After a long and hot summer, the best unofficial holiday of the year is finally upon us: opening weekend of the EPL. I had been excited all week for the season to begin, even though City don't play until Monday; all the games are at least a little bit exciting. The weekend would have probably been better if the Spurs v Everton fixture had been given the green light following the London riots, but there were still many headlines to watch. With that in mind, here are a few things to watch for as the season kicks off.
- City, City, City
First and foremost, of course, is our beloved Manchester City. This will be a landmark season in the club's history, one way or another. Will the Blues hang tough with the traditional powerhouses in Europe? Will they give United a run for their money in the league, and maybe knock them off? Or will they slip under the increased pressure and not meet expectations? Plenty of speculation and questions, but that's something City fans have gotten used to in recent times. The general feeling heading into the City camp is one of confidence, with the squad looking to build off of last season's excellent ending and hoping (needing) to improve even more to successfully make a run on all 4 fronts in the EPL, Champions League, Carling Cup, and FA Cup (which is sponsored by Budweiser this year). Though many are predicting David Silva to have a truly standout season and end up as one of the league's top performers, questions are still left unanswered by City's strikeforce, namely, who will be getting most of the minutes, which striker pairings will prove the most effective, and how well the team can integrate an already stellar defense and midfield with the forwards in the final third of the pitch. Aside from Silva, Micah Richards looks like he could have a monster year and work towards securing the RB role for England, and of course, £38 million talisman Sergio Aguero will have high expectations to fulfill.
- Arsène's Arsenal Circus
As well as City ended last season's campaign, Arsenal finished equally worse. Since getting upset by Birmingham in the Carling Cup Final, Arsenal haven't looked the same and Wenger's job seems to be more and more uncertain. His transfer policy remained the same this summer, opting for youth as 3 of his 4 summer imports are teenagers. For years now, angry Gunners fans and football pundits have continually asked why Wenger refuses to open the checkbook to sign just a player or two that Arsenal could use to address their needs today, rather than 3 or 4 years from now. Gervinho seems to be a solid signing (red card at Newcastle aside) but Arsenal still need a commanding center back in the mold of Vidic and Kompany, and will need another clinical striker, since we all know RVP will inevitably be injured and without Fabregas and Nasri, Arsenal will lack firepower in attack. Following yesterday's draw against Newcastle, Arsenal now have just 2 wins, 7 draws, and 3 losses in their last 12 EPL games, a stat that will not cut it at this level. Some might argue that it is the players, but it has been the same story for years now, and thus it is Wenger's turn to respond with something this season, anything but the norm.
- Liverpool's Resurgence
After suffering through 2 very sub-par seasons, things seem to be on the rise again at Anfield. Kenny Dalglish's fiery personality has resonated with the Liverpool players and the results have shown on the pitch, with the Merseyside squad finishing with the most points in the entire league from the date that Dalglish was hired til the end of the season. After securing many quality signatures this summer, Liverpool's often depleted squad now looks rejuvenated and ready to march back into top 4 contention (much the opposite of Arsenal). Now the only question is just how well can this overhauled squad work together? With 9 quality midfielders, minutes will be hard to get, but 'Pool fans can place their trust in Kenny to make it all come together. If any of the top 4 should slip, look for Liverpool to happily slide in.
- Blackburn's (Strange) Ambitions
One of the more interesting stories of the season will undoubtedly be the one that unfolds at Ewood Park. Aside from success in the early days of the EPL in the '90s, Blackburn have done little in the league in recent times, usually finishing in the middle or bottom half of the table. After selling young star Phil Jones to United, and possibly Christopher Samba to follow in August or January, the future doesn't seem to be much brighter than it has been in the last few years. With no real stars, not much commercial marketing value, and an unproven manager, it makes one wonder how on Earth the Rovers could possibly qualify for the Champions League within in the next 'three or four years', as stated by manager Steve Kean. Sure, City were once nothing big and were able to make the jump, but Blackburn seem to have less of the intangibles, appeal, and money needed to achieve such lofty goals. New owners Venky's already sacked Big Sam for unusual reasons, and one can only think that Kean's job will also be terminated quickly if Blackburn fail to meet the unrealistic hopes and expectations of the new owners.
- The Relegation Battle
Each season brings an intense battle to avoid the bottom 3 and this year should prove the same. New boys QPR, Norwich City, and Swansea City will all be early favorites but Wolves, Wigan, and maybe Blackburn could factor into the bottom as well. Wolves and Wigan escaped by the skin of their teeth last season and have done little to bolster their squads in the summer. QPR's owners are quite rich but have seemed reluctant to spend in the summer, and the 0-4 hammering at home to Bolton will raise even more questions. Swansea's long awaited return to top flight football will carry the hopes of all of Wales, as they will be the first Welsh squad to ever compete in the Premier League. As good as their story is, City won't be looking to do them any favors in tomorrow's season opener. Hopefully the season will wind down to another last-day roller coaster ride with clubs narrowly surviving from and succumbing to relegation.
Always hope for City to do the best and they certainly could win the league this year, but my predictions for the season are:
Top Four: United, City (only 1 or 2 points back), Chelsea, Liverpool
Relegation: Norwich, Swansea, Wigan