The new Barclays Premier League season gets underway on Saturday and prior to the first kick, TSN.ca presents a week long look at some of the teams and stories that will shape the up coming campaign. Champions League and European qualifying might be the aim for squads at the top of the table, but for teams at the bottom half, survival is the name of the game. Crystal Palace and Swansea City lead the list of teams looking to make inroads this season, all the while avoiding the dreaded drop to the Championship.
Manager: Tony Pulis
Last Season: 13-6-19 (11th in Premier League)
When Ian Holloway was sacked as Crystal Palace manager after a seven-game losing streak last October, few envisioned that a team that managed a measly four points from its first 11 matches would survive the drop, let alone almost finish in the top half of the table.
But that's exactly what Tony Pulis was able to once he took the reins of the south London side, reinvigorating a fan base fearing another season in the Championship after only being promoted that spring after an eight-year absence from the top flight and finishing strong in losing just twice in its last 10 matches.
Whether or not the Eagles can reach the heights of last season remains to be seen, but the club has retained all of its key contributors including standout midfielder Mile Jedinak, newly re-signed 'keeper Julian Speroni and forward Marouane Chamakh, who re-upped on a two-year deal after scoring six goals last term following his move across London from Arsenal.
Pulis was able to add some veteran help to his squad in the transfer window, drafting in forward Fraizer Campbell (Cardiff City) and stalwart defender Brede Hangeland (Fulham). Still, Pulis would like to do more in the transfer market and likely isn't finished, though loan signings, especially ones to bolster an attack that scored a paltry 33 goals last season, appear to be preferred over permanents with the likes of Steven N'Zonzi (Stoke City), Jonjo Shelvey (Swansea City) and former Palace winger Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United) attached to the club in recent days.
May will be the month to keep an eye on for Palace with dates at home to United and away to Chelsea and Liverpool on the docket. If the team can make it to the season's final month in good shape and not needing to rely too heavily on results from those match-ups for safety, Pulis and company should be looking towards another season in the Premiership.
(The Canadian Press)
Manager: Garry Monk
Last Season: 11-9-18 (12th in Premier League)
Navigating the rigours of the Premier League and Europa appeared to be too much for the Swans last season and it cost Michael Laudrup his job in February. Former club captain, and still an active player at the time, Garry Monk stepped in admirably as interim boss and guided the club to safety with the team winning three of its last four matches. Monk was rewarded for his efforts, being named permanent manager in May and given a three-year contract.
Monk looks ahead to this season with a club that is in the midst of a facelift. Gone off to Spurs are Dutch international 'keeper Michel Vorm and his best defender last season Ben Davies, while striker Michu has been loaned to Napoli and defender Chico Flores now plies his trade with Qatari side Lekhwiya.
In their stead, Monk has brought aboard goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski (Arsenal) and Colombian World Cup star winger Jefferson Montero (Monarcas Morelia) and Iceland international midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson returns to Wales after two seasons with Spurs. Club captain Ashley Williams was also signed to a new deal, fending off interest in the defender from the likes of Liverpool and Monk could further complement his backline when an expected move for Argentine international defender Federico Fernandez goes through later this week.
Still, this Swansea team will live and die with its offence. Last season, Ivorian international Wifried Bony had 25 goals in all competitions for the club following his move from Vitesse. Though there were reports that the 25-year-old was unsettled at the club earlier this summer, it appears now that he's staying and Swansea will need a repeat performance from Bony if it intends to equal last season's finish. Bony will likely be partnered up front with French international Bafetimbi Gomis, who came over on a free from Lyon. This duo, combined with Montero on the wings, is capable of giving any BPL defence a rough afternoon.
Like it is for Palace, May could be significant for Swansea. Manchester City visits the Liberty and the Swans head to London to take on Arsenal before a date with Palace on the season's final day.
WEST HAM UNITED
Manager: Sam Allardyce
Last Season: 11-7-20 (13th in Premier League)
It's somewhat surprising that Big Sam is entering his fourth season in charge at Upton Park considering the freefall in which the Hammers finished last term, losing five of its last six. Though, West Ham did finish eight points above the drop, it was still too close for comfort for most supporters and a change at the helm of the team was expected, but Allardyce remains.
What also remains is injury troubles for its star striker. English international Andy Carroll is out yet again, this time for four months with an ankle injury. Carroll was to be a big part of what the club planned to be a revitalized attack following the hiring of Teddy Sheringham to work with the team's forwards and the additions of Mauro Zarate (Velez Sarsfield) and Ecuadoran international Enner Valencia (Pachuca). Club captain, Kevin Nolan, who was relied upon heavily (perhaps, too much) last season when Carroll was out, will again be asked to shoulder some of that same load. The status of talented, but troubled, attacking midfielder Ravel Morrison is up in the air, following a late July arrest for assault on his ex-girlfriend and her mother.
The injuries are not limited to attack for the Hammers, either, with recent loan signing from Arsenal Carl Jenkinson and fellow defender Guy Demel both out to start the new campaign with hamstring ailments.
The story, though, will be early form. If West Ham fails to hit the ground running, Allardyce will be the fall guy. That said, there is little fear for relegation for the Hammers, but at the same time, there is not a lot here to suggest that the team will fare any better than it did last season.
Manager: Gustavo Poyet
Last Season: 10-8-20 (14th in Premier League)
After the eccentric Paolo Di Canio was let go with the Black Cats dead last in the league, Gus Poyet saved the day, improbably guiding Sunderland to safety, including four wins in last five matches, and taking the team to the League Cup final after a thrilling semi-final victory over Manchester United.
If anything, the rollercoaster ride that was last season should prepare Sunderland fans for this campaign, which will in all probability see the club once again fighting tooth and nail to avoid relegation. Why? Simply put, the depth just isn't here across the board, especially in the back where an aging central defensive pair (Wes Brown, soon to be 35, and John O'Shea, 33) will be asked to do more than it's likely capable of managing.
Yet, Poyet will hope that a pair of players will chips on their shoulders will be catalysts for the Black Cats this term in Jack Rodwell and Steven Fletcher.
Rodwell, once seen as a future fixture in the England midfield, is looking to turn the page on his career that hit a wall at Manchester City, where he was essentially frozen out of the first team, making only 16 appearances in his two seasons at the club. While injuries did play a part in the 23-year-old's inability to force himself into City's plans, Rodwell is fully fit and eager to live up to the promise he displayed at Everton.
Injuries also derailed Fletcher's campaign in 2013-14. Two years ago, the Scotland international scored 11 times in his first season with Sunderland after coming over from Wolves, but found himself on the trainer's table more often than not last year when the team managed to score only 40 goals on the term. Having Fletcher back to fitness will give Poyet another proven goal-scoring option going forward to complement American international Jozy Altidore (injured at the World Cup, but expected fit for the season's start) and Connor Wickham, if he stays at the Stadium of Light. Wickham, who scored five crucial goals in the last six games of the season for Sunderland, has been reticent to sign an extension with the club and has been the subject of transfer inquiries from the likes of West Ham. While Sunderland has yet to receive an offer to their satisfaction, it's believed that the team will sell Wickham for the right fee.
March could be telling for the Black Cats. There are only three league fixtures that month, but they are with Hull City (away), Aston Villa (home) and West Ham (home). Taking points from these clubs, who will likely be close by in the table, will be crucial for survival hopes.
Manager: Paul Lambert
Last Season: 10-8-20 (15th in Premier League)
Villa is one of the original BPL teams and one of the seven clubs who have been in the Prem since its inception (with Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham the others), but the team has been in a relegation battle for the past four seasons. Well, here comes a fifth. Paul Lambert's youthful side has added some veteran experience in the offseason, yet with owner Randy Lerner looking to offload the club, a sense of unease is in the air and nothing seems certain for the Birmingham side.
The team took advantage free transfers in the window, bringing in former England internationals midfielder Joe Cole (West Ham) and winger Kieran Richardson (Fulham), as well as defender Philippe Senderos (Valencia), a Swiss international. While Richardson's versatility might be useful and bringing in former BPL champions (Richardson with Manchester United and Cole with Chelsea) can never hurt, Cole has been ravaged by injuires in recent seasons and Senderos hasn't exactly shone over his near decade in the BPL and he's not exactly the type of centre-back who will shore up a defence that conceded 61 goals last season.
Speaking of that backline, France international left-back Aly Cissokho, in from Valencia after spending last season on loan at Liverpool, is the club's most high profile addition and will step into a spot were the club has had little luck in the last few seasons. The club also hopes to keep hold of Ron Vlaar. Though, the 29-year-old didn't have the best of seasons with the club last year, he was outstanding at the World Cup for the Netherlands and his name has hotly been bandied about in the rumour mill.
Offensively, Lambert will have France international winger Charles N'Zogbia back to full health after missing all of last season with a ruptured Achilles and there are reports that prolific striker Christian Benteke could be ready to go as soon as September following April's Achilles tear that saw the 23-year-old miss Belgium's World Cup campaign. Gabby Agbonlahor and Fabian Delph, last season's player of the year as voted by fans, were terrific last season and the team will be need more of the same this time around. Former England international striker Darren Bent also returns from a loan spell at Fulham.
If Lambert, whose hold on his job has been tenuous, at best, during his two years in charge at Villa Park, is sacked at any point during the season, it appears the job will go to his brand new number two, Manchester United legend, Roy Keane. Keane, who holds the same role with the Irish international side under Martin O'Neill, hasn't managed in the BPL since he left Sunderland in December of 2008. Needless to say, the injection of the fiery Keane into a relegation scrap could at yet another entertaining dimension to what already should be a tumultuous battle.
Manager: Steve Bruce
Last Season: 10-7-21 (16th in Premier League - Qualified for Europa League)
Steve Bruce's side might have felt a little bit aggrieved to only finish 16th last season after having spent most of last year comfortably in the midtable, but going winless in its last five, including four losses, left the Tigers far away from 10th spot that they occupied following a March 1 win over Newcastle.
Still, last season was a roaring success for Hull, with the team reaching the FA Cup final - the club's first-ever final in its 104-year history. Though, the Tigers ultimately blew a two-goal lead and lost to Arsenal on Aaron Ramsey's extra-time winner, the appearance means that Hull City makes its European bow with an appearance in this season's Europa League qualifiers.
And it is this European adventure that could define this season for Bruce's charges. Time and time again, BPL sides have found themselves incapable of mounting domestic and European campaigns at the same time. To wit, Spurs, Swansea and Wigan were the British contingent in Europa last season. All three clubs ended up firing their managers over the course of the last term. The strain put on a team to fight on both fronts (and that's not even including the FA and League Cup competitions) is obvious and one that clubs the size of Hull feel greater than the likes of a Chelsea or Arsenal.
Even with Europa, the focus for Bruce will be improving on last year's finish in the Prem and that's a very attainable benchmark.
Jake Livermore's loan from Tottenham was made permanent, while Robert Snodgrass (Norwich) and winger Tom Ince (Blackpool) add to a capable midfield led by Tom Huddlstone, who was a dynamo last season, his first with the club. Bruce will hope that the arrivals of Snodgrass and Ince will aid an attack that was positively anemic last season, scoring just 38 times. Full seasons from January signings Shane Long and Nikica Jelavic should also help ameliorate things, as well.
While some of its rivals will look towards late season fixtures as key matches, Hull's opening matches could be paramount. The Tigers' first five dates see very winnable games with QPR, Stoke City, Aston Villa, West Ham and Newcastle.
(The Canadian Press)
WEST BROMWICH ALBION
Manager: Paul Lambert
Last Season: 7-15-16 (17th in Premier League)
The Baggies took the back door to safety, but avoiding relegation is avoiding relegation. Entering into a May 8 match-up with Sunderland, West Brom knew that they were still architects of their own fate, needing a single point to secure another season in the BPL. They proceeded to drop the match 2-0. Granted, it would have taken Norwich City overturning a -18 goal differential in the season's final game for the Baggies to go down, but West Brom did themselves no favours in the late stages of their relegation fight.
Last season was a nightmare on the whole for the club with Steve Clarke dimissed in December and his replacement, Pepe Mel, let go at season's end. That's to say nothing of the whole Nicolas Anelka experiment that failed miserably and ended in a racism row.
The man chosen to turn the page came as a surprise to most in former Everton youth team coach Alan Irvine, who hasn't coached a first team since being let go by Sheffield Wednesday in 2011. Irvine will have work to do to win over Baggies supporters, but their favour can easily be curried with survival come May.
West Brom's biggest addition comes in Nigeria international striker Brown Ideye (Dynamo Kiev). The acquisition of the 25-year-old at 10 million pounds shows ambition, but it comes with great risk, as forwards capable of scoring in Russia rarely have their prowess translate over to the Prem. More prudent were the acquisitions of England international Joleon Lescott (Manchester City) and Andre Wisdom (on loan from Liverpool). The pair could partner at the centre of a new-look backline.
With staying up the goal coming into the year, accruing points early and often will be the best course of attack when you consider how the season ends for the Baggies. Collecting points from their last five matches (Liverpool, Manchester United, Newcastle, Chelsea and Arsenal) might just be too big of an ask.