Biggest issue this year is the variable "Big Seven" -- Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham. Then there's respectable ol' Everton. That's eight reasonably competent squads. Nobody, aside from City, went crazy in the transfer market either.
The Top Four, which has been rote, United-Chelsea-Liverpool-Arsenal, until last season, is harder to figure than the relegation trio. Trying to make a calculated prediction this time are was harder than it looked. Must've flip-flopped eight or nine times on 1-through-5. The difficult part, by difficult I mean making a commitment in mid-August is that you can make convincing arguments for and against the usual "Big Four" and perhaps even City.
This is probably a good thing since in recent years the Premiership has been as predictable as Sammi and Ronnie fighting on an episode of "Jersey Shore." See new season, updated pop culture comparables!
In the words of Marty DiBergi, Let's boogie.
Reversing the order to add to the intrigue.
20. Blackpool -- Chalk pick. Hard to see it any other way, though. I'll set the over/under on Blackpool wins at three. Falling under the Derby threshold of 11 points is realistically in play. Sorry, Ian.
19. West Bromwich Albion -- Wooooah take the money and drop.
18. Wolves -- If it makes sense, not necessarily bad, just not good enough for this level to survive another season.
17. Wigan Athletic -- Call this a Roberto Martinez figures it out pick. The new Wigan home kits, well, that's another story.
16. Blackburn -- Sam Allardyce likely doesn't drink Dos Equis, since this might be the most boring team in the league.
15. Newcastle United -- If somehow the Magpies can keep the Geordie-fueled melodrama at a minimum, they'll be okay. The Toon Army needs to realize this season is a success for anything above 18th place. Let the team breath.
14. Stoke City -- They are who we think they are.
13. Fulham -- After overachieving, hard to see anything but a backslide here as Mark Hughes sorts it out. This isn't going to be a seamless transition. No coaching changes are. Another standout year from Danny Murphy? Or Damien Duff? Or Simon Davies? Can Bobby Zamora play "heroman" again? What happened to Breda Hangeland? And if Mark Schwarzer moves to North London we might actually see 39-year-old ex-Swiss No. 1 Pascal Zuberbühler in goal.
12. Birmingham City -- Odds are all the 1-0 and 2-1 games that went the Blues way last year doesn't repeat itself. Still, a professional lot who seem to be on the same page with manager Alex McLeish.
11. West Ham United -- The chance to be better, if you're an Avram Grant believer. Still too many issues in the back and up top. Grant should get them on the same page and to play hard, you'd think. At least Scott Parker re-signed.
10. Aston Villa -- Pegged them for a big drop before the Martin O'Neill drama. Who knows, maybe a fresh set of eyes turns this team around. With or without James Milner and Ashley Young, there was a lot of work to do at Villa Park. Too much veteran defensive pride to let the club slip further than this. If the rumors of Bob Bradley taking over (I don't see it) prove correct, Villa might drop back even further, not specifically because of the Elder, but since he has no top flight European experience.
9. Bolton -- Nobody on a smaller budget probably improved as much as the Trotters. Blessed with some big, physical bodies up front and an improving midfield this team is deceptively decent, with a nice potential wing scenario with Martin Petrov and Chung-Yong Lee. If Gary Cahill stays fit and Jussi Jääskeläinen returns to form, Owen Coyle's Norman Vincent Peale approach could get them in the top half.
8. Sunderland -- Slowly but surely Steve Bruce is making this a competitive, combative team. If the midfield were a little more creative they'd be a threat. Either way, the Black Cats peak at this position regardless. Every year I get irrationally high on one team. This year it's Sunderland. God help me.
7. Everton -- In a perfect world, the so-called "People's Club" places a bit higher. Life's not fair, nor is the Premiership. As always, the injury bug is the Toffees greatest fear.
6. Tottenham -- If they get past Young Boys their attention, at least until January, will be on the Champions League. Spurs simply aren't constructed to fight a war on two fronts, especially with the rickety defensive pair of Ledley King and Jonathan Woodgate. Not sure if it were ever possible, but Spurs will rue their inability to sign a full-fledged, well-rounded center forward, namely Luis Fabiano. Still have about as much quality midfield depth as anyone in the league.
5. Manchester City -- Too much wheeling and dealing for one summer to mount a serious title threat, but City will be as tough a team to beat as there is come April. A spot in the Champions League will have to suffice for now.
4. Arsenal -- Even if Arsene Wenger signs Mark Schawarzer, is it enough to push the Gunners over the top? The same problems are here. The Gunners will thrill at times, but their inability to lodge results against the other elite teams will once again doom them. And ask yourself this, if it were anyone other than Wenger, we'd laugh him off the face of the earth starting a central defensive partnership of Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen. It's weird, since with the potentially tough combo of Abou Diaby and Alex Song, coupled with new forward Maroune Chamakh give the Gunners more grit than they've had in the past. Something tells me Arsenal breaks through in a Cup or makes a run in the Champions League, the Prem will remain elusive.
3. Liverpool -- Confidence, confidence, confidence. In Uncle Roy the Reds must trust. Still way too much talent at Anfield to sleep on Liverpool. Easiest area of improvement? Away form, where the Reds were a miserable 5-6-8 last season. And as bad as it went last year, the team still only allowed 35 goals -- third best in the league. A healthy Torres and Gerrard, plus the breath of fresh air in the wake of Rafa's departure work wonders.
2. Manchester United -- Part of me wanted to say United wins one last title under Fergie and Giggs, Scholes and Neville ride out Old Trafford winners. But man, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand seem to have lost it. Couple that with the five or so games Edwin van der Sar likely misses and it could be enough dropped points to cost the team the title. Can Wayne Rooney carry this team again, even with young reinforcements, like the redder than red hot Chicharito? They'll get results since they're United, but not enough, particularly if that chap "Own Goal" doesn't show up this season.
1. Chelsea -- Call it the last hurrah for the Didier Drogba-Frank Lampard-John Terry troika. Imagine this five-man midfield: Lampard, John Obi Mikel, Michael Essien, Ramires and Flourent Malouda, with Drogba isolated up top? Probably won't happen, but that's a lot of raw power out there for Carlo Ancelotti to tinker with. People seem to be overreacting to the loss of Michael Ballack, Deco, Belletti. The one red flag here is the form of Petr Cech, so long as the helmeted-one doesn't cost Chelsea two or three games, the Blues have the least holes of the other contenders. Something tells me at least two solid performers emerge from the Hutchinson, Katuka, Di Santo, van Aaholt, Matic, Bruma, Borini group. Oh and if those moves for Neymar or Kun Aguero ever materialize ... Boring pick, but hard to see it any other way, even in the improved league.
Top Scorer -- Darren Bent, 23. Other challengers -- Drogba/Rooney/Tevez all saw their sides increase their offensive production. Maybe Bent was a one-year flash-in-the-pan. Fernando Torres could do it, but I don't trust him to stay healthy for long enough to make a challenge. Don't forget, both Rooney and Drogba have the shake the stink of the "Write the Future" ad off them, too.
Best Overall Player -- Steven Gerrard, Liverpool. Something tells me the King of the Scousers dials it back for a vintage season as he and Hodgson see eye-to-eye, something that wasn't the case in the waning days of the Rafa era. Gerrard is 30 with about 4,302 professional games under his belt, still, he's got to have one last vintage season under him, especially if Hodgson finds a way to rest him during some early Europa League games.
Best Young Player -- Gareth Bale, Tottenham. 21 and Welsh. Pity he'll never play in a meaningful international. Guess he'll have to take it out in the Prem.
Best Signing (High profile) -- Joe Cole to Liverpool. Free. Injection live in the then-morbid Reds. Earns credit for being one of the few players on the England team that's not hated on home soil. Takes the pressure off Gerrard and Torres, no small feat. Throw in the fact the Reds got Cole for free and then sold Yossi Benayoun to Chelsea for a nice sum, it's a win-win situation.
Best signing (low profile) -- Martin Petrov, Bolton. Seems like a savvy move to help transform Bolton.
Worst Signing -- Lightning strike me down ... hard to say anything was downright awful. Gun to my head, I'll say Yaya Toure, who is smidge overrated and unnecessary requirements at Eastlands. Double that once the James Milner move goes through.
Most Pressurized Signing -- Laurent Koscielny, Arsenal. From Best XI of Ligue 2 in 2008-09 to Arsenal starter in 2010-11. The young French defender better start strong, because I'm guessing certain segment of Gunners fans are tiring of Wenger's youth policy.
First Manager Fired -- Tony Pulis. Something tells me this all comes to a head at Stoke this year.
Best American -- Since we don't know how Mark Hughes will use Clint Dempsey, the honors likely fall to Tim Howard at Everton, who just keeps going about his business at Goodison Park. Stuart Holden should have flashes at Bolton, but not on a weekly basis.
Round 1 Picks:
* Tottenham v. Manchester City --(Live, ESPN2, 7:45 a.m.) Perfect way to start the season. Couldn't be any better, in fact. Odd, though, that it comes this early with both teams eying at least that No. 4 finish, yet with plenty of roster uncertainty. Maybe Redknapp can try to steal Jolean Lescott off City, if he's totally out of favor there after last season. City? Like I said yesterday, no idea what Roberto Mancini throws out there at White Hart Lane, barring Mario Balotelli and his mohawk. This game doesn't need me to say anything about it. Just watch. ... Spurs 2, City 1
* Wolves v. Stoke City -- Wolves? Mick McCarthy has a solid team, it just isn't flashy. Steven Fletcher and Stephen Hunt, at least they're warm bodies who may score around 12 goals combined this year. ... Guess if you're Tony Pulis Kenwyne Jones is worth the gamble, even if gives him the tag of the "highest signing in club history" which can turn into a burden. Probably a better move by Steve Bruce selling the inconsistent Trinidad strike for a cool $12 million. I like the idea of the move, Stoke had to do something, just can't see Jones contributing week-to-week for 10 months, especially defensively or holding the ball up. He is wiry, though, so many he can convert some of those Rory Delap bombs. ... Wolves 1, Stoke City 1
* Aston Villa v. West Ham United -- (Live, FSC, 10 a.m.) Two teams going in opposite directions. With a little savvy and elbow grease no reason to think Avram Grant can't get the Hammers positioned like Martin O'Neill had Aston Villa the last couple seasons. ... Villa 1, West Ham 1
* Blackburn Rovers v. Everton -- (Live, FSC+, 10 a.m.) When you're Blackburn, you take what you can get. In this case, Manchester United loanee, Mame Diouf. So with El Hadji already there at Ewood, Sam Allardyce has the market cornered on Dioufs. That's something, right? Everton need a quick start, so barring a repeat of Mikel Arteta and Morten Gamst Pederson playing "Three Stooges" out there, no reason the Toffees can't get a result. ... Blackburn 0, Everton 1
* Bolton v. Fulham -- For diehard USMNT supporters, this is the Match of the Week. Bolton could start Stuart Holden, while Fulham has Clint Dempsey and maybe even Eddie Johnson. As of now, those are the only three field of just five field players (Jonathan Spector, West Ham/Eric Lichaj, Aston Villa) currently on Premier League rosters. ... Bolton 2, Fulham 1
* Wigan Athletic v. Blackpool -- Howdoyalikethat? A relegation six-pointer on the first day of the season. ... Wigan 3, Blackpool 1
* Sunderland v. Birmingham City -- Credit Bruce if parlays Jones into a loan signing for Danny Welbeck? Here's two teams with managers, Bruce and Alex McLeish, that are trying their best to make smart improvements to their middle hung teams. It's not easy. At least Sunderland got John Mensah back from Lyon for the season plus Nedum Onuoha from Manchester City. Bruce might have some pieces to work with Darren Bent, who is doubtful to play this year. ... Sunderland 2, Birmingham City 0
* Chelsea v. West Brom -- (Live, FSC, 12:30 p.m.) After losing the Community Shield, the Blues will be in a foul mood. Sorry Baggies. ... Chelsea 4, West Brom 1
* Liverpool v. Arsenal -- (Live, FSC, 11 a.m.) Wonder which set of supporters are more nervous for this match? It's a delicious matchup on paper, but like Spurs/City wish it fell later in the season, as the teams sort themselves out. Liverpool need to make a statement and should be flying on all cylinders. We do lnow that if Andrey Arshavin played exclusively against Liverpool he'd be the best player in the League. ... Liverpool 2, Arsenal 1
* Manchester United v. Newcastle United -- (Live, ESPN2, 2:45 p.m.) Guess by now the only question is not if, but how many Chicharito scores in this one. ... Manchester United 3, Newcastle United 0
Last Season: 192-181
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In case you missed it:
* Manchester City
* Manchester United
* Newcastle United
* Aston Villa
* Birmingham City
* West Ham United
* Stoke City
* Blackburn Rovers
* Wigan Athletic
* West Brom