The English Premier League gets under way this week, and though it doesn't seem five minutes since Chelsea were lifting the trophy for the second season in a row, here we go again.
Chelsea start as clear favourites, 1/2 say the bookies, and that does not represent good value. There may be better value to be had in the next few weeks. True, Chelsea have improved their squad by recruiting Shevchenko from AC Milan and Ballack from Bayern Munich, though the unfortunate Ballack was promptly injured in the traditional warm up match, the Community Shield. It doesn't appear a serious injury though, and Ballack should be back soon. But Chelsea have also puzzlingly let Duff go to Newcastle for a pittance of a fee, and there are problems with one or two other players. It may be that Chelsea concentrate their main fire this season on the Champions League, and if they do that, there are three, possibly four challengers, who will be eager to jump in and snatch the title.
Incidentally Chelsea lost that Community Shield match to Liverpool 2-1 with a late goal from the beanpole giant Peter Crouch, and Liverpool look well equipped to challenge the blues this season. They have not won the title since 1990, and amazingly have never won the Premier League. Their supporters are hungry for the league title, and this year urged on by inspirational captain Steven Gerrard, they could go close. They have strengthened again by acquiring the lightning fast Bellamy from Blackburn Rovers, though he is injury prone, and accident-prone too. Liverpool will go close. Current price 8/1.
Second last year were Manchester United, and I have a feeling if you offered them a top two place right now, they might take it. They have lost their talisman goal scorer Ruud to Real Madrid and they will certainly miss his thirty goals a season. But oddly now he has gone, the other players know they must step up and start scoring right through the team. They do have goalscorers in the side and Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager, has cash in his pocket to spend, though he seems to be finding it difficult locating the right players. They will be desperate to stay ahead of their nearest and bitterest rivals Liverpool, and will do well to do so. Lots will depend on Rooney and Ronaldo, keeping their tempers and concentration. You write off Manchester United at your peril. 8/1 for the league.
Fourth last year, albeit by only two points from their closest rivals Tottenham Hotspur, were Arsenal. It is all change for them as they go into their spanking brand new home at the Emirates Stadium. They have also lost three stalwarts in Pires, Bergkamp, and Campbell, and are on the brink of losing England's full back Ashley Cole too, to Chelsea. The blues have reportedly bid £20 million, Arsenal want £30 million. They do have good young players coming through, and a much larger crowd this season judging by early ticket sales and greater ground capacity. Don't forget they did make the Champions League final last season. Add to that Thierry Henry's renewed commitment to the club, and it would be foolish to write off their chances. But the competition will be hotter than ever for the Gunners, not least from their near neighbours, Spurs. Arsenal are also 8/1 for the title, but might do well to finish in the top four.
That brings us to England's most improved club, Spurs. They have been getting stronger for several seasons now, and under their likeable manager Martin Jol, they should be stronger again this year. They have concentrated on buying the best young players they can find, and being patient with them as they grow into the team. They have consistently bought young English players too, something that Arsenal have noticeably not done, though selling Michael Carrick to Manchester United is a blow, (Arsenal are now regularly putting out an eleven containing not a single British player) and one senses that the spirit in the Spurs’ camp continues to rise. But can they break into the top four this year? They could do so, and if any of the top four slip up, or have a bad year, then expect the whites to step up and take their place. Spurs are currently 80/1 to win the league and even that may not be too fanciful.
So what of the rest? The black and white shirted hordes will still turn out at Saint James's Park to support Newcastle, and in Damien Duff for £5 million they must surely have landed the buy of the season. The new captain Scottie Parker will drive them on, but the loss of England's centre forward Michael Owen through injury during the World Cup, he may miss the whole season, is a big blow. Newcastle are improving, but still need more firepower to compete with the elite.
Aston Villa have been a sleeping giant for years, but with the long drawn out takeover finally getting sorted, and the charismatic manager, (Saint) Martin O'Neill duly installed, Villa will improve. But they need to. They were almost relegated last year, and they have so far added no new players to the squad. But there is a sense of optimism around Villa Park, and the supporters will undoubtedly flock back, to begin with at least. Don't forget Villa are former European champions, but then again so are Nottingham Forest (twice) and they are now languishing in the third division. Villa alone flies the flag for the English midlands and they will need to improve to stay up, and under Martin, they will.
Everton are Liverpool's second club, though their supporters still consider they are the best. They have bought well in the close season landing Andy Johnson from Crystal Palace, (albeit for a lot of money at £8.5 million) but alongside Beattie, they look to have the firepower to trouble the best defences. Everton are very much an up and down side. I expect them to be up this year.
West Ham are currently London's fourth club, and they will be looking to improve on that. They reached the cup final last year and were unlucky to lose and in Dean Ashton, they have a striker who knows where the goals are. I thought he should have gone to the World Cup, and I am pleased to see him included in the current England squad. I suspect the manager Alan Pardew has bought well, and West Ham will be a handful for anyone, especially at their tight home stadium of Upton Park.
Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers, both from Lancashire, and both I suspect will do well to repeat last year's successes. Blackburn have lost Bellamy to Liverpool, a big blow, and the players they have bought in are not in the same class. Bolton have been quiet in the transfer market and one detects a little frustration from their larger than life manager, Sam Allardyce. He missed the England job to Steve McClaren by a whisker, and it shows.
McClaren's replacement at Middlesbrough is the ex England centre half and Boro player, Gareth Southgate. They will need to hit the ground running. He has lost Jimmy Floyd to Charlton, though he has acquired the cultured left footed Arca from relegated Sunderland. I expect the umpteen English kids to step up this year and Middlesbrough should do OK.
Charlton and Fulham are London's fifth and sixth Premier League Clubs. Charlton have lost their long time manager, Alan Curbishley, and they will miss him. They have recruited Ian Dowie, and Dowie took Crystal Palace down. Addicks’ fans will be hoping he does not repeat the performance, and they really should not be relegated. They have recruited Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink from Boro for his goals, and in Darren Bent, they have a centre forward eager and willing to show that his omission from the England World Cup squad was a catastrophic mistake, which it was. They should score goals, and that will be good enough to keep them safe.
I expect Fulham to be relegated every year, and every year they escape. That is a huge credit to their manager, the likeable Welshman, Chris Coleman. They have recruited Jimmy Bullard from Wigan, though there still seems some unrest in the camp with Malbranque and one or two others. Fulham will do well to stay up, but when it comes to it, they always seem to, and they probably will again.
Wigan Athletic confounded everyone with their performances last time. But as manager Paul Jewell has found before (at Bradford City), it is the second season where teams are often found out. But Wigan are no Bradford. They have a determined chairman who puts his money into the club, a former pro himself who broke his leg in the 1960 Cup Final, and they have acquired the former England centre forward in Emile Heskey, from relegated Birmingham City. But Emile has never been a prolific goal scorer. Wigan surely cannot match last year's achievements, and they could struggle, but I would be surprised if they were relegated.
Manchester City have made numerous personnel changes through the close season, though I am not convinced they are all for the better. The sale of their goalkeeper David James to Portsmouth is certainly a puzzling move. But their boisterous manager Stuart Pearce will keep everyone on their toes. I suspect this will be an important year for City, and for Pearce. A bad start could spiral out of control. A good start could see City pushing for a European place. If I had to choose, it would be the former.
Portsmouth survived by the skin of their teeth last year thanks solely to their returning talisman manager Harry Redknapp. Can they do it again? Yes, I think they can, urged on by their fanatical fans in their crumbling old stadium. Harry has had money to spend, and has spent it wisely. Portsmouth will be a handful at home, as they always are, and that should be good enough. I hope it isn't a hard year for Pompey, I don't think their nervous manager could stand it.
That leaves the three promoted clubs, Reading, Sheffield United and Watford. It is unusual for the three promoted teams to go straight back down, yet that is what the pundits are predicting. Reading, the Royals, won the Championship last season in a canter, and in their manager Steve Coppell, they have a thinking man's manager. I have followed his career closely ever since his league debut for Tranmere Rovers in the early seventies, a match I witnessed. They haven't added greatly to their squad, and it is uncertain how much cash he has at his disposal. Reading have never played in the top tier before, and the fans can't wait. A bad start could mean a long and painful season. A good start could be enough to see them safe. It's a fifty-fifty call.
Sheffield United, the Blades are back, and under the abrasive manager Neil Warnock for his first time in the EPL. No one will relish the trip to Brammall Lane, Yorkshire, not least the match officials who will surely hear the wrath of Neil's considerable tongue. United have shown in recent seasons that they can compete with the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool in FA Cup matches, but whether they can do that week in week out is an entirely different matter. You look at their squad of battlers, and you don't see quality, and ultimately, that could cost them.
Watford are an amazing story. They scrambled up through the play-offs defeating the much fancied Leeds United, and in their interesting young manager Adie Boothroyd, they have someone who demands listening to. He certainly talks a good season ahead for the Hornets, but can they really stay up? The bookmakers and the pundits say a definite no, but it has happened before. This situation reminds me of Jewell at Bradford City a few years ago, when everyone said they didn't have a cat in hells chance. But Jewell kept Bradford City up, and Boothroyd could do the same. If he did, much bigger clubs might come calling. Boothroyd seems destined to succeed, but whether it is at Watford, only time will tell. Incidentally, you can still get a free $30 bet at betfair.com by inputting the code 6CHE3VPWJ where required.
As for my choices: I will take Liverpool to break their duck, and win the Premier League. Chelsea might take the Champions League, and sorry, but Sheffield United, Fulham and Watford could be relegated. But what do I know? Don't follow my thoughts. Pick your own!
Let's hope it’s a great season, with close finishes at either end of the table, which for once, it could be.
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