It says a lot for the priorities of the major news outlets in this country that, for them at least, the “real” football season hasn’t started. Still, there’s not long for them to wait now. The Premier League season starts this weekend and there is a chance that it may be more interesting than it has been for some years. None of the self-perpetuating Champions League Four are, at the time of writing, noticeably stronger than they were last year, and a couple of them seem to be slightly weaker. Manchester United have lost Ronaldo and Tevez. Arsenal have lost Toure and Adebayor. Perhaps the gap between the biggest clubs and the rest is so great that they don’t feel that they need to strengthen – it feels like a risky strategy, though.
At the bottom of the table, meanwhile, the temptation is to suggest – as ever – that the newly-promoted clubs will sink like stones back to from whence they came, but things may be more complex than that. Wolves looked eerily efficient in winning the Championship, and even play-off winners Burnley beat Fulham, Chelsea, West Bromwich Albion and Arsenal in the cups, losing narrowly to Spurs in the League Cup semi-final, a tie in which they won the second leg but were sunk in extra-time over the two legs. While the Premier League also-rans have been better insulated from the financial tribulations of the summer, there are still a number of managers that will be eyeing the start of the season nervously after the second half of last season.
Between these two extremes come the clubs that could go either way. Manchester City have spent to unprecedentedly insane levels over the summer, but will they improve? If they don’t it would be amazing if Mark Hughes is still in a job there by the spring. Other clubs, meanwhile, may find it difficult to reach the same level that they did last season – one is tempted to suspect that supporters of Aston Villa, Fulham and Stoke City will be pleased enough with a repeat of last season. As Newcastle United and Middlesbrough found to their massive cost last season, relegation isn’t a million miles from mid-table anonymity these days, and it is likely that a number of clubs will still be peering nervously over their shoulders as the final straight comes into view. Still, if we strip away the nonsense, the hyperbole and the chest-beating, it might yet be an interesting Premier League season.
1. Chelsea: After their revival during the second half of last season under Guus Hiddink, the suspicion lingers that it was poor choices of manager that have cost Chelsea dearly over the last couple of seasons or so. Hiddink seemed to bring the team together for the first time since Jose Mourinho’s heyday. Carlo Ancelotti seems to be having the same affect at present. How long this may or may not last is another question. John Terry, who definitely never even thought about accepting Manchester City’s shilling, stays as captain. Some Chelsea supporters feel that the club may have missed a trick on turning down a massive bid for a player that may be past his best, but his departure may have caused disruption to the squad. Elsewhere, their only significant venture into the transfer market being Yuri Zhirkov , who is a decent midfielder – Chelsea’s biggest strength, though, is the players that they already have. Didier Drogba, or example, was getting back towards his best at the end of last season, and may well end up as this year’s top scorer in the Premier League. With outstanding players in all players and Manchester United weakened, Chelsea are this year’s team to beat.
2. Manchester United: A lot of ifs and buts have been offered on the subject of replacing Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez with Antonio Valencia and Michael Owen, but the ultimate fact of the matter is that Manchester United are not as strong as they were last season. The promised “war chest” was never forthcoming (those pesky interest payments, in all likelihood), and the young players that do still occasionally turn up on the fringes of the first team squad no longer excite in the way that they used to. That said, though, Manchester United still seem to hold a hex over at least two-thirds of the Premier League and Alex Ferguson remains the grandmaster of the mind game, even if his close season rant on the subject of Manchester City indicated, at the very least, that he is concerned at the money washing around the blue half of the city at the moment. They still have plenty enough to be there or thereabouts though, obviously.
3. Manchester City: Everybody else seems keen to play down Manchester City’s chances of dramatically improving this season, but I am less than convinced by their arguments. City have, all told, had an extraordinary summer. Nicking Tevez directly from Manchester United was one of the most audacious transfers of recent years, and Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor are also already proven at the top level. Roque Santa Cruz and Gareth Barry have a chance to prove whether they are capable at the top end of the game for the first time, and it’s worth remembering that City had already brought in excellent players such as Shay Given and Robinho prior to the start of the season. When Roman Abramovich took over at Chelsea in July 2003, they finished as runners-up the following season and won the league a year later. So many people have now predicted that City will finish fifth or sixth this season, that they may just be underrated again this season.
4. Liverpool: Liverpool only lost one Premier League match last season. This extraordinary statistic masks their biggest asset and their biggest problem. They were difficult to beat, but failed to win matches that they should have won. This summer, they spent out on Glen Johnson, but failed to correct an over-dependence upon Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard. The other problems that Liverpool may have are institutional and psychological. The spectre of instability continues to loom large at Anfield, and Gillett and Hicks still seem more likely to ruin the club than bring lasting success. On the psychological side of things, Liverpool’s desperation to win the championship for the first time since 1991 may work against them – they seem capable of beating anyone at any time, yet they lack the swaggering arrogance of Chelsea or Manchester United, which, as unpalatable as it may be, certainly brings its own rewards.
5. Arsenal: It has now been four years since Arsenal last won a trophy, and the strain is starting to show. Last season, for the first time, dissenting voices were heard against Arsene Wenger and another quiet summer on the transfer market means that they will have their work cut to hold onto their place at the Champions League trough. They were pushed most of the way last season by Aston Villa, and this year’s Manchester City team may prove to be a completely different proposition to them altogether. Arsenal without Toure and Adebayor are weaker than they were at the end of last season and, difficult though it may be for their supporters to accept, they may find that a season with a cup win at the end of it may prove to be more rewarding than another season of comparing themselves with the teams immediately above them in the table.
6. Tottenham Hotspur: Harry Redknapp’s quest to turn Tottenham into his Portsmouth FA Cup winning side from 2008 continued this summer with the signature of Peter Crouch from Portsmouth. It was only Spurs’ amazingly slow start to the season that condemned them to eighth place in the table last season and, although Redknapp’s other big summer signings Kyle Naughton and Sebastien Bassong both have the traditional Tottenham hint of risk about them and there are still question marks over Heurelho Gomes in goal, Spurs started getting back towards the progress that they had been making earlier this decade last season, and they could well be good for a top six place this season. A lot will depend on how lucky – or otherwise – they are with injuries next season.
7. West Ham United: Gianfranco Zola had West Ham United moving in the right direction last season, and a quiet summer on the transfer market – possibly because of the financial tribulations of their owners, possibly because Zola is satisfied with what he has got – may work to their advantage. Zola (and, just as importantly, Steve Clarke) seem to be bringing the best out of players that were deemed surplus to requirements elsewhere, such as Carlton Cole and Scott Parker. Their defence remains suspect and may be strengthened in January, although Robert Green has continued his steady improvement in goal and is looking increasingly likely to be England’s first choice for the 2010 World Cup, but West Ham seem capable of continuing the improvement that Zola started last season.
8. Aston Villa: Last season might have been Aston Villa’s one and only chance to crack the top four, and their dip towards the end of last season would seem to indicate that there won’t be any improvement at Villa Park this season. The loss of Gareth Barry will be a significant one for them – Barry, as a senior player, will be missed as much for his leadship skills as for anything he does with the ball at his feet – and they have also lost Martin Laursen, another influential player who has retired from the game. Their new signings range from the reasonably impressive – Stuart Downing – to the almost peculiar. Fabian Delph is rumoured to have cost them £6m but is completely untried at this level, while Habib Beye is a capable defender, but anyone signing for a Premier League club from last year’s Newcastle United team may come with a public health warning.
9. Everton: David Moyes made a silk purse from a sow’s ear last season, but without significantly having strengthened his squad last season, this season may be more difficult for the blue half of Merseyside. Jo remains on loan at Goodison Park for another season, but that is as far as squad changes have gone, although they have – so far – managed to hold on to Joleon Lescott, who has been subject to Manchester City’s overtures for much of the summer, although that story might not have reached its conclusion yet. Without Lescott, Everton will be weaker than they were last season. As things stand, they have stood still while other clubs around them have improved slightly on paper, at least. They remain a reasonable outside bet for a cup, though.
10. Sunderland: Without having been in serious danger, Sunderland found themselves requiring a result on the last day of last season and sweating on results from elsewhere when they failed to beat Chelsea. Ricky Sbragia paid the price for this uncertainty, and the arrival of Steve Bruce on Wearside may prove to be the momentum that they need to push themselves up to a season of comfortable mid-season anonymity. Their big summer signing is Darren Bent, who failed conspicuously to set the world on fire at Spurs, but may at least give them a little more focus in front of goal. Other than Bent, there are decent players at The Stadium of Light, such a Anton Ferdinand and Steed Malbranque, and if Bruce can drill a little more discipline into them, the building blocks for a better season all seem to be in place.
11. Fulham: Fulham’s seventh place finish in the Premier League was one of the stories of last season, a tribute to the quiet yet stoic style of Roy Hodgson, who is starting to look more and more like one of the last of the old school of football management. There have been no big changes at Craven Cottage over the course of the summer, but a repeat of seventh place seems like a step too far for them, especially if they can manage anything like a run in the UEFA Cup. Fulham, however, are surely too good to go down and seem likely to have a stress-free season in the middle of the table, hoping that they can cause another few surprises and push towards a repeat of last season.
12. Blackburn Rovers: Rovers succumbed to the inevitable during the summer and finally relinquished Roque Santa Cruz to Manchester City, but they were never in serious danger of relegation last season and, if they can have reasonable start to the season, should be strong enough to push up towards mid-table in the Premier League. For all that one may dislike his self-aggrandisement and preferred style of football, Sam Allardyce remains one of the Premier League’s more pragmatic managers, and Blackburn supporters, although their eyes may occasionally bleed from the unsophisticated methods on display, are unlikely to get dragged into a relegation struggle this season.
13. Birmingham City: Birmingham have one major advantage over the other two promoted clubs when it comes to dealing with the Premier League – experience. Alex McLeish has made a couple of imaginitive signings over the course of the summer. Barry Ferguson has arrived from Rangers while Joe Hart, usurped by Shay Given, has arrived on loan from Manchester City. Much will depend on whether Kevin Phillips can roll back the years sone more time, and the jury is out on that. Birmingham, however, have got plenty enough in the tank to stay up this season.
14. Bolton Wanderers: Gary Megson drew Bolton Wanderers up the table towards the middle of the table last season, and he has made a couple of signings – Zat Knight from Aston Villa and Sean Davis from Portsmouth – that see to indicate another season in the middle of the table, doing just enough to keep themselves out of serious danger without seriously challenging for a Europa League place.
15. Stoke City: You know what’s coming with a Rory Delap throw-in. The question, however, is this: can you do anything about it? Stoke were the big surprise of the Premier League last season, pulling themselves out of the relegation places in the new year, and ending up in an amazingly comfortable twelfth place. They need to pick up more points away from The Britannia Stadium, and there is a possibility that they will turn out to be one season wonders, but they were a breath of fresh air in the faux cultural world of the Premier League last season, and may cause more surprises, although they’ll be likely to be still looking over their shoulders as spring arrives.
16. Wolverhampton Wanderers: Wolves ended up winning the Championship last season with relative comfort, considering how competitive that league is, and theirsquad seems to have enough about it to steer just clear of relegation. New signing Kevin Doyle has been one of Reading’s more impressive players over the last couple of years or so, and their current financial stability may mean that further squad strengthening will be an option for owner Steve Morgan should things not be going their own way in the new year.
17. Portsmouth: Portsmouth’s short-term financial problems may have ended with their new ownership, but they have lost key players in Peter Crouch and Glen Johnson during the summer, and manager Paul Hart doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence at the highest level. They’re out of the woods in one respect, but a long, hard winter may await them and, with their new owners deciding not to throw money into the club, avoiding relegation may prove to be a tall order.
18.Wigan Athletic: Wigan have been relatively comfortable over the last couple of seasons, but the loss of Steve Bruce may prove to be very difficult for them to overcome. On the surface, the appointment of Roberto Martinez from Swansea City seems to be a good appointment, but one suspects that this move may been a year or two too early for Martinez, and the knives may come out for him early if the club struggles over the first two or three months of the new season. In addition to this, they have also lost their best player, Antonio Valencia, to Manchester United, and the signature of Jason Scotland from Swansea doesn’t inspire much confidence. With problems at JJB Sports meaning that Dave Whelan has had to tighten the purse strings, Wigan could well find themselves fighting for their Premier League survival this season, and their change of manager doesn’t inspire much confidence that they will be aable to survive it.
19. Burnley: With all of the best will in the world, it is surely too much to expect that Burnley will be able to survive in the harsh, glaring spotlight of the Premier League. They managed to resist the overtures of Celtic for manager Owen Coyle, but their summer signings have not been terribly inspired, and the good football that they played last season will be much more difficult to maintain on a week by week basis in the Premier League. They may cause an upset or two and a good start will make their job all the easier, but they will consider anything above seventeenth place in the table to be a success.
20. Hull City: Hull City started last season magnificently, but they completely fell apart during the second half of the season and ended up hanging on by the tips of their fingernails. The loan signing of Jozy Altidore from Villareal is an interesting one, but this season seems likely to be much more of a struggle than last season, and there are serious doubts over the temperament of manager Phil Brown, who seemed to believe far too much of the hype about him at the start of last season. If they can’t arrest the startling decline that began at the start of this year, then relegation seems likely.
Remember: keep the comments constructive, please, or I’ll close them.