Same old problems for Arsenal and Newcastle as new season looms large

ESPN commentator Jon Champion kicks off a season of Premier League preview blogs, starting with the intriguing clash at St James’ Park, where he’ll be on the mic on Saturday evening…

Newcastle United vs Arsenal - Saturday, 5:30pm

This is a meeting of two sides emerging from a very turbulent pre-season.

Arsenal have suffered from the uncertainly surrounding the futures of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, while there’s also the continuing lack of a commanding central defender – so many names have been bandied about; Gary Cahill, Christopher Samba, Phil Jagielka, Scott Dann – and yet here we are at the start of the season without any senior defensive acquisition having been made.

Still the question marks remain over whether Arsenal have a soft centre – it’s the same position we’ve been in at the start of the last three or four seasons.

Arsenal must hit the ground running– not just in this match but also when they face Udinese in their Champions League play-off match on Tuesday. They then face Liverpool at home and a trip to Old Trafford, so it could be a very tricky start for a squad that is yet to be fully assembled.

Newcastle’s passionate supporters will once again be very concerned over the direction the club is taking under Mike Ashley.

Things seemed to have settled down a bit on the ownership front last season - thanks to a largely comfortable mid-table finish despite the change of manager - and I think the general feeling was that Ashley was at last starting to enjoy his ownership of the club and was again prepared to back the manager.

But everything that has happened over the summer has seemed to indicate the opposite and that he is seeking to obtain maximum value from the club. They’ve cashed in on the likes of Andy Carroll, Kevin Nolan and now by the looks of it Jose Enrique and maybe even Fabricio Coloccini.

Newcastle will just be relieved the season is starting now. They have had a pre-season like no other team. There have been the well publicised problems with Twitter, injuries, a pitch invasion at Darlington, the fact three of their players couldn’t even obtain visas to go on the tour of the United States – it’s been an extraordinary catalogue of mishaps, and that’s being kind.

Yet, as Alan Pardew has rightly pointed out, if Newcastle were to get a result against Arsenal and then at Sunderland on match week two, nobody will remember the problems of the last few weeks.

VERDICT: I’m going to sit on the fence and say a draw. I think Arsenal may be slightly cautious after what happened to them up at St James’ Park last season.

 

Blackburn v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Saturday, 3pm

I fear for Blackburn this season. The change of ownership and manager has so far seemed disastrous from a distance.

For all the promises of big-name signings, they haven’t materialised. I look at the squad and I wonder whether some of the players really want to be part of it, and I think that’s a dangerous recipe to start a season with.

Had Sam Allardyce still been at the club I wouldn’t hesitate in backing them for a mid-table finish, but now I think all bets are off with regards to what happens to Blackburn this season.

As for Wolves, I don’t see them struggling quite like they have in the last two years. I think the permanent signing of Jamie O’Hara is a good one, while Roger Johnson should also prove a decent acquisition. 

Mick McCarthy is really switched on, he knows what he needs, the chairman Steve Morgan has released sufficient funds and I don’t see Wolves having quite such a perilous campaign this year.

VERDICT:  I think Wolves will be properly prepared for the new season and I don’t know whether we can say that of Blackburn. So I’d back Wolves here.

 

Fulham v Aston Villa - Saturday, 3pm

These are two of the Premier League’s solid citizens. I think Fulham finished a little higher than perhaps they deserved last season, but I think they’re always a pretty safe mid-table team. Of course, they’re under new management in the form of Martin Jol, but he’s a course and distance specialist in the Premier League.

It’s hard to see Villa faring much better than last season’s ninth place finish. That’s no slight on Alex McLeish, rather a comment on where Villa are at present Randy Lerner has spent big in the past, but it now appears he’s trying to recoup some of that money and run the club on a slightly more sensible basis. That’s usually reflected in the league table. If they do better than last season they’ll have done very well.

VERDICT: Fulham are already up and running, having played six games in the Europa League, so I’d lean towards a home win.

 

Liverpool v Sunderland - Saturday, 3pm

I still don’t think Liverpool have really got what it takes to challenge for the title this year, although I think they have bought well this summer. We should, of course, point out that at this stage we’re still two-and-a-half weeks from the end of the transfer window, so it’s very difficult to make longer term predictions and it may be that Liverpool still have a signing or two up their sleeves.

I like what Kenny Dalglish is trying to do – primarily buying British and also young in the case of Jordan Henderson. I’ll be fascinated to see how Charlie Adam goes at Anfield.

I think we’ve almost seen Steve Bruce become the new Harry Redknapp – ten new signings so far , and counting - he obviously felt that major changes were needed despite finishing in 10th last season.

He may have felt owner Ellis Shorts’ breath on his neck last season when all the injuries occurred and they had difficulty putting any kind of run together run the second half of the season – which left them looking over their shoulders at one stage, having earlier looked to be challenging for Europe.

Sunderland should be a reasonably solid unit this year, although they’ll need to improve on 10th place to keep the owner happy.

VERDICT: I’d edge towards Liverpool in this one. Partly down to the fact they’ll hold home advantage, but also thanks to the expectation and excitement surrounding their new signings.

 

Queens Park Rangers v Bolton Wanderers - Saturday, 3pm

I feel sorry for Neil Warnock because I feel he’s been badly let down by the owners at QPR.

He got Sheffield United promoted to the Premier League in 2006 and was then relegated in controversial circumstances – with all the controversy surrounding West Ham and the signings of

Tevez and Mascherano – and now he’s being forced to look for bargain basement signings to keep QPR afloat.

I just don’t see where they’re going to have the quality to compete regularly on the Premier League stage.

I’m also a big fan of Bolton manager Owen Coyle. I think they had a nasty shock with their heavy FA Cup semi-final defeat to Stoke last season and hit the buffers after that, but I’d expect them to have another decent season this time round.

They have injuries and may not fly out of the traps, but I think they’ll be a more than solid mid-table side, aiming for around eighth.

VERDICT: Bolton to win.

 

Wigan Athletic v Norwich City - Saturday, 3pm

I really like Paul Lambert and the way his teams attempt to play. But they’re in with the big boys now and, while Blackpool made a wonderful attempt of battling the drop while playing good football last season, it’s not very often that a side comes up and makes such a good fist of it.

I’d say Norwich – as well as Swansea - have an awful lot of decent Championship players, plus a couple of wild cards that may or may not be hits in the Premier League, but neither have that ‘x-factor’ Blackpool had in Charlie Adam. For that reason they may well struggle.

Wigan squeaked clear last year – they also play lovely football and this should be a really pleasing game on the eye.

VERDICT: I think this is the hardest of the weekend’s games to call. The enthusiasm of being back in the Premier League could just tip it in Norwich’s favour.

 

Stoke City v Chelsea - Sunday, 1:30pm

Stoke did brilliantly last year, and of course reached the FA Cup Final. They’ve not done a lot of business so far this summer, but what they have done has been very good.

They’ve brought in a couple of vastly experienced defenders in Matthew Upson and Jonathan Woodgate, not that they were particularly defensive vulnerable anyway. I don’t think they’ve ever going to score a hatful of goals but at the same time I think they’ve evolved from being a very tough, physical unit into a side with two wingers - Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant – who can play some really pleasing football. They’ll always pose a thread and Stoke will always be difficult to beat, particularly at the Britannia Stadium.

Chelsea have quite a difficult task for their opening game. Two years ago Sir Alex Ferguson claimed they were too old, and of course they disproved that by winning the double. But about half way through last season they started to look like they perhaps were too old, and I think this season they will show that they’re definitely too old.

Looking at the signings they have made so far, Romelu Lukaku will be a significant player over time, but he’s only 18. Perhaps this could be a breakthrough season for the likes of Josh McEachran, but if you look at the players who featured in their last pre-season match at Rangers - Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Paulo Ferreira – I feel perhaps they’re the wrong side of the hill at the moment.

Andre Villas-Boas probably needs to do rather more radical surgery on the squad before they can challenge for the title.

VERDICT: I’m going to go for Chelsea, which is no slight on Stoke as I think they’ll have a good season.

 

West Bromwich Albion v Manchester United - Sunday, 4pm

It’s a good job they no longer call it the Charity Sheild after last week, as there was precious little charity on show, but what a thunderous start to the season!

I was massively impressed with Manchester United, I didn’t think they deserved to go 2-0 down and the way they fought back was tremendous.

I just think that Manchester United have probably bought better than anybody else so far this summer. They’ve also done their business early for the second year running, having signed Javier Hernandez before the World Cup last summer, which proved arguably the signing of last season.

They can definitely say they’re stronger than they were at the start of last year because most of the players who have left are those didn’t play quite as big a part last season – Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and so on.

It will be interesting to see how David de Gea gets on. It was a toss-up between him and Manuel Neuer as to who Manchester United goalkeeper coach Eric Steele recommended as the replacement for Edwin van der Sar and he didn’t have the happiest of days at Wembley. But all good judges say he is the best young keeper in Europe, and I think if that is the case then Manchester United will be champions again.

As far as West Brom’s new signings are concerned, Roy Hodgson will certainly enjoy having Republic of Ireland striker Shane Long in his squad. Having spoken to Reading manager Brain McDermott last season, you get the impression he’s a manager’s dream – I’m told his attitude is always spot on, he’s always the best player at training and he’s just no problem at all to work with.

Having said that, when he was last in the Premier League he didn’t score too many goals, although that was in a struggling Reading team. So I think there are still things to be proven, but I think he’ll be a good acquisition.

VERDICT: Manchester United to start with a win at the Hawthornes.

 

Manchester City v Swansea City - Monday, 8pm

This, for me, could be a meeting of second from top and second from bottom in the final Premier League table.

I still don’t quite think City are a genuine team quite yet, but I do think they’ll be closer to Manchester United than they were last year, and believe Sergio Aguero is a fantastic signing.

They have some tremendous players in their squad but I don’t quite yet get the sense they’re moulded in the way that Manchester United, or even Arsenal are. They’re also faced with the challenge of combining Champions League and Premier League football. However big your squad, as Tottenham showed last year, it’s a very difficult balancing act to perform.

I’m really looking forward to seeing Swansea back in the top flight. Brendan Rodgers, after a couple of set-backs early in his managerial career, has clearly got everybody pulling in the same direction. They’re this season’s Blackpool in that, for example, they change after training at a local health club and have to shower with members of the public. There’ll be lots of those kind of nice little stories coming out of Swansea this season.

I hope, from their point of view, they can prove a lot of the doubters wrong and can garner enough points to secure a second season.

VERDICT: Swansea will be somewhat of an unknown quantity this season, but I don’t see them getting off to a winning start at Manchester City. Home win.

Jon Champion is a football commentator on ESPN, broadcaster of Barclays Premier League, FA Cup, Clydesdale Bank Premier League, UEFA Europa League and more. Watch ESPN’s live and exclusive coverage of Newcastle v Arsenal on Saturday 13 August from 4.45pm.

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