The wait is over
As ever, the excitement has been building and with the absence of a major international tournament to distract us during the summer months it is with relief that a new season is finally upon us.
Drowning in pre-season predictions (three guesses where this blog is heading …), the final week is always the most agonizing. Even more so this year, with the ludicrously timed internationals fixtures detracting from those final preparations and unfairly raising Spurs fans’ hopes that Steven Gerard may not be fit for Sunday.
The return of Soccer Saturday, Match of the Day, Super Sunday, league tables to pour over in the Sunday papers, the re-assembly of the local goalposts, the as yet to be decided visits to the Lane … the anticipation can be too much to bear.
MOTD: The boys are back …
Wisely, then, I will be easing my way into things with a visit to the Galpharm this Saturday, to see Huddersfield Town entertain Southampton. That’s not too say they don’t get excited in League One (because believe me, they do) but as a fan who emerged at precisely the same time as the Premier League, my own anticipation is channeled accordingly.
The start of a new campaign, I find, is very much like Christmas morning; neither the excitement nor the belief that this year will the best ever dims with age. And more than ever, this sense of expectancy transcends club and is firmly rooted in what promises to be a fiercely competitive league.
With the cloud of Manchester United’s unlikely defeat to Barcelona yet to dissipate (and by unlikely I refer more to the manner of the defeat than I do the actual scoreline), and an even darker shadow having been cast by the resurgent Real Madrid’s utter dominance of the transfer market (because let’s face it, if they had wanted Tevez, Adebayor and co. there would have been no stopping them), the Premier League nonetheless appears primed to reassert its position as the best league in the world.
Our pride in our domestic league has, undeniably, been dented. Not only have England’s finest been unable to turn the heads of ‘neutral’ players such as Kaka and Ribery (though the latter has yet to escape), they have struggled to hold on to their own. We need mention no names.
A lesser league without him?
However, whilst Real Madrid should once again be a force to be reckoned with on the European stage, their vice-like-grip on this summer’s transfer activity should actually have the inverse effect of enhancing the Premier League’s status.
On paper, it appears that we are entering one of the most unpredictable and exciting campaigns in recent memory. In large part, this is due to the ever-so-slight contraction of the gulf that separates the top four from the rest.
Stoke and Bolton may not find themselves in the hunt for the fourth Champion’s League spot but more than ever, there is a genuine sense that an increasing number of clubs will be able to take points off the top four and, consequently, that this group’s hegemony could be under threat.
By contrast, in Spain the prospect of lesser teams upsetting Real Madrid and Barcelona in the coming season must never have seemed so remote.
In England, the mouth watering prospects of a genuine three horse title race and/or a sustained challenge to Champion’s League qualification, can be expected to cascade down the league as competition for places and forward progress will leave no club in mid table obscurity – at least not in the traditional sense.
So, from the bottom up …
The relegation battle should be as thrilling as last year, though expect a more defined contest this year with fewer teams truly in the mix. Predictably, the three promoted clubs, though each capable of surviving, will be fighting got their lives from the opening whistle.
Burnley: Will they be celebrating come May?
Joining them will be the beleaguered Hull City, who’s prospects look bleak after last season’s alarming decline, and Portsmouth, who will desperately want to hang on to what is left of their increasingly threadbare squad in the final weeks of the transfer window.
Stoke may struggle to build on last season but their survival, unlike Hull’s, was predicated on a solid foundation and consistency at home. With Rory Delap’s unfathomably penetrating throw-ins again likely to feature prominently, they may just be able to focus on the teams ahead of them.
It is here, I believe, that the fight to finish in the top half will kick off. Sunderland, Wigan, Blackburn and Bolton are all capable of challenging, though in reality only one, possible two, place(s) will be on offer. Sunderland, with a proven and well-backed manager, will fancy themselves and could well be the league’s most improved side.
Bruce: Hoping to transform Sunderland’s fortunes
Last year’s most improved side, Fulham, will struggle to remain clear of this chasing pack. Another top seven finish looks out of the question but Craven Cottage should remain a formidable visit for all and they too will be targeting a top ten finish.
West Ham’s Gianfranco Zola will aspire to push on this season and, if fortunate with injuries, a top eight challenge may not be out of the question. However, with rivals having their improved squads more significantly, consolidation would appear more realistic.
And so we come to the battle for the Europa League places (as the top seven or eight will surely account for at least one of the cups). What will make this contest so fascinating is the very real prospect that it could spill over into a battle for fourth place.
Each of Spurs, Villa and Everton will be targeting a top six finish. Manchester City’s sights, realistically or not, must be cast a little higher though whether they can outstrip the ‘best of the rest’ this year is questionable. Crucial, will be the ability of each of these clubs to take points off of the top four, as well as each other.
Could this be the year that the top four becomes the top three? Arsenal, having lost two key players to the insatiable City, look more likely to finish fifth than first. That said, the trio of Van Persie, Arshavin and Fabregas alone, could keep Arsenal out of reach of the chasing pack. Certainly their durability against physical opponents will be more closely scrutinized than ever.
A tough season ahead?
As for the rest, it truly is too close to call. Chelsea may have not strengthened the squad as much as they or their captain would have liked but they will surely be encouraged by the departures of Ronaldo and Xavi Alonso.
United will need one of Park, Nani or Valencia to truly step up a level if they are to retain as sharp an edge when going forward. Similarly, Liverpool will be quietly praying that Alberto Aquilani settles quickly to fill the more cultured void left by Alonso.
Ultimately, of course, it could prove to be the most boring and predictable season ever, with United wrapping up the title in late March, Burnley failing to register a point until Boxing Day and Spurs finishing a paltry 11th.
Right now, I couldn’t care less – let the games begin.
Enjoy the season.