August 13, 2010 11 Comments
It is certainly shaping up to be one of the closest and most exciting title races ever, with Manchester City throwing their considerable weight around in the transfer market and none of the traditional ‘Big Four’ making more than incremental improvements. The new 25-man quota for senior players is further complicating matters, with Craig Bellamy likely to be on his way out of City as a result.
At the other end of the division, can Blackpool defy the odds and their limited budget to retain their seat at the top table? Can West Bromwich Albion defy their recent history as the archetypal yo-yo club? And can Newcastle United re-establish their credentials as a Premier League powerhouse?
The story will unfold, with all its twists and turns, over the next nine months, but here are my picks for the top and the bottom of the division.
Champions League qualifiers
Champions: Chelsea. Ricardo Carvalho, Joe Cole and Michael Ballack may have gone, but the champions still possess a formidable squad, with Branislav Ivanovic likely to partner John Terry and Yossi Benayoun a direct replacement for Cole. Their starting XI is creaking with age, but they should still have enough strength in depth to weather any injury problems and sustain a challenge on multiple fronts right through to May.
2nd: Arsenal. This may be a triumph of optimism over realism, but I believe there is every chance of the Gunners continuing to improve this year. New signing Laurent Koscielny will go straight into the centre of defence alongside Thomas Vermaelen, while up front Marouane Chamakh will pose a greater threat as a target man than the injured Nicklas Bendtner – no one in the major European leagues has scored more headed goals over the past two seasons than Chamakh’s 17 – bringing the best out of captain Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, Andrey Arshavin and a supporting cast of talented attackers. If Arsène Wenger can address gaps at goalkeeper and centre back, and if Arsenal can avoid last season’s appalling luck with injuries, expect them to put in a strong run in the second half of the season after a lethargic start.
3rd: Man City. With the additions of Mario Balotelli and James Milner seemingly imminent, manager Roberto Mancini may well have the best squad of players in the Premier League at his disposal, after the summer captures of Yaya Touré, Jérôme Boateng and David Silva. Whether he can knit those individuals into a functioning team and keep all the egos happy is another matter entirely. I think they will start slowly, but without the distraction of tough Champions League games they will gather pace as the season goes on.
4th: Man Utd. Could this be the year when things start to fall apart at Old Trafford? Javier Hernández looks like an exciting signing going forward, but United have creaking joints elsewhere in their team, with Edwin van der Sar, Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Michael Owen all within earshot of the fat lady. And Alex Ferguson‘s side still look desperately short of adequate cover in the centre of midfield, with little reliable quality other than Giggs and Scholes behind Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick.
Europa League qualifiers
5th: Everton. David Moyes continues to work miracles doing the equivalent of turning water into wine. With strength both at the back (Phil Jagielka, Tim Howard, Leighton Baines) and in midfield (Marouane Fellaini, Tim Cahill, Steven Pienaar, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, Jack Rodwell), if Moyes can get reasonable production out of his strikers, the Toffees will be right in the mix at season’s end. They won’t be the prettiest team around, but they will be mighty effective.
6th: Liverpool. With the additions of Christian Poulsen and Joe Cole (effectively swapped for Benayoun), and with Alberto Aquilani hopefully fully fit, there is no doubt that Liverpool have upgraded their midfield, and with Roy Hodgson at the helm the Anfield dressing room should be more tranquil too. With cash likely to remain tight until the ownership issue is resolved, much still depends on the fitness of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres – another injury-plagued season for either of them will see Liverpool struggling to regain their position in the so-called ‘Big Four’.
7th: Tottenham. It has been a surprisingly quiet summer (so far) in the transfer market for the usually industrious Harry Redknapp, with no major signings despite the carrot of a potential Champions League campaign. Spurs possess good strength and depth from front to back, although a cadre of injury-prone defenders including Ledley King and Jonathan Woodgate will undoubtedly cause concern at some point. It remains to be seen how they will cope with the twin challenges of top-level domestic and European competitions. Given the lack of reinforcements, a step backwards this season looks likely.
That means there will be no European place for an Aston Villa committed to a sell-before-you-buy policy, who are now missing Martin O’Neill and appear resigned to losing James Milner, at the very least. And I cannot see any other club seriously challenging the top seven who, although they are more closely matched than at any time since the inception of the Premier League, are now streets ahead of everyone else in the division.
Speaking of which …
In the same way I believe there is now a clear top seven, I also think there is a clear bottom seven, from whom the three Championship-bound teams will inevitably emerge. Those seven are: Blackburn Rovers, Blackpool, Bolton Wanderers, Sunderland, West Brom, West Ham United and Wigan Athletic. (I think Newcastle will have no problem retaining their Premier League status.)
Most of the above have weak squads which will struggle to score goals, or are one or two key injuries away from staring oblivion in the face. However, my tips for the drop are:
18th: Wigan. A shaky 16th last year, which included 9-1 and 8-0 humiliations by Spurs and Chelsea respectively, Wigan have signed Argentina striker Mauro Boselli and Paraguay defender Antolin Alcaraz over the summer, while losing Titus Bramble and Paul Scharner. Although both Boselli and Alcaraz are quality players, the former has never played in Europe, while the latter’s continental experience consists of a brief stint at Fiorentina (where he never played) and three seasons at Club Brugge. They will both need to acclimatise quickly if Wigan are to survive. It’s a big ask; too big to my mind.
19th: West Brom. The Baggies have made a number of signings, most recently defender Nicky Shorey from Aston Villa, but lack players of the very highest class. They will fight hard and play decent football, but don’t expect it to be enough to save them from their fourth relegation in nine seasons; only once in that spell have they managed to avoid an immediate return to the Championship.
20th: Blackpool. With their tangerine shirts and the soundbite machine that is Ian Holloway as their manager, Blackpool will certainly bring colour to this Premier League season. But with a ground, Bloomfield Road, which has a capacity of less than 13,000, a £10k pw wage limit, and Marlon Harewood, Jason Euell and Brett Ormerod being their best-known players, Blackpool are facing – to put it mildly – an uphill struggle. They will win many friends this season, but not many points. Do not be surprised if they are relegated by the end of April; without meaning to be patronising, anything else would be a big achievement.
So there you have it. What do you think? Let me know. And feel free to come back and laugh at me in nine months’ time …
For a second opinion, check out James’ predictions from one through to 20 over at The 12th Man.