They’re lining up; chomping at the bit like Luis Suarez in his brand new muzzle. 38 games, 38 hurdles ahead of them on the marathon racetrack that is the Barclays Premier League season.
With yet another eye-wateringly expensive transfer window coming to a climax, as well as a thrilling World Cup fiesta in South America behind us, the return of the Premier League is eagerly anticipated and is sure to entertain. However, in danger of sounding like a certain TV advert that has a habit of turning every game into a galaxy-defining one, I think this season could be extra special (copyright: Jose Mourinho). Here is why.
It’s going to be a close one. Last year, Manchester City pounced on the capitulation of a classy but fragile Arsenal team and the untimely slip-up of a promising Liverpool side to triumph in what was a gripping end to the season. This time round expect a similarly intriguing climax but with a much bigger cast!
Chelsea made three top quality signings early in the summer bringing in high flying Atletico Madrid duo Diego Costa and Filipe Luis, as well as beating Arsenal and Manchester United to the signature of Cesc Fabregas. They already have a slender advantage over the rest.
Despite Costa’s dismal World Cup showing, his 27 goals in La Liga last season is proof enough that he will offer Chelsea a lot more firepower. The encore of Didier Drogba will also terrify defences and hopefully keep a toiling Fernando Torres on the bench. Chelsea will be solid without having to babysit the untameable, Paris-bound David Luiz and, as usual, they will be very athletic but with added goals they could go all the way. Oscar and Schurrle shone in Brazil for their respective nations and I’d tip them to flourish this season. Jose Mourinho knows how to set up his team and utilise all individual strengths in the big games so the ‘Little Horse’ is my tip for the big prize.
I expect to see big challenges come from champions Man City and FA Cup holders Arsenal. City have followed up title glory with a surprisingly modest spending spree of only £51.5 million this summer – pocket money for Sheikh Mansour. This is of course due to ‘restrictions’ put on the transfer budget as punishment for breaking Fifa’s financial fair play rules, which should have stopped the Sky Blues from contending for many big names.
Bacary Sagna is a useful acquisition but I’m not sure midfielder Frank Lampard will be much more than a squad player to boost shirt sales. He looked a shadow of the Chelsea legend we know towards the end of last season and won’t feature regularly. Montenegrin striker Stefan Jovetic may be handed the sizable task of filling injured Alvaro Negredo’s shooting boots giving him the chance to make up for a lacklustre, injury prone season previously. I really think Jovetic could be a dark horse for the Golden Boot, his goal scoring record for the national team is enviable.
In north London Arsene Wenger has been trying to justify Arsenal’s obscene ticket prices by throwing money at his squad of young talent. Luring Chilean superstar Alexis Sanchez away from Barcelona was a stroke of genius and is certainly my favourite signing of the summer along with fellow Barcelona forward, Bojan Krkic, moving to Stoke City – Barca to the Brittania? Are you kidding me? Maybe the former golden boy can put to bed the debate about whether the Continentals ‘can do it a wet and windy Tuesday night at Stoke’.
The Gunner’s community shield demolition of an experimental and weakened Man City side must be taken with a pinch of salt. Arsenal are still physically weak in midfield and flawed at the back with Wenger doing little to strengthen the defence. They still look fragile against the big guns, only adding Newcastle right-back Mathieu Debuchy to replace the aforementioned Sagna whose contract expired. So unless we see that it’s raining goals at the Emirates Stadium, Arsenal will be happy with a top four finish unless Olivier Giroud can dramatically improve his goal return.
The mighty red rivals, Manchester United and Liverpool, will naturally have grand expectations this season but they will be the two teams scrapping for the final Champions League slot in fourth place.
United will be revived, like Lazarus from the dead, with experienced Dutch manager Louis Van Gaal welcomed to the club as if the saviour, Christ himself. His authority and command of respect alone will grind the best results out of even the mediocre members of the Reds squad. Van Gaal’s national team connection to Dutch striker Robin Van Persie should help inspire the United hitman back to old form. I think Wayne Rooney has been handed an unnecessary burden in the role of club captain but the hard-working centre-forward will now be one of the longest serving players in a team that recently lost the perennial defensive partnership of Ferdinand and Vidic. And they will be missed. I do not fancy the youthful Chris Smalling and Phil Jones to man the fortress built by their predecessors and I predict a lot of pressure to fall on their shoulders if United start to leak goals. £25 million Spaniard Ander Herrera comes into the midfield to join fellow countryman Juan Mata. Expect a better brand of football than the slapstick provided by Moyes’ mob.
Initially I thought life post-Suarez would be impossible for Liverpool but there is hope. Pre-season friendlies are notorious for giving false impressions (exhibit A: Dundee 2 – 0 Man City on 13 July) but the Anfield side’s 4 – 0 trouncing of German Giants, Borussia Dortmund was proof that goals can indeed come from elsewhere in the team. I was really impressed with new centre-half Dejan Lovren, formerly of Southampton, who looked like a brick wall in the place of the hapless Mamadou Sakho and the ticking time-bomb that is Kolo Toure. He also scored in that game, adding to the merciless Martin Skrtel’s aerial threat from corners. For a team challenging for the title, conceding more goals (50) than 11th place new boys Crystal Palace (48) was scandalous. Their manager, Brendan Rodgers, may need to sacrifice total football for defensive competence against the top teams.
Rickie Lambert has already undergone scrutiny for a lack of goals in pre-season but I don’t see him becoming another Andy Carroll-esque disaster. If Daniel Sturridge remains fit all season, the two Englishmen can definitely fill the 31 goal gulf left by their Uruguayan former teammate.
As for the final contenders? Everton will only improve this season, building on an impressive fifth place finish last term and some of Roberto Martinez’s youngsters have still to come of age, including the much lauded Ross Barkley. The biggest boost for the Toffees this summer was certainly the eventual signing of powerful striker Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian poacher was the Padawan to Jedi Drogba at Chelsea and I can see Lukaku growing to match his ability – watch this space.
Everton’s Scottish forward, Stevie Naismith found some ferocious form at the end of last season and he is someone I would love to see scoring regularly. USA International Tim Howard is one of the most under-rated keepers in the game.
Martinez has a beautiful footballing philosophy and an outstanding premier league record. If Everton can handle the pace of the season they will be there or thereabouts.
Tottenham are the only remaining contender in my eyes. Former Southampton boss Mauricio Pochettino will need to bring stability to a managerial post with more recent fatalities than an episode of Game of Thrones. Spurs will be boosted if Erik Lamela lives up to his extortionate price tag after an injury ridden debut season along with Roberto Soldado who shrunk out of form as the season progressed.
At centre-back Vlad Chiriches and Younes Kaboul have done little to impress me and the 51 goals that Spurs conceded last season suggest that they won’t have the on-pitch stability that’s required for success. If Newcastle get it right up front with new striker Emmanuel Riviere supporting Papiss Cisse I can see a tough fight for what could be the final Europa league place at seventh.
And so our eyes turn below, to the minnows and relegation candidates who will shed blood, sweat and tears for every sacred point.
The one team who I would hate to see fall is Crystal Palace but due to the sudden departure of 2014 Premier League manager of the year and relegation rescuer, Tony Pulis, this season could see meltdown at Selhurst Park. With only a caretaker manager and lack of inspirational signings, Palace will struggle to build on the hard fought progress architected by Pulis. Dwight Gayle was a massive attacking threat at the end of last season and will be heavily relied on if Moroccan striker, Marouane Chamakh fails to turn up when the going gets tough. If Palace go down it will be by the skin of their teeth.
Fans’ venom may also turn to Steve Parish, the chairman, who disillusioned Pulis with his transfer activity.
Burnley are a pretty safe bet for relegation and will do well to emulate the glorious failure of Blackpool a few seasons ago. On paper the Burnley team is like a Shetland pony lining up at Aintree for the National. I hope the addition of Ex-Motherwell and Middlesbrough striker, Lukas Jutkiewicz, will bolster what seems like a blunt forward line but other than that, Burnley will have to perform well as a unit and avoid self-destructing in defence to give themselves a fighting chance. Rookie manager Sean Dyche will be a contender for Manager of the Year if the Clarets survive.
A word of hope though, the same was said about Hull City last year. Now they’re on a road-trip around Europe.
There has been plenty of turmoil in the Midlands this summer with both Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion constantly on the brink of self-destruction. Villa have stood by manager Paul Lambert but a shoestring budget means the Scotsman has relied mainly on free transfers to bulk up a squad of youngsters and has-beens. If the front trio of Benteke, Weimann and Agbonlahor starts to click then Villa should escape the drop.
Alan Irvine is the fourth man in a year to take charge of a temperamental West Brom side and doesn’t have much in the way of credentials as a former academy director at Everton. As with Solskjaer at Cardiff City last season, this inexperienced manager may wilt in the intense heat of the Premiership. Captain Chris Brunt is a pillar of reliability in midfield and is an excellent set-piece taker, offering the odd goal. His role will be vital this season. Baggies fans will hope for a good return on club-record signing Brown Ideye. The Nigeria striker’s link up play with partner Saido Berahino will be crucial to West Brom’s success; otherwise goals from midfield are needed.
I can see either of these two clubs relieving their Premier League post.
Of course there are 10 more teams who will play an integral role as the 2014/15 season ebbs and flows, though most are probably destined for mid-table limbo. I’m dying to see my dark horse, Stoke City, really fight for the Europa league spots with their new-found counter-attacking style. A close eye will also be kept on the early progress of promoted new boys Leicester City and QPR.
I can already here the heavenly symphony that is the Match of the Day theme tune. I can taste the Bovril and I can see the headlines. The BPL is back in our lives and you know you’ve missed it.