My Premier League 2011-12 predictions
Kenny Dalglish has spent £100m since returning as Liverpool manager in January, but will that be enough to beat Arsenal and Spurs to a place in the top four and a return to the Champions League, the publicly-stated aim of Liverpool owner John W. Henry?
So many questions - and time to dust down the crystal ball and to try to predict what the forthcoming Premier League season will bring...
This season could well define Arsene Wenger's stint in charge of Arsenal. Photo: Getty
The most crucial season of Arsene Wenger's time at Arsenal awaits. A chase for four trophies evaporated in the space of weeks last season to make it six years without silverware - accompanied by the most serious criticism of Wenger's time at the club.
Gervinho's arrival from Lille provides attacking excitement and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is an investment in the future - but Arsenal supporters appear to be understandably wearying of Wenger's "jam tomorrow" promises and want serious first-team reinforcements now.
The weaknesses that cost Arsenal last season, vulnerability in central defence and a physical presence in midfield, have not yet been addressed.
They may well arrive once the saga of Fabregas' seemingly inevitable move to Barcelona is concluded. And their success will shape Arsenal and Wenger's season.
If they are, Arsenal may cling on to fourth place - if they are not then there is the real possibility of the Gunners dropping out of the select quartet at the top of the Premier League.
New Aston Villa manager Alex McLeish has battles to win off the field amid open discontent after he resigned at rivals Birmingham City following their relegation.
McLeish's cause has not been helped by the departure of a fruitful supply line as Ashley Young left for Manchester United followed by last season's player of the year, Stewart Downing, to Liverpool for £20m.
He has responded with the signing of the maverick but gifted Charles N'Zogbia from Wigan, and his replacement of goalkeeper Brad Friedel with Shay Given for only £3.5m could prove one of the summer's most astute pieces of business.
Villa will lean heavily on the goals of Darren Bent and will hope the promising Marc Albrighton continues to flourish - but expect a season of steady consolidation as opposed to spectacular achievement.
Blackburn made a late escape from relegation last season as manager Steve Kean struggled in succession to Sam Allardyce following his abrupt sacking by Indian owners Venky's.
Little has happened this summer to dispel fears that this fine old club faces a struggle for survival this term, with outstanding youngster Phil Jones sold to Manchester United and David Goodwillie from Dundee United the main inward attacking investment. They will have high expectations for young Serb Radosav Petrovic.
Defensive giant Christopher Samba is also being coveted by other clubs and if he leaves Ewood Park, another personality of great influence will be lost. A heavy burden would then fall on other experienced figures such as Ryan Nelsen, David Dunn and Brett Emerton as well as keeper Paul Robinson.
Rovers can be formidable at home and they will need to be to survive. Kean has so much to prove - but the club's new hierarchy perhaps have even more.
After an impressive campaign last season, Owen Coyle's Bolton will want to push on. Photo: Getty
Bolton's season of great promise under manager Owen Coyle collapsed in the latter stages as they lost 5-0 in the FA Cup semi-final to Stoke and lost seven of their last nine league games to finish 14th, a disappointment given earlier results.
Coyle, however, is a shrewd operator and will be optimistic of revival despite Daniel Sturridge, a great success on loan from Chelsea, returning to Stamford Bridge and top scorer Johan Elmander leaving for Galatasaray on a free transfer.
Bolton have had some desperate luck in pre-season with both new signing Tyrone Mears and talented South Korean Lee Chung-Yong suffering broken legs.
The danger of losing outstanding central defender Gary Cahill to Arsenal still casts a cloud, but the real spirit of Bolton will remain in the burly shape of Kevin Davies, and Coyle has made some wise cut-price deals in the transfer market with the addition of Nigel Reo-Coker after his contract ended at Aston Villa and Chris Eagles, who he knows well from his time at Burnley.
Coyle's big reputation in the game is deserved and I expect Bolton to threaten the top 10 and show again in one of the cup competitions.
Another season, another new manager at Stamford Bridge after Carlo Ancelotti was seen off at the bottom of a flight of stairs at Goodison Park following defeat at Everton.
Into the breach, and into the huge expectations of owner Roman Abramovich, steps 33-year-old Andre Villas-Boas after his season of success at Porto, in which he claimed the domestic double and the Europa League.
Chelsea are still chasing Tottenham's Luka Modric as their showpiece summer signing, a potentially defining purchase if successful, but it remains to be seen if Villas-Boas can find any way of successfully moulding a partnership out of £50m Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba.
Torres was a poor imitation of the world-class striker he was at Liverpool after arriving at Chelsea, but it is premature to suggest that stature has been lost forever. If Villas-Boas can flick the right switches he and Chelsea will flourish.
Villas-Boas will be expected to bring Abramovich the Champions League, but first he must find a way of reinvigorating a squad that has leaned too heavily on elder statesmen such as Frank Lampard and John Terry.
Josh McEachran can provide young legs and prodigious talent in midfield, Daniel Sturridge's time may well have come and the arrival of formidable teenager Romelu Lukaku from Anderlecht may soon pose another threat to the old guard.
Chelsea should never be dismissed, especially if they can somehow persuade Spurs to part with Modric, but I see the title going elsewhere and Villas-Boas claiming one of the cup competitions - with Abramovich hoping it is the Champions League.
Everton supporters will cast a wary eye on the foot of the table throughout this season. Photo: Getty
Another summer without transfer cash for manager David Moyes, with growing concern among fans as chairman Bill Kenwright continues to be frustrated in his search for new investors or owners.
Everton fell foul of their trademark awful start last season but pulled the campaign around to finish a respectable seventh. Goodison Park remained formidable with Liverpool, Spurs, Manchester City and Chelsea all beaten.
The question is how long can Moyes continue to perform the trick with no room for manoeuvre in the transfer market and a talented, but wafer-thin, squad? It is impossible to see Everton threatening the top four unless the financial climate at the club changes.
Moyes will hope to keep Arsenal target Phil Jagielka and try to ensure youngster Jack Rodwell finally fulfils his potential. And in teenager Ross Barkley he has another outstanding local product to nurture.
Will all this be enough to improve on last season? I don't think so. Same again and a dangerous presence in the cups.
The sudden departure of manager Mark Hughes at the end of last season could have unsettled Fulham but the succession was superbly handled with the swift appointment of Martin Jol.
Jol is a man with plenty to prove in England after his contentious sacking at Spurs. He is a popular figure and will bring real personality and presence to the Premier League as well as acumen.
Fulham finished a creditable eighth last season and Jol will hope for the same again with the bedrock of his squad still in place with Brede Hangeland in defence, Danny Murphy and Clint Dempsey in midfield and Bobby Zamora providing the goal threat up front.
It would be a major surprise if Fulham struggled this season, although they must cope with the distraction of the Europa League, and Jol will be on a mission to show he can be a force one more in England.
Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish will be hoping to finish in the top four this season. PHOTO: GETTY
Kenny Dalglish's game of Premier League catch-up has come with a price tag of more than £100m attached as Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing joined Andy Carroll and the brilliant Luis Suarez in the new-look Liverpool team.
Dalglish will also be revitalised after reclaiming the job he has wanted for the last 20 years and his simple presence will act as a unifying and galvanising force at a club that has wasted too much time on off-the-field acrimony in recent years.
There is a real sense of optimism around Anfield despite mixed pre-season results, and in Suarez Liverpool have a player who gives them a thrilling extra dimension in attack.
Downing has been bought to provide supply for Carroll while Henderson and Adam will strengthen in midfield, giving added freedom to Steven Gerrard once he is fit after groin surgery.
Owner John W. Henry has already set his sights on the top four and make no mistake Dalglish will be doing the same, in private if not in public.
Dalglish has problems to solve at left-back and in central defence, but if he does that successfully I expect Liverpool to seriously threaten Arsenal and Spurs for fourth place - and well worth a few pounds of anyone's money to win a cup without the added fixture congestion of the Europa League.
The infamous Old Trafford banner has been stripped away and the clock has stopped ticking. Manchester City ended 35 years without a trophy by winning the FA Cup last season and established even firmer foundations for progress with a place in the Champions League.
Carlos Tevez has hogged plenty of headlines with his so-far unfulfilled desire to leave, but the arrival of his outstanding fellow countryman Sergio Aguero has calmed any nerves.
Boss Roberto Mancini must wrestle with that weight as his task now is to prove he can plot a serious Premier League title challenge with such an expensively-assembled squad - which may well have Arsenal's Samir Nasri added shortly.
City should gain great self-belief from finally winning a cup and I believe this will sustain them for a more concerted attempt on the title this season, inspired by the brilliance of David Silva, one of the Premier League's most elegant and watchable performers.
Intriguing to see what impact they can make on the Champions League - and dark horses for the title.
Champions Manchester United have added new signings to bolster their squad. PHOTO: GETTY
Manchester United ended last season in pain after being outclassed by Barcelona in the Champions League final - but a record 19th domestic title provided plenty of consolation and proof of Sir Alex Ferguson's enduring powers.
He was not about to go quietly and has set about the task of rebuilding a squad depleted by the retirements of Edwin van der Sar, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes. And the manner of their comeback and win against Manchester City last Sunday once again marks them down as the team to beat this season.
Ferguson has bought well with the acquisition of a fine young keeper in David de Gea from Atletico Madrid. Phil Jones is talented enough to act as instant cover for any defensive emergencies and Ashley Young's arrival from Aston Villa adds fluidity and versatility to an already potent attack given the presence of Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez. He will also provide competiton to spark Nani to a return to his best.
The Scot would like to add another quality midfield player with Scholes gone, but added bonuses have come with the growing maturity and promise of Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck after their loan spells at Wigan and Sunderland respectively.
United will need to improve on under-par away form that was propped up by results at Old Trafford, where only two points were dropped and they will face a renewed challenge from their affluent neighbours.
I am unconvinced the current United squad can reclaim the Champions League unless Barcelona perish, but they are good enough to notch title number 20.
Joey Barton's Twitter feed has provided the colourful backdrop to Newcastle's close season with talk of his exit following on from the loss of Andy Carroll to Liverpool in January and captain Kevin Nolan to West Ham.
Manager Alan Pardew has been working the markets and will hope the explosive but unpredictable Demba Ba will provide a regular source of goals while Cheik Tiote is the mainstay of a midfield that contains promise if Hatem Ben-Arfa and Sylvain Marveaux can steer clear from injury. Barton may even be rehabilitated at some point and for all the criticism aimed at him, he has never been accused of being a bad footballer.
Gabriel Obertan often looked out of his depth at Manchester United. Sir Alex Ferguson's decision to cut his losses has landed the winger on Tyneside in an attempt to prove his worth in a signing that is a gamble, at best, by Pardew.
Newcastle often seem only a step away from self-inflicted injuries and their height of expectation this season should be survival. Something I expect them to achieve in relative comfort - although this is Newcastle we are talking about.
Manager Paul Lambert has been at the forefront of a remarkable transformation that has witnessed Norwich returning to the Premier League and there is a realistic chance that he can confirm his hero status in Norfolk by keeping them there.
Norwich will expect much from the creativity of Wes Hoolahan and the goals of Grant Holt but Norwich have also been active in the transfer market with strikers James Vaughan and Steve Morison coming to Carrow Road from Everton and Millwall. Defender Kyle Naughton has so far failed to fulfil his potential at Spurs, so will be hoping he can get his career heading in the right direction during his loan spell.
They will be backed by passionate full houses at home and this is where they must set the platform for survival. Lambert's know-how, accumulated as a Champions League winner with Borussia Dortmund and throughout a fine playing career, should not be under-estimated and the Canaries may just defy the odds to stay up.
QUEENS PARK RANGERS
QPR cruised to the Championship under that master of winning promotion Neil Warnock - who now has his familiar problem of keeping a side in the top tier after getting them there.
So much will depend on the enigmatic Adel Taraabt, who is staying at Loftus Road after flirting with a move to Paris St. Germain. He revelled in the Championship but it remains to be seen if he can transfer his flamboyant style to the Premier League after failing to make an impact at Tottenham, where he was eventually deemed surplus to requirements.
If he can, then QPR's chances of survival will soar and he will be a crucial creator for Warnock's new "DJ Bothroyd" strike force of DJ Campbell and Jay Bothroyd. Kieron Dyer's signing from West Ham is a throw of the dice from Warnock in the hope he can somehow go a spell without injury and make a meaningful contribution at some stage.
QPR's fans have been disappointed by the lack of big-money signings following promotion. If they survive, the season can be considered a big success for Warnock and his players.
Stoke played in their first FA Cup final last season and will now compete in this year's Europa League tournament. PHOTO: GETTY
Stoke are often damned with faint praise but not here. A 13th-placed finish in the Premier League and an FA Cup final appearance represented more fine work by manager Tony Pulis last season.
Their failure to show anything like their true form in defeat to Manchester City at Wembley was a major disappointment but they will be back for more this season in the atmospheric surroundings of the Britannia Stadium with a style based on the wing-play of Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington serving up the supply for Kenwyne Jones and Jon Walters.
Plenty of eyes will be on Jonathan Woodgate to see if he can give his career the finale his talent deserves after so many injury problems, and chairman Peter Coates usually finds the funds to back Pulis so expect more additions before the deadline.
I may be in the minority but I admire Stoke, love the raw atmosphere of the Britannia and expect the Potters to be in and around the top 10 once more, especially if they finally master the art of picking up points away from home.
Sunderland manager Steve Bruce must have spent the entire summer with his mobile phone clasped to his ear as he embarked on what amounted to almost a complete refit of a side that collapsed badly in the second half of last season after losing Darren Bent to Aston Villa for £24m.
He took his transfer fund to £40m by selling Jordan Henderson to Liverpool before putting together a new-look combination of youth and experience that he hopes will at least repeat last season's 10th-placed finish.
Wes Brown and John O'Shea have arrived from Manchester United to provide the experience while Connor Wickham's £9m signing from Ipswich Town provides the youth as Bruce pulled off a real coup by persuading one of the country's most coveted youngsters to move to the Stadium of Light.
Seb Larsson and Craig Gardner will add midfield strength along with David Vaughan, a real star of Blackpool's gallant attempt to stay in the Premier League last season.
On the surface Bruce looks to have used his money very wisely - now he needs the results to convince a Wearside public that grew decidedly discontented at times last season.
Brendan Rodgers has long been tipped as a real managerial talent and he proved it by taking Swansea into the Premier League via the play-offs last season.
A disciple of Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, Rodgers' Swansea returned to the big league for the first time 1983 on the back of Scott Sinclair's goals and Joe Allen's midfield performances - but can they make the step up?
Danny Graham will have heavy goal-scoring responsibility as a club record £3.5m signing from Watford while Wayne Routledge is fortunate to get another chance to realise a talent that is too often unfulfilled, with the same applying to Leroy Lita after his £1.75m move from Middlesbrough.
It is about time Wales had a presence in the Premier League and Swansea's style suggests they will win admirers - but I fear a long struggle to avoid relegation.
Spurs will look to get back in to the Champions league after conquering Inter and AC Milan last season. PHOTO:GETTY
Bitter-sweet season for Spurs last time out as Champions League wins against AC Milan and Inter Milan were followed by a slump in form that saw them drop out of the top four and contention for this season's tournament.
As much will depend on who Spurs keep rather than sign as Chelsea continue to pursue Luka Modric. If Redknapp and chairman Daniel Levy can stay firm and convince the Croatian that White Hart Lane is the place for him, then they can prepare again for another season rich in promise.
If Modric is lost, and at this stage Spurs have not moved one inch from their "not for sale" stance, then worries will increase that Champions League participation was a one-off treat rather than a regular diet.
Brad Friedel's signing is a wise move away from the unreliable goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes but Redknapp's main priority still has to be that regular 20-goal striker to go alongside the exciting Rafael van der Vaart after his attackers failed to do the business last season.
If Modric stays and is happy, then Spurs will be in the top six, eyeing the top four and worth a trip to the bookies for one of the cups.
WEST BROMWICH ALBION
The Hawthorns was the perfect place for Roy Hodgson to restore his reputation after his sacking at Liverpool as he succeeded Roberto di Matteo and took them to a comfortable 11th in the table.
Now he must build on the hope and optimism engendered and the signs of the summer look good. Ben Foster is an upgrade on Scott Carson in goal, Chris Brunt has signed a new contract and Peter Odemwingie has stayed. And with Shane Long signed from Reading, Hodgson will feel the Baggies are in good shape.
Hodgson may have struggled at Liverpool but West Brom has looked as comfortable a fit for this experienced operator as Fulham did when he took them to the Europa League final. I expect them to have a campaign of consolidation.
A good-news, bad-news summer for Wigan. Manager Roberto Martinez turned down Aston Villa but best player Charles N'Zogbia didn't, leaving a gaping hole in their attacking resources.
Tom Cleverley's return to Manchester United after a loan spell is also a blow for one of the most unpredictable sides in the Premier League, capable of beating the best and losing to the worst with equal expertise.
Talented midfield James McCarthy will be crucial to their season if Wigan can keep him away from an increasing group of admirers, as will striker Hugo Rodallega.
Wigan have danced around the drop with regularity. If Martinez can do the same again this season then his reputation will be enhanced, but this may be the season when they do not escape.
Mick McCarthy believes the Premier League will be tougher this season and has warned Wolves they must improve their results against other relegation battlers. PHOTO: GETTY
It took a late goal from Stephen Hunt to keep Wolves up last season - but now is surely the time for this great old club to stop seeking to simply survive under Mick McCarthy and set their sights a little higher.
And backed once more by chairman Steve Morgan, McCarthy has spent £12m on two players who could help them do just that.
Jamie O'Hara has completed a permanent move after a successful spell on loan when McCarthy may just have seen a mirror image of his own attitude to defending when spending £7m to take Roger Johnson from Birmingham City.
Johnson's form shaded as Birmingham were relegated but he was battling against injury and I also saw him produce several towering performances last season. This deal could prove a real winner for McCarthy and Wolves.
Steven Fletcher came good towards the end of the season and Kevin Doyle's return will be vital, as will the combative and creative contributions of Hunt and Matt Jarvis.
This may just be the season when Wolves and their supporters don't spend the final few weeks in a cold sweat.