Predicting the outcome of the Premier League season before a ball has been kicked is a foolhardy pursuit. So here, nailed to the mast, is a few of our top 4, bottom 3 predictions. I'm thinking it'll be nice to come back here at various points in the season and just point and laugh at our own stupidity.
Top four: Man Utd, Liverpool, Aston Villa, Chelsea.
Come on! This season is exciting -- the genuine possibility for Utd, Liverpool or Chelsea to win it, as they seem more evenly matched than ever before. Liverpool are probably the strongest going into the first day, as they have a clear idea of how they're going to set up next year, i.e. the same as last year. However, I think it will be just not quite good enough yet again. Their strength in depth is poor, and they still have weaknesses on the wing that the acquisition of Glen Johnson will help, but not solve. Chelsea won't settle in in time to make a real threat, and Abramovich will fuck them up yet again, probably firing Ancelotti by September. United get the title not by default, but because I think Ferguson is best equipped to shepherd his team to the title. Buying Owen was a masterful move (wait for this to backfire, obviously). Finally, I've been thinking a lot about Arsenal, and decided they won't get in the top four. I love them -- if I have an English team, it's them (which, as a Celtic fan, brings up a whole other conflict in a couple of weeks, which I'll be writing about on here...), but they seem to be in a serious re-building phase just now, and injuries to key players hamper them more than most. Villa get third in a champion effort from my former nemesis-namesake Martin O'Neill.
Bottom three: Blackburn, Burnley, Birmingham.
I'd love Burnley to survive, but I don't see their resources being up to the task. Hopefully they'll get a dramatic last-day finish, if nothing else, but they're going back down. Birmingham too -- Alex McLeish is a nice football personality, but his attachment to former Scottish proteges will be his downfall. Blackburn will finally succumb to the drop, as Sam Allardyce's anti-football tactics prove inadequate to a new era of Xavi/Iniesta-inspired passing football in the League (one can dream...).
Top 4 - Chelsea, Man Utd, Arsenal, Everton
Can Ancelloti guide Chelsea to the Premier League title in his first season? I guess I think he can. He inherits a strong squad that’s been galvanised by winning the FA Cup under Hiddink. Zhirkov looks like a decent addition that will add balance on the left. The marquee signing that Captain Terry demanded before ‘proving’ his loyalty doesn’t look likely but they might benefit from the continuity. Maybe I’m putting too much on the Ronaldo sale, he did spend half the season being a petulant brat but he was still effective. Most predictions I’ve read focus on Rooney’s added importance to the team rather than any focus on a genuine replacement for the oily one. For me, they just look that little bit more beatable without him. It seems Wenger’s fledglings may finally be ready to push on this season. In Arshavin, Fabregas, Rosicky and Nasri they boast the most creative of midfield talents. They still lack a top goalscorer and there will be a lot of pressure on Vermaelen to settle in quickly. They might even lead the race come Christmas only for Wenger to blow a gasket as his youthful squad crack under pressure. And finally predicting the that the team that have finished in 5th place for the past two seasons can go one better this year should not necessarily be a large leap of faith, but it probably is. Everton are consistent and have some very good players (Arteta, Cahill and Jagielka). They also have genuine competition for places (Yakubu, Jo, Saha, Anichebe and Vaughan) bolstered with emerging talent from the academy (Rodwell, Baxter) if injuries don’t take there toll. They seemed to improve when Lescott was moved to the centre and Baines began playing regularly last season, if Lescott goes, and for footballs sake let’s hope he doesn’t, Yobo and Jagielka (Rodwell until he returns) will provide an adequate shield for ticking Timmy.
Bottom 3 – Hull, Portsmouth, Burnley
I never really thought I was a bad judge of character, I think Phil Brown’s fall from grace last season proves that I am. At first I thought he and his battling Hull side were a breath of fresh air, then came the increasingly outlandish quotes, the silly fuzz and finally that horrific last day debacle with him celebrating a defeat like a massive bell in the middle of the pitch. They didn’t necessarily keep themselves up last season, more Middlesbrough and Newcastle got themselves relegated and I don’t think they’ll be so fortunate this time. I’ve included Portsmouth here for the sheer volume of quality players they have lost. It echoes their South Coast neighbours troubles of last season albeit a division below. Hart seems pragmatic and affable but he’ll prove himself an astute manager keeping this threadbare (even with some genuine quality in it) squad up. Finally, Burnley. I was harping on to all who’d listen that Burnley would get through the playoff’s in May and now here I am proclaiming they'll be propping up the table all season. I won’t be the only one. They just look too good to stay in this division. Too honest, too willing to try and play football. A bit naive? I've been proven wrong on more the one occassion and I’d be delighted if they did but my it’s hard to see it.
Despite all the hoo-hah involving Man City and the familiar question of whether Arsenal can keep their place in the elite, I can’t see anyone breaking the stranglehold of season’s past. Each team have had to deal with a big departure over the summer (Utd – Ronaldo; Chelsea – Hiddink; Liverpool – Alonso; Arsenal – Adebayor) but I think they all have enough to compensate for that loss.
I’d love to share Taylor’s ludicrous optimism that the mighty Toffees will breach the gap, but it aint happening. They haven’t improved the squad enough to do so and Moysie boasts a quite miserable record against the big boys. Same goes for Aston Villa and Tottenham. O’Neill should just be concentrating on keeping Villa consistent while ‘Appy ‘Arry’s penchant for playing Champ Man might make his Spurs side entertaining, it inevitably leads to disappointment (ask Keegan).
I’m not going to completely rule out ‘Sparky Hughes’ Abu Dhabi Army’ though. Potential frontline combinations of any of Tevez, Robinho, Adebayor, Santa Cruz, Bellamy and Wrighty P, with the likes of Barry, Ireland, De Jong and Kompany in behind them is something you really can’t argue with. Add Lescott or Upson (or both) to Richards, Onuoha, Bridge and the excellent Given and you got yourself a squad of players.
That being said, here’s my 2009/2010 Top 4…
#1 Manchester United
Ronaldo’s world record breaking move to Real Madrid might be the biggest monetary transfer of the pre-season. However, it’s the boy now occupying his No. 7 jersey who is gained all the attention. Since C-Ron’s exit, the question for Utd and Sir Alex is whether they can fill the void left by the Portuguese Pretty Boy. The arrival of Michael Owen and Antonio Luis Valencia suggest that they’ve acted decisively to cover the goal scoring and making exploits of the World Player of the Year. Whether they have or not will be answered before Christmas.
Defensively Utd are as strong as anyone and they possess depth and diversity in midfield. Their question marks lie in the final third of the field. Talk of the added responsibility on Rooney’s shoulders seems to have overshadowed the importance of Berbatov’s performances this year. For Utd to succeed, I believe the Bulgarian has to be a consistent influence and can’t resort to flitting in and out of games as he did in the last campaign.
I’m a huge fan of Berbatov; I think he’s complete class. Players of his and ‘Wazza’s’ pedigree don’t think about “gelling”, they just trust each other’s pure ability. Throw in the guaranteed goals of Michael Owen and the precocious young Itai Macheda and scoring looks easy. I think the strength of Utd’s squad still ranks above most in the world and this will be enough to make it four on the spin. My only concern would be whether Sir Alex places the Champions League over the Premiership. After last season’s frustration, he’ll want to get it right this time round and that could see a shift in his priorities.
Similarly to Utd, Chelsea have added very little player-wise over the summer and will rely on what they’ve already got. The obvious question is whether Carlo Ancelotti can carry on what Guus Hiddink appeared to start. After the ups and downs of Avram Grant and ‘Big Phil’, Hiddink got them playing again and clearly had a very positive impact on the players. Ancelotti is inheriting a confident, content squad and will have to do something quite drastic to disrupt their dynamic. From what I’ve seen of them in pre-season Ancelotti looks to be implementing his customary 4-4-2 diamond. Chelsea certainly have the players to accommodate this formation, it’s just whether the egos will allow it.
For me, it’s key that Chelsea get Carvalho back alongside Terry as a first choice centre half. He’s proven he’s a great player and was the backbone of their success under Jose. The attack looks relatively settled with Drogba, having professed his undying love for The Blues, and last season’s top score Anelka looking like forming a more regular strike force this time round. Chelsea’s problem will lie in who occupies the four midfield berths. Lampard is a certainty at the peak while Obi-Mikel and Essien will probably vie for the holding role. Malouda was better last year but will come under pressure from the returning Joe Cole, plus egos-in-arms Ballack and Deco will no doubt have their say. Ancelotti will have to be ruthless and not cower to these decisions just because someone might get a bit pissy. I reckon he’s got it in him.
I’m really interested to see how Ancelotti and his new formation do. Whether it works or not, Chelsea will still be the model of consistency, dismantling bottom half teams home and away. However, they’ll have to produce more against those in the top 6. I see them pushing Utd very close, especially if both Drogba and Anelka can get scoring.
I’m not really going to waste much time on Liverpool because I don’t think anything will change. Benitez will play the same way, use the same tactics in the same formation. He’ll rightly try and keep going what they put together last season which was a strong, defensively savvy team with probably the two best players in the league spearheading it.
Alonso’s move back home does leave a rather gaping hole to fill that could effectively change the way Liverpool set up. Its unlikely Gerrard will drop in there to form a more conventional 4-4-2 as Benitez has clearly shown he prefers him in behind Torres. So expect to see the industrious Lucas Leiva line up alongside Javier Mascherano. I’ve only seen this Aquilani play a few times but he’s never impressed me. He looks entirely too lightweight to play as a central midfielder and not really penetrative enough to play higher up the pitch. However, at 20 mil, Rafa’s got to find a place for him somewhere. This one’s got Robbie Keane written all over it.
Benitez has constructed a regimented unit that knows will always get him results. His problem seems to be finding alternative ways of playing when Gerrard and Torres are misfiring or absent. The purchase of Glen Johnson might give them more going forward but he’s an awful defender (although anything’s an improvement on Arbeloa). Like many, I’d like to see Benitez use Babel more. He can be a little erratic and oblivious but has the potential to turn games with his raw pace and power. After last year, Liverpool will underwhelm in the league but I can definitely see them reaching or winning a cup final.
Its odd how Arsenal and manager Arsene Wenger were staunchly hated about five years back but are now universally loved for their application of ‘the beautiful game’. “Loved” might be an exaggeration. “Pitied” seems more suitable. They’re the football equivalent of Mickey Rourke in ‘The Wrestler’: sublime, almost tear-inducing performance that sorrowfully won’t get them what they want. Now that they’re not routinely winning trophies they are no longer a legitimate threat and everybody’s appreciation of their flowing football is tinged with a “You know they really do deserve something for the way they play”.
The thing I love about Wenger is his completely blinkered view that his team, no matter what they clearly lack, is as good as it’s ever been. His unwavering belief in the youngsters he has is testament to those who think money is ruining the game. The problem for Arsenal is, youth and ability will only get you so far. And because Wenger is so pig-headed (or French) he’s never going to admit what is publicly evident. Even the slight wobble he had considering a move for old boy Patrick Viera was quickly quashed. This, despite the fact they’ve lacked any real leadership in years and the players he’s turned to (Gallas, Gilberto, Toure, even Henry) didn’t have it.
Keeping hold of Fabregas, placing emphasis on his role and building around him is key. Great flair players like Arshavin, Rosicky, Nasri are an enormous asset but there are going to struggle to play without someone to do their graft. Arsenal need someone with bite in the middle of the park and until they find that, they’ll continue to underachieve. They’ll no doubt set us alight with some of their football, once in a while humiliating teams, making us sit up and notice. But ability alone doesn’t get you through 38 games, and when that falters, they don’t have much to fall back on.
As I rambled like a mental patient about the top 4, I’ll keep this one brief (plus I should really do some work at work). Picking relegation fodder used to be easy. It always involved the three promoted teams plus a couple usual suspects. But since the turn of the century, big teams are regularly involved in the fight for survival and now there always seems to be a surprise faller. After last season’s ridiculously tight bottom half, I see it being the same way this year. I think 7 or 8 teams will be involved throughout the season so I’m just going to go with the gut on this one…
#18 Wigan Athletic
This was a toss up with Wolves and I surprised myself by backing the perennially moaning old bastard Mick McCarthy. Since their promotion in 2005, people have questioned Wigan’s place in the Premiership. But after another solid year under Steve Bruce, they were on the road to being the Bolton Wanderers. A few astute signings plus his ability to get the best (or something) out poor players meant The Latics had something to build on. Bruce has now left for the opportunity to spend some cash and has been replaced by former Wigan favourite Roberto Martinez. He got Swansea promoted from League One in his first season and kept them in the Championship playoff hunt last. While he’s had early success, I’m convinced this is a premature appointment and one just to appease the fans. Wigan are a team that often need to be dragged through games which Bruce was perfectly weathered for. I’m not sure Martinez currently has that mental toughness to take on the burden of Wigan’s inevitable struggle. My favourite for first Premiership sacking (unless Spughesy loses two on the bounce).
#19 Stoke City
I can’t see it carrying on. They did fantastically well in their first season and really ruffled a lot of feathers. But they’ve barely added to their squad which means we’re going to get the same physical, stifling displays that previously saw them bully lesser teams. This year, that novelty (it is 2010) will have gone and teams will be better prepared for any aerial onslaught. I think they’ll get goals but be too fragile at the back to stay out of it.
The obvious ones maybe, but for a reason. Owen Coyle had success against Premiership opposition in the cups last season, but I can’t see his Burnley side maintaining any sort of form at any time during the year. He’s clearly instilled an excellent spirit and work ethic within the squad but the lack of real talent or top flight quality. They have some promising youngsters but it isn’t enough to keep them up.
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