Premier League Pick ‘Em

Arsenal-Gallery4

We’re two-thirds of the way through the 2014/15 Barclay’s Premier League season and things are heating up at the top of the table – and the bottom – as the fight for Premier League glory – and survival – hits the home stretch.

At the top, Chelsea (60 points) hold a five-point lead over defending champions Manchester City (55). The real fight lies between positions three through seven, where Arsenal (48 points), Manchester United (47), Southampton (46), Liverpool (45), and Tottenham Hotspur (44) are separated by a total of four points.

Meanwhile, at the bottom, Leicester City are four points from safety with 18, while Burnley, Aston Villa, and Queen’s Park Rangers are knotted at 22 points apiece.

Starting Point’s Greg Hudson takes a look at who he thinks will earn a place among the elite, who will fall short of glory, and who will find a way to survive the most challenging league in world football.

Top-Four Contenders

Arsenal

The Gunners have been a consistent side this season, scoring goals with their mobile, free-flowing offense. They haven’t always been in the top four, but they haven’t always been fit either, as injuries to Aaron Ramsey and star forward Alexis Sanchez have hurt their form at times, but Arsenal have looked strong throughout the campaign. Defensively they’ve been strong and have played well against teams that like to play a physical game, and while their zonal-marking scheme at set pieces is an achilles heel, they aren’t easy to beat, and I’ll pick them to finish in the top four.

Liverpool

The Reds came oh-so-close to winning their first league title in a quarter century last season, and the departure of Luis Suarez and the addition of several new players meant they were never likely to challenge for the title this season. A slow start and injuries to Daniel Sturridge and departing captain Steven Gerrard have left them without a star player at times, but the team as a whole is progressing well. They’ve lost just one of their last 18 games in all competitions, and that was an extra-time defeat to Chelsea in the League Cup, and new boys Adam Lallana, Alberto Moreno and Lazar Markovic have been weighing in with needed goals as the Reds offense has found its feet. Meanwhile, the shaky defense that cost them the title last year has come into its own with a new formation, and the Reds defense has kept a clean sheet in five of their last six games in the league. I think they’ll overcome the slow start and book themselves a place among Europe’s elite with a top-four finish.

Top-Four Failures

Southampton

Make no mistake, Southampton are the surprise of the season. They’re a team that many picked to be relegated this year after so many of their key players left for higher places, but the “replacements” brought in by Ronald Koeman have not only filled their shoes – they’ve improved the side. Saints always looked like a team that could beat anybody on the day, but this season their fearless style of play and high-pressure defense has seen them sit as high as third. They’re on the outside looking in at the moment, in fifth, but wins over Arsenal and Manchester United should give them confidence as they head into the final push for the top four. That being said, they players at Koeman’s disposal aren’t used to the kind of pressure they’ll face in the fight to the finish this season. They simply haven’t been in this position before. A 2-0 loss at home to Liverpool offers evidence that perhaps they just aren’t quite there yet. I think they’ll fight hard, but I think they’ll come up just short.

 

Manchester United

United have responded well to new manager Louis van Gaal, but they’re a very unbalanced team. They’ve put on some great performances this season, including a 3-0 home win over top rivals Liverpool, but they’ve also suffered a 5-3 defeat to Leicester City, who currently sit bottom of the league, and have been beaten for a double by Swansea, losing both games by a 2-1 margin. The simple fact about the Red Devils is that they’re a team of very talented attackers – Rooney, Di Maria, Mata, van Persie and Falcao are household names across Europe and South America – but a team who’s standout defender is Chris Smalling is doomed to failure. I’m not knocking the man, but a team that has aspirations of greatness in domestic and international competitions needs world-class defenders as well as attackers. They don’t have that at this point, and a failure to bring in any new men at the back during the January transfer window indicates that van Gaal or the United board simply don’t understand the severity of the situation. I don’t think they’ll finish in the top four, since good sides like Liverpool and Arsenal will take a lesson from Swansea and exploit the huge achilles heel United seem to ignore, and the Red Devils will have a lot to answer for when that happens.

Premier League Survivors

Hull City

The Tigers struggled immensely over the Christmas period and fell as low as 19th in early February. But new signing Dame N’Doye has given the Tigers a spark, and it’s taken a lot of pressure off their other big man, Nikica Jelavic. N’Doye has weighed in with goals in both his starts, and Jelavic has found the target as well, helping the Tigers to back-to-back wins for the first time this season, and seeing them go four points safe. The form isn’t permanent but their fighting spirit and an improved performance at home suggests that Hull City will not fall victim to the sophomore drop the way they did in their first Premier League visit. I’ll pick them to beat the drop, not necessarily in easy style, but I think they’ll stay up at least another term.

Burnley

They’re right where they’ve spent most of the season: in the drop zone. But they’re a side that fights, and their 1-1 draw at Chelsea at the weekend is an example of it. They were on the road against the league leaders, but when given a man advantage after Nemanja Matic was sent off, the Clarets pulled level, and they’ve got the players to get the goals they need to survive. Youngster Danny Ings is one of the highest-scoring Englishmen in the league this term, and fullbacks Ben Mee and Kieren Trippier have been effective at supplying him. Ashley Barnes and Sam Vokes have been valuable attacking assets as well, and Tom Heaton has done his part in net, as the Clarets look for survival. I think they’ve got the fight they need, but unlike Leicester City who embody that same spirit, the points suggest Burnley might just live to fight another day in the league.

Premier League Dropouts

Queen’s Park Rangers

The Hoops are an weird bunch. They have name – good names – filling their team sheets each week, but the results they’ve earned hardly reflect the talent. The simple fact about Rangers is that they’re a team without a purpose. Watching them play, they lack spirit, they seem to believe that they’re going to lose before the opening kickoff, and once they fall behind there’s not much getting back into the game. Charlie Austin is the league’s highest-scoring Englishmen, and he’s just been given no support. Bobby Zamora and Eduardo Vargas have provided sparks of intensity from time to time, but the Hoops just don’t connect. They’re all on different pages, and a book that isn’t in the right order ends up at the bottom of the stack, which is where QPR will finish: in the drop zone.

Aston Villa

The Villans have the players and they have the money. But they don’t have the quality. They’re a collection whose whole has yet to equal the sum of its parts. They’ve lost their last six in the league, and they’ve fired manager Paul Lambert two thirds of the way through the season. Norwich City tried it last year, hoping it would give them a spark that would ignite a resurgence. It didn’t work, and the move is typical of desperation that’s setting in at Villa Park. They sit 19th and boast the league’s worst defensive record. It wouldn’t be so bad if the offensive weapons at interim manager Tim Sherwood’s disposal could find the net, but since the new year they often appear as if they don’t know what the goal looks like, let alone how to put a ball in it. They’ve failed to score in four of their last six, including matches against Hull City and Leicester. Their inability to beat the teams around them in the table bodes very ill indeed for a team that’s one of just seven never to be relegated from the Premier League, and I expect we’ll be watching a league without the Villans in 2015/16.

Premier League Preview

TOPIC Barclays Premiership trophy at the JJB Stadium

By Greg Hudson 

Saturday marks the Opening Day of the 2014-15 Barclay’s Premier League season, and the world’s premier league has added some of the world’s premier players to its ranks as the 20 clubs made moves looking to strengthen their squads. But whether a club is fighting for Premier League glory or simply for its Premier League survival, it looks to be an explosive and exciting season in England. The Starting Point’s Greg Hudson takes a look at the 20 clubs and looks at how each one should fare this season.

 
ARSENAL F.C.
Nickname: The Gunners
Kit Colors: Red/White; Blue/Yellow
Home: The Emirates Stadium
 
Arsenal come into this season on the heels of a 4th place finish last campaign, and while they’ll be disappointed to have fallen short of a series title challenge after sitting atop the league for more than half of the season, they’ll take comfort in securing another season of Champions’ League football with their 4th place finish, and claiming their first piece of silverware in nearly a decade by winning the F.A. Cup, and they’ll look to mount a series challenge this term.
 
They have the exciting addition of Alexis Sanchez to assist in that effort, having signed the Chilean forward from Barcelona after he lead his country to the quarterfinals of the World Cup in Brazil. This will bolster an attack that at times seemed to lack grit last season. Conversely, Arsenal’s rock-solid defense last term looks to be slightly less impenetrable this season after the departures of fullback Bacary Sagna to Manchester City and captain Thomas Vermaelen to Barcelona. This isn’t to say they’ll struggle defensively, but teams may look at Arsenal and go in with more of a belief that they can come out and score goals against the Gunners.
 
Predicted Finish: 5th
 
ASTON VILLA F.C.
Nickname: The Villans
Kit Colors: Claret/Sky; White
Home: Villa Park
 
The Villans were a top-half side just a few years ago, but the almost-mighty have fallen into the clutches of relegation fights each of the past two seasons, with the West Midlands side salvaging a 15th place finish last season, five points above the drop. But while some of their more notable players in the past five seasons are long gone, namely Ashley Young and Stewart Downing, the gap they left has been filled by younger players eager to prove themselves, and this explains their dip in performance.
 
But in 2014-15, look for their younger players like Christian Benteke and Andy Weimann to really step up their play. They’ve both got two full seasons of Premiership football underneath them now, and they’re developing the maturity that fully-fledged footballers need. That being said, they’ve also looked to add experience to the side by adding Joe Cole and Kieran Richardson.
 
But this team is not full of the kind of talent that will lead them to the top of the table, or, in fairness, even the top half of the table. Look for them to settle into a comfortable spot in the bottom half of the table, well clear of the drop zone.
 
Predicted Finish: 12th
 
BURNLEY F.C.
Nickname: The Clarets
Kit Colors: Claret/Blue; Black
Home: Turf Moor
 
The Clarets make their return to top-flight football for the first time in four years, but a successful season in the Championship is no sure sign of success in the Premiership a year later, because the level of competition is so much higher in this league. For many teams, a stay in Premier League often lasts one season, a lesson Crystal Palace took several attempts to learn.
 
Burnley have dipped into the transfer market to add proven Permier-League-calibre players to the squad, and among the signings are Michael Kightly and Matty Taylor, Premiership veterans both. But the blunt truth is that this is not a Premier League team, and they won’t be here for very long.
 
Predicted Finish: 20th
 
CHELSEA F.C.
Nickname: The Blues
Kit Colors: Blue; Yellow/Blue
Home: Stamford Bridge
 
Chelsea were title favourites last season after the return of Jose Mourinho and the addition of several major signings, but they often failed to live up to the potential they have, especially from an attacking perspective. Mourinho’s defense-first mentality limited the action of world-class attackers like Juan Mata, who left in January for Manchester United, but his tactics proved effective, if not infuriating. Their 2-0 defeat of Liverpool at Anfield in April was the Reds’ ultimate undoing, and while Chelsea can hardly be adjudged to have played football on that day, when they do come out to play football, there are few teams that do it better.
 
To add to their chances, standout midfielder Cesc Fabregas joined the ranks from Barcelona, and La Liga superstar Diego Costa signed on from Atletico Madrid. Costa will likely prove the more essential to their success, as Chelsea strikers scored just nine goals all season last term.
 
But it was Chelsea’s defense that saw them to their 3rd place finish last season, and that defensive unit has been weakened, somewhat significantly, by the departures of David Luiz and Ashley Cole. So it will be interesting to see how the Blues fare this season with what will almost certainly require a re-working of tactics. But don’t expect it to mean a drop in their finish.
 
Predicted Finish: 2nd
 
CRYSTAL PALACE F.C.
Nickname: The Eagles
Kit Colors: Blue/Red; Yellow
Home: Selhurst Park
 
Palace were last season’s shockers. After tallying just four points by the beginning of November and sitting at the bottom of the table, Tony Pulis was appointed manager and the club’s fortunes reversed. The Eagles not only surprised fans by beating the drop for the first time in the club’s history, but they finished an incredible 11th, gaining wins against high-fliers Chelsea, Everton, and Arsenal, and rallying from 3-0 to take a point from Liverpool in May. 
 
But while Pulis was able to get the most out of his players, his departure from the club in the summer could be construed as a minor cataclysm. But it isn’t as bad as it might seem. Progress cannot be undone, and the confidence and quality in this side suggests they can continue their mid-table success. Their additions of Brede Hangeland and Martin Kelly will only help to shore up a defense that on occasions looked thoroughly amateur. A solid defense and a confident attack spells a good season for the Eagles.
 
Predicted Finish: 10th