Welcome to my football blog. I'll be covering most of the key issues and stories which dominate top level English and European football over the coming months, and so if you love this fantastic sport as much as I do, I hope you'll appreciate reading and responding to what I've got to say.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Rafa's baptism of fire

Earlier this week, Jose Mourinho claimed that his old foe and successor as Inter Milan manager Rafael Benitez had inherited an 'easy job' at the San Siro. The 50 year old Spaniard has since made it clear that he doesn't agree with this assessment, but if he did privately harbour any complacency regarding the task at hand, then Friday's European Super Cup defeat to an impressive Atletico Madrid will serve as a timely reminder of the challenges which lie ahead for him and his team.

Benitez's Inter were a pale shadow of the side which ruthlessly dispatched all comers in Europe last year. They lacked a creative spark in attack, intensity in midfield and - perhaps most surprising of all to those who witnessed the Nerazzurri's triumph last season - organisation at the back. These deficiencies grew more apparent as the game wore on and the Italian giants appeared to tire, culminating in the alarming ease with which Sergio Aguero tapped in the decisive second goal with seven minutes remaining. If the former Liverpool manager was looking to let his team's performance provide a defiant riposte to the jibes of the Special One, he must surely have been disappointed with the message sent by his players.

After the match, Benitez himself cited a lack of preparation time with his World Cup players as the main reason behind the lethargic performance, admitting that more disappointment may be in store for Inter fans whilst the team gets up to speed. That the likes of Sneijder, Lucio and Maicon were not at their imperious best in Monaco should come as no surprise - the lack of a pre-season for players who featured prominently at the World Cup has posed a problem for all of the major European clubs. It is also natural that a club of the stature of Inter, with so many individuals having negotiated a busy summer, should suffer more than Atletico. But if fans of the Italian giants are looking for reasons to remain positive about their side's hopes of making a good start to the season, they need look no further than Premier League champions Chelsea. Having looked decidedly off the pace in the Community Shield at Wembley, the Blues have since gone on to win their first three league matches, scoring fourteen goals without reply in the process. Inter are more than capable of achieving the same feat.

Despite Friday's setback, Benitez's immediate prospects for success at the San Siro remain very good. The Spaniard may face the unenviable task of being the first manager in the history of European football to have to immediately follow a treble-winning manager, but he has also inherited a treble-winning side. Inter have lost none of the key players who helped establish their supremacy at home and abroad last season, and with promising youngsters such as Davide Santon and Coutinho developing nicely, there is even an argument to be made that the Nerazzurri boast a stronger playing squad now than they did 12 months ago. Moreover, the new manager is not likely to face a struggle to impose his own tactical philosophy on the team, since it was in playing Benitez's favoured pragmatic 4-2-3-1 formation under Jose Mourinho that Inter enjoyed their greatest successes last year.

There are further reasons for optimism off the field. The sale of Mario Balotelli to Manchester City was as much the removal of a problem as it was the loss of a promising young talent, and although the latest edition of the Swiss Ramble (see page bottom for link) has it on good authority that Nerazzurri owner Massimo Moratti will not delve into his own pockets to provide a war-chest for his new manager, it is likely that the millions received from Eastlands will be available should Benitez require it. The Spaniard also has the privilege of managing the dominant force in what must be considered the least competitive of all Europe's major leagues. Inter have won Serie A in each of the last 5 seasons, and there has been nothing in the way of significant transfer activity this summer that suggests a changing of the guard is imminent. If Inter's domestic supremacy remains without serious challenge, then Benitez will find himself free to concentrate his resources on the Champions League - a stage upon which he has already proved himself an extremely able operator.

But superior ability and opportunity breeds expectation. Whilst only the foolishly misguided among the Nerazzurri faithful would dare to expect a repeat of last season's exceptional treble, there is no doubt that no one associated with the Milan club would tolerate any less than a sixth consecutive Serie A title. Last season's triumph in Madrid may have sated Inter's previously all-consuming desire to reclaim Europe's premier club trophy for the first time since 1965, but the Italian giants have come to take their domestic dominance for granted. If Benitez is to make his own mark at the San Siro, he must rediscover the consistency which was the foundation of his success at Valencia; the same consistency which deserted him at Anfield.

Major trophies are not won in the first few months of a season, but Benitez will know that they are not won at all with the kind of lifeless display exhibited by his side in Monaco on Friday. Atletico's triumph is a warning that much work remains to be done if Jose Mourinho's successor is to perpetuate the myth of Inter Milan as an 'easy job', and to continue the Italian giants' proud recent tradition of success.

Friday, 20 August 2010

European Football's Rising Stars 10/11

The landscape of football changes at a rapid pace. The best players of any given generation, limited by injuries, age, a loss of form, the arrival of new talent, or even a combination of these factors, rarely experience more than 5 or 6 years at the pinnacle of the game. Consequently, top European clubs and their fans are constantly looking to find the individuals capable of making their own mark on the sport, and of adding their names to its illustrious list of past legends. In that same spirit, I have compiled a list of the young players that I think have the ability to establish themselves this year as big names in Europe's top leagues. I have scoured the Premiership, Primera Liga, Serie A, Ligue 1 and Bundesliga, and selected 5 top prospects from each country. Here goes:

Premier League

1. Jack Wilshere

Arsenal's prodigy is now a secret to no one. The Stevenage-born 18 year old has been catapulted into the national spotlight by a call-up to the England squad against Hungary despite only having played a handful of senior competitive games for his club, with many in the media heralding him as the most technically gifted midfielder this country has produced since Paul Gascoigne. It is one hell of a tag to live up to, but Wilshere's talent justifies the comparison. The diminutive playmaker's exceptional touch is allied with fantastic vision, not to mention an eye for goal. He is the first legitimate 'wonderkid' that England have produced since Wayne Rooney, and although Cesc Fabregas' decision to remain at the Emirates will not facilitate his path into the first team, Arsene Wenger's reluctance to let the young man out on loan again suggests that he will get his chance.

2. Javier Hernandez

When Manchester United announced the signing of an obscure young Mexican striker for an undisclosed fee in April of this year, most followers of the Old Trafford club could be forgiven for being distinctly underwhelmed. What a difference a World Cup can make. After inflicting misery on the French and scoring an absolute peach against Argentina, 'Chicharito' has now come to the attention of Premier League fans, and it appears as if Sir Alex Ferguson has unearthed a North American gem. Two footed, lightning quick and surprisingly good in the air, Hernandez is a natural goalscorer who, as well as possessing bags of potential, also has all of the tools to make a more immediate impact this season.

3. Jack Rodwell

Everton may not have been too active in the transfer market, but David Moyes will be delighted to have kept his most prized asset at Goodison Park. Jack Rodwell is a classy midfielder, physically powerful and technically gifted, and the fact that his first Premier League goal last season happened to be a stunner against Manchester United shows that he is unfazed by the big occasion. He gained considerable first team experience last year under the Moyes' astute guidance, and the wise decision to stay at Everton means that his development will remain unhindered this term. Provided he stays clear of serious injury, I would be very surprised if Rodwell isn't a regular in the England squad come May.

4. Giovani Dos Santos

The second Mexican in the list, Dos Santos' career to date has been far from smooth. Another talent to emerge from Barcelona's legendary La Masia youth academy, he was deemed surplus to requirements at the Camp Nou, and made his way to North London with Tottenham. Since then, a love of the party lifestyle and lack of dedication to training have threatened to curtail Giovani's development, resulting in fairly pointless loan spells at Ipswich and Galatasaray. But at 21, the Mexican playmaker has shown a willingness to improve his attitude, and after a very impressive World Cup, it looks as though Spurs fans may finally be about to see a return on their club's investment. With his creativity and dribbling skill, Dos Santos has the tools to go as far as he wants in the game. This season could be the making of him.

5. Adam Johnson

At 23, Adam Johnson is a relative veteran on this list, but his inclusion is testament to his remarkable rise to prominence in the last 12 months. Despite establishing himself as the best player in the Championship with Middlesbrough in the first half of last season, there were doubts in many quarters as to whether Johnson would be able to replicate this form at a top Premier League club. Any such reservations were quickly laid to rest, as the winger played a starring role for City in their ultimately unsuccessful challenge for fourth place. With his excellent technique and ability to commit defenders, I would expect Johnson to kick on this season and establish himself in City's starting XI, despite his club's frivolous spending.

Primera Liga

1. Javi Martinez

Javi Martinez is older than his years suggest. Signed as a 17 year old by Athletic Bilbao for €6m despite never having played a first team game for Osasuna, the midfielder has gone on to make over 100 appearances for the Basque club in the last four seasons. His progression has been steady rather than meteoric, but recent form indicates that he is ready take the next step in his career, and in doing so continue Spain's proud tradition of producing quality technical midfielders. A World Cup call up was a just reward for a season of consistent displays, in which Martinez led his side to the Spanish Cup final. This will be the season where this powerful, cultured midfielder produces the kind of form which secures a move to a top European club.

2. David De Gea

When Atletico Madrid signed Sergio Asenjo from Real Valladolid at the beginning of last season, many in Spain believed it would be the move which catapulted one of the best young keepers in Europe to stardom. But 19 year old David De Gea hadn't read the script. A product of Atletico's youth academy, he got his chance in the first team when Asenjo was away on international duty, and his consistent and assured displays ensured that he kept his place between the sticks. In doing so, De Gea also played a starring role as his side broke Fulham hearts in the Europa League final. Under manager Quique Sanchez Flores he is likely to start the new season as Atletico's first choice, and a good full season could see him on the radar of Europe's top clubs. With superb reflexes and a maturity beyond his years, the sky is the limit for De Gea.

3. Sofiane Feghouli

It could well be a difficult season for Valencia. Having lost David Villa and David Silva this summer, as well as club captain Carlos Marchena to Villarreal, the perception is of a club in financial and footballing decline. But if they are to prove the doubters wrong, then a certain 20 year old from Grenoble is likely to play a key role. Sofiane Feghouli made his name in the South of France as a skilful, creative midfielder, more known for providing goals than scoring them. His position and Algerian background inevitably brought comparisons in the French media to a young Zinedine Zidane, but Feghouli has handled the hype well. Injuries hampered the latter part of his time at Grenoble, but if he can stay fit and adjust well to life in Spain, then Valencia may not miss David Silva quite so much.

4. Alvaro Dominguez

Yet another reason for Atletico fans to be cheerful. Alvaro Dominguez is a tall, rangy young centre-half who made an invaluable contribution the defensive solidity which Quique Sanchez Flores' side enjoyed in the second half of last season. After failing to make an impact in Real Madrid's academy, Dominguez joined city rivals Atletico's youth ranks at the age of 12, and seems determined to make the most of his chance. He has been linked with the likes of Liverpool this summer, but would be better served by continuing his development in Spain. If he can build on the considerable promise he showed last year and maintain his position as a first team starter, then big clubs will certainly come calling.

5. Andres Guardado

Completing the Mexican contingent in this list is Andres Guardado. After making his name for Atlas in his homeland, the left winger made his move to Europe in 2007 with Spanish side Deportivo La Coruna. Over the last three years, Guardado has become a shining light in a relatively mediocre Depor side, and further enhanced his reputation with a series of impressive displays in South Africa 2010. The 23 year old is a tricky winger with fantastic crossing ability and delivery from set pieces, and has been linked with a host of top European clubs over the last couple of seasons. Another good campaign should make him one of the most desirable prospects around.

Serie A

1. Javier Pastore

This should be the year that a genuine star is born in Palermo. Javier Pastore showed fantastic potential in his first season in Italy, quickly adjusting to the style of Serie A and playing a pivotal role as his side reached the lofty heights of fourth place. The 21 year old playmaker's physique and technical qualities have attracted comparisons to a young Kaka, and belief in his potential appears to be borne out by Palermo chairman Maurizio Zamparini's claims to have rejected a €25m bid this summer from Real Madrid for his prized asset. Upon making the announcement, Zamparini defiantly claimed that Pastore would be worth double that figure come next year. That amount may be a little optimistic, but if the Argentine continues his rapid development, it may not be too far off.

2. Davide Santon

The 19 year old Inter Milan full back is a truly exceptional talent. Brought into the first team by Jose Mourinho in January of last year, Santon first came to the attention of a wider European audience when the Special One selected him at left back for the home leg of the crunch Champions League tie against defending champions Manchester United. Consequently, the youngster was entrusted with the unenviable task of shackling the then-World Footballer of the Year, Cristiano Ronaldo. That Santon more than held his own against the Portuguese superstar is testament to his mentality as well as his quality. Defensively solid and with plenty to offer going forward, his progress has been thus far hindered by both injury and the fact that he is competing with Maicon for a starting spot. The continued presence of the latter is likely to mean that Santon will get most of his game time this year on his less preferred left side, but if he can stay fit, it won't be long before everyone knows just how good he is.

3. Marek Hamsik

The 23 year old Napoli midfielder is another who has been touted for big things for some time now. But coming off the back of the best season of his career so far, in which he notched 11 goals from midfield for his club and captained Slovakia to the knockout stages of the World Cup, Hamsik looks set to finally confirm his reputation as one of European football's brightest young players. Hamsik's boyhood hero, Pavel Nedved, has already come out and described the young playmaker as his natural heir, and I believe this will be the season that the talented Slovakian finally lives up to this billing and earns a move to a top European club.

4. Sokratis Papastathopoulos

This tenacious Greek defender originally made his sizable name for AEK Athens, eventually captaining the side at the tender age of 18, before securing a transfer to Genoa in the summer of 2008. During his time at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris, he impressed many in Italy with his positional sense, consistency and marking ability. These qualities were brought to a wider footballing audience when Greece coach Otto Rehhagel charged Sokratis with the job of marking Lionel Messi out of the game in their crunch Group B encounter at the World Cup. The youngster rose to the task of neutralising the best player in the world, his relentless determination never more evident than when he followed Messi to the touchline midway through the second half as the Argentine sought some refreshments. His considerable potential has persuaded AC Milan to move to secure his services this summer, and given the high average age of the Italian giants' squad and Sokratis' ability to deputise at centre back or right back, he is likely to gain plenty of first team opportunities to develop on the big stage.

5. Khouma Babacar

Perhaps one of the more obscure names on this list, Khouma Babacar is a 17 year old Senegalese striker who caught the eye of several Serie A scouts whilst in the youth ranks at lowly Pescara, before Fiorentina won the battle for his signature in 2008. It could prove to be one of the best decisions the Viola have ever made. Standing tall at 6 foot 3 inches and already possessing a muscular physique, Babacar is the ideal fit for a target man, but his reasonable pace and keen eye for goal suggest he has the potential to become a complete centre forward, much like his idol - Didier Drogba. He scored on his senior debut in the Coppa Italia last season, and his physicality, as well as the fact that Stevan Jovetic is out for six months through injury, is likely to mean that Viola boss Cesare Prandelli is likely to give his young prodigy a sustained run in the first team this time out.


1. Toni Kroos

There are two main reasons why Bayern Munich did not join the scramble to sign Mesut Ozil from Werder Bremen this summer. The first is that the World Cup star had his heart set on a move to Spain. The second is that the German giants believe they already have a potentially world-class number 10 in Toni Kroos. The 20 year old has been making waves in the Bundesliga ever since his debut for Bayern back in 2007, when he laid on two assists for Miroslav Klose in a 5-0 rout of Energie Cottbus. During his 18 month loan spell at Bayer Leverkusen, Kroos was instrumental as the typically underachieving German club went on a 24 game unbeaten run, topping the Bundesliga for most of the first half of the season. This year, Kroos will be given much more responsibility at his parent club, and with excellent passing ability, vision and knack of scoring important goals, should play a key role as Bayern seek to repeat the successes of last season.

2. Simon Kjaer

The 20 year old Danish centre-back has been a fairly regular presence in the newspaper gossip columns over the past 12 months, having been linked heavily with Liverpool as well as a host of other top clubs. In the end, it was Steve McClaren who succeeded in prising the want-away defender from Palermo to join his revolution at VFL Wolfsburg. It could well prove to be one of the most astute signings of the summer. Kjaer is an elegant defender with excellent anticipation and good ball distribution, and the fact that he carried his assured club form into the World Cup with Denmark proves that he enjoys the pressure of big matches. If McClaren can succeed in getting Kjaer and fellow new signing Arne Friedrich to gel quickly in the centre of defence, then Wolfsburg should once again be serious challengers for the Bundesliga title.

3. Eljero Elia

Outside of the Netherlands, Elia is probably best known to Scotland fans, since it was his breakaway goal at Hampden Park in September of last year which all but ended Scottish hopes of qualifying for the World Cup in South Africa. It shouldn't be too long, however, before he attracts wider acclaim. The flying winger made his name for FC Twente in the Eredivisie, where his powerful, direct style and lightning pace established him as one of the best young players in the league, and persuaded Hamburger SV to pay €8.9m for his services in the summer of 2009. A solid if not spectacular season in Germany followed, yielding 5 goals and 7 assists in 24 appearances, but now that his adjustment period is over, I fully expect Elia to start to justify his transfer fee this term, and to establish himself as one of the most exciting talents in the Bundesliga.

4. Neven Subotic

The 21 year old Serbian international has been on quite a journey. Born in Bosnia, his family moved to Germany when Neven was 5, but had to move again 5 years later to the US to avoid deportation. Whilst representing the USA's under-17 side in the Netherlands, he was persuaded by an agent to try out for FSV Mainz in Germany. His confident performances there sealed a move to Borussia Dortmund, where he has since established himself as one of the best young defenders in Europe. Having playing every minute of every league game for his club last year, Subotic was selected by his chosen nation Serbia for the World Cup in South Africa, and his assured displays have done nothing to harm his reputation. His importance to Dortmund means he will have plenty of opportunity to continue his development this term, and provided he stays fit, it can only be a matter of time before he moves on to bigger and better things.

5. Diego Contento

The Naples-born full back first caught the eye last season, when Louis Van Gaal blooded the 20 year old in the knockout stages of the Champions League, despite him only having a handful of first team appearances to his name. Contento's composed displays against Fiorentina and Lyon were a just reward for his manager's faith, and although Holger Badstuber was preferred to the nationalised German for the final against Inter Milan, I would be very surprised if Contento does not gain more regular first team experience this term. He is an athletic defender with astute positional sense and good attacking instincts, and this could well be the season that he establishes himself at the Allianz Arena.

Ligue 1

1. Miralem Pjanic

In many ways, Lyon's Miralem Pjanic is already a star. Since arriving at Stade Gerland in 2008, the 20 year old Bosnian sensation has progressed rapidly, rising to the challenge of filling Juninho Pernambucano's number 8 shirt with consummate ease. A diminutive midfield playmaker with exceptional technique and vision, Pjanic was instrumental as a previously unheralded Lyon generation achieved their best ever Champion's League finish, reaching the semi-finals. Along the way, their midfield maestro made headlines by scoring the equaliser in the second leg of Lyon's round of 16 clash with Real Madrid's Galacticos, mark II. It was the goal which sent Ronaldo and co. out, and confirmed Pjanic's enormous potential to the many top clubs who are tracking him. The world is at his feet, and if he continues to develop this term, then a big money move is inevitable.

2. Maxime Gonalons

Pjanic's Lyon team-mate last year may not have caught the eye of casual fans with dazzling skills and incisive passing, but 20 year old Maxime Gonalons was nevertheless a significant player in Lyon's European adventure. A technically accomplished and unfussy defensive midfielder, Gonalons' most notable contribution last term was scoring the first of two goals against Liverpool in the Champion's League group stage, which plunged the Anfield club into freefall and all but secured Lyon's passage through to the knockout rounds. Goal-scoring aside, however, Gonalons' impact is more generally felt in the less glamorous task of shielding the Lyon back four and breaking up opposition attacks, and it was in this role that the 20 year old has shone whenever called upon. Last season he was mainly employed as a reliable deputy to Jeremy Toulalon and as an aerial threat from the bench, but I expect him develop more in the first team this term.

3. Alexandre Lacazette

Completing the Lyon triumvirate in this list is 19 year old Alexandre Lacazette. A pacey attacker who can play either as a central striker or on either wing, Lacazette rose to prominence as one of the stars of France's European Championship-winning Under-19 side this summer, scoring the winning goal in the final against a much-fancied Spain. Capped at every youth level for his country, Lacazette has only played one competitive game to date for Lyon, although the early signs are that he will gain more exposure in the first team this year. He was one of the French club's shining lights in pre-season, impressing on both days of the Emirates Cup in London and, at 19, is certainly ready for first team action. If this skilful and pacey attacker does get his chance, I fully expect him to make his mark.

4. Mamadou Sakho

There aren't too many 20 year olds who are already the talisman of their club. Mamadou Sakho is one of the few. Having joined Paris Saint-Germain at the age of 12, the powerful centre-back has risen through the ranks, making over 50 appearances for the first team and, on his league debut against Valenciennes in 2007, became the youngest ever player to captain a Ligue 1 club. Standing at 6 feet 2 inches with an imposing physique, Sakho is a formidable athlete and ferocious tackler. His physical and technical attributes, as well as his leadership qualities, have led many in France to compare him to French legend Lilian Thuram, and if he continues to develop at such a fast rate, then Sakho is perfectly capable of emulating the success of the World Cup-winner.

5. Andre Ayew

Few young players have had to deal with the sort of hype and pressure which has surrounded Andre 'Dede' Ayew. Son of the Ghanaian legend Abedi Pele, much was expected of the young winger when he was signed by the club which did much to establish his father's legacy, Olympique Marseille. Thankfully for Andre, he has not disappointed. Loan spells at Lorient in 2008 and Arles-Avignon in 2009 have given him much needed first team experience, but it is on the international stage that Ayew has truly shone. At youth level, he captained the Under 20 Ghana side to victory in the 2009 African Youth Championships and, even more impressively, the Fifa 2009 Under 20 World Cup, where they defeated Brazil on penalties in the final. Milovan Rajevac included Ayew in a young squad for the World Cup in South Africa, and the winger justified the selection by helping his country to the quarter finals, and being nominated for Young Player of the Tournament in the process. This year, Ayew is likely to be entrusted with a first team spot for Marseille, and if he can replicate his international form, then the French champions may have quite a player on their hands.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Premier League Predictions 10/11

And so, with the start of the Premier League season almost upon us, it is time for me to stick my neck out on the block and say who I think will shine this year, and who, well, won't. Many more knowledgeable followers of the game than myself have made confident predictions in September, only to end up wiping the egg from their faces the following May. Like anyone who predicted Liverpool for the title last year, for example. Consequently I've tried to stick to gut feelings rather than over-thinking things, although there is some method in my madness, I promise. But enough talk. Here goes:

1st - Manchester United
In my mind the Premier League title race will remain a Manchester United or Chelsea affair this season, although Arsenal will be closer on points than last year, since both the sides ahead of them haven't really strengthened significantly in the transfer market. United get the nod - just - because they have slightly more options up front and a better defence. Also, the hunger to reclaim the trophy they lost last year and to eclipse Liverpool's 18 title wins should give them the mental edge.

2nd - Chelsea
For the last 3 or 4 years, the main obstacle to Chelsea's success has been their own complacency. This is borne out by the fact that despite beating Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool home and away in the league last year, Chelsea stumbled over the line in the title race, having lost against Wigan and drawn with Birmingham, Blackburn, Hull and West Ham on their travels. A settled side, with the strongest midfield in English football and a formidable home record, they will push United close but ultimately come up short. A real threat for the Champions League, though.

3rd - Arsenal
Will the potential finally be fulfilled? Not this year. Even with Fabregas staying and Koscielny and Chamakh looking like astute signings, the Gunners first XI is simply not good enough to win the Premier League, unless both of the sides ahead of them mess up. That situation nearly came about last year, but every time the top two let Arsenal back into contention, the North Londoners orchestrated their own downfall (Wigan's epic comeback comes to mind.) They have too much class for the chasing pack, but I fear Arsene Wenger will once again find himself banging his head against that glass ceiling. Their best hope of a trophy remains in the cup competitions, but only if they take them seriously.

4th - Manchester City
Another summer of frivolous spending has seen City assemble a squad of almost insane strength in depth. Obviously under new regulations they can only register 25 first-teamers, so we will likely see numerous departures from Eastlands before the close of the transfer window. Regardless of whether James Milner and Mario Balotelli are on that final list, the Citizens will undoubtedly embark upon this season considerably stronger than the last. With Mancini's pragmatic tactical approach and their goalkeeping options City may prove tough to score against, whilst their quality up front should overwhelm most sides. I expect some inconsistent results early on as the new additions bed in, but they will finish strongly and pip Liverpool and Spurs for fourth spot.

5th - Liverpool
Gerrard, Torres and co. cannot be any worse than they were last season. Fact. The astute appointment of Roy Hodgson has transformed the atmosphere at Anfield, and the addition of Joe Cole is an inspired move which will certainly lessen the creative burden on Liverpool's talismanic captain. I also expect Hodgson to get more out of underachievers in the squad, such as Babel, Lucas and Aquilani. They will undoubtedly be better this year, but the recent injury problems of the likes of Torres and Cole are a worry, and I believe Manchester City's superior squad depth will tell in the race for the last Champions League place.

6th - Tottenham Hotspur
Spurs were the story of the Premier League last year, finally ditching their inconsistency and pipping City to fourth place. In doing so they secured a coveted opportunity to play Champions League football this season. But last year's reward will be this year's curse. Spurs will not want to be embarrassed in Europe's premier club competition, and I can see their league form suffering as a result of the effort they expend in midweek. The lack of new recruits this summer is also a worry (although there is time for this to change). There will not be many points separating these three teams, but I expect Tottenham to ultimately come up short against a vastly strengthened City and resurgent Liverpool.

7th - Everton
Were it not for a disastrous start last term - a mixture of injuries, bad form and the bad taste left by the Joleon Lescott transfer - Everton's strong finish would have seen them well in contention for fourth spot. There is no question that David Moyes has done a fantastic job with the limited resources at his disposal, and that with a settled team boasting both established, determined pros and promising youngsters, his side are a match for anyone on their day. However, Everton's attacking options are not exactly overwhelming: Yakubu appears to have lost a lot of confidence, Louis Saha shows no signs of getting over his injury problems, and Jermaine Beckford is unproven at Premier League level. Academy products will likely supplement the forward ranks, but lack of goals may well do for Everton in the end.

8th - Aston Villa
The departure of Martin O'Neill is a huge blow. The Northern Irishman had built a skilled, if limited, side who were organised and difficult to play against. His departure is a clear sign that costs are going to be cut at Villa Park, and it remains to be seen just how many of O'Neill's former stars will follow him through the exit door. Whoever the new manager is, with tighter budget restrictions and a lack of fresh investment, it is almost impossible to see how Aston Villa will be able to threaten the top four. They remain top-half certainties with the personnel at their disposal, but that's it.

9th - Fulham
Some Fulham fans may well feel distinctly underwhelmed by the prospect of mid-table obscurity after last year's European adventure, but make no mistake, consolidation would represent success in the first year of Mark Hughes' quest to fill the sizable boots left behind by Roy Hodgson. The Welshman, who had his big opportunity at Manchester City ruined by the ruthless ambition of the club's wealthy ownership, is nevertheless a very competent Premier League manager, who has worked wonders on limited resources before at Blackburn. There will be no repeat of the excitement of last year, but Fulham will be fine.

10th - Blackburn Rovers
In my view, any one of five teams could sneak into the top half by finishing 10th this season. I have plumped for Blackburn because, in addition to the fact that Sam Allardyce is an experienced Premier League operator who makes his teams hard to beat, their squad is a little bit stronger than those of their rivals. Rovers' already solid defence should be boosted by the promising Phil Jones, whilst in attack, highly-rated Croatian Nikola Kalinic and on-loan Mame Biram Diouf should provide enough goals to ensure that Big Sam's men repeat last season's 10th place finish.

11th - Sunderland
The Black Cats also look to have strengthened over the summer. Ghana's World Cup stalwart John Mensah has rejoined on loan, and whilst Titus Bramble has been cast as a figure of fun for a number of high-profile mistakes over the years, his spell at Wigan appeared to prove that Steve Bruce gets the best out of him. Further up the park, Paraguayan playmaker Christian Riveros should add a little guile to an otherwise workmanlike midfield. Sunderland appear a little short up front following the departure of Kenwyne Jones to Stoke, but I would expect at least one striker to arrive at the Stadium of Light before the end of August, and they already possess a proven Premier League goalscorer in Darren Bent.

12th - Stoke City
Stoke's qualities remain as obvious as ever, and I expect them to be no less successful this term. A strong, organised and physical side, what Tony Pulis' men lack in technical ability they make up for in commitment. The Potters' physical presence up front will be further enhanced by the arrival of Kenwyne Jones from Sunderland, and they will doubtless remain a formidable challenge at home.

13th - Birmingham City
Alex McLeish did a fantastic job in guiding Birmingham City to a top half finish last season, and whilst a repeat this time out is not inconceivable, it is unlikely. The Blues have lost one of their star performers of last year in Joe Hart, but Ben Foster is a more than capable replacement, and Nikola Zigic should offer another, more vertical, option up front. Almost certain to finish in the bottom half, but have enough about them to avoid the relegation scrap.

14th - West Ham United
The Hammers had a difficult season last year, with a prolonged flirtation with relegation set against a backdrop of boardroom instability and interference. Summer investment has ensured that new boss Avram Grant heads into the new season with a far more balanced side. Known Premier League quantities such as Tal Ben Haim, Frederic Piquionne and Thomas Hitzlsperger have been brought in alongside more exotic talents such as Mexico's Pablo Barrera and Miralem Sulejmani. All of this means that West Ham should escape the relegation dogfight with ease, and even entertain a little along the way, as long as Messrs Gold and Sullivan keep their noses out of the dressing room.

15th - Bolton Wanderers
Owen Coyle's decision to leave Burnley for Bolton last year ultimately proved wise, if a little heartless. His Bolton side always looked too good to go down, and that should be the case again. Arsene Wenger's unwillingness to allow Jack Wilshere back on loan is a blow, but Martin Petrov could become one of the signings of the season if they can keep him fit.

16th- Wigan Athletic
Wigan are a predictor's nightmare. Last season's slayers of Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool at home, they also finished with the worst goal difference in the league, having lost 9-1 at White Hart Lane, 8-0 at Stamford Bridge, and 4-0 at Fratton Park. When they have a good day, they invariably have a very good day, but when they have a bad one, well...it seems that Roberto Martinez's side simply have not learned the art of damage limitation. If the lesson remains unheeded this term, they could be in trouble, but the Latics look to have enough going forward to keep them up. Charles N'Zogbia's continued presence is crucial though.

17th - Newcastle Utd
Optimistic Magpies fans hoping for a swift return to former glories may have to wait a while. Its going to be a long, hard season for Newcastle, but one which I believe will eventually guarantee their presence in England's top flight for another year. The likes of Kevin Nolan and Andy Carroll may have won the Championship at a canter, but the going will be much tougher this time around. The signing of Dan Gosling, one of Everton's most prized youngsters, was a considerable coup, and Sol Campbell will marshall the defence well. Most of the squad already possess Premier League experience, and so if Newcastle can make St James' Park a fortress, they will be fine.

18th - West Bromwich Albion
The Baggies have become the Premier League's yoyo team in recent seasons: too good for the Championship, not good enough for the Premier League. Its going to be close between them and Newcastle for that coveted 17th spot, but I think the St James' Park atmosphere might just make the difference. Roberto Di Matteo's men play good football, but will have to show a defensive resiliency in order to beat the drop. Their most important player this season will surely be Scott Carson. If he fulfils his considerable potential, Albion might just prove me wrong.

19th - Wolverhampton Wanderers
Its not looking good for Wolves. There has been a deafening silence surrounding the Molineux throughout this summer's transfer window, and the lack of investment is likely to prove costly. Firstly, its difficult to see where the goals are going to come from. Mick McCarthy's men scored the least goals of anyone in the top flight last year, and unless a new striker comes in, its unlikely the situation will change. Kevin Doyle does not provide the goal return to match his admirable work ethic, whilst Sylvain Ebanks-Blake has not adjusted to Premier League as hoped. Good home form is essential if they are to have any chance.

20th - Blackpool
The torrent of goodwill directed at Blackpool following their fairytale promotion to the top-flight was astounding, and only the most hard-hearted of men would begrudge one of the oldest clubs in the land an extended stay in the Premier League. But fans of the Seasiders would be well advised to enjoy this season to the full, as another is unlikely to be afforded them. They are short on Premier League quality and experience, and their lack of profile makes it hard to see this problem being remedied before the close of the transfer window. Fan's favourite Charlie Adam will again play a key role in any successes they do have, and the quirky, dry wit of manager Ian Holloway should ensure that they win over plenty of neutrals along the way, but the Championship is already beckoning.

So there you have it. Those are my predictions, and I'm sticking to them. If anyone disagrees, as many of you probably will, then please let me know, as I would appreciate hearing your views.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Can Arsenal end their trophy drought?

The transfer saga of the summer is finally over. Well, for now at least. Despite the best efforts of several prominent Barcelona officials and players, Arsenal's refusal to negotiate with the Spanish giants has prompted talismanic captain Cesc Fabregas to commit his immediate future to the club. 'I am a professional and I fully understand that it is Arsenal's prerogative not to sell me', he stated after joining up with the rest of Wenger's squad for pre-season training. 'I owe a lot to the club, manager and the fans and I will respect their decision and will now concentrate on the new season ahead with Arsenal.' The news will undoubtedly be music to the ears of Gunners fans, who would otherwise understandably have been dismayed to lose their most influential player. But replacing these fears in the minds of the Emirates faithful will be the familiar, nagging question which has plagued their thoughts in recent seasons: will this be the year that Arsenal end their trophy exile?

The 2005 FA Cup trophy is the most recent piece of significant silverware that currently resides in the Arsenal FC trophy cabinet at the Emirates stadium. The Gunners have not won a major prize since they moved into their new multi-million pound home, and nowhere is this barren spell more apparent than in the commemorative list of achievements that adorns the base of the top tier of the stadium, which sports a gaping hole after 2005.

Yet there is cause for Arsenal fans to be optimistic about their sides chances this term. Fabregas' continued presence is surely a massive boost, both in terms of his influence in the dressing room and on the field. Opta's Premier League statistics for last season show that the Spaniard created a scoring chance from open play, on average, every 29 minutes - better than anyone else in any of the top European leagues. Even for a squad with the creative talent which Arsenal possess, that level of productivity would be sorely missed. But the sale of Fabregas would have also had a profound impact off the pitch. Arsene Wenger has sold big players before - Marc Overmars, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry to name just three - but invariably when their best years were deemed behind them, and their departure considered beneficial to the development of a new generation. The sale of Fabregas would be the sale of a player who likely has his best years ahead of him, and would therefore leave the north London club open to the accusation that they lack the ambition to continue to challenge for top European and domestic honours. Whilst the overriding impression is that the Spaniard's return to Catalonia is a matter of 'when' rather than 'if', his presence in the Arsenal side this season is crucial for the Gunners' hopes of immediate success.

In addition to playing a vital role in keeping Fabregas at the Emirates, Gunners boss Arsene Wenger has also had a significant impact on other areas of the Arsenal playing squad this summer. In defence, the volatile and divisive figure of William Gallas has been jettisoned, along with the release of veterans Mikael Silvestre and Sol Campbell. Replacing Gallas in the Arsenal backline is Laurent Koscielny, a £10m signing from Lorient who, despite boasting only one season's experience of top flight football, is an adept reader of the game and possesses good technical ability, not too dissimilar to his new defensive colleague Thomas Vermaelen. Croatian frontman Eduardo has also departed, having failed to live up to his early promise after the horrific leg-break he sustained against Birmingham in 2008. In his place is Marouane Chamakh, one of the stars of Bordeaux's surprise Ligue 1 title win in 2009. A skilful, mobile target man, the Moroccan should provide a different dimension to the Gunners attack - a suggestion apparently borne out by the fact that 11 of his 16 goals in all competitions last season were headers. The lack of a top-level keeper remains a concern, but rumours linking Arsenal with a move for Cagliari and Italy's World Cup number one stopper Federico Marchetti indicate that Arsene Wenger is seeking to remedy the problem. Whilst Koscielny and Chamakh are not exactly marquee names, they are astute purchases that should aid the North Londoners' push for trophies this season.

There are other reasons why Arsenal fans can reasonably expect that, circumstances permitting, Arsene Wenger will head into the new season with a stronger squad than in recent years. For starters, there is hope that perennial injury absentees Tomas Rosicky, Robin Van Persie and Abou Diaby will enjoy better fortune now that they have returned to full fitness. Rosicky in particular looked extremely sharp in the Emirates Cup, and the impression I get with Van Persie is that all he needs to establish himself as a genuinely world-class frontman is an injury-free season. The fact that the Dutchman's return of 10 goals was the best of any of the club's frontmen, despite his injury problems, indicates how much the Arsenal attack missed his cutting edge when absent. Diaby, at his best, adds much needed physical presence and drive to the Gunners midfield - a particularly useful asset on away days against the more robust teams in the Premier League, such as Blackburn or Birmingham, who both took points off Arsenal last season. There are also the 'rookies' in the squad - Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs and Emanuel Frimpong among others - who are a year older, wiser and better. They all looked extremely accomplished in the Emirates Cup, and should be expected to provide reliable service if called upon.

But undoubtedly the biggest asset available to Arsenal in their quest for trophies remains their manager. Arsene Wenger is arguably the best technical coach of players in world football, and consequently his teams win over many neutrals with their crowd-pleasing style. But he is also a winner, experienced in competing for some of the biggest prizes in the sport, and always instills this winning mentality into his players. Whilst the Frenchman may not have had his reward in the way of silverware recently, his volatile reactions when confronted with his team's failings in high profile matches over the last few seasons at least show that he has not grown accustomed to losing. Wenger will certainly believe whole-heartedly going into this season that his Arsenal side can succeed on the biggest of stages, and if this cast-iron conviction filters through to his players, then the North Londoners will certainly have a chance. The Arsenal manager's faith may also be strengthened by the relative inactivity of both Chelsea and Man Utd in the transfer market. Both sides possess aging squads, and despite the fact that both will probably give youth more of a chance in their first-teams this term, Wenger will hope that the younger legs of his charges will be decisive over a long and demanding season.

But in spite of the fact that Arsenal head into this season in a stronger position than in previous years, it is remains hard to back them for major silverware any time soon. The Gunners finished 12 points off champions Chelsea in the Premier League last season, losing all four of their head-to-head meetings with the Blues and Manchester United in the process. Furthermore, with the exception of United's last gasp victory at Old Trafford, Wenger's side were not only beaten in these fixtures, but outclassed. In Europe, Arsenal were humbled by an exceptional Barcelona side, and in the domestic cups their young guns were bested by Stoke and Manchester City.

In one sense, it is harsh to use Arsenal's results against Barcelona, Chelsea and United as a stick to beat them with, as these three sides have been a cut above everyone else in the last few seasons, in terms of their consistent level of achievement at the top of European football. But the reality is harsh, because this is the level of opposition which Arsenal will almost certainly have to overcome in order to win the Premier League or the Champions League. In Europe, Barcelona show no signs of slowing down, Real Madrid will surely be a formidable contenders under Jose Mourinho, and Inter Milan possess a talented squad now helmed by another experienced Champions League operator, Rafa Benitez. On the domestic front, the tightening of purse strings at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge, coupled with the rise of Manchester City and Tottenham, should ensure a slightly more competitive title race, but the fact remains that Chelsea and United still possess stronger starting XIs and squads than their rivals, and I would be surprised if neither John Terry nor Gary Neville are holding the Premier League trophy aloft in May.

The fierceness of competition that Arsenal face in their quest to win the Champions League or Premier League makes it reasonable to suggest that the FA Cup or Carling Cup may represent a better opportunity to get their hands on a long-awaited trophy. But in these competitions their chances have been fatally undermined in recent seasons by Wenger's stubborn insistence that they be used as an opportunity to provide the Gunner's numerous talented youngsters with valuable first-team experience. The Frenchman's commitment to this philosophy is admirable, and indeed sensible, in the early rounds of cup competition, since these initial games provide a unique opportunity for youth academy products to gain first team experience in a lower pressure environment. But any side with aspirations of winning a cup competition must overcome quality opposition sooner or later, and it is on these occasions that Wenger's unwillingness to turn to the more experienced members of his squad has been detrimental to his side's prospects of silverware. A clear example of this was the 2007 Carling Cup final against Chelsea, where a second string Arsenal side, packed with youth, took to the field against their London rivals' strongest XI. Despite putting up an admirable fight and even taking a first half lead through Theo Walcott, the greater experience and quality of the Blues proved decisive in the second half, and they ran out 2-1 winners. The Gunners haven't reached a final since, and Wenger would be well advised that the older heads in his squad represent the best chance of reversing this trend.

Cesc Fabregas has given Arsenal another chance to prove that their ambition matches his own. Despite having some astute new signings and promising young talents at his disposal, Arsene Wenger faces a tough task if he is to avoid disappointing his captain, and may even have to go against some of his most vehemently held principles in the process. It may, then, take time before Gunners fans once more have something to shout about, and a new era of success is ushered in at the Emirates.