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Aug 10, 2009

Far more to Premier League than Fergie vs Rafa

Welcome to ESPN Soccernet's guide to the new Barclays Premier League season.


This might just be a historic season in the English Premier League - and not just for ESPN. Should Manchester United and Liverpool shoot it out for the title as they did in 2008-9 then these bitter rivals will be battling to be the first team to reach 19 titles. Last season saw United knock Liverpool off, to place it in the colourful terms of Sir Alex Ferguson, "their f*****g perch" as English football's most successful club in domestic league football. Now, United can make it four in a row for the first time ever, while Liverpool can end 20 years without a league title.

But to see season 2009-10 as the red teams of Merseyside and Manchester attempting to construct loftier perches is to ignore a number of variables. Before the other members of the league's elite are brought into the picture it must be said that both of last season's top two have suffered troubled close seasons.

United have lost World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina striker Carlos Tevez. The first left as expected, the latter with rancour for his former paymasters. On the face of it, neither have been replaced like for like. In their place have arrived Antonio Valencia, Gabriel Obertan and, infamously, Michael Owen, a trio that bear the hallmarks of risky business. Either unwilling or unable to spend the £90m banked for Ronaldo plus some unwanted reserve players, Ferguson claims to have withdrawn from the transfer market in protest at the high prices. That seems somewhat rich considering the amount he received for one player.

Rafael Benitez, a sworn enemy, has his own worries on transfer business. Having staged a coup d'etat to remove Rick Parry from the boardroom and be in control of buying and selling, he has expressed his frustration at the cupboard being bare. Glen Johnson arrived for a sizeable sum as did Alberto Aquilani, for £20m of the £30m paid for Xabi Alonso by Real Madrid, who also picked up Alvaro Arbeloa for considerably less. Two in, two out, but the replacement of the much lamented Sami Hyypia has been harder for Benitez, for whom the financial concerns of owners Gillett and Hicks have tied his hands. Benitez enters the season with his fingers, and probably much else besides, crossed about the fitness of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres.

And it's a similar story for both Chelsea and Arsenal. New Blues boss Carlo Ancelotti has been able to add just Yuri Zhirkov of note to a highly experienced and still very powerful squad while Arsene Wenger has been flogging off his African stars to Manchester City as youth continues to be favoured at the Emirates. Chelsea may look like old stagers, yet the spending of years gone by leaves them with a group of players able to withstand the rigours of a chase for honours

It is City who provide the burning question of the pre-season; can their free spending bridge what looked to be the great divide in the Premier League?

A cool £78m says they might just do it. And, despite the failure to tempt John Terry, much of that cash has been spent on capturing players from what look to be their immediate competitors. Tevez's arrival at Eastlands has already been used to cock a snook at United while Arsenal have received £41m for two African players who may or may not have seen better days while Aston Villa's Gareth Barry has been prised away.

Everton may have resisted several City overtures for Joleon Lescott but David Moyes has not been able to add to a squad that last season made the best of threadbare resources.

At Tottenham, wheeler-dealer Harry Redknapp may be looking longingly at City's spending as his own squad looks top-heavy. He posseses a wealth of attacking options yet has an injury-prone backline. That said, his transfer business may not yet be complete. In fact, a combination of his and Daniel Levy's previous record almost confirms that.

Below that lies a morass of what ifs and maybes. Roy Hodgson's Fulham were the surprise package of last term so cannot assume that role this season. In any case, their European ambitions in the newly-branded Europa League may preclude a strong domestic campaign. Across London, Gianfranco Zola won hearts at West Ham with a season that made fans forget the club's parlous financial position. Can he repeat that success while the club's future position looks no clearer?

The Hammers are by no means the only club in financial schtuck. Portsmouth's position is more troubling. The players that won them the FA Cup are leaving in droves with replacements in short supply. A small squad and questions over the club's ownership point to a doomed campaign.

There, most expect them to be joined by Hull City, who hung on to a second season in the top division by the thinnest of margins. Phil Brown's descent last season from media darling to shunned loudmouth matched the performances of his team and he has been unable to attract much in the way of fresh talent to Humberside, perhaps because of his team's late season, maybe because of Hull's location but also, it is suggested, because of the manager himself.

Last season saw Tony Pulis achieve survival with comfort and calm at Stoke City yet that serves as no guarantee for 2009-10. Again, Pulis has struggled, or at least delayed, adding to a squad that surprised many. He will not be able to offer that element this season. Second seasons are rarely as easy as the first for clubs of Stoke's stature.

Lancastrian football is in vogue. Eight teams hail from the old county of Lancashire but away from Manchester and Merseyside there are four teams with similar aims. Burnley's Owen Coyle has returned his milltown club to the big league for the first time since 1975. His team, made of Football League veterans and players who previously failed the Premier League grade, will have to show all the cup-fighting skills they showed in the League Cup, FA Cup and play-offs last season if they are to achieve survival. Should they do so, they can provide the good news story of the season.

Historic rivals Blackburn flirted with the drop last season before the arrival of Sam Allardyce who has made a team in his own image. He will hope to follow the curve of his days at Bolton, where Gary Megson continues to play a game of Allardyce-esque football that achieves results but wins few admirers. Over at Wigan, Roberto Martinez joins Owen Coyle in being a Premier League managerial rookie and will want to be able to play the passing game that he espoused at Swansea City. That will need to be matched with a strong defence, as West Brom found out last season.

As a former Latics player, Martinez was the sentimental choice to replace Steve Bruce at Wigan and the native north-easterner will be taking his contacts book of Latin American players with him, to the detriment of his former club. A permanent successor for Roy Keane at Sunderland, Bruce has a comparatively large budget that could make sure that this is not another battle of survival for the region's remaining top division club.

Bruce may well be casting a not-so envious eye on another of his old clubs in Birmingham City, where Alex McLeish is a manager seemingly under threat despite a successful promotion campaign. With Barry Ferguson and Lee Bowyer in their ranks, Birmingham could be the bad boys of the division. Joining them in elevation last season were Wolves, back after a five-year absence for only their second season in the Premier League. Promotion specialist Mick McCarthy was similarly versed in relegations while with Sunderland and has plenty to prove.


My colleagues and I have tried to develop the various themes that await in the new season in the articles you can see linked in the right-hand column. We hope you enjoy our guide to the new season. Below are our predictions for 2009-10. Feel free to add your own in the comments section and we can all laugh at ourselves when we reconvene in May.

John Brewin:

Premier League top four: Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City
Premier League relegation: Portsmouth, Hull City, Birmingham City
FA Cup: Liverpool
Carling Cup: Manchester City
Europa League: Rubin Kazan
Champions League: Real Madrid
Player of the Year: Fernando Torres

Dale Johnson:

Premier League top four: Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City
Premier League relegation: Burnley, Portsmouth, Hull City
FA Cup: Everton
League Cup: Manchester United
Europa League: Werder Bremen
Champions League: Chelsea
Player of the Year: Wayne Rooney

Jon Carter

Premier League top four: Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal
Premier League relegation: Burnley, Portsmouth, Wolves
FA Cup: Chelsea
League Cup: Manchester City
Europa League: Villarreal
Champions League: Real Madrid
Player of the Year: Fernando Torres

Dominic Raynor:

Premier League top four: Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal
Premier League relegation: Burnley, Hull City, Portsmouth
FA Cup: Manchester City
League Cup: Tottenham Hotspur
Europa League: Twente Enschede
Champions League: Chelsea
Player of the Year: Fernando Torres

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