The Premier League is finally in full swing, and with the world cup out of the way, much of the soccer-loving world will be directing its attention to what promises to be one of the closest championships in recent memory. League Champion, Chelsea, starts off as the early favorite, and if recent years are of any indication, Manchester United will be the West London club’s closest competitor.
However, this year’s championship could prove more difficult for England’s top two teams as Manchester’s less accomplished club, City, has spent millions in order to force its way to the top of the league, while Liverpool is banking that its recent managerial shake-up will turn up results. Arsene Wenger’s decision to splash the cash on a proven striker, and the club’s ability keep its talisman captain will also give Gunner fans the hope that the recent trophy drought will soon be over. Arsenal’s nemesis, Tottenham, may also be in the mix since it’s kept most of the players that propelled the club to the Champions League last year.
So are all five teams contenders, or are some of them merely pretenders?
My favourite to lift the Barclay’s Premiership trophy for a second year running, Chelsea’s biggest strength is the fact that it will be able to field most of last season’s starters. Although Ricardo Carvalho and Joe Cole have both left, only the former will be missed. In fact, the Portuguese defender’s departure to Real Madrid - where he will be reunited with Jose Mourinho - may highlight some of Terry’s defensive frailties. Under Ancelotti’s rule, Joe Cole was never able to make much of an impact, and had he stayed, the England international would have seen less minutes at Stamford Bridge given the signings of Benayoun from Liverpool, and Ramires from Benfica. The Brazilian will likely prove a significant signing for Chelsea. Although he was only granted a work permit after an appeal from the club (Ramires did not play in at least 75% of Brazil’s games), he will be a key player for both club and country for the better part of the next decade. His presence in a starting eleven that already includes Lampard, Essien, and Malouda, will certainly make Chelsea’s midfield one of the most feared in Europe. Additionally, unlike most of Chelsea’s competitors, the club has an enviable bench, which will include the likes of Obi Mikel, and Kalou, who would start on most other teams. Oh yes, there’s also an Ivorian up-front scoring a few goals. In his first league game, Drogba netted three times to help Chelsea demolish West Brom 6-0.
Alex Ferguson has never been the biggest off-season spender, so the United monarch’s lack of spending shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Still, considering the club’s aging guard, a little shopping spree would have been prudent. Last season, much of Man U’s success depended on Wayne Rooney’s prolific goal scoring form, thus, his lacklustre word cup as well as his slow start to the season, should be reason for concern. Additionally, the club has recently been hindered by injuries, causing Rio Ferdinand, Vidic, and Hargreaves to spend a considerable amount of time with the medical staff. There has actually been some talk that the midfielder’s knee injury is so severe that his career could be in jeopardy. One of the bright spots so far this season has been Berbatov’s form. Widely criticised for his lazy performances and lack of goals, some media reports suggested that the Bulgarian was on his way out; however his performances against Chelsea in the Charity Shield and Necastle in the league seem to indicate that the gangly forward is finding his best football once again. Paul Scholes is another player who looks to be finding his prime. Scholes is playing so well, that there are questions as to whether there is anyone on the squad who can duplicate his performances if he gets injured. Fletcher has developed immensely under Ferguson, but the Scott doesn’t have Scholes’ offensive prowess. On the other hand, Ryan Giggs, who has been finding more playing time in the centre of midfield, lacks the endurance to sustain the pace an entire Premiership game requires. On the wings, Nani and Valencia are going to have to be more consistent if the Red Devils are to challenge Chelsea. Ultimately, Manchester United’s fortunes will ride on the team’s ability to stay fit as its bench lacks the quality of a contender.
If the economy is bad, City isn’t aware of it. The often belittled second Manchester team has discovered that in football, money speaks louder than…well, football. Seemingly linked with every available player during the summer, City commanded the market and splashed the big bucks on big name signings such as Yaya Toure, David Silva and the ever-sulking Mario Balotelli. What City is finding out is that spending money is easy, but getting big name players to play together as a team is harder than just printing their names on the back of jerseys. The team’s first league game against Tottenham proved just that, as City were never able to look like a cohesive unit. The biggest problem the team faces is keeping all of its stars happy. This was exactly Stephen Ireland’s sentiment as he warned newest signee Milner that he will find it hard to see regular football. In order to gain a starting role in the middle of the field Milner will have to compete with Patrick Vieira, Yaya Toure, Nigel deJong, and Gareth Barry. For every starter, City will have a man on the bench who will feel that he deserves the starting role, and that can create some friction in the locker room. Of course, Mancini will tell you that his problem is one that any manager would love to have, and since his team will be competing in four fronts, there will be enough playing time for everyone. I’d hate to be the one telling Tevez that he’s going to sit out to rest. If City finds an adequate rotation system this season, then the club will be able to compete for a top spot in the league, but considering its mercenary nature, the squad will probably be in a constant search for a playing philosophy, and it’s unlikely that the players will be facing much of the heat when the results aren’t there. That heat will be firmly under Mancini’s seat, which could be vacated a lot sooner than people think.
Cesc Fabregas!? Check. After all the stories about a Barcelona homecoming, the totemic Spaniard decided to remain with the Gunners. That’s great news for the London club, but unfortunately, persuading the club captain to stay came at the expense of a decent look into the transfer market. Marouane Chamakh has come in to fill the void left by Adebayor when the latter made the big money move to Manchester City. The former Bordeaux striker moves to London after a very impressive season in both the French and the Champions Leagues. Chamakh fits Wenger’s plans perfectly as he has the skill to compliment Arsenal’s passing style, and the size and strength to withstand the physicality of Premiership defenders. At the back the French manager signed unheralded countryman Laurent Koscielny. Previously unknown, the young defender has looked good in his partnership with Vermaelen, but questions remain whether his size and lack of experience will make up for the departures of William Gallas, Philippe Sanderos, and Mikael Silvestre. The Gunners still look depleted at the back and that could be their biggest weakness. The club’s midfield is definitely its strongest asset with mainstays Song, Nasri, Rosicky, and Diaby backing up Fabregas and Arshavin. Jack Wilshere will also be seeing a lot more time on the field, especially now that Fabio Capello is touting the young midfielder to be the future of the English national team. Nevertheless, not matter how strong the Arsenal midfield may be, it will be hard to make up for the team’s defensive frailties, as well as the lack of goal-scorers. Chamakh may be an excellent addition, but he won’t be able to carry the team’s offense all season, and with van Persie’s injury woes, and Bendtner’s inconsistency, Arsenal will likely be struggling to score against strong opponents, and Pepe Reina won’t be there every weekend putting the ball into his own net.
Liverpool’s biggest signing this off-season may have been that of Roy Hodgson. After guiding Fulham to new heights, the Croydon native was brought in to make Liverpool a contender once again. His off-season moves suggest that Hodgson believes the club needs more of a philosophy change than a player facelift. Benitez’ rule was marred by disagreements with players, owners, and other managers, and that was at the root of the Liverpool’s problems. Hodgson’s rule started by convincing Gerrard to stay at the club, and even though midfield strongman Mascherano was rumoured to be heading to Inter, he appears to be staying as well. The addition of Joe Cole and Christian Poulsen shows that midfield will be the squad’s focal point, and Hodgson wants to build a stingy, and physical team before he tunes up his attack. Hodgson will also expect Gerrard to play more defensively than he has in the past, which means that much of the goal scoring will rest on Torres and Kuyt’s shoulders. However, Ngog has impressed so far, scoring a beauty against Arsenal, and it appears that Babbel will see more of the ball this season. The game against Arsenal also evidenced a strong defence anchored by Carragher and Skrtel, and that Hodgson is not afraid to play Agger on the left, at the expense of the more offensive minded Fabio Aurelio. Liverpool will not be running up scores this season, but the Reds will keep themselves in the big games with a tighter midfield and defence. There is definitely a good chance that the team will be staying in the title hunt a lot longer than the previous years.
It is probably premature to include Tottenham in the list of contenders, but the London club has one of the best English managers in Harry Redknapp, and since his arrival, the club has gone from strength to strength. Like Chelsea, Tottenham will benefit from fielding most of last year’s team, with the surprising addition of William Gallas, who will bring a great deal of grit and experience to the back four. Gallas’ signing is especially important since club captain, Ledley King, has been the victim of a bad knee for most of his career. The club has a strong midfield that has depth at all positions, and has played together for a long time. Huddlestone – who should have featured for England in the world cup – and Palacios will make for a strong defensive presence that will enable Modric, Lennon, and Bale to get up the field. The Welshman is now one of the team’s strongest players, and he will very possibly be among the league’s best players this season. Tottenham’s wing play and creative midfield should provide the attack with plenty of scoring opportunities. Up-front, the Londoners are spoiled for choice with Defoe, Crouch, Keane, and Pavlyuchenko, but it’s the Russian who should see the most minutes. Tottenham may be the league’s dark horse, and there is a good chance that the club will challenge the top three for a shot at glory.
Bigsoccerhead’s Premier League Prediction
2. Manchester United
6. Manchester City