In which I (belatedly) cast an eye over our opposition for the forthcoming Premier League season...
* * * * *Arsenal
If the Gunners were a confection, they'd be sweet and tasty but also brittle and soft-centred. Alexander Hleb - who took time to find his feet in north London but enjoyed an excellent season last term - has left for Barcelona and been replaced by another exciting young attacker, Marseille's French international Samir Nasri, while with Aaron Ramsey, Arsene Wenger has shown that the purchase of Theo Walcott wasn't a momentary aberration and he really isn't averse to snapping up young British talent. But, precocious though the Emirates Embyros are, they're still too easily bullied out of games, especially away from home, and the loss of both Gilberto and Mathieu Flamini will hardly help. A lot of pressure rests on Abu Diaby's shoulders if his side aren't to slip out of the top four.
Blog: East LowerAston Villa
Not so long ago, things didn't look too rosy for the side that finished in a very respectable 6th place last time out. Star defender Olof Mellberg had left for Juventus, and their only incomings of note were Brad Friedel, who, though solid, is very much in his twilight years, and Steve Sidwell, who finally realised what the rest of us knew last summer - that there was no way on earth he was ever going to get a game for Chelsea. Add to that the rumbling disquiet and destabilising effect of the long-running Gareth Barry situation. But, in the space of a week or so, everything turned around: they bought three-quarters of a solid-looking new back four (Luke Young, Nicky Shorey and Carlos Cuellar) and Barry inspired them to the brink of the UEFA Cup proper, his inclusion in the side likely to have snuffed out the possibility of a deal with Liverpool. 6th again would be gladly taken, though no doubt that, being Brummies, Villa fans would grumble about stagnation...
Blog: Aston Villa BlogsBlackburn
What to do when your manager jumps ship? Simple: appoint another young, hungry former Man Utd teammate of his who's also had the benefit of Alex Ferguson's hairdryer. Paul Ince's reward for guiding Milton Keynes Dons out of League 2 is a shot at the big time, but his chance may have come prematurely. The appointments of Chris Hutchings and Sammy Lee last summer represented similarly risky leaps of faith on the part of Dave Whelan and Phil Gartside respectively, and they barely lasted until the clocks went back, while the self-styled Guv'nor may find the egos a little bit bigger and more threatening at this level. No adequate replacement has been found for David Bentley, and Paul Robinson is a man desperately trying to find his self-confidence, though when he does he may well drop it again. At least they're certain to have Santa Cruz come the end of the month - new signing Julio, that is, brother of Man City target Roque...Bolton
Having played the latter half of last season without a recognised striker (c'mon, Kevin Davies is just a battering ram in a white shirt whose scoring record is distinctly average), the Trotters decided to invest £10m in Toulouse's Johan Elmander - who lined up for Sweden in Euro 2008 on the wing... Fabrice Muamba has secured himself a quick return to the top flight, and with it a further opportunity to impress upon Arsenal what they let go and could now really do with. No doubt the new recruits will soon be indoctrinated into the Bolton style of play, better described as an eyesore than as football but which has kept them afloat like scum on a pond for several years now - but for how much longer?Chelsea
Quite how Chelsea came so close to pipping Man Utd to the title is still a source of bafflement to me - even more so than the question of why, with Paulo Ferreira and Juliano Belletti already on the books, they were so desperate to spend £16.2m on another right back, Jose Bosingwa. Perhaps ex Portugal boss Luis Felipe Scolari simply couldn't bear to be separated from his former charges? And as if to prove it, Deco is the other key new import, likely to repay his very reasonable £8m price tag by unlocking opponents' defences in tight matches. Benchwarmers Sidwell and Tal Ben Haim have left, while John Obi Mikel has the job of rechristening the protective defensive midfield position after himself, now that Claude Makalele has gone to stud at PSG. The focus will probably be on Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard, the latter now the best paid player in the country, but the side's real driving force is Michael Essien.
Blog: Chelsea BlogEverton
This campaign has "Toffees come unstuck
" written all over it. Everton went into the close season on a high, having sealed fifth place on a shoestring budget and with the sort of honest hard graft and team spirit you can't buy. But it's unrealistic to expect the same again from the likes of Joleon Lescott and Mikel Arteta, and having sold Andy Johnson, their already small squad has shrunk further. David Moyes may still be talking up their chances of claiming fourth spot, but is discovering that, with only a couple of weeks of the transfer window left, available players are scarce and prices have risen. Moves for CSKA Moscow's Wagner Love and Sporting Lisbon's Joao Moutinho look to be dead in the water because they haven't got the same financial clout as Spurs, Man City, Villa or even ourselves. Of course, Moyes's increasing desperation could well be to our advantage. Need a striker, Dave? We've got someone answering to that description by the name of Smith - £5m OK with you?FulhamThis time last year
I noted that Lawrie Sanchez had squandered £25m of Mohammed Al Fayed's money on a host of very average players and that when the owner "finally realises he's had his pockets picked, Sanchez is likely to receive his P45 shortly after
". For once, I was right. This summer Fayed has again bankrolled a spending spree, but this time around the man dishing out the cash, Roy Hodgson, has been rather more astute. The signing of Andy Johnson was a coup, even if they were only capitalising on his desire to return to the capital, and he should be instrumental in keeping them up, while, alongside a fully fit Jimmy Bullard, Zoltan Gera could provide the necessary creative spark.
Blog: Craven Cottage NewsroundHull
How galling it must be for Fat Sam to be out of work and see his former number two Phil Brown feted as Hull's saviour, having taken them from the lower reaches of the Championship to the virgin snow of the Premier League in less than two years? Of course, sides are queuing up to turn Hull's snow yellow, and signing defenders like Anthony Gardner and strikers like Marlon King is like shooting yourself in the foot with a rocket launcher. The Tigers have at least brought in George Boateng from Middlesbrough and Geovanni from Man City, experienced heads who will bolster the midfield, but like Derby's Steve Howard last year, Dean Windass - who spurned Leeds's advances for another shot at the top flight - is soon likely to discover the Premier League of 2008 isn't the place for lumbering square-jawed relics from the muddied battlegrounds of the 70s, no matter how much of a cult hero they are.Liverpool
It's the same question every August: is this the year Liverpool find the consistency they need to challenge for the top? And come May it's the same answer: no. This year, though, could just be different. They'll still be overreliant on Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard (I imagine Reds fans wince every time either of them goes in for a 50-50) but, with the supporting cast arguably stronger and Javier Mascherano having really begun to prove his worth, they're probably the side most likely to deprive Chelsea of the runners-up spot. Much will hinge on Robbie Keane, who at over £20m looks to be absurdly overpriced and who I can't see being a better foil for Torres than the Big Man With A Good Touch. Or maybe it's just a force of habit with me to question the judgement of men proudly sporting goatees?
Blog: KopblogMan City
Funny how quickly people forget, but over the course of last season we were all seduced once again by Sven-Goran Eriksson and his softly-softly voice that seems to tip-toe around interviewers' questions, to the point that his unceremonious sacking left something of a sour taste in the mouth. Hastened by that 7-0 thrashing on Smogside on the last day of the season it may have been, but his dismissal was only marginally less ludicrous than that of Avram Grant. Former Man Utd favourite Mark Hughes has stepped into the breach, clearly relishing his opportunity at a bigger club, but, with a warrant out for the arrest of owner and friend of Amnesty International Thaksin Shinawatra, he may now be regretting leaving the relative stability of Blackburn behind. Key to his side's chances are Martin Petrov and particularly Elano maintaining their form beyond the autumn, and one of his expensive forwards - the latest being £18m Brazilian Jo - starting to score regularly.
Blog: Bitter & BlueMan Utd
Despite being crowned champions in 2006/7, Man Utd went out and splashed millions of pounds (well, American dollars) on Nani, Anderson, Owen Hargreaves and Carlos Tevez and duly retained the title in what even this avowed Red Devils hater must admit was frequently spectacular style. Taggart may still be on the look-out for a regular goal-getting striker, but the complete lack of signings thus far suggests that this summer they've been content to rest on their laurels. Still, when you've got a midfielder who can contribute 42 goals in a single season, a Serbian defender fashioned out of solid rock and England's best striker operating as a utility forward, there's not too much to worry about. Another cakewalk to the trophy awaits, annoyingly.
Blog: When The Seagulls Follow The TrawlerMiddlesbrough
It's one step forwards and two steps backwards for the Smogs, who've once again kept hold of Stewart Downing but at the same time lost the rest of their midfield and their only decent 'keeper. Didier Degard and Marvin Emnes are unknown quantities, and another disappointing season would surely see even Steve Gibson's patience tested to breaking point and Gareth Southgate looking for gainful employment. That said, Tuncay has a year's Premier League experience under his belt, and if Afonso Alves and Mido have less flubber under theirs and Dr Frankenstein's own central defensive partnership of Robert Huth and David Wheater can stay fit, then staying safe shouldn't be a problem.Portsmouth
A few years ago, it would have been almost unthinkable: Portsmouth kicking off their fifth consecutive season in the top flight as the FA Cup holders, looking forward to their first ever foray into European competition and armed with a potent pair of England strikers. OK, so their Cup success was scarcely merited (surely no other team has ever won despite being outplayed by every single one of their opponents?), and the UEFA Cup could prove more damaging than merely a distraction to a club with a small squad, but Nico Kranjcar gets better with every season and I've got a sneaking feeling that the inspired Little & Large pairing of Peter Crouch with Jermain Defoe really could prove to be the most lethal in the league. Oh they do like to be beside the seaside - for the moment, at least.
Blog: Pompey GoryStoke
Roll up, roll up! Stoke in the Premier League - showing now, for one year only! Spunking £5.5m on Dave Kitson was the mark of a club seemingly hell-bent on relegation next May and administration in three years' time, but remarkably it still isn't their worst purchase of the summer. No, that would be Amady Faye, brought in from Charlton ostensibly to bring some steel to the midfield but more likely, on the evidence of his time at The Valley and on Tyneside, to bring aimless wanderings and a chronic inability to tackle without giving away a free kick (which raises the question: was Alan Smith his belated replacement?). Presumably another new boy, fellow Senegalese international and namesake Abdoulaye, a £2.25m signing from our ranks, has been signed to make him feel more at home.Sunderland
I can't believe I'm about to say this, but Roy Keane has made some astute signings this summer. He may have come to Juande Ramos's aid by snapping up half his wares at the car boot sale, but it's worth recognising that even though they may not be good enough for the North Londoners' assault on fourth, the likes of Pascal Chimbonda and especially Steed Malbranque represent significant additions to the Mackems' squad. That said, they're still lumbered with a glut of no-mark forwards and a clunky defence that even we'd be embarrassed about. Cheers Keano for giving us even more reason to give El-Hadji Diouf a friendly welcome when he next comes to St James's Park. And cheers Younes Kaboul's agent for saying his client wouldn't join Sunderland "even if there was an earthquake
", and then the player proving it by plumping for the club furthest away from Wearside...Spurs
After splashing the cash last summer, things didn't quite go to plan for Tony Soprano - will his replacement fare any better? He simply has to, surely. With Jonathan Woodgate a steadying influence at the back and Butterfingers Robinson packed off to Blackburn, their talented forwards should have the necessary platform to build on. Their fortunes hinge largely on how quickly Luka Modric - for my money, the signing of the summer - adapts to the English game. Having been screwed out of millions by Charlton for Darren Bent last year, they've done the same to Liverpool this, milking the Scousers for significantly more than Robbie Keane's actual worth. Still, that has left them a bit light in terms of out-and-out strikers, and with Dimitar Berbatov looking likely to sulk his way into a move to Old Trafford before the month is out, they won't want to be left with just corner-flag-botherer Bent.
Blog: Harry HotspurWest Brom
Clearly too good for the Championship, are West Brom actually good enough for the Premier League? It's an intriguing question. Certainly they've made some decent signings, not least Scott Carson - though Baggies fans will be hoping that the presence of fellow newbies Abdoulaye Meite and the brilliantly named Gianni Zuiverloon in defence will mean he isn't constantly called into pulling off heroics. Tony Mowbray's biggest problem will be finding his best forward pairing and then hoping they can produce the goods at the highest level - something made more difficult by the fact that he allowed chief ammunition-provider Zoltan Gera to leave on a free.West Ham
It's fair to say that West Ham didn't have the best of luck with their signings last season. Craig Bellamy got crocked early on, Julien Faubert got crocked early on and Kieron Dyer got crocked early on (don't say we didn't tell you so, Hammers fans - you've retired the number 6 shirt in honour of Bobby Moore, so why not just retire Dyer's number 7 while you're at it?), while Freddie Ljungberg was an expensive mistake whose contract has cost millions to terminate. Perhaps understandably, then, Alan Curbishley has been cautious in the transfer market this time around, their only major acquisition being Lazio's Swiss international Valon Behrami. In Robert Green, Matthew Upson, Mark Noble and Dean Ashton, there's a strong spine to the side, but a slide into the bottom half of the table looks likely.
Is it just me, or is it appropriate that a team who play on a cabbage patch of a pitch now have a manager whose face looks like a cauliflower? The quality of the surface at the JJB hardly matters, of course, given that the ball spends most of its time in the air - perhaps that's just to fool home supporters into thinking they're watching rugby? Emile Heskey, bizarrely effective in England's ultimately doomed bid for Euro 2008 qualification last autumn, is the Latics' star man, whose partner looks set to be Egyptian Amr Zaki, on loan from Zamalek. In midfield, Jason Koumas and Antonio Valencia are mercurial and lightweight string-pullers, and Wilson Palacios and Paul Scharner the underrated workhorses. If I tip Daniel de Ridder as a hot prospect again, might he actually get some time on the pitch this season? And how many more times can Titus Shambles lose concentration and cost his side valuable points?
* * * * *
So, enough of my ramblings - to wrap up, here's how Paul thinks the table will end up looking:
1. Man Utd
5. Aston Villa
9. Man City
14. West Ham
17. West Brom
Only time will tell, of course...