This season looks to be one of the most exciting and most difficult to predict yet. All three of last year’s top three teams have changed managers and the future of key players such as Wayne Rooney, Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez are still up in the air. Is the Mourinho factor alone enough to help Chelsea challenge for the title? Will signing Rooney make them title favourites? Can City’s new manager Manuel Pellegrini settle the squad and integrate new players quickly? Will Tottenham Hotspur manage to fend off interest from Real Madrid in Gareth Bale? Will the promoted teams make signings and hit the ground running or will they struggle to adapt to life in the Premier League? These questions are unlikely to be answered until the close of the transfer window making predicting the league even more difficult. Nevertheless, here is my attempt at predicting what will happen over the 9 months of the Premier League season.
This season’s title will not be won anywhere near as easily as last season’s where Manchester United cantered to the title and effectively had it wrapped up by March. The return of the self-anointed special one Jose Mourinho will certainly galvanise Chelsea who showed glimpses of brilliance last season despite playing over 60 competitive games in all competitions. The play making trio of Mata, Hazard and Oscar give them a creativity that was lacking under Mourinho’s previous reign but they still need a proven goal scorer as neither Torres or Ba fit that role, and as outstanding as Lukaka was on loan at West Bromich Albion last season, he has yet to be proven at the very highest level. The rumoured signing of Rooney would certainly tilt the odds of them regaining the Premier League crown they last won in 2010. Yet with Manchester United repeatedly claiming the striker is not for sale and most of Europe’s other top strikers having already moved it is hard to see Chelsea quite having enough to win the title though they will certainly be challenging until the very end. Manchester United have yet to make any significant signings although Wilfred Zaha, a January signing from Crystal Palace, has joined up with the club and impressed on their pre-season tour. This lack of signings and the uncertainty of how David Moyes will settle has seen United written off for the title in most quarters with bookies having them as third favourites behind neighbours Manchester City and Chelsea. Yet nobody should write this team off as despite regularly being decreed as a weak Manchester United team in recent years they did win the title comfortably and were eliminated from the Champions League in arguably unfortunate circumstances. Keeping Rooney will be crucial as he contributes far more than goals and rumoured signings of Cesc Fabergas and Luka Modric will provide some creativity that has been lacking in midfield and ease the burden on Michael Carrick. Despite this I do agree with the bookies and think that a period of transition will see United finish third place in the league as a tough start with games against Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City in the first six games will leave them playing catch up, although a cup run will ease any restlessness from the fans.
The final contender for the title is Manchester City who moved early in the transfer window to add Jesus Navas, Fernandinho, Alvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetic for combined transfer fees of almost £100m. Whilst Negredo and Jovetic are replacements for the departed Mario Balotelli and Carlos Tevez, Fernandinho will help bolster a midfield over-reliant on the excellent Yaya Toure last season, and Navas will provide some width that was absent under Roberto Mancini. By selling Balotelli in January and Tevez this summer, whilst shepherding out a manager who was too quick to criticise his players publicly, City are hoping to bring some stability and harmony to the club. Manuel Pellegrini has been lauded for his man-management skills and he got the best out of Villareal and Malaga who both punched above their weight under his stewardship. The board and owners will be hoping that both manager and signings settle in quickly and with winnable games against Newcastle, Stoke and promoted clubs Cardiff and Hull all up before the Manchester derby they will have the chance to get points on the board early. Less of a circus and more strength in depth will see them win the title this year for me.
Prediction: Manchester City
Champions League Places
If the title is to be fought out between the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea this leaves North London duo Arsenal and Spurs once again set to fight it out for the all-important final Champions League position. Spurs manager Andre Villas Boas last season bemoaned the lack of transfer activity early in the window, leading to a slow start whereby Spurs only secured two points from their first three games against Newcastle, West Bromich Albion and Norwich, all winnable games (they won two and drew the other in the return matches). This has been avoided this season with Chairman Daniel Levy backing his manager with the impressive additions of Paulinho and record signing Roberto Soldado, whilst Etienne Capoue will allow Mousa Dembele to push further up the pitch and control the game more. The return to fitness of Sandro will also seem like a new signing. Yet much continues to reside on whether Gareth Bale remains at the club. If he does Spurs are firm favourites to secure the fourth Champions League place and perhaps even challenge further up the league. Losing him does not automatically mean the club will fail the secure Champions League football, but it will be more difficult despite their strengthening. Neighbours Arsenal have got rid of much of the dead wood from their squad but have yet to strengthen at all bar the free signing of 20 year old Yaya Sanogo from Auxerre on a free transfer, hardly a signing to appease the fans or worry their rivals. Yet both the board and manager Arsene Wenger insist that a marquee signing will arrive – the club have a rumoured £80m war chest for transfers – with an almost £50m bid lodged for Liverpool troublemaker Luiz Suarez. Despite missing the first eight games of the season as he serves his ban for biting Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovich the signing of Suarez will show real ambition for a team too often accused of being a selling club in recent seasons, and will make Arsenal’s challenge for fourth place easier, although Suarez alone will not lead to a title push. If Spurs lose Bale and Arsenal gain Suarez it is very difficult to see past the Gunners spoiling their neighbours Champions League aspirations once again. If Bale stays and Arsenal sign Suarez then the battle will be captivating. Much will depend on the final fortnight of the transfer window for both these teams but after writing of Arsenal’s chances again last season I am not prepared to do so again and think Arsene Wenger will continue his North London dominance.
Prediction: Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal
Last season I predicted one of the relegated teams successfully (Wigan) whilst one of my other predictions finish in eighth (West Bromich Albion) and never once looked like being in trouble. This year is no easier to predict and once again it is the promoted teams that will be favourites to go down. Of the three that have come up Cardiff look the most equipped to remain in the division. Recent trips to Wembley in both the FA Cup and League Cup finals, where they held their own against Premiership opposition both times, have given Cardiff a taste of the quality needed to play in the Premier League. They have already broken their record transfer fee three times this summer with the signings of striker Andrew Cornelius, impressive centre back Steven Caulker and defensive midfielder Gary Medel from Sevilla. Adding top flight experience was vital and along with Craig Bellamy they should have enough to trouble many of the teams in the league and stave off relegation. It won’t be easy and 17th will be the target but I expect them to secure a second season of Premier League football. Crystal Palace have recognised the need to score goals in order to stay in the division but aging striker Kevin Phillips and Arsenal flop Marouane Chamakh are hardly the most inspiring whilst Dwight Gale, an arrival from League One Peterborough, is unproven at this level. Palace limped over the line in the Championship last season winning only one of their last 10 games yet saw off fancied teams Brighton and Watford in the play-off semi-final, and final, respectively. The loss of Zaha to Manchester United will hit them hard yet they have some impressive players in Yannick Bolasie, Mile Jedinal and young Welshman Jonathan Williams. But the lack of top flight experience is likely to count against them and it is hard to see Crystal Palace remaining in the league and breaking their hoodoo of an immediate return after promotion. It will be good to have Ian Holloway back though! Hull City are a team with a manager who has a point to prove after feeling he was unfairly dismissed at Sunderland during his last stint in the division. Steve Bruce has experience of fighting off relegation following spells with both Birmingham City and Wigan, the latter of which finished 11th in his last season. The free signings of Steve Harper, Curtis Davies and Maynor Figueroa, the loan signings of Jake Livermoe and Danny Graham, and £5m signing Tom Huddlestone add a lot of Premier League experience to the team, although Bruce will be hoping that Graham can recreate his form from Swansea rather than his disappointing six month spell at Sunderland which yielded no goals. Another striker looks like it is necessary but Bruce has signed well and Hull will be confident they can avoid relegation, as am I.
Of the other clubs in the Premier League Aston Villa look most likely to face relegation from the Premier League for the first time. Darren Bent, a peripheral player under Paul Lambert, has left for Fulham and whilst the club has brought in replacements, none with Premier League experience have arrived. The signs are that Christian Benteke will remain with the club after interest from elsewhere but whilst his goals kept Villa from falling through the Premier League trap door last season it is difficult seeing this being enough again as a young and inexperienced squad will continue to struggle, despite assertions that last season’s relegation dogfight will have provided valuable experience. I expect the final relegation place to be decided between Stoke and Newcastle. Stoke have enjoyed a relatively comfortable stay in the Premier League since they were promoted under Tony Pulis but it seems results and survival are no longer enough for most fans, who also want to play attractive football. This led to the summer departure of Pulis and Mark Hughes being signed as his replacement. Although his last job at QPR did not go well, Hughes is a good manager with an impressive record with Wales, Blackburn and Fulham, and he will have a point to prove after the disappointment at QPR. However, trying to change the playing style of the team is going to take time and if results don’t go Stoke’s way initially I expect them to revert to the long ball game that was successful under his predecessor. After an impressive season in 2011-12 Newcastle struggled last season, with a lack of goals being their main problem after Papiss Cisse failed to replicate his form, and Demba Ba departed in January. The signing of Loric Remy – unlikely to be popular with the fans after he agreed a move in January only to end up at QPR for more money – will ease the burden, but rumoured target Darren Bent has signed for Fulham and the deal for Bafetimbi Gomis seems to have hit an impasse, leaving Newcastle short of options. They do not have European commitments this season, meaning they can concentrate on the league, but the real issue is likely to come from the management structure and the ticking time bomb that is Joe Kinnear. Kinnear’s last stint at Newcastle was acrimonious to say the least, and his re-appointment began with a number of unsubstantiated claims about his achievements and signings as a manager. So far Newcastle have only recruited the aforementioned Remy since Kinnear was appointed Director of Football and tasked with signings, and it will not be long before he undermines manager Alan Pardew. After bringing some stability to the club and seemingly getting the fans onside owner Mike Ashley’s appointment of Kinnear seems like undoing his good work, and it only seems a matter of time until it blows up in his face, leaving fans to once again deal with the consequences.
Predictions: Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Newcastle
It is difficult to look past Robin van Persie to win this award again next season, particularly if Wayne Rooney, who was provider to a number of RVP’s goals, stays. He has enjoyed a couple of seasons relatively injury free and if he continues to remain fit then it is hard to see the Dutchman failing to retain the Premier League Golden Boot. He is helped by the fact that his main competitor, Luis Suarez, is missing for around a quarter of the season, with few clubs having strikers that could be considered world class. Gareth Bale might push him if he remains with Spurs, and new arrivals could hit the ground running, but with the likes of Falcao and Cavani having already moved this transfer window, RVP looks to have little competition.
Prediction: Robin Van Persie
Surprise Package of the Season
A team I expect to do well this year is West Ham. The permanent signing of Andy Carroll for £15m is a good bit of business, though more reflective of his true value than the £35m Liverpool paid for him. The signing of Stuart Downing, also from Liverpool, is also an astute bit of business. Whilst manager Sam Allardyce has said he wants Downing to replicate his form when he was playing for Aston Villa, and score more goals than he did at Liverpool, this can be taken with a pinch of salt. Though some goals from Downing wouldn’t be unwelcome, his signing seems to complement the Allardyce style of play where Downing will be deployed to do what Matt Jarvis does on the other flank, and get balls into the box for Carroll to score from or knock down to midfielder Kevin Nolan who thrives on them. Nevertheless, whilst West Ham’s game plan may be quite obvious they do have a number of good players with Joe Cole, Carroll and Downing all used to challenging for Europe. I expect West Ham to improve on their tenth place finish from last season and be in the mix for the Europa League come May.
Prediction: West Ham United