Shove yer Olympics up yer......................
THE problem with these previews is that the season kick offs a full thirteen days before the transfer window shuts. You carefully peruse the strength of all twenty clubs and map their fate as best you can. Then after a frenzied flurry of activity at the end of the month you’re left feeling a little foolish: the team you had nailed on to finish bottom look rather good now and a top ten finish isn’t out of the question, others suddenly look in danger and the whole dynamic of the division has changed.
My predictions at the start of last season were marginally off. I managed to correctly guess the finishing position of one club. That’s right out of twenty positions I got just one right. I tipped Newcastle for the drop, Liverpool for a Champions League spot and Blackburn to finish in a lofty twelfth position, quite the expert aren’t I? But that was last season, it’s in the past. The Premier League is about to start again and this means I have the opportunity to redeem myself – or more likely cause further embarrassment – so here’s how I see the forthcoming season panning out.
At some point during the last few years Arsenal have morphed from serial title-challengers to also-rans. Does anyone honestly expect them to compete for the top prize this year? No, they’ll finish fourth or maybe third if it’s a good year. And now they’ve completed their fall from grace by becoming the kind of club that sells their best players to their supposed rivals. It was to be expected though. If you fail to win trophies then it becomes increasingly difficult to hold on to your top players. Arsenal are only now beginning to face up to the harsh realities of seven fruitless years.
Key player: Tomas Vermaelen
What might happen: A home game against West Brom sees Arsenal break the world record for possession percentage over ninety minutes. Having watched his side hog the ball for a staggering 96% of the game Arsene is moved to call it “my greatest ever achievement”. West Brom win the game 1-0.
What won’t happen: Fed up of being bullied at The Brittania Arsene calls upon his new, trusted lieutenant, Steve Bould, to handle team affairs for this traditionally spiky encounter. Nine red cards, six broken legs and an abandoned game later Arsene deems the experiment “a success”.
Aston Villa’s summer signings hardly inspire. Four relative unknowns brought in for a sum figure of less than £8 million. Hold onto your hats Villa fans! It all points to another season of transition for Birmingham’s biggest club. Lambert may have worked miracles at Norwich but Aston Villa Football Club has an awful habit of wearing down even the hardiest of souls. A harmonious relationship with the club’s American owner is crucial if Lambert is to succeed. Managing expectations may prove to be his most difficult challenge.
Key Player: Darren Bent
What might happen: Unhappy with how his club is being run Doug Ellis attempts a daring coup. The ensuing melee between the 88 year-old former chairman and current incumbent Randy Lerner brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “boardroom battle”.
What won’t happen: On a scouting mission to Villa Park Giovanni Trappatoni is moved to ask who the bald-headed number seven in claret and blue is. “Eef ees namea eeza Irlande surely he shoulda be playing for Irlande, no”? asks the bewildered Italian.
The end of season surge which saw Chelsea take club football’s ultimate prize was supposed to be the last stand for this squad of players. It was their Indian summer, the last battle cry of a dying warrior. So what now? The squad is largely the same. Yes Drogba has gone but Terry, Cole and Lampard remain. But what Chelsea have added this summer is a touch of excitement, a hint of panache, to their squad. Eden Hazard and Oscar may be unproven at this level but their purchases have signalled a real intent, Abramovich wants that title back and he’s got the receipts to prove it. They will push the two Manchester clubs right to the finish.
Key Player: Fernando Torres
What might happen: As the scores of successful British Olympians lap up the applause at the annual BBC Sports Personality of The Year awards a cheeky little face can be seen in the background. No way was JT gonna miss out on this one.
What won’t happen: After his early season form fails to meet his own very high expectations Eden Hazard takes to Twitter, and admits that he’s struggling with his confidence and general self-belief.
For a time this summer it looked like David Moyes might finally be about to leave Everton. Tottenham had just sacked Harry Redknapp and Moyes’ name was being bandied about in the press as a possible successor to the illiterate wheeler-dealer. To his credit Moyes kept his counsel and offered only well-rehearsed soundbytes when questioned about a move down South. But who could blame him for wondering when his time will come? So with their manager staying put what can Everton fans expect for the forthcoming season? In all likelihood more of the same: dogged determination from back to front, flashes of inspiration from the gifted Pienaar and Osman and hysterical celebrations should they manage to get one over on their Merseyside rivals.
Key Player: Nikica Jelavic
What might happen: The search party for the missing Seamus Coleman is eventually called off after two weeks when the diminutive Irishman is found sleeping in Marouane Fellaini’s hair.
What won’t happen: Two games into the new season Steven Pienaar realises he’s made a terrible mistake and hands in a transfer request, issuing a come and get me plea to Tottenham Hotspur in the process. By January he’s back at Goodison having endured a torrid three months on the bench at Spurs.
Every Premier League club has a perceived identity, something which distinguishes them from all other teams. Fulham were always a team guaranteed to provide free-flowing football and seemingly topped the Fair Play League on a yearly basis. They were a nice team. But what are they now? A glance through their squad listings reveals plenty of familiar names, names we’ve grown to associate with everything Fulham, but a whole host of new players appear to have sprung from nowhere. In truth it’s probably about a time the Cottagers freshened up their ranks. But with new players comes a new era and those following in the footsteps of Danny Murphy, Bobby Zamora and, potentially, Clint Dempsey have their work cut out if they wish to emulate their predecessors. Chances are this new crop of youngsters will be just as nice as those they’re replacing and will also practise a similarly pleasing on the eye brand of football.
Key Player: Brede Hangelaand
What might happen: Fulham might, just might, win an away game or two this season.
What won’t happen: Amid growing concerns for their safety away fans are warned to travel in large groups when visiting “The Raving Craven”.
So, at the fifth time of asking Liverpool finally got their first choice manager. King Kenny has gone off to mutter indecipherable barbs at his rose bushes and a fresh, new face has arrived to bring back the glory days. Well at least that’s how it’s supposed to be. As things stand Liverpool are a long way from challenging for the title and even a Champions League spot looks unlikely at this moment in time. Rodgers may yet bring in some more new faces but with the players currently at his disposal it’s hard to see how the Reds can break back into the coveted top four.
Key Player: Luis Suarez
What might happen: The local zoo request the return of Jay Spearing as he is considered a key feature in their exotic beasts section.
What won’t happen: Liverpool Football Club accept the blame for, you know, anything, ever.
The most surprising thing about this summer has been city’s activity, or lack of, in the transfer market. The recent acquisition of Jack Rodwell remains their only signing. As many a wily old Scot will tell you: you need to build upon title-winning squads. Mancini clearly needs to trim his full to bursting squad and the likes of Dzeko, Adebayor and De Jong will surely be on their way before the end of August. Only then might we see what the champions have in mind for the new season. Their squad is already the strongest in the division, I fear it may be about to get even stronger.
Key Player: Yaya Toure
What might happen: Tired of having their wacky goal celebration named after another club city’s fans plead with their owner to have it renamed. After a £50m bid is accepted by Lech Poznan the laser blues get their wish as the highly original dance becomes officially known as ‘The Blue Goon’.
What won’t happen: As a reward for his contributions to the city of Manchester Carlos Tevez is given the keys to the city at a civic reception in the town hall. The surly, little troll responds by unfurling an Argentinean flag with the words “Give us back the Falklands, English scum” emblazoned across the front.
The arrival of Van Persie and the non-arrival of anything resembling a central midfield player points to only one thing: a new, revolutionary 4-0-6 formation. Barcelona have all the decent midfielders so Fergie, in his infinite wisdom, has decided a change of tack is required. We saw Spain play without a striker during the summer so why not take it a step further. Playing without any midfield players may be a cause for concern but this will surely be offset by the sight of Van Persie, Rooney, Welbeck, Hernandez, Nani and Kagawa lining up together. It’s Scholesy I feel sorry for though.
Key Player: Robin Van Persie
What might happen: “He can play till he’s 50”, says Fergie as he hands Ryan Giggs a lucrative new ten-year contract.
What won’t happen: Antonio Valencia shows signs of breaking into something resembling a smile.
The Toon Army is renowned for having realistic expectations and never getting carried away by its team’s success. So should Newcastle fail to live up to last season’s remarkable rise the team will be given the eternal backing of their loyal support. Meanwhile back on Planet Earth it’s rather difficult to see where The Magpies can go from last season. Most people’s tip for relegation they defied the odds and were in contention for a Champions League place until the final day. Much of the credit has to go to Alan Pardew who has a canny knack of getting the best out of players cast aside by others, but a few big money signings to supplement what he already has are vital if his team aren’t to stagnate.
Key Player: Demba Cisse or whatever his name is.
What might happen: Newcastle United finally win a trophy and the British media rejoices.
What won’t happen: With temperatures reaching record lows over the festive period the Geordie faithful wrap up well for their Boxing Day encounter at St. James’ Park. Despite the best intentions of the cameraman not one topless, obese man is to be found throughout the entire stadium.
What is it about Norwich and players with ridiculous surnames? Ian Culverhouse, Marc Edworthy, Ian Butterworth, Aaron Wilbraham....sounds like the cast of some Victorian drama. And look who they’ve bought this summer: why it’s only Robert Snodgrass and Jacob Butterfield. Weird goings on in Norfolk I tell thee. So yeah they’ve changed managers over the summer but kept largely the same squad which helped them to a comfortable mid-table position. Will Chris Hughton be able to carry on the work started by Lambert or did the departing boss leave in the knowledge that he’d taken this group of players as far as he could?
Key Player: Grant Holt
What might happen: Another drunken pitch invasion from domestic goddess Delia Smith sees the middle aged mentalist escorted away by some over-zealous stewards. Delia later claims her Evian was spiked by “the mischievous Wes Hoolahan”.
What won’t happen: Paul Lambert begins the raid on his old club by tempting Grant Holt to the Midlands.
Queens Park Rangers
I used to really like QPR and was rather happy to see them return to the top flight last season. I don’t like them anymore. No, not because of their capitulation against city on the final day, they’re just not a very likeable team. I have no idea how they stayed up last season because I can’t recall them winning a single game. Mark Hughes probably moaned them to safety. But they’ve been busy this summer: Park Ji-Sung will ensure they become a lot more likeable and Junior Hoilett is a fine capture. Given their fevered activity in the transfer market another relegation battle will not be tolerated by the club’s owners.
Key Player: Junior Hoillett
What might happen: A spectacular Leeds-esque fall from grace which sees Rangers spiral down the divisions. Not that QPR’s owners are corrupt are anything obviously.
What won’t happen: Mark Hughes gives a post-match interview where he’s at once both charming and witty. The interviewer in question is later brought to the nearest hospital suffering from suspected shock.
When Reading were relegated from the Premier League in 2008 I, like many, presumed that was the last we’d hear of them. They’d had their little sojourn in the top flight and would fade into obscurity. But now they’re back. This wasn’t in the script. So can they last longer than a couple of seasons this time around? Reading lack any real quality and even the arrival of Pavel Pogbrenyak can’t mask their deficiencies. Maybe they can emulate last year’s promoted clubs and thrive with largely the same squad they got them up but I doubt it. Everything points towards an even shorter spell in the top division for the Berkshire club.
Key Player: Pavel Pogbrenyak
What might happen: Reading announce record profits which are all due to shirt sales with ‘Pogbrenyak’ on the back.
What won’t happen: They won’t stay up. Definitely not. I surely won’t be wrong about this one. Cue Reading finishing in a healthy top ten position.
Despite finishing last season as runners-up to Reading there is arguably greater cause for optimism among Saints fans than those of the Championship winners. Successive promotions prove this is a club heading in the right direction and there is a sense that this is a new Southampton. We all remember the club of old: perennial strugglers who relied on the mercurial talents of Le Tiss and the imposing environs of The Dell to stay up on a yearly basis. The new Southampton is one founded on a flourishing youth system and one not afraid to invest to supplement those coming through the ranks. St Mary’s may be just another identikit stadium but it may well prove to be one of the League’s more testing away days in the forthcoming season.
Key Player: Rickie Lambert
What might happen: Sky Sports’ first visit to Southampton begins with a montage of old footage from The Dell, featuring goals from Matthew Le Tissier.
What won’t happen: The Saints follow up successive promotions by storming to Premier League glory.
Could this be year the Stoke bubble finally bursts? For the first time since their promotion there appears to be an air of vulnerability about Tony Pulis’ side. Yes they’re still the league’s most physical side and nobody will relish a visit to The Britannia but something has changed. Again, like almost everything, it comes down to money and Stoke have thus far failed to add to a squad badly in need of some renovating. Instead it will be down to old stalwarts Matthew Etherington, Ryan Shawcross and everyone’s favourite freak, Peter Crouch, to ensure The Potters maintain their Premier League status. A return to form for the mysteriously waylaid Kenwyne Jones would be most welcome too.
Key Player: Matthew Etherington
What might happen: An opposing goalkeeper takes to the field wearing full body armour at The Brittania.
What won’t happen: Tony Pulis gives into temptation and buys Barry Robson for the sole purpose of pairing him with Cameron Jerome. “A commentator’s dream”, is how Motty describes it.
You know a team is struggling for goals when they take Louis Saha on board. Martin O’Neill may have jumped at the chance to bring in such a talented player on a free transfer, but any money saved will inevitably go towards a couple of extra physios to service ole Balsa Boy. But you can’t blame O’Neill for being a bit desperate. Sunderland still haven’t replaced the goals of Darren Bent and none of his current strikers look up to the job, Stephane Sessegnon joined the club as a winger but has bore much of the goalscoring responsibility for the Wearsiders. A top level centre forward is required if The Black Cats wish to avoid being drawn into a relegation dogfight: problem is every club is looking for one of those.
Key Player: Stephane Sessegnon
What might happen: Another drab, uneventful season for the Wearsiders.
What won’t happen: O’Neill abandons his manic ‘leaping leprechaun’ celebrations despite now being 60 years of age.
The appointment of Michael Laudrup as new Swansea manager was probably one of the oddest moments of the summer. They went from the unassuming Brendan Rodgers to one of football’s most famous names. Danes can’t manage anyway, everyone knows that. Name me a good Danish manager? Okay so the fella who led the national side to European glory in 1992 was probably quite decent but him aside there’s nobody. And two of the Swans best players from last season have sought pastures new to boot, Joe Allen has followed Rodgers to Liverpool and Gylfi Sigurdsson has gone to Spurs. But those who remain will be eager to prove that their success wasn’t solely down to their ex-manager, and Laudrup himself will hope his tenure lasts a bit longer than his previous three jobs which have all been as brief as they were unsuccessful.
Key Player: Michel Vorm
What might happen: In a bid to ‘out-Welsh’ their hated rivals, Cardiff City, The Swans become The Dragons, and take to the field breathing fire in the general direction of any unfortunate English players.
What won’t happen: Laudrup’s successful one-year tenure at The Liberty Stadium sees a huge influx of Danish managers to English shores. This influx consists of John Jensen and Dennis Rommedahl in a steamboat.
At one point last season, with Spurs only a handful of points off the top, Rafael Van der Vaart was moved to call his side “genuine title contenders”. Oh Rafael you silly man, you’ve obviously not been in England long enough I thought to myself, the only thing Spurs are contenders for is the title of ‘football’s biggest bottlers’. And so it proved: a quick freefall down the table and normality was restored. But why is it that, no matter who is in charge, Tottenham so frequently shit their pants when things get tough? From Hoddle to Jol to Ardiles they’ve always been this way, even George Graham couldn’t change it. And now Daniel Levy has hired a man whose previous experience in English football amounts to the attempted dismantling of a team that went on to win the Champions League. Clever eh?
Key Player: Gareth Bale
What might happen: Every time Tottenham win a game or perform admirably good ole ‘Arry pops up in the media and takes as much credit as is humanely possible. Such a humble geezer.
What won’t happen: Spurs win a trophy. The year doesn’t end in a one you idiot!
West Bromwich Albion
I saw Steve Clarke being interviewed on Sky Sports News the other day and wondered who he was managing these days. As he blethered on about new signings and pre-season excitement I began to pity the poor League One side that had taken a punt on Mourinho’s former spin-doctor. Then he started talking about the Premier League, maybe his club had drawn a top-flight side in the Capital One Cup I mused. But no, he’s actually managing a PL team and it’s West Brom! The Baggies had a great time last season, Roy Hodgson and West Brom seemed a perfect fit: but then England came a calling and that was that. There appears little chance of Scotland, or any other footballing minnow, coming calling for Steve Clarke though so it looks like they’re stuck with him for the foreseeable future.
Key Player: Peter Odemwingie
What might happen: West Brom cement their place as the best team in the Midlands by finishing above the pitiful Villa. A dubious honour if ever there was one.
What won’t happen: Steve Clarke uses his “contacts within the game” to secure the loan signings of Kaka, Lassana Diarra and Esteban Granero.
West Ham United
Ah they’re back, the Hammers, those lovable Cockneys: ready to provide us with endless mirth and comedy until their inevitable relegation in May. Cos that’s what they do isn’t it? They get promoted in a blaze of glory and light up the Premier League throughout August and September, and then find themselves rooted to the foot of the table by the end of February. However it might be different this time, they’ve got Big Sam in charge now. The fans might not like his football but West Ham is a club badly in need of some stability and they can ill afford another relegation. They must learn from the mistakes of the past and re-establish themselves as a top-flight club. Allardyce has already moved to add a bit of steel to the team with the purchases of Alou Diarra and Mohammed Diame, combative central midfield players may not have the fans blowing bubbles but they may safeguard the Hammers future for longer than the usual couple of seasons.
Key Player: Kevin Nolan
What might happen: Despite sitting in a comfortable mid-table position West Ham sack Sam Allardyce, citing increased disquiet among the club’s supporters as the reason. Caretaker manager, Trevor Brooking, gets the Hammers playing the kind of football the fans want to see. He promises to do the same in next year’s Championship campaign.
What won’t happen: West Ham United go an entire season in the Premier League without being caught up in some scandal or controversy.
Would the real Wigan Athletic please stand up? Are Wigan one of the worst sides in the history of Premier League football – as seen from August to March of last season – or are they a top ten side capable of beating anyone in the division when at their best – as seen from March to May of last season. Who knows? Roberto Martinez has miraculously remained at the club but where does he go from here? Avoiding relegation was, up to now, considered a successful season for Wigan but a man of Martinez’s talents must secretly wish for more. Once again he has scrabbled round on the transfer market floor and emerged with some loanees, free transfers and unheralded Spaniards, but with the big boys hovering around their squad eager to feast upon its tastier morsels this may be the end of the road for Martinez and Wigan.
Key Player: Ali Al-Habsi
What might happen: Wigan record home and away victories over Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, but still get relegated.
What won’t happen: Dave Whelan minces his words during an interview.
So there it is, Man city will retain their title again, United will finish a distant second and once more London will trail in Manchester's wake. Wigan will finally bid the Premier League adieu bringing Norwich and Reading down with them. Liverpool, Everton, Newcastle and Spurs will continue to be the best of the rest and Southampton will be the surprise package of the season. All of this can be taken as gospel and when I return to this article next May I will do so with a smug sense of satisfaction, content in the knowledge that my predictions all came to fruition. On the other hand I may not, I may sit here scratching my head in utter bewilderment and wonder just how I could have been so stupid.