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United reeling as Rooney wants out

October 18, 2010

Cartwheeling all the way to Madrid? GETTY IMAGES

In January, Wayne Rooney was cartwheeling towards the Stretford End after heading a cup semi-final winner against Manchester City, capping another superhuman performance for the Red Devils in a glorious run of form. Amid jubilant scenes at Old Trafford it seemed the 24-year-old was finally fulfilling the immense promise of his early career and was ready to become the man to lead United and England into an exciting future.

How things change. Rooney’s Sunday League performances in the World Cup were mystifyingly bad. Then, lurid stories about his private life caused a media storm the likes of which do not impress manager Sir Alex Ferguson (but maybe explained Rooney’s distracted demeanor in South Africa as he wondered when the story would break).  Now, just days after publicly contradicting Sir Alex, the boy from Croxteth wants out.

Several players have crossed Ferguson and been shown the door. Jaap Stam, Roy Keane, Ruud van Nistelrooy and David Beckham have been the most notable victims of Ferguson’s wrath but none of them publicly expressed a desire to move on. Their shared mistake was to undermine their manager’s vice-like grip of authority on all matters Manchester United, whereas Rooney has apparently made it clear he wants out.

So how has the relationship between master and apprentice soured so rapidly? Rooney’s ineffectiveness on the pitch can not have helped. He is a shadow of his former self, with just a solitary goal to his name this season and way off the rampaging genius of last term. To Ferguson, though, the most damaging developments have probably been Rooney’s off-field behaviour. Allegations of sleeping with prostitutes and pictures of Rooney drinking, smoking and urinating in the street are not things that Sir Alex appreciates from his players. Rooney’s gargantuan wage demands in the same week as his comments questioning his manager’s assessment of his fitness may well have been the final straw, with Rooney relegated to the bench for the visit of West Brom on Saturday.

Rooney has only 20 months left on his contract, making a January exit likely, but where will he go? He has always said he does not want to play abroad so a move to United’s bitter rivals Chelsea or Manchester City could not be ruled out, risking the eternal ire of the United faithful. Joining Jose Mourinho and his old mate Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid could be the more likely destination. The striker may feel that running away from the constant spotlight on his private life is his only option and a tilt at glory with Europe’s most successful club too good an opportunity to miss.

Any move will be a bitter blow to United’s fans. Rooney’s performances last season marked him as approaching the status of successor to the clubs romantic idols of Best, Law, Charlton, Robson and Cantona. The sale of their best player for the second time in three seasons would be a bitter pill in a year when their cross town rivals have emerged as genuine title contenders. Perhaps the only winners in this sorry saga if Rooney is shipped out will be the Glazers, whose accounts will be boosted by yet another windfall.

A curious challenge to Ferguson’s authority

October 15, 2010

Had John William Henry II not finalised his takeover of Liverpool (and had the incumbent owners not kicked up such a desperate fuss), the big story coming out of Old Trafford before United’s match with West Brom might have been afforded a little more attention this week.

After England’s draw with Montenegro, Wayne Rooney contradicted his manager’s statement of a fortnight ago by saying he has been fully fit this season. Ferguson left him out for successive matches at Valencia and Sunderland after a string of sub-par performances, citing injury.

It would not be the first time Ferguson has lied (or exaggerated) to protect one of his players. It is conceivable he took a misfiring Rooney out of the team and spared his blushes by saying he was injured. Few would argue that was wrong, yet it is odd for Rooney to be so off-message – and, perhaps belligerently, go out of his way to demonstrate it.

In today’s pre-match press conference Ferguson avoided the issue: “I don’t know where all these things come from. The boy is always in the spotlight and being addressed by the press. It is important how you handle it in my experience. But it just runs off me. It doesn’t mean anything.”

The rumours of a Rooney move to Madrid have started: Ferguson has a record of getting rid of misbehaving players; it’s reasonable to suggest Madrid would want to buy him; United need money to pay off their debt.

Plausible, of course, but not convincing. Dimitar Berbatov’s early-season form does not mean United can cope with the loss of the man who led their domestic assault with such vigour last season (and who, despite Cristiano Ronaldo’s consistent excellence, has been crucial to the side since he joined). Rooney is so important he would surely have to do more than be exposed cheating on his wife and then make a misplaced comment to reporters to become the latest star to be kicked out by his autocratic boss. Still, it is certainly odd.

While Ferguson avoided that issue, he went out of his way to rebuke Owen Hargreaves’s surgeon who had said that his patient would be fit to play against West Brom this weekend: “Owen is not ready. We are having difficulties with the doctor coming out with statements that are not accurate.”

He could simply have said Hargreaves had picked up another injury in training. Everyone would have believed him. Yet he went out of his way to seek confrontation. It has its advantages: presumably Dr Richard Steadman will refrain from commenting publicly on Hargreaves’s progress in the future, and perhaps Ferguson was aiming to train the media’s eye away from Rooney.

Either way, the Rooney story could run for a while – particularly if West Brom play like they did at Arsenal two weeks back and ensure United’s stuttering start to the season continues.

Berbatov begins his road to redemption

September 20, 2010

Dimitar Berbatov soaks up the acclaim of his teammates during his inspiring performance in a 3-2 win over bitter rivals Liverpool yesterday. Photo: Tom Jenkins, The Guardian

Back in April, Dimitar Berbatov’s place as one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s big-money flops seemed assured. With the league title on the line and United trailing at home to Chelsea, the Bulgarian was presented with a wonderful opportunity to equalise with virtually the last kick of the game. But instead of lashing home on the volley from twelve yards out, Berbatov could only shootly weakly into the arms of Petr Cech in the Chelsea goal, completing a miserable day for the beleagured striker and almost guaranteeing Carlo Ancelotti’s first title with the Blues.

Since United broke the bank to prise him away from Tottenham and prevent him joining their “noisy neighbours”, Manchester City, in September 2008, Berbatov has flickered only briefly. A meagre twelve goals in 43 appearances last term suggested a player capable of breathtaking skills when the mood took him but one who tended to drift out of games when the going got tough. In his first season he had undoubtedly played a part in the Red Devils appearing in a second successive Champions League final and claiming the Premier League title, but his role was a peripheral one at best. All seemed set for a quiet exit over the summer.

Sir Alex Ferguson, however, had other ideas and his persistence with the erratic striker is now paying rich dividends. Going into yesterday’s contest with Liverpool at Old Trafford, the 29-year-old striker had four goals to his name in five matches, and had wowed the crowds at home and away with his mercurial skills and deadly finishing. It looked like United’s mammoth investment could finally be about to bear fruit.

Then came yesterday’s masterpiece. Two headed goals and one improvised moment of magic gave Berbatov his first United hat-trick in a thrilling win over the old enemy. Ferguson’s delight was obvious, and his high-five with the striker as he left the field in the dying seconds was loaded with significance. Not only had his £30m man scored the goals he believed he was capable of, he had done it against the club’s most hated rivals.

“Lots of questions were asked about him last season and he was made something of a whipping boy,” Ferguson wrote in yesterday’s programme notes. “People should have queried whether the man had real ability, and the answer for me was undoubtedly ‘yes’. Next they should have looked to see if he was a Manchester United kind of player, and again I think there was no doubt about him.”

Ever since Eric Cantona swaggered off the stage thirteen years ago, United and Ferguson have been searching for a replacement. The muscular Frenchman, blessed with sumptuous skills and an uncanny ability to score vital goals in the most important matches, inspired his teammates and the crowd with his individual brilliance for five glorious seasons. Ever since, the faithful have been waiting for a second coming.

Immediately after Cantona’s shock departure, the intelligence of Teddy Sheringham briefly touched the heights, but his was always a game more suited to bringing others into play than stealing the limelight for himself. More recently, Cristiano Ronaldo became the exhilirating focal point of the team but his arrogance and lack of club loyalty meant he never truly connected with the United crowd.

It is perhaps in the indefatigable creativity of Wayne Rooney that United have come closest to a worthy successor to Cantona. But for all the England striker’s ability, he rarely does the truly unexpected in the way the Frenchman could. Berbatov, however, can and against Liverpool his touch was sure, his running elegant. As ever, he rarely seemed to break a sweat and there were not that many moments of improvisation. The one that did come, though, was well worth the wait.

After controlling a floated Nani cross with his back to goal on his right knee, Berbatov instantly shifted his body weight to execute a perfect overhead kick that cannoned down off the crossbar and into the net. Pepe Reina in goal for Liverpool remained absolutely stationary. Berbatov’s marker, Jamie Carragher, simply stared in disbelief. It was a moment for Old Trafford to savour.

The season is only just beginning, but Berbatov has shown more than enough to suggest he could be the creative catalyst for United this season. The reasons why the Bulgarian suddenly looks the player Ferguson has always believed he could be are many. His international retirement has meant more rest between matches, while the arrival of Javier Hernández has provided much needed competition. Too often last season a lack of striking resources meant that Berbatov was playing poorly but keeping his place. Now that is not an option. The lacklustre form of Rooney could also be playing a part. Such was the Liverpudlian’s influence last year, Berbatov was continually in his shadow. Now, however, after a disastrous World Cup and sordid revelations about his private life, Rooney is struggling and the Bulgarian is stepping in to fill the void.

Dimitar Berbatov is simply too calm to be the next Cantona; incandescence is not his style. What he does have, though, is the creative gifts to lift his team allied to a new sense of purpose and responsbility which he seems to be revelling in. And whatever has propelled Berbatov to this rich form, he isn’t getting carried away. “I’m going home with a smile on my face,” he said, “but to my kids I’m nothing special. And tomorrow is another day.”

Notes on two scandals

September 9, 2010

A tarnished reputation? - asokatimes.com

Three-time world snooker champion John Higgins was yesterday banned for six months and fined £75,000 for bringing the game into disrepute. Crucially, though, he was cleared of match fixing, an allegation contained in May’s News of the World story which claimed he agreed to throw frames in a tournament later this year in exchange for cash.

Those allegations cast a shadow over the World Championship final earlier this year, but Higgins will now return to action in November (the punishment was understandably backdated since Higgins was suspended when the story broke). He does, though inevitably emerge from the court battle with a stain on his reputation, however innocent he may be. The NOTW investigation (or set-up, depending on your viewpoint) included a damning video in which Higgins and his manager Pat Mooney – permanently suspended by the WPBSA as a result of the story – unwittingly supped celebratory champagne with the journalists after brokering the deal. It seemed, at the time, a cut and dried case.

But of course agreeing to fix a match is not the same as fixing one, and so we will never know whether Higgins would have gone through with his plan. He failed to report the approach, which in hindsight looks suspicious – though is it perhaps plausible that he was waiting to return from Kiev, where the meeting too place, before alerting snooker’s governing body. In failing to reject the approach in the first place or failing to report it before the story broke, he committed at best a grave error, and at worst had the intent to commit the worst crime a sportsman can commit within the game. If the paper had waited until after the event before publishing, Higgins might have been in serious trouble – or of course he may have refused to go through with the agreement, alerted the WPBSA and emerged with his reputation enhanced. We’ll never know.

The timing of the hearing ensured the rigging of sport remained constant on back pages across the country, coming ten days after the NOTW broke the Pakistan cricket ‘spot-fix’ allegations. Again, a video adds credibility to the story; though the players accused are not present and the individual (alleged) offences are not as serious as in the Higgins case (bowling a no-ball to order are extremely unlikely to affect the outcome of the match; throwing frames may well do) this is probably more serious because the events actually took place. Sport was, seemingly at least, cheated.

A still from the incriminating Higgins video - newsoftheworld

Considering the News of the World’s one-man crusade to cleanse sport by paying players to fix matches would make for an interesting study of the workings of the media, though they would argue that they were only exposing what already goes on. This has more credence in the case of the Pakistan cricket team, which has long been embroiled in scandal, but would also be justifiable in the snooker story, especially given the comments of the late snooker star Alex Higgins, who said in May: ‘I know of at least four pros who have taken big bribes to chuck games. The names would shock the public if it was proved they were on the take. Just because they wear crisp white shirts, it doesn’t make them clean.’

Some may feel John Higgins got off lightly; others that the episode is over and he has been justly punished for a mistake. In preparation for the inevitable investigation – and probably disiplining – of the Pakistan players though, it is worth considering just what should be done with players who agree to take money to act in a certain way on the field.

As argued already, this is the most serious crime a sports star can commit. Taking drugs is of course more common, or at least being found guilty of it is. This is serious, but often judged based on a particular governing body’s own rules; some people can take performance-enhancing drugs by accident, through a medicine. Often it is debatable whether a drug has enhanced a player’s performance at all. There is, if no moral justification, more doubt involved. Either way, it is often dealt with stringently, when proven. However, agreeing to fix a sporting event is more concerning. Over the last week much has been written about how it eats at the fabric of sport, the essence of competition and the desire to believe in the sincerity what we are seeing. All of this is true. And anyone agreeing to ensure a result created not out of human endeavour or human error is committing an unnacceptable – perhaps unforgiveable? The ICC will have to decide – offence. Surely they should be banned for life?

In the case of the cricketers this is a little more complex. The bowlers Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir did not, it seems, try and fix a result. They bowled with pace and swing, and in their two summer series they have been a pleasure to watch, as discussed on The Videprinter during the Third Test. If they wanted to ensure their side lost the match they could have simply not bowled as accurately. While this may still tempt Kevin Pietersen to get himself out given current form, the majority of England’s top order would not consistently succumb to poor line and length and so would likely create reasonable totals to defend.

Should we make a distinction, then, between fixing a small, probably insignificant event – spot fixing – and fixing a match? Maybe not. It is still cheating the sport for personal gain. And yet is it as serious as throwing a match? Not really.

Mohammad Asif leaves a meeting into spot-fixing - Yahoo

Should we judge players based on their seniority? The accused captain Salman Butt and bowler Mohammad Asif have both played plenty of tests and would be considered among the experienced players within the camp. Mohammad Amir is an 18-year-old fledgling bowler, who may have felt under pressure to accede to the demands of his superiors, especially – as Michael Atherton among others have pointed out – giving Pakistan cricket’s hierarchical system in which the youngster may feel he has little choice. This is a difficult call. It seems right to condemn a young player for having the mendacity or stupidity to follow through with the plan – but wrong to truncate his career based on two no-balls.

Nasser Hussain said that his first thought upon hearing the story was ‘please don’t let it be Amir’. That was also my initial response when hearing the BBC News on the Saturday night. For my part (and presumably Hussain’s), this was based on a love of watching him play, hoping he hadn’t tarnished this by defrauding his teammates, the opposition, and the paying public. But it was Amir, and, if found guilty, he must be punished. Atherton argued – quite persuasively and with good reason – that we should not rush to condemn him, given his youth, his early poverty, and the lack of money Pakistan players receive compared to those from other test-playing nations. Yet none of these three factors excuse him or should absolve him from punishment. It would be a tragedy to remove such an exciting player for the game – but if removing him stopped future greats from corrupting the sport, it may be a price worth paying.

Few people seem as concerned about Butt and Asif; the former’s the captain and the latter’s got previous (he has been twice banned for taking drugs). Removing them from cricket would be nowhere near as damaging for the game as losing someone of Amir’s quality. But if found guilty, the three of them will have effectively committed the same crime – it would surely be injudicious to spare one a life ban. Not though, perhaps, as injudicious as sparing all three.

Game on as Pakistan fight back

August 20, 2010

One of the most enjoyable experiences when following cricket is seeing a struggling player or team respond with a superb innings or session. Today the Oval test ticked that box on two accounts: for England’s under-fire opener Alastair Cook, a much needed second-innings century; for Salman Butt’s beleagured Pakistan, a stunning passage of post-tea bowling to wrest back the initiative from the hosts.

Cooking on gas: England's opener is back - Getty/cricinfo

Butt berated his two motionless slip fielders after Cook aerially bisected them on 23, but it was a thankfully rare error – albeit a costly one as Cook went on to make 110. The fielding side were struggling at this point, as England took the lead with Cook and Trott looking comfortable. The visitors even brought opening bat Imran Farhat on to bowl some leisurely spin; the Test Match Special team noted Farhat’s likeness to a somewhat more successful exponent of the art, in his run-up at least: “Starts like Shane Warne…finishes like Shane Ritchie,” opined Phil Tufnell. Effectively 35-2 at lunch having cancelled out Pakistan’s first-innings lead of 75, the hosts moved on to lead by 119 with seven wickets remaining at tea, Cook having become Wahab Riaz’s sixth test victim on debut.

Then Mohammad Amir and Saeed Ajmal took over. Pietersen was set up by the spinner, several balls pitching harmlessly on leg before one enticed him to push forward. It span back towards leg and between bat and pad to leave England four down.

Next over Amir had Trott caught at gully and shortly afterwards removed Collingwood who chased – and top-edged – one well outside off. Ajmal returned to get rid of Morgan; Amir’s beautiful away-swinger moved late to deceive the in-form Prior, and England were in trouble, having scored 16 for 5 since tea. Ajmal then bowled Swann before the umpires took the teams off for bad light – England 146 ahead with one wicket left.

Amir celebrates during a superb spell of fast bowling - Getty/cricinfo

There is much to like about this Pakistan side: substitute keeper Zulquarnain Haider’s exuberance in scoring 88 under pressure in the second test; Ajmal’s cheeky grin after ensnaring another batsman; Riaz’s endearing reaction on coming out as day one’s nightwatchman having taken 5-63 on debut. After beating Australia it is good to see them making a game of the third test, and series. Their batting and fielding have frequently been woeful, but finally yesterday the top and middle order gave their magnificent bowling attack something to defend; and throughout this match the fielders have ensured any advantage would be pressed.

Particularly pleasing was Kamran Akmal’s contribution. Deservedly dropped after the first test after dropping everything that came his way, he came back in and has taken eight catches so far this match. The selectors will have a tough call should Haider be fit for next week.

Three days of entertaining cricket have left this match finely poised – though England have bowled Pakistan out for less than 100 twice already this series, their current lead should prove far from adequate if Azhar Ali, Mohammed Yousuf or indeed any two batsman have good innings. Yet their bowling attack is probably as good as Pakistan’s, and for the tourists chasing down a likely 150 is no foregone conclusion. If England nick it, they will have Cook to thank – he may have just saved his place on the plane to Australia. If Pakistan win tomorrow, they go to Lords on Thursday with a chance to level their second series in a row.

At the end of a day of gutsy responses, one thing needs answering: will England launch the game’s final fightback with a blistering morning’s bowling, or will Pakistan finish the job professionally and celebrate an assured – and welcome – victory?

Pinches triumphs as Hearn’s revolution gathers pace

August 17, 2010

Feeling the pinch: Norwich's Barry Pinches has struggled in past big events but is enjoying the PTC

Barry Hearn’s World Snooker takeover was finalised with little fanfare but some tredipation among certain players. Though most supported his plans to take the sport to a new audience, others pointed out that giving him a 51% stake in the game marginalised those who play it – who had previously had much more of a say in how it was run.

Yet the first fruits of the takeover are already being tasted in Sheffield. The inaugural Players Tour Championship is a third of the way through; the fourth event of twelve won yesterday by Norwich’s Barry Pinches. The format is simple: twelve weekend events, involving 128 players (including 32 of whom are amateurs, admitted after a qualifying stage). All matches are best of seven frames, the tournament costs £100 to enter and once a player reaches the last 64 (by winning one match) he begins to accrue money and ranking points. Six of the events take place at Sheffield’s snooker academy, the other six around Europe. After the twelve events – the last of which is in November – each player’s prize money is tallied up and the top 24 play in March’s televised finals event, provided they have competed in at least three of the six domestic events and three of the six European ones.

The tournament is a good idea for a number of reasons. Firstly, it gives the players more events to compete in. The obvious attraction of ranking points and money combats complaints such as those of Mark Selby, who talked of being a “part-time professional” under the old system in which players would regularly go six weeks without an event.

Mark Williams won the first PTC event in Sheffield - zimbio

Secondly, it ensures amateurs meet professionals on a regular basis, which can only be a positive thing for the future of the sport. Though the matches last only a maximum seven frames, it gives young players a chance to pit their wits against the best. This has also been of benefit to lower-ranked professionals such as Pinches, who beat Ronnie O’ Sullivan 4-3 in yesterday’s final. Usually a player ranked 57th would rarely have the chance to play the world number 3 and then only if he had qualified for a major ranking event (indeed, as he alluded to in his winner’s speech, Pinches had only met O’ Sullivan three times in a long career before the Players Tour).

The £10,000 Pinches receives for winning the event is also significant; only two months into the new season he has already taken home £17,100 (he finished runner-up in the second PTC event, gaining £5,000). Last season he made £19,630 in the whole year.

Pinches’ performances see him top the table after four events, ahead of Selby, Mark Williams and Tom Ford, who have all won one event apiece. Some unfamiliar names appear in the top 24 and with eight events left there is a good chance several will appear in the March finals. The events do provide fewer ranking points than the major tournaments, so it is not as if the world’s best will all feel obliged to appear every week, but it is an intelligent, worthwhile introduction to a snooker calendar that previously had a disappointingly low number of ranking events. The final event is cleverly scheduled for TV too – falling three months after the UK Open and two before the World Championships it should attract a decent audience without risking snooker overkill.

Three-time world champion O' Sullivan finds the World Championship 'boring' - worldsnooker

Of course, this is not destined to be the sport’s flagship event to appeal to a new generation; the quirky, value-free invention Power Snooker is being prepared for that. That takes place in October and it remains to be seen how successful it will be. There is also January’s ‘Shoot-out’, a one-frame knockout tournament in which frames can last no more than 12 minutes. As The Videprinter argued earlier this year, if these type of events bring a new audience to the game, then good – but the calendar should not be based around them. In fairness to Hearn’s embryonic World Snooker though, the first season seems to have been balanced well.

Just three months after world number one John Higgins was suspended indefinitely on the eve of the biggest day of the season amid match-fixing allegations, it seems surprisingly reasonable to be cautiously optimistic about the future of the sport.

Premier League 2010/11 Preview

August 12, 2010

The Premier League returns this weekend. With no outstanding teams last season – it became apparent by February with Chelsea, United and Arsenal still interested that the title would be claimed by the weakest side for a few years – it is particularly difficult to call this time around. There has been little strengthening at the top, but the top-4 wannabees have mostly made substantial changes to either the playing or managerial staff. The league has kept its top players, unlike last summer, and there are plenty of strong sides in mid-table who can continue to cause problems for the established order.

Predicting top to bottom, place by place, with 38 games to go is a fool’s game – so we’ve gone for a few groupings, maximising the potential for success and also for embarrassment. Here’s how it could pan out:


Relegated

Blackpool, Wigan Athletic, Bolton Wanderers

It really is tough to see Blackpool surviving, regardless of how much verve and passion they demonstrated in turning an average first half of the season into a late playoff charge. Passion, they say, gets you a long way in football, but it is not enough when you can’t buy mid-ranking Championship players to help you in the league above because they’re already being paid more than you can offer.
People are suggesting they could break Derby’s record for the lowest points total. They should win 3 or 4 games at home (Charlie Adam’s free kicks should get them five or six goals on their own) and thus avoid such a fate, but it’s hard to see them finishing anywhere other than bottom.

The likeable - and soon to be relegated? - Ian Holloway - metro.co.uk

Martinez’s Wigan did just about enough last year but have let some decent players go and their time may be up. Jordi Gomez and Charles N’Zogbia can create goals (though N’Zogbia has just handed in a transfer request and may be gone before the end of the month), and Hugo Rodallega scored a few last time around, but their defence let in a lot of goals – over two per match. This is unlikely to change and a similar number this time should relegate them.

Bolton sacked the unpopular Gary Megson half-way through last term and appointed Owen Coyle. Though he steered them to mid-table safety (when Megson left they were 18th) they certainly look to have one of the weaker squads in the division. It may be outlandish to predict them to finish lower than both Newcastle and West Brom, but I’ve just done it.


14th-17th

Stoke City, Sunderland, West Bromwich Albion, Newcastle United

Swapping red and white for red and white - Getty/mailonline

Stoke should be fine, again. Their brand of football has been the target of criticism for two years but it works. The excellent siege mentality at home is strong and though they regularly get beaten heavily away by the top teams this ultimately matters little when it comes to tallying up the points against those around them. The signing of Kenwyne Jones should ensure they continue to get plenty of headed goals. They suffered no ‘second-season syndrome’, the malady that has afflicted plenty of teams, and they shouldn’t suffer from the less-well-known but equally-debilitating ‘third-season sydrome’. It’s one thing knowing how they play; it’s another stopping it.

Sunderland sold Jones on the basis he was inconsistent, and in doing so they have seperated one of the most powerful partnerships in the division. He performed magnificently alongside Darren Bent at Old Trafford last season but Steve Bruce has strength elsewhere, with Frazier Campbell notching a few last season after the team went through an inexplicable run of failing to win. In the end they were only marginally closer to relegation than European qualification though, and expect similar again.

The two promoted clubs are tough to call – West Brom may finally break the ‘yo-yo’ trend that ensures the fans’ interest is maintained every season. They were comfortably promoted from the Championship (as usual) and though they should get beat routinely by the better sides, they have enough firepower to win a few at home. Roman Bednar should be their best attacking player, but Graham Dorrans and Chris Brunt impressed last year. They also boast some (albeit limited) World Cup experience in Chris Wood, but their biggest test will come at the back.

Newcastle had a lot of good players when they went down in 2009 and still have now. They easily warranted promotion and should not make the same mistakes again. Chris Hughton will obviously have a tricky season ahead but, like Stoke, their home form should serve them well. They should not fall back down this time.

11th-13th
Blackburn Rovers, West Ham United, Wolverhampton Wanderers

Big season for Nikola Kalinic - zimbio.com

Blackburn are a decent team who rarely excel. The defence including Nelsen, Givet and Samba is solid – and though they are inconsistent going forward, relegation should be out of the question. It will be interesting to see how hit-and-miss Nikola Kalinic does in his second season.

West Ham have enough good players to avoid a repeat of last year’s near-disaster. Though Avram Grant got a pretty decent side relegated last time – Portsmouth must have had the strongest first XI to finish bottom in years, but were afflected by plenty of other problems – he should have more success here. Players certainly underachieved, but nobody is expecting more of the same. Scott Parker has been superb for a while and though the club always seem to get pre-occupied with star signings (the latest player apparently in their sights is David Beckham) it shouldn’t distract from the potential of what is, essentially, a decent Premiership squad.

Wolves only won one in four last year but it was enough to keep them up. Doubts remain over their forwards but they have one of the better defences of last year’s bottom half, particularly at home. Squad rotation (most notoriously at Old Trafford) paid off when the club survived in 15th. It makes sense to do similar again, though this time the trip to United falls in the middle of visits from Manchester City and Arsenal in November. Some points on the board early on would prove useful.


8th – 10th

Aston Villa, Birmingham City, Fulham

Fulham didn’t win many league games last time; their European run masked (and certainly contributed to) an average domestic season. Mark Hughes inherits largely the same group of players though, and there is plenty of quality there to ensure they don’t get sucked into the lower reaches of the table. Bobby Zamora, Damien Duff, Danny Murphy and Clint Dempsey all did very well last time and there is no reason they shouldn’t again. The defence is built on solid foundations – Phillipe Senderos’ injury is a blow but they still have last year’s back four – and keeping Mark Schwarzer is a bonus.

On his way - zimbio.co.uk

Birmingham were by far the best of last year’s promoted clubs. Their mean defence underpinned a series of good results and, though they had one of the weakest attacks in the division they survived comfortably. If Alex McLeish gets them as well-organised as last time, they should finish top 10 – and Serbia’s Nikola Žigić should add much-needed firepower, despite an underwhelming World Cup campaign.

Martin O’ Neill’s departure from Villa was scarcely better timed than Steve Coppell’s from Bristol City. Yet even assuming James Milner goes to Manchester City O’ Neill’s successor will have a good first XI. It’s difficult to see them doing as well as last season, and with the improvement going on around them O’ Neill may have taken them as far as they are going to go, particularly with the ever-distracting European campaign for which Villa seem to care little. Still, they should be comfortably top-half and have a decent shot at top-7. But Everton, Spurs, City and Liverpool are now stronger.

5th-7th
Everton, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur

Here to stay - liverpoolway.co.uk

Everton were excellent in the second half of last season, when their injured players returned. Persuading Mikel Arteta to sign a new contract is an undoubted boost, and if he, Fellaini and Cahill stay fit they will have one of the best midfields in the division, with Pienaar continuing his good form from last season. Up front, it remains to be seen how Jermaine Beckford will cope at this level, but they could quite conceivably finish above Spurs and Liverpool.

Liverpool should better 7th, but despite swapping Hodgson for Benitez they haven’t improved the team a lot. Yossi Benayoun is a loss, Joe Cole a gain, though it’s tricky to forecast how that exchange will pan out. Keeping Torres and Gerrard was obviously essential, and a return to top 4 will probably be anticipated. But not by me.

Tottenham, meanwhile, strung together some excellent results last year and though they were, as usual, routinely beaten by United they did perform well against and take points from the other top teams. They will need to do similar again to cancel out their inevitable home defeats to teams in the bottom half and will struggle to make the top 4 again, though their run in should be unencumbered by Champions League football.

3rd-4th
Arsenal, Manchester City

Arsenal have been looking for the final piece in the jigsaw for a good few years, but unlike Liverpool they’ve at least found the picture on the box. They came close again last year, but nobody was surprised when they dropped out after blowing a lead at Wigan. Fabregas could have a top season, winning them the league before heading to Catalonia, but injuries usually cost them, particularly up front. It’s a big season for Nicklas Bendtner, and they have certainly cut some of the dead wood from defence. Top 4 should be a doddle….but no higher, this time.

Silva could prove a great signing (assuming he gets a game) - thesun.co.uk

City, meanwhile, have bought half the western world in their bid to be crowned the best team in the country for the first time since 1968. If it happens and their neighbours don’t succeed in Europe, people might actually take notice this time as well. But a great squad and a superb bench does not necessarily mean a brilliant first XI. Mancini has assembled a splendid array of attacking talent but doubts remain over a defence which conceded well over a goal a game last season. Perhaps it won’t matter – and with Alexander Kolarov the troublesome left-back position may finally become a non-issue. They have the potential to beat anyone, and they should make the top 3 or 4. But further may be a step too far – for now.

2nd
Manchester United

Can Rooney recreate his superb form this time around?

United took it to the final day last year despite losing 7 matches. They could quite conceivably win it this time, though they will need more goals from midfield assuming Wayne Rooney doesn’t equal his excellent tally of last time. The signing of Hernandez is certainly exciting though it remains to be seen how much he will be used; his well-timed runs could prove very useful, particularly against tired defences in the closing stages of matches. Injuries in defence cost them last year and Ferdinand’s fitness is important – as well as, to a lesser extent, that of Wes Brown and John O’ Shea. The competition is improving and United, it seems, haven’t. Second place again.

Champions
Chelsea

Same again? - espn.com

Chelsea should have won last year’s title far more comfortably than they did, but rivals slipped up one too many times. Their propensity to batter sides at home is useful, meaning players can often be rested from 60 minutes in if Ancelotti deems it appropriate. Away they were not as ruthless as United, and pre-season form has not been good. But that should never be an indicator of true potential, and this – albeit ageing – Chelsea squad is the best in the division. It may well be as close as last time, but they should win it again.