LS Sport’s Andrew Belt looks at Arsenal, Aston Villa, Chelsea, Everton and Fulham in the first of our four-part Premier League season preview…
As unpredictable as Arsenal perform in the Premier League is the predictable high-profile pre-season departure. And Robin Van Persie’s announcement that he won’t be signing a new contract with the Gunners would have given their supporters a familiar sickly feeling at the inconsistent predicament of the playing staff’s retained list. But hold on a minute? RVP hasn’t left and the club have made three excellent signings in Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla. If the club can hold on to Van Persie beyond the August transfer window then Arsenal will terrify defences all over the land. Lose him and the club at least have some quality in reserve and, if the defenders can have a good season, then Arsene Wenger’s charges could flirt with the title. But a low Champions League finish is their most likely outcome and a domestic cup trophy remains their best chance of winning silverware after a 7 year wait.
It was the appointment no one at Villa Park wanted. Alex McLeish’s ill-fated season was mercifully cut short at the end of a term where the Midlands club came worryingly close to suffering the same fate as the Scot’s previous dalliance with a side from Birmingham. Paul Lambert has taken over the reigns after impressing at Norwich Cityand has added Ron Vlaar, Karim El-Ahmadi and Brett Holman from Holland’s Eredivisie to the ranks. Last year’s marquee signing, Charles N’Zogbia, had a season to forget but will hope to recapture the form that made the £9.5 million spent on him seem a fair deal. Darren Bent will be integral to Lambert’s plans and an injury-free season for the marksman could see Villa sneak into the top 10 but, the squad hasn’t changed too much from McLeish’s assemble, and, whilst it would be wise to expect a marked improvement from the dismal 2011/12 campaign, a lower rung mid-table finish appears realistic.
Chelsea’s 2011/12 Champions League win ended Roman Abramovich’s quest for European glory and really was the stuff of dreams for the West London outfit. The realisation of a dream for the Russian owner spurred him on to spend a great deal of money on the squad over summer with Eden Hazard, Oscar, Marko Marin and Thorgan Hazard joining Stamford Bridge this summer. Chelsea were well off the pace in the Premier League last season, with Andre Villa-Boas suffering the consequences, but will be encouraged by their business in the transfer market so far and will hope Roberto di Matteo can steer them to another unlikely success over the season. However, the influence of Didier Drogba in determining the destination of the Champions League trophy last season should not be underestimated and his loss will be keenly felt while di Matteo will have a tougher task replicating the kind of form that he was able to produce as caretaker manager. The defence, containing the continually slower presence of John Terry (Ibrahimovic embarrassing the Chelsea captain in a straightforward sprint at Euro 2012, anyone?), remains the club’s Achilles’ heel but, with the potency of Ramires, Juan Mata and a resurgent Fernando Torres, alongside their newly-acquired attacking options, the Blues have the firepower to break the Manchester monopoly, though, winning the title should be a step too far.
The perennial under-achievers for the first half of the season who get their act together from January onwards, fuelling growing speculation of David Moyes’ departure and enabling the Scot to be regarded with reverence come the end of season, is the Toffees’ winning formula. And, what with Jack Rodwell’s untimely departure and Tim Cahill crossing the Atlantic, a poor start to the season can be expected once again. Steven Naismith’s arrival from the mess at Rangers could form one of the Premier League’s most effective front two, partnering another ex-Rangers attacker in Nikita Jelavic, who had a blistering start to life below the border. The midfield looks decidedly weaker and Everton face a tough task to maintain their Premier League consistency. It’s business as usual in defence and, a top 10 finish is no guarantee, but it’ll be no surprise if a stunning 2013 sees the Goodison Park club rise to challenge the top 7 once again.
Martin Jol’s first season at Craven Cottage saw Fulham finish 9th, entertaining along the way as they played neat, attractive football that won plaudits by the River Thames. Away from home, the Cottagers were a different proposition and remain a team you wouldn’t bet on outside the perimeter of southwest London. Aiming to plug the hole left by Pavel Pogrebniak will be Mladen Petric, who previously played under Jol at Hamburg, and Hugo Rodallega, arriving after his least successful season for Wigan Athletic yet. Sascha Riether joined at right-back from FC Cologne to bolster the defensive ranks. While the signings offer cover in areas that needed filling, Fulham’s greatest coup (so far!) has been their ability to hold on to the likes of Clint Dempsey and Brede Hangeland; players who could ably perform for most Premier League teams. Mark Schwarzer continues to steward the back-line and Alex Kacaniklic certainly has the potential to be one of the emerging stars of the new season. Things are going steady for Mohammed Al-Fayed’s project and, while more of the same can be expected, it’s not unfeasible that visitors from Europe could be flocking to Craven Cottage in 2013/14 for reasons other than the bizarre statue of Michael Jackson that resides by the stadium.