Friday, August 18, 2006

2006-2007 EPL Season: Top Six and Bottom Three

First Place - Chelsea

While the obvious push will be for glory in Athens, Jose Mourinho has too much at his disposal to not be the best in England for the third year running. Because of off-season rust and the need for new players to gel, my bet is that Chelsea drops a point here and there before facing Liverpool at home on September 23. Mourinho should have it figured out by then and field a side that will beat Rafa's men and go on to conquer the rest of the league. Once they get going, look out. A repeat of their twelve point finish at the end of last season seems a bit much at this point, but a double digit final table wouldn't be out of the question.

Mourinho has been smart with his summer signings and will be in an even better position if he can secure the signature of Ashley Cole. My appreciation of the England international's skills has only grown in the last couple of years. I believe that he is the best left back in the world right now and needs to find a new environment to develop his skills. Whether that is at Stamford Bridge or at the San Siro playing for Inter, he needs to go somewhere that will except his inflated ego. Come on Roman, write that check and get on with it.

Liverpool on paper does look like the Barcelona to Chelsea's Real Madrid. The Galacticos tag might fit, but not this year, Chelsea finish in first.

Key matches in the first half of the season:

Sunday August 22 at Balckburn Rovers
Sunday September 17 vs. Liverpool
Saturday November 4 at Tottenham
Saturday Novermber 25 vs. Manchester United
Saturday December 9 vs. Arsenal

Second Place - Liverpool

Rafael Benitez has made quite a splash in his first two years at Liverpool, forever securing his place in the Reds' history books. A two-year streak of winning major silver just might continue at Anfield, but I think the Premiership is at least one more year away. Though they looked the better side in Wales over the weekend and finished strong behind Chelsea and Manchester United last season, I still see them without the temperament needed to be consistently good throughout the season.

While very strong in every line from Pepe Reina to Steven Gerrard, I'm having trouble envisioning their forward line scoring on a consistent basis. I loved the signing of Craig Belamy and the impending arrival of Dirk Kuyt is positive, I'm still not convinced that Peter Crouch is a long-term solution. I know that Robbie Fowler had a rebirth last season, but who really believes that it will continue into the coming season?

Liverpool will be a good bet to win at least one trophy this season (Champion's League anybody?), maybe even two. I just don't think it will be the one they covet most.

Key matches in the first half of the season:

Saturday September 9 at Everton
Sunday September 17 at Chelsea
Saturday September 23 vs. Tottenham
Saturday October 14 vs. Blackburn
Saturday October 21 at Manchester United
Saturday November 11 at Arsenal

Third Place - Arsenal

Arsene Wenger will try keep up with the top two, but Arsenal will be a step behind throughout the Premiership season. I believe that Arsenal rough domestic season was a fluke in 2005/06, but that doesn't mean that he has the quality to hang with Chelsea and Liverpool. The defense and midfield look pretty solid, but I feel that Tierry Henry is going to have one of those burnout seasons that all top-class pros have at one point in their careers. If that does happen, who out there thinks that Emmanuel Adebayor or Theo Walcott are ready to pick up the slack? I do think Robin Van Persie has the talent to really shine this season, let's just hope that he steps away from that fine line he usually walks when it comes to getting cautioned or sent off.

Tomas Rosicky was an excellent signing (cheap as well) that will fit in nicely in the Wenger scheme of mobile midfielders who can put the ball in the back of the net. I like Alexander Hleb and hope that he can continue to grow under Wenger's tutelage. As it looks like Ashley Cole will be leaving, Mathieu Flamini will have to continue playing out of position. While he did an solid job in the left-back position last season, I don't think he is the long-term solution.

As always under Wenger, Arsenal will be fun to watch and should progress deep into the Champion's League knock-out stages. But I'm afraid that it could be a second year in a row without a trophy.

Key matches in the first half of the season:

Sunday September 17 at Manchester United
Saturday November 11 vs. Liverpool
Saturday December 2 vs. Tottenham
Saturday December 9 at Chelsea
Saturday December 23 vs Blackburn

Fourth Place - Manchester United

Sir Alex Ferguson did wonders last year finishing in second behind a rampaging Chelsea. He got the most out of his team by getting a consistent effort out of his defense and a return to the era of safe hands with Edwin Van Der Sar. He made the most out of a midfield without Paul Scholes and Roy Keane and survived a shake-up on the front line towards the end of the season.

This season will see the Red Devils a step slow and not ready to compete with Chelsea or Liverpool. I still see deficiencies in their forward line coming into the first week of the season. Wayne Rooney will miss the first three games of the season and maybe more because of injury. Is Louis Saha the man that can provide the goals before Rooney gets back to 100%? Is Ole Gunnar Solskjaer ready to play full-time and is Giuseppe Rossi ready to step up and be counted as a goal-scorer when called upon against the better teams in England and Europe? These are big questions as the season gets ready to begin.

I am impressed by Ferguson going out and getting Michael Carrick, but a little perplexed by the efforts to buy Owen Hargreaves. Don't they play the same position? Could Fergie be grooming one of them (most likely Hargreaves, maybe Giggs) to play Scholes' old position behind two strikers or just off of one striker when playing in Europe? Either way, where does Alan Smith fit into all of this? Does he go back to playing up front? I don't know the answers to these questions, but it might all be a moot point anyways if Hargreaves stays in Germany. Either way, United will be battling it out in early August next year in the Champion's League qualifying rounds.

Key matches in the first half of the season:

Saturday September 9 vs. Tottenham
Sunday September 17 vs. Arsenal
Saturday October 21 vs. Liverpool
Saturday Novermber 11 at Blackburn
Saturday November 25 vs. Chelsea
Saturday December 9 vs. Manchester City

Fifth Place - Tottenham

A seat at the table of the best Premiership managers belongs to Martin Jol. He has done a great job of lifting the morale at While Hart Lane and made everybody believe in bigger things until an epic collapse at the end of last season. While they'll probably keep a better eye on what they eat this year, they will still be left to scrape with Manchester United for fourth and a coveted Champion's League spot.

While solid in the nets with Paul Robinson, the Spurs' defense is lacking on the wings where they where outplayed and gave up some naive goals last season. The loss at home to United being the perfect example. From what I've seen concerning their transfer acquisitions, I'm not holding out any hope that Spurs will be able to defend their flanks again this season. While very solid in the middle with Ledley King, Jol's hope must be that youngster Tom Huddlestone can mature quickly and either step into the middle of the defense or have enough composure to play the role that Carrick vacated (though King has filled that role for England). I love Aaron Lennon and hope that he will only get better under Jol and with the national team. Dimitar Berbatov should be an able replacement for Mido, but he'll have to prove his worth quickly before the home fans start recalling the expensive and short-lived run that Sergi Rebrov had at White Hart Lane.

A solid campaign for the second year in a row, but UEFACup entry is the most realistic finish for Spurs.

Key matches in the first half of the season:

Saturday September 9 at Manchester United
Saturday September 23 at Liverpool
Saturday November 4 vs. Chelsea
Saturday Novermber 18 at Blackburn
Saturday December 2 at Arsenal

Six Place - Blackburn

Mark Hughes has done an admirable job keeping Blackburn in the upper half of the table since he arrived at Ewood Park. An energetic motivator, that at times has gotten the best of the teams ahead of him in this list, Hughes will keep the ship steady and steer Blackburn back into Europe.

He has been able to build a strong defense that lets in few goals, as well as throwing a couple of elbow and shin-seekers here and there. Again American keeper Brad Friedel and defender Lucas Neill are the key men. Neill is comming off a good World Cup performance for Australia. In the last year of his contract, he rejected the team's offer for an extension. We'll have to see if they throw more money at him or if he's just ready for a change. Neill has been at the club since 2001 and seems ready to leave. However long he ends up staying, let's just hope he and Robbie Savage can stay out of the refs book and help Blackburn replicate last season's finish.

They key will be up front where Hughes let go of Craig Bellamy and Paul Dickov and brought in Jason Roberts and Benni McCarthy. They both have played well in the past couple of seasons and should be ready to run at defenders this season. Francis Jeffers gets a last chance (how many is that now?) to prove his worth in the Premiership.

With steady results at Blackburn and an unknown future at Old Trafford for Ferguson, the rumor is that Hughes could be the next manager at Manchester United. Whichever way that story unfolds, the fans at Ewood Park should be happy with another trip to the UEFA Cup.

Key matches in the first half of the season:

Sunday August 27 vs Chelsea
Saturday October 14 at Liverpool
Saturday Novermber 11 vs. Manchester United
Saturday November 18 vs. Tottenham
Saturday December 23 at Arsenal

Relegated Teams



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