Premier League in Preview: A Push for Europe

12 August 2008

So as these previews wind down, we start taking a look at those clubs that can make a push for the European places. With the way the UEFA Cup will work starting from next season, this will guarantee seven teams will start in the UEFA Cup qualification rounds and possibly eight depending on how the Fair Play Table shapes out. Here's how that will shape out.

Fifth place will guarantee a start in the 4th Qualification Round
FA Cup Winner will guarantee a start in the 4th Qualification Round
Carling Cup winner will guarantee a start in the 3rd Qualification Round.

Should the FA Cup or Carling Cup winner already qualify into Europe, sixth place will start in the 4th Qualification Round. Should both winners already be in Europe, seventh place will start in the third qualification round. At least I'm sure that is how it will work out.

So here's how I see these European places shaping out.

Number 8: Tottenham Hotspur

Biggest Ins: David Bentley (dynamic midfielder on the right hand side and good at linking the play forward), Luka Modric (a good technical midfielder who can also track back)
Biggest Outs: Robbie Keane (Bulldog up front), Younes Kaboul (Leaves Spurs thin of quality at central defense).

Toughest Month: March. Host Middlesbrough before going to Aston Villa. To top it off, they host Chelsea to end the month.
Easiest Month: October. Host Hull before traveling to Stoke. They host Bolton before going to the Emirates. Could be nine points maybe ten if they can sneak a result against Arsenal.

Five Questions I Have With Tottenham Hotspur

1) Can Tottenham keep a hold of Dimitar Berbatov? Even more so, can Spurs find another striker?
2) How will it take for the new signings Heuelho Gomes, Luka Modric and Giovani Dos Santos to adjust to to the Premier League?
3) Can Juande Ramos find a season long left back?
4) Can Spurs this season turns draws into wins and losses into draws late in games? With their goal output, they should have had a better goal differential than plus five.
5) How fit will Tottenham be this season?

My Ultimate Reality
:With everyone picking them to make a push for breaking into the top four, all I can do is sit and laugh. I understand that Ramos is a capable manager, but this the team of oh so close but always so far. They are extremely thin up front, and the quality at the back tells me that they will give up goals maybe at not the same clip at last season but very close to it. Ramos has been resolute in their stance over Berbatov but if he leaves, this club is in trouble. I do think Spurs will be fitter this season but their schedule does them no favors with the UEFA Cup. When it's all said and done, I don't see Spurs making the push like everyone claims. They simply aren't good enough.

Number 7: Everton

Biggest Ins: We're still waiting...for someone, anyone.
Biggest Outs: Andrew Johnson (No big loss really).

Toughest Month
: January. This could be the toughest month of any team this season. Okay so they have an easy game against Hull City after the FA Cup Third Round. Then at Anfield before hosting Arsenal. They play Manchester United to end the month.
Easiest Month: February. Everton host Bolton before going to Newcastle and ending the month with West Brom. Should be at least seven points.

Five Questions I Have With Everton

1) Is this the thinnest squad in the Premier League for the upcoming season?
2) How does the loss of Steven Pienaar to start the season affect the midfield? To add to that, what does this team do if Tim Cahill misses any significant time?
3) Who will end up being the effective partner up front for Yakubu?
4) Will Everton be able to close down at the back in the same manner they did last season?
5) Does David Moyes get frustrated with the lack of funds?

My Ultimate Reality
: If I had to be honest with myself, this team isn't seventh place material and in hindsight this could be the one team I am taking the biggest gamble on with table placement. I think everyone is in a state of shock that Everton haven't brought anyone in despite the courting of Joao Moutinho. The frankness is Tim Cahill was the main reason this team finished so high up the table last season and it's still a coin-flip if he'll make it in time for the start of the season. So right there they are already behind the eight ball. Tim Howard will keep them in games, but he is vulnerable on set pieces. If Cahill misses any major chunks to this season, Everton could be a team that makes a quick UEFA Cup exit and a side that may have to fight until late in the season to stay up. This is a side that maybe the most interesting to watch if only to see how everything comes together.

Number 6: Aston Villa

Biggest Ins: Brad Friedel (Needed a strong guy between the posts), and Curtis Davies (they got their man in central defense).
Biggest Outs: Luke Moore (could never crack into the starting lineup). Olof Mellberg (couldn't agree to a contract and after his outspokenness regarding Gareth Barry, probably would have been let go had he not already agreed to terms with Juventus).

Toughest Month
: October. They travel to Stamford Bridge before hosting Portsmouth. They have a tricky tie with Wigan at the JJB before ending the month hosting Blackburn. The first two will be difficult, the second two are almost trap games.
Easiest Month: January. Host West Brom before traveling to Sunderland. They then go to Fratton Park in the lone difficult tie of the month before ending it hosting Wigan. A good chance for 10 points.

Five Questions I Have With Aston Villa

1) How will this squad cope with the extra games associated with the Intertoto Cup and possibly the UEFA Cup as the season goes on?
2) What happens up front if Gabriel Agbonlahor is injured for any length of time this season?
3) Can they find two guys who will be season long starters at right back and on the right side of the midfield? Their starter at right back is not at Juventus and it was almost right back by committee last year due to Petrov and nagging injuries.
4) Can Brad Friedel have the same success he had between the posts as he had at Blackburn? Will this mean Brad Guzan could be shipped off on loan?
5) Have Gareth Barry and Martin O'Neil patched up their differences and moved on from their summer of discontent?

My Ultimate Reality
: I love Martin O'Neill as a manager. He is the ultimate motivator and can adjust on the fly if he has to. The one problem they had last season is giving up too many goals, but to be kind about that they scored more goals than any team outside the top four (well top three, but let's leave the big four debate for another day), and still had a respectable goal differential of plus twenty. To me the success of the club relies on four players, Brad Friedel, Gabriel Agbonlahor, Gareth Barry, and Martin Laursen. If these four play well, the rest of the club does as well but if any of these four have an off day, the club will as well. While a little on the thin side, this side has good chemistry and will also fight for fifth. I think the schedule will come back to haunt them in the end as I could see them fading from fifth into sixth place.

Number 5: Portsmouth

Biggest Ins: Younes Kaboul (a decent enough center back who could come in and start straight away), Peter Crouch (vastly underrated, however isn't that great in the air).
Biggest Outs: Sulley Muntari (their most dynamic midfielder).

Toughest Month
: August. Start out at Stamford Bridge before hosting Manchester United. They end the month at Everton.
Easiest Month: November. It's not exactly easy due to the UEFA Cup, but their schedule is easily navigable. They start out the month hosting Wigan Athletic before going to Sunderland and West Ham. They end the month hosting Hull City and Blackburn. This could very well be an eleven point month.

Five Questions I Have With Portsmouth

1) Can they improve their form at Fratton Park? They ended up with more draws than wins and on the whole were better away from home than at home. They have to get better at home this season.
2) How does losing Sulley Muntari hurt the dynamic in the midfield? He isn't someone who can be easily replaced. To further that, what does the midfield look like now Muntari is gone?
3) Will the Peter Crouch/Jermain Defoe partnership up front work as it seems most people think it will?
4) Will the fixture congestion associated with the UEFA Cup hurt them through 2008? The tough start doesn't help them either and it will be important not to panic if they don't have a good opening five games.
5) Is David James at the start of the downside of his career or does he have another year like last year in him?

My Ultimate Reality
: I've never been too high on Harry Redknapp. From crying over the African Cup of Nations, to not being able to adjust to tactical adjustments in game, Redknapp has over achieved in my mind. While I like the core at the back, this side somehow has to find more goals, the main reason Redknapp is taking a gamble on surplus at Liverpool Peter Crouch. He has his flaws but as I say about MLS player Nate Jaqua, he somehow gets the job done. If this squad is able to stay healthy, they could go far. While I don't see them challenging for the top four positions, I see this side giving everything they have to finish fifth. I think they will overtake Everton late in the season and take fifth place away from them. It will also be fun to see the atmosphere inside of Fratton Park on UEFA Cup nights should they get to the group stages.

Tomorrow between recording this week's The Third Half, I will finish my previews. I've also changed the name of the blog as I'm sure you can figure out who are left. That title 'The Big Four and the Push for the Title'. Until then, these are my thoughts, what are yours?

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Johnathan Starling, the self proclaimed 'most brutally honest man on the net, dishes out his own unique brand of opinions, and analysis on the Premier League, Bundesliga, and all things US Soccer.

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