PREMIER LEAGUE RUNNERS AND RIDERS
It's that time of the year again when we put our necks on the block and hope that when the axe falls it isn't too blunt. By this, of course, we refer to our annual guessfest that is the Runners and Riders. At least it'll provide you all with a bit of a snigger when the pots and wooden spoons are being dished out next May...
Champions - Manchester City
Having finally ended their 34 year trophy hoodoo in 2011, City then only went and added the Premier League to their haul thanks to last, last minute fireworks at the Etihad a few months ago. Their next step on the 'project' ladder will no doubt be a decisive run in the Champions League but they'll also not want to let their little neighbours sneak a twentieth title via the back door. With a squad of few weaknesses except perhaps at centre-half, (Stefan Savic was truly awful last term) and the odd over-inflated ego (Tevez, Balotelli...take your pick) they'll take some stopping.
Making up the rest of the 'Top Four' - Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle United.
Fergie will be detirmined to ensure a least one more coronation before he finally decides to spend hisprecious time making little Mickey Owen some money down the bookies. Hailing the notoriously porcelain-boned Robin van Persie as the final piece of the jigsaw may be a tad premature, although if he can have another injury free season then they could run their neighbours very close.
Apart from eventual Champions Manchester City, Tottenham played some of the best football in the Premier League during the first half of last season. But then their form deserted them and Harry got the tin tack. AVB has a fantastic opportunity to prove Chelsea were wrong to fire him (they were 4th in the table when he received his P45) and if he could get some more quality up front Spurs can finally achieved a safe Champions League qualification place.
This time last year we weren't alone in pedicting a grim season for Alan 'Aha!' Pardew's men. But then who knew selling Joey Barton would be a masterstroke and that their scouting system would pull up gem after gem.(Cisse, Ba et al) and resist the need to sell any of them. The Magpies may have sold their soul by renaming their iconic stadium but so long as they are delivering on the pitch the barcodes will have plenty to feel happy about.
Thursday nights are 'ah-calling' - Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea.
With new manager Brendan Rodgers at the helm, Liverpool remain an enigma. Many wonder whether they'll fall splat on their face or perhaps display a brand of football not seen since the old 'Spice Boy' days. Will last season's expensive flops be given a final opportunity to prove that they weren't a waste of money? With renaissance man Lucas back from injury and Steven Gerrard gearing up for one last hurrah they could be fascinating to watch.
Arsenal's fall from grace has been predicted for years but somehow Arsene's magic hat keeps providing Champions League qualification after qualification. Thanks to Tottenham's nosedive and the departed RvP's glut of goals Wenger's men pulled off a remarkable 3rd place but could this be the season in which the Gunners finally drop out of the fabled top four?
Chelsea did just that last season. Despite the cup heroics, the European Champions frankly stunk the place out in the Premier League and Di Matteo must go into the season as one of the favorites for an early chop. The pressure must also be on Fernando Torres who will be the main man following Didier Drogba's departure. A lot of focus will also be on new signing Eden Hazard and if he fails to deliver it could be another frustrating campaign for the Pensioners. All they have to do is win the Champiosn League again.
Plodding along - Everton, Sunderland, QPR, Swansea.
Despite having to sell another high profile player in the form of Jack Rodwell to City, Everton continue to perform minor miracles under the stern tutelage of David "Davie" Moyes. What the Toffeemen need is something the rarely get, that is a good start. If they could start playing before November then maybe they could challenge higher up, we're expecting business as usual.
Sunderland have slipped under the radar of many a pundit and it's hard not to see why. Even with self-confessed Black Cats fan Martin O'Neill at the helm the signing of injury-prone Luis Saha has hardly set the pulses racing. Nevertheless, a good cup run could well stir the blood again and even get some fans dreaming of Europe.
Mark Hughes has been a busy boy over the summer with the captures of Jose Bosingwa, Ryan Nelsen, Andrew Johnson, Robert Green, Samba Diakite as well as Fabio da Silva on loan from Man United. Learning to walk before the can run may take some patience but Sparky's men well easily avoid any flirtations with the trapdoor.
It will be very interesting to see how Swansea cope with the loss of Brendan Rodgers. His replacement, Danish legend Michael Laudrup is unlikely to change a great deal and if he can prevent an exodus of players, whose heads may well have been turned by last season's success, (yes, Scott Sinclair, we're talking about you) then a third season of Premier League football is guaranteed at the Liberty.
Surprise Package - Wigan Athletic, West Ham United.
Wigan won't be worrying the Top Four anytime soon but if they can maintain the services of Victor Moses and continue their form from the back end of last season then, whisper it, mid table obsurity could well be beckoning. Exciting times for Latics fans!
Relax Hammers fans! You may not be pinging the ball about like John Lyall's stupendous 1985-86 team, or 'Arry's crop of youngsters from the early 2000s but safety will be easily achieved. Will that be enough to satisfy the Upton Park regulars or even more so Gold, Sullivan and Brady? Only time will tell. Get off to a bad start then Sam could well be toast. We actually think they'll do alright.
Remember us? - Aston Villa, Fulham.
New Villa boss Paul Lambert is already onto a winner by not being Alex McLeish...hooray! Otherwise, we're not expecting much excitement from the Villa (not change there then) as they dust themselves down from last year's lucky escape.
Martin Jol has not been quite as busy as his West London counterpart Mark Hughes but has added the likes of
By the skin of their teeth - Reading, West Bromwich Albion
By all accounts Reading's style of football under Brian McDermott was not the prettiest, but effective it certainly was and so they sit at the top table once more. After their 'didn't see it coming' relegation season in 2008. They should have enough to keep themselves alive.
For every Brian Kidd there's always a Bob Paisley, Steve Clarke will be hoping that as a number two taking his first manager's job that he'll replicate the latter rather than the former. It could be a tough season at the Hawthorns but they'll squeak up...just.
We're Doomed - Southampton, Norwich City, Stoke City.
The Saints spent most of the early Premier League seasons dodging the drop until 'Arry came 'down the road' from Pompey. A stint in League One and a spell in administration followed before Nigel Adkins pulled them up by the scruff of the neck and dragged them back to the Promised Land. A leaky defence and a side mostly made up of Championship and League One players could well prove to be their ondoing.
The dreaded 'Second Season Syndrome' has to snag someone and this could well be City's turn. Losing their influential manager to Aston Villa, new boss Chris Hughton may well find Paul Lambert's boots a bit too big to fill. The trapddor beckons.
Who wouldn't be sad to see the back of Stoke? Well we're predicting that this could well be 'their year'. Heavily linked with professional splinter-picker, Michael Owen (his second mention on this page already) Tony Pulis' aging squad could yet get even older. Good news for nostalgia junkies, bad news for Stoke. Bye, bye.
The Sack Race - Nigel Adkins, Sam Allardyce, Roberto Di Matteo, Arsene Wenger.
Adkins has done wonders in taking Southampton through the leagues but will a notoriously trigger-fingered board accept a slow start? Bearing in mind three of the Saints' first four games are against Champions Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal the board must remain patient.
Despite taking West Ham back up at the first attempt Big, Fat Sam was constatly under fire for his 'brand' of football. Hammers fans deplored Allardyce for not playing 'the West Ham way'. Get off to a poor start then he could be a gonner by January.
Roberto Di Matteo is on a hiding to nothing. Despite his now 'legendary' status the former Baggies and MK Dons boss could merely be keeping the hot seat..err...warm for Pep Guardiola.
From a gonner to a Gooner. (See what we did there?) Arsene Wenger's magic hat may well be looking a bit threadbare but would the Arsenal board do the unthinkable? Not a realistic sacking prospect but could well take his wizardry elsewhere come the season's end.
It's going to be a big season for - Fernado Torres
The Chelsea man picked up the Golden Boot at EURO 2012 courtesy of an assist and following a well taken goal in the Community Shield is it really true that the Chelsea man is back?
Flop Watch - Eden Hazard, Lukas Podolski, Jack Rodwell.
Chelsea shelled out something approaching £32 million for the most famous Belgian since Hercule Poirot. Their recent history is littered with players with big reputations who found that blue is the colour of high expentations and so shrank like salted snails as a result. (see above). Will Hazard be another one to add to that list.
Whilst Lukas Podolski is renowned goalscorer, his failure to settle at Munich due to aledged homesickness for his beloved Coolgne may raise a few doubts or three. If he settles at Arsenal, the German international could well set the Premier League alight but if he doesn't...
An undoubted talent Rodwell may be but seriously who is the former Everton man going to shift out the City midfield? It could well be a season of picking splinters before a loan move back to Goodison.
Keep an eye on... - Oscar, Shinji Kagawa, Gylfi Sigurdsson.
The new Chelsea man, Oscar is the most highly rated of all the crop of Brazilian youngsters who featured at the recent London Olympics. He's even been given Drogba's old number eleven shirt. A real star in the making.
Michu, last season's top scoring midfielder in La Liga now finds himself in...Swansea. The former Rayo Vallecano will prove to be a vital signing if Laudrup's men are to retain their lofty position.
Shinji Kagawa ran Dortmund's midfield last year, scoring 13 and providing eight assists alerting him to a Manchester United side desperate to finally begin to replace the 'irreplaceable' Paul Scholes. Forget Van Persie, Kagawa could be United's real signing of the summer.
Having long since bowed to the inevitable loss of Luca Modric, Tottenham have turned to former Reading and Swansea man Gylfi Sigurdsson to fill those diminutive boots. He comes with something of a pedigree and having turned down the chance to rejoin old manager Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool, AVB may well have got himself something of a coup.
Most likely to blow as gasket - Mario Balotelli
Like shooting fish in a barrel this one. But playing second fiddle behind Aguero and a remarkably-looking slimline Carlos Tevez isn't going to do much to smooth the fiery Italian's ego. One thing you can say about Mario is that at least when he goes mental it's usually in a way you won't expect. We look forward to seeing what he gets up to this season.
Stuart Fuller August 20th 2012 8.08am
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