It is just over three months since the Premier League season ended with an incredible crescendo when Manchester City scored two goals in stoppage time to win both their game against Queens Park Rangers and, more importantly, the title at the expense of their most bitter rivals. While Euro 2012 filled three weeks of the summer, the excitement for ardent supporters of clubs that comes from the first Saturday of the new season is unmatched by international tournaments. Everybody starts again with no points on the board; fans believe that their team will win the title/qualify for the Champions League/be a surprise package/avoid relegation. Optimism abounds, pessimism is put on hold – at least for 90 minutes until the vidiprinter reports that opening day scoreline no supporter wants to see: Newcastle United 7 (Seven) – Tottenham Hotspur 0. Far too much analysis will be done on the first round of fixtures – since people have been starved of the Premiership for a quarter of a year – and managers will find themselves at risk of the sack by the end of August should they fail to put many points on the board. However, it is a long season and my preview looks at the marathon that is the whole campaign, followed by my predictions for the sprint of the opening weekend of games.
No surprise here, Manchester City and Manchester United are the teams to beat again this season, the two rivals finished level on 89 points at the top last year – 19 points clear of 3rd placed Arsenal – with Roberto Mancini’s men securing their first title since 1968 on goal difference alone. City have not been very active in the transfer market this summer – the only signing they have made has been Jack Rodwell from Everton – and they want to offload some of the fringe players from their bloated squad before they bring in any more new acquisitions. Becoming Champions ahead of United may be the tonic that the Blue half of Manchester needed to push on and achieve more success both domestically and in Europe – they were knocked out of their first Champions League campaign in the group stages in 2011/12 – but if they are to defend their title they will need to improve their away record. At the City of Manchester Stadium they won 18 and drew 1 of their league fixtures, but on the road they lost five games, with their form dipping drastically at the turn of the year.
Sir Alex Ferguson has been eager to increase his attacking options in this transfer window and has brought in Shinji Kagawa from Borussia Dortmund, while the signing of Robin Van Persie from Arsenal appears imminent. These two will go alongside Danny Wellbeck, Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney in a strike-force that looks likely to be both prolific and entertaining. Ferguson will want no repeat of last year’s failings, even if they matched the points total of their cross-city rivals, he will be out for revenge this season. If Vidic can avoid injury this term, then United should be stronger at the back – his absence was particularly notable in the 4-4 home draw against Everton, when the Red Devils conceded two late goals to throw away crucial points that ultimately cost them the title.
Although they had their worst league campaign of the Roman Abrahmovic era, Chelsea ended the season on the most incredible high when they won the Champions League in Munich against the home team, Bayern, in May. Roberto DiMatteo, who had started the season as assistant-manager behind Andre Villas-Boas, also led the club to an FA Cup victory and was given the job on a full-time basis in the summer. Nevertheless, if results do not go Chelsea’s way, their Russian owner has shown a willingness to make a change of head coach without hesitation if he does not trust the man in charge. DiMatteo’s cause will be helped by two crucial factors: Chelsea’s opening five fixtures are all ones from which they will expect to gain points, so they should make a good start; and they have added Brazilian midfielder, Oscar, and Belgian playmaker, Eden Hazard, to their squad (at great expense) since the end of last season. With Drobga no longer with the club, Fernando Torres will need to start showing the form that convinced Chelsea to pay £50m for him in January 2011 – Hazard, Oscar and Juan Mata should provide him with ample chances to do that. The biggest issue for DiMatteo’s team could be their defence: John Terry was cleared of racial abuse last month, but age is making him even more susceptible to being found guilty by fast opposition strikers; Gary Cahill was impressive after his move from Bolton midseason but will need help; and Ashley Cole can still put in a good performance, but is not as consistent as he was a few years ago.
There has been a feeling of dread for Arsenal fans regarding the future of Robin Van Persie, after their Dutch striker made it clear he had no intentions of signing a new contract and was looking for a move away from the Emirates. The prospect of him departing may prove to be much worse than the reality of it as, for the first time in several seasons, Arsene Wenger appears to have got the better on the summer transfer dealings. Last year’s late sales of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri were disruptive to Arsenal’s pre-season’s preparations and were concluded too close to the deadline for real replacements to be brought in (although Mikel Arteta’s arrival from Everton proved to be a good piece of business). This time, Podolski and Giroud were recruited before a move for Van Persie was sanctioned, while Santi Cazorla – brought in from Malaga – could prove to be the best signing of the summer. Carzola is able to play on either flank, but his best position is behind the main striker and the three-pronged attack should provide enough firepower to make up for the Van Persie sized gap in the line-up. Sad to say (as a Spurs fan) but this has the makings of Arsenal’s best season in a long while.
And that brings me to Tottenham – a club that managed to finish in the top four but still failed to qualify for the Champions League. Last season may ultimately have been a failure, one that cost Harry Redknapp his job, but only because expectations had been raised to great heights by January. An inauspicious start to the campaign (one match cancelled because of rioting around White Hart Lane, followed by a 3-0 loss to Manchester United and a 5-1 thrashing by Manchester City) was followed by the best run of form in my memory – 10 wins and a draw in 11 league fixtures. By January, there was talk of Tottenham being title challengers (though I never bought into that) but the belief was that they should at least finish above Arsenal for the first time since 1994/5 and comfortably make the Champions League. However, then Capello resigned and Redknapp was linked with the England job, speculation that coincided with Spurs’ worst run of form of the season and saw them fall below their North London rivals and end the season in fourth place.
I was never a big fan of Harry Redknapp and wrote extensively on his tactical shortcomings and bizarre squad selection, but he did lead Spurs to three consecutive top six finishes for the first time in 47 years, so the pressure is on for them to prove that his sacking was the correct decision. The job of filling his shoes falls to Villas-Boas – the man who was axed by Chelsea 5 months ago, but he did win the treble with Porto in 2010/11. With club legend, Ledley King, forced to retire early because of troublesome knees, Jan Vertonghen has been brought in to help shore up the centre of defence alongside Younes Kaboul and Michael Dawson; and Gylfi Sigurdsson – who spent time on loan at Swansea last year – will provide creativity in the middle of the park. Luka Modric has been pushing for a transfer for more than 12 months and is finally on his way to Real Madrid – his flair and ingenuity will be a loss, but a bigger problem is the lack of options up front. Currently, Jermain Defoe is the only first-team striker available to AVB and more recruits will be needed before the end of August. Emmanuel Adebayor is a possibility to return on a permanent basis, as he was on loan from Manchester City last season, but his wage demands have thus far proven to be a roadblock. Scott Parker will miss the beginning of the campaign through injury, though the return of Tom Huddlestone should help Tottenham overcome their captain’s temporary absence.
If the Spurs players buy into Villas-Boas’ philosophy in the way that their Chelsea counterparts never appeared to, then Tottenham could push to improve on their fourth placed finish. However, if they do not have a good start to the season, the decision to get rid of Redknapp could blow up in Daniel Levy’s face and he may find himself looking for another new manager by the turn of the year.
Everton finished as top club in the city last season after finishing seventh and David Moyes will be hoping for a similar position again this year. Although Jack Rodwell was lost to Manchester City and Tim Cahill, who had not shown his best form in the previous two seasons, has headed to New York and Major League Soccer, Everton’s squad looks strong as they have re-signed Steven Pienaar and brought in Steven Naismith from a liquidated Glasgow Rangers. Jelavic was recruited in January and scored 11 goals in 13 games for the Toffees – if he is able to reproduce that form again this season, then Moyes’ can have aspirations of qualifying for Europe.
By contrast, there has been a complete overhaul across Stanley Park at Liverpool – club legend, Kenny Dalglish was sacked as manager and replaced by former Swansea boss, Brendan Rodgers, and Kuyt, Maxi Rodriguez and Aquilani were all sold, with Borini and Joe Allen replacing them. Rodgers will bring a more fluid style of play to Anfield than was witnessed under Dalglish, though he has a tough start to contend with – the first three home fixtures for the Reds are against Arsenal and the two Manchester clubs. If he can keep hold of Luis Suarez and get the Uruguayan to keep his mouth shut and let his feet do the talking, then Rodgers should help Liverpool improve on their previous term’s eighth placed finish.
Tyne & Wear
One of the biggest surprises in the 2011/12 Premier League season was the performance of Newcastle United. Alan Pardew- who
won manager of the year for his success – recruited heavily from the French league to reshape his squad, a tactic that helped give the Geordies their best campaign in almost a decade. United’s Senegalese strike pairing of Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba are among the best partnerships in the league, but the African Cup of Nations in January will mean they – and midfielder Tiote – are absent for several fixtures. Pardew will also have to contend with the extra matches and travel that Newcastle face with their qualification for the Europa League; he may choose to go Redknapp’s route of playing his youngsters for Thursday’s European games.
Their rivals in the North-East, Sunderland, improved dramatically after Martin O’Neill replaced Steve Bruce as manager in December, but they head into the new season without having made any significant signings in the summer. Up front, they have lost Bendtner – who has returned to Arsenal after his loan spell came to an end – and Asamoah Gyan, as the Ghanaian made his move to the Middle-East permanent. At all of his previous clubs, O’Neill has given youth players opportunities to shine and, unless he makes some moves before the end of August, he will have no choice but to do that again with Sunderland.
Second Season Survivors
All of the clubs who were promoted to the Premier League for last season managed to avoid relegation and now face that difficult second season. Queens Park Rangers were the side that came closest to an immediate return to the Championship – their survival was only guaranteed when Bolton failed to beat Stoke on the final day – but Mark Hughes has brought in reinforcements over the summer. Park Ji-Sung joined from Manchester United, Juinor Hoillet and Ryan Nelsen both know Hughes from his time at Blackburn, and Rob Green moved across London from West Ham to give them a safer pair of hands than Paddy Kenny represented. In Adel Taraabt, Djibril Cisse and Bobby Zamora, Rangers have three potential game-winners in their squad and if they can replicate the home form they showed in the second-half of last season, they could retain the top flight status for at least another year.
Swansea and Norwich City both exceeded expectations in 2011/12, finishing 11th and 12th respectively and 11 points clear of the bottom three. Much of their success was attributed to the acumen of their managers, Brendan Rodgers and Paul Lambert, but both headed for new challenges over them summer – Rodgers to Liverpool, while Lambert took the reigns at Aston Villa. The Swans have brought in Michael Laudrup to be their new boss and the former Barcelona and Real Madrid midfielder will need to find a replacement for Joe Allen, who followed Rodgers to Merseyside. Norwich hired Chris Hughton as manager after he had got Birmingham City to the brink of promotion from the Championship last season, despite a transfer embargo preventing him from bringing in new players. The former Ireland international had previously taken Newcastle back into the Premiership, before Mike Ashley sacked him somewhat harshly, and prior to that he had spent a decade at Tottenham as both a coach and an assistant (in fact, he survived while so many managers came and went, that in the stands we had nicknamed him “the cockroach”). The Norfolk club’s best piece of business in the summer was retaining the services of Grant Holt, who had requested a transfer but ultimately signed a new year contract with Norwich.
The Promoted Clubs
Like Norwich before them, Southampton return to the Premiership courtesy of back-to-back promotions and the question is whether they can compete in the top flight, having been playing in League One just two years ago. Manager Nigel Adkins has got them playing stylish football, but whether or not they have enough grit to survive remains to be seen. Either way, having Southampton back with the big boys at least gives me an excuse to link to a video of their greatest player in the Premiership era – the legendary Matthew Le Tissier. Reading were bought by Russian tycoon, Anton Zingarev, in May and there should be money available for Brian McDermott to bring in new players both now and in the January transfer window. A strong defence helped Reading to their Championship win last year, now Chris Gunter and Nicky Shorey have been brought in to give them more options at the back. Up front, McDermott has brought in Pavel Pogrebnyak, who impressed at Fulham during a loan spell from January to May, but midfield is likely to be Reading’s weak spot, unless new recruits are brought in. Finally, West Ham United return to the Premier League after a year away, with former Bolton manager, Sam Allardyce, now in charge at Upton Park. He has brought in a tough-tackling midfielder, Diame from Wigan, and his experience at this level should help the Hammers hit the ground running and avoid being relegation fodder this time around.
Fulham finished 9th in Martin Jol’s first season in charge, but have seen Danny Murphy, Andrew Johnson and Pogrebnyak move on over the summer, plus Clint Dempsey has been angling for a transfer to a bigger club. The only signing of note Jol has made is Hugo Rodallega from Wigan, but the Colombian striker manager to find the net just twice in 23 appearances for the Latics last year – it could be a long season at Craven Cottage. There is a renewed sense of optimism for Aston Villa for the coming campaign as supporters were happy to see Alex McCleish exit in the summer. The former Birmingham City boss was never going to be a fan favourite, but his negative style of play did little to endear himself to the Villa Park faithful and they ended up losing eight home games in 2011/12. Paul Lambert’s arrival from Norwich may not make Villa into contenders for Europe, but if he can get a full season out of Darren Bent, Lambert should at least steer them to mid-table mediocrity and away from another relegation battle.
Tony Pulis is leading Stoke into their fifth consecutive season in the top flight – a huge success for a club that was expected to return straight back to the Championship when they gained promotion in May 2008. By the same measure, Wigan have stunned many by avoiding demotion ever since they made their Premiership debut back in 2005 and last year’s second-half renaissance saw them beat both Arsenal and Manchester United. Roberto Martinez was allowed to speak to both Liverpool and Aston Villa during the off-season about their vacant managerial positions, but for now, he remains in charge at the DW Stadium. Should he be lost mid-year to another club, Wigan could find themselves losing their record as the only side never relegated from the top flight of English football.
Finally, there’s West Bromwich Albion – quite literally the last team I think of when listing the 20 Premier League clubs. Roy Hodgson left to take over as England manager in May and has been replaced by the long-time assistant at Chelsea and Liverpool, Steve Clarke. How Clarke handles being the head coach will determine whether or not Albion are at risk of relegation; 10 home defeats last year suggest they have the potential to bottom out this season without Hodgson’s guile to save them.
This is my forecast for how the Premiership table will look next May. A couple of notes: I think that Sir Alex Ferguson’s new recruits and his desire to knock City back off the top will be unstoppable forces in the title race; DiMatteo will come unstuck at Chelsea and be gone by the new year; and my pessimism about Spurs is because our second-choice striker right now is Mad Men’s Harry Kane, while our goalkeeper is old enough to have been a peer of Don Draper.
1. Manchester United
3. Manchester City
10. Aston Villa
11. Norwich City
12. West Ham
14. Stoke City
20. West Brom
Arsenal vs Sunderland – Home win
Fulham vs Norwich – Draw
QPR vs Swansea – Away win
Reading vs Stoke – Home win
West Brom vs Liverpool – Away win
West Ham vs Aston Villa – Draw
Newcastle vs Tottenham – Home win
Wigan vs Chelsea – Away win
Manchester City vs Southampton – Home win
Everton vs Manchester United – Draw