I’m calling this a 2006/2007 English Premier League preview even though many teams have already completed three fixtures and are well on their way… I couldn’t get this done in time for the beginning of the season and, to be totally honest, wanted to see just a little bit of the action before I started making wild predictions about everything. That said, I feel now is the time to start predicting wildly while I’m sitting at work doing nothing much. 3 Fixtures down, 35 to go, and I’ve got to pick some winners, some losers and comment on some other things on my mind while I’m at it.
First things first, I’m laying out my predictions for Champions’ League teams (top four in the tables at season’s end) and relegation (the bottom three at season’s end).
1. Manchester United
19. Sheffield United
First things first… the crappy teams:
20. Watford, who are nicknamed the hornets for their unis, but whose badge appears to be a satanic moose, are happy to be here in the Premier League after finishing 3rd in the Championship last year, but should be fairly beaten and bruised by season’s end. They haven’t been in the premiership since ’99-’00 and will not be seen there next year either. They have some young talent, particularly striker Marlon King, but too much youth and not enough talent overall will condemn them to the Championship again.
19. Sheffield United finished 2nd in the Championship last year, 9 points ahead of Watford, but I have them pegged to suffer the same fate as the Hornet Mooses (Meece?). The Blades haven’t sniffed the Premiership since 1994, and I don’t expect them to stay up long… despite the fact that they have a cool emblem with scimitar thingies and a semi-intimidating nickname (at least in comparison to the Trotters or the Toffees… really frightening). They’re already 19th in the tables after three fixtures and I don’t think they’ll move much all year.
18. This is the first semi-tough pick for me, especially since this side just finished dusting the Evil Empire (Chelsea) in the middle of last week but, pending further investigation, I’m sticking Middlesbrough here. With manager Steve McClaren gone to work on the English national team, and the only notable addition to a side that lost Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink (had to work that name in somewhere) being a guy named Arca from Sunderland F.C. who is now injured (speaking of crappy…), I figured this team would take a bit of a dive. Also, the teams that finished below them in the tables last year, Aston Villa, Manchester City and Portsmouth, look better to me… Man City’s playing OK, and Portsmouth added a few old England internationals that may be past their prime, but will add something to a team that missed relegation by only 4 points last year. Aston Villa has some American billionaire money coming in, so they should improve eventually too. The teams that finished ahead of Boro last year look better too, with the possible exception of Fulham, whose early demolition by Man U got them off on the wrong foot. (Quick addendum to this entry Monday 28th Aug at 4:15 pm ET: Portsmouth is smacking Boro around 2-nil, oops I tell a lie, they just scored a third, in the 57th minute. Boro sucks, unless they’re beating Chelsea.)
1. Manchester United. I have the Red Devils ahead of Chelsea early in the season for a few reasons: 1) Their attack looks extremely fluid and totally overwhelming this year. Their two primary strikers, Wayne Rooney and Louis Saha, are coming off extremely lackluster World Cup performances, but both have already begun to demolish the opposition. Rooney only played one match against Fulham before being sentenced to three games off for a red-card in European competition, but in that match he scored two goals, assisted on another and generally wreaked havoc on a weak Fulham side. Saha also scored one and assisted one in that match and has kept up a torrid pace since then (another goal and two more assists in two matches) and looks eager to make the Old Trafford crowd forget Ruud Van Nisterooy in a hurry. Ryan Giggs looks good, Ronaldo is spectacular (and a complete pillock) and with Carrick coming back, and the possibility of an Owen Hargreaves transfer, Man U could have the two best English holding midfielders (even though one of them is Canadian) playing on the same side. 2) Rio Ferdinand is not injured… yet. Man U started well last year, but then the wheels fell off when injuries hit. Rio has just dodged a broken toe, and more players are coming back from injury than are going out due to injury. That’s a very good thing. This defense is not on the level of Chelsea’s, but it’s still very good. Rio can be rock solid (though hasn’t been great in recent years with all of the distractions he’s faced), and they have plenty of backs that like to attack (Wes Brown, Evra, Gary Neville and Gabrielle Heinze can all provide some attacking dimension) which should strengthen the onslaught if they can all get healthy. 3) Man U may be something of an evil empire, but I HATE Chelsea, and can’t help but root for anyone, even if it’s the old regime, who might unseat the new regime. Part of that comes from the fact that this Chelsea team is so goddamn boring. A bunch of great players who are unhappy and play like they’re pieces of a machine, headed by an arrogant Portuguese asshole. At least Man U is fun to watch. Their players are volatile and passionate and somewhat crazy, and they’re playing fun football.
2. Chelsea is here because they have to be. With this much talent, it would be foolish to expect them to finish out of the top three and it may honestly be foolish to expect them to finish lower than #1. But I’m anxiously awaiting the onset of Real Madrid syndrome, whereby an owner completely overreaches, acquires too many superstars, makes them unhappy and then proceeds to be beaten in the tables by a team that may not have as much aggregate talent, but wins because they enjoy themselves. I’m hoping that Man U (or whoever) is to Chelsea as Barca is to Real. Whether this happens or not, Chelsea have looked a little rusty to start the year, but it would be stupid to assume that they’ll be out of form for too long, especially since they tend to be strong finishers rather than setting the pace early. The new additions, Michael Ballack are Andriy Shevchenko are world class players at their respective positions, and it won’t be long before the Ukrainian is pouring in goals. However, trying to fit Ballack into a midfield with Frank Lampard, who does many of the same things only better, could be difficult and might force Mourinho to play Ballack a little further out wide or back than he usually likes. Makalele and Essien are handling holding duties, but Essien is versatile enough (as evidenced by his performance for Ghana in the World Cup) to play out wide a little or on the attack too, so they should fit into the scheme pretty well. The real logjam will start when Arjen Robben and Joe Cole come back and Shaun Wright-Phillips starts asking for some time on the pitch. What then? Someone will leave unhappy, that’s what. The reason this doesn’t spell complete disaster is the defense, particularly John Terry. With Wayne Bridge playing well (and maybe looking to get out while his stock is high) and Carvalho in decent form, as well as newcomer Khalid Boularouz looking like a natural fit, the back four should keep this team near the top. I haven’t even mentioned the best keeper on earth yet either. Petr Cech is back and makes a huge difference for these guys. Their attack may be a little muddled this year with so much talent and so few places, but they should still win a fair number of clean sheets and frustrate opposing forwards. Once William Gallas is gone and the Ashley Cole transfer saga resolves itself, the defense should be unified in purpose and that should be enough to place them near the top. I wish they’d self-destruct instead though…
3. Liverpool made some good moves during the transfer window, adding Dutch striker Dirk Kuyt, Welsh lunatic Craig Bellamy (who happens to be a striker, in addition to being a madman) and drunk driving Englishman Jermaine Pennant (who after drunkenly wrapping his Mercedes around a lamppost allegedly told authorities his name was “Ashley Cole,” his teammate at the time. Sounds like a good guy.), which gives them some extra talent as well as a few extra pains in the ass. We’ll see how these head-cases turn out as the season goes on, but for now we’ll focus on what makes this team really really good. They have a lot of very good options in front with newcomers Bellamy and Kuyt supplementing freakish robo-stringbean Peter Crouch and elder statesman (and Liverpool born and bred) Robbie Fowler. While Fowler’s best days are well behind him, he’s not a bad guy to have around as your fourth option in front, and the scousers love him from his days as a Liverpool legend (wikipedia has informed me that his nickname is “God” which I think about sums it up). In midfield, they have Stephen Gerrard, who is a local boy and Liverpool hero as well as one of the best midfielders on the planet. Gerrard’s accompanied by some other international midfield talents, including John Arne Riise from Norway, Xabi Alonso of Spain and others. The defense is anchored by one of the premiership’s best in Steve Finnan and the promising young Danish center-back Daniel Agger who scored on a spectacular rocket from 35 yards out the other day against West Ham. All in all a very promising team with a ton of talent. If Crouch can keep up the goal-scoring form he’s displayed so far in European competition, and the newcomers can be integrated without going completely berserk, then they’ll easily qualify for Europe again and maybe even give Chelsea a run if the Blues go into self-destruct mode (fingers crossed).
4. Arsenal is my #4 this year, especially after last year’s mediocre showing, beating out Tottenham for fourth place by only 2 points. I was honestly hoping that Tottenham would run Arsenal out of this place this year, but I don’t see it happening. At the moment, neither team seems worthy of the place, but I think Arsenal will ultimately perform better this year than last, not a difficult achievement for such good club, while Tottenham continue to deal with the growing pains of being such a young side. Arsenal’s strengths are rather obvious. They have the best striker in the premiership in Thierry Henry, who hasn’t hit top form yet, but will score in bunches when he eventually does. They have the best manager in the league in Arsene Wenger, and they have a myriad other talents to boot. Robin Van Persie annoyed me at the World Cup (as did most of the Dutch for some reason… they just came off as a bunch of jackasses), but is a very impressive young player in attack and Tomas Rosicky will shore up the midfield and hopefully provide a few of those missile-esque goals that he drilled in the Czech Republic’s brief World Cup showing. Emmanuel Adebayor seems like a bit of a drama queen, but at 22 is a talent and at 6’3” is a pretty good target man at the very least. The two most exciting talents may be Cesc Fabregas, 19, and Theo Walcott, 17, who should ensure that Arsenal has a great future (providing they cough up the money to keep them on board). Walcott has impressed already this year with his pace and attack, saving Arsenal a couple of times from ignominious defeat with his pace and aggression and it may not be long before we see a lot more of him. Wenger himself said it would be hard to keep him seated if he keeps saving matches for them. At the moment, the backline is almost entirely Ivorian with Emmanuel Eboue, Kolo Toure and Johan Djourou (who was born in Cote D'Ivoire, but holds Swiss citizenship) getting the minutes. Eboue is a wing-back on the right side who supplements Arsenal’s attack (or lack of attack at the moment) really well and has stood out as one of the most aggressive players on the team thus far (not a terribly difficult challenge given Arsenal’s lethargy). This seems like a good time to mention that Arsenal also employs one Philippe Senderos, whose goal in the world cup for Switzerland where he smashed the ball into the net, and his face into someone else’s head, was just plain awesome. His bloody-faced goal celebration was one of the cooler things I've ever seen. So that gives him some points with me. They also have Jens Lehmann in goal who’s getting on in years, but still performs very well. The negatives right now are: 1) They look totally uninspired until Theo Walcott steps on the pitch. Eboue seems to have more shots on goal than any of their forwards or midfielders, which may not actually be true, but it certainly seems that way, which is not great considering he’s a right back. 2) They are dealing with two whiney wantaways in Ashley Cole and Jose Reyes. The sooner they can jettison the two, and perhaps get William Gallas to strengthen the left side of the defense, the better.
So that sums up the bottom three and top four. Here are a few impressions of some of the other sides out there in the Premiership as of 8/28.
Portsmouth is currently second in the tables, which we all know won’t last, but they’ve beaten the cruddy teams they’ve played so far quite convincingly and are the only Premiership team to have yet to concede a goal. Perhaps the acquisitions of Sol Cambpell (center back) and David James (goalkeeper) have helped the defense more than anyone thought they could. Kanu has four goals through three matches to pace the team and midfielders O’Neil and Davis have facilitated well… but they’re Portsmouth, they can’t really do that well can they? Oh, Pedro Mendes nearly had his head ripped off last week by Ben Thatcher (another crazy Welshman), so he’ll be out for a while, but it didn’t seem to matter against Boro (did I mention they suck?).
West Ham have an array of young talent, including Anton Ferdinand, Lee Bowyer, Bobby Zamora and Marlon Harewood who should theoretically help them improve on last years 9th place finish.
Reading smashed the Championship last year with a goal differential of roughly +267 and will avoid relegation this year. I’m not really sure that they’ll do much better than 16th or 17th, but they’ve got some good talent. Steve Sidwell. That’s not really a complete thought, but this “preview” is getting long and I’m tired.
Newcastle appeared to be cursed as they lost not only their last match, but their prize new striker Obafemi Martins too. Luckily it seems as though he’ll be back in time for their next match a week and a half from now. They must hope that he is because Shola Ameobi is dealing with nagging injuries and needs a rest. It’s all well and good to have Scott Parker and Damien Duff, but it’ll be hard to beat anybody without at least one threat around the goal. This team is also reportedly hoping for Wayne Bridge before the transfer window closes after they sold off crappy French defender Jean-Alain Boumsong, which I think would be very good for them. Bridge has played well so far for Chelsea.
Finally, Tottenham, the team I am theoretically trying to rally behind, looks crap one match and great the next. The have nothing going on the left wing, so Aaron Lennon, who has been great, is left to create all the width himself on the other side. Apparently they’re trying to get Stuart Downing before the transfer window closes, which would be amazing. He showed in his last England cap (a 4-0 friendly pasting of Greece) that he is fantastic providing service down the left flank. The defense looks toothless without Ledley King. Calum Davenport has been crap, and has left Paul Robinson helpless a few times already. The center of the midfield looks good with Dutch legend Davids throwing himself around with reckless abandon and Jenas looking OK. Berbatov will prove himself a good signing before the season is up and Robbie Keane is on form already… That just leaves Defoe, who seems like odd man out again after being outplayed by his fellow forwards.
This is getting enormous, so I’ll stop now.