Okay… Here we go again.
If you were around these parts this time last year, you already know how this is going to work. With the new Premier League season set to kick off tomorrow, I thought I’d give you my annual predictions for the forthcoming year. Last season, as you can see right here in the corresponding entry, I was moderately successful, getting 5 out of 20 positions correct and an additional 4 only one spot out, which equals a success rate of almost 50% (match that, Mark Lawrenson).
(I would like to reiterate that I am not a fan of any of these twenty clubs, despite the accusations of bias that will inevitably be thrown my way when I rate certain teams higher or lower than expected).
Arsenal – Last season was a bad year for Arsenal. A lack of signings during the summer was exasperated when Fabregas left for Barcelona and they were embarrassingly thumped 8-2 at Old Trafford, all before the end of August. Only a late flurry of transfer activity on deadline day and the emergence of Van Persie, who had his best ever season, carried them through what looked like a disjointed campaign. This summer, Arsene Wenger made quick movements in the market, and I think the signing of Podolski will not only add experience to the squad, but give Arsenal the hitman up front that they’ve perhaps lacked in recent seasons. For most of those recent seasons, people have predicted Arsenal’s fall, only for the team to prove them wrong. Even without a replacement for Fabregas, they were the third best team in the country. With suitable replacements for Van Persie already in place, I think Arsenal will start the new campaign much better than before, and go on to gate crash the Manchester monopoly that now regard the title as their own. Prediction: 2nd.
Aston Villa – Expect to see a newly reorganised and more consistent Villa team this season, along with a rather average mid-table position by the end of it. Fans should be reasonably happy with that after it looked as if they were staring imminent disaster in the face just a few months ago. Gone are the days when people were speculating that Villa could be the closest challengers to the top 4, but given time, Lambert may be the man to bring them back. Prediction: 11th.
Chelsea – Roberto Di Matteo has shown capabilities as a cup manager, with success in the Champions League and FA Cup papering over the team’s terrible league form last season. However, Di Matteo’s last Premier League experience came with West Brom, who promptly sacked him at the first sign that they may have been heading for relegation. You could say, then, that the appointment was a gamble by Abramovich, albeit one that he was forced into. At Chelsea’s rate of almost two managers per year, I see little evidence to convince me that this one will lead to paradise. Prediction: 5th.
Everton – On paper, it looks like Everton may have lost a couple of important players in Cahill and Rodwell, while once again not making any big name signings. However, the return of Pienaar will provide a boost for the squad, and I can see David Moyes continuing to work his magic with relatively limited resources. Crucially, the teams around them will be spending their mid-weeks travelling around Europe, which could present Everton with the opportunity to better their 7th-placed finish of the last two years should they start well and maintain a season-long consistency; the lack of which has been their one achilles heel. The one thing fans should worry about? Possible managerial casualties at bigger (or, should I say, richer) clubs; surely Moyes won’t be staying at Goodison forever. Prediction: 6th.
Fulham – Like Newcastle last season, I find Fulham notoriously hard to predict. Could be challenging for Europe, fighting relegation, or even find themselves winning a domestic cup under Martin Jol this year. I’m putting them in my typical ‘unpredictable’ slot in the table. Prediction: 13th.
Liverpool – Three successive finishes outside the top 5 paint a puzzling picture for a club that finished as runners-up just four years ago. Many have labelled Liverpool a mediocre team because of this, yet the core of their squad has remained, with Torres making way for the arguably more impressive and potentially prolific Suarez. I think he’ll become exactly that this season, helping Liverpool to reach the top 4 once again. The real question is whether they’ll be able to push on and stay there this time. Prediction: 4th.
Manchester City – City have entertained us immensely over the past year, and I see no sign of that stopping. It is, however, the Champions League that I think they’ll light up this time around. Certainly, on paper, they’ve got the best squad in the league. It is psychologically where I can see them faltering; having all of the ‘experts’ telling you it’s easier to retain the title than it is to win it first time can’t be good for one’s ego, I imagine. Prediction: 3rd.
Manchester United – Psychology, of course, is Sir Alex Ferguson’s speciality. One thing you don’t want to be competing with is a United side that will be fired up from the first moment a ball is kicked (not to mention one that has just added last season’s top scorer, Van Persie, to their team). Traditionally, they’ve had slow starts. Expect that to change this year. I do think their current dominance of English football will be entering a period of transition soon (Ferguson has to retire, at the very least) but I can’t see them resting until they’ve got one over on City once again. Prediction: Champions.
Newcastle United – Poor Newcastle. They had the chance to make history (and a mockery of everyone’s top 4 predictions) last season. Instead, they’re consigned to the Europa League, which, according to the media, is a place for ‘flops’ like Liverpool. If Newcastle’s squad have the motivation (and, crucially, the class) to keep up their domestic performances from a few months ago, I’ll be massively impressed – but with the novelty of European football on their minds, I don’t really see that happening. Having said that, their squad is still strong enough to challenge the top six. Also, the Europa League trophy itself is not out of the question for an ambitious team that will be fired up for the opportunity. Prediction: 7th.
Norwich City – Paul Lambert no doubt had Norwich’s second season in mind when he decided to jump ship at precisely the right time in their fairy tale: the last chapter of it. Norwich haven’t been without Lambert since they were beaten 7-1 by Colchester down in League 1… Hope you enjoy your new job then, Chris Hughton. You have my best wishes. In all seriousness, though, I can’t see Norwich staying up for the simple reason that last season they had the worst defence outside of the bottom three. That, mixed with the loss of the saviour who brought them from third tier obscurity to twelfth at the top, may induce a second season hangover that could take a while to recover from; and unfortunately, other clubs are rarely willing to show you mercy during that period of mourning. Prediction: 19th.
Q. P. R. – Mark Hughes went ahead and piled the pressure on himself when he said Q. P. R. would never again be relegation contenders while he was in charge. Well, their squad has improved (former Manchester United midfielder Park Ji-Sung is an eyebrow raiser), so I don’t see them going down this year… nor do I see them making any big splashes towards the top end of the table either. They’ll probably hover around mid-table/ just above the bottom six for most of the season, but considering their status as a promoted club in their second season improving on their position from the first, this should be seen as a great success. Will it be? Prediction: 12th.
Reading – I like Reading as a club: they haven’t spent millions, even throughout their two year Premier League stint between 2006-08, and played the best football seen in any league over the second half of last season’s Championship title-winning campaign after an underwhelming start. They’ll need that fantastic form to continue into this year if they want to stand any chance of survival, and I’ve got a feeling they might just do it. Prediction: 16th.
Southampton – Saints were arguably the standout team in last season’s Championship, with only an incredible late surge from Reading denying them the league title. Unfortunately for them, this time there will be no comfort of a runners-up spot to fall back on should they end up second best again, which I think will happen in what is a more unforgiving league than the one they’ve just risen from. Nigel Adkins is a good manager and will benefit from the Premier League experience, but the Saints board and fans must bear in mind that they’ve already overachieved in getting here after a monumental effort last year. Norwich’s previous exploits will provide them with hope, but lightning rarely strikes twice, especially when people are even predicting them to finish as high as mid-table this season. They could well buckle under the pressure. Prediction: 20th.
Stoke City – Another team of perennial over-achievers, Stoke are the example that promoted clubs wishing to establish themselves in the league should look to. After a glamourous journey throughout Europe last season arguably covered for what was an indifferent league position, Stoke could find themselves dragged down into the relegation mix as other clubs become increasingly accustomed to their frustrating style of play. In previous years they have avoided this, but for me Stoke will not be able to fully appreciate being a Premier League team until they’ve come close to losing that status. The experience in the squad should ultimately see them to safety, although it could give Tony Pulis the idea that he’s taken them as far as he can. Prediction: 17th.
Sunderland – They’ve gone about their business quietly this summer. The lack of a proven goal scorer may give fans and pundits alike some cause for concern, but Martin O’Neill has shown (with Aston Villa) in the past that he doesn’t necessarily need one to make a successful team – and who’s to say Louis Saha can’t fill this role? Sunderland should see a top half finish as a perfectly achievable aim this season. Prediction: 9th.
Swansea City – Very much an unknown entity this season, with a foreign manager lacking Premier League experience and the loss of creative midfielder Joe Allen giving many people adequate reason to prematurely place them in the bottom three. However, I think this particular managerial appointment will provide a fresh change for the Swansea team – Laudrup has found notable success in Denmark and Spain as a manager. Defensively, they were excellent last season, and I think they’ll use that as a foundation to build on. They’ll be more than aware that they’re underdogs already, just as they were this time last year, and other clubs could underestimate them once again. Something tells me they’ll be just fine. Prediction: 14th.
Tottenham Hotspur – Spurs have a European campaign and a new young manager to help soften the blow of missing out on Champions League football last season. I think there may be a time of slight uncertainty as Villas-Boas tries to shape the team around his own style of play. There are question marks over whether the players will immediately take to this, especially with the departure of the well-liked and respected Harry Redknapp after what was actually a successful season (not many clubs can boast of finishing above Chelsea and Liverpool). For that reason, it’s hard to see Tottenham maintaining their form of recent seasons, and with their major rivals continuing to improve, they could find themselves slipping back from the top band this year. Prediction: 8th.
West Bromwich Albion – West Brom didn’t get the full credit they deserved for their best ever Premier League placing of 10th last season, mostly because teams like Swansea and Norwich stole the ‘surprise package’ headlines. I think that achievement will look all the more impressive if (and when) they fall down the table this year. Not that I’m trying to be harsh, but West Brom’s squad looks like that of a Championship side surviving in the Premier League due to good leadership, such as what they had in Roy Hodgson. I’m afraid I don’t get the same feeling with Steve Clarke. West Brom’s reputation as a yo-yo club is also a hard one to shake off. Although they have been on the rise in the past two years, this season is potentially going to be a long, hard one for the Midlands club. Prediction: 18th.
West Ham United – Hammers fans may not mind putting up with Sam Allardyce’s direct style of play this season – providing, of course, it’s enough to keep them in the league. I don’t think it will be easy for them. Looking at West Ham, they still have the core of the Premier League squad they left with two seasons ago…but they finished 20th then, so that isn’t necessarily the most promising sign. Allardyce is a manager experienced with taking weak squads further than they have any right to go, though, and for that reason I think they’ll adapt to the league this year. It won’t be pretty, but it will work. Prediction: 15th.
Wigan Athletic – Everyone’s relegation wildcard astounded critics yet again from March onwards, picking up title-winning form to secure safety long before the final whistle of the season sounded. The question on people’s minds will be whether that can continue on into this season, or will they find themselves in a similar position in eight months time? Despite inevitably losing one or two players, I think manager Roberto Martinez is still Wigan’s greatest asset; the renewed belief in themselves and refreshing style of play that we saw at the start of the year will continue for as long as he stays. I don’t see them being in any danger of relegation this year. On the contrary, they’ll be challenging clubs in the top half of the table. Prediction: 10th.