Premiership Preview (Part V)

premier-league-trophyWe’re finally here, the last of my Premiership Preview columns. Previously, I have examined Man U, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal, and Everton and Villa. Today, we predict the progress of two clubs that really could break into the top four. Will either Spurs or Man City knock one or two of the Big Four off their perch? Or will they fall back into the pack just like many of the other pretenders before them. You’ll just have to read it and find out.

Tottenham

2008-09 Finish: 8th

Major Transactions: Ins: Peter Crouch and Nico Kranjcar (Portsmouth), Sebastien Bassong (Newcastle); Outs: Darren Bent (Sunderland), Didier Zokora (Sevilla), Pascal Chimbonda (Blackburn), Jamie O’Hara (Portsmouth – loan)

Manager Harry Redknapp rescued Tottenham from what looked like a coming relegation battle after taking only two points from their first eight games last season and were stuck four points adrift at the foot of the table. The turnaround under Redknapp was remarkable, moving all the way up the table to just miss out on a Europa Cup place. But to be realistic, Tottenham were a much better side than their early season form. They suffered from poor management and a disastrous transfer policy that sold their two best strikers and tried to squeeze an extra few million pounds out of Manchester United for Dimitar Berbatov without leaving sufficient time to find a quality replacement.

Spurs are a tidy side now, with talented attacking players Luca Modric, Aaron Lennon, Robbie Keane and Jermaine Defoe, a powerful force in midfield in Wilson Palcios, and solid defenders (when fit) Jonathan Woodgate, Ledley King, and Sebastien Bassong. They can change the attack by bringing on the fleet Giovanni Dos Santos or the tall Peter Crouch. The main problem with Spurs is that they are chronically fragile. Woodgate and King would be among the best central defensive pairings in the league, but they never play together. Woodgate’s is out to start the season wtih surgery on his groin and King’s knee problems will be with him the rest of his career. Modric has now gone down with a broken bone in his leg, exacerbating concerns about his small stature and whether the can handle the rigors of the Premiership.

Reversing the trend that made October casualties of its two previous managers, Redknapp has Spurs off to a flying start, taking maximum points from their first four games, including a deserved opening day win against Liverpool. No Europe means fewer games, less travel, more rest and hopefully fewer injuries. Tottenham has every reason to believe it can challenge for a top four finish this season. Unfortunately, even though they will pip North London rivals Arsenal, I think they will come up just short. Let’s hope it’s not because of food poisoning this time.

Prediction: Fifth

Manchester City

2008-09 Finish: 10th

Major Transactions: Ins: Carlos Tevez (Man U), Emmanuelle Adebayor (Arsenal), Joleon Lescott (Everton), Roque Santa Cruz (Blackburn), Kolo Toure (Arsenal), Gareth Barry (Aston Villa), Sylvinho (Barcelona), Stuart Taylor (Astron Villa); Outs: Richard Dunne (Aston Villa), Elano (Galatasaray), Darius Vassell (Ankaragucu)

We all know what’s happened at City. Former Thai Prime Minister and serial human rights abuser Thaksin Shinawatra sold the Sky Blues to the Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment—the investment arm of the Abu Dhabi royal family—in August 2008. City’s new owners viewed the club as part of a grand marketing campaign to bring attention to the emirate and immediately set off on a buying spree, swooping in to snatch Robinho from under Chelsea’s nose at the wire last year for a British record transfer fee.Manager Mark Hughes, who had been hired by Shinawatra to replace Sven-Goren Eriksson, was handed a huge transfer kitty which saw Shay Given, Wayne Bridge, Craig Bellamy, and Nigel DeJong all arrive in the January transfer window. This off season was no different, with only crazy spenders Real Madrid outdoing the Citzens, who brought in three strikers, two central defenders, and a central midfielder, all for between £12 million and £25 million.

Most of the attention went to the Carlos Tevez saga, as the £150,000 a week wage packet was enough to keep the Argentine away from either Liverpool or Chelsea. Tevez wages are matched by Emmanuelle Adebayor’s and are closely followed by Barry’s, Kolo Toure’s, and Joleon Lescott’s. Add in Robinho’s staggering £160,000 a week bill and City’s wages cross £100 million per season.

Assembling such a star studded crew was the easy part. Finding enough spaces in the fist XI and getting them to play together will be an enormous challenge. That’s why bookmakers put Hughes in third place in the annual ‘first manager to be sacked’ race. It was clear that City needed to start the season well – and the Premier League schedule makers were exceptionally kind to them, starting with Blackburn, Wolves, and Portsmouth before the international break.

Looking at the results from the three games, some might be disappointed that City haven’t been scoring goals in bunches in claiming three wins. So what; goals hardly seem to be the problem for this team. Far more important has been that a team that gave up the most goals of any in the top ten last year has yet to concede.

It seems as if Hughes and City’s owners watched the first Galacticos debacle and realized that it was important to, ya’know, buy some players that can defend. They got Shay Given, one of the best keepers in the game. Their back line may be overpriced, but (from left to right) the back four of Bridge, Toure, Lescott, and Micah Richards is a pretty solid group. And they bought Barry and DeJong, two skilled midfielders who can also defend.

Hughes looks to have decided on a loose 4-3-3, using a settled midfield of Barry, Stephen Ireland, and Shawn Wright-Phillips, behind a revolving group of strikers led by Adebayor who has scored in each of his first three league games. Questions remain about how this formation and group of players will fare against stouter competition, and whether Hughes can keep all the egos in line. But its hard not to look at this squad and not think its pretty good. They won’t challenge for the title this season, but I predict that this group will finish ahead of sort of cross town rivals Manchester United and break the Big Four’s lock on the top four.

Prediction: Third

That puts my top eight as:

Chelsea

Liverpool

Man City

Man Utd

Tottenham

Arsenal

Everton

Villa

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