Premier League preview: 6th-10th
The start of the new Premier League season is just two days away and we continue to bring you our four-part preview.
Today it is the turn of the teams who are unlikely to trouble the very elite, but have a chance of challenging for European football.
Oh my god, they sacked Kenny. Liverpool's American owners nudged sentiment aside to dispose of the King at the end of a traumatic season that was briefly enlivened by a League Cup triumph and now the task of following the most beloved figure in Anfield's history falls to Brendan Rodgers, a man who last season won an army of admirers for the style with which Swansea performed in an admirable first Premier League campaign.
In his early months in charge, Rodgers has taken the initiative and led from the front in a concerted, and much-needed, PR assault from Liverpool. Promising a brand of football that echoes the club's grand history of pass-and-move, restoring the old 'This Is Anfield' sign and even bringing back red goal nets have all been cute moves to immediately ingratiate the new manager with a group of supporters that have suffered extensively over recent seasons. However, such superficial concerns will soon give way to the everyday reality of results.
It is already clear that Rodgers is seeking to import his own version of tiki-taka at Anfield. Joe Allen - a crucial cog in the Swansea midfield that greedily hoarded possession - has already been purchased for a fee of £15 million while the bludgeoning Andy Carroll has been told he does not fill the mould. Fabio Borini - another former Swansea protégée, by way of Roma - has been installed in attack as Rodgers surrounds himself with familiar faces. Liverpool will not become 'Swanselona' overnight, and he may need their loyalty as Rodgers stamps his mark on an otherwise stagnant team.
PREDICTED FINISH: 6th
KEY MAN: LUCAS LEIVA
The howls of despair from Liverpool fans could be heard all over the land when, last December, Lucas suffered a knee injury that ruled him out for the season. Liverpool struggled badly in his absence but the Brazilian has returned in pre-season and with his smart tackling and energetic running will provide the platform for the short-passing, possession-based game that Liverpool will play under Rodgers. He allows brighter stars to shine.
ONE TO WATCH: FABIO BORINI
Still just 21, the striker travelled to Euro 2012 with Italy after a fine season in Serie A with Roma and reunites with Rodgers having spent a successful loan spell with Swansea in the past. Borini scored six goals in nine appearances in the Championship between March and May 2011 and has been purchased to play as a lone striker in place of Carroll, who appears not to fit the new manager's plans at Anfield.
TRANSFERS IN: Fabio Borini (Roma, £10m); Joe Allen (Swansea, £15m).
TRANSFERS OUT: Fabio Aurelio (Gremio, free); Stephen Darby (Bradford City, free); Dirk Kuyt (Fenerbahce, undisclosed); Maxi Rodriguez (Newell's Old Boys, free); Toni Silva (Barnsley, free); Alberto Aquilani (Fiorentina, undisclosed); Craig Bellamy (Cardiff City, undisclosed).
How to improve on last season? On the final day of the 2011-12 campaign, the Magpies had an outside chance of qualifying for the Champions League following a brilliant season that defied many expectations about a club still very uneasy under the ownership of Mike Ashley. Though the 'Cockney Mafia' remain unloved, Alan Pardew's work as manager, in conjunction with that of chief scout Graham Carr, has been exemplary, and recognised as such by supporters.
Carr signed an astonishing eight-year deal at the age of 67 in June, ensuring that he will remain in place to build on the tremendous work in the transfer market that has seen Newcastle exploit European markets to add players of the calibre of Papiss Cisse and Hatem Ben Arfa at very reasonable prices. This summer has been quieter - with their pursuit of the excellent Mathieu Debuchy unsuccessful so far - but Newcastle already have the core of a squad that makes them one of the most formidable teams outside of the more established forces.
Pardew's problem is now how that he must deal with increased expectation. With Chelsea investing huge amounts of money and Liverpool looking to climb the table, another Champions League challenge is unrealistic, especially as Newcastle's energy will be sapped by the Europa League. However, anything less than a 'best of the rest' status will be a disappointment now.
PREDICTED FINISH: 7th
KEY MAN: PAPISS CISSE
Very few players have arrived in England halfway through a season and had the kind of impact that Cisse did in January. The striker immediately displaced Demba Ba at the point of the Newcastle attack and scored 13 goals in 14 appearances, many of which were spectacular and one, against Chelsea, which could legitimately be considered one of the best seen in the Premier League. Quick, alert, clinical, unpredictable - Cisse is a lethal striker who could become genuinely world class if his adaptation to English football continues apace.
ONE TO WATCH: GAEL BIGIRIMANA
A refugee from Burundi who arrived in England in 2004, and secured a trial at Coventry by knocking on the door of their academy and asking for one, Bigirimana was named the Football League Championship Apprentice of the Year last season following some impressive performances for the Sky Blues. After only 16 league starts he was brought to Newcastle for £1 million. The young man has already attracted favourable comparisons with new team-mate Cheick Tiote.
FIRST THREE GAMES: Tottenham (H), Chelsea (A), Aston Villa (H).
The Toffees have achieved a level of ultra-consistency under David Moyes: in the past five seasons they have finished between fifth and eighth in the Premier League, often overcoming a slow start to finish strongly and punch above their financial weight. In economic terms, Everton are truly puny and as Bill Kenwright's attempts to attract investment continue to flounder year on year, it is hard to see how they can make any kind of genuine advancement.
Moyes has little option but to continue to pursue bargains in the market, and having picked up Nikica Jelavic from Rangers in January has now added the Croatian's former strike partner Steven Naismith on a free transfer in what looks to be an excellent acquisition. Making Steven Pienaar's return permanent was also astute, even if, as usual, Everton have also been forced to stomach departures with the exits of Tim Cahill and Jack Rodwell leaving the centre of midfield looking soft.
Everton will also do well to hold onto Leighton Baines - along with Jelavic and Marouane Fellaini their outstanding player - as Manchester United hold an interest in the left-back who supplies a constant stream of assists. However, if he does depart Goodison, Moyes will know how to cope. This has been the manager's lot for 10 years now and keeping Everton competitive in the top half of the table despite their threadbare finances is his forte.
PREDICTED FINISH: 8th
KEY MAN: NIKICA JELAVIC
Another astute signing in January, Jelavic scored nine times in 13 appearances after jumping the sinking ship that was Rangers for a fee of £5.5 million. The Croatia international slotted in superbly when performing as a lone striker for Everton and provided a steady supply of goals when in previous seasons a prolific forward has eluded David Moyes. Mobile, strong and fantastic in the air and on the deck, the 26-year-old will have a huge say in Everton's fate this season.
ONE TO WATCH: ROSS BARKLEY
There has been a steady buzz around the 18-year-old for some time now and though he has only started two Premier League games for the Toffees, the departures of Cahill and Rodwell have opened up space in midfield that could be filled by the most hyped graduate from the Everton academy since Wayne Rooney. This could be the season that Barkley, who has been representing England at Under-19 level over the summer, makes the breakthrough for Everton.
TRANSFERS IN: Steven Naismith (Rangers, free), Steven Pienaar (Tottenham, £4.5m).
TRANSFERS OUT: Tim Cahill (New York Red Bulls, undisclosed); Joseph Yobo (Fenerbahce, undisclosed); Adam Forshaw (Brentford, undisclosed); Marcus Hahnemann (released); James McFadden (released); Joao Silva (Levski Sofia, undisclosed); James Wallace (Tranmere Rovers, undisclosed); Jack Rodwell (Manchester City, £12 million).
FIRST THREE GAMES: Man United (H), Aston Villa (A), West Brom (A).
The salvage operation carried out by Martin O'Neill when he replaced the floundering Steve Bruce in December was as impressive as it was immediate: winning eight of his first 12 games, the Ulsterman brushed aside any worries regarding possible relegation. However, there is a fear that any momentum is being lost after a poor end to the campaign and what has been a desperately quiet summer at the Stadium of Light.
To date, Sunderland have only recruited Aston Villa defender Carlos Cuellar on a free transfer, while the departures of Nicklas Bendtner and Asamoah Gyan leave a gaping hole in attack. O'Neill has sought to rectify this by sanctioning bids up to a reported £13m for Steven Fletcher but with Wolves still refusing to sell Sunderland approach the new season with a weakened squad.
Sunderland have a midfield full of quality, with the likes of James McClean, Sebastian Larsson and Stephane Sessegnon some of the most accomplished players at this level of the league, but having scored only 45 league goals last season it is clear where their weakness lies. If O'Neill can sign the striker he needs then Sunderland could flourish; if he does not, then there is every chance they will slide down the table once again.
PREDICTED FINISH: 9th
KEY MAN: STEPHANE SESSEGNON
The Benin international was in wonderful form last season, scoring seven times and claiming nine assists for the Black Cats. Though ostensibly an attacking midfielder, Sessegnon has proved over the past 12 months he is also adept at playing as a wide forward or as a false nine, dropping off the front and creating space for runners ahead of him. Gifted on the ball, Sessegnon also marries imagination with execution and is one of the league's more unique players. The former Paris Saint-Germain star has attracted interest from bigger sides.
ONE TO WATCH: JI DONG-WON
The South Korea striker joined the Black Cats last summer but was restricted to only two Premier League starts last season as he acclimatised to life in the Premier League. He scored twice - most notably in the last seconds of a 1-0 win over Manchester City on New Year's Day - and will be hoping to have more of an impact this season. Though Steven Fletcher will come straight into the starting line-up if he joins from Wolves, Ji should be competing strongly with Connor Wickham and Fraizer Campbell after scoring against Team GB in the Olympics.
TRANSFERS IN: Carlos Cuellar (Aston Villa, free).
FIRST THREE GAMES: Arsenal (A), Reading (H), Swansea (A).
They say it is always darkest before the dawn, and the outlook could hardly have been much gloomier for Villa last season. Quite what Randy Lerner expected when he defied supporter consternation to appoint Alex McLeish from Birmingham last season remains a mystery, and his reward for such a divisive move was overwhelmingly negative football that left fans and players frustrated and the club hurtling towards the bottom of the table. Relegation was ultimately avoided, but that could not save the hated McLeish.
Lerner's response was to quickly move for Norwich City manager Paul Lambert, a man already attracting comparisons with Martin O'Neill, even before moving to his former Celtic manager's old club. Improving on last season - when Villa won only seven games - will be easy for the Scot and he inherits a squad bursting with exciting young talent, if somewhat short on experience and quality, the prolific Darren Bent aside.
However, while Lambert had led Norwich to two consecutive promotions prior to last season's impressive campaign in the Premier League, at Villa he must first repair the damage done by his predecessor before having aspirations of a challenge for European football - the standard set by O'Neill during his time at Villa Park.
PREDICTED FINISH: 10th
KEY MAN: DARREN BENT
Villa looked completely helpless when the striker suffered an ankle injury in February and such was their subsequent slump they were almost relegated. Bent's record of 18 goals in 38 games for a struggling team is very impressive and his calibre as a goalscorer cannot be doubted following similarly productive spells with Sunderland, Charlton and, to a lesser extent, Tottenham. Fit again and scoring in pre-season, the England international should maintain his career record of scoring in every two games.
ONE TO WATCH: GARY GARDNER
It came as a surprise when Alex McLeish allowed the talented midfielder to leave for Coventry on loan last season, such was the expectation around a player who had glimpses of great ability when playing for the club's reserves and England's youth teams. He finished the season back in the Villa fold but in his five starts to date has not been able to properly showcase his ability. That will change this season.
TRANSFERS IN: Karim El Ahmadi (Feyenoord, undisclosed); Matt Lowton (Sheffield United, undisclosed); Brett Holman (free); Ron Vlaar (Feyenoord, £3.2m).
TRANSFERS OUT: Carlos Cuellar (Sunderland, free); Emile Heskey (released).
FIRST THREE GAMES: West Ham (A), Everton (H), Newcastle (A).