2015-16 Premier League Preview

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The 2015/16 Barclay’s Premier League season is just days away, and while the spending and the speculation are far from over, the countdown clock to opening day is all but spent. The big boys will fight for glory and the minnows will fight for survival, and to kick off the 2015/16 season preview, The Starting Point takes a look at the clubs to watch in the hunt for glory this season, courtesy of Premier League analyst Greg Hudson.

Club to Win it All: Chelsea F.C.

Jose Mourinho’s men won it all last season, and there’s no reason to think they won’t do it again in 2015/16. They have a seemingly irresistible mix of solid defense anchored by John Terry, quality midfield play in the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Oscar, and clinical attack through Eden Hazard and Diego Costa, and that makes them a danger on their worst days, and a juggernaut on their best.

The summer has been fairly quiet at Stamford Bridge, with the biggest activities being the departures of backup goalkeeper Petr Cech to Arsenal and the return of defender Felipe Luis to Atletico Madrid after an unremarkable year with the London side.

But the relative quietude for Chelsea is more a sign of their confidence than of a lack of initiative. It’s often said that champions who don’t improve don’t remain champions very long. It’s true, but although they haven’t added to their squad, this is a fairly young group of players – goalkeeper Thibault Courtois, defender Cesar Azpilicueta, midfielders Oscar and Nemanja Matic, and both Hazard and Costa are still at-or-before their prime – and they’ve spent the summer gelling into an even better side. A 1-0 setback in the Charity Shield to Arsenal won’t bother them much: they’re still the favorites to win the title – and for good reason.

Dark Horse Title Contenders – Arsenal F.C.

Arsenal were the in-form team of the second half of last season, and they’ll look to continue that hot streak in 2015/16, as star forward Alexis Sanchez begins his second season with the club and home-grown talent Francois Coquelin and Hector Bellerin look to become staples in the fiber of the club.

The biggest action of the summer was the acquisition of goalkeeper Petr Cech from Chelsea, and while he’d been supplanted at Stamford Bridge by young hotshot Thibault Courtois, expect Cech to step right into the Arsenal squad between the sticks and make an immediate impact for Arsene Wenger’s side at the Emirates this season. Goalkeeping was Arsenal’s Achilles heel last term, as both Wojciech Szczesny and David Ospina failed to really bolster the defensive unit.

With Cech in goal, Arsenal can fully commit to the kind of attacking play that saw them finish third last season. That gives the likes of Mezut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey the confidence to get forward and help Sanchez, Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott with the goals Arsenal need to mount a title challenge.

Most Overrated Club – Manchester United F.C.

Yes, yes, I’m on the Hate United bandwagon. But not really. If you look at Manchester United, you see the single most imbalanced team in all of European football – world class attacking talent in front of a back line with no true leader and a goalkeeper whose days at Old Trafford are numbered – and that number is alarmingly small.

There’s no denying that United have some world class attacking ability. Even with the departures of Angel di Maria and Robin van Persie, the Red Devils still have Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata and Ander Herrera helping create magical moments on the pitch. So when I looked at Man U’s situation at the end of last season – particularly given that they’d be returning to European competition in the Champions’ League – I assumed their top priority would be defensive strength. With Mats Hummels strongly linked to Old Trafford and Chelsea’s Petr Cech available to replace goalkeeper David de Gea, whose move to Real Madrid is somewhat of a foregone conclusion, it seemed compulsory that United make the move to bring world class defending to the Theatre of Dreams, in a necessary attempt to improve a side which allowed five goals to Leicester City last season.

But they didn’t. The only defensive move the team has made has been the addition of fullback Mateo Darmian, which was followed with the departure of long-time right back Rafael. Instead, the side have brought on Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger to improve the midfield, and world-class winger Memphis Depay to add to the goals department. But where is the defense!? It’s a question manager Louis van Gaal has ignored, or else he’s lost the memo. When your top defensive unit includes Chris Smalling, you’re in big trouble. And with de Gea gone in the coming weeks, there’s no way United can mount a serious title challenge. If you want proof that an all-attack-no-defense system doesn’t win the title, just ask Liverpool: they came about as close to pulling it off two seasons ago before it all unraveled at the finish line. Don’t be looking to see Manchester United at the top of the pile this season – unless they make some serious moves between now and deadline day.

Most Underrated Club – Liverpool F.C.

Two seasons ago, the Reds came as close to winning the title as a team can come without a solid defensive unit. Sadly, two years later, that defensive unit hasn’t improved much. But Brendan Rodgers has a much more all-around team now than he had in that (un)forgettable campaign in 2013/14. The likes of Adam Lallana and Lazar Markovic are beginning to come into their own, and Emre Can looks set to finally make a difference for Liverpool in his natural position in midfield. Yes, the team has lost three of its core players in the last 13 months in Luis Suarez, Steven Gerrard and Raheem Sterling. And yes, last season was an unmitigated disaster with Mario Balotelli proving perhaps the transfer blunder of the season and Daniel Sturridge finding the net just four times as he missed three quarters of the season through injury.

But the Reds still managed to finish sixth for Rodgers and the Anfield faithful, and another summer of spending has again highlighted Rodgers’ smart mentality. Joe Gomez is a top defender of the future, and while he’s unlikely to make a big difference now, Nathaniel Clyne is a top fullback and his addition to the back line will make an immediate impact, both at the back and going forward. Roberto Firmino will partner well with Philippe Countinho in the attacking midfield, and young Jordan Ibe will feature a lot in the side after making some breakthrough performances in the preseason. But the move of the summer was the addition of Christian Benteke, a man whose numbers at Aston Villa nearly mirrored those of Luis Suarez in his time with Liverpool and whose strong attacking presence will surely help the Reds with their biggest problem from last term: goals.

They aren’t title contenders. They simply aren’t that quality a side yet. But this is a predominantly young team, one of the youngest in the league, and the talent and creativity is undeniable. Of all the teams that failed to finish in the top four last year, I rate Liverpool as most likely to do it this season.

Stay tuned to The Starting Point for more of Greg’s preseason thoughts as he looks at teams who will be fighting for their Premier League futures in the upcoming campaign – and who might just make it out alive.

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Premier League Pick ‘Em

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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.

3 Points With Aaron Hampton

By Aaron Hampton

Three thoughts from the past weekend of EPL action that saw Chelsea impress, Manchester United earn a hard fought three points, and Southampton continue to improve their top four credentials:

Chelsea Impress, City Search for Answers

The two clubs at the summit of the Premier League put in two contrasting performances over the weekend as Chelsea cruised to 5-0 victory over Swansea, while Manchester City struggled in their 2-0 defeat to Arsenal. After a 5-3 defeat to Tottenham to start the new year, Chelsea now seem poised to put their recent lackluster run of form behind them, having now kept back-to-back clean sheets in the Premier League and netting a combined 7 goals against Newcastle and Swansea City respectively. Saturday’s win over Swansea was everything we’ve come to expect from Jose Mourinho’s side on both sides of the ball, as they took the lead just 48 seconds in behind a goal from Oscar and rode a sublime performance from Diego Costa en route to victory.

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Saturday’s win over Swansea took the Blues five points clear of Manchester City, who themselves could not muster a result against an Arsenal team that has quietly won 5 of their last 7 Premier League matches. The return of Vincent Kompany was thought to give City a boost going into the match-up, but the Belgium international showed rust throughout and personified an unimpressive day for the City defense.  With Arsenal striking for goals on either side of the half, City were unable to find a breakthrough despite enjoying a healthy amount of possession.  With their unbeaten streak of 12 snapped, and their midfield engine Yaya Toure away on international duty, all eyes will be focused on a January 31st clash with league leaders Chelsea, which has the potential to see Chelsea move eight points clear of their nearest threat to the Premier League crown.

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Manchester United Survive

Louis Van Gaal has long admitted that Manchester United remain a work in progress despite sitting fourth in the Premier League, and Saturday’s 2-0 win over QPR showed his squad still have much smoothing over to do before they are a finished product.  For a majority of the first half, QPR looked much the more threatening side in carving out better chances of the two squads. United, who rolled out a 3-4-1-2 formation to start the match, showed they still have yet to achieve a comfort level using three at the back and looked much better once Van Gaal went to a more orthodox back four in the second half.

Goals by Marouane Fellaini and James Wilson were enough to allow Manchester United to pick up the three points, but they have still yet to click going forward with all of their expensively assembled attacking options. Radamel Falcao put in decent shift against QPR, but his scoring touch has yet to make its way to Old Trafford as he could not find the back of the net despite having at least two clear-cut chances at goal.

Falcao was partnered up top with Angel Di Maria, who Van Gaal continues to experiment with up front as a forward to mixed results at best.  Di Maria works best centrally or out wide were he can take advantage of his blistering pace to move past defenders to go either on goal or set-up teammates.  When you pay close to $100 million dollars to bring in Di Maria you have to maximize his strengths, and playing with his back to goal or dropping deep just doesn’t allow him to impact the game in ways we’ve become accustomed to seeing.

In the end, it’s hard to argue after a club takes home three points, but if this result is any indication Van Gaal will remain the mad scientist tinkering for answers, while United remain a work in progress.

Southampton Continues to Impress

A recent run of 16 points out of a possible 18 have Southampton sitting third in the Premier League table and bunkering in for what will be a season-long push for Champions League football at St. Mary’s Stadium come next season.  Recent loan signing Eljero Elia repaired the Saints gratitude as he scored his first two goals for the club to help take them past Newcastle 2-1. Despite missing both Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama from their starting 11, Southampton never seemed as though they were ever truly threatened in the match by Newcastle, who themselves suffered their third defeat in four games.
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It seems like only yesterday questions surrounded Southampton and their ambitions to field a competitive club after selling off the likes of Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, and a host of others, and yet week in and week out they continue to defy expectations and make us all of wonder if they have yet to even played their best football this season.  Whether or not Southampton can this up and see out the season in one of the four Champions League spots remains anybody’s guess, but with matches against Crystal Palace, Swansea City, and QPR all looming on the horizon, one has to fancy their chances to at least ride this wave of incredible form for the foreseeable future.

Who’s Hot ? Whose Not ?

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By Greg Hudson

The 2014/15 Barclay’s Premier League season is one-third complete, and some clubs are emerging as potential contenders while others falter in the hunt for supremacy. Here’s a list of who’s hot, who’s not, and which side remains a mystery:

WHO’S HOT:

Chelsea: Jose Mourinho’s men have gotten off to one of the hottest starts in Premier League history, winning ten of their first 13 contests and going unbeaten. Their free-flowing and creative attack has belied Mourinho’s reputation as a defensive-minded manager, but the defense has been almost unbreakable all season. They sit atop the league by six points over champions Manchester City and frankly don’t look like they can be caught at this point. It’s a foolish thing to say at such an early point in the season, with so much time remaining for players to lose their form or suffer the injury bug, but all signs point to a reality that anyone wanting to win the title this season will have to do so over Chelsea’s dead bodies.

Southampton: The Saints were almost everyone’s – including my own – favorites for relegation after Liverpool and other top clubs raided the club of its best talent during the summer transfer window. But Southampton have not only replaced them, they look like an improved side for it, with new striker Graziano Pelle benefitting from excellent link-up play from new winger Susan Tadiç. Saints currently sit third in the table and based on current form, could put up a good fight for a spot in the Champions’ League next year.

WHO’S NOT

Manchester City: Last year’s champions won’t be pleased with their performance so far this season. It’s almost unfair to say that the team which sits second isn’t hot but they simply haven’t lived up to expectations as the most talented group of players in England. They’ve been too reliant on Sergio Agüero for goals and their once-solid defense has at times looked porous. They’re only six points behind Chelsea but based on current form they might as well be 12 points back because they have their work cut out.

Liverpool: Like City, the Reds came down hard off a great season. They lost superstar striker Luis Suarez to Barcelona and invested in several good players but they simply haven’t meshed yet, and with star striker Daniel Sturbridge out since the end of August, things have looked dire for Liverpool who have just 17 points and sit 11th. It is very reminiscent of Tottenham Hotspur last season, when they lost Gareth Bale and struggled to find chemistry with the seven new players they signed. The good news for the Reds is that Spurs look strong a year later, and so while this season isn’t set to amount to much, improved form next season could see them again return to a fight at the top.

MYSTERY:

Manchester United: I say United are a mystery because they are a very inconsistent and unbalanced side with four world class attackers but a defense which remains a shambles. Somehow they sit in fourth but how they’ve gotten there is indeed quite a mystery. A team which loses 5-3 to bottom side Leicester but beats Arsenal 2-0 away from home is without question an unknown quantity which we’ll need to watch more closely to learn more about, to see if they’re contenders or pretenders

Premier League Preview Part II

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By Greg Hudson

EVERTON F.C.

Nickmame: The Toffees
Kit Colors: Blue; Black
Home: Goodison Park
 
Everton impressed last season under Roberto Martinez, and the manager looks to continue his side’s new-found success in 2014-15. Romelu Lukaku, who scored 14 goals for them last term on loan from Chelsea, joins the team on a permanent move this season, while Gareth Barry rejoins his old club from champions Manchester City.
 
Make no mistake, Everton are capable of beating the best. But their young talent still needs time to develop, with players like Ross Barkley, John Stones, and Lukaku still a few years from their peak of performance, while their veterans like Barry, Phil Jagielka, and keeper Tim Howard are past their peak. So don’t expect the Toffees to finish above their Merseyside rivals Liverpool, let alone challenge for the title. But beware, don’t bet against Everton to play spoiler in the title race by taking points from the big fish.
 
Predicted Finish: 7th
 
HULL CITY F.C.
Nickname: The Tigers
Kit Colors: Gold/Black; Black
Home: The KC Stadium
 
The Tigers surprised a few last season with a fearless approach to football, as they characterized their first season of their return to the Premier League by taking games to their opponent, especially at home, where they recorded seven wins and an additional four draws. But their road form was less than stellar, as they lost 13 of their 19 fixtures. But while their goal tally wasn’t exceptional, they found the goals they needed to win games against teams around them in the bottom half of the table, and among their victories was a shock 3-1 triumph over Liverpool at the KC Stadium.
 
To strengthen the squad, manager Steve Bruce brought in some new names, most notably highly-rated young winger Tom Ince from Blackpool on a free transfer and Robert Snodgrass, the standout of a Norwich City team that was relegated at the end of last season. Holding midfielder Jake Livermore, who spent 2013-14 on loan with the Tigers, joined on a permanent deal, while defender Andrew Robertson joins a five-man back line that includes up-and-coming defenders Alex Bruce and James Chester.
 
Don’t expect the Tigers to finish in the top half of the table, but you can certainly expect this stay in the top flight to last longer than their one previous stay in the top flight, which lasted only two seasons.
 
Predicted Finish: 13th
 
LEICESTER CITY F.C.
Nickname: The Foxes
Kit Colors: Blue/Gold; Gold/Black
Home: The King Power Stadium
 
The Foxes make their return to the Premiership in 2014-15 after an 11-season absence since their relegation in 2002-03. Manager Nigel Pearson saw his side to the championship of the League Championship last season, and the Foxes certainly have quality. Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, son of legendary Manchester United ‘keeper Peter Schmeichel, helps lead the way, while defender Wes Morgan wears the armband.
 
But the gulf in class between the Premier League and the Championship is massive, and Pearson has made several additions to his squad in the hopes of bolstering it enough to survive their first season in the Premiership. Matthew Upson and Marc Albrighton, veterans of the top flight, join the side, while striker Leonardo Ulloa will look to contribute the goals the Foxes need to survive.
 
But the simple fact is that while they will play good football on more than few occasions, without making more signings and getting help from the teams around them, the Foxes aren’t likely to produce the results needed to survive the season. But they’re certain to be entertaining as they’re bound to go down fighting.
 
Predicted Finish: 18th
 
LIVERPOOL F.C.
Nickname: The Reds
Kit Colors: Red; Yellow/Red
Home: Anfield
 
Liverpool were both the Premier League’s top entertainers last season, and the league’s biggest surprise. The Reds had finished seventh the season before, but they developed into a fearsome offensive juggernaut over the course of the season, as strikers Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez, known simply as SAS, finished the season as the league’s two highest scorers and teen phenoms Raheem Sterling and John Flanagan both became regular fixtures in the starting eleven. But defensive weaknesses let them down in the late stages of the season and they came up two points short of their first league title in 24 years, finishing as runners-up to Manchester City.
 
Manager Brendan Rodgers knew that to become a championship-calibre side Liverpool would need new players, but his hopes for becoming title favourites ended when Suarez left the club in disgrace after biting Italian defender Georgio Chiellini while representing Uruguay in the World Cup. But Rodgers cashed in on his troublesome striker, profiting to the tune of 75 million pounds, and he put that cash to work, adding several new players to the side. Attacking midfielder Adam Lallana and striker Rickie Lambert join the club from Southampton, as does highly-touted defender Dejan Lovren, brought in to help shore up the Reds’ too-often porous defense. Joining him in the back line are fullbacks Alberto Moreno from Sevilla and Javier Manquillo, a loanee from Atletico Madrid. Meanwhile the Reds continue to look for goals by adding young prospect Lazar Markovic and holding midfield up-and-comer Emre Can.
 
If the Reds’ defense can avoid the costly mistakes that plagued them last season, while continuing to find goals from players all across the lineup, they can challenge for the title. But as Tottenham Hotspur proved last season, replacing a superstar with several new additions can take time to produce results. Don’t expect them to win it this season, but expect them to be there right on the heels of the title favorites ready to pounce if they slip up.
 
Predicted Finish: 3rd
 
MANCHESTER CITY F.C.
Nickname: The Citizens
Kit Colors: SkyBlue/Navy; Navy/SkyBlue
Home: The City of Manchester Stadium
 
The Citizens captured their second title in two years last season, and the holders look stronger than ever. Manager Manuel Pellegrini had few moves to make this summer, as there are few ways to realistically improve this squad. Strikers Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko, and Alvaro Negredo all scored 20 or more goals across all competitions last season, while their defense was the best in the league, especially at home, where they were beaten just once all season.
 
While they were somewhat fortunate to win the title as Liverpool faltered in the final fixtures of the season, there is no squad as deep or as talented in all departments as City’s. The only department they moved to strengthen was the defense, with fullback Bacary Sagna joining from Arsenal and centre-half Eliaquim Mangala arriving from FC Porto along with teammate Fernando, acquired to fill the hole between the back line and the midfield.
 
There’s no team with better players, and only Brendan Rodgers and Jose Mourinho could claim to be tactically better managers than Pellegrini, so there’s little doubt that the title holders are the odds-on favourites to retain their silverware, but they need to beware: they’re there to be shot at, and they can’t let their approach be changed by their good fortunes last season. That being said, this is a hungry outfit that isn’t likely to be satisfied by anything other than a second title in as many years.
 
Predicted Finish: 1st 

Winner-Take-All?

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Liverpool and Man City clash could well decide the Premier League title.
By Greg Hudson
 
When Liverpool beat Cardiff City in December to sit first in the Barclay’s Premier League at Christmas for the first time in nearly two decades, few pundits or fans believed they’d remain there for long. And two narrow defeats to championship rivals Manchester City and Chelsea in the final week of 2013 left the Reds in fourth place, down but not out.
 
But while other title contenders have stumbled – Chelsea suffered shock defeats to Aston Villa and Crystal Palace; City were held 0-0 by Norwich City; Arsenal lost 6-0 to Chelsea, 5-1 to Liverpool, 3-0 to Everton – Liverpool have emerged in 2014 as legitimate title contenders. They are unbeaten in 2014, a run of 14 matches since their loss to Chelsea. The Reds are currently on a nine-game winning streak, and when they thrashed Tottenham Hotspur 4-0 at Anfield at the end of March, they regained the top spot in the league with just 5 matches to go.
 
Liverpool now have destiny entirely in their hands. If they win their five remaining matches, they will lift the trophy for the 19th time, but on the first occasion since 1990.
 
But Manchester City have seven games remaining, and they too have destiny entirely in their hands: win their remaining games and they win the title. And a 2-1 victory over Liverpool after Christmas will give the Citizens confidence.
 
A win for either side could potentially decide the title, with Liverpool poised to put themselves 1 point clear of City’s maximum remaining points, while City could move past the Reds’ potential by 5 with a win of their own, though that task will be difficult against a Liverpool side that lead the league in goals scored and are on a run of for unrivaled in the league this season.
 
A draw, on the other hand, could prove fatal for both sides, as it would potentially allow Chelsea back into the championship argument. And with a month left in this the season of seasons, truly anything can happen.

And Then There Were Three

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Chelsea Knock Arsenal Out of Title Race with 6-0 Rout: Liverpool, City Keep Pace

 
By Greg Hudson
 
When Arsenal traveled to Stamford Bridge for Saturday’s match, they came in knowing that a win against Chelsea would put them only one point behind their bitter London rivals in the Premier League title hunt. 
 
But on the day that marked Arsene Wenger’s 1000th match in charge of the Gunners, it was Chelsea’s game from first whistle to last, in a match that saw 6 shots find their way into the Arsenal net but will be forever remembered as the day the wrong man was given a red card.
 
Referee Andre Marriner’s error came 15 minutes into the 6-0 thrashing, with Chelsea 2-0 up, when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain punched the ball off the Arsenal goal line. Marriner assessed the situation and made the correct judgement in issuing the red card, but instead of sending off Oxlade-Chamberlain, he showed the red to Kieran Gibbs, the Arsenal left back who was 20 yards from the incident.
 
But in the end, regardless of the misplaced red card, there was no denying Chelsea. Eden Hazard converted the resulting penalty kick to make the score 3-0 inside of 20 minutes, and Arsene Wenger’s big day ended in a nightmare 6-0 rout that all but ends Arsenal’s title ambitions.
 
The win put Chelsea seven points clear of Liverpool and nine points clear of Manchester City, who went into their games that evening knowing they must likewise win in order to keep up the pressure on the Blues, despite both clubs having at least one extra game to play.
 
City faced a seemingly easy task at home against basement club Fulham. City have lost just once at home all season, and dominated proceedings from whistle to whistle in a match which also saw a penalty and a sending off for Fulham defender Amorebieta. Yaya Toure converted that penalty en route to a hat trick and a 5-0 City win.
 
Liverpool, meanwhile, faced a slightly tougher obstacle in Wales against a resurgent Cardiff City side fresh off a 3-1 win against Fulham and eager to prove they deserve their Premier League status despite being mired in the relegation zone. But Liverpool came into the fixture on the back of a five-game winning streak and an unbeaten record in 2014, and few expected anything less than a Reds victory.
 
But Liverpool would not have it all their own way. Cardiff opened the brighter and took advantage of a Liverpool error on eight minutes: Joe Allen’s misplaced pass was cut out by Frazier Campbell who squared up for youngster Jordan Mutch, who fired past Simon Mignolet to give Cardiff a shock lead.
 
Liverpool awakened from their slumber almost immediately and leveled the scores on 15 minutes when Jordan Henderson’s perfectly-weighted pass sent Glen Johnson into the penalty area and the England rightback found prolific striker Luis Suarez, who made no mistake from six yards and wrested the momentum in Liverpool’s favor.
 
But it was Cardiff who scored next, when Campbell latched onto a loose ball at the edge of the Liverpool area and hit a shot through the crowd and past the unsighted Mignolet. It seemed the scoreline might hold until the half time interval, but Liverpool clawed their way back into the game from a corner kick. Cardiff’s clearance only found Phillipe Coutinho, who sent the ball back in for Martin Skrtel to deflect into the net to send the teams into the break with honors even.
 
But Liverpool weren’t finished yet. A strong start to the second period seemed to go stale, but it was Skrtel who again provided a moment of magic – again from a corner kick – sending a perfectly-weighted header into David Marshall’s net to give the Reds a 3-2 lead.
 
Liverpool then made it 4-2 minutes later with a goal-of-the-season candidate. Another low cross from Johnson picked out Daniel Sturridge, who deftly back-heeled the ball into the path of Suarez who netted his second of the game.
 
Suarez then turned provider for Sturridge on 75 minutes after a classic Liverpool counter. Suarez drew the keeper Marshall off his line before crossing to Sturridge who had the easiest of tap-ins into an empty net to make it 5-2.
 
A late goal for Mutch gave the home fans something to cheer, but Liverpool and Suarez had the last say when the Uruguayan ran through on Marshall deep into stoppage time. Suarez made no mistake and completed his third hat trick of the campaign.
 
The win keeps Liverpool very much in the title race, but only Manchester City have fate entirely in their own hands. However, both City and Chelsea must visit Liverpool in their remaining games, where the Reds have not lost in 12 games. And with City facing another road challenge against Arsenal, the road to the title may well go through Anfield.
 
The Table:
 
1. Chelsea, 69 points, 31 games
2. Liverpool, 65 points, 30 games
3. Manchester City, 63 points, 28 games
4. Arsenal, 62 points, 30 games.