(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.
Picking an initial fantasy team may not make or break your year but it has huge implications for how your season could pan out. The key is not to make too many gambles but given the enforced salary cap, certain risks do need to be made. Consistent performers can still be found on the cheap and don’t automatically assume the bigger names will be the biggest hitters. Here’s my week one guide to the Premier League’s official fantasy game:
Bank on him…
Twelve months ago we were unsure if Given (£5m) or Joe Hart would be Roberto Mancini’s number one at Manchester City. Hart was awarded the title and Given spent the entire 2010-2011 season looking on. He’s now £2m cheaper than Hart and playing for an Aston Villa team which regularly recorded clean sheets under Martin O’Neill. New boss Alex McLeish ran a tight ship at Birmingham and so Given will be considered by plenty this time around.
Roll the dice…
QPR’s Kenny was imperious last year, being voted Fans’ Player of the Year in a QPR team which won the Championship with a solid back-line. The step-up will faze some Rangers players but Kenny’s been here before with Sheffield United. For £4.5m he could be a suitable back-up if you need to free-up money for other players.
One to avoid…
Three Arsenal goalkeepers are valued at £5.5m or above and Almunia (£5.5m) is probably Arsène Wenger’s third choice to go between the sticks. Wojciech Szczęsny should begin as number one with Łukasz Fabiański backing him up. Almunia shouldn’t therefore be considered at all unless either picks up an injury.
Bank on him…
There is no centre-back pairing more familiar with each other than Fulham’s Hangeland and Aaron Hughes. Both collected well over 100 points last year and Hangeland was the second highest scoring defender behind Leighton Baines. Hangeland is an ever-present fixture in Fulham’s team and is always a threat at set pieces. At £6.5m he also represents decent value.
Roll the dice…
There hasn’t been a mass exodus from Arsenal this summer but first-choice left back Gaël Clichy used his searing pace to run out of the Emirates door. The Gunners are in need of a player to fill that berth and Gibbs (£5.5m) looks the most likely to do so having impressed before. Tottenham’s Kyle Walker (£5.5m) is another who may tempt some, particularly after his strong showing at the under-21 tournament this summer. However Gibbs should be a regular starter whilst Walker may share time with Alan Hutton and Vedran Ćorluka.
One to avoid…
The inclusion of the former England captain under the ‘one to avoid’ banner may surprise some but United centre-back Ferdinand (£6.5m) continues to present bad value. His frequent injuries mean he often has spells on the sidelines and he lacks the potency from set-pieces which make Nemanja Vidić, Robert Huth and Leighton Baines so enticing. Need further proof? In his last three seasons, Ferdinand’s managed 69, 49 and 92 points compared to compatriot Vidić’s totals of 148, 94 and 187. Look for Ferdinand’s role to diminish further still with the arrival of Phil Jones and the continued maturation of Chris Smalling.
Bank on him…
Rafael van der Vaart
Last year the big trio, Steven Gerrard, Cesc Fàbregas and Frank Lampard, were poor by their own very high standards. Lampard only showed flashes, Gerrard is returning to a strong squad and Fàbregas may yet start the season at his beloved Barcelona. In the next tier, Florent Malouda blows hot and cold, how Ferguson plans to fit Nani, Ashley Young and Valencia in isn’t clear and Dirk Kuyt may see less playing time. So my reliable pick is Spurs’ Rafael van der Vaart (£10m). Takes penalties and free-kicks, makes goals and is in no danger of losing much playing time to his teammates.
Roll the dice…
Every year they’ll be some debate about ascribing certain positions to certain players. Categorising Swansea’s Sinclair (£6m) as a midfielder could be worthy of such debate giving his striking tendencies. The former Chelsea and Wigan man has been highly rated for some years now but has struggled to perform in the top flight. However his form at the tail end of last season suggests he’s ready for another crack at the big time.
There are other gambles which may be worth taking. How about Hatem Ben Arfa at £5.5m? An impressive talent who creates and scores goals, the only question mark is if he will return to the Newcastle team with as much verve after his serious injury.
One to avoid…
Again the very mention of Wilshere’s name here will shock some and he seems a popular option for fantasy players this season. But let’s not forget the England man was ever present for Arsenal last year yet scored just once with three assists. He failed to score 100 points in a very good team, playing more minutes than any other Gunners midfielder. Yes he is cheap (£6.5m), but there’s a reason for this. It may be that Wilshere has a season similar to Fàbregas’ a few campaigns back when he suddenly started scoring frequently but until Wilshere shows some signs of doing so, I’m avoiding him.
Bank on him…
Villa’s Bent (£10m) is the model of point-scoring consistency wherever he ends up. Seventeen goals last year after a mid-season move, 24 the year before that, and 100 points in four of his last five campaigns. Sergio Agüero may take time to adapt to England, Wayne Rooney’s form can be patchy and there may or may not be enough room at Chelsea to accommodate Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres every week. Look for Luis Suárez (£9.5m) to continue his excellent form from last year too; I think he’ll comfortably out-score Liverpool teammate Andy Carroll who costs more.
Roll the dice…
Picking a striker to surprise is difficult but this doesn’t mean one won’t spring up and record a shed load of points. Last year DJ Campbell and Peter Odemwingie defied their valuations and had impressive years. QPR’s Bothroyd (£6m), called up by England last year, could well emulate their achievements. Were Robbie Keane to move within the division he could be an interesting proposition. He has a record of scoring goals wherever he’s gone and £5m represents good value for the man who’s scored more Republic or Ireland goals than anyone else.
One to avoid…
An obvious one by all accounts but Torres’ dire end of season form last year for Chelsea should serve as a warning to fantasy owners. At £11m he carries a hefty price tag and he won’t start justifying that until he starts netting on a frequent basis at the Bridge. Carlos Tévez’s (£12m) desire to remain out of Manchester needs to be considered too. Don’t write him off totally because we’ve seen an unhappy Tévez can still be a valuable asset but that is all dependent on him returning to City.
You can follow me on Twitter @liamblackburn.