Sports


English Premier League in focus: Team previews


Photo courtesy - Dribbble.com

Following are the previews of English Premier League teams:

TITLE CHALLENGERS

Arsenal 

Major signing: Alexis Sanchez
Major departure: Thomas Vermaelen
Strength: Boast an impressive array of attacking options in Olivier Giroud, Mesut Ozil, Sanchez, Theo Walcott, Joel Campbell, Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Weakness: Lack a midfield powerhouse and they still look light at centre-half should Lorient Koscielny or Per Mertesacker get injured or lose form.
Key stat: Conceded only 11 goals at home last season - and three of those came on the opening day against Villa.
Verdict: They led the table for three quarters of last season but fell away. Have the squad to sustain a challenge this time, especially if new fitness coach Shad Forsythe can improve their chronic injury record.

Chelsea

Major signing: Diego Costa
Major departure: David Luiz
Strength: Expect Chelsea to boast the best defensive record. They kept 18 clean sheets last season and losing the error-prone Luiz will make them even more impregnable. 
Weakness: Need to score more goals. Scored 20 fewer at home than Manchester City and were the least prolific of the top four away from home last season.
Key stat:  Enjoyed an average possession of only 55 per cent in 2013/14, suggesting they prefer to play on the counter.
Verdict: Whether Thibaut Courtois will oust Petr Cech as number one will be intriguing as will the ability of Cesc Fabregas to fill the hole left by Frank Lampard. Jose Mourinho claimed Chelsea were in transition last season when they finished empty handed. He has no excuses this time.

Liverpool

Major signing: Adam Lallana
Major departure: Luis Suarez
Strength: Array of playmakers Brendan Rodgers has at his disposal. Phillipe Coutinho, Lallana, Emre Can and Lazar Markovic and Raheem Sterling can unlock any defence in Europe. 
Weakness: Their defence. They conceded only three less than Hull City who finished 16th. They badly need new signing Dejan Lovren to shore up the back four.
Key stat: Liverpool collected 23 points more in 2013/14 than they did the previous season.
Verdict: Could fall into the same trap as Tottenham did by using the money from the sale of their star player by signing too many players. Are likely to be the most pleasing team on the eye but how they replace the goals and assists of Suarez will determine their season.

Manchester City

Major signing: Eliaquim Mangala
Major departure: Jack Rodwell
Strength: Attacking options. They have Samir Nasri and David Silva providing the ammunition for Edin Dzeko, Sergio Aguero, Stefan Jovetic and Alvaro Negredo. Any two of their front four would lead the line for most of the clubs in the division.
Weakness: Aguero's fitness. The Argentine missed large chunks of last season and several World Cup matches. Manuel Pellegrini needs to manage his return. 
Key stat: City have spent more than £590 million on transfer fees since Sheikh Mansour purchased the club in 2008.
Verdict: Whoever finishes above City will win the league. The only thing that might prevent them from winning it for a third time in four years is if they prioritise the Champions League.

Manchester United

Major signing: Ander Herrera
Major departure: Nemanja Vidic
Strength: The manager, Louis Van Gaal. Possesses the authority and pedigree David Moyes lacked and the Dutchman should ensure the team is more consistent and cohesive this season.
Weakness: Have not moved quickly and decisive enough in the transfer market for the second successive summer. Short of at least one central defender and another top-class midfielder. 
Key stat: Conceded the same amount of goals last season as they did when they won the league under Sir Alex Ferguson in 2012/13.
Verdict: Still look behind Chelsea and Manchester City in terms of depth of squad and world-class personnel, but then no-one really fancied Holland in the World Cup and they reached the semi-final. Robin van Persie will need to play more than he did last year if United are to challenge.

IN-BETWEENERS

Crystal Palace

Major signing: Brede Hangeland
Major departure: Jose Campana
Strength: Their defence. Conceded only 20 goals in a 24-game period last season that included 11 clean sheets. The capture of Hangeland should only fortify things.
Weakness: Depth of their squad. Collected £75 million ($126 million) in prize money for finishing 11th but have invested only a fraction of that during the summer. Tony Pulis will be imploring the board to spend more.
Key stat: Had only four points from 11 matches when Ian Holloway left last season.
Verdict: Expectation levels will be raised after Pulis transformed them from relegation certainties to mid-table safety. Should survive comfortably but will need new boy Fraizer Campbell to become the proven goalscorer they lack.

Everton

Major signing: Romelu Lukaku
Major departure: Magaye Gueye
Strength: Great mix of youth (Ross Barkley, John Stones, Seamus Coleman) and experience (Gareth Barry, Sylvain Distin, Tim Howard). No-one will relish going to Goodison Park this season.
Weakness: Over-reliance on Lukaku. He scored 16 last season. Steven Naismith and Kevin Mirallas were the next best with nine.
Key stat: Lost only once before Christmas last season.
Verdict: Fifth is always going to be the extent of Everton's ambitions as they do not have the financial resources to crack the top four. Should be one of the most attractive teams to watch, especially if Ross Barkley is in full flow.

Newcastle United

Major signing: Daryl Janmaat
Major departure: Mathieu Debuchy
Strength: Continuity. Mike Ashley has his critics but at least keeping faith with manager Alan Pardew has created a stability other clubs would do well to follow.  They also continue to trade players well.
Weakness: Fans' expectation levels. Newcastle finished 2013 in the top six and the season in the top ten yet Pardew was still roundly booed in the final home game of the season. 
Key stat: The Magpies failed to score in 16 games last season – only Crystal Palace and Cardiff registered more blanks in front of goal. 
Verdict: Could finish anywhere between 7th and 17th. Pardew would do well to take the cup competitions more seriously as there is nothing like a cup run to retain the interest of the fans.

Stoke City

Major signing: Bojan
Major departure: Michael Kightly
Strength: Their unpredictability. Attacking weapons Marko Arnautovic and Bojan are probably not 100 per cent sure what they are going to do when they get the ball, so opposition defences will have even less of a clue.
Weakness: Goals. The Potters lack a striker capable of getting 15 goals. Peter Crouch was their top-scorer last season with eight.
Key stat: Stoke finished ninth, their highest ever position in the Premier League despite winning just two of their opening 11 games and only one in another ten-game period.
Verdict: We will finally find out if a Barcelona player can do it on a cold Tuesday night in Stoke after Bojan swapped the Nou Camp for the Britannia Stadium. The capture of the forward represents another sign of how Mark Hughes plans to continue to evolve Stoke's playing style. How Bojan acclimatises should shape their season.

Sunderland

Major signing: Jack Rodwell
Major departure: Jack Colback
Strength: Connor Wickham and Steven Fletcher will provide a handful for any defence if Gus Poyet can keep them fit and the pair play with the bit between their teeth.
Weakness: Consistency. A 2-1 win at Chelsea and a 2-0 defeat at relegated Norwich summed up their inconsistency in the last campaign.
Key stat: Received seven red cards last season, the most in the division. Wes Brown was the worst offender, sent off three times.
Verdict: With players of the talent of Will Buckley, Jordi Gomez, Adam Johnson and Wickham and the experience of John O'Shea, Brown and Cattermole, Sunderland fans are entitled to expect better than a season spent flirting with relegation.

Swansea City

Major signing: Bafetimbi Gomes
Major departure: Ben Davies
Strength: There will be few centre halves who will be relishing playing against Gomes, the former Lyon striker, and Wilfred Bony this season. 
Weakness: Manager's inexperience. It was a bold move last season to hand Garry Monk the job of managing a Premier League club as his first assignment. He had a bust up with Chico Flores before he replaced Brian Laudrup and then two more players clashed before the defeat to Chelsea in April. 
Key stat: Won three of their last four games in 2013/14 after winning one of the previous 12.
Verdict: Hard to see Monk lasting the season. The outcome of back-to-back home games against Burnley and West Brom either side of trips to Manchester United and Chelsea is likely to set the tone for the rest of the campaign.

Tottenham Hotspur

Major signing: Ben Davies
Major departure: Gylfi Sigurdsson
Strength: Their goalkeeper. Only Manuel Neuer is probably ahead of Hugo Lloris in the pecking order of Europe's top shot stoppers. The Frenchman signing a new five-year deal in the summer was their best piece of business.
Weakness: Chairman Daniel Levy. He needs to keep faith with Mauricio Pochettino if things don't go according to plan early on and temper expectations. The straight-talking Tim Sherwood was spot on when he said Spurs are "miles off the top four".
Key stat: Spurs have spent £165.2 million on transfers in the last two seasons.
Verdict:  If Erik Lamela, the club's record signing, responds better to the coaching methods of fellow Argentinian Pochettino then he could be the new darling of White Hart Lane. Spurs will be battling for fifth spot. Silverware will only come via success in a cup competition.

West Ham

Major signing: Enner Valencia
Major departure: Joe Cole
Strength: Their wide play. Only Manchester United averaged more crosses per game than West Ham last season so the strikers certainly can't complain about a lack of service.
Weakness: Andy Carroll's fitness. Sam Allardyce did not just put all his eggs in one basket by signing Carroll, he put the bread, the milk and the cheese in, too. The England striker has damaged his knee, hamstring, heel and now ankle since he joined the Hammers. He will miss the first three months of the season.
Key stat: The Hammers averaged the second fewest short passes per game in the division last season. 
Verdict: Will survive comfortably but it won't be pretty and the debate about the style of football deployed by Allardyce will continue to rage among the Upton Park faithful.

RELEGATION BATTLERS

Aston Villa

Major signing: Aly Cissokho
Major departure: Alexksander Tonev
Strength: If Christian Benteke recovers fully from the Achilles he ruptured prior to the World Cup, then he will provide a handful for any defence in the league. 
Weakness: Their inconsistency. They beat Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City last season yet lost home and away to relegated Fulham.
Key stat: Villa have not won three consecutive home games for nearly seven years.
Verdict: Uncertainty over the ownership of the club (Randy Lerner wants to sell it) has created an instability that will do little to help Paul Lambert ward off a relegation battle. Will be fascinating to see the impact of new assistant manager Roy Keane. 

Burnley

Major signing: Marvin Sordell
Major departure: Junior Stanislas
Strength: Home form. The Clarets beat Manchester United and Spurs and drew with Arsenal at Turf Moor in their last Premier League campaign in 2009/10. They host United and Chelsea in two of their first three games.
Weakness: Size of squad. Manager Sean Dyche has made 500 phone calls in an attempt to strengthen his squad and doubts whether he will have 25 senior players registered.
Key stat: Only 27 of the 62 teams ever promoted to the Premier League have been relegated in the first season. 
Verdict: It is a blow Sam Vokes will miss the first half of the season as his partnership with Danny Ings will give them the best chance of avoiding the drop. Burnley have their work cut out but if they do survive, it will be down to the goals of Ings and the alchemy of Dyche.

Hull City

Major signing: Tom Ince
Major departure: Shane Long
Strength: Their English core. Curtis Davis, Jake Livermore, Tom Huddlestone and Tom Ince provide a solid and athletic spine for Bruce to build a side around. 
Weakness: Only Cardiff, Norwich and Palace scored fewer goals last season. An early exit from the Europa League may also be a blessing as playing Saturday, Thursday and then Sunday could really test the depth of their squad.
Key stat: Hull only mustered 38 goals last season. Only Norwich, Cardiff and Palace scored fewer.
Verdict: Steve Bruce would probably bite your arm off at the elbow if you offered him 17th place right now. He has recruited well this summer and he will be reminding his players they led Arsenal 2-0 in the FA Cup final four months ago. The sale of Shane Long is a strange one on the eve of the season.

Leicester City

Major signing: Leonardo Ulloa
Major departure: Lloyd Dyer
Strength: Confidence. The Foxes will go into the season on the back of a seven-match unbeaten run in pre-season - plus they lost only one of their last 22 league games in the Championship. 
Weakness: Premier League experience. Only the likes of David Nugent, Marc Albrighton, Paul Konchesky, Kasper Schmeichel and Matthew Upson have played in the top flight. They will be telling their team-mates what a huge step up it is from the Championship.  
Key stat: The £8m they paid Brighton to sign Ulloa smashed the £5m they shelled out on Ade Akinbiyi 14 years ago.
Verdict: Nigel Pearson is another manager who would happily finish the season fourth from bottom. Summer injuries to Albrighton, Anthony Knockeart and Jamie Vardy have not been ideal, but their fate could go right to the wire as their last eight games are against West Ham, West Brom, Swansea, Burnley, Newcastle, Southampton, Sunderland and QPR.

Queens Park Rangers (QPR)

Major signing: Rio Ferdinand
Major departure: Julio Cesar
Strength: Their coaching staff. Harry Redknapp knows the league inside out while Glenn Hoddle should bring the type of knowledge and coaching nous to the training ground that some feel should still be benefitting the national side.
Weakness: Goals. Ravel Morrison was their second top-scorer last season with six and they are too dependent on Charlie Austin. Loic Remy's aborted move to Liverpool could be a blessing in disguise.
Key stat: QPR spent £24m more on players salaries than La Liga winners and Champions League finalists Atletico Madrid last season. 
Verdict: They look the best equipped of the promoted clubs to stay up. Steven Caulker and Rio Ferdinand will form a formidable last line of defence while the signing of Jordan Mutch is a shrewd piece of business.

Southampton

Major signing: Fraser Forster
Major departure: Luke Shaw
Strength:  Their Academy. Harrison Reed and Matt Target are the next two off the conveyor belt that has produced Gareth Bale, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott.
Weakness: Firepower. They have to find a way of replacing the 24 league goals scored by the departed Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert last season.
Key stat: The Saints have generated £105.19 million in transfer fees this summer. 
Verdict: It seems anything that was not bolted down was sold by Southampton this summer, but they have reinvested £44m of the money on Forster, Dusan Tadic, Shane Long and Graziano Pelle. Survival will probably be sufficient for most fans given the upheaval during the summer.

West Brom

Major signing: Brown Ideye
Major departure: George Thorne
Strength: Keeper Ben Foster is their trump card. The England stopper signed a new four-year contract this summer and it will be interesting to see if it contains a relegation clause.
Weakness: Their transfer dealings. They have spent £25 million on Victor Anichebe, Stephane Sessegnon,Cristian Gamboa, Sebastien Pocognoli and Ideye in the last three transfer windows. 
Key stat: Steve Clarke was sacked last season after guiding West Brom to eighth in 2012/13, with a record-breaking Premier League points tally and their highest win total. The grass is not always greener.
Verdict: The fact coach Alan Irvine had not seen record signing Brown Ideye play before the club spent £10 million on the striker tells you all you need to know about the state of affairs at the Hawthorns. A relegation battle looms large.

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