- Premier League season preview
Champions City have a target on their backs
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After the excitement of the Olympics, comes the welcome return of the Premier League. From the individual pursuit of excellence we move our gaze to observe the collective drive for glory, as some clubs bid for the title - and others simply strive to remain in the division.
Ahead of the first weekend of the 2012-13 season, we take a look at some of the teams - and players - to look out for:
Team to beat
They may not have made too many additions to their squad (at the time of writing) but, then again, maybe they really didn't need to. It took a dramatic finish for City to claim the Premier League title last season, but they were clearly the class of the field all term (two wins over Manchester United testifies to that) - with only a lack of title run-in experience perhaps allowing things to get so dramatic.
That obviously won't be a problem this year, so every other club will have to step up their games significantly. The pressure City will face is different now - they are the kings, with everyone shooting for their thrones - but they have quality players in almost every position to deal with that. About the only thing that could derail Roberto Mancini's side is another Carlos Tevez scandal - but he says he is happy at the club. City will be there again next summer - it's up to the others to decide whether they will be anywhere near them.
Perhaps we've cheated a little here - but basically what we are saying is the season could go any of a number of ways for the Blues. If Fernando Torres rediscovers his goalscoring touch and all their summer signings - Eden Hazard, Oscar, Marko Marin - find their feet, then the Blues have every possibility of contending for the title, after a somewhat distant sixth place finish last term. But if Torres gets stuck in the mud once again, and the new faces are initially knocked out of joint by the physicality of the Premier League, then the loss of Didier Drogba and the ageing of the rest of the squad could leave them lagging even in the fight for fourth. Their degree of variance is really that wide.
Roberto Di Matteo has much to prove - yes, he won two trophies last season, not least the Champions League, but he really didn't inspire an upturn in league form after Andre Villas-Boas's departure, something that we know disappointed club owner Roman Abramovich. He needs to rectify that quickly if his future is not to come under scrutiny again once more, and if Chelsea are to resume their former position as a real threat domestically.
Best signing of the summer
Santi Cazorla (Arsenal)
Put it this way, it is never a bad idea to buy a member of the current Spain squad - and if you can do it for £12m, so much the better. Cazorla is a quick-footed, clever and surprisingly resilient midfielder player who can play centrally or out wide - if Mikel Arteta was a replacement of sorts for Cesc Fabregas last summer, then Cazorla might finally fill that other void left by Samir Nasri. In many ways his signing has echoes of David Silva's move to Manchester City two seasons ago - and Silva was arguably the stand-out player of much of the past season.
Unlike Silva, Cazorla should not need too much time to find his feet as he is moving into a side that plays in a very 'Spanish' way - he should have little problem adapting to the intricate, passing style that Wenger favours. Make no mistake, his life would be easier if Robin van Persie had stayed at the club - but if he can strike up a quick understanding with Olivier Giroud then both new boys could quickly become major Premier League stars.
Worst signing of the summer
Jay Rodriguez (Southampton)
This choice is made more in terms of value than the ability of the player - Rodriguez certainly has a lot of talent, it just remains to be seen whether he will be able to make an impact this season. At over £7m, the Saints really need the ex-Burnley forward to immediately chip in with goals and assists but, in truth, he is probably going to need at least a season to adapt.
He has had some top-flight experience with Burnley, but that was not a roaring success. If Southampton go down this season with Rodriguez having failed to score much more than a handful of goals, then pundits (and fans) will rightly question whether Nigel Adkins would not have been better off spending that healthy chunk of change on a more established goalscorer.
Point to prove
Andre Villas-Boas (Tottenham)
Sacked by Chelsea as the man he brought in as his assistant, Roberto Di Matteo, went on to win the FA Cup and then - the highlight of the lot - the Champions League, Andre Villas-Boas was left on the outside looking in as his attempt to revolutionise the setup at Stamford Bridge quickly blew up in his face. Nevertheless, his great reputation from his work at Porto ensured Tottenham were happy to give him a chance of redemption in English football - with the chance to get one over on Chelsea perhaps tantalising the Portuguese somewhere at the back of his mind.
Villas-Boas has not exactly walked into an easier job than he had in west London, however - his predecessor Harry Redknapp was very popular with fans and had raised standards to the extent that Champions League qualification is now the club's minimum aim. The impending loss of Luka Modric is a big blow for a side that generally operated around the Croatian's smooth playing style - if Villas-Boas can muster success at White Hart Lane it will quickly erase the memory of his Chelsea time. If he cannot, however, he might find suddenly find himself turning to Rafa Benitez for commiseration about how hard it is to find another job in the game.
Promoted team most likely to stay up
Hardly an original choice, but West Ham do appear to have everything in place to ensure they stay up at the end of the season. And, of course, if it looks like they might be in trouble come January we can be almost certain the owners will look to spend their way out of trouble rather than let events unfold unaided.
Sam Allardyce knows all about how to stay up in the Premier League, although the sense pervades that his somewhat 'agricultural' tactics of his Bolton days will no longer be so effective in an increasingly free-flowing league. The mix of players he has added this summer (from experience, like James Collins and Jussi Jaaskelainen, to raw ability in Modibo Maiga) gives him a variety of options to choose from, while he has retained much of a Championship squad that is overflowing with top-flight know-how. Like it or not, Allardyce will be expected to keep this group up.
Promoted team most likely to go down
Reading are the opposite of West Ham in almost every way - they have a manager, Brian McDermott, who is tasting Premier League football for the first time, while in general their moves this summer have been to add Championship talent who they believe can step up to the next level. Former Fulham loanee Pavel Pogrebnyak is perhaps the biggest addition - but does he have the desire to carry the team for the entire season, having fallen away alarmingly after a good opening few games in his half-season at Craven Cottage?
The Royals were the surprise package of the second half of last season as they shot up the table to take an automatic promotion spot and then the title itself, which means either they had a shocking start to the season (that didn't reflect their true ability) or they hit an uncanny vein of form later in the day (that elevated them above their 'true' level). With a squad full of players that have succeeded at Championship level but no higher, McDermott et al are gambling a lot on their ability to successfully step up a grade.
First manager to be sacked
Steve Clarke (West Brom)
There are a number of new managers who could find their grace period shorter than they expected this season, including Chris Hughton (Norwich) and Michael Laudrup (Swansea). But Clarke is the big worry simply because West Brom have shown in the past (with Roberto Di Matteo) that they are not afraid to make changes if it looks like they might lose their Premier League status.
Clarke comes to The Hawthorns with a wealth of assistant manager experience, but this is his first taste at the top job. His reputation as a right-hand man is very good, but history is littered with examples of second-in-commands who floundered once they were the ones giving the orders. Clarke obviously has a decent tactical brain and knows how to run a training session, but can he quickly grasp all the other facets of modern management - not least of all winning over the trust of players who might be sceptical of his credentials?
Following in the footsteps of Roy Hodgson means Clarke has a lot to live up to - if he struggles initially, he may find his chance to make it on his own is quickly taken from him.
The natural inclination here is to go for Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney - the two men who dominated the goalscoring charts last season. However, both men are on the same team this time around - meaning that, while they are almost certain to score goals by the bucketload as a partnership, they are also likely to cannibalise their individual totals to a certain extent. Torres, however, is in the opposite situation - he is almost the only established, out-and-out striker left at Stamford Bridge.
What is more, Chelsea have stocked up on diminutive, creative ball-playing attackers this summer - perhaps in anticipation of Pep Guardiola's expected arrival next summer. But the likes of Eden Hazard and Oscar, along with the established presence of Juan Mata, should mean Torres gets many, many opportunities to score.
Having shown a return to form of sorts with his Golden Boot success at the Euros (and well taken finish in the Community Shield), the Spaniard looks perfectly poised to get 25 goals or more in the league this term. That total will be tough for anyone else to beat.
Young player of the year
David De Gea
The young Spaniard had a difficult start to life in English football - to put it mildly - but, by the end of his debut season had effectively ended Anders Lindegaard's attempts to become United's No. 1 and convinced Sir Alex Ferguson that he had got the goalkeeper he wanted after all.
After an off-season to reflect on what he had learned (and, reportedly, correct a problem with his eyesight), De Gea should return to the Premier League ready to show the quality and consistency he had almost immediately upon being thrown into the Atletico Madrid team. If he does that, he will not be far away from young player of the year discussion.
Player of the year
Nemanja Vidic (Manchester United)
We were tempted to go for Yaya Toure here, but in truth there are so many Manchester City players that could ultimately come away with the honour that it is hard to pick one with any certainty. With Manchester United, however, it is clearer - Vidic, Rooney or Van Persie are the most likely stand-out players.
Vidic was absent for much of last season, and United felt that absence keenly. The Serbian had to sit in the stands - or watch from the treadmill - as Vincent Kompany walked away with the title and the plaudits for being the league's best central defender. You think Vidic doesn't want that crown back?
Voters will be soon reminded of his ability and his partnership with Rio Ferdinand. If United do wrest back the title from City, which they have a great chance to do, then odds are Vidic will be given a lot of the credit by a lot of people.
League champions: Manchester City
Champions League: Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal
FA Cup winners: Manchester United
League Cup winners: Everton
Relegated: Norwich City, Southampton, Reading.