Six days remain before the new season of the EPL kicks off. So I thought of doing a season preview post for the 20 teams participating in this year’s competition. I will be doing the preview for teams in order of their final standings in the 2011-12 EPL season. Relegated teams have been replaced by their promoted counterparts from the Championship.
MANCHESTER CITY, the hitherto “noisy neighbours”, managed to keep their noses ahead and bag the English League title, albeit on goal difference. Fair’s fair, they won the Championship and I will not debate whether or not it was deserved. There was definitely a lot of megalomaniacal spending from the new owners at the Etihad Stadium and the results were there to show. But City will also have their task cut out this year as they mount their first title defense since 1968. United, in spite of that embarrassing 1-6 thrashing at home, were breathing down their necks for the majority of the season and in fact right uptil the final minutes when it could have easily gone either way. Rest assured, United would be overly motivated to reclaim the title. Apart from United, Arsenal and Chelsea would be snapping at their heels as well. Newcastle and Spurs showed a lot of spunk to finish near the top of the table and they also might influence how the season proceeds this year. City are set for a super season with manager Mancini having made a few more purchases to bolster the squad. It is ironic that Mancini felt the need to do so in the first place considering the strength of the squad last season and the relatively fewer injuries meaning that most of the squad was unutilised. However, City have gone ahead and extended their skipper, Vincent Kompany’s contract as well as have their sights trained on (rumoured) RvP and Scott Sinclair, among others. At the same time, Edin Dzeko, who is a first rate footballer, has not spent as much time on the pitch for his team as he would have liked. He did put in the clincher against QPR in the last minute of the season and was instrumental in dismantling Manchester United at Old Trafford in October which is all the more reason for concern for him. Even good form and skills are unable to guarantee him a regular starting spot in the first team due to the presence of people like Aguero, Balotelli, Silva and Nasri. He may be looking elsewhere and there is a good chance he will move to Inter Milan in the next twenty days when the summer transfer window closes. Mancini will, inspite of this, have his hands full with trying to balance the expectations of his first team players, his squad players and the ambitions of the owners and the club’s legions of fans. To add to the fun, Balotelli and Nasri, over last season and Euro 2012 respectively, are looking like a PR disaster waiting to happen. Tevez also had a mid-season tantrum last season and it remains to be seen if he has truly mended his ways and committed himself to the club or is just biding his time till the next highest bidder comes along. Also, while City secured the English title, they fared badly on their European campaign and more would be expected of the reigning English champions this season.
MANCHESTER UNITED were pipped to the post by a whisker last season but that does not negate the fact that they had a pretty disastrous European outing last season failing to clear the CL group stages and then being unceremoniously dumped out of the Europa League as well. They did well in the New Year and at one point had gone 8 points clear of City before the team turned into a bunch of headless chicken and dropped points haphazardly against teams where a win was expected. Losing the services of Vidic and Fletcher early in the season did not help their cause and in spite of the inspired efforts of Antonio Valencia and Wayne Rooney, they were only as good as second place. Add to that the aforementioned European disaster and United finished a season without any silverware for the first time since 2005. The season started well for them with thumping wins including the 8-2 thrashing of the Gunners at Old Trafford. But City came to OT in October and provided a rude shock in the form of a 6-2 defeat of the home side. United’s fragile midfield which had lost the services of Scholes through retirement and Fletcher, Cleverley and Anderson through injuries early in the season had gaping holes that Sir Alex Ferguson attempted to mend by playing around with the positions of Ryan Giggs, Carrick, Jones, Smalling and the Da’Silva twins. Welbeck was looking promising in front of goal but with Nani failing to deliver on the right flank and Young being locked out by most defenses on the left wing, the supply dried up and with them the goals. A young goalkeeper in De Gea compounded the misery and by the time Lindegaard was drafted into the first team the European campaign was in tatters and City had opened up a huge margin at the top of the table. Vidic’s injury meant that a dodgy Rio and a mercurial Johnny Evans were left to form an unprecedented alliance as the central defense to leave Jones and Evra to swarm the flanks. Rooney dropped into centre midfield to cover the gap and for a major part of the season, United played with a lone striker upfront. United, however, received a welcome Christmas gift when the gingerman Scholes came out of retirement. Not only did he come back, he looked better than ever. Passes were more accurate and suddenly the mid-season tempo picked up as the defending champions mounted an attack on City’s lead. Valencia shone through in the latter part of the season, tormenting defenses across the board as they struggled to stop him from crossing into the box. Rooney in a more central role lead the attack and it was a testament to his increased maturity and commitment that he picked up only one yellow card in the season, that too in the last match. However, their massive defeat to City came back to haunt them at the death as City secured the title on goal difference. United will look to win back the title from their cross town rivals but they also need to do better on the European circuit. They managed to secure the signature of Borussia Dortmund’s star midfielder, Shinji Kagawa and the return of Vidic and Fletcher to match and training respectively would be encouraging signs.
ARSENAL recovered from a shock 2-8 defeat at Old Trafford to actually finish 3rd in the EPL and earn a direct entry into 2012-13 UEFA Champions’ League group stage. The chief architect of this resurgence was their captain and destroyer-in-chief, Robin van Persie. RvP led Rooney and Aguero at the top of the individual scorers list with 30 goals to his credit and had a stupendous number of assists to go with those goals. However, the honeymoon had to end sometime and end it did when Van Persie put in a transfer request. I am certain none of the Gunners’ supporters would like to see him go but the harsh reality is that a player disinterested in playing for the side would only be a liability. Over the years, Arsenal have leaked talent owing to seven seasons without silverware, on the trot. Last season it was Fabregas and Nasri who moved out and this year, RvP seems all set for a move. When and where is still to be answered but I doubt Wenger would want to retain a dis-satisfied player on his squad even if the player in question is RvP himself. As if a sign of things to come, Arsenal have instead gone ahead and signed Podolski, Girroud and Carzola to bolster their squad. It remains to be seen how the attack would be constructed and around whom; but it does seem that Arsenal are preparing for RvP’s eventual departure. Arsenal really need to get into the thick of things and start winning titles again. The club is losing out on good transfers as well as on money from sponsorship due to the title drought.
TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR finished 4th this season but they would be highly disappointed due to finishing a point below cross city rivals, Arsenal and then being denied a place in the Champions League by the other London rivals, Chelsea. Snapping at the heels of leaders (and eventual winners) City at one point of time, the Spurs’ season self-destructed as manager Harry Redknapp got linked to the English coach’s job ahead of Euro 2012. Harry lost focus and in the end was rewarded with a sacking for his pains. Deposed Chelsea manager, Andres Villas Boas has taken over the reins of the London side and by the look of things has taken up from where he left off with Chelsea. He has begun building the core of the side around the young players and his transfers in this summer transfer window reaffirm this fact. On the flip side, Spurs’ most influential player in a long time, Luka Modric seems all but set to move away from White Hart Lane with many suitors including Manchester United and Real Madrid queuing up for his signature. This will definitely have an impact on the campaign but will also be a proving ground for Gareth Bale, Scott Parker or van der Vaart to rise to the occasion and write their names into the annals that make up the legends at White Hart Lane. Spurs had shown promise last season and the league leaders from Manchester would be wise to keep an eye over their shoulder lest they be leapfrogged by their London rivals.
NEWCASTLE UNITED had a brilliant season by recent standards, finishing above Chelsea and, in the process, earning them a Europa League play-off spot. Alan Pardew did well with the limited resources he had at his disposal and was able to string together a decent season. This is not to undermine the brilliant performances by skipper Coloccini and Demba Ba but there is still a lot of potential lying locked away in the form of Cabaye, Tiote and Cisse. Pardew will have his job cut out when the Toons take to the field this season. Mid-week matches on the European circuit would mean that the manager must rotate his first team players with squad players on a more regular and frequent basis or risk a burn out towards the fag end of the season when it will be a scramble for the finish line. The club has already experienced the topsy-turvy scrum at the head of the table in this season. The club has an enviable legacy and in Pardew’s hands it does seem the club is headed towards better times as they try to regain some of their past glory. With the current squad, the Magpies may be a bit handicapped in challenging the top 3 of the league this season but there is nothing stopping them from fighting for a good finish in the Europa league and/or a Champions League qualifying spot for next year.
CHELSEA: The Russian roulette that was the Chelsea Manager job resulted in Roman Abrahamovich sacking two managers in the space of 10 months. The season however ended on a positive note as the side led by stand-in manager, Robert Di Matteo, beat down a stiff challenge from defending European champions, Barcelona and German giants Bayern Munich to clinch the top honors in the Champions League. It was in good stead too because in the EPL, Chelsea had failed to make the cut for a CL spot this season so a loss to Bayern Munich in the finals would have seen Chelsea in the unenviable position of having to enter the Europa league at the league play-off round. Instead, as winners of the CL, they earned direct entry into 2012-13 UEFA Champions’ League group stage at the cost of Tottenham Hotspur who were pushed into the Europa league. Robert Di Matteo was rewarded for this success with the manager’s job on a full time basis for this season but RDM should be wise to know that the job is like a time bomb which will not go off only so long as he can ensure Chelsea keep winning trophies. AVB, his predecessor, had tried to blood youngsters and build a side around the youngsters as a core. Understandably, the team faltered but it did seem the right way forward. However, Roman’s patience was running thin. Compounded by increasing dissatisfaction amongst the senior citizenry of Chelsea who demanded more respect from the young manager, in an arguably rash move, AVB was sacked even as he led Chelsea from the brink to win their UEFA CL Round of 16 match against Napoli. RDM resorted to the old ways of playing the seniors and coupled with their “parking the bus” strategy, Chelsea saw through the Barcelona threat and finally defeated Bayern Munich to lift the title. The question to be asked now is how long the seniors can continue playing every match. Chelsea made a statement of intent when they successfully signed Belgian prodigy Eden Hazard for a fee rumoured to be in the region of £32 million. Chelsea will be under the scanner this season and RDM will hear the timer on Roman’s patience ticking away furiously.
EVERTON manager, David Moyes is the third longest serving manager in the EPL and he must have endeared himself even more to fans and supporters alike when he helped the Toffees finish the 2011-12 season above Merseyside arch rivals Liverpool. With a mixture of youth and experience, Everton have had a good last season and look set to maintain their place in the top half of the table. Everton were particularly difficult to play at home at Goodison Park as their defense proved hard to breakdown for most visiting sides. This however has attracted undue attention towards star defender, Leighton Banes and with Manchester United hot in pursuit of his signature, Everton might well lose their best defender to the Red Devils in exchange for much needed cash. Everton’s biggest challenge however would come in the form of maintaining their lead over a resurgent Liverpool. Rest assured, at least the Merseyside Derby will live up to its predecessors and be plenty exciting for supporters and neutrals alike.
LIVERPOOL is the one club I truly respect apart from Manchester United, chiefly because of their legacy. Unfortunately, it is this legacy that has today become their curse. Liverpool have fallen from the hallowed halls of champions and today languish in mid-table ignominy, scuffling with clubs that, in yesteryears, would not stand a fragment of a chance against a rampant Liverpool. Oh how the mighty have fallen! The 2011-12 season was no different as Liverpool dragged their feet around easy fixtures and slumped to goalless draws in mind numbing fashion. Incumbent manager, Kenny Dalglish tried every trick in the book to lift his side. Supporters flocked in thousands to Anfield, chanting King Kenny’s name egging their side on. The spark however was missing on the field. Steven Gerrard, it seemed, was still looking for Fernando Torres in the box, after the latter having completed a shock transfer to Chelsea. Andy Carroll, the high profile transfer from Newcastle, seemed out of sorts for most of the season with ill-timed runs and headers meaning that his conversion rate was poorer than that of his predecessor for Chelsea. The defense looked ramshackle at best and in more ways than one it was pure dumb luck that kept the Reds afloat at the beginning of the season. Suarez however took matters into his own hands and combined well with Charlie Adam to finally breathe some life into the campaign. Results started coming in and King Kenny, it seemed, would deliver his old club. And then Suarez went and got himself into a racial abuse controversy with Manchester United’s French left back and vice-captain, Patrice Evra. The FA found him guilty and a suspension was duly handed out to Suarez. In his absence, the campaign lost steam again and Gerrard was the lone crusader as the Reds fought out for a position with the other mid-table clubs. They say lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice but evidently in Suarez’s case, it does. He returned for Liverpool’s match against Manchester United and was part of a controversial moment when Evra and Suarez refused to shake hands. Video evidence is too controversial and inconclusive to categorically say who refused to shake hands first but the damage was done. The incident quickly spiraled into a PR disaster as Liverpool blamed United and the FA of playing favourites. The blame game and pointing of fingers did not go down well with the supporters in general and while it did not affect the season too adversely as they finished 37 points off the pace of Manchester City, it did contribute to the many factors that cost Kenny Dalglish his job as manager of the club. The only silver lining from the entire season was when Liverpool won the FA Cup thus guaranteeing a place for themselves in the third qualifying round of next year’s Europa League. European football will return to Anfield after a gap of one year and it will be up to the Merseysiders to make the most of it. But with a new manager, Brendon Rogers at the helm, there will also be a degree of uncertainty. Rogers believes in a passing based brand of football and changes can be expected to this effect in the squad. At the same time, Liverpool see one of their best defender in many years, Daniel Agger becoming hot property in the transfer market and will most probably lose the services of the player next season. Andy Carroll has looked better towards the end of the season but is yet to achieve his full potential. The next season will throw many questions at the club and hopefully Liverpool would be able to answer most of them and then have some of their own for their opponents.
FULHAM were in for a shock at the start of the season when manager Mark Hughes resigned after less than 11 months at the club. Within a week, Martin Jol’s services were employed and the club was brought back into business. In his first season at the Cottage, Jol did not do badly for himself, either. Away game woes continued for the side but in spite of that, Fulham ended the season 1 point short of their highest ever points haul in the EPL. Add to that the win at Anfield and Sunderland and the brilliant performance of winter transfer Pogrebnyak and Fulham haven’t done that badly. Even in the Europa League, the Cottagers were unfortunate to miss out on qualification from the group stage but there is a lot of promise from the side this season. Martin Jol has delivered a fabulous season by most standards and the supporters at Craven Cottage would be eager for more as their side prepares to battle the other mid table clubs this season.
WEST BROMWICH ALBION: One of the oldest clubs in the English top tier, West Bromwich Albion only have the promise of the glory years gone by, now. The Baggies finished 10th ahead of new promotees, Norwich and Swansea, only on the basis of superior goal difference. Roy Hodgson did have the achievement of helping the club reach their highest ever position finish in the Premier League but with his departure to manage the English National team, the club will be managed by Steve Clarke in the coming season. While successful as a player with Chelsea, Clarke does not have much experience as manager and so the coming season(s) would be treading unfamiliar grounds for manager and club alike as both battle for positions in the top half of the table. West Brom have much to prove and only time will tell if Clarke and his team are up to the task.
That’s all for now. I’ll continue with the remaining ten clubs in Part 2. Hope you like this post. Please do share it with friends who follow football and also leave comments in the comments section. Looking forward to the feedback.