You might not guess it from this morning’s papers, but the new season has already begun, and many of last weekend’s result served as a handily timely reminder of how gloriously unpredictable football can be. It’s difficult to believe that the Premier League, which kicks off this weekend, will match the competitiveness of the Football League, but August is a month for optimism rather than the harsh realities of the game. So, what can we expect a lot of, over the next eight months or so? There will be (presuming everything pans out as expected) and whether the ever-expanding gap between the rich and the poor within the division is killing the goose that lays the golden egg. There will also be much talk of Game 39. Yes, that old thing won’t go away. In the last official pronouncement on the subject, Richard Scudamore, angered Premier League club owners by proposing five mini tournaments to be played during a mid-winter break. It is also likely that the biggest clubs will re-assert their strangehold over the FA and League Cups. They took their eyes off the ball last season, and three of the big four ended up with nothing. It’s difficult to envision such a situation occurring again, unless one of them wins both of them, plus the Premier League itself.
At the top of the table, the Big Four has become the Big Two Plus Two. This year, we’re going for Chelsea to lift the title. They ran Manchester United very close last season, in spite of having a team that often seemed to be in open revolt with itself, and they have strengthened significantly with the signing of Deco and Jose Boswinga, and the icing on the cake could be yet to come if they manage to persuade Kaka away from Milan. Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba have been persuaded to stay and, in Luis Felipe Scolari, they have a coach with a big enough personality to be able to tame the worst excesses of the dressing room and is as unfraid as his predecessor, Jose Mourinho, to win playing ugly if required. Manchester United, meanwhile, have one or two problems to contend with. Recent reports that they are considering a bid for Thierry Henry seem to have been planted to hurry along the transfer of Dimitar Berbatov from Tottenham Hotspur, but time is running out before the start of the season and Spurs are in no hurry to sell. Much of United’s success last season was down to the outstanding form of Cristiano Ronaldo, but he will miss the start of the season because of surgery and it is surely asking too much for him to repeat last season’s form, with over thirty goals from midfield. United may also suffer from the loss of Carlos Quieroz, who has left Old Trafford to take over as the coach of Portugal.
With Manchester United and Chelsea disappearing into the sunset, what next for their two nearest rivals? Liverpool have at least traded up in selling Peter Crouch and buying Robbie Keane, although whether Keane is consistent enough to fire them up the table is a moot point, to say the least. The chances are that he will play a deeper position, linking between the midfield and target man Fernando Torres. Liverpool are likely to be even more dependent upon Torres than Manchester United are upon Cristiano Ronaldo. At Arsenal, it’s almost possible to feel sympathy for Arsene Wenger. In 2004, he had arguably one of the finest teams in the history of English football. The Emirates Stadium, however, wouldn’t build itself and that team has been slowly taken apart and its constituent parts replaced with inferior subsitutes. Samir Nasri is a good signing and they appear to have persuaded Emmanual Adebayor to stay for now, but they have lost Mathieu Flamini and Alexander Hleb, and they look like having more in common next season with the teams just below them than those above them.
The chasing pack have smelt Arsenal’s fear, and are closing in for the kill. The danger, however, is that they are all too much of a muchness. Portsmouth may suffer in their Premier League ambitions if they get bogged down in a lengthy UEFA Cup campaign, and they will certainly miss Sulley Muntari, who has gone to Inter. I remain less than convinced about Peter Crouch’s charms as a player. Everton have had a disastrous summer, losing their chief executive and any realistic chance of moving to a new stadium in Kirby. It has been all quiet on the transfer front, but the atmosphere of instability within the club will hardly help a team that still has the potential to be able to push for a Champions League place. The two sides that are best placed to challenge Arsenal are Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur. Villa seem to have finally laid the GaryBarry transfer to rest (though there is still time for Liverpool to make an improved offer) and the signings of Curtis Davies, Brad Friedel and Steve Sidwell look like good, solid squad-building signatures. Spurs, meanwhile, promise to flatter to deceive again. Luka Modric looks like an outstanding signing, although there will be people wondering whether his comparatively frail frame will be able to cope with the physical nature of the Premier League, Giovanni Dos Santos impressed in fits and starts for Barcelona and could blossom at White Hart Lane, and David Bentley could be just what they need on the right wing. £20m was a good price for Robbie Keane, and they are right to hold out for £30m for Dimitar Berbatov from Manchester United, although they will need another world class striker if or when he goes. Spurs’ big problems last season were defensive, but the replacement of Paul Robinson with Heurelho Gomes looks like a good decision, and Jonathan Woodgate could yet turn out to be one of the best centre halves in the Premier League. Much will depend on whether Ledley King’s knee (currently held together with bits of sellotape and drawing pins) allows him anything like a run in the first team.
Next up are the “potential basket cases”. Newcastle United‘s owner Mike Ashley has given every impression of coming to in the manner of Raoul Duke in “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas”, and having “Northern Rock” plastered across the front of their shirts will hardly help their self-confidence, either. They have also had a quiet summer in the transfer market, with the press largely focussing upon Joey Barton’s release from prison, although he could yet face a long ban from the FA. They’re likely to be safe this season, if only for the paucity of teams below them. Manchester City should also be okay, although this could change dramatically if Thaksin Shinawatra has to give up his control of the club. Tal Ben Haim is also a decent signing, but the jury is out over whether Jo can live up to his £18m price tag. It could be a long, hard winter for Blackburn Rovers if rumours of dressing room discontent are true and they will suffer for the loss of David Bentley and Brad Friedel. They have, strangely, brought Robbie Fowler back into the Premier League, and at least they have managed to resecure the services of Roque Santa Cruz, who is a class act if he can stay fit.
We’re into the bottom half of the table now, and the teams that are “Just Pleased To Be Here”. The talk at West Ham United is that their owners have been hit hard by the credit crunch, and their net profit on sales during the summer would seem to back that up. Still, new signing Valon Behrami is a versatile player, Julien Faubert (who missed more or less the whole of last season through injury) should be back, and Dean Ashton is an excellent striker, providing he stays fit and doesn’t succumb to Tottenham’s advances. Talking of Spurs, they have offloaded Pascal Chimbonda, Teemu Tainio and Steed Malbranque to Sunderland, who will probably be pleased enough to have another season of consolidation without getting dragged into a battle to avoid the drop. Middlesbrough have raided two of Europe’s more mediocre clubs, Paris St Germain and Sparta Rotterdam, for their new signings, Marvin Emnes and the pleasingly onomatopoeic Didier Digard, and will probably settle for anywhere above sixteenth and Gareth Southgate not getting sacked. Bolton Wanderers have found £10m from somewhere and spent it on Johan Elmander from Toulouse. They’ve also trimmed a little of the fat of their squad and can anticipate a slow emergence from their lengthy post-Sam Allardyce hangover.
All of this leaves five to battle out the relegation places. Fulham have spent reasonably well this summer, bringing in John Paintsil and Bobby Zamora from West Ham United, Zoltan Gera from West Bromwich Albion and Mark Schwarzer from Middlesbrough, amongst others. Rou Hodgson performed a miracle in keeping them up last season, and David Healy MBE needs to discover his scoring form for Northern Ireland in the Premier League. West Bromwich Albion, I rather suspect, are too good to go down yet again. They’ll have to be tougher than they were in the Championship last season, when they had a tendency to concede goals needlessly (and there are those – of which I am not one – who might question whether Scott Carson is the man to prevent more of that), but Luke Moore is a good signing from Aston Villa. Wigan Athletic scrambled clear on the last day of last season but, in spite of spending a little money this summer, one has to question whether they can steer clear of the drop. The other two newly-promoted teams, however, have an uphill struggle to stay up, although neither of them surely will be as bad as Derby County were last season. Stoke City have, in Dave Kitson, a decent new striker (though he wasn’t good enough to keep Reading up last year), but are woefully under-equipped in other areas. Expect loan signings galore if they have the sort of start that we all anticipate them having. Finally, the prognosis is arguably even worse for Hull City. Their new signings – including Bernard Mendy, Geovanni, Anthony Gardner and Peter Halmosi – are imaginitive, but it seems likely that they will also struggle from a lack of quality in key positions up front, though they surely will get more than eleven points this season.
It would be highly desirable if one of the clubs could bust itself free of the straitjackets described above, but it’s difficult to see where this is going to come from, short of a major, major collapse at one of our dear, beloved basket case clubs. Much as Hull City and Stoke City will garner the support of the neutral, mere goodwill cannot paper over the cracks within their squads, although we should perhaps be at least grateful that these clubs are being carefully run, rather than running up bills that not even a season in the Premier League can cover. At the top of the table, get ready for another eight months of chest-beating, shouting and gurning. You all know the routine by now.