Football’s back in town
Yes, it’s time once again for the football giant that is the Premier League to rise from its summer slumber and stomp around on our dreams and aspirations for another nine months.
As usual, fans of all 20 clubs head into the new season full of hope, belief and expectation. Sadly, many of them will end up looking back ruefully at what might have been, rather than celebrating what actually was.
For some, it may be missing out on the title, for others, missing out on a place in the Champions League. For more still, it will be a case of waving goodbye to the Premier League as their team plunges into the financial abyss that is the Championship.
But which fans will be celebrating and which will be left in tears?
Well, the predictions below are how I see things panning out in the top flight between now and next May. I know I shouldn’t, you don’t have to tell me. I just can’t help myself. I’m like David Beckham faced with an advertising opportunity – I just don’t know how to say no.
So here you go. Enjoy. Who knows, one of them might actually be right this time.
The sack race
The thing about managing in the Premiership is that you are never more than a few poor results away from the sack. Managers at the top are constantly battling fan expectation, while those at the bottom fight boardroom panic. Both can be fatal.
As we head into the 2012-13 season, hardly any manager is immune to dismissal, with the possible exceptions of Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and maybe David Moyes. These three, by virtue of their respective histories, would surely be given the decency of a final full season even if their club was rooted to the bottom of the table come Christmas.
The other 17 don’t have that sort of luxury, and I include the two Robertos – Mancini and Di Matteo, in that.
Mancini may have won the title, but his bosses want that to be a start, not an end. Any sort of dismal start to the campaign and he could be out on his well-groomed ear.
Di Matteo worked wonders in half a season at Stamford Bridge, but he could very well be a victim of his own success. Now that Roman Abramovich has had a taste of European success, don’t try and fob him off with any of that League Cup nonsense. Abramovich has a taste for the real deal and won’t hesitate to give Di Matteo the chop if this season doesn’t look like panning out as nicely as last.
Other prime contenders for an early departure are Paul Lambert at Aston Villa, Steve Clarke at West Bromwich Albion and Brian McDermott at Reading. I think all three of those are walking the thinnest of managerial tightropes.
But who will be first in line at the unemployment office? Well, personally I can’t look any further than Michael Laudrup. He has noPremiership experience, Swansea have lost some of their best players, and second season syndrome is likely to kick in. I found him a strange appointment in the first place and think he’ll be the first to go.
My prediction: Michael Laudrup.
The golden boot
This is hard to predict as it depends not only on the form of the individuals but also on the form of their team.
Robin van Persie will be among the favourites, especially now that he has gone to Old Trafford. Wayne Rooney should be there or thereabouts, and Manchester City have enough world-class strikers to fill a golden boot shoe shop.
Then you have the likes of Liverpool’s new striker Fabio Borini, who could turn out to be the new Fernando Torres; and Torres himself, who could well become the old Torres once more if he stops trying to emulate Andy Cole. Still with me?
The two Dembas – Ba and Cisse – at Newcastle must also be in with a reasonable shout at finishing top of the pile, as is Emmanuel Adebayor, providing he stops putting money ahead of football and signs for Tottenham Hotspur. Then you’ve got those surprise players who bang them in for fun despite playing for teams you don’t expect to do any banging of any sort. Like Fulham’s Clint Dempsey last season, for example.
As tricky one to call, so I’ll narrow it down rather than pick one player.
My prediction: Robin Van Persie, Sergio Aguero or Fernando Torres.
The relegation battle
One thing is for certain; I don’t think we will have another Derby situation on our hands this season.
When Derby County were in the Premier League a few years ago they were relegated by March; they only won one game all season and ended with a record low of 11 points.
But since then, the financial need to retain your Premiership status has become ever more apparent. So expect some serious scrapping down the bottom of the table in a battle that no team will be giving up.
So who’ll be involved in the scramble for safety? Well, the three promoted teams are obviously potential candidates as nobody really knows how they will cope with life at the top.
Of those, West Ham United are probably the least likely to go down. Not only have they been away from the Premiership for just one season, they also have Sam Allardyce in charge, and his style of play means relegation is always unlikely.
Southampton also look well set for their return for the big time. You may have thought that back-to-back promotions might have meant things were a bit rushed, but they have been building their team graduallyand wisely over time. That leaves Reading, and I feel this might be a case of too much too soon. Only a remarkable run towards the end of the season took them up and I just don’t think they are ready for life in the top flight. As close to relegation certainties as you can get.
That leaves two places up for grabs, one of which is likely to be snapped up by Wigan. They have been playing relegation Russian roulette since they were first promoted and this could well be the season they finally bite the bullet.
Which brings us to the final relegation spot. And that, I think, will be a straight battle between two of those teams who did surprisingly well last season: Swansea and Norwich.
Both have lost their managers and that isn’t going to help. As I said, I really don’t see Swansea’s Laudrup as being the right man for that particular job. Combined with thefact that the club have lost a couple of key players, I just can’t see them surviving.
In Chris Hughton, Norwich at least have a manager who has been there and done it before and maybe able to just about guide theteam towards a third season in the Premiership.
My prediction: Reading, Swansea and Wigan.
The top four
The top two positions will be filled by teams from Manchester. Of that I am certain. Well, almost anyway. Which means the rest of the chasing pack will be fighting it out for the two remaining Champions League slots.
This pack is made up of the usual suspects really: Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool, with the possible addition of Newcastle.
Arsenal have been unusually busy in the transfer market this season after Wenger apparently discovered the corporate cheque book in the pocket of one of his old suits.
Traditionally when they lose their star player in the close season, they don’t have back-up. This time they do. They are still a bit short in defence however, and this may ultimately cost them a serious title challenge.
Chelsea have made some clever buys, but the rebuilding that should have taken place last year can’t be put off any longer. If Abramovich allows it to happen, this should be a season of gentle evolution.
Spurs will miss Harry Redknapp more than they anticipated. The current Spurs squad is one Redknapp built and, able though Andre Villas-Boas may be, he is going to need time to mould them into his own team.
Like Chelsea, Liverpool need to reinvent themselves and Brendan Rogers won’t manage that overnight. He might not manage it at all. But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and say he’ll need a couple of seasons to get Liverpool fighting fit again.
Newcastle, meanwhile, surprised everyone last season but it won’t be a shock if they are up with the chasing pack this time. But Alan Pardew would be the first to admit they may not yet be equipped to push for Champions League qualification.
As I said, it will be the usual suspects chasing the top four positions, and I think it will be the usual suspects filling them.
My prediction: Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City.
As I said earlier, I have little doubt that the title will end up in Manchester come next May; the only real question is which half of the city will get their hands on it.
City currently have the upper hand. The way they clinched the title with practically the last kick of the season has given them the psychological edge. And with another couple of weeks of transfer window to go, I’m pretty sure they will be stuffing more big signings into their already bulging squad.
But hell hath no fury like a Fergie scorned. The United boss has probably spent the summer reliving last season over and over again in his head, turning a progressively darker shade of red while doing so. Sir Alex doesn’t take defeat well, especially when it comes at the hands of United’s neighbours.
By now he will have mapped out his plan for revenge, and adding Van Persie to his ranks will have been key to whatever dastardly plot he has been hatching.
The Manchester title fight is going to be like a good old-fashioned heavyweight contest, with two giants slugging it out for glory. We will see both sides ahead on points at some stage or another and it will probably go the distance.
But when the dust settles and the points are tallied up, I believe it will be the man in the red corner having his arm raised by the referee…
My prediction: Manchester United.