EPL Season 2012/13 Preview
With the dramatic events of last season still vivid in the memory and the hugely successful London Olympics adding a further boost to the sporting feelgood factor swirling around the UK, it is little wonder that the prospect of the new EPL campaign has fans abuzz with excitement.
And as always, there are a host of questions to be answered, issues to be resolved and points to be proven both among the high-fliers and those likely to be slugging it out at the wrong end of the table.
Will the Manchester clubs produce another photo finish, or can Chelsea build on their Champions League success to break the north-west duopoly?
Can new bosses Brendan Rodgers and Andre Villas-Boas turn Liverpool and Tottenham into genuine title contenders and will Arsene Wenger’s change of transfer tack pay dividends in the form of some long-overdue silverware?
Is it possible for Newcastle to build on last season’s success, will Swansea and Norwich suffer from second-season syndrome and how will newly-promoted sides West Ham, Reading and Southampton adjust to life in the top flight?
The bar was set incredibly high last season in terms of pure sporting theatre, but the next nine months may well see even those lofty standards surpassed.
Here’s how the runners and riders are shaping up ahead of Saturday’s big kick-off:
Manchester City have been relatively quiet on the recruitment front thus far this summer, with versatile Everton man Jack Rodwell their only significant new arrival, but boss Roberto Mancini may well splash some more cash before the transfer window closes at the end of the month.
As it stands, the men in sky blue have been installed as strong favourites to retain their title and judging by their impressive display against Chelsea in last weekend’s Community Shield, they deserve their short-price.
With so many of their key men having been involved in Euro 2012, fatigue may be a concern and there is always the issue of egos in the dressing room, but if Daniel Agger arrives from Liverpool to bolster the defence and Sergio Aguero can build on his stellar debut season, the men from Eastlands will be hard to stop.
City’s biggest threat will again come from their neighbours in red who are currently poised to out-spend them this summer.
Club owners the Glazer family have poo-poohed claims regarding their financial muscle, or lack thereof, by handing Sir Alex Ferguson a significant transfer kitty and the $22 million the Scot forked out to bring Japanese midfielder Shinji Kagawa from Borussia Dortmund already looks like money very well spent.
Like City, Manchester United are expected to buy big again before the end of August, with Robin van Persie reportedly on the brink of heading north from Arsenal and if the Dutchman can stay fit and forge a successful relationship with Wayne Rooney and Tom Cleverly can fulfil his enormous potential, the Red Devils may just swing the balance of power back in their direction.
Chelsea, meanwhile, could just be able to hang off the coat-tails of the Manchester duo now that Roberto Di Matteo has been allowed to continue the overhaul that his predecessor, Andre Villas Boas, was never given the time to complete.
Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou and Jose Bosingwa have all been moved on and several other members of the old guard may well follow suit as the Blues look to rebuild around exciting talents such as Juan Mata and new arrivals Eden Hazard and Brazilian midfielder Oscar. Hazard, in particular, could prove to be a revelation if he can adjust to the rigours of the Premier League, while fans of the West London club will have been delighted to see Fernando Torres explode back into form for Spain at Euro 2012.
Defensively, however, Chelsea still look vulnerable due to their collective lack of pace and Di Matteo will have to use Roman Abramovich’s chunky cheque book to address that issue in the near future if the Blues are to take a serious tilt at the title.
Brendan Rodgers, Andre Villas Boas and Arsene Wenger have been the most talked about Premier League managers by some distance heading into the new season and that is unlikely to change as the campaign unfolds.
Rodgers has already spent big to secure the services of striker Fabio Borini and Welsh midfielder Joe Allen as he begins what is a sizeable restructuring project at Liverpool, while Tottenham Hotspur boss Villas Boas has allowed several big earners to leave White Hart Lane, but beaten off stiff competition to land impressive Icelandic midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson from Hoffenheim and accomplished Belgian defender Jan Vertonghen from Ajax.
As for Wenger, he has finally compromised his youth-first principles and spent big on established stars Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla. With none of the new trio making much if an impression for their respective countries at Euro 2012, however and key midfielder Jack Wilshere already ruled out until at least October, there is still a great deal of uncertainty surrounding Arsenal.
And with the seven-year silverware drought hanging like a millstone around his neck, the heat will again be on Wenger should the Gunners fail to come flying out of the blocks.
There is no such baggage for Alan Pardew to contend with, however, after his Newcastle United side surely exceeded even the expectations of their most optimistic supporters last term by securing an impressive 5th-place finish.
Repeating the feat will be no easy task, especially with the extra fixture commitments of the Europa League, but Pardew has done well to hang onto the likes of Yohan Cabaye, Papiss Demba Cisse, Demba Ba and Cheick Tiote and as long as none of those key men are poached before the end of August, another successful season could be in store on Tyneside.
Several other sides will fancy their chances of gate-crashing the top four, but none of them, as yet, seem to have undertaken the level of squad strengthening needed to do so.
Martin O’Neill will undoubtedly improve Sunderland having now had some time to get his feet under the table at the Stadium of Light, but Aston Villa’s Carlos Cuellar has been his only summer singing of note thus far and the Black Cats’ current squad will not leave any of the division’s high-fliers quaking in their boots.
The same applies to Aston Villa who should at least be a lot easier on the eye under Paul Lambert than they were with Alex McLeish at the helm, though the arrival of Socceroo Brett Holman, along with Feyenoord duo Ron Vlaar and Karim El Ahmadi, is unlikely to do much more than ensure that the Midlanders are not drawn into the relegation scrap.
Everton, meanwhile, have been typically quiet on the new arrivals front, yet the $20 million they received last week for Jack Rodwell should enable David Moyes to do some late shopping. And with the Toffees already boasting a solid, if unspectacular squad, as long as they can avoid making another slow start, there is no reason why the Merseysiders can’t push on from last year’s 7th-place finish.
Mid-table again beckons for Fulham who will miss the midfield influence of Danny Murphy, but should get the best out of Hugo Rodallega who has arrived on a free transfer from Wigan, while their fellow-Londoners West Ham United probably have enough financial clout to ensure that they too will not be looking anxiously over their shoulders towards the bottom three.
Hammers boss Sam Allardyce may yet succeed in his audacious bid to sign Andy Carroll on loan from Liverpool, while in Jussi Jaaskelainen, he has secured the services of a man who remains one of the best shot-stoppers in the league.
As for Stoke City, they have snapped up winger Michael Kightly from Wolves, along with American defender Geoff Cameron from Houston Dynamo, while retaining all of their key men and should make life uncomfortable enough for their opponents again this season to put some distance between themselves and the wrong end of the table.
Few sides in the top flight have as many exciting youngsters on their books as Southampton and although they may find it tough going in their first season up from the Championship, the Saints should avoid making an immediate return.
Nathaniel Clyne and Jay Rodriguez will be worth keeping an eye on having enjoyed superb seasons with Crystal Palace and Burnley respectively last term, while Adam Lallana could force his way into England reckoning if he can continue his development and it will be fascinating to see if abrasive target-man Ricky Lambert can emulate the success enjoyed by Norwich’s Grant Holt last season.
Queens Park Rangers have also picked up some decent new recruits since escaping relegation on the last day of the season, notably former Manchester United man Ji-Sung Park and exciting ex-Blackburn attacker, Junior Hoilett. Fabio da Silva, meanwhile, has followed Park from Old Trafford to Loftus Road on a long-term loan and Rangers boss Mark Hughes has also drafted in some experience in the form of striker Andrew Johnson and New Zealand centre-back Ryan Nelsen. They probably won’t pull too far away from the bottom three at any stage, but the R’s shouldn’t struggle as badly as they did last term.
Swansea City, in contrast, could find themselves in real trouble. The loss of manager Brendan Rodgers and star midfielder Joe Allen to Liverpool is a massive double blow for the Welshmen who won so many admirers with the stylish football they played in securing an 11th-place finish back in May.
Second-season syndrome could be a serious issue for them and although new boss Michael Laudrup has used his European contacts to sign the likes of Jose Manuel Flores, Jonathan de Guzman and Michu, the Swans look set to struggle.
It may well be a similar story for Norwich City who also exceeded expectations and earned plenty of plaudits last term before losing their bright young manager, Paul Lambert, to Aston Villa.
Chris Hughton has taken over the reins and drafted in midfielder Robert Snodgrass and Jacob Butterfield and defenders Steven Whittaker and Michael Turner, but the relative lack of strength in squad depth at Carrow Road could prove costly when injuries and suspensions start to bite later in the season.
Wigan Athletic’s amazing escape from the drop, meanwhile, was one of the biggest stories of the 2011-2012 campaign, but boss Robert Martinez will arguably have to perform an even greater miracle if the Latics are to repeat the trick this year.
Although the arrival of Ivan Ramis from Real Mallorca should help shore up a defence that was horribly brittle last term, the loss of Hugo Rodallega to Fulham is a major blow and while the Lancashire club have done well to hang on to highly-rated midfielders James McCarthy and Victor Moses, at least for now, their squad is painfully short on quality.
Reading are likely to be one of Wigan’s main relegation rivals despite their likeable manager Brian McDermott boosting his side’s survival hopes by making several solid signings. Russian striker Pavel Pogrebnyak has arrived after a string of eye-catching displays for Fulham last season and the Royals have also picked up several other talented performers in the form of Danny Guthrie, Nicky Shorey, Chris Gunter, Gareth McCleary and Watford’s Adrian Mariappa.
Several of those new signings have been free transfers and that is a route that has also been followed by another club with a similarly limited budget, West Bromwich Albion.
Argentinean midfielder Claudio Jacob and Swedish international striker Markus Rosenberg are among those to have moved to the Hawthorns as free agents, but their arrival is unlikely to thrill the Baggies faithful who will just have to hope that Steve Clarke can make an immediate transition from highly-rated assistant to successful manager.
If the Scot experiences any teething problems in making that adjustment, Albion will find themselves staring down the barrel of relegation.
Champions: Manchester United
Runners-Up: Manchester City
Third Place: Chelsea
Fourth Place: Liverpool
Wigan, West Bromwich Albion, Swansea City