In what order will the EPL top 5 finish?
Manchester United's new player Robin van Persie. AP Photo/Jon Super
Last season Manchester City announced themselves as one of the big players in the English Premier League, turning what had become the big four of Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal into a big five.
If you throw both Tottenham and Newcastle United into the mix, who have both been hovering thereabouts for the past few seasons, one could argue that the line that divides the top five from the rest is now as blurred as it’s been for 20 years.
The growth of the Premiership globally and the influx of foreign funds has helped spread the opportunities for success beyond the traditional powers.
The work of Everton and Fulham in recent years, inevitably on the fringes of the European spots, only makes it harder to determine where the line should be drawn.
Liverpool, for example, have finished the past three seasons outside the top four Champions League spots.
But, with the arrival of the hottest property in British coaching, Brendan Rodgers, the hope for Liverpool fans (like yours truly) is that the club will be back among the top few this time around, and pushing beyond that in the future.
With that in mind, and after the opening round of fixtures over the weekend, here’s my take on how the top five will finish.
Manchester City, first
Roberto Mancini’s tactical flexibility and balance was a big factor in the blue moon rising over Eastlands for the first time in 44 years.
Invariably having the edge over Sir Alex Ferguson, Mancini brought a real tactical sophistication and flexibility to the EPL, able to switch seamlessly between being on the front and shutting up shop, depending on what was required.
Blessed with numerous options up front, he was able to mix and match, as required, and with Yaya Toure, Joe Hart and Vincent Kompany supreme in halting the opposition, Mancini had some great balance.
With a settled squad and Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli likely to provide more this season than they did last, and Kun Aguero likely to back up an outstanding debut season, it suggests improvement.
Fundamental to their success is ensuring Toure stays fit and Joleon Lescott has a solid season alongside Kompany. If there’s any weakness, it’s the lack central defensive cover.
Manchester United, second
Last season was a disappointing one by Sir Alex Ferguson’s usual standards and United still managed to get within a minute or two of winning the league.
It says much about Ferguson’s resourcefulness that he was able to quietly go about his work, claw back City’s early lead, hit the lead and go so close with so many holes in his squad.
If something isn’t working, Ferguson will invariably find a solution, evidenced by him convincing Paul Scholes out of retirement.
This time around he has realised that he had to strengthen his front third quality and depth and to compete with Mancini, so he brought in Shinji Kagawa and Robin van Persie.
It might take a little for the front third to gel, and there is clearly plenty of quality there, but Ferguson will need to be at his resourceful best to get the best out of those behind them, with the age of his central defence and midfield his biggest issue.
While Roman Abramovich has splurged with the signings of attackers Eden Hazard, Oscar and Marko Marin, the big question is whether Roberto Di Matteo is equipped enough to steer the team around.
While he was able to get the best out of an ageing squad on the road to Champions League success, that was done largely on the back of a defensive, counter-attacking template, and they relied on much good fortune throughout their destiny run.
History though proves you need to be more adventurous to win the EPL, and this remains Di Matteo’s biggest test.
With no Didier Drogba, and a rejuvenated Fernando Torres leading the line, it appears that swift transition into the forward line, particular through Ramires and Hazard, will be the modus operandi.
Whether this is enough remains unlikely, and you sense Abramovich might need to add at least one other quality striker to support Torres.
With his squad not complete and players coming in late, it is likely to take Brendan Rodgers some time to sort out his formation and where signings like Fabio Boroni are best suited.
In the opener against West Brom he was used wide, but it might be more prudent to swap him with Luis Suarez, for Borini looked lost in the wide channels on debut.
This sort of tinkering and building of understanding will take Rodgers some time. Given the difficult opening month or so of the season, we might not expect to see the best of Liverpool for a few months.
With the squad still thin, Rodgers will need to continue to add quality and depth, and the likes of Nuri Sahin and Cristian Tello would be the types of players to fit into the way Rodgers wants to play.
How Rodgers manages the transition from old to new will be important, and he will need to make some tough calls.
While it remains a period of transition and renewal, there should be enough control of matches from the likes of Joe Allen and Lucas, and if Suarez and co. can find some efficiency in front of goal, Liverpool should climb the ladder swiftly.
While Arsene Wenger has brought in a high quality player in Santi Cazorla from La Liga, the question is whether he, Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski combined is enough to make up for the loss of van Persie.
Particular when you add the loss of Alex Song, off to Barcelona, it appears the squad has been weakened, even if there are a few extra numbers.
Gervinho showed signs over the weekend that his second season will be far more productive than his first, but the big question for the Gunners, minus van Persie, is just how productive they can be in front of goal?
Keen to hear your thoughts, and why you think someone not in my top five will be in there come next May.
Arsenal v Sunderland: 0-0
Newcastle United v Tottenham Hotspur: 2-1
West Ham United v Aston Villa: 1-0
Queens Park Rangers v Swansea City: 0-5
Fulham v Norwich City: 5-0
West Bromwich Albion v Liverpool: 3-0
Reading v Stoke City: 1-1
Wigan v Chelsea: 0-2
Manchester City v Southampton: 3-2
Follow Tony on Twitter @TonyTannousTRBA
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