Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Are you ready for some fitba?

Anticipation, hopes building ahead of new European season

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It's only at the outset of a new season when every club in the league can look at the table and say, "Boys, it's there to be won." Some will have a much better chance than others -- meaningful off-season spending is the luxury of very few -- but at no other time over the course of the schedule will everything be equal, and there's something innocent in that.

Like a book yet unopened there is a sense of the unknown, of anticipation. The villains have yet to reveal themselves; the heroes have yet to rise to the occasion. The final twist in the plot remains a far-off thing.

Like every season before it, the 2012-13 European soccer campaign will weave numerous storylines together over the next nine months or so, and part of the fun is in predicting a few of the things that will happen between now and then. We call this "prognosticating," but in reality it's little more than guesswork.

There is always a surprise waiting when we least expect it -- a Montpellier pipping PSG to the title or Villarreal suffering the humiliation of the drop. But it's the surprises, really, that make sports so compelling. It's the original reality TV show; the novel still on the bookstore shelf.

English Premier League

The top: This was always going to be Manchester City's title to lose, and it may still be. But Manchester United's purchase of former Arsenal striker Robin van Persie has certainly added a fascinating element to the race, and with Shinji Kagawa having joined the Red Devils earlier in the summer United are clearly the more improved of the Manchester sides. This much, however, is certain: the trophy won't leave the city.

The drop: Reading, Southampton and West Ham earned promotion to the Premier League last spring and will go through the ups and downs promoted sides typically endure. Of the tenured EPL sides Aston Villa are certainly a candidate for relegation and Wigan will likely find themselves in tough as well. Villa, who hired Paul Lambert as manager in the spring, did little more than add defender Ron Vlaar to the squad during the transfer window while Wigan, who only barely managed to stay up last season brought in Arouna Kone from Levante.

Summer business: Chelsea pulled off what could be the signing of the summer when they bought versatile playmaker Eden Hazard from Lille for £32 million. Brazilian midfielder Oscar, who so impressed at the 2012 Olympics, also joined the Blues during the off-season. Arsenal will be hoping Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla can combine to replace Van Persie's goals, while new Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers brought in Joe Allen, Fabio Borini and Oussama Assaidi.

Projections: Roberto Di Matteo's myriad attacking options at Chelsea will leave some players alienated and others angry. It should be an interesting season at Stamford Bridge, and a top-four finish is by no means a given. Nor is it at Arsenal, who are getting rather used to losing their best players year after year. Sergio Aguero will have a terrific season at Manchester City; Everton will contend for a European place. Manchester United will win the league.


Spanish Liga

The top: The most famous duopoly in world soccer will produce a ninth straight championship in 2012-13, and there's a good chance one of them will lift the European Cup as well. There simply is no touching Real Madrid and Barcelona, either one of which would have dominated any other division on the continent last season. Madrid, the reigning champions, are likely to enhance their squad with the signing of Luka Modric (there are still a few "i"s to dot and "t"s to cross) while Barcelona addressed their only problem position by acquiring Euro 2012 hero Jordi Alba from Valencia. Then there are Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi -- the two best players of the generation representing either side of the rivalry.

The drop: Promoted sides Deportivo La Coruna, Celta Vigo and Real Vallodolid each have considerable experience in the top flight and will make serious pushes for safety. Granada, who avoided relegation by a single point in May, are an obvious candidate to go down, and Rayo Vallecano will struggle to stay up as well.

Summer business: Atletico Madrid were active in the summer transfer window and signed 12 new players, including Uruguay international Cristian Rodriguez and Turkish midfielder Emre Belozoglu. Sevilla, following a disappointing ninth-place finish, added Ivory Coast international Romaric from Espanyol and Brazilian right-back Cicinho from Palmeiras. Valencia, who came third last season, acquired Fernando Gago from Real Madrid, Andres Guardado from Deportivo la Coruna and Nelson Valdez from Rubin Kazan.

Projections: Valencia have likely done enough to ensure another third-place finish, and they should cut into the 30 points between themselves and runners-up Barcelona as well. Erratic Atletico Madrid will struggle for a Europa League berth. Guardado will be one of the new players to watch in La Liga and Athletic Bilbao will contend for a top-four spot. Barcelona will regain the title.


Italian Serie A

The top: On paper, Juventus shouldn't have much of a problem retaining the Scudetto, but the season-long suspension issued to manager Antonio Conte will keep things closer than they might otherwise have been. AC Milan, who finished four points back of the Bianconeri last season, will be in the mix once again despite the losses of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva to PSG and Inter Milan should bounce back from a surprisingly poor campaign in which they finished sixth. Udinese and Napoli will also be there or thereabouts come April, although both sides lost key players to the transfer market.

The drop: Pescara, Sampdoria and Torino were promoted from Serie B in the spring and Pescara, in particular, will face an uphill battle to secure a second season of Serie A soccer. Siena, who came 14th last season, will begin the campaign with a six-point deduction that won't help their cause at all, and Cagliari, following the closure of their stadium, will likely find themselves in a relegation battle as well.

Summer business: Fiorentina are one of the few Serie A sides that made dramatic improvements to their squad over the summer. No fewer than 13 new players made their way to Florence over the last few weeks, including former Boca Juniors defender Facundo Roncaglia, Chilean midfielder Matias Fernandez and ex-Ajax striker Mounir El Hamdaoui. Juventus, meanwhile raided Udinese for wide-men Mauricio Isla and Kwadwo Asamoah and also signed Lucio on a free transfer from Inter Milan. Inter, for their part, signed striker Rodrigo Palacio from Genoa.

Projections: Only seven points separated 10th place from 17th last season and things will likely be even tighter this time around. Juventus are clear favourites for the title, but given the weakening of Milan and uncertainty surrounding Inter there is a rare opening near the top of the table that Udinese and Napoli will do their best to take advantage of. At least one of them will finish inside the top three. Alexandre Pato, should he stay healthy, will finally have the sort of season Milan fans have been waiting for while Roma will struggle just to stay in the top half. Juventus will win the title.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 18, 2012 C4

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