Football is officially back in business, with the English lower leagues and the A-League now underway, all we’re waiting for now is the kick off of the Premier League next weekend. With that in mind, today sees the final segment of my Premier League Preview. Just five teams remain to be assessed by my “expert” eye, so if you’ve missed the previous three parts you can find them here (1), here (2) and here (3).
The final part sees me run my eye over a couple of European hopefuls in Tottenham and West Ham; Sunderland and Wigan who to be quite honest, could go either way this season; as well as new boys Wolves who will be looking first and foremost at survival but would love to establish themselves too. All of these sides are a little bit difficult to place but I’ve made my predictions and this final part of the Preview will see me finalise my predicted Premier League Table.
Last Season: 16th.
Target: Ricky Sbragia came to Sunderland’s rescue last season, settling the ship rocked by Roy Keane’s exit from the club and guiding them to safety, just about. Sbragia has since retreated into his usual background position and Niall Quinn has managed to poach Steve Bruce from Wigan in a fine managerial coup. Having splashed a bit of cash this summer they will be looking for a more comfortable season and to kick on towards mid-table at least.
Squad Analysis: Having brought in Darren Bent (eventually) and Frazier Campbell (on loan) to join Kenwyne Jones Sunderland have got themselves the making of a lot of goals in their squad, and with two good ‘keepers backed up by a solid if unspectacular defensive lineup they look capable of keeping a few clean sheets too. The real problem may be a lack of creativity though; new signing and captain Lorik Cana provides more steel than flair, and Kieran Richardson and Steed Malbranque can influence games but aren’t truly top class, while the likes of young Carlos Edwards still have to prove themselves at this level.
Key Player: I’m expecting big things from Darren Bent, who has again convinced a manager to spend big money on securing his signature. Last season Sunderland struggled at times for goals despite having a good partnership on paper in Jones and Cisse, but I think Bent’s pace and instinct makes him a better partner for Jones and if he can justify his price tag with a good goal return Sunderland should have a good season.
Ttiao… Prediction: 12th. A good first season in charge for Bruce, but with room to improve.
Last Season: 8th.
Target: After a dreadful start last season, ‘Arry Redknapp came in and engineered a miraculous turnaround, almost guiding them to a European place. If he can get them keeping up their form of the second half of the season from the off then Tottenham will push seriously for the top five or six and that has to be their aim, after again spending a bit of money over the summer.
Squad Analysis: Tottenham have always had a large squad, with lots of players who promise a lot but all too frequently deliver little. Their current squad features an awful lot of right-backs and midfielders while they also have overpriced striking options aplenty in Keane, Crouch, Defoe and Pavlyuchenko. On paper a midfield containing Modric, Lennon, Palacios, Jenas, Bentley, Huddlestone and O’Hara should provide plenty of opportunities for them too but you wonder how Redknapp can keep them all happy while achieving important selection consistency. Defensively their full back positions are covered but with King, Woodgate and Dawson all brittle, new boy Bassong will have a busy season and will need to improve on his performances with doomed Newcastle last season.
Key Player: I think the key to Tottenham’s resurgence last season was Redknapp’s one shrewd signing: Wilson Palacios. A midfield containing the diminutive Lennon and Modric was often too easily dominated and too flimsy as protection for the defence, but the Honduran is a very, very good player in the DM role and will be crucial in allowing their plentiful attacking options freedom to express themselves again this season.
Ttiao… Prediction: A more consistent season for Spurs but with the same result: 8th.
West Ham United
Last Season: 9th.
Target: Gianfranco Zola replaced Alan Curbishley at the start of last season and I don’t think anyone quite knew what to expect. By Christmas day, the Hammers were just one point clear of the relegation zone and we had perhaps begun to suspect that Zola’s management may not be as mercurial as his playing career. Then, a trademark turn and lightning change of direction from Zola, and they stormed through the second half of the season, playing great football and almost qualifying for Europe. It took him some time to stamp his mark but with a full preseason under his belt, the Hammers will be seriously aiming for Europe once more.
Squad Analysis: They have a reasonably small squad and suffered from injuries last season which probably cost them a Europa League spot, so Zola will hope to bring in a few new faces before the transfer window closes. What they have got though, is a fair bit of quality: Matt Upson, Scott Parker, Carlton Cole and Mark Noble; a whole lot of potential: James Tomkins and Jack Collison; and some hype to live up to: Savio, Dean Ashton and Kieran Dyer. Losing Bellamy was a loss for them and he’s yet to be replaced but they’ll hope Ashton can stay injury free and finally prove how good he is, but overall it’s a very strong squad all round, they just need to add some depth.
Key Player: I think Mark Noble is really going to excel this season. Despite being only 22 he seems to have been in the West Ham side forever and he’s starting to look like a really complete midfielder who can run games. He has good support in the midfield from Parker and Collison and I’m sure Zola will want him directing their free-flowing football. If he does play well, he’ll also be an outsider for a World Cup squad place too.
Ttiao… Prediction: 9th – a good season, but not quite enough strength in depth to make Europe.
Last Season: 11th.
Target: With the departure of Steve Bruce, everything looks a little uncertain for Wigan. Roberto Martinez comes in with a good reputation but untried at this level to a side who had a solid if not spectacular season last time around. I can’t speak for Wigan fans, but I think that Wigan should be aiming to solidify this season, make sure they don’t slip too near the drop zone and give Martinez a season to find his feet so he can push them on next time around, and Dave Whelan has his head screwed on so there shouldn’t be immediate pressure.
Squad Analysis: It’s a good little squad that Bruce has built at Wigan, and Martinez hasn’t added to it much yet which suggests he’s relatively content. Kirkland in goal and Lee Cattermole and an improving Titus Bramble provide a solid defence while Paul Scharner, Jason Koumas and Charles N’Zogbia provide a bit of flair and creativity across the middle of the park. Goals could be a problem though with both Amr Zaki and Mido finishing their loan spells and Heskey having jumped ship in January. Hugo Rodallega could get some goals and Jason Scotland has joined from Swansea while Scott Sinclair is on loan from Chelsea, but none are proven goal-getters in the Premier League – yet.
Key Player: Paul Scharner had a great season for Wigan last season, pushing into the midfield he proved to be a pretty dynamic box-to-box player who has a good physical presence and a good eye for a pass. With unproven firepower up front the burden will fall to Wigan’s midfield to provide enough chances to them and keep the goals flowing and I think Scharner can play an inspirational role in getting Wigan going.
Ttiao… Prediction: I think Martinez will do quite well: 11th.
Last Season: 1st in Coca Cola Championship.
Target: Despite winning the Championship by seven points last season, their primary goal will be identical to their fellow promoted sides Birmingham and Burnley: simply survival. Having seen sides like Stoke and Hull survive last season they might fancy their chances of doing well, but survival has to come first.
Squad Analysis: I’ll be perfectly honest and admit that my knowledge of Wolves’ squad isn’t great, but I know they have a lot of young players who look set for bright futures. Sylvan Ebanks-Blake scored goals for fun last season and was attracting admirers in the Premiership, as was Michael Kightly who will miss the start of the season with an injury. Kevin Doyle should also prove a good goal threat but the midfield lacks Premier League experience so it will be interesting to see how they adapt to life at the top level. Defensively it’s a similar story but the ageing Jody Craddock gives some experience while they have a promising but again inexperienced ‘keeper in Wayne Hennessey.
Key Player: I think Ebanks-Blake was the star of the side last season, his goals crucial in firing them to the top of the Championship and automatic promotion. Many promoted sides struggle to score enough goals in the Premier League, so if Blake can up his game enough to be a regular threat in the Premier League then he could go a long way to giving Wolves a healthy chance of survival.
Ttiao… Prediction: Not enough experience and quality at this level: 19th.
That concludes my Premier League Preview, so here is my predicted final table:
2. Manchester United
5. Manchester City
7. Aston Villa
8. Tottenham Hotspur
9. West Ham United
11. Wigan Athletic
13. Blackburn Rovers
14. Bolton Wanderers
16. Birmingham City
18. Stoke City
19. Wolverhampton Wanderers
20. Hull City
Bold = Champions
Green = Champions League Qualifiers
Blue = Europa League Qualifiers
Red = Relegated