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Open season

ESPNsoccernet's Jon Carter looks ahead to the first day of the new Premiership season with a preview of the weekend's fixtures.

With all eyes on the teams for the opening day everyone is out to impress, not least the promoted clubs, Reading, Sheffield United and Watford. Who will score the first Premiership goal of the 2006/07 campaign? Which team will be top come 6pm on Sunday? Can anyone stop the machine that is Chelsea from claming their 3rd successive title?

All questions that won't be answered here, but enjoy a taster of what's to come as the first ball of the new season is kicked at 3pm on Saturday.

Saturday 19th August 2006

Sheffield United vs. Liverpool

It's hard to see how new boys Sheffield United will overcome the might of Rafa's Liverpool side this Saturday. With Peter Crouch in a glut of goalscoring form following his midweek brace for England, an attacking line that boasts new acquisitions Jermaine Pennant and Craig Bellamy looks to be too strong for the Blades weak defence.

The arrival of Dirk Kuyt could take a few days to complete, but Liverpool already have enough firepower to see off United. New signing David Sommeil will get his chance in defence, but it could be a busy afternoon for the impressive Paddy Kenny in goal.
Key Battle: Phil Jagielka vs. Steven Gerrard. Prediction: (0-3)

Arsenal vs Aston Villa

With a plethora of players seemingly on their way out of Arsenal, the launch of the new 'Emirates Stadium' on Saturday has lost some of its dazzle. Ashley Cole is still expected to be in the squad if his transfer to Chelsea fails to materialise, while Jose Reyes could be on a plane to Madrid by the time kick-off arrives.

Djorou will fill in at centre-back, with Mathieu Flamini or Justin Hoyte fighting it out for Cole's left-back space. The return of Thierry Henry after a tough World Cup campaign will bolster a young Gunners squad who should prove too much for Villa. A host of Villa players will be looking to impress new manager Martin O'Neill. Last season's diamond Steve Davis should start in midfield, with the Irishman's main problem being who to pick up front.

After losing 5-0 at Highbury last season, O'Neill's tactical nous should make it a tighter affair this time round.
Key Battle: Cesc Fabregas vs. Steve Davis. Prediction: (2-1)

Everton vs Watford

The signing of Andy Johnson has done a lot for the confidence around Goodison, and the former-Palace hitman should make his debut this Saturday.

Despite misfiring in pre-season, a strikeforce of James Beattie and Johnson, backed up by midfield dynamo Tim Cahill, could make it a difficult afternoon for Aidy Boothroyd's Watford in their first Premiership encounter for 7 years. Marlon King will carry his own threat up front, while Jolean Lescott's first job in the Everton jersey will be to keep a lid on the talented Jamaican frontman.

However, Watford's lack of squad depth will make their season in the top flight a difficult one and travelling to Goodison for their first game will not do much to inspire confidence if Johnson finds his scoring touch.
Key Battle: Andy Johnson vs. Marlon King. Prediction: (2-0)

Newcastle United vs Wigan Athletic

An impressive season last campaign has given Paul Jewell's men real belief. In contrast, a miserable set of injuries and the retirement of the iconic Alan Shearer means there is tough work ahead for Glenn Roeder's Newcastle. Scott Parker and Emre will look to control the game from midfield and the addition of Damian Duff should bolster a threadbare attack that only boasts Shola Ameobi and the ineffective Albert Luque at the moment.

While Wigan's defence should not be troubled too much this Saturday, Jean-Alain Boumsong and Titus Bramble could be in for a torrid afternoon trying to keep a lid on the lightening fast Henri Camara and bullish Emile Heskey. Wigan have lost key players in the transfer window, but Jewell has also bought shrewdly. Chris Kirkland and Denny Landzaat should debut in a game that is too close to call.
Key Battle: Jean-Alain Boumsong vs Henri Camara. Prediction: (1-1)

Portsmouth vs Blackburn Rovers

'Harry Houdini' saved the day for the south-coast team at the end of last season and, backed by Russian millions, the club are in a good position to turn their fortunes around.

However, a buoyant Blackburn side should make Redknapp's start to the season an unhappy one. David James and Glen Johnson will make their debuts for Pompey, as should Sol Campbell, although the ex-Arsenal man will immediately find himself up against his nemesis from last year's campaign, Jason Roberts, and other new arrival Benni McCarthy. The power and stamina of Blackburn's approach should dominate a Portsmouth side crippled by striking injuries.

Redknapp could employ a 4-5-1 formation in his first home game of the season, with Kanu hoping to rubber stamp his move to Fratton Park by kickoff, but Mark Hughes' tenacious side should prove too much to cope with.
Key Battle: Gary O'Neil vs Robbie Savage. Prediction: (0-2)

Reading vs Middlesbrough

Premiership new-boys Reading will be looking to take their amazing Championship form into the new season. They boast excellent attacking options in the likes of Bobby Convey, Leroy Lita and Dave Kitson that combined for 105 goals last season, but their back line lacks pace that could be exploited by Stuart Downing on the left wing and Yakubu through the centre.

Julio Arca will make his debut in the Boro defence, while new Reading signing Sam Sodje could be tasked with battling the physical challenge of Yakubu and Mark Viduka. Reading may spring a few surprises this season, but Southgate's Boro should have the edge in this contest.
Key Battle: Steven Sidwell vs Aiyegbeni Yakubu. Prediction: (1-2)

West Ham United vs Charlton Athletic

Another of the surprises packages from last season, West Ham showed they could cut it with the big boys. The impressive Marlon Harewood will be looking to add to his goal tally and shouldn't find too much to stop him in the Charlton defence.

New keepers Robert Green and Scott Carson both could have been playing, but while Green is still sidelined with a groin injury, Carson should make his Charlton debut. John Paintsil and George McCartney will bolster an already tough defence led by Danny Gabbidon and Anton Ferdinand and all will have to be at their peak to keep the lively Darren Bent quiet. Andy Reid and Djimi Traore could feature for Charlton, as both sides cancel each other out.
Key Battle: Anton Ferdinand vs Darren Bent. Prediction: (1-1)

Bolton Wanderers vs Tottenham Hotspur

With both teams enjoying modest successes in recent times, the tactical battle between manager's Martin Jol and Sam Allardyce could shape this contest.

Utility-man Quinton Fortune and Abdoulaye Meite will make their debuts for the Trotters, while Tottenham will give starts to their new arrivals Dimitar Berbatov and Didier Zokora. With Jermaine Defoe keen to impress now that he's back in the England fold, Robbie Keane could find himself on the bench and the dangerous Aaron Lennon will also be on show. Spurs' best form of defence could be attack at the Reebok on Saturday.

Allardyce will no doubt be looking for his inspirational captain Kevin Nolan to provide some bite in midfield, as well as a significant goal threat. If both teams get stuck in like they should do, this one could be very entertaining indeed.
Key Battle: Kevin Nolan vs. Didier Zokora. Prediction: (2-2)

Sunday 20th August 2006

Manchester United vs Fulham

Boy-wonder Wayne Rooney faces a fight to be fit for United's opener on Sunday, after picking up a groin injury last week. Both Rooney and Paul Scholes face 3 match bans to be served after the Fulham game, for red cards against Porto in pre-season, while new £18.6 million signing Michael Carrick misses out on United's first home game due to a foot injury.

Despite the long injury list, Ferguson can still call upon Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo to provide attacking sparkle that should prove too much for a shaky Fulham defence. New signing Jimmy Bullard will make his debut in midfield along with defender Frank Queudrue. But Steed Malbranque can expect to miss out after being told he won't play for the club again by manager Chris Coleman.

Fulham fans will surely take their anger out on Ronaldo after his World Cup charade, but it won't win them the match.
Key Battle: Paul Scholes vs Papa Bouba Diop. Prediction: (0-3)

Chelsea vs Manchester City

Chelsea's all-stars failed to assert themselves over a dogged City side last season and although they ended up with all 6 points, this seasons' contest may come just a little too soon for Jose Mourinho's World Cup weary team.

While the likes of Andrei Shevchenko and John Obi Mikel could make their debuts, Michael Ballack is struggling to shake off a hip injury sustained in the Charity Shield last weekend. Stuart Pearce's City team have got themselves a £2 million bargain in Sweden goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson and his first task will be to stop the Premiership's most expensive strikeforce, Didier Drogba and Shevchenko, from scoring.

A tenacious performance from a City side also debuting full-back Hatam Trabelsi and Dietmar Hamann, could ruffle the Champion's feathers, but don't be surprised if Mourinho walks away with all 3 points.
Key Battle: Frank Lampard vs Joey Barton. Prediction: (1-0)

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