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50-50: Liverpool vs. Real Madrid

Champions League about an hour ago
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Aug 10, 2011

A season at the crossroads

Full of intrigue, but by no means vintage in quality, would seem an accurate summation of the 2010-11 Premier League season. Allegations that this was the worst Manchester United title-winning side of all the eleven since the reformation of English football persist, though their winning margin of nine points was their best in a decade. It barely said much for their rivals.

Kevin Keegan gives ESPN his predictions

• ESPNsoccernet's predictions A summer bereft of a major tournament for the European nations gave rise to a vacuum into which rabid transfer speculation was only too glad to step. Some of the purported major deals remain undone at time of writing but names like Sergio Aguero, Gervinho, Romelu Lukaku, and David De Gea have arrived from Europe, though the majority of deals have been intra-mural in the Premier League. Manchester United and Liverpool have kept their business largely homespun with the latter the most parochial in their recruitment. Phil Jones and Ashley Young were coveted by both but chose Old Trafford, while Jordan Henderson, Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam arrived at Liverpool with similarly high prices but also a lot to prove, and with less leeway in which to achieve it. Liverpool's stated target, according to their owner, is the Champions League for 2012-13, by finishing fourth or better. Kenny Dalglish, in his first full season at the Anfield helm in twenty, has set his sights higher, with a tilt at the title his expectation. The champions themselves have a new look, as veterans in Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, Edwin Van Der Sar, Wes Brown and John O'Shea - almost half a team - take their leave after thousands of games of service. De Gea, Young and Jones take their place alongside another group of young players in Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley, Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans, Rafael and Fabio who are already familiar with life under Sir Alex Ferguson. A manager approaching 70 begins yet another process of reinvention from a position of strength. Chelsea's summer spend largely went on a 33-year-old, but this was no veteran campaigner to add nous to their on-field playing staff. Andre Villas-Boas is Europe's hottest coaching property, recruited from FC Porto in a retreading of history, though comparisons to his predecessor and one-time mentor Jose Mourinho look trite already. Lukaku and Oriol Romeu share their manager's gift of youth, though Villas-Boas must solve an age-old problem in that the spine of his team retains a Mourinho-era look to it, with the added conundrum of getting the best from Fernando Torres, a £50 million striker in danger of misfit status. Manchester City's development continues, with twin objectives achieved of a trophy win after 35 years of waiting and the Champions League welcomed to Eastlands, or the Etihad Campus if you will. Roberto Mancini's team look likely to remain methodical, with the playing shackles remaining tight, perhaps too tight for a club that has spent £500 million or so. Aguero is a galactico signing, though is likely to replace Carlos Tevez, whose usual two-year cycle at his club is at an end. City's squad depth has been augmented further, yet there remain too many residual players from previous eras. The presence - for now - of Tevez, Emmanuel Adebayor, Craig Bellamy and Roque Santa Cruz remind of a club that buys high and struggles to re-sell on the same level, with potential ramifications for Financial Fairplay regulations being eased in by UEFA. For now, City remain the big spenders, with further recruits to follow and expectations climbing. Of all of the aforementioned managers, it is Mancini whose employment prospects look most in danger should his team falter. Arsene Wenger could hardly be said to be at risk of the axe at Arsenal yet his reign is at a definite crossroads. A trophy drought has extended to such a length that it barely needs mention for fear of lapsing into cliché, while a top-four position looks as precarious as it has since his arrival in 1996. The non-addition - so far - of an experienced goalkeeper, a hardman defender, a midfielder of grit and a clinical finisher are either evidence of brinkmanship or misplaced faith in a group that has not yet delivered. In Arsene, the trust is slipping. The additions of Gervinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, two players in positions already blessed with personnel, do not look the solution to problems not addressed for years on end. With Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri surely exiting, a teenager in Jack Wilshere already looks over-burdened with responsibility. Across North London, Tottenham Hotspur are another in a summer of stasis, with their efforts concentrated on retention rather than recruitment. The Champions League adventure was cherished last season, but will need to be revisited if the likes of Luka Modric and Gareth Bale are to stay on. A strikeforce that failed them does not look enough for a return to the top four. The ambitions of that six are matched by a wealth of resources that the hopefuls cannot match. David Moyes' Everton ceiling looks seventh place, with little fresh blood coming in, and inconsistency ever the enemy. Sunderland have added experience to their squad , spending the Jordan Henderson money on ten players in an attempt to arrest the second-half slump that has blighted both seasons under Steve Bruce, a manager whose constant need for recruitment may cost him his job if that pattern is repeated. Aston Villa's last season was wrecked before it even began, a fate further deepened by the ill-advised appointment of Gerard Houllier. Alex McLeish, despite a Carling Cup win, is a man tarred with a Blue brush and a relegation to boot. Should his team begin slowly, then he is sure to be under heavy fan pressure, if supported by Randy Lerner, a man now learning that owning a football club is a poor guarantee of popularity. Mike Ashley could perhaps offer advice there, though his detachment from Newcastle United supporters seems wilful. The core of a team who won promotion and smashed Sunderland 5-1 is gone, with only pseudo-philosopher Joey Barton remaining (for now) as a dissenter. Alan Pardew's summer arrivals have a Gallic air to them, but a whiff of cheapness too. Stoke City will remember last season as special, despite the disappointment of losing the FA Cup final. Their efforts in the Europa League may drain them, should the group stage be reached, but Tony Pulis will hope to continue his establishment of a Premier League force who are difficult to face at the best of times. Bolton Wanderers' Owen Coyle is flush with confidence in his abilities yet may be robbed of a spine for his team when Gary Cahill makes his expected departure to follow Johan Elmander out of the door, while Stuart Holden and Lee Chung-Yung remain victims to long-term injury. Martin Jol's brand of Dutch bonhomie is back in the Premier League, with some Europa venturing of his own to do, but he must do so with a Fulham team that looks rather familiar. Roy Hodgson, once the manager of that group, meanwhile, will hope to continue the revival of both West Bromwich Albion and his own career, after that ill-starred few months at Liverpool. West Brom look set fair to consolidate this season, as a group of contenders for relegation look far less equipped to escape a dogfight. Wolverhampton Wanderers have added defensive class in Roger Johnson but goals need to be found if a last-day escape is not to be required again. How long can Roberto Martinez and Wigan Athletic retain their status? Every season sees a star depart, and Charles N'Zogbia is the latest mainstay to lessen the depth of an already shallow squad. As in previous seasons, Wigan may be saved by a lack of quality among their immediate peers, with Lancastrian rivals Blackburn Rovers looking the most endangered of the previous incumbents. The near-£20 million banked for Phil Jones has not been reinvested, with Indian owners Venky's publicly admitting that the finances of the club are parlous. Steve Kean's first showings as a Premier League manager were unpromising at best, his media utterances unconvincing and his statements about aiming his team at the Champions League frankly laughable. Rovers may provide an escape hatch for one of the three promoted teams who would seem to lack stickability. Queen's Park Rangers may have wealthy owners and eye-watering ticket prices but seemingly little interest in furnishing their 'boutique club' with guaranteed talent. Of Neil Warnock's recruits, DJ Campbell proved his striking class in Blackpool's losing battle last term but Kieron Dyer and Danny Gabbidon have the ailing appearance of drinkers in the last-chance saloon. Swansea City's return to the top flight after nearly 30 years adds romance, and a rare visitation to the Principality of Wales, but Brendan Rogers' clear self-confidence faces its toughest test of resolve. Norwich City are a welcome return to a division in which they were a force in its infancy but Paul Lambert arrives with a squad that has conquered League One and the Championship in successive seasons. Their summer recruits have the look of players who may flourish in either of those divisions while Premier class may evade them. It all adds up to a division with questions to be answered about all its protagonists, from the champions' bedding-in of a rookie goalkeeper and replacing of the old guard to Swansea's carrying of the hopes of the Welsh nation. The summer may not have seen an influx to guarantee an increase in quality across the board but the intrigue is sure to continue.

  • ESPNsoccernet's predictions John Brewin Premier League top four: Man Utd, Liverpool, Man City, Chelsea
    Premier League relegation: Blackburn, Wigan, Swansea
    FA Cup: Man City
    Carling Cup: Arsenal
    Europa League: FC Porto
    Champions League: Real Madrid
    Player of the Year: Wayne Rooney
    Young Player of the Year: Chris Smalling
    Martin Williamson Premier League top four: Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea, Liverpool
    Premier League relegation: Blackburn, Norwich, Swansea
    FA Cup: Man Utd
    Carling Cup: Chelsea
    Europa League: Lottery
    Champions League: Real Madrid
    Player of the Year: Wayne Rooney
    Young Player of the Year: Jack Wilshere
    Jon Carter Premier League top four: Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal
    Premier League relegation: Wolves, Wigan, Swansea
    FA Cup: Chelsea
    Carling Cup: Man City
    Europa League: Benfica
    Champions League: Barcelona
    Player of the Year: David Silva
    Young Player of the Year: Jack Wilshere Dale Johnson Premier League top four: Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea, Liverpool
    Premier League relegation: Bolton, Blackburn, Swansea
    FA Cup: Liverpool
    Carling Cup: Tottenham
    Europa League: Paris Saint-Germain
    Champions League: Chelsea
    Player of the Year: Wayne Rooney
    Young Player of the Year: Tom Cleverley Dom Raynor Premier League top four: Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea, Liverpool
    Premier League relegation: Wigan, Swansea, Norwich
    FA Cup: Arsenal
    Carling Cup: Tottenham
    Europa League: PSG
    Champions League: Barcelona
    Player of the Year: Wayne Rooney
    Young Player of the Year: Seamus Coleman
    Robin Hackett Premier League top four: Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea, Liverpool
    Premier League relegation: Wigan, Blackburn, Norwich
    FA Cup: Chelsea
    Carling Cup: Arsenal
    Europa League: Roma
    Champions League: Barcelona
    Player of the Year: David Silva
    Young Player of the Year: Jack Wilshere Mark Lomas Premier League top four: Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal
    Premier League relegation: QPR, Swansea, Blackburn
    FA Cup: Tottenham
    Carling Cup: Chelsea
    Europa League: Lille
    Champions League: Real Madrid
    Player of the Year: Nani
    Young Player of the Year: Daniel Sturridge James Dall Premier League top four: Man Utd, Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal.
    Premier League relegation: Swansea, Blackburn, Newcastle.
    FA Cup: Chelsea.
    Carling Cup: Arsenal.
    Europa League: Paris Saint-Germain.
    Champions League: Barcelona.
    Player of the Year: Sergio Aguero.
    Young Player of the Year: Daniel Sturridge.
    Rob Brooks Premier League top four: Man City, Man Utd, Chelsea, Arsenal
    Premier League relegation: Swansea, Blackburn, Norwich
    FA Cup: Manchester United
    Carling Cup: Arsenal
    Europa League: Paris Saint-Germain
    Champions League: Real Madrid
    Player of the Year: Sergio Aguero
    Young Player of the Year: Jack Wilshere Richard Jolly Premier League top four: Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal.
    Premier League relegation: Swansea, QPR, Blackburn.
    FA Cup: Chelsea.
    Carling Cup: Liverpool.
    Europa League: Roma.
    Champions League: Real Madrid.
    Player of the Year: Wayne Rooney.
    Young Player of the Year: Josh McEachran.
    Kevin Palmer Premier League top four: Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea, Spurs
    Premier League relegation: Swansea, Norwich,Wigan
    FA Cup: Liverpool
    Carling Cup: Man City
    Europa League: Arsenal
    Champions League: Real Madrid
    Player of the Year: Sergio Aguero
    Young Player of the Year: David De Gea
    Chris Murphy Premier League top four: Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal.
    Premier League relegation: Swansea, Norwich, Wigan.
    FA Cup: Liverpool
    Carling Cup: Tottenham
    Europa League: Sevilla.
    Champions League: Barcelona.
    Player of the Year: Nani.
    Young Player of the Year: Chris Smalling.
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