Seasons Greetings

Even with the World Cup breaking up the boredom it still seems like the longest Summer ever. Maybe it's got something to do with the dead transfer market; the financial upheaval seeing great players move on free transfers (Rivaldo) and big clubs buying nobody. Predictably the bookies and popular press are predicting Manchester United will regain their Premiership title. No imagination.

Big Money, Big Expectations

We may as well start with the 7 times Premiership champions and purchasers of the World's most expensive defender. After Rio's fine World Cup performances and a successful season with Leeds last year there's no doubt he will fill the gaping hole left by Jaap Stam — but is he worth £30m? As I see it United still need three defenders. With Gary Neville probably out until Christmas and Wes Brown unable to play right back it's the evil twin for that position. I still don't think Wes Brown is good enough to be a true partner for Ferdinand and the less said about Laurent Blanc the better. At left back Silvestre has had his chance, as far as I'm concerned he's not good enough. Whether the £30m would have been better spent on a few defenders or not we will see, but John O'Shea will have to mature very quickly if United are to shore up the back in any hurry.

I think it's safe to say that a midfield cannot accomodate five players of the stature of Keane, Butt, Giggs, Scholes, Beckham and Veron. Ferguson has hinted that his first choice line up involves leaving out Scholes and Veron — will players of that stature in the prime of their careers accept being second choice? I think Ferguson is taking advantage of Scholes' love for his club, he is a player that deserves first team football and if he doesn't get it at United I would have thought it was in his best interests to move on.

United still need a striker too, Giggs could play with Van Nistelrooy in Europe (as he did very successfully last season) but neither Scholes nor Veron are comfortable playing wide left as replacements for the mercurial Welshman. With the number 9 shirt unused (at the time of writing) I guess either Crespo (involving a swap deal with Veron), Damien Duff (playing in the position he played for Ireland in the World Cup) or Ronaldo — in descending order of likelyhood — to be the new owner before the season kicks off.

The lessons to be learnt from United's 2001/2002 campaign can be succinctly summed up in the words of Four Four Two magazine's season preview…

“Don't pay £28m for a player with no idea of how to use him. Don't use a 4-5-1 formation and don't over-rotate the team. And don't sell the best defender United have ever had.”

Same Again Please

On to the Champions. There's no doubt that Arsenal are in a better position to retain their title this time round than after their triumph in 1998. Then, a large proportion of their squad were 30+, now most are in the prime of their lives and are being pushed all the way by a promising group of youngsters. With Lee Dixon and Tony Adams (seemingly) retiring the defence definately needed supplimenting, a typically subtle solution by Arsène Wenger was acheived by bringing in the little known Frence centre half Pascal Cygan. By all accounts Cygan posesses a great deal of star quality, is confident on the ball and commanding at the back; he has so far impressed in pre season friendlies.

It doesn't stop there though. Arsenal need to help out Lauren at right back, provide cover for Ashley Cole and back up the centre of defence. I suspect the plan here is for the promising young defenders at the club to fill the holes. Liam Chilvers and Juan (full backs) along with Stathis Tavalridis and Matthew Upson (centre) will surely be given a chance to play this season. Upson in particular looked excellent last season before his unfortunate injury and will be hoping to make an even bigger impression this year.

There's every indication that youth will be used in midfield too. With Pires and Ljungberg out for a couple of months, it looks as though Jermaine Pennant will finally get his chance and young striker Jeremie Aliadiere may also start the season on the wing — the competition up front maybe being too tough for him to break through. The latter of these two is my tip for one of this seasons outstanding young players.

I think that with the siging of Gilberto Silva, the problem of a partner for Vieira has finally been solved. A World Cup winner and a permanent feature of Brazil's midfield, a more experienced, proven and talented player could not have been bought for such a bargain price — or even for considerably more. It is encouraging to see a manager refuse to be held to ransom and to still be able spot value for money in such a finacially inflated sport.

One More Push

Liverpool fans will no doubt be optimistic about their chances this year. El Hadji Diouf will surely oust Heskey from the side and make Liverpool a more potent finishing force — third placed United outscored them by 20 goals last year. Salif Diao looked excellent for Senegal in the World Cup and Bruno Cheyrou is highly rated in his country. The question is how many central midfielders can one team need? With Hamann, Gerrard, Murphy, Berger and Smicer the last thing Liverpool need is cover for the middle of the park. What last seasons runners up desperately need is some width.

One thing that last seasons top four (excluding Liverpool) have that separates them from the teams immediately below them is wide players who make a differnce; both though scoring vital goals and creating chances for the other attacking players. Arsenal have the indispensable Freddie Ljungberg and footballer of the year Robert Pires, United have (former footballer of the year) Ryan Giggs and David Beckham and Newcastle have Nol Solano and Laurent Robert. If Liverpool had players who could chip in from out wide in the way all those aforementioned do for their respective teams, then the side would truly be one to be reckoned with.

John Arne Riise was a revelation last season, and his promotion from left back to the left wing paid huge dividends. If Livepool really had the chance to sign Damien Duff I can't work out for the life of me why Houllier didn't make more of an effort to bring him in. Liverpool's magnificent defensive record has got a lot to do with their policy of selecting such a defensive midfield, at the expense of goals, and ultimately glory. A more cavalier approach is the only way to the most important silverware.

The Rabble

Leeds' cause has not been helped by losing Ferdinand and the unsettling influence of Bowyer will have to be kerbed by Terry Venebles if the Yorkshire club are to make any improvement on last year.

Chelsea have been unusually quiet in the transfer market, which I'm convinced will be a good thing for the club. Towards the end of last season the team really started to settle and the defence is second only to Liverpool. If they can iron out the problems with consistency and performances against smaller clubs I really think Chelsea can challenge, though I think top 4 is the best they can hope for.

Some Geordies will be offended that Newcastle have been relegated to the rabble. I think Hugo Viana and Titus Bramble will prove to be solid signings, though the Magpies still lack a World Class defender. If Dyer can make it through the season in one piece and Laurent Robert can reproduce last seasons form then I think they can be in and around again, but I don't think they'll do any better than this season. Lack of squad depth will hurt them too as it did last season when Dyer and Cort fell by the side of the road.

Middlesbrough have made some fine investments and strengthened an already strong squad. Massimo Maccarone looks like he's going to be a terrifying prospect for Premiership defences and the completion of Franck Queudrue's signing will steady the ship. Juninho, though he wasn't the best player in the Brazillian squad (I thought the team improved when they left him out for Kleberson), is a talented and experienced player who may help add that cutting edge to Boro's side.

Going Down

I'm going to have a controversial flutter on Man City and Fulham to disappear back to the obscurity of division one, and don't be surprised if Sundereland struggle to hold on to their premiership status. I'm not sure if both city and Fulham will go down, but I'm almost positive one will drop.

I fancy Birmingham to stay up, a well run club with a core of quality players and more squad depth than most in their position. I can't think of a decent reason why, but I also have a sneaky feeling that West Brom will fight their way to survival in their first season in Englands top division for 16 years.

Ones to Watch

Whether it's for fantasy football teams, scouting or just out of curiosity, here are a few players who I reckon will catch the eye over the next 9 months.

The Business End

So how does all things footie think it'll finish?

  1. Arsenal
  2. Man Utd
  3. Liverpool
  4. Newcastle
  5. Chelsea
  6. Leeds
  7. Middlesbrough
  8. Aston Villa
  9. Blackburn
  10. Tottenham
  11. Everton
  12. West Ham
  13. Southampton
  14. Bolton
  15. Charlton
  16. Birmingham
  17. Man City
  18. Fulham
  19. West Bromwich Albion
  20. Sunderland

I know, I've gone back on my prediction that City will be relegated. As far as I'm concerned you could press a random button for the bottom 5, those five — any order. I'm sure one of them will prove me very wrong, likewise at the top of the table. That's where the fun comes in though isn't it? Roll on 2002/2003.

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