The unpredictable drama that is the Barclays Premier League kicks off on Saturday. Any team can pull off an unforeseen upset on any given weekend. The beauty of the Premier League is that it’s so difficult to predict.
I’ll take my best shot at forecasting the league table and will share my week one predictions toward the end of the column.
THE TOP FOUR:
1. Manchester City
Manager Manuel Pellegrini hasn’t made sizzling summer signings, but the Citizens are still the deepest squad in the league.
They’re not buying players just for the sake of it. Eliaquim Mangala will make a solid central defense partner next to captain Vincent Kompany. Goalkeeper Willy Caballero will provide competition for Joe Hart and will be ready take over on a full-time basis if Hart falters.
The defending champions are loaded with quality depth at every position.
Clinical striker Sergio Aguero just penned a five-year deal. Aguero’s injury history is a bit of a worry. Alvaro Negredo will miss the start of the season due to a broken right foot. Edin Dzeko has a knack for scoring important goals. This could be a breakout year for striker Stevan Jovetic.
Pellegrini has ushered in a positive dressing room atmosphere after previous manager Robert Mancini tended to pick fights with his players. Depth, harmony, continuity… these are the reasons why City will repeat as Premier League champs.
Liverpool is a much-improved despite selling controversial ace striker Luis Suarez to Barcelona. Manager Brendan Rodgers has assembled the squad depth needed to handle the additional demands of Champions League football.
Dejan Lovern fits into the Jamie Carragher/Sami Hyypia mold as a take-charge, vocal leader in defense. The Reds’ back four will be less leaky due to Lovern’s commanding presence. Adam Lallana should add to Liverpool’s quality attacking options in midfield. Versatile German midfielder Emre Can has impressed throughout the preseason. Their presence will help ease the burden on 34-year-old captain Steven Gerrard.
Phil Coutinho and Raheem Sterling are two of the most exciting young players in Europe and Liverpool has added Lazar Markovic, a winger blessed with pace and trickery.
Rickie Lambert was not brought to Anfield to fill Suarez’s boots. The Reds had hoped to sign QPR striker Loic Remy, but the Frenchman failed a medical. Swansea striker Wilfried Bony remains a hot candidate to join Liverpool before the close of the summer transfer window.
If Liverpool sign the right striker, they could go on to win the title.
The pressure is on outspoken Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho. Leading football pundits have endorsed the Blues as title favorites.
Last season, Mourinho downplayed Chelsea’s title chances when he compared them to “a little horse that needs milk and needs to learn how to jump.” It took a season for Mourinho to mold Chelsea into his own image. Diego Costa, Cesc Fabregas and Filipe Luis have been recruited to Stamford Bridge by “The Special One.”
This is now Jose’s team. Yet, his “park the bus” defensive tactics will not get the most out of the talent at his disposal.
It’s crucial that Costa delivers the goods for the Blues as expensive Chelsea strikers have a history of failing to live up to their burdensome price tags. Club legend Didier Drogba has returned to provide much-needed competition at striker.
Outside of City, Chelsea has the deepest squad in the Premier League. This is a make-or-break year for Mourinho. He did not deliver a trophy last season for demanding owner Roman Abramovich. We’re all aware of Abramovich’s itchy trigger finger.
Summer signing Alexis Sanchez will entertain and delight fans at the Emirates Stadium. Yet, there is still a lot of work that needs to be accomplished through the transfer market. Arsenal needs to sign a powerhouse defensive midfielder, improve their striker depth and prove they can cope with the departure of captain Thomas Vermaelen.
Injuries have always been the Gunners’ biggest enemy. Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all missed significant time last season. Arsenal struggled against the Premier League’s elite in 2013-14. More quality and depth is required for a title push.
EUROPA LEAGUE CANDIDATES:
5. Manchester United
Disciplinarian manager Louis van Gaal has his work cut out for him. The Red Devils finished seventh place in 2013-14 after winning the league a season earlier. David Moyes never looked comfortable replacing the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson and was completely out of his depth at Old Trafford.
Van Gaal has been there, done that and bought the t-shirt. United supporters are confident that van Gaal is the right man for the job.
2014-15 will be a rebuilding year for the Red Devils. Some serious upgrades are needed in defense and his three defender formation is an interesting experiment for the modern Premier League.
Van Gaal will have the chance tinker and experiment without the incredible pressure that Moyes faced last season.
6. Tottenham Hotspur
New manager Mauricio Pochettino appears to be the right fit for Spurs. His Southampton teams always played highly entertaining football.
Pochettino will be charged with getting the most out of last summer’s transfer flops. His style of play and man-management techniques should appeal to Roberto Soldado and Erik Lamela.
A top four finish is too much to ask for from Pochettino in his first season at White Hart Lane. He is the right choice for the long-term. Spurs must be patient with their new boss.
Manager Roberto Martinez has delighted Everton fans by securing last year’s loan signings Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry on permanent deals. It will be difficult for Everton to repeat last season’s magic.
Is Lukaku the right man to invest a £28 million club record fee? There is reason to be skeptical over Lukaku’s hefty price tag. The Belgian striker tends to blow hot and cold.
Talented youngsters Ross Barkley and John Stones will continue to take leaps forward in their development. The Toffees are not worse, nor are they any better. Expect Everton to drop two pegs in the standings.
8. Stoke City
Stoke is the buzz of the Premier League after they landed former Barcelona forward Bojan. The Spaniard has excited Potters fans with his sensational preseason displays.
Manager Mark Hughes has transformed Stoke from a stale defensive team into one that plays attractive football. The Potters finished ninth last season. They should finish one better this campaign.
9. Queens Park Rangers
QPR re-joins the Premier League and have added a solid central defense pairing in Rio Ferdinand and Steven Caulker. Wing back Mauricio Isla is an intriguing loan signing from Juventus. Jordon Mutch is another acquisition that has QPR fans buzzing. The central midfielder was a rare bright spot for Cardiff last season.
Rangers have the potential to be a real surprise team in their Premier League return. The Hoops will be in fine shape if striker Loic Remy stays around. If Remy departs, Charlie Austin will play a big role in determining whether QPR realizes their full potential.
Manager Harry Redknapp is known to always pull out a surprising signing or two on transfer deadline day.
THE MIDDLE OF THE PACK:
10. Newcastle United
The Magpies are the sort of team that appears to be stuck in mediocrity. Fiery manager Alan Pardew has made a slew of talented, yet unproven signings.
Powerful defensive midfielder Cheick Tiote appears to be on his way out. Newcastle has become somewhat of a feeder club these days. Right back Mathieu Debuchy has joined Arsenal. Tiote could soon be reunited with Debuchy at the Emirates Stadium.
Overweight winger Hatem Ben Arfa has been frozen out by Pardew. Newcastle finished last season in disastrous fashion and will hit a very tough stretch in beginning in February. This challenging stretch includes Man City, Man United, Everton, Arsenal, derby rivals Sunderland, Liverpool and Tottenham. There’s always too much drama and too little progress going on at St. James’ Park.
11. Swansea City
Manager Garry Monk isn’t the right man for the job. He fell out with popular striker Michu. The Spanish goal-getter is now on loan at Napoli. Fellow Spaniards Chico Flores and Pablo Hernandez have moved on to Qatari clubs. Swansea has lost a large chunk of their heart.
Losing Michel Vorm to Spurs is a big blow. The Dutch keeper was a very safe pair of hands between the sticks. Gylfi Sigurdsson was re-acquired in a swap deal that sent Vorm and left back Ben Davies to White Hart Lane. Sigurdsson was a popular figure during his original spell at the Liberty Stadium and will look to re-ignite his career at a familiar venue.
Keeping hold of star striker Wilfried Bony is of crucial importance for the Swans. New arrival Bafetimbi Gomis could enjoy tremendous success at Swansea with Sigurdsson and Jonjo Shelvey pulling the strings from midfield.
All change this summer at St. Mary’s. Southampton has lost captain Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Luke Shaw, Rickie Lambert and Calum Chambers. Defensive midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin wants out and has claimed that the club made a verbal agreement to sell him.
New manager Ronald Koeman will have to establish an identity at St. Mary’s after so many recognizable faces have departed. Gifted winger James Ward-Prowse is the future of this club and Koeman has a reputation of developing talented youngsters into stars.
Irish striker Shane Long has been signed for a bloated fee of £12m. That’s a bit of a head-scratcher, considering Long’s less than prolific Premier League scoring record. Goalkeeper Fraser Forster has been recruited from Scottish champions Celtic. Forster has played in some high-profile Champions League matches and appears to have what it takes to be a success in the Premier League.
The Black Cats have been quiet this summer. Most of their attention has been spent trying to lure Italian striker Fabio Borini from Liverpool. Borini became a cult hero at The Stadium of Light after arriving on loan last season. Jordi Gomez is a wise, under-the-radar signing that could really pay off.
As long as Jack Rodwell can stay healthy, he should be a big boost to Sunderland’s central midfield.
14. West Ham United
Manager Sam Allardyce is a hugely unpopular figure at Upton Park. Hammers supporters prefer flowing football compared to Allardyce’s stone aged philosophies. A change should have happened this summer, but Big Sam remains at the helm for at least the start of the new campaign.
A long-term injury to key striker Andy Carroll has put Allardyce under extreme pressure. Allardyce does have a strong record of keeping teams in the Premier League, but he is under an intense microscope. He will be constantly booed and derided by supporters should the Irons struggle out of the gates.
15. Aston Villa
The Villans have a habit of being dragged into relegation dogfights and barely surviving the drop. Manager Paul Lambert is under intense pressure and is looking over his shoulder now that Manchester United legend Roy Keane has been named assistant manager.
American owner Randy Lerner is in the process of selling the club. Lambert has been forced to make due with mostly free transfers. Joe Cole, Kieran Richardson and Philippe Senderos are declining talents that do not inspire confidence.
Club captain Ron Vlaar has been heavily linked with a potential move to Southampton. Whether he stays could determine whether Villa steers clear of relegation.
16. Hull City
Hull was a surprise team in their return to the Premier League, finishing 16th last season. Manager Steve Bruce squeezed the most out of his Tigers and will have to do the same in 2014-15 to avoid relegation.
With the added pressure of Europa League football, keeping Hull up is going to be a tricky task. The Tigers aren’t stocked with big names… but Bruce seems to have the midas touch.
The low-pressure environment of Hull should be a good place for promising winger Tom Ince to flourish.
17. Leicester City
The Foxes could find themselves struggling out of the gates. They begin their schedule with a hellish first five games – Everton, Chelsea, Arsenal, Stoke and Manchester United.
Leicester plays an attacking brand of football. Attractive, risk-taking teams coming up from the Championship Division tend to struggle in the Premier League. Leicester is putting a lot of faith in Argentine striker Leandro Ulloa. The £8 million club record signing has plenty of ability but lacks Premier League experience.
That’s the big question mark with Leicester as a whole. The Foxes are thin on experience. Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel will make enough big saves to keep the Foxes up. They’ll survive the drop by the skin of their teeth.
18. Crystal Palace
Impressively, Crystal Palace finished 11th place in their return to the Premier League last season. The Eagles could be in for a rude awakening in 2014-15.
Palace supporters have been dealt a shocking blow on the eve of the new season. Manager Tony Pulis walked out on the club. Pulis demanded financial backing and grew frustrated as the Eagles missed out on numerous transfer targets.
Everything has been suddenly thrown into chaos at Selhurst Park. Now that the reigning Premier League Manager of the Year has departed, all the belief that he injected into the Foxes will evaporate.
Palace began their 2013-14 campaign in horrendous fashion, dropping nine of their first 10 matches. Once Pulis replaced Ian Holloway as manager, the Eagles rocketed up the table. Without him, they’re likely to spiral into a relegation dogfight.
Selhurst Park is an imposing venue for opponents, but there is a clear absence of talent in this year’s squad. It’s hard to pick out match-winners in the Palace starting XI. It’s going to take a miracle for Pulis’ replacement to guide the Eagles to safety.
19. West Bromwich Albion
The Baggies made a curious appointment in the hiring of new manager Alan Irvine. Even more curious was the club signing a number of players whom Irvine had only previously studied via DVD.
Newly-recruited striker Brown Ideye compiled an impressive goal-scoring record for Dynamo Kiev. That being said, the £10 million club record signing is a tremendous gamble for the Baggies. He’s going to have to hit the ground running as the Baggies struggled for goals last season. Ex-Manchester City defender Joleon Lescott will add stability to the West Brom back four.
Irvine is the West Brom’s fifth manager in five years. Steve Clarke performed well prior to his sacking. It’s likely that the board will panic and fire Irvine should get off to a rough start. The Baggies can’t keep chopping and changing managers. Eventually, their instability will result in relegation.
Like Jose Mourinho and Chelsea, the Clarets are known to “park the bus” in front of goal. Burnley manager Sean Dyche has earned the nickname – “The Ginger Mourinho” because of his defensive philosophy and confident swagger.
There is a lot of belief at Turf Moor, but belief can only get you so far. Avoiding relegation would be a monumental feat for the Clarets.
Striker Danny Ings scored 21 goals last season in the Championship Division. Every one of his goals will be vital in Burnley’s fight to remain in the Premier League.
WEEK ONE PREDICTIONS:
SWANSEA CITY AT MANCHESTER UNITED (Saturday, 7:45 AM Eastern Time)
Prediction: Man Utd 3-1 Swansea.
SUNDERLAND AT WEST BROM (Saturday, 10:00 AM Eastern Time)
Prediction: Sunderland 1-0 West Brom.
ASTON VILLA AT STOKE CITY (Saturday, 10:00 AM Eastern Time)
Prediction: Stoke 2-1 Aston Villa.
EVERTON AT LEICESTER CITY (Saturday, 10:00 AM Eastern Time)
Prediction: Everton 1-1 Leicester.
HULL CITY AT QPR (Saturday, 10:00 AM Eastern Time)
Prediction: QPR 1-0 Hull City.
TOTTENHAM AT WEST HAM (Saturday, 10:00 AM Eastern Time)
Prediction: Spurs 2-1 West Ham.
CRYSTAL PALACE AT ARSENAL (Saturday, 12:30 PM Eastern Time)
Prediction: Arsenal 4-0 Palace.
SOUTHAMPTON AT LIVERPOOL (Sunday, 8:30 AM Eastern Time)
Prediction: Liverpool 2-0 Southampton.
MAN CITY AT NEWCASTLE UNITED (Sunday, 11:00 AM Eastern Time)
Prediction: Man City 3-1 Newcastle.
CHELSEA AT BURNLEY (Monday, 3:00 PM Eastern Time)
Prediction: Chelsea 1-0 Burnley.
Hope you enjoyed this week’s Premier League column and predictions. Check back next Friday for Sean’s Week Two predictions. Cheers!
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