It is difficult to remember predicting a Premier League season with so many caveats and hypothetical situations.
If Luis Suarez leaves Anfield to join Arsenal, Brendan Rodgers’ side will struggle and Arsene Wenger’s will be rejuvenated. If Gareth Bale departs Tottenham Hotspur for sunny Madrid, it is difficult to see them breaking into the Champions League places. And, of course, a Chelsea side with the mercurial talent of Wayne Rooney would be quite something to behold.
The fact that three of the Premier League’s most sparkling talents are in limbo makes it awkward to gaze into what is currently an alluringly fuzzy crystal ball.
Jose Mourinho has swanned back into English football with quiet assurance rather than belligerent bombast, and has tweaked rather than revolutionised Chelsea. Bayer Leverkusen’s Andre Schurrle and Vitesse Arnhem’s Marco van Ginkel are shrewd acquisitions, while the returning Michael Essien will add steel to an occasionally lightweight midfield. They will win the title this year.
Pellegrini’s biggest problem is acclimatising quickly to the English game and integrating his new signings into a largely settled team. This is where Mourinho and Moyes have a slight edge
David Moyes began his tenure at Manchester United with a straightforward 2-0 win over Wigan Athletic in the Community Shield, but there are tougher tests to come, with away games at Liverpool and Chelsea in a tricky opening period. A strong start is vital to quell the inevitable murmurs that United are not the formidable machine they were under Sir Alex Ferguson.
The blue half of Manchester are ostensibly more confident, as they too welcome a new manager. 59-year-old Manuel Pellegrini arrives brandishing pledges of attacking football and European pedigree, and has bought cannily in Fernandinho, Jesus Navas, Alvaro Negredo and Stefan Jovetic. Pellegrini’s claim that he has the best squad in England is difficult to refute: his biggest problem is acclimatising quickly to the English game and integrating his new signings into a largely settled team. This is where Mourinho and Moyes have a slight edge.
They should fill the top three, but the chase for the fourth spot is full of intrigue. For all the noise emanating from the Emirates Stadium about substantial investment in the world’s best players, specifically Suarez, only young French striker Yaya Sanogo has joined Arsenal this summer; fans are getting restless. Meanwhile, whilst Andre Villas-Boas continues to fret about the future of Bale, hope springs eternal at White Hart Lane: the excellent signings of Paulinho, Roberto Soldado and Etienne Capoue add lashings of class to an already accomplished squad.
Even if Bale does fall gratefully into the arms of Real Madrid, this writer believes Spurs will have enough to edge their North London rivals, who have qualified for the Champions League for 17 successive years, into the unknown terrain of the Europa League.
Liverpool should enjoy another season of quiet improvement under Rodgers, although much depends on the continued excellence of an ageing Steven Gerrard and the form of Daniel Sturridge and Phillipe Coutinho, so explosive after their January arrivals. Merseyside rivals Everton may not push as strongly for European football as Roberto Martinez settles in at Goodison Park, but 19-year-old Barcelona loanee Gerard Deulofeu will excite.
There are a cluster of teams who will fancy scrapping for seventh spot along with Everton. Capital One Cup holders Swansea City look to have made an astute signing in Wilfried Bony, but they could struggle to adapt to rising expectations and finished last season poorly. Southampton and West Ham United look capable of improving on their superb work last season, while Chris Hughton’s Norwich City could have the proverbial 20-goal-a-season man in Ricky van Wolfswinkel, signed for £8.5m from Sporting Lisbon. This quartet should avoid a relegation dogfight.
Aston Villa’s Paul Lambert needs a strong campaign, but is more likely to sweat and toil his way through a replica of last year’s fiasco
Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion will also be fine. Alan Pardew’s men chose a good time to be in crisis – the beginning of the summer, when Joe Kinnear was inexplicably unveiled as director of football – and provided they add either Darren Bent or Bafetimbi Gomis to a threadbare strikeforce, they should have a comfortable season. Albion will struggle to replace the goals of Romelu Lukaku, who has returned to Chelsea, but Steve Clarke has an abundance of nous for a managerial rookie and will hope Nicolas Anelka puts his experience to good use.
Malky Mackay’s Cardiff have wasted little time in showcasing their ambition, breaking their transfer record twice this summer with the signings of Andreas Cornelius (FC Copenhagen, £7.5m) and Gary Medel (Sevilla, £11m), and the promising Scot will guide them to consolidation in their maiden Premier League season. Meanwhile, on Wearside, talk of Paolo di Canio’s spontaneous combustion and Sunderland’s subsequent relegation is a little lazy. Di Canio has ruffled plenty of feathers but will guide his men to mid-table anonymity, although he may rely more heavily on the goals of Steven Fletcher than he might like.
Fulham will have just about enough to survive, but time will tell whether new owner Shahid Khan is as supportive and patient as Mohammed Al-Fayed, who sold the club this summer. Aston Villa will need Christian Benteke’s goals to stave off the threat of relegation, but the 22-year-old Belgian is developing into an excellent footballer and can repeat last season’s success. Manager Paul Lambert needs a strong campaign, but is more likely to sweat and toil his way through a replica of last year’s fiasco.
That leaves the three sides whom I tip to suffer the dreaded drop: Stoke City, Hull City and Crystal Palace. Stoke will miss Tony Pulis, who worked tirelessly to perform miracles at the Britannia Stadium, and new manager Mark Hughes may struggle to transform a limited group of players. Steve Bruce will need every ounce of his experience to steer his workmanlike but unsophisticated Hull side away from the relegation zone, as will Crystal Palace’s Ian Holloway. Unfortunately, both sides sorely lack quality and will pay for it in the unforgiving Premier League.
One thing is for certain: the season ahead genuinely promises to be one of the most exciting in recent memory. With last season’s top three clubs all changing their managers, fans should embrace the chaos, controversy, instability and surprise that will inevitably ensue from this Saturday. Where will Suarez, Bale and Rooney be playing their football? Who knows. Enjoy the show.
2 Manchester City
3 Manchester United
4 Tottenham Hotspur
7 West Bromwich Albion
8 West Ham United
10 Newcastle United
11 Swansea City
12 Norwich City
15 Cardiff City
16 Aston Villa
18 Stoke City
19 Crystal Palace
20 Hull City