Arsenal – New Season, new kit, new strike force but same old Arsenal. At least that’s what their 0-0 result against Sunderland at the Emirates seems to suggest. Especially now that they have sold their talisman and main source of goals to (dare I say previously?) bitter rivals United.
This however is not the whole story. Arsenal dominated the game and had some real opportunities to put it to bed – Oliver Giroud, on his Premier League debut, being the most obviously guilty party – and probably would have had at least two on another day. Santi Carzola looks like a real find and the new signings seemed to all be on the same wavelength; looking for all the world like they had played together for years. While they might not be challenging for the title of champions they are a pretty solid bet for a top four finish.
Aston Villa – “Villa will be fine.” “Darren Bent’s goals will keep them out of trouble.” Too good to go down? Not on this performance. Without service, no matter how good a finisher he might be, Darren Bent will not score the goals to keep Villa in the Premier League. Having been outclassed by recently promoted West Ham the service doesn’t look like it is going to arrive any time soon and Villa look likely candidates to be involved in the rough and tumble of the annual ‘relegation scrap.’ Bottom at Christmas? Never say never.
Chelsea – Boring, boring Chelsea. Score two early goals and then sit back for the rest of the game. Job done. Sounds like, five years and seven managers later, Chelsea have still to find a way of winning that doesn’t highlight the influence that Mourinho has had on the club. Even the names on the scoresheet – despite a £64 million pound spending spree – look depressingly familiar (Ivanovic and Lampard.) That being said this Chelsea team don’t look comfortable enough at the back to be a Mourinho outfit and in Hazard, Oscar, Mata and Torres they have a front four who will excite fans and terrorize defences; pulling them apart so fast it’s enough to make you dizzy. In the crystal ball of pure conjecture I see a top four finish, a cup final and a totally unwarranted managerial sacking.
Everton David Moyes – the deserving manager of the year for most of the millennium appears to have done it again. On a shoestring budget he has forged an organized, motivated and skilful team that can cause anyone in the league problems. Even more impressive is that for the first time in years they have turned up on time to the league party and might now pose a genuine threat to the traditional Champions League chasers. Jelavic and Mirallas will finally bring regular goals, while Fellaini is a class act who will trouble every team he plays against. Beating United is no mean feat and if this sort of form continues Everton fans can have high hopes for the coming season.
Fulham – It’s official: the 2012/13 season is going to be closer and more exciting than any we have ever seen before. What’s more Fulham are going to win and it’s going to come down not to goal difference but will be decided on the technicality of alphabetical default. In the process they are going to score 190 goals, new signing Petric chipping in with a measly 76 (both new Premier League records.) All this however, is dependent on – excluding two 5-5 draws with Swansea who will also win all their remaining games 5-0 – the Cottagers repeating the result they achieved against an (admittedly uninspired and uninspiring) Norwich team who finished the 2011/12 campaign in the safety of mid-table obscurity.
Nevertheless, given Fulham’s total dominance, well-drilled defence and impressive looking strike force seem to have put them in a good place for the start of the 2012/13 season. They will cause some upsets this year, maybe go on a cup run or two and while they might not quite be able to reproduce the same result every week they look a very respectable top ten team.
Liverpool – And there was great wailing and gnashing of teeth, because once again Liverpool underperformed, missed a glut of chances and played like the mid-table outfit that everybody is starting to think that they might become…that is, if they’re lucky! At the rate they’re going they won’t even win a gamem but at least things can only get better? Or not. In fact, they definitely won’t because next week, lucky them, they have City. Another 3-0 defeat wouldn’t be any great shakes. Nationwide, not one lager would be spluttered in disbelief if they lost. In fact the only real surprise would be if they scored a bona fide goal let alone snaffled (there is no way they are going to deserve it) a win.
Manchester City – United’s ‘noisy neighbors’ bit back last year, snatching the Premier League crown from Fergie’s unusually lax grasp and don’t look like giving it up any time soon. Bar some wasteful finishing – they had 15 shots on target – they steamrolled an organized and hard-working Saints team and could easily have done a Swansea and come away with 5 well deserved goals. The squad is settled, Tevez is back some two stone lighter and the team are all singing from the same song sheet. Add to this the strongest squad in the league studded with an array of stellar talents and perhaps now it is United who should be talked about as the ‘noisy neighbours.’ City certainly look like the team to beat.
Man Utd – Fantasy Football Managers across the country faced the agonizing dilemma of choosing between Robin and Wayne for their carefully selected squads only to be cruelly let down. The only part of the United team that brought back memories of great United teams of the 90’s was the kit. RVP was anonymous and the defence read, for the most part, like a half decent midfield as the red Devils slumped to a 1-0 defeat. Oh dear. Already three points behind in the league race and United are already being written off by some as real title contenders. Troubled by the high ball and lacking any real cutting edge up front, this wasn’t the start that United fans had hoped for. However, all is not ill on the red side of Manchester. David de Gea is exceptional, Kagawa doesn’t look half bad and with Rooney and RVP on the same side, goals will come. It doesn’t take much to suggest that United will improve as the season continues, but if this game is anything to go by, it looks like they will ultimately leave their resurgence far too late to make any real difference.
Newcastle United – Can Newcastle really still be a “surprise package” this season? They have kept the same squad – and strike force – that got them 5th place in the league and a total of 56 top flight goals. By all accounts then, and their 2-1 win over a decent Spurs side suggests nothing to the contrary, we can expect similar antics and hopefully more managerial fun and frolics. Despite Demba Ba looking surprised every time he finds the back of the net – although in his defence some of his finishes are absolutely outrageous – I see a twenty goal season for him and another top six finish for the club. The Toon look like they are enjoying life back in the big time and here to stay.
Norwich – Norwich’s approach to their game against Fulham was not unlike that of a teddy finding itself dragged along the ground behind a particularly ungrateful child: “Maybe if I just lie here and do nothing the pain will go away.” Whatever the case, Chris Hughton is going to have to do a hell of a lot of patching to fix the mess that Fulham made of his side. Norwich were ripped to shreds. There is nothing good to say about anything that they did. The real tragedy is that I can’t even comment on a nice new kit as once again they have gone for the horrific combination of garish yellow and green. I see bad things and bad things only. If nothing changes soon, Hughton looks like he is going to be given the chance once again to show that he is a top class Championship manager.
Q.P.R – Queen’s Park Rangers were also on the end of a 5-0 drubbing and on the basis of this game and the struggle that they faced to survive last season, look certainties to go down. However, in their summer spending there are definitely some real positives to be found. Zamora, Hoilett, Park Ji Sung and Jose Bosingwa are all players with proven Premier League pedigree. While it might take a while for the players to gel – in the process they might get beaten by a few rugby scores – they will be fine and as the season gets older, they will improve. Mark Hughes is a canny operator, he knows what he’s doing and has done it before. They will be fine.
Reading – Reading’s kit looks lovely as does, incidentally, their Madjeski stadium. Their home game against Stoke, who are not by any stretch the league’s best travellers, on the first day of the season was never going to tell us much else… However their stoppage time goal is a good sign. It shows a side with spirit and desire to do well for their manager. Even this though doesn’t tell us everything as who knows if it will last through an extended losing streak. They need to make the most of home games like this if they are going to stay in the league.
Southampton – Saints’ meteoric rise through the league ranks is looking less and less anomalous the more we see of them. They did well to come away against a technically superior City team thinking that they could have had more. The two goals will have given them a world of confidence, especially as Rickie Lambert is looking like he could just be a striker with genuine Premier League class. Nigel Adkins has them playing great football, they look organized at the back and play neat football coming forward. Most impressive however was the break for their second goal, in which no less than 5 players went from defending a corner to pressurize the backpedalling City defence. They look like being the league’s surprise package.
Stoke – There is something reassuring about watching Tony Pulis’ Stoke team in the Premier League. They are the football equivalent of the Shepherd’s Pie. A no nonsense team who really come to the fore on wet and miserable winter afternoons at home where the lightweight (but nonetheless impressive) Mille-Feuilles pastry of Arsenal just won’t cut it. A shame then that this team of giants had to play not only in the sunshine but also away. This Stoke team looks refreshingly similar to that of seasons before and we can expect much of the same. More fireworks from Crouch wouldn’t do anybody any harm either.
Sunderland – Martin O’Neill seems to have been astute rather than prolific during the off-season, bringing in only Louis Saha and Carlos Cuellar, both of whom have excelled at Premier League level in season’s past. A settled team, dangerous looking strike force and inspirational manager all bode well for the Black Cats this year and their draw against Arsenal away from home only confirms suspicions that they will be pushing for a top ten finish. Frazer Campbell has always looked in danger of developing into a 15-20 goal a season striker and this season could be the one where he finally does just that!
Swansea – The Swans weren’t told that the international flavour of summer sport had finished and turned up for their first game in the Welsh kit. Despite this blunder they romped to a glorious 5-0 win against a very ‘new-look’ Q.P.R team. Apparently they don’t have second season syndrome in Wales or Denmark and Laudrup looks like he is only going to build on Brendan Roger’s foundations as the Swans march on, irrepressibly, to another year of mid-table respectability. Scott Sinclair looks increasingly likely to leave but that shouldn’t ruffle any of the Swans’ feathers as new signing Michu looks to have goals in him. They will once again – with Arsenal – show that there is a place for beautiful football in the English game.
Spurs – Is this the season that Spurs are finally going to turn all of their potential into silverware and a Champions League place? Possibly not. Once again they look like they are going to be the nearly-men and will have to fight it out with Newcastle, Everton and Liverpool (included out of politeness not from any real belief) for fifth. While their first choice 11 certainly doesn’t lack quality, a few injuries could brutally expose a lack of depth up front. That being said, this is a team with real talent who on their day will beat anyone. Expect excitement and thrills but ultimately agonizing failure. We might even get the traditional Adebayor ‘sulk’ now that he’s signed for a cheeky 5 million. AVB looks like he is going to be sitting pretty in the hot seat for a few seasons yet, which – given the otherwise lack of petulant Portuguese managers – can only be a good thing? Just ask Chelsea.
West Ham – Currently on track to qualify for Europe, though this is not something that I expect will be sustained. In fact over the coming weeks I see only a dramatic drop in fortunes, which, coming at any other point in the season, would have many in the boardroom reaching for big red buttons labelled “panic.” That being said, this West Ham team look too good to go down and in Big Sam Allardyce they have a manager who knows what it takes for a team to survive the drop. Expect a relegation dogfight but also that the Hammers will emerge unscathed.
West Brom – Arguably the form team in the league. If United or City had beaten Liverpool 3-0 then pundits across the land would have been marking them down in pen as this season’s Champions. Ignore the fact that Liverpool went down to 10 men, conceded two penalties and spurned a host of presentable chances and you too could be forgiven for hyping up West Brom chances this year. Just like last season they are going to be hard to break down and looking to counter, while Lukaku will give defenders nothing short of the collywobbles. Having said that, West Brom won’t finish anything higher than 10th and with the best will in the world, ‘not in any real danger’ is about as high as my prediction for them is going to get.
Wigan – A seemingly routine 2-0 loss against Chelsea makes all too familiar reading for Latics fans, although as with most of this Season’s opening games, the result doesn’t tell the real story. They created no end of chances, Victor Moses looking particularly dangerous, and with some better finishing could have caused Chelsea real problems. Their 3-4-3 formation, which was so effective at the back end of last season, appears to have survived the off season no worse for wear and Wigan fans might finally be in for an un-stressful year. Or not. This is Wigan, so they will probably make it much more difficult than it might otherwise be.