Can Manchester United repeat their success this year after their unexpected win last time? Many people think they can and they start favourites. They have boosted their squad by signing Owen Hargreaves from Bayern Munich plus Nani and Anderson and have now picked up Carlos Tevez as well from West Ham. They have looked good in pre-season and will be there or thereabouts.
Their biggest challenger will probably again be Chelsea, though Liverpool Arsenal and Spurs will all have a say in that. Chelsea would dearly love to recover the title they lost last season, but then again they seem more interested in the Champions league. No London club has ever won the Champions league and Chelsea would dearly love to smash that unwanted record.
Arsenal on paper don’t look as strong, with Henri gone to Barcelona, and continuing rumours that the manager himself Arsene Wenger could be on his way out of the club. Leagues are not won on paper. I have a feeling Arsenal will confound the critics and put in a strong performance this year. Their younger players will be one year older and wiser and anyone who writes them off could be standing on dangerous ground.
Liverpool have not won the league for an incredible 18 years. Before that they were regularly winning it more than all the others put together. Despite two Champions league finals in the last three seasons it is the English Premier league their fans are so desperate to win. They have spent big money this time too under their new American owners, a reported 22 million pounds on Torres alone from Athletico Madrid. Whether he really is the final piece in the jigsaw, or even an important piece, remains to be seen. Some of the manager’s Spanish signings have been moderate successes at best, like Morientes, now back in La Liga, and the pressure will be on Torres to perform. He will too, but whether it will be enough only time will tell. The tempestuous Bellamy has gone to West Ham, and Cisse to Marseilles. Last year I tipped Liverpool to win the league and I was wrong. They could do it this time, but will have to get past Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United to do so.
As in the past two seasons Spurs remain the most likely to break into the top four. They have spent big on Southampton’s young Welsh full back Gareth Bale, and perhaps more importantly 16.5 million pounds on relegated Charlton’s striker Darren Bent. Darren has scored goals wherever he has been and now in a better team like Spurs he will be expected to score even more, though whether he will get enough starts is another matter. Spurs have four other top strikers, and Martin Jol has shown he likes to rotate his players. Spurs insistence on signing and promoting home grown talent, a direct opposite of Arsenal’s policy across the road, is to be applauded. They could improve, and break into the top four, but for that to happen, one of the top clubs would need to suffer a poor season.
And what of the rest? Newcastle have a new owner, new chairman, and new manager in Sam Allardyce, and some tasty new players too. They have signed former Middlesbrough striker Mark Viduka, they should have the fit again Michael Owen available at last, plus the signing of the tempestuous Barton from Manchester City and Alan Smith from Manchester United. The manager has been quick in attempting to sort out the leaky defence too; something that has plagued the Toon for almost as long as most of us can remember. Expectations on Tyneside are huge. A vitally important season for the manager, and many of the players who are at a crossroads. I expect them to succeed.
Manchester City is another club under new ownership and managership. Former England boss Sven Goran Eriksson has taken over and with lots of Thai money to invest he will now be looking for some top players to build a decent side. He has quickly bought scattergun style on relatively unknown players, but the manager has a proven track record at club level. He will need them too as the City squad still looks lightweight and weak. It will all depend on Sven’s buys. If he can get good people in, City will certainly stay up, and may well do better than that. If he cannot, City could struggle, and Sven may turn out to be a one-season wonder in English football. I suspect not, because Sven is a good manager.
Aston Villa have begun to spend some cash under their new American owners too. England Under 21 skipper Reo-Coker has just been signed from West Ham for £8 million though they will need more than him if they are to worry the top teams. Martin O’Neill’s side started last season on fire but drifted away alarmingly. The Villa fans will be hoping for better, but I cannot see beyond mid table for them.
Everton had a good season last time and qualified for this years Uefa cup but the last time they were in Europe it seemed to distract them, and they had a terrible year. I don’t see David Moyes allowing that to happen again. They have signed Jagielka from relegated Sheffield United though that is hardly going to set the world on fire, plus the promising Baines from Wigan. Johnson should be fit again to supply some goals but they will need more than that if they are to worry the top clubs. Top eight could be their best hope.
Reading, who enjoyed a super season last year in their first ever year in the top flight, have picked up a terrible starting pair of fixtures. Unsurprisingly they are favourites to be bottom of the premiership by the end of August, but under their quietly spoken astute manager Steve Coppell, they might surprise a few people. The loss of Sidwell to Chelsea is a big blow, though they have signed several of the club’s more promising players on long-term contracts. This will be their difficult second season, something that so nearly sank Wigan last time. Reading only just missed a European place last year, anything above the dreaded bottom three this time will be considered another success by all but the most enthusiastic of Royals’ fans.
Middlesbrough have lost talisman striker Viduka, and stories abound that Yakubu could follow him out the door. If that happened I would worry who is going to score the goals to keep them up. Fulham are another club who went into freefall last time and only stayed up through a last minute change of managers. The newly installed former Northern Ireland boss Lawrie Sanchez has already been busy in the markets signing Davis from Aston Villa and Healey from Leeds. A good start could be crucial for them as well.
The fact that West Ham stayed up at all last year was due to their new Manager Alan Curbishley, and the courts deciding not to dock them points over the decidedly odd Carlos Tevez affair. The manager has strengthened by signing Parker from Newcastle and Bellamy from Liverpool and should have the talented and much missed Ashton back from injury. He missed the whole of the last campaign after injuring himself in the warm up for an England match. The Icelandic owners seem determined to take West Ham on to another level. Many fans will be watching their progress this time round, some no doubt hoping they trip up due to that protracted court case, but I cannot see West Ham struggling. Mind you no one imagined they would last time out, and they did. Mid table I suspect for the Irons and a good cup run too.
Of the three promoted clubs, perhaps the most fascinating one will be to see Roy Keane’s Sunderland back as Championship champions, especially when he confronts his old boss Sir Alex Ferguson back at Old Trafford where the legions of fans still chant his name. Sunderland have been busy building up a big squad backed by Irish money and they would seem to have the financial clout to keep out of trouble. A good start might be important for them too. One feels Mister Keane’s determination and charisma all by itself will be enough to see them safely into mid table.
Birmingham look vulnerable. They did not have a great season last year despite finishing second, and took a long time to convince their own stay at home fans to turn out. They have bought players but whether they are good enough to keep the blues up remains to be seen. Currently they are second favourites to finish last, and though that might be a tad pessimistic, it does seem likely they will flirt with relegation again. Anything else would be major achievement for their yo-yo manager Steven Bruce. By the way you can still land a free $30 bet at betfair.com by inputting the code 6CHE3VPWJ when prompted.
The third newcomers are Derby Country. Diminutive Scottish boss, known as mini-Fergie wasted no time in signing former Norwich striker Robert Earnshaw who has scored goals wherever he has been and in partnership with Steve Howard, they could trouble some defences. Whether they have sufficient class and firepower would be a worry for Rams’ fans. They are expected to be relegated, and I think so too, and anything else would be a huge achievement for the board, manager, players and most of all, for the supporters who have bought season tickets in their thousands. They will be looking to emulate Reading last year and Wigan the year before that, but it will be a tall order to do so.
The Lancashire twins of Blackburn and Bolton both had good seasons again last term and with small crowds and little money to spend, that is a huge testament to their managers. But with Allardyce gone from the Reebok, Bolton under new manager, former Liverpool player, the diminutive Sammy Lee, could be in for a hard year. A good start would be most important for the Trotters and they do have players like Anelka, if they can hold on to him, who can score goals. Bolton will rely on him, but if he doesn’t do the business, they could be in trouble. Blackburn still have their super manager in Mark Hughes and with players of the growing stature of the likes of Bentley, Derbyshire and Pederson they should be fine again.
They only just missed out on Europe last time and made the semi finals of the FA Cup. On their day they are quite capable of beating anyone, and that is a huge achievement for this likeable Lancashire town club. The third Lancashire town club Wigan stayed up last time by a single point and have since lost their talismanic manager. That is not a great start and though they have signed a handful of new players, their new manager Chris Hutchings is unproven in this league. They are many people’s pick to go down this time and they could well go close to that, but something tells me they might just survive again. It will be close.
Portsmouth only just missed a Uefa Cup place by a whisker last season and they have been busy again in the market buying Nugent, the England under 21 striker from Preston, plus signing Kanu for another year. There is a much-needed new stadium on the horizon, and they should have another good season, but they are a yo-yo club, and sometimes when expected to do well, they don’t, and vice versa. Mid table again for me.
Last year two of my four predictions came up, so what about this season? Could this really be Liverpool’s year? They will go a lot closer, I am sure of that, but I suspect that Chelsea will still have something in hand to regain the crown and they can always spend more cash if they need to. Manchester United would dearly love to do better in Europe and I suspect they will put everything into trying to win the Champions league again, something that the manager and fans would dearly like to see.
As for relegation, sorry Birmingham and Derby, but I just don’t think either have the firepower or class to stay up, though I would be happy to eat my words in both cases. The third downer place is a much harder one to call with City, Fulham, Reading, Wigan, Bolton, Pompey, Boro, and Sunderland, all flirting with a bottom three place during the year. For these teams, their future will be decided on the results between these clubs, where points will take on added significance. I have to pick one though, and somewhat surprisingly I feel that Boro might the ones to go, though Fulham and Wigan could also be in for another hair-raising time.
My predictions then: Champions: Chelsea. European Champions: Manchester United. Relegated: Derby, Birmingham, and Middlesbrough. Sorry chaps! Whoever you support, I wish you and your team well. Let’s have another cracking year with all issues going down to the last week. That would be the ideal for everyone. As Stuart Pearce was fond of saying: Come On!
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