Barely three months have passed since the 20th season of Premier League football was drawn to a close in spectacular fashion by Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero and his unforgettable 94th minute title winning stroke of genius. With many proclaiming last season’s campaign as the greatest in history how can the 21st edition of the Premier League possibly match the 20th?
Well firstly, this time it’s personal. The manner in which Roberto Mancini bested Sir Alex Ferguson at his own psychological game during the season’s title run-in was simply masterful; with United’s relative collapse during the season’s closing stages a product of Mancini constantly placing the emotional burden of being considered title favourites on his rivals from across the city. It was no coincidence Mancini won both the title race’s war of words and the title itself so late in the day and the team that is psychologically stronger this season will again be champions of England. Last season’s narrow defeat will undoubtedly still smart for the red half of Manchester and if City fail to show their hunger from last season in retaining their title then United will not need a second invitation to take back what they see as their rightful crown.
Away from the title race the coming season offers plenty more factors of intrigue. How will Liverpool fare as Brendan Rodgers takes the helm following Kenny Dalglish’s contentious departure from Anfield? Will David Moyes prevent Everton from starting the season in their usual encumbering fashion? In what shape are the other contenders, Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea in to upset Manchester’s dominance at the top of the table? Will the latter two still have the same managers by January? Can Southampton‘do aNorwich’ and stay up after two successive promotions? And most importantly, who are going to be the heroes of my fantasy football team this season? I personally can’t wait to find out…
Last season’s finish: 7th
It is baffling that many find Everton’s traditionally slow starts to the season unfathomable. A lack of decisive transfer activity during recent pre-seasons is bound to have a motivational impact on an already small squad. The deficiency of reinforcements during the summer transfer window coincides with the club’s inability to hit the ground running in the league.
Crucially Everton have made two important editions so far this summer. Steven Pienaar’s arrival from Spurs sees Everton’s talisman during the second half of last season return to the club permanently, whilst the arrival of Steven Naismith bolsters the Blues’ attacking options. If Moyes can reinvest some of the £12m from the sale of Jack Rodwell and add more quality to his squad then Everton may have a chance of a top six finish. If not then many fans, already demoralised by the sale of one of the club’s brightest prospects, will expect a season near the middle of the table.
Regardless of Everton’s transfer activity they still possess the right blend of quality and grit within their ranks to give the league’s best problems on their day. Yet if David Moyes’ team are to show the consistency they have lacked during the early stages of recent seasons then they need the central midfield partnership of Fellaini and Gibson to continue to thrive, whilst Everton’s left side pairing of Baines and Pienaar must ensure that Jelavic is given the service to score the goals that are crucial to the Blues’ season.
Key Player: Nikica Jelavic. If the Croatian international can continue last season’s goal scoring form then Everton have a realistic shot at European qualification.
Fantasy Football Pick: Steven Naismith (6.5m). Looking sharp and hungry after overcoming a serious knee injury.
LS Media Prediction: 7th. Small squad will struggle to place any higher if injuries strike.
Last season’s finish: 8th
Brendan Rodgers faces the toughest challenge in his managerial career as he prepares not only to rebuild a Liverpool side that have been stuck in transition during recent seasons but to replace the iconic Kenny Dalglish, whose sacking was lamented by many Reds supporters.
In Rodgers’ favour and unlike one of his predecessors Roy Hodgson, he has a set of fans now fully aware that patience will be required as FSG implement their plans to restore Liverpool to English football’s elite. Additionally, the former Swansea City manager inherits one of the Premier League’s most miserly defensive units, with Pepe Reina, Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger providing the basis for a water-tight platform to protect Rodgers’ more expansive style of play. Retaining Agger is crucial to Rodgers’ master-plan as Manchester City continue their overtures. So too is the return of holding-midfielder Lucas Leiva from injury, as his shielding presence was sorely missed last season.
Crucial as a steady defence is to Rodgers’ possession focussed build-up play, Liverpool need new signings Joe Allen and Fabio Borini to perform more effectively than last season’s arrivals Charle Adam and Stuart Downing if the Reds are to improve on last season’s disappointing league campaign. Steven Gerrard’s form is also vital, and the England captain must carry his Euro 2012 momentum into the new season to ensure that Liverpool remain competitive against the league’s best.
Key Player: Luis Suarez. If the Uruguayan livewire can curb his disciplinary problems then the Reds have a top quality match-winner at their disposal.
Fantasy Football Pick: Joe Allen (5.5m). A fantasy football bargain after his form for Swansea last season, the Welshman will thrive as part of a stronger squad.
LS Media Prediction: 6th. Rodgers’ style of football will please the Anfield faithful, but it will take longer for the Ulsterman to trouble the Champions League contenders.
Previews of all the other Premier League clubs to follow in parts II and III.
[images: metro & eurosport]