In just under a week’s time, the curtain will rise on one of the highest profile sporting events of the 21st century – the Premier League. Twenty teams will do battle over ten months, with the team on top of the pile in May awarded the coveted title of Premier League champions. For the three teams who finish at the bottom of the heap, relegation beckons. Teams down at the bottom will fight tooth and nail for survival, whilst the teams at the top will strive for European football. With at least three possible winners this season, there’s a reason why the Premier League is regarded as one of the best leagues in the world. Read on to read our Premier League preview and whet your appetite for what promises to be one of the most absorbing Premier League campaigns ever.
The Title Race
We will begin, as seems sensible, with the title race. Realistically, there are three teams who have the squads and ability to truly challenge for the Premier League title: Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea. United of course, are the current champions having cantered to a victory last season, with City and Chelsea trailing in their wake. City were the previous incumbents, whilst Chelsea have also won the league 3 times in the last ten years.
Man Utd cruised to victory last season, and given their margin of victory, in normal circumstances one would expect them to retain the crown with consummate ease this season. However, these are not normal circumstances. Last season marked the last season when arguably the greatest ever club manager Sir Alex Ferguson would manage the Red Devils, and his retirement has no doubt come as a blow to thousands of United fans. Ferguson has been replaced by David Moyes; and although Moyes is undoubtedly a fine manager, it remains to be seen whether or not he will be able to slot seamlessly into a United engine made entirely in Ferguson’s image. Moyes has never won a major trophy, and given that United fans are very used to winning trophies (or at least being in the hunt), this season will be a steep learning curve for the Scot as he learns to cope with that expectation.
For whatever reason Man City were not at the races last season. There were plenty of rumours of infighting within the City camp, and following the termination of his contract it became clear that former boss Roberto Mancini didn’t have a great relationship with a number of the players within the Etihad setup. Fresh from his success with Malaga, Manuel Pellegrini has replaced Mancini, and it’s difficult to know whether this will be a good or a bad thing for City. Pellegrini is an unknown quantity; okay, he’s done well in Spain, but does he have the requisite knowledge of the Premier League?
One positive thing for City has been their first class recruitment policy, and the fact that they’ve managed to do all of their business before a ball has been kicked is likely to bode well for squad cohesion. Despite it being difficult to see what impact Pellegrini might have, I think it’s highly likely that City will certainly be up there challenging for the title this season.
The third contender for the title, and currently the bookies favourite is West London outfit Chelsea. Their self appointed ‘special’ manager Jose Mourinho has returned, and he is likely to bring his own pragmatic and effective style of football with him. Mourinho was highly successful during his first spell at Stamford Bridge, and there’s no doubt that for most teams facing Chelsea will be a far more daunting task that it has been in the intervening period since Mourinho was last at the helm.
Mourinho has struggled so far to bring in players, but the reason for this became clear when the Portuguese admitted last week that he is only after one player, that player’s name being none other than Wayne Rooney. If Chelsea get Rooney, then they would be my favourite for the title, and I think that United’s reticence to sell to Chelsea is a clear indication that David Moyes is well aware of the impact that Rooney could have in London. With or without Rooney though, Chelsea will be a formidable side, especially at home, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the Special One hoisting the trophy aloft in May.
The unique thing about this season is the fact that all three of the top teams have changed managers, meaning that all three are unpredictable. It would take a large amount of bravery or stupidity to bet on the winner of this season’s Premier League; and of course, that’s what makes it so exciting.
The Relegation Battle
Whilst last season’s relegation battle was all sewn up by the last day, there were still a number of teams who could have gone down as the season approached its conclusion, and it’s likely to be the same this time around. There are around 7 or 8 clubs who could conceivably be relegated, and consequently the race to avoid the drop is likely to be every bit as fierce as the title race.
The relegation candidates can be divided into two distinct categories: ‘probables’ and ‘possibles’. Let’s deal first with the ‘probables’:
Having just come up from the Championship, Crystal Palace, Hull City and Cardiff City are all likely to struggle, and history has told us that at least 1 of the newly promoted teams goes straight back down. Cardiff are perhaps the team best equipped for remaining in the top division, but nevertheless could be hamstrung by the fact that their manager Malky Mackay has never managed in the Premier League.
Crystal Palace are probably the most likely of the three to go down – with Ian Holloway struggling to recruit quality players without substantial funds available to him. However, unlike Mackay, Holloway does have Premier League experience, and this could certainly aid the London club in their quest to remain in the Premier League.
Hull finished 2nd in the Championship last season and will be hoping that the extensive experience of their manager Steve Bruce will be enough to keep them in the top flight. Hull spent 2 years in the top flight only 3 years ago, and will need to draw on all of that experience if they are to stay afloat during what will certainly be a challenging season.
Whilst history tells us that the three promoted clubs should all be regarded as ‘probables’ for relegation, that’s not to say that their future is at all cast in stone. Some of the teams who survived last year only did so by the skin of their teeth, and consequently, if Hull, Palace and Cardiff manage to start well, they’ve got a good chance of retaining Premier League status for another season.
Aston Villa were particularly woeful last year, and although they’ve secured Christian Benteke’s services for another season, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see them struggle. Newcastle were also poor last season, and Alan Pardew’s managerial skills will certainly be tested this year as the Northeast club try and climb the table. Norwich were also in the relegation battle for a while and will be hoping for a more straightforward season, whilst Southampton and Stoke are also contenders for the drop.
Paolo di Canio has been quick to improve his Sunderland squad this summer, but the Black Cats were dire last season, and are also likely to be in the relegation mix, whilst West Ham fans will be hoping that the signature of Andy Carroll should be enough to keep them out of trouble.
As you can see, at least eight clubs could foreseeably go down, and no doubt this will make for a highly absorbing contest as the season goes on.
The Champions League Spots (a.k.a. the race for 4th)
As the Champions League has grown as a competition, the importance of qualifying for Europe’s premier cup competition has grown exponentially. As it stands, the top 3 clubs qualify for the group stages of the Champions League, whilst 4th spot grants an opportunity to qualify via a playoff.
It’s pretty much taken as read that United, City and Chelsea will occupy the top 3 spots, although this may well not be the case. However, if things go as predicted, those clubs will reside in those positions, leaving only one up for grabs. Going on past form, only Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal are likely to finish 4th; although Everton and Liverpool will have their sights set on clinching that final Champions League spot.
The Europa League & The Rest
Fifth spot gives the club finishing there an opportunity to compete in the Europa League, and given that either Spurs or Arsenal are likely to finish in 4th, the club that miss out are likely to finish in 5th and therefore qualify for the Europa League. Nevertheless, more Europa League spots are sometimes awarded, and therefore the remaining clubs in the league will be looking to finish in 5th or 6th in order to have an opportunity of competing in the Europa League.
Swansea have improved exponentially during their first two seasons in the Premiership, and the Europa League spots are a viable goal for the Welsh club this season. The Swans will actually compete in Europe for the first time this season, and no doubt will be keen for their taste of European football to continue beyond this season. West Brom are another club in that ‘in between’ bracket and Steve Clarke would certainly fancy welcoming some of Europe’s elite to Hawthorns in a season’s time.
A Few Predictions
As you can see from a brief sojourn over each club in the Premier League, every team has something to play for, and that’s one of the things that makes the Premiership one of the most competitive and exciting leagues in the world. Although it’s a highly unpredictable league, I thought I’d finish by sharing some of my predictions with you. Enjoy the season.
Title Winners: Chelsea
Runners-Up: Man City
Fourth Spot: Tottenham
FA Cup: Liverpool
Capital One Cup: Everton
Relegated: Crystal Palace, Hull, Stoke