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2012-13 Premier League Season Preview: Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and More

A thought, have you ever once said in your life to another person: are you ready for some football?

And is all that difficult to prepare oneself for the game of football, be of the NFL variety or the cleats and shinguards variety?

Sorry for being in such a philosophical mood. If you want to skip ahead a few paragraphs it won't hurt my feelings and might be best for all parties. Really, go ahead, do it, you won't be missing anything.

The how and the why to blog about the upcoming 2012-13 Premier League season has weighed on my mind heavily for the last couple weeks. Loyal readers will remember, through a terrible confluence of bad twists and turns in my personal life, I completely flamed out down the stretch of last season. Hopefully something good -- potentially great -- won't get pulled out from under my feet unexpectedly turning my life into a waking, daily existential crisis, right at the same time as Premier League season is winding down as it did last spring. Could happen, odds are it won't.

The nadir of all this came, actually a few weeks after the event that triggered my downfall into growing terrible facial hair and living a GTM lifestyle -- gym, tan, mope -- when Bastian Schweinsteiger hit the post in Munich, thus giving the Champions League trophy to Chelsea and the hero of our times, John Terry. After that happened I popped on my headphones, went for a walk and listened to Beach House's "Bloom" LP (and some Hank Williams) three or four times, coming as close to losing my grasp of sanity as I ever have in my entire life.

At that juncture I was done with soccer. Done with blogging. Done with shaving. Done with pretty much everything aside from quiet contemplation. And eating. (Christ this sounds like the lyrics to a song by the band Creed, doesn't it?)

A funny thing happened on my way up from the sweet, miserable bosom of sporting -- and personal -- rock bottom.

Euro 2012 did a lot to restore my personal faith in soccer, even if my hated Spain team won the tournament in rousing fashion vs. my adoptive new favorite national team, Italy. The tournament wasn't overtly cynical, it was decided on the field -- not by the referee and was all-in-all, enjoyable.

That carried into the summer, where the usual white noise and dross of the transfer season seemed mild compared to seasons of yesteryear.

Now the big question: have I been able to find my love for soccer and blogging again?

We'll see.

Maybe the following couple paragraphs are going to be purely for my own gratification -- well when aren't they? -- but bear with me.

There are a couple forces at work.

When I first started to really get into European club soccer eight or nine years ago, it felt somewhat different. Maybe part of it was breaking away from the normal American sports scene and the ESPN bullshit. Things felt fresh. Promotion and relegation -- exciting! Knockout tournaments in the midst of a league seasons ... huh, what? Playing clubs from across Europe to determine who is really the best? Amazing. Hell, fans singing throughout the duration of a match instead of playing "Who Let the Dogs Out"? Revolutionary.

Fast forward a couple years and the more you get to know something, the more the warts show up.

As exciting and compelling as the Premier League can be, sometimes it's difficult to go all-in on a league where, realistically, three or four teams (Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and maybe somebody else) can set foot on the field this weekend with realistic ambitions of winning the title. Everybody hates the idea of the New York Yankees using their financial largess to win World Series, or the NBA mega-teams like the Miami Heat stockpiling key talent and turning the league into a three or four team affair. In soccer, when you have oil-rich billionaires capable of outright plopping down a wad of cash to buy players, it's even more gauche and annoying.

Somebody smarter or more eloquent than me could clearly write a compelling essay about how European soccer truly is the one percent vs. everybody else. The evidence is overwhelming, to the point we really ought to, as fans, considering stuff like OCCUPY STAMFORD BRIDGE or OCCUPY CAMP NOU.

What, perhaps, galls me the most is the tacit agreement from the lesser clubs to let this happen. The plight of a club like Everton, which from across the Atlantic is about as agreeable a sports team as you could every want to find, is stuck in a rut where maybe a good season is finishing sixth. Unless a super-rich guy decides to spend his fortune buying players for David Moyes, how is the glass ceiling for the other 99 percent of clubs every going to change?

So it's no surprise that my favorite summer soccer story, for the time being, is that Tottenham has held firm against the overtures of Real Madrid for star midfielder Luka Modric. By September 1st, figure the Croatian is among the "White Angels" in the Spanish capital, yet he did happen to sing a long-term contract extension with Spurs. It's about time contracts in soccer are worth something and not just an open joke. Plus it's crazy that some soccer players get into their heads that it's their unalienable right to play in the Champions League.

But that's maybe getting ahead of things, the more important things.

In years past, in the summer I'd go gung-ho trying to adequately preview the Premier League in massive, time-consuming posts or series of posts. Maybe I'm just lazy or maybe I've gotten smarter in my old age, but this year I opted against it. If there's a little secret in the media business, everyone loves to run previews for every sport, but when you boil down the time and effort they take to write compared with what they actually yield and its an unbalanced equation.

Beyond that, it's nothing more than, in some cases, a blind guess.

Look right now where we stand in the EPL. There's a full two weeks in the transfer window. Waaaaaaay too much change change between now and then to accurately try to predict where we'll be in May. Where is Robin van Persie going to be playing? [Yep, starting writing this on Tuesday.] Is Liverpool selling Daniel Agger? Are Spurs going to sign a forward? Is Hulk coming to Chelsea? Where art thou Clint Dempsey?

And more than that, it's a fool's errand writing something in August for what's going to happen in May.

If we want to go as vanilla as possible, Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea ought to push for the title. A team will surprise, which nobody sees coming, like Newcastle did last year. An established team like West Brom will flirt with relegation. Beyond that, what more do we know at the moment?

I'd truly like to find out and form reasonable opinions rather than blind guesses. That's my plan, too, with the Premier League. Instead instead of shooting my blogging load in August, I'd like to maintain a pace. Write about stuff when it's warranted, perhaps not on a weekly basis. Try to keep it fresh. Above all, not waste your time by grinding out something I hated writing and you're not getting anything out of from a reader standpoint.

Maybe all of this qualifies under the category of "Too much information," ... well it most certainly does ... but the one thing that I value most of all with this blog is honesty with the readers.

Still with me?

Let's take a look at the 20 Premier League teams and my long-and-short thoughts of them on the eve of the season.

Arsenal: Before talking about van Persie, a troubling thought about Arsenal is that the most established part of the Gunners squad might be Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny in defense. Chew on that for a second. Arsenal, last year especially, benefited from the fact Tottenham shot itself in the foot time and time again, the decline of Liverpool and a Newcastle team not quite ready to make the leap up into the Champions League, so the Gunners held on to third place. Cashing a nice UEFA check in the process and the sale of van Persie and made a nice little chunk of change to help Stan Kroenke pay for the Emirates Stadium.

Until he plays, hard to say what Arsenal is getting from German import Lukas Poldolski. He's talented, sure, but was a flop at Bayern Munich (three years, only 71 games and 15 goals) and only did thrive in the nice cradle of his hometown club at Cologne. Less of a worry is Santi Carzola, who is an excellent little player and a nice bit of Arsenal as it plundered Malaga's sudden collapse from Champions League to struggling to survive on the whims of its Arab ownership. Plug Carzola on the field and he should instantly mesh with Arsene Wenger's pass-and-move philosophy, giving him yet another option with Mikel Arteta, Tomas Rosicky, Aaron Ramsey and the returning Jack Wilshere.

What Arsenal gets from Oliver Giroud is a mystery, too, since he's been a bit of a late bloomer. The Frenchman -- or someone -- has to replace the goals from van Persie. Realistically, if any EPL club is going to emulate Vincente del Bosque's "false nine" strategy, it's Arsenal.

Arsenal has a lot of depth and a lot of quality players, probably more in the B/B+ range than the A range as it did in years past. Connectivity it's a nice squad, even without the Dutchman and one of these years Theo Walcott is going to be consistent game-in, game-out, not just in occasional spurts. Is it enough to scare the big boys and challenge for the title? Probably not. More likely it's another season of third or fourth in North London. Prediction: Third, maybe a deep domestic cup run.

Aston Villa: On paper Aston Villa should be a lot better than last year's awful, forgettable year under Alex McLeish. It seems a no-brainer, with a smart young manager Paul Lambert coupled with increased talent the team should improve. Sports are never that cut-and-dried, though, are they?

The basis of Lambert's success in keeping Norwich City up was he adapted his tactics week-in, week-out (revolutionary thought!) and made the most from a limited squad. At Villa it might fall to Lambert to try to coax some wins out of a talented group of still young players like Gabby Agbonlahor, Marc Albrighton, Nathan Delfouneso, Barry Bannan, Fabian Delph, Cirian Clark to produce on their long talked about potential.

There's still a lot of aging drek like Richard Dunne here and deadweight like Stephen Ireland, Alan Hutton and Charles N'Zogbia, but unlike years past, Villa does have some appreciable depth and all reports from the Netherlands is that Moroccan midfielder Karim El Ahmadi is solid two-way player. So there's that.

If there's a reason to smile for Villa, Darren Bent should be healthy and when he plays, he scores.

My other humble suggestion here, not being solely jingoistic, is to start Brad Guzan over the frail and broken down Shay Given in goal. If Lambert works his magic Villa might have the best chance to improve as any club in terms of spots up the table, especially considering last year's dismal 16th place finish. Prediction: 10th, modest improvement until it hits the glass ceiling of 6th place of the Martin O'Neill years.

Chelsea: In Fernando Torres we trust?

That could be Chelsea's season in a nutshell now that the talismandic, influence Didier Drogba is off to China (wonder if he'll get his own line of Bath Salts to endorse?) Even in his old age, the Ivorian impacted games and made defenders shit their pants when he had the ball at full gallop near the penalty area. He was old and had lost a step, but his presence still made an his presence felt.

Now, unless somebody else comes in, Roberto Di Matteo's fate (which will be debated after every match, hooray!) falls to Torres and Daniel Sturridge to score goals.

How the Italian figures out the right attacking midfield mix of Juan Mata, newly-signed Oscar, Eden Hazard, Mirko Marin, et al, bears close examination, too. If he's smart, he makes Mata the key player since the Spaniard brought out the best in his countryman Torres.  Ramires, based on his final few games after his injury, deserves more run in the midfield, too.

As long as Petr Cech keeps up his return to form, that masks the occasional mistakes that the Chelsea defense when John Terry and David Luiz are going to make. Expect Frank Lampard to keep doing Frank Lampard things, too.

That was pretty fair, right, about the Blues coming from a person who refers to them as scum, right? Prediction: Fifth in a bit of hangover/transition year.

Everton: Not much to say about Everton anymore under David Moyes, is there? We know the pattern. Slow start. Great after January with everything held together by duct tape, paper clips and fish and chips wrappers. Selling Jack Rodwell -- a player seemingly always hurt -- to Manchester City was a financial boon and allowed the Toffees to sign Steven Pienaar and probably keep Leighton Baines. Not too shabby.

It's a small squad, but Everton -- in a rarity -- poached from a club worse-off financially then them, grabbing Nikica Jelevic last season from Rangers and Steven Naismith in the summer. Losing Tim Cahill hurts emotionally, but Moyes now have a few guys he can count on up top to go along with the grinders (think the under-appreciated Leon Osman) in the midfield. Prediction: Eighth place, nice cup run, more Landon Donovan rumors and some fun Merseyside derbies now that Dirk Kuyt is in Turkey.

Fulham: Almost want to give Fulham an incomplete here, until we know what happens with Dempsey, who is the straw that stirs the drink at Craven Cottage. Hard to see how Fulham keeps both Dempsey (Martin Jol says Dempsey is now for sale at the right price) and Moussa Dembele before the start of September. What's left, either way, isn't a wholly dynamic team, but the core spine and discipline -- Breda Hangeland, Damien Duff, Mark Schwarzer -- put into place by Roy Hodgson and resulted in a UEFA Cup final appearance is still around, although not getting any younger.

Fulham is what it is. That's not a knock of a bad thing, but more of an indictment on Richard Scudamore's Premier League that a well-run, modest club can never really dream of anything better than sixth or seventh. Plus, not too crazy about the Hugo Rodallega signing from Wigan. Sure he scored some big goals from the Latics, but was hardly prolific. Keep an eye on Year 2 for Bryan Ruiz in the Prem. Prediction: 11th. More of the same. Maybe a few spots higher if Dempsey stays. The sky won't fall, either, if and when Deuce leaves.

Liverpool: Maybe it's because I follow so many Liverpool people on Twitter, but man, is there ever a quiet time at Anfield? Or even a moment? And does any set of supporters so badly want to go back in time to 1989 and stop the formation of the Premier League? On that note, Liverpool did return to it's bolder, redder jerseys this year with neophyte manufacturer Warrior, bringing yellow back in the scheme. It's a sharp look, although unless he grows a mustache nobody is confusing Andy Carroll with Ian Rush anytime soon on Merseyside.

Anyways, Liverpool probably did the right thing sacking club icon Kenny Dalglish, who was, sadly, past his prime. It happens. The game passed by. Too bad the club has to be saddled with the Charlie Adam signing.

Smartly, Liverpool replaced Dalglish with rising managerial talent and forward-thinking Brendan Rodgers from Swansea. Rodgers Spanish-lite system kept a no-name Swans team up, winning admirers in the process. Will that work under the bright lights of Anfield and it's almost insane demands from its rabid fans who are thirsting for a first league title since old First Division days?

If given time, you'd have to think Rodgers could find the right players to place into his system. Liverpool, even in it's diminished state, is still a landmark club that should attract high-level players. If ex-Swan Joe Allen and a healthy Lucas Leiva form a bond in the midfield, that's a nice block to build from. A healthy, recharged Steven Gerrard coupled with a Luis Saurez -- scoring goals, not terrible headlines -- and a young, promising, hard-pressing Fabio Borini up top, there are things to like at Liverpool.

There's still not much depth, particularly in defense if Daniel Agger (everybody freak out!) is sold. There's a lot of moving parts here, but it should be fascinating to watch Liverpool this season. There could be a few games, when it all clicks, when they blow opponents away 5-0, but the consistency to first, pursue a place back to the Champions League and, long term, mount a title challenge might take years. Prediction: Sixth, but a fun sixth, not a depressing sixth.

Manchester City: Heavy is the head who wears the crown. Or so they say.

Any person in sports will remind you, a lot, that winning the second one is always harder than the first. City still have all the talent in the world, but more importantly the cash. That said, Roberto Mancini didn't bring in a ton of new faces over the summer and kept the ticking time bombs of Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli  --for all the talk of him being changed from the Euro, let's see it happen first before we anoint him "changed." It's one thing to behave and perform for three weeks, a completely other to do it over 10-plus months.

What's going to be tricky for City, is balancing retaining the EPL title and trying to make a deep run in the Champions League. Last year, without a deep Europe run, almost wore out David Silva, so can the team keep it up on two fronts? City will need a better, more consistent year from continental European journalists' favorite attacking midfielder, Samir Nasri, too.

Oddly, with less than two weeks to go, City still haven't off-loaded Emmanuel Adebayor or Roque Santa Cruz (yep), or even Edin Dzeko -- all guys Mancini doesn't seem crazy about playing. Nigel de Jong and a few other surplus players are still hanging around Eastlands, making this club feel incomplete, or more than you'd think for a defending league champion.

Still, for any worries or issues about City, it still has Joe Hart-Vincent Kompany-Yaya Toure in the middle to form its backbone, plus Kun Aguero seems to only be scratching the surface of his potential. This team never loses at home and is too damn strong and muscular to be overlooked. Prediction: Second... barely. United are better and a deep run in Europe for the first time costs a team that gets a wee bit too complacent.

Manchester United: In short, the van Persie signing makes Manchester United better. A lot better? With 89 goals scored last year, it wasn't like that was the pressing issue for Sir Alex Ferguson, so much as finding a right back or a two-way midfielder to replace Paul Scholes when he finally does retire. More on that later.

It sure sounds nice, and will probably be deadly in "FIFA 13" pairing van Persie's 30 goals with Wayne Rooney's 27. It could work, or it could be one of Real Madrid's ill-fated Galatico moves, where marquee names doesn't translate to champagne football. Time will tell. And just how deep will we see Rooney dropping now that van Persie is sort of operating in his same space? It's never as simple as putting two great forwards next to each other and multiplying the goal output, is it?

There are more reasons to be optimistic for United being better beyond the arrival of the Dutchman. For one, Shinji Kagawa is another midfield player to use who's in his prime. A full, healthy season of Antonio Valencia on the right makes United dangerous on both flanks with Nani and the inconsistent Ashley Young on the left. Mostly, though, a healthy Nemanja Vidic and an improving Phil Jones should make David de Gea's second season in England much better. (Darren Fletcher is back, huzzah!)

Here's the problem with United. This team is good enough to win the Premier League on talent -- and reputation -- but it's still not appreciably better suited for the Champions League without more midfield oomph. Prediction: First. SAF wins league, shows up City and order is restored to the universe, for better or worse. Well, for most people worse. A lot worse.

Newcastle United: Was last year a dream season for Newcastle and a blip on the radar? Or was it the start of things to come? Other than one dodgy run of form due to defensive injuries this was a very very good team last season. If the jerseys were black-and-white stripped and all the history that go with them, why wouldn't the Magpies project to be better this year? Other than the history of the club, everything points to a team on the rise.

The smart scouting system that unearthed Yohann Cabaye among others last year isn't going to all of sudden sign Albert Luque 2.0 is it? No, they'd gone about getting players like Ajax's Vernon Anita and 22-year-old Frenchman Roman Amalfitano. If the long-rumored move for Little left back Mathieu Debuchy it makes the summer even better.

A full season with Alan Pardew having Papisse Cisse and Demba Ba alone is room for encouragement. Tim Krul is a fine player in goal and a full season from Hatem Ben Arfa can only be a good thing since he's one of the spiciest(tm) players in England.

There's no way Newcastle can qualify for the Champions League, right? Consider this the kiss of death. Prediction: Fourth place. Joy for the Geordies ... until they lose in the Champions League playoffs next summer.

Norwich City: The good? Grant Holt is still at Carrow Road. The bad? Paul Lambert isn't.

New manager Chris Hughton has a nice, modest track record but you have to worry what happens if the Canaries start slow? Last year they never really had to worry about relegation. This year with that dreaded "second season" syndrome creeping up, it could be a long, troubling year. Prediction: 19th. Sorry.

QPR: It's almost as if Mark Hughes didn't get the memo. The savvy strategy in 2012 is to scout smartly, sign quality players lesser leagues in Europe or mine the Championship from hidden gems. It's not to bring in retreads like Ji-Sung Park (sorry), Ryan Nelsen, Andrew Johnson, Bobby Zamora, etc. Bringing in Robert Green, though, is a nice move in goal and Junior Hoilett could potentially be a tremendous move up front since he has pace to burn.

This team was a mess almost all of last year but got a few results it needed at the end of last season to stay up. There's still some guys -- Clint Hill, Shaun Derry -- leftover from the Neil Warnock days and all the misfit Hughes signings. If this squad is anything other than wildly inconsistent -- even without warrior poet Joey Barton -- it will be a shock. Prediction: 15th. They stay up by the skin of their teeth, again.

Reading: I'll be 100 percent honest, don't know much about Reading. The last few seasons have been good for promoted teams who've kept their team together and haven't broken the bank of rejects and retreads. Logic dictates that comes to and end, though not much through the Royals fault, moreso the lack of any other glaring relegation candidates, although those tend to emerge like Bolton did a season ago. Do like the name Jimmy Kebe, who is supposedly a pacy little winger to keep an eye on. Prediction: 18th, in bittersweet fashion.

Southampton: Truly happy to see the Saints back up in the top flight, seeing as they were relegated after the 2005 season in the "great escape" for West Brom on the final day of the season. That was the first year I really paid close attention on a weekly basis to the league, so seeing the red-and-white makes me nostalgic ... as much as one can be considering 82 other teams where red and white stripes.

There aren't any household names on Southampton, though it went wire-to-wire to win the Championship so it appears to have kept the Norwich City/Swansea approach of staying the course, instead of overhauling on the fly like QPR did last season. So it all means, can the Saints hack it among the world's best -- and Wigan?

A lot will fall on top-scorer Rickie Lambert, so we'll see if the trend of lesser league players making an impact on the Prem continues. There's basically little if any EPL experience on the books here, which probably isn't a good thing long term. Prediction: 20th. Somebody has to do it, figuring that lightning via Swansea doesn't strike twice here.

Stoke City: Is there ever a lot to say about Stoke City? Stoke is Stoke. The Potters play there way, they annoy everyone in the process and the world keeps on turning. Stoke probably made their big splash last season, bringing in Peter Crouch and Wilson Palacios for a lot of cash. This year it was some quiet moves, namely American defender Geoff Cameron. You wonder if Stoke might become this decade's Fulham, signing American and MLS players since Tony Pulis' son plays in Orlando and reader Jeff Tinnea emailed me over the summer that Orlando City is owned by Phil Rawlins, who is on the Stoke board. So maybe the Potters tap the American market. Hell, it's something to say about a club that we all know pretty much what it will be. Hard to see Stoke in danger -- or a contender other than in the cups -- unless Pulis has one of those weird falling out with the management board, which happens from time-to-time. Prediction: 12th place. Hey, eighth through 13 is all in place for Stoke.

Sunderland: The Black Cats were a revelation (by their standards at least) when Martin O'Neill took over for Steve Bruce midway through last season. Young players like Jack Colback and James McClean made immediate impacts. Stephene Sessagnon had a breakout year and Seb Larsson kept doing Seb Larsson things, mainly on free kicks.

That momentum seems stalled. Sunderland let Nic Bendtner go back to Arsenal, maybe a good idea considering his peabrain antics off the field. All that's in is Louis Saha, though Stephen Fletcher is rumored to be coming from Wolves.

Problem is, Sunderland haven't done much and in the Premier League standing pat never seems a good thing, especially with a thin squad like this. Maybe Connor Wickham develops, he's only 19, but right now there isn't that one player on Sunderland that you look at as an opponent that worries you having to cope with. Sessagnon, though very good, isn't a big enough presence to be that guy. Asamoah Gyan, with his speed, could have been that guy but he took the money and ran to the Middle East for an easy payday.

Right now this is a solid, okay team and if anyone other than the fatherly O'Neill was in charge it would be marked for a major backslide down the table. Prediction: 13th -- they haven't improved enough or shown ambition.

Swansea City: Oddly enough, even with losing Rodgers to Liverpool, Swansea doesn't seem like its going to drop off all that much. New manager Brian Laudrup figures to keep Swansea's Spanish approach going and by all accounts Michu is a solid signing.

Unlike other teams, Swansea has a modicum of ambition and is building for the long haul via its youth academy and modestly increasing its stadium seating capacity. Usually you'd think with the changes Swansea underwent in the summer they'd be primed for a drop, yet this feels like a good team regardless, but more than that a club that kind of knows what its doing. Prediction: Ninth. Another solid, respectable year even with the defections to Liverpool.

Tottenham: Long term, like the signing of Andre Villas-Boas for Spurs. Short term, there are going to be a hell of a lot of growing pains. Without a striker other than Jermaine Defoe on the books this is going to be a weird season at White Hart Lane. The team probably did peak under what it could do under Harry Redknapp, that's just a fact which hurts more since Chelsea stole their place in the Champions League via the rules, but it still feels like the Blues stole it.

But back to AVB, he wasn't given a fair shake at Chelsea with a toxic dressing room. That was a situation destined to fail, something not necessarily the case at Spurs. Was his success at Porto all a fluke because of that club's dominance and might over the rest of Portugal? Spurs does seem the ideal place for an ambitious young manager, though it could equally expose him as well-groomed fraud in a trench coat just as easily.

Realistically, until the squad is finalized for the season, hard to gauge what happens here. A place in the top four looks a bridge too far, but expect a lot of high-entertainment matches along the way. One thing is is scary to think about is new signing Jan Vertonghen comes over from the rock-em, sock-em Eredivisie where he was its best defender, which is like being the best hockey player in Mexico. Using the Belgian, plus a mismash of Younes Kaboul or William Gallas with a high-pressing defensive line is a recipe for disaster, even worse when you realize that Brad Friedel isn't moving too far from his goalline to clean things up.

And have teams figured out how to stop Gareth Bale? Maybe that's AVB's other big question, beyond all the other massive question marks the club has under its new era.

The one thing Tottenham shouldn't do is take the money they'll get for Modric and blow in on a stopgap player on the final day of the transfer window, but you know that's what's going to happen. Prediction: 7th place, but building toward another top four assault.

West Bromwich Albion: It must be the words "Bromwich" and "Albion" because it's hard to think of a club that has less interest in American than WBA. There's talent here, but there's also a reason this is a "yo-yo" club and it's about time for it to yo. If Romelu Lukaku is hungry, on loan from Chelsea, they might be okay, but there's just as good a chance he's disinterested in playing here. Prediction: 16th. Trapdoor barely avoids falling out because of lousy defending.

West Ham United: They're not booing you Sam Allardyce, they're saying ... oh wait, they are booing.

The Irons return to the Prem on their first chance and wisely haven't done anything too stupid in the summer to upset the apple cart. Mark Noble, James Topkins, Carlton Cole and Jack Collison are still in the mix. So is the nefarious Kevin Nolan. The forward line looks thin, unless former Bolton scrub Ricardo Vaz Te -- a revelation for West Ham down the stretch -- carries over his form into the top flight.

Bottom line, this team isn't flashy. It's an okay side and Allardyce knows what he's doing enough to keep them from falling back into the Championship. Signing the slow, podding Frenchman Alou Diarra kind of sums up West Ham at the moment. A good start out the gate is a must, though, to keep discontent at Upton Park a minimum. Prediction: 14th. ho-hum.

Wigan Athletic: Never doubt Roberto Martinez. Never do it. Prediction: 17th, aka the Wigan Position.

TV this week:

* Arsenal v. Sunderland (Saturday, ESPN, 10 a.m.)
* Fulham v. Norwich City (Saturday, FSC+, 10 a.m.)
* West Brom v. Liverpool (Saturday, FSC, 10 a.m.)
* Newcastle v. Tottenham (Saturday, FSC, 12:30 p.m.)
* Wigan v. Chelsea (Sunday, FSC, 8:30 a.m.)
* Manchester City v. Southampton (Sunday, FSC, 11 a.m.)
* Everton v. Manchester United (Monday, ESPN2, 3 p.m.)

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