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Given that last season was widely regarded as the most exciting season in Premier League history, with the most notable point coming in the form of a remarkable last-minute title win for Manchester City, this coming season has a lot to live up to.
Following a busy summer of big-name transfers and managerial movements, the scene is set for another season of excitement, surprise, elation and heartache.
Top of the table last season and undoubtedly favourites again this time round, Manchester City secured one of their most important signings in June when they convinced manager Roberto Mancini to agree to a new deal. In warding off interest from the Russian Football Federation – who were looking to discuss their vacant position as national team manager following a disappointing Euro 2012 tournament – City have committed to a coach that inspired a late-season fight-back which won them the title with just seconds to play.
In what turned out to be breathtaking circumstances, City fought back from a two-goal deficit with two stunning stoppage-time goals to secure their first league title win in 44-years, denying their arch-rivals Manchester United a 20th title in the process.
At the heart of City’s impressive turn-around was Sergio Aguero, the 24-year-old Argentine striker who scored the club’s title winning goal and whose contribution throughout the season helped propel them to the top of the table.
Aguero scored 23 goals in 34 appearances for City and the pressure will be on him to repeat such a rich vein of form. That pressure might be somewhat dissipated should City secure a controversial move for Arsenal’s top-scoring forward Robin van Persie. The iconic Dutchman made a public statement in June which indicated that he would be seeking a move away from Arsenal due to frustration with what he believes is a lack of ambition for the North London side. The two strikers could line up together on the first weekend of the season against Southampton, a game you’ll see live on Sky Sports on Sunday the 19th of August.
City aren’t the only side interested in the striker however, with Manchester rivals United also looking to table a bid for the player. United have had a busy summer of transfer activity already, signing energetic Japanese midfielder Shinji Kagawa, from German champions Borussia Dortmund and youth prodigy Nick Powell, from lower-league Crewe Alexandra. The signings are intended to reinforce a talented yet ageing midfield which still includes Ryan Giggs (38) and Paul Scholes (37), the latter of which returned from retirement mid-season to assist the club’s failed title challenge.
United’s struggles also stemmed from a lack of experience in defence, a matter worsened by the loss of both Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand for significant spells of the season. Sir Alex Ferguson isn’t afraid to give younger generations a chance however, and United’s squad is unlikely to need strengthening in defence as both Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are making the step up.
Compounding United’s misery last season was the fact that they led the league by eight points with less than a month to go, only to lose form just when they needed it most. Much of United’s strength comes from their attacking prowess, and their reinforcements will only look to further capitalize on such strength. We’ll see how United’s new squad does when they face Everton on Monday the 20th of August, live from Goodison Park on Sky Sports.
Looking to avoid a re-enactment of last season’s disastrous start will be Arsenal, who collected just two wins in their first seven games of last season, results which included a humiliating 8-2 drubbing at the hands of Manchester United and a frustrating 2-1 defeat at arch-rivals Tottenham.
Arsenal’s preparations last season were hampered by the on-off transfer saga surrounding Cesc Fabregas who ultimately departed for Barcelona, and Arsene Wenger will no doubt look to avoid a repeat of such a distraction where Robin van Persie is concerned.
The Gunners’ third place was secured by their reaction to poor spells and consistency when it was needed most. Their poor start was followed by an undefeated run of eight games, while their early-January blip was followed by an impressive run of seven wins in a row.
Arsenal have put an emphasis on improving their attacking options this summer, with the arrivals of German winger Lukas Podolski from Cologne, midfielder Santi Cazorla from Malaga and striker Olivier Giroud from Montpellier. The return of Jack Wilshere will also be like a new signing to the Gunners, after the influential midfielder missed the entirety of last season through injury. Arsenal’s second league game of the season will give some insight into how Arsenal’s new-look attack will do, as the Gunners face up to the task of Stoke City, live on Sky Sports on Sunday the 26th of August.
Subject to the most change this summer are Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool – all of whom have seen significant squad and managerial manoeuvring.
Most surprising of all the moves is that of Andre Villas Boas to Tottenham. The former Chelsea manager – sacked by the Blues following a tumultuous seven-month spell at the club – was appointed by the North London club to replace Harry Redknapp.
Redknapp’s Spurs had looked like a side in contention for Champions League contention last season, playing some brilliantly energetic attacking football with Gareth Bale, Rafael van der Vaart and Luka Modric impressing, only for their form to falter in the latter stages of the season. The side collected just four wins in the final 13 games of the season, allowing bitter rivals Arsenal to usurp them.
Having qualified for the Champions League the previous season and having looked like a side capable of completing such an achievement again, Spurs’ problems were compounded by Chelsea’s unlikely European Cup win. Having finished fourth like the previous season, Tottenham would have qualified for a Champions League place had their West-London rivals not beaten Bayern Munich in the European Cup final. As Chelsea are given the right to defend their European Cup title, Spurs missed out on their opportunity to qualify.
It was that loss of form and that failure to finish 3rd which convinced Chairman Daniel Levy to part ways with Redknapp, releasing the manager a year before his contract was due to end.
Villas Boas has been given support to further reinforce Tottenham’s challenge, with the arrival of midfielder Gilfy Sigurdsson and defender Jan Vertonghen arriving for an estimated £20m. The two players are likely replacements for the retiring Ledley King and Luka Modric who is wanted by Real Madrid and Paris St. Germain.
Meanwhile, for Chelsea, the outlook is a more positive one following an astounding season of league struggles and cup wins. In appointing caretaker manager Roberto di Matteo to a permanent role, Chelsea have hired a man whose managerial credentials now list a Champions League and FA Cup win.
The club were listlessly meandering towards a season of disappointment prior to the former Chelsea player’s appointment. Villas Boas was a manager who, while trying to change the club’s approach, alienated key member’s of Chelsea’s squad. The attempt to force out Frank Lampard was perhaps the key to his departure, as the team struggled without the talismanic midfielder’s dynamism.
Di Matteo’s arrival as caretaker provided a galvanizing presence, inviting key players back into the squad and reinforcing a team ethic to push them towards a sixth place finish and their two cup successes.
It isn’t just the management that is being changed at Chelsea, though. Cup hero Didier Drogba’s contract was not renewed, allowing the striker to make a move into Chinese football. Also leaving the club are winger Salomon Kalou and full-back Jose Bosingwa, both of whose contracts were not renewed.
If incoming players are a show of intent, then it is clear that Chelsea are looking to challenge for the Premier League once more, having spent £72m in transfer fees already. The Blues have secured Brazilian wonder kid Oscar from Internacional, Belgian star Eden Hazard from French club Lille and Marko Marin from German side Werder Bremen. The club are also in discussions to sign Wigan’s Nigerian international Victor Moses and have also been linked with Porto’s Brazilian striker Hulk.
The overhauled line-up will get its first test on Sunday the 19th of August in Sky Sports’ first televised game of the season, kicking off at 1.30pm. Another great game to look forward to on Sky Sports will be the London derby between Spurs and Chelsea on Saturday the 20th of August, kicking off at 1.30pm.
At Liverpool, change is something that supporters have grown used. In the aftermath of Rafa Benitez’s departure, the club have seen two changes of owners and three different managerial appointments in a little more than two years. The arrival of Brendan Rogers is, according to Liverpool owner John W. Hendry, intended to be a significant long-term appointment.
After a season in which Liverpool’s only accolade was to win the League Cup despite expenditure in excess of £50m, Liverpool’s owners will be looking for a greater return on their investment. Following a disjointed league season which culminated in a disappointing 8th place finish, Kenny Dalglish was removed as manager.
In Rodgers, Liverpool have a leader whose Swansea side embarrassed plenty of established Premier League teams with patience, fluidity and creativity, taking last season’s relegation favourites to an incredible 11th place finish. Rodgers worked with a team of that had barely played at such a level and a support whose only wish was to finish above the relegation zone.
The challenge at Liverpool will be an entirely different one for the manager. Despite the difficulties of last season, Liverpool’s support are understandably expectant, while their squad – complete with internationals and established Premier League stars – might require a different approach. Rodgers’ first test will be the visit of Manchester City to Anfield on the 26th of August, kicking off at 4pm and a game you’ll get to see live on Sky Sports.
One Liverpool player strongly tipped to leave is Andy Carroll. The striker arrived at the club in the 2010-11 January transfer window for £35m and struggled to establish himself, scoring just four league goals in 34 appearances for the club. Given Liverpool’s change in style, Carroll has been informed that he is unlikely to feature as a regular for the Anfield club.
Likely to be his replacement at the club is Fabio Borini, signed for £12m from Italian club Roma, and a player Rodgers is familiar with from his time at Chelsea and Swansea.
Of the clubs liked with Carroll, the most notable is his former side, Newcastle United. The Magpies were last season’s surprise package, spending much of the season in the top four and finishing the season in a thoroughly unexpected 5th place.
United are subject to transfer speculation surrounding Demba Ba, the forward whose 16 goals helped mark a remarkable season for the club. Ba’s contract was subject to a release clause which, had a stipulated price been met, would have given the player permission to discuss a move away from the club. The clause expired at the end of July however, indicating that the player is happy to remain in the North East.
Alan Pardew, United’s manager, has instilled a work ethic and an attacking style which was symbolised by impressive wins over Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea last season, and there is little reason to think that they can’t improve on it.
Finishing just outside the European qualification places last season were Everton and Fulham, two teams that are going through progressive changes which continue to see them challenging for top-half positions on relatively limited budgets.
Both teams have seen major changes in their front lines this summer. Fulham’s attack will no longer feature Andy Johnson or Pavel Pogrebnyak, while Clint Dempsey is also being linked with a move away.
Losing Dempsey could have significant consequences on Fulham’s form. The Texan scored 17 goals last season, pushing them into 9th place. Incoming for the Cottagers are Hamburger SV’s Mladen Petric – a player Martin Jol worked with previously – and Wigan Athletic’s Hugo Rodallega, both on free transfers.
At Everton, changes include the departure of Tim Cahill to MLS team New York Redbull, while Scottish international Steven Naismith will arrive to reform his partnership with ex-Rangers teammate Nikica Jelavic. Everton have also confirmed the signing of Steven Pienaar, a fan favourite who has previously enjoyed a number of successful spells at the club. Everton’s second and third live games of the season will be the Monday night visit of Newcastle on September the 17th and their trip to Swansea on Saturday the 22nd of September, both live on Sky Sports.
Of the clubs looking to qualify for a European place last season, Aston Villa and Sunderland had the most disappointing year, both of whom arguably have better squads than last season’s league table suggests.
Sunderland sacked Steve Bruce after a difficult start to last season, replacing him with former Aston Villa manager Martin O’Neill, and while their form improved following his appointment, it soon dipped again, collecting just two wins in fourteen games resulting in a 13th place finish. With a young squad and a manager richly experienced in working with such a squad, Sunderland might surprise this time round.
As for Aston Villa, O’Neill’s replacement Alex McLeish took the club within points of the relegation spots last season. In a move that pleased the club’s support, Villa relieved McLeish of his job, replacing him with Norwich City manager Paul Lambert, another of the Premier League’s first-season debutants who impressed with a tight budget. Lambert will bring greater organisation and a better work-ethic to Villa’s ranks.
The Birmingham club have signed Ron Vlaar and Karim El Ahamadi from Feyenoord, Matthew Lowton from Sheffield United and Brett Holman from AZ Alkmaar, recruits intended to strengthen the squad in defence and midfield. Another player Villa fans (and all football fans) will be wishing a speedy return to fitness to is club captain Stiliyan Petrov. The club announced at the beginning of August that Petrov was in remission for acute leukaemia.
Villa will feature on Sky Sports in September, October and November, the most notable of which will be the visit of West Brom on the 30th of August and the visit of Lambert’s former club Norwich City on the 28th of October.
Looking to push on despite significant changes are West Bromwich Albion, Swansea City and Norwich City. Following successful seasons which saw Premier League security achieved long before the end of the season, all three will be looking towards the new season with new management. West Brom’s Roy Hodgson was appointed England manager, Swansea’s Rodgers went to Liverpool and Norwich’s Lambert departed for Aston Villa.
At West Brom, former Liverpool and Chelsea assistant manager Steve Clarke has been entrusted with the manager’s job. Clarke has spent the last ten years as an assistant manager – working alongside Jose Mourinho, Avram Grant, Gianfranco Zola and Kenny Dalglish – and it is this experience which convinced West Brom to make the appointment. The Baggies are likely to push for another mid-table finish this coming season.
In Swansea’s case, the club’s owners have been careful to select a manager whose outlook matches that of previous appointments. The Swans have worked hard to instil an attractive, attack-based mentality and by appointing Danish legend Michael Laudrup, they are looking to continue such an approach.
His first challenge as Swansea manager will be to convince Joe Allen to stay at the club despite interest from Liverpool and Tottenham. Already missing from last season’s squad is Gilfy Sigurdsson, who opted to join Spurs in a permanent deal instead. Laudrup has made moves to strengthen the squad however, signing midfielder Michu from Rayo Vallecano, centre-back Chico from Genoa and midfielder Jonathan De Guzman on loan from Villareal. Swansea’s second game of the season will be the visit of West Ham, the first of Sky Sports’ many Saturday afternoon games, on the 25th of August.
Meanwhile at Norwich, former Birmingham City manager Chris Hughton has been appointed to replace Lambert. The Canaries surprised many last season with their attacking flair and resilience, spearheaded by Grant Holt’s equally-surprising goal scoring spree.
By appointing Hughton, Norwich have selected a manager who has built a reputation for patiently effective football and whose stellar work got Newcastle promoted and took Birmingham City to the Championship play-offs.
As is often the case with sides who manage to stave off relegation in their first season, the second season might provide a greater challenge to Swansea and Norwich.
Looking towards the lower reaches of last season’s Premier League table, Stoke City, Wigan Athletic and QPR will all be aiming to get a greater return on their investments.
Stoke spent £21m last season and, given their outlay, might have expected a better finish than the 14th place they ultimately achieved. City are another side going through change; having released defender Jonathan Woodgate, forward Ricardo Fuller and sold defender Danny Collins, the club might look to recruit in defence and may also look to sign another attacking player.
Stoke’s no-holds-barred approach to the game has seen the West Midlands side come under extensive scrutiny, a label the club’s manager Tony Pulis is looking to change. City weren’t as pragmatic last season as they were in the season prior, with a more fluid style coming from the recruitment of Wilson Palacios and Peter Crouch. This gradual progression towards an approach that the Premier League is more accustomed to is likely to continue with the signing of Jamie Ness and the signing of Michael Kightly from Wolverhampton Wanderers. A mid-table finish beckons for the Potters.
Meanwhile for Wigan Athletic the emphasis will be on surviving another season of Premier League football. Wigan made a miraculous escape last season when they won all but two of their final nine games, pulling clear of the relegation zone when the majority expected them to falter.
They may find the challenge of staying in the league an even greater one with the free transfers of Mohammed Diame to West Ham and Rodallega to Fulham, and the possible sale of Moses to Chelsea. Wigan have signed Mallorca centre-back Ivan Ramis and Aberdeen’s midfield starlet Frasier Fyvie this summer, but questions will remain as to whether these two recruits will be enough to improve the Latics’ fortunes this season.
At Queens Park Rangers, emphasis was placed on the need to push on after last season’s relegation scrap. Boss Mark Hughes has rung the changes, allowing nine players to depart and bringing in seven to replace them.
David Hoilett and Andy Johnson will sharpen their attack and the signing of Ji Sung Park from Manchester United is a genuine coup for the West London club. Replacing goalkeeper Paddy Kenny is England international Robert Green, while the signing of full-back Fabio and centre-back Ryan Nelsen will improve their defence.
For the promoted sides, the challenge of Premier League football is one that they will all be used to; Sothampton last tasted football in England’s top division in 2005, Reading in 2008 and West Ham in 2011 – experience which will no doubt help them in their bid for safety this season.
Intent on avoiding relegation, West Ham have been the busiest of the promoted sides this summer, signing goalkeeper Jussi Jaskelainen to replace QPR-bound Green, midfielder Diame from Wigan Athletic, full-back George McCartney from Sunderland, centre-back James Collins from Aston Villa and Malian striker Modibo Maiga from French side Sochaux. The Hammers have also been strongly linked with Liverpool’s Carroll.
In Sam Allardyce, West Ham have a manager experienced in dealing with the daily pressures of Premier League football. Of the signings they have so far made, four have extensive Premier League experience, and in Maiga they have an eye-catching striker with a great record. The forward scored close to 30 goals in 60 games for the French side and had been linked with a move to Newcastle United last winter.
Reading’s promotion last season was unexpected, to say the least. Their attack on the Championship title began in December and resulted in the most unlikely first-place finish in the league’s history. The Royals might not take the Premier League by storm this season, but they’ll certainly give it a good shot.
Brian McDermott is one of the lower league’s more impressive managers and was linked with the Wolverhampton Wanderers prior to their relegation as the man to guide them to safety. Wolves’ loss was Reading’s gain however, and their combination of youth and experience might surprise. The addition of Pogrebnyak and Dannie Guthrie will help, also.
Last but not least, Southampton are another side who surprised last season, having made a remarkable climb from the Football League’s second division through to the Premier League in just two seasons. Much of their success is due to Nigel Adkins, a man whose career in football began as a physiotherapist.
Adkins has built a competitive team, the majority of which is made up of Championship-level players capable of making the step up. Southampton’s summer transfers have continued the trend of buying such players, signing Jay Rodriguez from Burnley, Nathaniel Clyne from Crystal Palace and Steven Davis from Rangers. An impressive manager, a young squad and some great prospects signed, the Saints might be another side to keep an eye on. Adkins has indicated that he’s hoping for European qualification – while that might be a step too far, it shows the kind of confidence that he has in his squad.
Ultimately, what happens this season is as unpredictable as it has been previously; football is an ever-changing sport and the transfer deals and managerial changes we’ve seen this summer just go to prove that everything is in constant flux.
It may be unlikely, but this coming season could be one just as great as the previous one – the league newcomers all play an entertaining football, while teams already accustomed to Premier League football have recruited strongly, too.
The promoted sides might find it difficult to keep up with the pace of those already established teams, but as Norwich, Swansea and QPR proved last year, established teams might just underestimate them.
Whatever the case, it’ll be a season to look forward to, and you’ll be able to watch some of the greatest action live on Sky Sports.
By Robert Sutherland
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