(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.
“I’d rather be the underdogs. I’d rather people not know my name when I come out and do this stuff. Then they’ll say ‘Who was that?'”
Yesterday the PFA Team of the Year was announced. Whilst the team conjured up is an acknowledgement of the very best, this Premier League season has featured plenty of underdogs coming to the fore. The PFA Team of the Year consists entirely of players the league’s top five clubs. This alternative team doesn’t feature any players from those teams. Furthermore, those who’ve received plenty of praise, such as Charlie Adam, Scott Parker, Andy Carroll and Leighton Baines, are excluded. So here are the unsung heroes, those who’ve quietly impressed:
Goalkeeper: Ben Foster (Birmingham City)
This season could have gone very differently for Ben Foster. He may have continued to play understudy to Edwin Van der Sar before being passed the baton at Manchester United this August. Instead, Foster opted for Birmingham City. The Midlands club have had a difficult year in the league but Foster has slotted in well behind Alex McLeish’s typically sturdy defence. He was also pivotal to Birmingham’s Carling Cup success.
Left Back: José Enrique (Newcastle United)
José Enrique has been virtually ever-present in Newcastle’s team this year and has featured in every one of their eight clean sheets. Newcastle have had plenty of defensive troubles over the year but they seem to have found a very solid full-back in José Enrique. That may be about to change though as his name continues to be heavily linked with a move to Anfield this summer.
Centre Back: Robert Huth (Stoke City)
Huth may not be a popular player but he has excelled at Stoke this year. They’ve garnered a reputation as a difficult team to score against ever since they won promotion and Huth has enhanced their status. But he has also proved a legitimate threat at the other end of the pitch too. Huth’s bagged six goals in the league making him Stoke’s joint highest scorer.
Centre Back: Gary Cahill (Bolton Wanderers)
Speak to those who regularly go to the Reebok this year and they’ll tell you how good Cahill has been. Owen Coyle has transformed the ethos of Bolton Wanderers and the classy Cahill has flourished in the new style. He started the season with his first England cap and has ended it with his first England start. Expect him to remain very much in Fabio Capello’s thoughts in the future.
Right Back: Stephen Carr (Birmingham City)
Stephen Carr’s played in every minute of the nine clean sheets Birmingham have forged out. In fact, Carr has only missed 47 of the 2880 minutes Birmingham have played this year. Not bad for a 34-year-old man who announced his retirement in 2008. He has been somewhat of an unsung hero but pundits rightly cooed over his Carling Cup final performance against Arsenal.
Left Wing: Matthew Etherington (Stoke City)
It must be hard for a crafty, clever midfield technician to shine at Stoke City but Etherington continues to impress. Stoke’s long, missile balls can often bypass their midfield but Etherington does plenty of good work from wide positions. He remains a vital cog for Stoke with his deliveries from corners and free-kicks. Matt Jarvis could also be considered for this position after a bright season at Wolves.
Centre Midfield: Kevin Nolan (Newcastle United)
Last year Nolan was award the Championship Player of the Year award and he’s carried that form with him as Newcastle look set to cement their Premier League status. He’s helped himself to 12 league goals making him the division’s highest scoring midfielder. Newcastle have recorded several goal gluts and Nolan has been inspired in all of them. His finest hour was a hat-trick in the 5-0 drubbing of local rivals Sunderland. Honourable mentions for this position must go to Nolan’s Newcastle teammates Joey Barton and Chiek Tioté.
Centre Midfield: Lucas Leiva (Liverpool)
Lucas was derided for so long by football fans in this country but his turnaround this year has been magnificent. Finally we’ve started to see why he has merited inclusion for both Liverpool and Brazil. In a tough season for Liverpool, he has been their most consistent performer. Lucas saved his best performances for the bigger games with typically destructive outings in wins against Chelsea and Manchester United.
Right Wing: Clint Dempsey (Fulham)
This season was always going to be a dull one for Fulham after their heroics last year. An early injury to Bobby Zamora only confirmed that. But Dempsey has had a steady season which has gone largely under the radar. He’s weighed in with a respectable ten goals with only Kevin Nolan bagging more from midfield.
Forward: D.J. Campbell (Blackpool)
So many strikers have failed to make the colossal leap up to the top tier of football so reaching double figures for the season is a great achievement for Campbell. He had an unsuccessful crack at the big time before with Birmingham but looks to have found his feet at Blackpool. Campbell has scored against Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham proving he steps up against the league’s best.
Forward: Peter Odemwingie (West Bromwich Albion)
West Brom’s inability to stay in the Premier League in previous years had been blamed on the absence of a renowned goal scorer. In Peter Odemwingie, they now have a man to provide a finishing touch to their midfield guile. No side have scored more goals in the bottom half of the league. In his first season in English football, Odemwingie has bagged 12 goals and he also has eight assists. If West Brom stay up, he may be the signing of the season.
You can follow me on Twitter @liamblackburn.
Do you agree or disagree with my selections? Let me know in the comments section.
“A New Years resolution goes in one year and out the other”
Many New Year’s resolutions may already be broken but it’s a bit different when it comes to Premier League footballers. They don’t need to hit the gym to bulk up or (Benni McCarthy aside) get on a diet. So what should some of the Premier League’s men be looking to learn in 2011?
Rory Delap – Learn…a new trick
As all the girls will tell you Rory, long throws are so 2010.
Nobody is talking about “The Delapinator” anymore because his long throws have lost a lot of their potency. For everyone has wised up to Stoke’s fabled gadget and without it, Delap has faded from the spotlight. `
When a dog rolls over for the first time, it’s impressive but he needs an array of trickery to stay ahead of the pack. Does Delap have a fetch? Can he pull out a bark if the long throw is bombing? I have my doubts.
It doesn’t need to be anything extravagant like a step over or a dummy. This is stereotypically English central midfielder Rory Delap we are talking about. So I suggest he works on a way to develop his long throw. Perhaps doing it backwards or blindfolded? Just a thought Rory, just a thought.
Owen Cole – Learn…where the nearest JJB is and find some tracksuit bottoms!
I like Owen Coyle and lately it appears so does the majority of the country. I just have one major quam with the Bolton boss. His insistence on continuing to wear shorts even in sub zero conditions.
Everyone’s complaining about snoods and gloves but Coyle’s short shorts are even more worrying. Allow me to elaborate. Coyle may be a “tracksuit” manager and that’s fine. If he wants to keep his Sunday best for well, Sundays, so be it.
But what happens when a bigger job opportunity comes alone? Let’s say for arguments sake, at Chelsea.
It’s a Champions League night at The Bridge and José or Pep roll up in their suave, sophisticated suits which perfectly reflect their marvellous tactics.
Then out comes Coyle dressed like an overly enthusiastic substitute to greet them with a handshake. It just doesn’t work. Bigger things may await Mr Coyle in 2011 so let’s hope he dresses accordingly.
Bolo Zenden – Learn…how to dance
The day Asamoah Gyan rocked up in Wearside a warning should have been sounded out to all in the near vicinity. Prepare to party like it’s 1999.
The burning question was who would be the first to join Gyan on the dance floor, Anton Ferdinand? Danny Welbeck? Jordan Henderson? Yet it was 34-year-old Bolo Zenden who joined the Ghanaian in celebration when he scored against Chelsea.
The Dutchman fell into that awkward trap dads do when trying to act “cool” in front of their kids’ friends. Gyan’s moves looked all the more slick when accompanied by his fellow Ghanaians but Zenden’s “booty wiggle” left a lot to be desired.
Still when it comes to Zenden, the will is certainly there and where there’s a will, there’s a way.
With the wide variety of reality based dance shows on television at the moment, Bolo has no excuse. If Vince Cable can master the Foxtrot I see no reason why Zenden can’t bust out the sprinkler or a dice roll for all those at the Stadium of Light. Stay strong Asamoah, we’ll get you some backing dancers yet.
Gary Neville – Learn…how to say “retire”
It’s not as if Father Time has just called for Neville. He’s been waiting outside the door with lager, some chicken and a fishing rod for quite a while.
Last year didn’t end well for the Manchester United right back. He was taken off at half-time after being abused by Matthew Etherington against Stoke and then should have been sent off after he felled Graham Dorrans at West Brom.
A magnificent long-term servant for both club and country, it is sad to see Neville withering away like he has been. The passion is undoubtedly still there in one of the most ardent footballers the league has ever seen but the legs clearly don’t correspond with the brain anymore.
Sir Alex Ferguson is too proud and has too much respect to sit Neville in that rocking chair so it has to be down to the man himself to call it a day.
If I was Phil, Tracey or Neville I think I’d have worked hard to drop a few hints in my Christmas presents. I imagine him now owning a pipe, slippers and a commemorative engraved watch with “thank you for your services”.
“A new year is unfolding – like a blossom with petals curled tightly concealing the beauty within”
There were plenty of men who burst through onto the Premier League landscape in 2010. It was the year when we all got rather excited about Gareth Bale, the year when Nani and Samir Nasri stepped out of Cristiano Ronaldo and Cesc Fàbregas’ commanding shadows and the year when Andy Carroll jumped into Alan Shearer’s intimidating shoes.
Next year promises yet more riveting storylines. Will the fledglings at Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United rise to prominence? Will the youthful core keep Aston Villa competitive? And will Manchester City hang on to their talented products?
This is who I think will burst through in 2011.
Wojciech Szczęsny (Arsenal)
He’s already causing bloggers, journalists and spelling perfectionists everywhere nightmares. Yet the man who fears vowels could soon establish himself as one of the league’s top keepers at the tender age of 20.
Arsène Wenger has already stated that he thinks Szczęsny will go on to be Arsenal’s No 1 one day and with doubts over those supposedly ahead of him in the pecking order, that day may come sooner rather than later. He was assured enough when thrown in at the deep end at Old Trafford recently and certainly has the confidence to play for a big team.
Some of Arsenal’s talented band of youngsters always seem to blossom each year and Szczęsny’s maturation could be imminent. The goalkeeper position remains Wenger’s Achilles heel and Szczęsny may be the answer to his woes.
Kieran Gibbs (Arsenal)
There was a time when you thought that with Gaël Clichy for company, Kieran Gibbs was going to have to move elsewhere to kick-start his career. Yet increasingly these days, Clichy looks like a weak link in the Arsenal back line. Gibbs now looks a better all-round and more consistent option for Arsenal and Clichy should be concerned about his starting place next year.
Gibbs is undoubtedly talented but his early forays into the Arsenal team have been hampered by injuries. His development will depend largely on his ability to stay fit.
Sadly he may find it harder to dislodge Ashley Cole in the England team and Leighton Baines’ recent resurgence means Gibbs will have to shine if he’s to even get another call up for the national team.
Nedum Onuoha (Sunderland/Manchester City)
Nedum Onuoha has all the physical attributes of Micah Richards yet with the football brain which should take him further.
Whilst he may not possess the cavalier instincts of a Dani Alves or Glen Johnson, the mazy run which led to his goal against Chelsea proved he is adept in advanced positions.
His time at Sunderland has proved that he will shine in this league even if it is not with Manchester City’s instant-gratification project. Vincent Kompany has had a stellar season thus far and City have a plethora of options at both full-back and centre half. But I fully expect Onuoha to be in Fabio Capello’s plans for the coming year wherever he may end up.
Kyle Walker (QPR/Tottenham Hotspur)
Perhaps I have cheated here by including three players who could essentially be considered as “right-backs” but the long-term injury suffered by Blackburn Rovers’ Phil Jones made this a more difficult decision. I believe Johan Djourou will shine too but Wenger will remain cautious as he returns from injury. Kyle Walker has also featured in a more central position for QPR and he has been an inspirational loan signing for them. Their rock solid defence has been the main reason for their lofty position and Walker must take some credit for that.
He looks like a commanding figure who is comfortable on the ball but not afraid to put a foot in when it is required. Walker is the only player in this 11 currently playing outside of the Premier League but his bright performances for QPR should allow him to break into the Tottenham team when he returns.
Rafael Da Silva (Manchester United)
Rafael has so far been plagued by the naivety of youth. His sending off against Bayern Munich last season was a prime example of how, in the heat of battle, he would often do something rash.
He still has a tendency to dive in rather than stand up and hold back but his defensive capabilities are improving.
Excellent performances against Tottenham and Arsenal and the fact he was rested for the big derby against Manchester City prove that Sir Alex Ferguson believes he can trust the Brazilian. With Wes Brown seemingly out of favour, Gary Neville nearing the end and John O’Shea still very much the utility man, Rafael is currently the fore runner for the right back berth.
Alongside the experienced heads of Edwin van der Sar, Nemanja Vidić, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra, Rafael can be the final component of United’s rear-guard this coming year.
Gaël Kakuta (Chelsea)
His name will be familiar with many fans even if his appearances for Chelsea’s team have so far been sparse. The controversy surrounding his signing should tell you that Chelsea were simply desperate to sign Gaël Kakuta.
His limited number of first team appearances have been received warmly and he was a key cog in the French under-19 team that won the European Championships last summer.
Chelsea rarely dip their sizeable hands into the transfer market these days and with an aging squad, the emphasis is clearly on youth. Few have broken through since Roman Abramovich’s arrival but Kakuta is heading a talented group of players who may well finally buck that trend.
Anderson (Manchester United)
It’s not been easy for Anderson at Manchester United. He has struggled to define his role, there have been question marks about his attitude and on top of that, an injury somewhat derailed his progress.
In the past few weeks though, Anderson seems to be finally realising what he needs to do to make himself into a top class footballer. He offers United something which nobody else in that midfield group can. He is a bustling box to box midfielder with the energy, stamina and strength to drive the heart of that midfield. If he can start scoring on a regular basis, he will be invaluable to United’s title aspirations.
This time last year teammate Nani embarked on a turnaround and now Anderson has the chance to tread a similar path. Anderson has been rewarded with a new contract and an extended run in the first team. The stage is most certainly set for him to finally blossom in 2011.
Stuart Holden (Bolton Wanderers)
At 25, Stuart Holden is the oldest man in this group but in terms of his time in England, his football career is still very much in its infancy.
Initially at Sunderland before heading to America, Holden has only been with Bolton for 12 months but in that time he has been the catalyst for their Owen Coyle-inspired turnaround.
Holden’s poise and calmness on the ball make him an instantly likeable player. He is proficient with both feet and is excellent at keeping possession. Coyle’s Bolton have utilised a 4-4-2 formation and their recent success has owed much to Holden’s marvellous midfield play.
Whilst he has received some praise I fully expect Holden to soon be recognised as one of the league’s best midfielders and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him end up with a bigger club in the summer.
Marc Albrighton (Aston Villa)
Marc Albrighton has spent the last few months of 2010 forming a burgeoning reputation in the game as one of the country’s more exciting prospects. He was desperately unlucky to miss out on the last England squad but his time is fast approaching.
Unlike compatriots Theo Walcott, Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips, the main weapon in Albrighton’s artillery is his final delivery. His whipped crosses are akin to something the magical right boot of David Beckham might conjure up. Albrighton has the pace and the trickery, but his nous for providing exquisite crosses set him apart. He has also weighed in with plenty of goals.
His attitude too is mightily refreshing as pointed out in a recent Sunday Times feature.
I fully expect Albrighton to nail down England’s right midfield position by next year and that can only be good news for England’s frustrated strikers.
Danny Welbeck (Sunderland/Manchester United)
Sir Alex Ferguson had suggested the summer before last season that Danny Welbeck would be included in England’s World Cup squad. But Welbeck endured a difficult season, ending it on loan at Preston North End. Marginalised in wider roles and still needing to bulk up, Ferguson’s premonition looked rather foolish.
Yet in the past few weeks, he has been inspired at Sunderland. He has scored goals with his feet and his head, performed the role of poacher and creator and been both quick and strong. There now seems little doubt that Welbeck will end up back at Old Trafford next year and he certainly has the fans rooting for him. United haven’t brought through many strikers in recent years and Welbeck now has an excellent opportunity to fill that void.
Nathan Delfouneso (Aston Villa)
Delfouneso’s inclusion is a gamble based on the fact that he has rarely featured thus far for Villa. It would have been easier to pack the midfield and opt for Barry Bannan, Jack Rodwell or Josh McEachran. Yet Delfouneso could feature prominently for Villa next year and has all the attributes to be 2011’s Andy Carroll.
With Villa’s brash spending days firmly behind them, Gérard Houllier has to look at what he already has. John Carew’s temperament and Emile Heskey’s injuries could propel Delfouneso into the spotlight. He is quick and has a robust figure which should allow him to cope with the physical demands of the league.
“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.