With a superb Olympic fortnight now over, life will be back to normal this weekend as the Premier League returns to our screens. Here, the Nouse Sport team make their predictions for the year ahead.
Luke Gardener – Sports Editor
Champions – Manchester United
The last day of season 2011/2012 was remarkable with Manchester City clinching the title thanks to a late Sergio Aguero strike. Their arch-rivals Manchester United will bounce back this year and look at new signing Shinji Kagawa and possibly Robin van Persie to carry them to a 20th league title. Players such as Tom Cleverley will really emerge, Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez will push their fellow strikers for starting places while the returning Nemanja Vidic will also be crucial to the Red Devils’ chances of success.
Top Four – Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea
Most feel that Manchester City will end up in the top two but I think Arsenal have a real opportunity this season. With the signings of Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla as well as the returning Jack Wilshere in October, the Gunners look good going forward. Once again it will be their defence which is questioned, but if Thomas Vermaelen reaches his best form a title challenge is definitely on the cards. Chelsea will feel the loss of Didier Drogba and finish in fourth place, possibly sacking Roberto Di Matteo on the way.
Bottom 3 – Wigan, Norwich, Aston Villa
Second season syndrome will hit Norwich and Swansea this year with the loss of their managers over the summer proving critical. Swansea will just survive though, with Norwich succumbing to the Championship. Wigan will finally be relegated following the sale of players like Victor Moses and Hugo Rodallega. The shock relegation will be Aston Villa who are failing to make important signings in the transfer market. The sacking of Alex McLeish and hiring of Paul Lambert will make little difference to the hopes of the Birmingham side.
Top Scorer – Fernando Torres
After the dominant goal scoring form of Robin van Persie last year there are several contenders for the golden boot in the coming season. The likes of Sergio Aguero, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez are all massive contenders along with van Persie himself. However, I am going with the resurgent Euro 2012 golden boot winner, Fernando Torres of Chelsea, to be the shining light for the London club and score 25 goals in the Premiership season, recapturing his best form.
Watch out for… Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
This is perhaps the hardest to predict. Contenders were Tom Cleverley and Joe Allen but there are also the likes of Rickie Lambert for Southampton and Adam Le Fondre of Reading who could make a real impact. I finally reached a decision and have gone for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to be the star for Arsenal this season. He has showed glimpses of brilliance in the last season but I think this season could be his crowning moment.
Dan Holland – Sports Editor
Champions – Manchester City
This is a tough one to call, but I still say City have the strongest squad and play the best football. I think Chelsea and United will push them hard but City have been there and done it now – that particular monkey is off their backs. Plus, the likes of Mario Balotelli are (theoretically) more mature and more accustomed to the Premier League. City are the team to beat, especially if they can add to their ranks before the transfer window shuts.
Top Four – Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal
United are sure things for the top four, even if they still look weak in midfield. Chelsea have strengthened their squad more than anyone so far and might just have (albeit accidentally) found a manager that can guide them through a period of transition. Arsenal, with or without van Persie, still get my vote for fourth spot – Arsene Wenger’s experience could be key in holding off Brendan Rodgers and Andre Villas-Boas.
Relegated – Norwich, Southampton, West Brom
Southampton look like they have the weakest squad on paper, and I don’t see them having the ability to do a Swansea or Norwich. Speaking of the Canaries, I think this season could be a real struggle for them. They haven’t added substantially to their squad and without Paul Lambert I don’t see them having the edge over the other relegation candidates (no disrespect to Chris Hughton). West Brom will be an interesting case, but they’ve taken a chance on Steve Clarke that could backfire.
Top Scorer – Sergio Aguero
He had a marvellous first season in England, and Aguero should now be one of the first names on the City teamsheet. A proven and clinical finisher with a supply line that includes some of the most creative players in world football. As long as he doesn’t fall victim to some squad rotation then expect another prolific season for the Argentine.
Watch out for…Tom Cleverley
Should United not sign the Modric-type player they have needed for the past couple of years, this could be the time for Cleverley to step up. Last year was blighted by injury, but he will be hoping to nail down a starting spot in an unspectacular Old Trafford midfield and break into a transitioning England side. At 23, this could be a make or break season.
Will Light – Deputy Sports Editor
Champions – Chelsea
With the shadow of Champions League failure no longer lurking over Stamford Bridge, and bringing in an enviable array of talent over the summer, Chelsea certainly look to be making a charge for league glory. Beating the European elite to the capture of £32m Belgian wunderkind Eden Hazard, as well as signing playmaker Oscar and the more reasonably priced but no less valuable Marko Marin shows Abramovich’s statement of intent to build a dynasty rather than merely ticking off the trophies in his Michelin ‘I Spy Silverware’ book. A lot, however, does depend on Fernando Torres finally finding his shooting boots.
Top Four – Manchester City, Manchester United, Newcastle
Despite an impotent summer transfer-wise, City’s squad has too much talent to avoid a top four finish. As with Chelsea’s European triumph, Sergio Aguero’s last minute heroics in May eased the pressure on the Premier League’s most expensive team. As always, United will be there or there abouts. The title loss hit hard, but the astute signing of Shinji Kagawa will add some much needed creative guile in the centre of midfield. Spurs, Arsenal, Liverpool and Newcastle will fight hard for the last place, and it could go to any of them, but a Newcastle with an able manager and long-term stability is a dangerous beast indeed.
Relegated- Swansea, West Brom, Reading
Swansea chairman Huw Jenkins has said the club remains completely committed to Brendan Rodgers’ passing philosophy despite his switch to Liverpool. It could be a season of struggle for Michael Laudrup’s side, however, if their biggest players leave. West Brom were ably kept up by Roy Hodgson last season, but the hiring of the unproven Steve Clarke, whilst a reputed assistant, is a risk for the perennial relegation candidates. Out of the promoted teams, it is Reading or Southampton that could flounder, but the lack of genuine quality in the squad could mean the drop for the Berkshire side.
Top Scorer- Fernando Torres
His legs have gone, said the naysayers, he’s not the player he was four years ago, but the statistics show that Fernando is Euro 2012’s most lethal finisher. The Golden Boot sits proudly on his mantelpiece courtesy of a better goals-to-minute ratio than Mario Gomez. Torres will no longer be playing second fiddle to Drogba, and he will be the man charged with leading the line as Chelsea attack the league. At £50 million, there are no more excuses. He will be expected to deliver the goals, and with the service of Chelsea’s midfield legion, he could well do it.
Watch out for…Aston Villa
Of the two young and up-coming managers promoted last season, Brendan Rodgers snatched most of the attention with his luxurious passing game. Paul Lambert’s achievements at Norwich were noted, but in a somewhat more understated fashion. His move to Aston Villa could be just what the Birmingham club need after the expectedly underwhelming reign of Alex McLeish. Villa have a lot of potential, and Lambert could be the man to get the best out of skilled players like N’Zogbia, Bent and Ireland.
Champions – Manchester City
I had trouble with this one. For the last five or so seasons I had Manchester United as odds-on favourites. And then BOOM! City win the league last season, thus throwing the proverbial Thatcher amongst the socialists. I’m going to say City again this season; whilst no outrageous signings have occurred, they seem to finally have a settled squad, Kompany has signed a mammoth deal and they have more confidence than ever. Although, never rule out United. Or Chelsea. Or Arsenal. Or Spurs.
Top Four – Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal
There are too many teams to choose from here. I’d love to see a Spurs, Newcastle, or Liverpool break this top four once again, but on paper these squads are the best four in the country. I really feel Chelsea can fight for the title this year, so they pip United to second. Arsenal should complete the top four, but this is one of those seasons were any of last season’s top seven has the potential to challenge.
Relegated – Southampton, Swansea, Norwich
It is not inconceivable that the two surprise packages last season, Swansea and Norwich will suffer badly from “Second Season Syndrome”. Both clubs have lost their catalysts for success last season in their inspirational managers and whilst new boys Laudrup and Hughton have decent records I can see them struggling. Southampton, even with Rickie Lambert, have a tough task. They don’t exactly have the strongest squad, or indeed, manager, so this season could be one to forget for the Saints.
Top Scorer – Mario Balotelli
Some have labelled him an imbecile; a talent wasted by his arrogance and general idiocy. However, Euro 2012 proved he could actually play football when he wasn’t setting off fireworks in his bathroom. I really hope City give him a central role this season as he has the potential and ability to be one of Europe’s best players. He is only 21 as well, so his youthful exuberance could push him into Premier League folklore.
Watch out for…QPR
Money, money, money – this is what QPR now have. And as we know in football, money eventually equates with success. Whilst last season was arguably a bit of a failure for QPR, with a squad that now boasts the names of Park Ji-Sung, Junior Hoilett and Djibril Cisse (provided he isn’t suspended), I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see QPR have a solid go at getting in the lower half of the top 10.
Champions – Manchester City
For me, Mancini’s men start out as clear favourites as they look to defend their first Premier League title. With world class players in almost every position, they possess one of the most talented squads in Europe, blending a vital balance of vigour and flair, consolidated by a winning mentality so ably demonstrated in last week’s Community Shield. Players like Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero form the spine of a team most managers can only dream of.
Top Four – Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal
Bruised heavyweights Manchester United will be on the hunt for revenge, but their reliance on aging stars and inconsistency at the back will ensure no more than a supporting role in the title race. Chelsea’s summer investment has seen them bring in some of football’s most prodigious talents, but hopes of a league title will be thwarted by inexperience. A thin squad and another African Cup of Nations interruption should prevent any chance of a Newcastle encore, while I am unconvinced by both Tottenham and Liverpool. I can’t see beyond Arsenal rounding off the top four.
Relegated – Southampton, Wigan, Swansea
Instead of signing seasoned veterans with top flight experience, Southampton have brought in unknowns from the lower tiers; 18th and cashing in on Adam Lallana in January is about as good as it can get for the Saints, I’m afraid. Wigan stayed up last season by the 11th commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Sell Moses”, but the Latics’ prodigal son might just be on his way out. With Rodallega already gone and Di Santo averaging three goals a season, the writing is on the wall for Roberto Martinez’ men. Swansea enjoyed a pleasant first season, but with Gylfi Sigurdsson’s move hijacked by Spurs, and Brendan Rodgers and Joe Allen heading to Liverpool, any repeat performance of such a finish appears a tall order.
Top Scorer – Papiss Cisse
It’s a bold shout to place the Golden Boot outside of the top four, but if anyone is capable of doing it, it’s this guy. 13 goals in just 14 games since his January move to Tyneside, Cisse has taken to the Premier League like a fish to water.
Watch out for…Eden Hazard
His reputation precedes him and with an excellent resume at Lille in Ligue 1, I would hope that Chelsea’s new, aptly named danger man will live up to his billing in the Premier League. Armed with an arsenal of tricks, flair, creativity and vision, Eden Hazard could very well carve his own Zola-shaped figure into Chelsea folklore.