Well, the season has begun, and it was certainly an interesting opening weekend, with a couple of interesting results. And on Monday night, that trend continued, as Manchester City went on to thrash Newcastle United 4-0 in front of a gleeful crowd at the Etihad.
2012/2013 was another season of so close yet so far for Tottenham, who once again finished below their bitter north London rivals by just a single point, and had to settle for the poor man’s Champions League (Europa). That single point will have hurt them badly and I can see them itching to discard their tag of bottlers in seasons gone by. However, a lot hinges of the future of Gareth Bale. Daniel Levy has reiterated time and time again that the player of the season is not for sale. So for the purpose of making this preview, I’ll just assume that Bale will be playing for Spurs.
Those of you who haven’t watched the Beeb’s Swansea City: The Fall and Rise yet are in for a treat. Catch it on iPlayer whilst you can; the perceptive little doc does a good job of explaining exactly why Swansea are one of the most well-liked clubs in the Premier League, and also, why their recent success is nothing short of miraculous, compared to the perilous state of the club’s finances and future ten years ago. Famously sold for a £1 in 2001, Swansea City are about to start their third Premier League campaign on the trot, and will be looking to both build on their ninth place finish last season and emulate their competition success after last year’s triumphant capture of the League Cup – the Swans’ first major trophy in their 101-year history.
With a total of nine new signings so far, the Swans have been doing good business this summer, with midfielder Jonjo Shelvey and striker Wilfried Bony probably the highest profile transfers of the lot, with the latter making the move to South Wales for a club-record £12 million. The majority of Laudrup’s new recruits fit a particular mould; that of the young, probably Spanish, most-likely midfielder. The signings of Cañas, transferred from Real Betis on a free; Pozuelo, also from Betis, signed for an undisclosed amount; Jordi Amat, bought from Espanyol for £2.5m, and Dutch/Canadian de Guzmán, re-signed on another season-long loan from Villarreal, suggest that the possession-heavy, free-flowing passing style we all associate with the Swans is here to stay. Amat, of course, is actually a defender, perhaps most famous for scoring a spectacular goal from just inside the opposition half against Real Valladolid whilst on loan at Rayo Vallecano; if Amat enjoys even half the success the last Swansea signing from the Madrid-based club has had, that £2.5m will look like a bargain. I’m talking, of course, about Michu, who not only has more midfield company, with the likes of new faces Shelvey, Cañas and Pozuelo, but also a potential new striking partner in Bony, who will take the pressure off the Spaniard in terms of scoring goals, and maybe even allow Michu to drop back a little and play deeper, a role in which he thrives.
No major departures have hit the Liberty Stadium so far this summer, which is good news for a tight-knit, achieving team; the other three new signings that Swansea have made are all ones for the future – teenage prospects Zabret and Gogic, goalkeeper and midfielder respectively, and ex-Arsenal youngster Jernade Meade, who helpfully plays both on the left wing and at left back. If I were a Swansea fan, I’d be happy about these signings; not only will they provide the option of extra cover, which is always needed in the Premier League these days, especially when European competition is factored in, but investing in young, promising talent gives a good indication of the club’s growing ambition.
KEY PLAYER: Wilfried Bony
Of all the signings, Bony is the key one for me; at 24, he’s probably still a couple of years off his prime as a striker, and he’s fresh from a stellar season in the Eredivisie, scoring an amazing 37 goals in 36 appearances last term, 31 of which were in the league. If the Dutch Footballer of the Year can make a successful switch to the Premier League, Swansea will become even more of team to contend with, and another proven goal-scorer and match winner should, as I’ve said, take some of the pressure off Michu, allowing the latter to play without the weight of the whole team on his back. Before you think that me perpetrating the whole ‘over-reliance on Michu’ thing is unfair, let me remind you; the Spaniard scored 22 goals for Swansea in all competitions last season – his debut season, lest we forget (doesn’t it feel as if he’s been around longer?) His nearest rival in the goal-scoring department last term was another Swansea debutant, de Guzmán, who scored a grand total of 8. Swansea are crying out for another proven goal-scorer, and if Bony finds his shooting boots, the Jacks can look forward to cementing their position in the top half of the table again.
As well as getting their Premier League campaign off to the best possible start, Swansea have other fish to fry this coming season; their European adventure has already started, kicking-off in impressive fashion least week with a comprehensive 4-0 win over Malmö, in the first leg of the Third Qualifying round of the Europa League, so barring any disasters, they’ve already booked their place in the Play-Off round. One slight worry for the Swansea fans I know is how the team will cope if they do progress in Europe; Thursday night matches away to Dynamo Kyiv and Spartak Moscow aren’t the best preparation for important weekend Premier League games, after all. If the Swans are unfortunate with injuries, especially to their key players, it’ll be a tough ask for them to maintain their impressive league form of the last couple of years, and some mid-season squad strengthening might need to be done come January.
Another prospect I’m sure most Swans fans are looking forward to with relish is that of the first ever Welsh Premier League derby. Swansea take on their rivals Cardiff away at the beginning of November, and I have to say I’ll be very surprised if the Swans do not emerge victorious; a sharper, more sophisticated playing style and the added nous of playing in the Premier League for a few seasons should be more than enough to get one over on their neighbours, but you underestimate Premier League new-boys and your old rivals at your peril.
Good cups runs should once again be on the cards for Swansea; so much luck is involved in getting decent draws, though the fans will still be rightly disappointed if they don’t at least make a fist of defending the League Cup won in such spectacular style against Bradford last season. All in all, if I were a Swansea fan, I’d be feeling incredibly optimistic about this coming season. The South Wales team aren’t quite ready to push any higher than mid-table yet, though that is the next stage to aim for if the club has any serious ambition. Swansea are better than mid-table mediocrity, and deserve to be so, but a push towards the top 6 is a good few years off yet.
But considering that barely a decade ago Swansea could have dropped out of existence altogether, being seen as a solid, worthy, competitive side in the best league in the world must be a dream come true for the legions of Swans’ fans who’ve supported the club through the good times and bad. A decent run in all three cups, a continuation of their passing, attacking style, and an eighth, possibly seventh place finish is what I believe Swansea should be aiming for in 2013/14; whether they quite get there will be a different matter, and will rest in no small part on the form of Michu and Bony (not to mention Jonjo Shelvey, who could yet surprise us all). Best of luck then, Swansea. Your fans have a got a lot to be grateful for, and a lot to look forward to. Just do us a favour, from one City to another – beat United for us on the first day of the season, alright?
PREDICTED FINISH: 7th
Last season was a difficult one for Black Cats fans, seeing their team finish in 17th place, only three points away from relegation and having to be saved by Paolo Di Canio. But will ditching Martin O’Neill for the fiery Italian lead to a more positive outcome this season?
Stoke City, the 19th worst team offensively during the 2012/13 campaign having scored just 34 goals, are set to start the new season under the ex-manager of the only side which finished below Stoke as worst goal scorers – Mark Hughes (to start with, anyway). I’d like to counter this with a positive point to fairly balance this article, but truth be told, I’m struggling.
Looking through the squad list, viewing names such as Peter Crouch, Charlie Adam and Ryan Shawcross amongst others, there are players amongst their ranks that, on their day, are quality players. However, as last season proved, ‘their day’ isn’t a very common occurrence. Charlie Adam furthered his reputation as a poor man’s Paul Scholes, knocking up 180 fouls in his 89-game Premier League career, whilst Peter Crouch scored just seven goals in 28 starts.
I do believe that the change in manager was needed; in my opinion, there was only so much Stoke were going to achieve with Tony Pulis and the playing style he employed, and last season, even that looked as if it wasn’t good enough anymore. They looked as if they had hit the roof under Pulis. However, considering the lack of a particularly threatening attacking midfielder along with a pretty inconsistent and unreliable strike force, I expect Stoke to pick up from where they left off last season and struggle to find the goal unless business is done during the remainder of this month. Luckily, towards the other end of the team sheet, the defence looks a different story. Stoke had the 7th best Premier League defence last season, an impressive statistic considering the the six teams above them were all towards the glory end of the table. They’ve furthered this strong point of theirs with the signing Marc Muniesa, a 21-year old former Barcelona B prospect, a typical skilful Spanish player. Along with Muniesa, Erik Pieters has arrived from PSV, another decent signing.
A winger along with a striker who can score 15 or more goals a season should be at the top of Stoke’s main priority list for August with a solid attacking midfielder also not far off the top. If these are met, I could see Stoke finishing within the top 12, but if they aren’t, I can see another long, hard winter for the Potters with relegation a serious possibility. However, my predictions should be taken with a pinch of salt, especially regarding Stoke. I aired my views on Ballsy Banter that Michael Owen would score 10 goals at the start of last season and he didn’t even manage to even play that amount of games, so trusting my prediction skills, Stoke will probably win the league. One thing that is for sure is that if Kenwyne Jones, Cameron Jerome and Peter Crouch carry their goal scoring form through to this season, I expect Stoke to be fighting to stay up again. Goals win matches.
KEY PLAYER: Asmir Begovic
Begovic was named Stoke’s Player of the Year last year by everyone at the club and enjoyed an almost faultless season – in 38 games, he did not drop a single cross. I expect the coming season to be just as busy as the last season for the Bosnian goalkeeper, he’s got a vital role to play. An on-form Begovic combined with a solid back 4 as proven last season (particularly with the addition of Muniesa and Pieters), and opposition teams could have a real struggle to break through.
PREDICTED FINISH: 16th. If Hughes buys a striker and at least one other attacking midfielder, 12th isn’t out of reach.
After a successful and busy return to the Premier League for Southampton, there is a general consensus that in the coming season, not much more will be expected of them than avoiding relegation. And I agree. Well, sort of.
In their first season back, Southampton stunned football fans (mostly Liverpool fans) by beating the Merseyside club to the coveted signature of Gastón Ramirez. While the Uruguayan has not yet lived up to his billing, the squad is being built around him. There was also a change of manager, with the conservative Nigel Adkins being replaced by an Argentine with a bit of Spanish flair, Mauricio Pochettino. The season was a success, but what lies ahead and how can Southampton continue to progress?
The signing of Victor Wanyama was, in most people’s eyes, a coup. A strong central midfielder that has been ferociously linked with clubs such as Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and (yet again losing out) Liverpool, this signing was not expected by a club like Southampton. This signing also makes complete sense for Southampton, especially looking at the style of football Pochettino wants to play. Lining up mainly in a 4-3-3, Pochettino promotes a strong pressing game while being sensible in possession. The system is fluid, disciplined and based on a strong defence and counter-attacking. When opposition is dispossessed, an attack is launched, with passes and diagonal runs cutting open defences. It also requires three midfielders. Currently, Southampton boasts a formidable-ish group of players – Schneiderlin, Cork, Ramirez, Lallana, Davies, Wanyama and youngster James Ward-Prowse. Ramirez and Lallana will be expected to play a more attacking, creative game; it will be interesting to see if Pochettino opts to play either of them wide, just to facilitate two defensive midfielders, i.e. both Schneiderlin and Wanyama.
In defence, Southampton may be lacking some bite. With Nathaniel Clyne and exciting youngster Luke Shaw in the full-back positions, Pochettino may well exploit teams on the flanks. The problem, however, is in the middle of defence. With Yoshida, Hooiveld and Fonte the only CBs of note, Dejan Lovren has been brought in, despite several clubs looking to sign the centre-back (ouch, Liverpool… again). Lovren may have a poor on-field record regarding discipline, with three red cards in 18 league starts for Lyon – something that doesn’t bode well for Saints supporters, but only time will tell. The team is also short on reliable ‘keepers, with Artur Boruc being the obvious choice for the number one spot. Gazzaniga and Davis, the back-up ‘keepers, may well prove me wrong, but I’m not convinced.
In attack, Southampton have options and goals can be expected. Rickie Lambert’s name stands out immediately, with the Englishman having an excellent debut PL season, reaching double figures. Almost in Lambert’s shadow, is the still young Jay Rodriguez, who also looked quite good last season. Both are natural goal-scorers who are good in the air and in the box; teams will have to be wary of the threat these two pose.
If the club is to have a successful season, some players will have to produce. Here are four players who I believe will play an essential role to any successes the team have in the upcoming league campaign:
A man who mainly burdens the goal-scoring threat for Southampton, Rickie Lambert can be described as your typical target man. Strong in the air and on the ball, good finisher in the box and also a threat from a set piece. Having played in all the games for the Saints last season, it’s easy to see why Lambert is so important to the team. 15 goals and 5 assists, with an average of 2.5 shots and 2.1 key passes per game, Lambert is truly the spearhead of the Southampton attack.
Morgan Schneiderlin is a defensive midfielder who breaks up play, acts as a ‘guard’ for the back four and starts attacks from the back – and falls into the ‘underrated players’ category in the Premier League. Having started 36 matches last season, Schneiderlin boasts quite the record; five goals, with a 85.2% passing accuracy and averages of 4.1 tackles and 3.9 interceptions per game. Even better, he boasts an average of 2.9 accurate long balls per game, making him an important part of any counter attack.
One of the hottest prospects in world football a mere year ago, much had been expected from Gastón Ramirez – and many were left disappointed after his debut season. A 78.5% passing accuracy, five goals and only three assists while starting 20 games all season is not what is to be expected of a club-record signing. He may not have settled quickly, but the season ahead is important for both player and club – and much will be expected from the talented Uruguayan. If Gastón can step up to the plate, this may yet be a season to remember for the Saints.
At only the tender age of 18, Luke Shaw is already an integral part of this team. Having started 22 games last season, coupled with three sub appearances, the youngster boasts averages of two tackles and interceptions, and 3.6 clearances per game; no mean feat if you consider his age. While having obvious weaknesses, i.e. his passing and holding too long onto the ball, he is still young and has a lot to learn. That said, from the evidence shown so far, Shaw will be an outstanding player in a few years, and one hopes he is sensible when making decisions regarding his future.
Southampton may not have the strongest squad in the league, but with a tactically sound coach this team my well surprise most people. Much will depend on injuries, a few players’ form and if Pochettino and Nicola Cortese (chairman) can bring in another player or two. The optimist in me wants this team to do well in the upcoming season, and will almost go as far as claiming ‘a top 10 finish is possible.’ And by top 10, I mean tenth – at most. But, realistically, the newly promoted teams look like the teams most in danger. Southampton, as a club, will have to look realistically at the campaign, with avoiding relegation in mind. That said, a higher finish than 17th is well within their grasp. Southampton, I believe, will do well to finish around 15th; anything higher than that will be an absolutely amazing season for the club and their supporters.
This is, after all, a consolidating season for the Saints.
PREDICTED FINISH: 15th
Norwich were widely considered to be struggling last season. After picking up only three points by the end of September, things looked to be bleak for the Canaries. Picking up sporadic wins throughout the season, Norwich were dragged into the relegation battle, along with Aston Villa, Stoke, Newcastle and Sunderland, before just about dragging themselves out and finishing 11th, showing how close it was at the bottom last season. Heavy losses to Liverpool twice, Chelsea, Fulham and Manchester United dented any sort of momentum Norwich tried to muster up, and disappointing campaigns in the FA and Capital One Cups only harmed their progress. While they did manage to get to the quarter finals of they Capital One Cup, they got mercilessly beaten 4-1 by fellow strugglers Aston Villa on the way out of the tournament.
Newcastle’s close season has been defined by one man.
Yes, they’ve managed to sign Loic Remy, a man who turned them down in January for more money, only to get relegated. However, he proved he was probably worth it before (allegedly) proving he probably wasn’t.
Yes, at the time of writing they’re in frantic negotiations with Bafetimbi Gomis from Lyon, one of the many “Baby Drogbas” running around Europe at the moment (the Arsenal Slayer really gets around).
If you’ve aimlessly trailed the #MUFC hashtag on Twitter recently, you’d be forgiven for thinking United’s new Commander-In-Chief has splurged all his war chest on Everton players. You’d probably see a barely comprehendible collection of 140 characters or less stating: ‘united is not team anymore its everton #MoyesOut’. United fan or not, if you’ve read a newspaper or been on the internet in the last couple of months, I don’t need to explain to you why such sentiments are devoid of logic. You and I both know that, regardless of the team you follow, you will always encounter immature or fickle fans whose knowledge of your team doesn’t extend beyond FIFA 13.
What a difference a year makes. Manchester City’s summer has contrasted from last year’s in almost every way. Sober as opposed to drunk off of last minute glory, the club have acted purposefully and quickly in this transfer window securing a new manager and four signings to boot before their rivals even settled into the starting blocks.
On paper, it feels as though City have strengthened throughout. Mancini has been replaced by the soothing but resilient Manuel Pellegrini, who will look to bring a more purposeful attacking verse to a City attack which felt blunted at times last season. To assist him, he has signed at least two players of his choosing in Jesus Navas and Alvaro Negredo. The former in particular is surely set to star for City. Whilst I remain unconvinced that Negredo will prove to be a key player this term for City, their attacking quartet together will surely score plenty between them. Stevan Jovetic has also joined this summer and will offer more versatility than City’s other forwards, and is a genuine match winner provided he can stay fit, something he has struggled with in the past. Fernandinho has been City’s most expensive capture this summer and comes with rave reviews after impressing in last season’s Champions League; City fans will be hoping those performances can be replicated alongside Yaya Toure, giving City a fiercely strong spine, especially if Fernandinho can push Yaya Toure to maintain his level of performance throughout the season.
Clearly then, City have bolstered their squad, but what will be crucial to their fortunes this year will be whether the new faces can spur their existing stars back into life after a stale season last time out. The likes of Yaya Toure, David Silva and Sergio Aguero failed to hit the heights of their title-winning season and I believe those three players remain amongst City’s very best. It has been said Roberto Mancini failed to motivate his squad and eke every sinew of sweat from their pores, and if there is one area where Pellegrini will be earning his money this season, it’ll be here.
In terms of adjustments, Pellegrini will likely make some tweaks to City’s set-up. Judging from his time at Real Madrid and Malaga, we should expect City to play with greater width and pace this season, so whilst City’s neat passing game should not be harmed, I believe we can look forwards to more exciting and incisive attacking transitions this season. A potential side-effect of this could be a more vulnerable defensive unit. In the past two seasons, City’s defence has been the meanest in the league; I’m not totally convinced that will be the case this season, especially with Jose Mourinho back in town, who will no doubt have his Chelsea team well drilled. City will need Joe Hart back on top form after a series of errors last season, and with the greatly impressive Matija Nastasic out for the first month of the season, City may look to dip back into the transfer market for reinforcement; in pre-season Javi Garcia was used at CB with mixed results.
KEY PLAYER: Jesus Navas
It’s tough to pick just one because City’s squad is stacked with so many potential match winners, but I think whilst he may not be the most talented player in their squad, Jesus Navas will be the man who makes City’s season. His danger in wide areas will be crucial for Pellegrini and will offer great variation to Man City’s attack. Navas has topped the chance creation charts in Europe, and if he can place near the top again this season, City’s strike force will surely put the chances away. The Premier League has always favoured the directness and pace of powerful wingers, and anybody who has watched Navas play will know what’s coming, yet he remains difficult to stop. I’m predicting 15+ assists for the Spaniard this season.
I’m quite positive about City, and it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if they did go on to win the title, but I believe a rejuvenated Chelsea side with Jose Mourinho in tow will be this year’s Champions. City will serve up the best football in this season’s Premier League, but I’m predicting they fall short – just. However, I have no doubts City will go deep into this season’s Champions League.
PREDICTED FINISH: 2nd
Liverpool have gone through a hard couple of years. Pretty much from the appointment of Roy Hodgson to the present day, everything just sort of hasn’t worked out, and it seems the fans of every other English club have revelled in the pointing out of this fact. I suppose it’s natural, Liverpool won everything there was to win for close to 20 years through the 70s and 80s, and despite never winning the Premier League, still pulled in a decent trophy haul in the 90s and 00s, winning both domestic cups on multiple occasions as well as the UEFA Cup, and oh yeah, the Champions League too. Not too bad for a supposed lesser period. But the turn of the 2010s has seen rumours of their demise no longer being greatly exaggerated. Perhaps this downturn is synchronized with Steven Gerrard ageing to the point where he can’t be the all-purpose hero he was any more. They’ve been absent from the Champions League since 2010, finished consecutive seasons below Everton, wasted millions upon millions of not exactly replaceable transfer fees on under-performing English players, the apex of which was the 35 million spent on Andy Carroll, who returned about eight goals and then was shuffled off to West Ham through the back door and for 40% of his original fee. Like I said, a hard couple of years.
But Liverpool have legitimate reasons to be optimistic that this season they can turn the tide. Brendan Rodgers’ freshman year in charge started off shakily; £11 million wasted on yet another apparent flop in Borini, Joe Allen not exactly working out, a humbling first day defeat to West Brom. By the end of the season, though, Liverpool under Rodgers were really starting to come together. While they spent much of last season relying on Luis Suarez, who hit his world class stride at exactly the right time to prevent Liverpool reaching a new nadir, some excellent January business, £9 million or so for Phillipe Coutinho could be one of the bargains of recent times if the form he showed last season is anything to go by, while the purchase of footballing enigma Daniel Sturridge, who always seemed to have potential but squandered by a petulant personality and an inhuman level of selfishness on the field, is looking like a savvy one too, with Sturridge hitting the best form of his career on the latter half of last season.
Prognosticating on how Liverpool will fare this season is sort of rendered moot until the Luis Suarez situation is resolved. Personally, I can’t see Liverpool selling to Arsenal at any price. Arsenal are holding on to their much vaunted top 4 status by a thread, one point in consecutive seasons to be exact. They are by far the most vulnerable team in the top 4, so selling them a player to solve all their problems up front would be both killing Liverpool’s own ambitions, and strengthening a rival out of reach. They just won’t do it. If Real Madrid, who currently lack a world class out and out striker, come in for Suarez, I can see Liverpool selling, but until then, I think the more likely outcome is that he stays. But until there’s a firm answer to that question, it would only be a best guess.
This is the season Liverpool have to mount a serious top 4 challenge. They’ve spent two seasons completely out of the game largely thanks to Kenny Dalglish’s disastrous spending, but now they have the squad, improved with the signings of Aspas and Mignolet, to put in a sustained season long bid for the top 4. I don’t think they have to necessarily attain it for their season to be considered an improvement, but they need to be there fighting. They have no further excuses for languishing in 6th and 7th, miles behind the pack. If they keep Suarez, they are strong outside bets for the top 4.
Liverpool did excellent business in January, and have followed that up by doing largely good business this summer. Iago Aspas is a quality signing that should further strengthen their forward line, looking pretty good these days with Coutinho, Sturridge, Suarez and Aspas, and Mignolet is certainly an upgrade for the fading Pepe Reina, who was once the best goalkeeper in the league, now responsible for conceding a lot of cheap errors and consequently a lot of cheap points. I think it shows a smart head on Rodgers to not be wowed by Reina’s name and status at the club and recognize a player in decline. Luis Alberto is perhaps one for the future at 20 years old and Kolo Toure on a free transfer will add an old, experienced head to Liverpool’s occasionally nervous defence.
KEY PLAYER: Luis Suarez
Currently the only world class player at the club, baggage or no baggage, in my opinion, Liverpool will need Suarez to challenge for the top 4. Without him, this season will probably become about building for next season, replacing him adequately and re-aligning the team. With him, the squad is much stronger than it was at the beginning of last season and can stand up to Arsenal’s and Spurs’ squads as direct competitors.
This is the season where Rodgers needs to step up to the plate and turn Liverpool into a team capable of returning to Champions League football. He can’t really be given any more time to adjust; he’s had his feeler season, he had his summer, now he needs to start delivering. Actually achieving 4th this year is less important than achieving a place in the fight for 4th, but that has to be the ambition.
PREDICTED FINISH: 6th
After three years away, Hull City are finally back in the big time. The KC Stadium is guaranteed at least one year of hard fought battles against the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal, but how long the top-flight jaunt will last is up to them. The Tigers are seemingly in a better financial position now then they were the last time they tasted Premier League football, and they also possess a manager with top-flight experience in Steve Bruce, his side having finished the job that Nick Barmby started the previous season. They finished 8th in 2012, under the stewardship of local boy Barmby, and 11th the year before that.
Being asked to write about Fulham is like being asked to write about the sky – it’s just always there. In the last four seasons, they’ve finished; 12th, 9th, 8th and 12th again. Mid-table consistency. New seasons arrive with no real fear of being relegated and no optimism of anything more than a cheeky cup run. Fun.
But this season, fun has arrived in the shape of a very impressive moustache. Mohamed Al-Fayed sold Fulham this summer after 16 years as the owner. His relationship has had its snags, but he has taken this club from the third tier to the top flight and into Europe – even a not-so-major European final! The incoming chairman is the owner of NFL franchise, the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team that are comfortably one of the poorest teams in the National Football League. Fulham fans will be hoping his football team from this side of the pond doesn’t follow suit. It was no surprise that Khan picked Fulham; the Jaguars are London’s ‘adopted’ NFL team, signing for four years to play a ‘home’ game in London, so it was always going to be in the English capital where he would buy, and Fulham seems like a great fit.
Plenty of fans will be hoping for the injection of cash that other foreign owners are bringing in to the Premier League. But when looking at Fulham’s transfer deals this summer, the capture of Maarten Stekelenburg is the only one that’s really worth writing home about. The highly-rated Dutch international keeper will be the perfect replacement for Mark Schwarzer who managed bag himself a move to that other club in West London. Otherwise, is Adel Taarabt really the answer to Fulham’s problems? Well, they have missed that creative influence since the departure of Moussa Dembele, but he’s hardly a player you can rely on, is he?
Is a striker what they need? Perhaps they do rely on Dimitar Berbatov too much, and you’re not going to get many goals out of Hugo Rodallega these days. There has been plenty of speculation over Darren Bent going to Fulham, with the Englishman being linked with the Cottagers, as well as Newcastle. At the right club, Darren Bent can score 20+ goals in the Premier League, while Martin Jol has said that the club want another striker and it’s clear that the Aston Villa man is the one he wants. But with Fulham’s transfer record still being Steve Marlet back in 2001 for £11.5m, Cottagers fans are surely hoping for a marquee signing soon. Will Bent’s signature suffice?
KEY PLAYER: Bryan Ruiz
We’re near the end, so I should be positive now. Bryan Ruiz has looked, at times, a real talent, and he could be a big player for the club this season. If he gets a relationship going with Dimitar Berbatov, then Fulham could – and I stress could – surprise a few people this season.
PREDICTED POSITION: 8th
The last few seasons have been increasingly successful for Everton; where they once may have been considered the ‘other’ Liverpool team, they are now legitimately challenging for the Merseyside crown for the second season in a row, and finishing at a very respectable 6th place. The credit for this achievement rests firmly upon manager David Moyes who took on the challenge of this failing club 10 years ago, and turned it into a team to be reckoned with. Moyes may not have turned Everton into Premier League giants, but he took on a Herculean task and came up with the goods.
Rarely has a Premier League season shaped up to be so unpredictable. Sky Sports are billing it as the biggest of all, supporters are thirsty to see a new crop of stars strut their stuff on our stage, and everybody is perched with unprecedented eagerness as they await the return of the Special One to Stamford Bridge; at least geographically, that is where he will be. But such was the hype and fervour surrounding his widely foreseen reunion with the club, it feels like word of mouth was what secured him the job, and as such, he is representing us, the Premier League and Chelsea all in one. We feel proud to accommodate football’s most grandiose manager.
So for the second year in a row, it happened. For the second year in a row, I have to write about a promoted team for the season previews. I think there is something fishy going on with that draw! However, on the plus side, these articles do kind of write themselves; with the promoted teams, all you wanted to know is whether or not they will stay up. Last year, I predicted Southampton to stay up if Rickie Lambert scored goals – hardly the world’s most daring prediction, but I was right!
Crystal Palace, however, are no Southampton. In fact, how they got promoted in the first place is beyond me. Just like those bastards who tell you your exams are easy right after you’ve taken them, I’m going to say the Championship last season was fairly poor and it was relatively easy to get out of. For instance, Palace were not that good, Cardiff had fairly poor form in the last months of the season, and Hull could barely scrap a win for most of the run in, and yet they all went up. Palace were the only team in the promoted trio who had a player break 10 league goals for the season. Unfortunately, the player in question, Glenn Murray is out until Christmas. Part of me thinks that Palace played poorly for four months just so they could troll Brighton in the playoffs.
In Ian Holloway, they have a man with Premier League experience and didn’t do badly at all with Blackpool. However, I can’t help but feel like Palace are not as good as that Blackpool team. But the same Holloway factors will be Palace’s strengths this season: togetherness, fearlessness, and the desire to attack. Palace also boast a safe pair of hands at the back in Julian Speroni. The Argentine has been a faithful servant to the club since joining them the last time the team was in the top flight, a season he lasted five games before being replaced. However, he has gone on to be extremely reliable and should be busy this season. The club also have one of the most potent youth systems in the country, boasting numerous top flight names in the past five years alone. The likelihood is the next star will be born this season.
Fairly obviously, Palace will struggle to match the rest of the league on a financial level, and on paper, their current squad would probably not even be fancied for promotion in this season’s Championship. They have also lost Wilfried Zaha to Manchester United; whilst this will free up the space for plenty of other exciting options, Zaha – whilst not an all conquering force last season – was a potential match winner as demonstrated in the playoff semi final against Brighton. Palace’s summer signings so far have been journey men with some experience of top flight football who don’t look like really setting the league alight.
KEY PLAYER: Dwight Gayle
A multi-million pound signing from Peterborough, Gayle was playing non-league football only a year ago, but is proof that the ability to hit the back of the net is useful in any league. Just over half a season at The Posh yielded 12 league goals, and the diminutive striker’s ability to not be bullied by bigger, more experienced defenders showed. If he could stick a few away in the Premier League, then Palace will have a shot at picking up some points. However, the flip side is that Gayle could look way out of his depth and those millions could have been very much squandered.
As much as I love an underdog, I just don’t see it happening for Palace this season. I think the Championship was poor last year with too many teams unable to put together any kind of consistency. However, the bottom half of the Premier League alone looks far too strong for Palace, and considering how competitive the league could be this year, I don’t think it’s a good time for teams coming up from the Championship. One thing is for sure, Palace won’t embarrass themselves and they will give us some enjoyment during the season but I still fancy them to be in the bottom three come May.
PREDICTED FINISH: 18th
Welcome, Cardiff City Football Club, to the elite division of English football. After an enthralling season that saw the club capture the nPower Championship title and secure a top-flight promotion, the club follows the footsteps of Swansea City and becomes the second club from Wales to join the English Premier League.
For Aston Villa, last season can only be described as highly disappointing. Although Villa were never going to challenge for the title or even a place in Europe, nobody would have thought that this history-rich club would be relieved to be in the top division come the end of the season. Fortunately for Villa and Paul Lambert, it was quite obvious towards the end of the season that the team’s position was down to extended periods of underperforming rather than a complete lack of ability within the squad. Nonetheless, a host of players have arrived and even more have departed.
So who has Lambert brought in? With Villa finishing the season with a goal difference of -22, it’s quite clear that the defence needed reinforcing. With Richard Dunne moving on, a centre back was imperative, and Lambert has gone for Jores Okore in a deal reported to be in the £4m region, making him FC Nordsjaelland’s most expensive export. Although the defender is relatively unknown, at the tender age of 20, he has already represented Denmark seven times, so everything points to this being a very astute signing. To add competition for the left-back spot, Lambert has opted for Antonio Luna, a 22-year old Spanish full back that was out of favour at Sevilla. A product of Sevilla’s youth academy, he has struggled to establish himself in Spain, so you would have to believe that Joe Bennett or Charles N’Zogbia would still be ahead of Luna in the pecking order.
The goal difference was not helped by Villa’s lack of goals. The fact that Benteke, Agbonlahor and Weimann contributed 35 goals out of Villa’s season total of 47 between them is an indication that the team is relying too heavily on these three individuals. Villa managed to keep Benteke fit for the whole season, but without him, it’s difficult to see where the goals would come from. The once prolific Darren Bent does not seem to feature in Lambert’s plans, so recruiting another striker was a no-brainer for Lambert. So enter Nicklas Helenius, another Danish international youngster. Signed for a reported £1.2m from Aalborg BK, the larger-than-life striker is already looking like a bargain by scoring two goals for Aston Villa in his two preseason outings.
In terms of central midfielders, Ashley Westwood has established himself as Lambert’s first choice which was justified by the Englishman’s performances last term yielding six assists. Fabian Delph and Barry Bannan also seem to be finding their footing in the Premier League with some mature performances, but the fact that they produced a grand total of zero goals between the three of them again shows how much the team is reliant on their attackers. They have never really replaced the goals that the likes of Milner, Barry and Petrov used to chip in with so Leandro Bacuna’s arrival will try to stop that particular rot. Although Bacuna has played on either wing, as a striker, and even at right-back, the player himself believes that his best position is in the middle of the park, and it has been observed in his native Holland that he is most consistent when deployed in the centre. The arrival of Aleksandar Tonev along with his appearances in the middle of the park in preseason seems to suggest that Bacuna will be primarily used in his favoured position and will provide very healthy competition for the aforementioned players.
So Lambert has been quite busy within the transfer window which will please Villa fans, but the best pieces of business were done much closer to home. With Christian Benteke seeming a certainty to make his exit from Villa Park, a huge amount of credit has to be given to Paul Lambert for persuading the hitman to stay. The ‘U-turn’ performed by Benteke has undertones of the Rooney/Ferguson saga at Manchester United a few years ago, but you would have to say that Lambert’s achievement was bigger than Ferguson’s. With Tottenham and Arsenal, along with a host of European clubs, ready to open their wallets to procure the Belgian striker, whatever Lambert said to him was enough to encourage him to not only stay with a team that was threatened with relegation a season ago but to sign a new contract too. Along with Benteke, Guzman, Weimann and Westwood have also pledged their futures to Villa, and the club’s ability to keep their biggest stars will be a massive positive to Villa fans.
KEY PLAYER: Gabriel Agbonlahor
As far as key players are concerned, the obvious choice would have to be Christian Benteke. However, a player that surprisingly hasn’t been mentioned yet could yet prove to be the most influential. Gabby Agbonlahor is now part of the Aston Villa furniture, and last season, you saw flashes of the sort of form that helped him earn his three England caps, particularly his 2-goal display against Manchester City in the League Cup. His inconsistency is worrying, but he can terrorise most full-backs in the Premier League on his day, and he was involved in 12 goals last season from just 24 league starts. Keeping Agbonlahor fit will be a priority for Lambert because with him on the pitch, Benteke is bound to have chances.
It would be wrong for Paul Lambert to target anything other than an improvement on last season. Aston Villa are no longer a top 8 side, and have a long way to go before they can consider themselves to be in that bracket, so it would be pointless aiming for Europe and adding additional pressure on themselves. An optimistic target for Villa would be to finish in the top half of the table, but with Lambert strengthening his squad with cover players to add depth rather than first team improvements, finishing 12th would not be seen as a failure.
PREDICTED FINISH: 12th
I’m probably not the best person to be making predictions for Arsenal’s upcoming Premier League campaign as a Manchester United fan, but unfortunately, that’s just how the cookie crumbles sometimes. I’ve also got a bit of a soft spot for Tottenham, and have maintained a solid belief for the last two years that they have a better squad than the Gunners, and due to that, should finish higher than their North London rivals; but if that was going to happen, Tottenham wouldn’t be known as the epic bottlers they are. So I’ve decided to be a bit more pragmatic to my approach, decided to consider all the facts, and factor in the sheer drive and determination that Arsene Wenger brings to his young team, and make a prediction from a completely different stand-point from where I have done in the past.