ST's CUAS Predictions for the 2009/10 Premier League Season
I can't believe I've done this. Do I really think that Liverpool are going to finally win the title this year? Maybe I do. Before last year, it looked as though Rafa's priorities lay elsewhere, but they came desperately close last season and Fernando Torres proved what a wonderful player he is. If Gerrard and Benitez spend more time on the pitch this year than they did last year, then perhaps this isn't such a ridiculous prediction. Their first XI is arguably the strongest in the league already - they just need to back up their excellent results against the best teams in the division by making sure that they don't continue to drop points against the weakest. It's those unglamorously ground out wins at places like the Britannia Stadium that won the title for United last season, and Liverpool are going to need to knuckle down and do the same if they're to have a chance this year.
One to Watch: Glenn Johnson. I'm not convinced he's that good a defender or that he's worth £18m, but he's gormless and has a propensity to sport some ludicrous haircuts
Fantasy League Pick: The defence will be solid, no doubt, but if they stay fit, then Torres and Gerrard will take some beating.
If they were a drink, they'd be......A cellared red wine. If kept under the right conditions, then there's no finer drink. All too often prone to sediment, corking and sourness. At it's best, pretty much untouchable.
Last year was a transitional time for Chelsea, as has every season since Mourinho last won them the title in 2006. Guus Hiddink brought some much needed stability, but he's gone now, and it remains to be seen if Carlo Ancelotti has got what it takes to make it in England. He's got track record though, both as a player and as a manager at AC Milan, and Chelsea could prosper under a regime that introduces some of the Italian side's muscular football into the Premier League. It shouldn't be too much of a stretch for Chelsea, and players like Terry, Essien, Ballack, Lampard and Drogba should take to that like ducks to water. Expect a tighter defence this year too. I expect them to finish above Manchester United this year, and if the new manager settles down quickly, then they could have a good shout at the title. The owner, I think, would prefer to see his team prosper in Europe....
One to Watch: Ancelotti. Has the pedigree to do a great job, but the Special One has proven a tough act to follow.
Fantasy League Pick: Another solid defence - especially with an Italian manager - but Anelka could be in for a great season if he's played alongside Drogba instead of hidden on a wing.
If they were a drink, they'd be......Kalashnikov vodka (the one that comes in a bottle shaped like an AK-47 machine gun). Showy, expensive, graspingly aspirational and not actually very nice at all.
3. Manchester Utd
This could go either way: on the one hand, the departure of Christino Ronaldo to Spain could leave an unfillable hole at the heart of Utd team. On the other hand, the gap left by the preening portuguese could just set free other attacking players like Rooney and Berbatov. Wayne Rooney in particular could benefit from not being someone else's water-carrier and spending more of his time facing goal than covering his left-back. The defence should be sound again, but they start the season without Van de Saar, Vidic and Gary Neville and with Rio Ferdinand carrying a persistent back injury. I wouldn't be surprised if they ship more goals this year, and that may lead to more dropped points. The fire is still burning brightly for Sir Alex Ferguson, but notables like Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs are reaching the end of the line, and it still remains to be seen if the likes of Anderson, Nani and Park Ji-Sung are any more than adequate replacements. Interesting times at Old Trafford, although it will be interesting to see how Michael Owen shapes up. On the one hand it was a shock signing, but on the other hand no one seems to be much surprised that he's lining up with Rooney and not with the likes of Kevin Davies at Bolton or Jason Scotland at Wigan. Are there still goals in his boots? Time will tell.
One to Watch: Antonio Valencia. It will be interesting to see how an orthodox winger gets on at United this year. If it works, then Rooney, Berbatov and Owen should prosper.
Fantasy League Pick: Still has to be a defender. My picks would be Vidic (when fit) or Evra. Owen will be interesting to watch, if he gets enough game time.
If they were a drink, they'd be......Lagavulin. A very fine scotch malt whisky. Salty, peaty and almost medicinal. Classy and Very, very effective but not to everyone's taste. Very popular in Asia. Liable to give you a beetroot red face, if you drink enough of it.
I don't know: Arsenal keep selling their best players and Wenger seems to keep on refusing to splash out the cash on replacements. Adebayor and Toure have both left for Manchester City and does Wenger really think that Robin van Persie and William Gallas are going to be able to cover for their absence? I'm not sure, but of all the managers in the Premier League bar none, Wenger is the one that I would be most likely to put my faith in. He's stubbornly welded to his belief in trusting to youth and to playing with style, and I'm not ready to write Arsenal out of the top 4 just yet. Theo Walcott is still one of the most exciting young talents in England, with Jack Wilshere coming up hard on his heels. Watch out too for Andre Arshavin to make a real impression on the league this season. Top 4 again. Just.
One to Watch: Wenger. I can't shake the feeling that he's going to do a Keegan at some point and walk out of the club that has been his life for the last ten years. Jack Wilshere should also play this year, and he's touted as the most exciting young talent in English football since Wayne Rooney....
Fantasy League Pick: Arshavin. If he's fit, he can be devastating.
If they were a drink, they'd be......Krug champagne. Classy, French and expensive: a drink to be admired and to fit to be savoured by the real connoisseur. Sadly most often purchased by the vulgar and sprayed around wastefully.
5. Manchester City
Can money really buy you happiness? Jack Walker has long since proved that you can buy your way to the Premier League title, but is it simply too soon for Manchester City? Is Mark Hughes really the man to take his team to the very top? Their motives for signing for a club that isn't in the Champions League seem questionable, but you can't argue with the quality of the likes of Gareth Barry, Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Adebayor, Shay Given, Roque Santa Cruz, Carlos Tevez and Robinho. My gut feeling is that it's too soon for them to make the big breakthrough this season, especially given City's genetic predisposition for disaster. You never know though. With those players, they should challenge the very best. What they really need is stability though. If the owners have decided that Mark Hughes is the man, then they need to stick with him all season. Changing now (or after a handful of games) is unlikely to achieve anything but introduce uncertainty. Whatever else it is, it should be interesting. Let's see if Carlos Tevez can score the winner at Old Trafford. That should put the cat amongst the pigeons....
One to Watch: Sheikh Mansour. How long has Mark Hughes really got, do you think?
Fantasy League Pick: Hmm. Tough one this. Surely not any defenders and which of the strikers is going to play on a regular basis? Adebayor will get goals, but I'd be tempted to plump for someone like Gareth Barry or Stephen Ireland.
If they were a drink, they'd be......a colourful cocktail with an umbrella in it. Flash, expensive with the whole somehow tasting less impressive than its constituent ingredients. Entirely naff.
6. Aston Villa
It must be a little frustrating for Martin O'Neill. On the one hand, his project at Aston Villa has been coming along nicely, and he's been improving the team steadily now for a few years. On the other hand though, that final step into the top 4 has proved elusive, and now they have started leaking key players (Barry) to clubs that are looking to come past them (City). They were fantastic for much of last season, but they stalled in the last few months and finished 6th for the second season running. It feels to me that it is more likely that they will be overtaken by clubs behind them than they will catch the clubs ahead of them. Still, if they get it right, they should be a handful for almost anyone
One to Watch: Stewart Downing. He's been angling for a move to a "Big Club" for a couple of years now, and he's ended up here. Is he going to be competing with Ashley Young for a position on the wing, or has Martin O'Neill got a Gareth Barry-like role in mind for him. Either way, we should get a chance to see if he's actually any good this year.
Fantasy League Pick: Ashley Young. He dried up after Christmas last season, but before that he was an absolute steal.
If they were a drink, they'd be......A Vodka Red Bull. Chippy, pushy and hyperactive - very much like Martin O'Neill and most of his younger players. Not likely to be drunk in high society.
David Moyes has been quietly demonstrating that he's one of the best manager's in the league for some time now. Everton don't have the kind of money to compete with some of their rivals, but they seem to consistently punch above their weight, albeit without really threatening the top four. It looks as though Jolean Lescott will (reluctantly) be staying, and they should be solid at the back again this season with the likes of Yakubu, Jo, Cahill and Saha providing a not inconsiderable goal threat. Another club threatened by a likely surge from Manchester City. Everton should remain comfortably about the mediocrity of the bottom half of the table, but they aren't likely to push much further upwards.
One to Watch: Lescott. Will he keep his cool now that his transfer request has been rejected
Fantasy League Pick: After a shaky start, it was the defence that proved the stars last year with clean sheets galore. Jagielka looked especially good and will be hoping for more international chances. Cahill is always good (when fit, which is increasingly rare these days), but I'll probably be going for the muscular, goalscoring genius of Fellaini. Great hair too.
If they were a drink, they'd be......Sherry. Tipple favoured by old ladies but all too often in the shadow of other, more fashionable aperitifs.
After Tony Pulis, was Roy Hodgson the best manager in the Premier League last season? In 2007/8, Fulham barely escaped relegation after the mess Laurie Sancez had made, but less than 12 months later and they were basking in a Euro Vase finish. Hodgson will be doing well if he can manage to achieve as much again this season, and he may need to fight hard to hang onto key players like Hangeland, who Arsenal are reportedly sniffing around... but he seems to be doing well in moulding a group of individually unspectacular players into a cohesive and effective team. More power to him, I say.
One to Watch: Roy Hodgson. He's so undemonstrative it can be hard to tell, but Roy Hodgson must be doing something very right at Craven Cottage. A quality manager.
Fantasy League Pick: Danny Murphy. He's a quality player having a renewed lease of life at the tail end of his career. Likely to be at the hub of everything. Andy Johnson is likely to be good for goals again too.
If they were a drink, they'd be...... Pear Cider. An old favourite on the rise again after some years in the doldrums. Could turn out to be Babycham.
9. Tottenham Hotspur
Well, that was a real curate's egg of a season, wasn't it? Good in parts. It's never dull with Harry Redknapp, is it? There are always players coming and going (or coming and going and then coming back, in the case of Jermaine Defoe) and he's not exactly one to keep his own counsel. The defence might be a little suspect, with Dawson still inconsistent and Ledley King on his last legs, but they've got a mighty array of attacking talent in front of them, with the likes of Defoe, Keane, Modric, Crouch, Pavlyuchenko, Lennon, Bentley, Jenas. Dangerous, I would say, but likely to be inconsistent. Has Harry Redknapp ever produced a team with the consistency to really challenge in the league? Is he a sophisticated enough manager? Is he really the man to take this Spurs team forwards? I'm not sure. They should be safe, but I don't expect any kind of a serious challenge on the top 6.
One to Watch: Tom Huddlestone. Is he really a future international midfielder, or is he just a fat lump?
Fantasy League Pick: Robbie Keane. He didn't have the best of times at Liverpool, to say the least, but playing for Spurs really seems to bring the best out of him.
If they were a drink, they'd be......Sol. Expensive and once bafflingly fashionable and aspirational. Still hanging around, but does anyone really drink it anymore? Bottle tops can optionally be kept to be worn on your shoelaces....
10. West Ham
Gianfranco Zola and Steve Clark did a fantastic job last year in the most unpromising of circumstances. Money is scarce at Upton Park, but the pair of them managed to mould a team that played attacking, passing football and who clambered almost unnoticed up the Premier League table. Can they do the same again? Well, it will be difficult, with teams like Fulham, Spurs and Everton all looking to do the same thing, but they should be clear of the mediocrity below them. Can they improve on last term's finish? Hmmm. Doubtful. I think we're about to get a chance to see how good a manager Zola really is. Lovely fella, for sure, but does he have that ruthless edge? Will he have the funds to compete?
One to Watch: Gianfranco Zola. Hands up who thought he'd be too nice to be a football manager?
Fantasy League Pick: Mark Noble. Is he going to break into International football this year?
If they were a drink, they'd be......Gin. Often tarted up and served in posh cocktail bars, but when it comes down to it it's punchy, alcoholic and prone to making you feel depressed. Mother's ruin.
Steve Bruce is a brilliant signing for Sunderland, isn't he? He had a shaky start to his management career, but he did a stellar job at Wigan and getting his teeth into a big job like this in his native North-East must be something he's relishing. The side flirted with relegation last year, but Roy Keane is now taking Trigs for long walks in East Anglia and they should have a steadier hand at the rudder now. In the likes of Reid, Richardson and Malbranque, Sunderland should have the players to provide the bullets for Darren Bent, Kenwyne Jones and Frazier Campbell. If his work with Titus Bramble is anything to go by, Bruce should also be just the man to sort out the somewhat shaky defence. I expect a season of consolidation, but I imagine that most Sunderland fans would settle for that at the moment.
One to Watch: Frazier Campbell. He's very, very highly thought of by many people. He should get first team football under Steve Bruce, so it's time to see what he's made of.
Fantasy League Pick: Darren Bent. Someone has to score their goals, right? Bent had an oddly hard time at Spurs, and to my mind never really did anything much wrong and scored goals when he played. He's a proven premier league goalscorer, so....
If they were a drink, they'd be...... a pint of mild. Deceptively punchy and strong and in spite of being written off for years, simply will not go away.
Even more so than the likes of Roy Hodgson and Tony Pulis, Gary Megson has been given scant recognition for the sterling work that he has done at Bolton. This was a team in deep trouble when he took them on, and now they are back to being pillars of the lower part of the middle-echelon of the Premier League table. They're not likely to challenge for honours, but they are bruisingly effective and will cause good teams lots of problems. 'Twas ever thus. 12th seems a little high up the table, but this is a very average looking Premier League and they may just prosper. Clubs like Wolves, Stoke and Burnley can only look upon their relative success in this division with envy. They all aspire to be this good.
One to Watch: Gary Cahill. Called up into the England squad to cover Rio Ferdinand last season, and not likely to stay here all that much longer.
Fantasy League Pick: Kevin Davies. He just won't go away. No one likes playing against him, and he doesn't seem to score many goals... but he's undeniably effective and is at the heart of most of Bolton's attacking play.
If they were a drink, they'd be......Aftershock. Puts hairs on your chest.
13. Blackburn Rovers
Sam Allardyce is probably the right man to be managing this lot. They may have lost Santa Cruz, but under Mark Hughes, this was a side reknowned and much criticised by the bigger clubs for their rather robust approach to the game. This is hardly likely to change under Allardyce. He may disagree, but surely this - rather than Newcastle - is the kind of club that he can really get his teeth into. Just like Sunderland and Bolton, they're not likely to trouble the top-end of the division, but should be too good for the bottom end and could finish anywhere in the 10-16th region. It's much of a muchness in mid-table this year, isn't it?
One to Watch: Paul Robinson. Do you think he wonders what happened to his career?
Fantasy League Pick: Benni McCarthy. Rather a lot depends upon Big Benni since Roque
Santa Cruz buggered off to Manchester City. If he's fit, then surely he'll score the bulk of any goals that Rovers get?
If they were a drink, they'd be......Meths. No nonsense head smasher.
Steve Bruce is history and Roberto Martinez has a very, very big challenge to step up to the Premier League and to keep the upward curve of this side intact. It's a big ask, and I think he'll be doing well if he keeps the side clear of the relegation dogfight. Wigan are the kind of club who aspire to play proper football, but need to be careful that they don't lose that element of bloody-mindedness that will see them get results against "better" sides. If they lose that, then they're done for as they don't have the talent to play their way out of trouble.
One to Watch: Roberto Martinez. Another manager in the list of people to watch, but how can you not be interested to see how the Spaniard fares? It's not so much because he's spanish as the fact that the managers of Premier League Clubs are not often picked from the lower leagues, and simply because of that I wish him well. Steve Bruce has big boots to fill.
Fantasy League Pick: Jason Scotland. One of Martinez's favourite players and a real success in the lower leagues. How will he fare in the top division? Will Titus Bramble continue his remarkable good form from last year now that his mentor has gone?
If they were a drink, they'd be......Shandy. Watered down and not likely to get the job done.
15. Stoke City
Surely it's impossible for Stoke to have a season as good as last year? Probably, but Pulis is a wily old dog, and although this side may find it harder to prosper this year, they've come on a long way since their Championsip days and they're likely to be too good for many of the sides below them in the table and the promoted teams. Not pretty, but you simply have to take your hat off to their achievement. It's all relative in this division, and no one gave them a prayer last year. Let's see if they can confound us all again this time around.
One to Watch: Dean Whitehead. Always quietly influential at Sunderland, it will be interesting to see how he manages in his new(-ish) surroundings.
Fantasy League Pick: It has to be James Beattie, doesn't it? Either that or Rory Delap for his jet-propelled assists from the touchline.
If they were a drink, they'd be......White Lightning. Direct and to the point. Not very tasty, but astonishingly effective.
16. Wolverhampton Wanderers
I'm trying not to be too one-eyed in my assessment of my own team, and to be honest I'll be happy if we manage to stay clear of the bottom three... but I've just got a sniff that Wolves are far better prepared for the top division than we were when we last came up. We wobbled a bit last year, but ultimately ended up comfortable winners of the Championsip title. The average age of the first team was 23 years old, and players like Ebanks-Blake, Kightly and Jarvis, all signed by McCarthy from teams in the football league (or non-league, in the case of Kightly) are young, hungry and might just be good enough to make the step up. New signings have been solid, if unspectacular, and Wolves look like a well-run, well-managed club (McCarthy has done a fantastic job and feels he has unfinished business in this division after his experiences with Sunderland). The mediocrity of this half of the division is likely to help, but I really think we've got a chance to stay up this time around. Please.
One to Watch: It will be very interesting to see if Sylvain Ebanks-Blake and Michael Kightley can take the step up to the next level.
Fantasy League Pick: Nenad Miljas scored 22 times from the midfield for Red Star Belgrade last season. Then again, when Wolves were last in the top division, I picked Silas, so what do I know?
If they were a drink, they'd be......Sunny Delight. Luminous, hyperactive and not containing much goodness.
I thought Reading were probably the best team in the Championship last year, and they went to their last home game against Birmingham with their hopes of automatic promotion firmly within their own grasp. Birmingham took three points and the second automatic promotion slot into the Premier League. It was a result that symbolised how effective Alex McCleish's team had become. They don't score many goals and they aren't pretty, but they are certainly effective... very much in the mould of their manager. I have a feeling that they might struggle this year, but they will play with a spirit that may just win them crucial points in tight games, even if they are fundamentally lacking in quality and may be destabilised by the continuing talk of a change of ownership. Write them off at your peril.
One to Watch: Lee Bowyer. He's remembered more for other things, but don't forget that he was a fantastically talented player. Or maybe he'll just punch one of his own team mates. It'll also be interesting to see how Roger Johnson settles in after his move from Cardiff.
Fantasy League Pick: James McFadden. I'm not sure if he scores enough goals, but he certainly scores some crucial ones.
If they were a drink, they'd be......Buckfast Wine. Cheap and much enjoyed by Scottish tramps. Either that or Irn Bru.
18. Hull City
A great start to last season was followed by a dismal run of form that only saw Hull stay in the division because of results elsewhere. Which Hull will we see this year? Easy: I think they're going to struggle this year. No ill-adivsed karaoke for Phil Brown this year and a return to the Football League.
One to Watch: Geovanni. On his day, he's a great player, but he's rather prone to blowing up and I can't imagine he'll last the season without throwing his toys out of the pram at least once....
Fantasy League Pick: If he's fit... Jimmy Bullard.
If they were a drink, they'd be...... A Cement Mixer. An unpalatable cocktail of Baileys and Lime juice mixed. A terrible idea, hard to swallow, and sinks like a stone.
Portsmouth have done brilliantly in the Premier League over the last few years, becoming a rather unlikely fixture in the division and even winning some silverware. They're in a terrible state though, with uncertain ownership, unstable finances and an inexorable stripping of their playing assets. Paul Hart is a capable manager, I think, but it will take a massive effort to stay out of trouble this year, and I don't think they've got the players or the fight to do it.
One to Watch: Another manager - Paul Hart. He's never really been given a fair crack of the whip in management, and Pompey is hardly the most stable club, but Hart has a real eye for young players and it will be interesting to see how he shapes Pompey's ageing team that is slowly being asset stripped. If you're a young player at Fratton Park this year, you may well get some unexpected first team action.
Fantasy League Pick: Bit of a struggle this..... Kranjcar scores some handy goals, I suppose.
If they were a drink, they'd be......Dark Rum. Cheap, nasty and often to be found in shacks near the sea.
Burnley's promotion was an amazing story, but surely they haven't got the quality to compete? Their fans are likely to be loved by everyone as they sing their hearts out in the biggest stadiums in the country, but everyone loves a plucky loser, don't they? Let's just hope we don't see too much of professional Burnley fan Alastair Campbell on Match of the Day, eh?
One to Watch: Owen Coyle. It will be one hell of a story if he can keep this lot up.
Fantasy League Pick: Robbie Blake. Championship player of the year last season, in my opinion. If anyone is going to score points for Burnely, he will.
If they were a drink, they'd be......Advocaat. Unfashionable, rarely seen in polite society and probably finished at Christmas.
It's a very average looking division this year, and even though the top 4 is looking a little harder to pick than usual, the places from 7th down could be filled by almost anyone. It's very much a three tier division, I think. But we'll see. Here's to an exciting, action-packed season with Wolves staying up!
...Liverpool. As if!