The EPL has started, signaling the start of another year of incredible goals, plays and games across the continent. The best teams and players in the world will vie for what is arguably the most important club title in all of sports. In England, the country boasting the best domestic league, they are ushering in new talent, reloaded teams and renewed rivalries.
I‘ll start by separating the contenders from the pretenders to see who will be left standing come next summer.
Having watched several of the teams through the first two weeks, I think there is a clear three tier divide in the top flight in England. The handful of teams that can realistically contend are in one group, while there is another group of very good teams that with a few injury breaks can either threaten at the top of the standings or fall precariously into the chasm of the third group, which is to wit, the ones with no chance of winning.
The ‘real’ contenders (in no particular order) are as follows:
Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City & Liverpool.
Everton, Newcastle, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Aston Villa, Bolton & Fulham.
No shot at the top 4:
In looking at the contenders, I am hard pressed to find any team that can beat Chelsea this season. Consider this: Chelsea won the EPL last year without Michael Essien (R),
who in my estimation is one of the top 10 midfielders in the world. Essien, who also missed the World Cup for Ghana because of injuries, is the motor of the Chelsea attack. His passes that picked apart Wigan last week will be crucial for Chelsea as they seek to repeat and win their first Champions League title this season.
The team has already proved that they can win without him, but with Essien orchestrating the attack and the plethora of goal scoring options (Anelka, Drogba, Kalou, Malouda, Lampard…) at his disposal I think they are easily the deepest team in Europe.
If there is any weakness in this squad, it’s John Terry in the middle of the defense. I think he has missed a step or two, and the last season and the World Cup exposed that in the most unflattering of terms. They do have enough depth and youth however that if Terry falters repeatedly or cannot handle the crunch of multiple games each week when the different tournaments heat up that they should be able to weather that. They also have Didier Drogba, who is one of the best forwards in the game, at the peak of his abilities and showing no signs of slowing down.
A disappointing World Cup aside, the strength, pace and smarts of Drogba has proven to be a perfect fit for this team. Pairing him with Anelka, a duo that a lot of skeptics said couldn’t work has created an unstoppable two headed monster for most teams not coached by Jose Mourinho. The failures in Europe have chafed at this team recently and no more so than last year as their former mentor/coach lifted the trophy with a solid but unspectacular Inter Milan team. He has now moved on to Madrid, a team that on paper should be one of the favorites to win that tournament, but Chelsea has already made it clear that their goal this season is the double; EPL and CL trophies.
I think they have the talent to do it in spectacular fashion. I certainly cannot see anyone beating Chelsea in their quest to repeat as Premier League champions this season.
In the Sir Alex Ferguson era at Manchester United the team was resurrected from a middle of the pack rag tag group to an international juggernaut. The team that had ushered in a teenage George Best on the world stage had fallen onto hard times in the early 80’s. That changed under Sir Alex. The names are now legendary; Eric Cantona, Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs, Beckham, Rooney, Ronaldo, Scholes & Ferdinand all have called Old Trafford home and all flourished and became stars under the guidance of Sir Alex. That is a testament to not only him, but the framework he put in place. The scouting, youth teams and also Man U’s willingness to spend money to obtain talent are hallmarks of his stewardship. But talent alone will not ensure success, and that’s where Sir Alex has been superior to any other coach in the game until recently. Talent keeps you competitive, coaching wins titles. So what has changed?
Well, the earnings of players are going up at an unprecedented pace. Great players have always made a lot of money, but now good to average players are breaking the bank, and the trickledown effect is creating a huge chasm in European football between the mega rich clubs and everyone else. In this era of “mo money mo problems,” a disciplinarian such as SAF is a relic. You could see this shift with the rise of Beckham’s popularity and the tension with the coach. It happened again with Cristiano Ronaldo. Guardiola at Barcelona and Mourinho at Chelsea/Milan and now Madrid understand this new dynamic, and their ability to harness the egos of multiple stars on a team has been key to their respective successes.
For over 20 years, the biggest star at Old Trafford has been Sir Alex, and unless that old dog learns a few new tricks, they will be quickly entering another period of dark, trophy less days. That being said, the young players that United have in their squad are very good and will keep them in the chase all season long.
There are a lot of players in the English Premier League who have something to prove after the World Cup. Wayne Rooney is at the top of that list. He was invisible in South Africa, and this past season was the first since his initial season at Man U that the team did not win a single title. Can he rebound? My answer would be yes, and Man U has helped him by reloading to go after Chelsea. Javier Hernandez, Valencia, Nani and Macheda are all expected to play major roles this season. Can they ascend to the throne of best team in England again this season? I do not see it happening, and they may be hard pressed to claim the mantle of best team in Manchester.
Man U will be top 4 again this season, but they don’t have enough top flight players to maintain a sustained challenge for the EPL and CL trophies.
Liverpool is a strange team. They have one of the best English players of the last decade in Steve Gerrard, one of the top 5 strikers in the world in Fernando Torres, and a solid defense anchored by Javier Mascherano. They won the Champions league title in the last decade in the same season where they floundered in the domestic league. In the offseason they made no major additions. Their defense with the aggressive Skrtel and Mascherano is solid, but they are not a team that can go toe to toe each week with the other big teams vying for the EPL title. The gap between them and the other contenders have widened. They will be no better than fourth this season.
Which leaves Manchester City. This team is deep, talented and explosive. Consider this; two years ago Emmanuel Adebayor was one of the best strikers in the EPL, challenging for the Golden Boot and now while healthy he cannot crack the starting lineup. David Silva, Mario Balotelli, Shaun Wright-Phillips, James Milner and Carlos Tevez (L) give Roberto Mancini a mouth watering array of options to work with. Besides Chelsea and the twin powers in Spain, this is the deepest team in Europe. Shay Givens is on the bench and it’s hardly worth an argument, because Joe Hart has proven that he is a very good keeper and deserves to not only start for City but a shot to be the England #1.
The only chink in this powder blue armor? Manchester City has a porous defense. Company, DeJong and Micah Richards need to get on the same page quickly, but if they do this team will be steamrolling the league and challenging Chelsea for the title. The addition of Yaya Toure to anchor the midfield was a great signing, but I think the key for them will be if they manage to consistently get productivity from Silva and Alex Johnson. Silva is going to be a very good player for City once they set on a position for him….Mancini, are you listening? If they can work these issues out, this team will score in bunches and clinch a top four finish this season. As stated before coaching wins titles, and Roberto Mancini will have his hands full keeping this team focused, especially the enigmatic Balotelli. This team was built to challenge for titles however and they will begin to do exactly that this year.
Dark horses in the EPL:
Fulham is an interesting team that will occasionally beat one of the big boys then alternately struggle to a draw with a bottom third squad. Clint Dempsey is a very good player, Damien Duff has an incredible motor-a poor man’s Dirk Kuyt- and they proved last year they could spring a surprise or two. They could stay in the race for a long stretch, but they don’t have the depth or stars to tangle with the big boys over the course of several months. They will be a fun team to watch however.
Arsene Wegner of Arsenal is one of my favorite coaches. He has kept Arsenal competitive despite repeatedly losing quality players. The defection of Thierry Henry to Barcelona however created a void that was never filled. Chelsea has the duo of Anelka and Drogba. Man U has Rooney. Liverpool has Torres. Man City has Tevez. Arsenal has _____?
I do believe that Marouane Chamakh (R)
can eventually fill that blank. It will take him a little while to get used to the pace and physical play of English football, but I see him as a future star. Keeping Fabregas, Van Persie and adding Chamakh and Laurent Koscielny has created a very good and exciting group of young players.
The key word is young; this group will be too inexperienced to challenge Man U, Man City or Chelsea for the title this year.
I am also curious what the fallout from Fabregas’ flirtation with Barcelona will be on the field. His desire to move was obvious, and an unhappy captain does not make for good team chemistry. That will bear close watching.
In the end, Arsenal is what they were last year; a good young team with no big time goal scorer and a suspect goalkeeper. Good enough to keep them competitive but not good enough to win the EPL or challenge in Europe.
This is going to be an exciting season in English football. The continued rise of some new school teams is a beauty to behold, the return of Newcastle to the top flight is a good thing, and hopefully the group of contenders will continue to expand to include some of the other clubs with great histories but barren trophy cases. I cant wait to see what lies ahead.