My 2014/15 Premier League predictions

After a stunning domestic season and an extraordinary World Cup, the new 2014/15 Premier League season begins tomorrow – just 34 days after the final in Rio. 

Aligning with unwritten tradition, there has been the usual transfer frenzy as clubs await the return of World Cup players from their holidays.

In last season’s Premier League predictions blog, my choices of Arsenal (4th) and Spurs (6th) proved to be the only perfect predictions – but this season looks even more difficult to predict!

Nevertheless, here are my shouts for the 2014/15 Premier League season.

20. Burnley (2013/14: 2nd in Championship); Relegation odds: 8/13 favourites

The Tykes are the clear candidates to be relegated this season, but in manager Sean Dyche they have one of England’s outstanding young managers. It is a shame then, that Dyche has lacked funds in the transfer market to strengthen his squad.

Despite that, some astute cheap signings have been made, with the likes of Lukas Jutkiewicz, Matt Taylor, Michael Kightly and Marvin Sordell coming in for a combined £3.5m. Meanwhile, Danny Ings, Burnley’s top scorer last season with 22 league goals, could be crucial to their slim hopes of survival.

19. Leicester City (2013/14: Championship winners); Relegation odds: 13/5

Perhaps a surprising choice, given that The Foxes won the Championship last season, Leicester are my second pick to go down.

Boss Nigel Pearson has also found transfers hard to come by in the summer, and the over-inflated £8m paid to Brighton for striker Leonardo Ulloa might prove to be a fruitless gamble.

Pearson’s best business looks to be the free transfer of Marc Albrighton from Aston Villa, who has been in rejuvenated form during pre-season, but a lack of strength in depth could down the East Midlanders this season.

18. West Brom (2013/14: 17th in Premier League); Relegation odds: 13/5

New manager Alan Irvine has his hands full in his first season in charge of the Baggies, not least because of a light strike force. The club’s only two recognised forwards Saido Berahino and Victor Anichebe are joined by record signing Brown Ideye, who cost £10m from Dynamo Kiev.

Much will depend on Ideye’s transition to Premier League football and, if he doesn’t fire, the Baggies will be in serious trouble.

Despite that, Irvine has reinforced a strong midfield with Craig Gardner, while centre-back Joleon Lescott will look to resurrect his career after a frustrating spell at Manchester City.

Ultimately, it may be a lack of goals and a shaky defence that will relegate West Brom.

17. QPR (2013/14: 4th & Championship play-off winners); Relegation odds: 2/1

Harry Redknapp has long been a manager to sign big-name players, despite their age, and this season is no different having tempted Rio Ferdinand to Loftus Road.

QPR’s experienced midfield will be vital this season, and it has been strengthened by the arrival of Jordan Mutch from Cardiff for £6m, who will provide extra impetus going forward.

But it is in defence where Redknapp has improved QPR most, perhaps learning from Tony Pulis’ exploits at Crystal Palace, as Steven Caulker and Mauricio Isla join forces with Ferdinand.

The Hoops will survive the drop, but only just.

16. Aston Villa (2013/14: 15th in Premier League); Relegation odds: 3/1

Villa’s off-field plight has dominated their summer as owner Randy Lerner struggles to find a buyer for the club.

As a result, transfer funds have been almost non-existent to Paul Lambert and new assistant Roy Keane but the manager has opted to bring in experience to compliment a youthful team as Joe Cole, Philippe Senderos and Kieran Richardson join alongside £2m left-back Aly Cissokho.

With Christian Benteke set to return from a nasty Achilles injury in September, Villa should stay up despite the uncertainty over their future ownership.

15. Crystal Palace (2013/14: 11th in Premier League); Relegation odds: 3/1

Crystal Palace had their Premier League future thrown into jeopardy on Thursday as Tony Pulis, widely acclaimed for the brilliant job he did in helping the Eagles to survival last season, left the club by mutual consent.

No replacement had been made at the time of writing, but during the summer Pulis had made two cute signings in striker Fraizer Campbell and centre-back Brede Hangeland, who bring Premier League experience for a combined £900k.

Palace will also depend upon Jason Puncheon, whose goals helped elevate them to eleventh last season, but in the main they look solid once again as they look to consolidate their Premier League status.

14. Hull City (2013/14: 16th in Premier League); Relegation odds: 7/2

This season Hull step into the unknown world of Europa League football, and are just two legs away from the main draw.

If they manage to overcome Lokeren they will face the difficult task of juggling European football with their Premier League campaign – a factor which almost relegated Stoke three seasons ago.

Hull have lost Shane Long to Southampton for a super-inflated £12m fee, but will need to replace him before the deadline shuts if they are to succeed domestically and in Europe.

Tigers boss Steve Bruce has spent heavily on Jake Livermore (£8m) and Robert Snodgrass (£7m) and will look to avoid another late-season dip in form which saw Hull slip to 16th, just above the relegation precipice.

13. West Ham (2013/14: 13th in Premier League); Relegation odds: 11/2

Manager Sam Allardyce dragged his side from an alarming position in the winter to comfortably survive, and has looked to address the problems he faced with some impressive signings.

£12m striker Enner Valencia brings a bagful of goals from ex-club Pachuca and seems set to be one of the best buys of the summer, while Cheikhou Kouyate (£7m) and Aaron Cresswell (£3.75m) are intriguing signings.

The Hammers should easily survive but the upper reaches of the bottom ten teams should be their ceiling position come May.

12. Sunderland (2013/14: 14th in Premier League); Relegation odds: 5/1

Sunderland manager Gus Poyet ensured the Black Cats stayed up, to his own disbelief, last season and will hope to build upon that success story with a strong following season.

The signing of Jack Rodwell (£10m) will add extra bite to their midfield if he avoids injury, and the club are working on a £14m deal for Fabio Borini. If Poyet can’t close that protracted move then Connor Wickham will inherit the goalscoring pressure after his spell of five goals in nine games steered the club to safety.

Sunderland will be fine if they can sign another defender, while in Vito Mannone they have one of the outstanding young goalkeepers in the league.

11. Southampton (2013/14: 8th in Premier League); Relegation odds: 11/2

A mass exodus to end mass exoduses destabilised Southampton this summer as captain Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, Luke Shaw, Dejan Lovren and Calum Chambers all left the club after Mauricio Pochettino headed for Spurs.

New boss Ronald Koeman has used the huge revenue of those deals to sign free-scoring Graziano Pelle and Dusan Tadic from the Dutch Eredivisie, while Celtic and England goalkeeper Fraser Forster will compete with the flimsy Artur Boruc for the number one jersey.

However, Koeman still needs to find a suitable replacement for Lovren, but has been scuppered as targets Stefan de Vrij and Marcos Rojo have turned down moves.

Much could depend on the Saints’ defence and whether Morgan Schneiderlin is allowed to join Pochettino at Spurs, but Koeman has restored some balance at the club after a worrying June and July and they should enjoy an unspectacular mid-table finish.

10. Stoke City (2013/14: 9th in Premier League); Top ten odds: 13/8

Another finish in mid-table obscurity would suit Stoke this season, but they will fancy their chances of creeping into the top ten after a healthy summer of transfers.

Misfiring Barcelona reject Bojan Krkic will try his luck in the Premier League, while the trio of Mame Diouf, Steve Sidwell and Phil Bardsley were all clever free transfers as boss Mark Hughes strengthens his squad significantly.

Hughes will hope that Sidwell’s goals from midfield will remedy a long-term problem for the Potters, while much will be expected of the maverick Marko Arnautovic, who enjoyed a fabulous opening season with the club.

9. Swansea City (2013/14: 12th in Premier League); Top ten odds: 5/2

Swansea have become synonymous with a silky possession-hogging style of play in recent seasons and they will be a top ten fixture throughout this campaign.

The promising signings of Jefferson Montero and Bafetimbi Gomis are Garry Monk’s key transfers, but the loss of Michel Vorm and Ben Davies to Spurs was tempered by the resulting return of Gylfi Sigurdsson, who will occupy an exciting midfield alongside Jonjo Shelvey after Michu’s departure.

The Swans still have far too much about them to get relegated and, reliant on the goals of Wilfried Bony, they will be eyeing up a top ten finish with room to spare.

8. Newcastle United (2013/14: 10th in Premier League); Top ten odds: 6/4

Magpies manager Alan Pardew has continued his French revolution during the summer with the exciting arrivals of Emmanuel Riviere and Remy Cabella.

Another wise signing is Daryl Janmaat, who impressed for Holland at the World Cup, as he replaces Arsenal recruit Mathieu Debuchy at right-back.

The ever-expectant Newcastle fans will demand a European spot but that may prove too far beyond them, while Pardew will be out to make sure a slip similar to that of last season when their survival and lack of European football was guaranteed, won’t happen again.

7. Spurs (2013/14: 6th in Premier League); Title odds: 66/1

There is a breeze of optimism at White Hart Lane following Mauricio Pochettino’s appointment as manager.

Safe in the knowledge that his midfield is considerably stronger than anywhere else, Pochettino has focused on the defence, bringing in Ben Davies and Michel Vorm (£13.5m), Eric Dier (£4m) and DeAndre Yedlin (£2.5m).

Pochettino will have to sort through the mass of defensive midfielders at his disposal in search of his best team, but should have an expansive attacking unit at his disposal with Emmanuel Adebayor, Aaron Lennon and Christian Eriksen all impressing last season.

A key early task will be playing Roberto Soldado into form, and it is hoped that Pochettino’s style of play will suit the Spaniard, who could become akin to a new signing if he improves upon last season.

6. Everton (2013/14: 5th in Premier League); Title odds: 150/1

The Toffees have made a statement in the transfer market by turning Romelu Lukaku’s loan move into a permanent one, paying Chelsea £28m for his services.

Meanwhile, Everton boss Roberto Martinez will have a headache in choosing a centre-back partnership with the emergence of John Stones and the combined age (67) of regular pairing Sylvain Distin and Phil Jagielka a cause for concern.

In the exciting Ross Barkley, Everton have a young star but he may not be preferred to the unsung Kevin Mirallas, who quietly impressed amidst the bluster surrounding Barkley last season.

Everton will strive for a Champions League place but will probably come up short, making a Europa League spot a realistic end-of-season target.

5. Manchester United (2013/14: 7th in Premier League); Title odds: 5/1

The despair and disbelief of the David Moyes era has been replaced with renewed faith under Louis van Gaal as the Red Devils enjoyed a 100% record in pre-season, beating both European champions Real Madrid and rivals Liverpool 3-1.

There are still major flaws in the side, with defence looking particularly vulnerable, and their midfield still requires rebuilding, even after the £28m arrival of Ander Herrera from Athletic Bilbao.

New captain Wayne Rooney will partner Robin van Persie in a fluid 3-4-1-2 system and, with Juan Mata occupying the number ten role behind them, United look extremely dangerous in attack.

However, the jitters in defence still remain and United’s lack of reliable defensive options following the losses of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra may see them get picked off by their title rivals.

4. Arsenal (2013/14: 4th in Premier League); Title odds: 13/2

Arsene Wenger has again moved quickly to offset any worries over their financial clout by signing Alexis Sanchez from Barcelona for £35m.

Defenders Mathieu Debuchy (£12m) and Calum Chambers (£16m) will bolster a defensive line which crumbled in the biggest games, the worst being a 6-0 drubbing against Chelsea, while captain Thomas Vermaelen has left for Barcelona in a £15m deal.

Arsenal are irresistible going forward but, in tighter games they can be overpowered in midfield and that could prove a significant factor this season too.

An impressive 3-0 victory over an under-strength Manchester City in the Community Shield was a healthy confidence-boost, but they are too reliant on Olivier Giroud for goals and will look towards Sanchez for help.

3. Liverpool (2013/14: 2nd in Premier League); Title odds: 12/1

Dominating Liverpool’s summer has been the £75m transfer of Luis Suarez after his appalling bite of Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup.

Barcelona were the only takers for the disgraced but super-talented Uruguayan, and Liverpool will keenly feel his absence after replacing him in bulk rather than world-class talent.

Eight summer signings have been made by boss Brendan Rodgers, with no out-and-out replacement for Suarez having arrived.

With £75m to spend, Liverpool appear to have bought unwisely, with some critics musing that a move for a proven world-class striker such as Edinson Cavani would have been a better option than to reinforce his strike-force with Rickie Lambert alone.

Liverpool will still be a huge threat this season, but they already miss the craft and guile of Suarez and will lose out on the title once more.

2. Chelsea (2013/14: 3rd in Premier League); Title odds: 2/1 favourites

Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea have made huge strides in the transfer market as their search for a world-class striker concluded with £32m man Diego Costa.

Costa endured an awful World Cup, but his form last season for Atletico Madrid attracted Mourinho and a good pre-season has served to alleviate any doubts about the Spaniard.

Cesc Fabregas (£30m) has also arrived after Frank Lampard’s departure to add to a diamond-encrusted midfield, but it is in defence where Chelsea will come up short in the title race.

Their defensive line of new signing Filipe Luis, Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry and Gary Cahill appears solid, but at times last season the latter three were exposed by a lack of pace and inexplicable losses to lesser teams.

Mourinho, despite being the winner that he is, may have to settle for second this time out.

1. Manchester City (2013/14: 1st in Premier League); Title odds: 13/5

Rarely has a side in the Premier League built a squad capable of destroying teams as readily as Manchester City.

The strength in depth available to manager Manuel Pellegrini is luxurious, and the wily Chilean has moved this summer to improve City in their most vulnerable areas.

The £32m signing of Eliaquim Mangala from Porto partners him with Vincent Kompany in what looks to be the strongest centre-back pairing in the world, while Fernando (£12m), Bacary Sagna and Frank Lampard are exceptional additions to a scarily-strong team.

City are the outstanding team in the league, but anything less than a title retention will be a massive failure for Pellegrini.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89
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Cazorla downs battling Wigan in FA Cup shoot-out

Santi Cazorla scored the winning penalty as Arsenal came from behind to beat holders Wigan Athletic in their FA Cup semi-final clash at Wembley.

Jordi Gomez had given Wigan a second-half lead with a penalty after Per Mertesacker chopped down the impressive Callum McManaman.

Arsenal rallied after the penalty and Mertesacker redeemed himself by equalising from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s scuffed shot.

After a goalless extra-time there was to be no fairytale defence of the crown for Wigan as they missed two penalties in the shoot-out, allowing Cazorla to calmly slot home to record a 4-2 shoot-out win and send his team to the final in May.

The win lifts the pressure on manager Arsene Wenger after he selected a weakened starting-line up following a torrid 3-0 loss to Everton, placing faith in a young and energetic side.

Arsenal’s pace caused Wigan big problems and they should have taken the lead after five minutes when Yaya Sanogo powered a header straight at Scott Carson from Oxlade-Chamberlain’s volleyed cross.

Oxlade-Chamberlain quickly asserted himself along Arsenal’s right-hand side and his pace almost created an opening as he chased a chipped ball, but an alert Carson stooped to turn the ball away for a corner.

For all of the Gunners’ early possession they created little in the opening quarter of the game as Wigan’s 3-4-3 formation set about stifling their opponent’s creative midfield.

It was left to Aaron Ramsey, making his first Arsenal start since Boxing Day, to rustle up some quality in a congested midfield.

His incisive pass to Sanogo was skewed away for a corner which presented Bacary Sagna with a good chance from an acute angle after Thomas Vermaelen’s knock-down, but the Frenchman could only lift the ball over the Wigan crossbar.

The Latics had hardly ventured into Arsenal’s half and a dismal Gomez cross that drifted out of play was a fair reflection of their start to the game.

However, Uwe Rosler’s side gradually worked themselves into the game and looked more dangerous with McManaman in possession – a point justified when the young winger briefly got in behind the slow Arsenal defence only to waste his opportunity with a heavy cross.

Arsenal were also proving to be profligate with their opportunities and Sanogo was again guilty of wastefulness when he blazed over from 20 yards after another threatening run from Oxlade-Chamberlain.

McManaman had easily been Wigan’s best player in the first-half and, after earning a shooting opportunity with his pace, a rifled shot was followed by a tame effort from Marc-Antoine Fortune who worked Lukasz Fabianski for the first time.

Moments later Sanogo’s poor finishing continued as he spurned the best chance of the half.

The inexperienced French striker was sent clear by Lukas Podolski’s clearance but a shoddy touch enabled Carson to close on him quickly and dispose of the danger.

For all of Sanogo’s impressive link-up play during the half his goalscoring ability has been in question and Arsenal might have led had his chances fallen to the benched Olivier Giroud.

Arsenal began the second half at a breathless speed, but it was actually Wigan who were the more menacing as a spell of pressure – including a weak penalty appeal after a nudge from Ramsey on James McArthur – induced jitters in the Arsenal defence.

The cup-tie was suddenly wide open and Wigan were the first to profit when McManaman held off Nacho Monreal before cutting inside and drawing a foul from the sliding Mertesacker to earn a penalty.

Arsenal were livid as they believed Monreal was fouled but, after a four-minute delay to treat the Spaniard’s groin injury, Gomez  confidently swept the ball home from the spot.

Rosler, who couldn’t bear to watch the penalty, reacted by replacing the excellent McManaman and Josh McEachran with Nick Powell and Jack Collison respectively.

Rosler’s counterpart Wenger also made a change at this critical phase of the game by hauling off Podolski for Giroud and switching to a 4-4-2 formation.

Arsenal consequently began to mount growing pressure on the Wigan defence and were desperately close to an equaliser when Sagna hit the post with a header from Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cross.

Seconds later a chipped cross was flicked on by Sanogo which released Kieran Gibbs on goal but he was denied by a fabulous save from Carson before Stephen Crainey hooked clear.

Eventually Wigan buckled and Arsenal equalised with eight minutes remaining.

Sanogo’s strength was again a key factor as he laid the ball off for Oxlade-Chamberlain whose mishit shot was turned in by Mertesacker at the far post as the German made amends for conceding the earlier penalty to take the game into extra-time.

Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanogo combined again to create the only meaningful shot of the first extra-time period, but the Frenchman could only fire at Carson after a neat swivel.

With just ten minutes of extra-time remaining, Arsenal struck the woodwork for a second time when Oxlade-Chamberlain unleashed an outswinging shot from 20 yards that crashed against the angle.

Wigan still looked a threat on the break, and a mazy run from Powell past the tired Arsenal defence might have produced a winning goal but the on-loan Manchester United man dragged his early shot harmlessly wide as the match headed for penalties.

Wigan’s Gary Caldwell and Collison had dreadful penalties saved by Fabianski, enabling Arsenal to open up a 2-0 lead when Mikel Arteta and Kim Kallstrom slotted home.

A Giroud penalty was sandwiched between successful Jean Beausejour and James McArthur spot-kicks but Cazorla was left with the decisive strike and he made no mistake to send Arsenal through to the final as they look to win their first silverware since a 2005 FA Cup win.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

Bayern Munich – The world’s first hybrid football team

Over the last few years the concept of all things hybrid has spread across the world. We now have hybrid cars – both on the road and in motorsport – there are hybrid road bikes and even ‘phablets’ which are a cross between a smartphone and a tablet.

There has, however, never been a hybrid football team – until now.

Bayern Munich, the German, European and world champions, are arguably the first tangible example of such a thing in the sporting, not technological, world.

A couple of seasons ago, Bayern were eclipsed in the Bundesliga by the burgeoning force of Borussia Dortmund.

‘Die Schwarzgelben’ had revolutionised German football with their aggressive defensive pressing –  ‘Gegenpressing’ – and their razor-sharp attacking play which regularly made fatal incisions into Bayern’s defence – most notably during a 5-2 German cup final win in 2012.

Dortmund’s powerful arrival onto the German footballing scene provoked a reaction in Munich. Bayern manager Jupp Heynckes finally had the barometer that would help elevate his side and convert their huge potential – setting them on the path to becoming the world beaters they are now.

Heynckes’ response was to recalibrate Dortmund’s ‘gegenpressing’ – using it in a way that would suit Bayern. The results were devastating.

The following season Bayern defeated Dortmund in the German Supercup and later went on to win the treble – including a last-minute win over their arch-rivals in the Champions League final at Wembley.

Yet, it was Bayern’s performance in their semi-final against Barcelona – then comfortably held to be the best team in the world – that drew the most attention as they crushed them 7-0 on aggregate.

In the first leg they swamped their Spanish opponents, asphyxiating them with a brutal display of counter-attacking and finishing them off with startling lethality in a 4-0 win.

Barcelona’s Camp Nou had long been a fortress – particularly in European football – but Bayern flattened it in the second leg, cruising to a 3-0 victory.

The Bavarians sent shockwaves through the footballing community – especially the Catalonian one – and from there they have built upon that success.

Heynckes left Bayern last summer but was replaced by Pep Guardiola – a man who had been the chief architect of Barcelona’s rise to the top of the game.

Guardiola has not hindered Bayern’s progress though – he has sharpened it.

In just eight months at the helm he has developed the German giants into an all-conquering machine and the theme of hybridity is the ideal way to describe their style of play.

A key feature of the modern Bayern is the seamless transition from defence to attack.

Guardiola has drilled a sublime one-touch passing game into his new side, which serves to speed up the way Bayern shift the ball from their penalty area to the other.

Full-backs David Alaba and Rafinha have a licence to raid forward – particularly Alaba who is rapidly developing into the most potent left-back in the world.

However, it is when Bayern are faced with a wall of 11 players in front of them that they are at their most fluid.

Their defence, midfield and strike force all combine in each venture forwards, with an interchangability that is unprecedented in the modern game.

So much so that some photographs of Bayern’s offensive shape this season show a 1-8-1 formation – an almost incomprehensible form for a football team to sustain.

That ‘midfield’ eight usually comprises Alaba, Rafinha, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Phillip Lahm and Thomas Mueller.

Eagle-eyed readers will notice Lahm’s absence in defence. Only a few years ago Lahm was seen as one of the best full-backs in the world, but Guardiola has transformed him into a free spirit that roams across midfield.

Effectively, Lahm acts an important cog between defence and midfield but, such is Bayern’s constant fluidity, the diminutive captain can pop up on either flank to assist wingers Robben and Ribery with attacks.

In Schweinsteiger, Bayern have the typical box-to-box midfielder – himself reformed from a flamboyant winger in his early career.

His partner in central midfield is contract rebel Kroos, whose growing influence during Bayern’s games has seen him linked with several top clubs in Europe.

Then there is Mueller – one of the most underrated players in world football at the present time.

Mueller has the ability to play as a striker – indeed that is where he started in his early career – but in recent seasons he has acted on the edges of an attacking three.

That Mueller is also an extremely hard-working midfielder enables his side to spring forward in numbers while also knowing that he will return goalside quickly if his side loses the ball.

This takes a huge amount of discipline and drilling on the training ground, and Guardiola must take credit for that.

What Guardiola has created is, in effect, the all-round football team.

In cricket, there are all-rounders, in cycling there are rouleurs and now in football there are hybrids.

Bayern’s influence on world football is now so strong that teams in England are dropping players whose talent only extends to one area of the game.

This is best evidenced in footballers such as Juan Mata and Mesut Özil.

Mata was allowed to leave Chelsea by Jose Mourinho in January. The Spaniard’s attacking quality was not in doubt, but his willingness to defend was.

Mourinho is keen to have the same all-round, hybrid player that Guardiola has created at Bayern. Consequently, players such as Ramires, Oscar and Eden Hazard were preferred to Mata for their greater work without the ball.

The same is true of Özil at his new club Arsenal. Although Real Madrid didn’t let him leave because of his lack of defensive diligence, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger dropped the German due to his ‘tiredness’.

After noticing Özil’s complete disinterest in tracking back, many critics saw this as a veiled signal to Özil that his work rate must improve.

As talented as Mata and Özil are, they are not the complete all-round footballer. They could even be considered a weakness if they do not perform to their high attacking standards because they offer little in defence.

This is where Bayern have excelled. They have changed the type of player needed to perform at the highest level and have quickly set up a squad containing players who are comfortable and capable of playing in several positions.

What used to be the utility player, a rare breed, is now a necessity.

Even goalkeepers are being asked to play as sweepers – good examples of those are Bayern’s Manuel Neuer and Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris.

Having such a goalkeeper allows teams have an extra layer of defensive security, and that is just one part of how the modern game is developing.

Defenders are midfielders, sometimes even attackers, midfielders are starting to flourish in any position across the width of the pitch and strikers are doing defensive duties too.

This hybridity will continue to reign in football for years to come and until then Bayern are the team to beat – just as Barcelona were when their tiki-taka football dominated the game.

The question is which team will be able to take football onto the next level and render the concept of hybridity a thing of the past?

Who are the best and worst Premier League chairmen and owners?

As Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels, once said, “It is in men as in soils where sometimes there is a vein of gold which the owner knows not.”

Worryingly, this quote could apply to several Premier League chairmen this season after a series of controversial and seemingly unwarranted sackings.

Latest of them all is the fiasco at Cardiff City, where manager Malky Mackay was finally put out of his misery by the oblivious Vincent Tan.

However, Tan is just one of a number of Premier League club owners to have shown little remorse in pursuit of good results and ‘better’ performances.

How long will it be before the Premier League’s managerial environment mirrors the Latin American one?

Only this year, Mexico employed four different managers in six weeks to get them to the World Cup finals.

Supporters of that cut-throat strategy will argue that it worked as Mexico made it to Brazil this summer, but opponents to it will point towards an apparent culture of ‘short-term’ gains where good results coincide with spiked player performances – brought about by a need to impress the new manager and therefore gain a regular starting slot.

Either way it’s clear that long-term stability, reputation building and familiarity are the best recipes for club growth – certainly in English football. With that in mind, who makes the top five best and worst Premier League chairmen/owners?

I’ll hit you with the good first:

5. John W. Henry, Liverpool owner and chairman

Liverpool fans across the country rejoiced when Henry made a bid for Liverpool in 2010. He was eventually successful and replaced the embittered and faltering Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr. as owner shortly afterwards. A billionaire businessman, Henry built up a rapport with Reds fans when appointing club stalwart Kenny Dalglish in 2011. He then backed Dalglish by granting the £57.8m spent on Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll after Fernando Torres’ £56m sale. The Suarez transfer is undoubtedly the best of his reign so far, and plans to renovate Anfield rather than move to Stanley Park are also proving popular. It seems he has no intention of enjoying the headlines and has the club’s best interests to mind – which is perhaps the ultimate sign of a good owner.

4. Sheikh Mansour, Manchester City owner

Love him or despise him, Sheikh Mansour’s billions have overseen a huge change in fortunes for the club historically seen as the second-biggest in Manchester. Rival fans have offered jibes of ‘can’t buy class’ and ‘Man-cash-ter City’ but the transformation of the club has been so comprehensive that they have usurped United as the giants of Manchester on current form. Mansour has also funded an investment in young talent and a symmetry with Barcelona’s youth academies which will benefit them in decades to come. Overall, it’s hard to see how else City could have reached their current level if Mansour had not delved into his pockets.

3. Bill Kenwright, Everton chairman

Kenwright has gradually increased his involvement with Everton, which peaked in 2004 when he became the club’s majority shareholder. He has been on the board since 1989 and supported the Goodison Park club as a boy. He is also an astute and loyal chairman in terms of managerial appointments, having enjoyed an 11-year stint with David Moyes at the helm and replacing him with Roberto Martinez, himself a loyal and passionate boss having stayed with Wigan through good and bad spells. Everton have not always had the budget to spend on transfers, but that is not a concern when wise purchasing and faith in young talent are among Kenwright’s beliefs.

2. Huw Jenkins, Swansea City chairman

Swansea are in safe hands with Jenkins as chairman, not least because of his tight purse strings. This summer he admitted that the idea of spending £12m on one player – Wilfried Bony – made him uncomfortable, but a recent history of transfers suggests he likes to pay little for more. Michu for £2m and Pablo Hernandez for £5.5m are cases in point, while manager Michael Laudrup could also be included on that list having done a superb job since taking over last summer. But Jenkins should be credited with saving the club from failure in the Football League, having cleaned up the club’s finances. Swansea now boast multi-million pound profits and also won the league cup last season under Jenkins’ guidance.

1. Peter Coates, Stoke City owner and chairman

It’s not often that a Premier League chairman has two bites at the cherry, but in the case of Peter Coates that much is true. A lifelong fan of the club, even having trials with them as a player, Coates will always have their best intentions at heart. His first tenure as owner lasted eight years until 1997, when he stepped down after protests from fans. However, Coates then set up bet365.com in 2000 and took ownership of the club again in 2005, showing loyalty and support to Tony Pulis who managed the team for seven years – a rare tenurial stint. Coates clearly knows how to run a big operation and his preference for British managers must also be welcomed in the modern game. His absence in the headlines is also good news for the club and, taking everything into consideration, Coates has done an extremely good job.

Now the bad:

5. Malcolm Glazer, Manchester United owner

Possibly the least-popular man in the red side of Manchester, Malcolm Glazer’s takeover of the club piled hundreds of millions of pounds worth of debt into the Old Trafford outfit. In his defence he has always committed the necessary funds for big transfers, but that is largely due to the club’s ever-expanding sponsorship portfolio. Fans continue to worry over the rumours that the Glazer family is withdrawing funds from the club. The bottom line is that Glazer’s incumbency has been a shady one and fans are reluctant to trust him.

4. Ellis Short, Sunderland owner and chairman

One of the motifs of bad ownership is the regularity with which managers come and go. In Ellis Short’s case, since he assumed full control of the club in 2009 he has sacked three managers which is a healthy – or unhealthy – ratio. In particular, the appointment of Paolo di Canio caused a stir given the Italian’s constant flirtation with controversy, but in Gus Poyet he seems to have finally made a decent change. Short has also been criticised for his handling of Martin O’Neill, who was widely considered to be a success at Sunderland having saved them from relegation in his first season in charge. It is that type of impatience which earns Short a place on the bad side of this blog.

3. Assem Allam, Hull City owner

Another hugely controversial owner, Allam has done little to enamour himself amongst Hull’s home support. His proposal to Americanize the club’s “common” name of Hull City to Hull City Tigers has been met with widespread anger in the footballing community but Allam is showing little sign of relenting. It is effectively a marketing tool, but Hull’s hardcore support continue to resist by singing ‘City til we die’. Allam, in typical mood, suggested that they could “die as soon as they want.” Has there been a more charming owner?

2. Mike Ashley, Newcastle United owner and chairman

Ever since downing a pint in amongst Toon fans during a trip to the Emirates, Newcastle owner Mike Ashley has been a figure of fun in the footballing world. His popularity was initially high after appointing Kevin Keegan as manager, but his decisions ever since have proved extremely unpopular. Notably, his friendship with Joe Kinnear – who later became manager – and Dennis Wise, who worked closely with Keegan, were negatively received. After Keegan resigned, he put the club up for sale but never enticed a buyer. Other recent controversies include changing the name of St. James’ Park and reappointing Kinnear in a director of football role. Ashley’s tenure is a fine example of how not to run a football club.

1. Vincent Tan, Cardiff City owner

The king of the worst Premier League owners, Tan’s every action has been divisive and infuriating for Cardiff fans. Changing the club crest and kit colour was viewed as heresy by Bluebirds fans, but Tan’s ill-advised moves have not stopped there. He removed the respected head of recruitment Iain Moody and hired Alisher Apsalyamov – a friend of Tan’s son who, embarrassingly, had no previous footballing experience and worse still, was placed on work experience with the club at the time. Up until today Malky Mackay was in charge but, after a tumultuous public row, he was sacked. Mackay’s sacking was the end of a two-week conflict which came about after an email sent by Tan ordering Mackay to ‘resign or be sacked’ was leaked to the media. Despite great support from colleagues and supporters, a 3-0 loss to Southampton spelled the end for the affable Scot. Cardiff fans will be wondering when Tan’s spell at the club will end, too.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

Have Arsenal had an easy start to the Premier League season?

Arsenal are flying, or so most people believe.

Top of the Premier League with a four-point gap to Chelsea and currently sitting in first place in their Champions League group with a game to play, they could not have asked for much more going into the busy Christmas schedule.

However, there is a cold reality which lies stealthily beneath the hullabaloo of their superb beginning to the new season – they have had an easy start.

Gunners fans may scoff in disgust at that statement, but looking at the thirteen games Arsenal have played so far, they have come up against limited opposition.

Since the opening day, when they lost 3-1 at home to Aston Villa, Arsene Wenger’s side have played Manchester United, Liverpool and rivals Spurs, losing 1-0 away to United and beating Liverpool and Spurs at the Emirates.

Compared to the two Manchester clubs, for example, Arsenal have played just three ‘big’ sides, whereas City and United have each played Chelsea, Spurs and each other.

United have additionally played Liverpool and Arsenal, meaning that they’ve already faced the five teams that are realistically expected to challenge with them for the title.

Looking more closely at Arsenal’s results reveals another clue as to why their start should be considered an easy one.

Of the 13 matches played so far they have played against 9 teams currently in the bottom half, including those in each of the lowest five places, meaning their start has been vastly overrated.

The form of Aaron Ramsey and his fellow midfielders has largely helped to gloss over these informative statistics, together with an encouraging performance in the Champions League.

Arsenal have also been heavily reliant on Olivier Giroud for goals and, added to Ramsey, the pair have been responsible for 15 of the 27 Premier League goals the North Londoners have scored to date.

Despite all the criticism of their start, Arsenal must be praised for improving their side in several areas.

Ramsey’s emergence as a goalscoring midfielder has been coupled with the arrival of Mesut Özil, who has created six goals and scored twice since his £42.5m move from Real Madrid in the summer.

The signing of Özil may have been widely heralded as one which has transformed the Gunners, but it is actually in defence where they have improved the most.

Mathieu Flamini’s return to the club has enabled attacking-minded midfielders such as Ramsey, Özil and Jack Wilshere to forge forward, knowing that Flamini will unselfishly sit deep and protect the back four in their absence.

Arsenal’s shaky defence, a key reason for their vulnerability and profligacy last season, has suddenly become watertight – they have kept five clean sheets this term.

To underline their advancement, on December 3 in the 2012/13 season Arsenal were languishing in tenth place with 21 points, and trailed leaders Manchester United by 15 points after just 15 games.

This season, exactly one year on, they sit on 31 points having played two games less with a gap to United of nine points. What a difference a season makes.

Perhaps the biggest asset to Arsenal’s displays so far has been the ability to claim maximum points against teams from the bottom half.

In seasons past Arsenal had become renowned for dropping points against teams who they would ordinarily have expected to beat, and were mocked for doing so.

This season, they are being praised for the fluidity and quality of their football (as they always have been), but now they have the defensive foundation to fall back on, enabling them to beat ‘lesser’ sides.

Their centre-back partnership of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, once considered maladroit and unreliable, has kept Thomas Vermaelen out of the side with a series of imposing displays, while goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny has benefitted from a more mature attitude, dropping the casual arrogance he once paraded.

So, while it is easy to be fooled by Arsenal’s excellent recent performances, do not forget that they have made smooth progress during an easy start.

Three of their next four games are against Chelsea, Manchester City and Everton.

If they are still top of the league after a Christmas fixture list bearing obstacles as testing as those, they will have every right to receive the flattering acclaim they are garnering now.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

The lowdown on BT Sport’s free weekend

As battles go, this was as one-sided as they come.

BT Sport certainly picked a good weekend to open up their channels to everyone in what they billed as their ‘free weekend’.

By comparison, their archrivals Sky Sports, the other protagonists in this war of the sport broadcasters, had a meek splattering of goods on offer for their customers – who at £60 per month are being stripped of £720 per year. That sum would be sufficient to buy a season ticket at most Premier League grounds.

Even so, for at least a decade Sky have held the throne as the Kings of all things sport in the UK, but this season the tide looks to be turning.

BT Sport have them worried, and why not?

They’re offering free viewing to all customers with BT Broadband and, for those without the broadband deal, a fee of just £12 per month to view 38 first-pick Premier League games, an array of top Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1 matches, plus comprehensive coverage of the Aviva Premiership.

That’s just for starters. If you’re a self-confessed sport addict then BT Sport could prove to be the perfect place for you.

Allied to the sport mentioned above, there’s football action from the MLS, A-League and Brazilian top flight plus other bits and bobs such as tennis, UFC, Major League Baseball and a generous helping of some innovative, interactive and engaging panel shows – the best of which is fronted by Tim Lovejoy and Matt Dawson on a Saturday morning.

On Saturday, BT Sport trumped Sky with their coverage of Crystal Palace against Arsenal. They also delighted in showing Inter Milan’s entertaining 4-2 win over Verona, while there was also a very watchable 3-0 victory for Wolfsburg against Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga.

If Sky can’t match the variety of BT Sport, then they can certainly pack a big punch of their own with the most anticipated fixture in La Liga – El Clasico.

It was rather unfortunate for Sky then, that the match was under-par by El Clasico standards – a 2-1 win for Barcelona failed, judging by various social media outbursts, to get the pulse racing.

Gareth Bale was largely anonymous and Lionel Messi was overshadowed by Neymar. That said, the goals scored by Barcelona were of high quality, particularly Neymar’s opener in which he embarrassed two Real Madrid defenders before finding the net.

The fact that the match disappointed wasn’t Sky’s fault, but what is evident is that if you put all your eggs in one basket – as Sky have done with their lack of variety – then the occasional anti-climax will inevitably happen.

But Sky’s tonic to that frustration is their Formula One coverage, which this weekend encompassed Sebastian Vettel’s title-clinching victory in the Indian Grand Prix.

Sky also screened the fifth one day international between India vs. Australia – or would have done had play not been abandoned because of rain.

Aside from that, Sky had very little to offer last weekend. Various repeats were screened and events like the CIMB Classic golf tournament from Kuala Lumpur did little to wrestle the attention away from BT Sport.

Sunday was slightly better for Sky, with the Tyne and Wear derby preceding the clash between Chelsea and Manchester City – once again their ability to show the top football matches in the Premier League proved the main draw to their coverage.

The second NFL London game between the Jaguars and the 49ers was also available to Sky customers, but they lost out on millions of spectators as it was also on offer to terrestrial viewers over on Channel 4, who have maintained their growing grasp on the sport in this country.

It was, at this point on Sunday teatime, as if BT Sport had their opponents on the ropes. It wasn’t long before they delivered a final blow.

France’s two cash-rich clubs, Monaco and PSG, kicked off one after the other – enabling viewers to gorge themselves on Ligue 1 action that is quickly being elevated to a higher level thanks to players such as Monaco’s Radamel Falcao and PSG’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

If that wasn’t enough, then a brilliant panel show featuring top football journalists from France, Italy and Germany, presented by the insuperable James Richardson, gave viewers a comprehensive and informative round-up of the best Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1 action.

In critical terms, Sky’s service to sport fans has been bettered by BT Sport – and by some way.

The diehard Premier League fans will always flock to Sky, but BT Sport are slowly cranking up the pressure in that department as they bid to show more and more games per season.

Then there is the issue of costing. Would you pay £60 per month for Sky or £12 per month for BT Sport? True, Sky will have autumn international rugby Tests and the Ashes coming up soon, but when they’re all done and the viewers are sat down in February, what else is there to watch?

BT Sport will always be there with a good variety of sport, and it’s a strategy which is intrinsic to their quest to surpass Sky as the country’s leading sports broadcaster.

On the evidence of the last weekend at least, BT Sport have won the battle. Give them a few more years and they may well have won the broadcasting war.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

My 2013/14 Premier League predictions

Straight away, I’m going to jinx the upcoming Premier League season – I think it’s going to be a cracker.

It’s certainly looking as if it’s going to be the hardest Premier League season to call for a while, and who wouldn’t be up for some unpredictability after Manchester United cantered to the title last time out?

Of course there are the usual rivalries to look forward to, and some new ones too as broadcasting newcomers BT Sport look to sink the all-conquering Sky Sports in the biggest ever battle of its kind.

There is also the addition of goal-line technology to muse over. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were no major goal-line incidents to speak of for the Hawk-Eye system to judge – but that’s show business for you.

Anyway, let’s get started with the serious business. Counting down from 20th place to 1st, here’s my version of what the Premier League table will look like come Sunday 11th May next year.

20. Hull City Tigers (2012/13: Promoted, 2nd in Championship)

Has there ever been a team so hotly-tipped to go down as Hull City? (or Hull City Tigers as they have imaginatively been renamed).

At the managerial helm is Steve Bruce, perennial signer of has-been big-name players. Bruce has lived up to his reputation in the transfer market, signing the under-achieving Tom Huddlestone and Danny Graham, who will need to shoulder the burden of scoring consistently for his new side to give them a chance of staying up.

The acquisition of former Rangers goalkeeper Allan McGregor is a good bit of business though, and Graham might have an exciting strike partner in the talented Yannick Sagbo. The backbone of the team also has a distinct Man United youth squad look to it, as so many of Bruce’s teams have done in the past.

Criticisms of Bruce’s managerial aptitude aside, Hull have a solid defence which hardly conceded in last season’s Championship, but I expect the step up in class to prove too tough for them on their return to the top flight.

19. Crystal Palace (2012/13: Promoted, Championship play-off winners)

Nearly every football fan in the country rejoiced when Crystal Palace beat Watford 1-0 in the Championship play-off final at Wembley in May. Not because they’re all Eagles fans, but because Ian Holloway would be a regular fixture on Match of the Day once more.

The colourful Bristolian may have lost Wilfried Zaha to Man United this summer but he has bought well to replace him. Jose Campana, just 20, signed from Sevilla for €2m while Marouane Chamakh has also penned a one-year deal.

Holloway’s excellent man-management and motivational skills should get the ailing Chamakh into better goalscoring form than in recent seasons while the exciting talent of Jonathan Williams will provide him with the creativity needed at Premier League level.

Palace, like Hull, proved tough to score against last season but being just as frugal in the Premier League will be much more difficult and consequently relegation looms large for them this season.

18. Sunderland (2012/13: Premier League, 17th)

Yes, you heard it here first. Sunderland to be relegated. Why? Because despite the Paulo di Canio effect the Black Cats very nearly faced the drop last season.

The trouble for Sunderland fans is that di Canio has made a whole host of distinctly average signings in the summer. They have been the Premier League’s most active club, signing ten players in all, but none of them carry formidable reputations and Mackem fans will be wondering if it’s going to be enough for them to stay up this season.

Does di Canio know his best team? And will the raft of new players destabilise the club rather than strengthen it? Time will tell, but I feel it could have a negative impact as di Canio sorts out his best line-up, tactics and alternatives.

That said, the signing of Emanuele Giaccherini from Juventus is a good one and, if he can link up well with Steven Fletcher and fellow newcomer Jozy Altidore, Sunderland might just be OK.

Questions still remain over their defence though, and I expect this to be where Sunderland come unstuck this season. Few recognised reinforcements for an aged defence that conceded 1.5 goals on average per game last season is an ominous sign.

17. Fulham (2012/13: Premier League, 12th)

Joining Sunderland in a fight to stay in the top flight are Fulham. Martin Jol’s side finished an unrepresentative 12th last season, jumping four places after a 3-0 defeat of Swansea on the final day.

Jol knew that signings needed to be made and perhaps the most impressive of those is centre-back Fernando Amorebieta. Signed on a free transfer from Athletic Bilbao, the Venezuelan is powerful in the tackle, while his skill on the ball exudes a calming influence on those around him. He will form a strong partnership with Brede Hangeland in central defence.

Fulham still have an older squad than most, which is not necessarily a problem, but a lack of depth beyond those experienced players is certainly evident. Dimitar Berbatov has a new strike partner in Darren Bent, signed on loan from Aston Villa today, while Maarten Stekelenburg has replaced Mark Schwarzer between the posts.

I doubt Fulham will be relegated, but should they suffer a spate of injuries they will be struggling.

16. Cardiff City(2012/13: Promoted as Championship winners)

Of all the promoted sides, Cardiff look best placed to upset a few of the more established Premier League sides this season.

They already had Premier League experience in Craig Bellamy and Fraizer Campbell and the addition of Steven Caulker to bolster their defence has bucked the trend of their fellow promotees.

Having also signed Chile international Gary Medel from Sevilla, Malky Mackay’s side look in decent shape and should avoid the drop.

15. Stoke City (2012/13: Premier League, 13th)

Not many teams have signed a Barcelona player this summer, but Stoke City have. They welcome Marc Muniesa, a 21-year-old centre-back, to the Britannia this season.

He joins Dutch left-back Erik Pieters in the Potters squad as new manager Mark Hughes looks to improve upon 13th last season.

That placing flattered Stoke somewhat, particularly because they had been in relegation peril towards the end of the season, but they have a strong enough squad to survive the drop again this time round.

14. Aston Villa (2012/13: Premier League, 15th)

Villa have done well this summer to tie star striker Christian Benteke down on a new contract. Up top last season Villa looked as dangerous as any of the top sides in the division as Benteke was partnered by Andreas Weimann and Gabby Agbonlahor, but their defence remains shaky.

Awash with youngsters, it was very nearly Villa’s undoing as they conceded 69 goals with the biggest slump in form coming in an 8-0 drubbing away to Chelsea.

Still, Villa’s forward line should get Paul Lambert’s men over the line and they can continue to build their side after the World Cup in Brazil in what is undoubtedly a long-term project for the Midlanders.

13. Southampton (2012/13: Premier League, 14th)

Mauricio Pochettino has been fairly inactive in the transfer market, but his two signings to date have been big ones.

Southampton have splashed the cash on Victor Wanyama (£12m) and Dejan Lovren (£8.5m), fees which are widely held to be well above what each player is worth.

£12m for Wanyama looks particularly expensive considering Wilfried Bony, Mesut Özil and Shinji Kagawa also commanded £12m fees, but Saints have nonetheless made a statement in signing the Kenya international.

Their form last season following Pochettino’s move was good, but a poor finish to the season belied a decent middle stint where Manchester City were among their scalps. Could be fighting for a top ten finish.

12. West Ham (2012/13: Premier League, 10th)

Sam Allardyce is similar to Steve Bruce in that he often signs players with a big reputation, and he has lived up to that billing by signing Liverpool pair Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing for a combined £21m.

The two players should, in theory at least, link up well with Downing’s crosses seen as the perfect supply for Carroll to destroy teams with his mastery of aerial duels.

With a solid defence and a diligent midfield, West Ham will be well clear of the relegation scrap and should be aiming for a top ten finish, which may just be beyond them given the quality of the teams around them.

11. Newcastle United (2012/13: Premier League, 16th)

A new season and a new start for Alan Pardew after the lucklustre display his side turned in last season.

Pardew has bought sparingly this summer, adding Loïc Remy on loan, and he will hope that the French contingent signed in January will be enough to see his side avoid the doldrums of their last campaign.

Newcastle still need to make a few additions to their squad to be on the safe side, but they have a good enough squad to contend for a top ten place.

10. Norwich City (2012/13: Premier League, 11th)

There are few teams in this division with a pair of strikers of the quality of Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Gary Hooper.

That Chris Hughton managed to secure their signatures for a comparatively small fee, suggests that Norwich have good reason to be chipper ahead of the upcoming campaign.

Van Wolfswinkel comes to Carrow Road with big promise and has a natural goalscoring ability which should alleviate the difficulties in front of goal that many Canaries fans had lamented last season.

Hooper has proven his prowess at Celtic and will be looking to kick on at a higher level with the carrot of a call-up to the England squad in World Cup year dangling in front of him.

Norwich can be defensively unsteady at times, and that is where their weakness lies. However, the exciting partnership up top and an underrated midfield including Robert Snodgrass and Wes Hoolahan will be good for a top ten spot.

9. West Brom (2012/13: Premier League, 8th)

The Baggies have prepared for the new season by signing experienced players of the calibre of Nicolas Anelka and Diego Lugano.

Yet, as is well known, both Anelka and Lugano are mercurial – Anelka especially so. Whether he will be consistently putting in 100% at the Hawthorns remains to be seen. If manager Steve Clarke sees him as a replacement for Chelsea loanee Romelu Lukaku, he could be sorely disappointed.

Lugano, meanwhile, looked past his best at the recent Confederations Cup for Uruguay and, in my opinion at least, represents more of a liability than a reliability.

Despite the relative lack of signings, West Brom should be competitive. An energetic and incisive midfield is their strength and if they can convince Peter Odemwinghie to stay they can aim for a top ten finish.

8. Everton (2012/13: Premier League, 6th)

Everton enter into the new season with a new manager for the first time in over a decade following the departure of David Moyes to Manchester United.

Incoming boss Roberto Martinez is certainly a respected manager and he will look to build upon the watchable style of play that Moyes developed during his tenure.

Key to their success will be the retention of Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellaini, with the club so far resisting overtures for both men from Manchester United.

New loan signing Gerard Deulofeu comes in from Barcelona to provide strength to the Toffees forward line, which is also bolstered by Arouna Kone, who followed Martinez from Wigan in a permanent deal.

The Goodison Park faithful will have to be patient with the new regime – a European place (fifth) might be out of their reach.

7. Swansea City (2012/13: Premier League, 9th)

Swansea’s season has already started with qualification for the Europa League, and they look well placed to improve on an impressive ninth place finish from last season.

New signing Wilfried Bony looks strong and has linked up well with goalscoring sensation Michu so far. The Ivorian’s presence allows the Spaniard to drift into his favoured position just off the first striker, so Swansea may well benefit from that this season.

Swans manager Michael Laudrup has raided Real Betis for Spanish duo Alejandro Pozuelo and Jose Canas, with Pozuelo looking a very promising player in the playmaker role.

Fans at the Liberty Stadium will be hopeful of a good Premier League assault and their team could well deliver a top six place if one of the top six teams falters.

6. Tottenham Hotspur (2012/13: Premier League, 5th)

The crucial question at White Hart Lane this summer is whether prize asset Gareth Bale is going to leave the club.

Real Madrid have reportedly had a world-record bid of £87m turned down, and their interest has since cooled.

Bale has remained silent – some say this means he wants to leave – but chairman Daniel Levy is intent on keeping his star player.

If Bale were to leave, Spurs will rely heavily on £26m striker Roberto Soldado to score goals after Emmanuel Adebayor and Jermain Defoe endured difficult seasons.

Paulinho, a £17m acquisition from Corinthians, looks a very good addition to the squad but the loss of Bale is expected to take its toll and I think Spurs will miss out on Europe – unless they can win a domestic cup.

5. Liverpool (2012/13: Premier League, 7th)

Liverpool flattered to deceive at times last season. They finished with 71 goals – the fourth highest in the division – but they were inconsistent and eventually paid the price when they missed out on European competition altogether.

They have also resisted Luis Suarez’s attempts to leave the club, with Arsenal having had two bids rejected, and have got their business done early, signing four players fairly cheaply.

Simon Mignolet will be first choice in goal after Pepe Reina left the club (on loan) to link up with former Reds boss Rafael Benitez at Napoli, while the addition of Spanish duo Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto will provide Daniel Sturridge with assistance should Suarez leave.

Philippe Coutinho is being tipped for a superb season alongside Steven Gerrard in midfield, and Reds boss Brendan Rodgers will be hopeful – rightly so – of a Europa League place at least.

4. Arsenal (2012/13: Premier League, 4th)

Much has been made of Arsenal’s lack of activity in the transfer market – but it has not been for want of trying.

The Gunners have twice failed in attempts to sign Luis Suarez and their only signing so far this summer has been French youngster Yaya Sanogo.

A fit again Jack Wilshere will be crucial to Arsene Wenger’s plans to launch an assault on a Champions League automatic qualifying spot, but with the calibre of teams ahead of them I feel fourth place is as good as Arsenal will get – for now.

3. Manchester United (2012/13: Premier League, champions)

Like Arsenal, United have added one player to their squad this summer – young Uruguay full-back Guillermo Varela. Interest in midfielders Thiago Alcantara and Cesc Fabregas has not resulted in a signing, while a bid for Leighton Baines has also been rejected.

Rumours are now abound that new manager David Moyes is looking to bring in playmaker Mesut Özil, and with time fast running out United fans are beginning to think a marquee signing may never materialise for the Glaswegian.

If it doesn’t chances will fall to exciting youngsters such as Adnan Januzaj and Jesse Lingard, while Nick Powell will be involved once he recovers from a pre-season hamstring injury.

Wilfried Zaha, who was signed in January, has also looked sharp in pre-season and prolific young Chilean striker Angelo Henriquez scored midweek for his country.

Wayne Rooney has been tipped for a move to Chelsea, but the club have rejected two bids and expect him to stay.

Despite the Rooney saga, the future looks bright for United, but they are in a transitional phase after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement and an automatic Champions League spot will be Moyes’ realistic end product.

2. Manchester City (2012/13: Premier League, 2nd)

New manager Manuel Pellegrini erased memories of last season by doing his business in rapid fashion early in the summer.

His £90m outlay on Stevan Jovetic, Alvaro Negredo, Fernandinho and Jesus Navas has strengthened City greatly, and they will be extremely difficult to beat as a result.

City enjoyed the best defensive record in the league last season, conceding just 34 goals. They scored a measly 66 though – and Pellegrini has addressed that problem emphatically.

I think City will just be pipped to the title but it will be a close battle with the usual title suspects.

1. Chelsea (2012/13: Premier League, 3rd)

Jose Mourinho has picked a good time to return to Chelsea.

They have the squad to mount a serious challenge in Europe, let alone domestically.

Romelu Lukaku returns to the club following a successful loan spell at West Brom and he is favourite to beat Fernando Torres to a regular starting spot up top.

Kevin de Bruyne also looks a very good prospect, as does new signing Andre Schürrle, while another young talent – midfielder Marco van Ginkel – has been promised games under the terms of his signature.

Should Chelsea manage to keep David Luiz, they have a defensive backbone to a team that is capable of delivering the title and I fully expect them to be lifting the Premier League trophy next May.