5. Man City (Last season – 14th)
In: Geovanni, Bianchi, Fernandes, Petrov, Garrido, Corluka, Elano, Bojinov
Out: Distin, Sinclair, Jordan, Trabelsi, Barton, Weaver
Every season there’s a team that comes flying out of the gates, and end up finishing a lot higher than people thought they would at the start of the season. This year, I believe it will be City, but that they will actually maintain it and come closest of all to breaking into the top four.
The much-maligned Eriksson actually had a tremendous record for England, coming off the back of repeated success at club level. He also knows his European football, and I’d bet that at least two of Bianchi, Petrov, Elano and Bojinov turn out to be tremendous signings.
A lot will depend on how he can knit all these signings into a successful team, but you have to remember that City had an excellent defence last season, which is the perfect platform to build from. Had they been able to score freely, they would’ve been top six material. Now, I have no doubt they’ll finish far higher than they have in years.
Also, expect a few surprise victories over the top four – Eriksson often got England playing at their best in the top matches, and I expect more of the same from him here. While I think top four is beyond them (I imagine there’ll be around a ten point gap between fourth and fifth), they can certainly be the best of the rest.
4. Liverpool (Last season – 3rd)
In: Torres, Leiva, San Jose, Mihaylov, Nemeth, Simon, Voronin, Pacheco, Kacansiklic, Purie, Stevens, Benayoun, Babel
Out: Cisse, Bellamy, Garcia, Sinama Pongolle, Fowler, Dudek, Zenden, Gonzalez
Ah, here we are again with perennial predictions. Pre-season efforts are some kind of déjà vu time warp, with Liverpool persistently tipped as champions. But they haven’t even been challenging at the end for nearly two decades, and I expect nothing different this time around.
Much of the hype has surrounded their new signings. Babel, for instance, appeared to be on his way to Arsenal for around 6m, but reports from the Under 21 European Championships weren’t great. In fairness, Wenger was probably never interested and it was purely paper talk, but imagine my surprise when Liverpool then paid a whopping 11.5m for him, an extraordinary figure for a player who, while looking decent, does not look like a world beater. If you are to spend that much money on a player, he’d better be superb.
That said, one of Liverpool’s constant flaws in their lack of width in midfield. Babel can at least supply them with that. The other big name to arrive is, of course, Fernando Torres. While undoubtedly a good signing (although surely not 25m+ value), he is not a true goalscorer. That is not to say he will not score goals, because he will, but when you take penalties away, he scores around 12-14 a season. That isn’t going to win them the league.
However, I do think Liverpool will be a serious threat in the Champions League once more. Benitez is a master technician when it comes to the European game, as well as the fact that it is then that he finally seems to realise what his best eleven is. But given that Torres will surely play every European game, his rotation policy will mean that the Spaniard will not play as much Premiership football as you’d expect. Do not put him in your fantasy football team, folks.
The rest of their signings include Benayoun, who I doubt will figure much, and a whole host of unknowns for the future. The departing Sinama Pongolle can verify that being a hyped youngster at Liverpool far from guarantees success. Overall, I think Liverpool will once again be a great threat in one-off games – I can see them succeeding in Europe, going on domestic cup runs and beating others in the big four, but their consistency and Benitez’s rotation policy will let them down in the Premiership.
3. Arsenal (Last season – 4th)
In: Sagna, Fabianski, da Silva, Nordtveit
Out: Aliadiere, Muamba, Poom, Lupoli, Henry, Ljungberg, Reyes
So, according to many pundits, this is the season that Arsenal will finally fall out of the top four. Their reasons are a) Henry has left, which they believe to be a handicap on last season where he hardly played, something he had in common with the excellent Van Persie, and b) the team is unsettled. To be honest, I have not seen Arsenal looking so united pre-season in a long time.
Let’s get one thing straight – there is no-one in the Arsenal setup who is a replacement for Henry. No-one will score 25 goals this season. Having said that, an injury-free Van Persie will score a bucketload, and there will be some spectacular ones in there. This will be a huge season for the Dutchman, who will carry the line, and relish his new responsibility.
He will be supported more ably than last season – with the hapless pairing of Baptista and Aliadiere gone, Adebayor will need to step up, with da Silva providing a different kind of edge. He is a selfish striker – his first instinct is to shoot, which is novel to say the least.
There are still issues to resolve. The lack of width in midfield is worrying, although Eboue looks like becoming a genuine right winger with Sagna playing behind him, but Rosicky will have to raise his game (and work on his hamstrings) to perform on the left, especially with Hleb proving pre-season how much more valuable he is in the centre.
There is also the fragility at centre back, where Gallas and Toure are yet to click. New captain Gallas (I’ll discuss that another time) needs to take a huge step forward from last season, but he has the ability. Now is the time to deliver.
Around the rest of the team, their age means that even without signings, the team is stronger for one more year’s experience, a testament to Wenger’s youth policy. I don’t believe it is enough yet to be genuine challengers (although I can see the top four being much closer this time around), but this season should be far better than the last one.
There is one caveat. Over the last two seasons Arsenal have had shocking luck with injuries, to all but one player. Cesc Fabregas is essential to this side, even with the strength of depth available in central midfield. A long term injury to him would scupper even the best laid plans.
But I think third is very achievable, to become challengers after that. I am full of optimism. Are you?
2. Man Utd (Last season – 1st)
In: Hargreaves, Anderson, Nani, Kuszczak, Tevez
Out: Richardson, Rossi, Smith
The champions may not have signed many players this season, but they’ve spent an absolute fortune on those that they have. Many of them raise questions – how do Carrick and Hargreaves play together? How are Rooney and Tevez compatible?
To be honest, I think those two signings are the only two that will see regular first team football this season, with Nani and Anderson coming on sporadically to show their talent for the future. And make no mistake about it, going forward United are utterly fearsome, with goals possible from absolutely anywhere. If Ronaldo can produce the form of last season they may well end the season as top goalscorers once again.
Their problem lies at the other end, and remains largely unresolved. One thing they had in their favour last season was, until the last month of the season, their defence remained intact. The back unit of Ferdinand and Vidic especially was solid, but the backup to those players in not of Premership winning quality. If they get a couple of injuries across the back they’ll be in trouble.
I’d be very surprised to see United finish the season with no silverware, but I don’t think the trophy they’ll win will be the Premiership. Last season their consistency outstayed Chelsea, but I can’t see them maintaining that with any injuries at the back, and the increasing sense that Van der Sar’s best days are behind him.
1. Chelsea (Last season – 2nd)
In: Malouda, Ben Haim, Sidwell, Pizarro, Mellis, Philliskirk
Out: Geremi, Ma-Kalambay, Morais
A few things are guaranteed about this season for Chelsea. One, whenever they lose it will not be the fault of their players – it will be the referee somehow, or perhaps their lack of squad strength, which, given their spending, is the weakest argument imaginable. Two, they will be defensively sound, with the return of Cech and the absence of Boulahrouz.
I’m not impressed with their signings – Malouda to me is no better than what they already have, Ben Haim will be only backup, Pizarro has never been more than a decent striker, and Sidwell will be lucky to see any first team action at all.
However, they haven’t lost anyone of note either, so they will go into the new season with a largely settled squad. You could argue that Drogba cannot be as devastating again, especially as he’ll miss a month because of the African Nations, but you could also argue that Shevchenko has to be better.
One thing is for sure, Mourinho knows how to organise a team, and Chelsea will be as mean in defence as ever. I haven’t placed them top because I think they’ll be any better – I don’t think they will. I just don’t think Man Utd will be as consistent, or that anyone else is ready yet.
Much as I would love them to win nothing, I think they’ll claim the title back. However, I still think they’ll miss out on the prize they now crave most of all – the Champions League.