Premier League preview: Why Liverpool and Spurs won’t finish in top four
Paul McNamara backs Chelsea, Arsenal, Man United and Man City to finish in top four in his Premier League preview
Any prediction made right now has to be qualified by the fact that four weeks remain until the current transfer window is pulled shut. Jose Mourinho is one man who will be determined to use the time wisely. The Chelsea boss’s recent pontificating on Arsenal’s heavy spending smacked of a man who knows that there is a growing threat to his team’s supremacy from the men in north London. What’s more, watching the Gunners beat his team in Sunday’s Community Shield clash will have served as the latest reminder to Mourinho that his squad is slightly on the thin side. Chelsea’s midfield is heavily, if not wholly, reliant on Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas’s blend of force and guile. It is anybody’s guess, meanwhile, whether Radamel Falcao will be more Bobby Tambling or Fernando Torres in a Blues shirt, meaning that there is a real chance that the champions’ goal-scoring responsibilities will fall squarely on Diego Costa, and his persistently unreliable hamstrings. A couple of canny acquisitions between now and 1 September would make Chelsea firm favourites to retain their title. Even if Mourinho is unable to strengthen significantly, however, the Blues still have in situ the group of players that were too much to handle for the rest of the league last season. Arsenal and Manchester United are both closing the gap, but those two teams are yet to locate the balance of the one that they are trying to catch. As for Manchester City, their strange season last time round, coupled with weaknesses in defence and midfield that are still to be adequately addressed, indicate that it would require a mighty leap of faith to consider that the 2014 champions could be contenders to repeat that triumph.
Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City.
While the two Manchester clubs will eventually be cut adrift, as their capital based counterparts tussle for top spot, it is hard to see United and City being subjected to any convincing challenge for the remaining Champions League places. Brendan Rodgers has, for the second successive year, been busy beefing up his Liverpool squad. The Reds’s mix of new recruits should ensure an improvement on last season’s mediocre showing, particularly given the proven Premier League calibre of Christian Benteke, Nathaniel Clyne and James Milner. On the flip side, Raheem Sterling’s departure will weaken the attacking artillery of a team whose goal-return last season dipped alarmingly from their previous prolific campaign. Tottenham’s soundest summer business has been to keep hold of Hugo Lloris and Harry Kane. Even with world-class ‘keeper Lloris and 21-goal Kane in their number last season, however, Spurs ended up in fifth, six points shy of the top-four. They will be hard-pushed to repeat that effort.
Norwich City, Watford, Leicester City.
Any number of sides could find themselves embroiled in the scrap to avoid the most costly of relegations, with the Premier League’s new £5.1bn television deal due to kick-in in 2016. Norwich haven’t markedly improved on the team which fell out of the top-flight in 2014, and one can envisage the Canaries suffering the same lachrymose conclusion to their latest Premier League campaign. Watford seemed to thrive on instability as they secured the Championship’s runners-up berth last term. As such, there has been no appetite to end the flux, with a new head coach, in Quique Sanchez Flores, and 11 new players arriving at Vicarage Road since Slavisa Jokanovic’s team won promotion. Bedding that lot in, while trying to stay afloat in the Premier League, is likely to be too big an ask. Sunderland, Aston Villa and Bournemouth could have their dicey moments, but Leicester City have taken an enormous gamble by appointing Claudio Ranieri to their helm. With the talisman of their memorable escape last time out, Esteban Cambiasso, no longer around, the Foxes could be short of inspiration if they slip into trouble which, going on last season’s initial struggles, is an entirely foreseeable scenario.
FA Cup winners
The most illustrious domestic knock-out competition in world football has regained its sheen in recent times; boosted by a few of the shocks that are its lifeblood and its return to its rightful televisual home on the BBC. What hasn’t changed, though, is that the winners still tend to come from the English game’s big-hitters. After falling victim to a huge upset last season, when his team were beaten at home by League One outfit Bradford City, it would be no surprise if Jose Mourinho sets his sights on righting that wrong, in the most resounding fashion possible.
Signing of the season
Yohan Cabaye to Crystal Palace.
A wonderful, technically gifted midfielder, Cabaye cost Paris Saint-Germain £19m when they spirited him away from Newcastle United at the beginning of last year. Even if that move didn’t work out as the Frenchman would have wished, the acquisition of a stellar international performer, who was pursued by a number of elite European clubs when he opted for PSG, is a tremendous coup for Palace. Cabaye’s signing has the power to act as a magnet to Selhurst Park for other similarly talented footballers, while the 29 year-old’s presence could persuade Palace stars coveted elsewhere that it might be worth sticking around. Furthermore, what a reference for Alan Pardew’s managerial skills, that Cabaye was so keen to rekindle his working relationship with his former Newcastle boss in south London.
The story of Eddie Howe’s two spells in charge of the Cherries has been one of serial achievement – and I don’t see that changing. Howe’s purchase of Sylvain Distin could prove an absolute masterstroke. So too, the capture of Max Gradel, a loanee at Dean Court during somewhat bleaker days for the Cherries in 2007/2008, but scorer of 17 Ligue 1 goals with St Etienne last season. A few of the Premier League’s established order could come a cropper against Howe’s men, who are capable of keeping their heads above water, and enthralling us with their cavalier football along the way.
Flop of the season
An itch that West Ham have been longing to scratch since his Croatia team was out-witting England in the qualification process for Euro 2008, Bilic has finally fulfilled his destiny by slipping into the Upton Park hot seat. The Hammers should be wary, though. If a glance at the subsequent miserable fortunes of clubs that have previously dispensed with Sam Allardyce isn’t enough to send a few tremors through the East End, then the way that Bilic’s team have laboured in the early stages of the Europa League will have set a few alarm bells ringing. None of the Croatian’s signings boast any Premier League experience and, with the added pressure of an impending move to the Olympic Stadium to contend with, things could turn pretty dark at the Boleyn if Bilic’s West Ham get off to anything other than a convincing start.
Most looking forward to….
I’m actually quite intrigued to see what happens next at Aston Villa. Fabian Delph, Christian Benteke and Ron Vlaar, three key men at Villa Park, have all gone, to be replaced by a whole host of new faces. Can the 1982 European Cup winners finally emerge from a lengthy period in the doldrums? Will Micah Richards rediscover the form that once made him the most exciting defensive prospect in this country? Can the clutch of Ligue 1 players brought into Villa make the necessary adjustment to life in England? And, most fascinating of all, will Tim Sherwood turn out to possess the managerial credentials to match his unbending confidence?