After what has been an excruciating summer for avid football supporters, with no World Cup and no European Championships to whet the appetite, the Premier League will be back in earnest this weekend. With all the off-season talk based on managerial changes and transfer sagas, the focus falling back to on-pitch matters will be most welcome.
And it’s a season in which nobody is quite sure what is going to happen, even as we stand on the brink of the big kick-off. Major transfers could still occur; some between the Premier League’s top sides are still not out of the question. Not to mention, four of the top six sides from last season will begin life under the tutelage of new managers.
David Moyes will pick up the reigns following the conclusion of Alex Ferguson’s dynasty at Manchester United, whereas Roberto Martinez will look to fill the similarly big shoes Moyes himself leaves at Everton. Jose Mourinho will be hoping his second spell at Chelsea will be just as trophy-laden as his first and Manuel Pellegrini cuts his teeth in English football for the first time at Manchester City.
We also have Ian Holloway, Hull Cit…I mean Tigers, Joe Kinnear, Paolo Di Canio, goal line technology, new offside rules and the Premier League’s first ever South Wales Derby to get excited about.
Much of this season will represent unknown territory for the players, managers and supporters alike. But subsequently, and after what seems like the longest summer in recent memory, everyone just seems that little bit more excited this time round. The football world is on tenterhooks, itching to know what’s going to happen.
So with uncertainty reigning ahead of the 2013/14 campaign, it would be difficult to second-guess what exactly is going to happen. But, we’re going to have a go anyway.
First things first however, just in case you haven’t been studying them intently since their release (I haven’t, honest) here’s your complete run down of the opening weekend’s TV schedule for soccer fans in the United States (all times Eastern):
Saturday, August 17:
7:45am Liverpool vs Stoke, NBC Sports Network
10am Arsenal vs Aston Villa, NBC Sports Network
10am Norwich vs Everton, Premier League Extra Time
10am Sunderland vs Fulham, Premier League Extra Time
10am West Brom vs Southampton, Premier League Extra Time
10am West Ham vs Cardiff, Premier League Extra Time
12:30pm Swansea vs Man Utd, NBC and mun2
Sunday, August 18:
8:30am Crystal Palace vs Tottenham, NBC Sports Network
11am Chelsea vs Hull, NBC Sports Network
Monday, August 19:
3pm Man City vs Newcastle, NBC Sports Network
All games mentioned above will also be available via NBC Sports Live Extra.
Now, onto some of the big questions ahead of this hotly anticipated campaign…
Can Moyes keep the title at Old Trafford?
It feels as though everybody has already written off the Champions. After cantering to the Premier League title by 11 points last season, Manchester United should be favorites to do so again, right? But after losing Ferguson, a poor pre-season and a frustrating transfer window, City and Chelsea will feel like they can bridge the gap, especially with the goings on at those respective teams.
Manchester City have spend circa £100 million in order to try overhaul their city rivals. The most important signing looks to be Jesus Navas, who will solve the chronic lack of width that plagued the team under previous boss Roberto Mancini. Stevan Jovetic and Alvaro Negredo will add firepower, whilst Fernandinho looks a midfielder tailor-made for the English game. All in all, the Citizens have a much improved squad at their disposal which should see them mount a fierce challenge.
But the concerns for both of the Manchester sides come in the form of their respective managers. Pellegrini and Moyes have never challenged for the top honors in England, and this is where Chelsea might trump them. For in Jose Mourinho, they have a manager with a winning mentality second to none. He has won trophies in all of his recent roles and back at a club where he is adored, you have to think it’s only a matter of time before he does so again. Plus in Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and David Luiz he has some of the best young players in the league at his disposal.
So who will come out on top? Out of all the sides, it is City’s squad that looks the strongest. Navas will become a major player for Pellegrini, giving his side a completely different attacking dimension. Sergio Aguero should also bounce back from an injury hit 2012/13 campaign; expect his goals to fire City to the title, with Chelsea and United trailing in 2nd and 3rd respectively.
Who’s going to qualify for Europe?
Just like the title, this looks a tough one to call. Whilst all the talk is about the Gunners currently missing out on transfer targets, expect Arsenal to sneak the fourth spot once again. Granted, Arsene Wenger has been frustrated in his attempts to bring players into his squad, but perhaps more crucial for the Gunners is they don’t look like losing any of their key players for the first time in many a summer.
The current squad is packed full of quality too and the Arsenal supporters should still have plenty to be optimistic about. Laurent Koscielny is maturing into one of the Premier League’s best centre-backs, Jack Wilshere has finally got a full pre-season under his belt and Santi Cazorla should get even better after a brilliant debut campaign.
Spurs are clearly intent on breaking into that top-four bracket and the signings of Paulinho, Roberto Soldado and Etienne Capoue suggest they mean business this season. But with so many new players coming in there could be a bedding-in period, plus the lingering saga surrounding Gareth Bale will remain a distraction for as long as it drags on for.
After finishing below their Merseyside rivals over the past two campaigns, Liverpool look to set to swap places with Everton in the final standings. The Toffees are preparing for a season of transition and adaptation, with Roberto Martinez looking to put his stamp on the club. A season perhaps, not too dissimilar to the one Liverpool have just had. Rodgers’ side should have enough to push on past Everton after his first season at the club, but the squad still looks short when compared to those of the North London clubs. For Everton and Liverpool expect Kevin Mirallas and Philippe Coutinho respectively, to dazzle.
Many peoples tips to oust one the regular European contenders are Swansea City. They too have spent well this summer, but the Carling Cup Winners participation in the Europa League could hamper a push towards a top seven spot. The Welsh club have a lot to look forward to however, with European football and a South-Wales derby to come.
Is The Relegation Battle Over Before It’s Begun?
In all honesty, non of the promoted teams fill me with much confidence. Out of the three, Cardiff look the most likely to stay up. The signings of Steven Caulker, Gary Medel and Andreas Cornelius will all improve the squad, but holes remain elsewhere and it won’t be enough to keep them from the trapdoor.
A change of name and a raid on Spurs won’t be enough for Hull to maintain their top flight status either. Steve Bruce is an experienced manager, but they crawled over the line to achieve promotion towards the end of last season, with their small squad showing noticeable signs of fatigue. Its going to be an even tougher slog in the Premier League, and whilst Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore will bring something different to the Tigers midfield, the strength in depth just isn’t there.
Ian Holloway will ensure that Crystal Palace are pleasing on the eye, but they will miss their former-talisman Wilfried Zaha and concede too many goals to remain afloat. Glen Murray must replicate his goal-scoring exploits from last season if they are to have any chance of survival, but it is a lot of pressure to put on a player who is returning from such a serious injury. Promising midfielder Jonathan Williams should be one to watch though.
Fulham are a team that could see themselves in a lowlier position that they have been used to come the end of the campaign. Martin Jol is a fine manager, but he has an aging squad which is overly reliant on Dimitar Berbatov. Balancing out the departure of Mark Schwarzer with the equally excellent Maarten Stekelenburg should just about see them clear.
Paolo Di Canio steered Sunderland clear of trouble last season, but they look set for another year down in the lower reaches of the Premier League. With the volatile Italian at the helm it could all combust at any time, but in Emanuele Giaccherini, Stephan Sessegnon and Jozy Altidore, they will have enough firepower to finish above the three promoted sides.
Who’s Going To Be The Surprise Package?
As I have written previously, Norwich City have made some strong signings and look set for a good season. If their strike force of Ricky Van Wolfswinkel and Gary Hooper hit the ground running then the goals will flow. In addition to their revamped strike force, Leroy Fer could be the signing of the season in the middle of the park. He’ll bring a dominant, ball-winning presence into the side.
The Canaries also have John Ruddy coming back from injury, two solid centre-halves in Sebastian Bassong and Michael Turner, and creativity in the wide areas with Robert Snodgrass and Nathan Redmond. Hughton has assembled a very capable squad this summer, and his side could make a sustained push for a top half finish.
Aside from Norwich, expect their former manager Paul Lambert to have a progressive season at Aston Villa. Despite a crop of exciting young signings coming in, the biggest boost to the Villa Park club will have undoubtedly been Christian Benteke agreeing to stay on. The Belgian forward was a revelation last season, and Lambert will be able to build a side that can utilize their star strikers best assets. Despite their troubles last year, expect the Villains to be well clear of any relegation battles in the upcoming campaign. Like Norwich, they could push for a top-half finish and maybe even make an audacious bid for a European spot.
Who’s Going to be Player of the Year?
Can anybody beat Robin Van Persie? It going to be tough. Especially with Dutchman’s two biggest challengers to the gong - Gareth Bale andLuis Suarez - possibly on their way out of the Premier League. The Dutchman has already helped himself to two goals in the community shield and will be a huge player if United are to retain their crown. There are some other possible candidates however.
At City, David Silva should flourish under the methods of Manuel Pellegrini, as should striker Sergio Aguero. Arsenal’s Santi Cazorla will no doubt be in the mix too. But Van Persie’s biggest challenge will probably come from a Chelsea player.
Eden Hazard will be looking to push on even further after a solid debut campaign. The Belgian demonstrated glimpses of his wonderful ability in his first season as a Chelsea player and if he can bring an increased level consistency to his game, then he has the talent to be the league’s best player.
Although Hazard could take his game up a level under Mourinho, he could yet be upstaged by one of his teammates. Juan Mata is a player that has got better and better in seemingly every game he has played in English football. Operating in his preferred central role last season brought out the his best and another season in that position will see Mata emerging as the Premier League’s star man this season.
Who’s Going To Have A Breakthrough Season?
Signed in January, big things are expected of Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho. He has put in some wonderful performances since his arrival at the club and many pundits have tipped the Brazilian for the Young Player of the Year gong. It is easy to see why, as Coutinho is such a pleasing player on the eye. His touch, technique and astounding eye for a threaded through-ball make him a unique commodity in the Premier League.
Another player on Merseyside who could also take centre stage is Ross Barkley. Having impressed in pre-season, Martinez has suggested the academy graduate will play a ‘great role’ for the first team. Expected to start in Everton’s opener at Norwich, Barkley could be tough to shift from the Everton side. His creativity and raw ability could give Everton an exciting new option. Big things are expected of the Toffees youngster.
Away from the North-West, many will be looking to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to make good on his potential. Ben Davies at Swansea and Wilfried Zaha at Manchester United should also emerge as top players.
So, with my tin hat at the ready, here are my predictions for the coming season.
1. Man City
3. Manchester United
9. Aston Villa
12. West Ham
13. West Brom
15. Stoke City
20. Crystal Palace
Player of the Year: Juan Mata
Young Player of the Year: Philippe Coutinho
What do you think? Let me know in the comments section or on Twitter: @MattJFootball