By: McLeod Brown
For all the excitement and reverence the English Premier League has earned as the most popular soccer league in the world, the 2014-15 season proved to be perhaps the dullest in recent memory. Chelsea led essentially from the beginning of the season until the end, securing the League title with a 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace on May 3rd, with three games left to play. The title was the club’s first in six years, and fifth in their 110-year history.
With the new EPL season set to begin on Saturday, teams are faced with extra incentive to avoid relegation come end of the season. Set to kick in at the start of the 2016-17 season, Sky Sports and BT Sport’s new domestic television deal with the EPL will be worth $7.9 billion over three years. This marks a 70 percent increase over what they were currently paying, and the added revenue is but extra fire for a team to rise to the top of the EPL, along with the added glory of winning the most prestigious soccer league in the world.
As we are nearing the 24 hour mark until kickoff across the pond, here’s a look at my top five squads entering this season, along with a dark horse that could turn some heads.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That old school adage is something Chelsea seemed to follow to a T this offseason. While many of their competitors made deep-pocketed big splashes, Chelsea remained quiet on the free agent and transfer scene, preferring to keep last year’s championship squad intact as opposed to tinkering with the chemistry that earned them the title. And who can blame them? With arguably the top manager in all of soccer in Jose Mourinho, The Blues remain one of the best chances to secure another Premier League title. Captain John Terry and the reliable Cesc Fabregas will look to pace the club, while Diego Costa and Eden Hazard return to helm the attack. If all goes according to plan, Chelsea will have started a long reign atop the EPL with their title last year.
2. Manchester City
Yes, I know: a very daring 1-2 ranking thus far, given these are the top two teams from last year. But just like Chelsea, Manchester City has kept much of last year’s competitive team together, while also adding a raw, but extremely exciting young talent in 20-year old Raheem Sterling. Recently given the Golden Boy award last season recognizing him as the best under-21 player in Europe, Sterling joins Man City after a four-year stint with Liverpool. The young midfielder tallied 11 goals in 52 appearances with Liverpool last year, while displaying a promising vision and technical skills that make scouts and managers alike swoon over his potential. Pairing Sterling with Golden Boot winner Sergio Aguero injects Man City with hope that they can claim their third EPL title in five years. The quicker the two mesh along with the rest of the team, the better those chances will last.
Well, would you look at that? The team that finished third in the EPL last season comes in at third for my predictions. Hear me out: while it’s been over a decade since the team has won a Premier League title, they still remain one of the most popular clubs in the world, along with one of the most ravenous and reliable fan bases. There’s a reason for that: Arsenal puts a show on the pitch, and that show has become even more attractive over last two seasons. Fortifying those chances is the team’s 1-0 blanking of Chelsea just last week, when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain scored the lone goal to give his side the Community Shield for the second season in a row. The offseason has also provided star players like Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez another chance to bond and form some chemistry for The Gunners. If this isn’t the year Arsenal breaks their EPL title drought, it’s hard to imagine another season that would provide an equal opportunity.
Count me among the Liverpool believers entering this season. While last year was the complete opposite of what the side’s supporters expected after a beautiful 2013-14 campaign, the team still has the potential to recapture some of that magic from two seasons ago. Minus the aforementioned loss of Raheem Sterling to Manchester City, the Reds also said goodbye to stalwart Steven Gerrard, and the enigma known as Mario Balotelli. However, Liverpool had a busy offseason that included seven signings; among them Roberto Fimino, the second most expensive player in the club’s history, as well as James Milner, a former Man City player himself, have given the faithful a renewed hope in their team. In contrast to the quiet offseason strategies of Chelsea and Manchester City, Liverpool took the opposite route in shaking up a roster that fell far below expectations last season. The road to redemption begins this weekend.
5. Stoke City
Let’s put Stoke City in perspective by using some analogies from other sports. Stoke City is like last year’s Buffalo Bills of the NFL. Or New Orleans Pelicans of the NBA. Or the Dean Ambrose of WWE. Stoke City is that one team who you always think you can beat, but you don’t really want to test it. They play hard, they play fast, they play physical, they play ugly, and they don’t care. Bojan Krkic and Moha El Ouriachi will be the two main keys to Stoke City’s success or failure this season. Each face their own obstacles beginning the year. Krkic was limited to only 18 contests in his first campaign with Stoke City last year before a knee injury suffered at the end of January kept him sidelined for the rest of the year. His recovery and return to form will be critical if Stoke City wants to take that next step. Ouriachi, meanwhile, enters his first season with the team as a sort of unknown, but kind-of-known enigma with a certain set of skills (enter Liam Neeson dialogue from Taken) that are not found on your every-day 19 year-old. If he can get up to speed fast enough, and earn some significant playing time in manager Mark Hughes’ lineup, he may be that secret juice the team needs to add some hardware to their reputation.
Sleeper – Swansea City
If any team has momentum entering this season, it’s Swansea City. After defying the odds with handing the job to former player Garry Monk, Swansea City enjoyed their highest top-flight finish since 1982, with a record good enough for eighth-place in 2014-15. Repeating that success while also dealing with the fact that they are no longer necessarily underdogs will prove to be another task for the squad. Their 56 points was also good enough for their highest EPL total of all-time. Andre Ayew joins the Swans after his second stint with Marseille. The Ghanaian striker will be looked on to provide the necessary scoring power for the Swans’ attack. On the back line, Ashley Williams enters his eighth season as the stalwart on defense. The Wales defender has made a name for himself on both, the club and international sides. While some may question the validity of Swansea City’s finish last season, there are rumblings that the club has the potential to stay for the foreseeable future.