3) Manchester United
9) Aston Villa
11) West Ham
15) Manchester City
Don’t slay me for having Chelsea over Liverpool, especially at this stage.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I’m very excited about the coming season. But I also subscribe to similar beliefs as those of Carra: Chelsea is the yardstick by which other teams are measured, and that looks likely to continue. Malouda and Ben Haim, among others, will help Chelsea immensely. Mourinho’s declaration that he’ll ditch the diamond formation to revert to the tactics that won the Prem two years running will be another boon. The biggest question is how they cope during the African Nations Cup, when Drogba, Essien, Mikel, and Kalou will all be out for a month right in the middle of the season. True, there are already fitness concerns (Terry’s out for the next month; Drogba, Sheva, Makalele, and Kalou all sat out the Community Shield as well), while keeping everyone in the squad happy will be Mourinho’s biggest challenge as a manager. But I still see Chelsea as the team to beat.
United, meanwhile, couldn’t possibly have had a better season than the last, could they? They weren’t hit hard by injuries outside of Neville missing a ton of time, while Ronaldo had the season of his life (although sadly, he’s got the potential to be even better). Scholes and Giggs are a year older, and I don’t know how much impact Nani or Anderson will have this year; both being very young and coming from the Portuguese league, they’ll need time to settle. Yes, Hargreaves and Tevez (although I am curious how he and Rooney will play together) will make United even more dangerous, but I just can’t see them performing to last year’s level. Ferguson’s also already identified the defense as a possible problem area, and they may still keep Heinze out for the season for his flirtation with Liverpool.
If I was a Blackburn fan, I’d be excited about the upcoming season. They’re my darkhorse pick in the league and the cup competitions this season. I’ve seen predictions putting them as high as fourth, and while I greatly sympathize with that forecast, I just can’t go against Arsenal and Tottenham fighting it out for 4th and 5th, as they have in recent years. But Rovers already have a good core of players in McCarthy, Bentley, Samba, Gamst Pederson, and Friedel, while the additions of Roque Santa Cruz and Marco Rigters will add more goals. You can’t underestimate Mark Hughes as a manager either. If they can stay healthy, a shout at a Champions League place is a possibility, but 6th is a lot more likely.
I do believe this will be the season that Spurs finally pips Arsenal to 4th, although it should have happened in 05-06. They massively overpaid for Darren Bent, and Gareth Bale to a degree, but both will be important this coming season. Also, they’ve managed to hold onto Dimitar Berbatov, which is a bit surprising given the hype around him back in May. Their defense isn’t as solid as Arsenal’s or Blackburn’s, but defense has never been a focus at White Hart Lane, and they have the offensive capabilities to beat anyone when they’re on form. Plus, I really do believe that Bale at left back, even with his inexperience, will help a problem area for Tottenham, while Chimbonda, King (who missed a lot of last year) and Dawson are good players in their own right.
And I do think that Arsenal’s going to struggle, relatively speaking. I understand that Wenger’s got a good track record of selling players before they decline, but the Gunners will assuredly miss Henry and probably Ljungberg as well. Despite his scoring rate in Croatia, Da Silva will need time to settle, and neither Adebayor nor van Persie are known for being prolific strikers. Arsenal’s been lauded for having a deep crop of talented youngsters, now is certainly the time to see if they can make good on that potential. I am interested to see how Eboue does if he consistently plays on the right of midfield, which looks likely.
As always, the bottom half of the table is where I’m most indecisive. Derby is this year’s Watford (young combative manager, diligent work ethic, on paper probably the worst side in the Prem), while I think Wigan will dearly miss Paul Jewell. But I debated 17th place in my mind nearly all of last week. I’d like to see both Birmingham and Sunderland stay up, and when they were promoted a couple of months back, I thought it possible. But every team who was in the relegation fight last season has strengthened to the point where I think the leadership of Roy Keane won’t be enough to keep Sunderland afloat. And besides, it’d probably be funny seeing Keano have to give press interviews while in a relegation struggle.
- I’m hoping that this is going to be one of Everton’s down years, although picking them in 10th doesn’t really reflect that. Yeah, it’s partly my overwhelming bias, but there’s also some precedent (7th in 02-03, 17th in 03-04, 4th in 04-05, 11th in 05-06, 6th in 06-07). Plus, it looks like Cahill’s going to miss some time and the only incoming players as of right now are Phil Jagielka and Steven Pienaar. Leighton Baines looks likely to sign as well and he is a good left back, but I find the Lucho Gonzalez for £11m talk both unlikely and hilarious.
- Manchester City may have spent a lot of money, but none of the new players have Premiership experience, the new owner makes Abramovich look like an altar boy, and wait for it… Sven Goran Eriksson is the manager. Maybe it’ll work -- Elano’s a good player, Petrov did well for Atletico and Bulgaria, and Bojinov was a heavily hyped youngster for a while (can’t say much about the others) -- but I don’t buy it. It’s a big ask for 6 or 7 new starters to settle into the Prem at the same time, with Svennis as their gaffer to top it off.
"Most of the players I have never seen in action live," [Eriksson] said. "I have seen videos of them, though, and I have checked them out with friends who have seen them play. I am very confident they will do well." That’s reassuring. The last time he said that, he brought Theo Walcott to the World Cup. That went well.
- I think 6 through 9 is going to be a fun battle. I like Blackburn a bit more than the others, but Newcastle, Portsmouth, and Villa all look like they’ll be tough to beat, and I probably switched these places 5 times while writing this preview. Again, I know, it’s a preseason game, but I was impressed by Portsmouth when they played Liverpool in Hong Kong. Redknapp’s built a good team, and if Jamo can keep away from the tendencies that got him called ‘Calamity James,’ Portsmouth will be fighting it out for a European spot. Meanwhile, Villa’s only going to improve under O’Neill, even if they didn’t break out Lerner’s checkbook as often as I thought they would this summer (although Reo-Coker should flourish there), and Allardyce is best at fixing what are Newcastle’s main problems: defense, fitness and team spirit.
- Bolton will miss Sam Allardyce immensely, Reading will probably have a marginal sophomore slump, and I don’t really trust West Ham, despite the fact they’ve spent a good deal of biscuit money on players that Curbishley actually wants.