This should be a sensational season in the Barclays Premier League. It looks like there will be a mad scramble for the league title and top-four spots, and NBC and its related platforms will be showing all 380 matches live in the United States, a landmark broadcasting first.
Like any year in England, a lot has happened since the league ended its last campaign in May. There are a ton of new individual faces that have joined the league, a number of compelling interclub transfers, and three newcomer clubs in Cardiff City, Hull City and Crystal Palace. With the nine-month soap opera kicking off on Saturday morning, here's a (sometimes lighthearted) look at where each team stands entering the new season and what it can aspire to or dread.
(Note: Teams listed in alphabetical order, not in order of how much they've spent this summer.)
The skinny: After a skin-of-their-teeth fourth-place finish last season booked another season of Champions League participation (assuming they handle a playoff against should-be-banned Turkish side Fenerbahce and their crew of match fixers), Arsene Wenger responded in strong fashion. The Gunners' controversial choice to sign No One makes a statement across England as to the club's renewed intent.
Best case: No One is as good as advertised and the Gunners' existing core, pruned of such luxuries like Vito Mannone, has enough quality to win a league in a weird season of upheaval. Fenerbahce is, umm, agreeable to defeat and a good group draw pushes Arsenal into the Round of 16 again. Robin van Persie is crocked a season later than expected. Ivan Gazidis invested the Van Persie transfer money in suppressed U.S. real estate and realized a 40 percent return.
Worst case: No One is more disappointing. Arsenal sends every tainted lasagne in London to Spurs but can't hold them off for fourth. Fenerbahce actually tries to win the playoff tie, and does, before being expelled for the 17th place Turkish team. Van Persie wins the Golden Boot and United wins the league again. Gazidis invested the transfer money in gold and AAPL stock.
The skinny: After relying too heavily on young talent and nearly paying the relegation price, the Villains are one of the sides expected to take a solid leap up the table this campaign. Holding on to Christian Benteke was a huge boost, at least for this season. With club player of the year El Guzano now firmly entrenched between the sticks, American fans have a rooting interest, too.
Best case: Benteke continues his scoring prowess and other young emerging stars like Matt Lowton become more of a household name. Guzan marshalls a still-young back four with aplomb and the Villains keep a few more shots out of the back of the net. Relegation worries are pushed aside early and Aston Villa makes a push toward the top 10. American owner Randy Lerner smiles while counting the billion-plus he got from selling the Cleveland Browns.
Worst case: Benteke's head isn't into a return to the Birmingham side after a move didn't materialize this summer. His form dips and the defense isn't improved from last season. Guzan gets rope burns from picking balls out of the back of the net which then get infected and he misses six weeks. Villa get relegated and Lerner sells to a fraudulent truck-stop magnate.
The skinny: After half a decade of various degrees of heartbreak and epic choke jobs, the "Blue"birds took matters into their own hands last season and won the Championship, earning promotion to the Prem for the first time. With some astute summer business, a nice new stadium and the Fire and Passion of a well-heeled Asian owner, Cardiff looks the most likely of the three newcomers to survive this initial season and move forward from there.
Best case: The signings of Gary Medel (Sevilla) and Steven Caulker (Spurs) prove to be the shrewd business they seem. Craig Bellamy embraces his return to the Prem with his hometown team and has a throwback season. The "Blue"birds take advantage of home matches when English sides realize they have to make a second trip to Wales. They survive the season without too much worry, doing the double over Swansea in the process. Ownership doesn't change the club's name to Cardiff City Dragons or make anything else red.
Worst case: The spending of $45 million leaves them still short of Premiership quality. Craig Bellamy embraces his return to the Prem by garnering a 10-match suspension. Fans riot and insist the club wear their blue away kit for home games, like they did for 100-plus years. They get swept by Swansea and immediately drop back down to the Championship as the rebranded Cardiff City Dragons. Ownership takes a page from Eastern Washington and paints the Cardiff City Stadium pitch red.
The skinny: After firing the manager that won them the Champions League and then firing the manager who helped them finish third last season and re-enter UCL proper, Chelsea rehired the manager who led them to the club's greatest Premiership heights. Welcome back, The Special One! Re-securing maybe the best club manager in the world has the Blues in line for a title run.
Best case: Chelsea's attacking potency is unlocked by TSO and combinations of Romelu Lukaku, Fernando Torres (?), Demba Ba, Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, Frank Lampard, Juan Mata (and Wayne Rooney?) pile up the goals while distracting from a fairly questionable back four. They win the league and make a deep Champions League run. John Terry doesn't scam, maim or slur anyone, fall down in a big spot, or sleep with another teammate's wife while married. Special 1 TV returns and becomes a massive hit Stateside, causing Arsene Wenger to become primarily known as "The Voyeur."
Worst case: Too many egos, starting with the man on the bench. Too much fragility in defense, especially in the middle if David Luiz is sold or is mentally checked out. Peter Cech gets dinged and Chelsea has to rely on a 41-year-old keeper that Fulham shoved off. Terry does something else despicable, all the while playing at a level well below his rep. They get KO'd in the group stage and become the fifth team out of the four-team UCL scramble for next season. The Special One can't tame his wanderlust and leaves, forcing Chelsea to hire a 107th manager in five years. Special 1 TV only lives on in our YouTube memories. The Voyeur wins the league.
The skinny: Won the promotion playoff last season to join Cardiff and Hull in the big time. Manager Ian Holloway, architect of the must-watch Blackpool side of a few years back, gets another crack at the Prem and should once again feature wide-open entertainment. They have a few decent pieces, but top to bottom look fairly overmatched at this point in terms of roster quality. They'll do very well to finish 17th or higher and remain in the league.
Best case: New signing Marouane Chamakh comes good and/or Dwight Gayle can cut it at the Prem level and provide some goals. Prem fans start raving about attacking mid Jon Williams. Holloway's craziness is exciting and just good enough to maintain Prem status for next year. I get to proudly rock my 1990 Palace replica kit with "FLY VIRGIN" written on it, absolutely the worst kit ever for a high school senior when I got it in London that winter.
Worst case: It all goes pear-shaped, starting right from the opener when they get thrashed by Spurs. Julian Speroni can't stop the steady shipping of goals and the side is simply not good enough to handle most established Prem sides. The imports go bust and Palace is left relying on 40-year-old Kevin Phillips (he of the 30-goal campaign for Sunderland ... in 1999-00!) for magic. Instarelegation. Virgins (airlines and others) everywhere dab a tear.
The skinny: The manager who maxed out their product for a decade, David Moyes, has inherited Manchester United, and in steps Roberto Martinez, widely praised by just about everyone for his ability even though his Wigan side was regularly in relegation trouble and finally succumbed last season. If they lose Marouane Fellaini to United, as well, this could be a team to watch for a dip.
Best case: Fellaini stays and helps spearhead a souped-up version of Martinez's preferred passing style, and the multiple other arrivals from Wigan (or who played at Wigan on loan last season) help shore things up. American No. 1 Tim Howard has a strong season ahead of next summer's World Cup and the Toffees finish top six, likely making Europa League for next year.
Worst case: Moyes was just that good, and Martinez is just that overrated. Fellaini and/or Leighton Baines are sold and suddenly the Toffees are just another club, with some decent parts and nothing more than that. The transfer money isn't allocated well and continuing tight budgets wear down the club over the next couple of seasons. They fail to beat Fulham at home for the first time in 200 years.
Important note: I love Fulham more than LiLo loves a party. #biasalert #yesweKhan
The skinny: Fulham finished 12th last season, but way too close to the relegation battle at the end thanks to a terrible run-in, and the Cottagers haven't fixed the two needs that have been glaring for a year: a striker with some speed who can finish, and a central midfielder who can make more than a simple pass. They've ostensibly tightened up in a few other areas, but you wonder if Martin Jol can make more out of what he currently has. Without some expenditure before Sept. 2, the upside seems fairly limited as the club waits on some youth prospects.
Best case: Jol finds some way for Dimitar Berbatov, Bryan Ruiz and Adel Taarabt to play together effectively in attack, without the team playing 10 v. 7 going the other way and without a fistfight between Berba and Taarabt. Young(ish) wing mids Alex Kacaniklic and Ashkan Dejagah take the next step, central imports Derek Boateng and Fernando Amorebieta help stabilize last year's leaky defense, and Fulham sees "Ajax Stekelenburg," not "Roma Stekelenburg" in goal. With a couple quality buys before this window shuts, a run at seventh and Europe is not absurd.
Worst case: Management doesn't buy anyone of significance. Jol fails to figure out what buttons to push on an old and eclectic squad, continues to talk about Clint Dempsey after every away shutout loss, and gets the sack before New Year's. Boateng, Amorebieta and Steve Sidwell form the Redmuda Triangle and Fulham finishes 10 or more matches down a man. Berba gets hurt for a long enough period that the Cottagers end up in a serious scrap. A bad bounce here and Michael Jackson Statue Karma there and the unthinkable happens: Relegation. (I think I just threw up a little...)
The skinny: Best known by Americans as "the club where Jozy was terrible" (not entirely true, by the way. His hold-up play vastly improved there and he drew a number of penalties) and whose most famous moment came from a man named Windass. Anyway, they're back for another run at the top division after finishing second in the Championship last season. There's no polite way to say this: They're the odds-on favorite to go right back down. This is a bad roster, even after buying Tom Huddlestone (and getting Jake Livermore) from Spurs.
Best case: Survival. By any means necessary. 17th place (or higher) would be worth a party the size of which could make the squad forget for a moment that they also have to live in Hull.
Worst case: It's doubtful anyone can approach Derby County's shamtastic 11-point campaign in 2007-08, so being cut adrift before the holidays and playing out the string before an immediate return to the Championship. Plus still having to live in Hull.
The skinny: The Brendan Rodgers Era is starting to take positive shape on Merseyside. Pool was among the league leaders in points the second half of last season and the talent is there to make a run at a Champions League spot this season ... assuming they can figure out what to do with the biter who's also their best player, and one of the best in the world. (And also suspended for the first six matches thanks to the chomp.)
Best case: Liverpool holds its ground on a Suarez sale, he resigns himself to another season at the club and tears it up (the opposition, not defenders' arms). Or they lure Real Madrid in as the destination and pocket the money without strengthening a league foe. Then they re-invest wisely. There's a solid amount of class up and down this roster that's starting to come of age, and goalie import Simon Mignolet is one of the league's best. He should be an upgrade from what Pepe Reina was providing. If it all comes together, this could be the season Liverpool makes it back into Europe's top competition, and everyone forgets about their hideous kits.
Worst case: Suarez has mentally checked out to the point it's not worth keeping him, there's no suitor other than Arsenal, and the sale comes back to bite (too easy) them. Arsenal win the Prem with Suarez winning the Golden Boot. The power of the five other real UCL contenders is too much and Liverpool ends up in a scrap just to make it back into the Europa League after missing everything for this campaign. Warrior brings back the same kits for next season.
The skinny: After combining the world's most tepid title defense with a debacle in Europe, Roberto Mancini was replaced by Manuel Pellegrini, architect of Malaga's team which almost made the Champions League semis last season. After several years of mercenary acquisitions that created a weird, rotisserie-style roster feel, Citeh have made some smart purchases this summer as it settles into life as a true superclub with a plan. On paper, this is the team with the most talent, but like all of the contenders, there are legitimate questions.
Best case: New attacking additions Steven Jovetic, Alvero Negredo and Jesus Navas provide City's offense with the type of width and variety they lacked under Mancini. Combine them with Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko, and City should be bagging goals. Joe Hart and Yaya Toure refind consistent top form and the softness of the early-season schedule helps them get through injuries in the back. They're comfortably in front come October, when things start to get harder. From there, they go on to win the league and make a strong Champions League push after the past two years' failures.
Worst case: The defense gets exploited and City ends up missing mercurial strikers Mario Ballotelli and Carlos Tevez more than they hoped. Same Old City drops points in silly fashion against the soft part of the schedule, and it ends up costing them the league title in May. Toure walks around in a daze for much of the season and Hart's modest decline becomes a worrying trend. City fans learn that Pellegrini (albeit Chilean) is just an homonym for Mancini, and City's UCL voyage ends in the group stage once again.
The skinny: Nothing going on really, except for the defending champs trying to move on from the greatest club manager of all time and dealing with a possible transfer of Wayne Rooney. Welcome to the show, David Moyes!
Best case: Alex Ferguson is still managing the team, just from some grotto, sketching out his formations with bottles of top-shelf wine. OK, maybe he could just leave his magic dust and blocks of Fergie Time for whenever Moyes is in a tough spot. Robin van Persie continues his goal-scoring rampage, they hold on to Rooney and he gets over this latest snit, and the rest of last season's squad plays to the same standard, where they steamrolled to a title. Wilfried Zaha becomes the next big thing, unless a healthy Shinji Kagawa beats him to it.
Worst case: They elect to sell Rooney late in this window and Moyes forgets he actually has a budget now and hasn't brought in reinforcements. Then Van Persie gets crocked in training in early September, leaving United short on top-notch strikers. City use their soft early schedule to move seven points clear and the pressure tightens as no one in England seems to understand unbalanced schedules. The first "Come back, SAF" banner appears in September. United end up in a crazy scramble just to stay in the top four.
The skinny: A massive disappointment last season, finishing 16th and being under relegation pressure a season after a fifth-place finish. Alan Pardew responded by loaning a striker embroiled in rape allegations. However his case ends up, Loic Remy will spend the season in black and white stripes.
Best case: Last season was an injury-addled fluke and the talent is closer to what they showed two years ago. A top-half finish is a minimum target, with upside. Magpies fans ignore for the time being that Pardew has a contract through 2020 and that the buffoonish Joe Kinnear (Audio is very NSFW) was brought back, too. Remy's legal woes are resolved positively and he shows the talent people expected to see last year at QPR. They sweep the Tyne-Wear series from Sunderland.
Worst case: Last season wasn't a fluke and most of the teams around them in the table have improved more than Newcastle has. Cardiff and Crystal Palace pull a Southampton/Norwich and are better than expected, leaving two spots in the relegation trap door open beside Hull. Remy's a bust and/or goes to jail. Magpies fans push to have Pardew and Kinnear join him. Sunderland crushes them twice as the club drops into the Championship for the second time in five seasons.
The skinny: The Canaries surprised somewhat by pulling away from the relegation scrap and finishing a very comfortable 11th place. Then they went out this summer and made some very solid signings, hinting that they plan on being around for awhile.
Best case: The summer signings of Gary Hooper, Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Leroy Fer are as good as they look right now. Their home form continues to be strong as no one else in the division actually knows how to get to Norwich, located in the barren region of English soccer, where they currently lord over lower-division rival Ipswich for the Pride of Anglia trophy. A top-10 finish in the Prem and maybe a solid Cup run could be possible.
Worst case: The new signings get isolation sickness after spending several weeks in Norwich, and the house of cards comes crumbling down after a couple solid mid-level finishes. Offloaded burly striker Grant Holt comes good in the Championship. They draw Ipswich in a cup tie and lose. Relegation becomes a real fear down the stretch.
The skinny: A free-wheeling side that somewhat exceeded expectations last season before ultimately ending up in 14th place. They look to have helped themselves at the defensive end with sizable transfers for defensive mid Victor Wanyama and defender Dejan Lovren, and they'll need to be tighter at that end if they have designs on moving up instead of looking down at relegation trouble. Or they could somehow land striker Pablo Osvaldo from Roma and be really dangerous. One of the biggest ranges of results possible in the Prem this season.
Best case: The Saints remain as potent as they were on the offensive end while tightening things up in the back. 2-2 draws become 2-1 wins and the club pushes toward the top half of the table. Their fans giggle their way through a 5-0 Cup win over arch rival (and now-League 2 after massive financial issues and multiple relegations) Portsmouth. The new transfers pan out and more players look to the South Coast in future seasons, anchoring their Prem status.
Worst case: They don't get Osvaldo, Rickie Lambert doesn't score as opportunistically, and 2-2 draws become 2-1 losses. Their fans look on in horror as League 2 Pompey wins a Cup tie at St. Mary's while the Pompey fans sing "You'll be down with us soon enough." Mauricio Pochettino's first full season in charge after last year's midseason hire ends badly and relegation is directly on the table.
The skinny: If you're looking for a surprise relegation candidate, here's your prime pick. Despite making some inroads toward playing actual soccer instead of rugby, this is still a side not designed to play the Beautiful Game. Now they have Mark Hughes in charge, who was last spotted running QPR into the ground and has a habit of very slow starts when he arrives at clubs. Americans may latch onto them because of Geoff Cameron, Brek Shea, Mo Edu and now Juan Agudelo coming, but you may not want to get too attached. Keeping stud goalkeeper Asmir Begovic (for now, anyway) may be a master stroke and the difference between a tough season and real trouble.
Best case: Sparky takes his second chance after the QPR debacle and continues to transform Stoke into a side that actually tries to play decent footie. Begovic stays and steals them some wins early to relieve immediate pressure. Peter Crouch and Co. robot their way to enough goals to keep things steady. Stoke subsequently buys Matt Besler, Graham Zusi and Aron Johannsson to become the official development partner of the U.S. national team.
Worst case: Arsenal wakes up and realizes they need a better keeper than Szczczzczzczczny and pays the price for Begovic, leaving Stoke to start promising-but-not-ready English prospect Jack Butland or old Thomas Sorensen. Deprived of possibly the best keeper in the Prem, Stoke's margin for error becomes almost nil and Sparky doesn't react well under that kind of pressure. They start off the campaign the same way QPR did last season and are 19th or 20th approaching the holidays, and then anything is possible.
The skinny: Jozy. Jozy. Jozy. Jozy. Americans will be transfixed, hoping Mr. Altidore lives up to a big-money transfer on the second ask. He's going to have every opportunity to do so with a Black Cats side that has the talent in the front six to provide him with the service he needs. Now that Clint Dempsey has left Spurs for MLS, Jozy is the most notable USMNTer in the Prem (in part because no one really needs to watch Tim Howard anymore. We know he's good and he's a keeper.)
Best case: Jozy is a beast. Steven Fletcher gets and stays healthy and forms a great 1-2 punch. Paolo Di Canio's craziness translates in a good way and Sunderland play wide-open, interesting, winning soccer. Selling off Simon Mignolet doesn't come back to bite them too badly in goal. The Black Cats make a dark horse run for top seven while Newcastle gets relegated again.
Worst case: Jozy Bust 2: European Boogaloo (although this looks less and less likely after Jozy's summer, capped off by his destruction of Bosnia on Wednesday). Americans never get bought again for decent fees. Di Canio is an unredeemable loon and loses his dressing room 10 matches into the campaign. Everything goes pear-shaped as the questionable goalkeeping situation becomes a mess. A club that has mastered Prem mediocrity goes one step lower and flirts with the drop. Newcastle makes it back to Europe.
The skinny: A silky team that has added even more impressive components this summer and may be poised to bump Everton from the top seven ... and aim even higher. Picking up Wilfried Bony for $18 million may end up being the best transfer of the summer. He and Michu are going to be a huge problem for a lot of Prem sides. I don't love Jonjo Shelvey, but his cost-efficient acquisition from Liverpool may also prove to be solid business. Nice side, this.
Best case: They pass and move their way around the bottom half sides and pick up enough points against the major clubs to stay in the European mix. Michel Vorm stays healthy and the current Europa League adventure doesn't wear them down to the point they start dropping in the league table. Bony becomes a bony-fide star and eventually nets them at least twice what they paid in a transfer fee. They crush Cardiff twice in the first-ever Premiership Wales derbies and the "Blue"birds are dumped right back down into the Championship.
Worst case: There's really not a lot of downside here. They're not getting relegated. They have very good players on the roster and a good manager. Losing to Cardiff would cause some blushes, but jetting off to some European locale soon afterward would ease the pain.
The skinny: This is the year for Spurs. Which is the same thing that was being said the last two seasons, but this is definitely the year. Unless they end up selling Gareth Bale and can't reinvest before the window closes, leaving them to start four defenders and six central midfielders. Unless some major dominoes fall in the next three weeks, though, anything short of the top four should be considered a significant disappointment.
Best case: Everything comes up roses. Bale stays and plays like the star he is. New additions Roberto Soldado, Nacer Chadli and Paulinho add even more depth, flexibility and firepower to a really good roster. Hugo Lloris plays like the world-class keeper he is. Jan Vertonghen stays healthy and shepherds the back four. Arsenal doesn't buy anything but a case of spoiled lasagne and Spurs are too smart this time to chow down. The goal quickly becomes top three and automatic UCL group stage position, with a run at the league title itself.
Worst case: They sell Bale and Daniel Levy uses the funds for gold plating on his executive washroom. Spurs figure out they still have 15 quality central midfielders but never figure out how to set the team up to maximize the remaining talent. Soldado is a $45 million bust and Spurs have to rely on Jermaine Defoe and Emmenual Adebayor for offense. Arsenal buys nothing but a case of rancid meat pies, but Andre Villas-Boas is curious and holds a team party where everyone gets trichinosis. The Europa League beckons ... again.
The skinny: A low sex-appeal side with some solid players and very difficult to beat at home at The Hawthorns. The Baggies may have made a quietly nice loan move for Matej Vydra, who should help spice up their attack and help fill the void left by last season's loan star, Romelu Lukaku, now back with Chelsea. Not sure how much more there is to say about them. A consummate decent Prem side that seems to have very little in the way of massive upside or downside.
Best case: Threaten to finish seventh if everything breaks right and Vydra and/or the ageless Nicolas Anelka score enough goals for them?
Worst case: Somehow, lose twice to Fulham like they did last season and slip further down the cluster in the middle than expected. Can't see them as a relegation worry, but stranger things have happened, I guess.
The skinny: Recently gained notoriety in the U.S. thanks to Jason Sudeikis associating them with pick-up trucks as he tries to learn Tottenham's Premiership foes. That pretty much sums up the East Londoners, who will continue to ride the lankiness of Liverpool bust Andy Carroll and some quality wing play to however much they can accomplish. One of a handful of sides that looks like it will be a fairly tame season in terms of range of expectations.
Best case: Big Sam gets his team playing the best kind of Route 1 longball, Carroll wins enough knockdown headers and the Hammers' skill players deliver often enough to safely ride along in mid-table. They get a good draw and perform well in one of the Cups and make a deep run. They consolidate enough in the next three seasons to make a leap once they move into the Olympic Stadium.
Worst case: Relegation scrap? A bunch of 0-0 and 1-0 results that bore viewers to tears? Andy Carroll can't play Fulham at home every week and is exposed as not even worth the $24 million West Ham paid to offset Liverpool's absurd $55 million buy? Jussi Jaaskelainen starts to show his 38 years and things get dicey on both ends for a club that doesn't reek of firepower?