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Friday, 15 August 2014

Premier League 2014/15 Preview (August 2014)

Even with the World Cup this summer, it has felt like a long time since the end of the Premier League season and the start of another new season. Maybe that wasn't helped by the fact that Manchester United have so much room to improve from what was a terrible season, the worst they have suffered in twenty-five years.

Whenever United lose a game, I just want the next one to come along as soon as possible to rectify the situation, so it has felt like a three month wait to get things back in order. In that time, Louis Van Gaal has been appointed and come into the club with a new philosophy on the field although the lack of signings has to be a concern considering the gap there is to make up.

Of course, there is the 'benefit' of being out of European competition altogether this season and United can very much replicate Liverpool from last season and certainly get back into the top four. The loss of Luis Suarez will affect Liverpool, as will the addition of Champions League football, and their fans will be hoping Brendan Rodgers can integrate the new signings much better than Andre Villas-Boas did at Tottenham Hotspur last season after they splurged the Gareth Bale money.

There are plenty of intriguing questions that need to be answered over the next nine months both at the top and bottom of the Premier League and below you will see the table that I am predicting at this stage. There is still plenty of time for teams to make signings and improve their chances with the transfer window still a little over two weeks from closing, so this prediction is simply on the shape of the squads as we get set for the first week of the new season.

1. Chelsea: It is certainly not the most out of the box pick for the Premier League title, but Chelsea look to have improved to the point of being able to overturn Manchester City. Apart from a couple of late lapses in concentration last season, Chelsea may have been able to win the Premier League with both Manchester City and Liverpool opening the door in the final weeks of the season.

The recall of Thibaut Courtois from Atletico Madrid and the signing of Diego Costa means Chelsea have two of the main four spine of a team that beat Real Madrid and Barcelona to the La Liga title and also reached the Champions League Final.

Both improve Chelsea and the arrival of Cesc Fabregas looks a great piece of business from Jose Mourinho. I would have loved to have seen the Spaniard walk through the doors of Old Trafford and he should take little time to settle in with his previous experience at Arsenal.

The key may be keeping Costa fit after his injuries towards the end of Atletico's season almost cost them the title and certainly didn't help in the Champions League Final. Having to rely on Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba for long periods would be tough for Chelsea as both are not the same players that were once so effective in the Premier League.

2. Manchester City: On a pure starting XI, I would fancy Manchester City to win the Premier League, but I think their depth of squad is still a concern and Sergio Aguero's injury-proneness would be a concern.

Can Yaya Toure really produce as much from midfield as he did last season? Can a defence integrating new faces provide the platform for success? These are two questions that may decide whether Manchester City can win the title for a second year in succession, but they have shown nerves down the stretch last season and I think they may find Chelsea a little too capable of winning games at key times to overcome.

3. Arsenal: After snapping their run without a trophy, Arsenal will have a new found belief in their ability to win trophies and that could make them a dangerous team through this Premier League season. The signing of Alexis Sanchez gives them another world class operator to pair with Mesut Ozil and I can see Arsenal improving once Theo Walcott returns.

If they can stay fit, Arsenal may be the surprise team of the season, although the issues remain in defensive areas and whether they are good enough against the very best.

However, Liverpool showed last season that being able to win the matches against the 'weaker' teams with consistency will provide the platform for a title challenge and this Arsenal teams looks capable of beating most teams in this Premier League. There is a small part of me that believes Arsenal are good enough to surprise the two teams I have placed above them, but I have settled for them here simply because of the lack of depth in key areas in defence and defensive midfield that may cost them in a long thirty-eight game season.

Also, in the history of the Premier League since it's inception, no team has won the title when they have finished outside the top three the previous season and that is another factor going against the Gunners.

4. Manchester United: The additions of Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera were supposed to be backed up by others, but it looks like Louis Van Gaal will be going into the season with a similar squad to last season. The losses of Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic means Van Gaal has opted for a different formation to get the best out of his squad, although United do look short at the back.

I'd be more than a little surprised if there are no more additions to the squad before September swings around, but even the current squad may be good enough to get back into the top four.

Van Gaal will give the team a different confidence going into matches compared with how David Moyes approached things and the team have looked happier in pre-season. It's tough for teams to bounce from seventh all the way up into the top four, but Liverpool proved that playing one game a week is possible to do just that and I think that will help this United squad prepare fully for the Premier League and see them get back into the elite of Europe after a one year absence.

5. Liverpool: On the same path as above, I think the additional games of the Champions League was always going to give Brendan Rodgers a few more issues to negotiate and that was before they lost Luis Suarez to Barcelona.

It is a huge blow to the squad and I have not been convinced with the arrivals in the Uruguayan's place- they look over reliant on Daniel Sturridge up front and losing him for a prolonged period would give Liverpool a lot of problems in my opinion.

The extra games that come with Europe will sap energy and not allow Liverpool to focus on Premier League matters alone and I do believe they have missed their best chance to win the Premier League title that they will have in the foreseeable future. Getting back into the top four would be an achievement for the club, but it may prove to be a step too far for Liverpool this season.

6. Tottenham Hotspur: There are some major issues in defence that need resolving, but Mauricio Pochettino arrives at the club with the ability to get the best out of his squad of players and I think there is certainly some talent in the squad.

If Pochettino can get the best out of the likes of Erik Lamela and Roberto Soldado, Spurs may be able to get a little closer to the top four, although the defensive problems means they are unlikely to prevent dropping a position this season.

I do think they will play much more attractive football this season than they were producing under Andre Villas-Boas, but I also think Spurs won't be as naive as they were when they played for Tim Sherwood. That balance may help the club get back into Europe, but they are still a season away from tackling a top four berth unless there are more arrivals before the transfer window closes.

7. Everton: There were a lot of plaudits for Roberto Martinez and his performances as manager of Everton in his first season here at Goodison Park and he deserved most of it.

The side were close to a top four berth and the signing of Romelu Lukaku for £28 million suggests the board are firmly behind the Spaniard and his belief that Everton are a top four club in the making. My issues are that the defence is a year older and doesn't have a lot of depth behind Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin despite how well John Stones did last season.

I also believe Everton surprised teams last season and their squad is going to be pushed to the limit with the Europa League to negotiate as well as the Premier League. It will be interesting to see how Martinez gets the balance right between the competitions and they may just slip a little this time around.

8. Newcastle United: Alan Pardew is not the choice of the fans at St James' Park and his Newcastle United team were very inconsistent a year ago, but I can see them finishing with another top half position in the League table.

Newcastle United won 7 of their 19 away games which is good enough form to move them up the League table from their 10th place finish last season as long as they can improve at home where they lost 8 of 19 games.

Much depends on whether the new signings can blend with the current squad and I do almost have them here by default of them being better than the majority of the teams in the League, at least on paper. One of my best friends is a Newcastle fan so he might be a lot more pessimistic than I am, but I see the Magpies being the best of the rest in a League where the top seven look head and shoulders above the rest.

9. Stoke City: This is another team where I have almost had to end up with them here simply because I can't find any of the teams below them as being capable of finishing above Stoke City. That should be the method no matter where you place a team, but some teams are higher/lower based on potential pressure against them and new faces either in the manager's office or on the field.

Stoke City seem to be very settled with Mark Hughes getting the best out of the squad from last season. Adding in the likes of Bojan from Barcelona may give them a spark of creativity to finish in the top half again at the exact same position of last season.

10. Sunderland: Gus Poyet produced a wonderful finish for Sunderland last season and I think they can ride that momentum to the point of finishing way up the table this time around. Losing Fabio Borini back to Liverpool is a concern, although they could revive that transfer if Liverpool bring in more players to push the Italian down the order.

Signing Jordi Gomez gives them more creativity and Poyet clearly had the team listening to what he wanted as shown by their draw at Manchester City and win at Chelsea towards the end of last season.

That belief can see Sunderland finishing much clearer of relegation this season and perhaps even challenge Newcastle United for the 'best team in the North East' title. It wouldn't surprise me to see Sunderland sign a couple more players before the transfer window closes, but they can ride the momentum of last season to finish in the top half of the Premier League.

11. West Ham United: Andy Carroll is injured again, Sam Allardyce is seemingly always sitting on a warm seat and the fans are demanding much more from West Ham United this season. The board know the importance of avoiding a relegation with the move to the Olympic Stadium fast approaching so I believe they will stick with Allardyce who can help the Hammers push on up the table.

They are expected to be more attacking this season and I do think the signing of Enner Valencia will pay off for the manager after his performances at the World Cup. He looks to have the pace and power that should suit the Premier League and I believe this is a solid squad that can avoid the relegation battle as long as they can steer clear of the injuries that hurt the squad last season.

I really think Allardyce is a little disrespected as a manager as he usually does what is says on the tin- the manager will keep West Ham in the Premier League and perhaps finish far higher than the fans believe possible.

12. Southampton: Losing players of the calibre of Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Rickie Lambert will have a negative effect on Southampton, as well as the new voice they will be hearing in the dressing room.

I have picked Southampton here because they still have enough quality in the team to beat those I have listed below them, but that also depends on keeping Morgan Schneiderlin and Jay Rodriguez as losing those players may be too much to overcome.

They also need Graziano Pelle to settle in immediately and provide the goals to keep the Saints afloat, but this may be a team to keep an eye on if they make a poor start to the season. Thankfully for the fans, there are teams in this Division that look really short of quality and I think Ronald Koeman will get enough out of the squad to prevent a really dramatic fall down the table.

13. SwanseaMy initial thought about Swansea was that they were going to struggle this season after losing more key pieces of their squad in Michel Vorm, Ben Davies and Michu. However, Michu was oft-injured last season and Vorm has been replaced by Lukasz Fabianski who is a former Arsenal Number 1.

The biggest benefit for Swansea may be the fact they have kept Wilfried Bony to this point and that has me placing them a little higher in the table than I originally intended. If they lose Bony before the transfer window closes, Swansea may struggle for the goals to keep them in the Premier League, particularly as they are not as good defensively these days.

Last season the Europa League played havoc with a smaller squad and being out of that competition should help them get into a similar position as last season. Again though, I will reiterate that losing someone like Bony may see them slip into another relegation fight that they experienced last season.

14. Leicester City: It has been tough for Nigel Pearson to add to the squad in the manner he would have liked this summer, but Leicester City have been preparing for life in the Premier League for a couple of years now.

They had near misses when it came to promotion and Leicester should be very confident after winning the Championship last season. Pearson has made some interesting signings and I believe the squad are aware of what each other have to offer and can do enough to steer clear of the bottom three.

They do have investment funds, but I think Pearson is still looking to improve the squad and I can see more signings coming in over the next two weeks. They will likely play the loan market too and the Foxes can survive their first season back in the top flight.

15. Queens Park Rangers: Harry Redknapp is very capable of getting the best out of a squad at this level, but he will have to dig deep into his knowledge as Queens Park Rangers return to the top flight. The signing of Rio Ferdinand gives them experience, but there does look to be a lack of pace at the back and the question will be whether Charlie Austin can score enough goals at the higher level to keep QPR above water.

There is Premier League experience in the squad, but the key will be to make a better start than the last time they played at this level- they were behind the black ball by Christmas and even the arrival couldn't prevent QPR from being relegated.

Loftus Road form will be very important, but I think this Rangers team can find enough quality performances on their travels to just about maintain their place in the top flight.

16. Aston Villa: If there is one team that looks in huge danger, it would be Aston Villa on first glance- they are a team that has had little investment with an owner looking to sell the club, the manager is under pressure before a ball has been kicked and the best player is out with an injury.

Christian Benteke can't come back quick enough and there could be a real problem if the players annoy Roy Keane to the extent that there is disharmony in the squad.

I am not surprised that so many have tipped Aston Villa for relegation, but I think they can just about survive as long as they don't suffer huge injury problems. Joe Cole, Gabby Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann can fill in for Benteke until the Belgian returns and I do think he will give Villa enough goals to just about see off relegation for another season.

17. Hull City: Second season syndrome may be a huge concern for Hull City this season after a very successful last campaign. Survival was the key, but Hull had the bonus of an FA Cup run to the Final which means they do have to negotiate the Europa League, another hindrance on this year's survival battle.

Those extra games and travelling may put Hull City in a dangerous place in the Premier League and their form over the second half of last season was the third worst in the Premier League.

However, I think Bruce has made some good signings in Tom Ince and Robert Snodgrass that can help create more goals which may prove to be the difference when May comes around.

The defence can be very effective and the quality from Ince, Snodgrass, Jake Livermore and Tom Huddlestone may be enough to provide Nikica Jelavic the ammunition to keep the Tigers in the top flight.

18. Crystal PalaceAnother manager that may not get the plaudits of those that love watching free-flowing football, but is very capable at this level is Tony Pulis.

He produced a wonderful performance to help Crystal Palace out of the relegation woods last season and I think he will make Palace difficult to beat again this year. That will help Palace avoid another relegation battle earlier this time around and Pulis can maintain his record as never suffered a relegation as a manager.

I expect Palace will be able to produce enough wins at Selhurst Park against those teams around them to finish comfortably clear of the bottom three.

EDIT: I had Crystal Palace in a much higher position prior to Thursday's stunning news that Tony Pulis has left the club- depending on the next appointment, Palace may be rife for a relegation battle and may not survive the drop this season.

19. West Brom: A team that was fortunate that the likes of Norwich City, Fulham and Cardiff City had such poor ends to last season was West Brom and I am not sure they have the quality to avoid the drop this season.

They have an inexperienced manager at the helm and the squad is going to need Brown Ideye to fit into the Premier League immediately if the Baggies are to find the goals to stay in the top flight.

West Brom just about found form last season to avoid relegation, but their last five games remind me of the Norwich City fixture list from last season and I think they are going to be in big trouble if they go into those games needing points to survive.

20. Burnley: Every where I have looked, Burnley look to be the big favourites to finish bottom of the Premier League, but Sean Dyche already exceeded expectations once by bringing Burnley into the top flight.

Avoiding the drop would be a remarkable achievement for the manager considering the lack of investment being made this summer, but this is a team that will work hard for one another and believe they can beat anyone at Turf Moor.

Making up the difference in quality from the Championship to the Premier League over thirty-eight games is incredibly tough though and this could be another one season stay in the top flight for Burnley as happened in the 2009/10 season.

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