Before even a ball had been officially kicked in anger many preliminary Premier League predictions were made. Now with 2008 having paved way for 2009 and the season finale within sight; let’s look back on what was written in those heady of summer days, evaluate the first half of the season and make some new predictions to accommodate the spiraling New Year.
About the selection, numbers and written assessments below: The first number represents the initial ranking of the team in the pre-season predictions. The second is the actual position of the club in question; at the turn of the year. Finally, the third number represents the new prediction for the Premier League clubs’ final positions. In the text follows first the prediction and reasoning from back in August, next follows a comment on what has happened to the team so far and of course the new prediction for 2009.
Rank #4, Position #5, Prediction #5.
“The departures of midfield generals Hleb and Flamini must have hurt Arsene and his plans to topple the top two. Now, defending a Champions League spot looks like it will be a harder struggle than Arsenal are used to. Whilst there is no denying the abilities of the squad in defense and attack, the midfield looks threadbare and key injuries here, might even cost the team a Champions League place for next year – if the capital team are really unlucky. However, the teams below the top four don’t yet seem ready to take the potential opportunity to outgun the young guns of Arsenal. The arrivals of Vela, Nasri and Ramsey, does however mean there is a trio of shining rays on the horizon, and Arsenal’s future looks as bright as ever before under the guile and guiding hands of Wenger. This year looks like it will be a re-building year at the Emirates Stadium.”
I predicted it might turn out to be a struggle to keep that valuable Champions League spot – and that it certainly has been. Not helped either by injuries, or the iffy refereeing they have been subjected to, Arsenal are nonetheless still in the game. A couple of transfer infusions; not least finding someone to help out while Fabrega’s remains on the injury list, may help the Gunner cause considerably. Still, Aston Villa has proven a hard nut to crack and could very well dislodge Arsenal from the top four this season.
Rank #6, Position #4, Prediction #4.
“The Midlands outfit, has invested into its squad and looks likely to repeat last year’s heroics, although the many signings might need time to settle and gel with the current crop of players at the club. Captain Gareth Barry’s flirting with Liverpool can only harm the club and O’Neill, while a wily schemer and charismatic leader, may have come out on the wrong end of that proposed deal. However, he commands a strappingly up and coming side that will press for European qualification once again this season.”
Indeed pressing for European qualification they are, but not UEFA-cup any longer, now the sights are set on Champions League play. And really, there is no reason to believe they couldn’t achieve that. Gareth Barry is once again settled in the Villa jersey and Martin O’Neill made some late signings in the summer – to add much needed depth to his ranks. A couple of more signings could truly make them competitive in every compartment. If O’Neill can continue to keep his forces together and playing with such intensity, tactical competence and determination – they can definitely budge a shaky Arsenal and take that 4th spot.
Rank #11, Position #19, Prediction #14.
“Teamwork will be the mantra at Blackburn this season after losing England star David Bentley to Tottenham and failing to significantly bolster the squad with new blood. The managerial change also looks likely to affect the team. No offense to Paul Ince, but while he is learning the ropes in the Premier League, his team might suffer from that inexperience. The patience of the Blackburn board with their rookie manager may also be tested during the campaign. Still, Blackburn remains a force just outside of the top-teams in England and can expect to be here-abouts in the final table of May.”
We all saw what happened to the Paul Ince experiment, vis-à-vis results and board patience. Sam Allardyce has made a bright start as the new manager and will look to bolster the squad this month. It is needed. Although there are definitely a few good players in the Rover fold – that should be able to produce more than they have shown thus far. With ‘Big Sam’ at the helm, a rise in fortunes would perhaps be well predicted for the close season. But it will probably take some time to regain the players’ confidence and getting away from that dreaded relegation drop. Once that is achieved however, Blackburn may finding themselves sailing up the standings.
Rank #16, Position #11, Prediction #15.
“Look set for another tough fight against dooming relegation this year. While Elmander is an accomplished signing, it may not be enough to propel them to early safety. It will be a scrap, but Bolton have shown before they have what it takes to squeeze out those last crucial points to stay up and will probably be happy with that achievement at the end of the day. Probably one of the most unspectacular sides of the league, but they fight a spirited battle – as the underdogs they are.”
While having strung together some victories of late and hauling themselves up the standings, the aim must still be anchored safely around survival. They do look better equipped to realize that aim – than what would have been predicted in August – but there is still a long way to go and much can change along the way. Would expect Bolton to be here-abouts, when the fog lifts from the fields of battle.
Rank #1, Position #2, Prediction #3.
“Have been unusually quiet so far in the silly season merry-go-round, and by enlisting the services of Brazilian World Cup winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, Chelsea look set for another crack at the title. Last seasons problematic right back spot has been filled with competent Portuguese full back Bosingwa, while fellow countryman Deco is set with the task of injecting a strong and competent, but rather bland and uncreative, midfield with some vision and flair. Chelsea seem to have incisively addressed last years weaknesses, which allowed Manchester United to pinch in and clinch the major trophies of the season, under the nose of not-so-bemused owner Roman Abramo-rich. A title tilt seems to be on the cards this season.”
While a title tilt is still much on the Chelsea players’ mind, all things have not been smooth for Scolari’s charges. Bosingwa and Deco have fitted in well in club and league, but the injury bug has so far put a stick in the Chelsea wheels. If the team can stay fit they can challenge for any title. But, they may need some strengthening in January to accomplish the lofty expectations. The prediction here is that Liverpool and Man United will eclipse Chelsea as they seem stronger in-depth and should be able to hold off a Blues challenge – with things looking the way they do at the moment.
Rank #8, Position #6, Prediction #6.
“After being the most likely looking team to break into the top four the last couple of seasons, Everton might be set to struggle in the coming years unless player investments are made. If it is a sign of financial struggles or complacency, it is always worrisome to the fans when a team is selling rather than buying. Everton keep the core of the squad intact, but may nonetheless struggle to keep pace with above mentioned movers and shakers in the “Pretenders to the Throne” category, unless some spectacular movement in the transfer market emerges later this month.”
Player investments were made at the very last minutes of the trade deadline – and it does change the calculations. Especially Fellaini has been an injection of grit, determination and sheer quality in to the Everton squad. Depth is still a problem, but David Moyes has some young talents to use if in need. Some more signings may be needed, but even without them Everton have a highly competitive squad and should be able to keep hold of the position they occupy at this point in time.
Rank #15, Position #9, Prediction #13.
“After the relegation scrap of last season, I’m sure Fulham fans would be very happy to be kept out of the fight for survival this time around. Roy Hodgson surprised everyone by keeping a distinctly bleak Fulham side in the Premier League and now looks set to rebuild his squad from the bottom up. Big summer changes, most of them looking like fine captures indeed, herald a new beginning at Craven Cottage. With so many new signings however, there might be a time of adjustment needed before the team starts to really gel and perform. Fulham could very well end up the surprise package of the season if all goes well, but safety from relegation will be the realistic aim.”
As expected, Fulham have been performing better this season under Roy Hodgson’s experienced tutelage. They do look capable of being the surprise of the season still – having been playing above expectations so far. But it is a close race and a couple of defeats could see them losing ground to some of the other side’s; who look set to bolster their squads in January. A mid-table position would be a good achievement and perhaps a more realistic one than the current 9th place in the standings.
Rank #3, Position #1, Prediction #1.
“Whilst there has been a flurry of transfer activity on the Red side of Mersey (unlike on the Blue banks of Eve), not many are of the high profile variety that instills overly wide cheers of excitement. Robbie Keane is a proven Premier League “veteran” that looks likely to link-up with star striker Torres. And while the duo together with Captain Fantastic, Steven Gerrard, will make a dangerous offensive trio, other players don’t quite look like Chelsea or Man United material. A competent and competitive team overall; they will struggle to break into the top two, but might finally dislodge a drained Arsenal from the medal podium.”
It seems the Liverpool appetite for Premier League success may have underestimated. Having not won it since 1990, they are desperate to do so this year, and so far – so good. They top the table with the promises of 2009 to the front. Enthused by Steven Gerrard, the team has managed large portions without Fernando Torres; but can they do without Gerrard – if he is convicted of charges involving a night club brawl? There are a lot of ifs there, but the struggles of Benitez, Gerrard and Torres, may actually help to gel the team in its determination – and actually carry them all the way to the league crown.
Rank #19, Position #7, Prediction #17.
“Hull are desperately trying to bring in Premier League talent to the club, but this is easier said than done. They look like a decent team, but will undoubtedly struggle the season through. Surviving would almost be too good to be true, although not impossible. More likely however, is that the new boys will need time to get all new signings to gel and play as a team. In the meantime, their Premier League status may be slowly eroding from underneath their feet.”
Well, getting the team to gel was certainly never an issue it turned out. Having shot up the standings with early victories and some impressive scalps, Hull has slowly started to see the ground erode beneath them. Reality is catching up and the fairytale story has been halted. Still, they find themselves in a very respectable 7th position, but the relegation mire is only a few games at the rear and Hull must return to winning ways – if they are not to be dragged back down again. January signings will be a must, and will likely be what decides the clubs Premier League fortunes. However, the points assembled so far may be what will keep the team up in the end. Do not be surprised to find Hull at this end of the table come the end of the season.
Rank #9, Position #13, Prediction #7.
“Are unlikely to reach the envisioned heights of Mr. Shinawatra, but should still be able to improve on last years points tally and duplicate its highest peak position in Premier League history, nevertheless. Jo is a quality signing and young players are coming through the fold, making it an interesting City season to come, but significant investment is yet needed to reach Mr. Shinawatra’s floating Blue castle in the sky. Off-the-field drama could also be a potential downfall of the club, but this remains conjecture.”
The events at the Blue side of Manchester could hardly have been anticipated and have certainly turned all predictions upside down. Set to unleash its untold resources of black gold onto the football scene – it surely must lead to a change in City fortunes. Mark Hughes has still to prove himself at the helm, but has been shown extraordinary faith by the owner’s and with their backing in the transfer market – City can become a force to be reckoned with. Wayne Bridge would help smooth out the most glaring Achilles heel of the team – the troublesome left back spot. And with a projected four more quality signings, some exciting times at the City of Manchester Stadium might be expected. Had they not been so hopelessly unbalanced in the first half of the season; they could even have seriously threatened the top teams.
Rank #2, Position #3, Prediction #2.
“The protracted transfer saga of Cristiano Ronaldo can only have hurt the club, but moreover the lack of transfer activity might give their London rivals the slight edge they need for a potentially successful title challenge. The lack of injection of new ideas into the Red Devils squad may not lead to any revolutionary downturn in fortune. Quite the opposite, United are likely to push Chelsea all the way down the line for domestic and European glory, but will it be the Reds that come up short this season? Of course, there is yet room for squad changes and Berbatov or any of the other rumored high profile player transfers, would perhaps change the equation to a final United advantage, although of course, this still remains to be seen.”
Certainly it could still be argued that the Ronaldo saga hurt Man United, and together with his summer injury, might help account for the slow Red Devil start to the season. Berbatov did indeed join the United side of Manchester, but it took him a while to find his role in the team, as would perhaps be expected. Manchester United still look strong and with a couple of games in hand could quickly move in to second and start their title challenge for real. It would be projected that they do indeed put in a strong claim for the throne, but can they really match the Liverpool hunger for the honour? The prediction here – is that they can’t.
Rank #18, Position #17, Prediction #18.
“Gareth Southgate’s charges look likely strugglers this season and if big signing Afonso Alves keeps misfiring, the Boro fans might be in for a very bumpy ride indeed. Boro look especially light in the midfield and attacking compartments, despite new signings Digard and Emnes. Maybe this will be the year that the Premier League torch is extinguished in the heart of Middlesbrough?”
None withstanding that Middlesbrough have been looking better, than I would have expected at the beginning of the season; they still seem to find themselves embroiled in the relegation battle. They will continue to have to rely heavily on Stewart Downing and Mido for a successful conclusion of the year. Gareth Southgate has already stated he does not want to either buy or sell this transfer window. While he’ll have a battle on his hand fending off interest from Downing in particular, fact is he could do with some new blood in the team. They do continue to look drained of creative ideas and have a hard time beating the teams they need to beat – to survive. Meanwhile they continue to play well against the top teams. Middlesbrough has the ability to climb up in the table, but I just don’t see it happening under the directions of Southgate.
Rank #10, Position #14, Prediction #15.
“Newcastle seem like the embodiment of Premier League mediocrity and unrealistic fan expectations. Reported financial difficulties won’t help the cause either, although Newcastle seem to have made a couple of shrewd moves in the transfer market, making the team potentially much more competitive than in previous seasons. While a mid-table finish looks most likely, the team has the potential to challenge for Europe if the injury bug is held at bay and all players pull in the same direction.”
Getting everyone, including board and manager, pulling in the right direction has indeed been a rare commodity in Newcastle so far. Undoubtedly it has impacted the ‘Castle season, and may very well continue to do so. Staying out of relegation harm would be the first priority, keeping its best players the second. A time of rebuilding under the wheel of Kinnear will be expected and perhaps also necessary. These things have a tendency to take some time however and Newcastle might do well to brace themselves for continued struggles meanwhile.
Rank #7, Position #12, Prediction #11.
“The South Coast team look strong once again and whilst there may not be a celebrated FA-Cup repeat of glory, they look set to challenge for European qualification. As long as Mr. Wheel and Deal himself, Harry Redknapp, remains at the wheel – Portsmouth fans can look ahead with some confidence toward this and coming seasons. They may struggle initially with a old/new-look 4-4-2 tactic, but with a strong midfield backbone and oozing physical resilience throughout the team, they will remain a formidable foe to defeat, home and away, for any team.”
Harry Redknapp has indeed departed, and together with the loss of arguably Pompey’s best player – Lassana Diarra to Real Madrid – the South Coast club don’t quite look as daunting before. Tony Adams is a competent replacement and can probably take Portsmouth forward, but it may yet take some time before he can truly put his mark on the team. Meanwhile the expectations must be lowered and a mid-table position would not be bad at all – all things considered.
Rank #20, Position #18, Prediction #19.
“The newcomers look set to become this year’s Derby, struggling to get a point to their name. Probably a better team than the foremost mentioned, (but then who isn’t?), Stoke surviving this enormous gulf of class between the Championship and Premier League looks wholly unlikely. A swift return back to the Championship seems rather more probable. The signings so far, headed by misfiring former Royal Dave Kitson, fail to impress. Although there is still room to try and rectify this initial letdown, by splashing the cash on Premiership quality players, it seems a pipedream that Stoke have bundles of cash stacked up at the back of the Britannia Stadium somewhere. Looks like a case of watch and learn, and try not to self-implode as spectacularly as Derby did.”
Stoke have stood their ground so far and are certainly not the pushovers as was perhaps feared before the season kicked off. A few January signings might even help propel Stoke to safety, but more likely is that they will continue to remain embroiled in the relegation struggle come April/May. Whilst “Delapomania” may have set in at the Britannia Stadium, one would expect the fellow Premier League teams to start counteracting those simple ploys; and it remains to be seen if Tony Pulis has any more tricks up his sleeve. Likely is he‘ll need them all – if Stoke are not to be a Championship club again come next season.
Rank #13, Position #15, Prediction #9.
“Roy Keane continues his unrelenting re-equipping of Sunderland, adding a few North London components to his fighting machine. Look set to take the step out of the relegation zone, but to expect fireworks or artistry might be taking things too far. Will yet be looking to add more players to illuminate the Stadium of Light, but Keane looks like he is on the right track anyway.”
Admittedly this prediction has a bit of a ‘hunch’ feeling to it. But, despite the departure of Roy Keane, new manager Ricky Sbragia has an aura of capability and aptitude surrounding him, and could very well be the right man to take Sunderland forward. With so many egos in the dressing room he’ll certainly be put to the test during the remainder of the campaign. It also remains to be seen if Sunderland still has any cash to splash – or if it was all used up in August. Nonetheless, Sunderland has assembled a very competent team and should be ready to climb up the standings. A top 10 position is no impossibility and well within range; due to the tight table at the half way point of the season.
Rank #5, Position: #16, Prediction #12.
“Spurs look set to leave mid-table mediocrity this season and return to the positions just outside of the big four. Juande Ramos astutely guided the team to Carling Cup glory last season and during the pre-season has overhauled a patchy looking team; adding youth and technical abilities to the mix. A fifth place would be a considerable achievement for the club, but all looks well and lively in North London this year, and while it might be stretching the issue, why not? Maybe Tottenham even could press fierce rivals Arsenal all the way for a Champions League spot, it actually doesn’t seem impossible. New signings Bostock, Giovani, Gomes, Modric and Bentley are all top-notch. The club is also much still in the market to add to their Spurs, while Berbatov looks United bound.”
So much for leaving mid-table mediocrity and top-notch new signings… For a while it even looked like Juande Ramos might have Spurs relegated to the Championship. Since then experienced schemer Harry Redknapp has entered the scene and steadied the ship. It looks however like he’ll have to use some of that legendary transfer guile in January to get the Hotspurs soaring to the heights they and their fans would expect. A turbulent season so far, but there is no reason to believe Redknapp can’t do his magic and make Tottenham competitive again. A mid-table position doesn’t seem like such an unattractive proposition any more…
Rank #17, Position #20, Prediction #20.
“West Bromwich is the proverbial jo-jo team, getting relegated and promoted back within a season or two. Look like the most likely to survive of the promoted teams, but it will be a fight to the very last round. Manager Tony Mowbray looks like a competent boss able to get out that last ounce of bravado of his men, which may very well be the Albion’s salvation when the smoke clears.”
Having grabbed a couple victories of late West Bromwich have halted the slide and regained contact with the teams just above them. However, Tony Mowbray and his men will be required to find some January bargains if they want to stay in the Premier League. So far the team has displayed some grit and determination, but also a distinctive lack of skill and goal scoring prowess. If this is not rectified W.B.A. will risk being relegated as the last team in the league. It looks like a reall probability at the moment, but much can yet change that equation.
Rank #14, Position #10, Prediction #10.
“Has largely been a selling club this summer, due to financial constraints, but still has a half decent squad at its disposal. A safe mid-table finish looks on the cards, but West Ham, if the injury bug dissipates, can perhaps reach the higher echelons of the table. A threadbare squad does however make a campaign of secure, but largely obscure, table movements look probable. If Alan Curbishley manages to keep his job at Upton Park, throughout this potentially trailing season, also remains a question of conjecture.”
With Curbishley gone and Zola installed as the new manager, a stylistic change has been ushered in at Upton Park. Ever the flair player, Zola has got his charges to pass the ball along the ground and deploy some skill in the buildup. It is a slow process to change a team around without changing the players; and Zola will have to do just that. He might even have to see key players leave, due to the continued economical problems the owners face. Not an easy task in other words. Yet, Zola has started promisingly and could very well keep the current position come the end of the season; although some roller coasting around the standings may very well occur before that point.
Rank #12, Position #7, Prediction #8.
“Whilst escaping relegation will be foremost on the Wigan fan’s mind, a positive change of fortune may lie just ahead. Steve Bruce impressed as Wigan supremo, after being given the reigns half-way through last season, and with a complete pre-season at the helm; Wigan may very well be equipped to move on up in the table. With a good run or two anything is possible, but a change of fortune for the worse could very well see them embroiled in the relegation battle again. A very tricky team to judge and perhaps an admitted gamble, but Wigan are looking good at the moment.”
They are looking good at the moment. Having strung together some victories they have climbed away from the relegation battle and may need to re-string the bow and shoot for European qualification. The way things are looking at the moment that is no impossibility. Imperative is that they keep their best players and perhaps also invest in to their squad depth. Wigan is vulnerable to key injuries and Bruce may need to address that concern, without disrupting a functioning team too much. It could turn out to be too much to ask for, but the other teams all have similar considerations to deal with, so why not a top 10 position at the end of the year?