The new Barclays Premier League season is upon us and the teams are jockeying for position on the starting line. Here are my thoughts on how the pack is likely to break up this season: the top six, the bottom five, and the tight bunch in the middle. The clubs are not necessarily listed in order but I'm tipping Manchester United to take the title:
It bodes extremely well for Alex Ferguson that a young side (average age during much of the second half: 22) dealt so well with the physical challenge of Manchester City and the mental challenge of turning around a losing position to claim the Community Shield; it's still only preseason, but they maintained the zip of United's U.S. performances and appear to be a set of calm heads. Whether Anderson can really provide the answer in central midfield remains to be seen, but permission to get carried away with Nani's performance, please.
Chelsea finished level on points with Manchester City last season and is tipped by many to lose ground. The Blues have the opportunity to build momentum, however, with all three promoted sides and only United and Arsenal of last year's top four to play before December. Signings (so far) this summer have been relatively low-key, but Andre Villas-Boas has some impressive young players in positions that could do with freshening up (especially Romeu and Josh McEachran) and he will be more willing to use them than previous managers.
Once again City's summer spending has elevated expectations -- not least because more than half of what they've spent so far went on the outrageously talented Aguero. And once again we start the season wondering if having all the component parts is enough to challenge not just for second, which they ought to do, but also for the title. A lot could depend on how often Roberto Mancini fills out his teamsheet with names like Adam Johnson, rather than Gareth Barry.
Preseason previews for Arsenal are becoming a copy-and-paste job. "We are a young team and we can only be better," Arsene Wenger has said recently, as he does every summer; Cesc Fabregas' move to Barcelona casts a shadow; defensive reinforcement is urgently needed; and what if Robin van Persie gets injured? Signing Southampton youngster Oxlade-Chamberlain is a typical Arsenal move, but something more calculating than habit may be required before the window closes; last season Wenger's side notched up its lowest points total in four seasons, and was plain lucky that Liverpool did the same.
Owner John W. Henry has made no secret of the fact that he expects Liverpool to return to the top four this season -- "if we don't, it would be a major disappointment" -- and the battle with Arsenal looks fascinating: the opening weeks of the season throw the same nine teams at both and they play each other in week two. Whether Liverpool's best starting XI is drastically improved for the recent £54 million ($87.5M) outlay is debatable -- Downing is the only summer arrival who adds something previously lacking: width -- but Enrique is an upgrade at left back and a full season of Luis Suarez certainly quickens the pulse.
Even if Luka Modric stays, Tottenham's standing in the top five looks vulnerable. Rafael van der Vaart is still carrying niggling injuries, Sandro (who looked capable of orchestrating things further back) will have to work his way back from a knee operation and there is still no sign of the kind of deadly striker Harry Redknapp has long courted -- which is a shame, because Gareth Bale's preseason form promises the supply. Still, the existing strikers can't have two stinking seasons in a row, can they?
The Canaries' chances really depend on whether your glass is half full, or half empty. After two successive promotions (Norwich started the 2009-10 campaign in the third tier), will momentum or gravity triumph? Does last season's dependence on clutch goals (22 points won after the 80th minute) make Paul Lambert's team irrepressible or vulnerable? Does the lack of "star players" suggest a thoughtfully constructed, effective unit capable of securing a second season in the Premier League, or an ordinary bunch of hopefuls? I'm leaning toward the former.
QPR was very impressive on the way to last season's Championship title, with a tight defense and a dynamic front six centering on Adel Taarabt -- who, assuming he doesn't get the high-profile move he desires, will be keen to show that he can cut it in the Premier League having proved too mercurial for Spurs. He won't be the only one, in a squad of varying Premier League experience and success. They certainly need to hit the ground running given their tough run-in (each of last season's top six in the final 10 games, finishing at Eastlands on the final day).
Assessing Blackburn is complicated: its held on to Chris Samba, which was critical given Jones' departure; players such as Junior Hoillett and Martin Olsson can provide excitement; and Goodwillie looks like a good signing. But much of the rest of the squad is as unconvincing as Steve Kean, the manager Venky's originally installed as a stopgap measure. Certainly not too good to go down.
Swansea's playoff triumph was stylish and emphatic but the parallels with Blackpool do not bode well. The transfers in haven't (yet) rocked the Richter scale but the loss of goalkeeper de Vries -- chosen by the rest of the team as player of the season in 2010-11 -- is a significant loss. It may well be that only one promoted side is relegated and despite a decent preseason, Swansea could be the unlucky ones.
For two seasons running, Wigan has stayed up by the skin of its teeth and despite winning only nine games -- and now Roberto Martinez will have to do without N'Zogbia, who last season scored or created almost half of Wigan's goals. Unless the manager has a transfer coup planned, it's difficult to see anyone providing ingenuity or productivity on a similar scale.
Last season only six points separated eighth and 15th; this is a difficult pack to unpick.
There was an obvious need for a consistent goal scorer last season which hasn't yet been addressed, but a settled squad is not necessarily a bad thing, even if the it-ain't-broke philosophy is driven by economics. Injuries permitting, David Moyes still has a top-eight side, though there might be one or two more of those knocking around this season.
Just when you thought Fulham couldn't get any more likable, they appoint the affable -- and excellent -- Martin Jol. The season has already started with the early stages of the Europa League, and Fulham has reached the playoffs scoring 10 goals (Bobby Zamora is fit and Andrew Johnson looks sharp) and conceding only one. A season of considerable potential lies ahead.
Players out: Jordan Henderson, Steed Malbranque
Steve Bruce's summer transfer activity is as spectacular as the unraveling of Sunderland's form at the end of last season. What a splurge! But there are some very canny moves here, particularly the free transfers of midfielders who were outstanding for Birmingham (Gardner and Larsson) and Blackpool (Vaughan) last season. Certainly scope for a top-eight finish.
Tony Pulis doesn't have the deepest squad to play with (though there are three weeks of the transfer window left), which has got some fans worried about the possibility of managing a Europa League run this season. However Pulis', and the club's, approach has always been to embrace the level of competition they're enjoying; the odd result may suffer but Stoke should be solid enough (particularly at home) to stay away from the bottom of the table.
What a task for new manager Alex McLeish: convincing supporters of his own suitability to the post while trying to maintain Villa's top-half status without Young and Downing, who scored or created 71 percent of last season's goals. It's not a given that N'Zogbia can do the job of one of them, let alone both. Darren Bent may thrive under the burden of expectation, though.
Bolton have lost some very important players this summer. Sturridge has returned to Chelsea, leaving them in urgent need of a similarly skillful and athletic striker. The departures of Taylor and Cohen were not in themselves drastic, but now that Lee Chung-yong will miss the season with a broken leg, and with Stuart Holden still coming back from injury, the midfield lacks a bit of spark. Owen Coyle is an excellent manager but he will do well to conjure a better finish than last season with the current squad.
Under Roy Hodgson, West Brom seems capable of finishing almost anywhere in this bunch. His signings so far have focused on strengthening at the back, and wisely so -- though he turned results around after arriving in February, the Baggies still conceded 23 further goals. It's expected that Shane Long will soon sign, however, boosting an attack that has been massively dependent on Peter Odemwingie.
Alan Pardew is constructing an attractive, lively midfield with former Lille playmaker Cabaye at its heart, and looks to be building bridges with Joey Barton, which will give a team shorn of Nolan and Enrique so soon after Andy Carroll's departure some stability and leadership. No team scored fewer than Newcastle away from home last season, and even with the addition of Ba, the strikeforce as a whole is not exactly fearsome.
Johnson is an excellent signing for a side that improved its goals tally by 14 last season yet conceded a whopping 66, and the combination of Jamie O'Hara, now signed on a permanent basis, and Karl Henry in midfield gives the side real thrust. Manager Mick McCarthy is probably being overoptimistic to talk about a top-10 finish, but he certainly has the personnel, the experience and the impetus to stay further away from trouble this year.