10 August 2010

Fourth Annual League Table Guessing Game

You thought I'd stop doing this after infamously predicting Liverpool would finally win the title, only to see them slump to their lowest finish in more than a decade and have Benitez, who I've knelt at the altar of for years, sacked? You underestimate my shamelessness.

1) Chelsea
2) United
3) City
4) Arsenal
5) Liverpool
6) Spurs
7) Everton
8) Birmingham
9) Sunderland
10) Villa
11) Blackburn
12) Stoke
13) Wolves
14) West Ham
15) Fulham
16) Newcastle
17) Bolton
18) West Brom
19) Wigan
20) Blackpool

The only things I got right last season? Guessing Chelsea would finish ahead of United, Villa would finish sixth for the third straight season, and that Birmingham to make the biggest leap. Oh, and Burnley being relegated (that was a tough one). Still, I enjoy this one ritual of pure, unadulterated conjecture; I usually attempt to have some factual analysis behind the rest of my scribblings. Outside of City, it's been a summer with few signings; if any business happens, it's going to happen late in the window, which will make this guessing game even more of a moot point than usual. But you can't fight tradition.

I still think Chelsea have the strongest side in the league, I reckon Spurs will find it hard to compete on four fronts, especially if they qualify for the CL group stage, and I almost put City above United because Mancini has had a full preseason to implement his ideas (oh, and because of their massive spending spree), but the notion that the team will fail to gel and underwhelm remains inescapable.

What saddens me is picking Liverpool to finish fifth feels almost as optimistic as guessing they'd win the title last year. Pessimistic habits die hard. United is still United, Chelsea is still Chelsea, City's spent big, and Arsenal have marginally improved, adding Chamakh and Koscielny while shipping out Eduardo, Gallas, and Silvestre. Those sides look most likely to finish in the Champions League places. It's not as if Liverpool's squad has regressed – Cole, Jovanovic, Wilson, Shelvey in; Benayoun, Riera, Insua (?) out so far – and the boost of a new manager, as well as the lessened expectations, should help matters. But the team's depth (especially at striker and left-back) and the shadow of Hicks and Gillett still loom large.

Before yesterday's Martin O'Neill extravaganza, I would have guessed this season's top seven teams to be the same as last season's. But with Villa already on shaky ground – no new signings, Milner's exit imminent, rumors of unrest – it's hard to see them with yet another sixth-place finish. Yes, the loss of Jumpy, no matter how much I dislike him, seems worth at least three places. Like last year, it looks like there are a two-tiered top six or seven, a clutch of mid-table sides, and relegation candidates. Among the top six, Chelsea and United will be title contenders, while City, Arsenal, and Spurs will challenge for the Champions League places. The question is whether Liverpool's main competition will be City and Arsenal or Spurs (and whoever replaces Villa in the hunt for Europe).

Wolves seem most likely to join Stoke and Brum in making the leap to mid-table, having added Fletcher, Mouyokolo, Hunt, and Jelle van Damme. Birmingham and Blackburn should continue to cement their places and continue to be tough to beat, especially at home. Everton, Villa, Birmingham, and Sunderland look the strongest, but otherwise, there's little to choose from between the sides from 7th and 13th. Undoubtedly, one will be a "pleasant" surprise, while another will be surprisingly terrible.

As for the relegation candidates – the bottom five or six sides – Blackpool seem more certain that Burnley were last season, despite the immense awesomeness of everything that exits Ian Holloway's mouth. As much as I like Roberto Martinez as a manager, Wigan have been holding onto their Premier League place by fingernails for a few years now. Fulham should struggle without Hodgson – although bringing in Hughes should make for less of a decline than I originally expected (and I bet he's kicking himself for missing out on the Villa job). Coyle still has his work cut out for him at Bolton, while West Brom and Newcastle could also struggle. But Newcastle and Albion's cohesiveness in the Championship last season should be a boon – those type of teams are the ones who usually stay up. Incidentally, two promoted sides stayed up last season (Wolves and Brum) and the season before (Stoke and Hull).

I got exactly one final league place correct in last year's guess – the aforementioned Aston Villa in sixth. The laws of probability probably guarantee a better effort this year. A broken clock's at least right twice in a day. Maybe if I'm lucky I'll beat my record high of three from 2007.

I'll have my usual "in-depth" Liverpool season preview up in a day or two.


drew said...

With Terry's decline, Carvalho's departure, and Cech's inability to stay on the pitch I think Chelsea are looking soft at the back. We'll see what they end up doing to shore that up; for me right now, much as it kills me to say it, I think United look favorites.

Arsenal are the most interesting to me--pretty much this is their year, since Cesc is gone next summer. Spurs I could see dipping as low as seventh if they hang around in the CL and either of the domestic cups. It is an awful wrench playing them and City right from the word go.

I see Liverpool in sixth; if everyone (I mean everyone) stays healthy, maybe we get back in the CL spots. If we can do that we'd actually be very well positioned for the 2011–12 season; if we don't then we'll be selling Torres for sure and who knows what happens from there. At least the priorities are very clear this season; I would be amazed to see Torres in particular start anything but league games in the early going.

Agreed on Wigan and Blackpool as table props, other relegated side could be any other one of your bottom half here. I'm hoping it's Bolton.

nate said...

Yeah I'm a little surprised that Chelsea let Carvalho leave (naturally, a hour or so after I post), but Ivanovic was going to start more games, they still have Alex, and youngster Bruma is going to get a few games this year if preseason's anything to go by. Terry's form will be most crucial. Adding Ramires (if it happens) and a fit Essien more than compensates for Ballack and Deco leaving, and I think that makes them even more dangerous than last year. Obviously share your United fears, though.

Will definitely be mentioning Liverpool's early league schedule in the season preview.

And yeah, I'm most curious as to Arsenal and City's fortunes (outside of Liverpool's, obviously). Completely agree on this being Arsenal's best chance, but lack of depth at CB and GK makes me doubt about a title challenge.