With the new season kicking off on Saturday, it's time to kick off our usual multi-part preview. Later in the week Paul will be reflecting on a summer of turmoil at St James' Park (what's new?) and offering his thoughts on our prospects for the forthcoming campaign, before predicting how the final Premier League table will shape up. First, though, are my verdicts on our opponents.
For this year, you could - pretty much - just see last year
. Marouane Chamakh having faded after a bright opening to the season, Arsene Wenger has invested in another striker, Lille's Ivory Coast international Gervinho, to line up alongside a crop of supremely talented young players (Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain just the latest
) whose football can, at times, be divine.
However, the problems remain the same too. At the time of writing at least, star players Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri are still Gunners despite the persistent advances of attractive suitors, but at what cost to their state of mind? Arsenal's perpetual soft-centredness from goalkeeper through central defence and into midfield, as exemplified by the League Cup final and that history-making collapse on Tyneside
, hasn't been addressed (though if it were to be before the month's out, they could be a different prospect). Gael Clichy's defection to Man City is symbolic of the shift in the balance of power at the summit of the league, and the fitness of Thomas Vermaelen, Jack Wilshere and Robin van Persie is key to them standing any chance of winning silverware for the first time since 2005.
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A lesson in how to gain revenge on your neighbours, gloating at your relegation: pack off your gaffer to fill their managerial vacancy and repeat the trick with them. How long before Villa's famously grumpy support starts rounding on ex-Blues boss Alex McLeish? My money's on about ten minutes into their opening fixture. Managers all plead to be allowed time, but McLeish's pleas will be more desperate than most.
Last season Villa were a poor side propelled into mid-table by a three-pronged England attack. Darren Bent - a player I can concede is a goalscoring menace now that he's no longer a Mackem - is the sole member of the trio left at Villa Park, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing having departed for Man Utd and Liverpool respectively. The blow of their loss will be cushioned somewhat by the acquisition of Charles N'Somnia, and effectively swapping 40-year-old Brad Friedel for N'Somnia's sprightlier former Toon team-mate Shay Given was an astute move (we know ourselves the Irishman's value in preserving unlikely points). But a mid-table finish beckons, followed - or, more likely, preceded - by the boot for McLeish.
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And so to another prime candidate to win the sack race. Steve Kean, a man whose long-term employment prospects look about as good as Mr T's chances of avoiding a booking this season, has claimed Blackburn will be in the Champions League in four years
. If that's what owners Venky's have targeted, then they're going a funny way about it: sticking an inexperienced stooge in the hotseat, flogging off their brightest young talent (Phil Jones) and spending precious little of their cash. Perhaps Kean meant the Championship? If so, then it's likely to be sooner than 2015.
A negative image of Arsenal, Blackburn are strong in goal and central defence, with Paul Robinson, Chris Samba and Ryan Nelsen, but pitifully weak everywhere else. The only real exception is David "Junior" Hoilett, the pacy 21-year-old Canadian forward having allegedly caught our eye. Their other supposed superstar of the future, Croatian Nikola Kalinic, is desperate to leave and on the verge of joining Dnipro, while opposition fans' favourite El-Hadji Diouf has been censured for reporting late for pre-season training and told to sling his hook by Kean. At least Rovers have a ready-made replacement workie ticket in Scottish striker David Goodwillie, who at the age of 22 has already been fined twice for assault and has only just escaped a court appearance for sexual assault due to insufficient evidence.
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Another Lancashire side seemingly going backwards. Owen Coyle has worked wonders in translating the Trotters' prosaic hoof 'n' hope into lyrical poetry with the help of Stuart Holden, Mark Davies and Martin Petrov, amongst others, so the recruitment of Nigel Reo-Coker - the equivalent of the proverbial blue-arsed fly, buzzing with energy but devoid of any discernible footballing talent - is something of a mystery. At least his arrival has been counterbalanced by fellow new boys Darren Pratley and Chris Eagles, both creative types, though more used to unlocking Championship defences.
Coyle's biggest worry, you'd imagine, would be where the goals are going to come from. Daniel Sturridge, a revelation on loan last season, has returned to the sidelines at Stamford Bridge, and Johan Elmander, who finally hit form in the final year of his contract, has slunk off to Galatasaray, leaving Kevin Davies and Ivan Klasnic, neither of whom are prolific goalscorers. Pre-season has been particularly unkind to the Trotters, with Lee Chung-Yong and Tyrone Mears both suffering broken legs, but the retention of Gary Cahill could be crucial.
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The question on everyone's lips: surely Fernando Torres can't be as bad again? Chelsea must have hoped that a change of employer would perk up a striker who hasn't played well since before the World Cup - but no, following his £50m move from Liverpool he continued to trudge around Premier League pitches, a forlorn figure for whom the weight of expectation seemed too heavy. At least he'll have some sympathy from his new manager, Andre Villas-Boas, already burdened by unfair (if understandable) comparisons to Jose Mourinho as well as Roman Abramovich's high expectations.
At 33, Villas-Boas is the same age as some of his senior players, which says as much about the squad he's inherited as it does about his own precocious ability. Among the Chelsea Pensioners are John Terry, who isn't the infallible machine he once was, and Didier Drogba, who looks an increasingly spent force. Fat Frank Lampard and Florent Malouda are key figures in a midfield in which Ramires gradually blossomed last season, while David Luiz, at half the price of Torres, was a classy addition in central defence. However, the long-term injury to Michael Essien will put pressure on John Obi Mikel. The challenge remains to emulate Man Utd and Arsenal in successfully integrating youth into the side - Daniel Sturridge, Patrick van Aanholt, Josh McEachran, Gael Kakuta and teenage recruits Oriol Romeu and Romelu Lukaku are no doubt all desperate for action.
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If the manager of one of Everton's early-season opponents defends a disjointed performance on the grounds of new players taking time to settle and gel, don't expect much sympathy from David Moyes. The Scot, set to kick off the new campaign with the same squad that finished in May, would no doubt kill for some new blood (and, with that eye-bulging stare, you wouldn't put it past him to do so). The Toffees look thinnest up front, with just Jermaine Beckford and Yakubu sufficiently qualified to pick up the pieces when (as is inevitable) Louis Saha is out injured.
But on the flip side, the sought-after likes of Phil Jagielka, Leighton Baines and Jack Rodwell remain at Goodison Park, and their strength continues to lie in a clutch of hard-working forward-thinking midfielders - Tim Cahill, Mikel Arteta, Marouane Fellaini, Leon Osman - plus recently emergent talent Seamus Coleman giving them youthful vigour and pace on the right flank. Seventh place is - as ever - theirs for the taking, but securing it with certainty might just demand a little investment.
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The club living in the west London shadows of Abramovich's nouveau riche mob having once again defied the odds to finish comfortably in mid-table, there's no shame in calling yourself a Cottager - except, perhaps, when buffoonish owner Mohammed Al-Fayed unveils the next statue of an 80s pop icon with a spurious connection to Fulham
. Cyndi Lauper, anyone?
Al-Fayed's side got into Europe on account of being nice - how very English - and the resultant early kick-off means they'll have little excuse for not hitting the ground running in the Premier League. A small squad has been bolstered with the addition of up-and-coming continental midfielders Marcel Gecov and Pajtim Kasami, while Bjorn Helge Riise now has brother John Arne for company, but the spine has stayed the same - Brede Hangeland the granite-hewn giant at the back, Danny Murphy pulling the midfield strings, Moussa Dembele working magic on the left and strikers Bobby Zamora, Clint Dempsey and Andy Johnson supplying the finishes. The only real question mark hangs over the new manager, Mark Hughes having curiously decided to bail out in June, but Martin Jol already has Premier League experience and was harshly treated at Spurs so returns to England with a point to prove.
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For every pre-season prediction that, with hindsight, you can be smug about getting pretty much spot on, there's at least one that's embarrassingly wide of the mark. So excuse me while I wipe the egg from my face, having confidently declared last August that Roy Hodgson and Joe Cole would both be a perfect match for Liverpool
. But, at the risk of finding myself eggy-faced again this time next year, I'm once more going to forecast good things for the Reds.
First and foremost, January's extraordinary post-Hodgson spending spree assembled potentially the most lethal strikeforce in the division, Uruguay's skillful and mobile Luis Suarez being paired with our very own one-man wrecking ball Rocky. Provided the latter can keep himself out of both the treatment room and police cells, Fernando Torres will be a distant memory. Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam have been brought in to supply the ammunition - both are great signings, though I'm much less convinced about the £20m splurged on the Mackems' Jordan Henderson and also curious to know how the midfield additions will impact upon Lucas and Raul Meireles, two players instrumental in the Scousers' revival under Kenny Dalglish. Meanwhile, no left-back at all is probably preferable to Paul Konchesky, now busy finding his level in the Championship with Sven's Leicester, but Dalglish will know it's a position that desperately needs filling - quite probably with Jose Enrique.
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Rather like your typical millionaire footballer's "crib", Eastlands is decked out showily with all manner of expensive trinkets, but the overall effect is neither classy nor very often even aesthetically pleasing. Roberto Mancini's attempts to fashion a collective unit out of a disparate bunch of brilliant if overpriced and overpaid players have thus far borne fruit in the form of the FA Cup and Champions League qualification but not in terms of a genuine title challenge. This summer, though, they've muscled their way into position as the most likely gatecrashers of Chelsea and cross-city rivals Utd's cosy championship-winning club.
To the likes of Yaya Toure (an increasingly dominant force as last season wore on) and David Silva (nimble and probing across the front line - if Mancini gives him licence), City have added Argentinian striker Sergio Aguero, French left-back Gael Clichy and Montenegro defender Stefano Savic - all excellent acquisitions. The defence being superbly marshalled by Vincent Kompany, a relatively unsung hero, Mancini's concerns are focused primarily on forward areas: how to persuade an unhappy Carlos Tevez to stay, how to compensate for his potential departure, how to get the best out of Edin Dzeko. The poor chap would have quite enough headaches over selection without also having Mario "The Power" Balotelli
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Liverpool's title-winning record has been surpassed, thereby completing Taggart's stated mission to "knock them off their perch
" - and yet the man who celebrates goals like an 80-year-old blue-rinsed biddy with a full house hasn't called it quits. Far from it: he's spent the summer strengthening his squad in preparation for another season of putting the Scousers - and their upstart "noisy neighbours
" City - firmly in their place. The addition of Ashley Young to Nani and Antonio Valencia will have opposing full-backs waking up in a cold sweat, while their central defence looks more robust than ever with the arrival of Phil Jones. And then there's Wayne Rooney, the most complete striker in the Premier League.
There are a few crumbs of comfort for the Red Devils' rivals to cling to, though. Paul Scholes and Edwin van der Sar have both done what Taggart has refused to do and retired - the latter in particular could be a big loss if his £18.3m teenage replacement David de Gea doesn't get yesterday's miserable debut in the Charity Shield
out of his system quickly. A few injuries and the sale of fringe defenders Wes Brown and John O'Shea could come back to haunt Taggart, while up front Javier Hernandez starts the campaign sidelined through injury and last season's Dimitar Berbatov top scorer is strangely out of favour (and no doubt sulking). But no doubt that, once again, they're the team to beat.
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Part 2 to follow in the next couple of days.
Labels: premier league, preview