After previewing Manchester City's hopes for this year last week, here are some thoughts, observations and predictions for the rest of the 2011-2012 Premier League.
-While the Manchester Derby battle for the title will be exciting to follow, I think the biggest story of this year will be the slip of Arsenal. Has coming in fourth place ever felt so bad? The brutal 4-4 draw after having a 4-0 lead against Newcastle (match of the year in most circles, which means the Gunners got to relive it multiple times during the off season), blowing a chance to finally claim silverware against Birmingham City of all teams (who were then relegated!) and finishing just 3 points off of 3rd place following multiple blown leads, resulting in draws late in the season (see Liverpool at the Emirates.) Throw in the near certain departures of Fabregas and Nasri and another year without silverware at the Emirates appears likely. Bold prediction: Arsenal finish outside of the top 4 for the first time since '95/'96
-I'm happy to see Shay Given secure a move away from City and I expect him to have a strong year at Aston Villa. As a fan of the Irish national team, I have a soft spot for Given, but I believe he was given a raw deal at City last year. Prior to his season ending injury in 2009/2010 he had been a tough, gritty keeper who performed well in big spots which is why the fact that he didn't make even one appearance last year was a bit of an insult. I'm excited to follow him this year and see how he does at Villa. Additionally, the importance of getting first team time during such a crucial test of Ireland's Euro 2012 hopes cannot be understated.
-Out of respect to my good friend Steve Lazar, I have to talk about Spurs who seduced me last season with some of the more exciting football I've ever seen. The keeper opening for Given at Villa came as a result of Brad Friedel moving to Spurs. There was no keeper that was more infuriating to watch than Heurelho Gomes. His inept handling of relatively easy balls led to a crucial loss to Chelsea and the nail in the coffin against Real Madrid in the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinal (don't get me wrong, Spurs weren't going to come back to win but the Gomes blunder helped seal the loss early in the second half) Hopefully Spurs will have another exciting campaign, but I have a feeling that the drop off from the heights of Champions League football to the far off fixtures of the Europa League will have a negative impact. I'm also excited to see what Gareth Bale can do this year after such an exciting half season last year.
-My initial interest in the Premier League came from following Irish players and that will continue this year. Young striker Shane Long will be making the jump to West Bromwich Albion after a 25 goal campaign for Reading in the Championship last year. Also interesting to watch at WBA will be the work of Roy Hodgson after a disastrous half season at Liverpool.
-Fulham will once again be on my radar because of both Clint Dempsey, Damien Duff and my fellow New York/Premier League friend Kent has recently adopted them as his team (check out his Fulham blog as well). Oh and how could I forget the beautiful Michael Jackson statue erected by the owner outside the stadium last year
-What to make of Chelsea? New wunderkind coach André Villas-Boas, who is the same age as two of his top players (Drogba and Lampard are also 33) has inherited a team that was always just within reach of United last season, but could never pull even. Winning a treble at such a young age is impressive but what might be more helpful in his transition to the Bridge is his familiarity with the system, having served there under Mourinho. The offset of a young coach with an aging team should be interesting to follow.
-The other intrigue for me comes from Liverpool who found their stride under Kenny Daiglish after a terrible start. Can they bounce back into the top four? The impressive play of Luis Suarez at Copa America should translate over and a full season of Andy Carroll should help as well. Plus, Liverpool has one of my favorite players in the league, the underrated Dirk Kuyt. If I'm knocking down Arsenal then someone has to move up, my favorite would be Liverpool.
-Dark horses for a nice year? I'll go with three: Fulham, Stoke City, WBA . All showed hints of promise last year and finished the year strong. I've already mentioned my reasons for liking Fulham and I respect any many in England who wears a cap and kind of looks like my dad in Stoke's manager Tony Pulis.
-So who's going to win it? The youth movement at Old Trafford is well underway (average age on the field in the 2nd half of the Charity Shield was 22!) but that doesn't mean they're in rebuild mode because of one man: Alex Ferguson. The one thing that does worry me about United is in the net. While David de Gea might be the keeper of the future, it doesn't necessarily mean he's ready to be the keeper of the present at just 20 years old and in his first season in England. My last post started with my full dedication to Manchester City, which officially means that there is no way that I can choose United to win the title (despite the fact that that is exactly what my brain is telling me to do) Chelsea is also an appealing option but I'll take a what and see approach with AVB. So who's left? Well screw it, I'll contradict what I said last week and I'll take the full plunge with my team:
I'll go with City to win the League.
Official Predictions from Across the Ocean:
League 1)City 2)United 3)Chelsea 4)Liverpool
Golden Boot: Luis Suarez (Liverpool)
Sergio Aguero (City)
Shane Long (WBA)