13 August 2012

2012/2013 Premier League preview: part 1

There's not too long now until the 21st Premier League season begins.

Over the next four days, The Daily Transfer Request will assess all twenty teams, predicting who'll be getting the spoils and who'll be drowning their sorrows come May. Today, I take a look at Arsenal, Aston Villa, Chelsea, Everton and Fulham.

ARSENAL
(Last Season: 3rd)
Arsene Wenger is under less pressure at Arsenal than he was this time 12 months ago.
 Yes, it looks like the Premier League's top scorer Robin van Persie is going to be leaving the Emirates Stadium this season, but Wenger has made some promising attack-minded signings. If the injury crisis of the last campaign does not repeat itself, the Gunners should continue their fine record of qualifying for 15 successive Champions Leagues.
 TRANSFERS IN: Some time before van Persie declared his intention to leave, Wenger snapped up two new strikers in the world-class Lukas Podolski and French international Olivier Giroud, whose reputation is growing very quickly. Then came the big one - Santi Cazorla, a pacy winger who is not as well known as his Spain team-mates but is just as highly-rated.
 TRANSFERS OUT: So far, the only confirmed departures from the Emirates are goalkeeper Manuel Almunia and striker Carlos Vela. The Gunners have a large squad, though, so expect the likes of Nicklas Bendtner to leave shortly.
 STRENGTHS: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain showed at UEFA Euro 2012 just how much promise this 18-year-old winger has. Another English youngster, Jack Wilshere, will be welcomed back into the fold once he finally recovers from the injuries that wrote off his entire 2011/2012 season. Goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny has greatly improved over the last 12 months.
 WEAKNESSES: Arsenal's back-line when Thomas Vermaelen is fit isn't too bad, but once the Gunners experience an injury crisis, things can get messy. A repeat of the 8-2 loss at Old Trafford won't be too far away if they have to call on players like Per Mertesacker. Also, the exit of another key figure in van Persie would unsettle things in the changing room again.
 PREDICTION: 4th. The signings of Cazorla and Podolski can rejuvenate Arsenal and keep them in the top four.

ASTON VILLA
(Last Season: 16th)
Happy days are at Villa Park again following the appointment of Paul Lambert as manager.
 His predecessor Alex McLeish was about as popular as cancer amongst most Aston Villa supporters. A club that when Randy Lerner took over six years ago was relishing the prospect of European football flirted with relegation to the Championship last season. Big 'Eck went out on his ear, and in came Lambert, who has some work to do if he is to emulate the success he had at Norwich City.
 TRANSFERS IN: At Norwich, Lambert specialised in getting the best out of hungry British players, but three of his first four Villa purchases are foreign. Holland defender Ron Vlaar slots into a frail defence, his ex-Feyenoord mate Karim El Ahmadi into an inexperienced midfield. Aussie signing Brett Holman could prove to be a Bosman bargain in attack, while former Sheffield United youngster Matt Lowton is a fairly late bloomer at 23.
 TRANSFERS OUT: After years of failing to trouble barn doors, high-earning Emile Heskey has been released. Meanwhile, Welsh defender James Collins has returned to West Ham United, and Carlos Cuellar has been reunited with Martin O'Neill at Sunderland.
 STRENGTHS: Darren Bent remains the Villans' chief goal-getter, although he will need better service if he's to improve on his tally of 9 goals from last season. That is where Holman can become a real asset. Bright things are also expected of Austrian striker Andreas Weimann, who alongside midfielders Barry Bannan and Gary Gardner is an exciting homegrown talent.
 WEAKNESSES: Set-pieces is Aston Villa's kryptonite - they conceded 25 goals from those last term. The main culprit is a defence which needs major surgery. Centre-half Richard Dunne and right-back Alan Hutton are both seen as liabilities, and keeper Shay Given's confidence will be rock-bottom after his howlers at UEFA Euro 2012.
 PREDICTION: 12th. Villa look like a team that can steadily work their way back up the table under an excellent young coach.

CHELSEA
(Last Season: 6th)
Roberto Di Matteo takes full control at Stamford Bridge following a strange 2011/2012 season.
 The league campaign was a write-off thanks to Andre Villas-Boas losing the dressing room, but Di Matteo worked wonders to get the Blues into the UEFA Champions League Final, where they beat home team Bayern Munich on penalties. Now that the latest phase of Roman Abramovich's revolution is complete, the goal now is to turn Chelsea into the Premier League's Barcelona. Their bright young signings might just be the men to do that.
 TRANSFERS IN: Chelsea fans are drooling at the prospect of seeing attacking midfielders Eden Hazard, Oscar and Marko Marin in blue shirts for the first time. Those three cost around £65million between them, with half of that being paid for Hazard, the Belgian winger who must prove his worth in England after excelling in the weaker French league for Lille.
 TRANSFERS OUT: The final kick of Didier Drogba's eight-year Chelsea career won them the Champions League. But he's gone now, as have full-back Jose Bosingwa and striker Salomon Kalou. Hazard's compatriot Kevin de Bruyne is not yet ready for the PL, so he's been sent on loan to Werder Bremen, who sold Marin to Di Matteo.
 STRENGTHS: Their defence is arguably one of the most solid in Europe. Captain John Terry always shows total commitment for his team, and will be missed if the FA ban him for racially abusing Anton Ferdinand. Ashley Cole remains one of the elite left-backs, and further up the pitch, winger Juan Mata will have a bigger role to play this season.
 WEAKNESSES: Aside from Fernando Torres, who has recently started returning to his best form, Chelsea lack a prolific centre-forward. Daniel Sturridge is not quite fulfilling his potential just yet. Meanwhile, the spectre of Josep Guardiola looms large behind Di Matteo, and if Abramovich's patience is strained again, further instability could derail the Blues again.
 PREDICTION: 3rd. Cracking Manchester's stranglehold will be a tough ask for an inconsistent Chelsea, but they'll improve on last year.

EVERTON
(Last Season: 7th)
Toffees fans can expect another solid if unspectacular season under David Moyes's stewardship.
 Moyes has done very well at Goodison Park, considering that he doesn't have a lot of money to spend... or Bill Kenwright won't let him spend it. That said, he did pay £4.5million to bring back Steven Pienaar permanently from Everton following a successful loan spell. But this is a crucial season for the club, who have not won a trophy yet under the 10-year tenure of their sought-after Scottish manager.
 TRANSFERS IN: The aforementioned Pienaar begins a second permanent stay at Goodison. Before his arrival, Moyes snapped up fellow Scot Steven Naismith, who is expected to be Nikica Jelavic's strike partner once he recovers from a cruciate ligament injury.
 TRANSFERS OUT: Tim Cahill has gone to New York Red Bulls after eight years with the Toffees, while another midfielder - Jack Rodwell - has signed for Manchester City. Meanwhile, defender Joseph Yobo finally completed his permanent exit from the blue half of Liverpool, and do-nothings Marcus Hahnemann and James McFadden were released.
 STRENGTHS: Marouane Fellaini is a midfield lynchpin who is equally adept at shielding the defence as he is at supporting the attack. Everton's defence is a stingy one, and it's important that they can keep hold of full-back Leighton Baines and centre-half Johnny Heitinga. The Toffees also have a prodigious midfielder in Ross Barkley, who will hope to avoid the injuries that have delayed his development.
 WEAKNESSES: It's strange to compare a club like Everton to Usain Bolt, but they are traditionally poor starters. Yes, they always come good near the end, but wouldn't it be healthier for their fans if they burst out of the traps quicker? Another question that must be asked is: Who's going to score the goals should Jelavic get a long-term injury?
 PREDICTION: 8th. Same old, same old Everton - they'll start off poorly before picking up speed later in the campaign.

FULHAM
(Last Season: 9th)
Fulham fans are anticipating another season in mid-table under the guidance of Martin Jol.
 Some Cottagers supporters might even have reason to believe that, if they can hold onto their biggest stars, they can match or improve on their best ever PL finish of 7th. Their squad has a very cosmopolitan feel about it, with a few standout players on the attacking side of things. One of those is Clint Dempsey, a Champions League-quality attacking midfielder who scored 17 goals last season, so it's imperative that they keep him.
 TRANSFERS IN: Craven Cottage has welcomed a few new faces this summer, but none of the stature of some players that have been linked with Fulham. Right-back Sascha Riether arrives on loan from Cologne, while their two freebie strikers, Hugo Rodallega and Mladen Petric, could either be absolute bargains or unmitigated disasters.
 TRANSFERS OUT: Two of Fulham's biggest names have gone - Andrew Johnson is seeking to have a career renaissance at Queens Park Rangers, and Danny Murphy surprisingly dropped down a division with Blackburn Rovers. Also out of the door were Dickson Etuhu, Bjorn Helge Riise and Marcel 'Who the f*** is he?' Gecov.
 STRENGTHS: Their biggest strength is their dynamo Dempsey, who along with Moussa Dembele has contributed many goals to the Cottagers' cause. Further back, Brede Hangeland's central defensive partnership with Aaron Hughes is rarely penetrated. Those two time their tackles well - in fact, so do the whole team, as Fulham didn't have a single player red-carded last season!
 WEAKNESSES: Jol will probably regret not tying up loan star Pavel Pogrebnyak on a permanent contract, and also letting such an important player like Murphy walk out just like that. And while David Stockdale looks like he can be the first-choice goalkeeper in the long-term, he has had some inconsistent showings.
 PREDICTION: 14th. Should Fulham lose Dempsey and possibly Dembele, Jol's job would be considerably harder.

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