The Premier League has already provided plenty of memorable moments this season. Over the next four entries, the blog will give a club by club review, and try to forecast what awaits us come May.
So far: Losing both Cesc and Nasri in the summer would have hardly consoled Arsenal fans, after the absence of a Gunners trophy spanned to six seasons. Wenger stepped into the transfer market late in the piece to acquire the services of Mikel Arteta, Yossi Benayoun and ‘dominant’ centre-half Per Mertesacker, who seemed like the ideal signing to remedy Arsene’s defensive frailties. – Although on the evidence the German has provided so far, he seems about as much use as a flammable fire extinguisher.
On the field, fortunes are changing. Manchester United demolished their schoolboy effort in an unforgettable 8-2 encounter back in August. But since losing to Spurs on 2nd October, Wenger’s team have bounced back to win every single league game, and only a 0-0 draw with Marseille blemishes their 100% record since then. The Gunners have now climbed to 7th position in the league, and have qualified as group winners in the Champions League.
Key Player: Robin Van Persie. Who else could it be? The talismanic striker has carried the team throughout the whole of 2011. This year, RVP has scored 33 goals in 30 appearances, and his form in the calendar year places him alongside the most prolific strikers in Europe. He’s not been nominated to win the Ballon d’Or, but then what do FIFA know?
Where will they finish? For Arsenal it is essential to maintain Champions League football for next season. It seems even at this early stage that the title is likely to stay in Manchester, so Wenger will be looking towards domestic competitions, and if they can avoid Barcelona for once, they will hope for a good run in Europe.
Verdict: 4th and in keeping with recent tradition, trophyless.
So far: A summer of transition has seen some notable changes at Villa, and I’m not convinced they were for the best. Alex McCleish took over the reigns despite the will of the fans, and I think their worry has good reason. Elsewhere, Stewart Downing and Ashley Young both jumped ship, and they were in part replaced by a big fish from a small pond, Charles N’Zogbia, whose performances have hardly set Villa Park alight thus far.
Results wise, Villa haven’t had too many of note. The only heavyweight they’ve encountered were Manchester City at the Etihad, a game which they lost 4-1. They were beaten by West Brom at home and could only muster a 0-0 draw with Wolves at Villa Park. However, they are in the top half as the league stands, and the league doesn’t lie.
Key Player: Darren Bent. There were a couple of contenders for who I felt could be Villa’s main man, but ultimately if Darren Bent can muster 20 goals out of this set up, I think he can steer them clear of any potential danger. Gabby Agbonlahor looks to be showing maturity in his performances and his final delivery is now matching his lightning pace. He and Bent could have the makings of a good partnership.
Where will they finish? Last season, city rivals Birmingham were relegated under McCleish, and carried the tag of being the league’s lowest scorers. The Scot’s unimaginative and uninspiring style of play will do little to quench the thirst of Villa fans, his track record shows that he is not proven when it comes to collecting results in the Premier League, and I personally feel this job was too big for him to take on. If proven goal scorer Darren Bent doesn’t get the service he needs, then Aston Villa may be in danger of suffering the same fate as McCleish’s old employers. I will be surprised if he still has his job at the end of the season.
Verdict: Safety, somewhere between 10th and 15th. They may even fancy a stab at a cup run, providing that it doesn’t relegate them in the process.
So far: It’s not been a comfortable ride for Steve Keen as Rovers manager, and with growing frustration and calls for his head from the fans, Blackburn’s season hasn’t really started. Precariously positioned in 19th sandwiched between Wigan and Bolton, the relegation zone is a north-western neighbourhood in which nobody wants to reside.
Blackburn have managed to get themselves into a winnable last eight tie with Cardiff in the Carling Cup, but the Premier League results have put Keen under immediate pressure. The owners appear to be showing faith in Keen, but when owners start ‘backing’ their manager publicly, an execution usually soon follows. If this form continues, the defining moment will be when/if the board pulls the trigger on Keen, because come January it could be too late.
Key Player: Chris Samba. The heartbeat of the team missed the start of the season but the powerful centre-back will now come in alongside Scott Dann to try and stem the flow of goals Blackburn are conceding. If these two can strike up a partnership and chip in with a few goals…Blackburn will be able to prolong their relegation.
Where will they finish? Probably relegated. Keen can’t get the fans on side and the team has lost young starlet Phil Jones. A simple concoction of not enough goals in the team, and a defence which is leaking goals will make for grim viewing at Ewood Park this season.
Verdict: Bottom three. The culmination of factors I have mentioned and the disjointed atmosphere doesn’t bode well. If things change quickly then they may avoid the drop, but after 12 games, I regard Blackburn as one of the three weakest teams in the league.
So far: Perhaps the season’s surprise package, but not in a good way. Bolton have started dreadfully, but the fixture Gods certainly weren’t smiling on Bolton for the first couple of months of the season. Owen Coyle is a talented manager and he has some quality players available to him. Injuries have dogged progress at the Reebok, with Tyrone Mears, Lee Chung-Yong and Stuart Holden all absent with long term injuries.
The 5-0 drumming of Stoke would of been welcome revenge to Bolton fans after the FA Cup semi final last year, but the Premier League has been a bit of a graveyard for Coyle’s men so far. Nine points from 12 games means the Trotters curently occupy the last relegation spot, but Bolton should now be aspiring to climb the table. – They definitely have the capability to pull away from trouble now.
Key player: Gary Cahill. After speculation about his future in the summer, Coyle managed to keep the emerging England international at the Reebok, after he was subject to interest from Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham. Besides Cahill, Bolton’s defence isn’t the strongest in the league, but if Cahill and the defensive contingent can hold up their end of the deal, then Bolton will have a comfortable season in the top flight.
Where will they finish? A safe mid-table position is easily achievable for Bolton this season, but they may rue the start they’ve had. The top half is not out of Owen Coyle’s reach.
Verdict: 11th – 14th. Fans will have little to worry about in May, and with a few additions the squad could dream of reliving the European glory days under Big Sam.
So far: Put simply, Abramovich’s lot are in a right pickle. Andre Villas-Boas has a huge task on his hands, as he tries to revolutionise the club’s style of play. Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool have all beaten the blues already, with the latter fixtures both being at Stamford Bridge. To put that into perspective and exaggerate the pressure AVB is already under, Jose Mourinho did not lose a single home league game as Chelsea boss between 2004 and 2007, and even that was not enough to save his job.
Abramovich has clearly highlighted the Champions League as his main target, as the crown continues to elude the Russian. The last gasp winner for Bayer Leverkusen tonight now means they have to get a result at home to Valencia to qualify.
Key player: Frank Lampard. Early season critics have been silenced, after he found himself out of the team at the start of the season. Lampard is still scoring goals despite the sketchy team displays, which testifies to his class. With a wealth of attacking talent in front of him, and a proven eye for goal, Frank’s input will probably be a good measure of how Chelsea fair this season.
Where will they finish? It’s difficult to judge whether Villas-Boas’ new tactics are going to work, but early signs suggest not. With players such as Juan Mata, Lampard, Fernando Torres to name a few, it’s plausible that Chelsea will go into most games comfortable of being able to outscore their opponents, bar Manchester City. Torres is still floundering, but he hasn’t turned into a bad player over night. It’s down to AVB to rediscover his confidence and blistering goal scoring ability.
Verdict: 3rd. Villas-Boas’ flamboyant style has caught Chelsea out on several occasions already this season. He needs to tighten the defence, and use the assets available to him. – I can’t think of too many seasons where Didier Drogba has struggled to find the net regularly. John Terry needs to drive the squad on and continue to set the example, because if the young manager loses the dressing room, it will reflect through results. I’m backing Villas Boas and the senior players to sort this out, because Abramovich certainly won’t be pulling any punches if it doesn’t.