Who will win the Premier League? (Part 1)

Who will emulate Chelsea's success from last season?

Less than a week to go until the Premier League gets under way for the 2010/11 season, and things are shaping up nicely. Starting at the bottom, Newcastle and WBA are familiar faces back for another crack at the Premiership while last season’s bottom half strugglers will hope Blackpool are the minnows they appear to be. At the other end of the table, the ‘big four’ seems to be disbanding – do we now have a big eight or a top two/three with six/five teams close behind? Only time will tell.

The big question at the start of every season though, is who will be champions come May next year? It’s a very difficult question to answer – as proved last season when many “top” pundits couldn’t look past Liverpool who had a woeful season. I myself – without sounding too smug – got it spot on last year, predicting Chelsea would finish top of the pile in my Season Preview. Can I repeat the trick this time around?

As I see it this season, there are three main contenders for the Premier League title, with Liverpool having dropped away from last season’s big four and Arsenal having solidified their position alongside Chelsea and Manchester United. Much of the talk currently surrounds Manchester City who are certainly spending their way into the reckoning but for me, as last season, City’s internal disharmony which will inevitably result from such a large squad, will hold them back.

Then there are the other four serious contenders for European honours, and for the first time in many seasons it is not now inconceivable that Everton, Villa or Tottenham could win the league. It’s still unlikely of course, but given that the gap in quality between these sides and the previous ‘big four’ has closed, more points will be up for grabs and if any of these sides (or Liverpool, who can’t be ruled out) hit a purple patch and gets that little bit of luck, well you never know.

To start with though, let’s assess the main contenders.

Chelsea
Last season’s victors are much favoured this season to defend their crown and rightly so. They have not made any wholesale changes, but have trimmed a large and ageing squad a little with the release of Michael Ballack, Juliano Belletti and Deco. Joe Cole is the one notable departure, a player who is world-class in his own way when he wants to be but who Ancelotti clearly didn’t value too highly as part of his reasonably rigid diamond midfield system.

Yossi Benayoun has traded places with Cole and will, I believe, take up the position the Englishman’s occupied in the Chelsea dugout for much of last season. Now that he no longer plays for Liverpool I can freely admit that Benayoun is a very good player on his day, but when compared to the wealth of midfield talent that Chelsea already possess – and are in the process of adding to with the arrival of Ramires – he will have a bit-part role.

The arrival of Ramires, when it is completed, will be a productive one for Chelsea. From what I’ve seen of him – not much – he’s a versatile player with a good deal of talent allied to great physical attributes. In short, he’ll bring more to the table than say, Robinho, because he won’t be scared by the rain or crunching English tackles. I actually think he’ll be the sort of Brazilian to thrive in English conditions, but I’ve been wrong before.

The department that most concerns Ancelotti will probably be his defence. In Cole/Zhirkov and Bosingwa/Ivanovic they are well covered at full back but with Carvalho ageing significantly and Terry starting to do the same and having been poor at the World Cup, Alex doesn’t provide exactly watertight cover. That said, they didn’t concede many last season, and will Michael Essien fit again, they have a very effective defensive shield.

Overall, Chelsea look, once again, formidably strong. In attack Drogba is right up there with the best in the world when on form and Anelka finally looks to have settled at a club while Daniel Sturridge is improving encouragingly. A midfield including Lampard, Malouda and Essien is world-class too, and they have good strength in-depth in most areas, even if the average age of the squad is still a little older than ideal.

Manchester United
It’s been a relatively quiet summer for Manchester United, despite many rumours of interest in various players and their failure to secure the Premier League title last season. After the departure of Ronaldo last summer, many were surprised when Ferguson added minimally to his squad and in his trusting to the likes of Antonio Valencia and Nani to fill the boots of one of the league’s best players in recent seasons.

Ultimately I think United paid the price for not replacing Ronaldo – though whether the blame lies at the feet of Ferguson or the owners for not making the money available is a debate for another day – and I feel they will be off the pace again this season unless a big signing or two find their way to Old Trafford between now and September 1st. United’s is a squad with a lot of solid quality, but little world-class brilliance.

The arrival of Javier Hernandez will ease the burden on one such world-class player though, with Wayne Rooney’s strike performances having carried United much of the distance in last season’s title race. The young mexican has impressed in pre-season and looks like he could be a shrewd acquisition, while United will also hope that they may finally see the best of Dimitar Berbatov, who got a confidence boosting goal in the Community Shield at the weekend.

Defenseively, I see Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans both being at least a season away from the top-level performances that United will need from their centre halves while Rio Ferdinand looks as if he will continue to struggle with fitness before even contemplating form. Thus Vidic will again need to be their mainstay and Patrice Evra provides top quality at left-back, while United fans must hope they see less of the ageing Neville and woeful Brown and right back and more of Brazilian Rafael, who looks a real talent.

It is the midfield though, that concerns me for United. The incredibly unfortunate Owen Hargreaves seems unlikely to ever play football again while Michael Carrick is a solid player without being anything special. Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs can still work wonders occasionally but neither can provide the consistent fuel for a title chasing outfit. Nani, Valencia and Obertan are again solidly unspectacular and the likes of Anderson and Fletcher do an important job without providing a real spark.

There is of course, the hope that the likes of Darren Gibson and Tom Cleverly (if not sent out on loan) may provide added dyanmism to this midfield, but it still lacks some real quality to my mind. Someone like Mesut Ozil or Steven Defour – names that have been mentioned in the press – could well be a spark which could transform this squad into also-rans to genuine title threats but quite honestly, this is the least inspiring United squad I have seen for some years.

For summaries of Arsenal and the other contenders (Man City, Everton, Spurs, Villa and Liverpool) as well as my final ‘top eight’ prediction, check back tomorrow.

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