Friday, August 13, 2010

Over The Border

While the SPL rages on around us it’s often easy to forget those less fortunate than ourselves. So glance south, dear friends, and consider the English Premier League. Spare this footballing backwater a thought. 

If only they could sell their souls to the kind of broadcaster that turns a meaningless mid-table clash into THE MOST IMPORTANT FOOTBALL MATCH SINCE THE LAST ONE they might just be able to carve out a slightly higher profile for their impecunious league.

My time management skills seem to have deserted me over the last couple of weeks so I’m grateful to The Scottish Football Blog’s latest guest blogger, Mark Briggs, for putting together this preview of the EPL:

Last year we had the possibility of the top four monopoly being broken up as Manchester City spent lavish sums of money left right, and centre. In the end it was Tottenham who barged through the gap left by Liverpool’s implosion.

This season we have even more bang for our buck. Spurs will not want their Champions League experience, how ever long it lasts, to be a one off. Arsenal are overdue a trophy, Manchester United will want to regain the crown and Chelsea will not want to let them. And then there is Manchester City.

Once again City have spent big. Over £70m. Mancini wants two internationals per position and he’s going after them with an open cheque book. The key for him will be his tactics. Last year he was too defensive, crowding the midfield with uncreative players. Mancini has Barry, De Jong, Viera, Zabaleta, Toure Yaya, Michael Johnson and Kompany all available for defensive roles in the middle.

However there were signs that this mentality was shifting towards then end of last season and he has strengthened offensively adding Silva and, in all likelihood, Milner. If he can get his tactics right and keep this squad of internationals happy (these tasks were not listed in order of simplicity) then they will be a force, at least for a Champions League spot. They have the best squad of 25 man for man, but do they have the balance to form and effective team? If they can, and other teams start slowly, then City’s squad should be ready to pounce.

The trailing group of Liverpool, Aston Villa, and Everton will all be hoping that they can keep injury free and make some moves up the league. Liverpool will be smarting. Last season saw the end of 6 years of a style and approach that ultimately left them without the title, despite getting close. They now have to start again despite being leapfrogged in both prestige (no Champions League nights at Anfield this year) and in financial muscle.

Despite all this they appear to have come out of this summer rather well. With Roy Hodgson they have got a calming hand, experience with reduced budgets and a lot of good will and optimism which had appeared to desert them under Rafa Benitez. They have kept hold of Gerrard and Torres, and added Joe Cole into the mix. (Potential tip, the previously much maligned David Ngog could be this season’s Bobby Zamora.)

At the other end of the table Blackpool will be everyone’s second team this year. They play in orange, they defy logic by being here at all and their manager is Ian Holloway who is sure to liven up the post match interviews. Unfortunately they also have to be favourites for the drop. But wouldn’t it be amazing if those odds were proved wrong?

Roberto Di Matteo will be the latest man to try and keep West Brom in the Premiership. But as with their previous foreys into the top tier they have little money to spend and will need all their players to have their best ever seasons to avoid the drop this time round. But Chris Brunt and Scott Carson could just give them the quality at each end of the field to spring a surprise.

Wolves, Blackburn will more likely than not spend the season looking over their shoulder.
West Ham and Wigan will be looking to move away from the scrap. Some off the field stability for the Hammers and some consistency on the pitch for the Latics could give both teams a platform to move up the league.

The title race looks to be a three way affair. Manchester United and Chelsea will almost certainly provide two of the contenders. But neither squad has been dramatically strengthened this summer which would appear to play into Arsenal’s hands and they could mount a serious challenge this season.

For parts of the last two campaigns Arsenal have made people sit up and take note. Now is the time when a serious assault on the summit needs to be made, both to keep the supporters happy and to ensure that Arsenal’s renowned academy keeps feeding their first team and not other clubs.

They still look like they need a bit of defensive grit. A goalie must also be on the list but it seems another season looks set to go by with questions hanging over Arsenal’s ‘keepers. A “plan B” wouldn’t go amiss here, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Man Utd have added a few players for the future, and Hernandez looks like he could make an impact this season at the expense of Mr Berbatov. But they seem to lack a bit of creativity in the middle of the park, and Scholes and Giggs will surely be unable to have the same impact, over the same number of games, as last time out. However this is a team geared to create chances and they will surely be in the mix come May.

But can they get the better of Chelsea? Sir Alex Ferguson has said anyone finishing above Chelsea this season will win the league. Once again those pillars of effective determination Terry and Lampard will lead the charge and if Drogba and Malouda can re-produce last season’s form, well, they will be hard to beat. Extremely hard to beat.

For the title I will stick my neck out and say Arsenal. For the drop, Blackpool, West Brom, and Wolves. Surprise team of the season, Wigan. One team I just can’t pick: Newcastle. Time will tell. And I am massively looking forward to it.

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