Thursday, August 11, 2005

And the rest...

Ben’s club-by-club Premiership preview:

Even the absence of a below-par Patrick Vieira (as he was last season) will leave an enormous hole in midfield. It’s doubtful whether either Gilberto or the inexperienced duo of Matthieu Flamini or Cesc Fabregas can fill it, Edu also having left for the continent. Wenger has thus far failed to recruit a new ‘keeper – neither Jens Lehmann nor Manuel Almunia being up to the standards Gunners fans have every right to expect – and there have been mutterings of discontent from Robert Pires and even Thierry Henry. The latter’s departure would be inconceivable. The only real bright spot is the arrival of Alexander Hleb, who promises goals and creativity from midfield, but they could well be pipped by Liverpool for third place this time out.

Aston Villa
With Deadly Doug gripping the purse-strings tightly, David O’Blarney has done well to attract replacements of the calibre of Kevin Phillips, Aaron Hughes, Stuart Taylor and Patrick Berger, all at a cost of little more than £3m. Darius Vassell has moved on, but in Thomas Sorensen, Olof Mellberg, Gareth Barry and Juan Pablo Angel they have a decent backbone to the side. Much depends on whether Angel can rediscover his goal-scoring form – and whether Nobby Solano can maintain his – but don’t expect any great strides forwards.

Having firmly established Birmingham as a Premiership side, cauliflower-faced boss Steve Bruce will be hoping his summer signings can propel them towards Europe. His main concern has been firepower, with former loan stars Mikael Forssell and Walter Pandiani arriving from Chelsea and Deportivo La Coruna respectively for £3m each. In Matthew Upson they have a solid centre-back, and if David Dunn can stay fit and Jermaine Pennant can stay out of jail they could do well. Either way, relegation is unlikely – more’s the pity.

Mark Hughes steadied the ship after replacing Souness, and identified attack as the area which desperately needed improvement. Hence the signings of Shefki Kuqi and – much more significantly – Craig Bellamy, set to strike up the most irritating, aggressive and pea-brained partnership in the Premiership with fellow ankle-biter Paul Dickov. With Robbie Savage, David Thompson and Tugay also lining up in midfield, visitors to Ewood Park can expect to leave bruised and battered. Morgen Gamst Pedersen is a goal threat wide on the left, but it’s the flimsy defence that will continue to give their opposition hope.

A frustrating close-season for Sam Allardyce. Despite the prospect of a venture into Europe, players have hardly jumped at the chance to join the Trotters, and so Sam’s wheeling and dealing has been at a premium. El-Hadji Diouf – the most hated player in the Premiership? – has signed permanently, and the only other arrival of note is Jared Borgetti, a 31-year-old Mexican international striker who Allardyce freely admits is an utterly unknown quantity. They may not have lost any key members of the squad – though Stelios Giannakopoulos has been repeatedly linked with Liverpool – but could this be the year their progress finally stalls? I say that every season, though.

The pick of the arrivals at The Valley is undoubtedly England U21 striker Darren Bent, poached from Ipswich. Judging by the evidence of pre-season friendlies, Bent should give the Addicks a sharper cutting edge up front. After being consigned to a peripheral role at St James’s Park, Darren Ambrose will be keen to show off his skills and cement a first-team place alongside Danny Murphy and the on-loan Alexei Smertin in the Charlton midfield. Alan Curbishley has bought and loaned astutely, but, despite performing wonders at the club, could well be out of a job come May if his relatively big-money signings Dennis Rommedahl and Francis Jeffers continue to underperform and if he again fails to solve the recurring problem of the post-Christmas slump.

Jose Mourinho has added further jewels to his already enormous Stamford Bridge stash of riches, asking Roman Abramovich to reach down the back of his sofa to find the £29m necessary to bring Shaun Wright-Phillips and Asier Del Horno to west London. The squad hasn’t ballooned, though, with fringe players Mateja Kezman, Scott Parker, Mikael Forssell and Alexei Smertin all allowed to leave. Mourinho’s only problem is to decide who starts out of Duff, Robben and Wright-Phillips. Their worst enemy could potentially be themselves, if they get too complacent and arrogant, though Frank Lampard and John Terry will do well to maintain their incredible form. Everyone else: prepare to be bulldozed.

Like Sam Allardyce, David Moyes has discovered that European football doesn’t necessarily have top-class players crawling over each other to knock at your door. Both Scott Parker and Emre turned their noses up at the prospect of becoming Toffees, tempted instead to Tyneside by the Pied-Piper-like Fat Fred and his promise of cash. Lavishing £7m on Phil Neville and Simon Davies is unlikely to have appeased the Goodison Park faithful, though defender Per Koldrup could become a Premiership star. Last season’s achievements were founded upon an incredible work ethic but also upon the goals of Tim Cahill, who won’t be allowed the same freedom in the penalty area. A return to reality with a bump is on the cards.

How this side beat us 4-1 last season remains one of the greatest mysteries of our time – and, since the transfer window opened, they’ve lost two of their best players. Edwin van der Sar has joined Man Utd, leaving uncertainty hanging over the goalkeeping position, and Andy Cole has also made the switch to the North West, signing up with Man City. Heidar Helguson, a £1.3m capture from Watford, has been playing well above Championship level for years now, and so should make the transition without too much difficultly. If they can keep hold of Steed Malbranque and Luis Boa Morte until May then they could survive, but a season of struggle awaits.

Rafa Benitez made without a doubt the best signing of the summer when he persuaded Steven Gerrard to renege on his decision to leave Anfield and commit himself to a new deal. Seven goals in Champions’ League qualifiers from the skipper have only reaffirmed his worth to the club. Heroes of the European Cup triumph Vladimir Smicer and Igor Biscan have left, and Jerzy Dudek could well follow them out of the door, but there have been new faces aplenty for a significant financial outlay: Peter Crouch, Jose Reina, Mohamed Sissoko and Boudewijn Zenden. Benitez is now blessed with a glut of strikers and needs to decide on his first-choice pair, though defensively they look to be short of cover, and that could be the only impediment to their efforts to secure a top three finish.

Man City
Even before the departures of Shaun Wright-Phillips and Jon Macken, Stuart Pearce must have been eager to boost his strike-force. Cue the arrivals of Andy Cole from Fulham and Darius Vassell, who had stagnated at Villa. If Vassell can rediscover the form he’s displayed on occasion for England, he could prove to have been a snip at £2.5m. There’s a exciting crop of youngsters coming through the ranks and defensively Richard Dunne and Sylvain Distin have established a solid partnership, but it’s hard to see scoring contributions from midfielders other than Antoine Sibierski. Mid table beckons.

Man Utd
No-one was more pleased than me to see Fish-Eyed Ferguson and his boys wind up trophyless at the end of last season – the FA Cup Final in particular was hilarious – but, as much as I’d like it to, I wouldn’t bet on it happening again. For one thing, the hapless Roy Carroll has been packed off to West Ham and Timmy Tourettes relegated to the bench to make way for the calm and unflappable Edwin van der Sar, a steal at just £2m. For another, there’s no way that a side boasting forwards of the calibre of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wayne Rooney, Alan Smith, Louis Saha, Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Scholes and now Park Ji-Sung can fail to score so regularly again. The loss of Phil Neville and Kleberson is unlikely to have prompted any wailing and gnashing of teeth in the Reds’ heartlands of Kent and Sussex, not least because they received £6m in the process.

If Steve McLaren’s bright red cheeks are anything to go by, then he really is trying to model himself on former mentor Ferguson. Whether the sour-faced Scot would have shelled out £7.5m on a very rough diamond is questionable (though he did pay that much for Diego Forlan…), but Yakubu – fast, powerful and with an eye for goal – could prove to be an invaluable asset to Boro in the likely absence of either Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink or Mark ‘Lardbucket’ Viduka. If they can stay fit, players like Gareth Southgate, Ugo Ehiogu, Stewart Downing, Gaizka Mendieta and George Boateng have sufficient ability to keep Boro in contention for Europe for the third successive season, but the speed with which Zenden jumped ship to Liverpool should have alerted the more deluded Smoggies that they’re not a big club just yet.

Such is the number of former Newcastle players turning up on the south coast – Lomano Lua Lua, Laurent Robert, Andy O’Brien and Andy Griffin – that perhaps they should build a monorail link direct from Tyneside to Fratton Park. Of course, reconstructing Toon sides of old is hardly a sure-fire route to success. As well as Robert and O’Brien, Alain Perrin has added Colombian midfielder John Viafara and former Liverpool ‘keeper Sander Westerveld to his cosmopolitan squad. Up front they’ve lost Yakubu, Diomansy Kamara and Ricardo Fuller, and it’s anyone’s guess as to who Perrin will plump for. Lua Lua should start, but Vincent Pericard and Svetoslav Todorov have both just recovered from long-term injuries and new signings Azar Karadas and Collins Mbesuma are unknown quantities. They should have enough to survive again, though O’Brien might gift the opposition the odd goal.

I’d love to see the Mackems sent back down to the Championship with their tails between their legs, and it gives me great pleasure to report that I’ve seen nothing over the course of the summer to suggest that it won’t happen. Defensively they look vulnerable, Alan Stubbs unlikely to provide solidity on his own. In a midfield packed with lower league success stories who’ll be way out of their depth in the top flight, only Julio Arca and Tommy Miller stand out. Though new signing Jon Stead may well come good after stagnating at Blackburn, there’s going to be too much pressure to score goals for his shoulders – and those of loan signing Anthony Le Tallec – to bear.

How many players do Spurs need? Martin Jol’s going to have an enormous job on his hands keeping them all happy. Of course, securing the services of Edgar Davids is a major coup. Only two seasons ago Davids – an energetic and aggressive force – sparked the revival at Barcelona that culminated in last season’s league triumph, and he’ll be a fine example for the array of youthful talent Spurs have assembled: Andy Reid, Michael Dawson, Stephen Kelly, Reto Ziegler and summer signings Tom Huddlestone, Aaron Lennon, Teemu Taino and Wayne Routledge. Michael Carrick is a classy presence in a well-stocked midfield, Ledley King assured at the back and Paul Robinson an excellent ‘keeper. The four-man strike-force of Jermain Defoe, Robbie Keane, Fredi Kanoute and Mido gives Jol plenty of options, and a UEFA Cup place should be the least of their ambitions.

West Brom
Seven minutes from relegation last term, and it’ll be a close-run thing again. Chris Kirkland has been brought in from Liverpool to provide competition for Russell Hoult, but it’s to Zoltan Gera that many Baggies fans will turn in expectation. In Gera, West Brom unearthed a real gem and, along with the on-loan Kieran Richardson, he was key to their eventual survival. Richardson has resisted Bryan Robson’s pleas for him to return, so much will depend upon how quickly Richard Chaplow finds his feet in the Premiership and how regularly Robert Earnshaw finds the net – surely he’ll start more often this season?

West Ham
Israeli midfielder Yossi Benayoun is an intriguing prospect and should bring a little class to a West Ham midfield in which Nigel Reo-Coker is a rising star, while up front burly bruiser Marlon Harewood will ruffle a few feathers, though they lack a real regular goal threat which could prove fatal to their chances of survival. At the back talented youngster Anton Ferdinand and new arrivals from Cardiff James Collins and Danny Gabbidon should ensure that Tomas Repka doesn’t get much time on the pitch – no doubt to the great relief of Hammers fans everywhere. Of the three promoted managers Alan Pardew has the most to fear from a poor start to life in the top flight. Promotion through the play-offs perhaps only delayed the falling of the guillotine by a few months.

Unknown territory for the Latics, and there’s no doubt they’ll struggle. That said, Pascal Chimbonda and Stephane Henchoz should keep things relatively tight in defence, and, after a decent first season in the Premiership with Norwich, Damien Francis could shine again alongside curly-haired midfielder Jimmy Bullard, destined to become a much more familiar name. Keep an eye out for Ryan Taylor too – Wigan pipped several clubs, including Everton, to sign the Tranmere full-back. It’s the strikers, though, who hold the key to survival – if Paul Jewell can cling onto last season’s lethal double act Nathan Ellington and Jason Roberts, having already smashed the club record transfer fee for Henri Camara, and they can hit the ground running, then they’re in with a chance. A slim one, mind.


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