This football season is starting with a dribble rather than a bang, with the Scots starting early, the Intertoto Cup and the Football League having already started. So… here’s my Premiership prediction. Partly based on FACT, and partly on wild and only partially rational dislike – and, as ever, likely to be proved utterly, utterly wrong over the course of the nest nine months. The teams are listed, obviously, in order of where I suspect they might finish.
1. Chelsea: With the ongoing saga of William Galas, the departure of Hernan Crespo, Frank Lampard’s poor World Cup and a ropey pre-season (including a defeat against an MLS All-Stars team that may have crocked Joe Cole for a few weeks), the close season hasn’t been terribly kind to Chelsea, but you’d still be foolish to bet against them to win the Premiership again this season. Their strength in depth and the fact that Arsenal and Manchester United have problems of their own will be enough to see them home.
2. Liverpool: There’s not much amongst the next three or four, but Liverpool were excellent towards the end of last season, and if they can get the best out of Craig Bellamy and Jermaine Pennant, I can’t see any reason why they shouldn’t break ahead of Manchester United and Arsenal for once. The only “big” club to have had a really satisfactory close season.
3. Spurs: Yes. Spurs. The signings of Bokora and Berbatov look encouraging. The £18m received for Michael Carrick looks more and more like a very pleasant windfall. Defoe is scoring goals again. Their pre-season form has been excellent. This could just be the year in which Spurs come of age and make it into the top four. They could prove to be the surpise team of the season.
4. Arsenal: I’ve said before on here that moving to Ashburton Grove could prove to be a curse until Arsenal settle down. Even the most ardent of Arsenal fans would have to admit that they were fortunate to sneak into fourth place, and I think they’ll have a fight to get there again. They seem likely to lose Ashley Cole, and Sol Campbell is also on his way, so much of their defensive experience has gone, Dennis Bergkamp has gone too amd Juan Antonio Reyes apparently wants out. It could all add up to a tricky season for Arsenal.
5. Manchester United: Only one player, Michael Carrick, has come in, and Malcolm Glazer’s ailing health has left a cloud of uncertainty hanging over Old Trafford. Giggs and Scholes are ageing, and we still don’t know for certain how much of the spat between Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney is tabloid guff. I’m certain that Van Der Saar is past his best too, and they haven’t found a successor to him yet. Sir Alex Ferguson is starting to look like yesterday’s news already. This is probably the weakest United team since 1990.
6. West Ham United: Alan Pardew has finally silenced all of his critics, so he can now get on with the job of managing his club rather than fending off ridiculous criticism. During the summer he has brought in good, solid players such as Lee Bowyer and Carlton Cole, and has an excellent crop of youngsters in the likes of Nigel Reo-Coker. West Ham look like a team on the up to me.
7. Blackburn Rovers: Another team that have impressed me with their summer signings. Jason Roberts is a good, powerful striker, and Francis Jeffers has yet to show the Premiership his best. The masterstroke could prove to be bringing in Benny McCarthy from Porto. Blackburn could push for a place in the UEFA Cup this season.
8. Everton: Having had a bit of a scare last season, Everton seem set to improve this time around. Andy Johnson could make a great strike partner for James Beattie, and Joleon Lescott has still got the ability to push for an England place. They’ve also made a wise choice in bringing in Tim Howard for a year from Manchester United.
9. Newcastle United: Hmmm… life without Shearer, Bellamy and Bowyer. Newcastle had a bit of a fire sale this summer, and although they were very lucky to get a winger of Damien Duff’s calibre, they’ll need more than just him to challenge. With Michael Owen injured, the lack of attacking options leaves Newcastle looking like a team that will struggle for goals.
10. Manchester City: The jury is still out on Stuart Pearce, but bringing Hamann in from Liverpool looks like a great bit of business, and City should be comfortable in mid-table.
11. Bolton Wanderers: Five new signings for Bolton, but, after Dietmar Hamann snubbed them for Manchester City, only Quinton Fortune really looks up to the grade. Bolton could find this season to be tougher going than the previous two.
12. Middlesbrough: Of course, Gareth Southgate could crash and burn as a Premiership manager, but he seems fairly bright, and has held onto Viduka whikst shipping out Hasselbaink. The lack of summer signings doesn’t indicate that they will improve much, but mid-table seems well within their grasp.
13. Reading: Steve Coppell is a very under-rated manager, in my humble opinion, and the way that he organised an (on-paper) average Reading team into the steamroller of last year’s Championship was little short of awesome. With a good start, they should be safely clear of relegation by the time things start to hot up.
14. Wigan Athletic: Splashing out £5m on Emile Heskey looks like one of the summer’s worse pieces of business, though they have got a decent young goalkeeper now, in Liverpool’s Chris Kirkland. They still stand to lose a vital piece of their jigsaw if, as is expected, Pascal Chimbonda ups sticks to Spurs, but there are worse teams in this division than them.
15. Aston Villa: The arrival of Martin O’Neill has probably done just enough to save Villa from the drop, though he must be wondering what he has let himself in for. With no big new signings and the likelihood of even more empty seats at Villa Park this season, it could be a close shave for them this season, but that would be an improvement on what many people would have been expecting had David O’Leary stayed in charge.
16. Portsmouth: After two close shaves, Portsmouth can expect a slightly more comfortable time of it this season, with Sol Campbell to sure up their back four. I’m not convinced by Harry Redknapp, who seems more at home in his “Sun”betting column than he does as a tactician in the modern game. However did they let him back in after he Judased off to Southampton a couple of years ago?
17. Charlton Athletic: Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink is a great striker, but he’s temperamental, and if Charlton start slowly, they could run into problems. I like Iain Dowie, of course (who doesn’t?), but I’m less than certain that he is the ideal replacement for Alan Curbishley. Charlton are my surprise stugglers of the season.
18. Fulham: Every season I tip Fulham to go down, and this year is no exception. Chris Coleman has done very well to keep them up in his time in charge, but with only Franck Queudrue being the only incoming player of any pedigree at Craven Cottage, this season could be a step too far for Fulham.
19. Sheffield United: That bouffant-headed buffoon Neil Warnock is so far past his sell-by date that he’s starting to smell. Sure, he’s a “character”, but then again so is the bloke that stands outside Brighton railway station selling “The Big Issue” is, and I wouldn’t leave him in charge of a Premiership football club for a season. Having taken them up, he is unsackable, which means straight back down for The Blades, because he simply lacks the tactical nous to mix it with the best.
20. Watford: I have a soft spot for Watford, but I fear that they will be challenging Sunderland for The Premiership’s Worst Ever Team award this season. Adrian Boothroyd is, I think, destined for better things, and new signing Damien Francis is a big, strong striker who’ll be up for a season-long scrap, whilst Chris Powell is an experienced defender, but there’s practically no experience in this team other than that. I can’t see them finishing anywhere other than bottom.