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.

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Will England miss out on World Cup 2014 qualification?

Nestling beneath the predictable hyper-positive build-up to England’s forthcoming fixtures against San Marino and Montenegro is an important caveat which continues to be overlooked.

The prospect of England not qualifying for the World Cup in Brazil next summer would have been largely unthinkable when they thumped Moldova 5-0 in their first qualifying match last September.

Since then, Roy Hodgson’s men have only recorded one more win in three games – a 5-0 drubbing of lowly San Marino – which was sandwiched in between disappointing 1-1 draws against Ukraine and Poland.

Despite being two points off leaders Montenegro in Group H, England know that defeat to the Montenegrins on Tuesday would put them five points adrift of automatic qualification (assuming they beat San Marino tomorrow), and provided Montenegro also sweep aside minnows Moldova.

A five point gap, with four games remaining, could be insurmountable as the Three Lions would still face a tricky fixture away to Ukraine and a crucial match at home to Montenegro, who have already proven they can frustrate England – they recorded two creditable draws against them in qualification for Euro 2012.

If England were to miss out on automatic qualification, they could face a play-off against the likes of Spain or France in a worst-case scenario.

Dangerous teams such as Portugal, Sweden and Croatia are also play-off prospects after average starts to their respective qualifying campaigns.

This means that victory for England in Podgorica on Tuesday is absolutely essential, yet it doesn’t seem clear cut at all.

England’s defenders have deserted them. John Terry has retired from international football, the recalled Rio Ferdinand’s intricate pre-match preparations were deemed sufficient for him to withdraw from the squad, while Gary Cahill, Michael Dawson, Phil Jagielka and Phil Jones are all injured.

This means that England’s centre-back partnership will most likely hinge upon Joleon Lescott and Chris Smalling, despite neither player being regular choices for Manchester City or United respectively.

Lack of match-practice and a relative level of inexperience when compared to other players means that Montenegro’s in-form strike partnership of Stevan Jovetic and Mirko Vucinic – both prolific scorers for Fiorentina and Juventus in Serie A – will be licking their lips on Tuesday.

It’s a hazardous situation for England, but one which they can overcome.

A draw would not be the worst result for them, but it could potentially allow Poland to move level on points with them when they inevitably thrash San Marino the same day.

Defeat would move a play-off position ever closer, and the probability of coming through a two-legged tie against difficult opposition is no better than evens.

So, amongst all the world-beating headlines that will stick to the England team throughout the next few days, the gory sub-plot of failing to qualify for the World Cup remains an all too realistic shadow – and one which will intensify over Hodgson’s head should the unthinkable materialise.

Cüneyt Cakir, the stage is yours

It is said that good referees are invisible for the duration of a football match.

Yesterday night, Turkish official Cüneyt Cakir was anything but.

Maybe that was down to the 36-year-old’s garish turquoise shirt? Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t.

Mr Cakir created a frenzy of disbelief inside Old Trafford when, with Manchester United 2-1 up on aggregate against Real Madrid in the Champions League last 16, he sent Luis Nani off for serious foul play.

United were incensed because the decision allowed Madrid back into the game, before they cruelly killed the hosts off with two goals in three minutes from Luka Modric and ex-United star Cristiano Ronaldo.

To the letter of the law, Cakir was probably correct to show a straight red. Nani’s right boot made contact with Madrid right-back Alvaro Arbeloa’s rib cage in an aerial duel and after a brief break in play to allow both players to gather themselves, Cakir brandished red.

FIFA’s law 12 on fouls and misconduct provides that “A player is guilty of serious foul play if he uses excessive force or brutality against an opponent when challenging for the ball.”

So, Nani was justifiably sent off? Perhaps not.

It is widely held throughout the global footballing community that part of the art of refereeing is the official’s ability to apply the laws of the game with judgement of the footballing situation in question.

With the ball coming over Nani’s shoulder, the Portuguese winger’s eyes were fixated on the ball, with Arbeloa making a late entrance onto the scene. There was no intent to commit “excessive force or brutality” on Nani’s part.

Does there have to be? Once more, perhaps not. Taking everything into consideration, most referees would have realised that it was a 50/50 challenge, there was no malice involved, and that it had not been a high-tempered match up to that point.

This makes Cakir’s decision all the more robotic – and he has previous history.

Cakir, an insurer with a love of table tennis, became an elite referee in the 2007/08 season, and has since officiated several matches in the European Championships, Champions League, Europa League and Club World Cup.

What is immediately recognisable when glancing through his record is that, in the 134 games he has refereed since the 28th of March 2007, he has failed to give a card in just four of those games.

The plot thickens further when Cakir’s habits are examined more closely, and how predictable his style of officiating is.

Cakir would have first come to the attention of English fans when he officiated Chelsea’s 4-1 win over Spartak Moscow in the 2010/11 Champions League. It was a straightforward match to referee, with only four bookings dished out.

His next European match came three months later – a Europa League tie between Villarreal and Napoli which finished 2-1 to the hosts. It was marred by nine bookings, six of those coming in the second half.

Exactly three weeks later he sent off Manchester City’s Mario Balotelli in the same competition,  booking eight other players as City went out 2-1 on aggregate to Dynamo Kiev, despite winning 1-0 on the night.

Such a high volume of bookings means that Cakir’s style of refereeing is to adhere as closely to FIFA’s rulebook as possible.

Perhaps he enjoys the limelight when he flashes cards about. For certain, it is an inorganic approach to refereeing, and the statistics reinforce that point.

Last season, Cakir took charge of 34 games in the domestic Turkish Superlig and both elite European competitions.

He managed to show 172 yellow cards in that time, complete with nine red cards for good measure.

Across the 34 games, that is an average of 5.32 cards per game – an unusually high figure.

Those who have followed Cakir’s eye-catching refereeing since that time will have noticed his style of observing the match and the players in it during the first half, before unleashing a flurry of cards in the second period.

Last season he showed 61.3% of all his cards in the second half, and there were some high-profile matches during that time.

The infamous 2-2 draw between Barcelona and Chelsea at Camp Nou was famous for John Terry’s needless sending-off – a decision which Cakir got right – and the fractious nature of the match, with an additional eight players booked.

In Cakir’s homeland, the notorious Istanbul derby between Fenerbahce and Galatasaray is almost always an ill-tempered affair. So it proved in 2012 too, when Cakir sent off two players and booked 12 others.

His form continues into the current 2012/13 season when, after officiating just 25 games, he has already sent off eight players in all competitions, and has brandished 110 yellow cards.

That is an average of 4.72 cards per game – again, an unusually high figure.

When his performances are compared to that of England’s most card-happy referee, Martin Atkinson, Cakir’s super-strict manner is exposed again.

Atkinson has taken charge of 27 matches in all competitions this season, amassing a total of 107 cards, just one of which has been red. His average of 3.96 cards per game is a staggering 0.76 cards beneath the level of his Turkish colleague.

Cakir’s performances also seem to be more negatively prolific as the profile of the match amplifies. In his first major international tournament – Euro 2012 – he only officiated three games.

Yet, he still managed to brandish 18 yellows and one red, 13 of those coming in the second half and nine coming in the derby between Portugal and Spain. Ireland’s Keith Andrews was the man dismissed in a 2-0 loss against Italy.

In a World Cup Qualifying match between England and Ukraine, under three months later, Cakir showed 10 cards, sending off Steven Gerrard in the 1-1 draw at Wembley with (yes, you guessed it) all 10 of the bookings coming in the second half.

Cakir has also sent off Sergio Busquets for Barcelona in the Champions League this season, and Gary Cahill for Chelsea in the Club World Cup final. He now has Nani to add to that list of big, game-changing decisions.

With atmospheres no more hostile than those in his homeland, you would think Cakir has the necessary mental qualities in a referee to officiate in the biggest of occasions. All the matters discussed in this blog seem to suggest otherwise, but still FIFA and UEFA continue to give him high-profile games.

Perhaps that’s because he is a limpet to the rulebook. With that in mind, does he do a good or a bad job?

Does the fact that he gives a high amount of cards mean that he sees fouls no other referee does and should therefore be given credit for doing so?

One thing that seems certain is that Cakir will officiate at his first World Cup in Brazil next summer, and because of his latest attention-grabbing decision the weight of one billion eyes will be upon him.

If he continues to make similarly mechanical decisions in Brazil, he should probably turn his hand to officiating table tennis matches instead.