This is the first part of my Premier League preview for 2012/13. Each club gets a maximum of 250 words, a prediction and a key man. Looking forward to revisiting this at the end of the year.
Even with the future of Robin van Persie unresolved, Arsenal have made impressive strides in the transfer window, adding quality in attacking positions with the signing of Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla – who could well turn out to be the coup of the summer.
Though 30 league goals will be hard to replace, that burden should be helped by Podolski from the wide left position and Giroud. The Frenchman arrives with an impressive Ligue 1 reputation but will be considered more of an unknown quantity in the Premier League after just a solitary season of success in a European top flight.
Bizarrely the rumoured departure of Alex Song may prove to be a blessing in disguise. Though no-one can doubt his quality, after an excellent campaign last year, moving the Cameroonian on will provide Arsene Wenger with the chance to deploy a traditional anchorman – something that should go a long way to restoring some much-needed defensive solidity.
If Thomas Vermaelen an Laurent Koscielny stay fit for the duration of the season, I can see Arsenal closing the gap on the two Manchester clubs and take steps towards ending the seven year trophy drought. Though I don’t think they’ll necessarily compete for the title this year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Wenger lead his team to success in one of the domestic trophies.
Key Man: Santi Cazorla
It may seem disrespectful, but when it became clear Cazorla was available and for the same price as a Steven Fletcher, I presumed the elite clubs would compete with Arsenal for him – City, United, Real Madrid, PSG. Yet, Wenger identified his man, swooped and nabbed him and I predict he’ll light up the league next year. He seems the perfect fit for Arsenal’s style and should score and create goals in abundance. Would calling him a better Samir Nasri be going too far? Probably not.
I’m a big fan of Paul Lambert and found myself really impressed by his work at Norwich last year. The versatility his side showed throughout the year kept opponents guessing and often accrued points they perhaps had no right to gain. It also pointed to his own ability as, no disrespect intended, but a team that had back-to-back promotions and contained a number of unfashionable players adapted to the demands of the Premier League impressively.
Villa were probably the most disappointing team in the league last year – lost in an Alex McLeish daze of defensive negligence and a lifeless attack.
However, they have always possessed a rich academy and Lambert will no doubt be looking to call on a number of prospects in his first year in charge. Helped by the return to fitness of Darren Bent – the captain in Stan Petrov’s absence, goals should come easier than they did last year.
The summer acquisitions carry an air of intrigue. Brett Holman is an attacking midfielder capable of providing goals from between the lines, Ron Vlaar should provide some steel to a creaky defence while Karim El Ahmadi arrives to do the same in midfield.
This will be a season of finding their feet once again and placing the foundations for what is hoped to be a successful reign for Lambert.
Key Man: Darren Bent
Bent is still relatively young at 28 and should be entering his prime right about now. He’s led a nomadic career but his best chance at finding a way back into the England squad would be to firmly settle at Villa and score the goals he is capable of. If he stays fit, expect him to hit double figures for the first time since 2009/10.
The European Champions have spent lavishly this summer and although Oscar, Eden and Thorgen Hazard and Marko Marin have been added to an already sparkling attack, there is a sense that Roberto Di Matteo’s approach to squad-building is a little Football Manager-esque. Rumours suggest Victor Moses will be the next through the door, while Andre Schurrle remains a prominent link.
Up front, Fernando Torres is set to lead the line as the club’s primary striker. Is he back? He shoed glimpses against Manchester City in the Community Shield and finished last season encouragingly. If he is back, is he going to provide the 20+ goals Chelsea will need to claw back to the top of the Premier League?
Upstairs, Roman Abromovich’s aspirations are no longer clear. He will expect a return on his investment this summer but after claiming the greatest prize in club football, perhaps the Champions League will take priority over domestic interests – as was the case last year.
Whatever his preference, a sixth-place finish will not be tolerated and Di Matteo will be expected to reduce what was a 25 point gap to City this year. However, his biggest challenge will be getting the best out of his attacking options and it could mean the time lost in the league as his artistic support cast to Torres gel. For that reason, I don’t think Chelsea will keep pace with City and will fight Arsenal and Man Utd for 2nd and 3rd.
Key Man: Juan Mata
He had a wonderful start to his Chelsea career, almost single-handedly keeping them afloat in the disastrous AVB tenure but tailed off towards the back-end of the campaign. But with a year under his belt and a greater array of talent around him, I expect Mata to shine once more. How prominent he’ll be depends on how generous Di Matteo is with the freedom he allows the Spaniard and how little the Olympic jaunt with Spain fatigued him.
Start strong, finish well. If David Moyes could find a way to have his Toffees fly out of the blocks in the first two months of the season, their ability to mix with the best and do enough against the worst would have them pushing for the European spots.
However, with a summer of change – Tim Cahill and Jack Rodwell moving on significantly reduces the quality in midfield – I can’t see anything but the norm for Everton. They start with a tricky home game against United and that could set the tone for August and September.
Though Moyes has only signed two players so far this summer, the return of Steven Pienaar is an excellent bit of business, as shown by his tremendous form after a loan return last January. In Steven Naismith, Everton have a lively forward, likely to play off Nikica Jelavic and judging by his pre-season form, is raring to go.
Leighton Baines looks set to stay, which is fantastic news for the club but on the other flank, the dependable Tony Hibbert and aging Phil Neville suggest investment in the defence will be the club’s next port of call. I’m looking forward to seeing more of Ross Barkley this year after catching some impressive performances for the England U19’s this summer.
Key Man: Marouane Fellaini
He’s criminally underrated in my opinion and has shown for the majority of his time at Everton that he’s an excellent player. For someone of his size, his stamina is impressive – he really does get up and down the pitch. Perhaps his weakest aspect is his goalscoring – his first season at Goodison yielded nine goals in all competitions, a figure he only came close to last year with five. At 24-years-of-age he has plenty of time to improve further.
In effect this will be Martin Jol’s proper first season in my eyes. He’s had an entire summer to prepare and has sold a number of stalwarts in Danny Murphy, Andy Johnson and Dickson Etuhu among others.
The worry is that the replacements have been few and cost nothing. There doesn’t appear to be any money in the coffers at Craven Cottage and that looks set to cost the club in the season ahead. Though Mladen Petric may well turn out to be an inspired signing, Sascha Riether is unlikely to pull up any trees, more filling a weak right-back slot.
Hugo Rodallega’s career has regressed in the last two years but he will add pace to the attack. Whether he can score double figures over a season remains a big question. Of course, keeping hold of both Moussa Dembele and Clint Dempsey remain priorities and if the club do start the season with their two key men, Fulham could match last season’s achievements.
I’m expecting Bryan Ruiz to have a bigger impact this campaign but the concern lies in the middle of midfield where a lot will be asked of Mahamadou Diarra. It’s hard to see Fulham pushing on from their commendable 9th-place finish but plaudits must go to Al-Fayed and Co. for firmly establishing the Cottagers as a Premier League club.
Key Man: Moussa Dembele
Vital to Fulham and perhaps even more so now that he’s dropped into midfield. That versatility alone is impressive but it was the ease in which he dovetailed with Mahamadou Diarra that surprised me most last year. He’s a good passer, fantastic to watch when he has the ball at his feet and has a ferocious shot – albeit lacks a genuine goalscoring touch. Improve that and Dembele will really become a household name.