How they'll finish... maybe
Is it that time again already? The Premiership season is upon us again, and the same question remains. Will anyone be able to break up the 'Big Four' of Man Utd, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea?
As for anyone being able to break up the monopoly that Chelsea have had on the Premiership title over the last few years, that's a different question entirely. And one that has the same boring answer this time around as well...
Chelsea have spent over £50 million again this summer, bringing in the talents of Andrei Shevchenko and John Obi Mikel, as a result the club look to be in pole position to reclaim 1st place come June next year. No-one can compete with Abramovich's billions in the transfer market, so when Shevchenko announced that he would be leaving the San Siro there was only ever one club in contention for the £30 million hitman.
Add to that the second 'world-class' player to arrive (this time on a free transfer) Michael Ballack, and the potential capture of £25 million rated Ashley Cole from rivals Arsenal, and you have an even better squad than the one that steamrollered the Premiership last campaign. Ominous news for the rest of the league, and unsurprisingly Chelsea are hot favourites to retain their title again this year.
In fact it's very hard to see the top two positions changing at all for a while. The 'Rafa Revolution' that Liverpool are currently undergoing has done wonders for a club who now look capable of challenging for top spot. Helped by a healthy transfer budget, Rafa Benitez has used all his transfer nous to recruit players who should make a difference at Anfield.
Whether it is the ungainly-looking Peter Crouch, or the lively Jermaine Pennant to ply him with aerial deliveries, Rafa's successes have brought a new brand of confidence to this Liverpool team. Although unlikely to build on their third position of last term, the club should push Chelsea closer this season. Led by the irreplaceable Steven Gerrard, the only piece of silverware missing from Rafa's cabinet is that elusive Premiership trophy.
Something that Arsene Wenger would love to bring to Arsenal's new stadium this year. After the break-up of his 'Invincibles' side of 2002/03, Wenger's team have undergone a transitional period that won't end this season.
Doing well to finish 4th last year, they'll go one better this year as their young stars get more experience, but still look lightweight in the squad stakes when you compare them to the other top teams. The addition of Tomas Rosicky for £7 million is another shrewd Wenger buy, but having lost Pires, Campbell and Bergkamp, the young guns are lacking a few experienced heads to lead them in the coming campaign.
While Manchester United certainly don't lack experience, or money, they have looked a shadow of the team that has dominated the Premiership for the past decade. The acquisition of England midfielder Michael Carrick, and possibly the addition of Owen Hargreaves, may help to fill the gap left by the influential Roy Keane, but it's hard to see them pushing the top two, and will most likely finish in 4th position.
This season has seen Sir Alex Ferguson allow top scorer Ruud Van Nistelrooy to depart for Madrid, heaping more pressure on boy-wonder Wayne Rooney to bang in the goals, and with no ready made replacement if he gets injured, United may find it harder to cope this year.
Recovering from the disappointment of losing out on the 4th Champion's League place to bitter rivals Arsenal will be the first thing on Martin Jol's agenda at Tottenham. After spending the season well positioned, they were pipped at the post after an outbreak of food poisoning disrupted their final game.
This season has seen Michael Carrick head north, but Jol has brought in the excellent Ivory Coast midfielder Didier Zokora as his replacement. The emergence of Aaron Lennon and Michael Dawson in particular will make Spurs a difficult team to beat, although they haven't quite got the power to claim that Champion's League spot ahead of the rest.
Everton will also be looking to build on a disappointing season last year. Often goal shy, the addition of Andy Johnson from Crystal Palace will boost the Toffees hopes in front of goal.
While David Moyes has also looked to strengthen his defence with young centre-back Jolean Lescott joining the club for £5.5 million from Wolves. History tells us that after a bad season, Everton usually go on to do well, so a European place is well within their grasp at 6th.
Buoyed by their European adventure in the UEFA Cup, Mark Hughes' Blackburn look capable of another successful season. Hughes has strengthened his strikeforce with the additions of Francis Jeffers, Benni McCarthy and Jason Roberts, but will once again rely on the midfield tenacity of Robbie Savage and Steven Reid to keep the club's ambition alive.
With Morten Gamst Pederson and David Bentley providing the creativity out wide, 7th position would represent a real turnaround for a club who struggled with relegation 3 years ago.
In 8th place, West Ham would also continue their impressive start to Premiership life. Rocked by the recent ankle injury to striker Dean Ashton, Alan Pardew has bought good cover in Carlton Cole, as well as strengthening the side defensively.
Anton Ferdinand will be keen to impress again in his defensive alliance with Danny Gabbidon, while Roy Carroll faces a fight for his first-team place with the acquisition of Norwich and England goalkeeper Robert Green. Bags of potential and a good work ethic make West Ham one of the surprise packages from last season, they'll be looking to build on that and push for Europe.
Sam Allardyce has always embodied the Bolton side he picks. Tough and uncompromising, 'Big Sam' and the over-30 brigade at the Reebok Stadium will look to take no prisoners again this season after claming some high profile scalps last year.
Top scorer Kevin Nolan will be keen to impress the England set-up after narrowly missing out on a seat to Germany and new signings Quinton Fortune and Abdoulaye Meite will give the Trotters defence more muscle. Sam won't be happy with 9th, but his threadbare squad would be.
In 10th position, Aston Villa will certainly not view their season as mid-table mediocrity. After fighting off relegation, changing manager, rebelling against their ex-chairman and undergoing massive fan protests at the running of the club, anything in the top half of the table would be viewed as a massive success for the Birmingham-based club.
The addition of Martin O'Neill is the first step in what will be a transitional season for Villa, new faces will be arriving, but O'Neill needs stability before he can start aiming for Europe.
Newcastle will struggle to repeat the relative success of an Intertoto Cup place this year. While fans will expect regular European qualification, after all the money that has gone into the club, the reality is that they have not got the squad to compete for the top six places.
Finishing the season in 11th would almost certainly see the sacking of manager Glenn Roeder, but with Michael Owen a doubt to play at all this season, and Shola Ameobi the only recognised striker in the team, it's hard to see any other outcome when your defence consists of Boumsong and Bramble.
Slightly further south on the North-East coast, Middlesborough will be pleased if Gareth Southgate's first season in charge ends higher than last, in 12th.
Having only brought in Julio Arca so far, and with Chelsea's Robert Huth having failed his medical, Boro are light at the back with their talismanic captain's retirement to the managerial staff. If anyone knows a good centre-back it's Southgate, and he will need to reinforce his defence if Boro are to stand a chance of improving on last year.
They have a good young core and in Yakubu- a genuine goal scorer. Much will depend on Southgate making the transition from player to manager as smoothly as possible.
Smoothness is also something that will be on Harry Redknapp's wish-list after a turbulent season at Portsmouth last year. Stabilising the south-coast club is his first priority, as he decides how to spend the millions of pounds donated by the Premiership's latest wealthy Russian, Alexandre Gaydamak.
Already opting for experience in the form of David James and Sol Campbell, Redknapp has a solid foundation from which to start the rebuilding process at Fratton Park. Midfield dynamo Gary O'Neil will play an important role in pushing Pompey up the league to 13th position and well clear of relegation.
Stuart Pearce has galvanised the Manchester City team since his arrival, but a poor showing at the end of last season is unlikely to change again in the coming campaign.
A 14th place finish would keep the club away from the dreaded drop zone, but lady luck will play her part in shaping the fortunes at Eastlands. The signings of Hatem Trabelsi and Dietmar Hamann will bring much-needed experience to the squad, while the purchase of Sweden goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson for only £2 million could prove to be one of the buys of the season.
If captain Sylvain Distin decides to leave, a lot could depend on the youth of Micah Richards and Nedum Onuoha to plug the gaps in defence.
New boss Ian Dowie will have less luck at mid-table regulars Charlton this year, finishing a disappointing 15th position. Glad to keep hold of captain Luke Young, Dowie has strengthened the squad with the addition of Andy Reid and Jimmy Floyd-Hasselbaink, but not in the areas that Charlton really need it.
Defensively they still look lightweight and will have to rely on the goals of Darren Bent to see them clear of the relegation zone. Much of their season will depend on whether Bent is a true goal scorer or just a one season wonder.
Wigan may prove to be a one season wonder as well, finishing in 16th place after losing two of their most influential players, Jimmy Bullard and Jason Roberts.
After the success of a top ten finish last year, Paul Jewell will struggle to maintain the standards set by the North-West club, despite the signings of Holland international Denny Landzaat and England goalkeeper Chris Kirkland. Jewell may be tipping new signing Emile Heskey for an England spot, but if history repeats itself for the big striker, it may be more worthwhile concentrating on avoiding relegation.
One of the surprises of the season could be Steve Coppell's Championship winning Reading team. Boasting talent in abundance, the club blew away the opposition last year and racked up 105 goals in the process.
Leroy Lita, Bobby Convey and Kevin Doyle will be key players in keeping the Royals above the drop zone, as will the midfield presence of Steven Sidwell. A 17th place finish would guarantee top flight football at the Madjeski next season and would make Coppell and instant hero.
But if they stay up, someone has to go down. And that someone is Fulham. Having maintained their Premiership status for the past five seasons, the vultures are circling at Craven Cottage.
Although they possess an excellent frontline, McBridge, Helguson and Collins John all weighing in with goals last season, their defensive lapses could cost them dearly this time around. With influential midfielder Steed Malbranque refusing to play for the club, and only a handful of new faces arriving, manager Chris Coleman could find himself out of a job after a particularly difficult start to the season.
Also for the drop this year are Neil Warnock's new boys Sheffield United. Without the experience or pace in defence, and having to rely on Premiership struggler Ade Akinbiyi for goals, Warnock's men face an uphill battle to maintain their top-flight status.
The best they can hope for is a 19th place finish and for some of their leading players, like Phil Jagielka and Michael Tonge to impress in their first Premiership season.
Propping up the table in 20th place for the 2006/07 season are the other Premiership new boys, Watford.
Aidy Boothroyd performed wonders for the London club in the Championship last season, hauling them from relegation to promotion inside 14 months, but it would be a massive surprise if he could do anything to keep the club from bouncing back down. With Marlon King leading the line there is always a chance that they could cause a few shocks, but overall they are hot favourites for relegation.