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With the Barclay’s English Premier League getting underway this weekend it’s time to take a shot at predicting how the season will turn out. Last year’s champions, Manchester United, were all but written off as title challengers before the season began, and Reading was picked to finish at the bottom of the table by many. So much for prognostications. Now after a summer of some lavish spending around the EPL, here is one writer’s feeble attempt to make sense of what will most likely be a wildly entertaining and unpredictable season. Feel free to remind me of all of the crow I will need to eat when the real standings turn these upside down.

1. Manchester United: Ok, so no big surprises right off the bat. It’s hard to bet against the Red Devils after the summer they’ve had. In bringing in Nani, Anderson, Owen Hargreaves and most recently Carlos Tevez, Manager Sir Alex Ferguson has not only strengthened his squad for the EPL, but also to conquer Europe. His signings also signal that United are looking to solidify their future as the careers of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes wind down. The only area where United did not beef up was in defense. While Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand formed a solid partnership in the middle, any injuries (especially if Gabriel Heinze leaves) could leave United a little thin at the back. Like last season a fast start will be key for United to get points early so that they will again be the ones being chased.

2. Chelsea: It was a strangely quiet summer on the signing front for the Blues. Instead of splashing out the millions like summers past, Chelsea let the players come to it, splurging only on French winger Florent Malouda. The arrivals of Steve Sidwell, Claudio Pizarro and Tal Ben Haim on free transfers were a coup. While the trio may not be regulars in the starting XI they will bring quality and depth. They will help the most when the African Cup of Nations rolls around in January and Manager Jose Mourinho loses Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, Saloman Kalou and Mikel John Obi for an extended stretch. Still this is Chelsea and there is plenty of talent to go around (Joe Cole, Ashley Cole, Ricardo Carvalho, etc.) as Michael Ballack and Andriy Shevchenko looking to rebound from sub-par first campaigns. If the Blues can remain healthy this year (especially all-world goalie Petr Cech and central defender John Terry) the race for the title with United could go until the last week of the season.

3. Arsenal: The Gunners seem to be the team being continually overlooked as the season approaches. It mainly stems from the loss of Thierry Henry and the fact that the average age of the squad is 23 years old. But with Manager Arsene Wenger around, getting youth to perform has not been a problem. The loss of Henry does not mean the end for the Gunners. In fact Arsenal’s young guns grew with the added experience and still finished fourth last season  (tied on points with Liverpool). If Robin Van Persie, who led Arsenal in scoring, can take Henry’s place as a match-winning finisher and new signing Eduardo da Silva also brings goals, then Arsenal should be fine. With Cesc Fabregas running the central midfield, Arsenal will need improved performances and goals from wingers Alexander Hleb and Tomas Rosicky. Still youth and inexperience will cost the Gunners points along the way and that is why a realistic title challenge is out of their grasp. Already defender and captain William Gallas has promised a more direct and physical Arsenal side, something it will need to be if it is to close the 21-point gap that separated it from Man U last season.

4. Liverpool: Another team that finished 21 points behind United last season, but has had a dramatic makeover during the transfer season. Gone are malcontents and failed signings Craig Bellamy, Luis Garcia, Djibril Cisse, Boudewijn Zenden and Mark Gonzalez. In their places have come Fernando Torres, Ryan Babel, Yossi Benayoun and Andriy Voronin. The biggest pressure for the Reds is to replicate their success in Europe during Rafa Benitez’ first three seasons at Anfield to league play. It has been 17 years since Liverpool won the league and finishing last season without a trophy only heaps more pressure on Benitez and his men. The player with the most to live up to is Torres. The 23-year-old broke Liverpool’s transfer record when he signed from Atletico Madrid and Benitez is hoping he becomes the potent goal scorer the Reds have lacked in recent years. The decision by Jamie Carragher to retire from international play will only help the Reds as will the continued development of Daniel Agger in defense. With a midfield of Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano the Reds have options to play any style. But their failure to grind through the league and get necessary points will again prove to be their downfall.

5. Tottenham Hotspur: The Spurs have been knocking on the door of the EPL’s Big Four recently but have continually been shut out. Time to chalk up another season of UEFA Cup qualification, but league disappointment. The biggest win for Spurs over the summer was hanging onto Dimitar Berbatov. The best signing of last summer proved his quality with 12 league goals. Spurs are hoping that they have pulled off another coup this summer by bringing in Darren Bent who scored 13 times for Charlton last season. Add in Robbie Keane and Jermaine Defoe and Manager Martin Jol has a wealth of attacking options. Better consistency from Aaron Lennon will be needed for Spurs to challenge for the final Champions League spot. Summer signings Gareth Bale and Younes Kaboul will bring youth and energy to the defense. A healthy Ledley King will be needed to pair with Michael Dawson in the center of defense as Spurs try their best to topple the Big Four.

6. Aston Villa: It would be quite a jump for Villa to move into a UEFA Cup spot, but the Villans seem to be headed that way under Manager Martin O’Neill. Villa hasn’t been overly active in the transfer market, with Nigel Reo-Coker and Marlon Harewood the only significant arrivals. While Villa went unbeaten in its final nine games last season, it also led the league in draws with 17. Those ties must turn into wins and the form of striker John Carew will be vital to Villa’s hopes. Young striker Gabriel Agbonlahor must also maintain the form that saw him score nine times. It will also remain to be seen if Reo-Coker can recapture his form after a bit of a down year last season at West Ham. O’Neill has proven himself at Leicester City and Celtic, but now it remains to be seen if he can take Villa to another level.

7. Newcastle United: The arrival of Manager Sam Allardyce brings with him big expectations. While at Bolton, Big Sam was able to extract the best out of an eclectic mix of players. Now at a big club, he will have to do much better than Newcastle’s 13th place finish last year. Holding onto striker Obafemi Martins, who tallied 11 goals was key. A return to health by Michael Owen will be helpful, but if he again goes down injured, newcomers Mark Viduka and Alan Smith will provide adequate cover. Joey Barton (temper and all) will look to replace Scott Parker and the arrival of David Rozenhal will help the defense. It’s a big task for Big Sam, but if any manager is up to it, it’s him.

8. Blackburn: A push for a UEFA Cup spot is not out of the Rovers’ grasp. In Morten Gamst Pedersen, Benni McCarthy, and David Bentley the Rovers have an adept attacking unit. McCarthy must maintain his form that saw him score 18 times last season. The addition of Roque Santa Cruz from Bayern Munich also bolsters the attack, while the arrival of Maceo Rigters, off an impressive run for Holland in the UEFA Under-21 Championships, will also provide offensive power. With the reliable hands and leadership of Brad Friedel patrolling the penalty area, Rovers should make the push toward the top half of the table.

9. Everton: A sixth place showing in the league last season and securing an UEFA Cup spot was a big step forward for the Toffees, but recent history has shown that there has been just as disappointing a step back for Everton after a successful campaign. To avoid slipping Andy Johnson must get help up top scoring goals. After Johnson it is the young duo of Victor Anichibe and James Vaughan. However, Manager David Moyes has not brought in any striking help. The Toffees strength will be its midfield and defense. With Tim Cahill, Mikel Arteta, Manuel Fernandez and Steven Pienaar who is on-loan from Borussia Dortmund in the middle, Moyes has options, but little depth. Likewise, Phil Neville, Joseph Yobo, Alan Stubbs and Joleon Lescott performed well together last season in defense, but there is not much depth. A small fall in the standings wouldn’t be a surprise.

10. Portsmouth: A year after being four points out of the relegation zone, Portsmouth moved into the top half of the table with a ninth-place finish. Maintaining that form will be key for Harry Redknapp’s men. The additions of strikers David Nugent and John Utaka will combine with surprising holdover Kanu. Nugent, who came from Preston, will have to prove his transfer fee after an impressive run in the Championship last season. Ghanaian midfielder Sulley Muntari also came aboard. Sol Campbell’s steadiness in the back helped Pompey after his move from Arsenal and Redknapp has again beefed up his defense with newcomers Sylvain Distin, Hermann Hreidarsson and Martin Cranie.

11. Manchester City: While the Red Devils may have spent the most of the Manchester squads this summer, City wasn’t too far behind its rivals. New Manager Sven-Goran Eriksson has done a complete facelift of his side (eight players for more than 40 million pounds), but with so many new players needing to gel, there won’t be too much of an improvement on last season’s 14th place finish. There is also controversy surrounding City’s new owner, Thaksin Shinawatra, who is the former Prime Minister of Thailand was overtaken in a bloodless coup last year and has been criticized for human rights abuses along with corruption charges from the new government in Thailand. Eriksson’s best signing might be Martin Petrov, who chose City over other suitors. Still there are question marks over newcomers Geovanni and Rolando Bianchi and whether or not they can add goals for City. For the former England manager, it will take more than one transfer session to complete his makeover.

12. West Ham: Another team who has spent heavily this summer, the Hammers can enter the season with the drawn out Carlos Tevez affair over. Finishing this high would be a great improvement for a team that would have been relegated last season if not for the play of Tevez. In fact West Ham was lucky to have only been fined and not docked points for its acquisitions of Tevez and Javier Mascherano. Manager Alan Curbishley has strengthened his midfield and attack with the arrivals of Scott Parker, Juilien Faubert, Craig Bellamy and Freddie Ljungberg. However, Faubert will miss at least the first half of the season after rupturing his Achilles tendon. The Hammers though are getting striker Dean Ashton back from injury after he missed all of last season hurt. While the influx of new faces may have some thinking a top-half of the table finish, the Hammers aren’t there yet.

13. Middlesbrough: Such a fitting team name for a side that has finished 11th, 11th, 7th, 14th and 12th in the past five years. Another season in the back of the middle pack seems like destiny. Gone is Mark Viduka, who scored 14 times. Striker Jeremie Aliadiere arrives after failing to impress at Arsenal, but the key for Boro will be Yakubu Ayegbeni. Boro needs to hang onto Yakubu, whose name is again being bandied about in transfer rumors, or else it will be a very long season at Riverside Stadium for Manager Gareth Southgate.

14. Reading: The Royals proved to be the surprise story of last season. The newly promoted side shocked everyone with an eighth place finish, just one point out of a UEFA Cup spot. Now comes the hard part in maintaining their form. The loss of influential midfielder Steve Sidwell on a free transfer to Chelsea will be difficult to replace. Otherwise it has been a quiet summer for the Royals and Manager Steve Coppell. The only new arrivals are defenders Khalifa Cisse and Emerse Fae (who was a club record signing). Kevin Doyle, who led the Royals with 13 goals, will need to continue his scoring form and improved play from England U-21 international striker Leroy Lita is also needed. A healthy Bobby Convey will give Coppell more options on the flanks. Reading won’t surprise anyone this season, but they are still too tough to fall back into the relegation zone.

15. Bolton: This is quite a fall for a team that finished seventh last season. The loss of Big Sam and the fact the Trotters will be stretched in the league and in UEFA Cup play will also contribute to a loss of form. Holding onto Nicolas Anelka, who had 11 goals, was key, but Bolton needs more help (paging new striker Heidar Helguson) after finishing with a minus five-goal differential. New Manager Sammy Lee has brought in an assortment of new players and it will be interesting to see if he can get them to blend together like the former boss. Since its 17th place finish five seasons ago, Bolton has become a perennial top-half of the table finisher, but a dip in form this season would not be a surprise.

16. Sunderland: While there might not be a Reading in any of the promoted sides, the Black Cats look to have the best shot at staying in the Premiership beyond this season. Fiery Manager Roy Keane took Sunderland from 23rd place in the Championship to its champions last season and has continued to strengthen his squad over the summer. He broke the English transfer record for a goalkeeper when he brought in Craig Gordon from Hearts. Keane has spent almost $55 million this summer. Also in is former Manchester United teammate Kieran Richardson, who failed to impress at Old Trafford and who must play well to prove his transfer cost. Michael Chopra is another signing who must perform after being called up from Cardiff. He will need to produce goals if the Black Cats hope to survive. Keane proved last season he is a quick study as a manager, now he faces his biggest test in keeping his squad playing with the big boys.

17. Fulham: It will be another dogfight for the Cottagers to avoid relegation after finishing last season just one point away from the danger zone. American striker Brian McBride will again be the fulcrum of the attack, but Fulham must also find a way to shore up its defense after allowing the most goals in the league last season. Fulham has spent almost $42 million on players like Diomansy Kamara, Aaron Hughes, Steven Davis, Chris Baird, David Healy, Paul Konchesky, Lee Cook and Hameur Bouazza. How much all of them help remains to be seen. Manager Lawrie Sanchez will have done well if he can keep his side in the top flight for another season.

18. Birmingham City: The Blues did well to get back into the Premiership a season after being relegated, but it looks like it will be a short-lived comeback. Staying up would be a huge accomplishment for Manager Steve Bruce and his side. There are questions about whether the Blues strike force will be able to adapt to the Premier League and score with regularity. The pressure will fall on Mikael Forssell, Gary McSheffrey, Rowan Vine and Gary O’Connor. While Birmingham surrendered the second fewest goals of any team in the Championship last season, keeping Premiership sides out of the back of the net will be a different story.

19. Wigan Athletic: Alphabetically Wigan begins the season at the bottom of the EPL standings. Come May, the Lactics’ position will not have improved much. Only a win over Sheffield United on the final day of last season kept Wigan in the top flight. Wigan’s woeful defense will again let it down. After allowing the second most goals in the Premiership, including conceding the most of any team at home, Wigan have lost Leighton Baines to Everton and brought in Newcastle laughing stock Titus Bramble to be its anchor in the middle. Antoine Sibierski will need to help Emile Heskey (nine goals last season) up top. Also, new midfielder Jason Koumas will need to direct the attack and score his share of goals. Ultimately though there shouldn’t be any drama at the end of the season as Wigan seem headed back to the Championship.

20. Derby County: All signs are pointing to Derby being at the bottom of the table. Striker Robert Earnshaw was brought in to team with Steve Howard (16 goals in the Championship). Howard must show he can score in the top flight the same way he did last season. Midfielder Matt Oakley has the responsibility of running the team, while 19-year-old Giles Barnes will be counted on to grow up fast in the Premiership. Incoming defenders Andy Todd and Darren Moore will have to keep the Rams backline strong. Any finish above the relegation zone would be a victory for Derby and Manager Billy Davies, but a return to the Championship seems much more likely.


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