It’s that time of year again, when half the people on the planet have an opinion about how the Premier League will turn out, with “the Best League in the World” set to commence at 12:45 this coming Saturday (17 August). The transfer rumour mill continues to irritate, with new vigour this year around the Suarez/Bale/Fabregas sagas. That aside, come 11 May 2014 at about 5pm, I think the Premier League table will look like this:
1. Manchester City
4. Manchester United
5. Tottenham Hotspur
6. Swansea City
8. Aston Villa
10. West Ham United
11. Norwich City
13. West Bromwich Albion
14. Newcastle United
16. Cardiff City
18. Stoke City
19. Hull City
20. Crystal Palace
I think of the three new managerial appointments in the top four, Manchester City have made the most effective. With the squad they have at their disposal, and the exciting additions of Jesus Navas, Fernandinho, Alvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetic, I think City, with new man “the Engineer” Manuel Pellegrini at the helm, have got the right blend to keep the Premier League trophy in the North West. In the runners-up spot will be Chelsea, with the addition of Andre Schurrle, the potential acquisition of Wayne Rooney and the return of Kevin de Bruyne as well as Mr Mourinho improving the Blues’ position, but not quite enough. It should be particularly interesting to see how the Oscar/Mata/Hazard combination continues to develop in the middle of the park. I can see Arsenal, in a controversial move, finishing in third. Last season’s experience of bedding in a new squad and spreading the goals around should help, Santi Cazorla will still be one of the best players in the league, and they at least seem to have found a settled centre-back pairing in Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny. If Arsene Wenger actually spends some money in the next two and a bit weeks, that situation can only improve. At the risk of being very wrong in 9 months’ time, I can see Manchester United finishing in fourth. David Moyes clearly has an almost unassailable amount to live up to, with a squad that frankly isn’t great. Although they can rely on Michael Carrick’s quarter-back-style passes and Robin Van Persie’s goals up to a point, I have my doubts that Moyes can get the same out of a (comparatively) limited squad as what Sir Alex achieved last season.
Falling short once again of the Champions League places will be Spurs. Though they have made one outstanding signing in Paulinho, and one slightly (in my view) overpriced signing in Roberto Soldado, they will finish a solid fifth again, as Andre Villas-Boas copes with the likely departure of Gareth Bale in what will be the first time the Portuguese manager has spent more than one season at a club. One also hopes that AVB again takes the Europa League fairly seriously. I’m going to stick my neck out again and say that, despite the distractions of Europe’s secondary cup competition, Swansea City will round out the top 6 of next season’s Premier League table. They have a strong squad of players that Michael Laudrup likes and who can play exactly to his template for football. The addition of Wilfried Bony is an extremely sage move, and I’m fairly confident he will be in the Ruud Van Nistelrooy success-straight-out-of-the-Eredivise bracket rather than in the Mateja Kezman failures department.
In seventh place, I see Liverpool failing to improve once again. The Champions League places may be their stated aim, but they are now so far behind the top five sides that they may as well concentrate on winning a cup competition again. The continued uncertainty over Luis Suarez will not have helped, and their forays into the transfer market have so far been largely uninspiring. Iago Aspas scored a decent whack of goals for Celta in La Liga but is already getting old in footballer terms at 26; Simon Mignolet has huge gloves to fill in place of Pepe Reina, while Luis Alberto spent most of last season on loan to Barcelona B. Aston Villa stayed up due to their being one of the form sides in the league towards the end of last season, and with Christian Benteke getting over his itchy feet and signing a new contract with the Birmingham club, I can see them kicking on this year as Paul Lambert’s young side starts to flourish. Rounding out the top ten, Mauricio Pochettino’s style of play getting a full season should see Southampton move up the table, with the robust and mobile Victor Wanyama good cover for their slightly shaky centre-back partnership (though the arrival of Dejan Lovren may cure this), while West Ham will provide more Big Sam football with Big Sam results. Their acquisition of Andy Carroll on a permanent basis does show something of the ambition of the side taking on the tenancy of the Olympic Stadium in 2016.
Top of the bottom half, and going forward in standing still will be Norwich City. The acquisitions of Gary Hooper and Ricky van Wolfswinkel should do Norwich’s goalscoring exploits the world of good, while Leroy Fer should add bite and nous to the middle of their midfield, along with what is already a decent squad for mid-table in the top division. In twelfth I can see Everton. Roberto Martinez has already done that thing I don’t like to see new managers doing; sticking to what they know, going back to their old clubs and picking off what they see as the best talent. Martinez has done exactly this with the purchases of Arouna Kone and Antolin Alcaraz. In Kevin Mirallas and Marouane Fellaini Everton have two of the best attacking players in the league with the loan sigining of Gerard Delofeu adding more bite in attack; however Sylvain Distin in particular is getting on a bit and with Martinez likely to want to impose his style on the blue half of Merseyside, it couuld be a transitional season at Goodison. West Bromwich Albion won’t be as high up the league as they were last year, particularly having lost Romelu Lukaku’s goals; Steve Clarke has however made two reliable old head signings in Diego Lugano and Nicolas Anelka. They should be fine without doing too much. Newcastle should improve on last season but only by a tiny amount, even though they’ve employed a director of football who can’t pronounce any of his players’ names. There’s too much class in the Magpies’ side, particularly in Yohan Cabaye and Papiss Demba Cisse, for them to overly flirt with relegation.
Fulham will again be over-reliant on Brede Hangeland and Dimitar Berbatov. With Mr Al Fayed selling it up it could be interesting times ahead at Craven Cottage – things have been fairly quiet on the transfer front for the Lilywhites, though Maarten Stekelenburg is an excellent replacement for Mark Schwarzer. Cardiff City look the strongest of the promoted sides, with Gary Medel and Andreas Cornelius looking like particularly astute signings to add to Malky Mackay’s already strong-ish squad. Sunderland should just about survive as the side is moulded into Paolo Di Canio’s own unique image; bringing in Emanuele Giaccherini is an impressive move, though I think £6m for Jozy Altidore is about £4m too much. His goalscoring touch, for what it is, will be needed to support Steven Fletcher otherwise the Black Cats may be in a spot of bother.
To the bottom three, where I think Stoke City will find themselves come May. A catastrophic end to the 2012-13 season and a side used to playing one way would be difficult for any new manager to sort out following the departure of Tony Pulis; that this task sits with Mark Hughes may lead to a particularly arduous season for the loudest fans in the country. The Potters have not set the transfer market alight, though at least Marc Muniesa, their £3m acquisition from Barcelona, will be able to relay directly to Lionel Messi the pros and cons of a wet Tuesday night in Stoke-on-Trent. In 19th, I think the leap up will be too much for Hull City, while it’s come far too early for Crystal Palace who should finish rock bottom. Hull have made some eminently sensible but uninspiring signings, such as Allan McGregor and Maynor Figueroa, to add to what is still a fairly thin squad, while Palace have given Marouane Chamakh a year to remember what playing football was like in an attempt to cope with the loss of Wilfried Zaha and the long-term injury of their top scorer Glenn Murray. Though the Premier League is all the more entertaining for the return of Ian Holloway, I think the bald Bristolian could be in for a 9 months that’s not a great deal better than that experienced by Derby County’s two managers in 2007-08.
Two other worthy things to note of this upcoming season – first, BT Sport are the new kids in town as far as live TV coverage is concerned, with a lot of big names on board, though they have only a mere 38 games to BSkyB’s 116; meanwhile, all Premier League grounds have had goal-line technology installed, at long last. The former has looked a tad amateurish thus far; the latter will hopefully work an absolute treat. Here’s to another 9 months of quality football, ridiculous scorelines and interesting refereeing.