Who Can Challenge Manchester United for the 2011/2012 Premier League Crown?
The Premier League season begins anew next month, and all eyes will be on the top of the leader board as the best teams in England look to chase down Manchester United for the first place trophy.
This season should prove to be the most exciting title race yet, as the Manchester City project continues to gain momentum, the second coming of Jose Mourinho arrives in Chelsea, Liverpool emerge once more as challengers whilst Arsenal and Tottenham fight to stay in contention.
Here is are my expectations for the top six teams in the 2011/2012 season.
Spurs have managed to hold onto Gareth Bale, PFA player of the year and the man who dismantled the reputation of Brazilian defender Maicon. He is more than ably supported by Rafael Van der Vaart, who was a contender for signing of the season last year.
Midfielder Sandro showed huge promise last season. At just 22, I expect big things from the Brazilian, and next season could be a breakout year.
Harry Redknapp is well known for his transfer market exploits, and though he's been quiet so far, expect him to snag a player or two before the transfer season's end. He's also one of the best man managers in the business—his players love playing for him and he'll get the best out of every one of his team.
Failure to qualify for the Champions League could help them on the domestic front, as players will be free from the efforts of mid week games.
They look certain to lose Luka Modric, playmaker in chief whose passing and movement facilitates much of the exciting play of Bale and Van der Vaart.
Goalkeeper Gomes can be brilliant at times, but he is prone to costly blunders. If there's one thing history shows, it's that a consistent keeper is vital to any serious title challenge. Reserve Carlo Cudicini might be a better bet for the number one spot.
A strike force which is high on talent but lacks consistency. Crouch, Defoe and Pavlyuchenko all showed signs of their talent, but none scored regularly over the course of the whole season. As a result, Spurs scored the least of any team inside the top six with 55, behind even the likes of West Brom and Newcastle.
Spurs also conceded more goals than anyone inside the top eight, with 46. They actually looked capable of good defensive play last season (see their performance vs Milan in the San Siro), but don't expect these stats to change too much, as Redknapp loves a swashbuckling attack at the expense of defense.
Failure to qualify for the Champions League could hurt them as Redknapp attempts to attract new talent to White Hart Lane.
Spurs lack the overall talent it takes to make a serious threat for the title. It remains to be seen what transfers Redknapp can pull out of the bag, but barring something extraordinary, it looks like next season will be the same old story for Spurs.
They'll rattle the cages of the top four and look like world beaters one day, then lose to a Wolves or Wigan the next. If they finish inside the top four it will be a huge achievement—as it is, I expect them to be battling for fifth.
To consistently get the results against worse teams, a 20 goal per season striker, a consistent goalkeeper and an increased focus on defense
Jack Wilshere established himself as one of the very best young midfield talents in the world last season and should produce the goods throughout the course of 2011/2012.
Gervinho was good for a goal every other game for Lille last season, and his signing should help the Gunners' scoring output next season.
Look set to lose either Samir Nasri or Cesc Fabregas in the transfer window. Losing either will be a huge blow to the side, and whoever stays may unsettle the squad or see a drop in form as they push for an exit.
Have already lost starting left back Gael Clichy. Gibbs is not a terrible replacement, but he needs a year or two more at understudy to mature.
Robin Van Persie is one of the best strikers in the world. Unfortunately for Arsenal, he's also one of the most injury prone. Expect him to miss 20-30 games throughout the season, and the side's strike force will suffer for it.
Lack an established goalkeeper and have done for quite some time—Wenger's refusal to buy Shay Given looks more foolish with every passing season.
Look weak at the centre of defense—need to invest in a partner for Thomas Vermaelen.
Arsène Wenger's transfer policy. His strive for the perfect team has hindered more than helped his side recently. He needs to spend big on established players to see his side improve, but insists on investing in young talent that fits his prototype. A noble ideal perhaps, but it doesn't look like bringing silverware to the Emirates any time soon.
Expect a difficult season at the Emirates. They have lost a first team defender, look set to lose a first team midfielder and have a strike force that, even with Gervinho added, looks lightweight without Robin Van Persie.
Overall, Wenger's squad seems unsettled and disillusioned. Players' faith in Wenger's football project looks rattled, and there are even rumors that should Fabregas leave, Robin Van Persie will file a transfer request.
Arsenal have too many holes in their team, and Wenger is unlikely to splash the cash on the transfers needed to strengthen them. Like Tottenham, they will raise their game against the top teams but drop too many points against low to mid table sides. I'll be surprised if they manage a top four finish.
A consistent goalkeeper, a top quality centre half, a fit Van Persie. Most of all, a re-evaluation of transfer policy.
A new manager and owner. Dalglish turned around Liverpool's disastrous opening to last year and dragged them to a top six finish. Sensible owners and a popular manager should restore stability to the club.
Luis Suarez looks like a top notch replacement for Torres, whilst Andy Carroll also has buckets of potential.
Stewart Downing is an established winger who will provide regular, quality service from out wide. If nothing else, Charlie Adam is worth the transfer fee for his dead ball delivery alone.
Possess one of the best goalies in the business in Pepe Reina.
Johnson under performed last season, Aurelio is too often injured, and Carragher's lack of pace became a real liability last season. Youngsters Flanagan and Kelly have potential, but signing another solid full back wouldn't hurt.
Agger and Škrtel are a decent defensive pairing, but given Agger's injury problems last year, another solid centre back is needed.
Lots to be positive about on Merseyside. King Kenny has been busy in the transfer market, investing in both potential (Jordan Henderson) and quality (Stewart Downing.) Liverpool have a deep midfield and exciting attack. The only concerns are with defense and the potentially volatile Carroll doing something idiotic.
With a squad strengthened since last season, Liverpool should be strong performers next season. They're still a few quality players and a season or two away from a significant title challenge, but I expect them to out perform Arsenal and Tottenham for fourth spot.
A centre back and a full back to provide cover.
Bags and bags of cash.
The stingiest defense in the league.
The imminent arrival of Agüero will add finesse and quality to the forward line.
Looked disjointed in attack last season.
We know what to expect from Man City in defense, as they are physically powerful and difficult to score against. What we don't know is how their attack will function.
Last season, Mancini was slow to commit numbers forward and relied too heavily on Carlos Tevez for goals. If Tevez leaves this summer, he will be replaced by Agüero—a player who may combine well with David Silva, but would do very well to provide the same output as Tevez.
However, recently it seems that though Tevez wants a transfer, no club is willing to spend the money needed to get him. If Tevez stays, his presence could disrupt the whole team. Equally, however, Tevez could play a pivotal role in the attack given that whatever his controversies off the field, they rarely seem to affect his performances.
Whatever happens with Tevez, City's defense alone should get them a top four finish. If their attack can improve on last season, then they could well challenge for the title.
To ensure Tevez does not become a distraction, a more fluent offense.
Andres Villas Boas worked wonders at Porto last season. Looks like Chelsea's best bet to fill the void left by Jose Mourinho.
David Luiz showed more good than bad upon arriving in January. Should strengthen what is already one of the best defenses in the league.
With Essien's injury, Chelsea need to sign a central midfielder before the beginning of the next season.
The Fernando Torres signing was a disaster. Although it can hardly get worse than last season, there is no guarantee that the Spaniard will return to form for Chelsea. Meanwhile, Drogba looks set to stay at the club despite his seeming incompatibility with Torres up front.
Terry and Cole are 30, whilst Lampard and Drogba are 33. Could their age begin to catch up on them?
The first problem for new manager Villas Boas will be to sort out his attack. Both Drogba and Torres are at their best playing in the lone striking role, so Torres will need to rediscover his goal scoring touch fast, as his place on the team will most likely mean a bench role for the powerful Ivorian.
There has to be some concern over the age of some of their star players, but I expect Terry, Lampard etc. to be bolstered by their new manager and give top quality performances for at least another season or two.
Other than needing another central midfielder to cover for Essien's injury Chelsea look well equipped to challenge for the title again. Now they just have to pray Abramovich doesn't interfere.
To sort out their attack, a central midfielder, Abramovich has to let his new manager do his job.
Rooney/Chicarito partnership should improve.
Quality signings in Phil Jones, Ashley Young and David de Gea.
Alex Ferguson is still manager.
Look short of imagination in the center of midfield.
Alex Ferguson's track record with new goalkeepers.
Alex Ferguson looks to have strengthened his side in the off season.
Defensively, Phil Jones will recreate his England U21 partnership at center back with Chris Smalling behind what is already the best central defensive partnership in England of Vidic and Ferdinand. The sales of Wes Brown and John O'Shea should be compensated for by the continued development of the da Silva twins.
Offensively, Young will add considerable firepower with Nani and Valencia on the wings. Meanwhile, the Rooney/Chicarito partnership should improve further, giving United the most exciting attack in the league.
Two problems remain at Old Trafford, however. With a deal for Sneijder seemingly off the table, United look short of creativity in midfield. Carrick had an excellent finish to the season, and Fletcher and Anderson are extremely useful, but none add the subtle link up play of a Modric or Iniesta type player.
Secondly, de Gea carries with him a stellar reputation, but so did Fabien Barthez. At only 20 years of age, it's a lot of pressure for the young man and a significant gamble by Ferguson.
Nonetheless, not for nothing is Ferguson the most successful manager ever in English football. Even with deficiencies in the center of midfield, United have enough star quality all over the pitch to add to their title haul.
To pray de Gea is another Van der Sar rather than another Massimo Taibi, a creative central midfielder.