Click here for our comprehensive Premier League season preview.
The first weekend of the new Barclays Premier League campaign is a mere few hours away, now. Your excitement would not have any bounds about the new season, but you support only one club – does that not narrow your Saturday down to focus on one game? No matter how ardent a fan of your club you are, the real Premier League lovers would always keep the remote by their sides, occasionally tune into radio sets, log-in for score updates, eager to know what is going on elsewhere in the league.
A mad manager, new kids on the block, teams without their star players and the first sighting of any potential; we’ll make your task easier and narrow it down to ten things you must follow on the opening day of the new campaign.
1. Martinez’s toughest task – an N’Zogbia-less Wigan
An advocate of beautiful football, Roberto Martinez will have to reluctantly find alternative ways of slogging it out this season. The law of averages would tell you that Wigan is due a good season, but the law of averages cannot see the current turmoil at the club. The DW stadium will be introduced to a sight of a new, frankly unimaginable Wigan; one without Charles N’Zogbia. The left-footed midfielder was the major – if not the only – reason Wigan have lived to fight another day in this league.
So, now Wigan line-up with no hope of an ‘N’Zogbia-led rescue’ any time this season. Add to that, the return of the other source of creativity in midfield – Tom Cleverley – back to Manchester United and one can’t see how the Latics will conjure up goals this season. They suffered an embarrassing 4-0 home defeat to newly-promoted Blackpool on opening day of last season. And they face a newly-promoted club again.
2. Adel Taarabt
Hyped as the ‘next Zinedine Zidane’ when he signed for Spurs four years back, it took a step down for 22 year-old to shine. Now, he’s back! A target of the Paris Saint-Germain revolution that took place in the summer, Taarabt had been the heart and soul of Queens Park Rangers’ success last season. In addition to setting up several goals, the influential playmaker scored 19 goals last season and was voted Football League’s Player of the Year. In the Premier League, he is not going to find as much space in midfield as he was afforded in the lower division. Nor will he find easily penetrable defences. For Taraabt – a player with nimble feet, ability to skip past opposition players and an eye for goal – the true test begins now.
3. Battle of the new managers at Craven Cottage
Alex McLeish will be grateful to the heavens above that his opening fixture is an away fixture; a chance to pull off something special that may turn the majority of Villa fans in favor of him. Former Spurs manager Martin Jol does not have such problems. After Roy Hodgson and Mark Hughes, Fulham are glad to have a manager with Premier League experience and one who was harshly relieved of his duties at White Hart Lane.
Martin Jol inherits a healthy Fulham side with quality strikers including Zamora, hard-working midfielders including Murphy and Dempsey, new signing John Arne Riise and a central defensive partnership – of Haangeland and Hughes – that cannot be matched by many in the league. Alex McLeish is in re-building mode after losing both of his wingers but acquiring N’Zogbia to recover some of the damage to what is now an uninspiring midfield. McLeish’s approach to the game will set the tone for the new season.
We’ll see the new manager syndrome at Craven Cottage, but which team will benefit from it?
4. Roger Johnson – Wolves skipper!
Roger Johnson has had a see-sawing last few months. A Carling cup champion, Johnson was relegated to the Football League with Birmingham, only to join the team that stayed up at the expense of Birmingham, as their club Captain. The 7-million pound signing is Wolves’ version of a ‘marquee’ signing and he is expected to strengthen the defense many folds. Johnson’s first test will be at Blackburn – the team that went 3-0 up in the first half at the Molineux in the last match of last season. This is a good chance to measure an improvement in Wolves’ defence from the first match itself.
5. Liverpool’s game-play
Kenny Dalglish must find a balance between lobbing it up to Andy Carroll and using the vastly talented resources of the rest of the team on the ground. In Liverpool’s first competitive match with Downing and Carroll together, in addition a possibility of Charlie Adam zipping long diagonal balls, the temptation to find a direct ball to the target man will be immense – especially if Liverpool go behind. Daniel Agger may play a key role in Liverpool’s style of play since the ball-playing defender will prevent Carragher from hoofing it long.
Liverpool adopted a great passing rhythm which was a pleasure to watch at the end of last season but Carroll’s presence did significantly distort the same. When Sunderland visit Anfield, look out for the degree of variation in Liverpool’s play; something that may define the club’s targets this season.
6. Neil Warnock on the sidelines
If there is one character in the league who is going to test the FA’s campaign to respect referees, it is QPR manager Neil Warnock. Famous for his post-match rants and zero hesitation in expressing his emotions, Warnock’s return will add another colourful dimension to the league. To double up the possibility of explosions on Saturday, Martin Atkinson – a referee capable of making horrific calls – is in charge of Bolton’s visit to the Rangers.
7. Norwich’s Premier League credentials
Paul Lambert should be the talk of the town after managing the Canaries to two successive promotions. However, a whole new, tougher world awaits them. The last time they were in the league, Dean Ashton’s brilliance couldn’t keep them up. To avoid bouncing back into the lower division, the Canaries have an injection of new players such as Bradley Johnson from Leeds, Ritchie De Laet on-loan from Man Utd and James Vaughan from Everton among other new faces.
And right from the word go, they face a potential relegation battler in Wigan. Norwich’s performance at the DW Stadium could be an indicator of what to expect from the newly-promoted side.
8. Arsenal’s resilience
You won’t find a club happier than Arsenal that the season kick-off is finally here. The mental trauma that everyone associated with the club has to go through in the transfer window borders on the intolerable. On the verge of losing two of their best players, Arsenal’s resolve and focus will certainly be tested at St. James’ park – a venue that has already caused them enough mental harm. The match will also showcase their new signing Gervinho; a good performance from whom will change a lot of the mood at the club.
Being physically hit by injuries and emotionally hit by the eagerness of players to leave the club, Arsene Wenger must set the record straight on the field, at least.
9. Depth of Newcastle’s woes
The first game of the weekend will showcase the strength (or lack of) of Newcastle’s new team. After losing Carroll in January, the club went onto lose their skipper Kevin Nolan to West Ham and made Barton flip out – something that is not difficult to do but perhaps, this time, the midfielder had reason to do so. Barely any of Carroll’s funds have been re-invested into the club, resulting into the signatures of Cabaye, Marveaux and Demba Ba; not quite the names that will set alight the Premier League.
With at least two new signings on show and the absence of key players from last season, Arsenal’s visit may well expose the Tyneside club.
10. Status of Coyle’s Bolton project
Bolton were flying high mid-way through the last season with attractive football, till they lost their way. Owen Coyle’s attempts to instill Burnley’s style of play into a formerly long ball-hoofing Bolton Wanderers is a project in itself; a project that was progressing well till it suddenly slowed down. Now, Coyle faces a mini-crisis with three key players – Young, Holden and Mears – injured long-term in pre-season, two key strikers – Elmander and Sturridge – no longer at the club, another gifted midfielder – Matt Taylor – opting to leave the club.
As a consequence, the overall team looks quite average. But this is where Coyle’s philosophy should come into play – solidity at the back and silky smooth play up front. If Coyle’s passing philosophy is true to its core, then Bolton as a ‘team’ should be able to sustain a fight till the injured players return. When they travel to London to face QPR, we’ll see whether Coyle is dependent solely on his players or his philosophy.