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In most seasons, the English Premier League has not been kind to the team who came up into the league via the League Championship Playoffs. A very average Hull City side somehow avoided the drop in the 2008-09 season thanks to the spectacularly incompetent Newcastle United, but they were the exception, not the rule. Oh, and they crashed and burned the following season. Swansea are facing long odds to stay up, but there are a few reasons they just might do it.
Though Blackpool were relegated to the Championship last season, Ian Holloway's side showed that a team on a limited budget can come up from the second division and play attacking football. Brendan Rodgers is likely to subscribe to a similar philosophy, and he has more players to do it. He doesn't quite have someone of the class of Charlie Adam at his disposal, but the attacking band of three in his 4-2-3-1 setup is extremely talented.
The names Nathan Dyer, Scott Sinclair and Stephen Dobbie don't jump off the page. The former two players are youngsters who haven't yet tested themselves in the Premier League - as full-grown adults, at least - and the latter is a 28-year-old who never tried. However, these players were fantastic throughout the Championship season in 2010-11 and they have the quality to keep a team in the top flight. Plus, speed is effective at every level of the game and the two wingers, Dyer and Sinclair, have that in bunches. Wayne Routledge, David Cotterill and Andrea Orlandi are also decent players, making the wings the spot on the Swansea roster with the most depth.
Swansea could have a Charlie Adam of their own, but it's all dependent on whether or not he can come back from injury. Following his serious knee ligament issues that first popped up in 2008, Ferrie Bodde was one of the best players in the Championship. A fantastic playmaking central midfielder, Boddie is (or was) also an extremely strong tackler with a knack for scoring goals from midfield. He hasn't been fully fit since 2008 and he's been out of action for 18 months, but he's finally starting to come back to full fitness from his knee injuries. If Bodde is anywhere approaching as good as he was before his injuries, Swansea might become favorites to stay in the Premier League.
As for what they actually have in the center, Swansea are thin but have a couple of very solid players. Leon Britton and Joe Allen were very good last year and downright fantastic in the Championship Playoffs, and should be - at the very least - decent and serviceable players in the center of the pitch for the Swans. Veterans Mark Gower and Thomas Butler are reliable if unspectacular players as well, and should get plenty of minutes. With Boddie out, the center of midfield won't feature much in the way of creativity for the Swans, so most of the play going forward will have to be dictated by the attacking band of three behind the central striker.
Up top, the squad feature's a who's who of strikers who have been previously spit out by an unforgiving top flight. All of Craig Beattie, Danny Graham, Leroy Lita and Luke Moore have been to the Premier League on more than one occasion and all have failed to make themselves stick on every occasion. Based on their performances in the Championship and occasional solid games in the top flight, it seems plausible that the Swans could pick one reliable Premier League striker out of the bunch. However, this could also end up being the team's biggest weakness if none of that group of four proves themselves to be worthy of starting for a Premiership side.
In the back, Swansea will be able to play a very good back four for a team just coming up from the Championship, but that back four is not especially deep. Should a couple of their first choice starters suffer injuries, Swansea are likely looking at a big problem and a back line that is no longer Premier League quality. Neil Taylor and Angel Rangel should start at the fullback slots, but veteran and team captain Garry Monk will see his fair share of games depending on their form and fitness. Vice-captain Alan Tate and the extremely talented Ashley Williams should start the season in the center of defense, but they will be under pressure from Steven Caulker, the immensely talented 19-year-old on loan from Tottenham Hotspur.
These six players are Premier League quality, but there's no one behind them on Swansea's roster with extensive professional experience. Most teams in the Premier League have at least eight, if not more serviceable defenders on their roster, so Swansea better hope that one or more of their unproven youngsters is up to the task of playing in the top flight.
In goal behind them will be Michel Vorm, one of the great under the radar signings of the offseason in the Premiership. Vorm has been the No. 1 goalkeeper at Utrecht in Holland for nearly five years and has represented his country five times at international level. At just £1.5m, his transfer was a bargain and he should make a great No. 1 goalkeeper for Swansea this season.
The Swans' first choice starting XI looks like one that could stay up in the Premier League this season. They've got plenty of quality all over the pitch and they play an attacking, proactive brand of football. However, they are not a deep team and they have multiple players who have suffered from injury issues in the past. If the Swans can stay healthy, they have what it takes to nick 17th place or higher. However, a couple of key injures is all it would take to send Swansea's season down the drain.
Roy Hodgson looks to carry his fine work at West Bromwich Albion into a second season, after he steered the club away from relegation. Having lost 13 out of 18 and fallen to 17th place, the early success of Roberto Di Matteo’s attacking play (they had been up to 4th at one point!) was fast being forgotten as he was sacked. Hodgson brought in the methods that were so successful at Fulham, but failed to work at Liverpool: An organised and solid defensive team, while still retaining the best of the passing game that Tony Mowbray and Roberto Di Matteo instilled on the team. Having done that, WBA saw an immediate up turn in results, winning 5, drawing 6 and only losing 2 of the last 13 games of the season, and climbing 6 places up to 11th, WBA’s best finish in 30 years.
Even after the appointment of Hodgson, they still have some major defensive worries. Hodgson may have gotten WBA more organised, but they still conceded 23 goals in the last 13 games, and ended up conceding the second most amount of goals in the Premier League, behind only relegated Blackpool. If WBA want to avoid a relegation dog fight this year, they must improve defensively. Abdoulaye Meite is gone, replaced by the former Ipswich captain Gareth McAuley, who should form a good partnership with Jonas Olsson. Gone too is the mistake waiting to happen, Scott Carson, replaced by Ben Foster on loan from Birmingham. Those two signings alone should knock off a few goals from the 71 conceded, but so should a full preseason of working on organisation and tactics to match Hodgson’s demands.
Last season, Peter Odemwingie had a fantastic debut year, scoring 15, assisting 7, and leading the line fantastically, in both a 4-4-2 and a 4-2-3-1. Hodgson likes to play 4-4-2 with inverted wingers, and thus Shane Long has been brought in to partner Odemwingie. Jerome Thomas and Chris Brunt should continue on the left and right respectively, where the latter had a superb season, creating 86 chances, among the most in the league. Who Hodgson plays in the midfield depends on who he faces, and what type of formation he plays. With Paul Scharner, Youssuf Mulumbu, Graham Dorrans and James Morrison, there is room to have different options, and with Zolton Gera and Somen Tchoyi available to deputise for Thomas and Brunt, WBA should be able to withstand an injury crisis.
With good attacking players, a solid midfield and a good organised defence, WBA should improve on their 11th place finish last year, and with a bit of luck, could push the likes of Everton and Fulham for the last Europa League place, and with a good draw, could go a long way in the domestic cups.
Chelsea failed to win a trophy (or come particularly close to doing so) in 2010/11, and so Roman Abramovich threw a bit of a fit. Out went double-winning manager Carlo Ancelotti, in comes the booking Andre Villas-Boas to replace him. And, to be honest, that's about it. None of the expected moves to invigorate the squad have come to pass, and so the Blues are left with their old squad and a new manager. Is that going to be enough to challenge Manchester United for the title? The Chelsea Offside's Jack Goodson walks us through how 2011/12 will go for the denizens of Stamford Bridge.
Another year on Fulham Road. Another manager.
Shocking? Not really.
While, this weekend, Barclays prepares to carry the Premier League into its 20th season - platinum status, baby - Chelsea Football Club preps for life with yet another man at the wheel.
Andre Villas-Boas, the suave sophisticate with only 20 months of managerial experience, replaced the sacked Carlo Ancelotti at the end of June. The 33-year-old Portugese is the club's seventh manager in eight seasons.
His task is quite simply, really. Win.
Villas-Boas has done that in grand fashion already during his short career. Winning the Europa League, the Primeira Liga and the Portuguese Cup in his only season at FC Porto is testament to the man's talent and the impact he can make at a club. Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is counting on a similar impression in London.
An impression has already been made to an extent. Sacking assistant first-team coach Paul Clement, a member of the Chelsea coaching hierarchy in some capacity since 1994, was a bold statement of intent from Villas-Boas. Cancelling the club's first preseason friendly, against Vitesse Arnhem, at the end of June, citing a lack of readiness, further cemented his power. Bringing on former Chelsea player Roberto Di Matteo as his No. 2 was a superb piece of psychological business.
Investment, at least at the elite level, has been nonexistent thus far this season. Thus, Villas-Boas is taxed with coaxing much out of a talented, veteran nucleus. The question essentially is: Can he do what Ancelotti failed to do in his second season?
Signs are good thus far. Chelsea improved as the preseason progressed. Several players look revitalized, and youth is being served.
The team, after all, is only a year and change removed from a first-ever domestic Double. Who's to say they can't do it again?
It was a season so full of promise. Goals aplenty. Smiles, too. A five-point cushion at the top of the league table in October, courtesy of a 2-0 home win over Wolverhampton.
Then came the winter, and what we will refer to as the Great Rot.
A 1-0 away defeat to Wolves on January 5 capped the club's worst run of form in 14 years. Ten points out of a total 33 on offer from November 7. Chelsea rebounded marginally, enough to lightly tug at Manchester United in the final weeks of the season but nothing more.
In the end, this, to quote the man himself, bad moment cost Ancelotti his job. Villas-Boas will be very much interested in avoiding a similar winter, and a similar fate.
So far it's been a summer of smart business from the club. Smart and young to be exact. What has gotten into Chelsea?
Thibaut Courtois was signed from Racing Genk for a fee that could rise to £7.9 million. The highly rated Belgian goalkeeper, just 19 years old, was then immediately loaned to Atletico Madrid. Spain Under-20 international Oriol Romeu was recruited from Barcelona. The combative midfielder, also 19, cost an initial £4.35m, with Barcelona able to purchase the player back for a flat fee in either of the following two seasons (€10m in 2012, €15 in 2013). Last week, 17-year-old Anderlecht striker Romelu Lukaku completed his dream move to Stamford Bridge for a fee reported to be €13m plus add-ons. Dare I say bargain for one of world football's hottest commodities?
There has been plenty of movement out of the club this offseason, not that much of it will affect the first team.
Promising young stiker Fabio Borini joined Parma on a free transfer. Former sporting director Frank Arnesen took the same position with Hamburg in the close season, and his first bit of business was hijacking a trio of Chelsea players - defender Michael Mancienne (£3m) as well as midfielders Jacopo Sala and Gökhan Töre. FK Baumit Jablonec signed goalkeeper Jan Šebek and Sheffield United landed Danny Philliskirk, both on frees. Michael Woods was released. Jack Cork, a favorite of many supporters, headed to Southampton for a fee believed to be around £750,000. The most prominent departure of the summer, thus far, however, has been Yuri Zhirkov. The 27-year-old Russian returned to his homeland on August 6, moving to major players Anzhi Makhachkala in a £13.2 million deal. Good business for both parties that one.
To win and win stylishly. Obviously.
Success at this club is rather unique. You see, a domestic league and FA Cup Double in your first season as a manager in England spares you not from the Russian's furor. Ancelotti, whether you felt he was capable of righting the ship or not, was dealt a ruthlessly poor hand. That's neither here nor there, though. Villas-Boas has arrived, and he'll need to impress from the off.
Abramovich should prove less lethal with his new toy, but any dip similar to the one that afflicted Ancelotti last season will test the owner's resolve.
If Villas-Boas can sidestep the malaise and keep the players motivated, a sustained title challenge will not be expected but realized.
Fernand Torres. Arrived for a small fortune in January. Not only did the Spaniard looked lost, he was largely a shadow of the player Abramovich thought he was purchasing. The result was a laughable one for Liverpool supporters - one goal in 18 appearances. He appeared far more comfortable in the preseason, even throwing in some defensive tracking back for good measure, though goals were still at a premium. If the 27-year-old can regain some semblance of the form that made him one of the finest strikers in world football not so long ago, Chelsea will feature a frontline to die for. And, yeah, they'll be amongst the favorites in any competition.
Frank Lampard. The talismatic midfielder labored through an injury-plagued campaign last season. Though somewhat effective on his return, after some four months out, he was, at times, a shell of his former self. An indifferent preseason has done little to quell fears of the inevitable veteran downfall. How Lampard responds this season - how he contributes more specifically - may be critical. Then again, the likes of Josh McEachran and fit-again Yossi Benayoun are primed as potential replacements.
Rotation. Ancelotti played our veteran core into the ground last season, and it likely cost us dearly. Didier Drogba, despite suffering from malaria during our mid-season slump last term, played on. And on. And on. Villas-Boas has tools at his disposal. Options and versatility. A more open approach to interchange and rotation will do wonders for a side that doesn't really have age on its side.
Villas-Boas. Herein lies the real key. How our new, youthful manager handles the pressure that accompanies such a high-profile position, and how he handles these world-class egos and the various in-squad issues that have been apparent since last season will decide just how successful Chelsea can be in 2011-12.
There is a real feeling amongst supporters that Chelsea may have not one, but many younger players significantly contributing this season.
King Carlo spoke regularly of this club's great potential at youth level. Villas-Boas, meanwhile, appears ready to act on it. The Portugese, in his limited time, has already hinted at a higher level of involvement for several of the club's high-profile young'ns. Preseason saw the inclusion of a host of them, including towering 22-year-old Serbian sledgehammer Slobodan Rajković.
Rajković had not featured for Chelsea in the six years since his signing in November 2005, British work permit issues largely derailing his opportunity. Yet there he was in July, accompanying the first-team squad on its preseason tour of Asia at the request of the manager himself. It remains to be seen whether the Serbian will receive a permit for the upcoming season, or if he will ever feature for the club, but his inclusion thus far is a clear sign that Villas-Boas is eyeying a new wave of talent at the Bridge.
Among them: Josh McEachran. McEachran crept into the England psyche last season, the wiry 18-year-old midfielder showcasing a coolness in the spotlight not seen since Val Kilmer's on-screen portrayal of Iceman in the greatest cinematic event of all-time, Top Gun. Of course I kid, but not about young Josh. His potential has many expecting a Jack Wilshere-like progression this term. I, for one, would not be surprised.
Elsewhere, there is Daniel Sturridge. The 21-year-old forward joined the club from Manchester City in July 2009, a huge coup. His time with Chelsea has been scattered at best, a lack of playing time the main culprit, but a loan to Bolton during January of last season proved an epiphany of sorts. Eight goals in 12 appearances followed, Sturridge proceeding to sweep aside all in his path. An impressive preseason has followed, leaving supporters confident the England Under-21 will make a telling impact for the club in 2011-12, even with a host of world-class talent surrounding him at the position.
So very difficult. A fourth league crown in eight seasons is certainly not out of the realm of possibility. Nor should it be, not with a squad that, when healthy, can rival any in the country. However, the lack of impact investment leaves significant questions - of not only the club's hierarchy but of a core that was considered fairly old three seasons ago. Can these men resurrect themselves once again? It's a difficult ask, even for elite talents such as John Terry and Lampard, players who have been at competitive tilt almost year-round for the better part of this decade. Couple that with the spending that has taken place elsewhere, specifically at the Manchester clubs, and a top-two place, almost a given under Abramovich, is at risk.
Health, of course, will be vital in sustaining a title challenge this season, particularly if a late spending spree (i.e. January) does not come to fruition. Chemistry under new management is another. Avoiding a second successive January capitulation - when the likes of Drogba and Salomon Kalou will depart for the latest edition of the African Cup of Nations - will go far in deciding our fate. All that plays into Chelsea's hands, and Roman is golden. As it stands, third place appears a lock.
Sunderland looked to be challenging for a Europa League position in January before going into a slump that lasted for most of the rest of the season. After retooling over the summer, how are Steve Bruce's men going to fare in the 2011/12 season. Simon Walsh of Roker Report fame has you covered.
Well we're coming to the end of the summer, and I couldn't be happier as proper football returns.
It's been a mixed summer for my beloved Sunderland, at the beginning of the transfer window we were up in arms about the sale of our most promising youth player in decades to Liverpool. Many, including myself, refused to accept it was even happening until there he was at Melwood. The collective groan on Wearside was "here we go again" as we saw a squad depleted by injuries, begin to look even lighter.
However, it only took two weeks for us all to be saying "Jordan who?" as the signings came in to the Academy Of Light on an almost daily basis, as Steve Bruce filled a variety of needs, without actually addressing our main ones.
Keiren Westwood seems to be a fine keeper from the pre-season so far, and with Craig Gordon either on the treatment table or being edged towards the door, the Irish international seems an astute signing as he'll challenge Simon Mignolet for the Number 1 jersey.
Defensive reinforcements were also added as Wes Brown & John O'Shea arrived from Manchester United. O'Shea in particular delighting the fans, as he's long been a top defender and his versatility could prove invaluable. Wes Brown looks to have sewn up a starting spot too (for as long as he's fit anyway) and we expect him to be Titus Bramble's new partner at the heart of the defence. One area Steve Bruce failed to improve however (at time of writing) is the left-back position. Phil Bardsley was our Player Of The Season last year in the position, but it looks as though Bruce will be giving Kieran Richardson a second (or is it third?) crack at the position. He's looked promising preseason, but I do worry for when it matters.
Into midfield, and we're all wondering what the best combination is following the arrivals of Craig Gardner, Sebastian Larsson and David Vaughan. The preference on Roker Report is for a 4-3-3, however it would appear Steve Bruce doesn't see it that way, and is determined to go with four in midfield, leaving us with a problem on the left. We've tried any number of options, all with varying degrees of success, but when it comes to that position I'd wager that the spending isn't over yet.
Now in attack, we're light on options again, but they're all highly exciting. Asamoah Gyan will be leading the line alone on almost every occasion he's fit, but will be ably supported by Stephane Sessegnon in a free role behind the Ghanaian. In addition, we've added two of the hottest striking prospects in world football - Ji Dong-Won, who has had a great pre-season, and the exciting talent of Connor Wickham, although I'd strongly urge fans not to expect too much from those two too soon as they look like being bedded in slowly.
Of course in amongst the flurry of signings there was the one that got away - Charles N'Zogbia - The move which was on, off, on, off, on, off, on, oh I don't bloody care anymore. I'm thankful he's actually signed for a massive club in the Midlands if only to end this non-stop snoozefest. Arsenal fans may well have been bored to tears by the Cesc Fabregas saga, but at least people are saying stuff on that front as opposed to us fans who were working ourselves up, then expressing our disappointment at absolutely nothing than our own rumours on an hourly basis.
So what do we expect for this forthcoming season? It's always difficult to judge, so I'll go with what we'd all be happy with, at least I think anyway. We're looking for a top ten finish. Sure we got one last year, but we'd like it to be a bit more comfortable this time around. Plus a proper run at the cups would make a nice change. European football remains a dream as opposed to a goal. Of course it's much more likely we'll suffer our now annual mid-season slump and do absolutely nothing as opposed to anything mentioned so far.
Suckers for punishment, you can catch all the latest musings on matters Sunderland over on Roker Report. We might be viewed as a small team in some parts, but by-jove, it's rarely boring.
No, we didn't forget Stoke City. Despite their 'let's play proper football' revolution failing to get off the ground, Stoke had a pretty good season, eventually reaching the FA Cup final and qualifying for a spot in the Europa League. How will they fare on a bigger stage? Will they ever find a pass on the ground that they enjoy? Can they do it on a Tuesday night in Stoke? Allen Dodson of Villarreal USA answers these questions.
Stoke City enters its fourth season in the EPL, and manager Tony Pulis has to be pleased with the results so far. The Potters' uncompromising style isn't beloved by everyone, and their football will never be compared with Barcelona's, but no matter. The team made it to the FA Cup final (their first ever--it only took them 148 years to get that far) and qualified for Europe for the first time in nearly forty years.
When Stoke arrived on the scene, Pulis said it would take three years of consolidation before the team would really be ready to compete with most teams in the league. From the beginning Stoke's style has been uncompromising, physical, bruising, and intimidating, and I don't expect that to change in year four.
The team hasn't changed personnel much in the offseason, though that could change if Wilson Palacios and Peter Crouch join from Spurs--Stoke has put a bid on the table to land them. Assuming that fails, though, the only new arrival is Jonathan Woodgate, once voted the worst signing of the 21st century by readers of MARCA in Spain. He may not play much in defense--he tends to be injured more often than not--but he never shies away from headlines or controversy.
He adds some depth (hopefully) to a strong defense with the excellent Ryan Shawcross (a highly underrated player) and Robert Huth as the anchors, and Asmir Begovic in goal is good as well. The problem is that with a small squad, and not much ability to control the game in midfield, the defense has often broken down late in matches, particularly on the road.
Jermaine Pennant and Scott Etherington offer some quality on the wings, and Kenwyne Jones offers athleticism and pace up front, so it's doing a disservice to Stoke to suggest that their football is all of the "lump it up" variety, but beautiful possession play is not what Stoke is about. A typical Stoke attack usually involves a set piece, which for this team includes throwins from practically anywhere in the opposition half because of Rory Delap's howitzer throws. In fact, they're often more effective than corners.
When Pulis has signed players who play a different style (Tuncay, for instance) he's struggled to figure out how to use them. A creative midfielder, or a Dani Alves-type player who could take the ball from defense and attack with it, would be great, but difficult to integrate into the team's current style of play. And while Pulis would like to see that style evolve, with the Europa League putting further strain on a small squad this might not be the time to do it.
So effectively, we're looking at another year of Fortress Brittania. The club's home form in front of their fanatical support at the Brittania Stadium has been outstanding since they joined the league, and teams haven't figured it out yet.
On the road they are put on the back foot too much, and attack too little, to succeed often, and that's probably not going to change this year either.
One player who could help with the goal drought is Kenwyne Jones; the Trinidad and Tobago man joined Stoke last year and contributed nine goals, but by his own admission had an up-and-down season. Jamaican Ricardo Fuller can score a few goals as well. And keep an eye on local boy Ryan Shotton, who could see some time at right back this year. He's come up through their academy system, which is always nice to see.
So it's likely to be another year in mid-table, with hopefully a cup run and some games against European teams in Stoke on cold, rainy midweek nights to punctuate the season. Like the Potteries area itself, Stoke City isn't necessarily beautiful, but their style is distinctive, and that's always a quality to celebrate.
Manchester City have made the leap into Champions League territory, but they'll be wanting even more this season. Enough money's been spent on the squad that a real push for the title is the only way to make the whole investment worthwhile. Can City challenge Manchester United and Chelsea's near-decade-long dominance atop the Premier League? Bitter and Blue's Danny Pugsley lets us know.
Having rid themselves of the monkey from their backs City will go into the season facing newer and bigger pressures. Bringing to an end the long wait for a trophy should not be underestimated, and of course was a vital step as the club looked to develop its mind set and look to take its place amongst the footballing elite.
However, and as I wrote in the wake of lifting the FA Cup and Champions League, the 2010/11 season was ultimately the fulfilment of expectation; the days of a trophy win were no longer the stuff of far-fetched fantasy but what was required from a club with the pretensions City now has.
Expectations now though will be raised considerably as a result, and rightly so. Would a trophy-less season bring calls for Roberto Mancini's head? What if City failed to repeat (let along build upon) a top four finish? In reality, the easy part has been achieved, the hard work now just beginning.
The main difficulty for the coming season will be in contending on two fronts in mounting both a serious challenge for the Premier League and Champions League. History shows it is a difficult act to balance and apart from the odd smattering City's squad is not littered with Champions League experience, let alone a history of competing on both fronts.
In the Premier League, City has to make up a nine-point gap on United which, whilst by no means insurmountable, will be an extremely difficult task. Last season's success will provide the belief within the squad that they can do it, something that shouldn't be underestimated. What is important (and not often referenced) to their hopes is that stability has finally been achieved within the squad after a succession of summer overhauls, allowing for the team to really develop and progress together.
In Europe, much may hinge on the draw as City could be paired with tough opponents that make qualification to the knock-out stages tricky, yet equally, they will be a side the top seeds will not want to be drawn with.
Of course City can win the Premier League and Champions League (the latter far less likely of course) but I don't see it this season quite yet. Over the course of a whole season, City has lacked that touch of consistency that United and Chelsea have shown time and again and the killer instinct hasn't always been there. That may sound harsh considering the success of last season, but the impressive finish to the season shouldn't mask the problems the side at times encountered in being able to finish teams off, and these are traits needed to lift the Premier League and for City to triumph they need to be right at the top of their game with others less so.
For the first time in a number of summers the club hasn't seen a raft of new signings, which despite the flagrant nature of it were necessary to improve the side from mid-table outfit to top six challengers to FA Cup winners, Champions League qualifiers and title aspirants.
With the side being settled as it is the need for a host of new faces is not there and there should be a natural progression and improvement shown by virtue of familiarity and continuation of selection given the spine or core of the side is very much settled. We have seen with the signings of Gael Clichy and Stefan Savic that there were areas Roberto Mancini felt the squad was light in and neither were too costly so could be good moves.
A lot could depend on Sergio Aguero not only settling in at the club, but how quickly he settles. Initial signs appear positive and it is clear that Mancini is high on him, possessing the ability to play as a lone central striker or - as I suspect he may do - as more of a number 10 to Edin Dzeko (or indeed Mario Balotelli) as the number 9.
The wildcard in all of this could be Carlos Tevez. Despite the proliferation of talent in attack his importance to this City side should not be underestimated in the slightest. Not just his goals and assists record (considerable as they may be) but his style is such that he is the heartbeat of the side, setting the tempo that the side follows. We saw when he was missing through injury that the side struggled to play the same way and lacked the offensive punch that he brings.
With time ebbing away, the chances of him departing (unless City are willing to virtually give him away) are decreasing, so should he remain at the club what role will he have? Despite his public utterings of discontent, what cannot be denied is when he crosses the line and takes to the pitch is the effort and commitment he gives. Malcontent off the field he maybe, but on the field he was the model citizen. If he does remain, how does Mancini utlilise him and what effect would this have on the make-up of the side given it appears that Mancini was very much planning for life without him?
As much as bringing players in is always key, the club would dearly love to permanently offload up to half a dozen players - the likes of Adebayor, Santa Cruz, Bellamy, Wright- Phillips and Bridge - which would be a significant chunk off the wage bill with this season being the first under the new FFP regulations. The reality though is that another raft of funded loan moves may be the likeliest option with clubs rightly hesitant to match their current deals.
The season will also be a big test for Mancini himself in the sense that the question asked will be whether he is the right man to take City a step further and land the title and Champions League, the latter of course eluding him at Inter, whilst the former was achieved with the assistance of the Calciopoli ruling. By and large he gets it right tactically, although he has come unstuck at times when City have struggled to create opportunities and break sides down - something he will need to address.
Two other key areas the statistics from last season highlighted were their record against the top half (ranking eighth) and in conceding over a third of goals in the final fifteen minutes of games. An impressive record against the bottom half and when scoring first they may have, but in a league where margins are tight those two areas have to be improved upon.
It is also interesting to note that in Italy he had problems with the boards at the clubs where he managed and sought to exert himself far more than shown at City, although after banking some credit with a trophy and Champions League qualification will he look to do the same? Already this pre-season we have seen the Italian talk about having more control of the club (i.e. not just team affairs) and citing the need to bring in additional faces. There were also reports last season of Mancini butting heads with the hierarchy over the hot topic of Financial Fair Play and it may be that his headstrong nature see him in conflict with those running the club.
How will the 2011/12 season play out then? Ultimately it is unlikely to be quite the defining and psyche-altering one that 2010/11 was, when you felt that City had taken step they had to in announcing their arrival.
It may well prove to be a task just that little bit too far to expect the title this season, but they will run both closer and will not be sweating over a top four spot in the fashion they have been the past two seasons. Cups are always difficult to predict, but the FA Cup win will have provided a thirst for more success in that regard, and the side should have enough to progress to the knock-out stages of the Champions League, where, with a little luck, any side has the ability to go deep in the competition once you reach the last sixteen.
What this season will bring is merely a continuation of the progress made during 2010/ 11, whereby they go on to cement their position in the top four, usurping Arsenal as the most legitimate challenger to the duopoly of United and Chelsea, and importantly, announcing their arrival on the European stage in the process.
Wolverhampton Wanders are still probably thanking whatever gods they pray to that they didn't get relegated a year ago. They were one of the teams in the crazy battle for survival on the final day of the season and finished just one point clear of the drop zone despite a loss on the last day thanks to losses by every other team in the relegation battle. As a result, they get to stay up for this season, but they don't expect to be in a much different position than they were a year ago. They will have another relegation battle on their hands.
A relegation battle is exactly what Wolves don't need though. They are in the midst of a renovation to Molineux Stadium that will see the capacity jump to 31,700 when it is done at the end of the season. They have plans for a further expansion that will push capacity to 36,000 by the summer of 2014 and then one more expansion that raises the capacity to 38,000. If Wolves are relegated then the further expansions will be put on hold and they will have to pay for the current expansion without Premier League money. Not that they couldn't pay it back because they could, but Wolves would find it hard to compete for promotion back up to the top flight right away and it would derail years of planning.
So it is absolutely imperative that Wolves stay in the top flight, but that's true for most teams. Exactly how Wolves will stay in the top flight remains to be seen. Only three teams allowed more goals than them a year ago and two of those were relegated so the first thing Mick McCarthy has to do is sort out the defense. Roger Johnson has been brought in from Birmingham City and was handed the captain's armband so he can help along the back and Dorus de Vries in goal is a boost so McCarthy cannot be blamed for not recognizing the team's weakness. Even so, McCarthy hasn't found a decent partner for Johnson in the center of the defense, something that can doom the team if nobody can do an adequate job there.
One place where Wolves are sound is in the midfield. Stephen Hunt and Matt Jarvis are strong wingers, giving Wolves better wide play than any other relegation contender. If they can play through those two then Wolves can have some success. They've also bought Jamie O'Hara from Tottenham after having him on loan for the last half of last season and he gives the team a good central midfielder who can quickly turn defending into attacking with one pass.
The question is who can finish the chances created by O'Hara, Hunt and Jarvis. Kevin Doyle is a good striker who makes an impact even when he's not scoring goals by leading the line with good runs and making himself available for teammates to run off of him. He only scored five goals last year and while he is capable of scoring some incredible goals, he also misses too many chances. Of course, this is all when he is fit, something that isn't always the case. He was injured for a stretch last season with a knee injury and has also found himself hampered by small knocks even he plays.
If Doyle cannot go then Steve Fletcher will have to take the lead up top. He came on strong last season when Doyle was hurt and was key to their survival, but he misses too many easy chances too. With their wing play, Wolves get chances for their forwards, but finishing them is a whole other story.
Wolves opened up the checkbook some this summer, spending £4.5 million to bring Johnson in and another £3.5 million for O'Hara, while also outbidding some other challengers to bring de Vries in on a free. Nobody is going to confuse the money Wolves dolled out with Manchester City money, but it is something that has strengthened the side and could be what keeps them in the top flight for another season. Even if it does though, they're still in danger and it is unlikely that their survival is guaranteed before the final week or two of the season. It will be another nail-biting season at the Molineux.
We continue SB Nation Soccer's preview of the 2011/12 Premier League season by taking a look at last year's nPower Championship winners, Queens Park Rangers. Guiding us through the wonderful world of QPR is Jocelyn Becker of LAG Confidential, SB Nation's Los Angeles Galaxy blog.
Queen's Park Rangers have returned to the Premier League. One of the Premier League's founding members and the top London club in 1992-93, QPR fans remember fondly the days of Les Ferdinand, and hope to return to that form once again.
The first thing any newly promoted club needs to do is to start spending like a premier league club, dumping old weight and bringing on some PL ready players. Using free transfers they've brought in Kieron Dyer and Danny Gabbidon from newly relegated West Ham United. Dyer was West Ham's top earner in the 09-10 season, despite only making 22 appearances and never playing the full 90. He never scored for West Ham, despite 23 goals in his time at Newcastle.
Danny Gabbidon also struggled at West Ham, but hopefully the new environs will return the players to former form. They also brought in Jay Bothroyd and Brian Murphy from League One clubs Cardiff City and Ipswich Town respectively. Bothroyd scored 41 goals in his four years at Cardiff. Coming up through the Arsenal Academy, the 28 year old is a fantastic get for QPR, capable of some remarkable goals. The final addition is D. J. Campbell, who scored 13 goals for Blackpool last season, the Seasiders' top scorer.
The players QPR have shed are all off to clubs not in the Premier League, same goes for the players they've loaned out. It's hard to make anything out of the preseason, as most of their matches were against the likes of Harrow Borough and Tavistock (the latter they defeated 13-0). They did partake in an Italian tournament known as the Trofeo Bortolotti. In this triangular tournament, matches only last 45 mins, and QPR ended up winning on penalties.
The top goal scorers from last year, Adel Taarabt (19) and Heidar Helguson (13) both return to the team. The midfielder Taarabat also led the team in assists last year with 16. The Morocan team captain tried to break in with Newcastle, but got loaned out to QPR which quickly bought his contract and brought him on.
Queens' Park Rangers were in first for all but two weeks last year, and boasted a nineteen game unbeaten streak, so it'll be interesting to see how they adjust to things in the premier league. They stick with the same manager, Neil Warnock, who won Manager of the Month twice last year. They still have Paddy Kennedy, the best keeper in the Championsip last year.
QPR enter the Carling Cup in the second round, as one of the Premier League teams not involved in European competition. If I were Neil Warnock, I'd take this tournament quite seriously, as it's QPR's best chance of getting involved in European competition right away. Last year, Port Vale embarrassingly took out QPR in the first round. The focus of the team was just getting to the premier league, as
they also played just one game in the FA Cup as well. Now they're in the PL, should have the talent to stay up, and should make tournaments a priority.
While the unrest in London leaves their opener against Bolton in some doubt, they do have the benefit of not facing one of the big four until October. With four home matches and away games at Wigan and at Fulham, four or five wins going into the match against Chelsea is not unreasonable.
This is not a team built to just taste the Premier League for a season. This is a team which has bought their way into being a respectable London side. The Hoops will be looking to make a big splash in their first top league season since 1996.
Kirsten Schlewitz may write for 7500 to Holte, SB Nation's Aston Villa blog, but she admits to harboring a secret crush on Wigan -- or, at least ,on manager Roberto Martinez. She takes a look at whether Wigan will stay up this season.
Newcastle United's return to the top flight in the 2010/11 season was nothing short of a resounding success. They were a solid team all year long despite suffering from a major injury crisis midway through winter, and they ended up in 12th place - not bad at all for a promoted squad. Where do they go from here? That's a question for Robert Bishop, who writes SB Nation's Magpies blog, Coming Home Newcastle.
In 2011-12, Newcastle United finished 12th in their first season back in the Premier League, achieving their stated goal of safety but somehow managing to underwhelm at the same time. The Magpies were inconsistent and often played to the level of their competition, a characteristic that surely reflects the erratic nature of the front office. It is difficult to expect consistency from the players when they are constantly surrounded by a circus-like atmosphere, and it seemed that the three rings were in permanent residence on Tyneside. Mention Andy Carroll and Newcastle, and most Premier League fans will immediately think of the phenom's sudden last-minute £35 million departure on Deadline Day, but before that there were two separate charges of assault that resulted in a court-ordered stay with captain Kevin Nolan, followed by rumors of drug-fuelled orgies, late night benders in casinos, and of course, niggling injuries that seemingly kept Carroll off the pitch more than he was on. That says nothing of the sacking of popular manager Chris Hughton or more shenanigans by Joey Barton (though admittedly, he had a tame year by his own standards). It's easy to see why Newcastle perennially underachieves - there's never a routine week at St James' Park.
On the pitch, Newcastle will look much different than last season.* Owner Mike Ashley has suddenly decided that he should be responsible (read: incredibly cheap) with wages, and several players have left or are leaving as a result, perhaps most notably the captain Kevin Nolan. Nolan's 12 goals (and Carroll's 11) are gone, meaning that once again, one of the major questions facing this team at the outset will be, "Who will score goals for Newcastle?" The Toon are pinning a large portion of their hopes on new signing Demba Ba, a physical presence with more than capable finishing skills. He's also the proud owner of a bum knee, making him less than reliable as the primary goal scorer for 40+ matches. Predictably, manager Alan Pardew and chief scout Graham Carr have had trouble recruiting a second forward, but for now (there is still time to add someone else, right?), it appears that the best chance for cover will come in the form of Shola Ameobi, a media darling that's never gotten it all together (except in derby matches, of course), Peter Lovenkrands, the diminutive Dutchman who prefers to make constant speculative runs before checking out at 70 minutes, and Leon Best, who dazzled in a small sample size at the end of last season but whom Pardew doesn't seem to trust for some reason.
*Quite literally. This season they're runaway favorites in the "Ugliest Home Kit" contest, provided the selection committee is still handing out bonus points for betraying a time-honored design.
Of course, there are plenty of midfielders with scoring capability, and Pardew has publicly stated that he would love to play Hatem Ben Arfa (easily the most toolsy of all the Toon outfield players when healthy) in a withdrawn playmaker sort of role. Whether or not he will be healthy enough to do so is anybody's guess, but if he can get on the pitch, the complexion of this team changes dramatically. Even without Ben Arfa, new boys Sylvain Marveaux and Yohan Cabaye should improve a midfield that was already a strength. Cabaye will likely take free kicks (even if Joey Barton does indeed stick around) and will pair with Cheik Tiote to form a formidable defense in front of a back four that conceded the fifth fewest shots last season.
Who will stop those shots is a different matter. You don't often see a top flight team name their starting keeper the week before the first kick, but hey - It's Newcastle. Incumbent Steve Harper is being challenged by two youngsters with higher ceilings (though whether they're the best option at this time is a point of contention) in Tim Krul and Fraser Forster. Pardew has shown deference to Harper so far, but it wouldn't be a huge surprise if Krul, a high flyer with the ability to make the tough save and a propensity to commit howlers, got the nod.
Personnel won't be the only change, as Pardew has displayed a dogged determination to place his own stamp on the squad. Last season, the vast majority of goals scored by Newcastle were achieved through the air (mostly when Andy Carroll was around) and on set pieces, which Pardew specializes in. That trend will likely continue to a degree, but the expectation here is that he will impose a counterattacking style (paced by Tiote and Cabaye, both superb tacklers as well as distributors) on a squad that scored just a single goal on fast breaks last year.
Because of the major changes and the volatility that Newcastle exhibits year in and year out, pinning down their place in the Premier League pecking order is difficult. One can easily envision a relegation battle, but as a supporter it's almost as easy to envision a spirited fight for the final spot in European competition (followed by an inevitable letdown, of course). In fact, the only certainty seems to be that it won't be a boring journey.
Ah, Arsenal. At one point, the team were in contention for four trophies at once - and fairly late in the season to boot. They then won none of them. Whoops. Anyway, SB Nation's Arsenal blog the Short Fuse somehow failed to implode as a result of this cavalcade of misery, and so Ted Harwood is still around to preview the season for us. Hurray!
After finishing fourth in the Premier League in 2010-11, a year which also saw the club lose to relegated Birmingham City in the Carling Cup Final, bitter rivals Manchester United in the FA Cup sixth round, and Barcelona in the Champions League round of 16, Arsenal are looking forward to 2011-12 as a chance for redemption and a chance to show the footballing world that the promise of the last few seasons can indeed come good.
All of the top squads in England have looked to strengthen during the summer, and Arsenal are no exception. New forward Gervinho and promising right-back Carl Jenkinson have been the only senior team arrivals so far, but both look ready for the first team, particularly the Ivorian attacker. Veteran left-back Gaël Clichy departed for Manchester City for £7 million, and despite transfer rumors flying in all directions, he is the only departure so far. With the close of the transfer window still some distance away, things could change quickly, but Arsène Wenger is notoriously stubborn about letting his top players leave.
Nonetheless, there are a number of key players that have barely featured, or not played at all, for Arsenal during their preseason fixtures. Whether or not this reflects impending transfers, it may have an impact on the readiness of the team for the start of proceedings. Danish Striker Nicklas Bendtner has not played at all during the summer, nor has captain and playmaker Cesc Fábregas, whom the media have heavily linked with Barcelona.
When the first 15 days of one's season consist of a tricky away match at Newcastle, a two-legged Champions League qualifier against strong Italian Serie A opposition in Udinese sandwiching a visit from newly-strengthened Liverpool, and a trip up north to face title-holders and Champions League finalists Manchester United, ideally, one would like to have a fully healthy, focused squad who have spent the summer working together. Unfortunately for Arsenal, a number of internal and external factors, combined with injuries in the preseason, have made this impossible.
Nevertheless, it is not all gloom in North London. Gervinho appears to be set to burst onto the scene this autumn, and Arsenal's relatively young team has another year of development and improvement under their belts. Thomas Vermaelen, who missed most of last year, looks to be fully ready to go this season again with his aggressive defending. If he and goal-a-game Robin van Persie manage to stay healthy for most of the year, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic.
The biggest obstacle that Arsenal face this year is squad depth. Assuming for a moment that nothing changes between now and the end of August, the ideal starting XI for Arsenal reads: Szczesny; Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs; Song, Wilshere, Fabregas; Nasri, van Persie, Walcott. Slide in Gervinho for any of the front three in Arsenal's 4-2-3-1, or Aaron Ramsey for Wilshere or Fabregas, add in a little Andrei Arshavin and Johan Djourou off of the bench, and that's a team that is more than capable of competing for top honors in England. However, beyond that first 15 or 16, Arsenal's quality and reliability begin to falter a bit. Players such as Jenkinson, Ryo Miyaichi (who's waiting for news on a work permit at the time of this writing), Abou Diaby, Lukasz Fabianski, and Marouane Chamakh have all the promise in the world, but are either untested, shorn of confidence, or struggle with nagging injuries.
It is difficult to know, though, where The Gunners stand a week before the season begins. The biggest questions facing Arsenal are as yet unresolved: will Fabregas, Samir Nasri, and Bendtner be at the club on September 1st, ready to play, and healthy? Will Wenger bring in more reinforcements at the thin striker, left back, and defensive midfield positions, or will he roll with youth players Benik Afobe, Traore, and Emmanuel Frimpong, respectively? And will injuries, which have already affected half of the squad during the preseason, prove as big a detriment to Arsenal's plans as they did two seasons ago, and to a lesser degree, last season?
The 2011-12 season marks another test for Arsenal's depth and Wenger's ability to unite his players into the flying, unstoppable force that they have proven to be at times for the last two years. It remains to be seen whether they have the depth and staying power to sustain their incisive attacking play all the way to the top, but if healthy and prepared, there is no reason Arsenal cannot join the party of dropping trophies under open-top buses this year.
Bolton look to be a team on the edge of something. Unfortunately, that 'something' changed from 'European glory' in the first half of the season to 'being quite bad' in the second, and nobody's really very sure which way the needle's going to swing in the 2011/12 season. Here to guide you through the strange world of Trottering (that might be a word!) is Mark Yesilevskiy of Bolton Offside fame.
A highly successful first half to the 2010/2011 season gave Bolton Wanderers fans all of the reason in the world to cheer. Fighting for a place in Europe, making their way through the FA Cup, and playing with a flair that the supporters had only dreamed of seeing from their men in white. It all went downhill very quickly as Jonny Evans' studs created a gash near Stuart Holden's knee that caused ligament damage and a premature end to the quiety brilliant midfielder's season in March.
"Last season we were in the top 8 for the majority of the season prior to the last three-four weeks. I think a huge factor in that was losing Stuart Holden because of what he brought to us in the middle of the park and we didn't have that type of player to replace him when he came out of the team" said manager Owen Coyle after the club's preseason friendly in Houston, TX. Without Holden at center mid and with Mark Davies injury his ankle at about the same time, there was no reliable source of distribution from the middle. This lead to the goal total of the likes of Johan Elmander to dry up and for Bolton to pick up only one of their last available 36 away points. Harsh record, that.
Bolton's home form was nearly impeccable with matches on the road ultimately failing them. We asked the Manager if there were any positions that he would like to get players in this summer to which he emphatically responded with a "Yes, absolutely! Defense, midfield, and up front!" Owen Coyle and chairman Phil Gartside have brought in four players thus far this summer that fit the descriptions of "defense" and "midfield" with Tyrone Mears at right back, Nigel Reo-Coker at defensive center midfield, Darren Pratley as an attacking mid, and Chris Eagles who can play in the center of the park or on the wing.
But with all of those new signings, a number of Reebok regulars have been let go. Ali Al Habsi to Wigan, Johan Elmander to Galatasaray, Danny Ward to Huddersfield, and Matty Taylor to Bolton Lite (West Ham United). Owen Coyle has at least one piece of the summer transfer puzzle left to find and that piece is a striker. The current front line of Kevin Davies, Ivan Klasnic, and Robbie Blake is looking increasingly old and slower every day. Super Kev isn't the out-and-out goal scorer that Bolton so desperately need and had in young Daniel Sturridge last season but is great is at bringing the ball down of flicking it on so that someone else in the side has the opportunity to pounce. Current rumors circulate around Liverpool's David N'Gog as Coyle's target for a cold-blooded striker.
The Wanderers will start the new season on the road to Queens Park Rangers and face a tough stretch right from the off where five of the first seven matches feature the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal, and Chelsea but Bolton will need results in order to break the five game losing streak that ended their season and put them in 14th place. Owen Coyle will have to adjust his tactics and maybe shy away from his beloved 4-4-2 formation a little more to ensure that the mighty Wanderers don't sink back into mediocrity, especially away from the Reebok.
If Owen Coyle does land his striker and Stuart Holden comes back to where he left off, expect Bolton Wanderers FC to once again be a surprise force to be reckoned with. The disbelievers will tell you that with the signings that the Manager has lined up, he is building a quite good Championship side, but the supporters have faith in his abilities and squad selection. Even though he's no longer getting the ball and scoring a goal (outside of training or an indoor charity match), he's Owen, Owen Coyle and he'll lead the Wanderers to (top ten) Premier League glory!
It was almost a perfect season for Manchester United as Sir Alex Ferguson's team swatted aside Chelsea to reassert their position at the top of the domestic pile. Things didn't work out very well against FC Barcelona in the Champions League final, but United are poised to overcome that setback and make a spirited defence of their Premier League crown. The Busby Babe's Gene Um has the lowdown.
Manchester United come into the 2011-12 season as the champions of England, a feat from last season that vaulted them pass rival Liverpool FC for the most titles won in England's top-flight football history. In addition, the Reds reached their third UEFA Champions League final in a span of four seasons - but just like two seasons ago, they were denied European glory by Catalan giants FC Barcelona. Undoubtedly, the expectation this upcoming season will be to lift the Barclays Premier League trophy once again come May while the hope will be to find a way to overcome Pep Guardiola's Barcelona - arguably the greatest football side ever.
While United are the favorites to repeat as domestic champions, it certainly is far from a given. Despite going nine points clear of Chelsea FC and Manchester City during last season's campaign, United's 80 points is amongst the least convincing totals in recent history for a champion. Going back to the 2001-02 Premeier League season, the champion's point total has been 86, 90, 87, 89, 91, 95, 90, 83, and 87. Perhaps this hints at the elite English sides no longer being as strong as they once were. Perhaps this hints at increased quality all across the Premier League. Perhaps this hints at both. Either way, the days of the "Big Four" dominance appears to be over as clubs like Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur have forced their way into genuine contention for Champions League qualification - if not the title race as well. With six strong sides in the Premier League this upcoming season, United will have many contenders to fend off if they are to lift the trophy for a 20th time.
Despite being 40-years-old for much of last season, the loss of goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar to retirement is a tremendous one. The giant Dutchman gave United six elite seasons, including his last season when he was arguably the best goalkeeper in Europe. The fear amongst United supporters will be that they are facing a repeat scenario to when the great Peter Schmeichel left the club in 1999 - when it took six agonizing seasons before van der Sar finally came on to find stability between the posts. £18.9-million David de Gea will be the goalkeeper tasked to fill the mighty gloves of van der Sar. Despite being immensely agile, quick, and good with his feet, the 20-year-old Spaniard leaves many wondering if he will consistent enough to help lead United to further glory. Lifting the Europa League trophy at age 19 for Atletico Madrid as their No 1 provides some optimism for United supporters.
Along with de Gea, United have spent in the region of £50-million for the services of Ashley Young and Phil Jonesduring the current summer transfer window. The former has established himself as one of the Premier League's finer talents during his time at Aston Villa - his value for manager Sir Alex Ferguson may come in his versatility by being able to play on either flank or also in the hole behind a lead striker. Jones, who is only 19-years-old, has seen a meteoric rise during the last two years. After an impressive debut for Blackburn Rovers against Chelsea's Didier Drogba, the versatile defender became a starter for England's U-21 side and he recently was named by Fabio Capello to the senior side for their upcoming friendly versus Holland. While United already have the established duo of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand at center-back, Jones will provide valuable cover for them and Chris Smallingwhile also providing depth at right-back and in the holding-midfield role.
While much has been made about finding the replacement for the now retired Paul Scholes, the player most are imagining is likely the midfielder of nearly a decade ago. The legendary playmaker's departure continually sparks the calls for the likes of Wesley Sneijder, Luka Modric, and Samir Nasri to join the club. Debate can be had on whether United is in need of an incisive playmaker that plays between the lines or a controlling playmaker that dictates tempo from a deeper position on the field - what is generally agreed upon however is that United are in need of some creativity from the center of the pitch. It will not be a shock to see United bring in reinforcements by the end of the current summer transfer window - even if it is a few games into the season. The need to stockpile talent in the middle is evident, but United still do have the capable Michael Carrick and ageless Ryan Giggs to pull the stings there - along with the potential of Anderson and the promise of Tom Cleverley.
Despite the concerns in the center of the park, the increasing threat from more quality sides in England, and the daunting task of overcoming Barcelona, this is a formidable United side. Opponents will have the difficult dilemma of stopping the deadly trio of Wayne Rooney, Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez, and Dimitar Berbatov up top and also from preventing the precision and pace from Antonio Valencia, Nani, Young, and Park Ji-sung on the flanks. The side is also fortified in the back by the captain Vidic, Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, and the da Silva twins - Rafael and Fabio. This is a group of players that have the guile and craftiness to win trophies. This is a side that is the favorite to conquer England once again.
Clearly these aren't in alphabetical order at all. Aston Villa had a wild year, going through approximately twenty five thousand three hundred and forty two managers within the past year (a rate of one every twenty one minutes, for those counting). Now they've gone and hired Alex McLeish, which according to certain Villa fans is apparently a sign of the impending apocalypse. Aaron Campeau of 7500 to Holte weighs in on whether doom really is about to hit Villa Park.
About this time last year Aston Villa fans were concerned. Concerned that it was going to be impossible to take the next step in their revival by qualifying for the Champions League without any movement into the club during the summer transfer window, concerned that the previous season's player of the year James Milner would be poached by Manchester City, concerned that an out of control wage bill would limit their options should reinforcements be needed in January and concerned that the upcoming season might be manager Martin O'Neill's last at Villa Park.
In retrospect, most of these concerns were well placed. O'Neill left the club just days before the new season was set to begin, forcing the board to hire a manager from a far shallower pool of desirable applicants than would have been available at the end of the previous season. That the club was put in a difficult circumstance does not excuse their delay in appointing a new man however, and it's clear that the turmoil and uncertainty had cast a shadow over the club. A heartening 3-0 win over West Ham on opening day gave way to a 6-0 loss to newly promoted Newcastle and soon after a second consecutive early exit from the Europa League.
The side was strengthened in January with the additions of Darren Bent and Jean Makoun but the club still made several forays into the relegation zone. Most people forget that Villa ended the season on a very high note, finally beginning to play some very nice and cohesive football and picking up 15 of 24 points over the final two months, closing out the year with wins over Arsenal (at the Emirates no less) and Liverpool. But by that time, Gerard Houllier had already suffered a recurrence of the heart problem that nearly killed him while in charge of Liverpool-a condition that is specifically linked to extreme levels of stress, it must be said-and Villa faced yet another very public managerial search.
That the search ended after several embarrassing false starts with their selection of Alex McLeish, the man that had just overseen the relegation of Villa's great rivals Birmingham City, was a shock to many. There were protests at Villa Park before the even the decision to interview McLeish was made public; his appointment was met with a defacing of the club's training ground. There were remote but very loud calls for Randy Lerner to sell the club and some that attempted to draw parallels between /the chairman's stewardship of Villa and that of some of his American counterparts at far higher profile clubs. Outside of the fringe, however, the sense of disappointment was largely for footballing reasons. Birmingham City had some success under McLeish, but they were also one of the more consistently dreadful teams to watch in the Premier League. Many of the manager's high-profile signings-Nikola Zigic, Jean Beausejour, Alexander Hleb chief among them-turned out horribly. Most damning of all, McLeish enjoyed very little success in his time with Villa's Second City rivals, presiding over two relegations (though it would be more than a bit disingenuous to place much of the blame for the first on his shoulders.)
Fortunately for Villa fans, there are reasons to think that McLeish was more a victim of circumstance than a bootball-loving, over-his-head disaster. While it's unlikely Villa will wow many people through the beauty of their football, McLeish-led teams haven't always been as drab as his Birmingham City sides. Under his leadership, Motherwell and Hibernians had great success playing rather attractive-if uncomplicated-attacking football and he had tremendous success in his time with Rangers, winning more trophies than Martin O'Neill's Celtic during the years their tenures overlapped. In looking at his time with City, it would appear as though McLeish-rightly, it should be said-saw a strong defense as the best protection against relegation given the club's financial situation and was forced to go the dumpster-diving route to fill in the rest of the squad. Players like Beausajor, Zigic and Hleb were always going to be risky propositions, but there were reasons to think they could work out and in fact McLeish was widely praised for the summer he had. Many predicted that Birmingham would build on a 9th place finish to challenge for Europe. It didn't work out that way, but it's revisionist to claim that there wasn't some validity to the approach.
In terms of Villa's forays into the transfer market this season, it's been something of a mixed bag. Ashley Young and Stewart Downing were easily the club's most recognizable players and arguably their two best as well, and any time you lose that much talent all at once it's a difficult adjustment. In Downing's case the sum paid so outstripped most reasonable estimations of his value that for Villa not to accept Liverpool's offer would have been a shocking decision. In Charles N'Zogbia, Villa have replaced Downing with a player that is likely equal (and some would say superior) in quality for half of what they received. The Ashley Young situation is another matter. It was clear for the majority of last season that he would be moving on. It's time for Marc Albrighton to take on a bigger role, and though he's not the player Young is (and likely never will be) he has the potential to be quite good. Unfortunately, the swap isn't so simple; Young spent very little time on the wing last year, with Martin O'Neill moving him behind the striker in pre-season and Gerard Houllier continuing to deploy him there upon his arrival. Villa lined up most of the year in a 4-2-3-1 and the switching between all three in the second band gave them a dynamic and frustrating attack, one that really looked to be coming into its own towards the end of the season. That means Young is being replaced (at least initially) by Stephen Ireland, and unless he's able to regain some of the form that made him such a promising young player once upon a time, that's a pretty significant downgrade.
If Villa's pre-season is any indication, this team might not be the boot-and-run bus parkers many people assumed they would become when McLeish's appointment was announced. With the exception of the Asia Trophy final against Chelsea, Villa have played a very patient and possession oriented style. McLeish has tinkered with the shape quite a bit, but for the most part he has opted to stay with the 4-2-3-1 favored by Houllier. It seems reasonable to think that the approach taken during pre-season (fluid attacking play, little in the way of advancement through the air against weaker sides and a more defensive, more long-ball heavy approach against stronger sides) is what we're going to see from Villa this year. McLeish has managed some very attacking sides that have played some very nice football over the year when he's had the talent to do so; that was never the case at Birmingham. This isn't a team that's going to set the world on fire or do anything ground-breaking tactically, but with the majority of talent on the attacking side of the ball they're rightly going to emphasize that phase of the game. Villa are going to score some goals; the question is whether they can keep the opposition from doing so often enough to swing the balance their way.
That's going to be the key for Villa this season. If the defense can perform at a level approaching their 2009-10 season, this is a team that might surprise quite a few people. But there's not a whole lot reason to expect that to happen. Between Richard Dunne, James Collins, Carlos Cuellar and Ciaran Clark there's a decent central defense pairing in there somewhere. The bigger concern is with the outside backs. At present McLeish seems to favor Stephen Warnock on the left and Luke Young on the right. Young is a rather anonymous figure, which is far from a terrible thing for a defender, but it's hard to think of him as an asset. Warnock is a different story altogether. One of the better defensive left backs in the Premier League for much of 2009/10, Wanock's form began to dip noticeably towards the end of the season. That was largely attributed to fatigue, as Warnock was an almost constant figure for Villa that year. But his performances at the start of last season were a whole different kind of bad, and by January he was training with the reserves. He's looked at the very least competent so far this pre-season and to be certain an effective Stephen Warnock would be a massive boost to Villa. There's some solid depth at center back, but it's a different matter altogether at the outside positions. Habib Beye is an active detriment to his team's chances and though Eric Lichaj has shown promise in the reserves, on loan spells and in his time with the US National Team whether he could step in and perform effectively as a regular in the Premier League is an entirely different matter.
At this point, Aston Villa is a mid-table team with a bit of wiggle room to either side. If things go well, they could make a half-run at a spot in Europe. If things go bad, there could be some minor flirtation with the relegation zone at times. Another rash of injuries to key players could make things very interesting, and not in a good way. But in the end, this is a team that's most likely going to finish somewhere between 8th and 12th and maybe make a run at either the Carling or FA Cup. And honestly, Villa fans should be happy with that. Villa have a host of promising young players and they've managed to clear a significant amount of dead weight from the wage bill. Darren Bent still has a few seasons as an elite goal-poaching machine. Whispers and accusations that Randy Lerner has lost interest, ambition or the will to invest seem obscenely premature. It's far more likely that this is a season for Villa to assess what they have, to give significant minutes to some of those promising academy graduates and to take stock of the talent in-house before investing in players from outside. Martin O'Neill had some great success at Villa, but he went all-in in getting there. If McLeish can avoid disaster, he'll get his chance. But it's not unreasonable to ask him to give it a year to find out where investment is needed the most.
It's been a very rough year for Aston Villa. And while this year doesn't seem likely to have the same level of anxiety attached, the success that the club was so close to attaining under Martin O'Neill isn't going to come just yet. This isn't a club that has the resources to go out and buy success, despite the thoughts of those that seem to think Randy Lerner should bankrupt himself to bring silverware to Villa Park. This club has the resources to be successful, but it's going to take some time. It's not going to come this year, but by the time all is said in done we'll have a far better idea of how far off it might be.
Are Liverpool back from their two-year hiatus? The one mighty Reds have contrived to tumble out of European football altogether thanks to an awful 2010/11 season, but there's hope yet in the form of returning manager Kenny Dalglish, who managed to steer the club to sixth place with a strong second half. Noel Chomyn of the Liverpool Offside takes you thought a rejuvenated team. Maybe.
This is a preview. There are many others like it, but this one is Liverpool's.
Some parts will be true. Others may be less so. Not out of any desire to deceive, you understand, but simply because this is a preview largely aimed at an audience that likely has no great desire to read about an English football1 club's fifth-choice center back.
Oh, you can protest. You can say that you want to know. But then you'd have to read about the first choice pairing and the back-up defensive midfielder and the utility forward and the reserve goalkeeper. And then your eyes would glaze over. Because you don't really want to know about the reserve center back who might make three substitute appearances over the course of the season.
Which is all a roundabout way of saying that certain parts of this preview may be made up. Not out of any desire to deceive, you understand, but simply because accuracy takes effort, and we can all agree that said effort would be largely misplaced under the circumstances.
So. Liverpool. It's in England. It's where the Titanic was registered on account of the White Star Line headquarters being stationed there. It's also where Liverpool Football Club plays—I know, I was surprised when I found out, too.
Now, Liverpool hasn't won much domestic silverware in recent seasons, but that doesn't mean they haven't been bringing home trophies. Just a few years ago Liverpool won the European Championships. And then a few weeks back they went and captured the Copa America in Argentina.
A few of our more pedantic readers may point out that the European Championships and Copa America are competitions between countries, regional tournaments held to help carry bored football fans through the summer when there isn’t a World Cup. They will probably also point out that the record books list Spain as being the most recent European Championship winner and Uruguay as the current holders of the Copa America.
Which would make them pedants. Or Manchester United fans. And nobody likes pedants or Manchester United fans. It's probably why they have no friends2.
So: Liverpool are the current European and South American champions. On account of more Liverpool players being involved in winning said championships than can be claimed by any other English club. The parade's next Thursday. Don’t try to take this from us or we’ll cut you.
Liverpool. In England. The Titanic. Current holders of the Copa America and European champions. Also, Liverpool hated Rupert Murdoch before you did and would appreciate fruit baskets and quality liqueurs for being ahead of the times.
As for Rupert Murdoch, he's the Australian who got bovine spongiform encephalopathy by planking a cow before going on to found Fox News. But you probably already knew that. Plus part of it may or may not be true and I don't entirely understand what planking is.
In any case, now the whole world hates him, and therefore you hate him. Unless you don't. In which case, hello, you must have missed the part where SB Nation was founded by Daily Kos creator Markos Moulitsas.
And when you boil things down to that, it pretty much means that if you're a regular visitor to SB Nation you have a moral obligation to follow and support Liverpool Football Club. Or else you probably shouldn't be spending time on SB Nation in the first place. Because SB Nation is one step removed from the center of the internet commiesphere and Liverpool hated Rupert Murdoch3 before Markos Moulitsas knew who Rupert Murdoch was.
If that's not enough, Liverpool also have Luis Suarez, the single most exciting player currently plying his trade in England's top flight. He plays the game like he has a knife in his teeth, and one time he was suspended for two months for biting an opponent. Presumably he took the knife out to do that. Though he may have kept it in when his hand-ball on the line stopped Ghana from advancing in last summer's World Cup. Which are the sorts of things that suck if you're from Ghana or afraid of being bitten by rabid Uruguayans who just won player of the tournament for leading their country to Copa America glory, but for most—once they've seen the magic he can weave with the ball at his feet—just seems an added bit of excitement. Because when the price of having a player who could at any moment beat the opposing team single-handedly is that he could also snap and be given a red card for gnawing at an opponent’s kidneys, you take a shot and call it crazy awesome.
Liverpool also has one of the world's top goalkeepers. He's Spanish and sometimes when he takes his shirt off at the end of the match it's hard not to notice that he shaves his armpits. Which is a mildly disturbing look for somebody who appears as though he wouldn't be out of place playing linebacker in American Football, but will assuredly be a selling point for somebody. If that somebody is you, then you should probably keep that bit of information to yourself.
Then there are some other good players. And some kind of okay players. Plus some not very good ones who hopefully won't play very much, like Joe Cole and Christian Poulsen. Also the club has signed some new English players over the summer, which will be good if they can play together in a way that isn't reminiscent of how the English national team plays together. Because the English national team hasn't been relevant since 1966 and collectively wouldn't know modern football if it stabbed them in a dark alley and took their Monte Cristo.
Speaking of which, Liverpool's holding midfielder Lucas Leiva is one of the top five holding midfielders in Europe. People who think England's national team isn't broken don't like him very much. This tends to say more about them than it does about him.
But since you probably already either did or didn't know all of that, those quick overviews likely didn't do anybody any good. Which was probably the point back at the beginning before your eyes glazed over and you stopped paying attention. In any case, Liverpool's going to win the league this year. Or at least win next summer's European Championship. And they may look great or horrible while doing or not doing it, that, or something else. Though in any case we'll hate Rupert Murdoch, and isn't that what's really important in life?
1 Look, I know that many of you say "soccer," but just go with it. I mean, it should be fairly obvious that if I'm talking about Real Zaragoza I'm talking football, and if I'm talking about Utah State I'm talking football. Simple.
2 Nobody likes you. Or you. Seriously.
3 Margaret Thatcher might be worse.
Tottenham Hotspur had a good run in the Champions League in 2010/11 before ultimately being dumped out by Real Madrid in the quarterfinals. They didn't managed to match those highs in the Premier League, however, finishing fifth behind Manchester City. Is it time for another top-four push? Bryan Ashlock, writer at SB Nation's Tottenham Hotspur blog Cartilage Free Captain, takes a look.
Following up on a season which saw them finish fourth, Tottenham Hotspur had high expectations for 2010-11. However, a lack of goalscoring punch and some shaky defending conspired to help the team slip to a disappointing fifth place finish, six points behind Manchester City for a Champions League place. The one redeeming aspect of the season was a run to the quarterfinals of the Champions League in the club's first ever season in the competition. The campaign saw Spurs defeat the likes of Inter Milan and AC Milan before going out to Real Madrid.
Out: Jamie O'Hara - Wolverhampton Wanderers (£5 million), Jonathan Woodgate - Stoke City (Free), Steven Caulker - Swansea City (Loan), Kyle Naughton - Norwich City (Loan), Bongani Khumalo - Reading (Loan)
Tottenham's lone first team addition this offseason has been 40 year old American goalkeeper Brad Friedel. Heurelho Gomes made a number of high profile errors during the previous season and Friedel should provide competition for the number one shirt. The most exciting addition is Souleymane Coulibaly. The 16 year-old Ivorian was the star of the U17 FIFA World Cup, during which he scored nine goals in four matches. It's doubtful the striker dubbed "Mini-Drogba" will make a first team impact this season, but he is an exciting prospect nonetheless.
Tottenham Hotspur have visions of the themselves as a perennial Champions League contender. Yet, in a summer in which all the other contenders for the top four have strengthened their squads, Spurs have largely been stagnant. The Club still lacks a top-drawer striker despite having been linked with just about every striker in top-flight football over the last two seasons. Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, and Arsenal have all strengthened their squads with new signings. Only Chelsea has yet to sign anyone, though they continue to pursue Luka Modric.
The first two months of the season will be very telling for Spurs. In their first seven games the Club plays Manchester United at Old Trafford, as well as Manchester City, Liverpool, and Arsenal at White Hart Lane. Fortunately the rest of the fixture list looks fairly kind. The final month and a half of the season looks especially kind with a trip to Aston Villa looking like the only potentially difficult fixture.
With the squad largely unchanged from last season Tottenham Hotspur should have little difficulty competing for a European place, even if their strikers continue to misfire. Should either Jermaine Defoe or Roman Pavlyuchenko find a rich vein of form to start the season the club could find itself hot on the heels of those in the top four, but that seems to be a big ask.
As always, health will be a big issue for the club. William Gallas, Sandro, and, of course, Ledley King are already injured and could find themselves missing the early part of the campaign. In the past injuries to the likes of Gareth Bale and Modric have caused bumps in the road for the club and keeping these players healthy will be a high priority.
One of the players most integral to this squad's success will be Gareth Bale. The Welsh winger was, at times, one of the best left sided midfielders on the planet. At other times, like against Everton, he was invisible. Bale needs to stay healthy and learn how to impose himself on the game. Bale scored 11 goals in all competitions for the Club last season and he will need to at least equal that return in order to propel Spurs back into contention for the top four.
While Bale may be the best player in the team, it is going to be Modric who's performances will be the best barometer of success for Tottenham Hotspur. The diminutive Croatian has had quite a summer. He still may leave the Club for Chelsea before the transfer window closes, but for now he is a Spurs player. Modric's skill as a playmaker and work rate make him an excellent partner to just about all of Tottenham's other central midfielders. Without his creativity and passing in the center of the park Spurs would struggle to unlock defenses. If Modric is disinterested or unhappy at the Club his performances will reflect it and then Spurs will be in dire straights. If Modric is playing hard, setting up his teammates, and maybe even scoring goals, then Tottenham have a chance to compete for the Champions League.
Prediction: 6th Place
With all of Tottenham's rivals for the Champions League improving this offseason it seems unlikely that the current squad can break into the top four again, especially given the early season fixtures.Tottenham should secure a place in the Europa League again, but the Champions League seems just out of reach. However, should Tottenham earn 7 points or more from Liverpool, the two Manchester sides, and Liverpool in the first months of the season Spurs could find themselves right in the hunt.
Everton had an up-and-down season last year, ultimately finishing 7th in the Premier League. Will they challenge for a spot in Europe last year, or has David Moyes done all he can with the Toffees? Here to answer your question is Tom Mallows, from SB Nation Everton blog Royal Blue Mersey.
Despite having a three month long break from football Everton fans aren't heading into the new season with the freshness and enthusiasm such a holiday brings. Instead they are weary with the club's plight and look towards the future with frustration and trepidation.
It has been a difficult summer, mainly due to the club's much publicised financial problems meaning for the sixth transfer window in succession manager David Moyes has had no cash to spend unless players were sold.
Squad members who were earmarked for departure - Yakubu and Joseph Yobo - remain on the wage bill and thus far Moyes has resisted offers for his best players, including a £12million bid from Arsenal for Phil Jagielka. The only new face in the squad is 18-year-old defender Eric Dier, who joined the club on-loan from Sporting Lisbon. Therefore the fans know exactly what to expect from their side this season and are casting envious glances across to rival teams who have strengthened their squads in the summer.
Chairman Bill Kenwright is open about his inability to give Moyes funds as well as his desire to sell the club to the right buyer. Meanwhile the club's atmospheric but ageing stadium fails to provide them with the income streams required to compete at the top end of the division.
In response to the club's apparent inertia several protest groups have been formed with the aim of lobbying the board and forcing through change. They remain in the domain of internet forums and the odd angry flag for now, but if the side gets off to a poor start frustrations could boil over and things could get ugly.
There are though reasons to be positive. They have World class stars such as Tim Cahill, Tim Howard and Mikel Arteta; a useful blend of youth and experience and in Moyes have one of the most talented and committed managers in the country. Their main problem in the past few years has been starting slowly. Their 2009/10 and 2010/11 campaigns both began poorly, with the club languishing near the relegation zone come Christmas. But two late surges - that included wins over Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City - secured them 8th and 7th finishes respectively. If Moyes can get his players going from the off and match that with their traditional strong finish, things may not be so gloomy at Goodison park after all.
David Moyes is a master at extracting the very best out of the players available to him. His teams are well drilled, extremely fit and possess and strong team spirit that makes up for some of their limitations. Everton's full strength starting XI on their day can beat anyone in the division. They have a consistent goalkeeper in Tim Howard and a well organised defence, led by captain Phil Neville and held together by England international Phil Jagielka. Left back Leighton Baines is not only a good defender but also a dangerous player going forward - Baines set-up more goals than any other defender in the league last season.
Despite lacking and out-and-out winger Everton's midfield remains their strong point. Marouane Fellaini is a player who can dominate the opposition and provide an almost impenetrable wall in front of the back four, giving creative players such as Mikel Arteta the platform to launch attacks. Tim Cahill is a master at arriving in the box late and beating defenders to the ball in the air. Jack Rodwell struggled with injury last year but remains one of the club's brightest prospects. Supporters are also getting excited by 17-year-old Ross Barkley, the latest player to roll off the Toffees' prolific youth production line.
They seriously lack a cutting edge up front. Louis Saha is the most natural finisher in the side but spends too much time in the treatment room to be considered reliable. Jermaine Beckford is full of running but is the sort of striker who needs three chances before he will score. Victor Anichebe often found himself pushed out wide and hasn't found the back of the net in 18 months while Yakubu spent the second half of last season on loan at Championship side Leicester. The squad as a whole is also desperately thin, even the most minor of injury crisis will leave Moyes with only youth team players to choose from.
Most of the fears from Everton fans are about the long term future of the club than the short term because the current squad can more than hold its own in the Premier League. But with the top six getting richer and richer it will take a superhuman effort for the club to beat last season's seventh place finish. Instead I think they will be battling with the likes of Aston Villa and Sunderland simply for a place in the top ten.
The Canaries earned promotion to the Premier League by finishing second in the nPower Championship in the 2010/11 season. How will they fare in the top flight after a six-year absence? Sid of Villarreal USA has a chromatic soft spot for his yellow brethren in England, so he'll take us through it.
After a six-year absence, Norwich City returns to the English Premier League in 2011-12. The Canaries from Norfolk in East Anglia have achieved successive promotions, but their toughest task yet waits: consolidation in the top flight.
This will be City's 22nd top-level campaign, and the club boasts two league cups in its trophy cabinet. But times have changed since the club's high-water mark in 1992-93, a 3rd-place league finish.
Some interesting tidbits: City has played for seventy-five years at Carrow Road, which seats 27,000 spectators. And the club's theme song, On the Ball, City, is the oldest still in use in world football. Finally, City's longstanding rival is Ipswich Town; the two sides have disputed the "Old Farm" East Anglian derby 138 times.
Now on to the cold, hard reality: the Premier League is unkind to new arrivals. But the trend is positive: two promoted sides have survived in each of the last three seasons. QPR appears to have the most talent on paper, but Norwich and Swansea should be on similar footing.
Current City manager Paul Lambert has worked miracles in just two years at the helm, winning League One and then finishing runners-up in the Championship. Third place in the Primer League would follow the trend, but avoiding the bottom three is a more realistic goal.
In (7): Elliott Bennett (Brighton), Bradley Johnson (Leeds), Ritchie De Laet (Manchester United- loan), Steve Morison (Millwall), Kyle Naughton (Tottenham- loan), Anthony Pilkington (Huddersfield), James Vaughan (Everton).
Striker James Vaughan is the big arrival at Carrow Road. Vaughan is a young English talent who has featured in the national team set-ups at the U-17, U-19, and U-21 levels. He scored his debut Premier League goal for Everton at age 16(!) and has since been on loan with a number of Championship sides.
On-loan defenders Ritchie De Laet and Kyle Naughton should help to shore up the back four. City conceded 58 goals last season, only 8th-best in the Championship. That total must improve in 2011-12, as the Canaries will not again be top scorers in their division (83 goals in favor in 2010-11).
Out (4): Luke Daley (Plymouth), Matthew Gill (Bristol Rovers), Jed Steer (Yeovil- loan), Owain Tudur-Jones (Inverness).
On-loan Arsenal midfielder Henri Lansbury will not return in 2011-12, potentially a big loss to the Canaries' playmaking abilities. This summer's departures all played bit parts last season, so City's squad remains largely intact.
City will have played eleven friendlies before its EPL campaign kicks off away to Wigan Athletic on August 13th. A 0-3 away win against Championship side Coventry City is arguably the Canaries' best result, while they also drew 1-1 with La Liga's Real Zaragoza. City's final tune-up should give a better indication of what lies ahead: at home to mid-table Serie A side Parma.
The EPL's asymmetrical fixture schedule could adversely impact the Canaries if they don't pick up points early on. The season's final two months are as follows: Everton, at Tottenham, Manchester City, at Blackburn, Liverpool, at Arsenal, Aston Villa. Brutal for any side, let alone a newly-promoted outfit.
In contrast, January and March appear to be friendly months. City plays three away matches in each month, but their travels are to fellow mid-level aspirants and direct rivals, such as QPR and West Brom. Winning a couple of these contests will be critical to the Canaries' chances of survival.
If, say, Swansea, West Brom, and Wolves finish below the Canaries, then East Anglia will see Premier League football for another year. So why not, 17th place it is.
On the ball, City! Your yellow Spanish brethren in Vila-real will be pulling for you.
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