is reason to be positive for Newcastle fans even if repeating last seasons feats may be beyond them.
Now for the relegation candidates and despite their ambitions the three promoted clubs have to be put into this category. Swansea and Norwich last season proved it is far from a guarantee that all three will be fighting for their lives but over the years, more often than not, the sides coming up have faced a battle not to go straight back down.
Reading were promoted as champions and were a team pretty much without stars. Their teamwork was crucial and will be again this season. They will hope it can remain with a number of new players coming in, Pavel Pogrebnyak the biggest name amongst them. He did well at Fulham last season and Brian McDermott will be hoping he can do the same for his side. The goals he scores could possibly be the difference between staying up or an instant return to the Championship.
One side who certainly don’t look short of goals is Southampton. Rickie Lambert is the man everyone talks about and his goals have been crucial but he was also supported brilliantly last season by Billy Sharp and homegrown midfielder Adam Lallana. Nigel Adkins positivity may be needed if his side start to struggle but the club remains ambitious and may surprise a few people.
The third and final side promoted were West Ham, back in the Premier League after an absence of just one year under Sam Allardyce the Hammers have not played the sort of football they are used to but will be happy with the results it ultimately brought last season. That said, if results go against them early on the Upton Park faithful are likely to be vocal in expressing their discontent. Even more so with Allardyce’s physical, long ball game.
Also likely to be in the relegation mix are Wigan, having required three great escapes in as many seasons I’m sure most would agree. Roberto Martinez has done a fantastic job at the club, especially once Spring comes around and his team start playing like a top four club! The problem lies in the fact that up until then they have tended to look very much like relegation fodder. Will this be the season Wigan finally succumb to relegation or can Martinez push them on to the next level?
That brings us to the remaining eight sides in the Barclays Premier League this season. Any of the sides in this group will be looking to try and push on and reach the top half of the table or even snatch a Europa League spot but equally any one of them could be dragged down into the mire of the relegation battle.
Last years promoted sides Swansea and Norwich have both lost the managers that brought them up and did so well in keeping them up with plenty of time to spare. Swansea have turned to Michael Laudrup, the former Barcelona and Real Madrid playmaker, who as a manager has looked to play a similar sort of passing football that the Swans were renowned for under Brendan Rodgers.
Norwich, on the other hand, have brought in former Birmingham and Newcastle manager Chris Hughton. His biggest success so far at Norwich has been persuading captain Grant Holt to stay and sign a new contract, his goals last season were a big part of their success. Hughton has a tough act to follow after Paul Lambert achieved successive promotions and then kept the side up but he is confident is his ability to continue Lambert’s good work. Second season syndrome may be a concern though.
Lambert himself has moved on to Aston Villa to replace Alex McLeish after Villa’s disappointing 16th place finish. McLeish’s time at Villa Park was destined to fail from the start with the Holte End faithful upset enough at having a former Birmingham City manager in charge without the negative tactics used by McLeish. Top half is certainly achievable but anything more will be tough.
The same could be said, in truth, of both Fulham and Sunderland. Martin O’Neill arrived at the Stadium of Light and instantly made an impact but as the effect wore off they struggled towards the end of the season. Louis Saha has replaced Nicklas Bendtner up front but Sunderland still look short of goals.
As for Fulham, Martin Jol will be frustrated to have lost out on Pogrebnyak to newly-promoted Reading and letting captain and midfield playmaker Danny Murphy go to Blackburn seems a strange decision. A big worry for Fulham fans, though, is that Clint Dempsey has declared his wish to leave the club. Liverpool is his most likely destination if a fee can be agreed. Last season’s top scorer will be hard to replace, should he get his move, and record signing Bryan Ruiz may need to finally live up to expectations.
Just down the road at Loftus Road Mark Hughes will be hoping to avoid a repeat of last season where only a couple of very dubious decisions against Bolton at Stoke ensured QPR survived on the last day of the season. Coming in through the revolving door have been Hoilett, Green, Nelsen, Johnson, Diakite, Fabio da Silva and, arguably most impressive of all, Park Ji-Sung from Manchester United. Djibril Cisse was impressive when he wasn’t suspended in the second part of last season and Hughes will be hoping he can provide a similar sort of goals to game ratio this season after 6 in 8 games from January onwards.
That leaves us with just Stoke and West Brom. Both sides last season were known for pragmatic rather than pretty football and in Stoke’s case that has been the situation for years now. They struggled for goals and haven’t looked to address that as yet although they remain interested in Michael Owen. Without European distractions they could fare better but the lack of goals remains a worry.
Finally, West Bromwich Albion. Roy Hodgson was prized away from them by England after turning them into a solid, mid-table club – a typical Roy Hodgson club. Steve Clarke has become the new number 1 at the Hawthorns with a reputation for building solid defences. He has also done well with his transfers this summer, Romelu Lukaku on loan from Chelsea seems a smart move and Claudio Yacob should add some steel to the midfield. Whether Clarke can cut it as the main man is far from certain and as such the Baggies may struggle.
Sam Drury’s predictions:
1. Manchester City
2. Manchester United
9. Aston Villa
16. West Ham
19. West Brom