Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Posted: 08/16/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0
Jose Mourinho is out of excuses.
Last season the Chelsea manager deployed some curious delay tactics when addressing his side's ability to contend for the Premier League title, offering the Blues were a "little horse that needs milk and needs to learn how to jump."
He added: "Maybe next season we can race."
Well, "next season" is upon us, and on Monday Mourinho's side will travel to Turf Moor for their 2014-15 curtain-raiser against promoted Burnley.
At least three players will make their Chelsea debuts in the match (Filipe Luis, Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa) and another, goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, could perhaps replace Petr Cech between the sticks.
For Mourinho, who has spent the past three transfer windows overhauling the Chelsea squad, the time to contend in both the English top flight and UEFA Champions League is now. He has been backed with nearly £75 million in transfer funds this summer -- an amount that takes his total spending since returning to Stamford Bridge in June 2013 to almost £185 million.
His roster is without weakness, without holes, and even he has conceded, on the eve of the upcoming campaign, Chelsea "are a title contender."
They're also our pick to lift the Premier League trophy in May.
The top four
Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City are shoo-ins for the three automatic Champions League berths.
The Gunners have signalled their intentions by adding the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Mathieu Debuchy to a squad that already includes talented youngsters in the forms of Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and manager Arsene Wenger has them well-positioned to be in the title picture for years to come.
City, meanwhile, addressed a need by landing Porto defender Eliaquim Mangala, and as they already have a high-octane attack that includes Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Samir Nasri, and the division's best midfielder in Yaya Toure, they'll make a sturdy title defence over the next nine months.
Manchester United, after finishing a disappointing seventh last season, will pip Liverpool to fourth place.
New manager Louis van Gaal has brought the swagger back to Old Trafford, and forward Wayne Rooney could well be reinvigorated after being handed the captain's armband. Former Athletic Bilbao midfielder Ander Herrera drew rave reviews in pre-season, as did the finally healthy Darren Fletcher.
As for Liverpool, they're unlikely sustain a title challenge following the exit of Luis Suarez, especially given their first Champions League commitment in five years.
The relegation battle
Burnley were promoted to the Premier League after finishing runners-up in the Championship and posting the best defensive record in the second tier of English football. But the additions of Michael Kightly, Matthew Taylor and Steven Reid won't be enough to keep them from the foot of the table in 2014-15.
West Bromich Albion will also go down after barely avoiding the drop last term. Incoming manager Alan Irvine -- who only has a one-year contract--managed to bring in Joleon Lescott and Ideye Brown during the summer, but there's simply not enough in his squad to justify its place in the Premier League.
The final relegation spot will be a close run thing, a true battle, and will drag at least three teams into the quagmire.
Goal-starved Hull City will be hard-pressed to improve on their 16th-place finish from last season, and Crystal Palace will begin their schedule in managerial limbo after Thursday's shock resignation of Tony Pulis.
Then there is Aston Villa, which finished five points above the drop last spring and likely haven't done enough this summer to ensure their safety.
The sack race
West Ham manager Sam Allardyce is already unpopular at Upton Park, and it will be interesting to see how he uses summer acquisitions Mauro Zarate and Enner Valencia in his pragmatic, often overly-defensive system.
Aston Villa's Paul Lambert could also be an early season casualty. The 45-year-old actually did quite well to keep his side in the Premier League for another 38 matches, but if the Birmingham outfit make a slow start to the campaign--which is likely -- he could well be made the scapegoat.
Alan Irvine's contract already indicates the short leash he's on at West Bromwich Albion, which went through three managers last season. This is not a club with an abundance of stability at the moment.
Southampton was raided during the summer -- mostly by Liverpool -- with Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren all exchanging St. Mary's for Anfield. Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers also left for Manchester United and Arsenal, respectively.
But the Saints, led by new manager Ronald Koeman, have restocked the cupboard with Fraser Forster, Shane Long, Graziano Pelle, Ryan Bertrand and Saphir Taider, and with important players such as Nathaniel Clyne, Jose Fonte and Jay Rodriguez still with the club they can anticipate a comfortable, mid-table finish.
Promoted Leicester City could also impress. Back in the Premier League after a decade, the Foxes have introduced Marc Albrighton and Matthew Upson to the ranks ahead of the 2014-15 campaign. David Nugent and Jamie Vardy combined for 36 Championship goals last term, and Nugent also led the division in assists.
Predicted order of finish
1. Chesea; 2. Arsenal; 3. Man City; 4. Man United; 5. Liverpool; 6. Spurs; 7. Everton; 8. Newcastle; 9. Swansea; 10. Stoke; 11. Southampton; 12. West Ham; 13. Sunderland; 14. Leicester; 15. QPR; 16. Hull, 17. Villa; 18. Palace; 19. West Brom; 20. Burnley
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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 16, 2014 C6
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