Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Know Your Enemies 2013/4: Part 1

Saturday sees the Premier League kick off for a new season - so let's start our preview by assessing just what we're up against over the next ten months. Disclaimer: the predictions and forecasts that follow may turn out to bear laughably little resemblance to reality...


Talk about putting all your eggs in one basket. Or perhaps that should be one basket-case, given that this is unhinged arm-chomper and thoroughly detestable human being Luis Suarez we're talking about. Arsene Wenger has spent the summer single-mindedly pursuing the Uruguayan striker's signature, for which he's prepared to smash the club's previously modest transfer record - and yet that pursuit has (thus far, at least) been fruitless.

Last season Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker gave the Gunners a more secure platform defensively, summer recruits Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski gradually acclimatised to life at the Emirates and Theo Walcott did an admirable job of attempting to plug the gap left by Robin van Persie's departure to Man Utd. But the stark reality for the club, manager and fans is that they remain without a trophy of any description since 2005 and, while with Suarez they might have the faintest whiff of a chance of breaking into the top three, without him they're once again also-rans playing for fourth place.

Aston Villa

Paul Lambert may have looked like a broken man at times last season, but survival with a few games to spare just about validated his transfer policy, team selection and tactics. This summer Villa acted swiftly and decisively to secure their key targets, all aged 23 or under - defenders Jores Okore and Antonio Luna, midfielder Leandro Bacuna, winger Alexandar Tonev and striker Nicklas Helenius. Evidence of a good scouting network and some careful groundwork - take note please, Silver Fox, JFK and Jabba...

This new clutch of youthful international talent will add to what the Villains already have, Matthew Lowton having proven a sound signing and Andreas Weimann and Fabian Delph both beginning to live up to their potential under Lambert's tutelage. Of course, most significant of all is Christian Benteke's decision to withdraw a hasty transfer request and sign a new deal, though overdependence on their star striker remains a serious danger. I still feel Darren Bent has been ostracised unnecessarily - in tandem with the Belgian, he could conceivably help fire Villa into the top half of the table.


2012/3 was something of an annus mirabilis for Welsh football: Swansea lifting the League Cup and thereby qualifying for Europe, Newport edging out Wrexham at Wembley to secure a return to the Football League after a quarter of a century away, and Cardiff managing to avoid crumbling like Caerphilly cheese, finally holding their nerve long enough to win the Championship and promotion to the top flight. Vindication perhaps for Vincent Tan, who had argued for the Bluebirds' controversial switch to red shirts on the dubious grounds that all the most successful teams wear red.

Tan has been equally bold this summer in allowing manager Malkay Mackay to break the club's transfer record on no fewer than three occasions, with Danish striker Andreas Cornelius, Spurs defender Steven Caulker and aggressive Chile midfielder Gary Medel all recruited. Medel will be teaming up with another infamous walking red card, a certain No-Necked Text Pest, who probably thought his Premier League days were over. More's the pity. Let's just hope he doesn't come back to bite us.


The ego has landed, again! In all the excitement over the return of the self-proclaimed Special One - the media swooning in eager anticipation of his breathtaking arrogance, enigmatic eyebrow-arching and entertainingly expert ruffling of feathers - few have queried the wisdom of the move. Revisiting the scene of previous managerial success rarely ends happily - not that Jose Mario dos Santos Mourinho Felix's first spell in charge ended happily either. He twice took Chelsea to the title and has since won the Champions League (as have the Blues, with Roberto di Matteo at the helm). Surely the man who could once upon a time have been our assistant manager has nothing to gain and everything to lose?

All the same, the calibre of the squad at his disposal is arguably the best in the league. Was it really only two years ago that we finished above Chelsea? That would be inconceivable now. Andre Schurrle and Marco van Ginkel have bolstered their options in midfield and forward areas, while the return of  Belgian loanees Kevin de Bruyne and especially Romelu Lukaku to line up alongside compatriot Eden Hazard makes them an even more formidable prospect. Rafa Benitez's tenure may already seem like a distant dream, but his legacy was not only the Europa League trophy but also the conversion of David Luiz, the subject of unwanted attention from Barcelona this summer, from an ill-disciplined central defender mocked by Gary Neville to an accomplished defensive midfielder. Mourinho might not actually need to work any magic of his own to lift another title.

Crystal Palace

And so to another London club whose manager's pronouncements are media manna and who have made a significant (if somewhat lower-profile) recruit from Spain. Like fellow promotees Cardiff, Palace have gone to Sevilla in search of midfield reinforcement and returned with the country's U20 captain Jose Campana. Quite a coup, though, it may unsettle Mile Jedinak, the Australian crowned the club's player of the year last season despite stiff competition from the now departed Wilfried Zaha.

Up front, while more limited than the likes of Grant Holt and Ricky Lambert before him, Glenn Murray will be hoping to prove himself another meat-and-potatoes striker unpalatable to the delicate stomachs of Premier League defenders. He's now been joined by Dwight Gayle, a revelation at Posh but an expensive gamble for Palace, and Arsenal's no-trick showpony Marouane Chamakh. However well those three do, though, is likely to be negated by a defence in which Peter Ramage is considered a stalwart.


Since his appointment as David Moyes' replacement at Goodison Park, Roberto Martinez has - perhaps inevitably - regarded former club Wigan much as a famished tramp might regard an eat-all-you-like buffet. The ink had hardly dried on his new contract when he beat us to the signature of Arouna Kone as well as getting his sticky paws on the Ivorian's Latics team-mate Antolin Alcaraz and Atletico Madrid's JJB Stadium loanee Joel Robles. Few would be surprised if James McCarthy or Massadio Haidara's chum Callum McManaman were to tread that well-trodden path before the closure of the transfer window too.

With Nikica Jelavic falling into poor form and Victor Anichebe inconsistent (except against us), Kone will serve as a focal point for Everton's attack, aided and abetted by Gerard Deulofeu, an eyecatching loan signing from Barcelona. At the time of writing at least, Martinez can still call upon the services of Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines, while Kevin Mirallas is yet another Belgian increasingly at home in the Premier League. Where the Toffees might come unstuck, though, is in defence, the Spaniard's brand of fluent football generally coming at the expense of clean sheets. Paired with Alcaraz, the ageing Sylvain Distin or the past-it John Heitinga, Phil Jagielka will probably be left feeling like King Canute.


Fulham bade farewell to Mohamed Al Fayed this summer, welcoming luxuriantly moustached new owner Shahid Khan, and there has also been a changing of the guard between the posts, with Mark Schwarzer making the short but improbable hop to Stamford Bridge to be replaced by Maarten Stekelenburg. The Dutch international might be ten years his Australian counterpart's junior, but, at 30, he hardly helps give the Cottagers' ageing squad a youthful feel - and neither do fellow new boys Derek Boateng and Fernando Amorebieta, aged 29 and 30 respectively. All it would take for Fulham to pitch up in peril, you suspect, would be a global shortage of cod liver oil...

At least full-back Sascha Riether, now a permanent signing, gives some energy on the right flank, though Martin Jol's decision to help alleviate 'Appy 'Arry's wage bill burden by borrowing Adel Taarabt is mystifying - he couldn't get the best out of the mercurial Moroccan when at Spurs, since when the latter has repeatedly flattered to deceive in the top flight. Like the Michael Jackson statue Al Fayed erected outside the ground, you wonder how long Jol might survive in situ under the new regime.


Shahid Khan might own Jacksonville Jaguars, but it's Hull 's Assem Allam who appears determined to rebrand his club as an NFL-style franchise. Hull City Tigers? They'll be playing at the Frosties Bowl any day now... Whatever, the Tigers' promotion gives us the opportunity to renew hostilities with Ol' Cauliflower Face - one plastic Geordie following in the footsteps of another, Phil Brown. How long before we see the first half-time team bollocking on the pitch?

In fairness to Agent Bruce, he did do an excellent job at the Mackems - as did Agent Graham (£5m of their money squandered in return for no goals whatsoever). Perhaps that mutual bond is what's drawn them together. While Charlie Austin failed a medical, George Boyd signed permanently - presumably the Tigers' eye test is rather less strenuous than Forest's... Also joining the gold-clad ranks are two goalkeepers, Allan McGregor and our old boy Steve Harper - does Bruce realise he can't play them both at once? Even if he could, survival would still be a long shot.


You've got to hand it to Luis Suarez. It was no mean feat becoming the most odious player in a league also featuring John Terry and Ashley Cole, and now he's managed to offend the minority who felt differently at the start of the summer too. Liverpool have quite rightly attracted universal mockery and scorn for their blind defence of the Uruguayan and his various misdemeanours, so Brendan Rodgers was justified in describing the striker's attempts to engineer a move away from Anfield as displaying "total disrespect". The manager's demand for an apology is only likely to inflame the situation and harden Suarez's resolve to leave, though, and while a move to Arsenal looks increasingly improbable I simply can't see him staying at the club and being reintegrated into the side.

So where would that leave the Reds' front line? As we found out to our considerable cost, Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho are perfectly capable of wreaking havoc in Suarez's absence. In Luis Alberto and Iago Aspas Liverpool have a couple of promising new attacking options in wide areas, and while Raheem Sterling needs to rediscover his mojo, Jordon Ibe has caught the eye in pre-season. The unsentimental dumping of Pepe Reina in favour of Simon Mignolet raised a few eyebrows, but will nevertheless be for the long-term good. Nevertheless, key central defenders Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger may both be unsettled, having been linked with moves to the continent, and flogging Rocky and Stewart Downing to West Ham for £35m less than they shelled out was an embarrassing indictment of their recent transfer policy. Sixth is surely as good as it'll get.

Man City

Long gone are the days when finishing second in the top flight, reaching the FA Cup final and participating in the Champions League group stage would have been considered achievement enough for Man City. After the high of lifting the league title in 2011/12, last season was a serious disappointment, with Roberto Mancini unsurprisingly paying the price of failure and (after a protracted pursuit) Manuel Pellegrini installed as the new man in the hotseat.

The moneymen's solution, of course, was to get the chequebook out, and £87m has been spunked on a quartet of new players - Alvaro Negredo, Fernandinho, Jesus Navas and Stevan Jovetic - all of whom promise to add to City's threat in attacking situations. Pellegrini's most acute dilemma is how to juggle all the talent at his disposal, and how to get more out of those supposed superstars the club already owned (Samir Nasri and Javi Garcia, for a start). Here's hoping the secret formula is still eluding him by the time we kick off against them on Monday evening.

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