There are expectations aplenty on the eve of the 2012-13 kick-off of the Barclays English Premier League season. It will be tough to top last season's unpredictable, breath-taking campaign, capped off by the final day dramatics seeing Manchester City win England's top flight for the first time in 44 years.
It was also a season that saw all three newly promoted teams avoid relegation – the first time since 2001-02 the feat was accomplished. It was a season where failure in league play did not deter Chelsea from a magical run to Champions League glory. And a year Manchester United failed to win a trophy, coughing up what looked to be an insurmountable lead, handing the title to their noisy neighbours.
So what's in store this season? That's hard to say, especially considering the transfer window remains open until August 31st and many teams still with a shopping list full of needs.
But what's a pundit without making proper predictions. So as the silly season wraps up, here are my (hopefully) not-so-silly predictions how the season will play out for all 20 teams.
Last Year: Champions
Manager: Roberto Mancini
Notable Players In: MF Jack Rodwell (Everton)
Notable Players Out: D Wayne Bridge (Brighton), MF Vladimir Weiss (Pescara)
Player to Watch: Yaya Toure – The midfielder was named to the EPL team of the year last campaign, and there is no reason to believe he won't do the same this year. Toure has requisite size and pace as a physical force in the middle of the park, but also has proper skill to be a difference maker going forward, scoring six EPL goals last season.
Summary: The hunter has now become the hunted. In what appears to be a two-horse race, the Blue-side of Manchester has to be favourite for the title. Yet Mancini tips cross-town rival United as favourites to regain the EPL crown; a statement seemingly more gamesmanship than real doubt in his sides' title credentials. Even with only one significant arrival in the transfer window (rumours have Daniele De Rossi still linked to City), it's hard to see them slipping up. No team has City's depth, front to back, and ability to change their system with ease to adjust to the personnel. Mancini deployed a five-man defensive line in City's 3-2 Community Shield victory over Chelsea. Managing the unpredictable characters of Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli will remain a challenge for Mancini, but not as much as keeping an eye on Sir Alex and the Reds in the rearview mirror.
Predicted Finish: Champions
Last Year: 2nd
Manager: Sir Alex Ferguson
Notable Players In: F Robin van Persie (Arsenal), MF Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund), MF Nick Powell (Crewe)
Notable Players Out: MF Ji-Sung Park (QPR), D Fabio (QPR), GK Tomasz Kuszczak (Brighton), MF Paul Pogba (Juventus)
Player to Watch: Nemanja Vidic – It's incredible to think United remained in contention until the final day, only losing their title on goal differential, without the services of their Captain and lynchpin at the back. Vidic went down early in the season, rupturing his cruciate ligament. The return of the Serbian centre-back is all-important to a backline with questions concerning quality and durability.
Summary: Last seasons disappointing finish forced Ferguson to make a splash in the summer transfer market. Last year's EPL Player of the Year, van Persie makes the move from Arsenal– a sure shot message to the rest of the league the future is now at Old Trafford. The move for van Persie is a departure from Ferguson's transfer preference to purchase young players to develop at the club. An impact player like van Persie, 29, was a must for a side coming off a season with no trophies. Van Persie, alongside Wayne Rooney is as potent a strike-force as any in world football and has the makings of a special combination. Ferguson is blessed with other attacking options on the wings, but remains thin in the centre of midfield. Tom Cleverley, Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes will be counted on to carry the load. Kagawa may be the shrewdest piece of business made by any EPL side in the transfer market. If any team can dethrone City, it's their cross-town rival.
Predicted Finish: 2nd
Last Year: 6th
Manager: Roberto Di Matteo
Notable Players In: MF Eden Hazard (Lille), MF Marko Marin (Werder Bremen), MF Oscar (Internacional)
Notable Players Out: F Didier Drogba (Shanghai), F Romelu Lukaku (West Brom), MF Salomon Kalou (Lille)
Player to Watch: Ramires – The Brazilian midfielder was arguably Chelsea's top player in the Champions League after initially taking time to settle at Stamford Bridge. Ramires attacking contributions were certainly questioned before a beautiful goal against Barcelona in the semi-final round. Ramires made himself a central figure in Di Matteo's system and is a lock as an integral piece in a loaded Chelsea midfield.
Summary: Di Matteo worked his magic, bringing an unbalanced side to Champions League glory last year. The manager was eventually rewarded with a two-year contract extension after widespread speculation had linked former Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola to the job. Di Matteo still has a challenge developing an unbalanced squad into a consistent side. The summer exit of Didier Drogba leaves the much-maligned Fernando Torres the lone true striking option. Torres will be relied on for goals, and showed glimpses of his former self at EURO 2012 and in the pre-season. Chelsea splashed out for a trio of promising midfielders this summer, making for an intriguing competition for places. Aside from questions up front, Di Matteo will need his back four to play to their ability. While his defenders impressed during Champions League, far too many cheap goals were conceded in league play. It may be time for John Terry to start taking a backseat to David Luiz and Gary Cahill.
Predicted Finish: 3rd
Last Year: 5th
Manager: Alan Pardew
Notable Players In: MF Vurnon Anita (Ajax),
Notable Players Out: MF Peter Lovenkrands (Birmingham), GK Fraser Forster (Celtic), MF Danny Guthrie (Reading), F Leon Best (Blackburn)
Player to Watch: Yohan Cabaye – The midfielder didn't get the headlines strike teammates Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse garnered last season, but he's every bit as important. The French International improved as the season went on, and looks to be an EPL star in the making.
Summary: A dream season on the Tyneside has made for lofty expectations heading into the new season. The Ba-Cisse strike partnership took the EPL by storm, scoring a combined .29 goals. To expect the same from the duo would be a reach. Pardew says he wants to bring one more player to the club in the transfer window. And it seems right back would be the position of need. Long-term target, Mathieu Debuchy (Lille) would fit the bill. Even if a move is not made, the team has enough balance to compete for a spot in Europe, and this time around, perhaps even a Champions League spot.
Predicted Finish: 4th
Last Year: 3rd
Manager: Arsene Wenger
Notable Players In: MF Lukas Podolski, (Koln) MF Santi Cazorla (Malaga), F Olivier Giroud (Montpellier)
Notable Players Out: F Robin van Persie (Manchester United), F Ryo Miyaichi (Wigan), F Carlos Vela (Real Sociedad), GK Manuel Almunia (Watford), MF Denilson (Sao Paulo)
Player to Watch: Thomas Vermaelan – The standout centre-back has established himself a stalwart despite inconsistency around him. The Belgian International is among the best at his position; that shouldn't change this season. He'll be counted on to take a leadership role with van Persie moving on.
Summary: It was a productive summer for Wenger before losing van Persie to rival Manchester United. The acquisitions of Carzola, Podolski and Giroud for decent prices soften the blow. Keeping Alex Song is now top priority for Wenger. Quality in depth is also all-important for a side showing little in reserves last season. Strong campaigns from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott are a virtual must if the team is to compete for a spot in Europe. Numerous injuries have kept Jack Wilshire out of the line-up for 12 months. A projected October return will be a boost. The panic button should not be pressed at Arsenal. There is still plenty in the side to like.
Predicted Finish: 5th
Last Year: 4th
Manager: Andres Villas-Boas
Notable Players In: MF Gylfi Sigurdsson (Hoffenheim), D Jer Vertonghen (Ajax)
Notable Players Out: MF Steven Pienaar (Everton), MF Niko Kranjcar (Dynamo Kiev), D Ryan Nelson (QPR), D Vedran Corluka (Lokomotiv Moscow)
Player to Watch: Gareth Bale – Few players possess the ability of the Welsh midfielder. He's the best left-sided player in the English game and is one of the few true difference makers at White Hart Lane. His continued development into a complete player is paramount for the club.
Summary: Harry Redknapp is gone. Luca Modric looks on his way out. And Spurs haven't managed to secure a permanent transfer for top-scorer Emmanual Adebayor as of yet either. That's a lot of question marks for a team short on experience. Spurs have a collection of young, promising talent but the significant holes to fill make last years fourth place finish seem out of reach. Villas-Boas has much to prove after his premature exit at Chelsea. How patient will the club be? Kyle Walker is an undeniable talent, and will have a top season. But because of significant changes, it wouldn't surprise if Spurs take a step back before they take another step forward.
Predicted Finish: 6th
Last Year: 8th
Manager: Brendan Rodgers
Notable Players In: MF Joe Allen (Swansea), F Fabio Borini (Roma), MF Oussama Assaidi (Heerenveen)
Notable Players Out: MF Craig Bellamy (Cardiff City), F Dirk Kuyt (Fenerbahce), MF Alberto Acquilani (Fiorentina), MF Maxi Rodriguez (Newell's Old Boys)
Player to Watch: Luis Suarez – With controversy behind him, the Uruguayan striker looks to build on an otherwise strong campaign. While Suarez was highly influential, his inability to finish in front of goal was troublesome. The 11 goals last year were not enough considering the opportunities.
Summary: Liverpool is on their fourth manager in the last four seasons. Rodgers joins after a successful spell at Swansea and has been well received at Anfield. However, Rodgers must deal with an incomplete squad with many underachievers. The biggest disappointment is misfiring striker Andrew Carroll. The frustrating forward looks set to stay at the club, despite not necessarily being the best fit for Rodgers style of play. A healthy Steven Gerrard will benefit Liverpool, but the Captain's games will have to be managed coming off an injury-ravaged campaign. The back four must show an ability to move to ball out of the back with confidence. All in all, a team with as many losses as wins last season with only 47 goals, that hasn't heavily invested in new recruits cannot be expected to make a giant leaps up the table in just one year. Rodgers has work to do.
Predicted Finish: 7th
Last Year: 7th
Manager: David Moyes
Notable Players In: MF Steven Pineaar (Tottenham), F Steven Naismith (Rangers)
Notable Players Out: MF Jack Rodwell (Manchester City), D Joseph Yobo (Fenerbahce), MF Tim Cahill (New York/MLS)
Player to Watch: Nikica Jelavic – The Croatian forward was an instant hit at Everton after a January move from Rangers. Jelavic scored nine goals in 13 starts for a team desperate for a top-notch goal scorer. A potential partnership with Belgian International Kevin Mirallas, who is rumoured to be joining Everton in the transfer window, would lessen the pressure and give the team a ready-made difference maker after Cahill's move to MLS.
Summary: Is there a manager in the EPL that gets more from less than Moyes? A slow start is the only thing that kept Everton out of Europe last season, after a strong end to the season. There is no reason to downplay Moyes influence entering his 11th season in charge. His biggest summer achievement was fending off interest in left-back Leighton Baines. The England International is as influential defensively as he is going forward. Everton finished ahead of Liverpool for only the second time since '86/87. Doing so a third time would be deemed a successful campaign.
Predicted Finish: 8th
Last Year: 9th
Manager: Martin Jol
Notable Players In: F Hugo Rodallega (Wigan), D Sascha Riether (Koln)
Notable Players Out: MF Danny Murphy (Blackburn), F Andrew Johnson (QPR), MF Dickson Etuhu (Blackburn)
Player to Watch: Clint Dempsey – A desired move away to a team playing in Europe has not transpired for Dempsey. The attacking midfielder is coming off a top season, scoring 17 league goals for the Cottagers; many of highlight reel quality. Dempsey is the creative spark in the team, pairing with Moussa Dembele as a formidable centre of the midfield
Summary: A slow start to the year was misleading, putting Fulham at the bottom of the table for a large chunk of last season. Poor away form contributed to the woes, with Fulham only scoring 12 goals away from Craven Cottage. Jol certainly has the players to turn up the style. And Rodallega should fit right into Fulham's system after a disappointing season at Wigan.
Predicted Finish: 9th
Last Year: 15th
Manager: Roberto Martinez
Notable Players In: MF Arouna Kone (Levante), D Ivan Ramis (Mallorca), MF Frazer Fyvie (Aberdeen), F Ryo Miyaichi (Arsenal)
Notable Players Out: F Hugo Rodallega (Fulham), MF Mohamed Diame (West Ham), GK Chris Kirkland (Sheffield Wednesday)
Player to Watch: James McCarthy – The Republic Ireland International midfielder came into his own last season as a workhorse in the midfield. He still has work to do, but alongside James Macarthur, the duo have become a reliable, lively pairing for Martinez. At 21-years of age, the future looks bright for McCarthy and Wigan.
Summary: No team was more impressive at the end of the season than Wigan, winning seven of nine matches to avoid the drop. Keeping Martinez at the club was a miracle, considering the interest in the manager. Martinez turned a passive, under-manned team into a squad full of confidence. Prudent buys of Ramis and Kone should pay dividends for a side that used the fewest players of all EPL teams last season. Keeping Victor Moses would go along way to avoid a relegation battle again this season.
Predicted Finish: 10th
Last Year: 17th
Manager: Mark Hughes
Notable Players In: D Ryan Nelson (Tottenham), MF Ji-Sung Park (Manchester United), D Fabio (Manchester United), MF Junior Hoilett (QPR), F Andrew Johnson (Fulham), GK Robert Green (West Ham), MF Samba Diakite (AS Nancy)
Notable Players Out: F Heidar Helguson (Cardiff City), GK Paddy Kenny (Leeds), D Fitz Hall (Watford)
Player to Watch: Junior Hoilett – The Canadian-born midfielder was full marks for his development at Blackburn last season despite all the distractions at Ewood Park. A move to QPR with complimentary attacking options will give Hoilett a chance to prove himself a true force. A regular role in the side would go a long way to Hoilett finally deciding where to play his International football … hopefully.
Summary: QPR stayed in the EPL by the slimmest of margins after conceding two goals in time added on, handing Manchester City the title. Hughes has rid of the distraction of Joey Barton, and the team has continued it's spending, indicating its ambition to move up the table. Will it pay off? Time will tell, but odds are they have enough to improve on last years standing. Green provides a reliable solution in net. And with many veteran players in the squad and a hefty pay scale, the team will be expected to compete with far more consistency in its second year back in the Premier League.
Predicted Finish: 11th
Last Year: 11th
Manager: Michael Laudrup
Notable Players In: MF Jonathan de Guzman (Villareal), MF Michu (Rayo Vallecano), D Jose Manuel Flores (Genoa), D Kyle Bartley (Arsenal)
Notable Players Out: MF Joe Allen (Liverpool)
Player to Watch: Jonathan de Guzman – Much like the aforementioned Hoilett, de Guzman's is worthy to keep an eye on for Canadian soccer fans, seeing what our National team is missing out on. Last season was frustrating for de Guzman, but the move to Swansea is an ideal fit for his crafty, athletic skill-set. Laudrup is a fan of de Guzman and should give him every opportunity to establish himself as a first-team regular.
Summary: The ultimate challenge lay ahead for Laudrup. A streaky managerial track record shouldn't damper expectations with the Dane at the helm. His view of the game is similar to that of former manager, Rodgers. Joe Allen and Steven Caulker are notable losses. But the incoming Michu and Flores should provide more than enough cover in a system predicated on keeping the ball.
Predicted Finish: 12th
Last Year: 14th
Manager: Tony Pulis
Notable Players In: D Geoff Cameron (Houston/MLS), D Goran Popov (Dynamo Kiev), MF Jamie Ness (Rangers), MF Michael Kightly (Wolves)
Notable Players Out: D Jonathan Woodgate (Middlesbrough)
Player to Watch: Peter Crouch – The towering Englishman is anything but pretty, but neither is his team. 10 goals last season were a disappointment for Crouch, but he still led the team in scoring. Stoke scored a league low 36 goals last season, and Crouch will be heavily leaned on to up his production.
Summary: Substance over style is key for Pulis' side. Goal scoring is an obvious issue. But a strong, physical make-up gives Stoke enough to grind out points over the arduous EPL campaign. Stoke's back four remains consistent and a difficult team to beat, particularly at home. A move for forward Michael Owen still may be in the cards, and seems an obvious fit. Britannia Stadium remains one of the toughest places to play in the EPL.
Predicted Finish: 13th
Last Year: Promoted
Manager: Sam Allardyce
Notable Players In: MF Mohamed Diame (Wigan), GK Jussi Jaaskelainen (Bolton), D James Colins (Aston Villa), D George McCartney (Sunderland), F Modibo Maiga (Sochaux), MF Alou Diarra (Marseille)
Notable Players Out: GK Robert Green (QPR), MF Pablo Barrera (Cruz Azul), MF Ravel Morrison (Birmingham)
Player to Watch: Kevin Nolan – The Hammers Captain resisted the temptation of staying in the EPL, instead electing to lead West Ham back in their fight back to the top flight. Nolan is widely experienced and is the type of player needed to navigate through an arduous Premier League schedule. The addition of Alou Diarra can only benefit the 30-year old midfielder.
Summary: West Ham is back in the Premier League and are in good hands with Allardyce, who knows what it takes to win in England's top flight. His no-nonsense approach will not be pretty, but will see West Ham to safety. And while the club has aspirations more grandiose than their current quality, it's going to be important for the owners to be patient. Blowing their budget on over-priced, under-producing players is not the way. Message – Andrew Carroll was never going to be the answer.
Predicted Finish: 14th
Last Year: 13th
Manager: Martin O'Neill
Notable Players In: F Louis Saha (Tottenham), D Carlos Cuellar (Aston Villa)
Notable Players Out: D Michael Turner (Norwich), F Asamoah Gyan (Al-Ain), MF George McCartney (West Ham)
Player to Watch: Sebastian Larsson – The Swedish winger was a rock and steady contributor for O'Neill, scoring crucial goals along the way. But he needs help up front. Saha is a step in the right direction, but ultimately not the answer. No matter who surrounds him, Larsson will remain a constant threat, with ability to change pace and attack at will.
Summary: O'Neill's arrival at the Stadium of Light mid-season paid immediate dividend, turning Sunderland into a team fighting for their Premier League life to a team finding relative safety mid-table. A disappointing off-season and paper-thin squad without tangible improvement leaves much to be desired. Staying up has the goal. Anything more is a bonus.
Predicted Finish: 15th
Last Year: 16th
Manager: Paul Lambert
Notable Players In: D Ron Vlaar (Feyenoord), MF Karim El Ahmadi (Feyenoord), Brett Holman (AZ Alkmaar)
Notable Players Out: D Carlos Cuellar (Sunderland), D James Collins (West Ham)
Player to Watch: Darren Bent – Having recovered from ruptured ankle ligaments that kept him out since February, Villa's top scorer returns with pressure to produce. Without Bent, Villa was lost in front of goal. When fit, Bent is among the most productive forwards in the Premier League. But will he get enough service to make a difference?
Summary: Lambert makes the move from Norwich, leading a group of over-achievers, to Villa Park, leading an ultimately disappointing bunch with questionable pedigree and potential. The young talent at Villa has failed to make a tangible impact, and proper financial support from ownership is not available like it used to be. Names like Milner, Young, and Barry have left in recent years, with no significant names taking their place. Lambert will be hard pressed to get the most out of what he has, and will most likely be in a fight to stay in the top flight, much like his former team.
Predicted Finish: 16th
Last Year: 10th
Manager: Steve Clarke
Notable Players In: F Romelu Lukaku (Chelsea), GK Ben Foster (Birmingham), F Marcus Rosenberg (Werder Bremen)
Notable Players Out: MF Keith Andrews (Bolton), D Nicky Shorey (Reading), F Simon Cox (Nottingham Forest)
Player to Watch: Peter Odemwingie – The 31-year old Nigerian striker was the Baggies top goal scorer last season with 15 goals in all competitions, including scoring four matches in a row. His ability to play inside, or out on the wing makes him dangerous. The player is ultimately unpredictable. And if the team struggles, a January transfer request is not out of the cards.
Summary: Roy Hodgson guided West Brom to a surprising 10th place finish last season before taking over England managerial duties. Clarke has some massive shoes to fill, taking over a team with clear defensive liabilities and inability to hold a lead. Clarke will experience a baptism by fire as a number 1, with Liverpool, Tottenham, Everton and Fulham on the schedule out of the gate.
Predicted Finish: 17th
Last Year: Promoted
Manager: Nigel Adkins
Notable Players In: MF Steven Davis (Rangers), D Nathaniel Clyne (Crystal Palace), F Jay Rodriguez (Burnley)
Notable Players Out: None
Player to Watch – Rickie Lambert – Few players were more productive last season in English football than Lambert. The talisman scored 27 goals and 13 assists in a breakout season. Can he follow the footsteps of Danny Graham and Graham Holt as forwards able to make the jump to be productive Premier League scorers?
Summary: Successive promotion campaigns see the Saints back in the EPL for the first time since 2005. Consistency has been key for Southampton under Adkins, with his side being the highest scoring team in the League Championship with the second best defensive record last season. Whether that will translate into EPL success is yet to be determined. A 4-0 pre-season loss to Udinese has raised all kinds of red flags. Adkins is reportedly still interested in adding help at the back, as well as up front. An opening day showdown against the reigning Champion Manchester City will be a stern test.
Predicted Finish: 18th
Last Year: 12th
Manager: Chris Hughton
Notable Players In: D Steven Whitaker (Rangers), D Michael Turner (Sunderland), F Robert Snodgrass (Leeds), D Javier Garrido (Lazio)
Notable Players Out: D Adam Drury (Leeds), D Zak Whitbread (Leicester City)
Player to Watch: Grant Holt – Norwich were able to hold on to their top scorer after he expressed his desire to leave. It was a great debate whether the Canaries should have cashed out on their aging commodity, or roll the dice the striker keeps producing now on the wrong side of 30. 15 league goals speak volumes of his impact, and Norwich is better off short-term with him in the side.
Summary: The Canaries biggest off-season loss was Lambert moving on to Aston Villa. The Scotsman had Norwich playing over their heads, never really being part of the relegation conversation. There is always a worry about the sophomore slump for second year teams in the EPL. Those concerns are amplified under Hughton, who has his work to do. The addition of Turner will help improve the defensive unit that conceded 66 goals last season.. But the team also lacks imagination in attack. Lambert's tactical ingenuity made something out of nothing.
Predicted Finish: 19th
Last Year: Promoted
Manager: Brian McDermott
Notable Players In: D Adrian Mariappa (Watford), D Nicky Shorey (West Brom), MF Danny Guthrie (Newcastle), F Pavel Pogrebnyak (Stuttgart)
Notable Players Out: None
Player to Watch: Pavel Pogrebnyak – The Russian striker had a seamless introduction to the English football, scoring six goals in 12 games for Fulham. Pogrebnyak has the size and stature to be a difference maker. But he will be relied on to create his own goals at Reading; something he has yet to prove he can do on a consistent basis.
Summary: A patient, consistent build has led Reading back to the Premier League. But a cast of characters, whether too young or too old, all has the common trait of being relatively inexperienced at the EPL level. With little star-power, it's going to be a tough road to Premier League survival.
Predicted Finish: 20th
Barclays English Premier League action this weekend on TSN2 as well as TSN and TEAM Radio Network:
Arsenal v Sunderland, 9:30am et/6:30am pt (TSN2)
West Bromich Albion v Liverpool, 9:30am et/6:30am pt (Radio)
Manchester City v Southampton, 10:30am et/7:30am pt (Radio)
Everton v Manchester United, 2:55pm et/11:55am pt (TSN2)