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J.League kicks off with China in sight


Real Salt Lake re-sign Plata as DP


Relegation Candidates

After Newcastle's unexpected slide into oblivion last season, it seems unlikely we'll see another shock relegation.

Though it's not beyond the realms of possibility that Wigan Athletic could find themselves in trouble, the concerns of others should see them have enough of a cushion to avoid the mire.

For the first time in years the three favourites to be relegated are not those sides to have come up from the Championship. The demise of Hull City has ensured the bookies feel there is more chance of Wolverhampton Wanderers extending their stay in the Premier League for another season.

Few would bet against Hull being in serious trouble, and most have them as relegation certainties. After charming the Premier League at the start of last season, Hull's most recent top flight form reads as played 29, won two. It goes without saying a repeat performance would see them down with a points tally similar to Derby's record low of 11.

The Tigers' problems have hardly been solved by a summer of transfer activity, with a catalogue of targets turning down the chance to sign for Phil Brown. Deals for 19-year-old United States international forward Jozy Altidore and Stoke midfielder Seyi Olofinjana may have finally brought success, but the City boss knows he will need to sign at least two more strikers to be truly competitive this season.

The return of Jimmy Bullard, probably in early October, could also prove pivotal. If, and it's a big if, he can remain fit for the season and a proven goalscorer arrives they could survive. A lot depends on what happens by the end of the transfer window.

There does seem to be at least some confidence in Portsmouth's ability to stave off relegation, for some unknown reason. With Peter Crouch, Sean Davis, Sol Campbell, Glen Johnson and Nwankwo Kanu already off the wage bill, it's thought David James, Sylvain Distin and David Nugent will all follow as the takeover of the club by Sulaiman Al Fahim has still not been completed.

Only Antti Niemi (from retirement), Steve Finnan, Aaron Mokoena and Frederic Piquionne have arrived. If Nugent is sold then only Piquionne, on loan from Lyon for the season, will remain as a recognised striker. Though he failed to make an impression with the former French champions, he did have a good goal return for AS Monaco and St Etienne.

However, the squad is so threadbare that without Al Fahim taking control very quickly and releasing at least some funds for transfers then Pompey boss Paul Hart will be fighting a losing battle with a threadbare squad for the first half of the season. It would be difficult to see a quality player like Niko Krancjar being able to rescue the situation on his own.

The demise of Hull and Portsmouth will give hope to Wolves, Burnley and Birmingham.

Birmingham are back for their sixth Premier League season. They spent four consecutive years in the division between 2002-06 but have since reverted to being a yo-yo team. They were promoted from the Championship as runners-up, but only secured their promotion on the final day of the season.

The signing of Barry Ferguson was probably their most eye-catching move of the summer, yet this is a player who failed to make the transition from the Scottish Premier League once before with Blackburn Rovers. Much will depend on the midfield work of both the Scottish international and former Arsenal youth Sebastian Larsson.

There appears to be a real lack of quality in the final third, with no striker standing out. Ecuador international Christian Benitez is yet to prove his fitness and will have to find form quickly if he is to have a positive impact, while Marcus Bent, Cameron Jerome and James McFadden have struggled to prove their worth in the past. Kevin Phillips is a proven forward in the Premier League, but at the age of 36 will be used sparingly.

Birmingham scored 54 goals in winning promotion, only the 12th best return in the division. While they may have had the meanest defence, survival in the Premier League is largely built on goals and for this reason a season of struggle seems a certainty for the Blues.

Wolves are another side with previous Premier League experience, though that was for just one season, having finished bottom in 2003-04. However, they return to the top flight as clear champions, scoring 80 goals in the process, and possessing players with goalscoring ability and creativity.

The loss of Michael Kightly - a midfielder who was playing for non-league side Grays Athletic as recently as three years ago - to injury at the start of the season is a blow and they must hope the 23-year-old does not miss too much action. Kightly grabbed 19 assists and scored eight goals last term and as Wolves do not come up against one of the top four until November a good start is essential.

Former Manchester United striker Sylvan Ebanks-Blake will lead the line and seems a good bet to make the step up after scoring 50 goals in two seasons at Championship level. Granted, he has to prove it in the top flight but the signs are his pace and power will be a perfect fit. Coupled with new signing Kevin Doyle, who scored 13 Premier League goals in 2006-07 and 18 in the Championship last term, and the firepower is there for boss Mick McCarthy.

Burnley face the stiffest task of those promoted, and while they will point to the achievements of Hull and Stoke City last season it will be hard for them to repeat that success.

With promotion masterminded by manager Owen Coyle, who used 21 outfield players across the whole season compared with 28 at Wolves and 31 at Birmingham, Burnley arrive in the top flight as the smallest town ever to grace the Premier League. With a population of just 73,000, the entire town could fit into Old Trafford with room to spare.

Veteran defender Graham Alexander, who turns 38 in October, was the star of the promotion season. He started every single one of their 49 league encounters and weighed in with ten goals as a penalty specialist. Replicating that level of performance in the fast-paced Premier League with another year on the clock will be tough.

Striker Martin Paterson was the top scorer last term with 13, but the goals were spread around the team with a remarkable eight players scoring five or more goals.

The signings of Fernando Guerrero, Richard Eckersley, Brian Easton, David Edgar, Steven Fletcher and Tyrone Mears seem to be an exercise in adding numbers as only Fletcher could truly be considered as a player capable of slotting straight into a Premier League side.

After concentrating on quantity rather than quality, Coyle must surely look to spend further despite doubling the club's record transfer on the 22-year-old Fletcher at £3m. Burnley fans may make accusations of predictable journalism, but a long season beckons.

Finally, Stoke and their bid to avoid "Second Season Syndrome". Stoke's style, while hardly revolutionary, certainly shook up the Premier League's establishment last term. But as so many clubs have found, replicating that again when most teams have devised a gameplan to counter your tactics can be incredibly difficult.

The cauldron of noise that is the Britannia Stadium will remain in their favour, although with only Dean Whitehead brought in from Sunderland to bolster the midfield there is the danger that a lack of new blood could work against them.

Stoke may not have made many signings this summer, but Tony Pulis' transfer magic in January ensured the Potteries club were well clear of danger. Striker James Beattie, who scored seven goals, and midfielder Matthew Etherington were astute captures and both will prove crucial in the campaign ahead. Abdoulaye Faye, a rock at the back, will also look to ensure Pulis is again considered to be one of the managers of the season.


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