Previews: Arsenal, Aston Villa, Birmingham
Premier League Preview 1: Arsenal
The trophy drought at Emirates stadium continues with Arsenal having failed to win a trophy since victory in the FA Cup final four years ago. The Gunners have lost key players since that dramatic day in Cardiff: Patrick Veira, Thierry Henry and Robert Pires to name a few. The exodus of senior players from the club has continued this summer with Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure both joining the Manchester City revolution.
Arsene Wenger has made steps to improve his squad. Thomas Veermaelan has joined from Dutch club Ajax. The experienced Belgian will add some much needed steel to the Arsenal back four. In midfield the void left by Patrick Vieira’s departure in 2005 has still to be adequately filled. A replacement for Emmanuel Adebayor is also needed, with Emirates side heavily linked with Bourdeaux striker, Marouane Chamakh.
That cliched saying; the return of an injured player is like a new signing. Well Thomas Rosicky fits that description as he hasn’t played for 18 months and had made a successful rehabilitation, making it through pre-season unscathed. That was until yesterday, when Wenger announced the Czech Republic international had picked up a hamstring strain.
It is an unwanted injury woe for the French manager who has already suffered the loss of Samir Nasri, who broke his leg in training. Eduardo will be looking to feature heavily in Arsenal’s season as he made it through pre-season without picking up any knocks after returning from a horrendous leg break last season.
If Arsenal could ensure the fitness of key players like van Persie, Nasri, Rosicky and Eduardo then the London club have the quality to mount a serious title challenge.
At the Arsenal Members’ Day 2009, when club captain Cesc Fabregas was questioned over the ambitions of the team this year, the Spanish international reacted sharply when it was suggested the club would be content with a fourth place finish. A sign to rival clubs to take Arsenal seriously.
Manchester City will be a threat this season. The Eastland club have signalled champions league qualification as a must. Should they lay claim to fourth spot or higher, it would appear Arsenal would be first out the door. In addition Aston Villa, Everton and Tottenham Hotspur will all be contenders to break into the top four. Arsenal will face an uphill battle.
Another trophyless season is surely unimaginable for Arsene Wenger and the Frenchman will be hoping the fruits of his labour come ripe this year as some of the younger players come of age.
In: Thomas Vermaelen (Ajax, £10m).
Out: Emmanuel Adebayor (Manchester City, £25m); Kolo Toure (Manchester City, £14m); Abu Ogogo (Dagenham & Redbridge, Free); Rene Steer (Oldham Athletic, Free); Amaury Bischoff (Released); Rui Fonte (Released); Paul Rodgers (Released).
TSR Writers’ Prediction: 5th
Premier League Preview 2: Aston Villa
Despite imploding in March and ultimately finishing in sixth place, Martin O’Neill’s side had Arsenal sweating over fourth place for much of last season.
Villa were ahead of the Gunners for most of the season and their eventual downfall was result of their own frailties, coupled with a set of very demanding fixtures.
The notable loss of Gareth Barry to Manchester City will leave a size-able hole in midfield, but O’Neill has moved swiftly to replace the £12 million player, bringing in Stewart Downing from Middlesbrough. The England international will however miss the the opening stages of the season, and may not feature until December after fracturing his foot at the end of last season.
O’Neill has also look to strengthen Villa’s defensive line-up following the retirement of captain and distinguished defender Martin Laursen, bringing in Habib Beye from Newcastle a three-year contract. Many put Villa’s inability to claim fourth place down to Laursen being sidelined in a string of injuries that eventually forced the Dane to retire.
In pre-season, Gabriel Agbonlahor, James Milner and Craig Gardner were all left out of the Villa squad for the Peace Cup in Spain. Agbonlahor and Ashley Young took the plaudits last season for their electrifying, pacey displays. And a player that will be joining the pair next season is the highly-rated 19-year-old Leeds midfielder, Fabian Delph, who signed last week.
The Villa boss has acknowledged that his side need to bring in at least five new players to “give us a chance”. The Birmingham side have been heavily linked with Portsmouth defender Sylvain Distin, whose addition would certainly bolster Villa’s defensive line-up.
It would take a stroke of genius from Martin O’Neill to better last season’s performance and break into the top four. With Manchester City widely tipped to be challenging for a Champions League spot, it will be a tough fight. But O’Neill’s managerial prowess should not be overlooked and an improvement on last season’s finish is by no means out of the question.
In: Stewart Downing (Middlesbrough, £12m), Fabian Delph (Leeds, undisc), Habib Beye (Newcastle, undisc).
Out: Gareth Barry (Manchester City, £12m), Stuart Taylor (Manchester City, free), Zat Knight (Bolton Wanderers, £5m), Martin Laursen (retired).
TSR Writers’ Prediction: 7th
Premier League Preview 3: Birmingham City
Birmingham City face an uphill battle from the start this season. Throughout the duration of last season Alex McLeish suffered unrelenting criticism. The playing style of the team frustrated both fans and the hierarchy at Birmingham City as the team managed a mere 47 goals in the Championship.
McLeish has invested up front, splashing out £7.7 million on Ecuadorian striker Christian Benitez. Undoubtedly a risk, Benitez will need to adapt quickly to the pace of the English game. Should he do so, the player who scored 31 times in 58 appearances for Santos Laguna, could prove crucial to Birmingham’s survival.
The arrival of Lee Bowyer from West Ham United and Barry Ferguson from Rangers will provide essential experience and leadership at St. Andrews. Ferguson has much to prove in English football after a tame spell at Blackburn Rovers. McLeish managed the combative 31-year-old during his stewardship of both Rangers and Scotland. As a result he knows how to bring out the best in his former Scottish captain.
The addition of highly rated Joe Hart on loan could prove a master stroke. The 22-year-old will be looking to force his way into Fabio Capello’s World Cup squad and has much to prove to Mark Hughes after Hart was ousted from his number one spot at Manchester City by the arrival of Shay Given last January. McLeish has brought in former Cardiff City captain, Roger Johnson to add some steel and leadership at the back. Johnson will be joined by Coventry City captain, Scott Dann was signed for a fee of £3.5 million with Birmingham City set to entrust responsibility at the back to the duo.
It remains to be seen if the board have faith in their boss. McLeish is favourite amongst the bookmakers to be the first manager to get the chop this season. Two seasons ago the Scottish manager failed to prevent City’s relegation from the Premiership and it is hard to see any other result this season. James McFadden could be crucial to any hopes Birmingham are harbouring of survival.
In: Christian BenÃƒÂtez (Santos Laguna, £7.7m), Scott Dann (Coventry City, £3.5m), Joe Hart (Manchester City, loan), Lee Bowyer (West Ham United, free), Roger Johnson (Cardiff City, £5m), Barry Ferguson (Rangers, £1.5m), Giovanny Espinoza (Barcelona Sporting Club, free), Stephen Carr (unattached, free)
Out: Stephen Kelly (Fulham, free), Krystian Pearce (Peterborough, loan), Robin Shroot (Burton, loan), James McPike (Kettering, free), Michael McKerr (Oldham, free), Semih Aydilek (released)
TSR Writers’ Prediction: 19th