With a gap in Six Nations action, rugby correspondent Sam Harrison rounds up the action from week 15 of the Aviva PremiershipWritten by Sam Harrison on 23rd February 2017
Premier League preview: Manchester City to re-claim title over United and Chelsea
Josh Reynolds is predicting that the Citizens will be able to re-tain the title and he expects second season syndrome to take their effect on two of last year's surprise packages...
Three months have passed since I was sitting in the UoB library pretending to revise whilst watching arguably the most dramatic climax ever to a Premier League season unravel. Those usually sport-starved months between the end of one football season and the beginning of another have thankfully been filled this year by comprehensive and consecutive coverage of Euro 2012, Wimbledon and a little reported sporting get-together known as the Olympics, so the advent of the latest instalment of the Premier League has come around quicker than usual. It would be fair to say that, given the spectacular fashion in which the 2011/2012 season drew to a close, coupled with the epidemic of Olympic fever that has gripped the nation since then, the coming Premier League campaign has an awful lot to live up to. Then again, it has never let us down before, has it?
Before I get underway with making my predictions as to what the coming nine months of Premier League action will have in store, I would like to make clear that neither I nor Redbrick shall be liable for any losses incurred through bets placed in reliance upon the below (though it may be worth noting that I called Manchester City’s title win this time last year)!
League Title – Manchester City
Everyone in the blue half of Manchester is on cloud nine right now and who can blame them? May 13th 2012 saw the sweetest of City dreams realised, as Vincent Kompany and co snatched the Premier League trophy from the hands of their local adversaries, Manchester United. Buoyed by the self-belief that undoubtedly comes hand-in-hand with having tasted victory for the first time, Roberto Mancini’s team are going to take some stopping. The Italian has recently expressed his frustration at the lack of signings at the Etihad this summer, but looking at their squad it can hardly be said that they are lacking in many departments. Everton’s Jack Rodwell has been the only new face to arrive, though reports have recently linked the champions with other young English starlets such as Scott Sinclair and Nathan Redmond; clearly the City hierarchy are wary of falling foul of the Home Grown Player rule. For me, the strength in depth that City boast is unrivalled in England at the moment and, as a result, they will be the team to beat this year.
Champions League Qualification – Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal
I fully expect Chelsea and Manchester United to push City all the way in their quest for Premier League glory and both have the quality in their ranks to usurp the current champions. The City faithful are not the only blue-shirted fans who are still recovering from the hangovers that inevitably followed the sight of their side lifting silverware in May- Chelsea’s remarkable Champions League win, which has been followed by the permanent appointment of Roberto Di Matteo as manager and an influx of high-profile signings, has rejuvenated the Stamford Bridge outfit. In Di Matteo, the Blues have a charismatic young coach that, unlike his predecessor, Andre Villas-Boas, has the support of the dressing room. Through their endeavours in the transfer market, the three-time Premier League winners have built a squad with immense attacking prowess: the arrivals of Eden Hazard, Marko Marin and Oscar, all of whom are attacking midfielders of the highest quality, will give the manager a plethora of options going forward. Don’t be surprised to see some very attractive football on display in West London next season and with Fernando Torres no longer playing second fiddle to Didier Drogba up front, he must surely be a favourite for the Golden Boot.
All that said, I am not entirely convinced that Chelsea have the requisite strength at the back: John Terry is still up there with the best defenders in Europe on his day, but I am not sure he is still able to consistently deliver across a 38-game Premier League campaign, especially given his injury troubles that are becoming ever more frequent. The reliability of David Luiz and Gary Cahill at the heart of the defence will be tested greatly this year and it will be interesting to see how they fare, but I just don’t think the Chelsea backline will be solid enough to guide the club to the league title.
As for Manchester United, they will, as ever, be serious contenders. The return of Nemanja Vidic and Darren Fletcher to first-team action will be welcomed with a sigh of relief at Old Trafford, while the acquisition of Shinji Kagawa will give the Red Devils an injection of creativity in the midfield. It is clear through the signing of Robin Van Persie from Arsenal that Sir Alex Ferguson is determined to add that extra bit of quality to his team in order to ensure that their noisy neighbours are silenced. However, I am going to stick my neck out and say that I don’t think that Van Persie will provide the answer to United’s blue dilemma. I struggle to see the 29-year-old ever having a scoring season as successful as his last in English football again and it is easy to forget that his injury record does not make for pleasant reading. This, coupled with the fact that he had just a year left on his contract at Arsenal makes the reported £24million transfer fee to secure his services seem somewhat steep to me. Come the end of the season, I could well have been proven completely wrong on this one, such is the talent that the Dutchman undeniably possesses, but for one reason or another something is telling me he will not be as big a hit as United fans are hoping.
Even without Van Persie, I believe Arsenal will have enough about them to secure Champions League football for another season as I believe that the players they have brought in so far this summer are the real deal. Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski are tremendous additions to the North London side, while Olivier Giroud, though a relative unknown to English football fans, is likely to provide Arsene Wenger’s team with more than just goals, given his reputation as a complete forward. It is however, in my opinion, imperative that Arsenal do not lose Alex Song: the Cameroonian is a huge physical presence in the midfield but is also blessed with great technical ability; a player of the Vieira mould, if you like, that the Gunners have arguably lacked since their former captain’s departure.
The Nearly Men – Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur
After a disastrous league campaign last season, I believe Liverpool can make significant strides under Brendan Rodgers and may flirt with the top four, but I think the Northern Irishman will need time to implement his footballing philosophy at Anfield and success will not happen overnight. Rodgers has already made some astute acquisitions in Fabio Borini and Joe Allen, two players with whom he has worked with before and who fit the attacking style of football that he will seek to impose on Liverpool as he did with Swansea. I can only hope that the club’s owners are prepared to have patience with their new manager, because it will take some doing for him to secure Champions League football this year. Such an outcome is of course by no means out of the question, but it will be a very tall order.
At White Hart Lane, Spurs are at something of a crossroads. Having come such a long way under Harry Redknapp since 2008 and finishing in the top four in two of the last three seasons, Tottenham fans will have been saddened to see their manager shown the exit door by club chairman Daniel Levy after the relationship between the two men broke down. The track record and experience Redknapp possesses is in marked contrast with that of his successor, Andre Villas-Boas, who has much to prove in the Premier League. If the 34-year-old’s time in the Spurs hot seat bears any resemblance to his unfortunate period in charge of Chelsea, his reputation in English football will become unsalvageable. Of course, the Tottenham faithful will be hoping that Villas-Boas has learned much from his brief stint at Chelsea and will therefore prove his worth once and for all. All things considered, I don’t see the Lillywhites making the top four this season: again, the new manager will need time to establish himself (whether he will get it or not is another issue) and additionally it seems likely that neither Emmanuel Adebayor nor Luka Modric, two of Spurs’ standout performers last season, will be playing at White Hart Lane in the near future, with the latter set to join Real Madrid.
Relegation: Swansea City, Norwich City, Reading
This is surely the hardest part of the coming campaign to predict, as evidenced by the fact that so often the battle for survival goes down to the wire. Nonetheless, I have a hunch that second season syndrome will befall both Norwich and Swansea, who have each taken a spin on the managerial merry-go-round this summer. For Swansea, it will be fascinating to see whether new boss Michael Laudrup continues to promote the free-flowing style of football that Brendan Rodgers instilled during his tenure, which earned the Welsh outfit the nickname ‘Swanselona’. However, losing not just their manager, but also influential players such as of Gylfi Sigurdsson, Joe Allen and potentially Scott Sinclair will be too much for the Swans to handle in my opinion, so a return to the Championship is on the cards.
In East Anglia, the champagne has been flowing for three years now: Norwich’s meteoric rise from League One to a mid-table finish in the top tier last season has been incredible, but with manager Paul Lambert making the switch to Aston Villa, I feel the Canaries will lose their way somewhat. Talismanic striker Grant Holt will struggle to reproduce his terrific goal scoring form of the 2011/2012 season, with defenders now fully aware of his capabilities. If Holt’s goals do indeed dry up, it could be a long season for new manager Chris Hughton and his team.
Finally, last season saw all three newly promoted Premier League teams manage to avoid the drop for only the second time in history, but I don’t envisage that lightning will strike twice. West Ham have made some impressive moves in the transfer market by signing experienced Premier League players such as Mohammed Diame, Jussi Jaaskelainen and James Collins as well as such foreign talents as French international midfielder Alou Diarra. Moreover, in Sam Allardyce the Hammers have a manager that knows how to keep teams in the top flight, so I expect West Ham to hang around for at least another year. That leaves Npower Championship winners Reading and my beloved Southampton. With just a point separating these two teams last season, there is little to choose between them. Reading have been the busier of the two clubs in the transfer window, securing the services of Newcastle’s Danny Guthrie, former Fulham loanee Pavel Pogrebnyak and several others.
The Saints meanwhile have smashed their club record transfer fee twice over to land 21-year-old striker Jay Rodriguez from Burnley and, more recently, Uruguayan international Gastón Ramirez, who snubbed an offer from Tottenham to join Nigel Adkins’ side. While the Hampshire club are perhaps a little short of quality at the back and lacking in players with Premier League experience, I am compelled to predict that it will be Reading who will join Norwich and Swansea in the Championship this time next year because I believe that the Saints have made greater strides in the transfer market and I simply don’t have it in me to condemn my own side!
The Premier League will as usual be full of twists and turns and if the new campaign is even half as enthralling as the last, we are all in for a treat, so fasten your seatbelts!