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Premier League Predictions 2011/2012

August 9, 2011 1 comment

 

(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.

United's new arrivals

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.

Will Tevez pass Aguero the baton?

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 will bank on Bent's goals

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.

Sir Alex Ferguson may not need press conferences but the public do


“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.

Ferguson has a habit of banning 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.

Fabio Capello’s poor communication skills have made England captaincy an issue


“Communication is the real work of leadership”

I don’t envy Fabio Capello some times. Picking an England captain should be a rudimentary decision. It should also be irrelevant. Yet we seem to hold the title in the highest esteem in this country and so handling it with such colossal thoughtlessness was not Don Fabio’s wisest move.

The armband and title are merely superficial. In fact, were England’s senior players not a collection of wholly uncouth morons, it would probably matter even less. It is just a title to appease the media hoards who want a figurehead to speak to and a scapegoat to hold accountable when, always inevitably in England’s case, the latest crisis rears its head.

The title of captain is one which John Terry clearly relishes. It may in part be egotistical but it’s more that possessing the armband shows that others appreciate his more endearing qualities. Terry is a leader; he is an organiser and a very good one at that. This season he’s performed magnificently at times in what has proven a difficult period for Chelsea. He also has an excellent injury and disciplinary record and is very committed to playing for his country.

Captaincy just latest in long of line of Capello's errors

Strip away the personality and the misdemeanours and you have a perfectly adequate candidate. Of course, that’s hard to ignore.

But Terry’s biggest faux pas and the reason why he shouldn’t be within a country mile of the captaincy dates back to a press conference he held back in South Africa. What he said on the record (we can only assume that what was said off it was an even more damning indictment of the Capello regime) completely undermined the Italian. He questioned his tactics, his methods, his team selection, all at a time when England needed to rally behind their manager the most.

Handing him back the captaincy is one thing but the manner in which Capello has handled it is a more worrying one which highlights his most underlying flaw. Rio Ferdinand’s continually sporadic England appearances should result in a charging of the guard if not on a permanent basis then at least a temporary one. But instead of a quiet word in Ferdinand’s ear explaining the decision we had Chinese whispers, we had a reportedly disgruntled Ferdinand who was blissfully unaware of Capello’s thoughts. Capello’s biggest drawback was highlighted once again. He is completely distant from his team. He doesn’t communicate with those in the camp frequently enough.

It is not, as some of his naysayers claim, to do with his grasp of the language. There are a growing number of problems Capello has caused himself simply by ignoring one of the most fundamental managerial qualities; communication.

Ferdinand should have heard from Capello, not the media, that he was to lose the armband. The goalkeepers should have been informed of who would start in South Africa well in advance rather than a day before.  If he wanted to recruit Paul Scholes, he should, as Scholes alluded to, have called the Manchester United midfielder much earlier. Then there was the awkward Community Shield moment when Michael Carrick, who Capello had presumed unfit, strode past the bewildered Italian to collect his medal.

Communication is vital. It is important not just to gauge the opinions and thoughts of your players but also in commanding respect from all involved.

Was there any uproar and upheaval when Rio lost the captain’s armband to Nemanja Vidic? No, because Alex Ferguson communicates with his players. As a result they respect him and they respect his decisions.

The England captaincy shouldn’t have been an issue but the cloak and dagger stuff that has surrounded Terry’s reappointment has soured what should have been a positive week for England. I think that people are overly critical of Capello but he has to start communicating better with his players to ensure he doesn’t contribute to his own downfall any more.

This is a classic example. Moreover, how can Capello expect to command the respect and discipline he yearns for when he promotes the one man who so publically challenged his methods? By handing Terry the captain’s armband, Capello has handed over the keys of the asylum to the lunatics.

You can follow me on Twitter @liamblackburn

My Favourite Match – Juventus 2 v 3 Manchester United 21/04/99. Turin.

February 16, 2011 4 comments

Comebacks have become a trademark of Manchester United in the Sir Alex Ferguson era and never were they more prevalent than this historic season. But this was perhaps the most improbable of them all.

Their domination on the domestic stage was already well established but Europe remained a very different proposition. There was a mystical element around Europe. The Champions League remained a holy grail that just seemed out of Ferguson and United’s reach.

The night itself had all the trimmings of a majestic European night from the misty backdrop to the glorious roars of the Bianconeri’s fans. The rest of Europe seemed considerably more intimidating for English sides in this era.

The mission statement was clear for United. After conceding at Old Trafford the tie was level at 1-1 but Juve’s vital away goal meant United had to at least score. United were well versed in the art of uphill battles, even so, falling behind to two Filippo Inzaghi goals inside eleven minutes appeared catastrophic.

Andy Cole caps a remarkable turnaround

Juventus’ team had an unmistakable aura around them. At the time, there wasn’t that sort of invincibility around United or other English sides in Europe that was to be ushered in during the next decade. When it came to proficient, effective European displays, English sides seemed to be tactically naïve. In stark contrast, Juventus were masters on the European stage. Under Marcelo Lippi they had made the previous three Champions League finals. Furthermore they’d bossed United for large periods at Old Trafford and there was little to suggest that proceedings would be different on Italian soil.

At 2-0 down the outcome should have been obvious. But as we’d seen time and time again and would continue to see, United’s resolve was unbreakable. Nobody typified this more than Roy Keane and this night proved to be his finest in a red shirt.

Keane was booked in the first half and so would miss the final but he remained undeterred. Ferguson would later lavish praise on his captain:

“It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field. Pounding over every blade of grass competing if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose he inspired all around him. I felt it was an honour to be associated with such a player”.

It was Keane whose header got United back in the game and when Dwight Yorke got an equaliser shortly afterwards, United were suddenly in pole position to advance on away goals.

This game adopted a precarious nature with it tentatively poised at 2-2 until late on but both sides had excellent chances. United hit the post twice and the offside flag denied Inzaghi a hat-trick. There was never a question of United sitting back and trying to hold out. It was both a reflection of their attacking prowess and their culpability to concede. They’d scored twenty goals in the group stages that year but had also conceded eleven. At 2-2, United were going through on away goals, yet both Yorke and Cole remained on the pitch. Such a move may be considered bold now but it paid dividends when they combined for a third. Yorke bundled through into the area only to be scythed down by goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi before Cole slotted home. They were on their way to Barcelona which turned out to be an even more memorable and dramatic evening.

United have had more resounding victories but not many more important. Back in 1999, a victory in Italy was a collector’s item for English teams whereas today they are almost common place. This was a breakthrough moment for Ferguson and his men. By beating Juventus in their own backyard, after falling two goals behind, nothing looked beyond that United team. Of course that year, it wasn’t.

Neither Rooney nor United Stand to Benefit From Messy Affair

October 18, 2010 Leave a comment

“He’s definitely being looked after by the right club and the right manager and with the right people around him,” David Beckham (12/09/10)

Perhaps it’s one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s shortcomings. If you look past the trophies, the medals and the glory, you’ll find there are plenty of messy divorces at Old Trafford. Not all are enamoured with his hairdryer and not all believe in his methods. Just look at how he ruthlessly disposed of Paul Ince, Jaap Stam, David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Roy Keane. Ferguson thrives on the notion that no one man is bigger than the club.

And he’s usually right of course. Ince fluttered around but never enjoyed similar success, Keane’s career was virtually over, Beckham only won one league winner’s medal in Madrid and without van Nistelrooy, United revolutionised behind a new, more fluid system. Only Jaap Stam, a man Ferguson regrets jettisoning, enjoyed plenty of highs after United.

Ferguson appeared to be the perfect mentor for Rooney

So the latest bust-up between Wayne Rooney and Ferguson isn’t all together surprising. But these are different circumstances and different times. United no longer have a stranglehold on the English game. If they cut off a limb, there is no guarantee it will simply grow back again in a different guise.

Ferguson is currently fighting battles on multiple fronts and this is simply a headache he doesn’t require. On the field, his porous defence has never looked so vulnerable, there’s a lack of depth in midfield and the quandary of what happens when Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes retire looms menacingly.  Off the field, Ferguson continues to shroud himself in a cloud of mystery by ignoring the media’s every inquisition. His defence of the Glazers becomes increasingly tiresome whilst his insistence that there is no value in the market has been ridiculed by Rafael van der Vaart, Adam Johnson and Mesut Özil amongst others.  

Meanwhile, Rooney lurches from one disaster to another. This year, he has been stalled by persistent injury problems and a lack of form. The youthful exuberance which once characterised England’s great hope has been replaced by apathy and reluctance. He has rolled out of a dismal World Cup straight into an off-field scandal jeopardising his new family. So if anyone needs to take a step back, attempt to fly under the radar for a while and allow his football to do the talking, it’s Rooney. You would think he’s in the perfect environment too. He’s at a club where he’s adored by the fans and his manager is an expert at deflecting attention away. But Rooney wants out.

Whether he is being badly advised or whether there’s more going on under the iron curtain than we know about is unclear. But neither side stands to benefit from this bizarre affair.

Both Rooney and Ferguson have a myriad of problems. But both are strong-willed, both are fighters and both are ultimately winners. This was meant to be the glue that held them together not the trigger to tear them apart.

This has the potential to be Ferguson’s messiest divorce yet but no deal can be made until January at the earliest and right now, Manchester United and Wayne Rooney appear to be in desperate need of each other.

The Maturation of Nani

September 17, 2010 3 comments

“To be mature means to face, and not evade, every fresh crisis that comes”

Ten months ago it seemed Nani’s days at Manchester United were numbered. His performances were sporadic and his great potential remained largely untapped. Publically criticising Sir Alex Ferguson should have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.

It appeared that Nani was harbouring for a move in January but Ferguson had other ideas. Presumably Ferguson traded the hairdryer in and elected to place a shoulder around Nani’s slumped shoulders because his form soon picked up.

In fact, he excelled in the latter stages of the last campaign. From totally destroying Gaël Clichy at the Emirates, he then notched a brace against Bayern Munich before scoring with a sumptuous chip against Spurs. In 2010, the proverbial penny appeared to have dropped for Nani; few could have seen the turnaround coming.

Nani is forever compared to Ronaldo

12 months ago, United fans hoped the blow of Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure would be softened by his fellow Portuguese winger. Nani is rightly keen to establish his own identity but it seems his career is destined to be tenuously linked to Ronaldo’s. By treading a similar path, throwing in multiple stepovers and using copious amounts of hair gel, Nani is emulating Ronaldo in many ways. But whilst Ronaldo evolved the predatory instincts of a striker, Nani has been finely honing his skills as a more creative winger.

In attempting to break free from the “poor-man’s Ronaldo” tag he was lumbered with, Nani needed to grow as both a player and a person. If anyone had any doubt of Nani’s maturation, they were soon silenced in the past few weeks.

It was Nani who shouldered much of the blame for the dropped points at Craven Cottage. After his missed penalty late in the game (which was ironically reminiscent of Ronaldo in its execution), Fulham grabbed an unlikely point from the jaws of defeat. The Nani of old, the one who made those ill-thought-out comments back in November, may have caved in and let it drain his confidence. Ferguson himself may have even been reluctant to pick him. But since then he turned in a man of the match performance against West Ham in the next game and followed that with a two-assist showing at Everton.

There may have been a time in the embryonic stages of his career at Old Trafford when traits such as selfishness and petulance would have defined him. But there has been an acceptance of the collective importance of a team now. Consider his celebration against West Ham as an example. Rather than resort to his trademark flip, he embraced his teammates pointing to Wayne Rooney to show his appreciation. Whilst the acrobatics display Nani’s athleticism, his reluctance to take to the air showcased a realisation. By sacrificing personal posturing for the communal embrace, Nani is discovering that it is the team which must take precedence.

In interviews too, a more mature tone has been added to his boyish vocals. He is preaching from experience when he speaks of the advice he has give Bebé:

Nani has recognised the importance of the team

“Sometimes you try to show everything at first and things don’t go quite right. It is important to try and keep things simple, get your confidence up, and then show your quality.”

With the furore surrounding Bebé it is uplifting to see Nani take his fellow countrymen under his wing. Nani himself knows the transition to English football is difficult and his willingness to tutor Bebé can only help the newcomer.

Meanwhile on the pitch, Nani’s bright start to the season will need to continue if United are to challenge for honours this season. With Antonio Valencia now unfortunately side-lined for a lengthy spell, Nani has the chance to shine in his favoured right-wing position. One year ago, when he was asked to step up in the absence of another he appeared to buckle under the pressure, but this is a new, more focused Nani. Now he is more likely to seize the initiative, to revel in the increased role.

The team is currently over-reliant on its elder statesmen and the future so ominously hinges on the development of its raw talent. But Nani is one of the few bridging the gap. At 23, he has plenty of time to establish himself as one of the game’s most potent attacking players. At 23, he can also aid the development of the younger players still finding their feet in England. The maturation of Nani has begun.

Premier League Predictions 2010/2011

August 13, 2010 3 comments

“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.

Chelsea fans could be treated to more of the same

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.

Mancini and Mario are back together again

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.

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