The Limey
Friday August 14th, 2009

After a summer of increasingly intensive thumb-twiddling and hours spent aimlessly wandering the corridors of Castle Limey, the excitement is at fever pitch as the English Premier League season returns this weekend. Last week we gave you our predictions for the season, and this week we're taking a detailed look at the first couple of fixtures following the big kick-off.

• Chelsea, our pick for the EPL title, kicks the first ball of the season on Saturday at home against Hull City. The team that spent the first half of last season shocking the likes of Arsenal and Tottenham in their own backyards capitulated in the second half of the season, narrowly avoiding relegation by a solitary point. A road trip to the EPL favorites is not the ideal way the Tigers would have hoped to start their season, but on the plus side for Hull, at least perma-tanned boss Phil Brown can take advantage of the plentiful beauty salons in the chi-chi neighborhoods surrounding Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea faces a much sterner test in its second match with a long, mid-week trip to Sunderland. The Mackems have spent significantly on the likes of Darren Bent and Lee Cattermole, and with new manager Steve Bruce at the helm, they will be a different proposition from last year. However, we expect Chelsea to still be too strong for them. Six points for Carlo Ancelotti in his first week in the EPL.

• Ancelotti's side struck first blood over Manchester United with last week's Community Shield victory. The game was won in unusually controversial circumstances for the traditional season opener, a match that's usually played with the gusto of a middle-aged Sunday afternoon kick-about in the park. Chelsea's Michael Ballack floored Patrice Evra in the lead-up to Frank Lampard's goal that put Chelsea up 2-1. However, we expect Manchester United to enjoy a more relaxed environment in its first two EPL fixtures, with the Red Devils facing two of the three promoted sides, Birmingham City at home on Sunday and North West rivals Burnley next Wednesday. It's unlikely these matches will be any kind of barometer for how the Ronaldo- and Tevez-less United will fare this season. With a fairly easy start in Week 1, we expect Sir Alex Ferguson to join his Chelsea counterpart with six points.

• Liverpool, our pick for third place, goes to Tottenham in what will be a good early indicator of the forthcoming season for both teams. Liverpool has injury worries, particularly on defense with center backs Martin Skrtel and Jamie Carragher struggling to get in shape. In midfield, newly signed Alberto Aquilani, brought in as a ready replacement for the departed Xabi Alonso, is out for the first two months with an ankle injury. After pulling out of the England squad this week with a "slight groin injury," talismanic captain Steven Gerrard could also miss out. Unless, of course, he makes a Lazarus-like comeback from injury, a phenomenon all too often seen in the days after players pull out of meaningless international friendlies.

Liverpool's visit to White Hart Lane last season was at the beginning of the Harry Redknapp era, when the crafty Cockney's Spurs side inflicted a surprise defeat on the then league leaders. Jermain Defoe, brimming with confidence from his Man of the Match performance for England against Holland, will relish facing a potentially porous Liverpool defense.

• Arsenal faces an equally stern test with a road trip to Everton. The Gunners go into the game having not spent any of the $65 million received from the sales of Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure to Manchester City. Arsene Wenger admitted his interest in Fulham center back Brede Hangeland for the first time this week, but no move for the defender appears imminent.

On Saturday, Arsenal will be without attacking duo Samir Nasri and Thomas Rosicky, but has plenty of other offensive options to fill the gaps. Everton may or may not line up with Manchester City target Joleon Lescott on defense. If Lescott hasn't left for Eastlands before the match and does play, he likely won't be at full focus after having expressed his desire to make the move to City.

Wenger may well rue his inability to ship out Philippe Senderos to Everton in time for his team to take advantage of his defensive frailties. Arsenal doesn't have a mid-week EPL match because of its Champions League qualifier against Scottish giant Celtic. Thus, we'll look forward to hackneyed "Battle of Britain" references in the weeks to come, plus the continual debate surrounding whether the Old Firm clubs, Glasgow Celtic and Rangers, should be playing in the EPL.

• Arsenal's likeliest rival for Champions League qualification, Manchester City, travels to Blackburn. When City last visited Blackburn, in December 2008, the focus was on manager Mark Hughes' first return to Ewood Park since quitting the Blackburn hot seat for the crazy world of Thaksin Shinawatra's Eastlands in June 2008. At that time City relied on late goals to draw 2-2 against a Blackburn side beginning to rejuvenate after Paul Ince's short-lived and unsuccessful tenure.

City has since lured away Blackburn's star player -- Roque Santa Cruz -- as part of an incredible haul of summer signings that also includes Gareth Barry, Emmanuel Adebayor, Carlos Tevez and Kolo Toure. Much will be made of the first competitive match of the new-look $250 million City side.

On form, free-flowing City brushed Blackburn aside 3-1 in May. Don't expect a repeat. Sam Allardyce's sides are robust competitors, and with Tevez unlikely to start and Adebayor and Toure having not yet jelled, this will be more a test of City's ability to put its insipid '08-09 away performances (two wins, five draws, 12 losses) behind it than an indicator of potential future success. Expect an especially hard-fought draw, and maybe some red cards if Blackburn midfielder David Dunn's pre-match quotes are anything to go by. "It's important we do our best and kick lumps out of them," he told the Guardian.

• While City is seemingly rising, Portsmouth is plunging. In just over a year Sulley Muntari, Pedro Mendes, Jermain Defoe, Lassana Diarra, Glen Johnson and Peter Crouch have all left. Sylvain Distin is also expected to depart the now-threadbare squad this week. Portsmouth opens at home against one of last season's success stories, seventh-place finisher Fulham, before traveling to St. Andrews on Wednesday to face a Birmingham side likely to be desperate for an opening home win after a probable first-match defeat at Old Trafford. These are telling matches. Anything less than two points from six will spell t.r.o.u.b.l.e. for Pompey.

• Another of last season's successes, Stoke, plays host to Burnley, though Clarets fans will have half an eye on Wednesday when Manchester United arrives at Turf Moor. What a cup final of a match for the small-town team's first home game back in the top flight. Win or lose, inspirational manager Owen Coyle will still be a hero afterward. To celebrate the occasion, here's some vintage footage of Burnley vs. Manchester United, 1902.

• In a strange twist of alphabet fate, the other promoted club, Wolverhampton Wanderers, plays West Ham at home before traveling to Wigan. Will wily Team Limey's prediction of Wolves staying up look realistic come Wednesday?

An anonymous letter writer inquired, "Who were the 12 founding members of the Football League and where they are now?"

• Accrington F.C. -- resigned from the league in 1893, although Accrington Stanley, a separate club from the same town, now play in League Two, the fourth tier of English soccer.

• Aston Villa F.C. -- play in the EPL • Blackburn Rovers F.C. -- play in the EPL • Bolton Wanderers F.C. -- play in the EPL • Burnley F.C. -- play in the EPL • Derby County F.C. -- play in The Championship • Everton F.C. -- play in the EPL • Notts County F.C. -- play in Division Two • Preston North End F.C. -- play in The Championship • Stoke City F.C. -- play in the EPL • West Bromwich Albion F.C. -- play in the EPL • Wolverhampton Wanderers F.C. -- play in the EPL

Following Burnley's and Wolverhampton's recent promotions, there are now an unusually high number of Football League founder members playing in the EPL.

Neil Withers, a proud Wolves fan, reminds us that Wolves legend Steve Bull twice scored more than 50 goals in a season. Rob Buonomo, of Las Vegas, and David Rees also liked the Wolves feature. Rob agrees with us that Chelsea will be champions, while David thinks Wolves will finish 14th and Manchester City will place mid-table. This view is backed by Patrick Yaggy, who wrote to predict that, in contrast to our fifth-place forecast, Manchester City will finish, at best, sixth, but probably seventh or eighth. He believes that if City's new stars fail to jell early, disappointing results could have a knock-on effect on morale.

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