It’s summer, and the only football on is either the quasi-pornographic American version – “D-Beck and Thierry On-ree (emphasis on the first vowel for the yanks) are linking up on a play for the All-stars,” etc. etc. – or one can follow the League of Ireland’s finest as they struggle to overcome Lokomotiv Plovdiv or Vorskla Poltava in a qualifier for a qualifier for the right to qualify for the Europa League.
Of course, this is not entirely accurate. One can follow their chosen team’s pre-season tour of Northern Norway as the “gaffer” (horrible word) tries out the latest trialists from Burkina Faso and Venezuela. They could be the missing pieces of the puzzle; you just might have to take out a scissors and cut off a corner of the piece prior to forcing it into place before the puzzle is complete. For those less inclined to taking much notice of such encounters, they can simply press the ‘refresh’ button on their chosen football news website or watch Sky Sports News all day as they show yet another exclusive interview with Steve Bruce and gather the collective thoughts of Tony Cascarino, Tony Gale and Gerry Francis. In order to get work as a pundit on SSN and sound authentic, it seems that one must speak with a working class London accent. Being called Tony also helps.
2011 is also one of those hibernation years in which there is no World Cup or European Championship. If you want to stay up until 5am, you can watch the feast for the eyes that is the Copa America, but that is only for the hardcore – those for whom football takes on a drug-like quality.
But fear not! A gigantic truckload of such drugs is on its way. This weekend there will be ten Premier League matches. There are perhaps four teams with a chance of winning the league, six that can harbour hopes of qualifying for the Champions League, and a good eight or nine that could be relegated. In fact, the only team that has no chance of being threatened by relegation or stretching towards the upper echelons of the league is Everton. Everton will finish seventh. I have never been surer of anything in football than this prediction that out of twenty possibilities, Everton will finish in exactly seventh place after 38 games.
Manchester United will probably win this season’s title. They have the deepest squad, some clever new signings and the best manager – one that has been sitting in that chair chewing gum with an ugly red face for as long as I have been alive (save six months). They are also frustratingly good at winning. This has been a difficult paragraph for me to write.
Two of their realistic rivals for the title continue to deal with transfer sagas (roll up, roll up Messrs Tevez and Fabregas) while the other has not significantly strengthened in the last few weeks. Indeed, Chelsea’s most astute signing might be new manager André Villas-Boas, who, on failing to win the title, will inevitably be sacked in favour of Avram Grant. Again. Michael Essien will get injured and Fernando Torres will fail to turn up for important matches a week after grabbing a brace in a 4-0 victory at home to Norwich.
If Manchester Citeh can make Super Mario Balotelli concentrate for ten minutes they would have a serious player on their hands. As it is, the young Italian (though ethnically Ghanaian) seems to be living life as the ultimate wind-up merchant, and hats off to him for that. A lot will also depend on how the Tevez situation unfolds.
Citeh are still stronger than Arsenal though, who have only signed Ivorian forward Gervinho and have bafflingly failed to get hold of a non-joke goalkeeper, even as Shay Given was available once again. Robin van Persie will get a series of niggly injuries and Theo Walcott will skin defenders before crossing the ball too short, too deep, or straight into the watching crowds as they curse his name. Meanwhile, Tomas Rosicky and Andrei Arshavin will sometimes masquerade as the footballers they once were, but more often than not they will live to frustrate.
And then there is Liverpool, who have now made August groundhog month for a full twenty years. “It might be our year!” Forget it lads. Over the past couple of years Liverpool have traded Xabi Alonso and Fernando Torres for Jordan Henderson and Andy Carroll, so just forget it lads.
At the other end, all three promoted clubs will struggle to compete. Going solely on the strength and discipline of their managers, Norwich probably have the best chance of surviving due to Paul Lambert’s presence. Neil Warnock is… I still don’t know what to make of his buffoonish self, and Brendan Rogers will be totally out of his depth. At least two of the three will go down, but I fancy Norwich to finish ahead of Wigan, who will miss Charles N’Zogbia like a fat kid misses cake.
One team that will definitely be down there is Newcastle, whose best midfielder has developed a serious dose of the crazies in tandem with an addiction to twitter trolling. Combine that with a forward line consisting of the “do I belong here? how did I get this job?” trio of Shola Ameobi, Nile Ranger and Leon Best, the invisible Xisco and Mr. “I haven’t scored since 2007” (actually true) Alan Smith. A lot will depend on whether Demba Ba can continue the form he showed at the end of last season with West Ham and if Hatem Ben Arfa is fully fit after missing last season with a broken leg. Newcastle also have three equally average goalkeepers and a multiple choice of dodgy defenders. They should expect a long season.
And there you have it; I have gazed into my crystal (foot)ball and successfully predicted what will happen. Either Steve Kean or Neil Warnock will be the first manager to be sacked and for a young, relatively unknown player to become more of a household name, keep an eye out for David Hoilett of Blackburn. This is how the table will look come May 2012: