Premier League preview: 16th-20th
The start of the new Premier League season is just four days away and Early Doors is taking a break from its normal routine to bring you a four-part, team-by-team preview ahead of the big kick-off.
We start with the five teams we expect will be battling it out to avoid relegation.
WEST HAM UNITED
Sam Allardyce may have spent a decent portion of last season casting aspersions on West Ham's claims to a rich legacy of stylish football, alienating many supporters in the process, but what he lacks in subtlety he makes up for in success and, as promised, the Hammers only spent one season in the Championship before sneaking through the play-offs and back to the Premier League.
A return to the top flight is welcome for both club and manager, even if they remain uneasy bedfellows, and Allardyce is an accomplished performer at this level; his work at Bolton and Blackburn demonstrated his ability to keep average teams in the top flight using the minimum of resources.
However, West Ham do have money - an ambitious bid for Andy Carroll and a reported £9m offer for Matt Jarvis demonstrate that much - and Allardyce has already bought smartly this summer, the acquisition of Wigan midfielder Mohamed Diame on a free transfer and the signing of France international Alou Diarra looking particularly inspired. The Hammers need more potency, especially at home where they failed to win 12 times last season, but stylistic concerns aside, they can be confident of retaining a Premier League place with Allardyce at the helm.
PREDICTED FINISH: 16th
KEY MAN: KEVIN NOLAN
Now a long-time consigliere of Big Sam, Nolan scored 12 goals in 42 games in the Championship last season and has extensive Premier League experience following spells with Bolton and Newcastle. His top-flight nous and goalscoring ability will be big assets for the club. With Diame and Diarra shielding the defence, he may get the chance to roam more.
ONE TO WATCH: MODIBO MAIGA
The Mali international would have joined Newcastle United in January had he not failed a medical and the collapse of the deal ensured the Magpies turned towards Papiss Cisse instead. Six months later, Maiga is a West Ham player for £5m and with his pace and strength appears well suited to the environment of the Premier League.
TRANSFERS IN: Jussi Jaaskelainen (Bolton Wanderers, free); Modibo Maiga (Sochaux, undisclosed); Mohamed Diame (Wigan Athletic, free); Stephen Henderson (Portsmouth, undisclosed); Raphael Spiegel (Grasshopper Zurich, undisclosed); James Collins (West Ham United, undisclosed); Alou Diarra (Marseille, undisclosed).
Relegation certainties by Christmas, a miraculous escape secured on the final day of the season: Wigan's campaign can probably be mapped out in advance. The under-supported club have dragged themselves out of the bottom three after the last game of the season twice in the past five years and have been amassing feats of escapology that would raise one of Houdini's eyebrows.
The big challenge for manager Roberto Martinez - a contender for the Liverpool job this summer - is to attempt to achieve some kind of consistency and establish Wigan as a lower mid-table side. Though eight consecutive top-flight seasons is nothing short of miraculous for a club of such meagre resources, the onus must now be on leaving relegation battles behind them, if possible.
Raised in Catalunya on a diet of John Cruyff, Martinez favours a fluid approach and last season switched to a back three, complemented by a false nine on occasion, to ape Pep Guardiola's tactically-flexible Barcelona. They are one of the league's more progressive sides but to date it has been a quiet summer on the transfer front and Wigan will need to recruit more quality, particularly having lost striker Hugo Rodallega.
PREDICTED FINISH: 17th
KEY MAN: VICTOR MOSES
A delicate choice given he is a confirmed target for Chelsea, but if he does remain at the DW Stadium then no player will have the influence that Moses does for the Latics. Explosive and nigh-on unstoppable at his best, the forward still has a wasteful streak that can breed frustration but he continues to improve and is one of the most threatening dribblers in the Premier League. Quick, direct and with a fierce shot behind him, Moses wreaks havoc with regularity.
ONE TO WATCH: SHAUN MALONEY
The Scottish playmaker enjoyed a fantastic end to last season and his sudden burst of form was crucial to Wigan's success in avoiding relegation once again. Maloney scored three goals and claimed two assists after March and appears certain to be given an influential role in Martinez's side. If he is capable of replicating the form that saw him rise to prominence at Celtic across an entire season then Wigan will have a creative and clinical asset in their side.
TRANSFERS IN: Fraser Fyvie (Aberdeen, undisclosed); Ivan Ramis (Real Mallorca, £4m).
TRANSFERS OUT: Mohamed Diame (West Ham United, free); Hugo Rodallega (Fulham, free); Chris Kirkland (Sheffield Wednesday, free).
FIRST THREE GAMES: Chelsea (H), Southampton (A), Stoke (H).
Chris Hughton has one of the most daunting tasks in the Premier League this season: consolidating on the remarkable success of his predecessor Paul Lambert and keeping Norwich in the Premier League. A repeat of the 12th place secured by Lambert prior to his move to Aston Villa appears distinctly unlikely.
Lambert somehow spun gold from a group of players sourced largely from the lower leagues and Hughton inherits a squad that is low on top-flight experience. However, in a promising early triumph as manager, he convinced Grant Holt to renege on his transfer request and sign a new deal at Carrow Road. The striker scored 15 goals last season and much will depend on his ability to replicate such success.
The spectre of 'second season syndrome', whether real or imagined, hangs over a club that look ripe for a relegation battle and Hughton may struggle to instil the same kind of dedication and organisation in his team that Lambert did when leading Norwich to successive promotions. If so, they could be in trouble.
PREDICTED FINISH: 18th
KEY MAN: JONNY HOWSON
Recruited from Leeds United in January, Howson made an immediate impact with some stylish performances in midfield under Lambert, so much so that his then manager saw fit to compare the Yorkshireman's passing to that of Spain and Barcelona great Andres Iniesta. At 24 years of age, Howson has plenty of scope for improvement and Hughton will surely seek to mould his midfield around him.
ONE TO WATCH: ROBERT SNODGRASS
The midfielder, 24, caught the eye at Championship level with Leeds United and deserved the chance to have a go at cracking the Premier League when joining Norwich this summer. Snodgrass scored 35 times in 168 league appearances for Leeds following a move from Livingston in 2008 and is a threat either out wide or through the centre.
TRANSFERS IN: Robert Snodgrass (Leeds United, undisclosed); Steven Whittaker (Rangers, free).
FIRST THREE GAMES: Fulham (A), QPR (H), Tottenham (A).
Seeking to prolong the now established club model of attractive, passing football that was established by Roberto Martinez, embellished by Paulo Sousa and then perfected by Brendan Rodgers, Swansea have turned to one of the most extravagantly talented midfielders of the modern era. The trouble is, Michael Laudrup's coaching record is far from stellar.
There is no doubt the arrival of the former Denmark playmaker -a man who graced Ajax, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus during his playing days - is an exciting development for the Premier League, but for Swansea it certainly represents a risk. Recent spells with Getafe, Spartak Moscow and Mallorca have been unconvincing and replacing Rodgers, who has since progressed to the top job at Liverpool, is a daunting task, even for a man with Laudrup's reputation.
Swansea have also been shorn of Joe Allen and Gylfi Sigurdsson, but their work in the transfer market has been encouraging to date at least. In truth, much will depend on how quickly Laudrup can transmit his ideas to his players and get them functioning as a team. Continuity of style will assist the process but it could be a long and difficult season.
PREDICTED FINISH: 19th
KEY MAN: MICHEL VORM
Undoubtedly one of the Premier League's finest goalkeepers, Vorm was consistently excellent following his move from Utrecht last summer - one high-profile error against Arsenal aside - and his reflexes and athleticism played a key role in Swansea's much-heralded success. Vorm is likely to have another busy season in front of him and Swansea will depend on him to snatch them points wherever possible.
ONE TO WATCH: MICHU
Though largely unknown outside of Spain this time last year, a free transfer to promoted Rayo Vallecano in the summer of 2011 proved the catalyst for the playmaker to make a belated impact in top-flight football. The rangy, dangerous midfielder scored a remarkable 15 goals in La Liga last season to briefly lead to speculation he could even be in line for a Spain call-up. Though he may not be of sufficient quality to break into Vicente del Bosque's side, Michu could well become a Premier League star.
TRANSFERS OUT: Ferrie Bodde, Scott Donnelly (both released).
FIRST THREE GAMES: QPR (A), West Ham (H), Sunderland (H).
Returning to the Premier League after four seasons in the Championship, Reading will be hoping to replicate their debut season in the revamped top flight when they finished a shock eighth under Steve Coppell in 2006-07. However, a more likely prospect may be another battle against relegation, having previously been demoted just 12 months after that unlikely top-10 finish.
Reading are now a rather different club from the one that Coppell took into the Premier League though. Long-time owner John Madejski sold up to Russian Anton Zingarevich in May and the £6m purchase of Pavel Pogrebnyak displayed the new ambition on show. It remains too early in the Zingarevich era to determine exactly what his modus operandi will be, but further investment in the playing staff is expected as Reading aim to avoid a prolonged fight against the drop.
In Brian McDermott they have a manager who has overcome initial doubts about his ability to thrive at the Madejski Stadium. Promoted from the youth team in 2009, he led Reading to a run of 14 wins in 16 games towards the end of last season as they stormed their way to the Championship title and attracted interest from Wolves. His decision to stay at Reading was a good one; now his biggest task begins.
PREDICTED FINISH: 20th
KEY MAN: PAVEL POGREBNYAK
The Russia international scored six goals in 12 games during a loan spell with Fulham last season and Reading had to fight off reported interest from Aston Villa in order to sign Pogrebnyak for a fee in the region of £6m and complete one of the biggest transfers in the club's history. Much is expected of the big forward and Reading need him to hit the target with regularity.
ONE TO WATCH: GARATH MCCLEARY
A bit of a late developer, the 25-year-old winger only truly found form last year for Nottingham Forest having previously failed to impress following a move from Bromley in 2008. After returning from injury in December he played a pivotal role in Forest's survival campaign - notably scoring four times in a 7-3 win at Leeds. McClearly is inconsistent and rough around the edges, but given the right encouragement he could be a danger from the flanks.
TRANSFERS IN: Pavel Pogrebnyak (Stuttgart, free); Danny Guthrie (Newcastle United, free); Chris Gunter (Nottingham Forest, undisclosed); Nicky Shorey (West Bromwich Albion, free); Adrian Mariappa (Watford, undisclosed); Gareth McCleary (Nottingham Forest, free); Pierce Sweeney (Bray Wanderers, undisclosed).
TRANSFERS OUT: Michael Hector (Shrewsbury, loan).
FIRST THREE GAMES: Stoke (H), Chelsea (A), Sunderland (A).