Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Know your enemies

With the first game of the new Premiership season now less than 72 hours away, it's high time we donned our previewing cap.

Over the next couple of days Newcastle's prospects will be assessed by both myself and opposition fans, while Paul will reveal how he thinks the final table will look. Before that, I run the rule over our opponents, wary that the potential for ending up with egg on my face come May is high - last time out I predicted that Chelsea would almost definitely walk the title race, Man Utd were in danger of slipping out of the top three and Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink would prove to be an excellent signing for Charlton...

Ben's guide to the rest

At last - Thierry Henry has finally left Arsenal for Barcelona. Relief from tediously persistent rumours for most of us, but a source of consternation to Gunners fans. Freddie Ljungberg has left too, proclaiming the sale of Henry indicated the end of an era and a lack of ambition. Arsene Wenger has replaced the Frenchman with unknown quantity Eduardo da Silva, and even though the Prof's the Premiership's undisputed master of unearthing and nurturing young talent, Arsenal will suffer without their talisman. They disappointed in the league last year, haven't made significant additions to the squad and will be looking anxiously over their shoulder and hoping Spurs eat some dodgy lasagne again this time around.

Aston Villa
Few Premiership managers are as thoughtful and tactically astute as Martin O'Neill - but he'll need to show all his nous if Villa are to improve this season. Nigel Reo-Coker is a decent signing, if a little overpriced, but Homer Simpson's Marlon Harewood's arrival at a cost of nearly £4m is baffling. At least they have a strong spine to the side in the form of Olaf Mellberg, Gareth Barry and John Carew. Villa fans will be expecting much more of mercurial Bulgarian Stilian Petrov this time out too.

How irritating to see Steve Bruce back in the Premiership so soon after waving him a cheery goodbye. I suppose we have just seen the back of Neil Warnock, so we were short of a buffoon. Ol' Cauliflower Face was delighted to sign up powerful midfielder Fabrice Muamba from Arsenal on a permanent deal, but must have hoped he could also persuade Wenger to part with Nicklas Bendtner. With a whole host of strikers, including recent addition Garry O'Connor rescued from his Russian exile at considerable expense, the suspicion remains that Bruce has no idea of his best front pairing - for Blues fans, though that's probably better than last time they were in the Premiership, when he persisted with a repeatedly misfiring Emile Heskey. Young Dutchman Daniel De Ridder could be one to watch.

Not to be outdone by his former Man Utd team-mate, Mark Hughes has signed up his own promising Dutch striker, Maceo Rigters, but most Lancastrian eyes will be on Roque Santa Cruz. Unfazed by the Paraguayan's poor goalscoring ratio in Germany for Bayern Munich, Hughes was dogged in pursuit and parted with what is a relatively large sum to secure his services. If his equally dogged ankle-biters are to continue to punch above their weight, much will depend on the form of star men Benni McCarthy, Morten Gamst Pedersen and Brad Friedel.

They should finish above their local rivals, though. Big Fat Sam has gone, leaving his Mini-Me looking rather vulnerable. A couple of good Scandanavian wingers - Christian Wilhelmsson and Daniel Braaten - won't be enough to arrest a slide down the table, what with their best defender Tal Ben Haim swapping black pudding for King's Road and green-around-the-gills Sammy Lee likely to be out of his depth without his mentor. To enjoy their demise more, I suggest we take bets on what happens first: The Incredible Sulk throws a temper tantrum or Kevin Nolan refers in his BBC column to people talking up his chances of playing for England, oblivious to the fact that it's only ever been him. They'll probably still beat us on Saturday, though...

Last August many people - myself included - thought that the back-to-back champions would cruise to a hat-trick of titles, the addition of Andriy Shevchenko and Michael Ballack rendering them untouchable. Of course it didn't quite work out that way, and this summer Jose Mourinho has been rather more cautious in recruiting Galacticos, but it's hard to see how a player like Steve Sidwell - good though he is in a lesser side - is going to propel them back to the top of the tree. Didier Drogba will have to play out of his skin if they're to stand a chance, though Florent Malouda will weigh in with plenty of goals and Michael Essien, if freed up from filling in at centre-back, will give the team more drive going forwards.

Derby County
I'm not sure what's more laughably tragic: Southampton indignantly rejecting Derby's £5m bid for Kenwyne Jones, or Derby thinking he was the sort of player to ensure their Premiership survival in the first place. Robert Earnshaw, on the other hand, is a shrewd purchase, even if he's not the most clinical of finishers. But with Billy Davies mystifyingly having signed red card magnet Andy Todd and released Seth Johnson, their captain and one of their only players with Premiership experience, the bottom of the pile beckons. Expect Giles Barnes to do an Ashley Young and impress in a struggling side before being offered the chance to flee the sinking ship in January.

Like a dozy driver going through a carwash, David Moyes only just seems to have realised the window is open, leaping into belated action. Leighton Baines is an excellent signing, someone for whom we were rumoured to have been angling ourselves, and he looks likely to be joined by a forward or two. Phil Jagielka's versatility will come in handy, and while expensive recruit Andy Johnson stole most of the headlines last year, in robust defender Joleon Lescott and skilful midfield craftsman Mikel Arteta the Toffees boasted two of the season's best and most unsung performers. Rarely spectacular, but always annoyingly tough to beat.

Or London (Northern) Irish, as they should be known. Newly-appointed manager Lawrie Sanchez has wasted no time in signing up familiar faces Steve Davis, Aaron Hughes, David Healy and Chris Baird, while he's also managed to coax the normally miserly Mohammed Al Fayed into parting with substantial sums for Diomansy Kamara, Hameur Bouazza, Paul Konchesky and Lee Cook (well, either that or taken advantage of Al Fayed's preoccupation with ludicrous conspiracy theories that the Daily Express perpetuates just to keep itself in business). So, £25m spent - or should I say squandered, for the influx of genuine quality has been conspicuous by its absence. When Al Fayed finally realises he's had his pockets picked, Sanchez is likely to receive his P45 shortly after.

Meanwhile, the preposterously goateed Rafa Benitez has spunked that sum on just one player, Fernando Torres. It was going to take something extraordinary to prise Torres away from his beloved Atletico Madrid, and it was an extraordinary fee - but if the Spaniard is going to settle in England, then the Costa del Scouse is as likely a place as any. Far less heralded has been the arrival of Shevchenko's Ukrainian strike partner Andrey Voronin, whose pre-season form promises great things. At £11.5m, Ryan Babel represents a pricey gamble (particularly given the cheapness of his Holland U21 colleagues De Ridder at Birmingham and Rigters at Blackburn), and I can't see Yossi Benayoun being anything more than an expensive benchwarmer. Clearly no fan of golf, karaoke or no-necked indisciplined runts, Benitez has taken the opportunity to offload boyhood Reds fan Craig Bellamy, and is set to preside over a concerted tilt at the title which, though destined to be ultimately futile, will bode well for the future.

Man City
With star men Sylvain Distin and Joey Barton having left and the club drifting rudderless through a protracted takeover, the future looked bleak for City. But now, with the deal complete and Sven-Goran Eriksson installed as manager, it's all go. The Swede has splashed in-no-way-dubious new owner Thaksin Shinawatra's cash in style, embarking on the sort of spree that would make Elton John look restrained. Elano and the two Bulgarian playmakers Valeri Bojinov and Martin Petrov in particular look set to shine, though for City fans the £8.8m signing of one season wonder Rolando Bianchi probably has the bad whiff of Bernardo Corradi and Georgios Samaras about it. Eriksson should be thankful that Jose Mourinho has surprisingly made no attempts to lure Micah Richards away, and could end up steering City to the UEFA Cup.

Man Utd
Much as it pains me to say it, Taggart's mob were magnificent last season, genuinely exhilarating (if unexpected, for me at least) winners of the title after two years of Chelsea efficiency and steel. With the addition of Owen Hargreaves, Nani and Anderson and with Carlos Tevez, the only Premiership player with less of a neck than Craig Bellamy, due to arrive permanently at Old Trafford any day now, they are an even more frightening prospect. Surely only serious injury to Ronaldo (it can be arranged...) and / or the continuing presence in and around the first team of Darren Fletcher, John O'Shea and Mikael Silvestre can upset their march to the title?

Gareth Southgate's success in persuading Jonathan Woodgate into penning a permanent deal with his hometown club may have made us envious, but at least we got revenge by tempting Mark Viduka away with a trail of Greggs sausage rolls and the prospect of fresh air. Jeremie Aliadiere and Turk Tuncay Sanli have pitched up on Smogside to bolster the attack, but the impact of their arrivals would be wiped out if Yakubu is sold. In charge of a squad with precious little quality as it is, Southgate would be left up a certain creek without a certain paddle and even that nice Mr Gibson might contract a bad case of itchy trigger finger.

The direct opposite of David Moyes, 'Appy 'Arry seems to have been under the impression that the transfer window closed around the end of June. Pompey were astoundingly quick out of the blocks in picking up Sylvain Distin to reinforce what is already a very solid defence inspired by Sol Campbell and David James, and an array of costly strikers in Sulley Muntari, David Nugent and John Utaka - so much for goal-shy Benjani being worthy of his place in the team through sheer hard graft. Everything points towards another successful season - except, that is, for the Curse of Hreidarsson. What are the chances of him being relegated from the Premiership with a fifth different side? Surely 'Arry should have spotted a pattern...

I very much doubt I'm alone in thinking Steve Coppell's boys are going to cop it this season. For a start, their midfield dynamo Steve Sidwell has left to keep Shaun Wright-Phillips company in the Chelsea dug-out, Kevin Doyle and Stephen Hunt can't possibly maintain last season's form and they've started to suffer from the same comically horrendous luck as the rest of us, what with Leroy Lita injuring himself stretching while getting out of bed. The extreme caution in the transfer market and the lack of new faces doesn't bode well for the Royals either - though it's perhaps worth bearing in mind that historically several sides, having comfortably survived their first season in the top flight, have subsequently invested heavily in a bid to push on, only to find that the new signings have destabilised the club's solid foundations and actually imperilled their Premiership future rather than securing it.

"So, what news, Agent Chopra?"
"Well, not content on squandering £5m on me - a diehard Geordie who's already proved he can't cut it in the Premiership - the Chuckle Brothers Quinn and Keane have splashed £2.5m on someone who couldn't get anywhere near the Reading team, £5.5m on the brother of that ghastly trollop from off of 'Big Brother' and £9m (yes, £9m!) on a 'keeper who's only ever proved his worth in the Mickey Mouse league north of the border! And to think Quinny's sounded off about rival clubs paying absurdly inflated prices and pushing the market up!"
"So, do you think you've got a chance of staying up?"
"Of course not."
"Good. Off you go, Agent Chopra - bomb 'em straight back to the Championship..."

Together with Liverpool and Man Utd, the summer's really big spenders - and as a result the most likely side to break into the top four. There's no denying, not even for Spurs fans, that they've paid way over the odds for Darren Bent, but that deal - along with those for Gareth Bale, Younes Kaboul, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Adel Taarabt - is indicative of a club intent on pursuing its policy of buying up hugely talented youngsters. That may not bear fullest fruit for a few years yet - in which case Martin Jol might yet find that his bosses are more interested in the short term than they implied - but it's arguable that in Bent, Robbie Keane, Jermain Defoe and one of last season's outstanding performers Dimitar Berbatov, Spurs have the best quartet of out-and-out strikers in the league. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that there's some disgruntlement once Jol decides upon his preferred partnership.

West Ham
Under Alan Pardew in the 2005-6 season, the newly promoted Hammers were the people's favourites, playing freely and without fear and within seconds of beating Liverpool in the FA Cup final. Now, in the wake of Tevezgate, they're among the most despised teams in the league. How to respond? By playing up to that reputation, selling the players who got them where they are now and trying to recreate Bobby's Borstal Boys of 2003 by reuniting Craig Bellamy with Lee Bowyer and then going after Bowyer's sparring partner Kieron Dyer. In between throwing around money wildly and buying French midfielders for one and a half times the fee any other club was prepared to shell out. To be fair, though, the signings of Scott Parker for £7m and Freddie Ljungberg for £3m represent good value, and mean they're unlikely to need to resort to cheating to survive this year.

There's no room for sentiment in football - hence Wigan's release of David Unsworth, barely weeks after his penalty against Sheffield Utd had kept them up. So what was Dave Whelan doing appointing Chris Hutchings as Paul Jewell's successor, as someone who has very little management experience and none of it good? And it shows - in his recruitment of Titus Bramble and his paying an exorbitant £5.3m for the admittedly talented Jason Koumas. Koumas is used to being a big fish in a small Championship pond - and that's probably what he'll be again by the time the 2008-9 season kicks off.


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