‘Tis the season…
The Premier League finally kicks off again tomorrow and I feel like a kid on Christmas Eve. I’ve been asking mummy for a shiny new League Title for months but I have this fear I’m destined for a pile of knee-socks and hand-knitted sweaters. Honestly, I might not sleep tonight. I’m that charged up. Of all the team sports I love to watch (football, basketball, baseball, that other football), the Premier League has the shortest off-season, yet this is the one that’s hardest for me to survive. But I made it. We’re here.
So here’s my look at the upcoming season. I’m breaking it down by the regions of the table based on last season’s final standings.
The Top Four
– With talk of Vieira’s return to North London evaporating and St Etiene’s plan to hang on to alleged Arsenal target Blaise Muitari, one wonders if Arsene Wenger can solve his defensive-midfield conundrum by mid-September. Arsenal are bursting with young talent and many will earmark Arshavin to be one of the league’s top scorers in the season to come. But without a convincing defensive-mid, the Gunners will struggle to find balance for another season. Right now the side is full of seedlings. When these kids grow into themselves the side will be devastating. All they need is time and strong leadership.
– Chelsea is a tough one to call. At the start of last season I deemed them more likely to win the title than United. Looking at their team sheet was like playing a football video game against a friend who stayed up the night before moving players around until his team had two starting elevens worth of the best in the world. (In a sense, that’s what Abramovich did, only it took longer than one night.) But Chelsea couldn’t meet their goals last season and the revolving door Abramovich installed for the manager’s entrance didn’t help. But the Blues still have some of the best players in the world and they’ve got a new, proven boss. But once again, they’ll probably slip a teensy bit: drop one or two too many points behind their rivals and/or suffer one or two ugly draws in the Champions League group stage and Ancelloti will be re-typing his resumé by December. (For Abramovich the term “job security” means the big guys in uniform who escort you out of the building after he fires you.)
My verdict: I’ll again earmark Chelsea to finish above United. But my exit clause for this prediction is the manager getting sacked.
– Oh… Xabi Alonso. Sigh. After the Johnson signing I was feeling certain Liverpool would capture their 19th top flight title this season, but now two new variables have been entered into the equation: Lucas Leiva and Alberto Aquilani. Lucas isn’t a newcomer but with Xabi gone, he quickly goes from being the player who makes supporters grit their teeth and hope he has a good run-out to the player who makes supporters grit their teeth and demand he has a good run-out. New boy Aquilani could well prove to be the missing midfield link, but we won’t know for at least a month as the £20m capture came in as damaged goods, recovering from ankle surgery since last March.
So Liverpool’s hopes, which previously hinged on Torres and Gerrard staying fit, now also hinge on Lucas or Aquilani stamping his mark on the holding midfield role. If one of them can successfully bridge the gap between the mountains of Mascherano and Gerrard and the other can provide convincing cover, the Reds will win the biggest prize once again.
– Speaking of kids at Christmas, Sir Alex Ferguson must have come to the transfer window with wider eyes than a tapeworm host at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Once he collected the £80m for Ronaldo he had plenty to spend. But then he started window shopping and saw how sickly high the market’s asking prices had soared (due in part to the insane standard set by the £80m for Ronaldo). So Fergie went to the bargain basement, scooping up Michael Owen for nothing. Between Owen, Rooney, Berbatov and Velencia, Manchester United will have the goalscorers, but with Ronaldo gone, they are likely to lose that ability to turn a match on its head in the dying minutes, a knack that won them the league last season. They’ve got a near-impenetrable defense when it’s fit, but with Giggs and Scholes fading they need something new and devastating in the midfield. Someone needs to step up and fill at least one of Ronaldo’s boots. A tall order to say the least.
I see a tight middle of the table once again. It took a long time last season for the table to spread itself out. The bottom of the top and the top of the bottom was like a compressed accordian deep into the year. Many clubs were able to stage upsets and the plot of the season was full of twists.
– Aston Villa looked to stage a coup on the top four last year until the long season unveiled the side’s lack of depth. The departure of Gareth Barry is a huge blow and one waits to see how Villa recover. But the news that Ashley Young plans to stay is a serious boost for Martin O’Neill. If O’Neill can keep the side healthy and not let the cup competitions spread his side too thin, Villa will finish in the top five or six.
– It looks like Julian Lescott is staying at Everton and so David Moyes’s side will be about the same as the one that finished fifth and made it to the FA Cup final. While injuries currently plague the Blues, I expect Everton to continue building on their success. I hope they have a decent season. Doing so well after spending so little is a refreshing antidote to the Chelsea/City model and reminds us money can’t buy everything.
– I know my scouse friend Marty is going to give me hell for saying this: but I hope Fulham do well this season. They really turned around their fortunes last season after a couple years of finishing near the bottom. Good team. Good results. I’m curious to see what John Arne Riise’s brother looks like in his first Premier League season. They’ll finish above the mid-table mark with another clear chance at European placement.
– The turnaround for Spurs last season was phenomenal. Pre-Redknapp you could rely on Spurs to drop points every week. Harry Houdini came in and their results spun the other way faster than Michael Phelps at the end of his lane. Spurs will still carry on the tradition of having a lot of attack and not a lot of defense, but with Sabastien Bassong coming in they could be a little more resilient in the back compared to recent years. If Ledley King can get fit and stay fit, I see Spurs climbing up a place or two.
– Gianfranco Zola is keeping very quiet about his transfer targets, but despite some bumps in 08/09, he had a solid first season in charge. I don’t think this is West Ham’s year to dazzle, but between the young talent already in the side and the strength of their academy, the Hammers will be a more formidable force in the years to come. If FIFA ever implements the 6+5 rule, the West Ham’s gift for home-growing could come up big and help them raise their game as other clubs rush to compensate with pricy in-country shopping.
Coming up… part two: From Manchester City to the newly promoted…
(I’ll try to have the other half of this article up later today, otherwise I’ll post it before the matches kick off tomorrow.)