Thursday, 18 August 2011

Premier League Almost-Preview

So the Premier League season tiptoed it's way into action last weekend. Having had weeks of hype without any 'proper' football to fill the void of the close season (sorry, the new Women's Super League doesn't count) and endless transfer speculation that only the silly season can adequately provide, the Big Kick Off was something of a damp squib really. 5 draws in 9 games didn't really set Match Of The Day alight, but we welcomed it back with a fond cuddle just the same.

Now, having missed the opportunity for a proper Premier League preview last week (obviosuly foreseeing that things wouldn't really get going until the second weekend...), I thought I'd dive in before this week's fixtures commence with the lunchtime Tyne and Wear derby on Saturday.

Here are my thoughts (no benefit of first-week hindsight necessary).

Title race: As a Chelsea fan, it saddens me to say that Andre Villas-Boas' men don't look to have much of a prayer this year. There may be the odd fleeting challenge here and there, the odd tentative knock on the door, but in truth I can't see anyone forcing it down with a battering ram. It's Manchester United's for the taking.

They've lost some key players over the last six months and surely their biggest loss (in more than just surface area) will be Edwin van der Sar and, as yet, replacement David de Gea doesn't look quite up to scratch. But the signings of Phil Jones and Ashley Young are shrewd moves from Ferguson, though it does remain to be seen if Young's quite the standard Old Trafford fans will be looking for.

The only way Chelsea can realistically challenge for honours is if Villas-Boas persuades Roman Abramovich to splash the cash. Not necessarily huge sums, but a winger is vital and a playmaker would be handy as well, to complement Torres' movement and provide him with the service he needs. Having said that, Romelu Lukaku is certainly one to watch. Very much in the mould of Didier Drogba, let's just hope he throws a few less strops.

Manchester City are one club who have certainly not been adverse to a bit of retail therapy this summer, with Sergio Aguero and Gael Clichy both joining the ranks...and they don't look like they're finished yet. Samir Nasri wants out of Arsenal (and who could blame him) and City will be offering lots and lots of crisp notes to tempt him, even though he's far from guaranteed a game (numpty). Yet despite their 4-0 mauling of new boys Swansea on Monday and their perilous strike force, I still can't take them seriously. They are still just a team of mercenaries, unconcerned whether they get a game or not. It's the ultimate case of fantasy football and come Christmas, when it's getting a bit chilly oop norf and Manchester's two decent restaurants have been exhausted, the players will implode.

And I suppose a 'title race' section isn't complete until Arsenal's credentials have been considered. Oh sorry, my mistake...

In all seriousness, the loss of Fabregas and imminent departure of Nasri will hit Wenger's side hard - however much he tries to disguise it. Signings such as Southampton teenager Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Charlton's Carl Jenkinson won't really cut it amongst the likes of Rooney, Terry and Silva. Arsenal already boast a plethora of young talent coming through the ranks, not least Jack Wilshere, so it's experienced heads that are really required. Another year, another wonder-kid, another empty trophy cabinet at the Emirates.

European Challengers: Gone are the days when Aston Villa and Everton would start the season hoping to sneak it to a Champions League place come May, but realistically be expecting UEFA Cup (sorry...Europa League...) football the next season. These two have been left behind by Tottenham and Liverpool, who will be contesting those very positions this campaign and may even jump ahead of Arsenal for Champions League football. It's unlikely anyone else will be involved in the hunt, although if you want a tip for dark horses this year, Owen Coyle's Bolton are your men. Very quiet, very unassuming, but potentially deadly. Keep an eye out!

Avoiding the drop: Blackburn, despite their laugha...i mean...commendable attempts to sign Spanish legend Raul, are my hot favourites for the drop. Steve Kean hasn't been allowed to spend a flapping thing by the club's Poultry firm owners. They were a poor outfit last time out and don't look to be ready to fare any better this time around.

Struggling with Blackburn will be new boys Swansea, who could be masters of their own downfall, due to Brendan Rogers' insistence on playing pretty football. It's good for the spectators and you have to admire the principle, but trying to play the big boys at their own game is unlikely to get them far. We all know what happened to Blackpool last season. In fact, I'm still not truly over it...

My third tip for the drop may surprise one or two of you, and may earn me the wrath of Joey Barton, but I'm going to put Newcastle out there. They've lost key players Andy Carroll, Jose Enrique and Kevin Nolan since January and the actions (or Tweets) of Enrique and Barton have advertised the turmoil within St James' if we needed telling. The money gained from the sales of Carroll and Enrique have helped bring in the formidable forces of Demba Ba and Gabriel Obertan, but despite these ground-breaking acquisitions, the Toon look an unhappy and unstable camp right now. Can Alan Pardew, the man sacked from both West Ham and Charlton for running both clubs into the ground, keep Newcastle's head above water this year? Don't count on it.

Other clubs in and around the drop zone are likely to be newly promoted Norwich and QPR, for lacking the strength in depth much like Blackpool did last season and Wolves and Wigan may spend most of the campaign looking over their shoulders too.

So there you have it, my Premier League Almost-Preview 2011/12. Feel free to come back in May and lambast me for my appalling predictions, but until then, Happy Football Season everyone (Tottenham fans excluded)!

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