It may have been only fourteen weeks since a single swish of Sergio Aguero’s right foot provided the most thrilling finale to a English Premier League season ever but it feels like ages. It always does. Even in a summer filled with European Championships and the Olympic – both of which as sporting spectacles were unmitigated successes – there is nothing quite like the thrills and spills of the most widely watched football league in the world. It serves like a drug that keeps the addicts hooked on to it for nine months in a year. And now thankfully, the annual rehab period is drawing to a close. From next Saturday, the 21st edition of the English Premier League will be beamed to 4.7 billion people across the globe. Let the fun begin.
As always a new season brings with it new faces – players and managers, new teams, new stories, new plots and sub-plots, new hopes and new expectations. TheHardTackle runs a rule over all things new, and for that matter old, and brings to you a comprehensive guide to the season that lies ahead. In part 1 of the two part series, we take a look at how things will shape up in the top half of the table in terms of the title race and European qualification.
The Title Race
The last season saw the race for the Premier League title transforming into a battle for being crowned the best in Manchester. The two Manchester clubs – City and United – were a cut above the rest, a fact that was reflected in the final league table with 3rd placed Arsenal lagging behind the Manchester duo by a staggering 19 point. While Arsenal and rest of the chasing pack will hope to bridge that yawning gap this season, it is difficult to foresee the title heading out of Manchester come next May.
English Premier League
English Premier League
The target for the defending champion Manchester City will be to demonstrate that last season was no flash in the pan. It is a widely accepted fact in sports that defending a title often proves to be a stiffer challenge than to win it in the first place. Manager Roberto Mancini will have to look deeply in the eyes of each and every member of the victorious squad of last season and check if the hunger for success is still as acute as it was a year back. As for the man himself, the fact that Mancini won three back-to-back Serie A titles with Internazionale (two if you count the first one being awarded to them later), indicates his unquenchable thirst for titles.
Often shaking things up by adding a new face or two serves as a reminder to those still basking in past glory. But unfortunately for City, transfer activity at Eastlands this summer has been conspicuous by its absence. For the first time in four seasons, City have displayed a sense of financial prudence by refusing to pay over the top for their transfer targets. With the club struggling to shift players like Emmanuel Adebayor and Roque Santa Cruz due to their astronomical wages and the threat of Financial Fair Play looming large, not to mention the ongoing Eurozone debt-crisis leading towards a global recession, the City fans have woken up to the biting reality that even petro-dollars are finite.
Mancini can moan all he wants at this new-found frugality and use it as tools for indulging in a spot of pre-season mind games to deflect the pressure from his team, but there is no denying the fact that City has more than enough quality in their squad to repeat last season’s heroics. Up front City possesses an embarrassment of riches with Aguero ably supported by Carlos Tevez, Mario Balotelli and Edin Dzeko. In the midfield City can cope fine, especially with the arrival of Jack Rodwell from Everton. Defensively, cover at centre-halve position is needed and this is where Daniel Agger from Liverpool may come in. If Aleksandar Kolarov is sold-off, an understudy to Gael Clichy at left back should be a priority. Overall the quality is there, but it is the temperament of the squad that will prove to be decisive factor in City’s season.
United, in contrast, cannot ever be questioned temperament wise. The iron will of the manager Sir Alex Ferguson is passed on to the players and with it comes insatiable hunger for trophies. After Aguero’s heroics in last season’s pulsating denouement left the players with that sinking feeling, it is assured that desire for wresting back the title is stronger than ever before. United’s build up to the new season though have been perforated by events of non-footballing nature.
The Glazer’s latest act to increase the liquidity of the club by its floatation in the New York Stock Exchange has come under fierce scrutiny of the different supporters groups. The news that half of the proceeds from the IPO will be pocketed by the owners themselves has enraged fans, some of whom have even gone as far as too question whether Ferguson’s continual defense of the owners is driven by financial incentives. The legendary manager has staunchly refuted such claims but a sense of disenchantment remains at Old Trafford. The best cure will be to win the league title and to hand the supporters an opportunity to hit back at their noisy neighbours.
On the pitch, Ferguson has acquired the services of Japanese playmaker Shinji Kagawa and the promising youngster Nick Powell, though the latter due to his tender age and lack of experience at top level is one for the future. Kagawa, on the other hand, comes with a big reputation on the back of two title winning seasons with Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga, where he was one of the outstanding stars. How Ferguson will fit the 23 year old in United’s style of play should be one of the more fascinating aspects of the new season.
This also is a big season for Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez, both of whom will look to establish themselves as starters in the team. At the time of writing, United remain locked in talks with Arsenal over the transfer of Robin van Persie, which would represent some coup if pulled off. The idea of RVP forging a partnership with Wayne Rooney is as appealing to United supporters as it is terrifying for Premier League defenders. Highly rated Brazilian teenager Lucas Moura though has snubbed a move to Old Trafford opting to join PSG instead.
No matter what further additions are made to the squad before transfer deadline, United will be hoping to avoid the injury nightmare of last season. Captain Nemanja Vidić, Tom Cleverley, Anderson and others who were forced to miss substantial chunks of the season are all fit and raring to go. Keeping them fit can prove to be the tilting factor in this season title race.
THT Prediction: Manchester United to nick a closely run race.
A sense of déjà vu has pervaded Arsenal’s preparation for the new season with the annual saga of their star player demanding to leave playing out like a tape on rewind. It is Robin van Persie who is singing from the same hymn sheet used by Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri last season and others previously. Added to this, Barcelona (who else?) are making not so discreet noises about luring Alex Song to Camp Nou. Question marks still linger on date of Jack Wilshere’s eventual return as well. So all in all one would be forgiven for thinking all the ingredients for a usual summer of discontentment for Arsenal have been present.
English Premier League
English Premier League
But what has been refreshingly different for Arsenal’s long suffering supporters this summer is Arsene Wenger’s recruitment drive. Instead of waiting till deadline day, Arsenal manager has bought early this summer and has bought, by his standards, big. Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla, all internationals, have passed through the entry door at Emirates Stadium. Podolski would be hoping that a change in settings would help him recapture his form from earlier years, while Giroud with his physical presence should add an extra dimension to Arsenal’s attack. But undoubtedly, most expectations will be pinned on the versatile Cazorla who may take up the mantle of talisman in case of RVP’s departure.
While it is tempting to fantasize how the new attackers would dovetail with RVP if he is forced to stay on, the comforting truth is that even without the Dutchman, Arsenal have got the makings of a squad decent enough to hold down a place in the top four. In case money from potential RVP sale is channelized properly (time permitting), even a sustained title challenge is not beyond the realms of reality.
For Arsenal’s great north London rivals Tottenham Hotspurs, this season marks the dawn of a new era in terms of man at the helm. Gone are Harry Redknapp and his old school style of management which has seen Spurs finish in the top four in two out of last three seasons. In his place, comes in the young André Villas-Boas looking to build up a legacy in the Premier League for the second time in two years. After the chastening experience of the self proclaimed ‘Group One’ at Chelsea, where ultimately the ‘group’ managed to get rid of the ‘one’, it will be interesting to see whether Villas-Boas has the same confident swagger this time around.
However, it remains a fact that the Portuguese is a mighty fine manager and if given time, may well prove to be the right man to handhold Spurs to the next level. For starters, he can do with a speedy resolution of the Luka Modrić episode which has an alarming similarity to Dimitar Berbatov’s protracted transfer saga in 2008. Back then, chairmen Daniel Levy held out till the final day of the window in order to squeeze a few extra quid from Manchester United. But it came at the high cost of disruption of team spirit within the dressing room and contributed to Spurs’ wretched start to the season. Villas-Boas would hope that lessons had been learnt and if the Croatian midfielder is ultimately sold to Real Madrid, it would leave him enough time to fruitfully spend the money raised.
English Premier League
English Premier League
Lack of quality strikers is a real cause for concern, with Jermain Defoe being the only senior striker presently on Spurs’ pay list. Villas-Boas will be hoping to add at least two quality frontmen before the season starts with Emmanuel Adebayor and Brazil’s Leandro Damião at top of his wish list. If this issue is sorted out in time and with the new faces of Gylfi Sigurdsson and Jan Vertonghen – both players with immense potential – already on board, Villas-Boas has the requisite tools to launch a challenge for the much coveted Champions League spot.
For the third capital club vying for a top four finish, Chelsea, things are definitely looking up. The against all odds triumph in the Champions League last season has seemingly reinvigorated the penchant for lavish spending within Roman Abramovich. The days of transfer splurges have made a grand return at Stamford Bridge this summer. The likes of Marko Marin, Eden Hazard and Oscar have all been brought in as part of a major squad overhaul. Victor Moses from Wigan and Cesar Azpilicueta from Marseille may soon follow suit.
The big absentee is Didier Drogba. The man who stroked in the decisive spot kick at Munich and has been a talisman for the club for so long has left for Chinese shores. Salomon Kalou and Jose Bosingwa have followed him out of the door. Focus has been firmly shifted to Fernando Torres who is entrusted with the responsibility of leading the line for this new look Chelsea. For the manager Roberto Di Matteo, achieving results may not be enough. After such generous outlay, this season Abramovich will demand the attractive brand football he has long craved for.
Liverpool, the fourth member of the erstwhile Big Four, have had a relative quiet close season since the sacking of Kenny Dalglish. Appointment of Brendan Rodgers, the man with only a season’s experience of top flight management under his belt, as his replacement represents a gamble of sorts. Rodgers, by his designs in the transfer market so far, have made it clear that he wants to mould the Liverpool side according to the blueprint of a passing game which served him so well at Swansea.
Accordingly, Joe Allen has been brought in to execute the game plan. Fabio Borini, another player with whom Rodgers has worked in the past, has signed on from AS Roma. Departure of Daniel Agger may throw a spanner in the works but Rodgers insistence that every player has his price indicates that he has suitable replacements lined up. With title challenge a distant reality, the supporters would be delighted if the club finishes in the top four. Deep down inside Rodgers would know to even achieve that, a lot of ground needs to be made up and fast.
The two other clubs who might have a say in the jostling for European qualification are Newcastle United and Everton.
The Magpies were the surprise package of last season when they threatened to bag a Champions League spot for long spells and eventually pipped Chelsea to fifth. This time one would expect opposing managers to treat them with greater caution and respect, making their job significantly tougher. Alan Pardew, critically aware of this fact, would be looking to add some genuine quality to his side in the coming weeks in form of French right-back Mathieu Debuchy and Dutch midfielder Vurnon Anita. As much as the Newcastle faithful would wish to see the return of the prodigal son in form of Andy Carroll, that particular deal seems dead in the water at the time of writing.
At Goodison Park, David Moyes enters into his second decade in charge of Everton. By now he has got used to the glass ceiling put frustratingly over his head in terms of funds allocated. This season, the club has acquired the services of Steven Naismith on a free, with Moyes hoping the Scot international can form a lethal partnership with his ex-teammate at Rangers, Nikica Jelavic. Steven Pienaar has returned to the club on permanent basis from Spurs and talks of a move for Leighton Baines to Manchester United have thankfully subsided. Jack Rodwell though is set to move to Manchester City but then such cherry-picking of talent by bigger clubs have become a norm at Goodison Park. The best Moyes can wish for is to receive a substantial part of Rodwell’s transfer fee to bolster his squad. But having been at cash-strapped club for so long, he will not be holding his breath for it.
THT Prediction: Champions League Spots – Chelsea, Arsenal; Europa League Spots – Spurs, Liverpool, Everton (the latter two, assuming the domestic cups are won by teams among the top 7).
To be continued in Part II..