By The Limey
August 07, 2009

Awaking from our slumber after one of those tedious biennial summers without a showpiece international tournament, it slowly dawned on us: the Premier League is back at last! With only one week before the world's pre-eminent league kicks off, we headed for Castle Limey to dust down the dungeon-sized supercomputer responsible for our EPL predictions.

Dials whirring and steam pouring forth from pipes and pistons, on the mustiest of paper, the trusty machine spat out its sage message. Before we race to Honest Hesketh's bookmakers to desperately blow our last few cents, here's our forecast. As with last season, we see the EPL table shaping up into six groups of teams. Belts and braces on, here we go from the top:

Three of last year's top four teams have a realistic tilt at EPL glory, while Arsenal risks being ousted from the Champions League qualifier positions by free-spending Manchester City.

Manchester United, last year's champion, has suffered key losses with the departure of Carlos Tévez and, especially, FIFA World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo. United's chances Tévez on Michael Owen's ability to consistently be an out-and-out goal-scorer, something Tévez never was. However, now injury-prone and lacking the pace of his youth, doubts remain about whether Owen can perform consistently at the highest level. Plus, good though he is, can Antonio Valencia really fill the shoes of Ronaldo? Can anyone not named Lionel Messi? These factors, coupled with the ever-aging legs of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, likely mean a weaker United side. We think the EPL trophy will leave Old Trafford next May.

So where is it headed? Xabi Alonso's exit to Real Madrid is a big blow for Liverpool, but Rafael Benítez has moved quickly to replace the Spaniard with the imminent signing of Italian international Alberto Aquilani. Similarly, the loss of Álvaro Arbeloa, also to Real, has been compensated for by replacement right back Glen Johnson. Liverpool therefore looks like a similar prospect to last season in terms of personnel, and for that reason we think the Reds will finish third.

Chelsea hasn't lost any key players from its squad and, under Guus Hiddink, its form was excellent. So much so that had it been replicated prior to his February arrival, the Blues would now be defending champions. Importantly, this momentum looks to have been maintained under new manager Carlo Ancelotti. Midfielder Frank Lampard this week voiced the virtues of Ancelotti and fellow Italian national manager Fabio Capello: "That's why they have won big trophies in their careers. 'Must win' is the only way for them and they don't accept slacking off in games or training," he told The Sun.

We consider that Chelsea's strong squad -- including the addition of highly rated new signing Yuri Zhirkov -- and the must-win mentality of its new manager should see the Blues crowned champions for the first time since 2005-06.

A long-standing criticism of the EPL is that its Champions League qualifying teams are practically preordained. Not this year. Man. City's huge spending spree has seen it bring in Gareth Barry, Roque Santa Cruz and Tévez to the club, as well as (and perhaps crucially in the race for fourth), former Arsenal duo Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Touré. Arsenal's trip to the City of Manchester Stadium on Sept. 12 will provide an early indication of their relative strengths, but for now, we're tipping the Gunners to just pip City at the post. With similar caliber of squads, we think that Arsène Wenger's guile and CescFàbregas' ability to control a match will prove the difference. City's advantage of not having additional European games to play will be erased if Arsenal fails to negotiate a tricky Champions League qualifier with Glasgow Celtic.

Aston Villa, Everton, Tottenham Hotspur. That's our sense of the order in which these three will finish, but those standings could be reversed easily. Villa's form tailed off last year, but with a host of young stars developing, we think it will make sixth despite the loss of Barry. Once fit, Stewart Downing should prove another potent strand in Villa's fast attacking plays. Everton finished fifth for the last two seasons, but we think the Toffeemen will drop to seventh this time round.

If Joleon Lescott is Manchester City-bound, incoming Philippe Senderos will not plug the defensive gap, especially with Phil Jagielka not expected to return until November and Tony Hibbert being no Gianluca Zambrotta. Offensively, the return of Yakubu Aiyegbeni and Mikel Arteta from long-term injury will be welcome, but if Everton is to close in on Arsenal, Marouane Fellaini must dictate from the center, allowing Tim Cahill more freedom to roam, and needs to reproduce the form he showed prior to his arrival in the EPL.

Spurs, dear Spurs. So often the self-anointed "other big club" and London media darlings offer so much and fail to deliver. We were tempted to predict them fifth given their squad -- how about Robbie Keane, Jermain Defoe, RomanPavlyuchenko and Peter Crouch for an attacking quartet? -- and the form they showed after Harry Redknapp arrived in October and took them from relegation contenders to eighth place. But we won't. Something tells us that they won't have the consistency to finish ahead of Everton and Villa.

Three teams are grouped in our fourth tier of clubs, those who sit just off the pace of the Europa League qualifying teams. We think Gianfranco Zola's impressive first season form will continue and West Ham again will finish ninth. We're predicting Fulham, stretched and distracted by its participation in the Europa League, to fall from seventh to 10th. In addition, the potential departure of defensive linchpin Brede Hangeland to Arsenal could be a real blow. Sunderland, with Steve Bruce as manager, a safe pair of hands and a face like the Elephant Man, and new signing Darren Bent, hungry to dispel his doubters and win a place in the England World Cup squad, will see a significant improvement from last season.

Blackburn, Bolton, Wigan and newly promoted Birmingham City should finish clear of the relegation dogfight. The remaining teams all will face a scrap to avoid the trap door into the Championship. Bankruptcy-threatened Portsmouth has released and sold many big-name players and, at present is a key relegation candidate. We reckon Pompey will be accompanied by Hull -- can anyone see the Tigers regaining their form of last autumn? -- and newly promoted Burnley, a club with a lot of heart but not enough budget for the EPL.

Having previewed Burnley and Birmingham City, this column we arrive at our third and last introduction to the clubs replacing West Bromwich Albion, Middlesbrough and Newcastle United in the EPL.

Wolverhampton Wanderers were promoted as champions of the Championship, the confusingly entitled tier of English soccer that sits immediately below the Premier League. Wolves finished seven points ahead of local rivals Birmingham after spending most of the season in first place. There were some white-knuckle moments through, not least in February when they failed to win any of five league outings.

Given their prestigious history, Wolves fans see their club's rightful place as being in the top-flight. Three league titles, four FA Cups and two League Cups have been secured by the club which, in 1888, was one of 12 founder members of the world's first professional soccer league.

As well as those glory days in the 1950s being famous for those league titles, it was also a time when Wolves played a significant role in the formation of the European Cup, now the Champions League. This originated as a formalization of a series of "floodlit friendlies" that took place between Wolves and a number of Europe's top clubs. With stadium floodlights still a novelty, these matches caught the imagination of Europe's press, who were enthralled by Wolves dispatching contemporary greats like Spartak Moscow, Dynamo Moscow, Budapest Honved and Real Madrid. Indeed, the Honved victory prompted manager Stan Cullis and the English press to proclaim Wolves "champions of the world."

Gabriel Hanot, then the editor of French sports daily L'Équipe, wrote this response to that comment, spurring UEFA into setting up the first European Cup in 1955:

"Before we declare that Wolverhampton is invincible, let them go to Moscow and Budapest. And there are other internationally renowned clubs: AC Milan and Real Madrid, to name but two. A club world championship, or at least a European one ... should be launched."

Hanot was a legendary character who, in 1949, was both the French national-team coach and a soccer journalist. Following a heavy defeat to Spain, he wrote an unsigned editorial calling for his own resignation as coach. He resigned the next day.

A Wolves legend of the '90s is Steve Bull. Of his 485 first-class professional soccer appearances, 475 were made for Wolves. A striker, he scored 306 goals in the process -- a club record and an incredible ratio. His feats won him 13 England caps (games in which he scored four goals) and the attention of a host top-flight teams and continental giants. Admirably, Bull remained loyal to Wolves, despite the big-money offers and the club remaining in the second tier of English soccer for his years with them. He was rewarded in '03, when Molineux Stadium stand was renamed in his honor. Keep an eye out for Molineux, with its four separate stands and open corners -- it's one of few EPL stadiums still exhibiting that traditional layout.

But with memories of their '04 EPL relegation still fresh in minds, will Wolves stay in the Premier League this time? We think so. Probably. Just. Largely this is because in Burnley (great manager, but lacking resources), Hull (on a run of dreadful form), Stoke (basic in style) and Portsmouth (organizationally in dire straits), there are a handful of weak sides in the EPL this season.

Wolves, with the experienced former Ireland national-team manager MickMcCarthy at the helm, are in good hands. Nenad Milijas, Ronald Zubar and U.S. keeper Marcus Hahnemann look like astute signings, while $8 million record buy Kevin Doyle and last season's Championship player of the season and Golden Boot, Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, should fire home enough goals to keep them safe.

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