Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United & Arsenal are top the tip for the title this season, but what about the top four and relegation? Elsewhere, who will be the first managerial casualty of the season, and which player is about to have the campaign of their career?
Jose Mourinho claimed his side weren’t ready to win the title last season, but when you consider the points they dropped at home to Sunderland and Norwich City in the run-in, they should have been bitterly disappointed not to have pipped Manchester City to the crown. The lack of a genuine top-quality striker was an issue the Portuguese coach had to address this summer, and he hopes to have done just that with the £32million addition of Diego Costa. And with Frank Lampard bowing out after 13-years at Stamford Bridge, an ideal replacement has been signed in the shape of Cesc Fabregas; and boasting the meanest back four in the division playing in front of either Petr Cech or Thibaut Courtois, and the excellent Nemanja Matic providing further protection whilst Eden Hazard looks to elevate his status as one of the best players in the world, it’s hard to see anyone stopping Chelsea.
Runners-Up: Manchester City
When Roberto Mancini led Manchester City to the title in 2011/12, he was criticised for not strengthening his squad adequately the following summer. Having regained the crown from their neighbours United last term, Manuel Pellegrini has avoided a similar mistake: Fernando will add yet more steel to a midfield which already contains Yaya Toure and Fernandinho; Bacary Sagna has been one of the best right-backs in the Premier League for the past seven years; Willy Caballero provides Joe Hart with some serious competition in goal; and in Eliaquim Mangala, the Blues may finally have found a long-term partner for Vincent Kompany in the heart of their back four. Their chances may ultimately rely on their ability to keep Sergio Aguero fit, although Stevan Jovetic could prove a huge asset if he can do likewise: they may have scored 102 goals last season, but they still pose much more of a threat when they can include a world-class finisher in their armour.
3rd: Manchester United
Even the most ardent Manchester United fan knew life would be difficult as soon as Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down, yet few would have expected it be as problematic as it proved. By the time Ryan Giggs temporarily succeeded David Moyes the damage was already done, and the Reds ended the season in seventh position and with no European football on the agenda. The latter may help Louis van Gaal as he plots a top-four finish at worst, and one look at the players at his disposal would tell you this should be the minimum requirement: how can a team containing Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Juan Mata, David De Gea et al not be competing at the top of the table? However, the Dutchman still needs at least one more central defender, and another midfield wouldn’t go amiss.
You get the sense that the atmosphere within the Arsenal camp is the best it has been since they moved into their Emirates Stadium home. Buoyed by their FA Cup success last May, and to a lesser extent their 3-0 win over Manchester City in the FA Community Shield, Arsene Wenger has added quality to his starting XI in Alexis Sanchez and Mathieu Debuchy, whilst Calum Chambers already looks capable of challenging for a place in the back four. Indeed such is the expectation amongst supporters that a fourth-place finish may feel disappointing, but finishing any higher may depend on enduring an injury-free season for all their key players, and also the addition of a central midfielder before the window closes.
What about Liverpool?
Having secured a long-overdue return to the UEFA Champions League, it was essential Brendan Rodgers bolstered a squad which performed remarkably well last term considering its number. And the Anfield boss has done just that, with six new additions to his options, including Southampton trio Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Dejan Lovren, and promising youngsters Lazar Markovic and Emre Can. But the loss of you-know-who is a huge blow in their aspirations of cementing a regular place in the top-four, and with the strength of the other sides, including a rejuvenated Manchester United, the Merseyside club face the reality of falling just short when the top-four is confirmed come May.
Good, but not quite good enough
The signing of Romelu Lukaku for £28million is evidence that Everton have the ambition to qualify for the Champions League, and signing Gareth Barry on a permanent deal is also a tonic. But, ultimately, Roberto Martinez’s men still need more, and whilst they are heading in the right direction, it would be a big ask of them to finish in the top-four. Expectations are likely to be low amongst Tottenham Hotspur supporters, who have seen new coach Mauricio Pochettino add just three new players to the squad he inherited from Tim Sherwood in the summer. It will be interesting to see if the Argentine can get the best out of compatriot Erik Lamela, who bombed following his club record arrival last summer, but ultimately whilst Spurs will be in and around the European places, they are still some way short of a prolonged challenge to the top-four.
Surprise Package of the Season: Newcastle United
It would be tempting to predict Stoke City will be the surprise package of the season, until you remember they are unlikely to better their ninth-place finish of last term. Likewise, Crystal Palace would bite your hand off at the offer of a repeated eleventh-position finish, whilst the toils of the UEFA Europa League could be a blight on Hull City’s campaign. One team who could – and maybe should – be aiming much higher this season is Newcastle United. The Magpies looked in good shape last time round until the departure of Yohan Cabaye in January, from which they never recovered. This summer Alan Pardew has added some real quality to his squad in Remy Cabella, Siem de Jong and Daryl Janmaat, and if he can either persuade Loic Remy to join on a permanent basis or land a similarly-prolific goalscorer, they could challenge for a European spot this season.
Relegation: Burnley, Leicester City and West Bromwich Albion
Burnley were barely mentioned as potential promotion candidates last season, so Sean Dyche deserves many a plaudit for leading them to second in the Championship. But although he has managed to keep hold of his star players such as Danny Ings and Kieran Trippier, their squad still looks short on Premier League quality. Leicester City finished above the Clarets last term, and have been more active in the transfer market having smashed their transfer record to sign Leonardo Ulloa for £8million, and also added top-flight experience in Marc Albrighton and Matthew Upson. But anything above 18th position will be achievement Nigel Pearson and co could be proud of. Queens Park Rangers look more settled than they did at any time during their previous two-year stint amongst the elite, and Swansea City may have saved themselves with the signings of Gylfi Sigurdsson and Bafetimbi Gomis. Could this be the season in which Aston Villa finally drop out of the Premier League after their recent flirtations? Maybe, but their squad is probably no worse than that of Sunderland’s. But one side who look destined to struggle is West Bromwich Albion. The appointment of Alan Irvine as manager is an odd one, especially when you consider his last managerial position ended when League One side Sheffield Wednesday sacked him in February 2011. Having finished just three points above the bottom three last season, it will take more than £10million Brown Ideye to save the Baggies from the drop this time.
It would be hard to look beyond Sergio Aguero if he manages to remain fit for the duration of the season, but that looks to be a big if for a player who scored 17 goals in just 23 appearances for Manchester City last season. The same could be said of Robin van Persie who also endured an injury-riddled 2013/14, but his Manchester United team-mate Wayne Rooney has looked as sharp as he has in some time during pre-season. The 28-year-old could also revel in the captaincy should Louis van Gaal give him the armband, and with no distraction of European football, the Premier League matches will not come around soon enough for a player who scored 27 goals in 34 matches in 2011/12.
First Managerial Casualty of the Season
Without wanting to pick on him too much, it is hard to see Alan Irvine lasting long at West Bromwich Albion. The 56-year-old was sacked by both his previous managerial positions – Preston North End and Sheffield Wednesday – and has not been in such a position since he was axed from the latter more than three years ago. Other than the former Everton youth coach, it will be interesting to see if Sam Allardyce can implement the entertaining brand of football his superiors at West Ham United are demanding he produce.