After a summer spending spree extravagant enough to ward off any economic downturn, the Premier League is finally upon us once again. Manchester United, minus a certain Portuguese winger, are chasing a fourth successive league title, but their city neighbours may have a thing or two to say about that, having been the league’s biggest spenders in the close season. With this in mind, the Boar shall cast it’s summer-wearied eyes over the runners and riders in this year’s competition, and make predictions that will be scoffed at come next May.
It seems bizarre that the top four are being judged not on how much improved their squad is from last season, but how diminished. Arsenal have lost Adebayor and Toure, Xavi Alonso returned to his homeland to weaken Liverpool’s midfield and will be accompanied by Christiano Ronaldo, last season’s World Player of the Year. The departure of Carlos Tevez to their arch-rivals will also have left a bitter taste with many Manchester United supporters. Chelsea appear the only team to have not lost pivotal players – adding the solid if unspectacular Yuri Zhirkov to their ranks. Should Didier Drogba return to his bullish best, the Blues are hard to look past for the title. Indeed, Ancelotti’s appointment will have been with greater things in mind, having guided Milan to the Champions League twice in his tenure. Chelsea were twelve yards away from the trophy in Moscow, and having reached the semi-final in five of the last six seasons, Ancelotti will be hoping to deliver Abramovich’s most prized trophy.
Last season’s champions have added Antonio Valencia, a strong winger, yet one feels Wayne Rooney is the most likely to fill the Ronaldo-shaped hole at Old Trafford this season. However it is the capture of Michael Owen which may prove Sir Alex’s masterstroke in his quest for a fourth consecutive title. A proven goalscorer at the top level, Owen can scarcely be seen as a ‘gamble’ if his reported wages are true (supplemented apparently by significant performance bonuses), especially seeing as he didn’t cost a penny. Across the city, Mark Hughes’ men have been tipped by some as outsiders to challenge for the title, yet their strength in depth will prove their biggest hindrance, and unless they can add further players before September 1st, fourth place may even be beyond them.
Liverpool started the summer chasing Valencia’s Spanish duo David Silva and David Villa – had they captured these, they would arguably be favourites to beat Sir Alex’s men to the magical 19th league title. However, finances seem to have been exhausted by tying Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres to long-term deals, and the loss of Alonso will affect Benitez’s side more than he anticipates. Granted, his replacement Aquilani is a quality international midfielder, more attacking than Alonso, a player whom Benitez hopes will see Liverpool more ruthless on home soil – improving on last season’s seven home draws which probably cost them the title. However, he is unproven in the Premier League, and, at least for the next month, unfit.
The acquisition of Glen Johnson seems a sound one at right-back, if only because of Benitez’s desire to fulfil the soon-to-be implemented UEFA home-grown player rule. If he can transfer his excellent form of last season to Anfield, Liverpool seem a much sounder attacking outfit, yet Johnson remains unconvincing defensively – as his Dutch team-mate Dirk Kuyt will have noted after the recent Amsterdam friendly. Yet Liverpool’s use of finances this summer is telling – rather than seeking the Villa or Silva to win them the league, they opted to secure the services of Gerrard and Torres – typifying the over-reliance on the duo which is cited by most as their greatest weakness.
Arsenal have been largely ignored in this season’s title race, and given last season’s shortcomings, rightly so. However, the January acquisition of Andrei Arshavin was an inspired move – if Wenger can keep the little Russian fit, then a formidable midfield partnership with the ever-improving Cesc Fabregas could see the Gunners go a lot closer than many expect. Summer signing Thomas Vermaelen is a commanding, uncompromising centre-half more than capable of filling Kolo Toure’s boots, and in Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott, Wenger has two youngsters capable of suprising even the best of defenders – perhaps even the world’s best in South Africa. Though the title may be beyond the young side, they ought not to finish the season empty-handed.
The ‘Europa League’ places ought to provide an intriguing battle for the forthcoming season. Manchester City seem certain to achieve European qualification, yet talk of breaking into the top four seem a little premature. Unless City capture a quality centre-back (and £22m can buy you a lot better than Joleon Lescott – perhaps Mark Hughes has half an eye on UEFA’s home-grown rule also?), the Europa league seems a greater possibility. Everton will also be unsettled by the transfer speculation surrounding Lescott. Indeed, one wonders year after year whether David Moyes can continue performing the miracles he has conjured at Goodison, especially when their spending power is perennially eclipsed not merely by City, but also Tottenham, who could prove an energized force.
Spurs have what seems to be a stable manager for the first time since Martin Jol – and their summer signings, most notably Crouch and Bassong, have given them a great opportunity to break into Europe after numerous seasons of underachievement. Aston Villa, last season’s best hope of breaking the top four monopoly, may find it just as hard this season to penetrate the top six. Granted, they have exciting, promising young talents – many of which will undoubtedly have their eye on South Africa, yet the loss of Gareth Barry is a blow – though perhaps not as great as the loss of commanding centre-half Martin Laursen, who Villa lost to retirement. Laursen was not only a defensive lynchpin, but also vastly experienced, having previously played at the highest level in Italy with AC Milan. Unless Martin O’Neill can find a replacement, Villa may struggle to reach Europe, perhaps giving an opportunity to Steve Bruce’s Sunderland.
Well versed in management after successful spells in charge of Wigan, Birmingham and Crystal Palace, the ex-Manchester United defender will look to build upon his success with the North-East’s only top-flight team. Despite having lost Djibril Cisse, ‘Twitter’ came to Bruce’s aid with an Amy Winehouse inspired rant by Darren Bent (“Do I want to go to Stoke? No. Do I want to go to Hull? No. Do I want to go to Sunderland? Yes.”). The ex-Tottenham man should be far from a twit on the pitch however – lest we remember he was actually Spurs’ top marksman last season, and he could form an effective partnership with the impressive Kenwyne Jones. The signing of tenacious Lee Cattermole from Wigan was unlikely to trouble many back-pages, but the young midfielder was impressive enough last season to suggest that he could spearhead a Black Cats’ European charge – and perhaps even land himself a South African adventure next summer.
At the other end of the table, promoted sides Wolves, Burnley and Birmingham will look to follow Stoke and Hull’s example by staving off relegation in the wake of promotion. The Clarets’ scarce resources mean they appear odds-on favourites for relegation, especially adopting under Owen Coyle the brand of football that saw West Brom relegated last season. Wolves, last season’s Championship champions, need Sylvain Ebanks-Blake to hit the ground running if they are to have any chance of survival, and Birmingham City’s chances of staying up are being sabotaged off the pitch as much as on the pitch, with supporter unrest and takeover speculation long in the tooth. While they have a team capable of staying up, Birmingham must prove this to be the case quickly, or Alex McLeish may find himself collecting his P45 sooner than expected.
Perhaps the promoted sides’ best chance of survival lies in the fact that many of the more established sides are in limbo. Hull City’s dreadful form in 2009 suggests they may have another relegation dogfight upon their hands, especially with no inspiring summer signings, while Portsmouth’s financial difficulties have apparently not eased with the loss of key players such as Johnson and Crouch, in addition to the loss of Lassana Diarra in January. Their supposed pursuit of Sven-Goran Eriksson saw him flee to League 2 side Notts County – and with current manager Paul Hart looking increasingly like a Tony Adams stop-gap figure in the dugout, Pompey could be in trouble. Bolton are another side who could flirt with relegation, as like Birmingham, their fans appear restless with current leader, Gary Megson. Hailed as the ‘ginger Mourinho’ when he took charge, Megson has hardly proved himself to be the ‘special one’ – instead making Bolton a scrappy, hard-to-beat side. Their problem, however, may be that they will struggle to beat teams, and they will have to hope that big Swede Johan Elmander will deliver double figures for them to survive.
Last season’s musical chairs amongst the top four provided some excitement – yet it was the relegation battle which proved more enthralling once again. Yet, with three of the top four sides losing influential players, and the rise of the super-rich at Eastlands, there ought to be enough excitement at both ends of the table for the next nine months. And if that isn’t enough, there’s always a disappointing England World Cup performance to look forward to.
– Champions – Chelsea
– F.A. Cup – Manchester United
– Carling Cup – Arsenal
– Champions League – Chelsea
– Top scorer – Didier Drogba
– Relegated – Burnley, Hull, Wolves
– First Sacking – Paul Hart (Portsmouth)
– World Cup – Argentina