Wednesday, 12 August 2009
My thoughts on all twenty teams as well as predictions on who will win what, who will lose what and which item off a McDonald’s menu each club represents.
Arsenal – With a totemic striker and a seven-hearted defender off to join the revolution in the North it’s finally all over for Arsenal’s Champions League run, right? Wrong. There will be no royal beheadings at the Emirates this season. With the sublimely talented Eduardo back (and looking sharp in pre-season), the phenomenal impact of Andre Arshavin for whole season, and the signing of a steely-eyed Thomas Vermaelen the Gunners first team looks as full of potential as ever. The likes of Ramsay, Gibbs and Wilshire will make further strides too, inevitably becoming integral parts of the passing machine. It was a horror tackle on Eduardo which shattered his ankle and their title dreams the last time they made a serious push for the title and much will depend on injuries this season, with the return dates of Nasri and Rosicky crucial. But that charge came at a time when everyone was writing them off, much like now, and I feel this season could turn out to be a similar rebuttal.
Final Position: 3rd, FA Cup winners
McMenu: Grilled chicken salad – looks nice but not too filling
Aston Villa – For much of last season it looked like Martin O’Neill’s side would be the one to finally break into the Top Four vault but their end of season plummet highlighted their Cheryl Cole thin squad. Stewart Downing will replace Barry nicely when he returns from injury and Fabian Delph looks a great coup – indeed the last time O’Neill took a large punt on a young English player with only a season in the public consciousness the pay off was instant and spectacular. Whether Delph makes the step up as seamlessly as Young will factor largely into how their campaign pans out. Bringing in Habib Beye has partly plugged the big Scandinavan gap that emerged with Mellberg’s departure and Laurson’s retirement, but we have to wonder whether a defender with Newcastle on their CV will be enough. I predict another season of fluid, attacking football to ruffle a few Big Four peacock feathers but without quality buys at the front and back of the team they will once again fall short.
Final Position: 7th
McMenu: Fries – been around for ages but always needs something more
Birmingham – A strange feeling of anticlimax surrounded Birmingham’s promotion in May, the kind inevitably brought about by years of yo-yoing between divisions (been there, done that, bought the replica shirt) and I worry about their desire to scrap for survival with every sinew. They were unlucky last time round when a remarkable surge in form from Fulham lead to final-day relegation and I feel a similar nail-biting showdown awaits them this year. Ultimately, a lack of any real star quality will see them unable to pick up enough points.
Final Position: 18th
McMenu: Apple slices – no one wants them
Blackburn – For the board at Blackburn last season was like a big money poker game. Employing Ince was a risk that could have worked brilliantly but could also have cost them relegation and untold millions – much like a bluff after the flop in high stakes Texas Hold’em. When immediate gains failed to materialise and tension grew they lost their nerve and retired to the security of betting with a made hand rather than going all in with nothing. Installing Sam Allardyce was a failsafe plan but it also style-proofed their football for the foreseeable future. The game is all about percentages for Big Sam, as any good poker player knows. On both the green felt and green turf relying on statistics secures you winning steadily if not spectacularly. The goal-gorger Kalinic could be a great find and should provide a focal point for a team of organised grafters. A season of rhythmical progress beckons.
Final Position: 11th
McMenu: Quarter-pounder with cheese – full of non-descript substance
Bolton – Despite saving the club from relegation – and Little Sam’s hilariously woeful attempt at impersonating his ‘Big’ brother – in 07/08 and building further to secure Premiership safety comfortably last season Gary Megson isn’t held in the highest esteem at the Reebok. A feud between fans and manager arose after a less than impressive second half away at Blackburn and post-match booing wasn’t something to let slide for Megson, who seems easily irritable. Sensible, though, is the word that resonates most strongly with a man who consistently buys PL veterans to create a solid team spine. Must hope Johan Elmander can do a better £8m striker act, they can’t rely on Kevin Davies repeating his anomalous 08/09 goal-scoring heroics.
Final Position: 13th
McMenu: Plain burger – cheap and nasty
Burnley – That 30% of Burnley residents are match-going Clarets is a truly astonishing fact and having the entire town’s vociferous support throughout the campaign could prove all important in inspiring the players to superhuman efforts, much akin to Stoke’s Britannia success. They may well be about to embark on their maiden PL voyage but with wins against Fulham, Arsenal and Tottenham, as well as a victory on penalties over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, in the Carling Cup last season it’s hard to imagine repeated matches against these kind of teams will prove daunting. Owen Coyle is one of those fiery-voiced Scots in the Ferguson/Moyes mould who commands respect from his charges and if he’s half as effective as either of those archetypes Burnley will stay up without a worry.
Final Position: 16th
McMenu: Mozarella Dippers - new and quite popular
Chelsea – They have a new enigmatic foreign manager, without a strong grasp of English or experience of working in this country, in charge. They are looking to strike back after a season of bitter disappointment, having been knocked out of the Champions League at the death. Their strong squad of players has been added to over the summer with only one medium money signing previously untested in the Premiership. Are you getting a feeling of déjà vu too? I could have written exactly the same thing last year and the same questions arise. While Chelsea’s power and talent is unquestionable their temperament over the course of a season can be. Can Ancellotti succeed where Scolari failed and lead the dressing room? Can he deliver the consistency of performance required? The fact he only brought the Serie A title to Milan once but the European Cup twice in his eight-year reign suggests the big stages of the knock-out tournament may be where he, and his team, really shines.
Final Position: 2nd
McMenu: McChicken Premiere – big and full of quality
Everton – It always seems like Everton succeed in spite of things. Be it injuries, enforced transfer frugality or injuries they manage to prosper and challenge the wealthier members of the PL elite at the top of the table. Their success must be attributed to David Moyes’s – a man I tip as Ferguson’s eventual successor – skill as a man-manager, able, as he is, to distil the very best out of his players. Who’d have thought that Phil Jagielka and Jolean Lescott would be commanding England places and big-money interest when Moyes signed them from Sheffield United and Wolves respectively? The return of Yakubu and Arteta from injury will provide a big boost around September time but Everton look light at the back, the foundation for their formidable mid-season spurt, until Jagielka comes back in November. It looks inevitable they will lose Lescott, in January if not now, so a replacement will be essential. Other teams’ progress will lead to a static Everton dropping down a few places.
Final Position: 8th
McMenu: Chicken nuggets – well established but needs some sauce
Fulham – For my money Roy Hodgson should have claimed the manager of the year gong for his remarkable achievement with Fulham last season. Taking a misfit team of has-beens and never-weres and morphing them into an accomplished outfit capable of out-playing any team in the division when at their best is on par with any transforming skills exhibited by the eponymous heroes in Michael Bay’s recent blockbuster. The intelligence of the manager is evident throughout his side and they play with a verve and vigour that is refreshing to see. He may have unearthed another Norweigen gem with Bjorn Helge Riise and Damien Duff will be a nice addition – you get the impression the Hodgson effect will prove invigorating for the one-time PL champion – but with Europa League commitments, such is their squad depth, domestic form will surely suffer.
Final Position: 9th
McMenu: Sweet Chilli Chicken Deli – full of interesting ingredients
Hull City – It was amazing how quickly my appreciation of Hull’s forthright football turned to loathing of the man who propagated it. But such was the ugliness of Phil Brown’s egocentricity the shift was impossible and the way Hull limply accepted defeat to Manchester United’s second string in the last game of the season, and Brown’s ensuing karaoke session, only compounded matters. By the second half of the season Hull’s surprise attacking element had vanished and they will need to find another way to win in their second outing. Getting better players might be a start but that’s easier said than done as the ever growing list of rejections exemplifies. A real goal threat is essential but I doubt Negredo is the answer.
Final position: 19th
McMenu: Carrot sticks – made a surprise entrance but quickly discarded
Liverpool – The reason most Liverpool lobbyists are voicing as the one why their team will finally win the title is the exact same reason why they won’t. ‘Gerrard and Torres’ has been uttered ad nauseam by those tipping the Merseysiders to break their Premiership duck, with understandable motive – between them the duo have scored 65 league goals since the Spaniard’s move. But there is simply too much reliance on the pair – without them the goal threat is almost non existent. The back-up strike force of N’Gog and El Zhar mustered a total of two goals in 29 appearances last year and there is a distinct lack of top-end quality all over the team beyond the first eleven. The loss of Alonso will be irrevocable, not only for his skill as a generator of attacks but also as a magnet for drawing opponent red cards – a staggering six given for fouls against him last year. (It was piquing to hear Benitez question Alonso’s loyalty during Madrid’s pursuit after he’d vigorously tried to replace the player with Barry the previous summer.) I can’t see a repeat of the late comeback goals, collection of penalty awards, and number of opposition red cards and without these Liverpool will struggle. Throw in Benitez’s erratic temperament and transfer policy and not only will the title wait continue they will slip further behind the eventual winners.
Final position: 4th
McMenu: Apple turnover – never comes first
Manchester city – The parade of fans (and people who happened to be walking past Eastlands at the time) put on camera by Sky Sports News to answer the leading question ‘Why can city win the league?’ were predictably laughable (since when do stadiums win football matches?) but their unbridled optimism is understandable. Yes, these fans have got giddy about the smallest of upturns in the past but never before have they been in such a position as they now find themselves. Hughes (the right manager to keep the millionaires in line) has bought proven Premiership performers and – despite the perceived splurge on strikers – has amassed a balanced squad both in terms of positions and ages. Should Lescott arrive, the defence – city’s Achilles heel for years – suddenly takes on a very solid appearance to mirror the frontline. There will be the inevitable comic meltdown at some stage in the season but on paper (the only guide we have for this unprecedented experiment for the moment) they look able to pick up wins anywhere.
Final position: 5th, Carling Cup winners
McMenu: Summer BBQ Beef – pretty fancy all of a sudden
Manchester United – The figure of 56 has been much mooted this close season. It’s marked out as the number of goals that Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez contributed to the team last year and one which will now be lacking with their departures. Yet while the loss of Ronaldo will be seismic – no player can come close to his ability to convert skilled showmanship into the solid product of goals – Tevez’s absence will be shrugged off without a worry. His name has merely been latched on to beef up the Portuguese's stats. When big players have left United have always motored on, not by replacing them like for like, but by morphing their method of play (after van Nistelrooy moved to Madrid United’s strike force became more fluid and interchangeable) and this time will be no different. Rooney will be colossal as the focal point, finally free to influence games as he should be and Berbatov will perform consistently and effectively. Youth will course through the team, with wing backs Fabio and Rafael as well as Macheda and Welbeck my picks for particular impact. Whether Hargreaves can manage to return from his cruelly chronic knee problems will be massively important, his talent at tirelessly harrying opponents is unique for the team. Much will also depend on Owen’s goal contribution but I wonder whether his arrival was based more on necessity than desire – Fergie’s claim of an over-priced transfer market papering over the chasms of club debt. The proximity to 19 titles will provide the inspiration for triumph.
Final Position: 1st
McMenu: Big Mac – the favourite for years
Portsmouth – Who actually plays for them anymore? The rapid exit of so many players (from big names to big lames) recalls the final days of the Woolworths chain and its ensuing rapid fire sale – everything must go. Pompey’s squad is thinner than the hair on Paul Hart’s head – and judging by the sheen on it in recent interviews that’s clearly saying something. What’s left is a team devoid of creativity and goal-scorers, worse still it’s lacking in any signs of spirit, a prerequisite for any team looking to fight off relegation. Last season the goals of Crouch and the sheer poorness of other teams kept them up – without these hope looks distinctly Awol. By the time Distin switches to Villa and Kranjcar to Sunderland come January it may well have disappeared completely.
Final position: 20th
McMenu: Small Fanta – goes down quickly
Stoke City – Last year Rory Delap’s long throw-ins provided endless goal opportunities for Stoke City and pundits with endless opportunities to say the word ‘trajectory’ for the first time in their lives. But Delap’s robot arms masked the real cause for the team’s potency – strength, organisation, and relentless work ethic not only makes the team incredibly difficult to create moves against but also wears down the opposition leaving them susceptible to attacks. It took a red card, 85 minutes, and all the members of Manchester United’s attacking quartet for the champions to break them down – to claim what Ferguson called their most important win of the season – and Pulis’s side will not be pushed over by anyone. Second-season syndrome will strike but won’t prove lethal.
Final Position: 15th
McMenu: Cheeseburger – fairly minging but gets the job done
Sunderland – The chaos of at the end Keane’s whirlwind tenure left Sunderland in tatters back in December and rest of their campaign felt like a waste recovery mission. With the amount of money made available for transfers profligacy reigned supreme and some of Keane’s buys were baffling, especially considering stance as a disregarder of ego – he never quite practised what he preached. Bruce has already shown his acuteness in the market and the installation of yet another United old boy (S’Bragia was a coach there) should provide the club with a period of stable improvement. Bent, unfathomably unwanted at Tottenham, is a fantastic signing guaranteed to grab them upwards of 15 PL goals. If Bruce can sort out their clueless defence they’re my tip for a top-half surprise package.
Final Position: 10th
McMenu: Strawberry Cornetto McFlurry – backed by big money, should do well
Tottenham – Harry Redknapp is a wily Premier League operator. Without doing anything too inventive after being instated at Spurs last October he brought positive results to the Lane, perhaps most impressively by solving the defensive riddle that befuddled many of his predecessors. He undoubtedly has a formula for success in this league and usually only splashes money on players he already knows well, which, due to his longevity, is a fairly extensive address book. With (a quietly assembled) quality strength in depth across the whole team and no European distractions (despite my better instincts I use this word because of the way the competition was treated by the club last term – surely it’s just the type of trophy Spurs should be gunning for) I can see them leapfrogging the more slender squads of Fulham, Aston Villa and Everton.
Final Position: 6th
McMenu: Double Sausage and Egg McMuffin – not good for your health
West Ham – It’s hard not to warm to Zola and the way he inspires his players to perform the game as he did, with a creativity free from the burden of boardroom turmoil. His confidence in promoting youth paid dividends last year and Noble, Collinson, Tomkins will improve further to become the heart of the side. Despite possessing the ox-like Carlton Cole they look lightweight up front and should he develop similar injury problems to Dean Ashton goals will be hard to come by. Another decent season of fluid football to entertain without much positional progress come May looks likely.
Final Position: 12th
McMenu: Fillet O’ Fish – prone to causing illness
Wigan – New man Martinez must worry that the Latics’ alarming dip in form last season, after obtaining 40 points early, might develop into one of those hangovers which come about after a serious night on the tiles – lasting longer than expected and becoming difficult to shake. His Swansea side played an admirably attractive game in the Championship but it was not enough to earn them a play-off place and I wonder whether we will see a repeat with Wigan; first-touch passing winning plaudits not points. Martinez is an exciting young manager and his appointment at this level is refreshing – he must now be given more time than another in a similar position this time last year. Despite departures he has inherited a decent squad to which he has added the prolific Jason Scotland but I fear it may take a season of consolidation before the manager can marry his style with results.
Final Position: 14th
McMenu: Little Chorizo Melt – experimental
Wolves – The Premiership doesn’t hold fond memories for Mick McCarthy. As manager of Sunderland during two record-breaking stints in the top flight he presided over just two wins. As a club Wolves haven’t fared much better and their only season in the PL saw a bottom of the table finish. Getting an early victory may prove vital in instilling a sense of belief and belonging, liberating the players to repeat the kind of football that got them promoted. With a young, exciting array of attackers Wolves could upset a few of the established teams and I think the balance of the side and the manager’s previous experiences will be enough to keep them up. Just.
Final Position: 17th
McMenu: Happy Meal – just enough