As the curtain begins to rise on another season of English soccer, pundits are racing to make their predictions; not only is the Premiership title in question, but the debate is going thick and fast over who will reach the coveted – and lucrative – Champions League places, and who will be mired in the relegation dogfight.
With Euro 2008 in full swing, many of the top European players are placing themselves in the shop window for the admiration and possible acquisition of the biggest clubs. While the England national team are not participating, you can rest assured that the managers of all Premiership clubs have at least one eye on the tournament and the other on their pocketbooks.
The arrivals and departures in the usual summer merry-go-round have only just begun, but already one can discern a few teams with a great deal of ambition. Of particular note is Tottenham’s purchase of Croatian sensation Luka Modric for £16 million, but can the deadly playmaker cut it in the upper echelon of European soccer?
Predictions like these are inevitably subject to the element of surprise, but in the spirit of sportsmanship, let us review the contenders.
Manchester United top many people’s lists as title contenders, and with good reason; now Premiership champions two years running as well as European champions, the Red Devils show no sign of giving up their hold on the coveted silverware. Much has been made of midfielder Cristiano Ronaldo, and if United can keep the 42-goal wunderkind in addition to the current crop of talent, they will be well placed to repeat. The long-rumored signing of Spurs hitman Dimitar Berbatov would add still more firepower to a squad facing no shortage.
Chelsea too should not be discounted; new manager Luiz Felipe Scolari is inheriting a squad smarting from a season of what might have been. Initially considered contenders for an unprecedented quadruple – the Premiership title, the two domestic Cups and the Champions League – the team will have rediscovered their hunger for success. However, former manager Jose Mourinho, recently installed at Inter Milan, is reportedly keen to re-sign some of his prize assets from his Chelsea days, which could see goal assassin Didier Drogba and veteran defender Ricardo Carvalho (among others) heading to the San Siro.
Rounding out the likely top three are Liverpool, who will also be aching to improve on a series of third-place finishes. £26 million man Fernando Torres, bought last summer from Atletico Madrid, discovered his scoring touch a little late but has proven to be lethal inside the eighteen-yard box and will be seeking to add to his tally. The Dutch pair of Dirk Kuyt and Ryan Babel will ensure that goals are in plentiful supply both at Anfield and on the road, and if canny manager Rafa Benitez can succeed in prying England midfielder Gareth Barry from Aston Villa’s clutches, the side will be hard to break down. Added to this is the presence of Steven Gerrard, a midfield general unequaled in the English game. Expect to see them pushing the top two all the way to the last games of the season.
The fourth and final Champions League spot shows more signs of a fight; while Arsenal have been up there for several years now, their hold on the place has looked less secure than Arsene Wenger would care to admit. Wenger will be hoping for a speedy return to form for Brazil-born Croat Eduardo da Silva to partner Togolese forward Emmanuel Adebayor up front, and with Nicklas Bendtner and Theo Walcott standing in line to become Arsenal’s new goal hero, they should not be discounted. The creative midfield play of young Spaniard Cesc Fabregas will ensure that the ball keeps moving forward, and the solid defence marshalled by Kolo Toure will be hard to break through.
Also pushing for that fourth spot will be Arsenal’s perennial North London rivals and Carling Cup winners Tottenham Hotspur. In addition to the aforementioned Modric, Spurs have laid out substantial funds to bring in Giovani dos Santos from Barcelona, who stands to make quite an impact if he can adapt well to the more rough-and-ready English game. With these, plus the signing of highly-rated Crystal Palace youngster John Bostock, Tottenham have declared without doubt that they are an ambitious team ready to knock on the doors of the four teams which have claimed the Champions League spots almost every season.
The UEFA Cup places could also present an interesting drama, as a variety of teams look to build on impressive showings last season. FA Cup winners Portsmouth will be aiming to consolidate their place among the European challengers, and the right signings could see Harry Redknapp’s men hold their own among those once counted their betters. Last year’s high finishers Everton and Aston Villa will also be attempting to duplicate their feats, and Manchester City, under new manager Mark Hughes, will be aiming to better their ninth-place finish. Their stated ambition of signing Brazilian ace Ronaldinho, while a lofty goal, speaks volumes about their intentions.
At the other end of the table, new boys Hull City and Stoke City would appear to be favorites for the dreaded drop, having the weakest on-paper squads in the top flight. There is no such thing as a bad team in the Premiership, however, and there may yet be a few surprises in store. Also facing a fight for those precious points (and thereby another season of Premiership soccer) will be perennial survivors West Ham United, who often appear to have a death grip on 15th place in the table come May. Joining them, I expect to see Wigan Athletic, Sunderland and quite probably Bolton Wanderers, unless Sammy Lee can pull off the same magic trick which former manager Sam Allardyce has achieved against the odds several times over the past few seasons.
In between the glory and the ignominy, the other new arrivals West Bromwich Albion will be the most likely to stay up, and I expect to see them consolidate their place among the big boys. Roy Hodgson’s Fulham, currently undergoing a squad revamping of sorts, will also probably finish above the relegation dogfight, but may experience a few scares. Northeastern rivals Newcastle and Middlesbrough, as well as the currently managerless Blackburn, should expect to find themselves rounding out the mid-table places.
Perhaps I will be proven wrong, and each of these predictions will be out the window by October. However, the table as I expect to see it after all the dice have been rolled is as follows:
1. Manchester United
4. Tottenham Hotspur
6. Manchester City
9. Aston Villa
10. Newcastle United
11. Blackburn Rovers
13. Wigan Athletic
15. West Ham United
16. West Bromwich Albion
18. Bolton Wanderers
19. Hull City
20. Stoke City