Premiership Preview Part Two: The Middle Men

By Huw Silk

Last week saw an analysis of this season’s Premiership title contenders. This time: the teams in the middle of the table.

In a manner reminiscent of Phil Jones’ departure from Blackburn, Sunderland sold their England midfielder Jordan Henderson to Liverpool for £20m; unlike Steve Kean at Rovers, however, Steve Bruce has not been shy of spending the revenue. The Black Cats have added no fewer than nine players to their squad, including Manchester United defenders Wes Brown and John O’Shea, Birmingham duo Sebastian Larsson and Craig Gardener and also fought off competition to sign Ipswich’s highly-rated midfielder Connor Wickham. Bruce must hope that the squad gels quickly and easily, but he would surely be disappointed if his side did not improve on last season’s 10th place.

Recent weeks have seen another episode in the perennial Newcastle United farce. With Joey Barton threatening to follow Jose Enrique and Kevin Nolan out of St James’ Park, many Toon fans expect a frustrating season ahead. With a relatively impotent strike force of Shola Ameobi and new signing Demba Ba, manager Alan Pardew has been urged by fans to invest more of the £35m received for Andy Carroll in January. Whether or not owner Mike Ashley permits this is a matter of debate, and while Newcastle have added some (Francophone) midfielders – Sylvain Marveaux, Gabriel Obertan, Mehdi Abeid and the impressive-looking Yohan Cabaye – to their squad, they still desperately require another striker. It might be a difficult season, but Newcastle should still have too much quality, including Hatem Ben Arfa and new captain Fabricio Coloccini, to return so soon to the second tier.

West Bromwich Albion, who clawed back a three-goal deficit against Newcastle on the last day of last season to leapfrog the Magpies into 11th place, had a season of two halves. After Roberto Di Matteo was sacked as manager in February – following a run of seven defeats in nine matches – Roy Hodgson presided over a rise in fortunes and the table for the Baggies. With Peter Odemwingie on prolific goalscoring form last year – and this season joined up front by record signing Shane Long – Hodgson will be hopeful that he and other key players, including midfielders Somen Tchoyi and Chris Brunt, will be able to build on that mid-table finish. It would be a surprise if they fail to do so.

Stoke City are commonly regarded as one of the least glamourous clubs in the top division, but fans – reputedly among the loudest in the country – will not care. Their three seasons in the Premier League have seen Tony Pulis’ side finish 12th, 11th and 13th, and there is few reasons to believe the Potters cannot engineer another safe mid-table spot this time around. Stoke’s focus last season was on the FA Cup, in which they reached the final before capitulating to Manchester City. Famous for the long throws-in of Rory Delap, Stoke have talent throughout the team, particularly in imposing centre back Robert Huth, winger Matthew Etherington and triggerman Kenwyne Jones. Matthew Upson is a solid signing, too, but Stoke will have to be wary of the potential effects of their Europa League campaign on their domestic fortunes.

Like Stoke, Fulham have already kicked off their Europa League campaign – indeed, they did so before the end of July. Last time out in the Premier League, under Mark Hughes, they were the draw specialists, finishing a satisfactory 8th. The summer, however, has seen Hughes being replaced with former Tottenham manager Martin Jol, and although the new boss is yet to bring any true blockbuster signings to Craven Cottage, he will be hopeful that a team that boasts undoubted defensive talents – including goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer and defenders Brede Hangeland, Chris Baird and former Liverpool left back John Arne Riise, who joined this summer from Serie A outfit Roma – will be able to secure another top-half finish. It would be a surprise if the well-regarded Jol were to fail in that task.

For Jol’s former club, the 2011-12 season would have to be a remarkable one to eclipse the adventure of last term. Tottenham Hotspur won their Champions League group in their first outing in Europe’s premier club tournament, and then knocked out AC Milan before finally succumbing to Real Madrid in the quarter finals. The continental adventure might have distracted Spurs, who this season will revert back to the Europa League. With Liverpool’s apparently rising fortunes, Spurs will struggle even to retain last season’s fifth spot. Goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes, a fantastic shot-stopper but subject to frequent lapses of concentration, may be usurped by the signing of Aston Villa’s Brad Friedel, but this season is likely to be something of a letdown after the heights of the previous two.

The Aston Villa club hierarchy were embroiled in much controversy at the start of the summer, upsetting many of their fans by appointing Alex McLeish as manager – despite not only arriving from archrivals Birmingham City, but also having got them relegated. He has brought in a couple of useful players, however, namely goalkeeper Shay Given and midfielder Charles N’Zogbia. In England striker Darren Bent, they have one of the top forwards in the league, but his task will be made more difficult by the loss of wingers Stewart Downing and Ashley Young to Liverpool and Manchester United respectively. In order to build on last season’s ninth place finish, McLeish will hope that young players such as Marc Albrighton, Ciaran Clark and Nathan Delfouneso can build on the promise they showed last year.

Everton have had a remarkably quiet off-season. A very satisfactory seventh place finish last time was achieved despite having very few options for the position of striker; indeed, Tim Cahill, with nine goals, was the top league goal-scorer for the Toffees. Despite this lack of strikers, however, Everton have a number of high quality players that were crucial to last season’s relative success, particularly left-back Leighton Baines, centre back (and apparent Arsenal target) Phil Jagielka, the freekick master Mikel Arteta as well as Australian international Cahill. Along with the likes of the Irish youngster Seamus Coleman, Everton can become an established top-half side, even in spite of the vacuum up front.

Tomorrow: the relegation contenders.

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