One thing is for certain; under Mark Hughes QPR will not get relegated. After a dicey first year back in the Premier League, a summer of progress was needed to nudge the west London side from relegation candidates towards some semblance of an established Premier League side.
In shedding the remnants of their Championship-winning squad, Hughes already looks to be building a more than capable team as the likes of Park Ji-Sung, Junior Hoilett, Rob Green and Andy Johnson were all convinced to move to Loftus Road.
The group is more streamlined and that will breed focus as Hughes presumably targets a mid-table position in his first full year in charge.
The worry is goals. In Bobby Zamora, Johnson, Djibril Cisse and Jamie Mackie, QPR have a solid if unspectacular forward line. Only Cisse brings a touch of the unknown. But the addition of Hoilett and Park as well as Adel Taarabt (who underperformed in a goalscoring sense last year) should provide an able supporting cast throughout the year.
If Jose Bosingwa goes on to sign for the Hoops he will add further quality to a defensive line that is starting to take shape. The loan signing of Fabio from Manchester United is promising, as is the experience Ryan Nelsen brings to the table. And without missing an opportunity, if Joey Barton leaves the club, that can only be a positive step.
All in all, QPR have invested wisely this summer and I’d expect them to comfortably survive the threat of relegation and possibly even intrude on the top-half.
Key Man: Park Ji-Sung
This was a cracking signing and gives us a chance to watch Park a lot closer over the next year. He had a strange time at Man Utd – seemingly trusted and saved by Sir Alex for the big occasion – where he often delivered. At 31 he should still have plenty left in the tank and will be relied upon to grab his fair share of goals for QPR this year. Having said that, he wasn’t a prolific goalscorer at United, netting just 27 goals in over 200 appearances in his seven seasons, so the onus will be on him to be the inspirational figure Hughes hopes he will be.
They won the Championship last year with a relentless run of form in the second-half of the season, but I find it hard to see how Reading will survive in the Premier League this season. I don’t think you can doubt Brian McDermott’s quality and the speed in which he turned the Royals into a Premier League side suggests he is as astute as they come.
However, their summer transfer business just doesn’t reassure me that they’ll be able to grab the goals in attack or prevent them in defence. Pavel Pogrebnyak is their marquee signing and based on his loan spell at Fulham is capable of hitting double figures, but who will support him? Adam Le Fondre is the next best bet but Simon Church, Noel Hunt and Jason Roberts do not look likely to trouble the meanest defences this season.
At the back, Reading have added depth but not a great deal of quality. Nicky Shorey has returned to the club but at 31 is now nearing the latter stages of his career. Adrian Mariappa is untested at this level while Chris Gunter didn’t cut it when at Spurs (though he was in his teens).
In midfield, Danny Guthrie is a good signing and someone, who with a regular run of games, could rediscover the form that had him touted as a potential England international. However beyond him, there remains a sparsity in quality.
Predicting them to finish rock bottom may be a touch overboard, we shall see, but the only way I see them surviving is if they significantly strengthen in the next two weeks or in January.
Key Man: Pavel Pogrebnyak
A lot is going to be asked of Pogrebnyak this year. He’ll be expected to replicate the form that he showed in his six months at Fulham and will be McDermott’s primary source of goals. If he doesn’t bring that goalscoring touch – entirely possible given his mediocre record at Stuttgart – Reading will be in major trouble this year.
Back-to-back promotions usually spell bad news but if Norwich showed us anything, the momentum can carry into the Premier League and keep a club afloat. Nigel Adkins has done a remarkable job at Southampton, highlighted by the fact they remained in the top two of the Championship after their opening day win against Leeds last campaign.
This sort of consistency will be more than welcome in the Premier League and though I don’t expect the Saints to be anything more than relegation battlers, they carry more of a threat than any of their newly promoted comrades. Rickie Lambert was a revelation last year, while Billy Sharp provides an instinctive goalscoring knack. Record signing Jay Rodriguez will be one to watch too.
Perhaps most intriguing is the signing (imminent signing?) of Gaston Ramirez. This is a hell of a coup for the club particularly if they’ve nabbed him from under the noses of Liverpool and Spurs. He’ll add a creative spark that is likely to result in a welcome return of goals and assists. That said, he may find the lack of space he’s likely to receive a difficult hurdle to overcome in the early stages of his career. Don’t expect too much too soon.
But, backed up by quality in the likes of Adam Lallana and Jack Cork, the Saints should have a sturdy platform to build from.
Key Man: Rickie Lambert
The talisman last season will need to go some way to returning the amount of goals he notched last year and although he will have a tougher time of it in the Premier League, I expect Lambert to offer a direct threat that may prove the difference as the Saints battle relegation. If he can grab half the 27 league goals he managed last year, Adkins’ side will be in a healthy position.
Stoke are now an established Premier League side and though they finished 14th last year, that can be attributed to a demanding run in the Europa League and a relatively thin squad. Tony Pulis has turned the Potters into a tough proposition and an away trip no team in the league enjoys.
Though they have an air of predictability about their play, it remains effective, particularly after the addition of Peter Crouch. The signing of Michael Kightly looks astute given their reliance on effective wing-play and if he stays fit, Stoke will have yet another wideman capable of delivering the telling crosses Crouch and Co. relish.
At the back, Danny Collins and Jonathan Woodgate have departed but there remains a solid back four. The worry for me is in the middle of the park. Stoke have never attempted to play a possession-based brand of football, rather trusting their central midfielders to break up play and recycle the ball to the flanks.
However, the lack of quality in midfield means that even this can be a struggle at times. I don’t expect Stoke to be relegated but nor do I envisage them pressing for a top half place. A decent cup run is always possible and encouragingly you rarely see Pulis send out a weak side in a domestic game. Their game is based on commitment and intensity and that alone will keep them afloat.
Key Man: Peter Crouch
Two metre Peter has oddly never been renowned for his prowess in the air, at least not in a goalscoring sense, but he is adept at bringing in others – as was his primary use at Tottenham under Redknapp. But with Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington’s quality from wide positions it is hard not to expect Crouch to contribute significantly inside the box. If Pulis adds Michael Owen to his frontline, he could form a very effective, if unfashionable, strike-force.
Before the signing of Louis Saha, I wondered where the goals would come from. However, with the Frenchman on board, the Black Cats possess a reliable finisher capable of hitting double figures. Of course, appearances may be limited by an unwelcome injury record but if O’Neill can get him on the field for 75% of their games, he will be a valuable addition.
Behind him are two unproven strikers in Ji Dong-Won and Connor Wickham as well as the hot and cold Fraizer Campbell. All three will need to help ease the load on Saha but it’s far from certain if they will be able to.
That said, across the rest of the squad, Sunderland have good depth. Their midfield is packed full of capable central midfield options in the likes of Lee Cattermole, David Vaughan, Sebastian Larsson, Jack Colback and Craig Gardner. Out wide James McClean showed his class after being given a chance by Martin O’Neill while Stephane Sessegnon will deliver the creativity needed to unlock many a defence.
The worry is at the back where after the sale of Michael Turner and George McCartney leaves them looking a little light. But if O’Neill strengthens in the next two weeks, I feel he is a more than good enough manager to push Sunderland into the top-half.
Of all my predictions, this is the most up in the air though. The points highlighted above may well be telling me that they’ll do well to finish top-half but I have a feeling they’ll surprise a few next year.
Key Man: Stephane Sessegnon
It is a bit of a coup in itself keeping the Benin international at the club over the summer. He really came into his own last season, dovetailing nicely with Bendtner and grabbing his fair share of headlines. He is superb with the ball at his feet and has an accurate shot in either foot. At 28, he is entering the peak of his career and Sunderland will be hoping he can go better than the nine goals he scored last year.