Chelsea (if Diego Costa stays fit).
Chelsea have not bought big this summer, spending just £13.75m on a combination of Asmir Begovic (Stoke), Nathan (Atletico Paranaense) and Danilo Pantic (Partizan Belgrade). But on the other hand, having won the league last year by a convincing eight points, they didn’t necessarily need to splash the cash, and the fact they haven’t should result in a settled team well versed in each other’s style of play and Jose Mourinho’s tactics. That said, if Diego Costa’s niggling injury issues persist the Blues might regret not signing (at time of writing at least) another quality striker. Yes, Loic Remy is a decent finisher, but he is far from the complete striker typically needed to win the league, and on the evidence of the Community Shield on-loan Radamel Falcao’s remarkable slump in form seems to be continuing.
Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City.
It looks set to be really close between these four this season, very possibly going down to the last game. Arsenal finally seem to be turning into title contenders based on their form from the second half of last season and their pre-season. It’s true that you can only tell so much from pre-season, but trouncing a Champions League-quality team such as Lyon 6-0 is some statement of intent and one could tell from the fallout of the Gunners’s Community Shield win against Chelsea last weekend that it meant a fair bit to each team. Also, they have added some steel in the form of Petr Cech (which could prove to be a big one-up on their West London rivals) and Francis Coquelin – while no Patrick Vieira, at least not yet – is emerging as a very capable ‘enforcer’ – both positions where there has been question marks over Arsenal in recent years. Manchester United have spent big and added some real quality this summer with the signings of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin, Memphis Depay and Matteo Darmian. However, instead of spending that £73m outlay on three midfielders (and Darmian at right-back) they would have been wise to strengthen other areas. Robin van Persie has gone to Fenerbahce and on-loan Falcao has now gone on loan to Chelsea, leaving Wayne Rooney as the only top-class out-and-out striker – and he has been playing increasingly deeper in past seasons so will need to rediscover his killer instinct. At the moment, it appears Chris Smalling and Phil Jones will be the first-choice centre-back pairing – far from the worst partnership in the world but it could certainly be improved. And this (minor) issue will likely be exacerbated if Real Madrid finally settle with United on a deal for David De Gea, so many times United’s match-winner last season. Manchester City are also likely to be strong as they have bags of firepower in attack with Raheem Sterling another fine (if overpriced) attacking midfielder to join David Silva and Samir Nasri, and there are rumours that Kevin De Bruyne could be on his way too. Also, of the top four teams, Wilfried Bony provides probably the best cover to the first-choice frontman, the razor-sharp Sergio Aguero (Edin Dzeko is set to leave for Roma and Stevan Jovetic has joined Inter Milan on loan with a view to a permanent move). However, there are some question marks over the form of Vincent Kompany, as well as over Eliaquim Mangala’s ability and Martin Demichelis’ pace – or, rather, lack of it.
Bournemouth, Norwich and Leicester.
Bournemouth were a revelation last year in the Championship, a club very easy to warm to not only for the attacking brand of football they play but for likable manager Eddie Howe and, without wishing to patronise, their vaguely underdog status. However, at the risk of sounding like a cliché-spouting idiot at the pub, the Premier League is a different kettle of fish to the Championship. As the Observer writes, “their open style of play is likely to win admirers but not necessarily matches”, as they do look suspect defensively. Norwich, one of the other promoted teams along with Watford, could well struggle to bridge the gap as, at time of writing, they have only spent a relatively minor £10m and signed just three players, Graham Dorrans, Youssouf Mulumbu and Robbie Brady (though Andre Wisdom, a loan signing along with Blackburn’s Jake Kean, could prove a good addition to the squad). It’s a tough balance for managers of promoted teams – keep faith in the players that brought you up or bring in more proven players at a price. It seems Norwich have plumped for the former. It’s admirable, but it could prove slightly foolhardy. On the other hand, Watford have signed nine new players and spent at least £21 m (three undisclosed transfer amounts), including signing on a permanent deal Matej Vydra, who was a major factor in them getting promoted last year. Expect them to survive narrowly. I’m tipping Leicester for the final relegation spot, as they have lost Esteban Cambiasso, who was so pivotal to their survival last season, and, with Matt James out for the most of the season with a knee ligament injury, there’s a lack of quality in the middle of the park.
Pleasingly, in recent seasons the prestige of the FA Cup seems to have come back in fairly big way, and, correspondingly, so has the top teams’ interest in it (maybe with all the talk, overblown or not, of the competition’s slow death, people in football stared into the abyss, realised they didn’t like and did something about it). That being the case, the Cup is, as the cliché goes, a lottery, and the safe, obvious answer is to go for one of the top four. But I’ll go with Liverpool, partly because it’s a genuine prediction and, frankly, partly because I haven’t mentioned them so far. Having signed Christian Benteke, Danny Ings, James Milner, Roberto Firmino and Nathaniel Clyne, Liverpool have the quality – and certaintly the quantity – for a cup run, and they might place it just slightly higher up the list of priorities than the top four with not being the Champions League, especially so if they find themselves in a position where the title is unlikely.
While some of the big money signings, such as Sterling (£49m) Memphis Depay (£31m), Roberto Firmino (£29m) and Christian Benteke (£32.5m), are likely to be more influential, I’ve plumped for the much-maligned, James “boring” Milner, who Liverpool have signed on a free, in terms of value for money. Granted, he rarely sets the world alight, but he’s tidy on the ball, versatile (he played in seven different positions for City), has a good delivery, a faultless work-rate and he will almost always get you a six or seven in the rankings. So he’s a steal on a free transfer (though admittedly his wages are a rather hefty £150,000-a-week, even after taking a £15,000-a-week pay cut).
With Swansea and Southampton having enjoyed such surprise success that they are sort of becoming mainstays in the top half of the table, it’s quite hard to see the space for another team to muscle in to that. So I’m backing Newcastle to bounce back from a pretty disastrous campaign last season to some (much needed) boring midtable stability. Although I’m not sure if people would see that a surprise or not – Newcastle are such and up-and-down club it’s hard to tell. Anyway, the case for the defence: Mike Ashley has made a new commitment to back the team with money (whether he sticks to it is another matter); Steve McLaren is, if you can forget his forgettable England tenure and that Dutch accent, a capable and experienced manager; there’s a new group of backroom staff; and on the pitch, Siem de Jong seems a good signing and fit-again Rolando Aarons is a very exciting prospect.
‘Flop’ is a bit harsh, because Delph is a good player and the £8m fee City paid for him is about right. But it’s very hard to see him pushing the likes of Silva, Sterling, Nasri, Jesus Navas, Yaya Toure, Fernandinho and, possibly, Kevin De Bruyne out of the team. There’s ambition – and then there’s just delusion. Personally, it’s not really a matter of ‘lack of loyalty’ or the (admittedly pretty embarrassing) u-turn on a u-turn in the transfer negotiations, but a matter of what is good for the player. Instead of having first-team football and making a reasonable case for England selection, there’s a good chance that, for the next year or so at least, Delph’s primary task on matchdays will be to walk twice from the changing room to the dug-out and back. Has the man not heard of Scott Sinclair or Jack Rodwell?
Mourinho’s mind games/banter.
Even if he is in the wrong, which is quite often, the Special One ensures entertainment and headlines in the Premier League. Already the Portuguese has been whetting our appetite for this season by calling Arsenal “boring” in their 1-0 Community Shield win against Chelsea. And he’s also been had some back-and-forth with not just Rafa Benitez but his wife too. Really, it’s your mum level kind of stuff, if well executed, but fans and the media, me included, lapped it up because it’s Mourinho.
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