Friday, 17 August 2012

Crystal Balls out Football is Back

On the eve of the big kick-off  I have decided do a Mystic Meg and predict the outcome of next season, which can only make me look like an idiot come May although it might not take that long cue Southampton beating Man City and two of my predictions start to look a bit suspect. Predicting the outcome of a competition that is an 11 a side team game run over 10 months and 760 fixtures should be difficult add in the fact that it is a ball game played on grass through an English winter and it should be virtually impossible. Indeed if the teams were evenly matched it would be impossible to predict unfortunately they are not.

The Premier League is a series of leagues within a league there are 3 maybe 4 genuine title contenders there are maybe another 2 or 3 teams who some realistic hopes of a top 4 finish. Then there is the rest most of whom are not so strong as to have banished the spectre of relegation and many will feel its chill presence during the course of the winter and most will only be safe from it's fearful clutches until after the clocks have returned to British Summer Time. So here goes with my club by club analysis followed by tips for the season ahead


Manager Arsene Wenger
Last Year after a poor start including an 8:2 mauling by Man United Arsenal rallied to finish a creditable 3rd, however this was only achieved because of a Spurs blow up (see below) and the absolute outstanding form of Robin Van Persie which compensated for many of the deficiencies elsewhere in the side.
Transfer Activity 
signed  Lukas Podoloski (Cologne) Olivier Giroud (Montpelier) Santi Cazorla (Malaga)
sold / released Manuel Almunia (Watford), Gavin Hoyte (released)  Ryo Miyaichi (Wigan loan) Robin Van Persie (Man United) Kyle Bartley (Swansea)
Speculation over Van Persie' s future has overshadowed some astute business and whilst the much anticipated return of Jack Wilshere has been delayed to October there is plenty to suggest that all is not doom and gloom at the Emirates. That said losing Song to Barcelona would be a blow although a replacement in Yann M'Vila is apparently lined up
Arsenal might not mount a sustained title challenge but I would be surprised if they are not in the top four at the end of the season. That said their new strikers Giroud and Podoloski need to settle quickly and maybe more than some of the other top teams Arsenal need their key players such as Arteta and Vermaelen to stay fit for the bulk of the season. Even without Van Persie the squad has far too much quality to finish below 6th
Where they will finish 3rd to 6th

Aston Villa

Manager Paul Lambert
Last Year  Towards the end of last season they were in free fall whilst some of the malaise could be put down to the untimely absence of key players through injury and illness too many of those that did play put in too many substandard performances.
Transfer Activity
signed  Brett Holman (AZ Alkmaar)  Karim El Ahmadi (Feyenoord) Matthew Lowton (Sheffield United) Ron Vlaar (Feyenoord)
sold / released Emile Heskey (released), Carlos Cuellar (Sunderland), Brad Guzan (released) James Collins(West Ham)
There is a somewhat glib view of Aston Villa that last season's woes were down to the appointment of Alex McLeish having got rid of him everything is set fair at Villa Park, things may not be that straight forward. Whilst the return to fitness of Darren Bent will be a welcome boost to new coach Paul Lambert he still needs to coax the full potential out of N'Zogbia and Agbonlahor on a consistent basis if Villa are to improve significantly on last year's dire showing.
The additions that Lambert has made to the squad are solid rather than eye-catching, El-Ahmadi will add a bit of steel to a lightweight midfield and Ron Vlaar is certainly an upgrade on James Collins. The activity would suggest that the club is looking to live within its means and retrench in mid table which provided Bent is fit and firing that will be the outcome. However if things go awry the new manager might find himself in a relegation scrap with a squad whose self belief looked brittle last year when their season started to unravel
Where they will finish 10th to 18th


Manager Roberto Di Matteo
Last Year Chelsea were having a forgettable season under AVB but it turned into a remarkable one following his dismissal which ended in twin triumphs in the Champions League and FA Cup finals. The stunning last few months of the campaign got interim manager Roberto Di Matteo the hottest hot seat in English football on a permanent basis that's if any Chelsea manager can be regarded as permanent.
Transfer Activity
signed Marko Marin (Werder Bremen), Eden Hazard (Lille) Thorgan Hazard (Lens) Oscar (Internacional)
sold / released Didier Drogba (Shanghai Shenhua), Salomon Kalou (Lille) Kevin de Bruyne (Werder Bremen loan) Romelu Lukaku  (WBA loan) Jose Bosingwa (released), Thibaut Courtois (Atletico Madrid, loan)
Looking at at the season ahead there are is a golden scenario, the remaining players from the Muhriono era have a glorious swansong Torres finds his shooting boots and the new arrivals bed in quickly. If this happens Chelsea could emerge as genuine title contenders however if more than one of these things fails to materialise Chelsea might struggle to make the top four. 
Chelsea's summer splurge in the transfer market has given Di Matteo a few selection headaches. He now has an abundance of attacking midfielders and wingers and how he integrates the dizzy array of talent at his disposal without losing the solidity that characterised his spell as interim boss will be key to how well Chelsea do this term. 
Where they will finish 1 to 5


Manager David Moyes
Last Year Par for the club finished a comfortable 7th and had a good run the FA cup run which ended in a hugely disappointing defeat to Liverpool in the semi final.
Transfers Activity
signed Steven Naismith (Rangers) Steven Pienaar(Spurs)
Sold / released Apredam Forshaw (Brentford), James McFadden (released), Marcus Hahnemann (released) Tim Cahill (New York Red Bulls) Joseph Yobo (Fenerbahce) Jack Rodwell (Man City)
Too strong and well organised to seriously be in danger of relegation but not strong enough to mount a serious challenge for a Champions League place. Last January's capture of Jelavic has provided the fire power to ensure that they will probably finish in the top half of the league and could be strong contenders in both cup competitions. 
As ever Moyes has limited scope in the transfer market but the sale of Cahill has freed up resources so has been able to sign Pienaar and Naismith.It remains to be seen if the fee they recieve for Jack Rodwell will used to strengthen the squad or Everton's flimsy balance sheet.
Where they will finish 6th to 10th


Manager Martin Jol
Last Year A strong finish to a season that started in June saw Fulham finish a creditable 9th.
Transfer Activity
signed  Mladen Petric (Hamburg) Sascha Riether (Cologne Loan) Hugo Rodallega (Wigan) George Williams (MK Dons)
sold / released Andrew Johnson (QPR) Danny Murphy (Blackburn) Dickson Etuhu (Blackburn)Bjorn Helge Riise (released), Orlando Sa (released)
A new Fulham is starting to emerge under the stewardship of Martin Jol many of the team's regulars have moved on Johnson and Murphy following Zamora. They have some exciting talent in Dembele,  and Ruiz. However it now seems unlikely the influential Clint Dempsey who was central to their success last year will be a Fulham player for much longer which is a real setback 
The failure to sign Pavel Pogrebnyak after a successful loan stint last year might leave them short of a goal scorer however the signing of Rodallega and Petric might fill the gap and providing they do Fulham can look forward to a successful season.
Where they will finish 9th to 15th


Manager Brendan Rodgers
Last Year Two cup finals including a win in the League Cup were not enough to compensate for Liverpool's lowest league finish in the best part of 20 years with their home form looking particularly suspect.
Transfers Activity
signed Fabio Borini (Roma) Joe Allen (Swansea) Oussama Assaidi (Heerenveen)
sold / released Dirk Kuyt (Fenerbache), Fabio Aurelio (Gremio, free), David Amoo (Preston North End, free) Maxi Rodriguez (Newell's Old Boys)  Alberto Aquilani (Fiorentina) Craig Bellamy (Cardiff)
Being Liverpool coach is starting to look like one of the tougher jobs in English football. Here is the catch 22 situation. To be able to pay the wages demanded by the top players Liverpool need to qualify for the Champions League, however to qualify for the Champions League they need to attract top players. Brendan Rodgers needs to attain a fourth place finish with a squad that might be the sixth best in the league. It is far from a hopeless cause because they are certainly not that far behind Arsenal and Spurs but they are light years behind Chelsea and the two Manchester Clubs.
Despite the Dalglish/ Comolli spending spree Rodgers has continued to spend heavily to restructure the squad he has moved on a number of players including the expensive misfit Aquilani. The overall impact is that the new manager does have a squad with talented players but it lacks the depth to fight on a number of fronts.If he can revive Cole's Anfield career nurse Gerrard through 20 plus league appearances and find a consistent source of goals then providing the league is almost the club's sole focus fourth spot is within their reach. Extended adventures in any of the cup competitions might spread the club's limited resources too thinly,
Where they will finish 4th to 9th

Manchester City

Manager Roberto Mancini
Last Year Secured their first title in the Premier League era in the most dramatic fashion. At one stage it looked like they would cruise to the title with a month to spare however the season was nearly derailed by the off field soap opera that surrounded Tevez and the none stop comedy review otherwise known as Mario Balloteli.
Transfers Activity
signed Jack Rodwell (Everton)
sold / released Owen Hargresaves (Released) Wayne Bridge (Brighton loan) Vladimir Weiss (Pescara)
The blue moon will continue to rise given the almost limitless resources City are able to deploy with only the prospect the Financial Fair Play regulations keeping the monster in check.
Winning the title last year showed that Mancini has the skills to mould a disparate bunch of footballing mercenaries into an effective unit and winning will reinforce the team's belief.
Whilst City have been remarkably quiet in the transfer market (they need to lose one or two expensive misfits that are still hanging around on huge wages) this summer there is no obvious weaknesses in their squad and it is plenty strong enough to retain the title. It is only the desire to have a real tilt at the Champions League that requires them to strengthen at all.
Where they will finish 1 to 4

Manchester United

Manager Sir Alex Ferguson 
Last Year Failed to retain the title at the death despite amassing 89 points which would have been enough to secure the title in most seasons. A rare season devoid of silverware and marred by an early exit in the Champions League.
Transfer Activity
signed Nick Powell (Crewe), Shinji Kagawa (Dortmund) Robin van Persic (Arsenal)
sold / released Tomasz Kuszczak (Brighton), Michael Owen (released), Richie De Laet (Leicester), Matty James (Leicester) Fabio Da Silva (QPR loan) Park Ji-Sung (QPR), Paul Pogba (Juventus)
Will this season be the Scholes and Giggs final swansong and will it end on a high note? I'm not sure. The addition of Van Persie and Kagawa further strengthens a group of young players including Smalling Jones Wellbeck and Cleverly who have yet to reach their peak and therefore United can improve on last year's showing. However Darren Fletcher's continued absence from the midfield does leave a gap and at the back Ferdinand and Vidic were once an imperious combination however age and injury are starting to catch up with them.
Despite the question marks it would be unwise to discount United's title chances entirely and it is difficult to imagine that they would finish outside the top four
Where they will finish 1 to 4

Newcastle United

Manager Alan Pardew
Last Year "Hard to see them improving on last years finish, have to be wary of second season syndrome. Will struggle without a 20 goal a season striker, a relegation battle could be a consequence." Was not untypical of the previews from last year following the sale of Nolan, Barton and Enrique. Ten months on a 6th place finish and Newcastle find themselves back in Europe for the first time since 2006/2007 and the pundits all look a bit shame faced
Transfers Activity
signed Romain Amalfitano (Reims) Gael Bigirimana (Coventry) Curtis Good (Melbourne Heart) Vurnon Anita (Ajax)
sold / released Danny Guthrie (Reading) Leon Best (Blackburn) Fraser Forster (Celtic) Peter Lovenkrands (Birmingham), Alan Smith (MK Dons)
Facing a Europa league campaign which will stretch their squad Newcastle might do well to match last season's finish. However they continue to pick up bright young talent and will be one of the more enterprising teams in the division and provided the core of the team stays fit should finish in the top half of the league and might just push for a Champions League spot.
The Ba and Cisse combination up front will again be critical to Newcastle's chances however with such a potent strike force it is difficult to see them finishing out of the top half of the division.
Where they will finish 4th to 9th

Norwich City 

Manager Chris Hughton
Last Year Started the year as many pundits tip for relegation however never looked like struggling despite limited investment in the squad that had  gained promotion and finished 11th.
Transfers Activity
signed Steven Whittaker (Rangers) Michael Turner (Sunderland) Jacob Butterfield (Barnsley) Robert Snodgrass (Leeds)
sold / released Zak Whitbread (Leicester City), Aaron Wilbraham (Crystal Palace), Josh Dawkin (released), Adam Drury (Leeds) Andrew Crofts (Brighton) Daniel Ayala (Nottingham Forest loan)
It will be hard for the team to emulate last season's success. Last years squad has by and large been retained and they have raided the Championship for reinforcements. It will be interesting how Snodgrass and Butterfield perform at a higher level.
Chris Hughton's first priority is to address the issue of a defence that leaked too many goals last year and whilst the addition of Whittaker and Turner should improve the back line Hughton will be keen to be better organised and disciplined as a team. If the new coach is able to improve their defencive record then Norwich could defy the tipsters for another season but if he is unable to do so they will struggle.
Where they will finish 12th to 20th

Queens Park Rangers 

Manager Mark Hughes
Last Year Stayed up in the most dramatic of circumstances on the final day of the season. The season saw the replacement of Warnock with Hughes and a desperate supermarket dash in the January transfer window yet the club still only managed to survive by the skin of their teeth and probably in no small part due to the ineptitude of others
Transfers Activity
signed Robert Green (West Ham) Ryan Nelsen (Tottenham), Andrew Johnson (Fulham) Samba Diakite (Nancy) Fabio Da Silva (Man United loan) Park Ji-sung (Man United) Junior Hoilet (Blackburn Rovers)
sold / released Peter Ramage (released), Danny Gabbidon (released), Danny Shittu (Millwall), Fitz Hall (Watford), Gary Borrowdale (released), Lee Cook (released), Rowan Vine (St Johnstone), Patrick Agyemang (released) Akos Buzsaky (released) Heidar Helguson (Cardiff)
Following their final day survival Mark Hughes said "This club will never be in this situation again while am connected with the club"If throwing money at a team guarantees anything in football then he will be right. Unfortunately for QPR it only guarantees wealthier footballers and agents, however there is no harm in trying, cue mass clear out of journeymen pro's from QPR's Championship days enter a host of players with Premier League experience and biggish reputations, although one or two of their reputations have been built on outstanding seasons that younger readers might struggle to recall. 
Joey Barton last summer's marque signing will be banned for the opening 12 games but given the signing of Diakte and Ji-Sung is unlikely to be missed. The bigger concern for QPR's manager is a leaky defence, last season only the three relegated teams had worse defencive records and unless Rangers tighten up at the back they could struggle despite their owner's heavy investment.
Where they will finish 10th to 18th


Manager Brian McDermit 
Last Year Promoted as Champions from the Championship which is was a remarkable achievement following the previous season's loss in the play off final
Transfers Activity
signed Garath McCleary (Nottingham Forest) Danny Guthrie(Newcastle United) Pavel Pogrebnyak (Stuttgart) Nicky Shorey (WBA) Adrian Mariappa (Watford)
sold / released Brian Howard (released),Tomasz Cywka (released), Andy Griffin (released), Jack Mills (released)
Reading have have added significantly to the squad that won the championship last year. If Pogrebnyk can reproduce the form he showed at Fulham last year his goals alone might be the difference between staying up and a swift return to the championship. Last season's triumph was based on a miserly defence however it remains to be seen if they can be as effective at a higher level with just the addition of Mariappa and Shorey.
Where they will finish 15th to 20th 


Manager Nigel Adkins
Last Year Completed are remarkable recovery from being in administration and relegated to Division 1 with a second successive automatic promotion as runners up to Reading
Transfers Activity
signed Jay Rodriguez (Burnley) Steven Davis (Rangers),Paulo Gazzaniga(Gillingham) Nathan Clyne (Crystal Palace)
sold / released David Connolly (released), Bartosz Bialkowski (Notts County), Lee Holmes (Preston North End), Ryan Doble (released), Aaron Martin (Crystal Palace, loan) Dan Harding (Notts Forest)
As ever with a newly promoted club there is a question mark as to whether or not they will be able to bridge the gap. Southampton have been busy in the transfer market but have not yet signed anyone with a proven Premier League track record aside from Steven Davis.
Much will hinge on how well their strike force of Lambert Rodriguez and Sharpe fare against the tougher defences they will encounter in the Premier League. Similar questions were being asked of Norwich's front men last year and if the outcome is the same Southampton will survive.
Where they will finish 15th to 20th 

Stoke City

Manager Tony Pulis
Last Year A mixed season which included qualifying for the knock out stages of the Europa League but maybe that effort caught up with the players and their form dipped alarming in the closing stages of the season
Transfers Activity
signed Michael Kightly (Wolves) Geoff Cameron (Houston Dynamo) Jamie Ness (Rangers)
sold / released Andrew Davies (Bradford) Jonathan Woodgate (M'boro) Danny Collins (Nottingham Forest) Tom Soares (Released) Ricardo Fuller (Released) Salif Diao (Released)
Without the distraction of the Europa league most observers expect City to improve on their form of last season. If the fall off was due purely due to their European adventure then it is not unreasonable to expect the Potters to finish around 10th, however if the rest of the Division has worked out how to cope with  their brand of football then they might struggle. There is no plan B at the Britannia if brute force does not succeed then try more brute force and providing a team has some big and strong players even if it means playing another centre back it can be countered. A further concern for Tony Pulis is aside from Crouch the team carries very little by the way of goal scoring threat.
Where they will finish 10th to 18th 


Manager Martin  O'Neil
Last Year A poor start to the season saw Steve Bruce  replaced by Martin O'Neil. Following O'Neil's appointment results improved but tailed off again towards the end of the season.
Transfers Activity
signed Carlos Cuellar (Aston Villa) Louis Saha (Spurs)
sold / released Craig Gordon (released), Jordan Cook (released) Asamoah Gyan (Al-Ain) Michael Turner (Norwich) George McCartney (West Ham)
The team should be capable of a mid table finish but aside from a honeymoon period after O'Neil's appointment last year's showing was pretty mediocre. There would seem to be one major issue at the Stadium of Light and that is the lack of a proven goal scorer since the departure of Darren Bent. Campbell's return to fitness and the arrival of Saha might go some way to addressing the problem but further strengthening is required and at the time of writing the Weasiders are pursuing a number of options. Providing they can add some more fire power in front of an obdurate defence Sunderland should have no major concerns about relegation but equally finishing much higher 10th would seem beyond them. 
Where they will finish 10th to 17th 

Swansea City

Manager Micheal Laudrup
Last Year Finished 11th to defy predictions of relegation and gained many plaudits along the way for their passing football
Transfers Activity
signed Jose Manuel Flores (Genoa) Jonathan de Guzman(Villarreal) Michu (Rayo Vallecano) Itay Shechter (Kaiserslautern)  Kyle Bartley (Arsenal)
sold / released Joe Allen (Liverpool)
Swansea face a tough season under their new coach Micheal Laudrup. Having played with remarkable freedom last year the team will now be under greater pressure to meet heightened expectations and opposition coaches will approach their fixtures with Swansea with a little bit more caution and game plans designed to negate their free flowing football.
The loss of  Allen and Sigurdsson are obvious blows to the side that looked so effective last year and it remains to be seen how Swansea cope without 2 of their most talented players. Laudrup has turned to the Spanish market to reinforce his side and much will depend on how the new recruits particularly Michu adapt to the Premier League.
Where they will finish 12th to 19th

Tottenham Hotspur

Manager Andre Villas Boas
Last Year Another season tinged with the thoughts of what might have been. Finishing 4th was ultimately disappointing particularly given that they were sitting comfortably in 3rd just 2 points off the lead in January and critically 10 points ahead of arch rivals Arsenal  who eventually pipped them for 3rd place and the much coveted champions league spot. Reached the FA Cup semi final only to be thrashed by Chelsea. Failure to get the season over the line eventually cost Redknapp his job
Transfers Activity
signed Gylfi Sigurdsson (Hoffenhiem) Jan Vertonghen (Ajax)
sold / released Niko Kranjcar (Dynamo Kiev), Ryan Nelsen (QPR, free), Louis Saha (Sunderland)
Vedran Corluka (Lokomotiv Moscow) Steven Pienaar (Everton)
Villas-Boas might find the Spurs dressing room more receptive to his ideas than their Chelsea counterparts in that he inherits an attack minded team and the additions he has made to squad look good on paper, however how much the loss of Modric will impact Spurs progress remains to be seen and the current impasse on the Adebayor transfer leaves them very short of strikers. With the transfer window still open these issues can be addressed but the new signings will need to hit the ground running or Spurs could find themselves too far back in the chasing pack to make a serious bid for a Champions League spot.
Where they will finish 3rd to 8th 

West Bromwich Albion

Manager Steve Clarke 
Last Year Finished 10th which is the clubs highest league finish in the Premier League era despite stuttering home form which at times lead to brief flirtations with the relegation battle.
Transfers Activity
signed Ben Foster (Birmingham City) Yassine El Ghanassy (Gent loan) Claudio Yacob (Racing) Markus Rosenberg (Werder Bremen) Romelu Lukaku (Chelsea loan)
sold / released Nicky Shorey (Reading), Joe Mattock (Sheffield Wednesday), Somen Tchoyi (released) Keith Andrews (Bolton) Paul Scharner (Hamburg) Simon Cox (Notts Forest)
New manager Steve Clarke has made some bullish statements about pushing his players to hit the 50 point mark this season and have a tilt at one of the domestic cups.Whilst there is no point in being anything other positive and setting players challenging goals the reality is the team's first priority is get to 40 points and everything else is a bonus.
The squad he inherited is the strongest and most experienced the club has had in the premier league era and the club has bolstered their forward line with the addition of Lukaku and Rosenberg. As with most of those teams in the bottom half of the division if the his first choice XI stay fit for the bulk of the season he can look forward to a solid mid table finish and maybe even push towards another record breaking season. Like Bolton last year problems will arise if Clarke has to rely on his second string because of long term injuries.
Where they will finish 10th to 17th

West Ham United

Manager Sam Alladyce 
Last Year Having kept the bulk of the relegated squad together West Ham were favourites to return to the top flight at the first attempt however they only achieved there aim through the play-off route
Transfer Activity
signed Jussi Jaaskelainen (Bolton), Stephen Henderson (Portsmouth), Mohamed Diame (Wigan) George McCartney (Sunderland) Modibo Maiga (Sochaux)  James Collins(Aston Villa) Alou Diarra (Marseille)
sold / released Robert Green (QPR), Julien Faubert (released), John Carew (released), Abdoulaye Faye (Hull), Papa Bouba Diop (released), Frank Nouble (Wolves) Freddie Sears (Colchester) Ravel Morrison (Birmingham City)
Alladyce has assembled a workman like squad at Upton Park it might not be pretty but it is going to be effective. A lot hinges on how prolific Cole, Vaz Te and Maynard can be at a higher level and how quickly Maiga adapts to Premier League if they fail to fire it could be a tough season for the Hammers. However Alladyce's teams are notoriously tough to beat so even if the strikers are not prolific the Hammers are likely to grind out enough points to survive.
Where they will finish 12th to 18th

Wigan Athletic

Manager Roberto Martinez

Last Year For much of the season Wigan looked like relegation certainties only to spring back into life during the final third of the season. To put the turn around in context had they sustained their form of the last 12 games for the whole season they would have qualified for the champions league.
Transfers Activity
signed Fraser Fyvie(Aberdeen)  Ivan Ramis (Mallorca) Ryo Miyaichi (Arsenal Loan) Arouna Kone (Levante)
sold / released Chris Kirkland (Sheffield Wednesday), Mohamed Diame (West Ham) Rodallega (Fulham)
Grim to okay. Another closed season sees departures of key players although Rodallega  and Diame hardly tore up trees last year but if  Moses is sold he would be be missed. However much the same has been written about Wigan almost since the day they were promoted to the Premier League in 2005 and somehow they keep managing to defy the odds. 
Critically; Roberto Martinez remains in charge at the JW and if he can inspire his charges to the level of performances achieved in the final two months of last year Wigan will not struggle but that is unlikely.
Where they will finish 15th to 20th


Champions Man City I don't buy the theory they will dominate English football for a generation I just think right now City look like a better option than either of their two closest rivals Chelsea or Man United both of whom could run them close.

FA Cup  Man United it is almost unheard of for United to go two consecutive seasons without silverware I suspect this United team is still improving and might not sustain a league title challenge but with a typically strong finish to the season they would be my tip for the FA Cup

League Cup Everton on their day are a match for most sides and are always difficult to beat which should stand them in good stead for having a decent cup run and maybe this time they will bag a trophy for long serving manager David Moyes

Champions League Real Madrid Only two have the last twenty two finalists have come from outside Italy England Germany or Spain if anything UEFA's flagship tournament is even more of a closed shop than the top of the Premier League. Particularly as the competition is structured in a way that benefits European football's elite. It is difficult to look beyond the two giants of Spanish football and frankly there is very little to chose between them I flipped a coin and Jose won. The rise of the Arab backed Man City or PSG might upset the ruling elite but both clubs might have to overcome tough opening groups due to their limited success in UEFA competitions in recent times.

Europa League Napoli  Given the relative strength of the Premier League it is surprising English Clubs  have not done better in the competition since it went to the current league format only Fulham have managed to win through to the final.I believe the leading teams do not take it seriously because they do not want jeopardise qualification to the much more lucrative Champions League and some of the lesser teams that have qualified have been strong enough or lacked experience against European opposition to make much headway. Newcastle might buck the trend but I think the winners will probably come from a country such as Spain or Italy where domestic competition is a little less intense than the Premier League and I will go with Napoli who looked impressive in last year's Champions League.

Relegation Southampton Wigan & Stoke In truth I think any 3 teams from 10 could go down and at least one will probably be relegated mainly because they are a little bit unlucky with injuries to key players at key times. My picks are Southampton because I think they are weakest of the promoted teams, Wigan because they cannot defy gravity indefinitely and Stoke because I do not think all is well at the Britannia

Champions League Qualification Man City Man United Chelsea Arsenal  The race for the Champions League qualifying spots is often closer than the title itself. I think Aresenal will be engaged in a a four way scrap for the fourth spot which could include Spurs Liverpool and Newcastle. On balance I think they will edge it but to be honest it is too close to call.

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