OK. Here are my, admittedly amateurish, predictions for this season of the Premier League. Feel free to comment and call me crazy, or pronounce my genius. At the end of the season, I’ll do another column and we’ll see just how wrong I was.
My prediction for top spot: Chelsea. I think Carlo Ancelotti is a very good manager, and he will be able to repeat Jose Mourinho’s feat of winning the Premier League in his first season, with what is still, essentially, Jose’s team. I’m not sure about the “diamond” formation he spoke about, but then again, how many manager’s boast of their plans for the season? Sounds to me like Carlo was just making Chelsea fans feel better by telling them he’ll attack a bit more often than some of his predecessors. Forget the attach, focus on controlling the games and finishing the season strong. I think Manchester United and Liverpool have lost enough to make Chelsea champions. Their depth also makes them more likely to withstand injuries than their immediate competitors. I’m also looking forward to seeing Yuri Zhirkov in the team. Wouldn’t be surprised if Didier Drogba wound up as top scorer either.
Lots of class, added to the squad and showed at the end of the last season what they’re capable of. I believe in Carlo Ancelotti. Only problem? Getting too focused on the Champions League.
2. Manchester United
Losing Ronaldo hurts, even though they got some decent cover for him. Losing Tevez hurts, though Michael Owen could help ease the pain. Losing Van der Sar for a while may hurt, or may not. I just don’t see this team being as defensively dominant as last season. The end of season form showed that perhaps Vidic-Ferdinand is not quite as dominant a pair as they seem. And injuries to the back line could be disastrous. Still, they can do it, because they’ve done it before and because they’ve got the players for it. Wayne Rooney may well be the best player in the league and it’ll be good to see him up front again, trying for a goal with every touch.
I was set to make the No. 1, until they sold Xabi Alonso. Does one player really make enough difference to drop them to third? It certainly does with this player in my opinion. Gerrard and Torres are the playmakers, but Alonso and Mascherano were the backbone, and there’s no real cover for Alonso. Lucas Leiva has never convinced me in that position and Alberto Aquilani is not a holding midfield, and he’s injured. And their centre backs may crumble at any point. Their injury history (Carragher, Skrtel, Agger) is not good. Liverpool still has a chance, but they need to be very lucky with injuries and need to be a bit more aggressive in their league fixtures.
Everyone’s asking if this is they year that Arsenal drops out of the top four, but there’s still so much talent in this team. I think they won’t miss Adebayor as much as most people think. His contributions last season were limited. I also think Andrei Arshavin has proved a very good buy for them. The big concern is at the back, having lost Kolo Toure and never added a holding midfielder. If they lose Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona though, forget fourth, I see them dropping 2 or 3 spots from here.
5. Manchester City
Is that all £100 million gets you? Fifth place? That may still change depending on how the Big Four fare, but I think it will take Manchester City some time to come together as a team. I think the important thing is to fight through a potential slow start. There’s a lot of talent in team, if Mark Hughes can settle them into a weekly routine and a basic lineup where everyone knows their function, they’re capable of some really good performances. Don’t be surprised to see them sell a bit mid-season to clear non-starters and add another player to shore up the squad for the second half. I think that after Christmas, it’ll be their time to shine.
Is David Moyes the best manager in the Premier League? Considering how he seems to keep his team in the top places each year despite injuries, sales and at times a complete lack of forwards, I’d have to say he has a very good case. I think it’ll be the same again, although hopefully this time, he’ll be able to go through the season with at least a couple of healthy strikers among Yakubu, Jo and Louis Saha. Expect a slow start though, especially with Mikel Arteta out with injury.
7. Aston Villa
I really hate pushing Martin O’Neill’s squad this far down, especially because I like watching them play. But losing Gareth Barry and Martin Laursen means the spine of this team is broken, and needs to be rebuilt. Stewart Downing getting healthy at mid-season may mean they’re willing to sell Ashley Young in order to get someone to cover those holes, but we’ll see if they can manage the first half of the season with a mediocre back line. James Milner is an underrated midfielder and deserves his place in the England squad.
8. Tottenham Hotspur
Ask Harry Redknapp about what he’s done for Tottenham and he’ll tell you they only had 2 points when he took charge and saved them from certain relegation. He’s bought a lot over Christmas and this summer, but central defence is still a big problem. Getting Sebastian Bassong from Newcastle was very important, but they still need Jonathan Woodgate and (gulp!) Ledley King to stay as healthy as possible. It doesn’t matter if you score, if you’re letting in loads of goals as well. I predict at least another 4-4 scoreline or two this season.
Barely saved themselves from relegation last season, but with Steve Bruce in charge and some really good buys in the off-season, I think this team has really turned it around. I expect them to provide a few surprises this season. Darren Bent, Lorik Cana, Paulo Da Silva, Lee Cattermole and Frazier Campbell not only bring better players, but also improve the depth of the squad. Bruce has proved to be a master at getting the most from teams with limited means (see Wigan and Birmingam). Newcastle fans will be green with envy.
All due credit to Roy Hodgson for getting this team into Europe, but they definitely overreached last season. I think European demands plus diminishing returns from players such as Bobby Zamora, Andrew Johnson and Danny Murphy will mean Fulham will drop slightly. If they lose Brede Hangeland to another team, the drop may not be so slight.
11. Blackburn Rovers
Get ready for more boring football. Sam Allardyce will right this ship and make them masters of the 1-0 home victory. Blackburn will be happy with a bit of stability this season, but I think it’ll be at least another year before Big Sam can pull a Bolton and slot them into a European competition. I’d like to see Franco DiSanto get a chance to show his talents up front.
Did I just say “boring football” and “Bolton” in the same sentence? They do seem to go together. There’s no reason to think this team will be in trouble this season, they have a solid squad with consistent performers up front (Kevin Davies), in the middle (Matty Taylor) and in the back (Gary Cahill), not to mention one of the Premier League’s best shotstoppers in Jussi Jaaskelainen (yes, I did have to look up the spelling). They should get a points deduction for the worst designed kit in the Premier League.
13. West Ham United
I confess: I have no idea where to rank West Ham. I don’t think they’re bad enough to be relegated and I actually like Gianfranco Zola as a manager, but there doesn’t seem to be much quality here. Scott Parker and Carlton Cole? Sure they’re OK, but they’re not going to win you a whole lot of matches on their own. Luis Jimenez is a good pickup, but Eidur Gudjohnsen would be a better one. Hopefully Zola can bring in the big Icelandic forward or someone else to help them up front.
14. Birmingham City
Some creative buying and managerial consistency (it was nice to see them stick with Alex McLeish after relegation) will mean this team should survive in the Premier League after getting promoted. This is a tough squad, and the attempt to add some quality via Christian Benitez is commendable. I hope Benitez will be able to show his talents in the Premier League or Birmigham’s games could be nearly unwatchable.
15. Stoke City
Tony Pulis did an amazing job last season with a very limited squad. His mid-season purchase of James Beattie may have kept Stoke in the Premiership. Having said that, Rory Delap’s throw-ins don’t generate as much fear as they once did and I think teams will know what to expect from Stoke this season. Maintaining their very strong home performances through this season should see them survive again, but this team (and those below them) are all on a razor’s edge between the top division and the Championship.
16. Wigan Athletic
I would love to see Roberto Martinez succeed, and I think Hugo Rodallega is a very good player, but I have the sneaking suspicion that Wigan’s time in the Premier League is reaching its end. Losing Lee Cattermole, Antonio Valencia and Wilson Palacios from the team that started last season really damages the midfield. And they’re still depending on Titus Bramble for defence. Not good. Martinez has brought in several players who performed well for him at Swansea (Spanish loanees mostly), but they can’t replace the strength, speed and skill of the three they’ve lost. Oh, and their kit is just as bad as Bolton’s.
For some reason, winning the Championship doesn’t seem to be a good indicator of the ability to survive in the Premiership. I think it has to do with teams believing they don’t need to make major changes to the squad. That’s a fallacy. They do. It’s a huge jump, even if you’re the top team in the Championship. Kevin Doyle is a good buy, but their forwards (Ebanks-Blake and Iwelumo) are short on Premiership experience, as is the rest of the squad. I think they stay up not because they’re good enough, but because the teams below them are worse.
The feel-good story of the season. By the end of the season, they may not be feeling quite as good. I think they have a very good manager (Owen Coyle) and some decent talent, especially when it comes to generating chances. But they had a mediocre defence in the Championship, and they haven’t really added to it, aside from Richard Eckersley. I think this team is going to leak goals, and that means a one-way trip back to the Championship. I am looking forward, however, to seeing Fernando Guerrero play on the wing. Burnley could actually be a very fun team to watch.
19. Hull City
Does anybody want to play for Phil Brown? You know things are not going well for you when Bobby Zamora turns you down to be a backup at Fulham. Hull stayed in the Premiership based on their form from August to November. No such luck this time. Stephen Hunt and Seyi Olofinjana will improve the midfield a bit (who know if Geovanni will even play) and it will be very interesting to see if Jozy Altidore can win himself a place in the starting 11. But I see a team with a very hard time scoring goals, and if they sell Michael Turner, it’ll also be hard to stop others from scoring. The only thing keeping them from finishing last is …
I really feel sorry for Paul Hart. I think he did a great job with the team last season. But the problem is that he doesn’t have a team anymore. Portsmouth will have to get through the season with major contributions from formerly reserve team players, and they may still lose more players in the next couple of weeks if Sylvain Distin and Niko Kranjcar are sold. Of the players brought in, many are either unwanted (Antti Niemi and Steven Finnan) or loanees (Anthony Vanden Borre, Frederic Piquionne) which doesn’t say much for their chances right now, or they’re plan for the future. They need to buy at mid-season if they have any expectation of staying in the Premiership.