So another Premier League season is upon us and West Ham have already been knocked out of the Europa League! Still, until they do something about those interminable Thursday evening matches, few English sides will give it the priority it should have. The Hammers are probably better off out of it so they can aim for that top ten place – and hopefully more – and go into the Olympic stadium in good shape the following season.
I’ll come back to West Ham later, as it won’t surprise you to know I’m not expecting a top four place! Not much change likely in that top four, though I think the order could change. Chelsea were by far and away the best team last season and they will be favourites to do it again. But I think they will be challenged more strongly this season. It’s hard to bet against them, but I will take punt and say that the cracks might just start to appear this season. Has Terry got another full season in him? (Hence the interest in John Stones, I’m sure). Will Costa’s hamstrings hold up? Can Hazard carry the side in the way he did at times last season? If the answer is yes to all of these, then they will win again. But if they wobble then I think this could be Arsenal’s season.
Oh yes, Arsenal. Do I ponder this every season? A touch of wishful thinking? Guilty on all counts. But there is one major new reason why I think their time may have come. Petr Cech. They finally have a world class goalkeeper. Good keepers spread confidence outwards. The defence becomes tighter, responsibilities become clearer. Mistakes reduce, and those that remain are more likely to be rectified. Defence (including the midfield contribution) has been Arsenal’s Achilles Heel for so long now. Petr Cech may just prove to be the cure.
I also think we may see the best of Mesut Ozil this season. And his best is as good as the best anywhere. Add a fully fit Ramsey and a restored Walcott, and the whole Arsenal enterprise looks strong. If they get Benzema, even better. Sad that Jack Wilshere has another ankle injury, but Arsenal can cope without him better than England.
The prospects at Man United are also intriguing. Depay, Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin all look like good additions and we can expect more from Luke Shaw this season. Defence may remain a bit of a problem, especially as De Gea looks like he is leaving. They’ll need a top class replacement: Loris from Spurs would be the obvious one. Would Spurs sell?
Man City look to be coasting, notwithstanding the crazy £49m they paid for Raheem Sterling. Let’s hope he doesn’t turn out to be the next Sean Wright-Phillips. They do have Aguero and Silva – and Yaya Toure – of course, which means they can beat anybody. But there’s a waiting-for-Guardiola feel about City. I even think they’ll miss James Milner. A fine, unfussy, hard-working player. City may not have enough of those.
Conversely, Liverpool will benefit from having James Milner. He’ll steady the ship while they learn to live without Stevie G. Brendan Rogers has splashed out a Lot of money again, but will it make them good enough for the top four? I think not. Benteke could be an asset if he stays fit, but it’s hard to know what to make of Firmino, Coutinho, Ibe and the rest. And will Danny Ings make the step up? They could be exciting to watch, but might implode a few times. The new Arsenal?
So it’s 1st Arsenal, 2nd Chelsea, 3rd Man Utd, 4th Man City, 5th Liverpool. Rest well behind. Can’t see Tottenham mounting a serious challenge, or Everton. Stoke may improve further, Swansea will probably slide and I might have fancied Villa for a much better season if they hadn’t sold their two best players: Benteke and Delph.
Surprise team of the season? How about Crystal Palace? Alan Pardew is a good manager and he got them playing well last season. Getting Cabaye from PSG was a bit of a coup – he will add creative class to a hard-working team, and he must get on with Pardew, from their time together at Newcastle.
Of the promoted teams, Watford and Norwich look like strong candidates to go straight back down, although Watford seem to have bought an entirely new team, so they could surprise us all. I fancy Bournemouth to survive, playing some excellent football. Maybe the new Swansea. Their manager, Eddie Howe, has got something about him.
And what of the happy Hammers? I was excited about Slaven Bilic’s appointment. He’s bought some interesting players – Payet, Ogbonna, Obiang – and one or two have returned from loans, including Zarate and Maiga. If we have to start playing the latter because of injuries (and both Carroll and Valencia are out for some time) we could be in trouble. I’d really like us to pay the £15m that QPR are asking for Charlie Austin before someone else gets him. He scored a lot of goals in a poor team last season. Our midfield and full backs could give him a good supply. I hope, at least, that we will see some better football than under Allardyce; but realistically, it’s probably another mid-table season. I’ll be optimistic and say 9th.
As well as the Premiership, I’ll be keeping a close eye on Brentford in the Championship, to see if they can improve on their almost-playoff finish last season. They’ve changed managers, brought in a few seasoned players and have lost loanee Mark Pritchard back to Spurs. So it’s hard to call – like all of that division. Always intriguing, competitive and played in the right spirit. The whingeing Premier League superstars could learn a thing or two from their Championship counterparts.
Hey ho, let’s go!
(Writing on another balmy Antibes evening, with a glass of chilled Rose by my side. It’s not football, but I like it!)