This Saturday the world’s greatest league returns in what is expected to be one of the tightest title races in history. United look to have a slight edge, but Manchester City have validated themselves and proven again how narrow the gap is. The usual suspects, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool are here too, but all facing unique situations.
Coming off their record setting 19th top flight title, holders Manchester United set an emphatic tone last weekend while not-so-politely shoving their noisy neighbors back to Balotelli’s kids’ table. The 2-0 deficit highlighted some question marks surrounding the Red Devils, specifically the much scrutinized newcomer David De Gea, but the comeback provided a glimpse of vintage United grit.
That stunning 45 minutes of soccer sent a message heard not only by City, but by two London sides, as well as their hated rivals in Merseyside, all whom pride themselves as contenders.
Sir Alex Ferguson is not in the clear by any means, as he leads his first Scholes-less club in 17 seasons, aiming to make Man U the first club to earn a score of top-flight trophies.
United’s nearest neighbors in the record books hold similar hopes in their attempt to draw level with a 19th title. While Anfield ownership claims a more modest goal of achieving Champions League football, Manager “King” Kenny Daglish considers his rejunivated club (now boasting the additions of playmakers Charlie Adam, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing) top spot worthy in his first full campaign. His ability to sort out a flood of midfield talent will be extremely influential in determining the Kop’s success.
Daglish’s dilemma is quite the opposite of his North London counterpart. Arsene Wenger watched his flowing footballers grind to a disappointing (read: predictable) halt last campaign. After spending some time atop the table last season with victories against United, City, and Chelsea, the young Gunner’s inexperience shown through as they faded to a 4th place finish and heartbreaking eliminations in the Champions League and League Cup.
The man who brought a double and an undefeated season to North London a decade ago is now facing a seventh straight season without a trophy. Still equipped with a pool of elite young talent, Arsenal nation entered this offseason with aspirations of an English title run in 2011.
But the last 72 hours have left the Gunner faithful simply hoping to avoid doomsday scenarios. The now inevitable departure of two of the hottest midfield commodities in the world, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, have become a sobering reality in North London.
Concern over aerial defending and set piece organization also linger, but believers cite the signing of French Ligue 1 hitman Gervinho as reason for hope. The Ivorian tallied double-digit goals and assists last season and looks to bring creativity and assistance to last season’s EPL goal-per-minute leader Robin van Persie. Welsh midfield prodigy Aaron Ramsey will certainly feature in the new campaign along with the potential emergence of 19 year old Japanese Starlet Ryo “Ryodinho” Miyachi.
However, even the most optimistic of Arsenal supporters can’t deny the issues along the back line must be solved and likely from an outside source. If Wenger can capture a solid centre-half (Wenger has eyed Dann, Cahill or Jagielka) to pair with Thomas Vermaelen, and can avoid an early slip during a slew of multiple game weeks, this side might accumulate enough confidence to turn a deaf ear on doubters. Also, the likely acquisition of Spanish playmaker Juan Mata would also provide the newly needed depth to keep Arsenal afloat during the inevitable flurry of injuries.
But even if the aforementioned scenarios materialize, it will take months to lift the dark cloud around the Emirates Stadium, especially if their former darling Cesc Fabregas quickly gets comfortable in Barcelona.
At least Arsenal’s misfortunes are enough to keep Spurs fans off the ledge, with their stars pining to leave for greener pastures.
What a difference a year makes.
Just 12 months ago Tottenham was on the heels of cracking the seemingly impenetrable top four, and Gareth Bale had the best form of any player the planet. Now, a top four finish seems unrealistic and Harry Redknapp seems to be in lame duck mode with a sense of entitlement to be the next England Manager. But the most disconcerting turn of events has been Luka Modric’s open love letters to Chelsea.
But even without the crafty Croatian playmaker, the most talented team in England still resides in Stamford Bridge. However, Chelsea’s also endured a similarly helter skelter calendar year.
This time last year, Chelsea were on the heels of an historic double, playing what then Manager Carlo Ancelotti would refer to as “Video Game Football” scoring a staggering 12 goals in their first two games and holding a goal differential of +20 after just five matches. Shortly thereafter, Chelsea would endure a horrific run of form for much of the campaign and finish trophyless while watching their $100 million dollar signing Fernando Torres find the net just once.
Chelsea return with a plethora of options across the pitch, but clubhouse politics and the Jerry Jones’s like presence of owner Roman Abromavich may make it difficult for 35-year-old Andre Villas-Boas to be the commanding voice he must be in order to bench elite players while avoiding mutiny.
Many variables remain with Sheikh Monsour being able to open his vast checkbook for another month, but here is how we envision the top of the table in 38 weeks.
The reinvigorated Kop are the trendy pick to crack into the top four, but we aren’t sure King Kenny still has a fresh enough mind to withstand 38 weeks of tactical adjustments in this campaign. Old school style did translate to consistency down the stretch, but gimmicky and antiquated tactics won’t hold up against the brilliant and dynamic minds of Ferguson, Wenger, Mancini and Villas-Boas. Most are quick to forget because of Liverpool’s controversial late escape against Arsenal, that this side struggles against any team that can efficiently possess the ball.
Charlie Adam likely will help Andy Carroll demonstrate form that justifies his exorbitant signing fee. But Liverpool’s defense is aging too fast to give their youth time to cover for them. Expect a short lived burst out of the gate followed another frustrated fury of signings by Fenway Sports Group in January.
Pundits have been forecasting Armageddon for the Gunners after the exodus of Fabregas and Nasri became all but official. But this side still has more quality than Liverpool, and Arsene’s youth revolution has been a successful experiment for a decade.
Expect Van Persie to be deployed at the center of a 4-2-3-1 and terrorize in the final third. Jack Wilshere will finally step out of Fabregas and Nasri’s shadow.
With Wilshere distributing, and Alexander Song enforcing by his side, Arsenal may have the most productive midfield duo England. Expect a career year from Theo Walcott and the Gervinho/Chamakh platoon to pour it in over the next 38 weeks to keep Arsenal’s collective heads above water.
3. Manchester City
City now knows they can go toe to toe with anyone in the premier league. They have had Chelsea’s number for two seasons and have been seconds away from topping United in the two matches that bookended their FA Cup semi-final victory last May.
Unfortunately, the problem of consistency remains with too many options for a side to find their groove. The eventual signing of Nasri will be a huge boon for their future, but a player who must be central in tactical deployment entering the side after the start of the campaign could be a nightmare.
Edin Dzeko, a man crafted by God with the sole purpose of dominating the Premier League, looked to be on the verge of finding a perfect dynamic with Carlos Tevez at his side. Sergio Aguero is a remarkable talent, but lacks the physical presence to be a force against English back lines the way Tevez’s bullish approach has.
Expect runs of invincibility interrupted by catastrophic runs of draws, with Mancini constantly playing psychiatrist to his bipolar side.
2. Manchester United
Sir Alex Ferguson is the greatest manager in the history of soccer. Probably in the history of sport if a man named John Wooden didn’t grace the earth. He has been maximizing his talent better than any manager in history. But this year, he will fall short.
Ferguson spoke openly about how not signing Petr Cech, because he thought, at the time, he was unready still haunts him to this day. David de Gea will eventually be an elite goalkeeping talent but, as we all witnessed last Saturday, is not ready. Vidic may still be the most valuable player in the world, but Rio Ferdinand is clearly in Jamie Carragher territory and expect to watch his lack of agility be exposed again and again.
Sir Alex has admitted his obsession is the Champions League, looking to top Barcelona after being embarrassed by the Catalan side twice. If the Premier League starts to drift away, expect Ferguson to tout his favored lineup midweek.
Despite spending half of the season in disarray, Chelsea was a meaningful Week 37 showdown with United away from repeating as champions. Andre Villas-Boas has already admitted he is not Torres obsessed, and El Nino’s recent concussion, will allow him to sidestep the drama, enabling a Drogba-lead strike force to dominate the Premier League. Drogba may still well be the most gifted striker alive, expect him to prove it this year.
Lampard’s new deployment in a holding role will force him to be more economical in possession and not fire hundreds of errant howler’s that never stood a chance. Michael Essien’s injury will serve as a blessing in disguise, as the once most versatile player in the world hasn’t found his form in nearly three years. And with Ashley Cole eager to move on, he will boost his value by showing us why he is still the best left back in the game. Combine that with, John Terry, and another stellar year from the Premier League’s best goalkeeper, Peter Cech, and the Chelsea defense stands above all.
Villas-Boas is tactically gifted and his locker room of savvy veterans have bought in. With father time creeping in, the boys in blue are making what they know may very well be their last run. The last season the Mourinho nucleus of Terry, Lampard, Cole, Cech and Drogba spend together will end with the man who was once Jose’s padawan mastering the English Premier League.
RELEGATION PREVIEW: TOON ARMY BEWARE
The numerous challengers for the Barclay’s trophy makes losing focus of the relegation fight understandably simple. Survivors of last season’s bottom of the table scrap, Wigan and Wolves’ march to maintain Premier League participation should provide painful entertainment as experience is put against the attractive styles of Welsh club Swansea City, Norwich City and our favorite to stay in the top flight, Queen’s Park Rangers.
Swansea, the first Welsh club in the Premiership, completed the most passes in the Championship last season while the Canaries of Norwich are no stranger to stressful campaigns having earned two consecutive promotions. Meanwhile, QPR and their Balotelli-esque Adel Taraabt will aim to stay on the positive side of a trend which has seen only 3 of the last 12 Championship winners immediately relegated.
The bottom of the table looks to be unusually crowded this season. League newcomers and last season’s slim survivors are likely to welcome an enigmatic Newcastle United to the equation and potentially Blackburn Rovers.
Swansea and Norwich are both intriguing stories and play with elegance and grace. Unfortunately they both lack the toughness that allowed sides like Wolves and Wigan steal the necessary points to stay above the line.
Newcastle’s return to the Premiership has quickly turned bittersweet as the proud club is alienating its fans with consistent sales (see: Carroll, Andy and Nolan, Kevin) and little else. The replacement of Carroll with Gabriel Obertan and his zero EPL goals showers doubt. Coupled with the potential loss of Joey Barton’s productive (on-field) influence puts the Magpies in the danger zone for a relegation. Now with the departure of Jose Enrique, a trip back to the Championship, only a few short years ago considered foreign to the Toon Army, is now a very immediate threat.
Relegation Predictions: Newcastle, Norwich, Swansea