With a week to go before the season begins, here is my read on how the 20 Premier League clubs will finish, with the caveat that rosters could still change because we're in the midst of the transfer window.
It's rare that a club retains the top-flight title after a World Cup (Liverpool did it last, in 1983), but Chelsea's moments of outrageous superiority tallied up toward the end of last season, and the squad hasn't really suffered during the summer's transfer activities. The return of Michael Essien and the arrival of Ramires, subject to a work permit, will boost Chelsea's movement through the middle.
Preseason results suggest that Sir Alex Ferguson has taken some of the weight off Wayne Rooney's shoulders by bringing in Hernandez, who has scored a couple of very nice goals, and Dimitar Berbatov seems more likely to chip in this year. United finished only one point behind Chelsea last season and the top two look like they'll be difficult to separate this time around, despite the rather green hue of United's defense.
Arsene Wenger hasn't yet signed a new goalkeeper or the additional center back fans crave -- Arsenal's habit of conceding more goals than the top-two teams may well continue. However, the addition of Chamakh gives the Gunners greater presence and penetration up front, the form of Jack Wilshere and Samir Nasri in the Emirates Cup was encouraging, and with
City was vulnerable at the back last season, so adding Boateng (plays anywhere across the defense) and Kolorov (LB) as well as defensive midfielder Toure should make it a different proposition off the ball. On it, Silva will counterbalance Adam Johnson on the flanks to ensure City can pile forward at pace. This is surely the season for the club to at least crack the glass ceiling and earn that all-important Champions League spot.
Spurs haven't gone backward over the summer, but the lack of new signings (so far, at least), coupled with City's spending, closes the sliver of light just about visible between the two last season. Something would have to be amiss for Harry Redknapp to keep his wallet in his pocket, but a potentially fixture-heavy season will test his current squad, which still includes some fragile members.
Roy Hodgson has replaced Rafael Benitez, Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard say they want to stay, and early signs are Cole is reveling in his role at Anfield. Despite all the ownership uncertainty, this season cannot be as bad as last. There are still some holes, however, particularly if want-away Javier Mascherano goes, which makes it harder to imagine an instant return to the top four.
David Moyes' team struggled to genuinely pressure the European places last season, but that was thanks largely to a poor start; Everton went 12-10-2 in the final two thirds of the campaign, which bodes well assuming Moyes can maintain the momentum. So far, so good -- bit-part player Gosling is the only high-profile departure, even if the deadly striker of fans' dreams has yet to arrive. Expect Everton to be there or thereabouts for Europe.
Villa is in danger of being overtaken by Everton and Liverpool after another summer of endless will-he-won't-he speculation and no spending so far. James Milner's move to Manchester City appears only to be a question of when, and would leave a big hole in Martin O'Neill's midfield -- and that becomes a crater if Ashley Young is lost to Spurs. With one or both, Villa is solid enough to remain in the mix.
Mark Hughes will have spent his first week as new coach hoping to persuade Mark Schwarzer not to leave; if he succeeds, Fulham remains the decent outfit Hodgson left behind. Without the distraction of European soccer (it played the equivalent of an extra half-season pursuing the Europa League trophy, exiting both domestic cups amid the adventure), Fulham has the ingredients for a top-half finish, especially if Bobby Zamora and Clint Dempsey can repeat their form from last season.
Sunderland looked set for the top half last summer but its rank away form (2-4-13) saw those ambitions dashed by Christmas. So it's with some hesitation that I suggest that Steve Bruce can pull it off this time around, but he's shopped pretty well this summer. Riveros could fill Cana's boots, but Bruce apparently has him penciled into wide areas, which should have 24-goal Darren Bent rubbing his hands.
Owner Carson Yeung expects improvement on last season's surprise ninth place but may be disappointed -- the Blues are in little danger of going down but may struggle to post another top-half finish. Alex McLeish has added Nikola Zigic to his front line and appears close to signing Belgian striker Moussa Dembele, but he could do with some more reliable creativity in the supply.
Under Sam Allardyce (1999-2007) and Gary Megson (2007-2009), Bolton played the kind of route-one soccer that puts you near the bottom of the attendance rankings. But new man Owen Coyle's more attractive brand of soccer will be boosted by the arrival of Petrov, released by Manchester City, and could put bums on seats as well as push Bolton back toward the top half of the table.
After only two seasons in the Premier League, Stoke has become a reliably mid-table outfit -- taking points where it can from those above it and hoovering them up against those below. There's no reason to think that'll change this term, though Tony Pulis' fortunes in the transfer market determine the club's success against the rest of the group of mid-table sides. Success in his high-profile pursuit of Nice's Loic Remy would be a good start.
Allardyce exceeded expectations last year but things will slide for Rovers if they can't secure a decent striker. The manager says he's been priced out of every potential move in this window (there's a possible takeover hanging in the air) but cannot afford to rely on Jason Roberts (played 31 games; scored five) and Nikola Kalinic (33; seven) again.
The Hammers were only rescued by the unlikely presence of three worse teams last term, but Avram Grant is precisely the kind of manager you'd want to haul you back from the edge. His purchases so far show good sense and his cool under pressure will help settle the dressing room. Expectations are low, but West Ham should be clearer of the relegation mire than last year.
After one defeat in the first dozen games, it quickly became evident that Newcastle was too strong for last season's Championship. Whether Chris Hughton can orchestrate an assault on the upper reaches of the Premiership remains to be seen, but it's hard to see Newcastle going down again. A handful of so-so strikers excelled and Kevin Nolan was excellent -- his contribution from the hole will be vital this season, when defenses will cope better with the likes of top scorer Andy Carroll.
A fondness for Mick McCarthy's blunt honesty in front of TV cameras can perhaps color one's judgment, but Wolves were not quite the skin-of-their-teeth survivors many expected last season. Though any of the bottom-five teams could be headed for the drop, I fancy Wolves have another season in them. No team scored fewer goals last year, but Kevin Doyle will be joined up front by Fletcher, who managed double figures playing for relegated Burnley.
Roberto Martinez is very much a "project" manager, building for the future, but the past -- Wigan's abject away form last season -- is difficult to forget. How the defense didn't get the club relegated in the course of conceding 79 goals, no one's too sure. Though Melchiot and Bramble have been replaced by quality players, Martinez's squad includes only seven defenders, a lack of depth that will be exposed sooner or later.
The definition of a yo-yo club, West Brom's attractive mezzanine soccer has previously cost it against the best clubs -- in 2008-09, the top half of the table routinely took West Brom apart, particularly away from the Hawthorns. Roberto di Matteo plans to play a more robust 4-2-3-1 in an attempt to counter that, but doesn't have the personnel.
Blackpool will be everyone's second-favorite team, but it'll take more than good wishes to help the Tangerines away from the wrong end of the league. Ian Holloway has been unable to significantly strengthen a flimsy squad that'll struggle for early momentum thanks to having to play four of its first five games away from home -- including visits to Arsenal and Chelsea.