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Horncastle: Totti thriving at 40

Italian Serie A

Best of the rest

After another summer of bitter frustration at being unable to make the additions necessary to strengthen his squad, Martin O'Neill left Aston Villa just five days before the start of the Premier League season. The spectre of James Milner's departure to Manchester loomed over the club's pre-season preparations - something that O'Neill seemed willing to accept as long as he received assurances that a big money move would help fund the arrival of some new faces at Villa Park. Those promises never came, and so O'Neill took his leave.

The new man in charge at Villa will have the same core of players that the Northern Irishman had at his disposal last season; a solid defence, led by Richard Dunne, an enterprising midfield containing Ashley Young and the talismanic Milner - though both remain the subject of intense transfer speculation - and a forward line of Gabriel Agbonlahor and John Carew. Those same players threatened to break into the top four in the first half of the 2009-10 campaign, before a now customary stuttering second half put paid to those lofty ambitions.

A lack of strength in depth was to blame as the players faded badly - highlighted by an embarrassing 7-1 thrashing by Chelsea in March - and though they still have a first XI capable of beating any team in the league, they may be left wanting again in 2010-11, with Villa's new manager likely to share O'Neill's disillusionment with onwer Randy Lerner's failure to provide money for decent back up players. It could, however, be a breakthrough season for some of the club's youngsters - with Fabian Delph and Nathan Delfouneso likely to find first-team opportunities easier to come by.

A small squad was also the scourge of Everton last season, but should the Toffees avoid a repeat of serious injuries to key players - step forward Phil Jagielka and Mikel Arteta - they could well mount a challenge for the fourth place that they achieved in 2005 with a team containing less quality than the current crop. Similarly restrained by a small budget, David Moyes has stressed recently that it is of grave importance that the club give some ground in order to advance contract negotiations with Steven Pienaar, though hanging onto lynchpin Arteta has been an excellent piece of business. New signings Joao Silva and Jermaine Beckford are untested at this level, but the latter has enjoyed an impressive pre-season, along with highly-rated England Under-21 international Jack Rodwell.

It has been all change at Craven Cottage over the summer, and this season will likely be one of consolidation for Fulham after the beyond-their-wildest-dreams experience of Roy Hodgson's charges reaching the Europa League final in May. Hero Hodgson has departed, but fortunately for new boss Mark Hughes, Cottagers fans don't suffer from any delusions of grandeur and will be happy with a mid-table finish in 2010-11. Hughes faces a big challenge putting his own stamp on Fulham without endangering the team spirit that has been responsible for the club's remarkable improvement over the last couple of years. To do so, he will need some financial assistance from chairman Mohamed Al Fayed - if the budget hasn't already been squandered on the Welshman's salary - to bring some new faces to West London.

Had it not been for an outstanding start to Steve Bruce's tenure as Sunderland boss, the Wearsiders may have found themselves battling hard against relegation last season after going 15 games without a win between November and March. The goals of Darren Bent were a crucial commodity and Bruce will be banking on more of the same from his striker this time around.

The departure of captain Lorik Cana to Galatasary will leave a huge void as aside from his questionable disciplinary record, the Albania international was one of the club's most consistent performers last season. But in England youngster Lee Cattermole, they have a hugely talented enforcer who will thrive on the responsibility of being the driving force of the Wearsiders' midfield. Signing Paraguay World Cup star Christian Riveros before the finals was a great bit of business from Bruce, while Titus Bramble and Marcos Angeleri have been drafted in to shore up the defence.

It would have been difficult for Birmingham fans to have envisaged anything but a relegation dogfight ahead of them last August, but Alex McLeish engineered an incredible season for the club, mainly thanks to an impressive defensive record made possible by the goalkeepeing heroics of loanee Joe Hart and the unyielding centre-back partnership of Roger Johnson and Scott Dann. Hart has been replaced by fellow England stopper Ben Foster, while the pace and energy of Christian 'Chucho' Benitez has made way for the aerial threat of giant Serbia striker Nikola Zigic. As long as McLeish can encourage a retention of the excellent work ethic that helped them become such a surprise package last time around, Birmingham should repeat their mid-table finish in 2010-11.

Failing to have quite the same managerial impact as his Scottish counterpart, Gianfranco Zola was sacked after West Ham escaped relegation by the skin of their teeth last season. Had the demoted trio of Portsmouth, Burnley and Hull not been so terrible, the Hammers would have certainly been waving goodbye to their top-flight status and Zola was made a scapegoat by the club's owners. Avram Grant - who masterminded Portsmouth's run to the FA Cup final - was handed the reins at Upton Park after it emerged, rather surprisingly to those who had watched the dour-faced Israeli at Chelsea, that he was somewhat of a leader of men, with Pompey's stricken players regularly praising the motivational skills of their boss. With some shrewd summer signings, including World Cup players Pablo Barrera and Winston Reid, as well as experienced Premier League performers Thomas Hitzlsperger, Frederic Piquionne and Tal Ben Haim, Grant has added some much-needed depth to the squad and the future is looking a little brighter for the Hammers.

A tenth-place finish in 2009-10 left many people wondering, "how did Blackburn manage that?" A 5-0 defeat to Chelsea, a 6-2 loss to Arsenal and four 3-0 reverses across the season don't make for great reading but all were away from home. At Ewood Park, Sam Allardyce's side suffered just three defeats, gaining 36 of their 50 league points thanks to an impressive home record.

More of the same will be required in the new campaign but Rovers will have to so it with the same personnel. Usually one of the league's most astute wheeler dealers, Allardyce has had a surprisingly quiet summer in the transfer market, and despite being in desperate need of a proven striker - David Dunn was their top scorer with nine goals last season - the Blackburn boss has chosen to put his faith on inexperienced Manchester United youngster Mame Biram Diouf.

A proposed takeover of the club by Indian entrepreneur Ahasan Ali Syed would surely be welcomed by the manager, though he showed at Newcastle that he is often better working on a budget than with a generous transfer kitty.


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