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The Premiership is back, as if it ever went away, but can the best league in the world continue to excite fans the way last year`s epic title race did? Two of Oddschecker`s leading tipsters from last season highlight the top pre-season picks.
Chelsea to take the title?
The arrival of Phil Scolari has breathed new life into Chelsea. Despite what Alex Ferguson says, Chelsea will certainly be strong this year and a midfield of Deco, Lampard, Ballack and Essien has the potential to overwhelm any team. As long as European aspirations do not get in the way, they can take the title back to West London.
Alex Ferguson may have persuaded Cristiano Ronaldo to stay at Old Trafford but there must be serious doubts over his frame of mind. With both Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney missing for the start of the season, coupled with their difficult opening, United may find themselves adrift of Chelsea, even after the first month or two.
Liverpool may beat Stoke or Hull 5-0 and proclaim this is their year, but they are not much stronger than last season and can be easily overlooked. After losing Hleb and Flamini, Arsenal look to be in for a tough time. Still, the trust Arsene Wenger places in youth has paid off before and will do again. They may not win the league but should run the top two close.
Looking outside the top four, Tottenham have spent big again and they will do better but they do look a player short at the back. Aston Villa, despite their recent signings, also have too small a squad to cope with a domestic and European season. And it looks like the same story with Portsmouth and Everton.
Manchester City appear to be a club in turmoil, with the stories about the owner`s future and Mark Hughes lack of involvement with the club`s transfer policy. This uncertainty has seen the press sharpening their knives but there are still positives for City fans. Tal Ben Haim is a good purchase, the return of Valeri Bojinov and the emergence of Danny Sturridge sees them looking stronger this year. Back them without the big four.
As usual, the three promoted sides will do well to stay in the division but they are competing with a group of teams who are themselves nothing special. Bolton, Wigan and Fulham will be involved at the bottom but they all should all survive for another season. However, a team I expect to struggle are available at a massive 20/1 for relegation.
Kevin Keegan`s return to Newcastle was heralded as the second coming but to be frank, they were terrible from the moment he took over. Newcastle`s hopes revolve around the fitness of Michael Owen but when his inevitable injuries strike, the shower of mediocrity that makes up the rest of the team may struggle to pick up points. It could be a long year on Tyneside.
Win Market – Chelsea 15/8
Season Match Bet Liverpool v Arsenal – Arsenal 8/11
Without the Big 4 – Manchester City to win 8/1
Relegation – Newcastle 20/1
Middlesborough to rule the North East?
This year`s close season has been one of the least enjoyable in recent years, with various will they, won`t they transfer sagas boring most football fans to death. So it`s with great relief that, come Monday morning, we`ll actually have some action to talk and read about.
So, who are the most likely winners and losers? The title looks like a two team battle, as Ferguson goes head-to-head with Scolari. I see the signing of Bosingwa as much more important than Deco, since this will give Essien the license to play in the centre of midfield, but the feeling remains that Man Utd will just have enough to retain the title. Both Arsenal and Liverpool are presented with fairly straightforward fixtures in the first couple of months, but I`d be surprised if either still harboured title ambitions come spring, so both may provide value to lay around the end of September.
At the end of last season I really expected Everton to be pushing for a Champions League spot in 2008/09. Unfortunately, a delay in bringing in reinforcements, most notably a replacement for Carsley, has given a new meaning to the term threadbare squad and will put paid to such ambitions, but a run through the other likely challengers would suggest The Toffees still remain relatively well placed, especially with no African Nations Cup giving Yakubu the chance to go AWOL.
Spurs will always be Spurs, entertaining yet inconsistent to the last, and the lack of a top class midfield enforcer, coupled with the inevitable injuries to one or both of King and Woodgate, should prove costly. Portsmouth and Villa could both see their league form suffer as their current squads struggle to contend with European campaigns that they are unaccustomed to, while managerial changes mean Man City and Blackburn have both taken a step backwards. I`m tempted to throw in Middlesbrough as a leftfield punt, especially now Afonso Alves has had time to settle, but the loss of Mark Schwarzer leaves me doubting their goalkeeping options.
Newcastle, West Ham, Wigan and Fulham all look destined for mid-table obscurity and the hope of a half-decent cup run. The same can probably be said for Sunderland, though the long term absence of Kenwynne Jones is concerning. Of the promoted sides, West Brom appear to be the only ones with realistic hopes of survival, leaving Bolton to join Stoke and Hull in The Championship in twelve months time.
Middlesbrough to be top northeast club @ 3/1
Bolton, Stoke and Hull to be relegated @ 11/1
Yakubu to be top scorer @ 33/1 e/w
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