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Aug 14, 2012

From out of the shadows

Its predecessor was only decided in its final 13 seconds. The Olympics made Great Britain the centre of the sporting world. Is the Premier League's 21st season beginning as an afterthought? • Predictions
• Play Premier Fantasy - it's free We have spent 16 days hailing new heroes in running, jumping, cycling, swimming, horse-riding, rowing and sailing. As a result, the return of England's domestic football season is likely to be one where familiarity breeds something of contempt. There is also the shadow of an excellent Euro 2012 to step from out of. It may take some time to get back in the old routine but football will always return to the fore. A national game that often brings disappointment on the international stage, and duly did so during the Olympics when Team GB faltered, can actually boast of rude health. The Premier League has yet again flushed its coffers with a highly lucrative future TV deal, contains Europe's champions in Chelsea, and returns after a season widely hailed as the best yet. That status was largely bestowed as a result of the drama that followed the final whistle at Sunderland, and continued on at Eastlands. Manchester United looked to have seen out their 20th English title, but in the time it took to switch TV channels from match to match, Manchester City had conjured an equaliser from Edin Dzeko. Sergio Aguero's most golden of goals swiftly followed to divide Manchester along demarcation lines of joy and despair. Spending hundreds of millions on players is supposed to insulate against such anxiety but money alone cannot buy a moment like City's first title win in 44 years. Though it is from within such excitement that football has become a national obsession, City expect to repeat their success, and this time through dominance rather than brinkmanship. Even allowing for a summer of transfer business that only began on Sunday with the purchase of Jack Rodwell, City still possess a depth of talent that their rivals should find unmatchable. By the closure of the transfer window it is expected that they will have bolstered their defence, an area where Vincent Kompany perhaps requires someone to share his burden of responsibility. Beyond that, their midfield can boast of Yaya Toure, Samir Nasri and David Silva, and a choice of Aguero, Mario Balotelli and a slimline and freshly-motivated Carlos Tevez in attack. Despite a rather public dissatisfaction with a lack of recruits, Roberto Mancini's squad strength is unmatched. Anything less than a defence of their title would be a crashing disappointment, with the caveat that Champions League ambitions may have an effect on domestic form. That Manchester United will be in the mix for honours is an accepted truth of the English game. Sir Alex Ferguson is not withered by age, merely financial constraint. United have spent the summer in the financial pages. A partial share flotation that was not quite the success they hoped it would be has turned a glare of resentment back on the Glazer family. A militant section of the fanbase can point to a continuing lack of investment in a playing squad that creaks with age and lacks freshness in midfield. Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes hurtle towards 40 but remain crucial. The addition of a League Two teenager in Nick Powell and Japan's Shinji Kagawa as augmentations to the attacking line-up does not answer the aching hole in the team's centre. There is also the Wayne Rooney conundrum. Hugely out of form during Euro 2012 to follow a season of goalscoring yet not good form, Rooney must take the fight to his critics, and his own physiology, to regain primacy. Arsenal enter the season with a familiar feeling. For Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri last year, read Robin Van Persie in the summer of 2012. Another talisman's future is uncertain, and has overshadowed what looks a summer of smart business from Arsene Wenger. Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud are quality additions but until the Van Persie saga is completed, then it is almost as if Arsenal cannot get started properly, a pattern from which they had to rescue themselves from last season to seize a largely unheralded third place. The Roman Abramovich project looked completed when Chelsea won the Champions League in Munich yet the Russian seems willing to fund a new Blue revolution. The arrival of a trio of creative talents in Eden Hazard, Oscar and Marko Marin for around £75 million suggests that the new Chelsea are expected to play a different game. Roberto Di Matteo may have delivered his boss' dream but it took rather too long to be handed the full-time reins to suggest that Abramovich is fully convinced by him. As Pep Guardiola's expected year of hiatus draws on, speculation can only increase. As ever at Roman's Chelsea, only results can save, and even then might not be enough. Andre Villas-Boas could sympathise with his former assistant but almost certainly will not. If AVB's arrival as Chelsea boss looked premature then so too might his return to the Premier League with Tottenham Hotspur. He has much to prove, with still much to learn too, judging by his handling of players and media at Stamford Bridge, while Harry Redknapp bequeathed him a legacy of a squad with significant holes in it, not least the dissatisfaction of Luka Modric with remaining a Spurs player. Alan Pardew's Newcastle United tenure has resurrected both the club and his own career. He cannot enter 2012-13 as the same surprise package, and must do so with largely the same group of players that took the Magpies to the brink of the Champions League. Ever self-confident, he will expect to do the same, but a repeat performance looks a tough challenge to be met. If prizes were awarded for expectation, then Liverpool would be garlanded in trophies. Of all Brendan Rodgers' tasks at Anfield, then managing that expectation is perhaps the toughest discipline he faces. Rodgers' principled pursuance of his desired style of football will buy him time but the Champions League must be his aim. As Kenny Dalglish found last season, a trophy and the admiration of the Kop were not enough for the club's owners. Being Fenway's man, then Rodgers might be offered more time than his predecessor but clear signs of progress must be in evidence. David Moyes begins a season with his own sense of familiarity with the departure of formerly key men in Rodwell and Tim Cahill. Both losses can be accepted, especially considering Cahill's decline, and Rodwell's injury record, and Everton will expect to finish in their usual position of consistency. Below last season's top eight, there is a notable freshness about the other contenders. Away from the spotlight of the Euros and a summer of other sporting achievements, there has been plenty of change. Following the reshuffles at Liverpool and Spurs, four more clubs go into the new season with new men at their helm. Paul Lambert's arrival at Aston Villa sees one dour Scot in Alex McLeish replaced by another but one with considerably more interest in attacking football, a development that can only please a long-exasperated Villa Park faithful. Lambert's departure opened up a vacancy at Norwich City for Chris Hughton. Club and manager may need to locate a harder edge to repeat last season's relative comfort. The arrival of footballing aristocracy in Michael Laudrup at Swansea City reflects a club happy to take risks, and not merely settle for survival. Laudrup's grounding in Spanish football means we can again expect a Swans team playing football in a continental style, but having lost Brendan Rodgers and Joe Allen to Liverpool, with many other players coveted, there is a fear of the club eventually becoming a victim of its own success. A similar risk is being taken at West Bromwich Albion, where Steve Clarke strikes out alone for the first time. He won plaudits for his supporting roles at Chelsea and West Ham, but his reputation was not augmented by his most recent stint at Liverpool where big-money buys failed to gel and they looked tactically bereft. The Baggies' 'head coach' inherits a decent legacy from Roy Hodgson, and a set-up, headed by director of football Dan Ashworth, that has delivered a security to the Hawthorns that West Brom will expect to retain. Fulham enjoyed their most successful season since Hodgson was in charge in finishing ninth. Martin Jol's team got better as 2011-12 went on, and fell a point short of beating their best ever Premier League total. With Danny Murphy gone, and Clint Dempsey expected to depart, a changing of the guard is taking place and Jol will hope that quiet progress can be continued. Across West London, Queens Park Rangers escaped by the skin on their teeth, and have spent to make sure they do not descend below that dangerous level. Mark Hughes has signed veterans in Park Ji-Sung, Andy Johnson, Robert Green and Ryan Nelsen alongside the more youthful additions of Junior Hoilett for a compensation fee which has yet to be determined and the on-loan Fabio to refresh a squad that had not looked nearly good enough to repeat their survival. Just like Mark Hughes at QPR, Martin O'Neill has been carrying out his first pre-season as Sunderland, doing so with the same players he rescued from demotion after replacing Steve Bruce in mid-season. O'Neill, however, has made an art of late-dealing in the transfer window. The survival specialists remain Wigan Athletic, who retained Roberto Martinez as well as their Premier League status. Their talent drain is expected to continue when Victor Moses is sold on in August but the Latics have patented the rescue job carried out with diminished resources. Stoke City's time in the Premier League had seen expectation rising exponentially, until last season, that is. Extra money was lavished on diminishing returns, and fans began to tire of the Europa League being used as an excuse for a team struggling to score goals. Tony Pulis faces a fight to continue Stoke's status as an established club. A change of plan may yet be in order. And the division's new arrivals face their own challenge, one thrown down by last year's equivalent. All of QPR, Swansea and Norwich escaped the drop. Reading, under Brian McDermott, staged a late charge to automatic promotion and the Championship title and have added personnel of which Pavel Pogrebnyak is the most eye-catching. Southampton were in pole position for much of the season, and are a welcome return to the Premier League after an eight-year absence. Nigel Adkins' optimistic approach has taken them up two divisions though this season looks a challenge even for his cheery demeanour. To return to the Olympics, much of West Ham United's off-field headlines will centre on their designs on becoming the permanent resident of Stratford's stadium. Their footballing story is expected to be one of re-establishment, and perhaps not in the style that Upton Park's faithful craves. Sam Allardyce knows how to get the job done but he does not do so with full buy-in from his club's fans, a familiar theme in his recent career. Such uncertainty is apparent through the division's clubs. The English Premier League returns to the limelight, for once, from out of the shadow of other sports, and indeed other footballing events, though it will surely not be too long until it is fully back in its swing. Its relentlessness is almost always inescapable.


  • ESPN team predictions

    John Brewin

    Premier League top four: Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester Utd, Arsenal
    Premier League relegation: Stoke, Wigan, Reading
    FA Cup: Manchester Utd
    Carling Cup: Liverpool
    Europa League: Valencia
    Champions League: Real Madrid
    Player of the Year: Paul Scholes
    Young Player of the Year: Oscar

    Jon Carter

    Premier League top four: Man City, Chelsea, Man Utd, Arsenal
    Premier League relegation: Swansea, Wigan, Reading
    FA Cup: Man Utd
    Carling Cup: Chelsea
    Europa League: PSG
    Champions League: Real Madrid
    Player of the Year: Wayne Rooney
    Young Player of the Year: Eden Hazard

    Dale Johnson

    Premier League top four: Man United, Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal
    Premier League relegation: Stoke, Wigan, West Brom
    FA Cup: Chelsea
    Carling Cup: Newcastle
    Europa League: Inter Milan
    Champions League: Bayern Munich
    Player of the Year: Wayne Rooney
    Young Player of the Year: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain

    Robin Hackett

    Premier League top four: Man City, Man Utd, Chelsea, Arsenal
    Premier League relegation: Norwich, Wigan, West Brom
    FA Cup: Man City
    Carling Cup: Arsenal
    Europa League: Liverpool
    Champions League: Real Madrid
    Player of the Year: Yaya Toure
    Young Player of the Year: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain

    Mark Lomas

    Premier League top four: Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal
    Premier League relegation: Wigan, Reading, Stoke
    FA Cup: Arsenal
    Carling Cup: Chelsea
    Europa League: Inter Milan
    Champions League: Real Madrid
    Player of the Year: Wayne Rooney
    Young Player of the Year: Oscar

    James Dall

    Premier League top four:Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal
    Premier League relegation:Swansea, Norwich, West Brom
    FA Cup:Manchester United
    Carling Cup:Chelsea
    Europa League:Inter Milan
    Champions League:Real Madrid
    Player of the Year:Yaya Toure
    Young Player of the Year: Oscar

    Dom Raynor

    Premier League top four:Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham
    Premier League relegation:Swansea, Wigan, West Brom
    FA Cup:Manchester United
    Carling Cup:Man City
    Europa League:Inter Milan
    Champions League:Barcelona
    Player of the Year: David Silva
    Young Player of the Year: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain

    Rob Brooks

    Premier League top four: Man City, Chelsea, Man Utd, Arsenal
    Premier League relegation: Swansea, Wigan, Norwich
    FA Cup: Arsenal
    Carling Cup: Chelsea
    Europa League: Lyon
    Champions League: Real Madrid
    Player of the Year: David Silva
    Young Player of the Year: Eden Hazard

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