Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Nani for Manchester Utd (vs Manchester City), 7th August 2011

ST's annual(-ish) Premier League Predictions

Look, let's be honest about this: predicting the results of the Premier League is a fool's errand.  Not that this stops everybody from doing it, of course.  In case you hadn't noticed, top flight football is back in England this weekend, and you will already have read in-depth analysis of each of the twenty teams in the league in every single newspaper, most magazines and heard previews all over the radio.  The fundamental problem with every single one of these previews is the basic predictability of the league: most people are agreed on the entire top 7, many with Manchester Utd as champions and arguing over the odd place here or there for the rest.  Below Everton, who seem to have a consensus of opinion that backs them as being better than most, but not THAT good, the rest is a bun fight where the remaining 13 sides in the league appear to be much of a muchness.  A good or bad start could mean that the rest of the season is determined in the first five games: pushing for the top 10 or a battle against relegation.

The Premier League likes to market itself as being the BEST LEAGUE IN THE WORLD, but the overall quality seems to have dropped, and if Manchester Utd win it again, and we're left picking the bones out of the race to finish 4th and to avoid the drop, where does that really leave the league?  Don't get me wrong: I'm a Wolves fan and I relish the fact that, in spite of escaping the drop by the skin of our teeth last time, we could harbour serious hopes of making a step up and finishing much more comfortably in the league...without ever really troubling the top 6.  Although, it should be remembered that even lowly Wolves managed to get wins last season against Manchester Utd, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs.  Were we really so surprised that Barcelona outclassed the team that outclassed the rest of the league?

I was reminded of another problem with the Premier League when listening to the radio the other night.  Steve Claridge was positively frothing at the mouth in incredulity at Arsene Wenger's failure to sign a dominant centre half or a big centre forward.   Apart from the absurd situation that sees someone like him -- a journeyman ex-pro with precisely no managerial experience -- commenting on a much garlanded managerial legend like Wenger, the sheer lack of context is breathtaking.  Arsenal do have challenges this season, but most people see them pushing for a top 4 finish again this year.  How many other teams in the league would kill to have problems like the ones they have?  If you think the coverage of the riots has been overwhelmingly London-centric, then the coverage of the Premier League is overwhelmingly focused on three or four clubs: both Manchester clubs, Liverpool and Arsenal in particular. 

Perhaps you can't really blame the media, maybe this is what the fans really want to see.  Look at the number of comments on the Guardian's pre-season previews: the preview of Swansea currently has 74 comments, the preview of Manchester Utd has 1,194.... with most fans regurgitating things in their comments that they have seen in the media with a bit of added bile and partisanship thrown in for good measure. Real, insightful comment is rare.... just as it is in the articles above the line.

Come on then, let's get this (mostly) annual shambles on the road.  Bear in mind that I tipped Liverpool under Benitez to win the league in this once.  They didn't.  They finished 7th and their manager left the club.  Hmmm.   I'll try not to labour this too much: the main thing is our predictions for the league table.  As with everybody else's previews, the rest is basically nonsense.

Here we go then.  Enjoy.

1 Manchester Utd
LB’s prediction: 1st
Last season 1st

There's a pretty good argument that says that, although they've had a busy summer in the transfer market and may yet add a certain Dutch maestro from Inter, Manchester Utd have strengthened their squad without strengthening their strongest XI.  As their victory in the Community Shield would seem to indicate, they can probably expect to run away with the league again this year.  Bragging rights over Liverpool aside, isn't the club's real target to overhaul Barcelona to become the champion club of Europe?  Given how comfortably beaten they were in the final last year, and given the signings that Barcelona have (or are about to) make, is that realistic?  They'll win the league again.  What more needs to be said?  More importantly, he's a great manager, but how much longer do we have to put up with Alex Ferguson either refusing to speak to the media at all (the BBC, anyway.  Mike Phelan?  Seriously?) or listen to his inanely childish "mind games".  Are we so in thrall to everything about this club that we will play out anything they say as news, regardless of how banal it is?  Wait, don't answer that.

One to Watch: Tom Cleverley – the new Paul Scholes?
Fantasy Pick: Hernandez – goal sniffer supreme.
The gaffer is: Older than Ryan Giggs.

2 Manchester City
LB’s prediction 2nd
Last season 3rd

Mario Ballotelli. I'm not a City fan, but if I was I would surely be close to the point of deciding that no matter how talented he might be, he can't be worth the effort. I reckon I'd be pretty close to coming to the same conclusion about Carlos Tevez too. By all accounts Sergio Aguero is a genius though, and Mancini seems to have a steely core about him that belies his rather dapper image. I'm increasingly getting the impression that he's the kind of guy who doesn't take all that much shit. Ignore all that fluff about their own club jet and how the owner personally controls 10% if the world's oil reserves... even forget if you can quite how much money they've spent on the squad. The bottom line is that Mancini is slowly putting together a side that may be able to mount a bid for the title. Laugh at them as nouveau-riche vulgarions sitting in a stadium that they initially designed without a trophy cabinet. It's surely only a matter of time, isn't it? If there's steel in Mancini, then there's steel in his side too. This season is too early, but they're beginning to look ominous.

One to Watch: It’s got to be Sergio Aguero, hasn’t it?
Fantasy Pick: Joe Hart’s clean sheet record is worth a look
The gaffer is: big scarfed and well coiffed.

3 Chelsea
LB’s prediction 3rd
Last season 2nd

They're ageing and have a lot of their players seemingly prepared to sit out the end of their contracts, but Chelsea may just be a force again this season after a period of relative calm. The reason: André Villas-Boas. Perhaps it's all hype and wishful thinking, but there just might be a touch of the Mourinho's about this guy. Hell, if he can get this lot playing exciting, attacking football, then winning the league should be a cinch. Frank Lampard has been off the boil a bit recently, but he's actually grown on me in recent seasons, and I find myself hoping that he's one of those players who has a long, Indian summer at the end of his career. John Terry you can keep, though... and don't even get me started on the full back. There's something unlikeable about this particular generation of Chelsea players, and therefore about the club itself. It probably doesn't help that Roman Abramovich always looks to me like he's sneering down from the executive box. If he gives André Villas-Boas a chance (i.e. longer than a single season) and let's him make his own signings and pick his own teams, then perhaps they'll be able to make a challenge for the title. You'll notice we've predicted a third place finish though, eh?

One to Watch: Josh McEachran is making waves
Fantasy Pick: Yossi Benayoun could be the fulcrum
The gaffer is: Mini Mourinho?

4 Arsenal
LB’s prediction 4th
Last season 4th

As Steve Claridge droned on about on Five Live the other day, everybody knows that Wenger needs to sign a defender, a striker and probably a goalkeeper. Well, he's sort of right, isn't he? It was unthinkable not that long ago, but the storm clouds seem to be gathering around Arsene Wenger. He has money, we're told, and yet he seems to stubbornly refuse to spend it on anything other than lightweight teenage midfielders. Worse: the club look likely to lose two massively influential figures in Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas. These are interesting times to be an Arsenal fan, and no mistake. Perhaps he'll stun us all with both the quality of their football and their ability to guts out tough games against the likes of Bolton and Blackburn. It's not totally out of the question, and maybe Wenger will surprise us all by signing Joey Barton and Kevin Davies, but there seems to be an air of decline about this Arsenal side. Shame really. When they're a their best, they play sumptuous football. I can't see him being sacked, but what are the odds on Wenger walking out at some point this year?

One to Watch: Arsene Wenger. May blow up this year.
Fantasy Pick: Gervinho
The gaffer is: apparently unable to sign a dominating centre half

5 Liverpool
LB’s prediction 5th
Last season 6th

Ugh. I'm not even going to give them the satisfaction of a preview. They seem to have a media profile vastly in excess of any of their recent success on the field, and I haven't got the energy to make any predictions for them.

One to Watch: Luis Suarez. Electric
Fantasy Pick: Is Charlie Adam really the new Xabi Alonso? Really?
The gaffer is: Mostly incomprehensible

6 Tottenham Hotspur
LB’s prediction 6th
Last season 5th

Harry Redknapp probably couldn't believe his luck when he got this job, and he's used his wheeler-dealing to build a pretty handy side that got some amazing results last year, especially in Europe. If he can keep Gareth Bale fit, then who knows what's possible, but I can't help but feel that they've peaked. How can you build a side when your best players are turning their gaze elsewhere in order to further their career. Modric took a while to fill his potential at White Hart Lane, and the club put a lot of faith in him.... but he seems to want to leave. If he does, especially if he ends up at another Premier League club, then that's not a very good sign is it? They'll probably defend appallingly and thrill us with their passing and attacking intent, but I doubt they'll be consistent enough to seriously push for a top 4 finish again. Shame really... it's good to mix it up at the top a bit, and it was definitely fun while it lasted.

One to Watch: Heurelho Gomes. Clangers a go-go.
Fantasy Pick: Bale or van de Vaart are obvious. Friedel maybe?
The gaffer is: over performing?

7 Everton
LB’s prediction 7th
Last season 7th

Solid. I'm not sure what else to say, really. I have to take my hat off to Phil Neville though: I assumed that when he left Manchester Utd, he would be revealed as being not all that good and that he had won 50 caps for England simply by playing in an outstanding side. I was wrong - he's a gutsy, hard-working player with a lot of skill and he's a great captain. He's surprisingly eloquent and he scored an amazing goal against Wolves at Molineux last season. A credit to his profession. I wonder how long David Moyes will stay though, making the most from limited resources and consistently over-performing on a shoe-string. Until Sir Alex retires, maybe?

One to Watch: Ross Barkley – another talented young English midfielder
Fantasy Pick: Phil Jagielka – well, might still sign for Arsenal.
The gaffer is: in need of a move?

8 Sunderland
LB’s prediction 8th
Last season 10th

In the end, not a bad season last year, although with ten games to go, they looked as though they might be in some serious trouble. Since then, Steve Bruce has brought in almost an entire team of new players. Once they've introduced themselves to each other, they might be able to string together a run of results on the pitch that seem them chasing up the table. Bearing in mind what I've just said about Phil Neville, it will also be interesting to see how Wes Brown and John O'Shea react to their new environment since their moves from Old Trafford. On paper, they're great additions to the squad and will add priceless experience... but can that translate onto the pitch. Is it just me, or is Steve Bruce looking increasingly like a tubby Bernard Cribbens?

Ones to Watch: John O’Shea & Wes Brown. Were they actually any good or just in a really good team for all those years? Time to find out.
Fantasy Pick: Asamoah Gyan – world player of the year nominee last season. Sebastian Larsson might be cheaper though and he scored goals at Birmingham, of all places
The gaffer is: ugly.

9 Stoke City
LB’s prediction 9th
Last season 13th

I've seen them described as 'a poor man's Sunderland', but the truth is that Tony Pulis has done an amazing job here. They might have been crushed in the cup final last season, but they are more than just holding their own in the Premier League... they seem to be getting better and better. They've always been big and strong and difficult to play, but Pulis seems to be slowly adding some real quality. They still seem to be dependent upon Rory Delap's monster throws, and they might well be distracted by a run in Europe, but this is a side on the up. How childish was it of Pulis to recall all his Peterborough loan players after they sacked Darren Ferguson though? Who was he trying to impress, exactly? Not a team many people enjoy playing, but good luck to 'em, I say. I still slightly amazed that the fans still don't really like the manager. Seriously?

One to Watch: Jonathan Woodgate. If he’s fit, then that’s a brilliant signing. If…
Fantasy Pick: Rory Delap, innit?
The gaffer is: hidden behind a baseball cap

10 Fulham
LB’s prediction 10th
Last season 8th

Mark Hughes is a plum, isn't he? Not an especially glamorous job, but I'd have Martin Jol over Hughes all day long. Jol was treated pretty badly by Spurs, in spite of doing a pretty reasonable job and Fulham have courted him patiently, kept in touch with him, and then finally landed their man. The squad has probably been overperforming, thanks more to Roy Hodgson than Hughes, but Jol might just be able to maintain that level of performance I can't see them really threatening much beyond 10th, but they're one of those clubs that seem to be well run and deserving of the success that they get. Mohammed Al Fayed gets a mixed press, but by all accounts he is a pretty good chairman prepared to back his manger to the hilt. That Michael Jackson statue is amazing though.

One to Watch: Andy Johnson. England international, apparently
Fantasy Pick: John Arne Riise… if he’s anything like he was at Liverpool, anyway. Maybe he's here mainly to babysit his brother though?
The gaffer is: underrated and back in London

11 Aston Villa
LB’s prediction 18th
Last season 9th

LB is convinced they are going to struggle this year, and given the kerfuffle over the appointment of Alex McCleish and the loss of their best performers from last season, it's really not hard to see where that opinion comes from. I'm not convinced though: they had a tough season last year and flirted with the drop-zone for quite long periods of the season. Young and Downing may have gone, but Charles N'Zogbia is a shrewd, Premier League proven performer and Shay Given is surely a more than adequate replacement from Brad Friedel. McCleish may be hated on both sides of Birmingham -- and I saw a "Love Villa, Hate McCleish" at Glastonbury this year -- but I can't help but think that he might do a job. He's no Martin O'Neill and I'm sure it won't be pretty, but I can't see them going down.

One to Watch: Shay Given. He’s good. Look out for him.
Fantasy Pick: Charles N’Zogbia. Great replacement for Ashley Young, surely?
The gaffer is: disliked by the locals. All the locals.

12 Bolton Wanderers
LB’s prediction 15th
Last season 14th

When Bolton reached the FA Cup semi-final last year, all of the coverage in the broadsheets was about Owen Coyle and what an amazing, talented, up-and-coming manager he was, and how his team was really going places. No one seemed to want to talk about Stoke at all. The result, a 4-0 tonking, rather put Coyle back into his box and may have encouraged some of the talent-spotters apparently sniffing around him to look elsewhere. Perhaps in the long-run that will be a blessing for Bolton and maybe the extra time Coyle has spent at the club will help them to take the next step. Then again, with Kevin Davies still playing up front and throwing his elbows around, the spectre of the side that Big Sam built will always be there.

One to Watch: Tom Eaves. The new Kevin Davies.
Fantasy Pick: ummm.
The gaffer is: Progressive. Although probably less so since that semi-final tonking by Stoke last season. And can you be with Davies up front? Really?

13 West Bromwich Albion
LB’s prediction 11th
Last season 11th

Roy Hodgson was treated appallingly by Liverpool fans last year: before he'd even really started, they were all parping on about how the manager of the year wasn't big enough for a club of their stature. Things didn't work out and he was quickly moved on, but he went to a club with real problems and very quickly turned their season right around. They flew up the table and out of trouble. Fans will be hoping they can get a better start this year and push on, but a season of stability would probably be no bad thing either. Was their a better striker in the league than Peter Odemwingie last year, by the way? 15 goals playing for this side? Amazing performance.

One to Watch: Ben Foster – his career seems to have stalled
Fantasy Pick: Peter Odemwingie – 15 goals last year got Juve interested (although personally, I have a soft spot for Zoltan Gera)
The gaffer is: better than Liverpool fans deserved

14 Newcastle Utd
LB’s prediction 14th
Last season 12th

Another one of those clubs where many fans seem to have very firm ideas about the kind of club they are supporting and the kind of football they should be playing. Better to lose every game 4-3 than win every game 1-0, they told Sam Allardyce. WTF? Do they know how league tables work? The club has been run by morons for almost as long as I can remember, from Freddie Shepherd's lot to the current Mike Ashley regime. They've made a hatful of money out of the sale of Andy Carroll to Liverpool, but how much of that has been used to strengthen the team? Joey Barton, for one, is clearly not impressed. In fact, Barton's Nietzsche and Morrissey quoting Twitter feed may be the most entertaining thing about the club in the coming season. Poor old Alan Pardew. He's not very exciting, and I get the feeling that he generally talks a better game than anything else, but he's on a hiding to nothing here, isn't he? (unless you take the view that, with his career record, he was damn lucky to get this job in the first place...) I seem to be predicting a lot of clubs to decline this season. Well, here's another one.

One to Watch: Joey Barton – whether he plays or not.
Fantasy Pick: Fabricio Colocinni. Great hair.
The gaffer is: on a fool’s errand

15 Wolverhampton Wanderers
LB’s prediction 13th
Last season 17th

I'm biased, of course... there seems to be a prevailing view that Wolves were unlucky last year, and that staying up was no less than we deserved after our gutsy performances against many of the top 6 sides. The alternative view, and one held by Mick McCarthy, I'm sure, is that the league table doesn't lie. We were bottom at Christmas and damn lucky to escape the drop on the last day of the season. It's no good beating Liverpool away if you lose to Wigan at home the very next game. Sure, we've played some decent football at times, but we've also conceded far too many goals. The signing of Roger Johnson, immediately installed as the club captain, was a good one and he should go a long way towards staunching the flow of goals, but I'm not convinced that he's going to be enough on his own. I love big George Elokobi to bits, but is he really a premier league quality defender (although his winner against Utd counts in his favour, obviously). Jamie O'Hara adds a touch of guile to the middle of the park, but have we got the goals? Sylvain Ebanks-Blake has never quite lived up to his promise in the top division, but have we got a 20 goal striker in the side? Doyle and Fletcher have been good for us, but neither is exactly prolific (the snobbery of Arsenal fans when confronted with the rumour that Wenger might be looking to sign Doyle was astonishing and insulting, by the way. I'd have him over Bendtner any day of the week). I expect us to improve this season, but we're like many of the other sides down here: we could finish 10th or we could get relegated. Interesting times. McCarthy is a stone cold legend, though. His press conferences must be worth the trip on their own.

One to Watch: Michael Kightley. Much injured, but at his best he’s a better player than Matt Jarvis.  Looked a bit tubby in pre-season, mind (if not as tubby as Sylvain Ebanks-Blake)
Fantasy Pick: Jamie O’Hara will be the lynchpin and will score goals
The gaffer is: loud, honest and funny

16 QPR
LB’s prediction 19th
Last season promoted

Well, this one could really go either way, couldn't it? Warnock has been here before, and he's a decent, experienced manager... but the club environment isn't exactly what you'd call stable, is it? Promoted clubs have done okay over the last few years, in spite of the immediate tendency to put them amongst the favourites for the drop. They were 1st in the Championship last season, at a canter, and you'd expect them to have the financial backing to make a go of it. Really, it's pretty hard to tell though, isn't it? As always, it may depend on how they start. Bolton, Everton, Wigan, Newcastle, Wolves. They could get off to a flyer.... or they could be about to learn just how big the step up in class really is. I remember our first fixture in the Premiership when we got promoted via the playoffs: Charlton at home. It's the kind of game you fancy you might be able to do something, and they put 4 past us. It was the start of a very long season indeed. Much depends upon QPR's first month of the season.

One to Watch: Neil Warnock. He won’t be able to help himself.
Fantasy Pick: Hmm. Adel Taarabt should get goals, assists and bookings
The gaffer is: the new Ian Holloway, who was – of course – the new Neil Warnock

17 Wigan Athletic
LB’s prediction 16th
Last season 16th

Well, Roberto Martinez officially seems to be a hot property as a manager and is likely also entirely secure in his job. Wigan escaped relegation on the last day of the season, but Dave Whelan is so in love with Roberto that he wouldn't have sacked him even if they had gone down. He allowed Aston Villa to approach his manager in the close season, confident the approach would be rebuffed... and it was. The love affair, it seems, is mutual. It's widely expected that Whelan will allow Martinez to leave to go to a bigger club at some point in the near future, but I'm sure the plan will be to do that in an orderly fashion during the close season. The problem is that football doesn't always work like that. Wigan have done brilliantly since coming into the division, in spite of the fact that they are one of those clubs who discover players who they then can't stop from moving on to bigger clubs in the division. Charles N'Zogbia will be a big loss for them, and it remains to be seen if they can keep on unearthing the players who keep them in the division. I predict a struggle, but maybe they're one of those clubs who can all pull together to beat the odds. I can't help but root for them.

One to Watch: Victor Moses – promising young stiker, if he gets his chance
Fantasy Pick: David Jones. Always liked him at wolves.
The gaffer is: unsackable?

18 Blackburn Rovers
LB’s prediction 20th
Last season 15th

With apologies to GJ, who sits next to me at work and is a Blackburn fan, but it looks like it's going to be a long, hard season at Ewood Park this year. A change in ownership, the appointment of Steve Keen as manager and an air of general uncertainty all seemed to contribute to a season that only saw them safe from relegation on the final day of the season (when, to be fair, they raced to an early 3-0 lead against Wolves at Molineux). Venky's, the new owners, have spoken of their belief that Blackburn can finish in the top 4, and have apparently made approaches for the likes of Ronaldinho, Marco Vucinic, van Nistelrooy, Kaka and Robinho, but the likelihood is that Keen will start the season with a cloud over his head and unrealistic expectations in the boardroom. Their start to the season doesn't look too bad (Wolves again, followed by Villa, Everton and Fulham), but I've got a bad feeling about them. With no disrespect to Keen, it feels like a mid-season change of manager waiting to happen, and I can't believe that's going to help them. Phil Jones has gone (to Man Utd) and his partner in the defence, Chris Samba, may well be on his way out of the club too. It doesn't exactly shout consistency, does it? A long season ahead, I'm afraid. I'm not sure Ronaldinho would be all that much help, to be honest. Michel Salgado is a legend though.

One to Watch: David Goodwillie. Can he score goals south of the border? He wasn’t all that good up there, was he?
Fantasy Pick: Hmm. Experienced keeper and good defence, but would you risk it?
The gaffer is: 1st to be sacked

19 Norwich City
LB’s prediction 12th
Last season promoted

I can't see it, can you? I know the Premier League is a goldmine, but this is a club that had to refinance their debt only last season, so spraying the money around in an attempt to stay up simply isn't on the cards for them. Maybe they're looking at the Watford model of management: budget to be in the championship and then take the odd season in the top division as a financial bonus. It's a bit depressing for the fans, but it's perhaps the most sensible approach a small club like this can take. They played good football last year, but where are the goals coming from? Delia will no doubt be loving it, but Norwich may win the award for best away fans and lots of friends this year, but little else. Still 2 promotions in 2 seasons isn't bad going, eh? Paul Lambert looks to be a good manager with a ruthless streak (he's told several of last season's promotion winning squad that they won't be required) and you never know. A good start against Wigan and who knows where they might go. LB clearly rates them... 15th, eh?

One to Watch: Grant Holt. Legend. Unit. Not necessarily in that order.
Fantasy Pick: Russell Martin, if only because he’s called “The Norfolk Cafu”
The gaffer is: doing a great job

20 Swansea City
LB’s prediction 17th
Last season promoted

This season's Blackpool: promoted via the playoffs with a brand of attractive football and virtually everyone's tip for the drop. Still, 9 years ago the club needed to win their last game of the season (at Hull) to avoid dropping out of the football league entirely, so the fact that they're here at all is a pretty amazing story. Manager Brendan Rodgers has some interesting players at his disposal: Leroy Lita, Luke Moore, Craig Beattie, Danny Graham, Joe Allen.... who knows, if they take Blackpool's example and stick to their principles against the big boys, then who knows what they could achieve? Like Blackpool, I have them going down, but LB gives them a chance. Opening game of the season? Man City. Ouch.

One to Watch: Angel Rangel. A rapper’s name if ever I heard one. More realistically, Scott Sinclair scored 23 goals last season and will need to score plenty again this year to give his side a chance.
Fantasy Pick: Wayne Routledge. England U21 and on the fringes of the senior squad, once upon a time. Now 26 he has a lot to prove.
The gaffer is: a club legend already, presumably.  Nicknamed "Buck", obviously.

In summary then….

# My Predictions: LB's Predictions:
1Man UtdMan Utd
2Man CityMan City
11Aston VillaWest Brom
12Bolton WanderersNorwich
13West BromWolves
18BlackburnAston Villa

Enjoy the season everyone.

What do you reckon will happen?

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