With one extraordinary exception (the Tottenham vs Everton game), the 2011-12 Barclays Premier League (BPL) season will kick off right on schedule this weekend. And I know what you’re thinking: “I want to get into this whole soccer thing, but don’t know what team to follow or what has happened in the summer.” Have no fear. I will assist you in this time of need. Here follows a short primer for each of the 20 teams in the BPL…along with some pictures of pretty English women to brighten your day if, for some reason, you’re not into soccer – and in case you might want to find a reason to follow it.
1. Arsenal: Every season comes anew and, with it, the predictions flutter in that “This is the year Arsenal will fall out of the Top 4!” It’s been happening for the past six years and, like seals returning to False Bay, the doom and gloom merchants are back selling their wares outside the Emirates. Then again, manager Arsene Wenger makes it so easy for the dark clouds to arrive. Sometime this weekend, two of the team’s best players, midfielders Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri will be sold. That these sagas weren’t sorted out before the season commences is mismanagement of the highest regard. However, with Robin Van Persie, Thomas Vermaelen, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Andrei Arshavin and new signing, Gervinho, there’s plenty of talent around to ensure the Gunners keep their Top 4 spot. And who knows? They may surprise folks who are being dismissive of them…again. Prediction: Another Top 4 finish.
2. Aston Villa: Imagine Ohio State hiring former Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez. How much would that rile Buckeye fans? Well, that’s how riled up Villans were at seeing Birmingham FC’s coach Alex McLeish cross the Second City divide to take over at Villa Park. McLeish had just led Birmingham down the relegation trap door and it’s not as if they were playing some pretty football to excuse it. He’s now got to win and fast to try and get supporters on his side and do it without wingers Stewart Downing and Ashley Young, who’ve left for new pastures. At least Charles N’Zogbia has arrived to help offset those losses. McLeish’s job will focus on ensuring there is service to strikers Darren Bent and Gabriel Agbonlahor while finding out how to get the best out of mercurial midfielder Stephen Ireland. Villans will be watching closely and will not hesitate to turn on him. Prediction: Bottom half of the table.
3. Blackburn Rovers: When Indian company Venky’s bought the first team to win the Premier League, they proudly boasted that they would bring players on the caliber of Ronaldinho and Ronaldo to Ewood Park. So far, none of those players – not even the fat, on-their-last-legs originals – have shown up. Instead, Blackburn has had to make do with selling their most promising defender, Phil Jones, to Manchester United while trying to hang onto his towering partner Christopher Samba from leaving for Arsenal. Manager Steve Kean found a way to keep them in the Premier League last season (barely) but another season fighting the vortex of relegation likely looms for them. Prediction: Relegation fighters.
4. Bolton Wanderers: Ever since they got manager Owen Coyle to join them from Burnley, the Wanderers have shifted and changed styles to, dare I say it, becoming one of those feisty teams that it’s exciting to see. Coyle combines some attacking flair – via midfielder Martin Petrov — with Bolton’s renowned grit and toughness – with striker Kevin Davies and defender Gary Cahill. Hanging onto Cahill – who has been linked with a move away to Arsenal – can be a boon for Bolton’s clean sheet record. And in goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen, they have one of the most consistent keepers around. There is cause of concern with the injuries to midfielders Chung-Yong Lee and Stuart Holden as well as the departure of striker Daniel Sturridge back to Chelsea could leave them short a few goals. All the same, they should have enough in the mix to not have to battle relegation this season. Prediction: Midtable comfort.
5. Chelsea: A season without a trophy is untenable for billionaire owner Roman “The Original Prokhorov” Abramovich. So out went manager Carlo Ancelotti and in comes Andres “The New Mourinho” Villas-Boas. His mission remains the same as has been for others: 1. Win the Champions League and the Premier League. 2. Win with style and flair. Villas-Boas will still have the core of players that have won titles under Mourinho and Ancelotti – John Terry, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Didier Drogba – as well as some recent arrivals like defender David Luiz, strikers Romelo Lukaku and Fernando Torres and midfielder Oriol Romeu. He’ll also be looking to blood in youngsters Gael Kakuta, Josh McEachran and Daniel Sturridge into his side. How he balances all this talent and all the demands that big names and big egos bring will determine how successful Villas-Boas is this season. Prediction: Title contenders.
6. Everton: Any talk of the Toffees has to start with manager David Moyes. The Scot somehow manages to always get his team to finish amongst the top sides of the Premier League. This in spite of the fact that there is always a dip in form and results for Everton at one point of the season or another – last year, they started with 3 losses and 4 draws before recording their first win. They have plenty of talent around: goalkeeper Tim Howard, defenders Phil Jagielka and Leighton Baines, midfielders Tim Cahill, Marouane Fellaini, Jack Rodwell and Mikel Arteta and striker Louis Saha, Everton’s problem is always injuries and depth – as in, their talent gets injured and they rarely have the depth to cope with it. If they can just avoid the major dip in form, they might surprise folks. Prediction: Another Top 10 finish.
7. Fulham: The Cottagers are like that great band that everyone likes but no one buys tickets to see. They’re located in West London, have Mohamed Al-Fayed as their owner and have a statue of Michael Jackson outside of the always-lively Craven Cottage. They’ve had success both on the Premier League and in the UEFA Cup/Europa League. They have a group of good players like midfielders Clint Dempsey and Bobby Zamora, defender Brede Hangeland and goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer. They’ve gone from talented manager (Roy Hodgson) to talented manager (Mark Hughes) to talented manager (Martin Jol). All of that and still they can’t seem to narrow the divide that separates them from their London brethren Arsenal and Chelsea. Here’s hoping Jol manages it. Prediction: Top 10-12 finish.
8. Liverpool: After the disastrous run by former owners Tom Hicks and George Gillet, new owner John Henry (he of Boston Red Sox fame) has been happy to support legendary manager Kenny Dalglish in refitting the Reds’ side. And Dalglish has splashed the cash; spending over 110 million pounds in this calendar year on strikers Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll, midfielders Jordan Henderson and Charlie Adam, winger Stewart Downing, defender Jose Enrique and goalkeeper Doni. To be fair, this was necessary in order to fill the squad with the talent and depth needed to regain their former Top 4 spot. While they’ll be missing midfield maestro Steven Gerrard for the season’s start, that could be a blessing as it will let Dalglish blood in his new players before finding out who works best with whom. And they still have Pepe Reina and Jaime Carragher to help anchor their defense. Prediction: Top 4 contenders.
9. Manchester City: The newcomers. The gatecrashers. The nouveau riche. Manchester City are trying to prove that you can use a sledgehammer to solve any problem – in this case, the sledgehammer being their vast sums of money and their problem being a place amongst the elite clubs. Just this summer, they’ve spent 61 million euros on forward Sergio Aguero, defenders Gael Clichy and Stefan Savic and goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon. And reports are that they’ll spend another 22-24 million pounds on Samir Nasri. How he integrates all of these new faces while calmly removing the now-undesired Emmanuel Adebayor, Craig Bellamy, Wayne Bridge and wantaway Carlos Tevez may prove the biggest problem for manager Roberto Mancini. A title challenge is expected now. Prediction: Title contenders.
10.Manchester United: The calm ship amidst the storm. While others rail and suffer and have all sorts of issues, the Red Devils calmly just continue being the standard bearers for the Premier League. Sir Alex Ferguson leads his team to title after title with a steady hand, surviving even the dramas of ownership issues and player departures. All the same, he faces the new season with questions at goalkeeper (newcomer David De Gea taking over for retired Edwin van der Sar) and midfield (with the retirement of Paul Scholes). He’ll still have Wayne Rooney leading the line, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand at the heart of defense – with Chris Smalling and newcomer Phil Jones to help if they get injured – and wingers Nani, Antonio Valencia and newcomer Ashley Young to help add goals. All the same, that central midfield issue could be their Achilles’ heel – unless they do buy Wesley Sneijder and then watch out. Prediction: Title contenders.
11.Newcastle United: It’s always weird to see Newcastle United struggle. They’re the only team in their big city and they’ve a fanbase as devoted to them as any in the world. Still, manager Alan Pardew will have his work cut out for him if he wants to avoid falling into the relegation battle. With newcomers including forward Demba Ba, midfielders Gabriel Obertan, Yohan Cabaye, Mehdi Abeid and Sylvain Marveaux to help defender Fabricio Coloccini, returning midfielder Hatem Ben Arfa and forward Cheick Tiote avoid that fate, they may make some noise and surprise teams at what remains one of the two or three toughest stadiums to get a result as visitor. If nothing else, not having Joey Barton around should make them more predictable – and likeable to others. Prediction: Midtable comfort.
12.Norwich City: One of the three promoted teams from the Championship, Norwich managed the rare back-to-back promotion trick. And their squad shows it. Plenty of small-fee transfers (midfielder Elliott Bennet, forwards James Vaughan and Steve Morrison) and loaned players from bigger clubs (Kyle Naughton from Tottenham, Ritchie De Laet from Manchester United) have come in to bolster their ranks ahead of the new season. They’ll likely still rely on their big players from last year: goalkeeper John Ruddy, defender Russell Martin, midfielders Andrew Crofts and Wes Hoolahan and forwards Grant Holt and Simeon Jackson. All the same, it’s impossible to think that the Canaries won’t struggle to stay in the Premier League. Manager Paul Lambert’s job will likely be safe. Prediction: Relegation fighters.
13.Queens Park Rangers: If nothing else, it is great to have Neil Warnock back in the Premier League. The man is a fun afternoon of quotes and laughs. For a while, it looked like both he and forward Adel Taarabt would be gone by now. But they both will be at Loftus Road to start the year. That should help keep them in the Premier League. Their Championship-winning side of last year will be back: Taarabt, goalkeeper Patrick Kenny, midfielders Shaun Derry and Alejandro Faurlin and defenders Clint Hill and Kaspars Gorkss along with newly-obtained forwards DJ Campbelll and Jay Bothroyd, midfielder Kieron Dyer and defender Danny Gabbidon. Winning the second division doesn’t guarantee they’ll stay up, but they should at least be in the mix to survive this season. Prediction: Relegation fighters.
14.Stoke City: The Potters are an either love-them-or-hate-them side. Tony Pulis’ team are either the embodiment of toughness and tenacity or they are the antithesis of everything that makes soccer fun and interesting to see. If nothing else, the Britannia Stadium is a tough place to get points. Defenders Danny Higginbotham, Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross break up any and all attacks while midfielders Matthew Etherington, Jermaine Pennant and Rory Delap’s long throws are used to feed forwards Kenwyne Jones and Ricardo Fuller into scoring the goals they need to get results. And with the free additions of goalkeeper Daniel Bachmann and defenders Matthew Upson and Jonathan Woodgate, it’s clear they are not changing their style or methods at all. Prediction: Midtable comfort.
15.Sunderland: The Black Cats are a team caught right in the middle of the money and talent divide of the Premier League. They don’t quite have the talent to compete with the cream of the Premier League, but they’re too good to fall into the relegation battle. With Asamoah Gyan, Fraizier Campbell and Lee Cattermole, they’ve managed Top 10 finishes. And they haven’t sat back this summer. They’ve raided plenty of sides for players: John O’Shea and Wes Brown from Manchester United, Craig Gardner and Sebastian Larsson from Birmingham, Roarie Deacon from Arsenal and David Vaughan, Connor Wickham and Keiren Westwood from various lower league sides. Prediction: Another Top 10 finish.
16.Swansea City: The Jacks are the first Welsh team to break into the Premier League by virtue of winning the Championship Play-Offs. They will be hoping that their good luck holds and that defenders Ashley Williams, Alan Tate and Angel Rangel and midfielders Nathan Dyer and Scott Sinclair can do the job once again. They’ll have the support of midfielder Wayne Routledge, goalkeeper Jose Moreira and forwards Leroy Lita and Danny Graham to try and survive in the Premier League. It will be a tall order. Prediction: Relegation fighters.
17.Tottenham Hotspur: In a way, Spurs are a victim of their own success. Beating Manchester City to the last Champions League spot two seasons ago only ensured that the Qatari-backed club would spend more money and drive prices up on players. Now Tottenham find themselves unable to add the needed goals-scoring strikers because they can’t afford them. Instead they’re stuck with unwanted players like Robbie Keane, Peter Crouch and Roman Pavlyuchenko and were only able to add goalkeeper Brad Friedel – because he was free. At least they fended off the covetous attempts by Chelsea for Luka Modric – for this season anyways. Unless they get a goal scorer or two, Tottenham is unlikely to repeat last year’s presence in the Champions League. Prediction: Top 10 finish.
18.West Bromwich Albion: The Baggies are quickly becoming a bogey team for many top sides. Last year, they beat Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City. Striker Peter Odemwingie proved to be the transfer of the season as he bagged 15 goals for just half a million pounds transfer fee. They managed to hang onto him and with Chris Brunt and Somen Tchoyi back for another go around, there’s no reason for them not to be so dangerous once again. Roy Hodgson will try to weave the same magic he spun at Fulham and with Shane Long, Marton Fulop and Zoltan Gera on board, there’s no reason to think he can’t do it. Beware of them! Prediction: Midtable comfort.
19.Wigan Athletic: I think everyone likes Roberto Martinez and what he’s trying to do at the DW Stadium. His team goes forwards and tries to punch above their weight with teams far, far richer than them. Sadly, this almost gets them relegated every season. Losing Charles N’Zogbia to Aston Villa will hurt as it breaks up their best forward partnership – leaving Hugo Rodallega to see if he can strike a new partnership with Victor Moses or looking for the exits for himself. Nor is it likely that reinforcements will be coming a plenty: their only purchase being Omani goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi (midfielder David Jones was a free transfer). I pity the Latics and Martinez their fate but can’t see how they end another season in the top flight. I really like their attitude and desire. Prediction: Relegation fighters.
20.Wolverhampton Wanderers: Wolves found a way to survive the relegation trap door last season. And a good thing too: manager Mick McCarthy should never be out of the spotlight. Their mission will be to cut down some of the goals they allowed last season – 66 in total (only West Brom was worse from the teams that survived). To that end, they’ve brought in Swansea’s goalkeeper Dorus de Vries and defenders Jamie O’Hara and Roger Johnson. They’ll come in and try to help forwards Kevin Doyle, Steven Fletcher and Sylvan Ebans-Blake and midfielders Stephen Hunt and Matt Jarvis in securing enough points for Wolves to somehow avoid getting sucked into another relegation fight. Prediction: Bottom half of the table.
And just in case anyone did get offended by all the pictures of attractive women, just remember: I am following in the footsteps of an English master.