Last season’s Premier League title race went down as the most competitive since the division launched in the early 90s. That decade witnessed the re-branding of Division One to the Premier League, as Manchester United battled it out with Blackburn Rovers, Newcastle United, and Arsenal for the title on different occasions. After the millennium, it was mainly United and Chelsea, a two-horse race every year. Last season saw United fall away and Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea all fought for the Premier League crown until the death, or close to it. Now as the league enters the 2014/15 campaign, there are clear signs the title race will be even more competitive..
Arsenal – The team has a tendency to flatter to deceive. Despite always finding a purple patch during the season and keeping just enough pressure on the other big sides to land a Champions League spot season after season, they have rarely threatened to win the league in the last 10 years. Last year they led for a long time, but ran out of steam in early 2014. Buoyed by last season’s FA Cup victory – the club’s first major trophy in nine years – and last weekend’s 3-0 Community Shield victory over Premier League champions Manchester City, Gunners fans will be going into the new campaign with renewed optimism. The marquee signing of Alexis Sánchez from Barcelona will also give the north Londoners some belief they could run the top sides closer this season. However, the loss of captain Thomas Vermaelen, as well as Jack Wilshere’s inability to remain fit for more than a handful of games, means there will be a lot of pressure on just a few players to maintain a title charge against teams with much more strength in depth.
Prediction: 4th place
Chelsea – Boss José Mourinho did not have the homecoming he expected last season. Despite only narrowly missing out on the title at the end, the Blues performances left a lot to be desired. Having inherited a decent, but aging, squad last time, the Portuguese wasted no time stamping his authority on the new campaign by signing Diego Costa and Cesc Fàbregas. Mourinho knows two seasons without any silverware will not go down well with ruthless owner Roman Abramovich, and so he will be playing all the mind games he can to make sure Chelsea are in with a shout this season. With Didier Drogba also back at Stamford Bridge, Mourinho has better striking options than he did last season and he will make the Premier League his priority. The Champions League remains an obsession because, although he has won it at different clubs, he has always maintained he is desperate to win it for Chelsea. However, establishing oneself as the best in England comes before challenging Europe’s elite, and with a mixture of youth, experience, and big money signings, the west London outfit will not be far off at the end of the season.
Prediction: 2nd place
Liverpool – The team heads into the new season with something they have not experienced in more than 20 years – expectation. Brendan Rodgers’ side over-achieved last season, as Luis Suárez answered his critics with 31 goals. This time, Liverpool do not have their controversial Uruguayan on hand to fire them up the table like he did last time. Despite Daniel Sturridge’s ability to score more than his fair share of goals, it is difficult to see where the rest of them will come from. Rickie Lambert had a poor pre-season, which does not bode well for a player well into his 30s. Liverpool have the ability to win big encounters and in captain Steven Gerrard, in the twilight of his career, they have a big game player. Whether that is enough to finish in the top four, never mind win the title, remains to be seen.
Prediction: 5th place
Manchester City – They started last season as most people’s favorites, but managed to win the title against the odds. Despite winning what became a three-way tussle in the end, City capitalized on other teams’ mistakes rather than win the league with any real conviction. Nevertheless, their strength in depth and consistency when it mattered got them over the line to secure a second title in three years. This year is different. Eliaquim Mangala should prove a solid signing at the back, and there is experience in the aging Frank Lampard. Nevertheless, City boss Manuel Pellegrini knows he must do more. The Community Shield defeat to Arsenal does not say much, due to the amount of City players missing from the game, but the lacklustre way in which City approached the game does. When they surrendered the title to local rivals Manchester United the season before last, a commonly-held view was that then manager Roberto Mancini was unable to motivate a number of key players to achieve the same feat again.
Prediction: 3rd place
Manchester United – The team finds themselves in a position they have never experienced in the history of the Premier League. No European soccer of any description to look forward to and having had the most successful manager in the English game for a quarter of a century, they now start the second consecutive season with a new manager. Expectation will not be as high as in previous years and, although nobody expected United to finish at the top in David Moyes’ first season, finishing in 7th place was certainly not acceptable to the Glazer family. Premier League season 2014/15 does bode well for United. Not only has Louis van Gaal injected confidence into what was a despondent squad, like Liverpool last season, the absence of European soccer means United will only play one game a week for most of the season. With Wayne Rooney looking like he is enjoying his game again and Robin van Persie at his peak, both will benefit from van Gaal’s 3-5-2 formation with the likes of Juan Mata and Ander Herrera pulling the strings behind them. United have always delivered under pressure. With less pressure on them than in previous years, and potentially far fewer games to play in than their the likes of City, Arsenal, Liverpool, and Chelsea, they could go all the way in the title race.
Prediction: 1st place
Commentary by Robert Shepherd