Back Of The Net With Ray North: Premier League Preview, part 1 – The Challengers?

by Ray_North on August 11, 2011

Right, time to get off the moral high horse I’m currently sitting on, dust off my crystal ball and look forward to another footie season. You can’t beat the first weekend of a new season – the grass still immaculate on the pitch, the lads looking bronzed and fit and mad for it after their break and us fans still filled with hope that new multi-million pound signing we’d hitherto never heard of, will prove to be the difference between mid-table mediocrity and a tilt at Europe.

Anyway how are the runners and riders shaping up for 2011/12? Who do I, Ray North, predict will end up as the Nick Cleggs or the Kate Middletons of the Premier League.

Let’s start with the teams who finished in the top-four last season. Of the ‘big four’ I have fears for three of them (no prizes for guessing which three), with perhaps Arsenal looking like the most obvious candidate for trouble ahead. The Gunners are now a pale imitation of ‘The Invincibles’ of 2003/04. It is clear to everyone that they are lacking central defenders, a dependable goalkeeper and some grit in midfield – the increasingly mystifying Arsene Wenger however, continues to pursue his goal of assembling the smallest squad in the country. I fear that Arsenal’s woes may continue this year, especially if Samir Nasri joins Cesc Fabregas and leaves the club, they’ll do well to maintain a place in the top four.

Chelsea are also in a period of transition. In recent years the problem at Chelsea has been a lack of clear leadership – the sacking of the wonderful Ray Wilkins, the signing of Fernando Torres, and the continued change in manager has done nothing to help build a cohesive club. The older players – Lampard, Terry and Drogba are starting to look a bit jaded whilst the vital Michael Essien has become injury prone. Chelsea may have some quality coming through in McCeachran and Sturridge, but a combination of a meddling owner and excessive power in the hands of one or two senior players will hold Chelsea back. They’ll be challenging, but they won’t have enough to become champions even if Torres suddenly remembers how to play the game.

Man City’s season is difficult to predict – Roberto Mancini appears to have signed just about every half-decent player in the known universe, but judging by the confused and soulless performance they put in in the Charity Shield (as it will always be known to me), he still doesn’t know how to play them. Balotelli is not a player to win you the championship, whilst his continued preference for Yaya Toure as an attacking midfielder rather than the holder he built his reputation on, is baffling and god knows whether the effervescent Carlos Tevez will put a shirt on. Still, I’m looking forward to seeing Sergio Aguero play, from what I’ve seen he looks like a Premiership great in making.

Which brings me to Manchester United – curse those red devils and their purple nosed manager, but, once again Man United look favourites for the title. Sir Alex is without doubt a genius, and one of the reasons for his success is that he knows that the best time to strengthen your squad is when you’re winning and that having a bloated squad is no key to success. His purchases of Ashley Young and Phil Jones look inspired, whilst Hernandez, Cleverly, Smalling and the Da Silva brothers are just going to get better. They will miss Ed Van Der Sar, but even with a young strappling in David De Gea between the posts, I hate to say it, but don’t look much further than Old Trafford for the premiership this season.

What about the others? The best placed appear to be Liverpool. King Kenny has already reminded the club of its prestige and heritage and given it a self-belief that has been lacking. He’s also bought well with Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam destined to become favourites with the Kop. And, with the outstanding Suarez and the now-fit Andy Carrol promising to torment defenders next year, plus a good crop of kids coming through, then Liverpool could be about to have their best season for a generation.

Tottenham won’t be far away either. Though I fear that much of their success will depend upon Harry Redknapp’s ability to keep the increasingly fragile Gareth Bale on the pitch. The word on the grapevine is that Gaz Bale tends to feel his knocks a little bit more acutely than most. The other thing Harry needs to do is plump for a settled strike force – he doesn’t really fancy any of the forwards he has at his disposal, which does nothing to breed that feeling of confidence needed by goalscorers. Tottenham will put in some great performances, but may find themselves struggling for consistency.

A little further down the pecking order, Everton have done nothing to strengthen their squads and will probably treat their downtrodden fans to their usual Groundhog season, where they start badly, then pick up later on in the year. Sunderland may well be the surprise package; Steve Bruce appears to have bought anybody who can kick a ball – but I fancy Sunderland to mount a decent challenge and that their young monster Connor Wickham, signed from Ipswich, to make an impact. Aston Villa and Fulham also look a good bet for a top half finish but will not break into the top six.

This then is my prediction for the top half of the table:

1. Man Utd
2. Man City
3. Liverpool
4. Chelsea
5. Spurs
6. Arsenal
7. Sunderland
8. Everton
9. Fulham
10. Aston Villa

Tomorrow I’ll consider the strugglers.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Geoff Elliott August 11, 2011 at 9:29 pm

Hmm. Good summary overall Ray, and have to reluctantly agree that Sir Alex haas bought well and has quietly developed a number of very good players at just the right time.
I think you’re ignoring the potential Villa-Bolas factor at Chelsea though you pretty much nail their issues. Arsenal harder to tell; will Arsene have enough time between now and the end of the month to buy replacements for Fabregas and Nasri on top of the players we all know he has needed to buy for ages.
City is mad. They could win it all or implode. No half measures I suspect.
As for us? We’ll see. No European distraction means no excuse which means the pressure is on.

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Ray_North August 11, 2011 at 9:32 pm

Actually, very excited about the reds this season – I found it very hard to dampen my own enthusiasm and remain objective!

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Geoff Elliott August 11, 2011 at 9:54 pm

We could do well. Dalglish bought early and they’ve had time on the pitch. Suarez looks like a Duracell bunny. I hope so. Enrique to be the last signing? The defence is not sorted though, and still a number of players we could do with moving on.

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Mike Killingworth August 12, 2011 at 8:31 am

I’m off across town in an hour’s time to see my son, who is a dyed-in-the-wool Arsenal fan.

I rather like the look of your table, Ray: I think I’ll offer him £50 that Spurs will beat Arsenal in the League and see what he says. Mind you, it’s a major event when he puts his hand in his pocket…

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George_East August 12, 2011 at 2:09 pm

At the beginning of pretty much every recent season, the demise of Arsenal as a top 4 team is predicted and yet Wenger has managed it in every one of his seasons in charge (remember they challenged seriously for the title for a while last season despite being written off before a ball had been kicked). That’s 15 seasons.
I am as nervous as the next fan about the Gunners’ prospects of a top 4 finish this season with Fabregas and Nasri heading through the exit door, but then again I was nervous when Henry left and when Viera left etc. The Professor shouldn’t be underestimated – he still has an uncanny ability to spot talent at bargain prices and produce good footballing teams, without anything like the resources of the Manchester clubs or Chelski.
If you asked me to guess, I’d say 5th rather than 6th but then I am always pessimistic about these things and I would not be at all surprised if they are there or there abouts come next May.

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Mike Killingworth August 13, 2011 at 8:36 am

George, not only would my son not take me on, he was even moaning about”having to include Arsenal players in my Fantasy Football XI”. Still, I take your point about Wenger’s track record, but still: they’re just not hungry enough – a place in Europe and a profit seem to be enough for them.

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