Tag Archives: Premier League

Premier League Preview: 2017-2018

It all begins again…all rights are reserved for this image ©

By Manish Pandey.

Arsenal:

For the sixth consecutive season, Arsenal’s opening game is at home. They have only managed to win 1 of those matches. For Arsenal, a fast start is crucial. They lost at home to Liverpool early and ultimately lost out on a Champions League place by 1 point.

Arsenal’s aim this season has to be to get back into the top 4. They have made a good start with the much-needed signing of striker Alexandre Lacazette. It seems as though Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil will remain at the club.

There remains a huge deficiency in midfield. Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey performed well at the back-end of last season, but questions remain over their consistency in form and fitness. Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny are good squad players but neither are good enough to be starting. Jack Wilshere’s fitness will always be an issue and Santi Cazorla, whilst providing guile in midfield, cannot do it all himself. A midfield signing needs to be priority before the transfer window closes.

From a tactical point of view, it seems Arsenal will continue with the back 3 that Wenger introduced at the end of last season. New signing Sead Kolasinac should help reinforce the defence with his physical prowess and enthusiasm on the ball. He has already endeared himself to Arsenal fans with a goal in the Community Shield. Arsenal will also have to adjust to a new Thursday-Sunday schedule, which could go a long way towards deciding their domestic season.

The atmosphere around Arsenal should be far less hostile than last season, with the certainty of Wenger’s future, for at least another 2 years.

Key man: Alexandre Lacazette. As always, Sanchez will be an important figure, but it is Lacazette who will make the difference in the box. He has been bought to score goals, and it is goals Arsenal need.

Bournemouth:

Eddie Howe has shown an appetite to work, improve and constantly evolve. With Howe leading the way, there is no reason why Bournemouth cannot continue their rise since promotion.

They have bought well in the transfer market, with Asmir Begovic, Jermain Defoe and Nathan Aké strengthening the core of the team. Goals should not be an issue for this free-flowing Bournemouth team, with Josh King looking to improve on last season’s heroics and the arrival of Defoe adding more goals to the team.

Defensively, Bournemouth can always look fragile because of how attacking they are, but the arrival of Ake and Begovic should provide some more certainty and discipline.

Key man: Jermain Defoe. With his track record of goals, there is no reason why Bournemouth cannot finish in the top 10 this season.

Brighton and Hove Albion:

A wonderful story of promotion, Brighton and Hove Albion start off as favourites for relegation. With Chris Hughton, they have a smart manager leading the way.

The key to survival will be home form, and the need to make the Amex stadium a fortress, in a similar way to Burnley.

The signings of Mathew Ryan, Markus Suttner and Pascal Gross are low-risk but could potentially be turn out as smart buys. The loan signing of Izzy Brown from Chelsea provides pace in attack. The injury to midfielder Beram Kayal is a blow, as he is expected to be out for 2 months.

Glenn Murray, Steve Sidwell and Liam Rosenior will be crucial as they have experience of the top flight from previous clubs.

Key man: Glenn Murray. Newly promoted sides often struggle with goals, so the pressure will be on Murray to get the goals to keep Brighton up.

Burnley:

Sean Dyche is the key man at Burnley. He has created a template for his players to follow and last season was a high point. In order to improve on last season, Burnley will need to vastly improve their form away from home. Whilst being one of the best in the league at home, they were one of the worst whilst travelling.

The signings of Jack Cork and Jon Walters will provide further top-flight experience. Whilst the loss of Michael Keane and Andre Gray is a blow, the combined £43 million fee could be used to invest in an ‘X-Factor’ player who could make the difference in games Burnley should be winning. Burnley need to invest or else they could find themselves in trouble.

Burnley appear weaker than last season, but Dyche’s management style could once again be the difference.

Key man: Tom Heaton. He saved many points last season and will need to do the same this season.

Chelsea:

The reining champions have it all to do if they are to retain their crown from last season. Chelsea were outstanding in Antonio Conte’s first season, but have had a shaky summer.

Recent history shows Chelsea are not as good defending a title. The summer has not been as good for Conte as he would have liked. The failure to sign Romelu Lukaku, the failure to sever ties with Diego Costa, the failure of Conte to keep Nemanja Matic and the failure of the boardroom to satisfy Conte.

Chelsea will have a much tougher fixture schedule with the addition of European football. This means they need to reinforce their squad. The arrivals of Alvaro Morata, Tiemoué Bakayoko and Antonio Rüdiger are a good start, but they need more. Faced with more games, Chelsea have let go of John Terry, Nathan Ake, Kurt Zouma, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, along with Matic and a probable departure of Costa.

It does not look like Chelsea are in a good way starting this season, however to count out an Antonio Conte team would be a mistake. He has shown a willingness to work, innovate and change. This Chelsea team will still be a force.

Key man: Eden Hazard. Once back from surgery, Hazard will be the key as a genuine world-class talent.

Crystal Palace:

Frank de Boer is the new man in the hotseat after Sam Allardyce and he will want to find a working formula quickly. De Boer is intent on improvement in playing style and the players will need to make a tactical adjustment.

There is change on the way with the arrival of ball-playing defender Jaïro Riedewald from Ajax and a one season loan of Ruben Loftus-Cheek. De Boer favours a 3-4-3 formation and will need another forward and wing-back to ensure his squad is sufficiently stocked.

Once again, the core from last season will be vital for Crystal Palace. The pace and skill of Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend, Mamadou Sakho at the back, the industry of Luka Milivojevic in midfield, and Christian Benteke’s power up front.

De Boer is here for the long-term, so he will need to be allowed time.

Key man: Wilfred Zaha. He is the maverick who makes things happen for Palace.

Everton:

Everton have spent over £80 million in this window and look to have the determination to improve. Koeman made an impact last season with his tactical flexibility and ruthless management style.

The signings of Jordan Pickford, Michael Keane and Davy Klassen show a willingness to spend the big money, with £50 million rated Gylfi Sigurdsson also on Koeman’s radar. Bringing Wayne Rooney back to Everton on a free is a big move. Rooney, whilst not the player of old, still has the experience and ability to score/assist key goals.

The loss of Romelu Lukaku to Manchester United leaves a void the size of 25 goals a season. It is unrealistic to expect Rooney or new signing Sandro Ramirez from Malaga to fill that gap, therefore Koeman will need to dip into the market for a proven striker.

Everton have a great core of players and have been strengthened this season numerically. In terms of quality, the players will need to show consistency in the league for it to be judged a successful season.

Key man: Wayne Rooney. So often the key man and it is no different this season. Where will he play and how well will he play are the two questions everyone has. He has a point to prove.

Huddersfield Town:

Huddersfield have the tag of underdogs, but through the years, they have come through spectacularly. One of the key reasons for this is the manager, David Wagner. Wagner has created a culture of togetherness between the players, fans and boardroom.

They needed to recruit big in the transfer window and they have done well so far. They brought in 9 players before pre-season and broke their own transfer record 4 times. The purchase of Steven Mounie and Laurent Depoitre offers goals and physicality.

Signing Aaron Mooy permanently offers smart possession in midfield and Tom Ince provides trickery and creativity on the flanks.

The big challenge for Huddersfield will be defensively. They will be tested more and will need to show more solidity. The signing of combative defender Mathias Jorgensen will help.

From a tactical perspective, Wagner prefers a high-press and possession game, much like his compatriot Jurgen Klopp. Yet, as the playoff final showed, Wagner can adapt to a more counter-attacking style.

Key man: Steven Mounie. Goals are the currency for any striker, and Huddersfield will need their record signing to score them to safety.

Leicester City:

From the highs of winning the title to the lows of being in a relegation fight to the satisfaction of survival. This season will see a Leicester City aiming for a mid-table finish.

The transfer activity by Leicester suggests a need to be more comfortable than last season. The signings of Eldin Jakupovic and Harry Maguire from Hull City gives quality and depth. Vicente Iborra will bring technique and versatility. Kelechi Iheanacho brings pace and goals.

They have had a tough pre-season and Riyad Mahrez wants to leave. If they keep Mahrez, and Vardy, Wes Morgan and Danny Drinkwater can maintain a consistent level, Leicester should avoid relegation quite easily.

Key man: Jamie Vardy. He epitomises the spirit of Leicester and when he plays well, Leicester play well.

Liverpool:

Playing a high intensity brand of football, Liverpool are a joy to watch when in full flow. Yet this was partly to blame for Liverpool falling away from a title challenge. In the busy winter period, Liverpool looked exhausted, owing to the lack of depth in their squad.

Liverpool are in good shape, stable and used to the manager’s methods and style. They have also bolstered options in the attacking department with the signing of £37 million Mohamed Salah. Much will depend on whether Philippe Coutinho will stay after strong interest from Barcelona. The prospect of Salah, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Coutinho terrorising defences is frightening.

Deficiencies remain in midfield and defence. The lack of a proper holding midfielder and question marks over the fitness of Jordan Henderson and Adam Lallana creates doubt over whether Liverpool can mount a consistent challenge. Andrew Robertson arrives to provide James Milner with competition at left-back, but there has been no centre-back arriving- Virgil Van Dijk has remained elusive so far. Liverpool need to bolster these two areas if they are to have any success.

With an increased number of games this season due to European football – provided Liverpool get through the qualifier against Hoffenheim- Liverpool will need a deeper squad to avoid the mistakes of last season.

Key man: Philippe Coutinho. If he stays, he can catapult Liverpool to the next level.

Manchester City:

Manchester City have only one problem: the defence. They score goals, they play attractive football, but last season, Pep Guardiola refused to focus on the defensive side of the game.

City have been very active in the transfer market, signing 3 full backs but letting 4 full backs leave. Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and Danilo replaced Pablo Zabaleta, Bacary Sagna, A Kolarov and Gael Clichy. Bernardo Silva comes in to bolster an already strong attacking line up and Ederson comes in as the new first choice goalkeeper.

Despite this spending, Manchester City still look weak in defence. Only Vincent Kompany, John Stones and Nicolás Otamendi remain from last season’s defensive line. Kompany’s penchant for injury and the inconsistency of Stones suggests City have a long way to go before they are defensively ready to mount a consistent challenge.

City have spent plenty of money (£363 million by Guardiola across the last 3 windows) and Guardiola has had a full season with this team. With the likes of David Silva, Kevin de Bruyne, Jesus, Sergio Aguero and Bernardo Silva, this team should be winning trophies. There can be no more excuses.

Key man: Kevin de Bruyne. The midfield maestro is at the centre of most things good on the football pitch. His vision and creativity will guarantee goals.

Manchester United:

After winning the League Cup and Europa League last season, Manchester United will want to vastly improve their fortunes in the Premier League. A 6th place finish is nowhere near good enough, and with further investment in the summer, United should really be challenging for the title.

The arrival of Romelu Lukaku for £77 million is aimed at getting more goals into a team lacking in goals. Although Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored in excess of 30 goals last season, his conversion rate was very poor for a top-level striker. It will be interesting to see the dynamic between Lukaku and Marcus Rashford this season. Most United fans will not want to see Rashford shunted on the left.

The purchase of Nemanja Matic will give United a stronger physical protection in midfield, and will reduce the reliance United have on Michael Carrick. It should also allow Paul Pogba to flourish with Pogba now free to create further up field. Victor Lindelof will need time to settle in defence.

Tactically, Jose Mourinho has experimented with a 3-5-2 in pre-season although his likely formation is going to be 4-3-3. Mourinho, much like Guardiola can no longer make excuses. He has had a year with his team and spent plenty of money. Manchester United should at the very least, be competing for the title.

Key man: Paul Pogba. This can be Pogba’s breakout season. He has all the tools, he just needs to show consistency.

Newcastle United:

With Rafa Benitez in charge, Newcastle have every chance of staying up this season. However, obvious disagreements between the manager and board could hinder what should be a promising time for the club.

With the exception of Christian Atsu on loan from Chelsea, Newcastle’s transfer dealings have been underwhelming. This is perhaps demonstrated in the singing of Javier Manquillo, a former Atlético Madrid full-back who was on loan at Sunderland and ultimately lost his place to Billy Jones.

There is talent in this Newcastle squad with the likes of Jonjo Shelvey and Dwight Gayle, but they need more before the window closes or else they could be in for a long season.

Tactically, there will be much reliance on Benitez’s skill and hours he likes to spend on the training pitch. A more defensive style of play with the main mode of attack being on the counter-attack being the likely method for Newcastle this season.

Key man: Dwight Gayle. With Newcastle likely to be playing on the counter-attack this season, Gayle’s pace will be key. The question remains whether or not he has the ability to score enough goals to keep Newcastle up.

Southampton:

With a new manager in Mauricio Pellegrino, Southampton fans will be hoping for points and a far more exciting brand of football than they saw last season. However, this summer has been dominated by the transfer saga surrounding Virgil Van Dijk.

Van Dijk is one of the best defenders in the league, but he clearly does not want to stay and Southampton would do well to get rid of him for the £50 million fee, which they could then reinvest.

Southampton have only signed defender Jan Bednarek and midfielder Mario Lemina this season. They really need to sign a striker before the window closes considering the lack of goals last season. Although there is an argument to be made that it was down to the style of play rather than the individual qualities of the players.

As always, Southampton’s success will depend much on the youngsters they bring through. Players such as Jack Ward-Prowse and Jack Stephens will be vital this season.

Key man: Manolo Gabbiadini. He exploded onto the scene late last season, and his goals in a team lacking goals will be important for Southampton.

Stoke City:

Stoke have transitioned from a physical unit under Tony Pulis to a far more expansive team under Mark Hughes. Last season, however, demonstrated a problem in the goals department and results department.

Stoke could only manage 44 points. Whereas the old Stoke would have been resolute against the likes of Manchester City and Tottenham, last season saw comfortable wins for both. The summer has seen Stoke’s squad losing talent rather than adding talent.

Marko Arnautovic, Glenn Whelan and Jon Walters have all left the club. Incoming players include Darren Fletcher, Kurt Zouma and Bruno Martins-Indi. These are three very good players but are not players who will push Stoke to the next level.

They look very thin in the attacking department. Xherdan Shaqiri as talented as he is, has fitness issues. Arnautovic has gone. Peter Crouch is 37. Ramadan Sobhi is inexperienced. Much will rely on Sadio Berahino and whether he can rediscover the form and confidence he had from a few seasons ago, before his issues.

Key man: Sadio Berahino. Stoke need goals and Berahino has to provide them.

Swansea City:

Swansea survived last season thanks to a Paul Clement inspired revival. This summer though, has seen a long transfer saga around the future of Gylfi Sigurdsson. Sigurdsson is Swansea’s best player and is understandably wanted by clubs higher up.

Assuming he is sold, Swansea will need to use his transfer fee wisely to ensure they are able to fill the shoes of someone who has been involved in 53 of the 133 goals Swansea have scored in the last 3 seasons.

Swansea’s transfer business has potential. Tammy Abraham on loan from Chelsea provides pace and trickery. Roque Mesa is very smart in possession. Players already at the club will be crucial. The likes of Ki, Tommy Carroll and Fernando Llorente will be crucial.

Defensively, Swansea look thin despite the promise of Alfie Mawson. They will need to continue with the organisation and discipline that Clement has brought to the club if they are to have an easier time this season.

Key man: Fernando Llorente. Llorente’s goals kept Swansea up and Swansea will be desperately hoping for him to stay.

Tottenham Hotspur:

Spurs have had a shaky summer, although there does not seem to be much concern at the club itself. The departure of Kyle Walker, the unsettled and injured Danny Rose and the ligament injury of Kieran Trippier leaves Spurs desperately short at full-back.

Although they have not brought any players in – they will need to if they want to compete with the best- they have still managed to hold onto their 3 prized assets in Harry Kane, Hugo Lloris and Dele Alli.

Spurs will have to adjust to Wembley Stadium, where they did not have a happy time last season. The bigger pitch will also make it much harder for the players to continue in the high intensity and high-pressing style of play.

Spurs have most things in place. With the likes of Kane, Lloris, Alli, Eriksen, Vertonghen, Son, Dembele and Wanyama, they are strong. There is not a lot to change at the moment, but the difficulties will come when the depth of the squad will be tested.

Key man: Harry Kane. His goal record is supreme and has the ability to single-handedly win Spurs the league.

Watford:

With a new manager in Marco Silva who impressed in the league with Hull City last season, there is a renewed optimism at the club.

Watford have been smart in the transfer market so far. Andre Gray, Tom Cleverley and Nathaniel Chalobah will add quality and depth to the squad and starting lineup. Although the defence had a torrid time last season, with Silva’s coaching, it is nothing that cannot be fixed.

The reliance on Troy Deeney has been lessened with the arrival of Gray and also gives the attack more variety.

A Marco Silva team will be well organised, hard to beat and tactically sound.

Key man: Troy Deeney. He is the leader and main striker.

West Brom:

Tony Pulis has renewed his contract which should, in theory, guarantee survival for West Brom. They should have finished in 8th but for a terrible May finished in 10th.

The departure of Darren Fletcher was a shock. He will need to be replaced with another experienced midfielder or Jake Livermore will have to take up the mantle. Going forward, the signing of Jay Rodriguez should help with the goals, especially if he plays in partnership with Salomon Rondon. With Nacer Chadli and Matty Phillips, West Brom do have a threatening forward line.

As always, all eyes will be on Pulis in the final few days of the transfer window, where he historically does the majority of his business.

Pulis will have this team well-drilled and organised and avoiding relegation.

Key man: Jay Rodriguez. It will be intriguing to see how this promising youngster gets on in a new team and if he can stay away from injuries.

West Ham:

After a torrid first season at the London Stadium, compounded by a terrible 2016 summer transfer window, West Ham seem far more stable this time around.

They have signed players of genuine quality in Pablo Zabaleta, Joe Hart, Marko Arnautovic and Chicharito. In that group of players, there is an improvement in defensive solidity, creativity and goal-scoring. West Ham have signed proven players with very little unknown.

With Michail Antonio, Arnautovic and Manuel Lanzini supplementing attacks, there is a good variety of skill and power.

Defensively, West Ham need to improve their discipline. Slaven Bilic has to take a big share of the blame, as he has looked defensively inept when setting up his team.

West Ham should have enough for a top 10 finish, if they do not, it will be the end for Bilic.

Key man: Chicharito Hernandez. Goals are what he lives by and goals are what West Ham need.

PREDICTIONS:

Champions: Manchester City

Champions League: Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool.

Relegation: Burnley, Huddersfield and Brighton & Hove Albion.

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Premier League Preview: 2016-2017

It is time for the football…all rights are reserved for this image ©

By Manish Pandey.

Arsenal:

It has been a typical summer for Arsenal. A promising signing in Granit Xhaka but relative inactivity which has fans tearing their hair out. Many are predicting Arsenal to be the team to falter this season, in the wake of the summer resurgences of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea. Yet Arsenal always find a way. In statistical terms, they have improved league position season on season, finishing in 2nd last season despite never really being in the title race. A natural progression to 1st then?

Well, football does not work in such a way. Arsenal need to invest. A central defender is a must- it was essential even before the injuries to Per Mertesacker and Gabriel – it is even more crucial now. They most certainly need a striker. Arsene Wenger last season said Arsenal lacked goals. However, he is unwilling to invest big money in a big player. Money in a Lacazette or a Higuain or a Morata. Arsenal have eye-watering bank reserves of £159 million – what are they waiting for?

This is also Wenger’s last year of his 3 year contract, so it will be interesting to see how he copes with the inevitable questions about his future. They have a good team and a good squad and like seasons gone by, they are not far away. They have an excellent midfield, which will be reinforced with the midfield steel and guile of Xhaka, along with the in form Aaron Ramsey and the returning Santi Cazorla from injury.

The one thing in Arsenal’s favour is the stability they have. The other clubs that will be competing with them will need time to get used to new managers and new playing styles which could mean a slow start to the season. If Arsenal get it right at the start, they will be very dangerous.

Bournemouth:

Bournemouth not only survived, but they survived in some style, playing some of the most attractive football in the league. With style came hard work. They squashed the myth that technical players do not need to work hard and they put in tireless performances week after week. Tactically astute, this was a successful season for Eddie Howe.

In some ways, the second season for newly promoted teams can be tougher than the first season. No more the air of freshness, now they will have been figured out and will be presented with new challenges. They will need to come up with a Plan B – something they lacked last season. They have lost two key players in Tommy Elphick and Matt Ritchie. However, as is the way with Eddie Howe, he is relentless, obsessive and will not stay still.

Bournemouth have had an effective transfer window so far. Lys Mousset for £5.4m from Le Havre (the same club which nurtured Paul Pogba, Dimitri Payet and Riyad Mahrez) is a promising player. Brad Smith and Jordan Ibe from Liverpool and Lewis Cook all represent promising signings which will cause problems for opponents.

Callum Wilson will return from injury and Howe will hope that he can lead the line and stay fit. A problem for Bournemouth last season was the lack of organisation and solidity in the backline. For Bournemouth to improve on their 16th place finish last season, they will need to plug the hole in the leaky defence.

Burnley:

It is hard enough to survive in the Premier League with a strengthened squad from the Championship, but Burnley are currently weaker than they were last season. They have lost Joey Barton and Michael Duff among others, and have added very little.

They do not just need to spend money to improve, they need to spend money to survive. The last time they were in the Premier League, they spent little and were relegated with 2 games to spare. However, in Sean Dyche, they have a manager who is willing to drag his team to safety. He is called the ‘Ginger Mourinho’ for a reason.

Dyche’s 4-4-2 could either be boom or bust. 4-4-2 has made a comeback in football with many teams and defenders being unable to defend against 2 strikers. However, it is also quite easy to attack against a 4-4-2 if the defenders are not able to defend in 1v1 situations. This explains Burnley’s desire for Michael Keane.

Burnley should have more goals in this team than they did the last time around. Andre Gray and George Boyd should score enough goals between them to give Burnley a fighting chance of staying afloat.

They currently have a thin squad. There is still time to improve and add depth and quality to the current squad. In order to squeak to safety, Burnley will need to use the final few weeks of the transfer window wisely.

Chelsea:

It was an extremely disappointing 2015-16 season for Chelsea. The worst ever defence of a title in history. It was a season which cost Jose Mourinho his job just 7 months after winning the title. Now, under Antonio Conte, they will seek to return to the levels they have been at in the years gone by.

Conte and Chelsea will be feeling quietly confident. They know that in Conte they have a master tactician and man manager who is on a high from the Euros and has a tremendous managerial record. The exploits of the two Manchester clubs in the summer also makes Chelsea the dark horses. The team that not many are focusing on. The lack of attention will suit Conte whilst he tries to convey and implement his ideas.

Conte will need to improve the performances of the under-performing players of last season – in particular Eden Hazard, Branislav Ivanovic and Nemanja Matic. Hazard looks to be sharp again and willing to perform. He is a manager who appreciates experience so will be keen to use John Terry. However, Terry no longer has the same mobility of old which makes the signing of N’Golo Kante a very good one. Kante was the best midfielder in the league last season.

Conte is an attacking manager who uses his defence as the first step of attack. He will likely deploy a 4-2-4 formation, with Matic/Fabregas and Kante holding, allowing the 4 attackers – including new £33 million signing Michy Batshuayi – to be set free. Playing with 2 strikers is something Conte favours, seen in his work at Italy and Juventus. This also explains why he is so keen to add another striker to his ranks, either Alvaro Morata or Romelu Lukaku.

Conte cannot take too long to make his mark, or he could find himself as a victim of Chelsea’s notorious managerial axe. Should he inspire and drive his team on like he did with Italy over the summer, Chelsea could be serious challengers.

Crystal Palace:

Crystal Palace started last season in a promising manner. Yet come the back-end of the season, they were sliding down the table rapidly. They will now need to strengthen and Alan Pardew will need to come up with a formula to ensure a consistent season for Palace.

From Boxing Day 2015, they won only 2 games from 21. That is simply not good enough.

Injuries to Yannick Bolasie, Jason Puncheon, James McArthur and Connor Wickham last season derailed them, therefore the need to beef up the squad is evident. The enigma that is Bolasie seems to be on the way to Everton.

They have lacked goalscoring forwards in recent years, a problem they have recognised and tried to solve. They have more money to spend thanks to the new TV deal, with a club record transfer for Andros Townsend and a bid of over £30 million for Michy Batshuayi. They have attempted to sign Christian Benteke, Saido Berahino and Diafra Sakho. They need to act cleverly to ensure they find a solution to the striking woes and do not just place bids without substance.

The arrivals of Steven Mandanda and James Tomkins will help add experience to the squad.

Pardew has attempted to introduce a new system in pre-season with a 3-4-1-2. If Pardew can sign some good quality strikers such as Benteke or Sakho, they will go a long way to achieving a much improved finish this season.

Everton:

Ronald Koeman has taken over from Roberto Martinez and this season promises to be an excellent season for Everton. The last week has seen tremendous progress on the transfer front for Everton.

Yannick Bolasie and Lamine Kone seem to be on the way to Merseyside to join Ashley Williams, Maarten Stekelenburg and Idrissa Gueye as known names in. John Stones has left for Manchester City and there is still a question mark over Romelu Lukaku’s future, yet everything seems to be calm at a club where chaos was the buzzword last season. The Koeman Effect.

In Koeman they have a manager with Premier League experience, tactical nous and an attractive playing style. He exudes calm and flourished at Southampton at a time when everybody was writing them off.

Gerard Deulofeu has been playing up front in pre-season, which suggests he has a key role to play this season. He has the talent, now he has to show his consistency at the highest level.

Huge credit should be given to new owner Farhad Moshiri. He has restructured the club and given them the intent to succeed. A new Director of Football was brought in- Steve Walsh from Leicester City – the same man who brought in Kante, Mahrez and Vardy.

Koeman will bring a new style to Goodison Park. They will be more direct, more pressing from the front, greater intensity all round and with more physical presence. All things missing under Martinez. It will take time, but with Koeman, Walsh and Moshiri, Everton are building something big.

Hull City:

Unless something drastically changes in the last few weeks of the transfer window, Hull City are a certainty to be relegated. They are a mess. They are weaker than they were in the Championship.

Inactivity in the transfer market has led to the resignation of Steve Bruce. The owner Assem Alam is seriously ill with his son falling out with Bruce. It has been a strange pre-season with Hull struggling to find enough players to field a full team.

They have no successor to Bruce. They have lost Chuba Akpom, Isaac Hayden, Mohamed Diame, Sone Aluko, and Ryan Taylor. Incomings have been scarce.

Hull City have concocted a perfect cocktail for relegation. Nobody will be surprised if they end up back in the Championship.

Leicester City:

The reigning Premier League Champions. Words I never thought I would ever be writing when writing about Leicester City. They are the team to beat. They have looked good in pre-season and have made some clever signings to bolster a squad that also has the added joy of competing in the Champions League.

They have lost N’Golo Kante, but have crucially managed to retain Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez so far. The core of the team remains the same.

The acquisitions of Ahmed Musa and Nampalys Mendy provides speed, power and energy – all traits of the successful Leicester side from last season. Mendy in particular looks like another Kante with his speed across the ground and robustness in tackling.

Leicester have a better squad than last season, with more depth thanks to the incomings. Things could be even better if the likes of Demarai Gray and Daniel Amartey progress at the expected level.

The big challenge will be defensively. Can Leicester repeat the defensive solidity of last season? Can Wes Morgan, Robert Huth, Christian Fuchs and Danny Simpson repeat the same disciplined performances as last season? The signing of Luis Hernandez is a shrewd one as he adds defensive cover but also has a long throw which can be used as an attacking option.

The big thing in Leicester’s favour is the stability they currently enjoy. They have not needed a huge makeover or transitional summer, unlike their rivals. They may not win the league again, but they will certainly provide a stiff challenge.

Liverpool:

Liverpool are well placed under Jurgen Klopp in their transitional process. He is used to the tempo of the league and has had a good transfer window so far.

Klopp has managed to restore belief at the club and he has an aura about him. His charisma and work ethic is endearing to the players who look as though they are willing to run through walls for him.

The lack of European football will favour Liverpool this season because of the high energy, high intensity and high pressing game Klopp will employ. The extra time on the training field will allow them to understand the tactical detail behind the high energy system.

Liverpool do not have a world-class player in their squad, but under Klopp, this does not matter so much. It is more about the collective than the individual for him. They have added pace in Sadio Mane, calmness in Marko Grujic, defensive depth in Ragnar Klavan and Joël Matip and power in midfield through Georginio Wijnaldum. They still need to address the situation at left-back where there is no real quality presently.

Liverpool have a tough opening 5 fixtures in Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Leicester City and Chelsea. They will need to be ready and switched on to avoid a bad start.

Whilst Liverpool do not have the same quality as their rivals, they can still make life difficult and a top 4 finish is very much on the cards.

Manchester City:

They have long coveted Pep Guardiola. Now they have Pep Guardiola. The best coach in the world is in the Premier League and is at Manchester City.

There seems to be a long-term approach at City with the arrival of Guardiola. In order for City to gain success once more, Guardiola has a lot of work ahead of him and lots of changes to make.

City have a good group of players with some genuine world-class talent in Sergio Aguero, Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva and Vincent Kompany (when fit). The signings of  Ilkay Gündogan, Leroy Sané and Nolito increase midfield and forward options, with the signing of John Stones bolstering the backline.

In Aguero, City are guaranteed goals. If he stays fit for the whole season, he will get over 30 goals. Big concerns however, remain over Joe Hart, Kompany’s fitness and Raheem Sterling’s form and confidence. These are key players for Guardiola so it will be interesting to see how Guardiola approaches these problems.

There have already been signs in pre-season that City have struggled with Guardiola’s possession philosophy of passing out from the back. It will be a challenge for Guardiola to cope with this new league, the pace of the league, the tempo and the physicality.

If the City players can learn quickly enough what Guardiola wants, they will be successful. However, big doubts remain over whether he can do that with this group.

Manchester United:

They have had a 3 years to forget since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. Now, with Jose Mourinho in the hotseat, there can be no excuses. He is an elite level coach. He won the title just 2 seasons ago. United have bought well in the summer transfer window too.

The signings of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba give United personality and power. They have an aura about them. Some call it arrogance, but they call it confidence in their abilities. Proven players and proven winners. How they adapt to the Premier League will be their biggest test.

In Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Eric Bailly, they have creativity and defensive potential. Mkhitaryan was a star in the Bundesliga, recognised by his fellow professionals. Bailly has put in terrific performances in La Liga, against the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

The big conundrum is Wayne Rooney. What is his best position? Mourinho has indicated that he will be playing the No 10 position, just behind Ibrahimovic. Does he still have the legs to play such a role? By having both Rooney and Ibrahimovic central, United lack pace. There is a lot of pressure on Mkhitaryan and Anthony Martial to provide speed and creativity.

The return of Luke Shaw will provide United with balance on the left, as his speed can cover both going forward and backwards. United still lack a world-class centre half. Chris Smalling will again carry the burden of defensive discipline, so his fitness will be crucial.

They should compete for the title. They should win a trophy. Mourinho will get time and will have a honeymoon period. But he will know better than anyone, results matter and they will need to come fast.

Middlesbrough:

In Aitor Karanka, Boro have a man who knows what he wants and he is not afraid to upset people. He had a furious row in March and was away from the club. Then he returned and they achieved promotion. His summer transfers have been exciting and give Boro a good chance of survival.

Marten de Roon represents a tough tackler from the Italian league. Victor Valdes provides undoubted class in goal. Alvaro Negredo is a proven goalscorer who will be looking to prove his doubters in England wrong. Fabio da Silva will provide energy and bravery.

Karanka will prefer a 4-4-2 formation, although in pre-season he has shown signs of flexibility, switching to a looser version in a 4-2-3-1 formation. The partnership of Gaston Ramirez behind Negredo will be interesting to watch. Both are highly skilled, but can they do it in the toughest league of all.

Boro’s strength last season was their defence. They will seek to keep the same solidity as last season, but will face a much tougher test facing the attacks of the Premier League. Boro will look to get Dani Ayala back to fitness as quickly as possible.

Middlesbrough will fight and with the investment of the summer, they should survive. However, it has been many years since they were last in the Premier League, so as a newly promoted team, they will find it tough.

Southampton:

They have been written off summer after summer because of summer after summer of upheaval. Could this finally be the season where they fall or will the arrival of Claude Puel be exactly what they need.

They have lost some very good and important players. Sadio Mane and Graziano Pelle in particular, along with Victor Wanyama will give a big loss to the Southampton ranks. The incomings of youngsters Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg from Bayern Munich and Nathan Redmond will refresh the midfield and forward line. There are high hopes in particular for Hojbjerg.

Southampton have always said, it is not the manager on whom the club is dependent on, it is the structures already put in place. The academy, transfer policy, scouting network and training facilities.

Puel has a reputation a process driven manager, who gives youth a chance and plays attractive football. He had a good spell with Nice, finishing in 4th place with few resources. He does not need to change much.

The structures are in place. They will likely play a 4-2-3-1 formation. They have a solid defensive line, with Ryan Bertrand an accomplished fullback, Fraser Forster solid in goal, Virgil van Dijk and Jose Fonte striking a good partnership at the back. More will be expected from Oriol Romeu and Jordy Clasie. Dusan Tadic is highly effective providing 7 goals and 12 assists.

Goalscoring could be a huge problem with the loss of Pelle and Mane. A lot of pressure will be on Shane Long and Charlie Austin to come up with the goods.

Southampton should finish in the top half of the table. They will need to cope with the added demands of the Europa League so will need to strengthen even further before the window closes. If Puel can follow his predecessors, Southampton are in for a good season.

Stoke City:

Stoke are in very good shape to achieve something big. They have quality in the midfield and forward areas with genuine matchwinners in Marko Arnautovic, Xherdan Shaqiri and Bojan.

They have issues in the defensive areas but in Mark Hughes they have a manager who knows what to do. He has guided Stoke to 3 consecutive top 10 finishes, for the first time in history. He has done so playing attractive football with flair players.

They do need a top quality striker. For all the flair of the players above, they need someone to make use of the creativity and put the ball in the back of the net.

Joe Allen coming in should add some creativity and reinforce the midfield options and depth.  Ramadan Sobhi will add flair to the attackers with a wide variety of tricks and creativity.

On paper, this team should be scoring goals. They need to add defensive solidity if they are to improve on the 9th placed finish of last season. Some investment in defensive areas should go a long way to improving Stoke.

They have the ingredients for success, but they have to show it on the pitch.

Sunderland:

David Moyes is now in the hotseat at Sunderland. The 7th man to take that hotseat in 5 years. There is no stability at the club and they are one of the favourites to be relegated.

Moyes is an honest and sincere manager, who brings discipline and effectiveness. Yet he will need to splash the cash in the transfer market if he is to keep this side up. There is a serious lack of quality across the pitch.

Yann M’Vila and DeAndre Yedlin have returned to their clubs which means Moyes has a weaker squad than Sam Allardyce last season.

The signing of Adnan Januzaj on a season long loan is a boost in attacking areas, with more service for Jermaine Defoe. Defoe is the key. He scores goals for fun and if supplied correctly, he can keep Sunderland up.

Moyes will aim to be the first manager in a long time to stay the full season at Sunderland. If he can do that, it will have been a successful season for Sunderland. Looking at Moyes from his Everton days, a transformation of Sunderland will take time.

Swansea City:

Swansea are not in a great state to improve on last season’s 12th place finish. The late sales of Andre Ayew and Ashley Williams could have a devastating effect.

However, they have signed world cup winner Fernando Llorente and Borja Bastón. This is a big move for Swansea. Two fowards with undoubted quality, especially in the air.

With Jefferson Montero, Wayne Routledge, Nathan Dyer and Modou Barrow on the wings, they will be expected to beat a man and cross the ball in for the new 6ft forwards in the box.

In Gylfi Sigurdsson they have a creative master who is also able to contribute with goals and assists. He is the key man for Swansea if they are to have any type of chance of competing this season. Leroy Fer will add energy in midfield, although there are question marks over Ki Sung-yueng after his military summer in South Korea.

Francesco Guidolin has yet to prove himself as manager. Many are attributing his success at keeping Swansea up last season down to luck. The atmosphere around Swansea does not seem the same as a few years ago. Guidolin has a lot to do to prove himself.

Tottenham Hotspur:

Mauricio Pochettino’s men were so close yet so far last season in their pursuit for the title. The way of playing and the preparation they put in for each match puts them in good stead for this season.

Pochettino is an obsessive and his decisions are driven by beliefs about football. He has long identified Victor Wanyama as a transfer target and he finally landed his man this summer. Wanyama will bring power and energy to the Tottenham team.

Vincent Janssen is an intelligent striker and gives Tottenham more depth up front. Harry Kane looked exhausted by the end of the season.

Pochettino has driven a serious work ethic into the team, putting to the front the idea of team work. There are no individual egoistic stars. It is all about the team. It is this mentality which will lead Tottenham into a position of success.

The team play with a very high intensity and aggression. They have a solid mentality and a never-say-die attitude, always believing they can come back in a match. That is the work of the manager.

The structure and foundations that Pochettino has built are there. They have to perform now to show they are real A Team players.

Watford:

Quique Sanchez Flores has departed and Watford’s policy of managerial changes has continued. Walter Mazzarri has taken over and brought his unique style to Watford.

They have done well to hold on to strike duo Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo. The two will be crucial to Mazzarri’s plans as he plans to switch to a 3-5-2 formation.

They have added many centre backs and wing backs in order to cope with the demands of playing 3-5-2. Christian Kabasele, Juan Camilo Zúñiga and Brice Dja Djédjé have arrived to bolster the backline.

Watford have an extremely hard list of fixtures to begin with. The first five league games include visits to Southampton and West Ham as well as home matches against Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United.

Watford have a changed manager and a changed squad. Therefore it will be difficult for them to survive this season. Many wrote them off last season and they proved doubters wrong. It will take a considerable amount of Mazzarri’s tactical nous to ensure safety for Watford.

West Bromwich Albion:

With a new owner comes a new set of expectations.

A positive for West Brom is that Tony Pulis stays. He has a great track record of keeping clubs up and his pragmatic style can work wonders. Will this be enough for the new owner?

They have a wonderful defensive record but a woeful goalscoring effort. With the Pulis style, this is not so surprising. They failed to score in 13 of their 38 games last season.

There is a lot of pressure on Salomón Rondón to perform consistently through the season. He will surely need some help to ease the goalscoring burden.

Pulis has spoken of needing at least 5 more players. The saga of Saido Berahino has continued and could leave Pulis without another striker if he finally completes a move away.

Jeffrey Schlupp is rumoured to be joining West Brom, he will add some much-needed pace and energy going forward.

If they can continue getting draws and the odd win, West Brom should meet the magic 40 points mark. Pulis has a wonderful record, he knows how to survive.

West Ham United:

New stadium. 60,000 fans each week. West Ham are on the way to big club status with some very savvy commercial deals and business acumen behind the scenes. It is on the pitch though, which will decide West Ham’s future.

They had a wonderful season last season. Slaven Bilic has instilled a winning mentality into the club. They no longer fear the bigger clubs. They beat the big clubs. They play fast, aggressive football. They are no longer a yoyo club.

Yet this season, they face challenges. Adapting to the new stadium, coping with the Europa League, coping with a slightly depleted squad in the early part of the season. All these things matter and how Bilic uses his squad will be key.

They have made some shrewd investments in the transfer market. Manuel Lanzini is now a permanent player, Sofiane Feghouli is a clever winger, Gokhan Tore is another winger who offers depth, Havard Nordtveit in midfield will add protection to the back 4 and Arthur Masuaku is a flying full back.

Keeping them fit and rotating will be vital for Bilic. Ultimately, the form and fitness of the spine of the team will determine how this season will go.

Adrian, Winston Reid, Mark Noble, Dimitri Payet and Andy Carroll are the key men. If they remain consistent through the season, West Ham should earn a top 8 finish.

 

Euro 2016: Tournament Preview

Euro 2016 is upon us… all rights are reserved for this image ©

By Manish Pandey.

A 24 team tournament. Bigger. Maybe better. Certainly more complicated. To accommodate the expansion, there has been a change in the format of the tournament. 2 extra groups in the group stage and an extra knockout round.

The six groups (A-F) would contain 4 teams each, with the top 2 from each group going through to the knockout stage. In the new format, the 4 best third-ranked sides would also progress, leaving 16 teams going into the new round of 16 knockout stage, ahead of the usual quarter-finals, semi-finals and final, and only 8 teams going out at the group stage.

Beyond the structure, it is the football in the tournament and the teams in the tournament which will catch the eyes of every ardent football fan and many part-time fans alike.

Group A contains France, Romania, Albania and Switzerland.

France are the hosts and will be spurred on by the home support. They will expect to qualify with ease in this easy group and will believe they can go all the way. They have, on paper, the most balanced team of all the teams. Defensively they have solidity and experience in the likes of Bacary Sagna, Laurent Koscielny, Patrice Evra and Hugo Lloris. In midfield, they have the power and skill of N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba, Yohan Cabaye and Blaise Matuidi.

France have a unique blend of pace, power and athleticism, which can be adapted to suit different styles of playing. They’ll be adept at keeping possession against lesser teams, but also playing a higher tempo against better teams. Attackingly, they have variety. The speed and skill of Kingsley Coman, Anthony Martial and Antoine Griezmann. The creativity of Dimitri Payet – who can also provide goals from set piece chances. The power of the in form Olivier Giroud. Giroud will be very useful against defensive teams who prove hard to break down.

Romania  have coach Anghel Iordanescu, who took Romania to the quarter-finals of USA 1994, back in the job, for his third spell. Vlad Chiriches and Costel Pantilimon are the most prominent members of the Romania squad. Romania qualified unbeaten, and no team in Europe conceded fewer than the two goals they allowed in. However, Romania also struggled to score goals, scoring only 11 in the 10 games. Romania have been effective sitting back and playing on the counter-attack, and will likely continue this approach against France and Switzerland in particular.

Albania have made it to their first ever tournament. The backbone of this team is the defence, as they only conceded 5 goals in qualifying. Taulant Xhaka (brother of Granit who is playing for Switzerland) will be an important player as he can be very versatile across defence and midfield with his intelligent dribbling and skill of winning the ball back. Amir Abrashi will also be key, as alongside Xhaka, the pair can can make quick and long passes to help start counter attacks. Like Romania, a big weakness is in the attacking areas. They have only scored 7 goals in 8 qualifying matches, and each of the 7 goals were scored by different players.

Switzerland will fancy themselves to qualify from this group in 2nd place due to the relative weaknesses of Romania and Albania. They will rely heavily on the known ‘names’ in the squad, including  Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, with support from Valon Behrami and Gelson Fernandes. In defence, the new captain, Stephan Lichtsteiner of Juventus will be important due to his class and experience. Having won the Scudetto 5 times in a row, he will understand the standards that need to be set in this tournament.

Group B contains England, Wales, Russia and Slovakia.

England have made excellent progress since the debacle of the 2014 World Cup. They have bright young talents who do not carry the mental scars of previous tournaments. Defensively, England have genuine concerns. They have only 3 natural centre backs with Eric Dier providing back up. Chris Smalling is the only one who has had a consistently good season. In midfield, Dier will provide protection to the defence.

There are several tactical dilemmas for Roy Hodgson. Does he start Jack Wilshere alongside Dier with Dele Alli in front, leaving out Wayne Rooney? Does Rooney play in midfield in a diamond formation? Do both Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy start? England have plenty of talent, but the biggest challenge will be relying on Hodgson to get the best out of his players tactically. England have looked jaded in the warm up games, suggesting the traditional tournament fatigue has already kicked in after a long and intense season. England will be relying on the forwards to score them to victory in individual matches and the tournament. Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy whilst proving themselves in the Premier League, have yet to do it at the highest level. It will not be an easy group for England. It could be a group they struggle to escape from.

Wales are the team England will fear the most, and should they qualify, most teams will want to avoid Wales. The big focus is rightfully around Gareth Bale. One of the few genuine world-class players in the world, who can change the game in an instant. This is a big tournament for him, to prove that he belongs in the upper echelons of world football today. Wales need him to fire. Yet he is not the only threat Wales possess. Proven defensive quality in Ashley Williams. Reliable midfield talents in Aaron Ramsey, Andy King and Joe Allen. Manager Chris Coleman has shown tactical nous in using a 5 man defence in a 5-3-2 formation. They play on the counter attack using quick transitional passes developed playing in the high-speed Premier League. The main problem for them will be breaking down teams who sit deeper and do not allow a counter-attacking game.

Russia are not a particularly exciting team, with a lack of youth and quality, yet they have good organisation which could make them a tough prospect to beat. They have some solid experience in Sergei Ignashevich, Yuri Zhirkov and captain Roman Shirokov. Having only conceded one goal in the qualification process since new manager Slutsky took charge replacing Fabio Capello, Russia’s defence could be a deciding factor as to how long they stay in France. Experience can go a long way and if they manage to get draws from the games against England and Wales, Russia could set up the prospect of reaching the round of 16.

Slovakia had an impressive qualifying campaign and will believe they can get through this group. In Martin Skrtel, Marek Hamsik and Juraj Kucka, they have players who play regularly for top European clubs. Kucka is the toughness and hard work to Hamsik’s flair and finesse, and should prove to be an effective shield for Slovakia’s star man. They have a compact style and defensively have discipline. With an average age of 28, they also have enough individual experience. However, this is the first European Championships they are competing in since becoming independent, and they are very reliant on Hamsik. If they can get a win against Russia, they will fancy themselves to getting through to the round of 16.

Group C contains Germany, Ukraine, Poland and Northern Ireland.

Germany are the reigning world champions and despite a few retirements, they are the fancied choice for many. They are the most cohesive team in the tournament, filled with world-class talents. Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller are now in peak form, with Muller in particular being lethal in the big tournaments. The class of Toni Kroos in midfield ensures control, whilst Bastian Schweinsteiger on his day (as shown in his man of the match performance in the 2014 World Cup final) can win any game for his team.

In goal, Germany have arguably the best in the world in Manuel Neuer, who is another match winner for them. Germany have the ability to switch from being a possession orientated side to being a counter attacking side, meaning they are able to adapt for both the big and small teams. If there is a weakness, it is that they do not have a proven natural striker, as the recall of Mario Gomez shows. Mario Goetze is likely to start as a false ‘9’. Defensively, with the exception of Mats Hummels, there is no other stand out.

Ukraine will look to improve on the disaster of 2012. This is the first ever European championships for them where they have earned a place through qualifying. The wingers Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko will hold the key for Ukraine to have any chance in this group, with the ability to score goals. The experienced squad, with many players having Champions League experience will hold them in good stead, as they will know the levels they need to reach. The ageing squad however, also means they are susceptible to energetic teams. Ukraine will be tough to beat, but should not be making the knockouts in this group of death.

Poland like Wales, will be relying heavily on a single individual: Robert Lewandowski. Lewandowski finished as the top scorer in qualifying with 13 goals to his name, a European qualifying record. The ability to score goals at will makes Poland an extremely tricky team to encounter. They will believe that goals can fire them to the knockout stages. Defensively, Poland have been poor and inconsistent, keeping only four clean sheets in qualifying. Poland will need Jakub Blaszczykowski and Kamil Grosicki to fire to provide service to Lewandowski. If the rest of the team can keep it tight, and Lewandowski can fire, there is no reason why Poland cannot make the round of last 16.

Northern Ireland are the fierce underdogs in this group. Michael O’Neill has Northern Ireland playing attractive football, with qualification for this tournament the most important thing. They have an unbreakable team spirit and a willingness to work for each-other. They are determined and will never give up. They have proven Premier League defensive quality in Jonny Evans, Gareth McCauley and Craig Cathcart. Steven Davis and Kyle Lafferty provide hard work and goals further up the field. Northern Ireland will be relying on Lafferty’s goals if they are to have any chance. However, the lack of quality in the squad suggests they will not progress from the group. The hard work and discipline means they will provide a challenge to the other teams, but they do not have enough quality to trouble other teams.

Group D consists of Spain, Czech Republic, Turkey and Croatia.

Spain will be looking to bounce back after the humiliation of the 2014 World Cup. Despite the doom and gloom surrounding Spain, they still have a hugely impressive array of players, many of whom have won it all. Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and David Silva would be cause for delight in most countries. Spain are not currently playing the Spanish way of the past 10 years.

The passing has lacked the pace and precision that once characterised them and chances were few and far between. Spain lacked spark, freshness, an apparent sense of purpose, edge, creativity and speed. The manager, Vincent del Bosque talked about the importance of releasing longer balls more quickly, of being able to play on the counter-attack, of a willingness to mix the game up. This though is coming at the cost of their identity and is not seemingly effective. They do however, have a natural striker in Alvaro Morata and still have individual brilliance. If the individuals can turn up, there is no reason why Spain cannot go all the way and retain the crown that currently belongs to them.

Czech Republic were one of the more impressive teams in qualifying. They topped Group A scoring 19 goals and only losing 2 of their matches. They have a determined style which can compensate for the poor defence that they have- they failed to keep a single clean sheet. They have a world-class goalkeeper in Petr Cech who can make the difference in crucial pressure situations. Even if they fail to keep a clean sheet, Cech can pull off vital saves which ensures the game can still be won. The team does not have many world-class players, but its team spirit and unity can cause problems for opponents. They have a good chance at making the round of 16 in this relatively evenly matched group.

Turkey have momentum on their side after an excellent qualifying campaign and they will be driven on by one of the most popular and eccentric managers in the game, Fatih Terim. Turkey have immense quality in the attacking areas which could make the difference in this group. Arda Turan has immense quality and drive. Alongside him, Mehmet Topal and Burak Yilmaz provide experience and technical class. Turkey also have a promising crop of youngsters, with Hakan Calhanoglu a free-kick specialist, Gokhan Tore providing explosive talent and Oghuzan Ozyukap being able to run with the ball and control the tempo of the game. Having only conceded 6 goals in qualifying, and only 3 after the first game, Turkey have a solid defence. They will believe they can cause an upset and qualify to the knockout stages. Turkey are the dark horses of the competition.

Croatia have experience and quality and will believe they can beat anybody in the group. Ante Cacic has remained undefeated in competitive matches since taking over as manager. In Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Darijo Srna and Mario Mandzukic they have experience and quality at the highest level. Ivan Perisic and Marcelo Brozovic are both energetic midfielders with the pace to burst forward. With creativity and attacking prowess, Croatia will be a handful and threat. They do however, have a big defensive weakness. The Croatian defence often are unable to cope with sustained pressure put on them by opponents. The manager has yet to find a tactical solution, experimenting with a 3-5-2. If the defence can tighten up and become reliable, Croatia have a real chance at getting to the quarter finals and beyond.

Group E consists of Belgium, Italy, Republic of Ireland and Sweden.

Belgium have experienced a meteoric rise in recent years in world football, officially being the best team in Europe. They have an incredibly talented squad even without Vincent Kompany, but football is not won on talent alone and the questions about the mental strength of Belgium will remain unless they do something significant. Coach Marc Wilmots has to find the correct balance. Defensively, they have the best centre back pairing in the Premier League in Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, yet Wilmots will choose to play them at full back. Thibaut Courtois will look to prove his doubters wrong after a difficult season in the Chelsea goal.

In midfield, Belgium have a plethora of options of both creative skill and combative nature. Axel Witsel, Radja Nainggolan, Moussa Dembele, and Marouane Fellaini provide the power and tackling, with Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Yannick Carrasco providing the flair and spark. In attack, Romelu Lukaku will be the key man as a focal point and goalscorer in the 4-2-3-1 favoured by Wilmots. Belgium have the class, and they will provide a threat to every team they face.

Italy are always threats in major tournaments, but this is undoubtedly one of its weaker squads of recent times. Injuries to key players such as Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio have not helped Italy. As expected, the defence of this Italy team is its strongest suit. The Juventus back 3 of Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci will be more crucial than ever as Antonio Conte will look to deploy a back 3. Gianluigi Buffon’s world-class abilities as goalkeeper and leader will have to make a difference. The forward line is a big weakness, with Graziano Pelle and Lorenzo Insigne being the only reliable forwards. Antonio Candreva and Daniele De Rossi have proven quality in midfield, but Italy are very thin in those areas to make much of a difference. It is always hard to rule out Italy in big tournaments, but this tournament seems too competitive for Italy to make much of a mark.

Republic of Ireland led by Martin O’Neil and Roy Keane along with the vociferous fans they will bring along make for an interesting proposition. They face a tough group and lack the all round quality to make much of a difference. They have a big team spirit, are well organised and are all consistently at a similar level, meaning they can use the depth of the squad without a drop off in quality. ROI have Premier League quality players in Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy, Robbie Brady, Wes Hoolahan and John O’Shea. Shane Long will be a menace up front and Robbie Keane can always find the goal. In order to progress, they will have to consistently produce team performances with every individual contributing, as they do not have an individual match winner.

Sweden have historically struggled to exit the group stage. In this tough group, they will be relying heavily on the individual brilliance of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who delivered in the playoff against Denmark to drag Sweden to the Euros. Sweden have a balanced squad with decent footballers, none of whom compare to the skills of Ibrahimovic. Kim Källström and Pontus Wernbloom will be important in the midfield battle. Sweden are defensively susceptible to long balls over the top due to a lack of pace in the defence, so will need to play deeper against teams with pace. Ultimately, if they are to have any chance, they will need their talisman to fire.

Group F contains Portugal, Iceland, Austria and Hungary.

Portugal have Cristiano Ronaldo which means Portugal can beat any team. The strength of Portugal will be their defence. Whilst that seems strange, Portugal do not have any other attackers on the same level as Ronaldo, but they do have a solid defensive unit, proven through England’s difficulty in breaking them down even when they were reduced to 10 men. The central defence is particularly strong with Pepe and Bruno Alves,  assisted by Southampton’s Jose Fonte and veteran Ricardo Carvahlo who is the best form of his career. In the attacking areas alongside Ronaldo is Luis Nani and Ricardo Quaresma, who are experienced but have struggled to set the stage alight. Whilst they should easily make it through the group, they will struggle against tougher opposition. If Ronaldo fires though, anything could happen.

Iceland are a very small nation of only 330,000. Yet the achievement of them qualifying is no fluke. Iceland have a very talented generation of players who have been playing together since youth football. Iceland are a team very capable of producing attractive football. They had balance in attack and defence in qualifying, scoring 17 and conceding only 6. They defeated the Netherlands twice, with Gylfi Sigurdsson being the star man. He will be crucial to their efforts in this tournament, being a threat on the dead ball, creating chances and scoring goals. Kolbeinn Sigthorsson will be another attacker to keep an eye on. Iceland have a terrific team unity and work ethic, yet they lack genuine world-class quality. They also do not have a very deep squad and lack the experience of tournament situations. They will believe that they could make it through to the next round in 2nd place because of the similarity of skill levels with fellow group competitors Austria and Hungary.

Austria are another one of the dark horses of the competition. They qualified unbeaten and are ranked in the top 10 of the FIFA rankings. Austria have several big name players including Premier League winner Christian Fuchs as captain, Tottenham defender Kevin Wimmer, Bayern Munich defender David Alaba and Stoke City forward Marko Arnautovic. The squad is extremely well-balanced with a nice blend of youth and experience. Austria under manager Marcel Koller are able to adapt at playing attacking football and counter attack, depending on the strengths of the opposition, with high tempo transitions. Austria have a real chance to progress and will need stars such as Arnautovic and Alaba to perform consistently. Much like Iceland, they will also believe they can qualify because of the similarities of skill level.

Hungary are possibly the weakest team in the group, with few standout players. Yet they have a new-found resilience and team spirit which saw them overcome Norway in the playoffs. Former Premier League stars Gabor Kiraly and Zoltan Gera, despite being past their very best, remain key men in the squad and will provide important experience. Skipper Balázs Dzsudzak is their biggest threat going forward. He has the pace and skill to beat a man in a 1v1 situation and is crucial to the counter-attack that Hungary employ. Whilst not being the toughest group they could have been given, Hungary do lack individual quality, the kind of quality that Austria and Iceland contain. If Hungary can muster the resilience and team spirit of the playoffs, they will feel they can get something against those 2 teams, giving themselves a chance at qualifying.

This tournament will be a close tournament, with several teams containing the quality which could cause a few upsets.

The increase in the number of teams will potentially make the group stages a more defensive affair. The underdog teams will look to limit the defensive damage and will seek to counter attack, much in the vein of Leicester City, because they know they cannot compete in the attacking third with the bigger nations. There are many sit back and counter-attacking teams in the group stages: Albania, Romania, Wales, Russia, Northern Ireland, Ukraine and Austria. Perhaps the unfortunate success of a defensive approach is reflected in the stat that there is an 87% of qualification from the group if a team obtains 3 scores of 0-0 (credit to Michael Cox).

This tournament will have its high and low points. Whilst there will undoubtedly be some bore-fest draws, there will also be lots of attacking and exciting football. Groups D, E and F look the most entertaining and competitive. There is plenty of individual quality on offer for us to enjoy. As is the way in football however, anything can happen.

Let us hope Euro 2016 in France provides us with rich summer entertainment.

Premier League 2015-2016: Team by Team Preview:

The Premier League begins…all rights are reserved for this image ©

By Manish Pandey.

Arsenal:

They are the team who are fancied by many to lift the trophy this year. Last season, they got over the mental hurdle of struggling in the big games with wins at the Etihad and Old Trafford (FA Cup), and they have started this season with a Community Shield victory over Chelsea. They have strengthened in goal with the signing of Petr Cech from Chelsea, a signing which brings leadership, experience and class. Arsenal have a strong team, with the only visible weakness being in the strikers department, with no recognised world class striker. There is also a question mark over defensive midfield, with this season being the key season for Francis Coquelin to prove he is the real deal. The signing of a world class striker such as Karim Benzema would make Arsenal the favourites to lift the trophy. Arsenal’s success also depends much on the injury record, with Jack Wilshere already ruled out of the start of the season.

Key man- Alexis Sanchez- his form will be important in deciding Arsenal’s form, with his speed and creativity resulting in high level output. Can he better his 16 goals and 8 assists from last season?

Predicted finish: 2nd

Aston Villa:

Tim Sherwood inspired a turnaround in Villa’s fortunes, culminating in the FA Cup final. They have been hurt badly with the loss of key men Christian Benteke and Fabian Delph. There will be a lot of pressure on Gabby Agbonlahor and new signing Jordan Ayew to provide the goals which could keep Aston Villa up. An area of weakness in recent years has been the defence, and despite the arrival of the versatile Micah Richards, once again the Aston Villa defence looks extremely weak going into the new season.  Sherwood will look to bring in another midfielder after the double departures of Cleverley and Delph, currently his options look thin with Idrissa Gueye, Carlos Sánchez and Ashley Westwood. Jack Grealish was a shining light for Aston Villa last season with his distinctive style, his ability to cope with the added pressure will be an important factor in his form and Villa’s form.

Key man: Gabby Agbonlahor – his speed and goals are what will win Villa matches.

Predicted finish: 16th.

Bournemouth:

Newly promoted, Eddie Howe’s men will deem survival as success. They are a side who are comfortable on the ball and use Swansea City as a template. Right-back Simon Francis and right-sided midfielder Matt Ritchie were in the Championship team of the season, and striker Callum Wilson scored 20 league goals  in the last campaign. Harry Arter chipped in with 8 goals from the centre of midfield and is considered to be their best player. Recruitment has seemingly been clever with the acquisitions of midfielders Christian Atsu and Joshua King adding speed to attacks, Sylvain Distin will bring experience to the backline, with Tyrone Mings adding size and power at left back. In goal, Arthur Boruc will bring proven Premier League experience. Bournemouth have a chance due to the hard working and analytically obsessive nature of manager Howe.

Key man: Harry Arter – can he continue his good form into the Premier League? A vital cog in the machine.

Predicted finish: 18th.

Chelsea:

The current champions. The team with the best defence and the standout player of the league in Eden Hazard. Chelsea have also added to the forward line with the loan signing of Radamel Falcao, who if he can reproduce his old form, will be a banker for Jose Mourinho. John Terry is one year older and it will be interesting to see if he can maintain his form from last season. Chelsea were lucky last season in that they did not suffer as many injuries as challengers. The squad of Chelsea looks thin, particularly in defence at left back. Whilst Chelsea’s first team has undoubted quality, there are question marks over squad players such as Juan Cuadrado and John Obi Mikel. In Mourinho, Chelsea have a man who knows how to win by any means. That is why they are the favourites to retain the crown.

Key man: Eden Hazard- if he reproduces his world class form from last season, Chelsea will win the league.

Predicted finish: 1st.

Crystal Palace:

Under Alan Pardew, there is huge amounts of optimism after the improved performances last season. This is perhaps the best squad ever in the history of Crystal Palace, particularly in midfield. Mile Jedinak provides the strength for the trio of players – Yohan Cabaye, Jordon Mutch and  Jason Puncheon to create and provide the energy going forward. Yannick Bolasie and Wilfried Zaha provide pace, skill and incision from the wings, with consistency now the aim. The forward line of  Glenn Murray, Dwight Gayle and Marouane Chamakh fired in bursts. A new striker will be the aim, though this trio should be helped with the greater creativity behind them provided by Cabaye. The first aim will be survival, but the final aim will be to finish in the top 10.

Key man– Yohan Cabaye- a wonderful midfield player who is as creative as any midfielder in the league.

Predicted finish: 10th.

Everton:

It was a disappointing campaign last season, with Everton hampered by the Europa League. They have the style of football to succeed but now they need the consistency. The summer acquisitions of Gerard Deulofeu and Tom Cleverley provide skill and creativity. It will be important to sort out the future of talented defender John Stones as soon as possible, to find a replacement if needed. The 2013-2014 season showed how dangerous this Everton team can be when on form, with Roberto Martinez tactically flexible and astute. They will be aiming for a top 8 finish with hopes of making the Europa League once again.

Key man: Romelu Lukaku- after a disappointing last season, his goals will be vital to Everton’s hopes.

Predicted finish: 7th. 

Leicester:

Leicester have lost 2 key men in Nigel Pearson and the legendary Esteban Cambiasso. It will be vital for Claudio Ranieri and Shinji Okazaki to fill those holes. Despite appearing as a distasteful character in the media, Pearson ensured he had the backing of his players and it was that team spirit which propelled Leicester to safety. Robert Huth will be a key man for Leicester in the 3 man defence which Ranieri seems intent on keeping. The arrival of Austria international Christian Fuchs has bolstered the defence, but Leicester still look extremely thin going forward despite the signing of Okazaki. Cambiasso’s creativity has not been replaced and Matty James will be out injured at least until the new year. Danny Drinkwater, Andy King and Dean Hammond are all good but none look capable of doing what Cambiasso did. The battle to survive will be tough.

Key man: Shinji Okazaki – can the new signing score goals to inspire Leicester’s survival?

Predicted finish: 17th.

Liverpool: 

The much talked about future of Raheem Sterling was resolved early on, and allowed Liverpool the financial capacity to sign Christian Benteke. He will provide goals, power and energy up front, and can work in tandem with Daniel Sturridge or as a lone striker. Liverpool’s area of weakness last season was the forward line, which has been bolstered by the arrival of Benteke and Roberto Firmino. The signing of Nathaniel Clyne boosts Liverpool at full back, a position which saw the likes of Sterling and Lazar Markovic playing in. The upturn in Simon Mignolet’s form was important to Liverpool in not signing a new goalkeeper, and it will be interesting to see if that pans out to be the correct decision.

Key man: Philippe Coutinho – he is a class player and will be vital in the supply to the forward line.

Predicted finish: 5th.

Manchester City:

Despite finishing second, it was a disappointing campaign for Man City who never looked like retaining the title. The arrival of Raheem Sterling should galvanise a team which looked lethargic at times last season. Manuel Pellegrini has employed a 4-3-3 system in pre-season which should give City more control and give Yaya Toure more of a license to roam forward with an extra midfielder protecting him. The burden of goals will once again be on the shoulders of Sergio Aguero whose main battle will be to stay fit for the entirety of the season. Vincent Kompany will also be hoping for an upturn in form after a season of errors and injury. Though City have the individual quality, it will be key for them to work as a team, something they did not do much of last season.

Key man: Sergio Aguero – one of the few world class strikers around, his goals can win trophies.

Predicted finish: 4th.

Manchester United:

Louis van Gaal achieved the minimum target of a top 4 finish last season, along with the implementation of his much talked about philosophy. He used last season to experiment with formations and players, but after the astute signings of Darmian, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Memphis and Morgan Schneiderlin, there is an expectation that Manchester United should be competing for the title this season. There are still gaps, notably at centre back and the lack of a viable forward should Wayne Rooney get injured. The future of David de Gea casts a dark shadow as he was the standout player for Man United last season, his future needs to be resolved quickly. The departure of Angel di Maria is a blow, as he has much needed speed and creativity, but it seems his individualistic brilliance did not fit into the team based philosophy of the manager.

Key man: Wayne Rooney – has the order to play up front, can he get 20+ goals and fire United to the title?

Predicted finish: 3rd

Newcastle:

A team and club in much turmoil over the last 3 years. The owner has been criticised for lack of investment and the appointment of Steve McClaren has not gone down well with many Newcastle fans. However, the purse strings have been loosened with almost £35m being invested so far on Georginio Wijnaldum, the Holland attacking midfielder who joins from PSV Eindhoven, Aleksandar Mitrovic, a young Serbia striker who proved so prolific for Anderlecht last season and Chancel Mbemba, a highly talented Congolese centre-half also recruited from Anderlecht. On paper, Newcastle have a good pool of players – as individuals. Yet so often in recent years, they have been criticised for a lack of mental strength and team work. If McClaren can bring the team as one, they will be dangerous.

Key man:  Georginio Wijnaldum- a man who can provide the ammunition for goals.

Predicted finish: 13th.

Norwich:

Alex Neil has been a fine manager for Norwich since taking over, but this may be one challenge too far. The group of players is very similar to the players who were responsible for relegation a few seasons back. The need for new signings and quality signings at that is huge. The full-back Andre Wisdom has come in from Liverpool on loan. Midfielder Youssouf Mulumbu looks a fine import from West Brom and the loan move of his more creative former Baggies team-mate Graham Dorrans has been made permanent. The left-sided midfielder, occasional full-back and set-piece genius Robbie Brady has joined from Hull City. They are all decent mid- to lower-end top-flight players but none who can be depended on for consistency. The lack of quality and goals up front means relegation is a near certainty for Norwich.

Key man: Youssouf Mulumbu – the only reliable player with proven premier league experience.

Predicted finish: 19th.

Southampton:

Many tipped Southampton to be relegated last season, but nobody will make the same mistake this season. After an outstanding campaign, despite falling away in the last few months, Southampton have the players and manager to continue in good form. The loss of 3 key players in Clyne, Schneiderlin and Toby Alderweireld is a big blow and the form of the replacements will be important in determining whether Southampton can finish in the top 8. The squad looks strong again with the signing of experience Dutch goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg on loan, Portuguese right-back Cédric Soares, Steven Caulker at centre back, Jordy Clasie in midfield and Juanmi in attack. The return to regular football for Jay Rodriguez will also be a big boost for Koeman.

Key man: Jordy Clasie – can he maintain the class of Schneiderlin?

Predicted finish: 11th

Stoke:

The old tag of Stoke as ‘long ball’ no longer rings true, with Mark Hughes assembling a team of fine footballers. Stoke have signed Ibrahim Afellay and Moha El Ouriachi ahead of this campaign. Bojan was wonderful until he was struck down by knee ligament damage in January. If either of the latest arrivals from Camp Nou have a similar impact, then Hughes will have pulled off another masterstroke. In midfield, the impressive Steven N’Zonzi needs to be replaced, with Marko van Ginkel being given that responsibility. Asmir Begovic will not be badly missed if Jack Butland does as well as expected, and Shay Given could serve as a reliable stand-in at times. This could be an impressive season for Stoke, once again.

Key man: Bojan – the little magician has the stardust which makes Stoke so watchable.

Predicted finish: 9th.

Sunderland:

Repeated underachievers, Dick Advocaat has lifted the mood at Sunderland. Advocaat has to bring in creativity, pace, power and hard work as all those elements have been missing from Sunderland’s game. The acquisition of Younès Kaboul from Tottenham Hotspur and Sebastián Coates from Liverpool will improve a slow and old defence. Jermain Lens should bring improved creativity, Yann M’Vila and Leroy Fer should also add much-needed physical presence and energy to the engine room. Looking forward, if Steven Fletcher and Jermain Defoe can be given sustained service, they will be bankers for goals, which should help to keep Sunderland up.

Key man: Yann M’Vila – comes with a big reputation and has the authority to guide Sunderland.

Predicted finish: 15th.

Swansea City:

Under Gary Monk, Swansea have confounded the doubters and progressed to the highest points tally in the club’s history. Can  Bafétimbi Gomis can step up to the role of being the frontline striker? He needs to add consistency and continue his form from the last 6 games of last season. Eder is another striker, from Braga and the star signing of André Ayew, the experienced Ghana international will lift spirits slightly dampened by Bony’s departure in January. Ayew is likely to be used out wide, but he is also able to play across any of the attacking positions. Franck Tabanou will bolster the left back spot. It will be key for Ki Sung Yeung, Jonjo Shelvey and Gylfi Sigurdsson to continue the great form they displayed last season.

Key man: Gylfi Sigurdsson- creativity with goals and assists – the team is built around him.

Predicted finish: 8th.

Tottenham Hotspur:

Mauricio Pochettino’s first season can be considered a success, but building on that will be a challenge he will relish. The signing of Toby Alderweireld from Atlético Madrid along with Kevin Wimmer and Kieran Trippier strengthened a weak defence which conceded too many sloppy goals last season.  Tottenham have shed plenty of their unwanted players and trimmed the squad fat– Younès Kaboul, Vlad Chiriches, Etienne Capoue, Benjamin Stambouli, Paulinho and Lewis Holtby. The squad still needs reinforcements up front with Soldado barely playing in pre-season, Adebayor not wanted and Harry Kane the only senior striker. There is much pressure on him to repeat his heroics from last season.

Key man: Harry Kane- his goals hold the key to progress.

Predicted finish: 6th.

Watford:

This team resembles nothing like the team which was promoted. Quique Sánchez Flores, the former Valencia manager is now in charge. Heurelho Gomes is the only player expected to start automatically from last season. The rest will most likely make up the squad. The Greece left-back José Holebas arrived from Roma, the centre-backs Sebastian Prödl, from Werder Bremen, and Miguel Britos,  followed, with the Cameroon right-back Allan Nyom joining from Udinese. The defensive midfield slots were filled by Valon Behrami, and Étienne Capoue, a club-record £6m arrival from Tottenham. José Jurado, who flourished under Sánchez Flores at Atlético, has been reunited with his former manager and AZ winger Steven Berghuis will also provide left footed delivery. Despite the massive activity in the market, it will take a big effort to get all of these players to join together as a unit.

Key man- Étienne Capoue – he has to justify his fee and rule the midfield.

Predicted finish: 20th.

West Brom:

Under Tony Pulis, there is no chance of relegation. However, the squad is looking quite thin. The recruitment has been good if not swift.  James McClean is a good signing, with wing play and hard work fitting into the Pulis thought. The signing of Rickie Lambert is also a smart move by Pulis. His side were far too reliant last season on the brilliance of Saido Berahino. James Chester is a shrewd move which will provide cover in defence thanks to his versatility. Pulis will want more players, particularly in goal, defence and to cover the forward line.

Key man: Saido Berahino/Rickie Lambert – goals are what will enable progress, these are the men to get them.

Predicted finish: 14th. 

West Ham United:

No Sam Allardyce brings its own risks, just ask Blackburn and Bolton. Appointing Slaven Bilic brings swagger, style and unpredictability – and that’s just the man. Preparations for the new season have not been ideal, with West Ham’s unexpected entry into Europe via the Fair Play League forcing them to start their season with a qualifier against the Andorran part-timers of FC Lusitans. However, they are no longer in Europe so the domestic campaign should not be affected. Enner Valencia’s long term injury is a blow, but the recruits brought in by Bilic, such as Payet must fire for West Ham to stay up before the big move to the Olympic Stadium. Andy Carroll’s return will also be pivotal, with his role in Bilic’s system yet to be seen.

Key man: Andy Carroll- his return and form upon return will go a long way to deciding West Ham’s future.

Predicted finish: 12th.