The Premier League: 8 Key Questions

  1. Can City go back-to-back?

The heart-stopping finale to last season may still be fresh in the minds of the City faithful, but the warm and fuzzy has well and truly gone from Roberto Mancini.  The Italian has cut a cranky figure during a surprisingly quiet pre-season at Eastlands.  When asked about the lack of transfer activity, Mancini spat out “Ask Marwood”.  Jack Rodwell is the only new face at City, and it’s hard to see him being in the first team in the immediate future.  Van Persie headed toward Salford, leaving Mancini with pretty much the same squad.  The good news? Tevez is back in the fold and looks interested, Balotelli hasn’t gone loopy and the creative core of Silva, Nasri, Aguerro will be better for another pre-season.  City deserve favouritism, but only just.

  1. Can Van Persie deliver the title back to Old Trafford?

It was a transfer saga of the summer, and a coup for United to pull it off.  The best striker in the Premier League last season leaving 3rd place to join 2nd.  It’s big money for an injury prone, 29 year old, but if Van Persie delivers as he did in 2011/12, it’s money well spent.  The problem here for United is how to fit him into the system.  Is it back to the 4-4-2?  Where does Kagawa fit in? Is Rooney up top or in the hole? What about Young, Nani, Valencia, Wellbeck?  Defensively nothing has changed either.  The anticipated move for Baines hasn’t materialised, Rio and Vidic are a year older, as are Carrick and Scholes.  Tom Cleverley, so impressive in the Olympic campaign and in England’s win over Italy, has a pivotal year ahead of him.  It looks set for a Manchester title battle.

  1. Can Di Matteo revive Chelsea?

Sounds odd to say the European Champions need reviving, but we have to be honest. Chelsea’s UCL triumph was almost achieved despite themselves.  Now the hard work really starts.  Drogba will be a huge miss, almost as much for his personality as his goals.  Torres is coming good, but in the striker stakes, the cupboard is pretty bare behind the Spaniard with Kalou, Anelka and Drogba gone.  Only Sturridge remains.  Countering that is an abundance of midfield creativity, with Marin, Oscar and Hazard all arriving to join Mata.  There’ll be the usual reliance on Lampard and Terry to go around once more, and defence could be an Achilles heel.  A title challenge is unlikely.  A tilt at the top 4 should be a given, but a bad start and who knows what could happen down the Kings Road.

  1. Are the North London clubs in transition?

It was heartening for Arsenal fans to see Wenger be proactive in the transfer market, bringing in Podolski, Giroud and Carzola all before the inevitable Van Persie exit.  But again, questions are being raised about the club’s ambition with another big name exiting the Emirates. Alex Song could be next, which would leave a hole in the defensive part of the side.  As per usual, creativity is not a problem for the Gunners, with the new boys joining Walcott, The Ox and rejuvenated Rosicky and Arteta.  But it’s the return of Jack Wilshere that may ultimately decide the fate of Arsenal this year.  His injury is career threatening, but if he returns at the same level as in 2010/11 Arsenal will have a good season.

Up the Seven Sisters Road, it’s all change. No more Arry. No more Luka. In come tactics. And a swagger. Villas-Boas has a fair bit to prove, but has probably chosen the perfect club to start his coaching comeback.  For all the pretty football in the early part of last season, Spurs collapsed under the distraction of Arry courting England, and a squad threadbare in key areas.  The latter part hasn’t changed with Defoe the only striker at the club.  This is the area in need of urgent attention now the Modric deal is concluded.  Vertonghen is a shrewd addition as is Sigurdsson, and expect a more advanced role for Gareth Bale, as AVB seeks to implement his Porto system on Spurs.  Top 4 challengers again, but no sack if he doesn’t make it this season.

  1. Can Rodgers revive The Reds?

He’s the British coach that even Craig Foster likes.  No pressure then at Liverpool for Brendan Rodgers.  The architect of Barcelona-in-South-Wales, has taken his Northern Irish Tikka Takka to Anfield, to try and revive the sleeping giant, after 2 years of Hodgson/Dalglish related misery.  It seems the majority of Liverpool fans are all for Rodgers and are prepared to give him time to succeed.  Fed up of false dawns, they want a coach, and a playing style, to stick.  The early signs are promising. Youthful signings who fit the Rodgers philosophy of pass, pass, pass, press, press, press, and the relative light use of Andy Carroll, all point to a brighter future.  They will be tough to beat at Anfield but it’ll be on the road where Liverpool’s destiny this season will be decided.  Either way, the future is certainly brighter than it was 12 months ago.

  1. Can anyone make the break into the top 4?

Newcastle got damn close last season.  Everton have been there or there abouts before, as have Villa.  The Geordies look best placed to have another crack with a settled squad and a confident coach who has delivered above expectation.  Papiss Cisse was the revelation of last year and his partnership with Demba Ba will make or break Newcastle’s season.

Everton have again had to cut their cloth.  Pienaar and Naismith come in. Rodwell leaves.  Traditionally slow starters, if they can hit the ground running, and Jelavic is amongst the goals they will on course for a good season.

For Villa just forgetting last season’s flirtation with relegation may be enough. The McLeish year was traumatic, and he’s replaced by another Scot in Paul lambert who did wonderous things at Norwich.  The football should be better, the fans should be happier and the results should improve.  Not enough to crack the big boys, but enough to be competitive again.

  1. Can Norwich and Swansea go again?

A massive challenge lies ahead for the 2 sides who impressed and delighted in equal measure last season.  Both are under new coaches, with Chris Hughton at Carrow Road, out to build on the reputation he developed at Newcastle, then Birmingham, and amazingly Michael Laudrup in charge at Swansea. Yes, Michael Laudrup.  At Swansea.  On paper the changes will be felt least at Norwich with no major departures, Grant Holt retained and Michael Turner on board.  The Swans however have lost not just Rodgers, but 2 key members of that impressive midfield in Sigurdsson and Allen.  Laudrup forged his coaching reputation with a young, exciting Getafe team, but has found recent jobs trickier.  On paper his style is similar to Rodgers, but in reality times could be much tougher this time around in South Wales.

  1. Who will go down?

A really tough call this year.  Wigan have flirted with relegation for years now, and no matter how much we respect Martinez football, they may finally run out of luck, especially if Victor Moses moves on.

The promoted teams all face a tough year with Reading perhaps the best placed to survive, with a solid, settled squad, good youth set up and a star signing in Pogrebnyak.

Southampton were League One 2 years ago, and will bank on home form in front of a parochial crowd to keep them up.

West Ham snuck in through the play-offs after faltering late on.  Big Sam will divide opinion inside and outside the club once again, but they have enough Premier league experience within the squad to survive.

QPR survived on a fraught final day, but seem set to prosper in 2012/13 after Mark Hughes latest shopping spree that brought in Park and Fabio from United plus Robert Green, Junior Hoilett and Andy Johnson.

 

Predictions

Winner: Manchester United

UCL Spots: Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham

Europa Spot: Chelsea

FA Cup: Chelsea

League Cup: Newcastle

Relegated: Swansea, Southampton, Wigan

 

 

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Return of the King?

I was asking people around the office for their view on Alberto Contador this week.  Divisive was my word.  The general feedback though was positive….erm….let me rephrase….upbeat.

There is no doubt that Alberto the rider is to be cherished.  A daring, attacking presence who looks as good on the bike as anyone we’ve ever seen.  A rider who animates races, who grabs the attention. Alberto the person is a more complex case.

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Flashback. 2010. Geelong Road Worlds. A quiet morning suddenly lit up but the news wires. Contador went positive at the Tour. The intervening two years have been an almighty mess of court cases, legal action, race wins, race wins stripped, he said/she said, and finally a suspension. A suspension of half measures though. Ban him for long enough to ensure that ASO or the IOC aren’t embarrassed by Dirty Bertie returning. Let the Spanish worry about that.

Contador himself has always protested his innocence, and presented the “Steak Excuse” that launched a thousand jokes.  Maybe it was true. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it’s more sinister. We’ll never truly know.  What we do know is that the process was a farce, and unfair to the rider, the sport and the public.

So in plain black and white Alberto is a doper. The 2010 Tour positive, plus the links to Puerto, should make him persona non grata.  Yet throughout this years Tour de France there was a common theme.

“Be good if Contador were here.”

And therein lies the problem.  Contador as a bike racer illuminates the peloton.  He can seemingly win races at will. Dance on those pedals and disappear up the road.  What was on paper a barn burning 2011 Giro parcours, was turned into a procession after just 9 days, when Contador erupted on the slopes of Mount Etna to make the result in Milan a formality. Except, the record books say Scarponi won the race. The irony. 

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And now he returns. In Spain. The conquering hero to the locals.  The disgraced athlete to the critics.

He’ll probably win the Vuelta.  Froome will challenge in the Time Trial and on the climbs.  Rodriguez will attack on the steepest ramps but can’t compete against the clock.  Alberto, even without racing days, should be too good.  And we’ll watch him making the climbs look stupidly easy and seeing the pain he’s inflicting on his rivals, and we’ll enjoy it.  A guilty pleasure.

So should we celebrate his return?  Well in the light of the current goings on with WADA, USADA, UCI and LA, I’m delighted we”ll talk about AC in a racing context.  

He has been found guilty of doping, has been suspended and now returns. As the current rules say. Like Basso. Like Valverde. Like Vino. Like Millar. Like Scarponi.  The sport is full of returning riders, some contrite, others unrepentant. Some who are cheered to the rafters now. Some who are forever tainted in peoples minds. The issue will always divide, and until there is consensus between governing bodies, and anti-doping agencies it always will.  The sport needs to decide if all doping is equal. If all dopers are to serve suspensions or be thrown out of the sport.    The current system and the way it is policed is disgraceful.

I like watching bike races. I like watching exciting bike riders. I like watching Alberto Contador. I think the peloton has missed him. He’s back, and now we deal with it.