This time last year, some of you may remember, I went into a disproportionate amount of detail in looking forward to the new season. You’ll be delighted to know that I’m going to spend nowhere near as long on it this year, but I’ll give over a couple of days to looking into my (as those of you that remember what happened to my predictions last season will recall, hopelessly unsuccessful) crystal ball at what the 2007/2008 football season has to offer.
The Premier League: For once, I’ll resist the almost overwhelming temptation to say, “Who cares?”. At the top of the table, I suspect that the Big Four of the last couple of seasons has been whittled down to a Big Three. Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool will probably fight it out at the top. United’s squad has been further strengthened during the summer, and whether they continue to be successful will come down to the attitude of the teams that they play against. I got the distinct impression that, last season, too many teams were too scared of them – they arrived at Old Trafford and capitulated. If the middle-ranking Premier League teams roll their sleeves up and show a bit more ambition against them beyond a bit of damage limitation, they could run into problems – especially if Cristiano Ronaldo struggles to match his outstanding form from last season. Chelsea were a big, scary, point-winning machine last season. However, their summer signings are a mixed bag, and they still run the risk of becoming threadbare if they have too many injuries. They ran out of steam last season, and I can easily see it happening again this season. This is a big season for Liverpool, and there is something to suggest that they could mount a serious challenge. Fernando Torres is a great striker, and they’ve cast off some of their flotsam, such as Bolo Zenden and Craig “What The Hell Is He Doing In A European Cup Final?” Bellamy. Much of this comes down to Rafael Benitez. Does he have the tactical flexibility to cope with a sustained Premier League and the European Cup? Following their failure in Athens last May, they might pay more attention to the home front than they have done over the last few seasons or so.
I can’t say with any certainty how well Arsenal will react to being a Thierry-less universe (it looked like his star was on the wane last season, but how much of that was down to ennui is open to question). Up front, Adebayor and Van Persie are great players, but neither are twenty-five goal-a-season strikers. Also, Arsenal spent much of last season looking pretty uncomfortable at their new home – will they have cured this in time for the new season? Spurs have been tipped to take fourth place for the last couple of years, and I suspect that the gap might be too great again this year. Gareth Bale is, I think, a great signing, but it’s still a little early for him. I’ve never seen what the fuss about Darren Bent is. More importantly, Spurs have kept their most important players, and confidence will be high at White Hart Lane again this season. Martin Jol is a good coach (and certainly the best that they have had since Terry Venables), but will he play Aaron Lennon on the wrong side again, and has he cured his inability to make insightful tactical substitutions? It might be a step too far for them again, but Arsenal look vulnerable, and Spurs have the right components in place.
At the bottom of the table, Derby County are about doomed as Watford were this time last year. I’d be delighted to be proved to wrong (and Robert Earnshaw is a canny enough signing), but I doubt if I will be. Alongside them, Sunderland are too good to go down (I really rate Roy Keane as a manager), and Birmingham City are probably more solid than people give them credit for (Gary McSheffrey is a very good striker and, if he turns up, Hossam Ghaly is every bit a top-half quality player). So, who’s for the drop, then? West Ham United won’t dare run it as close as they did last season, and Manchester City can’t be any worse than they were last season (ignore the tabloid press – Sven Goran Eriksson was one of the best coaches in the world when he got the England job, and their relative failure over the course of his five and a half years was down to much more than his over-cautious tactical decisions). I’ll go for Fulham and Middlesbrough. Lawrie Sanchez has very little Premier League experience as a manager, and their summer signings (£6m on Diomansy Kamara?) look shaky, whilst the loss of Mark Viduka will hit Boro hard and I would seriously question whether Jeremie Aliadiere is an adequate replacement.
Random Premier League Prediction: Alex Ferguson’s nose to explode during live Sky Sports interview.
The Championship: As ever, The Championship is too tough to call. You can basically make a short-list of about seven clubs and say that it will be any two of them. I’m going to, for the automatic places, for Leicester City and West Bromwich Albion. Milan Mandaric, the borderline lunatic Leicester owner, has been chucking money at his team in the way that only, well, an over-ambitious football chairman. Bruno N’Gotty, Radostin Kishishev, Carl Cort, Shaun Newton, Stephen Clemence and DJ Campbell are just some of the players that they have brought in. You could ask whether so many new players will be able to gel quickly enough or whether Martin Allen is up to this sort of task, but in what looks like a pretty mediocre division (and there’s nothing wrong with that – expect as close a season as last season).
Other than them, I’ll go for Wolves. Freddy Eastwood is an outstanding signing for a Championship club, and they have brought in more experience in Stephen Elliott and Michael Gray. The chasing pack for the play-offs will most likely include Sheffield United (or, for those of you that may have forgotten and are wondering why I’ve not tipped them to go up, Bryan Robson’s Sheffield United), Charlton Athletic (who have been comprehensively asset-stripped during the summer), Preston North End and Coventry City. At the bottom of The Championship, there promises to be a proper mud-fight. Scunthorpe United sold their best player, Billy Sharp, during the summer, QPR & Hull City look no better than they did last season (QPR are still fighting to stay in existence, whilst Hull’s idea of a big There’s another two or three that could dragged in with this infamous five, as well.
Random Championship Prediction: QPR become the club taken over by myfootballclub.co.uk. They then elect to play all 50,000 members at the same time, and get chucked out of the League.