Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Prediction time

In-depth analysis of our own summer activities and prospects for the season to follow later in the week, but first Paul goes public with his predictions for the final Premiership table and I take a more detailed look at the sides we'll be lining up against.

Be careful to take note so you can mock come May - last time out Paul predicted Arsenal would lift the title, while two of the players I tipped to shine were John Viafara and Ryan Taylor. Hmm.


Paul's predictions

1. Chelsea
The addition of two world class players (albeit slightly past their peak) should be enough to keep Chelsea top - but not by much.

2. Liverpool
Benitez has bought well, and Bellamy could really make a big difference for them in tight games, however it remains to be seen whether he and Pennant will stay on the straight and narrow long enough to help the team and avoid Rafa's wrath. They could run Chelsea very close.

3. Arsenal
I expect Fabregas to have an even better season, and Henry to be his usual self, although they'll need to prove they can withstand the rough stuff this season.

4. Man Utd
Without Horse Face they could struggle for goals, particularly if Saha or Rooney suffer injuries.

5. Tottenham
Berbatov looks another shrewd purchase, although how badly they'll feel the loss of Carrick remains to be seen.

6. Newcastle
If we sign a striker (or two) we could push Spurs all the way; if we don't, and Shola gets injured, we're in trouble.

7. Everton
Due a good season after last year's poor one, and Johnson looks an excellent partner for Beattie, for once they should score plenty of goals.

8. Bolton
The Allardyce bubble looked to have burst slightly when his mind was on the England job, but their robust brand of football should keep them comfortably in the top half.

9. Charlton
Iain Dowie's biggest success must be keeping hold of Darren Bent. If they can sustain their efforts all the way to May they should do well.

10. Portsmouth
Harry Redknapp seems to be like a kid in a sweetshop, having been linked with every player under the sun. It looks like he's might have picked up one or two with plenty of ability, and Pompey should avoid the need to repeat last season's heroics.

11. Aston Villa
Two weeks ago I'd have tipped Villa for relegation, but with Martin and Randy on board I think they should be comfortably mid-table, and may even manage a decent cup run.

12. West Ham
Whilst the best equipped of last season's promoted teams to settle into the division, I think there may be an element of second season syndrome about West Ham. Ashton and Reo-Coker should continue to thrive.

13. Blackburn
Without Bellamy, I think they'll struggle to score enough goals to do anything more than finish in the bottom half.

14. Middlesbrough
If Southgate settles they'll do well; if he finds himself out of his depth they'll struggle. However they've enough talented kids to avoid relegation in any event.

15. Man City
Samaras looks a promising player, and he should score goals; however if City start this season as they finished last then Psycho could well be out the door.

16. Fulham
I expect they'll struggle once again, although if Coleman can finally teach them to win away they could do a great deal better.

17. Reading
Probably just about good enough to stay up, with Coppell having established a good team spirit they could emulate Wigan. Crucially he's also got top flight experience as a manager, for when the going gets tough after the New Year.

18. Wigan
I think they'll really struggle this time, having lost some of their better players and now without the impetus that promotion undoubtedly gave them last year. It could be a long hard slog for Paul Jewell's boys.

19. Sheffield United
Whilst Neil Warnock may be a canny old bugger (or just an old bugger, depending on your point of view), his team appear to lack the depth required to stay up. A reliance on Ade Akinbiyi to score is only going to lead to problems.

20. Watford
Well organised, and extremely well managed, Watford were a real success last season. They'll hope to do a Wigan, but if they start badly they could fare only marginally better than Sunderland.


Ben's guide to the rest

All the talk will probably be of Thierry Henry (as usual) and new signing Tomas Rosicky (a steal at just £7m), but the player who's most caught the eye over the last six months has been Cesc Fabregas, fast becoming the best midfielder in the Premiership. Arsene Wenger has assembled an exciting forward-thinking young team, but will he come to rue letting old heads like Sol Campbell and Robert Pires move on without replacing them? And will he be able to send out a youth team for the Carling Cup as per usual, given all the fringe youngsters seem to have temporarily migrated to Birmingham?

Aston Villa
How they'll fare is anyone's guess. At present they're a very ordinary side, even on those rare occasions when Milan Baros reproduces his Czech Republic form, and they'll miss James Milner's pace and creativity. But in Olaf Mellberg and Steve Davis they've got a decent core to the side, and attracting Martin O'Neill was an massive coup. Now armed with Randy Lerner's millions, they could be the biggest threat to Spurs and ourselves for automatic UEFA Cup qualification. (Incidentally, isn't it great that of Birmingham's two main teams, one has a pornographer for a chairman and the other now has someone who sounds like a porn star for an owner?)

A real surprise package last year, thanks mainly to the now-departed Craig Bellamy. The blow dealt by his loss will be softened by the arrival of Benni McCarthy and Jason Roberts from Porto and Wigan respectively, but Mark Hughes's decision to offer recurrent flop Francis Jeffers a deal bemused many, myself included. Along with Steven Reid and Morten Gamst Pedersen, Lucas Neill is one of their key players, and his announcement that he wants to leave could destabilise them.

This is it. This is the year they finally slide into the lower reaches of the table. Kevin Nolan is a dynamo in midfield, but there just isn't enough quality to keep them in contention for Europe. Several players have left (including, bizarrely, last season's first choice central defensive partnership of Bruno N'Gotty and Radhi Jaidi) without the usual quality of replacements and, while we were definitely wrong to let Gary Speed go when we did, he won't be able to perform at this level and this pace for much longer. It also remains to be seen quite how interested Sam Allardyce still is in the club that pays his wages, following his shameless and ultimately vain self-promotion for the England job. My guess is not very.

A difficult one to call. On the one hand, cauliflower-faced manager Iain Dowie is likely to breath fresh life into a club that had begun to stagnate under Alan Curbishley (and indeed has already started, clearing out much of the dead wood including no fewer than four strikers - Jonatan Johanssen, Francis Jeffers, Jay Bothroyd and Shaun Bartlett), while both Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink and Scott Carson are sound acquisitions. On the other, Amady Faye and Djimi Traore are questionable signings at the very least (especially at £2m each), they've had an indifferent pre-season, the central midfield is lacklustre (hence a continued interest in Reading's Steve Sidwell) and I've a feeling Darren Bent will struggle to reproduce last season's superb form.

Right, what can I say to give us and all Chelsea's other opponents hope? Well, the eye-catching signings of Andriy Shevchenko and Michael Ballack have I think blinded people to the fact that the squad has in some ways actually been weakened (and in any case the untrumpeted Salomon Kalou could turn out to be the best of Jose Mourinho's summer buys). In particular, letting Hernan Crespo go for nothing was staggering, and they've also sold integral squad members Damien Duff, Asier del Horno, Carlton Cole and Eidur Gudjohnsen cheaply. Their most versatile defender William Gallas is clearly unsettled, Frank Lampard's imperious form deserted him at the World Cup and there remain question marks over whether Mourinho's switch to a wingless 4-4-2 will pay off. Oh, alright then, they'll probably still cream everyone else without breaking a sweat.

Who knows? After a superb season (well, the first six months at least) in which they finished fourth, last year was very poor. Which means the Toffees are probably due another good one. At a combined total of £13.6m, Andrew Johnson and Joleon Lescott were overpriced but decent signings nonetheless. Tim Cahill is still the star in midfield, but the shift from a 4-5-1 formation to the 4-4-2 that the potentially dangerous strikeforce of Johnson and James Beattie would demand might inhibit the Australian's natural game to the overall detriment of the team.

Chris Coleman must be thrilled to have been the beneficiary of Jimmy Bullard's desire to return to London, but otherwise there has been little for the Fulham manager and fans to get excited about. The squad is very thin, and if their talisman, contract rebel Steed Malbranque, continues to be left out in the cold, then they could really struggle again. They've been punching above their weight for a while now, and I don't think anyone would be particularly surprised if they slid through the trapdoor this season.

A poor pre-season aside, everything looks rosy for Rafa Benitez's team. Jermaine Pennant was expensive but, along with Mark Gonzales, will give the Scousers an added dimension: genuine width. Craig Bellamy too is a shrewd purchase, as someone who will stretch defences and create chances with his pace as well scoring his fair share. Add in the capture of defenders Gabriel Paletta and Fabio Aurelio and a few flops being moved on (Djibril Cisse, Fernando Morientes, Bruno Cheyrou) you have to say they've had a superb summer and can probably consider themselves Chelsea's main challengers. Of course, everyone else will be hoping skipper Steven Gerrard gets injured to leave the team without its heartbeat.

Man City
Of all the players who left Eastlands this summer, only David James was a regular first teamer. In place of the youngsters let go, Stuart Pearce has gone down the Sam Allardyce route of bringing in experience and quality in the form of Dietmar Hamann, Hatem Trabelsi and Ousmane Dabo (you can include Paul Dickov in that list if you really must). How Bernardo Corradi will fare (and, indeed, whether he'll be able to command a regular starting position when Pearce already has Georgios Samaras, Darius Vassell and Andrew Cole at his disposal) is a matter for speculation, but at least they only parted with £1m so his signing doesn't represent a major gamble. Their fortunes rest largely on the shoulders of their very own Gerrard, Joey Barton, whose troubles now seem to be behind him.

Man Utd
2006 will go down as the summer that Fergie finally lost the plot. Michael Carrick is a skilful midfield string-puller - but £18.6m??? Ludicrous - but scarcely more incredible than the decision to let lethal striker Ruud van Nistelrooy leave for the Bernabeu for just £10.2m. They now look short of firepower up front, particularly given Louis Saha's injury record - Fergie must have an awful lot of faith in Giuseppe Rossi. Of course they've still got players who would grace any side in the world - Gabriel Heinze and Cristiano Ronaldo both enhanced their reputations at the World Cup, even if Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand didn't - but they're very definitely in danger of slipping out of the top three.

A frustrating summer for the new man in charge at the Riverside. Gareth Southgate has allowed Franck Queudrue and old hands Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink and Doriva to leave, but has found reinforcements hard to come by. Most embarrassing for the foam-handed ones was the collapse of the move for Chelsea's Robert Huth over a failed medical. Mid-table should still be achievable, though, for a side boasting the likes of George Boateng, Stewart Downing and (when fit) Gaizka Mendieta in addition to a strikeforce of Mark Viduka and Ayegbeni Yakubu that scored for fun even when performing within a struggling side last season. What's needed is consistency - how they managed to thump Chelsea, Man Utd and Arsenal and yet lose at home to the Mackems is beyond me, and was evidently beyond Southgate's predecessor.

Not wanting to have to do a Houdini routine again this season, Portsmouth have opted to try and get some defensive solidity by picking up Glen Johnson on loan from Chelsea and, more impressively, Sol Campbell on a free. Not everyone's as 'appy as 'Arry, though, with Dean Kiely reportedly upset that David James looks set to walk straight into his position between the sticks. And, though the midfield looks capable of competing at this level, Gary O'Neil having established himself as their key man, Pompey fans should be worried about the attack - Lomano Lua Lua can't be relied upon for regular goals, and Benjamin Mwuruwari can only continue to be picked for so long when his contributions are limited to tireless running and the odd assist.

The Berkshire club won the Championship at a canter last season, so it's no great revelation to tip them to be the promoted side most likely to avoid the drop. Steve Coppell evidently has great faith in the squad that took them into the top flight for the first time in their history, having made only two additions (and one of those, South Korean forward Seol Ki-Hyeon, hardly set the world alight at Wolves). Strikers Leroy Lita, Dave Kitson and Kevin Doyle will have to hit the ground running immediately, and Coppell knows he can't afford to do a Chris Coleman and freeze contract rebel and star man Steve Sidwell out of the squad.

Sheffield Utd
Aside from a couple of Premiership squad members (David Sommeil from Man City and Li Tie from Everton), Neil Warnock has opted to invest mainly in Championship talent, including Claude Davis and Rob Hulse at a considerable combined cost of £4.6m - a risky outlay for players inexperienced at the highest level, especially considering few existing squad members have such experience (David Unsworth being a notable exception). It's likely to end in tears for the Blades, and with any luck we'll get some comical touchline tantrums from that buffoon Warnock along the way.

Incredibly unlucky (albeit in comically farcical circumstances) not to qualify for the Champions' League last season, Spurs will want to make certain of it this. Michael Carrick might have gone, but that £18.6m is burning a hole in Martin Jol's pocket and a good portion of it is bound to be reinvested before the month is out. The North Londoners have already made two of the most eye-catching signings of the summer in Dimitar Berbatov and Didier Zokora, and in the likes of Jermain Defoe, Aaron Lennon, Michael Dawson and Ledley King they boast key members of the England side of the future.

Just like last time, in 1999-2000, it's likely to be short and not particularly sweet for Watford. Aidy Boothroyd proved to be a miracle worker last season, forging the decidedly ordinary Darius Henderson and Marlon King into a devastating partnership, but keeping the Hornets up will I think turn out to be beyond even him. Whether Damien Francis (relegated with Norwich, unused at Wigan) is the quality they need - especially at £1.5m - is questionable, but regaining the services of Man Utd 'keeper Ben Foster on loan makes good sense. Ashley Young is a player who could shine, and watch out for young winger Anthony McNamee - a Subbuteo Shaun Wright-Phillips. Yes, really.

West Ham
They survived that potentially horrible first season, comfortably and in no little style too. What's needed now is a season of consolidation, and they look to have the squad to achieve it. With the addition of Carlton Cole, Alan Pardew is spoilt for choice up front, while his recruitment of Tyrone Mears, John Pantsil, Jonathan Spector and George McCartney suggests he had identified the need for defensive cover as a priority. Ghana defender Pantsil could well turn out to be the Hammers' Pascal Chimbonda. One new reinforcement for the midfield is Lee Bowyer, formerly of this parish. Thanks for taking the little runt off our hands, Alan - we owe you one.

Expectations will be high after last season - but that only means it'll be more painful when they're dashed. Paul Jewell has mystifyingly spunked £5.5m of chairman Dave Whelan's money on Emile Heskey, the striker whose inability to hit the net was key in costing Birmingham their Premiership status, while £3m for Crystal Palace's Fitz Hall was also a rush of blood to the head. The club's best player Jimmy Bullard has left for Fulham, and Denny Landzaat, albeit a decent buy, lacks the dynamism and energy to replace him. One ray of light is the loan signing of tricky Ecuadorian winger Luis Valencia from Villareal - but then there's no guarantee the young South American will settle easily in the North West. The signs aren't good for Latics fans.


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