Premiership Preview Part One: The Title Contenders

By Huw Silk

The first week or two of August is traditionally time for widespread optimism amongst football fans. With the season a matter of days away, supporters believe that this is ‘their year’ for success, and with the addition of high-profile signings and the prospect of more to come, there is an almost tangible air of excitement.

For the English football powerhouses, such positivity is easy to come by. Last season’s champions Manchester United, who took the title – in the end relatively comfortably – despite being commonly regarded as something of a shadow of the team of a few seasons ago, have bolstered the squad with the additions of goalkeeper David de Gea, centre-back Phil Jones and winger Ashley Young. De Gea and Jones are just 20 and 19 years of age respectively, and their signings underline Sir Alex Ferguson’s desire to build his squad for long-term success. With last season’s breakthrough of Javier Hernandez – to the extent that he kept joint top goal-scorer Dimitar Berbatov on the bench towards the end of the season – as well as a host of other young players such as Chris Smalling, these remain exciting times for United fans (not that that can apply more particularly to this off-season than any other at Old Trafford). Dutch star Wesley Sneijder has proved elusive to United so far, but his addition remains on the radar, and would make the defence of the league title that much easier.

Chelsea have not added any players, but in appointing Andre Villas-Boas as their new manager created one of the first talking points of the summer. Villas-Boas, echoing his compatriot Jose Mourinho in arriving at Stamford Bridge from FC Porto and with the experience of having worked under Sir Bobby Robson, is the youngest manager in the Premier League at just 33. He will be under immediate pressure – although presumably less intense than that felt by his predecessor Carlo Ancelotti – to win trophies, but the lack of arrivals gives Villas-Boas a hard task in freshening up a team that, at times, looked stale and even predictable last season. Fernando Torres, after his frustrating goalless spell following his move from Liverpool, will be keen to justify his £50m price tag. Finally scoring at the end of last season will have eased the tension greatly, and it is not hard to see this being a relatively fruitful season for the Spaniard.

Torres’ quest for the golden boot, however, will be made all the more difficult by Manchester City’s signing of Argentinian striker Sergio Aguero, in probably the biggest transfer of the summer. City, who will grace the Champions League group stage this year, have been – admittedly, with some justification – accused of attempting to buy success. But whilst it is true that City have spent even more money than Chelsea since Roman Abramovich’s takeover, their signings have had much less of an effect, and a large transfer fee paid by the club is far from a guarantor of future productivity. The £27m paid for Edin Dzeko is yet to be justified; the £24m for Mario Balotelli has been little more than a waste. Yaya Toure, though, performed superbly last season, and this is no time to write Manchester City off, for as soon as the squad gels – the most significant missing ingredient over the last two seasons – success will surely follow. It is not difficult to envisage a Manchester double act atop the league by the end of May 2012.

Arsenal, by contrast, have avoided splashing out. The debacle towards the end of last season, when they took just 12 points from their last 11 league matches and were knocked out of three cups in less than a fortnight has led to a level of dissatisfaction with Arsene Wenger that is probably the most intense of his time in North London. The perennial goalkeeper problem continues to dog Arsenal, though Wojciech Szczeny appears to be a marked improvement on the likes of Manuel Alminua and Lucasz Fabianski. Two of the club’s top midfielders, Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas, have not guaranteed their return to the Emirates Stadium, and it would be a terrible blow to Arsenal’s fortunes if they cannot retain at least one of the two.

Wenger deserves praise for his thrift, but the patience of Gunners fans is wearing extremely thin, and if no trophy is forthcoming this season it will surely prove to be his last at the club. As always, it would be foolish to dismiss the Arsenal challenge completely, but their strength in depth is not enough to win the league. To extend his time with the Gunners, Wenger will probably have to overcome his traditional hostility to the League and FA Cups.

Arsenal’s problems, however, looked set to be overshadowed for much of last season by those at Anfield. As late as January this year, thousands of Facebook users cheekily anticipated a spontaneous party to celebrate what was apparently unthinkable – the relegation of Liverpool from the Premier League. Everton’s 2-0 derby victory put Liverpool into 19th place, and the club had barely recovered by the time manager Roy Hodgson left his post after just seven months in charge. Under new boss, and Reds legend, Kenny Dalglish, the side’s fortunes changed, and they finished sixth, only just missing out on European qualification. This season, with one of the top strike partnerships in the league, Liverpool will aim to break back into the top four. Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll, both of whom joined in January, were the first fruits of last season’s takeover by the American Fenway Sports Group.

There has been plenty of transfer activity this summer, too. Dalglish has acquired Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson and Charlie Adam, and is thus hardly short of midfielders. Although questions have been asked about the cost of Dalglish’s signings – Carroll, Downing and Henderson cost a combined £75m – if the Reds can build on the relative success of the second half of last season, a top-three finish is not inconceivable. Indeed, under Dalglish Liverpool triumphed over both Manchester teams and Chelsea, and snatched a dramatic draw at Arsenal. Liverpool’s problem has been their consistency against lesser teams, but it would be no great surprise if, in May 2012, Liverpool have achieved a Champions League spot – and have added to the Anfield trophy cabinet.

Next week: the middle men and relegation risks.

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