15. Reading (Last season – 8th)
In: Cisse, Fae
Out: Sidwell, Halford, Ujah, Hayes
Second season syndrome is one that hits a lot of teams – no-one expected Reading to finish eighth last time out and they surely won’t again. They’ve got the most settled squad in the Premiership, with barely any transfer dealings, but with so many sides that finished below them splashing out this summer, that may not be a good thing.
They’ve lost Sidwell, the midfielder destined for obscurity in Chelsea’s reserves, and not really replaced him, but Coppell, my pick for manager of the season last year, has the nous to keep them away from danger. They have learned from one season in the top flight, but others have learnt about them. They should still have enough to survive.
14. Middlesbrough (Last season – 12th)
In: Tuncay, Aliadiere, Woodgate, Young
Out: Viduka, Parnaby, Xavier, Christie, Graham, Kennedy, Morrison
Losing Viduka was a huge blow to Boro, but Sanli Tuncay comes highly rated, so if they can keep hold of Yakubu they should still have plenty of goals in them. Aliadiere and his legs of glass provide another option when fit, but with him arriving and Woodgate signing on a permanent deal, they may have to hire another couple of physios.
Gareth Southgate now has more experience as a top flight manager, having admitted himself that he was learning as he went, and that should keep them well away from any relegation battle.
13. Sunderland (Last season – Championship, 1st)
In: Etuhu, Richardson, Halford, Anderson, Chopra, McShane, Gordon
Out: Cunningham, Miller, Elliott
One thing you can guarantee from Sunderland – they’ll work their socks off. Having said that, I’m not sure they’ve got the players to push them impressively high up the table. They should have, after spending nearly 25m this summer, but you can’t help but feel they’ve been ripped off since their promotion. Craig Gordon is a decent prospect but not 9m worth, and as for spending 5m on Michael Chopra, well, let’s just say I don’t expect him to be troubling the golden boot regulars.
One thing they will have is team spirit and a never say die attitude, that they’ll get from their manager. He’s put pressure on himself by saying they’re aiming for Europe, but I think a secure finish away from the relegation battle is more realistic. I see comfort, but nothing more.
12. Everton (Last season – 6th)
In: Baines, Jutkiewicz, Jagielka, Pienaar
Out: Wright, Pistone, Naysmith, Beattie, Phelan
The bulk of Everton’s first eleven remains from last season, with a few players signed to challenge, and a few fringe players let go. On the face of it, this should mean that they’d have a strong year, as there’s a lot to be said for a settled squad.
But I don’t think they will. The money being flung around this summer means that there are a bunch of teams likely to improve dramatically this season, provided the new signings settle. And I can see a side like Everton being victims of that, and falling behind the pack. I’ll predict them to sit in mid-table all season long, never troubling the European places or relegation.
I also predict that they’ll beat Liverpool at home, as they seem to be making a happy habit of that.
11. Blackburn (Last season – 10th)
In: Nielsen, Rigters, Santa Cruz
Out: Todd, Gray
Last season’s bunch of ‘strong tacklers’ remains largely unaltered, so we can expect more physical football of the least subtle nature from Mark Hughes’ men. Expect them to win matches with a soft referee, and pick up a few red cards in the rest, leaving Hughes to rant and rave about the official, the lack of penalties, the opposition, and the inexplicable success of the Spice Girls.
Against Arsenal, for example, they will attempt to kick every threat on the park before running past eleven crocked players, only for Bentley to dive in the box and win a match clinching penalty. Which of course, if you listen to Hughes, they never get.
In all seriousness, Roque Santa Cruz will probably form a decent partnership with McCarthy, which should see them score enough to reach mid-table, but their team simply isn’t good enough to get into Europe. Thankfully.