The new English Premier League season has kicked off and once again the focus is on ‘The Big Four'. These are the 4 teams that usually finishing in the Top 4 of the Premiership; Manchester United (19 times, and the only Premiership team to have never finished outside of the Top 4), Arsenal (16 times), Chelsea (12 times) and Liverpool (11 times). There have been several contenders over the years, notably Everton, Aston Villa and Tottenham, but now moneybags Man City not only look like they could break into the Big Four, but actually challenge for the title.
After the last two seasons it looked likely Liverpool would be dropping out to make way for them, but with their resurgence under Kenny Dalglish, it is now looking more likely that Arsenal will be the team to fall. Here are my predictions for the season (slightly different to BBM's official Premier League positions last week).
Under King Kenny the Reds have a new found confidence and have made some good signings, including nearly an entirely new midfield. Despite criticism and jokes about overpaying for English talent (Andy Carroll £35m last season, Jordan Henderson £20m, Stewart Downing £20m, Charlie Adam £8m), they have built up a formidable team. Add last season's acquisition of Suarez and the recent purchase of left-back Jose Enrique, they may even be capable of challenging for the title if they can keep consistency. A 1-1 draw with Sunderland on the opening day of the season was disappointing, but they beat Arsenal 2-0 away on Saturday.
The Gunners have brought in attacking players Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain (£12m) and Gervinho (£10.5m). However, they have failed to bolster their defence, sold Gael Clichy and Cesc Fabregas, and look set to lose Nasri in midfield. And don't mention the injury crisis. Arsenal fans are growing restless at a lack of silverware and Wenger may have to reinvest any potential fees from further sales if they are to retain their Big Four status let alone challenge. A disappointing 0-0 draw with Newcastle began their season, then a 0-2 defeat to Liverpool that could prove costly.
The Blues have been Man Utd's main challengers in recent years although had to settle for 2nd last year. Great things are expected under new coach Andre Villa Boas. Pre-season there were rumours of a clean-out of older players but this never materialised. Chelsea's only major new signing is forward Romelu Lukaku for £19m, although a £23m fee for Valencia midfielder Juan Mata has been agreed. They still have a good enough squad to win the Premiership, but will they? A lacklustre 0-0 draw with Stoke was not the best start, and an undeserved 2-1 win over West Brom on Saturday was far from convincing.
The most successful team in the history of the Premiership, The Red Devils are to English football what Liverpool were in the 80s. Despite winning the league last season, there were many doubters regarding Utd's performances. In a period of transition the likes of Hernandez stepped up and a pre-scandal Ryan Giggs enjoyed an Indian summer. After the retirement of some iconic players Alex Ferguson has brought in new blood in goalkeeper David De Gea (£17m), defender Phil Jones (£16.5m) and winger Ashley Young (£15m). Rumours were rife that Dutch midfield maestro Wesley Sneijder would be signing for £35m but Ferguson seems to have put his faith in a new breed of youth players. Love them or hate them, United are always the team to capitalise on other's mistakes and rarely slip up when it matters. A scrappy 2-1 win over West Brom was the latest in a series of disappointing games from the big guns, and knives are already out for young keeper De Gea who is in danger of being labelled a new Massimo Taibi. Man Utd play Tottenham on Monday night (GMT).
The contenders for Big Four membership:
The Citizens can afford to buy several players (and have done), but they already have a large squad of big names who are mostly picking up their wages in the reserves. City are in danger of copying Real Madrid by assembling a squad of Galacticos, only to win nothing. Star player Tevez wants out, and Balotelli is already causing problems, but they have bought forward Sergio Aguero for a record £38m. City have been slowly improving under Roberto Mancini, and this could just be their season if they push hard enough. City thrashed newcomers Swansea 4-0 with a star performance from Aguero, and then completed a less emphatic 3-2 win
away to Bolton.
Spurs showcased the likes of Gareth Bale and Rafael Van Der Vaart last season, but have only managed the free transfer of aging goalkeeper Brad Friedel before this one. Another example of a large squad with several class players, but manager Harry Redknapp has been known to let this turn into something detrimental before. With the emergence of Man City and a refreshed Liverpool Spurs might find themselves taking a step backwards not forwards. Tottenham's match with Everton was postponed due to the London riots, and they play Man Utd on Monday night.
The Toffees have a good manager in David Moyes, who must surely be getting frustrated at the lack of revenue for buying new players. This pre-season they haven't registered a blip on the transfer market. If they can hang on to the likes of Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka, Mikel Arteta, Jack Rodwell, Marouane Felliani and Tim Cahill they have a good chance of repeating their high finishes of previous seasons, but all have been linked away from Goodison Park. A 0-1 home loss to QPR was a disastrous start.
The Villains have a promising new manager in Alex McLeish, and have brought in experienced goalkeeper Shay Given for a bargain £3.5m and Charles N Zogbia for £9.5m. But they have arguably lost their two best players in Ashley Young and Stewart Downing, and face a tough season of transition. Villa drew 0-0 away to Fulham but convincingly beat Blackburn 3-1 on Saturday.
Prediction: 8th (and facing pressure from the likes of Stoke, Fulham, Bolton, Newcastle and Sunderland).