Though the Anfield club grabbed silverware in the form of the League Cup last year, focus must resume on finding a way back into the Champions League this year.
The club are still suffering the financial hangover of the whopping £70 million spent on Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing, hampering Brendan Rodgers’ plans for the coming campaign.
That said, they have snaffled one of the league’s surprise packages in Joe Allen, providing Rodgers with the player that typified the successful system he employed at Swansea.
Rodgers is another of the game’s most promising managers and it will be intriguing to see how quickly he can get the higher profile stars of Liverpool to adjust to his style. I expect the transition will take time, though the 3-0 win over FC Gomel showed promising early signs – particularly through the understanding Fabio Borini showed alongside Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez.
Borini is an intelligent goalscoring forward – a fairly rare breed in the modern game – and I expect he will surprise a number of people this year. If Liverpool can keep hold of Daniel Agger and get Suarez scoring more than he did last year, they will do well and may even push hard for a top four place. There is a wealth of young talent waiting in the wings as well and if Rodgers gets the mix right, this will be an exciting year to be following Liverpool.
Key Man: Luis Suarez
If you ignore his indiscretions, his diving and cheating there is much to appreciate in Suarez. He may not be the goalscorer his Ajax statistics suggested he would be but the Uruguayan is one of the most dangerous forwards in the league. His movement and ability to beat defenders as well as the work-rate that keeps defenders permanently under pressure ensures he is always a threat. I’m looking forward to seeing how his partnership with Fabio Borini blossoms this year – it could be one of the best duos in the league.
The 3-2 win over Chelsea in the Community Shield hugely flattered Roberto Di Matteo’s side in my eyes as the Premier League champions looked sharper, more fluid and threatening than their opponents. In short, it didn’t look as if they’d been away.
Of course, it’s largely down to the lack of activity in the transfer market as Roberto Mancini lamented in the days preceding the fixture. Though Jack Rodwell has since been added, City look set to start the season with a relatively unchanged first XI as they embark on their title defence.
Though it may frustrate the Italian, he has such a wealth of talent in his disposal that even by picking up where they left off, City will finish in the top two. But with the addition of a fully focused Carlos Tevez – the man who missed five months last season – City have someone who will inevitably add goals to their attack.
The most interesting thing to come from their pre-season is the introduction of the three-man defence. There carries some risk and the two goals Chelsea scored suggest City may be easier to break down this season but in attack they carry an extra body – surely bad news for defences across the league.
The worry is whether they have the defenders to play this system all season. Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott are certain to start but rumours of a bust-up with Kolo Toure mean Mancini will have to turn to the fragile Stefan Savic more than he would like. Still, that’s not to say he will employ the new system all season, it just adds an exciting dynamic to an already strong team.
The pressure that caused a late season collapse was relieved by Aguero’s last minute title-winner and the squad should carry a swagger about their play this year. They are the champions and I’d expect it to give them more freedom in their play. Whether that translates to Europe and the Champions League is another question, but domestically, I predict a second title for Mancini and his men.
Key Man: Sergio Aguero
It was overshadowed by his title-winning strike but 23 league goals in his debut season in England was almost unprecedented. With a year of experience behind him, a more attacking style and his compatriot Carlos Tevez alongside him, it’s not ridiculous to say he could improve on last year’s haul. If he does, I expect City to claim the title again and go far in Europe.
The devastating last-day concession of their title will undoubtedly renew Sir Alex’s hunger for another title and though he looked defeated after the 4-4 draw with Everton, I wouldn’t read much into that. It was a gruelling season and although United lost to those ‘noisy neighbours’ make no mistake, Ferguson will be after that 20th title.
And they have made strides over the summer, snapping up promising goalscoring midfielder Shinji Kagawa, talented 18-year-old Nick Powell and now Robin van Persie, last season’s top goalscorer. Add to that the return to fitness of Nemanja Vidic and United suddenly look as strong as they have done since the days of Ronaldo, Tevez and Rooney.
But there remains one gap still yet to be plugged – centre-midfield. Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs are another year older, is Darren Fletcher going to be back to the required standard after so long out? Michael Carrick has turned into United’s most valuable central option and although there is a promising partnership blossoming with Tom Cleverley (for both club and country) it is a lot to ask the 23-year-old to play an entire campaign at a high level – no matter his potential. There is of course Anderson, but going on past seasons, Ferguson would do well to get five good games out of him.
Overall, I’m pretty confused with United this year. I’ve got no idea how they will line-up. Ferguson has maintained a love for 4-4-2 despite signs that it is a dying system in the modern game, yet he is unlikely to move to anything as exuberant as a three-man defence. A 4-3-3 would see Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia and Nani maligned whereas the 4-4-2 seemingly puts Kagawa in a difficult situation.
That could be Ferguson’s biggest challenge this year – finding a system in which he could get the maximum out of the talent in his squad. With this in mind, I think they will chase City hard but ultimately fall just short.
Key Man: Robin van Persie
It may seem silly to pick the Dutchman as the club’s main man this year but if he adapts quickly and forms a good understanding with Wayne Rooney (there’s no reason why they shouldn’t) and emulate last season’s heroics at Arsenal, United will win the title. The confusion over the system, where Van Persie will play (surely as a straight No. 9?) and how often he will play (injuries?) just puts the brakes on me predicting a title-winning season for United.
The Magpies over-achieved last year, largely thanks to two phenoms up front. Demba Ba smashed them in for the first five months and Papiss Cisse finished the job in the second-half. The question is whether both were flashes in the pan. Ba’s form didn’t last, though that was more because Alan Pardew deployed the Senegalese striker out wide after Cisse’s arrival.
Cisse was unstoppable after arriving in January, netting with some ludicrous finishes – some of which will go down as the best the league has ever seen in my opinion. But can Pardew get the two of them playing well alongside each other? In theory, yes – they should work well together.
But the end of season switch to a 4-3-3 suggested Pardew is looking at other systems ahead of this season. If so, who gets dropped? And can Cisse possibly keep up his goalscoring feats?
Transfer-wise, the best news for Newcastle fans was seeing the club hold onto their key assets. Cheik Tiote and Yohan Cabaye are a fantastic duo in midfield, while Hatem Ben Arfa adds flair to the attack. Romain Amalfitano will provide further quality in the central areas as a play-making option while Gael Bigirimana brings pace and a direct approach to the flanks.
Vurnon Anita also moved from Ajax and will further add depth to the squad, presumably competing with Davide Santon and Jonas for a slot on the left flank.
It has been a positive summer for Newcastle and Pardew’s squad certainly has more strength than last season – essential given they will be fighting on four fronts this year – but for me, their success will hinge on the exploits of their two main strikers. It is worth adding that if the strikers do hit and maintain form, they would be a good outside bet to find success in one of the three cup competitions they enter this year.
Key Man: Papiss Cisse
As I’ve noted, if Cisse can pick up where he left off last season, Newcastle will have a fine season. He could be the best finisher we have seen in the last ten years, or he could simply be a bit lucky. It’s not meant as a slight, but there was the feeling that anything he swung his boot at would go in last year. Whether he is genuinely a supreme talent or someone riding a wave of post-transfer confidence remains to be seen. He’ll be fun to watch regardless.
Norwich surprised many last season. Tipped to go down after two consecutive promotions, Paul Lambert engineered something of a master-stroke by keeping the Canaries in mid-table – securing safety with plenty of games in hand.
Now though, it is Chris Hughton’s turn at Carrow Road. After spending years as a No. 2, Hughton made the step into management, and it has been marked by successful stints with tricky briefs – Newcastle (promotion) and Birmingham (play-offs). This though, is his first test in the Premier League – though it should not be forgotten how many years as a player and coach he spent in the top flight.
It is essential the Canaries get off to a decent start and provide the fans with faith in Hughton’s approach. He has done well to ensure last season’s top goalscorer and all-round handful Grant Holt signed a new contract and with him leading the line, Hughton should expect a decent haul of goals.
The squad itself is relatively unchanged, though Hughton has strengthened the defence by signing Steven Whittaker and Michael Turner. The addition of Robert Snodgrass from Leeds will also provide a further degree of creativity in a hard-working and effective midfield.
Though they will struggle to match last season’s 12th-place finish, I still expect Norwich to survive the dreaded second season.
Key Man: Anthony Pilkington
Perhaps surprisingly I’ve highlighted the attacking midfielder as Norwich’s key man this year. He impressed me in their 2-1 win over Spurs at White Hart Lane by finding space between the midfield and defence. He has a good eye for goal, netting seven Premier League goals last year and that kind of contribution will be much-needed if the club are to reach the magic 40-point mark.