Saturday, 14 August 2010

Premier League Preview - Tough at the top

Top of the table is the glamorous place to be, especially in the cash soaked English Premier League. Glory and riches await the teams at the top, but not everyone can get everything they want.

Last season, for the first time in five years, the top four was broken by a new side. This along with a massive cash injection for a Manchester based team has shaken up the usually predictable Title and Champions League races. Champions Chelsea come into the 2010/11 Premier League season as favourites to regain the trophy. Carlo Ancelotti has had a small clear out of unwanted players, and has brought in Yossi Benayoun from Liverpool and Brazil international Ramires from Benfica. A big boost for Chelsea is the return of Michael Essien, who was sorely missed in the Champions League last season. Chelsea arguably still have the strongest team in the division and will be difficult to knock off their perch.

It could be interesting this season to watch the two teams from Manchester battle it out for league superiority. Manchester City have spent huge amounts of money once again this summer, but must overcome their lingering inferiority complex when it comes to competing against Manchester United. On paper it would appear that City have put together a squad which is as talented as it is deep. They have cover in every position, and a good mix of flair, strength and firepower throughout. The additions of Yaya Toure, David Silva and Mario Balotelli show the rest of the league just how serious a threat Manchester City will be this season. United on the other hand have not made any major improvements to their squad for some time. The arrival of Javier Hernandez is somewhat exciting, however United may find that City’s challenge is ultimately too fierce.

Arsenal still have a good chance of making an assault of the title, but in recent years they seem to have been muscled out at crucial times by the top two. Man Utd and Chelsea both beat Arsenal home and away last season and looked relatively comfortable doing so. This will be a worry for Arsene Wenger, and he will hope that his side can show more strength when under pressure this season. The signing of Marouane Chamakh could be a very good one for Arsenal, he is skillful and good in the air and offers the team a different kind of option up front. Wenger will also be hoping that Cesc Fabregas and Robin Van Persie can stay fit throughout 2010/11, unlike last season when their absence was crucial.

Down the road, Arsenal’s local rivals Tottenham are aiming to build on last year’s fantastic season. With a Champions League playoff coming up against Young Boys of Bern, Spurs should make it through to the group stages. It is therefore conceivable that Spurs may take their eye off the league and concentrate on progressing to the knockout rounds in Europe. With such fierce competition this year for the top four places, this may not be a bad choice. The Spurs fans are not demanding another top four finish, although it would obviously be desirable. A glamorous run in the Champions League, and a solid top five finish in the Premier League would be an excellent season for the team from White Hart Lane. However, there is a possibility that Tottenham may spend some money in the transfer market after they have secured their Champions League place, so Spurs can still hope for a repeat of last season.

The last two sides aiming to force their way up the table from last season are the two Merseyside clubs. Liverpool and Everton could find themselves fighting it out for league superiority, with Liverpool perhaps no longer in the stronger position. Roy Hodgson has bought wisely over the summer and proved once again last season that his managerial ability is not in question. The arrival Joe Cole, Christian Poulsen and Milan Jovanovic could see Liverpool return to the top four this season, but with things so new and unpredictable at Anfield, it is unlikely that they will be able to maintain their form throughout the long and competitive season. David Moyes’ Everton on the other hand are far from new or unpredictable, and their run towards the end of last season shows that they are most likely to improve on last year.

An interesting and hopefully exciting season awaits at both the top and bottom of the Premier League this year. Teams like Tottenham and Everton are closer to Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal than they have ever been, and Manchester City’s millions are set to throw everything up in the air. Where will the pieces fall?

Premier League Preview - Middle Ground

Unlike the bottom of the Premier League, the middle can be rather uninspiring. Certain teams seem to win more than enough games to avoid the relegation dogfight, but are still a million miles away from threatening any of the league’s big guns. Fulham and Sunderland look to me to be this season’s ordinary boys. Expect to see an equal amount of wins, draws and losses from these two as they successfully tread water through to May 2011. Roy Hodgson’s departure from the Cottagers is a real blow, and Mark Hughes faces a pretty difficult task if he aims to improve on last season. Bolton struggled last year, finishing with only 39 points. However, Owen Coyle has been in charge for 7 months now, and he starts this season with a competent Bolton side who are playing prettier football than under Megson. Bolton are in a much more healthy position than half the teams in the league this time around. Blackburn Rovers are also led by a talented English manager who has shaped them into a solid team capable of staying in the middle ground.

Following Monday’s news of Martin O’Neill’s departure from Aston Villa, it is now much more likely that they will struggle to maintain their lofty finishes of recent seasons. With James Milner also looking set to leave, Aston Villa may find that they cannot consistently compete with the teams at the top. Villa seem strapped for cash, and their squad has never been renowned for its depth as it is. This season could see Villa graciously fall away.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Premier League Preview - Fighting to stay up

Huge gaps in spending power break England’s top league effectively into 3 separate divisions. Teams in the middle cannot dream of competing with the mega-rich at the top, and teams at the bottom very rarely manage to avoid the dreaded pull of the relegation fight. The Premier League is a very predictable competition, especially when compared with the Football League. Newly promoted Blackpool for instance were tipped to go down last season, only to gain promotion via the playoffs after finishing 6th. The top 6 or 7 in the Premier League are almost permanent fixtures, and things are unlikely to change this year.

The bottom of the Premier League is a difficult and competitive place to be, and especially so this season. New boys Blackpool are hotly tipped to finish bottom of the league, and while I am not inclined to disagree, it should be fun watching the Tangerines this season. Manager Ian Holloway is quite the character and has suggested that his side will be playing some rather ambitious football this season. Holloway said "After watching the World Cup I've realised we need to get more like Spain" "You have to caress the ball, you've got to love it. We need more tiki-taka." Also expected to return straight back down to the Championship are West Bromwich Albion, although Roberto Di Matteo is a promising young manager, and hopefully can go some way to proving himself. West Brom have been up and down more than most over the past decade, but this experience could help them towards the end of the season. The Baggies have made a few solid purchases that are unlikely to stretch the finances beyond their limits, and I can see them just avoiding relegation this season. Teams such as Birmingham City and Stoke City, who did reasonably well last season, may find things a struggle this time around. Both these sides were difficult to beat at home, but Stoke in particular are likely to come up against teams who are fully prepared for the physical side of their play this season. Neither Wolves nor Wigan managed to reach the supposedly magical 40 points last season, yet stayed up because of very poor competition below them. This season’s relegation battle is likely to be far closer, and Wolves and Wigan are set to be involved in the fight. West Ham and Newcastle should be able to avoid the drop, but they both run the risk of being dragged into it all. Newcastle have made some good signings including Sol Campbell and Dan Gosling, while West Ham have brought in Frederic Piquionne and Thomas Hitzlsperger, and if they manage to keep hold of Scott Parker, they should be ok.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Spurs must seize their chance

Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool have dominated English football for the past decade. The Champions League has been a private playground for these four clubs, and their domination resulted in them being dubbed the ’big four’. In the past 10 years English sides have qualified for the Champions League group stages 37 times, with 35 of those achieved by the ‘big four’. Outside of these four teams, only Leeds United in 2000 and Newcastle United in 2002 have made it into Europe’s finest club competition proper. Newcastle and Everton failed to get past the Third qualifying round in 2003 and 2005 respectively. This trend has been great for the ‘big four’ clubs, but rather embarrassing for the rest of England’s top division. Many neutrals wanted to see a new name in the top four of the Premier League, and last season saw Tottenham Hotspur finish fourth after years of near misses and disappointing shortcomings.

Last season’s fourth place finish has entered Tottenham into the relatively new Champions League Play-off round. The draw was yesterday and Spurs received what would appear to be a pretty straight forward outcome. Tottenham were drawn against Swiss side Young Boys, avoiding the likes of Sampdoria, Auxerre and Dynamo Kiev. In another bonus, the second leg will take place at White Hart Lane on August 25. Back in 2005 Everton were rather unfortunate when they were drawn against Villarreal, who went on to reach the Semi-Finals, eliminating Manchester United (in the group) along the way. Spurs have dodged such bad luck with their draw and have been given an ideal chance to add some fresh English blood to the Champions League for the first time in eight years.

Harry Redknapp has built a large, strong and talented squad over the last season or so. His team has a fantastic home record, and the win at Eastlands at the end of last season which cliched fourth place, was a superb display, showing how far Tottenham have come. Should Tottenham advance to the group stages of the Champions League, I believe that they have a very good chance of making it to the knockout rounds, considering their big squad and strength at White Hart Lane. They proved all their doubters wrong last season, and now Spurs must seize their chance to test themselves at the highest level.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Calm before the storm

Over three weeks have passed since Andres Iniesta’s extra time goal secured the World Cup for Spain. South Africa 2010 is now a distant memory, thoughts of Soccer City have faded and club football is almost ready to get going once again.

The European transfer market may have been a little quieter than last year, but some significant signings have definitely been made. David Villa’s €40 move to Barcelona back in May is clearly the summer’s biggest move. Other notable moves include Yaya Toure & David Silva joining the Manchester City project, and Sami Khedira getting a transfer to Real Madrid. There is still a month left until the window shuts, and hopefully we’ll see a late flurry of exciting transfer action.

This Saturday, Ligue 1 is the first major European top division to begin. The English Premier League starts on August 14, while the Bundesliga gets going a week later on the 21st. We must wait until August 28 for La Liga’s and Serie A’s opening fixtures. We also have the Champions League Playoff Round to look forward to, with both legs taking place this month.

Below are a selection of the best games coming up in August across the top leagues in Europe:

Saturday, August 14
Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester City

Sunday, August 15
Liverpool v Arsenal

Friday, August 20
Bayern Munich v Wolfsburg

Monday, August 23
Manchester City v Liverpool

Saturday, August 28
Bordeaux v Marseille

Sunday, August 29
Fiorentina v Napoli
Sampdoria v Lazio
Mallorca v Real Madrid