Last year offered one of the closest title chases in Premier League history; yet, when all was said and done (excuse the cliché), Manchester United and Chelsea were once again at the top of the table, while their closest challengers languished behind.
This season, the Premier League has all the ingredients for a closely contested affair, but last weekend’s Community Shield may have suggested otherwise, as United easily dominated, their extravagant neighbors, and potential title contenders, Manchester City.
Contenders & Pretenders:
Although one shouldn’t use a single game as a litmus test for the whole season, United’s emphatic comeback in the Community Shield proved that they’re still the big boys on the block, and that Sir Alex Ferguson isn’t afraid of making the necessary adjustments to keep it that way. That last point was evident when Ferguson pulled Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, and Michel Carrick out of the game, and replaced them with Phil Jones, Jonny Evans, and Tom Cleverly, after City went up by two goals. The moves reinforced Ferguson’s philosophy that the squad must become younger not only to maintain the club’s dominance in the league, but also to challenge Barcelona’s European sovereignty.
Rebuilding was the theme at Old Trafford this summer, and by signing Jones and Ashley Young, Ferguson has ensured that his back-line and his attack are well accounted for. The big question lies in central midfield, where age and consistency were problems last season. Scholes is gone, and his incisive creativity with him. It will be unlikely that either, Carrick, Fletcher, or Anderson will replace him effectively, but there is hope that Cleverly could be the heir apparent, after impressing at Wigan last season. The real coup, of course, will be accomplished if Wesley Sneijder is lured to Manchester. The Dutch playmaker will offer United a dimension that has been missing for a while, and when you add a refreshed Rooney, Nani, and Chicharito to the equation, it will be hard to see anyone usurping the current champions, especially when there are so many questions facing their nearest challengers.
Chelsea’s biggest summer move was bringing Andre Villas-Boas from FC Porto, and the expectation was that the Portuguese would bring wholesale changes to the club. After all, Chelsea’s best players are all in their thirties, and the Mourinho-inspired bravado that made them such a force dissipated somewhere during Ancelotti’s tenure. Much to everyone’s surprise, though, Villas-Boas has said that his squad is good enough to challenge United, and that there are young players at the club with enough quality to contribute. Still, pace will definitely be an issue; hence Chelsea’s intense pursuit of Luka Modric, whose signing is growing more unlikely every day. After Villas-Boas, Romelu Lukaku is perhaps the most interesting arrival at the club. The young forward has been likened to Didier Drogba, and was targeted by many of Europe’s top teams. Nevertheless, the Ivorian and the so-far disappointing Torres will certainly get the nod ahead of the young Belgian even though questions about their co-existence remain.
Humbled in the Community Shield by their more successful neighbors, Man City will have to find a way to re-group and convince themselves that the game was of little consequence to the unfolding of the league. That may be easier said than done, as Roberto Mancini has had a torrid time getting his team to gel to begin with. The Tevez saga has definitely not helped the stability of the dressing-room, and although Kun Aguero has been brought in to replace the club captain, the premier League will take some time getting used to, and it would be unrealistic to expect instant magic from Maradona’s son-in-law, right from the outset. Additionally, Aguero’s arrival has ruffled some feathers at the club, with some players making it clear to the board that they’re unhappy making considerably less money than he is. It’s safe to assume that Mario Balotelli is one of the malcontents, and as we’ve seen before, the Italian isn’t shy about showing his displeasure on the field. In order to contend, Mancini will have to rein in the ubiquitous inflated egos, and hope that David Silva builds on last season’s performances. The midfielder is arguably the best Spaniard not playing for Barcelona, and he’s sure to be one of the Premier League’s shining lights.
Arsene Wenger will be the man on the hot seat this season. Once again, the Frenchman has refused to spend big in the transfer market, even though he signed Gervinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – mind-boggling signings if one considers the fact that neither of the two plays in the positions Wenger needs to strengthen, in the back-line and at striker. More worrying, though, is the fact that the team’s best players are intent on leaving the London club. Cesc Fabregas is almost surely on his way to Barcelona, where he’ll be reunited with his La Masia teammates, and while it appears that Samir Nasri will remain at the club for another year, he has made it very clear that he wants to move somewhere where he can win trophies. Trophies were also what precipitated Gael Clichy’s move to Man City (so he says), which clearly suggests that players have lost faith in Wenger’s ability to win, even though many Gunner fans haven’t. There is no doubt that this offseason has hurt Arsenal’s credibility, both in the boardroom, and on the pitch (preseason results have been disappointing). If Arsenal are to save face, they’re going to have to find some way to score enough goals to make up for the one’s they’ll concede. It’s going to be a tough season for the North London club.
Like their bitter rivals, Tottenham had a quiet season in the signing front, and had to deal with Luka Modric’s on-again-off –again move to Chelsea. At the end of last season, Harry Redknapp was adamant that he’d leave the club if his best players were sold (he was referring to Modric & Bale). That hasn’t happened, and as it stands Tottenham’s roster has changed little from last season, which will likely mean that Spurs will have a very similar season to last, pushing for a top-four finish. Unlike, last year, though, the players will be a lot better rested since they won’t be stretched thin by the demands of the Champions League. Thus, bar any of the injury problems that have plagued them in the past few years, Tottenham should prove a nuisance to the league’s powerhouses, and could very well beat them to a Champions League spot. Yet, in order to accomplish that, Modric must stay at the club. If there is any one team that is completely reliant on one player, it’s Tottenham. If the creative Croatian leaves, so will any chance of contention.
Kenny Dalglish has spent over one hundred million pounds since taking over at Liverpool last season, and he knows that with big spending come big expectations. If Liverpool are to live up to those expectations, and are to make a serious run at the league title, King Kenny will have to get a virtually new squad to meld together quickly. Upfront, Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez have the benefit of having already spent half a season at the club, and should therefore hit the ground running. There is a fear, though, that the English target-man could underperform given the burden of his immense price-tag. It is in the midfield where Liverpool have the most depth, and will as a result, depend on the most. Raul Meireles is back after much speculation that he had packed his bags for Inter Milan following the signing of Charlie Adam. The Portuguese has an impressive first season, having adapted to the pace of the Premier League rather quickly, and should therefore do well once again. Charlie Adam on the other hand, has much to prove. Now at one of Europe’s biggest clubs, Adam needs to show that last season was not a fluke, and that he can establish a regular place in the starting XI. It is sometimes forgotten that much of Adam’s magic at Blackpool last year disappeared during the second half of the season. A lot of attention will also be placed on Alberto Aquilani and Jordan Henderson. The Italian still has to live up to the hype surrounding his signing last season, and it remains to be seen whether the English winger’s price-tag will translate into regular football at Anfield. Liverpool will have its biggest difficulties at the back. While they’ve addressed the seemingly years-long problem at left-back with the signing of Enrique from Newcastle, Carragher, Agger, and Skrtel still don’t inspire that much confidence in the middle. Ultimately, it will be interesting to see if Dalglish has the ability to make tactical changes when they’re called for. The Premier League isn’t all about getting the troops motivated.
Swan-Dive into Relegation:
Swansea City: Swansea have a lot to be proud of. They’re the first Welsh team to grace the Premier League (much to Cardiff City’s chagrin), and Liberty stadium is one of the best football-watching stadiums I’ve ever been in, with great field views no matter where you sit. The entrances to the stadium are another matter completely, seemingly constructed to keep anyone slightly over-weight outside. Unfortunately, though, Swansea appear to be the most likely candidates to find their way back to the Championship. The club did break the bank by signing Danny Graham, hoping that he can score half of the 27 goals he scored for Watford last season. Wayne Routledge and Leroy Lita have also signed for Swansea, and should create quite a few scoring opportunities, along with playoff hero Scott Sinclair. But Swansea’s problems lie in the center of the park, where they lack the pace and ability to grapple with other Premier League midfielders. Their players also lack the capability of playing the type of football that Brendan Rogers wants to inculcate, which includes playing the ball on the ground from the back. Expect Swansea to give most of its goals away when it attempts to build its offense from its defense.
Player of the Season:
David Silva: The diminutive Spaniard is already one of the most entertaining players to watch in the Premier League, along with the likes of Nani, and N’Zogbia, and with one whole season in England under his belt, expect things to get even better. I’ve often said that if he played for Barcelona, Silva would draw many comparisons to Messi – this is not hyperbole, as the two are more similar than people think. Almost all of City’s offense will flow through his feet, and expect him to double his scoring tally.
Revelation of the Season:
Tom Cleverly: If Wesley Sneijder doesn’t end up wearing United’s colors, Cleverly will see more playing time than expected. There was some talk that the midfielder would once again find himself being shipped out on loan, but it appears that he’s convinced Alex Ferguson that he’s the right player to inject pace and creativity into United’s game. As I’ve said before, one game is hardly a litmus test for the season, but the Community Shield was definitely an indicator of what’s to come. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to expect Wilshere-type hype in the near future.