English Premier League Preview: The Big Four

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The English Premier League season kicks off tomorrow and the general consensus is that only four teams have a serious chance of winning the league title. As much as Tottenham would like to disagree, that believe is grounded in reality.

Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal are some of the world’s best teams, boasting the game’s most talented players and most expensive rosters. They will be the power brokers in the EPL all season, with Man U leading the way and Chelsea playing the role of contender most likely to dethrone the champion.

SBI correspondent Carl Setterlund, who gave us an in-depth look at the UEFA Cup teams in the EPL on Thursday, now focuses on The Big Four, with an in-depth look at all four teams and their chances at lifting the silverware in May.

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By CARL SETTERLUND

Although each club deals with in-fighting and turmoil, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool have, over the past several years, emerged as the powerhouses of the EPL. Each club spends big to make sure they have one of the most competitive teams in Europe and the EPL’s showing in last year’s Champions League showed they’re doing a pretty good job.

While Liverpool has been a little bit rocky and Arsenal a little bit frugal, the Big Four provide an almost impregnable group at the top of the EPL table. Good luck to any team trying to gate crash this group because they’ve got their work cut out for them. It will be close again between this group of four but it seems, like last year, there are really two tiers involved, with Chelsea and Man U the most legitimate title contenders and Liverpool and Arsenal struggling to keep the pace. That said, here’s my take on the how the Big Four will shake out this year.

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1. Chelsea

Last year: 2nd place, 85 pts

Key Additions: Deco, Jose Boswinga

Key Subtractions: Claude Makélélé, Steve Sidwell, Tal Ben Haim,

Prediction: Last season was a horror show for Chelsea. If it wasn’t turmoil within the club, it was injuries and losing key players to the African Cup of Nations that did the Blues in. You have to believe Roman Abramovich will do whatever it takes to get back to the top, even if it means splashing big money on Robinho or in the winter transfer market. As is, Chelsea has one of the world’s best keepers and an embarrassment of riches on defense with John Terry, Rico Carvalho, Alex, Ashley Cole, Paulo Ferreira Belletti and now the recent addition of Jose Boswinga from Porto. It remains to be seen how seamlessly Deco will blend in with the likes of Ballack, Lampard and Essien in the center of the pitch and up front Big Phil shouldn’t be short of options either.

If their confidence in Andrei Shevchenko pays off and they can finally get a good year out of him, then that would really put them over the top. As always in the Abramovich era, the problem is going to be finding playing time when there are ten spots for fifteen legitimate stars. But, I think everyone would agree that that is among the best problems to have in sports. Pure talent and a little bit of bitterness over last years finish should help Chelsea edge Manchester United.

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2. Manchester United

Last year: 1st place, 87 pts

Key Additions: Dimitar Berbatov(?)

Key Departures: Gerard Piqué, Chris Eagles

Prediction: It’s hard to say Manchester United took a step backward because they return essentially the same squad the procured the league title and Champions League title last season, but that might just be the case. Sir Alex Ferguson was right to put his foot down keeping Cristiano Ronaldo, but he has to be afraid that it will affect the play on the field in some form. There also needs to be a changing of the guard soon as mssrs. Scholes, Giggs, Neville and Van der Sar are each near the end of their illustrious careers. This could be the awkward season when we have to watch Sir Alex ease his midfield stalwarts into smaller roles.

That said, it’s not like the Red Devils are in danger of not competing for the title, but I think this year will be far harder for them than last term. Ronaldo is still most dynamic player in the world and he alone can carry this team if necessary. Along with him, Anderson and Nani should continue to mature and help offset the aging of the old guard.

It’s hard to beat the pairing of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in the back-line and up front, when everyone is healthy, scoring shouldn’t be a problem. However, the acquisition of Dimitar Berbatov, or any other top forward, especially one who is more of a target forward is important for me. Berbatov is perhaps the one missing link to pulling off a three-peat, but as of yet a deal hasn’t formally been announced. If Man U do get their hands on the Bulgarian, consider it a toss-up between them and Chelsea, if it isn’t already.

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3. Liverpool

Last year: 4th place 76 pts

Key Additions: Robbie Keane, Andrea Dossena, Philipp Degan, David N’Gog, Diego Cavalieri

Key Departures: Peter Crouch, John Arne Riise, Harry Kewell, Scott Carson,

Prediction: One of the knocks on Rafa Benitez, I think, is that he has a tendency to load up on quantity instead of quality. However, in the past two off-seasons he finally managed opted for the other side and picked up Fernando Torres, Ryan Babel and recently Robbie Keane. The Irishman should prove to be the final piece of the puzzle for Liverpool’s attack and there could be goals aplenty this season at Anfield.

As always, Steven Gerrard will be one of the biggest difference-makers in the EPL and here’s to hoping Rafa keeps him in the center of the field where he belongs. Most worrisome is the defense, which isn’t quite at the same level as the top two. Benitez brought in some defensive reinforcements in Andrea Dossena and Philipp Degan but the back should still be where Liverpool are undone as Pepe Reina, though a good goalie, isn’t quite Cech or Van der Sar.

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4. Arsenal

Last year: 3rd place, 83 pts

Key Additions: Samir Nasri, Aaron Ramsey

Key Departures: Mathieu Flamini, Alexander Hleb, Gilberto Silva, Jens Lehmann

Prediction: Arsenal lost two (three if you count Gilberto) vital midfield cogs in the off-season and only brought in one. Samir Nasri should be fun to watch, but the baby-faced Gunners will could struggle this season to recapture their form of last season. Arsene Wenger always seems to find a way to get it down however, so it’s hard for me to relegate Arsenal to fourth place. Every year it seems a few of the young starlets comes of age and provides the needed boost. Emmanuel Adebayor and Cesc Fabregas have both become legitimate world-class players and this season, expect another couple players to take the step forward. Theo Walcott, Abou Diaby, Nicklas Bendtner and Carlos Vela are all capable of being that player.

The Gunners will still probably be playing “the beautiful game” this season and although they won’t be short on creativity, it’s essential that convert their chances regularly. I love Arsenal at left and right back but I think, like Liverpool, they’re not nearly as good as Chelsea and Man U at center back. I’m also still not sold on Manuel Almunia as the goalie on such a good team. Depending on how many young players step up this season, Arsenal could finish better than fourth, but inexperience could see them slip up just as easily. Until Fabregas has another year or two under his belt as a team leader, I wouldn’t expect much title contention, but a Champions League place is almost a given for this squad.

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21 Responses to English Premier League Preview: The Big Four

  1. grammar snob says:

    typo: “that believe” should be “that belief”

  2. maw says:

    That picture of Rio Ferdinand… quite possibly one of the most frightening pictures I’ve seen in years…

  3. MLS SNOB says:

    Wow the same four teams again and again and again. The EPL needs more Russian billionaires I guess. Ill stick to MLS where the talent may be off but its exciting, competetive, and the winner is not basically predetermined.

  4. Ossington Mental Youth says:

    Hey Ives,

    TFC just signed Johann Smith.

    What do you think of that (just curious, we dont know much outside of what we can find on the innernets).

    PS

    Spurs are beating out the Scouse for 4th place this year, im not a spurs fan btw

  5. RK says:

    Robinho is as good as gone — he isn’t traveling with Real Madrid to Valencia today…

  6. nicholas s. says:

    Can’t wait to see Arsenal struggle.

    It’s fun to watch the gooners and the english media refer to the “kids” when they lose, no matter how many senior players or starters are actually playing.

    I also think Liverpool could struggle if Rafa can’t provide effective tactics with Keane/Torress/Kuyt/etc…

  7. Berba says:

    With Arshavin, Spurs will see the Champions league in 2009/2010

  8. Ossington Mental Youth says:

    Benitez is unbelieveably frustrating to watch as far as tactics etc are concerned, its a wonder hes lasted as long. Hes going to pay for it with a revitalized spurs team

  9. MJylo says:

    Beasley is the 18th player added to the U.S. roster, in case anyone was wondering.

  10. Maple Leaf Red says:

    Benitez is unbelieveably frustrating to watch as far as tactics etc are concerned, its a wonder hes lasted as long. Hes going to pay for it with a revitalized spurs team

    It’s hardly a wonder he’s lasted this long considering he’s won a Champions League and an FA Cup in four years at the club.

    No way does Spurs challenge the top four and the reason Liverpool’s defence was weaker last year was because Daniel Agger as out all year and Martin Skrtel came in during the January transfer window.

    I don’t know if they have the consistency to win the league but they won’t drop out of the top four.

  11. Maple Leaf Red says:

    “It’s fun to watch the gooners and the english media refer to the “kids” when they lose, no matter how many senior players or starters are actually playing.”

    Almost as much fun as listening to announcers show their ignorance as they bleat on about rotation or zonal marking…

  12. theman says:

    Nicholas S., you need a history lesson. Exactly 12 months ago everyone was predicting the same thing–that Spurs’ ridiculous turnover would propel them above Arsenal–and, remind me, where did Spurs end up? Oh that’s right, midtable! Football is a team sport my friend, not a spending game, and spurs won’t even touch the big four until they can find some continuity.

  13. scott47a says:

    Ummm … interesting how the Spuds get brought up comments in a Big Four thread. Wishful thinking.

    I’m thinking Pool is out of contention this year, with Arsenal needing some youngsters to really step up in order to challenge ManU/Chelsea. Hopefully the Arsenal don’t fade down the strech again.

  14. mike says:

    “Until Fabregas has another year or two under his belt as a team leader, I wouldn’t expect much title contention, but a Champions League place is almost a given for this squad.”

    What else can Fabergas possibly do to prove his experience, grow a beard to prove he’s cagey? He’s been playing regularly in the EPL since he was 17, won an FA Cup, played in a CL final and won a Euro title.

    Arsenal was 4 points shy of winning the PL. To write them off again with basically the same team (Flamini is the only real loss, Gilberto wasn’t a factor and Hleb was replaced with Nasri) is silly. They may or may not win, but they will be right there with Chelsea and Man U.

  15. Johnathan says:

    Liverpool were not undone at the back last season.

    They conceded only two more goals than Chelsea, and six more than Manchester United in league play.

  16. Maple Leaf Red says:

    “Liverpool were not undone at the back last season.

    They conceded only two more goals than Chelsea, and six more than Manchester United in league play.”

    It was the timing and opposition that scored the goals that killed Liverpool. Having Agger and Skrtel against the other top four will make a huge difference.

  17. mig22 says:

    I happen to agree with Carl’s order although I believe that Arsenal will struggle to hold onto 4th. Spurs or Villa may jump into that spot.

  18. I8Sp*rz says:

    Spudz or Villa for 4th? Right.

    Why because the folks at Shite Fart Lane turned over a huge portion of their squad. . just like the year before and the year before??

    Folks its not fantasy football and its not just about how many names you can accumulate.

  19. Carl Setterlund says:

    re: Mike

    In response to the Cesc comment, I should have been more clear that I wasn’t trying to knock him. I really think Fabregas is (or will soon be) one of the top 5-10 difference makers in the world right now. BUT, I think Arsenal would need a world-class leader for them to challenge for the top spot this year. I love Fabregas, but he doesn’t have the presence yet that Henry had or other players like Gerrard.

  20. Carl Setterlund says:

    By the way, I was devastated at Chris Eagles departure. I totally thought he was gonna be a Man U lifer. Maybe never consistently getting starts for more than a season at a time, but I was an Eagles fan.

  21. natsteel says:

    “I think Arsenal would need a world-class leader for them to challenge for the top spot this year. I love Fabregas, but he doesn’t have the presence yet that Henry had or other players like Gerrard.”

    Arsenal have many leaders, especially Kolo Toure. You don’t have to be named “captain” to be a leader. Fabregas also has a trophy under his belt. The one criterion for a player to be a leader is that his teammates be willing to follow him. Cesc has that at Arsenal as does Toure.

    Sadly, you are certainly correct about our central defense which is probably the primary worry of most Gooners. Expect Arsene to sign a DM whether it be Inler, Cana, or Veloso. Gilberto played almost no role last year so he will not be missed and Hleb is effectively replaced by Nasri. So the DM spot needs to be filled and Arsenal are back to scratch not including the increased maturity of players like Walcott and Bendtner and the arrival of Vela, who looked very strong this preseason and will be ready to fill in Eduardo’s role from last season. Also factor in that we still have Eduardo and Rosicky returning eventually and we match up favorably with the other big 4.

    Also, how can you say you don’t expect much title contention when we led the league for the entire Fall and Winter last season and despite a near-monumental collapse in March and April still finished only 4 points off the lead? What does title contention mean to you?