As I write this, terms have been agreed between Liverpool and AC Milan for the transfer of a certain Mario Balotelli and if Balotelli is registered by 5 30 PM Indian time on Friday, then he will be eligible to play against Manchester City. This is but one of the things that should have you excited to the point of salivating at the prospect of the joys, sorrows, twists, turns, excitement, sadness, devastation, jubilation, insomnia, depression, ecstasy, small pleasures, schadenfreude, love, hatred, more love, fake zen and whatever the hell else you can think of in terms of words or phrases that describe any feeling when you consider that we have about 9 months of non-stop football to look forward to.
Whether you look for a quote from the great Bill Shankley or Sir Alex Ferguson or Bob Paisley or Brian Clough or Mourinho or even Cantona or any player or manager in the game, they all will have inevitably at one point or another referred to football as life. For me, it is the single constant that allows me to live with structure. My weeks are meant to lead up to the games telecast. I don’t care when the game is. Hell, I make plans and choose seminar courses based on when United play. Yes, I know that you laugh at my plight but I am (I like to think) honorable enough to know that at one point I laughed at yours. While you may not have suffered a Moyes/Woodward combo, at some point I was in your position looking down and being patronising or downright mean. There is a certain beauty in the uncertainty of football. Are United the new Liverpool? Can van Gaal successfully transition from an era of gutting losses to some respectability? Are Chelsea going to be unstoppable? Can Arsenal finally mount a challenge that lasts? Is Ramsey the new Fabregas? Will City sustain last season’s performances? How in the world do you get a team of Ronaldo, Bale, Kroos, Benzema, James Rodriguez, Modric with Di Maria on the bench in real life when you thought that Football Manager or FIFA was the only place to do this? Who will Suarez bite next? Will he bite or is going to add another weapon to his armoury? Will Liverpool win the league finally and give Gerrard what he so desperately craves along with the red half of Scouseland? Will I ever run out of questions? Is there a limit? Is football not the most wonderful thing? Maybe you don’t think so but that doesn’t matter a hoot to those of us who do.
Now that I have ranted. This is what my piece is about. I will attempt to analyze and predict how the Barclays Premier League will pan out.
The Title and Champions League
Over the course of the summer, Chelsea have basically gone mad and acquired in record time Cesc Fabregas, Filipe Luis, Kurt Zouma, got back Thibart Courtois, Didier Drogba and Diego Costa whilst letting go of David Luiz, Ashley Cole, Lukaku and Frank Lampard. Chelsea arguably have the best squad in the league with two players present in every position including the very intriguing contest between Cech and Courtois for the starting goalkeeper spot. Their attacking midfielders consist of Hazard, Oscar, Schurrle, Willian, Mohammad Salah. They finally have a proven (Well, 1 season but what a fantastic season!) striker with a Chelsea legend in Drogba and frequent butt of jokes Torres to back him up. John Terry has had a second wind under Mourinho whose defense is so well stocked that Filipe Luis is on the bench. But the key is Cesc Fabregas who has slotted into the team seamlessly. He has a point to prove and he adds oodles of quality to the team. Last season, Chelsea were guilty of not being able to break down teams that played with 9 or 10 men behind the ball. But watch his performance against Burnley to see a trailer of his potential impact. It becomes hard to look past them for the title.
Manchester City have signed Fernando to add depth to midfield while letting go of Javi Garcia. They have signed Sagna and Mangala to boost their defense and have a fit and firing Jovetic who will want to put an injury ridden season behind him. Add to that the loan of Lampard and the signing of young Bruno Zuculini, it is a squad that has tremendous depth. While Yaya Toure and David Silva along with Nasi and Navas remain the creative outlets, one feels that City require Aguero to remain fit for at least 3/4 of the season to mount a title challenge and be able to sustain a successful defense of their title. City have also signed Willy Caballero to compete with Joe Hart. City may have a very strong squad, but one feels that Chelsea have the edge given their signings and the tactical set up. Moreover, City are an injury to Vincent Kompany away from potential defensive disarray. Defending the title might prove to be a little too much for them.
Arsenal have signed the wonderfully gifted Alexis Sanchez. They have replaced Sagna with Debuchy and have acquired a future England international in Calum Chambers who has wowed everyone with his excellent performances so far including against Besiktas in the Champions League qualifier. They have brought back Joel Campbell who had an excellent World Cup. Aaron Ramsey is delightful and the engine in Arsenal’s midfield while Ozil is still to return to the team. However, Arsenal have so far failed to sign the defensive midfielder that they require in order to sustain a title challenge rather than fade away towards the end. Khedira has been mooted but he apparently was unable to agree on personal terms. The biggest concern for Arsenal, however, will be the fact that they have Olivier Giroud leading the line and only Yaya Sanogo as an alternative. Arsenal need a top quality striker who can act as the focal point and score 20 goals. Giroud does not seem to have the requisite quality. Playing Walcott through the middle might be an option but one feels that Arsenal require someone top class in defensive midfield and striking departments to really challenge.
Liverpool have lost Luis Suarez to Barcelona but Brendan Rodgers has used the window to fill the holes in his squad. They have acquired Lambert as a Plan B, Adam Lallana and Lazar Markovic as attacking midfielders, Dejan Lovren in defense, Alberto Moreno and Javi Manquillo as full backs and Mario Balotelli very recently to dovetail with Daniel Sturridge, Sterling and Coutinho in attack. Steven Gerrard is getting on in years but remains one of the best midfielders in the league and has evolved into a deep lying distributor. Jordan Henderson is the box-to-box midfielder but where Liverpool lack is in the defensive midfield department where Lucas seems to have regressed ever so slightly and Emre Can may not be a ready made replacement yet given that his value lies more in potential rather than instant impact. Liverpool have failed to get over (on the basis of early evidence) their defensive frailties. Rodgers needs to make sure that he sorts his defensive issues out because at the moment, Liverpool have a breathtaking array of attacking talent and with defensive resolve, they could be serious contenders.
And now comes the painful bit. Manchester United made a mistake in appointing Moyes. They then stuck with him for too long. They made dreadful decisions last summer in signing Fellaini, a player, who was not suited to the system and playing a system which was bizarre. Let us call all of that Moyes + Woodward = Shit. United began this summer brightly acquiring Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera. But since then, Woodward rot has set in. Only after a disastrous opening day defeat to Swansea did the smoke from a successful pre-season lift to reveal an imbalanced squad that needs multiple holes plugged. Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra need to be replaced and while signing Marcos Rojo is a gamble in itself, it was a move made necessary by the presence of Chris Smalling as one of the back three in a 3-5-2. United realistically need to sign a defensive midfielder, another central defender and if possible a winger while offloading deadwood from the squad. Their failure to do so leaves them on the precipice of another painful season but with a far better manager with a proven pedigree. This is the transition that United should have had after Sir Alex but they have paid for misplaced nepotism and loyalty with the result being a squad that seems afraid to play at home. Anyone who says that United will qualify for the Champions League is clearly not seeing the same picture. Their squad is not as good and their confidence is “smashed”. It will take a massive clean up and patience but United should realistically aim to try and make the top 4. Anything else would be a surprise.
Everton have made the loans of Barry and Lukaku permanent. They have signed the Bosnian Muhamed Besic and replaced Gerard Delofeu’s loan with Christian Atsu’s loan. Due to a lack of financial clout, even though they did spend 28 Million Quid on Lukaku, Everton have essentially stood still although the continued growth of Ross Barkley, John Stones and Seamus Coleman means that Everton can still push for the Champions League. In Roberto Martinez, they have one of the better managers in the league but the added headache of Europe on a squad that is still slightly lacking in depth may tell towards the second half of the season.
Tottenham have appointed Mauricio Pochettino as their manager following his success with Southampton. They have acquired Eric Dier and Ben Davies to strengthen and add depth to the backline. They have held on to Lloris and acquired Vorm to provide cover and competition. De Andre Yedlin will join later to hopefully depose the highly overrated Kyle Walker but Tottenham have failed to add real class to their striking department with Adebayor, Soldado and the ever improving Harry Kane making up a strikeforce that does not inspire confidence. They rely very heavily on Christian Eriksen but will be hoping that Erik Lamela can put an injury plagued and therefore disastrous first season behind him to justify the club record fee that Tottenham paid for him. In truth, Tottenham need to accept that it will take some time before Pochettino can begin to get the best out of this team which requires a striker and probably even a better centre half to really challenge.
The Best of the Rest and the Relegation Zone
Stoke, Newcastle, Southampton, Swansea and West Ham should do just fine and will probably finish anywhere between 8 and 12. Beyond them, Hull will struggle to maintain form given their Europa League commitments but should be clear of the relegation zone. One fears for Burnley who may have a lot of character but lack in quality. Similarly, Leicester City will probably struggle to gain a foothold in the league given their current squad status. The third relegation spot will see Sunderland, Aston Villa, West Brom, QPR and Crystal Palace in a mad scramble. Truth be told, Crystal Palace are only on the list given the shenanigans involved in the sudden and ill-timed departure of Tony ‘Miracle Man’ Pulis who made Palace a solid mid-table outfit. However, a decent squad and the appointment of Tim Sherwood probably will see Palace remain in the top flight. Sunderland, West Brom, Villa and QPR are too unpredictable with either a new unproved and uninspiring manager (West Brom), lack of team chemistry and appointing idiots like Glen Hoddle (QPR) or just general Jekyll/Hyde style transformations (Sunderland and Villa).
Top Four in order – Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal (customary 4th)
Manchester United in 5th followed by Tottenham and then Everton
8th – 15th in order – Southampton, Newcastle, Swansea, Stoke, West Ham, Hull City, Aston Villa, Sunderland
16th – Crystal Palace
17th – QPR
Relegation Predictions in order – West Brom, Leicester, Burnley.
There we go. Balls on the line and stuff. Notice how I’m not a United fan and an idiot at the same time. Truth be told, I’m damn smart but that’s a discussion for some other time. Not all of us are even though we are fans of the club. Don’t generalise. But for those people who believe United will magically obliterate everyone, please consider the fact that the likelihood of that happening is roughly the same as Emily Blunt dating me. Basically, it would be a dream come true but it really doesn’t look fucking likely.
The last bit of this piece is to simply hope that you enjoy the infinite beauty of football this season. I certainly will. And as long as we are hoping, hope that Emily Blunt reads this and is impressed.