The Barclays Premier League is back! Well, almost. Starved, famished, thirsty, begging for mercy – the feeling is everywhere. After almost three months of being starved of proper football – no offence to the Copa America, we are just talking about International football in general – we are a few hours away from getting back to the fast-paced, electrifying world of England’s topmost division.

While defending champions Manchester United have grown stronger – dare we say, invincibly stronger – before the start of the new season, Queens Park Rangers – the other league champions – have made improvements as well with the massive £1.2m signing of former Blackpool striker DJ Campbell. Roberto Mancini has been uncharacteristically quiet in the transfer window, Arsene Wenger has been kept busy by two players trying to break his cage, Kenny Dalglish has broken the £100m barrier, Tottenham have been inactive and Chelsea have welcomed a new boss in Andre Villas-Boas.

Moving away from the “super six”, Newcastle have undergone an exodus of talent and rivals Sunderland have acquired a whole new set of players. While David Moyes has slept – or relaxed – through the transfer window, Tony Pulis has been busy plotting a tactic which has nine players on the ground and two suspended from the air.

TheHardTackle presents a holistic look at the new season, new teams and the major changes that have occurred since the end of the last campaign; and tells you what to expect from this season.

Premier League Title Race Prediction

In signing winger Ashley Young from Aston Villa, young defender Phil Jones from Blackburn and a promising goalkeeper David De Gea from Atletico Madrid, Sir Alex Ferguson has ensured that Manchester United are still the team to beat this season – raising the bar even higher. The defending champions haven’t been shy of spending in the transfer window in an attempt to cope with the losses of Van Der Sar, Scholes and Hargreaves. With four brilliant centre-backs now, in addition to three quality strikers and devastating wingers, fear will be an inherent characteristic of any of United’s opponents this season. And if Sneijder walks into Old Trafford, other teams can, perhaps, kiss their chances goodbye.

No longer a joint force..

 

‘Noisy neighbours’ Manchester City will be right up there to challenge for the title although Roberto Mancini has shelled out only around £50m in transfers and half of that into Balotelli’s therapy. After signing Sergio Aguero for a club record £38m, the blue half of Manchester is raring to go this season. The hurdles that may come between them and a genuine title challenge are the lack of cohesiveness in the team and a manager who is not considered to be particularly shrewd in terms of tactics. Carlos Tevez isn’t expected to be a City player come September.

Chelsea, by default, would be considered a title contender. Anything less, and Villas-Boas would fear for his job, working under an impatient boss. However, they haven’t made giant strides in the transfer market; major signings being midfielder Oriol Romeu from Barcelona and the imminent arrival of ‘the new Drogba’ – Romelu Lukaku from Anderlecht. If Chelsea do not add significantly to their squad, like their rivals, it could turn out to be a two-horse race.

TheHardTackle’s Title Race prediction:

1. Manchester United
2. Manchester City
3. Chelsea

Champions League & Europa League Places Prediction

Arsenal’s season could really depend on the next few weeks. Barcelona’s relentless pursuit of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri’s relentless pursuit of being anywhere but Arsenal have unsettled the mood at the club. Loss of one is a huge setback, but the loss of both players could virtually finish off their season; especially considering that too little time will be left to re-invest the received transfer funds. Arsenal did make successful, and expensive, moves in the transfer market acquiring Lille striker Gervinho and Southampton winger Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Liverpool’s transfer coups have ensured it is going to be a close battle for the Champions League spot between these two clubs. The club’s summer signings – winger Stewart Downing, goalkeeper Alexander Doni and midfielders Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson – are not the only improvements. Strikers Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll will start their first full season and a fit Steven Gerrard will be like a new signing whenever he returns. Jose Enrique is on the verge of joining the Reds. Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool were playing wonderful football at the back end of last season and they will be improving their league standing this season.

Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham haven’t made any major signing in this transfer window so far and you do fear how they will be able to sustain a Champions League challenge. Although he has a wonderful squad assembled at White Hart Lane, lack of freshening up things could be cause for concern at the London club. Fortunately for Spurs, Luka Modric – their prized asset – has stayed put, possibly against his will, in the midst of advancements from Chelsea. Lassana Diarra is rumoured to be coming from Real Madrid.

Only a matter of time...

 

Everton and Stoke City are expected to battle for the remaining Europa League place since Aston Villa are currently in a rebuilding state and Fulham are going to take time to settle under Martin Jol. Everton are the perennial slow-starters and if they can put that tag to bed, one can expect them to be occupying a Europa League position in May. David Moyes has enough confidence in his squad judging by the lack of transfer activity and rightly so – with players like Cahill, Arteta, Fellaini and Saha. On the other hand, Stoke City’s relentless style of play is their trump card and they will remain a tough team to beat. However, Tony Pulis needs to address the problem of injured strikers especially since this season has a European dimension to it. In Jonathan Woodgate, however, he could have pulled off a great coup on a free transfer.

TheHardTackle’s European prediction:

4. Liverpool
5. Arsenal
6. Tottenham Hotspur
7. Everton

Relegation – fight to avoid the dreaded drop!

The relegation battle is one of the most attractive battles in the Premier League. In fact, it is the one to watch out for, come the last weekend of the Premiership. The relegation dogfight never ceases to amaze one and all! By default, we can throw in the three newly-promoted teams into the mix. While Welsh club Swansea will get their first taste in the big flight, potentially heavily-funded Queens Park Rangers may have enough funds to sustain a Premier League challenge and Norwich City have momentum on their side with two successive promotions.

What could work in the favour of Swansea City is that their strength lies in a solid defence. If that defence can hold up well, Swansea will stay up. Norwich City, we feel, have entered the Premier League too soon. Successive promotions is a great achievement for the club but Norwich will struggle in this huge step in class. Neil Warnock’s QPR would require new signings to stay up in the Premier League. The backbone of their success have been experienced players, who are unlikely to keep up with the Premier League’s pace.

Wigan Athletic have finally lost Charles N’Zogbia, to Aston Villa. With this, their chances of going down increases two folds and Roberto Martinez can only hope for a miracle now. Wolves and Newcastle United are two clubs that could be in the mix of things come the end of next season. However, Wolves’ £7m acquisition of Roger Johnson is a key signing that could mean the midlands club stay up once again. Newcastle, on the other hand, are struggling to keep their talent but are expected to have enough about them, especially at St. James’ Park, to stay up.

TheHardTackle’s Relegation prediction:

18. Swansea City
19. Norwich City
20. Wigan Athletic

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New Premier League player to watch out for

Sergio Aguero (£38m – Atletico Madrid to Man City) was a Real Madrid target but Man City secured his services. The Argentine striker is one of the best in the world, bringing in immense quantities of flair and skill, in addition to a wonderful goal-scoring touch. Roberto Mancini’s striker woes could finally be over.

Did you know? Aguero, as a ritual, rubs his hands together while walking up to the pitch.

Best English transfer signing to watch out for

Ashley Young ( £16m – Aston Villa to Man Utd) has finally made his big money move to a big club. The former Villa winger is capable of playing on both wings and even double up as a second striker. The Englishman is a great addition to Fergie’s already-fearsome squad.

Did you know? In 2009, Young was named PFA young player of the year.

Best “bargain” signing

The signing of goalkeeper Shay Given (£3.5m – Man City to Aston Villa) is a wonderful piece of business by the midlands club. Although upstaged by Joe Hart at the Eastlands, Given is still a keeper most Premier League clubs would love to have in their ranks.

Given could be Villa's best player..

 

Did you know? Shay Given is the most capped player in Republic of Ireland’s history.

Best/worst rants to watch out for

Do you remember manager Neil Warnock (Queens Park Rangers)? The outspoken man – who called El-Hadji Diouf a “gutter type” and the “lowest of the low”, called Gareth Southgate “a disgrace”, and stuck two fingers up to Nigel Worthington when the Norwich manager refused to shake hands with him – is back!

Never shy of giving a tip or two to referees, the QPR manager will add another dimension to post-match reactions.

Did you know? Manager Neil Warnock has gained 7 promotions with 6 clubs!

Delia Smith (Norwich City) is back, as well. After giving a memorable performance at Carrow Road in 2005 (video below), Smith will be looking to put up a show (or stay indoors) again this season. She has just quit as head of the club’s catering business and hence, has even more time on her hands for rants.

 

Manager most likely to have “fans on his back”

Alex McLeish (Birmingham City) has done a semi-Harry Redknapp by moving from one local rival to another; the hatred between the two having no bounds. Harry Redknapp had famously moved from Portsmouth to Southampton, only to move back to Portsmouth the next season.

Even after protests from Villa supporters against McLeish’s entry at the club, Aston Villa owner Randy Lerner went ahead with a move. If Villa don’t produce results soon, the fans are not going to be shy in voicing their opinions.

Did you know? Wigan manager Roberto Martinez was Villa’s first choice manager but he turned the club down.

“English kids” to watch out for

Josh McEachran (Chelsea) is the Jack Wilshere of Chelsea and is expected to appear in the first team this season due to injury to Essien and an aging squad. Tom Cleverley’s (Man Utd) performance in the Community Shield has made the whole world stand up and take notice of him. He could break through into the first team if Wesley Sneijder isn’t signed up.

New manager to watch out for

Andre Villas-Boas (Chelsea) joined Stamford Bridge after managing champions Porto to an unbeaten domestic league campaign and a victorious Europa League. Touted as the ‘next Jose Mourinho’, this will be a huge step up for the Portuguese and unlike in Portugal, his every decision will be heavily scrutinized in England. One of the most interesting things to look out for this season is how Villas-Boas will cope with life on the biggest stage. His number two this season will be former West Brom manager and ex-Chelsea midfielder Roberto Di Matteo.

Did you know? Villas-Boas is the youngest manager to win a European trophy.

“Dark Horse” signing to watch out for

Aside from the big money moves, there are certain transfers that do not capture the headlines; but perhaps, ought to do so! Centre-back Stefan Savic ( £6m – Partizan Belgrade to Man City) is one such signing, capable of making his way into the City first team at the age of 20. Not generally known for their astute transfer business, Savic could be a great exception at the Eastlands.

Did you know? Savic had a 10-day trial at Arsenal, which failed to materialise.

“Big gamble” signings to keep an eye out for

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (£15m – Southampton to Arsenal) is apparently Arsene’s answer to his critics – and most of the world is still perplexed. With Arsenal crying out for a ‘marquee’, proven signing, Wenger decided to shell out a hefty sum of money on an 18 year-old from a club promoted to the Championship last season. Perhaps, Arsene – for Arsenal’s sake – is building a squad for the manager who will succeed him.

Connor Wickham (£8m-£12m – Ipswich Town to Sunderland) was the focal point of a duel between Kenny Dalglish and Steve Bruce, so there must be something special about him. However, we are still a few years away from seeing his full potential.

Did you know? Wickham is a boyhood Liverpool fan and his idol is Fernando Torres.

20 year-old Jordan Henderson (£16m – Sunderland to Liverpool) represents Kenny Dalglish’s gamble to secure a better future for the club. The gritty midfielder is unlikely to feature as a regular this season, but is “one for the future”. Unlike Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wickham, though, Henderson has been a regular for a Premier League club.

Liverpool's future?

 

Defender Roger Johnson (£7m – B’Ham City to Wolves) is a “make or break” signing. Wolves are not a club that is used to shelling out so much cash for one player, and if they don’t stay up, it is curtains – financially – for the club.

Newly-promoted club to watch out for

We pick Swansea City – the first Welsh club to play in England’s top division – to be the club to watch out for. Although their intricate style of passing may not survive in the Premier League, the club’s new signings yield a bit of freshness to the squad. Dutch international goalkeeper Michael Vorm, club-record signing Danny Graham from Watford, Leroy Lita from M’Boro and Wayne Routledge from Newcastle are some of Swansea’s key signings in an attempt to survive in the Premier League.

With pace on the wings, a sturdy defense, an international goalkeeper and a new striker in their ranks, expect Swansea to ruffle the feathers of the big clubs this season.

Did you know? Swansea City players are called ‘Swans’ and fans are called ‘Jacks’.

Newly-promoted player to watch out for

Adel Taraabt (Queens Park Rangers) is a player who is often compared to Zinedine Zidane. The Moroccan playmaker’s composure on the ball, nimble feet, ability to go past defenders and an obsession towards finding the ‘killer ball’ has made teams stand up and take notice of the midfielder. PSG had made a bid in excess of £10m for the QPR player, but Rangers decided to keep him and, with that, their chances of survival.

Did you know? Playmaker Taraabt scored 19 goals in 44 games for QPR last season.

Club most likely to improve the most from last season

Owen Coyle’s Bolton Wanderers finished 14th last season – a disappointing result for the former Burnley manager. With Bolton adopting a totally different approach as compared to the Allardyce era, Owen Coyle would be looking to finish in the top half this time around. Massive pre-season injuries and the exit of Matt Taylor to West Ham have dented the ambition of the club, but Coyle has raided his former club Burnley for two of their key players – midfielder Chris Eagles and defender Tyrone Mears; both of whom had performed wonderfully in Burnley’s one-season long stint in the Premier League, two years ago.

Centre-back Gary Cahill has been in the headlines due to rumours of a transfer to bigger clubs, but he is still a Bolton player and that is what matters. Although one could argue that Bolton’s FA Cup run to the semi-finals was a major distraction last season, this season should see a significantly improved Bolton Wanderers.

One could make a case for Sunderland but they finished 10th last season and they’ll finish there and thereabouts this season, as well.

Did you know? Bolton committed the most no. of fouls last season.

Best signing(s) on a free transfer

Signing injury-prone Jonathan Woodgate (Free – Tottenham to Stoke City) would always be considered a gamble. But signed on a free transfer after Tottenham gave up on him, even half-a-season from Woodgate could be worth its weight in gold. Class, after all, is permanent.

David Vaughan (Free – Blackpool to Sunderland) is a wonderful catch and a half by Steve Bruce. Although much of the attention was hogged by Charlie Adam, Vaughan – a gritty, talented midfielder – was Blackpool’s best player and his classy left-foot could do a lot of damage for Sunderland.

Did you know? Vaughan was Blackpool’s player of the year last season.

Most likely tag of “worst owners” after the season

Mike Ashley (Newcastle Utd) is still a mystery to the Toon Army. He doesn’t answer the questions put in front of him, ends up in the stands with supporters – who probably put up a nice face to welcome him – and now refuses to spend a dime on strengthening the squad. Considering Newcastle received £35m for Andy Carroll, Mike Ashley’s combined spending of less than £5m in the transfer window doesn’t hold good for the future of the club.

Add to this the loss of Kevin Nolan, Wayne Routledge, Joey Barton (expected) and eventually, Jose Enrique. The Toon club is in huge trouble of losing its place in the Premier League if new, relatively unknown signings do not work for Alan Pardew.

Indian owners, the Venky’s (Blackburn), will come a close second if they do not invest in the club. After sacking Sam Allardyce without lining up any replacements and promising – but not delivering – ‘big name’ signings, the owners haven’t endeared themselves to the Blackburn faithful.

Did you know? About this television advertisement!

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