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How will the Premier League pan out?

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Phil McNulty | 11:00 UK time, Thursday, 12 August 2010

Chelsea and Manchester United may have formed part of the traditional Premier League guard of honour as they battled for the Community Shield once more but last season hinted at an increasing vulnerability among English football's established powers.

Carlo Ancelotti's march to a Premier League and FA Cup double in his first season at Stamford Bridge was not without stumbles, while Sir Alex Ferguson's Old Trafford empire had to be fortified by the relatively meagre rations afforded by a Carling Cup victory.

Manchester City's latest splurge of summer spending will only increase demands for at least a trophy at Eastlands, while Liverpool - my flawed title tip last term - responded to a dismal campaign by replacing Rafael Benitez with Roy Hodgson.

Martin O'Neill's sudden departure from Aston Villa only adds to the drama ahead of the new season, while the return of Newcastle United and Blackpool to the top flight provides both stature and romance.

So, with cracks in the crystal ball repaired, it is time to predict how the Premier League might play out in 2010/11.

ARSENAL

After five years without a trophy, it is time for Arsene Wenger to stop trading on "jam tomorrow" promises and deliver the trophies this proud club requires. For those who believe I have some sort of downer on Wenger, it would be a delight to see his unshakeable principles on how football should be played receive tangible reward.

Arsenal were never more than on the margins of the title race last season, while Wenger's pretensions on the beautiful game were stripped bare by Barcelona in the Champions League.

The decision of Cesc Fabregas to ignore the advances of Barcelona and pledge his immediate future to Arsenal is a huge morale-booster, while Wenger has addressed obvious weaknesses in central defence by signing Lorient's Laurent Koscielny.

Wenger is actively seeking another defender, while the glaring faults of Manuel Almunia and Lukasz Fabianski will surely lead to a new goalkeeper arriving before the transfer window closes. If this does not happen, then Arsenal will not challenge for the title.

Wenger will have high hopes for new England recruit Jack Wilshere, while the hugely promising Kieran Gibbs will pressurise Gael Clichy - no bad thing on last season's evidence.

Arsenal have never been short of attacking options but the arrival of Marouane Chamakh from Bordeaux will give them an extra dimension alongside fit-again Robin van Persie, Andrey Arshavin and the improving Nicklas Bendtner.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger
It is time for Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger to deliver further trophies

As ever, hopes are high at The Emirates. I expect Arsenal to be exciting, vulnerable and a delight for the purist - but more likely to enjoy success in the cups rather than the Premier League.

VERDICT: Threat in cup competitions if Wenger takes them seriously but face fight for top-four place.

ASTON VILLA

Martin O'Neill's decision to quit Aston Villa just days before the start of the season plunged a club that was already facing a difficult campaign into chaos.

Villa progressed last season, with losses in the Carling Cup final to Manchester United and the FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea made even more painful by dreadful refereeing injustices. Nevertheless, there was an underlying sense of discontent surrounding O'Neill in the closing stages of the season.

With the influential James Milner seemingly heading for the exit and Ashley Young drawing envious glances from elsewhere, it appears O'Neill's frustration finally became too much - complete with devastating timing - although he can hardly complain of a lack of financial support from owner Randy Lerner during his reign.

Whether his departure actually clears the air at Villa Park remains to be seen and whoever replaces him will inherit a talented squad, although it would appear opportunities for expansion may be limited. Self-evidently, the choice of O'Neill's successor will shape the future direction. Villa may also benefit from a change to a tactical system that was often too one-dimensional.

These are crucial times for a club that has stood at the doorway to the Champions League and success without ever quite making it over the threshold.

VERDICT: Top eight and possibly a cup threat.

BIRMINGHAM CITY

Birmingham City's ninth-placed finish last season was an outstanding achievement and a testimony to the shrewd tactical approach of manager Alex McLeish and his wise work in the transfer market. The Blues will rely on the same qualities of organisation and discipline once more, backed by a fan base that will have renewed belief after last season.

The loss of Joe Hart, the best English goalkeeper in the Premier League last term, has been offset by the arrival of Ben Foster from Manchester United. Foster's career ran into the sidings at Old Trafford, resulting in him dropping down the pecking order and missing the World Cup in South Africa. He will fight his predecessor Hart for a place in Fabio Capello's affections with much to prove.

Up front, McLeish's capture of the giant Nikola Zigic from Valencia will add, literally, huge presence to their team. The impact he makes will have a big bearing on their season.

McLeish is still hoping to add more quality to his squad as he insists owner Carson Yeung will provide backing. But the Birmingham will once again lean heavily on the influence of Roger Johnson and Scott Dann at the back and the guidance of veteran Barry Ferguson, who certainly exceeded my expectations last season, in midfield.

Birmingham's biggest asset, however, is their manager and I back him to plot another season of consolidation - and build on his growing reputation within the game at the same time.

VERDICT: Mid-table respectability.

BLACKBURN ROVERS

Sam Allardyce's tactical methods are not universally well-received but Blackburn finished in the top 10 last season after some turbulence early on and this should be regarded as vindication of his approach.

Allardyce's achievements were built on the foundations of formidable home form, allied to the physical strength and power game that is his trademark. He will expect no less this time around.

With takeover talk at Ewood Park, he may even get a windfall to show some expertise in the transfer market. He has already signed emerging talent Mame Biram Diouf on loan from Manchester United.

VERDICT: Solid, unspectacular - but survivors.

BLACKPOOL

Last season it was Burnley, now an another great old power returns to the Premier League in the shape of Blackpool. The team that started among the Championship as relegation favourites won promotion by beating Cardiff City at Wembley, further proof that there is more to manager Ian Holloway than a swift soundbite.

They had barely left the Wembley turf before the killjoys were writing off their Premier League hopes but reality dictates they face a huge struggle to survive. This does not mean, however, that they should not enjoy the ride as they attempt to defy the odds.

This region deserves the lift a Premier League profile will give them and Blackpool will look to Charlie Adam to sprinkle the stardust in the absence of any serious cash to play with.

I,. for one, cannot wait to sample the atmosphere at Bloomfield Road and on a purely personal note am overjoyed that Jimmy Armfield, an absolute gentleman as well as an outstanding BBC broadcaster over so many years, will see his beloved Blackpool in the elite once more. Sadly, I do not seem them pulling through.

VERDICT: With a heavy heart, relegation.

BOLTON WANDERERS

I took a hammering from Bolton fans last season by suggesting Owen Coyle made a sideways move by leaving Burnley for Bolton. He proved his quality by easing Bolton to survival - clear testimony to my assertion that he is destined for greater things.

I expect Bolton to have their times of struggle this season but do not see them as relegation fodder. Coyle has high hopes for free-transfer signing Martin Petrov, highly gifted but injury troubled, and he has turned to old Burnley stalwart Robbie Blake for experience. Coyle is also excited about his teenage signing from Real Madrid, Marco Alonso.

Coyle has the basis of last season's squad in place, so the aim will be the same again, namely survival. I expect him to achieve this.

VERDICT: Not high fliers but not destined for the drop either.

CHELSEA

With so many stalwarts still in place despite the loss of Joe Cole, Michael Ballack and Deco, Carlo Ancelotti's double winners will fancy their chances of a repeat Premier League title triumph this season.

Ancelotti clearly felt he had to move things along in midfield and the return of the outstanding Michael Essien will be a huge factor. It looks like Benfica's Brazilian midfield man Ramires is also on his way in to provide further reinforcement.

There are questions, though. Will John Terry's traumatic World Cup cause a Premier League hangover? Chelsea's spiritual leader was showing signs of wear and tear last season and he is not getting any younger, so how he performs will be vital.

Chelsea were also more vulnerable than usual away from Stamford Bridge last season but the compensation came in the shape of some devastating demolitions at home - and who in reality can seriously question a season that ended with a domestic double?

I expect this season to have plenty of twists and turns but Chelsea are my tip for the title.

VERDICT: No doubt to the huge joy of Manchester United fans, champions.

EVERTON

Everton played some outstanding football in the second half of last season, with Chelsea and Manchester United beaten at home and Manchester City eclipsed at Eastlands.

It has sent a surge of optimism around Goodison Park despite another summer without serious transfer cash.

Everton made maintaining the best squad David Moyes has assembled in his eight years at the club the priority - and on that basis it has been a job well done by the manager and chairman Bill Kenwright.

Jack Rodwell was kept from the clutches of admirers such as Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal with a new deal, while Tim Cahill, Leighton Baines and - most crucially of all - Mikel Arteta, their most gifted player, pledged their long-term futures to the club.

Steven Pienaar's future is unresolved but the signing of Jermaine Beckford on a free transfer from Leeds United is an interesting wild card. Can the man who was so prolific in the lower divisions repeat his feats on the highest stage? If he can, his arrival will be regarded as an inspired move by Moyes.

If Everton keep their squad fit, I expect an excellent season.

VERDICT: Top four outsiders and good cup bet.

FULHAM

Fulham had their season of dreams in 2009/10, reaching the final of the Europa League and finishing comfortably in mid-table of the Premier League - only to be rudely woken by the departure of manager Roy Hodgson to Liverpool.

Martin Jol's decision to turn down a move to Craven Cottage and stay at Ajax came as a blow but the club wasted no time in bringing in another big name in the shape of Mark Hughes, a man with real pedigree who is no doubt burning with a point to prove after his premature exit from Manchester City.

The reputation of Hughes can lure big names to Fulham and he will hope to keep players of the calibre of Brede Hangeland. No big rebuilding job needed here, simply the odd tweak and a point in the same direction.

VERDICT: Hughes wants top 10 and could achieve it.

LIVERPOOL

My title tip last year - and one that was only off target by the merest margin of 23 points and seven places.

A huge summer at Anfield has been well handled so far. Rafael Benitez's turbulent reign ended with a measure of dignity, as it had to do after more unrest, no trophies and a failure to deliver his promised top-four place.

Liverpool manager Roy Hodgson
Liverpool will hope that new manager Roy Hodgson can provide stability this season

Roy Hodgson's appointment was not greeted by huge fanfare but, in my opinion, was the perfect choice. Liverpool need his level-headed, common sense approach, backed by huge experience. The mood music is suddenly more harmonious.

Joe Cole's signing has excited the frustrated Anfield faithful, while the feared departure of captain Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres has instead been replaced by pledges of commitment. If Gerrard and Torres had gone, the club would have been in turmoil. Instead, they will be expected to spearhead the new Hodgson era.

Javier Mascherano appears destined to be the one big name to exit but his annual agitation has become a tiresome irritant and I regard him as vastly over-rated in any event.

Hodgson has started well, although all judgements will be shaped by results.

VERDICT: Top four contenders and worth a punt for a cup.

MANCHESTER CITY

Where do we start? After the lavish spending of last summer yielded fifth place, just edged out of the Champions League after a home defeat by Spurs, the Eastlands hierarchy placed faith in Roberto Mancini and allowed him to indulge in yet another "scorched earth" transfer spree.

City will edge up towards splashing out £125mi if proposed deals for James Milner and Inter Milan's Mario Balotelli proceed without a hitch.

With such expenditure comes not not simply expectation of success but an insistence upon it. Already there are players signed for huge sums last summer, such as Joleon Lescott, Roque Santa Cruz and Emmanuel Adebayor, being tipped for the exit door.

Make no mistake, this is a stronger City squad than last season, with Yaya Toure, David Silva and the possibly Milner giving the midfield a new look and feel. There is also, however, a need for some stability and structure. City have yet to achieve this.

My feeling is that the real A-list signing - a Fernando Torres, for example - has not yet arrived and City will not be title challengers unless they can make that breakthrough, although there is still time for that player to arrive given the apparent non-existent purse strings at Eastlands.

I also remain to be convinced about Mancini. He needs a fast start because the ground rules were effectively set by the sacking of Mark Hughes last season. The Italian will need rare skill and plenty of deft man-management to keep his vast resources happy.

If he does, City can make a real impact. If he does not, there is genuine potential for unrest. I will err on the side of optimism, maybe out of a misplaced sense of goodwill towards their superb and long-suffering supporters, and take City to make the top four, providing Carlos Tevez comes somewhere near his magnificent form of last season.

Man City boss Roberto Mancini
Man City's owners will demand success from boss Roberto Mancini

Do I do this with complete conviction? No, not really.

VERDICT: Top four and must contest for silverware - or it could be the end as far as Roberto Mancini is concerned.

MANCHESTER UNITED

Sir Alex Ferguson has yet to make the stellar signing many expected after missing out on the Premier League and Champions League last season but he has iron-clad belief in his current squad and may yet add to the fresh faces of Chris Smalling and the exciting Javier Hernandez.

The Community Shield produced firm evidence of the unique and enduring talent of Paul Scholes. Ferguson does not do favourite players at United but the "Ginger Prince" would be a prime candidate if he did.

How much Ferguson can get out of veterans Scholes and Ryan Giggs will be crucial, while once again Wayne Rooney will be their most important figure. Like everyone else, I am still mystified by the desperately poor Rooney I saw in the World Cup in South Africa but he has such strength of character and natural ability that I expect him to respond in style to that disappointment.

United have talent elsewhere that goes some way towards justifying Ferguson's faith.

Nani, for so long so frustrating, showed signs of developing into a player of the highest calibre under Ferguson's careful tutelage last season. If he maintains this progress, the Portuguese will be a potent force.

I harbour doubts over United's central defence, where Rio Ferdinand's injury problems occur with increasing regularity, and the over-reliance on the veteran Edwin van der Sar in goal. I fear this is where they may suffer over a long Premier League season.

Will Dimitar Berbatov finally make the contribution Ferguson expected when he paid Spurs a club record fee? Ferguson still believes in the man he believes can be "a genius" when the mood takes him but that has not been often enough.

United will be positive and their in-built will to win saw them push the title race to the final day last season, even when they rarely produced their best. You write them off at your peril but I will go with Chelsea to just pip them for the Premier League once again.

VERDICT: Second - but will win at least one cup.

NEWCASTLE UNITED

The Toon Army marches on the top flight once more after Chris Hughton did an admirable job of guiding them out of the Championship after just one season but do not expect big things on their return.

Newcastle's fans always expect great deeds despite the club's lack of serious success in living memory. This time around they should regard survival and respectability as an achievement - and I think they will succeed in this limited aim.

Hughton has not had huge funds to spend but Dan Gosling - signed on a free transfer from Everton in contentious circumstances - will be a player of promise once he is fit, while Sol Campbell will provide experience and guidance at the back.

The 35-year-old's signing has been criticised in some quarters but he showed plenty of his old form at Arsenal last season. Newcastle fans will be right to remind sceptics that Sunderland, not to mention Celtic, were just as keen to secure his services.

Andy Carroll will be keen to test himself against Premier League defences, too, while Kevin Nolan will want to prove he can once again be a force in the top tier of English football.

Newcastle have enough quality around the squad - and a fine keeper in Steve Harper - to ensure there is no repeat of their relegation last time out.

VERDICT: Survival.

STOKE CITY

Tony Pulis has done a superb job at The Britannia Stadium, one of the most intoxicating and vibrant places in which to enjoy the Premier League experience.

Pulis has also been backed by the Stoke board and mere survival did not even cross their minds last season. It was consolidation and more besides. Their expectations will level out eventually but once again I see Stoke in the upper reaches of mid-table this season.

Snobs attack Pulis's style but you will not find many complaints in the Potteries. There appears to be money for one marquee signing - and if that comes off then Stoke will enjoy another satisfactory season.

VERDICT: Aspirations for the top 10.

SUNDERLAND

Steve Bruce enjoyed - and at times endured - a mixed first season at Sunderland but he will have learned his lessons and he is a manager I admire.

He has brought in Titus Bramble from Wigan Athletic, a defender he has the highest regard for despite his accident-prone nature, while he has high hopes for Paraguayan midfield man Cristian Riveros. Nedum Onuoha is another shrewd signing by a manager who has a track record in these matters.

Darren Bent, however, will be his main man. Regular readers will know I am a confirmed Bent fan - a proven Premier League goalscorer who I would have happily had in England's World Cup squad ahead of the vastly inferior Emile Heskey.

If he scores goals again, I will repeat my prediction of last season and say a good finish for the Black Cats.

VERDICT: Top 10.

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

Harry Redknapp's team deservedly won a place in the top four last season - and they were entertaining in the process while showing the grit to get results when they needed them.

Now it is time to prove they can consolidate their move into the 'Big Four', although it will be quite a challenge given Manchester City's spending power and Arsene Wenger's aversion to letting his north London neighbours steal a march on Arsenal.

Redknapp has a talented squad - and who seriously thinks he will not bolster it in the coming weeks?

Spurs may need a touch more genuine quality up front to make their mark in the Champions League but they will enjoy themselves once more in the Premier League.

Spurs manager Harry Redknapp
Spurs manager Harry Redknapp will be hoping to consolidate his side's place in the top four

Redknapp must decide how to handle the Robbie Keane conundrum - by selling him presumably - while Peter Crouch's star appears to have fallen suddenly, so those attacking reinforcements may well come. But cast a glance around the White Hart Lane squad and it is one of the strongest in the Premier League.

Spurs are always cup contenders, too - and next year ends in a '1' remember.

VERDICT: Top four a realistic target once more and my FA Cup winners.

WEST BROMWICH ALBION

Great to see the Baggies back in the Premier League - big club, big crowds and a great atmosphere at The Hawthorns. It will be a real feat, however, if Roberto di Matteo stops them boing-boinging back into the Championship.

He has worked well to sign goalkeeper Boaz Myhill, while Nicky Shorey is a solid performer having arrived from Aston Villa. West Brom are also to be commended for fighting off the attentions of West Ham United for the excellent Graham Dorrans.

For all this, I fear for Albion's lack of quality and cutting edge over a long season.

VERDICT: Relegation.

WEST HAM UNITED

Avram Grant arrives at West Ham United with plenty to prove. Was he simply in the right place at the right time when Jose Mourinho left Chelsea and did he simply benefit from a total lack of expectation at Portsmouth?

Grant has added to the Hammers squad with Tal Ben Haim, while Winston Reid, Thomas Hitzlsperger, Pablo Barrera and Frederic Piquionne are intriguing additions. Scott Parker is West Ham's big player, while it will be interesting to see who goes and who arrives before the season starts.

David Gold and David Sullivan admit they have a big rebuilding job, so staying in the Premier League is probably as good as it gets at Upton Park.

VERDICT: Will stay up - but not a season of distinction.

WIGAN ATHLETIC

Roberto Martinez did himself huge credit by sticking to his strict footballing principles and keeping Wigan up last season. Can he perform the same trick again?

He will apply the same code - and for that one of the Premier League's most promising young managers deserves great credit - but I think Wigan are in for a season of struggle.

Paraguay defender Antolin Alcaraz has arrived and Hamilton Academical midfielder James McArthur follows the path trodden to the DW Stadium by James McCarthy - Scottish, young, hungry, talented. Real Wigan hopes.

Martinez excelled by keeping Wigan up last season. May need to be even better this time.

VERDICT: Relegation candidates.

WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS

I did not win any popularity contests among Wolves fans for criticising manager Mick McCarthy's decision to field a reserve team at Manchester United last season but I don't back down. On the other side of the coin, any side that counts former Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple giants Robert Plant and Glenn Hughes among their fans has my total admiration.

McCarthy sent out a team that was committed, honest, organised and thoroughly deserved to stay in the Premier League. I think they will do so again - and the derby dates with West Brom will be special occasions.

It has been fairly quiet at Molineux this summer but Kevin Doyle is still there, as is the pragmatic McCarthy, who has added Stephen Hunt and Steven Fletcher to his squad, so I back Wolves to survive another campaign in the battling, disciplined style that served them so well last time out.

VERDICT: Bottom half but survival. Just.

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