(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.
This is the first in a brand new series called “Dear Diary, a week in the life of…” which will take a satirical swipe at the escapades of a football figure in the news. Wes Brown opens up this new feature following his move from Sunderland and speaks of his desire to leave behind John O’Shea who had other ideas…
Dear Diary, I expected this week’s entry to be a lot more positive. Finally, after years of having to put up with John O’Shea, I managed to leave him and join Sunderland.
Next day, I switch on Sky Sports News and who do I find parading round in a Sunderland strip? Sheasy. He’s grinning like a moron. I barely lasted a day without him.
I’d told Sheasy I’d been picked to go to the World Cup and being Irish he had no idea it wasn’t on this summer. Danny Welbeck told me all about Sunderland, said it was far enough away so Sheasy wouldn’t follow me. I thanked Danny for his Catch Me If You Can DVD as I left United.
Sunderland seemed an obvious choice. I like Steve Bruce and he’s impressed with how many England caps I’ve got. If he kicks off I know I can keep him quiet by telling him I’ll give him one for free. Can’t believe that tactic only worked for Darren Fletcher and Andy Goram at Old Trafford.
I’ve wanted to leave ever since Paul Scholes announced his retirement. It’s no fun being ginger at the best of times but once I knew I was going to be the only one left, things changed. Had a bit of a chat with Wayne Rooney about how we were easy targets for abuse on the hair front now. He went for a hair transplant; I decided I’d just go to Sunderland. At least I’ve got Jack Colback here to keep me company. Told him I’d batter him if he dyes his locks, think the message got through.
I met some of the boys in the canteen on my first day. Lee Cattermole crushed a Capri Sun with his hand and told me he’s going to break my nose. Anton Ferdinand assured me it’s a sign of acceptance and told me I should see what he says to those he doesn’t like. I felt uneasy but laughed it off.
Next day Sheasy signed and the atmosphere changed. I heard some murmuring as I went into the canteen; it’s Kieran Richardson and Phil Bardsley blaming me for bringing him here. Am guessing the grapes that hit me came from them. Am guessing the flying chair which just missed my head came from Cattermole.
Onto training and Sheasy stuck to me like glue. It’s like when your mum tells you to walk to school with the nerdy kid because she’s friends with their parents. Meanwhile he tried to recruit people for the Ireland squad. Asking Steed Malbranque if his parents are from Cork is one thing but mentoring Asamoah Gyan on a river dance is a bit far. Cattermole told Sheasy he’s going to break his nose. I’m not sure it’s a term of endearment this time.
After training Sheasy told me Darron Gibson wants to follow him here. He said it’s really annoying when someone just follows you round everywhere. He has no idea.
Debating whether to offer Cattermole a few of my England caps to ‘sort’ Sheasy out. If Gibson gets here too it’s going to be unbearable.
You can follow me on Twitter @liamblackburn.
“Journalism can never be silent: that is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air”
It’s always a little disheartening. As a trainee journalist about to embark on a career I’ve longed for since I could walk, it’s always demoralizing to hear Sir Alex Ferguson has shunned the media once again. The chance to pick the brains of football’s elite has always been one of the added extras so coveted by sports journalists.
The media and press conferences in particular are important to most football managers. Even with the wide variety of sources spouting out news on a regular basis, they still provide managers with a platform to air their views and spread their message to the masses. Fans, who still play a considerable role in deciding a manager’s fate, have an opportunity to read, watch and listen to this and formulate their own opinions as a result. The media plays a considerable part in building a manager up or knocking them down. It remains an instrument which managers can play. Jose Mourinho, Harry Redknapp and Ian Holloway have all greatly enhanced their reputations by charming journalists.
Of course none of this seems to apply to Ferguson. His lengthy period in charge of Manchester United has rendered the media all but useless to him. He does not need to tell fans his thoughts. He does not need to defend his position. His trophy record and colossal reputation far outweighs any words that a journalist could use to disparage him. And even though he treats their profession with a frankly dismissive attitude, few journalists ever dare question him.
Even so, his decision to try and ban AP’s Rob Harris for a perfectly acceptable question was disappointing. Harris’ question wasn’t loaded, it wasn’t malicious. His job title entitles him to dig a lot further than he did and Ferguson’s ferocious reputation probably dissuaded him from doing so. A simple “no comment” would have sufficed but Ferguson dislikes people questioning his authority. It is probably one of the things which define him as great in the dressing room but it’s another which casts him as rather petulant away from Old Trafford.
Thankfully UEFA implore managers to speak to the press before games so Rob Harris will no doubt be back in front of him come Friday, laptop and all.
If anything Ferguson should consider American sports and the level of access the press are afforded. Interviews take place in locker rooms, on the side of the pitch at half-time and team talks are filmed in a fly on the wall style. Perhaps some of this is too intrusive but it’s most definitely more revealing and fascinating than an interview hosted by an in-house TV company. As sport continues to lurch towards an activity predominantly viewed through a television screen rather than one’s own eyes, perhaps the American model will develop its own permutations on these shores.
The media may need Ferguson more than he needs them but the journalist’s role will continue to flourish. People want more news and more insight especially when it comes to the world’s most popular pastime. Ferguson may not need press conferences but the public do.
You can follow me on Twitter @liamblackburn.