Paul Lambert, another bright, young coach in the Premier League, found the going much harder in his first season at Villa after coming over from a great year at Norwich City. Despite the relegation scare last year, he did get rid of some of the dead weight with big egos on the roster and was able to play a bunch of young players and give them Premier League experience. The average age of the team last year was around 24 years old, so growing pains were expected, and they will be a better team for it going into this season. Being able to hold onto Christan Benteke (fourth in the EPL with 19 goals), who withdrew a transfer request over the summer to sign a new deal with Villa, might have clinched Premier League survival before the season even kicks off.
Talk about a serious hangover. (Was it caused by Newcastle beer, maybe?) Manager Alan Pardew and his Magpies finished fifth in the Premier League in 2012 and momentum was supposed to carry over for 2013. But with the cuckoo owner Mike Ashley doing anything he wants on a whim, the French Connection not clicking as much as the team had hoped, Newcastle come into this year with loads of talent, but not a lot of expectations. Who is going to lead this team? Papiss Cisse needs to find his form again from two seasons ago, and Newcastle added another French striker in Loic Remy. At the very least, the midfield is in very good shape with Hatem Ben Arfa and Yohan Cabaye. The Toon Army won’t have too much patience if things get off to a slow start.
Steve Clarke’s men overachieved last season, maybe more so than any other team in the Premier League in 2012-13. They were fortunate to have striking talents of Romelu Lukaku to lead the line last year, and were in the top four in the league table at the beginning of the season. With Lukaku back at Chelsea, West Brom will have a tough time replacing his goals. They added a couple of striking talents, one new in the prospect Matej Vrdya (on loan from Serie A side Udinese), and one very familiar with the Premier League in Nicolas Anelka. We all know Anelka’s talent on the field, but how long before he becomes more of a distraction than an asset is anyone’s guess at this point.
A new owner takes over for Fulham, as Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan takes over the southwest London side. Until today, when they signed Darren Bent on loan from Aston Villa, the Cottagers were another team that stood pat at the transfer window, which, at least until the January window opens, will cause Fulham to start out of the gate slower than they would want. Dimitar Berbatov leads the line once again, and any team that has his enormous, yet mercurial talent will always be a threat. Getting more production and consistency from Costa Rican Bryan Ruiz will be important for Martin Jol’s side, as well as a repeat 2012-13 performance this year from winger Alex Kacaniklic (cuh-CHAN-uh-clitch). That’s a mouthful, isn’t it?
Paolo Di Canio kicked and screamed and celebrated his way out of the relegation zone and into safety after taking over from Martin O’Neill late last season, and at the very least, we will see that for a full season at the Premier League level, which should please all journalists. The big move, among MANY made by the Black Cats this summer, was the addition of American in-form striker Jozy Altidore, who not only scored a bushel of goals in the Eredivisie for AZ Alkmaar last season, but is currently on an absolute tear for the U.S. Men’s National Team. His last spell in the Premier League did not go so well at Hull City, but if his second chance to make a first impression goes well with Sunderland, we may well see some more wild celebrations from Paolo.
Sam Allardyce always manages to scratch some wins and has been a mainstay as a manager in the Premier League, but duplicating the 10th place finish last season will be a tall task. They have a decent group of players (Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing, Kevin Nolan), but this is essentially the same roster from last season. It’s not a deep team, so it might get overwhelmed by the teams that have added reinforcements to get better this season.
Another team that will struggle to find goals (although peripatetic striker Craig Bellamy is back in the Premier League), but they have some great support, a forward-thinking manager in Malky Mackay and the backing of Malaysian owner Vincent Tan – who has started to ingratiate himself to the devout fans after some controversial moves, chiefly changing their first-choice uniform colors to red from their traditional blue – to help in their first season in the Premier League.
Despite more than modest success in the Premier League, longtime manager Tony Pulis and the team parted ways at the end of last season. In steps former Manchester City and Queens Park Rangers manager Mark Hughes to lead the Potters. In his early years as a manager, Hughes was tabbed for the big time, and, by this time, was supposed to be managing one of the top clubs. He’s been brought in to change the style of play from that under Pulis: brute strength, running over opponents, playing a little dirty. The front office wants more attractive football, although I am not sure that they have the personnel to do so at the moment.
The Tigers were able to add Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore to fortify the midfield and give the team some Premier League mainstays, but it’s going to be a tough road to survival this year after earning promotion in 2012-13. Danny Graham, more of a Championship caliber player than a Premier League one despite his modest success at Swansea two seasons ago, will lead the attack.
Of the three promoted sides, Crystal Palace look the most likely to take the immediate drop back to the Championship. Although they have the luxury of having a manager with Premier League experience in Ian Holloway, his one and only season in the Premier League ended in relegation (after a great start with Blackpool in 2010-11). Most of the transfer targets they’ve acquired have either been fringe Premier League-quality players (e.g. former Arsenal striker Marouane Chamakh) or players from the Championship. It almost would look as if they are playing in the Championship if they are buying Championship-level players. Losing Wilfried Zaha, who is back at Manchester United after being with the London side on loan, is a big loss, and Palace need to find out quickly where their offense is going to come from.
**For the other two parts of our Premier League Prologue/preview, click here for Part 1 (Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal) and click here for Part 2 (Liverpool, Everton, Swansea City, Southampton, Norwich City)**