A new Premier League season gets underway on Saturday, with experts’ previews and predictions for the campaign out in force.
With the top sides in the league becoming more and more evenly matched, it’s more difficult to make predictions with any sense of certainty.
Each season brings its own shocks and surprises, rarely going to plan. How many neutrals would have imagined that defending-champions Man United would slide far enough down the league table to miss out on European football altogether? Or that Roberto Martinez would be so close to steering Everton into the Champions League, with city rivals Liverpool still in contention for the title on the final day?
In the Premier League era, the one position in the table that has never been a complete shock is first place; Never have the eventual winners been a team who weren’t equipped to mount a title challenge when the season began.
It’s probably safe to assume that neither Tottenham nor Everton are likely to break that trend this season, which leaves five teams who will go into the new season with realistic hopes of competing for the title.
Liverpool have shown signs of progression throughout the ownership of John Henry’s Fenway Sports Group, though it took until last season before the Reds were finally able to break back into the top four again, and ensure Champions League football returns to Anfield after a five-year absence.
Liverpool’s second-placed finish would have seemed highly unlikely to most neutrals at the start of the season, but the reality is that there was nothing fortunate about a second-place finish that was earned on merit.
Key victories at home to the teams around them in the table, and a fine run of 13 wins from the last 15 games was ultimately enough to finish well clear of Arsenal and Everton, but repeating that kind of form with the additional matches in Europe is likely to be difficult, and to consolidate a place amongst the top four at the same time as competing for domestic or European silverware would represent another good season.
While there will be lots of eyes focussed on Brendan Rodgers’ team, with observers eager to see if last season’s league performance can be matched (or even bettered) without Luis Suarez, it is certain that Man United will attract more attention than their rivals as they look to recover from a nightmare year that saw the 2013 champions finish in seventh place.
Louis van Gaal will inherit a team far more capable than the results of 2013/14 suggested, no doubt supplemented by some key arrivals. The Dutchman will certainly not be overwhelmed by the task of reviving the club, and it would be no surprise to see United back in the mix for honours.
Still, questions remain over whether last year’s top four them have strengthened enough to keep United out of the top four places for a second consecutive season.
If Man United are to be back in the top four, then Arsenal may be the most likely contenders to drop out, with the Gunners possessing a team who can match anyone on their day, but who also have more of a tendency that any other top team to self-destruct.
Arsenal did finally lift some silverware last season following a dramatic turnaround against Hull in the FA Cup Final, but also led the Premier League for the majority of the season up until February, before suffering a slump in form that at one stage saw Everton move into pole position for the much-coveted fourth place.
Arsene Wenger’s team have now qualified for the Champions League during each of the last 17 years, but last season wasn’t the first time that they have been close to missing out, and with the group of top teams getting stronger each year, there surely cannot be many more times that Arsenal snatch a top four place so late in the season.
And besides, with big investment in players such as Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, there will be growing expectations amongst Arsenal fans that their team can still be challenging for the title itself in April and May.
Just as there are set to be many questions asked over whether Liverpool are capable of matching last year’s league showing that led to them finishing above Arsenal and Man United, so too will there be an element of doubt over whether Arsenal are capable of repeating the feat of placing higher than United – something that they achieved last season for the first time in a decade.
If it’s one of those three teams who would start as the most likely to be under threat of not making the top four at all, then the same shouldn’t be said of Chelsea or Man City. Both have spent big sums of money adding to already strong – and successful – squads during the past 2-3 years, and this summer has been no different.
Jose Mourinho’s complaints of not having a goalscorer was a weak excuse for his team’s failings given the quality of the attacking players at his disposal (and the fact that both Di Matteo and Benitez had been successful with an inferior squad to that which Mourinho had to work with), but it has nevertheless been addressed not only by the arrival of Diego Costa, but also Cesc Fabregas, who comes with an impressive goalscoring record of his own.
Given the sort of games in which Chelsea dropped points at the end of the season, it could be argued that they were even more guilty than Arsenal of Premier League underachievement – and more guilty than Liverpool of missing a golden opportunity to pip Man City to the title.
Anything less than a season-long title challenge will represent another below-par showing for a club that has all of the ingredients for being successful on multiple fronts, and it would be unthinkable for Chelsea not to be part of the top four.
And finally to Man City, whose expectations will be on a par with those of Chelsea. Manuel Pellegrini’s team were deserved champions last season, but equally deserving was the fact that they were pushed right to the wire by Liverpool and Chelsea.
For as much as City spent much of the year looking like the team to beat, they also failed too many times to get the results needed in order to build a clear advantage over their title rivals. As a result, City ultimately needed to add steel to the swagger that was so often displayed, and in doing so in order to see the job through, they proved worthy winners.
The tough job is now to win back-to-back titles, and cement their status as the country’s number one club. Achieving domestic success while also remaining in the Champions League until Spring is nothing more than what would be expected of the club in order to make a step up to the next level.
Following last year being described by the press as a three-horse race for the title (at a time when Arsenal were closely followed by Man City and Chelsea), Jose Mourinho attempted to dampen any expectation surrounding Chelsea’s title credentials by referring to his side as a small horse. Some weeks later, with Liverpool having replaced Arsenal as serious challengers, Brendan Rodgers responded with a similar analogy of Liverpool, labelling his inexperienced team as a chihuahua running between the legs of the horses.
With five strong teams battling it out, there’ll be no need for such talk this season, although if Chelsea and Man City each perform to their potential, it’s hard to imagine that the eventual champion wouldn’t be one of those two teams.
But it’s even harder to think that it won’t be another thrilling Premier League season, and I’m sure that I’m not alone in saying that I cannot wait for it to get started.