Posts Tagged ‘Champions League’


After my rather successful predictions last year, I decided to do the obligatory English Premier League (EPL) predictions for the 2017/18 season. I will start out by saying this year will be more difficult to predict, as with all of the top teams playing in Europe, they will all have a somewhat equally rigorous schedule. The relegation fodder is also tougher this year, as the newly promoted clubs are better than last year’s and some of the clubs that have been in the top tier of English football for a handful of seasons now have gotten worse instead of better. Just like last like last year, every club’s first mention and where the meat of the prediction begins will be in bold to make it easier to find a particular area of interest.

I will start with the clubs I am tabbing for relegation. They are (in no particular order) Watford, Crystal Palace and Huddersfield Town. I am also throwing Brighton & Hove Albion, Swansea City and Burnley into the relegation mix too. I’m fairly confident both Watford and Palace will go down, but the final team I’m not completely sold on. I lean more towards Huddersfield because their squad is not as deep as Brighton’s, and they haven’t done much in the transfer window to secure their place. But on the other hand, Brighton’s manager is Chris Hughton, who was at the helm of Norwich City for the bulk of the season when they were relegated back in 2014. While I don’t completely trust him to steer a club out of relegation zone, he has proven himself by leading a team to automatic promotion to the top flight.

Palace has been in turmoil for some time now. After a strong showing in 2014/15 they’ve been on the downturn for the past few seasons. Sacking Alan Pardew last season was a decision made easier by his poorer and poorer performances heading into Christmas. Sam Allardyce took over, and he saved the sinking ship, at least for the time being, as Big Sam once again pulled off the impossible by guiding yet another team out of relegation. But it wasn’t all good news for Palace as Big Sam opted for quasi retirement rather than continue on as manager.

Palace hasn’t brought in anyone of note during the summer transfer window. Chelsea youngster Ruben Loftus-Cheek was taken on loan, but they will still struggle to score goals while at the same time being picked apart at the back. New manager Frank de Boer, who had been looking for a job at a top club in one of the big four leagues in Europe, and had been linked with several desirable openings, eventually took the job at Inter Milan for the 2016/17 season, but wound up getting sacked only a few months into the season. He then found his way to Palace, and while he seemed to learn from some of his mistakes during his short tenure at Inter, like bringing in high price signings, he seems to be falling into another trapping; bringing in your players. The first time Premier League manager signed the versatile former Ajax man Jairo Riedewald, who de Boer had during his spell as Ajax manager (which also ended unceremoniously).  Unless Palace brings in another goal scorer and a better first choice keeper (they lost Steve Mandanda who was brought in last year to shore up the position) Palace is in for a rough go of it.

Watford has been in downward spiral for while now. They were the darlings of the Premier League in 2015/16, but the annual managerial changes have done nothing to stabilize the club. Last year was as close to disaster as possible, and it was rumored long time captain Troy Deeney wanted to leave the club. If playing for a new manager every season wasn’t enough, the Watford board decided to bring in Marco Silvo, who, while doing an admirable job at Hull City last year, couldn’t keep them up. So a club that narrowly avoided relegation last year, thought bringing in a new manager who managed a club that was relegated last year was a good idea. Watford has been active in the transfer window, but that is not always a good thing. Watford’s major problem seems to be change; too much of it. They tend to bring in loads of new players in the summer, which can upset even the best of teams. But to a team like Watford it can spell disaster.

If you remember I had Swansea City in the relegation mix last year, but I didn’t pick them as one of the three clubs going down. While I feel Swansea is in for another bottom half of the table finish, manager Paul Clement had them heading in the right direction last year after taking over from Bob Bradley. But if the Swans wind up selling Gylfi Sigurdsson, which is a strong possibility, they’re in real trouble. Swansea is not exactly an ideal spot for many players, and they’ve had a hard time luring players to join the club in recent years. Their precarious position in the Premier League only further hinders that task.

Along with Swansea, the bottom half of the table will be rounded out by (in no particular order) Burnley, Leicester City, Newcastle United, West Ham United and Stoke City. I already touched on Brighton, but I see them narrowly avoiding relegation and finishing in 17th. After a good run of form in the first half, Burnley fell on tough times in the second half, slowly falling down the table to finish in 16th, level on points with Watford in 17th. Burnley sold their best attacking threat, to fellow relegation fodder Watford no-less, and they didn’t bring in the right players to help them climb the table, instead opting for aging Stoke castoffs. Given that I also have Stoke in the bottom half doesn’t bode well for Burnley.

Stoke was another team that started out well but slid down the table in the second half. With the departure of Marko Arnautovic, one of their better players, the ship is not heading in the right direction. The Potters did get rid of a lot of aging players, and those who were surplus to requirements, freeing up wage money. But they haven’t really spent any of it. At least not on anyone who can be a difference maker, or at the very least someone who can compliment Xherdan Shaqiri, who I can see asking for a transfer just like Arnautovic.

Without Champions League commitments Leicester can focus solely on the league. It will benefit them, but not enough. They should be safe for another season, but they will finish towards the bottom of the table. They brought in the right type of players, in the right positions, but it won’t be enough to be anywhere near mid table let alone the top half.

West Ham made a splash in the transfer market with the signing of Javier Hernandez, but even Chicharito can’t solve West Ham’s problems. Bringing in Joe Hart was an odd move, as I think Darren Randolph was a much better option as a backup keeper. Hart won’t provide any competition for Adrian, so don’t expect a rise in his performance, and he won’t push Adrian out of the starting spot either, so it’s pretty much a waste of wages. I don’t see West Ham finishing terribly low, but they won’t crack the top half.

Newly promoted Newcastle should have enough to stay up and avoid going straight back down to the Championship. Rafa Benitez stayed on as manager despite the Magpies being relegated, which spoke volumes to his team. They all bought in for the 2016/17 season, and they impressively won the Championship to earn automatic promotion. I don’t see Newcastle being a yoyo club. Yes, they won’t have some important pieces like Florian Thauvin, Yoan Gouffran and Matz Sels, but they brought in enough to make due. Newcastle supporters are a fickle and demanding bunch, but after being relegated in embarrassing fashion in the 2015/16 season, managing to stay up this year should be viewed as an accomplishment worth celebrating. My only concern with Newcastle is if they will have enough goals in them.

So through process of elimination you should already have an idea of who I think will finish in the top half. Southampton, Bournemouth, West Bromwich Albion, Everton, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea (in no particular order) fill out the table in the top half.  I will cut things down further by saying Southampton, Bournemouth and West Brom will finish outside the European places.

To be honest, the team that finishes in 10th was tough to pick. It was a tossup between Bournemouth and Southampton. Every year I don’t know what to make of Southampton. And this year is no different. The club that is known for being a feeder program for the big boys of European football, has surprisingly not sold many of their players heading into the 2017/18 campaign. But they also haven’t brought in anyone of note. A new manager for the second consecutive season will also hamper them. But Southampton always finds a way to finish closer to the top half than the bottom half. So with that I have them in the top half, but only barely.

While Bournemouth made a lot of good signings in the summer, I can’t see them improving on the success of last year where they finished in 9th. Not that last year was a fluke, it’s more to do with teams around them getting better. Bournemouth shouldn’t have snuck up on anyone last year, but they did. I can’t see that happening again this season.

Just like I can’t see Tony Pulis letting his West Brom side becoming complacent again like they were last year after hitting that magic 37 point number to assure themselves safety in top flight. West Brom was surprisingly active during the transfer windows last year, bringing in somewhat high profile players like Nacer Chadli. And Pulis had another Ace up his sleeve this year, bringing in England International Jay Rodriguez from Southampton. New signings aside, West Brom did not lose too many key players. Darren Fletcher’s absences will be sorely missed from a leadership perspective, but Jay Rodriguez should fill those shoes nicely. If Salomon Rondon can improve upon last year’s performance, and Euro 2016 hero Hal Robson-Kanu can provide any of the spark he did for Wales in the Euros, West Brom could surprise many by finishing convincingly in the top half.

That is my out on a limb pick. It seems every year there is one surprise club. One team that overachieves to open everyone’s eyes. A few years ago it was Leicester City, last year it was Bournemouth. This year I think it will be West Brom.

I don’t see West Brom challenging for a European place, but Everton surely will. Everton was the busiest club in the transfer market, signing 12 players. And it wasn’t just depth signings, they were marquee ones. Jordan Pickford should shore up the goalkeeping position, Davy Klaasen has been a fixture in Ajax’s starting XI so long it would surprise most that he’s only 24 years old, and while bringing back home grown legend Wayne Rooney won’t fill Romelu Lukaku’s boots, it will go a long way to providing leadership to a team that seemed to lack confidence and direction the last couple years.

Expectations will be high for Everton, and that may negatively affect them. But Ronald Koeman is back for another year, and he had them playing much better. So it stands to reason that another year under Koeman, combined with the spending spree at Goodison Park, will at the very least see a repeat performance of last year where they earned a spot in Europe.

Now comes what most people are interested in; the big boys of the EPL. So where exactly do I see Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur finishing? It may surprise you.

Liverpool are in serious trouble heading into the 2017/18 season. They’re still in need of a quality center back, and Jurgen Klopp did not address that area in the transfer window (as of posting this before the close of the window), and better options at outside back would also be beneficial. Signing yet another attacking option show where Klopp’s priorities lie. Considering that Liverpool’s schedule may become tougher with the added Champions League commitments should they qualify for the group stage; their league play may suffer further. I predict a 6th place finish for Liverpool, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Klopp gets the sack at the end of the year if not sooner.

For yet another season there will be turmoil at the Emirates. Manager Arsene Wenger was brought back on another contract extension, this time a two year salvage job to get the Gunners back into the top four. And that task will be harder than ever given the fact that Arsenal has to contend with the rigors of the playing in the dreaded Europa League. Wenger has already started his typical excuses by saying he doesn’t like the format of the Europa League and will likely rotate his squad for those games to rest his regular starting XI. Their domestic schedule is also very tough to start the year.

Star man Alexis Sanchez wants out, but Wenger has put his foot down saying he won’t sell him. Mesut Ozil (along with many other key pieces who haven’t renewed) is also out of contract at the end of the year like Sanchez, and how much those contracts running out with be a distraction is anyone’s guess.

Arsenal did finally break open the check book to sign Alexandre Lacazette, something that was two years in the making. And they brought in outside back Sead Kolasinac on free transfer from Schalke, where he was either brilliant or pitiful. In other words; the typical Wenger signing. But that won’t be enough to contend for the title let alone a spot in the top four, especially since Wenger didn’t clear the books of dead weight like Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs, Mathieu Debuchy, Carl Jenkinson, Lucas Perez, Francis Coquelin or Chuba Akpom. He also didn’t make the more debatable moves of getting rid of players like Theo Walcott, Mohammed Elneny, David Ospina, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Laurent Koscielny or Olivier Giroud.

I see a 5th place finish for Arsenal, and the return of Wenger, or should I say Kroenke’s Kroney, for the 2018/19 season. Though I could easily see Liverpool and Arsenal swapping places.

Manchester United will be better in Jose Mourinho’s second year at the helm. His system is in place, he’s brought in more players to his liking, and most importantly; he didn’t sell David de Gea. The addition of Romelu Lukaku will get all the attention, and rightfully so. But don’t overlook the signing of Nemaja Matic. He was great at Chelsea, and more importantly, he was great at Chelsea under Mourinho. I envision a 4th place finish for United. I don’t see them having enough to surpass Tottenham, Manchester City or Chelesea.

Everyone seems to be high on Tottenham. But I find it worrisome that they didn’t sign anyone in the summer. The bigger problem though is not just the loss of Kyle Walker, but losing him to a serious rival. As it stands now Kieran Trippier will likely be Walker’s replacement, and while Trippier is a decent player, he won’t be able to fill the void left by Walker. And that is before the injury he suffered in Spurs final tune up game. As it stands it appears Michael Dier will be played out of position at right back to start the season.

Another area of concern for Tottenham is playing their home games at Wembley Stadium while their new ground is being completed next door to where White Hart Lane once stood. We all saw how playing in a new stadium negatively effected West Ham last year, and that is before even mentioning Spurs’ poor record at Wembley. Spurs will be good, but not good enough to get over that final hurdle and win the league. I see a 3rd place finish.

Last year I successfully predicted that Chelsea would win the league, and despite the sharp criticism I stood by that choice. This year I don’t see Chelsea having the same success. They already had a replacement for Nemanja Matic before they sold him, and they improved their back line with the signing of Antonio Rudiger. New signing Alvaro Morata, a possible replacement for Diego Costa should he leave in January, has not set the world on fire right out of the gate like so many people demand these days of high profile signings. He may still pan out, but right now he is not meshing within the team and his work rate leaves a lot to be desired.

The biggest reason I picked Chelsea to win the league last year was because that did not have any European commitments to contend with, so they could focus solely on the league. This year they will be in the Champions League, and you know they want to win it. That added schedule will have a negative impact on them, which will have Chelsea finish in 2nd place.

With all that said, I predict Manchester City will win the league. They brought in the typical City signings; high priced and talented. They dipped their bucket into the eager to sell Monaco well and came out with two outstanding players in Bernardo Silva and Benjamin Mendy. Not only do those additions add depth at position where they already have one of the best in the world, it also adds strength to a position they were in desperate need of. And that is before mentioning the signings of right backs Danilo and Kyle Walker, another position City were in desperate need to improve.

Since City improved their one area of weakness, and cleared a ton of dead weight off their books (not that City needs extra funds) there should be nothing stopping them. If that wasn’t scary enough for the rest of the league, City’s schedule is fairly easy; especially at both the beginning and end, with ridiculously easy months sprinkled in the middle.

 

 

 

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“Same old Arsenal.” A phrase every Arsenal supporter loathes, or at least should. After a jaw droppingly awful run of form; having to come from three goals down to salvage a draw with Bournemouth, losing to Watford a couple weeks later and then right on the heels of that embarrassing loss, suffering another loss, this time a demoralizing defeat to Chelsea. To make matters worse, the Gunners were dropping points at crucial times. Had they managed to take all three point from the aforementioned Bournemouth and Watford games, like they easily should have, they would have been six points behind Chelsea heading into that all important league clash. Instead, they found themselves 12 points adrift afterwards, with their title hopes all but gone.

So the question arises, yet again, who is at fault? On paper this is one of the strongest teams Arsenal has fielded in years. Arsène Wenger has actually spent money, in some of the right areas for once. There should not be any excuses anymore. Does the blame rest on the players, who always appear to take a nonchalant, lackadaisical approach when facing clubs from the bottom of the table? Or does the blame rest squarely on Wenger’s shoulders. Players come and go, but the one constant the last 20 odd years has been Wenger.

This same team beat Chelsea earlier in the season, embarrassing them the same way Chelsea did to them on February 4. There should have been even more motivation to beat them in the return fixture, because it would be a season salvaging win. So Arsenal can’t get up for big games, and they can’t take games against weaker teams serious enough to not fall behind by multiple goals before halftime. Who is in charge of firing up the team? Wenger. Who is in charge of making sure the players’ mentality is in the right place? Wenger. Who is in charge of not letting players become complacent with their spot in the team? Wenger.

Last season everyone saw the first rumblings of the “Wenger Out” campaign. The cries from supporters who want Wenger out as manager, for a multitude of reasons. With the now infamous “Arsenal FC. Not Arsene FC” banner on display at the Emirates summing up the frustration perfectly. This season, after the latest stumblings, you’re starting to see more unrest amongst the fans. In the 2-0 win over Hull City there were a great deal of empty seats, and the atmosphere was dull. It seemed like the crowd was looking to boo more than cheer. I can only imagine how bad the Emirates will be during their next home match after suffering yet another embarrassing defeat at the hands of Bayern, 5-1, which will ironically be against Bayern in the return leg of Champions League Round of 16. Towards the end of last season I was starting to switch camps into the Wenger Out side. But after how this season has been playing out, I’m firmly in the Wenger Out camp.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate everything Wenger has done for the club. With the key word there being done. He brought an exciting style of football to the club, helped the club remain successful under financial strictness as the Emirates was ushered in and brought titles, not just trophies. But it’s been far too long since Arsenal have won the title. And if last year was a kick to the groin, following it up with the poor performances this season is stepping on your groin after you’ve fallen from the initial kick.

Wenger has delusions of grandeur. He’s full of excuses without ever actually accepting responsibility for his team’s shortcomings. His refusal to change tactics or adapt to a new style of play that is dictated by the game or opponent is worrisome. The beautiful at all costs approach does not work all the time. Coming out and saying he’d rather play beautiful football than win is an insult to anyone who spent money supporting the club. Bottom line is, this is all getting old. It happens every season, and only worsens as any sort of adversity is faced.

While no one will complain about finishing in the top four year in and year out; it’s sure better than finishing outside it, it’s beginning to foster complacency. It was exemplified in the loss to Watford at the end of January. Where there was no urgency, hardly any effort put in and shell shocked expressions as if the players were thinking “how dare they have the audacity to score on us.”

Another issue is the disagreements amongst supporters. Last year, once the Wenger Out faction starting becoming more vocal and prevalent, you could see fans in the crowd bickering amongst themselves. With the Wenger diehards screaming at the Wenger Outs to sit down and shut up. There needs to be some sort of understanding amongst supporters. There will always be opposing views, but arguing with someone who disagrees with your opinion is simply yelling at a brick wall. If people want to protest let them. And I’m not just saying that because I’m a staunch Wenger Out member. Fighting amongst ourselves won’t accomplish anything. Sending mixed messages to the board won’t bring necessary change. And I think we can all agree that something needs to change.

The sad part is, at this point Arsenal have waited too long to get rid of Wenger even if they don’t retain him past this season. Antonio Conte, José Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, Carlo Ancellotti, Massimiliano Allegri , Jorge Sampaoli, Frank de Boer and Jürgen Klopp, just to name a few, all have cushy new jobs at top clubs. The question begs who would want the Arsenal job that will actually take them back to the top? Diego Simeone from Atletico Madrid? Die Mannschaft manager Joachim Löw? Doubt any of them will leave their current jobs. Eddie Howe has been heavily linked with being Wenger’s successor once he departs, but with Bournemouth’s worrisome defensive record this season combined with Howe’s relative inexperience, it seems more and more like a risky venture. Manuel Pellegrini and Roberto Mancini are still available. And don’t anyone dare throw Jürgen Klinsmann name into the hat.

So the question begs; what will it take for Wenger to be out as Arsenal manager? Being embarrassed by Bayern in the Champions League? Tottenham finishing ahead of Arsenal in the league? Finishing outside the top four? Any combination of the above? To weed through this convoluted mess, let’s look at past experiences. Arsenal has never won the Champions League (UCL) in their history, let alone under Wenger, with their highest finish being reaching the UCL final way back in 2006. And In recent years they routinely make a Round of 16 exit. Yet Wenger has kept his job. This year is no different as Bayern already comprehensively demolished them in the opening fixture of the home and away series in the Round of 16. Aside from that, Arsenal’s stats are damning. They’ve allowed 3+ goals in four of the last five Round of 16 games, and Wenger’s record in the UCL knockout round is a dismal at best, standing at 15-10-18.

Last year the only thing Wenger could hang his hat on was finishing above Spurs. Leapfrogging them on the final day of the season to finish in second place, Arsenal’s highest league finish since The Invincibles. Arsenal haven’t finished outside the top four since 1994-95, long before Wenger’s tenure, and I think that will be the likeliest thing that would lead to his sacking/dismissal/non-retainment; however the powers at be want to phrase it.

Putting all that in perspective, yes winning the Champions League is extremely difficult. It’s why it’s called the Champions League and not the Europa League. Winning the Premier League is difficult too, but in reality is closer to Arsenal’s grasp than the Champions League. Beating and finishing ahead of Spurs is a matter of pride, but it’s ultimately out of Arsenal’s hands. The problems arise with, yet again, complacency. Arsenal are too comfortable. You could say they’re stuck in a rut, but to be stuck in a rut means you have some sort of ambition. And right now it seems Arsenal have no ambition. They’re perfectly happy with the status quo; finishing in the top four so you qualify for Champions League. Anything better than that is icing on the cake. There is no cherry on top in Arsenal’s book.

Until that mindset changes, which starts from the top, Arsenal will be stuck in this perpetual cycle of mediocrity. They’ll be a team everyone sets out to beat, but can legitimately embarrass. So here we are, on the eve of Arsenal’s FA Cup 5th Round match against non-league side Sutton United. When another non-league club already eliminated a Premier League club yesterday. Surely the disastrous can’t happen… right?