Looking Ahead – English Premier League Season Preview 2014-15

 

As another Premier League season draws near, Goalden Times looks at the potential movers and shakers with Saumyajit Ray and Naman Mehra.

After a three-month hiatus, a brand new season of English Premier League is all set to kick off this weekend. While the World Cup in Brazil provided us enough excitement throughout the summer, the tournament also disrupted preparations for the new EPL season. It cut short the pre-season schedule of all the teams, especially the big guns. As a result, the start of the season is expected to be interesting. We can definitely look forward to some surprising results as the big clubs get their key players match fit and integrate the new signings into the team during the first couple of weeks of the campaign. The last season was a humdinger, with four clubs in the running for the prize till late in the campaign, even as Manchester United, the most successful club in the Premier League era, dropped out of contention as early as the beginning of 2014. As fans all around the world get ready for their weekly fix of football, we try to analyse each team’s prospects for the coming season.

The Title Contenders

As last year, it looks like fierce competition at the top. We start off with Manchester United. Only one man is the talk of the town right now—Louis van Gaal—successful wherever he has managed and, arguably, occupying the biggest post in English club football currently. The experiment with David Moyes failed last season, as United finished seventh, without any major silverware in theirs kitty. Subsequently, the club have no European football to look forward to this year. This might, however, be a blessing in disguise with fresher players during the run-in and clearer targets. Van Gaal has suggested United may try 3-5-2 or its variations (mostly 3-4-1-2) this season, and it will be interesting to see how it fares against the traditional formations of 4-2-3-1 employed by many EPL sides. On the transfer front, the board has realized that they need reinforcements—especially in the absence of a certain Sir Alex Ferguson. So, quite contrary to their transfer market strategy last year, they have not been shy of spending huge sums, even if that means signing a teenage left-back like Luke Shaw for a whopping fee of £33 million. The team has also been bolstered by the long awaited arrival of Ander Herrera to cover the central midfield position—an area where they have been lacking for a few seasons. However, further defensive reinforcements still remain a priority, following the departures of Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, and Nemanja Vidic. After last season’s disappointment, the encouraging pre-season results are sure to bolster expectations this year. Realistically, though, a Champions League spot is probably the most they can achieve, unless the likes of Arturo Vidal are added to the mix or van Gaal has a blinder of a season as manager.

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Arsenal finished last season on a high—ending their 9-year trophy drought by winning the FA Cup. That sense of euphoria has carried into the transfer window as well, with the inclusion of 25-year-old Chilean Alexis Sanchez in the team. Adept at playing with both feet and able to play on the left, right, through the middle or up top, Sanchez has the potential to bring out the best in Mesut Ozil. French right-back Mathieu Debuchy seems to have adequately replaced his national team substitute Bacary Sagna (on paper at least), and signings of Calum Chambers and David Ospina have strengthened the bench. Joel Campbell, too, should be able to provide the team with more options when the fixtures start piling up. Arsenal’s biggest star could well turn out to be Shad Forsyth, the highly rated fitness and conditioning expert brought in from the German national set up. Injuries have derailed many a season for Arsenal, and it will be interesting to see if his new methods have a positive effect. However, it cannot be denied that the defence looks rather weak, with the departure of Thomas Vermaelen, and the ageing Mikel Arteta showing signs of vulnerability in the big matches last season.  Plugging these gaps in the squad might be the difference between finishing as champions and coming up a few places short.

Chelsea had a Spanish Revolution over the summer.  The side, known for their defensive prowess, have signed on Atletico de Madrid star striker Diego Costa and former Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona. They have also brought back Thibaut Courtois from his Atletico loan spell and he seems set to usurp fan favourite Petr Cech in goal. These attacking additions particularly that of Cesc, might denote a change in tactics from Jose Mourinho, especially against weaker oppositions. Ashley Cole has been replaced by Brazilian Filipe Luis in another raid on Atletico, while the legendary Didier Drogba has also returned to his favourite club. However, at his advanced age, the latter may only be able to contribute marginally to the team’s fortune. The squad looks good enough to win the title, and expectations will be high. Mourinho is also under a lot of pressure after an uncharacteristic barren season last year. If he can get the best out of Costa there might well be blue ribbons around the trophy in May. If not, they may just come to rue their decision to let go of both Demba Ba and Romelu Lukaku in the summer.

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Liverpool is expected to be reeling from the loss of their star Luis Suarez, who almost single-handedly carried them within a hair’s breadth of the title last season. The club has invested the money from this huge deal to good use though. There have been six signings in the summer, including the Southampton captain Adam Lallana and compatriots Dejan Lovren and Rickie Lambert, highly rated Emre Can from Bayer Leverkusen, and Lazar Markovic from Benfica. There’s possibly more to come. If Daniel Sturridge steps up and finds his rhythm with the experienced Steven Gerrard, Liverpool might just be the dark horse in the race once again. A lot, though, will depend on how they can handle the rigours of the European campaign. At this moment, it does seem like an outside chance, and the club may do well to retain their Champions League status and make a push for the title again next year.

Defending champions Manchester City had a quiet summer because of the punishment related to their breaching the FFP guidelines. Still, they have added the experienced Sagna as a backup to Pablo Zabaleta, midfielder Fernando from Porto, and Willy Caballero from Malaga as competition to Joe Hart and Frank Lampard- the latter on loan from the MLS. However, their most important signing could be Eliaquim Mangala from Porto, who is expected to straightaway get into the first team with Vincent Kompany, leaving behind the ageing Martin Demichelis and the inexperienced Matija Nastasic. However, the 3-0 defeat at the hands of Arsenal in the Community Shield should serve as a wake up call to the team. Their bench strength maybe not as strong as strong as one expect from a EPL winning side. However, with a side that didn’t need much change, there is no reason why they can’t be champions two years in a row. This, though, may also depend on Sergio Aguero remaining fit and in form throughout the season.

Fighting for Europe

Having gotten rid of Tim Sherwood after a slightly disappointing campaign, Tottenham Hotspur will be expecting Mauricio Pochettino to do as well as he did with Southampton last season. Spurs underachieved last season, not able to properly utilise the money from Gareth Bale’s transfer even though they bought almost an entire first team with it. Summer has been quiet for the team, with Michel Vorm and Ben Davies from Swansea, and 20-year-old Eric Dier from Sporting CP the only signings so far. The team still looks incapable of mounting a serious title challenge. However, Erik Lamela has been impressive in his pre-season performance, and it’ll be interesting to see how he is utilized by Pochettino. With last season’s top four teams further strengthening their line-up, and a resurgent Manchester United on the horizon, a Europa League spot may well be the height of their realistic ambitions this time.

Last year, Everton amassed their highest ever tally in the Premier League. The club has done really well in the summer window. They have signed permanent deals with the highly rated Romelu Lukaku and the experienced Gareth Barry, after hugely successful loan spells last time with them. They have also added defensive midfielder Muhamed Besic from Ferencvaros to their ranks. With no major exits, the squad seems settled, and should bear the fruits of stability and familiarity. However, with European fixtures to contend with, Everton might think about adding a bit more depth to their ranks. Once that’s done, it should be ready to pounce on a top-four spot if a couple of major sides slip up. Even otherwise, the team is odds on favourites over other contenders for a spot in the top seven, and a potential requalification to Europe.

APTOPIX Britain Soccer Premier League

Changes.  Huge changes. That’s the way to sum up what Southampton’s actions during the window. Ronald Koeman has taken over as the manager and six first-teamers have left the club. However, till now, major reinforcements haven’t been made. They have picked up Graziano Pellè and Dusan Tadic from the Dutch league to replace Lallana and Lambert. They have also picked up Fraser Forster, one of the best shot-stoppers in Europe, from Celtic in order to strengthen their goalkeeping area. Ryan Bertrand has been brought from Chelsea on loan to replace Shaw. However, let’s not forget that Dejan Lovren and Calum Chambers have not yet been replaced, making the team look weak in their defence. As things stand, it will be difficult for Southampton to match their decent form from last season, where they ultimately finished 8th. However, if Morgan Schneiderlin is retained, the balance from the £105 million collected from transfers used wisely, and additional reinforcements are obtained in the remainder of the window, the club may yet stake a claim for a Europa spot. It will undoubtedly be tough to do that though, as new players brought in from now will take their time to integrate into the team.

French Revolution continues at St. James Park, and with the arrivals of Remy Cabella and Emmanuel Rivière, the number of French players in the Newcastle squad is now 9. The team’s attacking force has also been bolstered significantly, with the addition of Facundo Ferreyra, Siem de Jong, and Ayoze Perez. The only major loss has been that of Debuchy to Arsena. However, he has been replaced adequately by Daryl Janmaat. Hence Alan Pardew’s men should at least be expected to hold on to their top half status this season, but with a decent squad, the team does have the credentials to land a Europa spot. Anything less than that is bound to be a disappointment for the passionate fan base. It’s also worthy to note that keeping Ben Arfa fit and interested may play a huge role in how the season pans out.

The Also-rans

Stoke City had a very impressive season last time, achieving their best ever Premier League finish of  9th, as well as their highest ever points total of 50. Under Mark Hughes, the team has added flair to its customary strong physical game. It now looks a better-rounded team. The style revolution continues this season as well, with impressive captures in the form of La Masia graduate Bojan Krkic and Mame Biram Diouf from Hannover 96. Steve Sidwell, brought in from relegated Fulham, is expected to provide the added depth to the midfield. Given Stoke City probably overachieved last season, any improvement should see them retaining their top half position. If a couple of more favourites slip up (especially Southampton or Newcastle), the Potters might get a chance to get back into the Europa League once again after their 2011-12 campaign. However, it may be a bridge too far for this season, realistically.

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QPR have come straight back from the Championship after going down. However, the team should really have no problems in staying up this season. They have retained a core group of very high quality players in Julio Cesar, Loic Remy, Adel Taarabt, and Junior Hoilett, as well as seasoned English campaigners like Karl Henry, Richard Dunne, Joey Barton, and Bobby Zamora. The capture of Rio Ferdinand, Mauricio Isla, and Steven Caulker should ideally see the team return to a comfortable mid-table position. Securing a European spot, though, will most likely be beyond this squad.

Sunderland flirted dangerously with relegation last term. However, one always had a feeling that the squad didn’t do justice to its potential and was helped in no way by Paolo di Canio’s eccentric and disruptive ways. The club has made impressive captures in the form of Jack Rodwell, Costel Pantilimon, Jordi Gomez, and Patrick van Aanholt in the summer. The club also has Gus Poyet, one of the most talented and modern managers, at its helm. He should be able to steer the team well clear of relegation this time.

Crystal Palace was one of the stories of the season last time. After seemingly being down in the dumps following a horrid start, they recovered strongly under new manager Tony Pulis and ended the season comfortably outside the relegation places. But with the sudden departure of Pulis, it will be challenge for them to keep up the good work done by him, but the momentum gathered through last few seasons might just work in their favour. While Fraizer Campbell and Brede Hangeland are the only major additions this summer, the club has managed to retain the core of its last season’s squad. However, if the managerial appointment goes wrong, they might even end up grappling with the relegation.

West Ham have made impressive captures in Carl Jenkinson (loan), Enner Valencia, Mauro Zarate, and Cheikhou Kouyate. Much like Pulis, Sam Allardyce is another veteran who knows the English game like the back of his hand. The Hammers will be looking to break into the top half this season. Even if they don’t, it is hard to see the team doing any worse than their 13th position last season. Fans can expect West Ham to survive comfortably, but if you are a neutral, making other plans for the evening is advisable if they are playing.

Swansea City had a disappointing campaign last time. After making it to Europe and being lauded as the hipsters’ Premier League team playing an attractive continental brand of football, achieving the 12th spot, with an outside relegation threat for most of the season, was the last thing the fans expected.  This time the club hasn’t added too much to its squad. Lukasz Fabianski should be an adequate replacement for the departing Vorm, and Gylfi Sigurdsson should be welcomed back from Tottenham. Jefferson Montero will also undoubtedly improve the team’s attack. The club still needs to replace Jonathan de Guzman in the centre of the park and Ben Davies at left-back. Chico Flores, Pablo Hernandez, and Michu have also all gone to new pastures. However, even with the departure of Michu, the team is not expected to lack in goals. With Bafetimbi Gomis and Marvin Emnes joining the impressive Wilfried Bony, Swansea City should have enough firepower to remain well clear of relegation. Beating back late interest from the likes of Tottenham for Bony may be crucial Swansea.

The Relegation Dogfight

Last season, the relegation battle was as interesting as the fight for the title, with no less than nine teams in danger of slipping down quite late into the season. This season too is set to be as exciting, with very little separating some of the teams at the bottom of the table from each other.

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The newly promoted clubs Burnley and Leicester City should expect a tough welcome. With no real standout talent in their teams and no significant additions in the summer, they will most likely find it hard to survive. Their best hope of survival will eventually be Aston Villa, Hull, and West Brom doing as badly as last time. That situation, though, is not entirely out of question as none of these clubs have done anything significant during the window to suggest otherwise. The fans of these clubs should brace themselves for a nerve-wracking season although there’s still time for things to change in the last three weeks of the transfer window.

Authors’ Picks

  • Champion – Chelsea
  • Champions League spots – Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United
  • Europa League spots (Based on League position) – Liverpool, Everton, Tottenham
  • Relegation – Leicester, Burnley, Hull
  • FA Cup – Manchester United
  • Capital One Cup – Arsenal
  • Signing of the season – Alexis Sanchez
  • Flop of the season – Fernando
  • Pointless signing of the season – Frank Lampard
  • Bargain of the season – Bafetimbi Gomis
  • Player of the season – Aaron Ramsey
  • Top scorer – Sergio Aguero
  • Manager of the season – Jose Mourinho
  • First to get the sack – Alan Irvine

Britannian Fields – Justice for the 96

They went to see their team in a Cup semi-final, to watch football and to enjoy the success of a rampaging Liverpool side. Only some of them returned. Krishnendu Sanyal talks about the 1989 Hillsborough disaster

 

96:You’ll Never Walk Alone

Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” – Bill Shankly

 

The families of the 96 that lost their lives, on that fateful spring afternoon on April 15, 1989 at Hillsborough, might have a different opinion to the legendary Liverpool manager. And if, Bill Shankly lived long enough to witness the tragedy, he might have had changed his opinion on football.

Liverpool supporters on that day, went to Sheffield to support their team in a Cup semi-final and 96 of them never returned alive. Is Football more important than Life and Death?

But, the real tragedy was how the British authorities tried to wash their hands of the tragedy and blame it solely on those fans who were not alive to defend themselves. For 23 years. The families of those 96 were waiting for a closure. 23 years of lies and cover-ups of gigantic proportions. Finally, A Hillsborough Independent Panel, chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones had unrestricted access to more than 4500 documents over three years, revealed the depth of police cover-up in the days after the tragedy.

It confirmed Lord Justice Taylors key finding in August 1989 -the main reason behind the tragedy was a ‘failure in police control’.

What Went Wrong?

The Hillsborough tragedy was a result of multiple failures of various authorities, who didn’t do the right thing at the right time and shied away from responsibility.

The safety of the crowd, who were admitted to the Leppings Lane Terrace, was seriously compromised and there was evidence of the failings in the previous Cup semi-finals held in the stadium.

Before the 1981 Cup semi-final match between Tottenham Hotspur and Wolves, there was a near-fatal crush in the same terrace and fans narrowly escaped with injuries. In aftermath of that incident, there was a total break-down in the relationship between Sheffield Wednesday and the South Yorkshire Police (SYP). The club refused to accept their responsibilities and blamed the police for the incident. It was crystal clear that the ground didn’t fulfil the minimum safety requirements to stage matches of high stakes. Wednesday’s primary concern was to cut costs and the safety proposal was ignored. There was a delayed start at the 1987 FA Cup semi-final and crushing at the 1988 semi-final.

The Independent Panel found that the briefings held by senior police officials were more focused on potential crowd disorder, alcohol consumption and ticketless fans. It was pretty clear that the police were more focused on crowd control than crowd safety. It was also a bewildering decision to replace Chief Superintendent Brian Mole, who had experience in Hillsborough with the inexperienced David Duckenfield, as the match commander. Add to that shoddy decision making, malfunctioning radio system and design of the police control room – it was a recipe of disaster.

The rescue and recovery operations were hampered due to lack of leadership. Police officers, particularly the senior ones, interpreted the crowd unrest as a potential disorder and took decision with that point of view, without realising people were being crushed and killed.

Medical teams arrived but they were too late and opportunities to exercise control were missed for almost an hour. A better equipped response could have saved lives.

Some of those who died did so after a significant period of unconsciousness and they could have been rescued.

The 3:15 p.m. cut-off was one of the most controversial decisions that the coroner took. His rationale that most of them were dead or suffered irreversible injuries before that time was quashed by pathologists. It was the recorded time when the first ambulance arrived on the pitch.

The coroner’s decision (first disclosed in the Independent Panel report) to take blood samples from all of the deceased, even from children, for alcohol consumption was distasteful. The police action of running the names of the deceased in their records to pour scorn on the dead deserves contempt.

The statements of SYP officers, initially handwritten as recollections, were subject to review and alteration by SYP solicitors and officers. The practice extended to the ambulance service. Officers were discouraged from making criticisms of senior officers, their management or deficiencies. 116 out of 164 statements were amended to remove or alter comments unfavourable to SYP.

The cover-up and the lies that were told to cover-up the incompetent action of the authorities is despicable. Nobody deserves to die in such a horrific way. They were football fans, who wanted to enjoy a Cup semi-final and they never returned. On that day Football and Humanitywere the losers.

The Time is Ripe to Stop

For years, for decades, we have all stood as silent spectators to football’s politics of hate.

-Munich Songs.

-Heysel Songs.

-Hillsborough Songs.

-Chants suggesting Arsene Wenger to be a pedophile.

-Hisses to replicate gas chambers.

-Suggestions that Emmanuel Adebayor should have been one of the victims of the Togo bus attack, not a survivor.

It cannot be termed as freedom of expression. It just shows how moral values have degraded and how people don’t think twice to mock the dead.

What makes it worse, far worse, is the justification.

It’s their fault; they started it” is nothing more than the intelligence of the playground, seeking some ridiculous excuse for the inexcusable.

For too long, the authorities have been silent on this. There are better ways to create a stadium environment than mocking the dead or wishing somebody was dead. It’s time the authorities and fans come to their senses. I know, it’s a small minority of drunk idiots who create the nuisance but it should be clamped down with harsh measures.

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”    – Edmund Burke

UEFA Europa League Preview

The Europa League is ready to take off for the 2012-13 season and promises to be more competitive than ever. Riddhi Ray Chaudhuri previews where the teams stand at the beginning of the tournament and how they are going to perform

The second tier tournament of European club football is ready to kick-off the 2012-13 season. Although this tournament is no match to the UEFA Champions League, the Europa League brings a much wider spectrum of clubs on display from across Europe. For the so-called less-fancied clubs, this tournament is a stepping stone towards a bigger glory while for the more popular clubs, this is a poor man’s European tournament. Interestingly, this season will see a higher number of high profile clubs, who are generally more accustomed to playing in UCL, to compete like Internazionale, Lyon, Marseille, Liverpool, etc. A total of 48 clubs will be participating in group stage that have been divided in 12 groups with top two teams from each group qualifying for the next round, they will be joined by eight more teams from UCL group stage. Let’s take a look at the groups and the corresponding teams to preview how things may shape up after six match-days.

 

GROUP A

   Liverpool            FC Anzhi Makhachkala            FC Udinese Calcio          BSC Young Boys

None of the four teams are likely to be very happy with the group they are in. Although Young Boys and Anzhi are comparatively in much better positions in their respective domestic leagues, they know that they have their task cut out against their more illustrious opponents. In recent times, Anzhi have been in the news more because of their spending spree rather than their on-field actions. Getting Guus Hiddink on board has been a major appointment by Anzhi and it goes without saying that a club under the stewardship of Hiddink can never be taken lightly. Young Boys, coached by former Swiss footballer Martin Rueda, will be a very competitive side especially at home backed by their home support. On paper they may lack the names to excite but at the same time, they have nothing to lose and can easily cause one or two surprises. Although the European pedigree of Liverpool cannot be matched by rest of the three teams, in the last few years the performance of the club has gone backwards. It has been compounded by the poor start to the new season (worst in 50 years). With Brendon Rodgers being appointed as the new manager, normally it will take time for Liverpool to hit any sort of form. So with trips away to potentially difficult oppositions, Liverpool have to ensure their home form is up to the mark to ensure smooth passage from the group. A crushing defeat by Juventus has left Udinese coach Francesco Guidolin with a lot to be desired. In last couple of years, Udinese has performed at consistent level irrespective of their limited resources with repeated appearances in Europe. With a hard pressing and counter-attack based side, they will be one of the initial favourites to progress from this group.

GROUP B

Atletico           Viktoria Plzeň             Academica           H.Tel Aviv

Last season’s Europa League champions, Atletico find them clubbed with relatively easier opponents. Atletico have been off to a flier this season, their Europa Super Cup victory over Chelsea has been no less than a stunner. Under club legend Diego Simeone, they have developed as quite a fascinating side. They are lethal in attack and very formidable in other parts of the pitch; it goes without saying that they will be the outright favourites to win Group B. It will be interesting to see who go through the group stage along with Atletico. Academica from Portugal will be participating in Europe for the first time since 1971, courtesy their Portuguese Cup victory. It remains to be seen whether they will be mere pushovers or have something exciting to offer. Hapoel from Israel’s Tel Aviv are a team that have seen a lot of changes both on and off the pitch in recent times. Under new manager Nitzan Shirazi, they are a side in transition. If Hapoel can match their 2009-10 season’s performance in Europa League when they qualified from the group, they will be content with that. Viktoria Plzeň will be the side that will have better chances to go through to the round of 32 along with Atletico. Pavel Vrba has been in charge of the team for the last four seasons and it has helped the Plzeň based club to have a settled team. In 2011-12 they finished third in the group stage of Champions League and qualified for the knock-out round of Europa League – their best performance in Europe so far. This time they will be hoping to build on that and go further in the Europa League.

GROUP C

Olympique de Marseille          Fenerbahçe           AEL Limassol         Borussia Mönchengladbach FC

Group C will be a very hard one to predict. All the four teams have a competitive squad that can give a run for their money to any other team and against each other they have to dig deep in order to proceed to the next round. Marseille and Fenerbahçe are seasoned campaigners in Europe, they generally shuttle between UCL and Europa League every season. After their debacle in domestic league last season, Marseille have just flown off the block this season winning all of their first four matches. They have been solid in those matches in every department and with a squad that is playing together for quite a long time, they will be confident of their chances in the group. Fenerbahçe too have had a good start in the Turkish Süper Lig. They must have felt hard done by their failure to qualify for UCL group stage and Europa League will be their chance to redeem. The team have strengthened over the summer with addition of experienced players. They too would be raring to go. AEL, the Cypriot club have been living a dream since last season. Under Pambos Christodoulou (nicknamed Pambourinho for his managerial resemblance to Mourinho), they won the domestic league last season after 44 years and were very close to qualifying for the group stage of UCL. It will be interesting to see whether they can replicate what APOEL did last season. Although resources are a constraint for them, they can overcome that with their exuberance. Borussia Mönchengladbach has been the underdog team who caught imaginations last season in Bundesliga. They will be hoping to continue that form and build on it. Like the rest of the teams in the group, they too were ousted in the UCL play-off round and will have to be content with Europa League. Although there have been some chop and changes in the team, the backbone remains the same. Their manager, Lucien Favre will try to prepare his team to see off challenges from the rest of the contenders and make it to the next round.

GROUP D

Bordeaux             Newcastle United               Club Brugge              Maritimo

Apparently Group D appears to be a straightforward one. Belgium club Brugge and Maritimo from Portugal haven’t been able to make their marks in European stage in spite of being regular qualifiers from their respective countries in recent years. Brugge have started their season reasonably well but at the same time, Belgian league and Europe are different ball games. Emulating last season’s performance, when they qualified from group stage, will be their primary target. After repeated attempts in qualifying and play-off stage, Maritimo has moved on to group stage this season for the first time in their history. However, achieving something spectacular seems a bit away from their reach currently. Newcastle United’s resurgence under Alan Perdew has been quite exceptional in the last season. Intelligent signings and making the team play according to its strength has led the tyneside club back to European folds. With a very balanced squad, they will be eager to get back to their glory days. However, balancing both European and domestic front will be a challenge for them. Bordeaux have fallen from grace after departure of Laurent Blanc under whom they have been quite spectacular. At the same time, they lost quite a few star players in the process, which have left them severely depleted. Under Eric Bédouet, they are trying to find their feet. A good run in Europe can be the shot in the arm for them although that will require a Herculean effort from the team. Along with Newcastle, Bordeaux seems to be the safe bet to go to next round at this moment.

GROUP E

VFB Stuttgart          FC København             Steaua București               Molde FK

Group E has Molde, Stuttgart, Steaua from Bucharest and FC København pitched against each other. Four mediocre teams will have to slog it out between themselves to decide who will go through to the next round. Former Manchester United favourite, Ole Solskjær with his Midas touch has guided Molde to their first ever domestic title in their centenary year. However, they haven’t been able to make most of their opportunities in UCL and now they will try their luck in Europa League. Whether Solskjær can script another fairy tale with his team remains to be seen. Courtesy of their sixth place finish in Bundesliga, Stuttgart qualified for Europa league this season. However, expecting anything spectacular from them would be a tough ask. A bad start in their domestic league has compounded their problems and a crushing defeat by Bayern Munich has left them in disarray. Coping with the demands of Europa League will be a big test for them. FC København have enjoyed quite a good amount of success in recent years. They would want to follow that up with another good run this season. Under new coach, they have started well in the Danish league and will be the team to watch out for in this group. Steaua are familiar with Europa league group stage, having been a regular participant for the last few seasons. So they will try to use all their experience to get over other teams. Backed by their strong start in domestic Liga I, they will be hoping to get over to the next round.

GROUP F

AIK Solna                       FC Dnipro               PSV Eindhoven             Napoli

Group F will see two clear favourites, PSV and Napoli, facing the underdog sides AIK Solna from Sweden and Ukrainian side Dnipro. Napoli have made a terrific start to the current Serie A campaign, winning all three of their opening games. Going forward, they have been one of the most exciting sides in Europe over the last year. Last season they enjoyed a remarkable phase in Europe and they would like to reach the same level this year too. PSV have been rejuvenated under the vastly experienced Dick Advocaat. The start of the season has seen them clinching the Johan Cruijff Schaal (Johan Cruijff Shield) and winning the Europa League qualifier with a record margin. With a rich array of talents in their squad, PSV faithful will be hoping for an extended run in Europe this time. The clashes between these two sides would definitely excite football fans. Dnipro and AIK would have to be at their very best if they wish to gain anything from the group. This will be AIK’s first participation in Europa League group stage. AIK are approaching the end of their domestic campaign where they have a good chance of winning the title. So they would need to balance both fronts carefully to not miss out the chances of good results. Dnipro too have a have good start to their domestic campaign. However, a good run in the group stage is difficult to perceive against such strong opponents. With limited squad strength, manager Juade Ramos will find it difficult to get going.

GROUP G

FC Basel                  Videoton           K.R.C. Genk            Sporting CP

Group G will see last season’s Europa League semi-finalist Sporting Lisbon competing against FC Basel, Videoton from Hungary and Belgium club Genk. All these teams have gone through managerial changes in recent times. So, without much experience in Europe, these managers’ credentials would be put to the testnow. Paulo Sousa has been able to overhaul Videoton to an extent and he would certainly want to continue with the good work. They have made a good start to the new season which includes winning the Magyar Kupa (Hungarian Cup) and qualifying for the Europa League group stage after three rounds of qualification. So if these are signs of things to come, the club can be hopeful of good results in this tournament. Basel stunned everyone last season after eliminating Manchester United and qualifying for the knock-out stage. However, the start to the new season hasn’t been quite according to plan for their manager Heiko Vogel in his first full season at helm. They could not repeat last season’s heroics in UCL and were eliminated in the play-offs. In Swiss League, which they have won for the last three seasons, they are yet to find their rhythm. So they must put things in perspective before the group stage starts. Genk too hasn’t had a good start to the season. They may fancy their chances in Group G but before that, they have to vastly improve their performance. A leaky defence has been their problem, which they must rectify. However, their relatively good performance in UCL last year will give their manager, Mario Been confidence ahead of their Europa League journey. Start to the new season for Sporting has been poor. After a bright start to his reign last season, things haven’t been according to plan for Ricardo Sá Pinto this season. They have been winless in their first three matches and thus must turn things around quickly to kick-start their season. However, a talented squad will give the manager confidence to qualify from the group stage.

GROUP H

Inter                       Partizan                  Neftchi               Rubin Kazan

Group H will have one of Europe’s top clubs and UCL 2010 champion Inter Milan playing against Rubin Kazan, Partizan of Serbia and European debutants Neftchi from Azerbaijan. It is really difficult to see anyone else other than Inter to top the group. With the experience they have in their squad, it would be very hard for them not to qualify for next round. Under young manager Andrea Stramaccioni, they have a sound start to the season. Inter will look to put last season’s mess behind them and get back to the level where they belong. With a few intelligent signings including that of Antonio Cassano, Inter’s squad is looking quite strong. A decent show in Europe is what their fans would be demanding this time. A major concern in the group would be to which side goes the second spot. Apparently, both Rubin Kazan and Partizan would be vying for that. After their good displays in Europe over the last three seasons, Rubin can be hopeful of making it to the next round. Their start to the new season has been average, winning four games out of eight while losing the rest four. Kurban Berdyev has been in charge of Rubin for over a decade and he will have to prepare his squad for the task. Partizan created history last season when they won the Serbian League for a record five consecutive times. However, their record in Europe has not been significant. The last time they moved to knock-out stage in Europe was in 2005. So this time they would want to better that record. Their form in domestic league has been good as usual and manager Vladimir Vermezović will want his team to perform at similar level this time in Europe. Rookies Neftchi will want to enjoy their first European experience. A few surprises by them here and there couldn’t be written off.  In their qualification campaign, Neftchi eliminated APOEL, the quarter-finalists in UCL last season. So it will be wrong to ignore them and they may well be the dark horse in the group.

GROUP I

Athletic Club              AC Sparta Praha                Lyon           H.I. Kiryat Shmona

Last year’s runners-up Athletic Club from Spain will start their campaign in Group I. They would be hoping to move one step further this time and clinch their first continental title. However, things have been difficult for them at the start of the season. There has been a rift between club hierarchy and manager Marcelo Bielsa. One of their best players, Javi Martinez has left the club while star striker Fernando Llorente too wants to leave the club. Their form has been very shaky with their defence leaking in goals. The squad too lacks depth to maintain performance in both domestic league and Europe. They have to sort out these issues as quickly as possible and make sure they can repeat their heroics of last season. Athletic will be joined by Lyon from France who are also trying to regain their form on the pitch. After the departure of Claude Puel, it would be a massive task for the new manager, Rémi Garde to put the records straight. Having lost their experienced duo of Hugo Lloris and Kim Källströmover the summer, the current squad would require to rise in the hour of need. Their form in the new season has been satisfactory and it is to be seen whether they can produce the same in Europe too. Sparta Praha and Hapoel Kiryat Shmona from Israel would be the other two clubs in the group. Sparta no longer boasts the glory of yesteryears and they are now mostly limited to participating in European competition. With the more glamorous clubs luring away their talented players, Sparta lacks the strength in their squad needed to succeed in Europe. H.K. Shmona are a club that came into existence just a decade ago. But their rise to prominence in Israel domestic league has been quite spectacular. Last season they won their first domestic title and followed that up with qualifying for Europa League group stage. They would have nothing to lose, rather staging a few upsets may be on the cards.

GROUP J

Panathinaikos                 S.S. Lazio             Tottenham                    NK Maribor

Tottenham, Lazio, Maribor and Panathinaikos will compete in Group J. Although Tottenham and Lazio appear to be the teams to qualify for the next round, it won’t be wise to ignore the other two teams, Panathinaikos or Maribor. Europa League is the perfect platform for the unsung clubs to rise above their weight. Tottenham are extremely unlucky as they have to participate in Europa League despite finishing fourth in English Premier League. The club have gone for a risky gamble this season by appointing Andres Villas-Boas in place of Harry Redknapp, who was instrumental in Tottenham’s success. After some significant changes in the squad, Villas-Boas has a talented team at his disposal that should do well. AVB would fondly remember the last time he managed Porto in Europa League and would require to produce similar results to justify his billing as one of the promising managers this season. Maribor from Slovenia would be hoping for a better campaign than last season when they finished bottom of the group. But it would be quite tough for them against experienced campaigners in Europe. Panathinaikos would need to step up this time if they really want to make a mark. Off—the-field issues have affected the club’s performance in recent times; a lot of players were sold last summer to compensate financially. With a bunch of young and unproven players, manager Jesualdo Ferreira would have to make things happen. In the new season, Lazio almost found a spring in their step; they started their Serie A campaign in a spectacular manner. Under new manager Vladimir Petković, they have settled in quickly and would be hoping for a good campaign in Europe this time.

GROUP K

Metalist Kharkiv          Bayer Leverkusen         Rosenborg BK              SK Rapid Wien

Group K consists of Bayer Leverkusen, Metalist from Ukraine, Rapid Wien and Rosenborg. Rapid and Rosenborg will be returning to Europe after one year’s absence. Rosenborg’s season is approaching its end. They would be eager to make a good show this time but how far they will be successful remains to be seen. Currently they lie third in their domestic league, just one point adrift of the leaders. Replicating the same form in Europe would be a challenge for their manager, Jan Jönsson. Rapid Wien would look to continue their good home form when they start their campaign in Europe. Last time, they failed to qualify for group stage, so would surely like to better this time. Last season, Metalist from Kharkhiv had a good run in Europa League. Inspite of their limited team strength, they reached the quarter-final where they lost narrowly to Sporting Lisbon. They would like to have a similar run this time too but challenges will be tougher. Metalist coach Myron Markevych has been in charge of the team for a long time and he would definitely like to surpass his own record. Leverkusen must have felt hard done by last season’s seven-goal drubbing against Lionel Messi’s Barcelona. They would look to put the record straight by a good performance in Europa this time. However, their form at the start of the season needs to improve drastically for achieving anything remarkable. After that debacle at Nou Camp, the club parted ways with Robin Dutt and have put Sami Hyypiä in the hot seat. Hyypiä’s boys have to show character if they are to prove their worth. With talent aplenty in the squad, hopefully they will come good as the tournament progresses.

GROUP L

Twente FC               Levante UD           Hannover 96            Helsinborg

The last group of the entire lot will witness four very interesting teams battle it out among them. Levante, Helsingborg, Hannover and FC Twente will be involved in Group L and it can go to the wire to decide the top two teams. Levante have been living a dream after they returned to top division two years back. With a stringent budget and lot of constraints, their achievement has been phenomenal. After finishing sixth last year in La Liga, they got the opportunity to play in Europa League play-off and they saw off Motherwell FC comfortably to qualify for group stage for the first time in their history. Although their start to the new season hasn’t been good, but their inspirational coach, Juan Ignacio Martinez (nicknamed JIM) would definitely want to put up a competitive performance. Helsinborg had to settle for Europa League group stage after they were defeated by Celtic FC in UCL play-off. Domestic form has not been good for them and in all probability, they won’t be returning to Europe next season. So they must make big of whatever chance they have this season. Hannover have been impressive in Bundesliga for the last two seasons and this season too they have started well. Last season they lost to Atletico Madrid, the champions in an evenly contested quarter-final. Manager Mirko Slomka would try to take his team further this season but for that they’ve got to qualify from this tough group. The last team in the group, FC Twente qualified for the group stage after a gruelling qualifying schedule. They have won all five matches in their domestic league this season and are sitting at the top of the table. The club supporters would be hopeful this season with the return of their iconic manager, Steve McClaren and his effect on the team has been immediate. Twente have a young and talented side that will try to go as far as possible in this season’s Europa League.

English Premier League 2012-13: Season Preview

EPL 2012-13 season is all set to get started with the teams getting their final minute acts right with a host of friendly matches. Sit back, relax and get a season preview predicting the prospect of 20 top-flight teams in English football, with Debojyoti Chakraborty

So, we are all set to start a new season of English Premier League, the most watched football league in the world. Actually we did not have much of a breather after the fascinating and absorbing 2011-12 season coming to a conclusion with virtually the last touch of the campaign when Kun Aguero secured the title for Manchester City on goal difference. After that football lovers were treated to a star-studded Euro 2012. England and Great Britain are still basking in the glory of the ongoing Olympics event and naturally it will take a while for people to shepherd their attention towards the domestic football season. Lack of any major new face in the league can be another reason for such low-key promotional activities so far. Coupled with the increasing economic turmoil worldwide and a fast approaching Financial Fair Play policy of FIFA, there has not been much activity in the summer transfer market so far. Premier league has seen less than 100 new players ready to be inducted in the coming season whereas the figure had easily crossed the 500 mark for the previous few seasons. While some major movements would surely spur up the transfer market as the window approaches its end, let us look at how the teams are shaping up and what we can expect from them.

Arsenal

Manager: Arsene Wenger
Transfers in: Lukas Podolski (Köln), Olivier Giroud (Montpellier), Santi Cazorla (Malaga FC)
Transfers out: Alex Song (Barcelona), Carlos Vela (Real Sociedad), Manuel Almunia (Watford), Robin van Persie (Manchester United), Ryo Miyaichi (loan- Wigan Athletic)

Repeat telecast. Only the main protagonists have changed. And the poor man(ager) has again lost a bunch of his most prolific players. If last season it was Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas, this year it has been Alex Song leaving for Barcelona and Robin van Persie who made no secret of his desire to leave the Emirates before joining archrivals Manchester United. Gunners will hope they will cash in on their star players (and make some good use of it instead of giving their book a healthy shape) and cope just fine as life has not come to a halt after a summer of exodus last time round. Wenger has reinforced his striking forces with two new players and contrary to his style, he has gone for proven goal-scorers in the form of Podolski and Giroud. Another new signing, Santi Cazorla loves to play in the hole and should enjoy life at the Emirates. With his midfield looking settled under Mikel Arteta and as usual a heavy influx of academy players who will be introduced this season, Arsenal’s defensive organization will be something to watch out for. After a horrendous start to the season, to be fair to them, they did well to finish third in the league. This time too they do not look ready to challenge for the title with their 37-goal scoring captain no longer around.

Predictions: Will start the campaign cold, but will eventually hang on to the last Champions League spot finishing fourth

Aston Villa

Manager: Paul Lambert
Transfers in: Brett Holman (AZ Alkmaar), Karim El Ahmadi (Feyenoord), Matthew Lowton (Sheff Utd), Ron Vlaar (Feyenoord)
Transfers Out: Carlos Cuellar (Sunderland), Emil Heskey (released)


After a successful stint with Norwich City, Paul Lambert has decided to take charge at Villa Park. He has made some inroads in the Eredivisie, most notably in the form of promising youngster Vlaar. With the tight budgets in place, Lambert may have to use Stephen Ireland, player of the season for Villa last time round, to generate some funds. This won’t be a bad move considering his age and limited impact during the league campaign.

Prediction: Seriously lacking in quality, will be tough season for them. 18th

Chelsea

Manager: Roberto Di Matteo
Transfers in: Eden Hazard (Lille), Marko Marin (Werder Bremen), Oscar (Internacional), Cesar Azpilicueta (Olympique Marseille), Victor Moses (Wigan Athletic)
Transfers out: Didier Drogba (released – Shanghai Shenhua), Jose Bosingwa (released – QPR), Romelu Lukaku (loan – West Bromwich Albion), Salomon Kalou (released – Lille)

Roberto di Matteo did himself no harm by winning the coveted Champions League trophy for Chelsea. Roman Abramovich has trusted him on a permanent basis this season which marks a transition phase for Chelsea. With talismanic Drogba and other senior players out (and some counting their days in the club) it is time for Chelsea to start afresh. Cash injection has never been a problem for the Russian billionaire and RDM has utilized it well to bolster his squad – specifically the midfield. While Fernando Torres will get another season to impress as the only top class central forward in the squad, new signing Marko Marin will slowly be drafted in the squad as an understudy to Franc Lampard. The other big money signing, Hazard will be positioned in the left wing to partner Juan Mata in the opposite flank. This is a fresh look to the team and they would compete hard for the automatic Champions League spot. But unless they make some movement late into the transfer market, lack of perpetual strikers could haunt them.

Prediction: Third

Everton

Manager: David Moyes
Transfers in: Steven Naismith (free – Rangers), Steven Pienaar (Tottenham Hotspur), Kevin Mirallas (Olympiakos)
Transfers out: Jack Rodwell (Manchester City), Joseph Yobo (Fenerbahce), Tim Cahill (NY Red Bulls)

After losing Mikel Arteta last season, Everton have bid adieu to another influential star player – Tim Cahill. But David Moyes is used to it and one hopes he will be just fine. Only if they can get rid of their perennial poor start to the season, Everton will stand in good shape this season. With Cahill gone, Moyes would like to bring in a new target man up front to support Nikica Jelavic. A decent striker would do justice to their disciplined and hardworking midfield. The cash is available with the sale of young midfielder Jack Rodwell to the Champions. While Rodwell is quite talented, cashing on an injury prone greenhorn and bringing in a proven creative midfielder (Steven Pienaar) is not a bad move. With teams improving around them a top half finish would be a decent result for Everton, especially as they are running in a shoe-string budget.

Prediction: Eighth

Fulham

Manager: Martin Jol

Transfers in: Hugo Rodallega (free-Wigan), Mladen Petric (free-Hamburger SV), Sascha Riether (loan- Köln)

Transfers out: Andrew Johnson (Queens Park Rangers), Danny Murphy (Blackburn Rovers), Diskson Etuhu (Blackburn), Pavel Pogrebnyak (Reading)

Martin Jol has quickly realised that there is severe lack of quality in his squad and thus he is crying for more quality players. It does not seem likely that his wishes will be fulfilled and that spells doom for Fulham. More crises are expected as their star forward Clint Dempsey is set to leave to a bigger club. Consolidating their position at home in Craven Cottage will be their solace this season as they will start as underdogs in their away matches. Still Jol is a good enough tactician to instil some grit and determination to his team and a mid-table finish away from the dreaded drop zone would not be a far cry for them.

Prediction: Will be occasionally dragged into the dogfight. 14th

Liverpool

Manager: Brendan Rodgers
Transfers in: Fabio Borini (Roma), Joe Allen (Swansea), Oussama Assaidi (SC Heerenveen), Nuri Sahin (loan-Real Madrid)
Transfers out: Alberto Aquilani (Fiorentina), Craig Bellamy (Cardiff), Dirk Kuyt (Fenerbache), Maxi Rodriguez (Newell’s Old Boys), Fabio Aurelio (released- Gremio)

Liverpool are on a rebuilding course and they start the season under a new man at the top, Brendan Rodgers. After an eye-catching season for the Swans, Rodgers would like to emulate his free-flowing passing style for the Reds. He has not made any major changes to the squad except for some fine-tuning. Joe Allen has come in to re-unite with his old manager but he will have to fight for his place in a jam packed midfield. With Alberto Aquilani, Craig Bellamy, Dirk Kuyt and Maxi Rodriguez – all big name players gone, Rodgers would like to concentrate on a much precise core team. Considering how much the teams around Liverpool and above them have improved since the last few seasons, even a Champions League spot seems unrealistic for them. That is good in a way as it takes off any pressure from them. It will not be surprising to see Rodgers concentrate more on domestic cups this season for silverware.

Prediction: Don’t bet against them finishing below their Merseyside neighbours again; Seventh

Manchester City

Manager: Roberto Mancini

Transfer in: Jack Rodwell (Everton)

Transfers out: David Pizzarro (loan – Roma), Owen Hargreaves (released – QPR), Emmanuel Adebayor (Tottenham Hotspur), Stuart Taylor (released- Reading), Adam Johnson (Sunderland)

The reigning champions have made news so far simply by not bringing in any star player this season. Mancini has been frustrated at the lack of funds made available to him and has only brought in Jack Rodwell who may not feature in the bench regularly, leave alone first team. This has nothing to do with their spending prowess rather the dreaded Financial Fair Play policy. Still with their squad depth, Manchester City is a force to reckon with and they would be contending for the title, come the crunch time in May.

Prediction: It will be a second season syndrome for them. Second

Manchester United

Manager: Sir Alex Ferguson

Transfers in: Nick Powell (Crewe), Robin van Persie (Arsenal), Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund), Alexander Buttner (Vitesse)

Transfers out: Fabio (Loan – QPR), Ji-Sung Park (QPR), Michael Owen (released), Paul Pogba (Juventus), Tomasz Kuszczak (released – Brighton), Ben Amos (loan- Hull City)

Manchester has made their intentions clear after signing Robin van Persie from Arsenal – they want their crown back. With Dimitri Berbatov all set to leave, it is a fascinating move to rope in the highest goal-scorer in EPL. After a hiatus of five years, Manchester United have brought in a central midfield player in the form of German Champion’s best player last season, Shinji Kagawa. Expectations are high that he would re-ignite the United central midfield which still has to rely on Ryan Giggs and give an SOS for Paul Scholes to come out of retirement. These two captures might well prompt Ferguson to deploy a 4-3-3 formation with Wayne Rooney partnering RVP Danny Welback upfront with Kagawa featuring in his preferred central role in the top of midfield. Last time Manchester played with a three-pronged attack they claimed back-to-back leagues, won Champions League once and reached the finals the other time. Losing the crown on goal difference last season has surely hurt them and it has been a while they have not won the EPL for two successive seasons.

Prediction: First. Just for their hunger to win

Newcastle United

Manager: Alan Perdew

Transfers in: Romain Amalfitano (free – Reims), Vurnon Anita (Ajax), Curtis Good (Melbourne Heart), Gael Bigirimana (Coventry) 

Transfers out: Alan Smith (released – MK Dons), Danny Guthrie (released –Reading), Leon Best (Blackburn Rovers), Peter Lovenkrands (released – Birmingham City)

Newcastle had a very good last season and they narrowly missed out on Champions League qualification spot. They would like to do better this season and so far they have done well to keep their squad intact. After a superb season, their players – most notably Yohan Cabaye, Cheick Tiote, Demba Ba, Papiss Cisse – are in huge demand but Perdew has not been tempted by any offer so far. He is a shrewd businessman and as he has done in the past, he would ensure no player is gone for cheap. That allows him to bring in reinforcements if needed. They look in good shape and there is no reason why they cannot emulate their previous season’s success.

Prediction: So close, yet so far. Again, fifth

Norwich City

Manager: Chris Hughton

Transfers in: Steven Whittaker (free – Rangers), Alexander Tettey (Rennes), Sebastien Bassong (Tottenham Hotspur), Javier Garrido (loan- Lazio), Michael Turner (Sunderland), Robert Snodgrass (Leeds United), Jacob Butterfield (free- Barnsley), Steven Whittaker (free- Glasgow Rangers).

Transfers out: Adam Drury (released – Leeds)

Chris Hughton returns to Premier League with an impressive record as a Newcastle manager. This will surely please fans who saw their influential manager Paul Lamber depart after an impressive return season to the top flight where they finished 12th. He has already done remarkably well to hold on to want away talisman forward Grant Holt. Norwich has a strong setup with their defensive organization earning praises from pundits. Hughton is known for his possession based, attractive and attacking style of play. It will be interesting to see what impact this combination yields.

Prediction: 11th

Queens Park Rangers

Manager: Mark Hughes

Transfers in: Andy Johnson (free – Fulham), David Hoilett (Blackburn Rovers), Fábio (loan – Manchester United), Ji-Sung Park (Manchester United), Jose Bosingwa (free – Chelsea), Robert Green (free – West Ham), Ryan Nelsen (free – Tottenham Hotspur)

Transfer out: Paddy Kenny (Leeds United)

By far the most active club in the transfer market, QPR looks set to avoid last day tension for survival like last year. Mark Hughes has strengthened his squad across the pitch by bringing in experienced shot-stopper Robert Green, centre-half Ryan Nelsen and full-backs Fabio and Jose Bosingwa, midfield work-horse Ji-Sung Park and striker duo David Hoilett and Andy Johnson. On paper, they look much stronger and should aim for a top half finish. But, so many new players would take time to get galvanized in the team which may lead to a slow start to the campaign.

Prediction: 10th

Reading

Manager: Brian Mcdermott 

Transfers in: Danny Guthrie (free – Newcastle United), Nicky Shorey (free – West Bromich Albion), Pavel Pogrebnyak (free – Fulham), Stuart Taylor (free-Manchester City), Chris Gunter (Nottingham Forest), Adrian Mariappa (Watford), Pierce Sweeney (Bray Wanderers), Garath McCleary (free- Nottingham Forest)

Transfer out: Mathieu Manset (FC Sion)

Reading qualified for the top flight by winning the Championships. It is their back-to-back promotion in consecutive years and they could find the gap too much to handle in the top flight. Man in charge, Brian McDermott has put together a steady unit which will be difficult to break down but doubt remains wherefrom they will find the goals to win matches. Pavel Pogrebnyak will be under pressure to deliver for the whole season as a lone man up front and it will depend very much on him how Reading fares this season.

Prediction: Touch and go. 17th on benefit of doubt

Southampton

Manager: Nigel Adkins

Transfers in: Jay Rodriguez (Burnley), Nathaniel Clyne (Crystal Palace), Steven Davis (Glasgow Rangers), Paulo Gazzaniga (Gillingham),

Transfer out: Ryan Doble (released – Shrewsbury)

They seem like a cannon fodder for other teams in the Premier League. There is shortage of top-flight experience and lack of their squad depth will surely be exposed during this long season. They have an ongoing youth project with the aim of fielding at least half of their squad from their homegrown players. This could just be a tough reality check for this ambitious club.

Prediction: 20th

Stoke City

Manager: Tony Pulis

Transfers in: Jamie Ness (free – Glasgow Rangers), Geoff Cameron (Houston Dynamo), Michael Kightly (Wolverhampton Wanderers)

Transfers out: Jonathon Woodgate (released – Middlesbrough), Salif Diao (released), Ricardo Fuller (released)

There is nothing new about Stole City. They will be physical, rely on set pieces to find an opening and would defend with their lives when the need be. Considering the positive movements shown by their competitors around the mid-table group, it will be hard for them to finish anywhere near the top half.

Prediction: 13th

Sunderland

Manager: Martin O’Neil

Transfers in: Carlos Cuellar (free – Aston Villa), Louis Saha (Tottenham Hotspur), Adam Johnson (Manchester City), Steven Fletcher (Wolverhampton Wanderers).

Transfers out: Asamoah Gyan (Al-Ain FC), Craig Gordon (released), Michael Turner (Norwich)

Another club stuck in mediocrity. Sunderland may cause a few upsets down the road but they would largely be unimpressive like last season. They have not added anything to their squad  – other than the tried,  tested and failed Louis Saha – and have done away with Asamoah Gyan who had openly expressed his desire to seek fortunes elsewhere. So, Martin O’Neil’s side will play the same way but an improvement in the quality of the league may cause them a couple of places.

Prediction: 15th

Swansea City

Manager: Michael Laudrup 

Transfers in: Chico (Genoa), Michu (Rayo Vallecano), Ki Sung-Yeung (Celtic), Kyle Bartley (Arsenal), Itay Shechter (loan-Kaiserslautern), Jonathan de Guzman (Villarreal)

Transfers out: Gylfi Sigrudsson (loan term finished), Joe Allen (Liverpool)

Swansea had stunned one and all with their refreshing football last season. So rare for a newly promoted side, Brandon Rodgers opted for a short passing style which saw them finish a respectable 10th position. Much of the credit should go to on loan midfield maestro Gylfi Sigrudsson, who have since then moved on like the manager himself, and another star midfielder Joe Allen. What is worrying is that they have failed to add to their squad despite having some cash to spend in the market. Michael Laudrup has been roped in but going by his dismal managerial record so far, he might just be the first casualty in this cut-throat league.

Prediction: Life will be difficult for the Swans. 12th

Tottenham Hotspur

Manager: Andre Villas-Boas

Transfers in: Gylfi Sigrudsson (1899 Hoffenheim), Jan Vertonghen (AFC Ajax), Emmanuel Adebayor (Manchester City)

Transfers out: Ledley King (retired), Louis Saha (released – Sunderland), Niko Kranjcar (Dynamo Kyiv), Ryan Nelsen (released – QPR), Steven Pienaar (Everton), Vedran Corluka (Lokomotiv Moscow)

It is like a great vendetta movie right out of Hollywood. A young man humiliated from his throne return to rule the city as the opposition leader. Only thing, like it happens in most of the fairy tales, a Happy Ending is not so obvious here. AVB is back at London with the Spurs after being shown the door at Chelsea barely six months ago. He has made two great signings by roping in Jan Vertonghen to replace Ledley King and Gylfi Sigrudsson to replace want-away midfield lynchpin, Luka Modric. But injuries have hit Tottenham hard in the last season and AVB will hope he gets some luck his way this time. Still, it will be too much to ask for him to guide the team through to top four finish on his debut season.

Prediction: Will give the top teams a good run for their money but would fade away in the second half of the season. Sixth

West Bromwich Albion

Manager: Steve Clarke

Transfers in: Ben Foster (Birmingham City), Romelu Lukaku (loan- Chelsea), Claudio Yacob (Racing Avellaneda), Yassine El Ghanassy (loan- AA Gent), Marcus Rosenberg (Werder Bremen)

Transfers out: Keith Andrews (released – Bolton), Nicky Shorey (released – Reading), Paul Scharner (released), Somen Tchoyi (released), Lateef Elford-Alliyu (released- Bury), Joe Mattock (released- Sheffield)

Steve Clarke had joined Liverpool last year as an assistant to Kenny Dalglish after Roy Hodgson was sacked. He joins West Bromwich Albion as the main man after the same man has vacated the space to answer call of nation. Clarke has to cope with high expectations following some fine back-to-back seasons by the Albions. With not much change to the squad he gets a neat core group which is very organized defensively, something Clarke himself masters in. With sound knowledge of English football aplenty in the squad, WBA will look for another strong showing.

Prediction: Ninth

West Ham United

Manager: Sam Allardyce 

Transfers in: Alou Diarra (Olympique Marseille), George McCartney (Sunderland), James Collins (Aston Villa), Jussi Jaaskelainen (free – Bolton), Mohamed Diame (free – Wigan), Matt Jarvis (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Stephen Henderson (Portsmouth), Modibo Maiga (Sochaux)

Transfers out: Abdoulaye Faye (released – Hull City), John Carew (released), Papa Bouba Diop (released), Ravel Morrison (Birmingham), Robert Green (released – QPR)

West Ham is the third team to be promoted from Championship this year through play-offs. They have trimmed their squad substantially but it is interesting to see how they have added some meat to their structure. In comes some known faces, with grit and determination and out goes some players who are just not good enough to fit into plans of Big Sam. A dogfight awaits them. Big Sam seems to be their biggest hope and they might just escape it in their debut season.

Prediction: 16th

Wigan Athletic

Manager: Roberto Martinez

Transfers in: Arouna Kone (Levante UD), Ivan Ramis (RCD Mallorca), Ryo Miyaichi (loan-Arsenal), Fraser Fyvie (Aberdeen).

Transfers out: Chris Kirkland (released – Sheffield Wednesday), Hugo Rodallega (released – Fulham), Mohamed Diame (released – West Ham), Victor Moses (Chelsea), Steven Gouhuri (released)

Each season it is the same story. Pundits write them, and they prove them wrong by somehow surviving in the topflight. Just like last season, I am taking my neck out to forecast their relegation. They could not negotiate terms with key personnel like Hugo Rodallega and their star player Victor Moses also leaving. There has not been any major addition to the squad and it looks like there is no hope this year, they cannot do it again. Or can they?

 

Prediction: They have outlived themselves. 19th

EPL Season Review

A look back at the 2011-12 season of the EPL where drama found a new home. Debojyoti Chakraborty relives the season with the top flight teams’ performances

 

So, we have witnessed yet another dramatic season of English Premier League. Is it the best ever? Pundits will keep on arguing but surely this edition will feature right up amongst the top contenders in terms of drama, excitement and performances. From the abysmal start of the campaign by Arsenal to their third spot finish, from enthralling performances of Premier League newbies Swansea and Norwich to the usual scramble of a bunch of teams to fight out relegation, from Liverpool’s wooden love to Manchester City’s last kick of the match sealing the title in the extremes of Fergie Times – this season had it all. Goalden Times would like to bask in the spirit of this glorious past nine months and review each team’s performance.

Arsenal

The season started with a humiliating 8-2 loss by bitter rivals Manchester United. Everyone feared for one of the worst seasons following the summer sale of Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy. There were very few in and around the Emirates who were not asking for the head of Arsene Wenger. Yet, The Professor managed to march on with a very young squad and achieved a remarkable third spot ensuring a direct entry to Champions League next season.

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He scores whenever he wants to

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One of the unsung heroes for Arsenal this season has been Mikel Arteta. The ex-Tuffey man arrived in summer and quickly established himself as the lynchpin in midfield. But his contributions have been overshadowed by the talismanic Dutchman Robin van Persie. Top scorer with 30 goals, he found the net against seventeen different teams during the campaign. Only a close offside call and a couple of shots striking the woodwork prevented him from scoring against Manchester City while a last gasp goal line clearance against Fulham denied him an entry in the score sheet. There have been other strong performances throughout the season with the likes of Alex duo – Song and Oxlade-Chamberlain – and Theo Walcott making good progress, but none have been able to match their influential skipper.

Aston Villa

Alex McLeish joined the Midlands club from rival club Birmingham City in summer. Fans were sceptical and the man at the helm had not done any favours to himself. A poor run of form towards the end of the campaign saw Aston Villa languishing at the bottom, only twopoints clear of relegation. The team lacked ideas going forward and lapses in concentration cost them dearly at the back. Seven wins – better than only the bottom placed Wolves – in the league should see a new manager for the forthcoming season.

Darren Bent is their only prized possession. A busy summer seems on the cards mainly in the form of some young and fresh talents. A complete overhaul may just change their fortunes. One also hopes that their stalwart captain Stiliyan Petrov, who was diagnosed with leukaemia during this disappointing season, comes out victorious through this turbulent time.

Blackburn Rovers

It is really strange – and inexplicable – that Steve Kean has survived the season even after the ever growing wrath of the club faithful. Blackburn did not have such luck and they were relegated eventually, a fate many predicted within barely a few weeks of the campaign. They spent most of the torrid campaign in the relegation zone. The sale of Phil Jones in the summer and Christopher Samba in January, following his differences with the management, have hit them hard as they succumbed to defeat a record 23 times this term.

There were very few bright spots in the form of striker Junior Hoilett giving an impressive string of performances while Yakubu showed some sparks reminiscent of his past. With the former’s contract expiring this summer and Blackburn no more in the top flight, it is time for him to move on.

Bolton Wanderers

It was surprising to see the usual tenacity missing from a Bolton side. Throughout the campaign they seemed lost for ideas and eventually they succumbed on the final day of the season. TheTrotters lacked the quality to remain afloat in the top division and it will be a good opportunity for Owen Coyle to harness a new team in the Championships. They might have to do away with a lot of their most valuable players but fresh faces would be more than welcome.

Bolton’s highlight of the season was rather a tragic as well as inspirational one. They were stunned by the on-field collapse of Fabrice Muamba due to cardiac arrest in March. Prompt medical attention ensured he somehow survived after being medically dead for minutes.

Chelsea

The first casualty occurred in the form of much-hyped Andre Villas-Boas – AVB, as he is popularly known – when he was sacked ruthlessly by the billionaire owner Roman Abramovich barely months into the job. A dramatic turnaround under the supervision of interim caretaker boss Roberto Di Matteo saw them competing for the top four finish but they eventually ensured a Champions League entry next season through their Cup winning heroics. Chelsea should feel more than satisfied after their seemingly dismal campaign ended with another Cup glory as they lifted the FA Cup at Wembley.

There has been growing debate over the influence of senior players in the Chelsea dressing room. It is going to be an acid test for the newly appointed manager Roberto Di Matteoin his first season in the permanent role. Nonetheless a string of summer exits looks inevitable – with the likes of Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Jose Bosingwa topping the list – in the wake of a dismal league campaign.

Everton

It has been long argued that David Moyes is the best manager in England as he has managed to deliver within a shoe-string budget. This time they finished seventhinthe table, even above their bitter Merseyside rivals. Following a poor start to the season, David Moyes and his troops have turned things round since January to mark his first decade in premiership with yet another top half finish.

The turn of events was sparked by the arrival of Serbian Nikica Jelavic in January who has shown a good knack for scoring goals.If he continues to shine this time round, Everton can surely hope for finishing higher in the table.

Fulham

Fulham finished strongly with a top half  finish, level on points with Liverpool. They have played some good football throughout the year and their form especially at Craven Cottage was exceptional. Martin Jol would love to build on after an impressive season in 2012.

Much of Fulham’s good showing is due the USA international star Clint Dempsey. After an excellent season where he topped the club’s goal-scoring chart with 17 goals and openly admitted his desire to play in Champions League, Dempsey is all set to leave. It will be interesting to see how much Fulham can get out of the sale of their star performer and how wisely they can use the cash.

Liverpool

Miserable. The one word to describe The Reds’ season. A lowly eighthplace finish, a defeat in the final of the FA Cup and a (Carling) Cup win which failed to make any kind of headlines – Liverpool is certainly happy that the season has finally ended. Kenny Dalglish brought in some really average players who have failed to deliver and as a result have upset a settled side which was trying hard to climb up.

Matters worsenedwith an eight-match ban on Luis Suarez due to his alleged racial scandal. Liverpool was the unluckiest side as they hit the woodwork a record 33 times during the campaign but this cannot be counted as even a consolation. With the appointment of Brendan Rodgers, the Kops would like to see an attacking flair of football which would propel them to Champions League once again.

Manchester City

It took the last kick of the match to seal the title for them. Goalden Times, however, had long back predicted the silverware for them in the midseason review. Their first title since 1968 would surely inspire them for bigger things in the next season. And yes, they could do with a little less footage of Sunderlanddue to their off-the-field problems.

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The New Champions

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Roberto Mancini has successfully marshalled a troop which has looked invincible at times. They should have won the league rather convincingly but there is no denying the fact they were by far the best team in England. A star-studded line-up featuring Joe Hart, David Silva and Sergio Aguero was ably led by Vincent Kompany. No one will be surprised to see a few more big names joining them next season.

Manchester United

With aneight-point lead in April, everyone thought it was United’s title to lose. And lose they did. Squandering a two-goal advantage twice at home against Everton proved to be decisive as they had to see drama on the final day of the season taking the Cup to the Blue side of Manchester, albeit on goal difference. Sir Alex Ferguson must be credited for fighting it out till the very last with a below par squad, but the shrewd tactician knew deep inside that he had blown it off this time.

A midfield featuring Ryan Giggs and coming-out-of-retirement Paul Scholes with a combined age of 77 would be too much to fathom next season. The Red Devils badly need some creative spark in the midfield and it remains to be seen whether they splash the cash to do so.

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The veteran red devils


Newcastle United

For many pundits, not the team of the season. Nor was it for us at Goalden Times at the start of the season, but we had forecast a strong finish for them and they did oblige. At the start of the season no one had predicted a fifthplace finish and they did push for a Champions League spot for a considerable time in the campaign. Alan Pardew should be lauded for his vision. He has not hesitated to iron out trouble between star players and has struck some good bargains to build a really strong squad.

A settled team, the Magpies were led by Demba Ba in the first half of the campaign. It speaks volumes for his teamsmanship when he sacrificed his striking role to the January signing fellow countryman PapissCisse. The Senegalese star went on to become the new sensation in the league with 13 goals in fourteenappearances.

Norwich City

Promoted to the top flight, Norwich never looked out of place. A mid-table finish gives them great hope for the next season and what is the most exciting factor is that they rarely relied on a single or couple of players to deliver the goods. Their work ethic and team game has been applauded by all.

Paul Lambert presented the viewers with some excellent football and they were never really in danger of going back to the Championships. It is a blow for the Canaries to lose him to Aston Villa but they should hold on to their star striker Grant Holt and influential Anthony Pilkington if they are to catch the eyes once more next season.

Queens Park Rangers

In spite of breaking the hearts of the millions of Red Devils’ fans, Mark Hughes’s side just about held on to the top flight. But it is not ideal when one has to wait for other results to go their way to guarantee survival on the last day of the season. They have looked vulnerable during their away trips and major reinforcements are needed for next term’s survival.

QPR has looked better under the astute Mark Hughes. But their summer recruits – Bobby Zamora, DjibrilCisse – have all been tested and tried in English football and may not have much more to offer. With a temperamental and self-destructing Joey Barton leading the troop, the Hoops should count themselves fortunate to be still in the top flight.

Stoke City

Stoke City had an average season. They were quite physical, they dug in and remained in the comfort of mid-table for the entire campaign – nothing exceptional about their journey. They had the privilege of playing in Europe but that could have cost them couple of places in the league table.

Peter Crouch has had a decent season at the Britannia stadium but his lack of goals proved critical to his omission in the Euro 2012 squad. Dead ball specialist Jonathan Walters did show some spark at times but nothing much to write home about.

Sunderland

A poor start to the season saw Steve Bruce being replaced by Martin O’Neill who did a commendable job especially in organizing a tight defensive unit. They did have their good days during this campaign but the bad days far outweighed them.

Only bright point for them was the arrival of StephaneSessegnon. He sparkled in his first full season for the Black Cats with the most number of assists (9) and a decent number of goals (7). O’Neill may look to strengthen his defence this summer by stamping his authority over the club.

Swansea City

The surprise package. Unlike any other newly promoted team, Brendan Rodgers opted for a refreshingly attacking brand of football. Naturally their fan base increased many a fold worldwide. It does not mean that they were vulnerable at the back as their shot-stopper Michel Vorm kept an impressive 14 clean sheets.

TheSwans played a high tempo open passing game, that spoke well of the excellent team they are, but one player stood out tall amidst them all – loan signee from Hoffenheim, Gylfi Sigurdsson. Arriving in the January transfer window, the playmaker produced an incredible five goals and 7 assists. Swansea will be disappointed that they have been unable to make him permanent and they have to bid adieu to their star manager too.

Tottenham Hotspur

It was a heartbreaking season for the Spurs. For the large part before Christmas they looked like the only team to realistically challenge the Manchester sides for the title. Then came January and Harry Redknapp’s distraction for the national team. Spurs slipped out of the title race but looked certain to hang on to the thirdspot for an automatic Champions League place. Then came a series of disastrous results in February which ensured they could only get a fourthplace. Then a certain RDM masterminded Blues’ victory in the Champions League final to leave Tottenham lamenting outside the top tier competition in Europe.

Redknapp has been sacked and the search for a new manager is underway with the likes of David Moyes tipped heavily to take over. Whoever it is, without the prospect of Champions League, it will be very hard to hold on to their star performers like Luka Modric and Gareth Bale. And with Chelsea, Newcastle, Liverpool and others looking to get stronger, a top fourfinish will be an even bigger challenge.

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A dejected spurs journey

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West Bromwich Albion

Roy Hodgson has been in an ideal club with no pressure of winning day in and day out. This is also proved by the fact that they have fared far better on their away matches this season. With a comfortable top 10 finish, Hodgson has shown that he knows how to get the most out of limited resources and this quality has landed him England’s top post.

The Hawthorns club has made some good progress for the last few seasons and it will be a challenge for them to carry on in the similar fashion. They need to find a manager first and then some solidity at the back. Also the services of Peter Odemwingie, the star performer amongst a bunch of enthusiastic and young players, must be ensured before he is snatched away by some other club.

Wigan Athletic

Critics and pundits had written them off but the Latics rose like a Phoenix and Roberto Martinez should be applauded for how he turned the fortunes of a club that looked certain for relegation. Scalping for the likes of Manchester United, Newcastle United and Arsenal, they have finished at a respectable 15th place against all odds.

Shane Long has had an injury-prone season but he rose to the occasion when it mattered the most by scoring against the big boys. Victor Moses is another player who made good progress this season. Their strategy will be simple – look for some cheap buys and fight again against the odds.

Wolverhampton Wanderers

Their fate was sealed way back in April. After the sacking of Mick McCarthy, they failed to win a single league match and they might find even the Championships too hot to handle. The squad looked down and out, dispirited for the major part of the season which saw only five wins for them.

It will be no surprise to see the better players – Steven Fletcher, Kevin Doyle – leaving very soon and a rebuilding phase start for the Molineux outfit. Stale Solbakken, the new manager will have a tough season ahead and it may take them some time to get back into the top flight once again.

Team of the Season

Michel Vorm

Kyle Walker        Vincent Kompany            FabricioColoccini               Leighton Banes

Antonio Valencia              YayaToure           Clinton Dempsey             David Silva

Robin van Persie              Sergio Auguero

Maximus Tacticus – Liverpool

Debojyoti Chakraborty analyzes the strategies of top English Premier League clubs. This month Liverpool comes under the microscope. You may contact him on @debojchak

Induction

Will Liverpool win the Premier League? This was the question last season when King Kenny (Dalglish) took charge at Anfield last season. Going by their performances so far, the answer to that is a clear NO. Their season has gone from bad to worse. Far from fighting for the crown or even vying for the Champions League spots, they are now simply fighting to be in the top half of the league. This is even more frustrating since Dalglish had the support of the board and fans and he was one of those fortunate managers who had enough cash to splash.

Problems Aplenty

The problem for Liverpool has been getting results in games where they are expected to win. From the days of Rafael Benitez, the Reds have adopted a compact playing style based on speedy counter attacks. They love to play with a five-man midfield, press the opponent, forcing them to commit mistakes and then to pounce on to them. It has worked in matches against the bigger teams; against less ambitious teams, especially playing at home, Liverpool has found it difficult to break through. It is evident now that Dalglish is a very passionate administrator, but not a shrewd tactician who can change the course of a match. Part of this problem can be attributed to the absence of inspirational captain Steven Gerrard for most of the season due to niggling injuries. His passing, be it those Hollywood passes to initiate a counter-attack or some killer through balls to unlock a packed defence, was a major weapon which was dearly missed. Liverpool have done well in keeping their shape but they have been too bookish – lacking any idea when most needed. None of the three preferred central midfielders – Charlie Adam, Jordan Henderson or Lucas Leiva / Jay Spearing – have been given a definite duty which has compounded their midfield woes. For some inexplicable reason, Dirk Kyut, Liverpool’s player of the season last time round, has been quite irregular, even as the new signing, Stewart Downing has failed to spark in the wide areas. Too many work-horses but lack of any craft and vision has hampered Luis Suarez, who has been left alone high up the field. He has also been desperately unlucky as he has hit the posts the most in EPL – and his clever movements have often gone unnoticed.  Without the lanky Andy Carroll, Liverpool have missed a target in the box for their crosses as is evident from the following graphic. Only 2 out of 22 crosses met a shirt in Red and that’s how poor they have been!

Crosses not working (Liverpool vs Manchester United)

The Reds have been decent in the back though. Led by Jose “Pepe” Reina, one of the best distributors of the ball in the league, they have kept 11 clean sheets so far – only Swansea City and Manchester City have bettered them. Martin Skrtel has been the leader in defence and his partnership with the ball playing centre-half Daniel Agger has blossomed this season. Jamie Carragher has been used as a reserve in what could be his swansong season and it is clear to see why he is not a regular anymore. Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique have formed a competent partnership on the opposite flanks as wing-backs. Martin Kelly has been the reserve right-back while Johnson has been instrumental even in the unusual left back position in Enrique’s absence.

4-2-3-1 getting converted to 4-5-1

Man to Watch (1) – Pepe Reina

Jose “Pepe” Reina is perhaps the best distributor of the ball in England. He has set up the most number of goal-scoring opportunities (five) for his team, according to the official Barclays statistics. Besides, his short passing is exceptional and he is at ease with the ball either throwing it or rolling it to a teammate.  Wolves had pressed him more forcing him to play more long balls which reduced his passing accuracy considerably to only 50%. But at Goodison Park, as Everton were down to 10 men quite early in the match with Jack Rodwell sent off, he faced less pressure and thus dictated the game quite well with 84% accurate passing.

Reina's passing against Wolves (Top) and Everton (Bottom)

This shows the amount of talent at Spain’s disposal and why he cannot even make the bench for the national team. But that does not undermine the fact that he is a brilliant shot-stopper. He is a true leader organizing the back four and it is no wonder they have kept so many clean sheets. But some occasional lapse in concentration has cost Liverpool dear – most notably the game at Etihad Stadium and against Fulham.

Man to Watch (2) – Jordan Henderson

Henderson was bought from Sunderland for a jaw-dropping £20 million at a tender age of 20 with only a single season of top flight football behind him. Pundits thought he was overpriced and so far, with his performance, Henderson has proved them right. Regularly deployed in a more advanced position in the central midfield, he has until now contributed by scoring only once and two assists. He has been sloppy in possession, lacks the technique to win 50-50 duels consistently, and his aerial strengths are nothing to write home about. May be a club like Liverpool, where nothing but wins are expected in each and every match, has come a little too soon for him. He looks lost at times, out of his comfort zone from the Stadium of Light. Though he has an overall passing accuracy of 83%, most of those passes have not been venomous.  Against Wolves, as shown below, he failed to deliver a single telling cross. Moreover, only one of his completed passes was really threatening. He is playing it safe but how long can the Kops bear with him?

Jordan Henderson missing meaningful passes

EPL Mid-Season Review

Last August, we had presented a season preview. Come New Year, Debojyoti Chakraborty is back to review his predictions and update the prophecies

Prelude

Happy New Year! English football enters a new year with the hope of establishing itself as the football powerhouse of Europe, especially after the lackluster performance in the 2011-2012 UEFA Champions League. At the start of the competition, the clubs from Manchester looked like strong bids – one for their (recent) history, and another for their new found cash injection. Surprisingly, they have to trade their horses with the poor-man’s-Continental-Cup – the Europa League. Back home though, they have not disappointed the books and are tied at the top spot to set up a fascinating second half for the 2011-2012 Barclays Premier League. Earlier in the season, we had come up with a season preview and now look to review our own stance – how far have we got it right and where our predictions have gone awry.

League Table

POS

CLUB

P

W

D

L

GF

GA

GD

PTS

1

Manchester City

19

14

3

2

53

16

37

45

2

Manchester United

19

14

3

2

49

17

32

45

3

Tottenham Hotspur

19

13

3

3

37

20

17

42

4

Arsenal

19

11

3

5

35

26

9

36

5

Chelsea

19

10

4

5

37

24

13

34

6

Liverpool

19

9

7

3

24

15

9

34

7

Newcastle United

19

8

6

5

26

25

1

30

8

Stoke City

19

7

5

7

20

30

-10

26

9

Everton

19

7

3

9

19

22

-3

24

10

Aston Villa

19

5

8

6

22

24

-2

23

11

Norwich City

19

5

7

7

28

34

-6

22

12

West Bromwich Albion

19

6

4

9

19

27

-8

22

13

Sunderland

19

5

6

8

23

22

1

21

14

Fulham

19

4

8

7

20

25

-5

20

15

Swansea City

19

4

8

7

18

23

-5

20

16

Wolverhampton Wanderers

19

4

5

10

21

34

-13

17

17

Queens Park Rangers

19

4

5

10

18

33

-15

17

18

Wigan Athletic

19

3

6

10

17

37

-20

15

19

Blackburn Rovers

19

3

5

11

28

41

-13

14

20

Bolton Wanderers

19

4

1

14

23

42

-19

13


Arsenal FC

The season started in the worst possible manner for Arsene Wenger. He could not hold on to his star players; there were no big signings to assure fans; one hell of an injury crisis – particularly in the defensive ranks – culminating in a brutal assault by one of their arch rivals. But things have changed for the better since then. Arsenal changed their recruitment policy and brought in some established players rather than looking for greenhorns. Thomas Vermaelen came back from injury and provided some much needed solidity to the otherwise fragile defence. Mikel Arteta grabbed his last chance of playing for one of the elites of modern European clubs and orchestrated a till-now-shaky midfield. He was ably supported by Alex Song, who rose to the occasion in the absence of long-term injured Jack Wilshere. The enthusiasm of new recruit Gervinho helped matters too. To top it all, a certain Robin van Persie thought that it was not a bad time to surpass the club record of Thierry Henry by scoring the maximum number of goals in a calendar year. Still, Wenger is not in a good mood, come this new year. Over-reliance on RVP, especially considering his injury-prone history, and imminent departure of players for African Cup of Nations, are worth a concern.  Calling back an ageing Henry as a cover is showing signs of panic in management. It remains to be seen how Arsenal deal with these issues while the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool breathe down their necks. I am sticking to the pre-season prediction of missing out on a Champions League place (and may be, RVP!).

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 5th

Final Prediction: 5th

Aston Villa 

After the summer exodus of a lot of regular first team players, Villa was sure to get a rocky start to the season. But Gabriel Agbonlahor has struck gold this season as a senior member in the team. Not only is he the highest scorer for the Villans, he has played a perfect ten to his striking partner Darren Bent. Along with Stiliyan Petrov, he looks set for his best season for the club this time round. But lack of experience in the midfield has limited penetration in the attacking third. Mediocrity has embraced the club and the same is expected to prevail in May.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 10th

Final Prediction: 10th

Blackburn Rovers 

A change of ownership; fans demanding the head of the current manager and even carrying banners to get the former incumbent back in charge, team rooted to relegation throughout the season – this has been a forgettable league campaign for the Rovers. The only highlight has been the star forward, Yakubu Ayegbeni with 12 goals in the campaign – he is among the top five goal scorers this season. Christopher Samba seems the sole warrior in a fragile defence that has leaked more than two goals per game. It is not clear why Steve Kean is still at the helm of things, but it seems Blackburn can only survive if teams above them encounter a freefall. Tough times ahead!

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 15th

Final Prediction: 18th

Bolton Wanderers

Manager Owen Coyle changed the way Bolton used to play last season. The results were encouraging, with Bolton fighting for the European spots last season this time. But they have hurtled on a downhill journey since, without any road blocker. Things could get even worse with the imminent departure of defence stalwart, Garry Cahill in the transfer window. For a team with the worst defensive record in the league, this will be a massive blow. When going forward, they have been much better though. The midfield trio of Chris Eagles, Nigel Reo-Coker and Martin Petrov are doing quite well for themselves but not so much for the team – they seldom give out a collective performance. Up front, Kevin Davies has been the target man as usual, with strike partner Ivan Klasnic, enjoying his best season for the club. But Bolton needs to have something extra to survive in the top flight. January would be a crucial time for them with some loan signings in the form of Romelu Lukaku and Josh McEachran expected to join in. I am betting on Owen Coyle to make Bolton stay on in the Premier League.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 16th

Final Prediction: 16th

Chelsea

It is a rocky time. Star players are ageing, and they have warmed the bench this season with high profile signings proving a major flop. It is a new side with a new manager in charge, but time is running out fast. Consistently inconsistent – this should sum up the season for Chelsea. Petr Cech is underperforming regularly and some costly howlers this season has meant he has kept only four clean sheets thus far – not enough for a top class goalkeeper. Chelsea have played six matches last month and have kept a clean sheet only once, conceding seven in the process. This vulnerability may be somewhat explained by the new high pressing style adopted by Andre Villas Boas, but not the individual mistakes by the defenders, like Terry slipping against Arsenal!

A new look midfield has performed well for Chelsea though AVB has, at times, been indecisive on where to deploy Juan Mata, their most creative player. A free roaming role like that of David Silva of Manchester City seems to suit him well rather than a wide forward in a three-man attack. Daniel Sturridge has been superb in that role and Chelsea would have done well had they found a central striker, netting goals regularly. Yet, seeing the form and depth in squad of Liverpool and Arsenal respectively, Chelsea should get a Champions League berth.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 2nd

Final Prediction: 4th

Everton

David Moyes has done wonders for Everton working on a shoe-string budget. This season is no different. Nothing spectacular about them – they have secured points where everyone expected, and dropped points where no eyebrows were raised. Leighton Baines has been excellent in a well drilled unit, which has one of the best defensive records in the league. They have had to struggle going forward though. Lack of creativity in the midfield and regular injuries to star striker Louis Saha have seen them creating very few chances and converting even fewer. Earlier, we had predicted a seventh spot finish for the Toffees, but then the midfield lynchpin Mikel Arteta left for Arsenal. So we are modifying our predictions and now see them just holding onto a top-half finish.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 7th

Final Prediction: 9th

Fulham

Fulham has underperformed thus far. Defenders have failed to maintain a clean sheet, forwards have failed to find the net. Midfield has been the only bright spot with the duo of Clint Dempsey and Danny Murphy pulling the strings. Dempsey is the highest scorer for the team with six goals. Apart from a 6-0 drubbing of Queens Park Rangers, they have failed to score more than two goals in any of their remaining 18 matches. Bobby Zamora has failed to deliver time and again. The defence is not doing its job properly. The experienced pair of John Arne Riise and Brede Hangeland has failed to pull its weight into the team. The team still has enough experience and it would be unwise to predict that their poor run will continue for the rest of the season. So, I am going with a mid-table finish.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 11th

Final Prediction: 13th

Liverpool

Cagy! A word that describes Liverpool under Kenny Dalglish. They are a fine team playing against stronger teams as they can sit back, wait for opportunities to come by and exploit them in the counter attack. But against less ambitious teams, where the Reds are expected to drive home the advantage, they fail to do so adopting the same approach. Hence, in spite of conceding the least number of goals this season, they have a high percentage of draws. This shows the lack of influence their midfielders have on the game. In spite of big summer signings, absence of lion-hearted captain Steven Gerrard, Charlie Adams, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing have resulted in a lacklustre performance. Besides, Dirk Kyut and Lucas Leiva – the main players to orchestrate Liverpool’s comeback last season – have got limited playing time in a crowded midfield and thus have hampered their rhythm. Add to that the ban on Luis Suarez and we don’t see them improving much in the later stages of the league unless any new signing strikes gold. I am predicting a seventh place for the Reds, i.e. no European spot next season.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 3rd

Final Prediction: 7th

Manchester City

With the squad they have, Manchester City may have got more Google hits this season than the cumulative hits of the last decade. And with the historic 6-1 mauling of Manchester United, Roberto Mancini showed that they have surely arrived. Joe Hart has cemented his place as the best goalkeeper in England with eight clean sheets; the defence looks solid under Vincent Kompany, Micah Richards and company. David Silva has masterminded the midfield with some skilful and towering work force around. The forward line is led by a certain Sergio Agüero, and in case he has a bad day in office, Edin Dzeko and Mario Balotelli have ensured that a certain Carlos Tevez remains in oblivion. So what does that leave us with? Most number of goals, most number of clean sheets and second best defensive record, maximum number of assists made by any player in the league – what more can one ask for? On a cautious note, in recent encounters they have failed to score against West Bromwich Albion for the first time in the season and have been handed their first defeat of the season in the hands of Sunderland. Yet, they look good money to win the league and create history.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 4th

Final Prediction: 1st

Manchester United

By his own admission, this has been the most difficult time Sir Alex Ferguson has faced in Manchester United for a long time. With the departure of Edwin Van der Sar, a void was created under the bar, which is yet to be attended to. The once dominant pair of Rio Ferdinand-Nemanja Vidic is now weary and not getting two games in a row. Injuries have taken their toll throughout the squad. But the biggest problem has been lack of creativity in the central midfield area. All their goal mouth actions have originated from the flanks supplied by Antonio Valencia and Nani. Tom Cleverley had shown glimpses of genius but it remains to be seen how many games he can play at a stretch without getting injured. Phil Jones has used his adaptability well to be slotted across the pitch with Wayne Rooney leading the charge up front. This might not be enough though, to retain their crown.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 1st

Final Prediction: 2nd

Newcastle United

Alan Pardew should be hailed both by the club management and the fans. He has kept a healthy book and has been producing fair results from his limited options on the pitch. With the departure of Andy Carroll, it became difficult to figure out where the goals would come from. In comes Demba Ba who manages to hog the limelight with one of the leading scores of the league, thus far. Similarly, Yohan Cabaye has filled the boots of Kevin Nolan and added a breath of fresh air in the central midfield. Newcastle have a well organized defence. Tim Krul has kept seven clean sheets and is in the running for being Dutch number one in Euro 2012. Ryan Taylor has excelled at the right back position and added a much needed composure in the back line. They are a good side and I am predicting them to leapfrog Liverpool with Suarez being unavailable.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 13th

Final Prediction: 6th

Norwich City 

They were cautioned for engaging in a dogfight but they have taken our breath away with their attacking flair. Their transition from championship football has been rather smooth and rarely have they looked out of place. Norwich have failed to keep a clean sheet throughout the first half of the league but they have been competitive in most of the matches they have played in – only in the hands of Manchester City have they suffered a defeat in excess of a two-goal margin. Not too bad with the going forward either – only thrice have they failed to enter the score sheet. They lie in the sixth spot in goals scored this season. Anthony Pilkington has done well in the right side of midfield, specifically from free kicks. But a bit more consistency would do a world of good for him and his team. Up front, Grant Holt and Steven Morison have been good and Norwich should be enjoying more goals in the rest of the season. They find themselves just outside the top half of the table this time. They should finish around mid-table if they maintain their composure for the rest of the season.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 19th

Final Prediction: 14th

Queens Park Rangers

With only four wins to their name, QPR find themselves just above the drop zone. Start to the season looked promising for the Hoops as they found themselves in the top half of the table after 12 games. That was it though as QPR had notched up all of their four wins during this period. Thereafter, they have been able to get only two points out of a possible twenty-one. QPR have certainly lacked goals and their defending has not helped them at all this season, especially during the barren spell, as they have conceded 35 goals and scored just 19. Only Wigan have scored fewer goals (18) than them. Heider Helguson leads the pack with seven goals but all of them have come in a cluster of 10 matches. It means lack of supply from the midfield on a regular basis. Joey Barton is their most creative player and the most unpredictable too. Adel Taarabt seems to have been mentally disturbed by Barton’s arrival and imminent handing over of captaincy – he is a shadow of his last season’s form. Shaun Wright-Phillips is on a downhill slope and may be past his prime. QPR’s defence has been their strength but Neil Warnock has found it difficult to cope with the high standards of EPL. It will be a rough ride from here.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 14th

Final Prediction: 19th

Stoke City

Stoke had a very successful season last year, and there was speculation on whether they would be able to improve on that. They surely have. Stoke have not got a very good goal difference, and their defence is not leak-proof either. But they have managed to obtain results, which matter. They have been hammered a few times, particularly away from home, but have managed to hold on to their one goal advantage, quite a few times. Ryan Shawcross has been a true leader and a stalwart in defence, with six clean sheets. Much of the attacking threats for Stoke came from the midfield in the forms of Jonathon Walters and Matthew Etherington – together they have notched up seven goals and nineteen assists out of a team total of twenty. Up front, Peter Crouch has been isolated too often and that remains a worry for Tony Pulis. Nevertheless, fellow mid-table dwellers, like Everton and Aston Villa, among others look to be struggling and Stoke City can make a fortune out of their misery.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 12th

Final Prediction: 11th

Sunderland

Steve Bruce has become the first managerial casualty of the season. This was not on the cards at the start of the season, but an outcome of two wins in the first thirteen matches was too much to take for the club. Things did get complicated for Sunderland as they were playing with virtually a new set of team members; it took a while, may be a bit more, to set the right combinations and an understanding among the players. Under Martin O’Neill, they have been on a comeback trail, picking up ten points in the following six matches, and in the process becoming the first team to beat Manchester City in the league this season. Defence has been a worry for Sunderland throughout, with some of the big club rejects forming the core of it. But Sebastian Larsson and Stephane Sessegnon have formed a solid midfield foundation, ably supported by Kieran Richardson. With reportedly some transfer kitty being made available to O’Neill, Sunderland can surely hope to get their good form going and climb up the ladder through a crowded mid-table. A strong finish is on the cards.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 6th

Final Prediction: 8th

Swansea City

Led by a strong showing under the bars by Michel Vorm – which saw him become the best goalkeeper in the league – Swansea City have performed exceedingly well in the first half of the league. Only Chelsea and Manchester City, both at home, have been able to beat the Swans by a margin of three goals or higher. They have some solid foundation at the back while a rejuvenated Scott Sinclair leads the hard working midfield. Only if they can get some goals from the January transfer window, can they make a very respectable mid-table finish. For the time being, I am considering a high mid-table finish.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 18th

Final Prediction: 15th

Tottenham Hotspurs

Team of the season till now! Spurs started the season with the Luka Modric saga, and looked set to get distracted by these off-the-pitch affairs but kudos to Harry Redknapp for getting us to witness some true spirited performance from its players. They had two back-to-back losses at the start of the season against the Manchester clubs but have lost only once since then. Brad Friedel has been a stalwart under the bar and has kept seven clean sheets. Kyle Walker and Benoit Assou-Ekotto have been dominant as fullbacks, both in defence and as an attacking threat. Gareth Bale has continued his last season’s form as a tormentor down the left flank. Rafael Van der Vaart has been superb too, playing as an ideal number 10. Bale and VDV have netted 14 times over and above having 10 assists to their credit. Another midfield marshal has been Scott Parker, the summer signing from West Ham, who has been instrumental in providing the much needed stability to the side. Up front, another summer recruit, Emmanuel Adebayor has been striking gold with nine goals and seven assists to his name. Things look good and a return to Champions League seems imminent.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 9th

Final Prediction: 3rd

West Bromwich Albanion

Summer recruit Shane Long started the season brightly as he scored against both Manchester United and Chelsea in the opening two games of the season. But the Baggies lost their first three games and this has been a stop-start season for them. Keeping a clean sheet against Manchester City has been a high point for their otherwise fragile defence. Their midfield and attack have both been quite unimaginative and have thus resulted in one of the worst returns in the Premier League. Without any good summer signing, they will struggle for the rest of the season but Roy Hodgson may just see them through.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 8th

Final Prediction: 12th

Wigan Athletic

We predicted a wooden spoon for the Latics and are not surprised by their position mid-way through the season. They are poor in defence, midfield and attack – they are poor all over the pitch. They have the least number of goals scored in the season and have won the least number of matches. Any team would fancy their chances against this Roberto Martinez side. It is time to bid adieu to Premier League.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 20th

Final Prediction: 20th

Wolverhampton Wanderers

Like Wigan, there is nothing much to write about Wolves. Traditionally, 40 points have been thought as an entry to safe zone. This time round, 35 points seem good enough. With their poor defence, lacklustre attack and no real leader in the field, even getting to that point will be a tough task. Mick McCarthy has to dig deep to find some crucial points in the second leg of the season. Just as he has done before, McCarthy, the shrewd tactician, might target some specific matches to get maximum points and field weaker sides against teams contesting for the European spots. Knowing his prudence makes me give them an outside chance of survival.

Season Prediction in EPL preview: 17th

Final Prediction: 17th


This Month in Football History – December

We look back at the most memorable happenings in the month of December in world of Football

December 3, 1906 – The Rise and Fall of an Italian Super Club

 On December 3, 1906, a contingency that included a group of former Juventus players and future Italian manager, Vittorio Pozzo founded AC Torino. It became one of the most successful and tragic clubs in Italian Football history.

Torino won their first league title in 1928, but became Italy’s dominant team in the 1940s with a team known as Il Grande Torino. They won five Scudettos in the decade, including four straight from 1946 to 1949. Their run of incredible success ended in tragedy, as a plane crash in May 1949 killed 18 players and several club officials, journalists and members of the crew.

The crash sent Torino into a decline and they have spent the majority of the intervening years moving between Serie A and Serie B, though they did win another league title in 1976. In 2005, the Italian football association expelled Torino from the league for financial reasons, but they returned later that year as Torino FC.

December 4, 1933 – Arsenal beats the The Wunderteam

 

On this day, Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal did, what at that time was close to unthinkable – beat the Austrian Wunderteam with a scoreline reading 4-2.

Guided by manager Hugo Meisl and Captain Matthias Sindelar (pictured), Austria were one of Europe’s most dominant teams of the 1930s, earning the nickname “Wunderteam.” They rattled off a 14-game unbeaten streak in 1931-32, including Scotland (5-0), Germany (6-0, 5-0), and Hungary (8-2). They also won the 1932 Central European International Cup with a 4-2 victory over Italy in the final.

Meanwhile, Arsenal was enjoying a good spell in the English domestic scene, having recently won the 1930 FA Cup and the 1931 and 1933 league titles.

Chapman was friends with Meisl, prompting the ‘friendly’. But the Football Association rules prohibited English clubs from playing international sides, so Austria arrived at Highbury for the match, thinly disguised as FC Vienna. The Times called it a “thrilling match,” with Arsenal taking a 3-1 lead before the teams swapped late goals to finish the day 4-2.

 

December 6, 1930 – Something was wrong at Thames

 

 On December 6, 1930, Thames AFC set a Football League record when only 469 people showed up for their Third Division South match against visiting Luton Town.

Thames had been founded just 2 years back and had a big ground, The West Ham Stadium with a capacity of 120,000. The problem with the club was that it had to compete for a fan-base against more established London clubs like including West Ham United, Millwall, Charlton, and Orient.

Despite poor support, Thames fared well, finishing in third place in the Southern League Eastern Division in 1930 to earn election to the Third Division South. There however, they struggled, winning only three matches and drawing two out of their first 16 to sit dead last in the table when Luton came to town.

Although only 469 people attended, they witnessed a rare sight as Thames eked out a 1-0 victory. 

December 10, 1997 – Pauper in the League of Champions 

On December 10, 1997, MFK Košice lost 0-1 to Feyenoord, thus becoming the first ever team to bow out of the Champions League with zero points.

sReigning champions of Slovakia’s top flight, Košice reached the group stage by beating Icelandic club ÍA 4-0 on aggregate in the first qualifying round, then defeating Spartak Moscow 2-1 on aggregate in the second qualifying round. In doing so, they were the first Slovakian club to make it to the group stage.

That is where the fairytale ends. They failed to even score in the first legs opening the tournament with a 3-goal loss to Manchester United, followed by a 2-0 loss to Feyenoord, then a 1-goal loss to eventual finalists, Juventus. They improved in the rematch with Juve, but still fell 3-2, then lost again to Manchester United 3-0. They were already guaranteed to finish at the bottom of the group regardless of the results in their last match against Feyenoord, who were also mathematically eliminated from the competition.

 

December 16, 1989 – Impact Sub

 On December 16, 1989, Barnsley substitute Ian Banks received a red card. Problem was he was just getting ready to get on the pitch, when he received the card.

As the midfielder warmed up on the touchline waiting to be waved on, he berated the nearby linesman for not raising his flag on the Bournemouth goal. No one actually knows what he uttered, but they were strong enough to earn him a straight red card. It was the quickest ejection for a substitute in Football League history.

 

December 19, 2009 – Barcelona on cloud number 6

 

On December 19, 2009, Barcelona won a record sixth trophy for the calendar year, using an extra-time goal to beat Estudiantes in the FIFA Club World Cup.

That year, Barcelona had already won La Liga, the Copa del Rey, the Supercopa de España, the UEFA Super Cup and the UEFA Champions League, matching Liverpool’s haul of 5 trophies in 2001. The Champions League victory qualified them for the Club World Cup, which included the champions of 5 other confederations and UAE’s Al-Ahli, who qualified as hosts.

 December 27, 1915 – Manchester United and Liverpool unite

On December 27, 1915, the FA issued lifetime bans against seven Manchester United and Liverpool players for participating in a match-fixing scheme the previous season.

The match in question was played on April 2, 1915, near the end of the season. United were in 18th place, only one point clear of relegation, while Liverpool were sitting comfortably in 13th, not in danger of relegation but out of contention for any silverware. United won 2-0, thanks in part to a missed Liverpool penalty.

Rumours started immediately about a fix, prompting the FA to investigate. They determined that seven players – Sandy Turnbull, Arthur Whalley and Enoch West from United; Jackie Sheldon, Tom Miller, Bob Pursell and Thomas Fairfoul from Liverpool – had combined to determine the outcome. The motivation was financial, with all seven players placing bets on United to win. But the two points helped United’s survival, as they finished 1 point above the relegation zone. West vehemently denied any involvement, even suing the FA, unsuccessfully, for libel.

December 30, 2009 – No country for Englishmen

 

 Asmir Begović

On December 30, 2009, Arsenal won at Portsmouth 1-4, in a match where neither side’s starting XI included an Englishman. It was the first time that had happened in the English top flight.

While not necessarily uncommon for Arsenal at the time, it was an unusual development for Pompey, who were forced by injury to start Bosnian keeper Asmir Begović in place of their regular keeper, England’s David James. The most represented nation on the pitch that day was France, with a total of 7 (5 for Arsenal and 2 for Portsmouth). Two more players – Portsmouth’s Hassan Yebda and Nadir Belhadj – were born in France, though both play internationally for Algeria. The remaining players were from Bosnia, Iceland, the Republic of Ireland, Israel, South Africa, Scotland, Ghana, Spain, Belgium, Wales, Cameroon, Russia and Croatia.

English Premier League 2011-12 – A Preview

Arsenal FC

Nickname: The Gunners
Manager: Arsene Wenger
Stadium: Emirates Stadium
Last season’s league position: 4th
Final Verdict: 5th

Players In

Players Out

Gervinho (Lille, £10.6 million), Francis Coquelin (Lorient), Pedro Botelho (FC Cartagena), Armand Traoré (Juventus), Carl Jenkinson (Charlton, £990k), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Southampton, £12.14 million) Jens Lehmann (End of career), Mark Randall (Chesterfield, free transfer), Gaël Clichy (Man City, £6.82 million), Denílson (São Paulo), Jay Emmanuel-Thomas (Ipswich, £1.1 million), Pedro Botelho (Rayo Vallecano)
Season’s predictions:When Arsene Wenger took over the North London club, fans were clamouring for more attacking football. “One-nil to the Arsenal” was the chant of the day, but the fans wanted more. 15 years on and Arsenal play some of the most attractive football in the Premier League, but, crucially, it doesn’t quite get the job done. Arsenal conceded the highest percentage of goals from set pieces last term, and this will have to be corrected in order for them to get back to challenging for the title once more. The seemingly never-ending transfer saga of club captain Cesc Fabregas, and the results of the dissatisfaction of Samir Nasri will also go a long way to deciding how strong a challenge the Londoners can mount this season. Signing a strong, commanding centre-back like Robert Huth (Stoke City) or Christopher Samba (Blackburn Rovers) that takes no prisoners would help immensely. Look for Arsene to avoid signing one of those types, and for Arsenal to flatter early, but fade away by February-March. Top 4 finish will be a struggle this season.

Aston Villa

Nickname: Villains
Manager: Alex McLeish
Stadium: Villa Park
Last season’s league position: 9th
Final Verdict: 10th

Players In

Players Out

Shay Given (Manchester City, £3.5m), Charles N’zogbia (Wigan Athletic, £9.5m) Stewart Downing(Liverpool, £20), Ashley Young (Manchester United, £16m), Brad Friedel(Tottenham, free), Nigel Reo-Coker(released), John Carew (released),Moustapha Salifou (released), Robert Pires (released), Isaiah Osbourne(released), Harry Forrester (released), Arsenio Halfhuid (released).
Season’s predictions:After a rocky start last season, due to the departure of Martin O’Neill, Villa did well to finish the season in the top half. Having lost two of their key players, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing to Manchester United and Liverpool respectively, the Villains will do well to equal or better their accomplishments last season. New manager Alex McLeish will instill some defensive cohesion so look for Aston Villa to build from the back this season. Having crossed the divide in England’s 2nd city only 2 months ago, McLeish will also have to work hard to win over the fans. His every mistake will be scrutinized intensely. Top half finish will be difficult, look for Villa to finish between 10th and 12th.

Blackburn Rovers

Nickname: Rovers
Manager: Steve Kean
Stadium: Ewood Park
Last season’s league position: 15th
Final Verdict: 15th

Players In

Players Out

David Goodwillie (Dundee United, £2m), Tom Hitchcock (Blackburn Rovers U18), Radosav Petrovic (Partizan, £ 2 million) Phil Jones(Manchester United, £16.5 million),Frank Fielding (Derby, £400k), Jordan Bowen (released), Jason Brown (released), Zurab Khizanishvili(released), Maceo Rigters (released), Michael Potts (released), Benjani Mwarurawi (released), Aaron Doran (Inverness Cal.), Michael Potts (York City, released), Zurab Khizanishvili (Kayserispor, released), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04)
Season’s predictions:Steve Kean will have a lot to live up to in his first full season in charge of Blackburn Rovers. He claims his team has what it takes – backed in no small part by their money-laden Indian owners – to reach the hallowed regions of the Champions League qualification spots in 4 years. He will have to do it without Phil Jones, sold to Manchester United for a hearty 16.5 million pounds. And might have to do it without the services of Christopher Samba as well, who is a target of Arsenal. With misfit Senegalese forward, El Hadji Diouf still AWOL, Kean will have a big decision to make even if the talented frontman returns. Narrowly avoiding relegation only on the last day of last season, Blackburn will be lucky if they can better their accomplishment of 15th next season.

Bolton Wanderers

Nickname: Trotters
Manager: Owen Coyle
Stadium: Reebok Stadium
Last season’s league position: 14th
Final Verdict: 16th

Players In

Players Out

Nigel Reo-Coker (Aston Villa, free transfer), Darren Pratley (Swansea, free transfer), Tyrone Mears (Burnley, £ 1.5 million), Chris Eagles (Burnley, £ 1.5 million) Johan Elmander (Galatasaray, released), Jlloyd Samuel (released), Joey O’Brien (West Ham, released), Ali Al-Habsi (Wigan, £ 3.8 million), Danny Ward (Huddersfield, £ 110k), Matthew Taylor (West Ham, £ 2.2 million), Sam Sheridan (Stockport, released), Tamir Cohen (Maccabi Haifa, released)
Season’s predictions:The wanderers should have done a lot better last season than their 14th position concluded. They were often a very entertaining, yet solid team. Owen Coyle’s style of passing the ball along the turf took some time to get going, considering where Bolton’s tendencies were coming from. The loss of on-loan star Daniel Sturridge will reduce the attacking flair somewhat, and therefore it will be difficult for Bolton to consolidate a good first season under Coyle, and push on for a top half finish.

Chelsea

Nickname: The Blues
Manager: Andre Villas-Boas
Stadium: Stamford Bridge
Last season’s league position: 2nd
Final Verdict: 4th

Players In

Players Out

Thibaut Courtois (£7.8m, Genk), Lucas Piazón (São Paulo Futebol Clube B, £ 6.6 million), Sam Walker (Northampton), Slobodan Rajkovic (Vitesse), Matej Delac (Vitesse), Oriol Romeu (Barcelona B, £ 4.4 million), Romelu Lukaku (RSC Anderlecht, £ 19.36 million) Jack Cork (Southampton, £740k), Michael Mancienne (Hamburg, £2.2m), Jacopo Sala (Hamburg, undisclosed), Gokhan Tore (Hamburg, undisclosed), Sam Hutchinson(released), Carl Magnay (released), Jan Sebek (released), Danny Philliskirk (released), Jeffrey Bruma(Hamburg, two-season loan), Sam Walker (Northampton Town, loan), Fabio Borini (Parma), Nemanja Matic (Benfica Lissab., £ 4.4 million), Thibaut Courtois (Atlético Madrid, loan), Yuri Zhirkov (Anzhi, £ 13.2 million)
Season’s predictions:The end of another season, and the end of another manager’s reign at Roman Abramovich’s favourite boardgame. Andre Vilas-Boas steps in, fresh from leading Porto to the treble of the League, Portuguese Cup and Europa League Titles; much like his former mentor and boss, Jose Mourinho. It would seem like the script is written for Vilas-Boas, as he’s almost mirrored the movements of the ‘Special One’ in moving from success at Porto to uncertainty at Chelsea. On paper, Vilas-Boas fits the bill to herald a similar sort of renaissance to Chelsea as the man who will likely be his greatest challenger in his first season, Sir Alex Ferguson. The question on everyone’s lips is: will he be allowed the time to prove his worth? Should Vilas-Boas find a way to release the pent-up goal scoring frustrations of Fernando Torres, and mastermind a way to have the Spaniard fit into a team and system that didn’t necessarily need his services, Chelsea could well be on their way to success. AVB is likely to have Chelsea battling with Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City for the title this season.

Everton FC

Nickname: The Toffees
Manager: David Moyes
Stadium: Goodison Park
Last season’s league position: 7th
Final Verdict: 7th

Players In

Players Out

Eric Dier (Sporting, loan), Joseph Yobo (Fenerbahce), Ross Barkley (Everton Res.) James Vaughan(Norwich, £2m), Kieran Agard(released), Hope Akpan (released), Luke Dobie (released), Iain Turner(released), Nathan Craig (released),Gerard Kinsella (released), Lee McArdle (released), John Nolan (Stockport County, free)
Season’s predictions:Arsene Wenger is known to be a shrewd economist, but surely David Moyes is the best manager around at doing a lot with nothing. Everton consistently have no money to use in the transfer market, yet they tend to always pack quite a punch. Should the injury bug avoid the Toffees’ dressing room for the most part this season, Everton are more than capable of snatching a European spot come May 2012. Key players like Louis Saha, Marouane Fellaini, Mikel Arteta and Leighton Baines all have to remain fit for the Toffees to remain in contention for European spots. Known to be notoriously slow starters, watch out for Everton getting it right from early and becoming a major threat to those seeking European births from as early as August. Top 7 finish may not seem likely, but surely the worst of their injuries are past them.

Fulham FC

Nickname: The Cottagers
Manager: Martin Jol
Stadium: Craven Cottage
Last season’s league position: 8th
Final Verdict: 11th

Players In

Players Out

Dan Burn (Darlington, undisclosed), David Stockdale (Ipswich), Csaba Somogyi (Rakospalotai EAC, undisclosed),John Arne Riise (Roma, £2.46m), Marcel Gecov (Slovan Liberec, £704k), Pajtim Kasami (Palermo, £3.3m) Zoltan Gera (released), Diomansy Kamara (released), John Pantsil (released), Eddie Johnson (released), Matthew Saunders (released), David Stockdale (Ipswich, loan), Jonathan Greening (Nottm Forest, £ 616k), Kagisho Dikgacoi (Crystal Palace, £590k)
Season’s predictions:Attack! Attack! Attack! Fulham’s new manager, Martin Jol, is well known in the Premier League and tends to prefer attack to defence. Fulham already have a solid core of Hangeland, Dempsey and Danny Murphy. Even if the former Merseyside Red is on the wane of his career, he may still fit enough for one last hurrah. The return of Bobby Zamora to the side will seem like a new signing, and if the big England man can reclaim the form he showed in the 09-10 season, Fulham should be able to find themselves somewhere between 9th and 11th this season.

Liverpool

Nickname: The Reds
Manager: Kenny Dalglish
Stadium: Anfield
Last season’s league position: 6th
Final Verdict: 3rd

Players In

Players Out

Stewart Downing (Aston Villa, £20m), Jordan Henderson (Sunderland, £15.84 million), Charlie Adam (Blackpool, £7.40 million), Alexander Doni (Roma, free transfer) Jason Banton (released), Deale Chamberlain (released), Douglas Cooper (released), Sean Highdale (released), Steven Irwin (released), Nikola Saric (released), Paul Konchesky(Leicester City, £1.5m), Stephen Darby (Rochdale, loan), Péter Gulácsi (Hull, loan), Thomas Ince (Blackpool, £ 57k), Milan Jovanovic (RSC Anderlecht, £ 704k)
Season’s predictions:He huffed, and he puffed, and he blew their house down. Sir Alex Ferguson accomplished his self-assigned goal of ‘knocking Liverpool off their perch’ by claiming a 19th title and sitting atop the list of English League title winners. However, this could prove to be a blessing in disguise for Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool. King Kenny will be into his second season of attempting to break Liverpool’s jinx and carry the Kop to a league title for the first time since 1990. Having sold Fernando Torres to Chelsea in January for a whopping 50 million pounds, and replaced him with Andy Carroll (35 million) and Luis Suarez (22.8 million), Dalglish began constructing a new-look forward line which he hopes will help to bring the glory days back to the Kop. Following on those January moves, Liverpool have already brought in Jordan Henderson (Sunderland), Charlie Adam (Blackpool) and Stewart Downing (Aston Villa) to provide more youth, vision and width respectively. Dalglish will need more time to complete the rebuilding process, but perhaps the removal of the crown of being England’s most successful team will lift a weight off the players’ shoulders and allow them to play with more freedom and less pressure. Look for Liverpool to battle it out with Manchester City and Chelsea for spots behind Manchester United.

Manchester City

Nickname: The Citizens
Manager: Roberto Mancini
Stadium: City of Machester Stadium
Last season’s league position: 3rd
Final Verdict: 2nd

Players In

Players Out

Stefan Savic (Partizan Belgrade, £10.5), Gael Clichy (Arsenal, £7 million), Sergio Aguero (Atletico Madrid, £39.6 million), Costel Pantilimon (Poli. Timisoara, £5.72 million) Jerome Boateng (Bayern Munich, £11.8m), Shay Given (Aston Villa, £3.3 million) Patrick Vieira (end of career), Shaleum Logan (Brentford, released), Scott Kay (Macclesfield, released), Andrew Tutte (Rochdale, released), David Gonzalez (Aberdeen, loan), James Poole (Hartpool, released), Jo (Internacional), Kieran Trippier (Burnley, loan)
Season’s predictions:Manchester City has a lot of expectations to live up to in their first season in the Champions League. Having piped Arsenal for 3rd last season, they avoid the tricky playoff games and step directly into the CL Group Stage Draw. In addition to this 1st bite of the Champions League cherry, City’s fans will be hoping for continued improvement on their league position, and hence a challenge for the title. They certainly have the money to back any of those ambitions. And having already brought in Sergio Aguero for a club record 39.6million pounds, there’s speculation they could still acquire Samir Nasri from Arsenal to bolster an already bulging attacking lineup. Can they avoid a letdown after their first successful season in 34 years? The ongoing Carlos Tevez Saga as well as the turbulent nature of Mario Balotelli is not helping their pre-season preparations. But, do expect them to battle it out with Chelsea and Liverpool for the challenger spots to Manchester United.

Manchester United

Nickname: Red Devils
Manager: Sir Alex Ferguson
Stadium: Old Trafford
Last season’s league position: Champions
Final Verdict: Champions

Players In

Players Out

Ashley Young (Aston Villa, £16m), Phil Jones (Blackburn Rovers, £16.5 million), David De Gea (Atletico Madrid, £17 million) Owen Hargreaves (released), Edwin van der Sar (end of career), Gary Neville (end of career), Paul Scholes (end of career), Gabriel Obertan (Newcastle, £300k), Wes Brown (Sunderland, £1.3m), John O’Shea (Sunderland, £3.9m), Rober Brady (Hull, loan), Richie de Laet (Norwich, loan), Bebe (Besiktas, loan), Ritchie De Laet (Norwich City, loan), Joe Dudgeon (Hull, £ 84k), Corry Evans (Hull, £ 502k), Ryan Tunnicliffe (Peterborough, loan), Scott Wootton (Peterborough, loan), Nicky Ajose (Peterborough, £ 300k)
Season’s predictions:Champions and favourites to retain. Manchester United are coming off a record breaking 19th title winning season, but ironically, rarely looked like champions of old in 2010-2011. Their away from was some of the worst for a league champion in English football history, yet they churned out the results needed to become worthy Champions in the end. Having seen Edwin van der Sar, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes hang up their boots, along with Owen Hargreaves being released, Wes Brown and John O’Shea moving on, Sir Alex has strengthened his squad with the youthful additions of goalkeeper David De Gea and versatile defender Phil Jones, as well as the proven talent of Ashley Young to provide competition for Antonio Valencia and Nani on the wings. Those may be all the signings United fans can hope for this summer, however. That said, United played largely below their standards last season, and the current additions to the squad certainly add enough quality to help the favourites for this year’s title get back to some of their best performances.

Newcastle United

Nickname: The Magpies
Manager: Alan Pardew
Stadium: St. James’ Park
Last season’s league position: 12th
Final Verdict: 13th

Players In

Players Out

Yohan Cabaye (Lille, £4.4 million), Demba Ba (West Ham, free), Sylvain Marveaux (Rennes, free), Gabriel Obertan (Manchester United, £3 million) Kevin Nolan (West Ham, £2.9 million), Sol Campbell (released), Shefki Kuqi (released), Patrick McLaughlin (released), Ben Tozer (released)
Season’s predictions:Football is not only a wonderful game played on the pitch any more – it is a business today played in the cool conference rooms. This was proved by the transfer of Andy Carrol – Newcastle’s leading striker and capturing the imagination of a nation rapidly – to Liverpool last season. It remains to be seen how wisely (if, at all) they can spend the money earned from this transfer to strengthen their squad. They seem more inclined to selling players for some weird reasons. Joey Barton, one of the most prolific players in the EPL last season, had done enough to get a national call up but has been showed the door forcibly. Jose Enrirue is also likely joining the Reds on Merseyside. Not much to cheer about so far, except for the ever so loud Toon Army. Prediction – With Kevin Nolan also leaving, life is going to be tough for them. Lower mid-table finish in the range of 12-16 seems more likely.

Norwich City

Nickname: The Canaries
Manager: Paul Lambert
Stadium: Carrow Road
Last season’s league position: Promoted from Championship, 2nd place
Final Verdict: 19th

Players In

Players Out

James Vaughan (Everton, £2m), Steve Morison (Millwall, £2.5m), Elliott Bennett (Brighton, £1.5m), Ritchie De Laet (Manchester United, loan), Anthony Pilkington (Huddersfield, £1m), Bradley Johnson (Leeds, free transfer), Kyle Naughton (Tottenham, loan) Matt Gill (Bristol, released), Jens Berthel Askou (released), Sam Habergham (released), Luke Daley (Plymouth, £ 44k), Owain Tudur Jones (Inverness Cal., released), Luke Daley (Plymouth, £ 44k), Owain Tudur Jones (Inverness Cal., released)
Season’s predictions:Welcome to the top flight after 8 years, but be ready for a dogfight. Norwich has made giant strides by winning back to back promotions to reach this far, but the meteoritic pace may be a bit too much for their own good. Like any Championship club, they work on a shoe tight budget and it remains to be seen how much Paul Lambert can extract from his inexperience side. The chairman says “17th will be absolutely fine” – it will be difficult to go even that far I guess.

Queens Park Rangers

Nickname: The Hoops
Manager: Neil Warnock
Stadium: Loftus Road
Last season’s league position: Promoted from Championship, 1st place
Final Verdict: 14th

Players In

Players Out

JJay Bothroyd (Cardiff, free), Kieron Dyer (West Ham, free), Danny Gabbidon (West Ham, free), D. J. Campbell (Blackpool, £ 1.76 million) Lee Brown (Bristol Rovers, released), Pascal Chimbonda (released), Mikele Leigertwood (Reading, released), Joe Oastler (Torquay, released), Josh Parker (Oldham, released), , Georgias Tofas (Anagennisi Derynia, released)
Season’s predictions:Another Championship club finding it hard to rope in quality players to bolster its squad. Especially after a fall out with one of the main co-owners, the Mittals, it is unknown how much budget Neil Warnock would be given to work with. They have a solid defence, masterminded by Neil Warnock to suit his style of tactical play. Now it will be tested in the grind of EPL week-in week-out. If they can manage to get a striker to score at least 10 goals a season, they can finish in the mid table holding their heads high.

Stoke City

Nickname: The Potters
Manager: Tony Pulis
Stadium: Britannia Stadium
Last season’s league position: 13th
Final Verdict: 12th

Players In

Players Out

Jonathan Woodgate (Tottenham, free transfer), Matthew Upson (West Ham, free transfer) Abdoulaye Faye (West Ham, released), Eidur Gudjohnsen (AEK FC, released), Ibrahima Sonko (released), Carl Dickinson (Watford, £250k)
Season’s predictions:Have a good solid squad but it will be difficult to move up the ladder in this ever improving league. Taking the Potters any further is doubtful and might prove the toughest to date unless Pulis can refresh and revitalise his squad. Prediction: Some boring mid table finish.

Sunderland

Nickname: Black Cats
Manager: Steve Bruce
Stadium: Stadium of Lights
Last season’s league position: 10th
Final Verdict: 6th

Players In

Players Out

Sebastian Larsson (Birmingham, free), Kieren Westwood (Coventry, free), Connor Wickham (Ipswich, £8 million), Craig Gardner (Birmingham, £5.8 million), Ji Dong-won (Chunnam Dragons, £2.1 million), Wes Brown (Manchester United, £1.3 million), John O’Shea (Manchester United, £3.9 million), David Vaughan (Blackpool, free), Ahmed Elmohamady (Enppi, £ 2.2 million) Jordan Henderson (Liverpool, £15.8 million), Steed Malbranque (Saint-Étienne, released), Cristian Riveros (Kayserispor, loan), Bolo Zenden (released), Michael Kay (released), Nathan Luscombe (Hartpool, released), Daniel Madden (released), Robert Weir (released), Nathan Wilson (released), Mvoto Jean-Yves (Oldham, released)
Season’s predictions:Busiest team of the season by far with as many as 9 recruits. Selling Henderson for a whopping $20 million is utilized well by Steve Bruce to rope in a good mix of experienced Premiere League players – the duo from Manchester United was a real bargain. One of the most improved teams over the last 2 seasons. Prediction – A Europa cup spot will be the least the gaffer would be looking for.

Swansea Athletic FC

Nickname: The Swans
Manager: Brendan Rodgers
Stadium: Liberty Stadium
Last season’s league position: Promoted from Championship, Playoffs
Final Verdict: 18th

Players In

Players Out

Danny Graham (Watford, £3.5 million), Jose Moreira (Benfica, £750k), Leroy Lita (Middlesbrough, £1.7 million), Steven Caulker (Spurs, free transfer), Wayne Routledge (Newcastle, £2.86 million) Dorus de Vries (Wolves, released), Cedric van der Gun (released), Albert Serrán (AEK Larnaca, released), Jamie Grimes (released), Kerry Morgan (Neath FC, released), Darren Pratley (Bolton, released), Yves Makaba-Makalamby (released), Gorka Pintado (released)
Season’s predictions:First team from Wales to enter top flight football since the Premiere League was set up. They seem to have enough attacking flair in new signing Championship top goal-scorer Danny Graham, pace of ex-Premier League winger Scott Sinclair, and new signing of Jose Moreira. But their defence, which performed above expectation last time round, holds the key for the survival in top flight. Prediction – Relegation confirmed by March.

Tottenham Hotspur

Nickname: Spurs
Manager: Harry Redknapp
Stadium: White Hart lane
Last season’s league position: 5th
Final Verdict: 9th

Players In

Players Out

Brad Friedel (Aston Villa, free), Souleymane Coulibaly (Siena, undisclosed) Jonathan Woodgate (released), Jamie O’Hara (Wolves, £5m), Bongani Khumalo (Reading, loan)
Season’s predictions:Will be pushed to the limits by a rejuvenated Liverpool, big spending Manchester City and some strong & determined clubs like Everton, West Brom, Sunderland and Newcastle. Seem to be quite unsettled by the Modric saga. It may be better to let the player leave. He has already done the unthinkable by openly criticizing the club president. Otherwise, their season could be hampered as was the 2nd half of Blackpool’s due to Charlie Adam- Liverpool tug of war. Prediction – Will just hang on to a top 10 finish.

West Bromwich Albion

Nickname: Baggies
Manager: Roy Hodgson
Stadium: The Hawthorns
Last season’s league position: 11th
Final Verdict: 8th

Players In

Players Out

Billy Jones (Preston, free transfer), Gareth McAuley (Ipswich, free transfer), Ben Foster (Birmingham, £ 1million), Zoltán Gera (Fulham, released), Márton Fülöp (Ipswich, free transfer), Shane Long (Reading, £ 6 million) Ryan Allsopp (Millwall, £ 88k), Giles Barnes (Doncstar, released), Abdoulaye Meite (Dijon, released), Gianni Zuiverloon (Mallorca, released), Borja Valero (Villarreal, loan deal made permanent), Scott Carson (Bursaspor, £1.9 million), Dean Kiely (End of career)
Season’s predictions:Life at Anfield was like a square block trying to get fit in a circular hole for Roy Hodgson. It never worked out – the discomfort of leaving up to the expectation of a bigger club was evident from the out. So, he joined the Baggies. Back to square one – smaller club, little known names, compact defensive strategy of Hodgson and Baggies saw a revival in their fortune. From languishing in and around the drop zone before his arrival, Hodgson made a strong surge towards the end of the season – accepting defeat in only 2 out of its last 12 games – just to miss out on a top half finish. Prediction – Watch out for them, dark horse for a European spot.

Wigan Athletic

Nickname: The Latics
Manager: Roberto Martínez
Stadium: JJB Stadium
Last season’s league position: 16th
Final Verdict: 20th

Players In

Players Out

David Jones (Wolves, free transfer), Ali Al Habsi, (Bolton, £ 3.78 million) Antonio Amaya (Real Betis, £ 250k), Jason Koumas (released), Steven Caldwell (Birmingham, released), Daniel De Ridder (Grasshoppers, released), Joseph Holt (released), Thomas Lambert (released), Thomas Oakes (released), Abian Serrano Davila (released), Charles N’Zogbia (Aston Villa, £ 9.54 million)
Season’s predictions:Last season they survived by the skin of their teeth but things are looking gloomier day by day. The financial position of the club is in disarray and it means they are forced to sell their best player, Charles N’Zogbia. Prediction – Will get the wooden spoon.

Wolverhampton Wanderers

Nickname: Wolves
Manager: Mick McCarthy
Stadium: Molineux Stadium
Last season’s league position: 17th
Final Verdict: 17th

Players In

Players Out

Jamie O’Hara (Tottenham, £ 5 million), Dorus de Vries (Swansea, free transfer), Roger Johnson (Birmingham City, £ 7 million) Jody Craddock (released), Adriano Basso (Hull, released), John Dunleavy (released), Marcus Hahnemann (released), David Jones (Wigan, released), Nathan Rooney (AFC Telford United, released), Steven Mouyokolo (Sochaux, season-long loan), Greg Halford (Portsmouth, £ 880k)
Season’s predictions:Narrowly avoided the drop last year, and will need to invest heavily to avoid relegation. Newly promoted teams will target Wolves for maximum points and truly speaking, they do stand a realistic chance of getting that. Prediction – Mick McCarthy is a shrewd tactician but it might be touch-and-go this time round for him.