By Shane Thomas
First, a confession. The new Premier League season starts tomorrow. And I have not a trace of anticipation or excitement. With the World Cup filling in the the gap between the last domestic seaosn and this one, I would happily go at least another month without any football. But there's money to be made and SKY were beginning to look somewhat pointless as a television station. So back it comes, propelled into the sporting conciousness. You know that person at a house party who you suspect might be on cocaine, and doesn't really care for your opinion on anything? Well neither does the Premier League. They've got all this football for you to watch, and you'll sit there and like it.
So I may be running on empty but I have another new season to preview, as you'll read below. Just don't ask me how I'm going to get through the next 9 months:
Not easy to call. A lot will depend on the start that the Gunners make. Three years ago, they were unfancied to challenge but came out of the traps like a rabid greyhound and came very close to winning the title as a result. Their first XI are good enough to beat anyone, and another year older, Arsenal's players should be mentally stronger this season. But there are a ton of caveats. Will Cesc Fabregas keep his focus after being denied his dream move to Barcelona (which will surely happen next season)? Can Laurent Koscielny settle in England as quickly as Thomas Vermaelen did, and is Vermaelen ready to become the club's best centre-half since Tony Adams? Will Robin Van Persie manage to stay fit for a whole season? Will the lack of a top class goalkeeper derail Arsenal's title challenge again? If Arsene Wenger can recruit Fulham's Mark Schwarzer before the transfer window shuts it would answer the last of those questions. But how Arsenal do this season will depend on how many of the aforementioned questions are answered in the affirmative. If all of them are, they'll probably be champions. The Premier League is at its weakest since 2005 and this Arsenal team may not get a better chance to win the title for the first time in 7 years.
Key Man - Cesc Fabregas: Prediction - 2nd
The loss of Martin O'Neill is a huge blow. As is the expected departure of James Milner. But both are replaceable. Some felt that O'Neill had taken this Villa squad as far as he could last season. I was one of them. While they have a talented group of players, their mental resilience has been found wanting, especially when facing more established teams. The Villa players will be tested like never before, and have a lot of people to prove wrong. And while owner Randy Lerner's desire to be the Premier League's answer to George Osborne is understandble and should be commended, their competitors have moved forwards. Villa haven't, they've gone backwards if anything. It will take a herculean effort from the players and whoever the next manager will be to prevent this becoming a frustrating season at Villa Park.
Key Man - Ashley Young: Prediction - 9th
Last season's surprise package, relegation candidates who ended up comfortably in mid-table. I fear that the reverse will happen this time around. Birmingham were lucky to suffer few injuries last season and their players overachieved. That in itself is a tough trick to repeat. Add to that they have lost Chucho Benitez & Joe Hart and replaced them with Nikola Zigic & Ben Foster. Inferior replacements in my eyes. While I expect the Second City's second club to stay up, St Andrews could end up housing some of the division's unhappiest fans over the next 9 months.
Key Man - Ben Foster: Prediction - 16th
Sam Allardyce has applied the blueprint that worked wonders when he was in charge at Bolton to Ewood Park. And it has attained similar results. Blackburn play some of the most unattractive football in the Premier League. But they are also amongst the league's toughest opposition, especially when at home to London clubs (like Brian Clough, I've always suspected Allardyce has something of a grudge against the south). If David Dunn can stay fit, then Blackburn may be a good outside bet for a European place. In the likely event he does not, Blackburn will be dogged, turgid, unloved & a thorn in many of the more established Premier League teams.
Key Man - Chrtistopher Samba: Prediction - 8th
Before a match has even been played the narrative regarding Blackpool has already been written. "Isn't it great to see a club like Blackpool in the Premier League?" "Ian Holloway will be great value, won't he?" All true. And while we're on truths here's a few more, as in home truths. Blackpool have an embarrassment of a ground that may not be even ready in time for their first home match. Their team isn't much better, full of top flight rejects and players who aren't good enough for this level. I only hope that their chairman doesn't gamble the club's financial future on trying to avoid relegation & that Ian Holloway isn't made singularly culpable when the hard times inevitably kick in. Not even Jose Mourinho could achieve success with this rabble.
Key Man - Charlie Adam: Prediction - 20th
Owen Coyle made a solid start in making the Reebok Stadium an enjoyable place to watch football last season. But a lot of that was achieved with Arsenal's Jack Wilshere at the hub of their attacking play. At the time of writing, Coyle has failed to procure the wunderkind for another season. While he deserves credit for asutely signing Martin Petrov & Ivan Klasnic on free transfers, without Wilshere there is a lot of pressure on them - along with the wonderful South Korean, Lee Chung-Yong - to give Bolton the sufficient attacking thrust to keep the relegation worries at bay. If those three fail to fire, Bolton have no Plan B.
Key Man - Gary Cahill: Prediction - 15th
With Michael Ballack & Joe Cole out, and Yossi Benayoun & Ramires in, Carlo Ancelotti looks to be shrewdly shaping Chelsea to his own vision and banishing away the looming spectre of the Jose Mourinho era. The question marks revolve around a core of players who aren't getting any younger and the desire that is now bordering on an infatuation with winning the Champions League (not to mention their appalling pre-season form). But this can be offset domestically with the return from injury of Jose Bosingwa & the indomitable Michael Essien. If Ancelotti uses Essien right, then the Ghanian could end up as Footballer of the Year. That's how good he is.
Key man - Michael Essien: Prediction - 1st
I'm in two minds over Everton. On one hand (as I wrote in my review of last season) I wonder how much longer David Moyes can get the Toffees punching above their weight as the financial restrictions and the desperation for investment & a new stadium aren't going away. But the signs from Moyes in pre-season are encouraging for Everton fans. He's never lacking in drive at the best of times, but I sense a determination and focus in the Scot that says to me that Everton have had enough of just being admired. Moyes wants tangible progress and if it doesn't happen this season, then he may finally accept that he has to move on. But it's at Goodison Park that he wants to achieve this success, so if it doesn't happen it won't be for the want of trying. And he has a fit Mikel Arteta to rely on. The Spaniard is probably the league's most underrated player. If new signing Jermaine Beckford can make the step up to the top division and exploit he service that he'll get from Arteta, then Everton may just gatecrash the Premier League's established order like they did back in 2005.
Key Man - Mikel Arteta: Prediction - 7th
Fulahm were never going to repeat their incredible success of last season, and losing Roy Hodgson rubber-stamped that. Bringing in Mark Hughes as manager is only a sticking plaster, but a worthwhile one. Hughes is skilled enough to keep Fulham in the top flight and that's the best that any Fulham fan should hope for, especially as keeper Mark Schwarer is desperate to leave the club for Arsenal. While The Cottagers will have less games to play than last season, their squad may find this campaign even more taxing. If Schwarzer goes, it places an even greater strain on Brede Hangelaand, Danny Murphy & Bobby Zamora. And trust me, the burden those three have to carry is heavy enough as it is.
KEY MAN - Brede Hangelaand: Prediction - 11th
After numerous complaints about British managers not being given an opportunity to manage a big club, Liverpool have rectified that, just as their powers may be on the wane. Joe Cole is a good acquisition, and Hodgson might have pulled off a masterstroke in restoring Steven Gerrard to centre-midfield. But the shambolic happenings in the Anfield boardroom have been severely detrimental. And it remains to be seen if the club will get the new owners that they desperately need before the transfer window shuts. Even if they do, there's no guarantee that they'll be better than the last lot. Also, there are issues at both ends of the pitch. The Liverpool back four looked alarmingly creaky last season and are unlikely to improve any & while Fernando Torres is probably the world's premier centre forward, he is worryingly injury prone. Personally I think Liverpool missed a trick by not selling him this summer. I'll be staggered if he manages to get through any more than 25 games this campaign.
Key Man - Jose Manuel Reina: Prediction - 5th
The wild card in the Premier League pack. Like Argentina at the World Cup, they could soar to glory or implode in a heap. Or both. Call it 'The Icarus Effect'. Like Arsenal, a lot depends on how they start. If City begin strongly, they have both the players and the monetary muscle to flatten any opposition. But if they were to stutter, Roberto Mancini could be out of a job before the end of the calendar year. The problem is there are too many questions surrounding City, ones to which I don't have the answers. Not least how the new Premier League squad restrictions will impact on the boys from Eastlands. While I view Mancini as a good tactician, it looks as if what City are more in need of is a strong man-manager. And in spite of the millions spent in the off-season, City's rearguard looks shaky to me. Mancini and his paymasters may have designs on the title this season, but it has never been won before with a mediocre defence. City would be well advised to heed the tale of Kevin Keegan's Newcastle side in 1996.
Key Man - Carlos Tevez: Prediction - 4th
Like my prediction of Germany before the World Cup, I could be about to get this one dead wrong. But here goes. While United were impressive in last weekend's Community Shield and have made a good addition to the squad in the Mexican 'Chicharito', the same old problems remain. They are too reliant on Wayne Rooney to score, they lack guile in the middle of the park, Rio Ferdinand's ever deteriorating physical condition means he can no longer be relied on and I am not convinced by the signing of Chris Smalling. Sir Alex Ferguson obviously sees something in him that I do not. But more than all of this, one of the Premier League's truisms is that you cannot win the league without a top class goalkeeper. And I believe they no longer have one. Edwin Van Der Sar's powers have to fade at some point, and his unsteady performance in last week's Shield game was masked by their eventual victory in the match. United seldom win the league when they have goalkeeper trouble (remember the ignominious days of Mark Bosnich, Massimo Taibi & Roy Carroll). Expect it to afflict them again this season. However, I think they could have a good shout of doing well in the Champions League. Don't be surprised to see them at Wembley in the May final.
Key Man - Wayne Rooney: Prediction - 3rd
The circus is back in town. Or is it? Chris Hughton did an excellent job restoring Newcastle's pride last season, and turning them back into a football club after being nothing short of a freak show for years. But the hard work has only just begun for The Magpies. Hughton has been given a pittance to spend to bolster a threadbare squad, and as such, the Toon Army should not even begin to expect a return to their achievements of 10 years ago. Success for Newcastle this season would be avoiding relegation. And I expect them to do so...just.
Key Man - Steve Harper: Prediction - 17th
In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I hate Stoke. I hate their style of play, I hate the way they target more skillful players and then explain it away with BS phrases like, "our boys aren't malicious", I hate some of their self-righteous fans who think they're superior to everyone other set of Premier League supporters, I hate the obstinate arrogance of their manager Tony Pulis. And I also hate that I am probably wrong on every one of the aforementioned points (apart from their targeting of flair players, I stand by that). Pulis's accomplishment in taking a ragtag team like Stoke, and not only getting them into the Premier League but also establishing them amongst the firmament makes him one of the division's best managers. And it's hardly fair to disparage him for being obstinate & arrogant when almost every other top flight coach is the same as him. Expect Stoke to continue to consolidate themselves as the league's resident 'nightclub bouncers'. And if Pulis can get the best out of new signing, Kenwyne Jones, they could go even further than that.
Key Man - Matthew Etherington: Prediction - 10th
One of the Premier League's good guys. Great fanbase, superb stadium, solidity in the boardroom, a chairman who loves the club, and some of the league's most committed players. But the Sunderland squad look far too lopsided with industry over devil. I understand why Steve Bruce let Kenwyne Jones go to Stoke, but unless he signs a replacement sharpish, then all he's done is cut off his nose to spite his face. And the injury sustained by Darren Bent in pre-season is potentially disastrous. Sunderland need him to repeat his heroics of last season to keep the side away from the bottom three. While I don't think Sunderland will go down, I fear that the club will be stuck in neutral this season. But I hope I'm wrong.
Key Man - Darren Bent: Prediction - 14th
Can Spurs overachieve for two years in a row? I don't think they can. While they deserve credit for finally breaking the 'big four' hegemony last season, sustaining success is always more difficult that attaining it for the first time. And added to that, Tottenham have to deal with the rarefied air of the Champions League. If that wasn't enough, Harry Redknapp is yet to build on a squad in need of improvement. Combined with the spending of Manchester City and all signs indicate that Spurs are in for a harsh reality check this time around.
Key Man - Ledley King: Prediction - 6th
WEST BROMWICH ALBION:
Will probably be most people's 'second team'. They'll entertain neutrals with an expansive footballing philosophy and they have an impressive young coach in Roberto Di Matteo. You'd think The Baggies will need to make The Hawthorns a fortress to have any chance of staying up, as they look so brittle that they will probably take a few beatings on their travels. There is something almost apologetic about West Brom when they're in the Premier League, which makes them quite sweet and endearing. They have been English football's unassuming nice guys for a while now. What is it that they say about nice guys again?
Key Man - Graham Dorrans: Prediction - 19th
WEST HAM UNITED:
With Portsmouth gone and Newcastle looking like they have gained some semblance of self-respect, The Irons may become the Premier League's latest 'circus club'. Uncertainty is swirling around Upton Park. But they have a decent set of players, and a good coach in Avram Grant. Although how good remains to be seen, as he hasn't got the excuses that were in place when he was at Chelsea & Portsmouth to fall back on. Personally I don't see West Ham breaking out of the limbo that has engulfed the club since Harry Redknapp left. However, they'll avoid the drop this season, not because they're too good to go down (no side is), but because there are too many other sides who are too poor to stay up.
Key Man - Robert Green: Prediction - 13th
There's a real paradox when talking about Wigan's boss Roberto Martinez. Do I praise him to strictly adhering to a free-flowing style of play that is fun to watch and gave a few of the big teams a bloody nose at the DW Stadium last season? Or do I lambast him for his apparent indifference towards his team's glaring weaknesses, which gave them something worse than a bloody nose when facing the bigger sides away from their home ground. Not only is Wigan's defence one of the league's worst, but they've lost three of their better defenders in ex-captain Mario Melchiot, Paul Scharner & Titus Bramble. Expect Maynor Figueroa to follow suit before the season's end. And if you're weak at one end of the pitch, then at least make sure you're strong at the other. But all Martinez is done is gamble £6 million on the unproven Mauro Boselli. It may be harsh but if Martinez cannot see how much Wigan are dire need of strengthening, then they deserve to be relegated.
Key Man - Hugo Rodellega: Prediction - 18th
Wolves never got the credit they deserved for the way they ended up comfortably avoiding relegation last campaign. And I think that Mick McCarthy has done some sterling work in the transfer market in the summer. The arrivals of Stephen Hunt & Steven Fletcher are in keeping with the incremental improvement that McCarthy is looking for. As long as the squad has good luck with injuries they could do this season what Birmingham did in the last. But they should have no problems steering clear of the drop zone.
Key Man - Kevin Doyle: Prediction - 12th
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