Having already delivered my verdict on the title contenders in the English Premier League Season Preview part 1, now it’s time for Europa League hopefuls and mid table sides. Just three points separated 8th-placed Fulham and 14th-placed Bolton last term, so there are no doubts we will see an exciting mid table battle this season as well. The final part of our season preview will be all about the relegation strugglers.
Everton are still considered one of the teams that can beat any of the title contenders on their day, but the terrible inconsistency remains the problem number one. Having built a very good side some few years ago, David Moyes didn’t want to upset the balance of the squad by signing a lot of new players, so he opted for absolutely no signings this summer. That can be a good thing as his side, unlike many other Premiership teams, will not need a lot of time to gel, although persistent injury problems could again rule out Everton from a top 6 finish. The season has not even started and Seamus Coleman has picked up a serious injury, while Mikel Arteta could miss first few games as well. David Moyes desperately need to have his key players fit throughout the season for his team to reach full potential, but that doesn’t look like happening this term.
Last season: 7th
Important arrivals: None
Important departures: James Vaughan (Norwich).
Probable starting line-up (4-4-1-1): Howard – Neville, Jagielka, Distin, Baines – Coleman, Arteta, Rodwell, Fellaini – Cahill – Beckford.
Prediction: Top half finish
Pick: Everton to finish in top 10
Backed by the wealthy club owners, Steve Bruce have had considerable transfer funds available over the last two years, but while he did improve the quality of the team, I cannot help but feel that he should have done better with the money at his disposal. The Black Cats were on fire in the first part of last season, with their 3:0 win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge one of the best results in club’s history, but Sunderland suffered a major dip in form after Christmas and had to settle for 10th place finish. Sunderland have since sold Jordan Henderson and Steed Malbranque, while John Mensah and Nedum Onuoha returned to their parent clubs, leaving a pretty big gap to fill. In came Wes Brown, John O’Shea, Connor Wickham, Sebastian Larsson and few other decent players, but I am definitely not convinced that this team can enter the race for European places this season. Another top half finish is the best they can do.
Last season: 10th
Important arrivals: John O’Shea, Wes Brown (both Manchester United), Connor Wickham (Ipswich), Craig Gardner, Sebastian Larsson (both Birmingham), Ji Dong-Won (Chunnam Dragons), David Vaughan (Blackpool), Keiren Westwood (Coventry), James McLean (Derry City).
Important departures: Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), Steed Malbranque (St Etienne), Cristian Riveros (Kayserispor), Boudewijn Zenden (released).
Probable starting line-up (4-4-1-1): Gordon – Bardsley, Turner, Bramble, O’Shea – Larsson, Gardner, Cattermole, Richardson – Sessegnon – Gyan.
Prediction: Top half finish
Pick: Sunderland to achieve a top 10 finish
Aston Villa had a dismal start to last season, but they started to show some improvement as the league campaign unfolded and finished the season in 9th place. New boss Alex McLeish faces an uphill task at Villa Park, not only because he used to coach Villa’s fierce rivals Birmingham, but also because the club sold two key players this summer, Stuart Downing and Ashley Young. Brad Friedel and John Carew also left, but the captures of Shay Given and Charles N’Zogbia really improved the quality of the team, whereas exciting winger Marc Albrighton will finally get a chance to command a starting spot after showing amazing potential last season. With Stephen Warnock back to his best and Darren Bent and Emile Heskey likely to form the attacking partnership, this team don’t look bad at all, so I could see them entering the race for European places.
Last season: 9th
Important arrivals: Charles N’Zogbia (Wigan), Shay Given (Manchester City).
Important departures: Ashley Young (Manchester United), Stuart Downing (Liverpool), Nigel Reo-Coker (Bolton), Brad Friedel (Tottenham), John Carew (West Ham).
Probable starting line-up (4-4-2): Given – Young, Collins, Dunne, Warnock – Albrighton, Petrov, Makoun, N’Zogbia – Bent, Heskey.
Prediction: Top 8 finish
Pick: Aston Villa to be top Midlands club (to finish above Stoke, West Brom and Wolves)
Fulham have long ago established themselves as genuine top table side and they did well to justify the tag last season. Some very good performances under Mark Hughes helped them finish the league campaign in 8th place, while they were also awarded a Europa League spot through Fair Play league. The Welsh manager decided to leave the club at the end of the season, but club chiefs made an excellent decision in appointing former Tottenham boss Martin Jol as his replacement. The new boss will have pretty much the same squad to work with as his predecessor, although the arrival of John Arne Riise and several talented youngsters definitely give the fans something to cheer about. Fulham boast a very experienced side that are extremely hard to beat and they will again be the force to be reckoned with at Craven Cottage. Another top half finish looks on the cards, but if Bobby Zamora and Andy Johnson return to the form that had seen them get England call-ups, then everything is possible.
Last season: 8th
Important arrivals: John Arne Riise (Roma), Marcel Gecov (Slovan Liberec), Pajtim Kasami (Palermo).
Important departures: Jonathan Greening (Nottingham Forest), Kagisho Dikgacoi (Crystal Palace), John Pantsil (Leicester), Diomansy Kamara (Eskisehirspor), Zoltan Gera (released).
Probable starting line-up (4-4-2): Schwarzer – Hughes, Senderos, Hangeland, Riise – Dempsey, Murphy, Etuhu, Duff – Zamora, Johnson.
Prediction: Top 10 finish
Pick: Fulham to achieve a top half finish
The 14th place finish cannot change the fact that Bolton were pretty impressive throughout last season, mostly thanks to boss Owen Coyle. Combining the Trotters’ trademark battling approach with some very positive tactics, the former Burnley boss led Bolton to unimagined heights, with even their own fans often being surprised with how well the team were playing. The Trotters enter the new season without three key players as Johan Elmander joined Galatasaray and Daniel Sturridge returned to Chelsea, while Lee Chung-Yong suffered a broken leg that will see him possible miss an entire season. The arrival of Chris Eagles, Nigel Reo-Coker and Darren Pratley will increase competition for places in midfield, but Bolton are bound to have problems on the flanks and in attack, so unless they make several important signings before the transfer window closes, I don’t think they can finish the season in top 10.
Last season: 14th
Important arrivals: Darren Pratley (Swansea), Chris Eagles, Tyrone Mears (both Burnley), Nigel Reo-Coker (Aston Villa).
Important departures: Johan Elmander (Galatasaray), Ali Al Habsi (Wigan), Matt Taylor (West Ham).
Probable starting line-up (4-4-2): Jaaskelainen – Steinsson, Cahill, Knight, Alonso – Eagles, Holden, Muamba, Petrov – Kevin Davies, Klasnic.
Prediction: Mid table finish
Pick: Kevin Davies to commit 115 or more fouls in Premier League
As long as Britannia Stadium remains a real fortress, Stoke will have no problems avoiding the relegation dogfight. However, if they want to make a step up and enter the fight for the European places, the Potters will have to start bringing points from the travels. Stoke produced quite a coup by winning the FA Cup title last term, with the 5:0 final win over Bolton something that their fans will remember for years to come. Boss Tony Pulis hinted at some big name signings this summer, having chased some very good players, but all that he could do is sign Jonathan Woodgate and Matthew Upson, thus making his defence even stronger than last term. Set-pieces, defensive organization and good home form will remain Stoke’s strongest points, but I am afraid they still lack some quality in midfield and attack to be able to match the best sides in the league. The Potters should be able to avoid the relegation struggle, but they look destined for bottom half finish, especially if they make it to Europa League group stages.
Last season: 13th
Important arrivals: Matthew Upson (West Ham), Jonathan Woodgate (Tottenham).
Important departures: Carl Dickinson (Watford), Abdoulaye Faye (West Ham), Eidur Gudjohnsen (AEK), Ibrahima Sonko (Reading).
Probable starting line-up (4-4-2): Begovic – Huth, Shawcross, Upson, Wilson – Pennant, Delap, Whelan, Etherington – Jones, Walters.
Prediction: Bottom table finish
Pick: Stoke to finish 12th or lower
West Brom have shown massive potential last season and if they keep it going like this, the Baggies will soon become a genuine top table side. They were playing great football even when things were not working out, but the appointment of Roy Hodgson proved to be key to a successful season. The experienced manager, well known for his ability to exceed expectations with small clubs, helped the team find a real balance between attacking flair and defensive organization, leading West Brom to 11th place finish. While staying without Scott Carson and Abdoulaye Meite, Hodgson has really increased competition for places with captures of Ben Foster, Shane Long, Zoltan Gera and Gareth McAuley, and Baggies look set for another very successful season. The club managed to keep hold of all key players, with Brunt, Mulumbu, Odemwingie, Morrison and Scharner again set to play an important part in West Brom’s quest for success. The big strength in depth should prove to be a key asset this season.
Last season: 11th
Important arrivals: Shane Long (Reading), Zoltan Gera (Fulham), Ben Foster (Birmingham), Gareth McAuley (Ipswich), Billy Jones (Preston), Marton Fulop (Ipswich).
Important departures: Scott Carson (Bursaspor), Gianni Zuiverloon (Mallorca), Boaz Myhill (Birmingham), Abdoulaye Meite (Dijon).
Probable starting line-up (4-5-1): Foster – Olsson, Scharner, Ibanez, Shorey – Gera, Dorrans, Mulumbu, Brunt, Morrison – Odemwingie.
Prediction: Mid table finish
Pick: West Brom to finish above Wolves