When Iker Casillas raised the World Cup high in the Johannesburg sky and the streamers and cheers rocketed around the Soccer City Stadium, the English public set down their suppers and dug out the replica shirts and scarfs they had hidden away for a month and anticipated pre-season.
The trips to League 2 clubs on cold nights to see the fitness of a few reserve team players is a daunting trip for followers of most Premiership sides. Pre-season games either produce shock 1-0 wins for the minnows or produce a thumping from the Premier League outfit. The only thing that makes games like these easy to get through is the prospect that once they are all over, you can settle in to the excitement of the Premier League.
There was a time when there were only two teams who had a chance of winning the league. It used to be a straight shootout between Man United and Arsenal with the outside bet being a team who had a particularly good year, usually Newcastle or Chelsea or Liverpool. This year, there are still four teams who can make a definite push for the title this season, or so I believe.
The first main contenders are the reigning champions from Stamford Bridge. Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti will be looking to follow up his first English title with an immediate second. He has the arsenal to do it with strike partnership Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka and if Frank Lampard can find his club form back, Chelsea will be in good stead. The defence is always there with the bravery of John Terry, the adventure of Ashley Cole and the ever-improving Branislav Ivanovic. The only concern is the apparent departure of Ricardo Carvalho to Inter Milan and who will partner John Terry in the centre of the Chelsea defence. Alex may be the man, but he looks shaky at times and Ancelotti may have to recruit. Also, Chelsea have an ageing squad and the creaky bones may start to give way through the season, unless some new depth and talent is brought in to freshen up the squad.
The next shout is Manchester United. Sir Alex Ferguson hates to lose and he will make sure that the hunger and desire is in the squad for this season. The Red Devils narrowly missed out on the title last season and the cessation of rumours about a Nemanja Vidic departure from Old Trafford will settle the fans. Ferdinand and Vidic together is a defensive partnership that will strike fear into any forward’s mind. A downpoint for United is Wayne Rooney’s poor World Cup performances. If he maintains that form and plays like that for his club, Man United will again fall short. They have to rely on their Croxteth creator and pray he finds his goal touch.
Arsenal will be there as always. With the creative inspiration that Cesc Fabregas holds, if he stays at Arsenal and doesn’t jump ship to Barcelona, and the star qualities of Robin van Persie, Arsene Wenger’s side will thrill fans with their passing and their electrifying brand of ‘Total Football’. New signing Laurent Koscielny will add some much needed bite alongside Belgian Thomas Vermaelen and an ever improving Alex Song will hope to anchor the defence and allow the excitement of Theo Walcott and Samir Nasri to do the work. The disadvantages Arsenal face are Wenger’s lack of depth and his side’s lack of experience. Arsenal always seem to crumble towards the end of the season and if Wenger can address these problems, I don’t see why his side can’t heavily challenge.
No-one’s going to rule out the noisy neighbours. Man City are making their financial pulling power felt across the world with the acquisitions of David Silva, Jerome Boateng and Yaya Toure with more rumoured to be on the way e.g. Torres, Balotelli, Milner. They improved a lot last season, pushing all the way to fifth place, missing out on fourth by a Peter Crouch tap in on the penultimate game of the season. At home, they are a danger, losing only twice all season at Eastlands. It is the away form of City that’s worrying and something boss Roberto Mancini needs to address. He also needs to address the constant media storm that whirls around his players. If he can get them to focus entirely on the football and not the transfer mill that’s set up at the City of Manchester Stadium, their brand of attacking football will frighten the Premiership and make everyone sit up and take notice.
Other teams that could have a chance would be Liverpool, Tottenham and Aston Villa. Realistically, Liverpool’s club instability will ruin them, Tottenham will have too much to deal with, due to the Champions League preparation, and Aston Villa always fall away, after promising starts. All I know is that this season looks to be exciting and I, for one, can’t wait for August 14th. Settle into your seats, football fans, it’s going to be a topsy-turvy 9 months.
My Top 8 prediction:
2- Man United
3- Man City
7- Aston Villa