The new Premier League season is about to begin, which means it's time to dig out the Magic 8 ball, give it a shake and ask: How will things go this year? In recent seasons, teams have been separated into four groupings: top four, the chasing few, the bottom five and the rest. That doesn't seem like such a good breakdown in 2012, as only a few clubs stand a probable chance at winning the title. A far greater number approach the season with at least a tang of apprehension as the rest of the table is concerned.
This article is broken down into three tiers: title contenders, the chasing pack and everyone else. The teams are not mentioned in the order I expect them to finish, so, please, no angry emails from QPR fans. You won't be able to get through for all the Reading supporters, anyway.
Clubs: Manchester City, Manchester United
It is difficult to look beyond Manchester City and Manchester United as the favorites for the Premier League trophy. That has a fair bit to do with the fact that they both finished far, far ahead of the competition last season (they were level on 89 points while Arsenal, which came in third, had only 70), and that neither side looks the slightest bit weaker. Both have primarily offloaded players who rarely, if ever, featured in the league, with United's Park Ji-sung serving as the exception. City's acquisition of Jack Rodwell is hardly going to revolutionize things, but the return of Carlos Tevez adds luster to what was already last season's strongest first-choice XI.
United, for its part, quickly addressed an area of need by signing Shinji Kagawa, and Sir Alex Ferguson is now spoiled by a front six buoyed by the addition of the former Arsenal striker Robin van Persie. There was scorn when Paul Scholes came out of retirement to marshal United's midfield last season, but the evidence is that Tom Cleverley, now fit, is more than ready to assume a pivotal role. You can never write Manchester United off. If the title is to be decided by a blinking contest between Ferguson and Roberto Mancini, experience favors United.
Clubs: Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur
In explaining why he wanted to leave Arsenal, van Persie said that his "goal has been to win trophies." That's the captain of the third-place club prefacing a move to the second-place club; the gulf between the Manchester sides and the rest of the league is large. This summer seems to have only widened the gap.
Arsenal has become a selling club, but it has changed tack in this transfer window. In the summer of 2011, when Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri left, a handful of players arrived to Arsenal the final moments. It was only once they did that Arsene Wenger's side secured a first league victory. This time around, Wenger has acted early, signing forwards Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski in anticipation of van Persie's departure, plus another attacking midfielder in Santi Cazorla.
Question marks remain (Is Giroud even that good?) but Arsenal will likely finish in the top four, as it has every year since 1997. Unless we are talking about the Champions League, however, it now makes more sense to consider that there are perhaps five or six clubs jostling for position beneath the title contenders. It has become second nature to couple Chelsea with Arsenal, but it will take time to see how Roberto di Matteo's team gets along without Didier Drogba, and how Eden Hazard, Oscar and Marko Marin slot into an outfit that hasn't always made instant hits out of new signings. (It has been interesting to see Fernando Torres' thoughts on his first season at Chelsea, even if he can be considered an extreme case. He told The Sun that it was the backing of the fans rather than his teammates that enabled him to come off the bench and play a part. "Whatever I do from now on will be for the fans," he said.) The fixture list presents Chelsea with the opportunity to get a good start, however, with Wigan, Reading and QPR among the first five opponents.
Ranking somewhere in with these two London clubs -- though quite possibly a little behind them -- comes Tottenham Hotspur. There's a sense that Spurs will be all right in the end (traditionally making the most of the final few of weeks of the transfer window), but the start of the season looks like another patch-up job. Only one striker, Jermain Defoe, is on the books and the engine room is left unmanned while Scott Parker recovers from surgery on an Achilles injury.
The first game of the season, kicking off this weekend, takes Tottenham to Newcastle United, where the manager Alan Pardew has managed to keep together the squad that lifted United to fifth last season. Pardew has Demba Ba (16 goals in 32 starts) and Papiss Cisse -- who averaged a goal every start after signing in January -- up front, as well as one of the stingiest home defenses in its favor. Newcastle faces a challenging start, with a midweek Europa League match in Greece sandwiched between the opener against Spurs and a trip to Stamford Bridge. Matches against Manchester United and Liverpool loom on the horizon.
And so to Merseyside, where Liverpool and Everton make up the cluster of clubs chasing European soccer. Predictions on Everton's season have swayed with the departure of Rodwell and Tim Cahill, though the return of Steven Pienaar restores some drive to David Moyes' midfield. The signing of Steven Naismith from Rangers means Nikica Jelavic -- last season's enviably low-cost, high-return signing -- has his former strike partner alongside him once again.
It is difficult to make predictions about a Liverpool side that never quite settled in to a rhythm under Kenny Dalglish, and one that is now being re-sculpted by Brendan Rodgers. He, unsurprisingly, has signed his former Swansea midfielder Joe Allen, who was coveted at Anfield even before Rodgers took over. Liverpool hosts both Manchester clubs and Arsenal in the season's opening weeks, upping the ante in the bonding of the new forward partnership between Fabio Borini, newly arrived from Roma, and Luis Suarez -- still with some points to prove himself.
Clubs: Aston Villa, Fulham, Norwich City, Queens Park Rangers, Reading, Southampton, Stoke City, Sunderland, Swansea, West Bromwich Albion, West Ham, Wigan
Let's start with the bottom and see where it takes us. It is getting harder to name just three or four teams that might end up in trouble, and towards the end of last season, fear seemed to stalk right up towards the middle of the pack. Only clubs such as Fulham looked serene in ninth place (That will be harder to do without Danny Murphy, Pavel Pogrebnyak and possibly Clint Dempsey, still being linked with a move to Merseyside. Still, Martin Jol looks to be assembling a scout's dream of exciting young players).
Widespread anxiety is probably inevitable when a couple of teams dominate and the rest duke it out for the scraps. As a consequence, supporters of a host of middling clubs may be nervous about their chances of staying as such -- there has even been talk of Stoke City ending up in trouble. Tony Pulis' fifth season in the top flight may not be entirely comfortable, but Stoke's play has been much the same since 2008, and still away sides struggle at the Britannia. If any previously middling side is going to be pulled into the mire it could be Sunderland, which relied heavily on Stephane Sessegnon in spells last season and has signed only Aston Villa defender Carlos Cuellar over the summer. It takes a sturdy constitution, however, to predict doom for a Martin O'Neill side.
As usual, the promoted clubs feature heavily in many people's predictions for the drop. Despite coming up as Championship champion, Reading's Premier League challenge has convinced fewer than Southampton, which finished second after having been promoted from the third tier only the year before, and West Ham, which was promoted via the playoffs. There is just something a bit green about Reading, which has predominantly cherry-picked from the clubs that finished further down the table, even though the Hammers have a great deal of experience and manager Sam Allardyce has a good record at this level with this sort of team. In Southampton's case, simple momentum seems to be the persuasive element, though Nigel Adkins' side is likely to be right in the thick of it for much of the season. It starts with Manchester City and United either side of the visit of Wigan.
After several last-ditch escapes, it becomes almost tempting to think that Roberto Martinez's side will stay away from the relegation battle. Almost. But realistically, Wigan will feel the loss of Mohamed Diame (signed for West Ham) and even the erratic Hugo Rodallega (off to Fulham). It looks as though Victor Moses could end up staying, mind you, and he was often Wigan's best attacking player last season.
The fact that Martinez himself is still in place after talks with Liverpool and Aston Villa is also a considerable fillip. West Bromwich Albion lost manager Roy Hodgson to the England vacancy at the end of last season, with former Liverpool No. 2 Steve Clarke taking over. And while relegation seems a strange prospect for a relatively solid side -- a permanent deal for Ben Foster is a terrific bit of business as, potentially, is the loan-signing of Chelsea's Romelu Lukaku -- Clarke will have to find his feet quickly and keep running.
Also on the wrong end of a few people's table predictions are the clubs promoted at the start of last season -- it is not all too often that all three survive their first term in the top flight, and the dreaded phrase "second-season syndrome" is being bandied about. In the case of Swansea, there are understandable fears that last season's 11th-place finish would in any case have been difficult to replicate, but that's even more so now that Rodgers has gone to Liverpool and Allen has gone with him. Gylfi Sigurdsson was only around for half of last season, but his decision to move to Tottenham was also a stinger. The club has one of the best players Barcelona has ever had -- Michael Laudrup -- in charge now, and a long-standing commitment to the kind of soccer that won everybody over last time out. A harder season awaits Swansea, but it should have enough quality to tell.
Norwich City has also lost the manager that put the club where it is, with Paul Lambert moving to revive Aston Villa (this will be a season of low expectations but a lot of hope at Villa Park) and the former Newcastle and Birmingham City manager Chris Hughton taking his place. Despite the reputation Hughton earned while in the north east at St James' Park, there are fears in some quarters that the switch could take the wind out of Norwich's sails; without the points plucked from losing positions last season, which seemed to rely as much on sheer willpower as anything else, the Canaries would not have been nearly so comfortable. Hughton has managed to hold onto key players including Grant Holt, however, and if he can find the right position for Robert Snodgrass (who has played just behind Holt in preseason but was most dangerous on the right for former club Leeds United), there are certainly goals in the team.
The scale of the changes at Queens Park Rangers give it all a bit of a hotchpotch look, but Mark Hughes has made several very good signings -- numerous players have been shifted out for little or no fee, and though their replacements have often cost just as little, they are, for the most part, upgrades in important positions. Most notable is Blackburn's Junior Hoilett, who should be capable of giving the side the penetration that it often lacked last season.