(You can view last year’s predictions here)
In comparison with previous years, many of the upper echelon have readily felt the need to reach for the chequebook. Manchester City can now use Champions League football to entice players and the signing of Sergio Agüero is the biggest indication yet that they may about to embark on a serious pursuit for the title. But Manchester United have taken another step in their evolution and last week’s Community Shield proved that they are once again the side to beat.
Champions – Manchester United
The team that recorded its 19th league title wasn’t particularly spectacular and in comparison with previous years, the only fireworks were saved for the title’s presentation. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side were unflappable, churning out victories without the cavaliering style of previous title-winning squads. The winning mentality which has defined Ferguson’s reign was crucial and the likes of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Edwin van der Sar had the nous to see them over the line. Javier Hernández proved to be the signing of the season and Nani’s emergence as a world-class star did inject some excitement.
But Ferguson knew that to stay ahead of the pack, particularly ahead of City, he’d need to reinvest, to rejuvenate. Scholes and van der Sar hung up their respective boots and gloves and squad players Wes Brown and John O’Shea were moved on. In came the fresh talent, Ashley Young, David de Gea and Phil Jones. Furthermore, academy products Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley have flown home to roost. All are young, promising individuals keen to be moulded by Ferguson, a man who is in his element working with youth.
The voids left by Scholes and van der Sar are concerns. De Gea will be compensation for the loss of the latter and his progress will be one of the season’s talking points. Scholes’ departure may prove an all-together different proposition. Replacing a player with such technical traits is virtually impossible. So United will look to the energetic Anderson to replicate Nani’s breakout season last term and the pre-season promise that Cleverley has displayed will provide further hope.
Few would ever bet against Ferguson and he appears to have the right blend of experience, energy and excitement to stay in-front once more.
Top Four – Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool
Little has been written about Chelsea this term and perhaps that is a good thing. André Villas-Boas is an intelligent man with an incredible football brain but he must be given time and space to work his magic at this elite level. The Portuguese manager built an extraordinary team at Porto but has made few alternations since arriving at Stamford Bridge. However the biggest difference which must occur is internal. They must change their mentality and Villas-Boas seems like the right man to do so. He will be able to call upon title-winning experience and that is the reason why they will be United’s biggest challengers. Like United they will be keen to develop tomorrow’s generation today and Daniel Sturridge, Josh McEachran and the incoming Romelu Lukaku are exciting protégées.
Manchester City will feel that they have a chance to win the league this season but those aspirations may be 12 months premature. The alluring nature of Champions League football will capture plenty of their attention and look at how that deterred Spurs from their domestic campaign. Then there is the small matter of Carlos Tévez. The Argentine forward was incredibly valuable to City’s success last year and should he depart, they must find inspiration elsewhere. Sergio Agüero is a magnificent coup but Tévez’s boots are sizeable things to expect him to instantly fill. There are also lots of City players who are aggrieved at not getting a first-team chance. Those simmering tensions remain under the lid when City are winning but expectation is higher this year and Roberto Mancini may have a revolt on his hands if he doesn’t bring in more silverware.
When Kenny Dalglish rolled up at Anfield once more last January, the club were in disarray. The King managed to completely transform that and they finished the season looking stronger than almost any other side in the league. They have been one of the most active teams in this transfer window and have made some good if not spectacular moves. Their policy of buying English may cause them to pay over the odds but it is an ideology which proved so fruitful for Dalglish at Blackburn. They also have Luis Suárez who, in my view, is one of the best strikers in the game and may just finish this season as the Premier League’s top scorer.
Many people are predicting Arsène Wenger’s savvy nature will ensure Arsenal don’t drop out of the top four but I’ve seen little evidence that they’ve progressed. Cesc Fàbregas and Samir Nasri could well depart and they are still crying out for an authoritative centre-back, powerful midfielder and experienced goalkeeper. A sadly familiar story is becoming tiresome and Wenger is going to have to fight hard to convince his players, the fans and the media that his philosophy will bring glory to The Emirates.
As for Tottenham, this could be a really difficult season at White Hart Lane. In many ways the Luka Modrić saga is a lose-lose situation. If the Croatian stays, they have a disgruntled player in their ranks. If he departs, Spurs will fall further behind whilst simultaneously strengthening one of their rivals. Then there is Harry Redknapp whose demeanour has become increasingly strange over the past 12 months. He has publically criticised Spurs fans in the media on more than one occasion and appears to have lost a certain zest when it comes to managing the team. Fabio Capello’s heir apparent is probably less than a year away from the England job and it could be difficult for him to maintain focus on events at Tottenham.
Surprise Package – Aston Villa
This summer has been far from a haven for Aston Villa. Chairman Randy Lerner, a man who had previously been heralded for his stewardship, bumbled through the process of hiring a new manager before deciding on Alex McLeish. The former Birmingham boss managed to create a unique sense of togetherness between the second-city rivals in the form of shared hatred of the Scot. McLeish did take Birmingham to relegation last year and any concerns about the new season were further enhanced when Brad Friedel, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing jumped board.
But there are plenty of rays of sunshine emanating from the doom mongering over the Holte End. Firstly, McLeish IS a good manager. He captured the Carling Cup last season and built a solid unit which was difficult to break down at St Andrew’s. A lack of investment proved their downfall but he has already been allowed access to Lerner’s wallet in his new position. Shay Given is a top-quality goalkeeper who is reliable and consistent. His assured performances should bolster a defence which went from solid to porous within 12 months. The absence of Young and Downing will allow Marc Albrighton to continue to blossom and Charles N’Zogbia has the potential to win matches virtually single-handedly as he did countless times at Wigan. Throw in the ever dependable Darren Bent and you have the crux of a decent side.
Villa’s initial run of fixtures is even more heart-warming. They face only one side who finished in the top six last year in their first 11 games and that doesn’t come until October. McLeish’s baptism of fire may prove to be little more than the flickering of a candle.
Relegation – QPR, Swansea, Blackburn
These three will be expecting a dogfight, elsewhere, West Brom have made some clever signings, Bolton should have enough class and Wolves’ squad looks strong enough to remain above the pit. Of the three promoted sides, Norwich could spring some surprises. Carrow Road will be rammed full of partisan crowds every other weekend and Paul Lambert’s squad know nothing other than winning under him following back-to-back promotions. They will be handed thrashings on occasion but should pick up enough points at home to ensure survival. Wigan continue to astound given their tiny stature but Roberto Martínez deserves plenty of plaudits for the side he has built. The loss of Charles N’Zogbia will be felt but there is an infectious excitement about Victor Moses and he should repeat N’Zogbia’s match-winning performances from the left wing.
QPR were magnificent in their Championship winning season but the emotion involved in that triumph may have sapped them. Neil Warnock appears an exasperated man this off-season and hasn’t been backed with the type of funds his owners could quite easily part with. Old-timers Shaun Derry and Clint Hill were stalwarts in the second tier but surely the step up will prove too much. Adel Taarabt and Alejandro Faurlín are wonderful ball-players and in D.J. Campbell and Jay Bothroyd, goals shouldn’t be hard to come by. But will it be enough?
Swansea finished last season in-form and their Premier League status will probably hinge on Scott Sinclair’s performances. Sinclair set the Championship alight but he has struggled when faced with Premier League defences before. There is still time for Swansea to make some moves in the transfer market but they know they will face an uphill task regardless.
Blackburn are quickly growing into the Premier League’s punch line (see this Venky’s advert for further evidence). They clung on by the skin of their teeth last May and will be grasping for enamel once more. Phil Jones wisely jumped board and there are enough suitors for Christopher Samba to believe that Rovers will need a whole new centre-back pairing. With changes at the back they will need a steady stream of goals and none of the current crop looks good enough to keep them from sinking.
You can follow me on Twitter @liamblackburn.
“He who loses money, loses much; he who loses a friend, loses much more, he who loses faith, loses all”
In many respects, Roberto Mancini has the best job in world football. The bottomless pit of money, the plethora of talent and the realistic expectations of Champions League football next year should all work in his favour. And he has spent big, he has recruited talent and his Manchester City side currently lie in the fabled fourth spot. Yet tonight, the axe looms menacingly over his head and it is certainly justified.
The snowball has started to gather momentum particularly after two uninspiring 0-0 draws. His team lacks imagination and creative drive but more crucially, his team simply don’t appear to trust him. Mancini’s overly cautious approach has left his attacking options displaying a clear lack of faith which underpins a simmering tension around Eastlands.
The Italian’s decision to deploy three defensive midfielders has angered football fans everywhere. The purists and the neutrals have been queuing up to lay into him. Mancini is essentially playing fantasy football with the embarrassing riches City possess. So it was frustrating to see them line up on Wednesday as though they were a newly promoted side in desperate need of a point.
With the emphasis clearly placed on being hard to break down, results hinge on the attacking players conjuring up plenty of magic. This is where Mancini’s shortcomings are laid bare.
Craig Bellamy, one of his most exciting, direct players, was cast aside. Emmanuel Adebayor’s commitment is questionable especially considering the ambivalence he shows towards Mancini. Naivety consumes the explosive Mario Balotelli and Mancini has been publically critical of City’s other bright hope, Adam Johnson. So when City need reliability; when they need inspiration, the onus falls directly on Carlos Tévez.
Mancini is all too aware of his importance:
“Since the start of the season it has been the case that if Carlos Tévez doesn’t score, no-one does”.
And when City have been good, Tévez has been magnificent. Nobody questions you when you’re winning and Tévez’s goals have often masked Mancini’s defensive tactics. But in recent weeks Tévez has become disillusioned and without him, City’s tactics have been brutally exposed.
Is his team any more resolute and negative than the Inter Milan side that stifled and suffocated Barcelona over two legs last year? Mourinho was hailed as a tactical mastermind whereas Mancini has been crucified for promoting boring football. The crucial difference is that Inter’s players brought into Mourinho’s ethos.
Certainly it would be easier for his players to rally behind Mancini if he was promoting the type of renegade, cavalier football which has made Tottenham so utterly captivating thus far.
But at City, they moan about the double training sessions, they party after defeats and generally undermine Mancini at every turn. Even James Milner, a player who has been lauded for his professionalism, treated his substitution today with disdain.
I don’t expect Mancini to adjust his managerial style and abandon his cautious approach, particularly in the bigger games. So he must then focus on repairing strained relationships off the field. He has a talented, exciting prospect in Johnson and Mancini must find a way to keep him focused on football. Criticising him in public and keeping him on the bench clearly isn’t working. Then there is Tévez. Mancini has to bend over backwards to ensure his best player is happy because without him, his team looks very ordinary.
There are no points for style and you don’t get bonuses for goal gluts. But Mancini’s philosophy is endearing him to neither the fans nor the players. Lose the faith of your team and the end won’t be long.
“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future”
On the eve of the forthcoming Premier League season I have, like many others, foolishly left myself open to mockery and abuse by predicting this season’s big winners and losers. Still given the dominance of the ‘Big Four’ and the belief that it’ll be the usual names in the usual places, it should be easy, right? Maybe I should have used this quote to open instead:
“The groundhog is like most prophets; it delivers its prediction then disappears”
If you don’t hear from me come May you’ll know why…
CHAMPIONS = CHELSEA
Last time around the pitfalls appeared greater. January’s African Cup of Nations was supposed to upset the applecart and if that didn’t Michael Essien’s injury looked set to. But they soldiered on and when the title race really got going, Carlo Ancelotti’s men found the extra gear first. Their form at the end of the season was sublime and it bodes well for this season too. Ricardo Carvalho’s loss won’t be felt particularly hard with the excellent Branislav Ivanović a more than adequate replacement. Essien’s return only strengthens the league’s best midfield which won’t lose its aura even with Joe Cole and Michael Ballack’s departures. Ballack’s performances were steadily declining and Ancelotti has never taken a shine to Cole. Ramires will surely be an upgrade on Jon Obi Mikel and look for Daniel Strurridge to push on this year too; he has all the raw attributes to be a great player.The interesting situation will arise at right back. Ancelotti’s diamond formation does hinge on the production of his two full backs and José Bosingwa’s return from a serious injury will be something to monitor. Question marks remain about his defensive capabilties but Ivanović has proved adept in that slot too should Bosingwa fail to make an impression.
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE PLACES = MANCHESTER UNITED, ARSENAL, MANCHESTER CITY
Chelsea’s challengers remain strong but are still half a step behind. It is United who look likely to be their closest threat once more. For all their positives they did look frail and toothless when Wayne Rooney was out of the side last year. The hype around Chicarito is intoxicating but Dimitar Berbatov needs to finally justify his hefty price tag. Sir Alex Ferguson has done little to strength the midfield which may be their downfall. Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes cannot play every week and Owen Hargreaves’ continued absence meant Ferguson really needed to purchase an attacking midfielder and/or a strong anchorman. I expect Nani to really excel this year and some predictions indicating that they will fall outside of the top four are wide of the mark.
Arsène Wenger has addressed a glaring weakness by getting Marouane Chamakh and IF Robin van Persie can stay fit, they could be Chelsea’s biggest contenders. However I still have question marks about their ability to beat the big sides. They can’t win games ugly, they are susceptible to counter-attacking football and the naivety which has haunted them in the past shows no signs of leaving just yet. United, Chelsea and Barcelona all tore them to shreds last year. They remain a young, inexperienced team and even though they have kept hold of Cesc Fàbregas they still lack the leadership and know-how of Wenger’s previous title winning teams. The purists would love them to be crowned champions but they lack a steely resolve to beat the very best.
Preseason predictions and Premier League discussions never seem to veer far away from Manchester City. Few seem to be tipping them for the title but there are plenty predicting they can break into the top four and cause serious problems for the very best. I am among the believers. They have surpassed Aston Villa and Everton (taking some of their best players in the process) and now they have bigger fish to fry. City simply have too much money and too much talent to miss out on the Champions League again. After missing out on Kaka, Roberto Mancini has rightly targeted the next tier of quality players. Jérôme Boateng, Mario Balotelli and Aleksandar Kolarov are all young talents with blossoming reputations. Yaya Touré and David Silva, along with Balotelli, have been around extremely successful teams and know what it takes to win trophies. Time will be the biggest obstacle in Mancini’s path because it is a luxury he isn’t afforded. The owners have proved they are willing to pull the trigger quickly and Mancini needs to make sure he’s in prime position by Christmas or he could endure the same fate as Mark Hughes.
EUROPA LEAGUE = LIVERPOOL, TOTTENHAM, EVERTON
Liverpool will be better under Roy Hodgson but this may be more of a rebuilding year as Hodgson clears the deadwood. Spurs have done little to improve on last year’s team and you have to think City will overtake them particularly with Tottenham enjoying Champions League football and all its trimmings. Everton could do even better than 7th with Mikel Arteta and Phil Jagielka back this year. Goals may be a problem though, Louis Saha has persistent injury problems, Yakubu blows hot and cold and I’m not sure Jermaine Beckford is Premier League quality. The uncertainty of both player personnel and the next managerial appointment at Aston Villa should result in a drop in performance.
SURPRISE PACKAGE = BOLTON WANDERERS
Bolton are always a tricky team to beat and they have a good nucleus. Jussi Jääskeläinen, Gary Cahill, Fabrice Muamba and Kevin Davies represent a strong core and manager Owen Coyle looks destined for big things. Matthew Taylor had a superb season last year and the free signing of Martin Petrov adds some real creativity and an attacking threat. There’s little chance Bolton can achieve European qualification but a top half finish looks very achievable. Of the group of those who dodged relegation last season they look most likely to make the next step up. Coyle is certainly a shrewd operator and I believe Petrov could well go on to be the best bit of business a Premier League side did this summer.
RELEGATION = BLACKPOOL, WEST BROM, WIGAN
The critics are unanimous in their belief that Blackpool are merely on a sight-seeing tour of the top tier. Some sides, like Hull and Wigan, have stayed up and defied the odds but Blackpool’s squad possesses no Premier League experience (excluding Jason Euell) and their manager is a novice here too. Ian Holloway will ensure they are plucky and fight in each game but I don’t expect them to spring any surprises.
Playing great football and earning all the plaudits, West Brom will lure us all into a sense of déjà vu as they head straight back down again. Roberto Di Matteo’s squad is packed full of players who look like world beaters in the Championship but fail to make the step up. It would be nice to see them buck the trend but they are still miles behind West Ham, Fulham and Birmingham and Mick McCarthy has enough knowledge of relegation dog fights to ensure Wolves don’t get dragged under again this time around. Once again West Brom will live up to their yo-yo tag and cash in those all too familiar parachute payments. Of course they’ll be back in 12 months with the same crop of players, the same style and the same results.
Wigan really look like relegation fodder this time around. I stated last year that I believed they would be one of the more fascinating teams to watch due to Roberto Martínez’s arrival. Wigan over-performed under Steve Bruce and without Amr Zaki, Antonio Valencia, Emily Heskey and Wilson Palacios; I thought Martínez faced an uphill struggle. He did well to keep the team up but they were wildly unpredictable. They lost 9-1 to Spurs, 8-0 to Chelsea and 5-0 to United despite beating Arsenal and Chelsea at home. They also had the worst defensive record of a team ever to stay up in the Premier League. Had it not been for Portsmouth’s financial issues they may well have joined Burnley and Hull City in the Championship this year. Only Liverpool and Manchester City have more foreigners in their squad than Wigan right now, an issue they must resolve before September swings around. Titus Bramble and Paul Scharner, both regulars last term, are gone. Meanwhile Charles N’Zogbia has applied the stamp and is licking the envelope which contains his transfer request. Even if they manage to keep hold of Hugo Rodallega and Maynor Figueroa, they look likely to drop out of the league.
So there you have it, my tips for the top, the bottom and the surprising package in-between. It’s always interesting to see just how wrong you are when May comes around and these predictions make you look rather foolish. So I’m off to put money on Wigan sneaking a Europa League place and Bolton imploding on their way to the Championship. There’s nothing quite like hedging your bets.
“Your future is created by what you do today, not tomorrow”
With untold riches, Manchester City’s relentless pursuit of instant gratification is understandable. But even with their wealth, it has not been easy. Unlike Chelsea, who provided the blueprint for quick success, City started from a lower rung on the ladder. Chelsea finished fourth the season before Roman Abramovich weighed in; City only achieved ninth place before the Abu Dhabi United Group arrived. The squad needed reinforcements and the new recruits could not be guaranteed Champions League football. Two years on and the same problems exist. To cure this ill, City have again delved into the transfer market.
The worry is that assembling a team of global superstars will come at the expense of their own fledglings. The academy has been praised in recent years and rightly so. Few English clubs have produced players of the calibre of Micah Richards, Nedum Onuoha, Stephen Ireland and Daniel Sturridge. The academy won the F.A. Youth Cup two years ago and two of that victorious team, Dedryck Boyata and Vladimír Weiss, have been on the fringes of the first team. While Sturridge willingly opted for pastures new, Richards, Onuoha and Ireland have struggled to establish themselves as mainstays in City’s revolution. Jérôme Boateng’s arrival this summer could result in departures for his psychical prototypes, Richards and Onuoha. Meanwhile Ireland continues to be linked to a host of other Premier League clubs. Shaun Wright-Phillips, back for a second spell at Eastlands, has Adam Johnson ahead of him in the pecking order. Even Joe Hart, England’s brightest young goalkeeper, faces a spell as Shay Given’s understudy.
It is a problem which has caused concern over at Stamford Bridge after Chelsea’s initial triumphs. They pumped money into their academy and Frank Arnesen was installed to bring through the next generation. No longer would Chelsea rely solely on Abramovich’s millions, rather they would look to their own to step up. Up until now, the exercise has been a colossal failure but with the forthcoming homegrown rule about to come into effect, its importance cannot be overstated.
The blame shouldn’t lie squarely on manager Roberto Mancini’s shoulders. He needs to build a successful team and quickly or he will face the axe just like his predecessor Mark Hughes. Those who have worked their way through City’s ranks may not be Champions League standard just yet and Mancini needs established talent if he is to go one better than last time around. His first priority is not to develop future stars; it is to bring in trophies. By jettisoning too many of their own, City may struggle to find leaders and long-term servants. These types of players not only help create a club’s identity but they also spearhead long term success.
Across Europe the top sides all have these players, men who have become synonymous with their clubs. Xavi, Iniesta and Puyol at Barcelona, Del Piero at Juventus, Totti at Roma and before his retirement, Maldini at Milan. At the revolving door that is Real Madrid, Iker Casillas has out-lasted two waves of Galácticos and until his recent departure; Raúl was an ever-present figure since he broke through 16 years ago. Inter Milan’s Champions League winning squad included few Italians but the man who lifted the trophy in Madrid, Javier Zanetti, has been captain for over a decade. In England it is no different. Giggs, Scholes and Neville are a part of the furniture at Manchester United, scousers Gerrard and Carragher make up the fabric of Liverpool. Chelsea’s turnover of players has been greater than most in recent times but John Terry is still a figurehead for the West Londoners. Even Arsenal, with their foreign legion, possess Cesc Fàbregas who epitomises the exciting, young attacking side Arsène Wenger is honing.
It is a key ingredient that City lack and it is not something which should be underestimated. He need not be a local boy and as Fàbregas and Zanetti have shown, he does not need to come from these shores. What he does need to be is a player who embodies their club’s style, a leader who works harder than most and can be called upon in the toughest situations. Even in pursuit of short-term success, City need to find their own Terry, Giggs or Zanetti, their own heartbeat. It is something which should be taken under consideration when in their quest for glory; they contemplate offloading their bright, young hopes to free up room for the more household names.