WARNING: The following blog entry is about football and for that I make no apologies...
In less than a week, everyone that hates football will let out a collective groan as the beautiful game replaces cricket as the focal point and the Ashes will not even have been decided. I'm sure, when I was a lad, that the season started around the last weekend in August; but football will never be the same now that money rules it. Next year, there's a World Cup and that means soccer haters will have just 14 days when there will be no competitive football. Even as a fan, I'm thinking this is probably too much (not enough time off). By the time England get off the plane with the trophy, the team that finishes 7th in the Premier League will be getting ready for its Euro League qualifier.
But that's a year away and we have possibly one of the most interesting seasons ever about to unfold. Every year I throw my hat in the ring as a pundit and most of the time I get embarrassed and am glad I didn't make my forecasts that public. Well, that's changed... This is my pre-season prophecy:
Manchester United - the reigning champions will feel that they have enough strength in reserves to take the Premiership for a 4th consecutive season and it would be foolish to write them off, ever. But Antonio Valencia is no Portuguese Swan Diver and while ickle Michael Owen is capable of brilliance, he is injury-prone regardless of what his advertising brochure claimed. No Tevez puts more onus on Rooney and Berbatov and frankly, this is a team that should score goals for fun. There or thereabouts come May.
Chelsea - the most significant thing about Chelski has been the appointment of their manager. Ancelotti has a huge reputation and he does have a squad more than capable of wiping the floor with most opposition, but, I don't know, unless they have a great start, playing catch-up to Man U is just about impossible. They, and I can't believe I'm saying this, probably need to spend some more money to be there.
Liverpool - whenever I'm feeling down, I think about the Fat Spanish Waiter and how Liverpool fans believe he's some kind of brilliant tactician and mindgame specialist, when all he is, is a petulant bad sport who it appears has already laid the foundation for this coming season's failure by saying that all the best players have chosen money over the Red Shite. I have serious doubts about a title challenge; they've lost several players and do not have the strength in depth that the top two have. Plus Rafa shuffles his pack more times than a Las Vegas card shark and until he settles, he'll have to make do with miraculous cup comebacks to keep the pathetic scousers happy.
Arse-nal - write Wenger's boys off at your peril. As much as I hate them with a burning passion, they are better than my team and even having lost key players in the summer, the idea of Arsenal not contesting a top 4 place is inconceivable; yet, the gap between them and the lower level is narrowing and both Arse-nal and the Red Shite have to make sure they're on tip top form or other teams will have them in their sights.
Manchester City - money does buy you trophies - just ask Roman - but does Mark Hughes have the ability to turn Citeh into a force or are we, like so many times in the past, going to be laughing into our beer as they struggle to beat Port Vale in the cup and lose to Burnley at Eastlands? Mark Hughes might not be favourite for the sack, but I'm betting that if Citeh ain't in the top 4 at Christmas, he's going to be spending the early part of 2010 with his feet up (and wondering if the Chelsea job is on offer if Ancelotti is struggling). Despite the money, this team is going to struggle to gel and will probably struggle on the road yet again.
Aston Villa - Now that Martin O'Neill is no longer the messiah, perhaps he can quietly go about improving his team. The smallest squad in the Prem last year still managed 6th and with the right buys there's no reason why they can't improve on that. Villa are a key team in this season's shake up. If they have what it takes they'll need to improve on their dismal record against the Sky Four; if they can do that and beat the teams around them, they are likeliest to break into the Champions League.
Everton - David Moyes band of journeymen, loanees, kids and shrewd transfer business continue to amaze and astound. It proves that if you play like a team then you don't need billions to earn respect and cause the odd shock; obviously if you want to win something you need a chairman whose name isn't Kenwright. Love seeing Liverpool's 'smaller club' doing so well, but I think they might struggle to maintain the consistency, especially if they decide they fancy their chances in a cup again.
West Ham - every neutrals' favourite team at the moment and for some weird reason, Chelsea fans' have stopped hating their east London rivals. It's because of that little Zola fellow and he can sit back and hope for another season of mid-table mediocrity and most people will be happy. If ever a club actually needed money more than Everton it's this mob and the incumbent owners look more like asset strippers than investors.
Fulham - and here lies the major dilemma; is this team actually better than it was or did last season's poor start by Tottenham and the inconsistency of West Ham, Man City and Blackburn mean they emerged out of the mire stinking less than the others? There are good players here, good average players; no stars, no big names, so probably no egos. They're either going to finish mid-table and consider it an achievement or will completely fall apart and be the surprise relegation package the year after everyone reckoned they would.
Blackburn - are pretty much shit; and I'm puzzled how they have managed to achieve so much (a testament to Mark Hughes I'm sure) in recent years. If it wasn't for the fact there are a lot worse teams in this division this year, I'd say they'd struggle; they still will, but not as much as everyone else.
Bolton - see Blackburn (substitute Allardyce for Hughes and I know, it starts to get confusing).
Portsmouth - this year's Bar Codes? This could be an embarrassment waiting to happen and the new boys will be hoping that Pompey self-destruct without any of their regular players. Expect the rest of the best to be gone by September and the owner cited for tax evasion and the first Premier League club to go into administration. Or they'll just struggle, but be better than the really crap teams.
Sunderland - ah, the first of the really crap teams, except they have Steve 'itchy feet' Bruce now and money to spend and a fetish with White Hart Lane (expect Bent to resign for Spurs in January for £6m because he can't settle). If Steve Bruce is as good as he thinks he is then Sunderland fans will be over the moon with a 10th place finish; the new American owners might be wondering why there are 9 betters teams!
Burnley - cup heroics are one thing; having a squad of 19 players and a donkey is going to win nothing but sympathy from fans, who will be saying how much the Burnley fans will be missed next season, blah blah blah. Owen Coyle's team will flatter to deceive; they might scrape into a second season; but it's going to be painful to watch. One of the prime reasons for some people wanting the Premiership limited to 10 teams, with no relegation. Burnley versus Stoke, your super Sunday game on Sky!
Wigan - I'd like to see the new manager do really well; he has a reputation to live up to and we need good upcoming managers to make good. Wigan, however, are about as inspiring as mud.
Birmingham City - how much ambition has this club got? They buy Aston Villa cast offs, that's how ambitious they are. Don't even deserve the label under-achievers because, to my memory, they've never actually achieved, have they?
Hull City - ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Phil Brown! Um... How many 6-0 thrashings will they receive and still hang onto 17th place? Not this year.
Stoke City - last year's 90s styled bruisers with a long throw rather than a long ball. Too many teams were caught out last season; most, with the exception of Spurs, will have learned their lessons.
Wolves - if ever a team felt they belonged in the top flight it this mob and if ever a team didn't deserve to be in the top flight it's these lot. They will struggle to win, McCarthy will be frantic by New Year and it'll just get worse...
Oh and Tottenham Hotspur - guaranteed to drop points against all three teams that will be relegated; will put together great runs, but lose matches they should win. Will end up staring up at least 5 teams arses come May and Harry will insist on rebuilding the team as well as the stadium. I will dig this out and use it again next year.