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English Premier League: Season 2009-10 Preview

Ironically, as England start building towards next year's World Cup, England seems to be getting smaller. Lancashire and the wider North West is represented by no fewer than eight Premier League teams, making for short bus journeys and short fuses all round. There are also currently five sides from London and three from the West Midlands. Some say the Premier League is weakening, but there will at least be few matchdays without a tasty local affair.

Spain's Primera Division, plus the resurgence of La Furia Roja, is threatening English football both on the field and as a brand. With a World Cup looming, a financial crisis to negotiate and a Champions League to win back, this would be a great time for some thrills and spills.

This probably won't be a season for breaking up the 'Big Four', yet there are still numerous battles to be fought across the division and there's no reason to give up on the Prem just yet!

English Transfer Table

Arsenal
Coach: Arsene Wenger
Star player: Cesc Fabregas
Youngster to watch: Jack Wilshere
Top signing: Thomas Vermaelen
Objective: Top four

It will work for Arsenal this season because they'll continue to play fantastic football and young skipper-cum-driving force Cesc Fabregas will be fitter, enjoying a full season alongside new star Andrey Arshavin and returning Eduardo. As far as the title is concerned, though, Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor have left for Man City and defensive signing Thomas Vermaelen will have his work cut out. Wenger had better hope for better chemistry and leadership or the doubters will multiply tenfold.

Aston Villa
Coach: Martin O'Neill
Star player: Ashley Young
Youngster to watch: Nathan Delfouneso
Top signing: Fabian Delph
Objective: Europa League

Aston Villa looked to be on the verge of breaking into the top four last season, before capitulating unexpectedly. A second-string UEFA Cup surrender rubbed many fans and neutrals up the wrong way, and highlighted the fact that, as special a manager as he is, this challenging at the very top level lark is new to O'Neill. Midfielder Gareth Barry is off to Man City and defender Martin Laursen has retired prematurely. Although still capable, the squad is far too thin for another 'cat among the pigeons' affair.


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Birmingham City
Coach: Alex McLeish
Star player: James McFadden
Youngster to watch: Scott Dann (an EPL rookie at 22)
Top signing: Christian Benitez
Objective: Survival

McLeish's dream of managing in the Premier League turned into a nightmare last time out, but 'Big Eck' has led Brum straight back up after a solid Championship season and a nervy second-place finish. His wily, veteran-reliant teams get the job done and little more, leaving the fans satisfied but uninspired. You can bet that the Blues will be fighting right until the final whistle of the last game for survival, with anything else a huge bonus. If they can find goals - a problem last season - they could stay afloat.

Blackburn Rovers
Coach: Sam Allardyce
Star player: Morten Gamst Pedersen
Youngster to watch: Steven N'Zonzi
Top signing: Franco Di Santo
Objective: Lower mid-table

Rovers are a limited side and the fans will know better than to dream impossible dreams ahead of the new season. Still, 'Big Sam' will be hoping to continue to repair his reputation by maximising his side's modest assets as he did during his Bolton days. Few doubt that Rovers will be hard to beat, but their erratic array of attacking talent - now minus Roque Santa Cruz - may have to scrap too hard for routine points, particularly on the road.

Bolton Wanderers

Coach: Gary Megson
Star player: Kevin Davies
Youngster to watch: Chris Basham
Top signing: Sean Davis
Objective: Lower mid-table

Signings like Sean Davis and Paul Robinson hint that boss Gary Megson isn't planning a Reebok revolution. A few tough customers such as goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen and forward Kevin Davies mean that Wanderers are likely do do just enough again to stay in this division. However, mid-decade this was a team averaging seventh place and a lack of creative spark means that such a position is no longer a realistic ambition.

Burnley

Coach: Owen Coyle
Star player: Martin Paterson
Youngster to watch: Jay Rodriguez
Top signing: Steven Fletcher
Objective: Survival

Coyle makes it four Scottish gaffers in the top-flight this season. Like his compatriots the young boss brings realism and a no-nonsense managerial style to the Premier League. Last season, many will remember his upstarts shocking Fulham, Tottenham, West Brom, Chelsea and Arsenal in cup competitions. They then roused themselves towards the end of their Championship campaign, beating recent Prem drop-outs Reading and Sheffield United in the play-offs despite only finishing fifth. In terms of existing players and new arrivals, this is a Championship squad - so 'doing a Stoke' will be the aim.

Chelsea

Coach: Carlo Ancelotti
Star player: Frank Lampard
Youngster to watch: Daniel Sturridge
Top signing: Yuri Zhirkov
Objective: The title

Chelsea have been there-or-thereabouts over the last couple of seasons, and now many expect them to enjoy instant success under new boss Ancelotti. Temporary manager Guus Hiddink sorted out the ailing Blues last term, leaving 'Carletto' with a strong, experienced and still-hungry squad at his disposal. Sensible new signings were all that was needed, with a strong pre-season and key contract renewals justifying the decision to forego an overhaul. If there's one major qualm it's the gulf between the strong left side and thin coverage on the right. Aside from that, the west London side can challenge all the way as long as Ancelotti's tactics are regularly spot-on.


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Everton

Coach: David Moyes
Star player: Mikel Arteta
Youngster to watch: Jack Rodwell
Top signing: Jo
Objective: Europa League

For so long the 'best of the rest', the Toffees come into the new season after another underwhelming summer and little new to offer. Still, these players continue to improve year-on-year, both individually and as a squad. The likes of Phil Jagielka and Joleon Lescott contribute to a very capable defensive unit, while there are tricky customers like Tim Cahill littered throughout the side. Despite the lack of spending, many gaffers would prefer to coach this side than Man City and their eclectic superstars. The most pressing issue: Goodison must become a fortress.

Fulham
Coach: Roy Hodgson
Star player: Brede Hangeland
Youngster to watch: Chris Smalling
Top signing: Bjorn Helge Riise
Objective: Europa League

Few will accuse the Cottagers of being potential top four contenders, yet they appear incapable of underachieving with Hodgson at the helm. Ever since he masterminded the great escape of 2007-08 Fulham's stock has been on the rise, and few rival bosses will relish seeing their name next on the fixture list. This is one of several sides hoping for natural progression built upon solid foundations, rather than big-money quick fixes. Perhaps if Andrew Johnson can rediscover his best form they can continue to make an impact.

Hull City
Coach: Phil Brown
Star player: Geovanni
Youngster to watch: Jozy Altidore
Top signing: Seyi Olofinjana
Objective: Survival

Phil Brown and his Tigers were the most baffling addition to the Premier League last season. Hull made a dash from the depths of the Football League and surfaced in the top flight, which they initially took to like a duck to water. Flying high after the early part of the season, they went into free-fall and many blamed Brown for the incredible on-pitch dressing down he gave his players at Eastlands. The KC Stadium faithful will likely demand more consistency during this sophomore year - in terms of results and individual performances - rather than another roller-coaster ride.

Liverpool
Coach: Rafael Benitez
Star player: Steven Gerrard
Youngster to watch: David N'Gog
Top signing: Glen Johnson
Objective: The title

The Merseyside men really could come anywhere in the top four this term - perhaps even top six - and Rafa's Reds will be scrutinised at every turn. Many felt that last season was their big chance to finally put their ribbons on the Premier League trophy, but untimely injuries to Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, although coped with admirably, prevented 'Pool from developing a head of steam and second place ensued. Market dealings have resulted in injury-plagued Alberto Aquilani 'replacing' departed playmaker Xabi Alonso, meaning that Rafa can afford no passengers. The major plus: roving right-back Glen Johnson is a fantastic signing.

Manchester City
Coach: Mark Hughes
Star player: Stephen Ireland
Youngster to watch: Kelvin Etuhu
Top signing: Carlos Tevez
Objective: Europa League

Tevez, Kolo Toure, Adebayor, Roque Santa Cruz, Gareth Barry, etc... the calibre of signings sauntering into Eastlands boggles the mind, but let's not forget that City have been tipped for great things before each of the last two seasons. Even so, such quality, coupled with the development of existing stars like Stephen Ireland and Micah Richards, will equal points. The spread of new boys will mean that few fixtures will lack added needle in terms of ex-clubs, and there's not even European football to distract them. Still, anyone who's seen City in pre-season will know that they're weeks, maybe months, from gelling; this process is likely to cost them the Champions League.


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Manchester United
Coach: Sir Alex Ferguson
Star player: Wayne Rooney
Youngster to watch: Federico Macheda
Top signing: Antonio Valencia
Objective: The title

Ferguson has been typically bullish of late, but he'll have his Red Devils on at least amber alert. Barcelona gave them a lesson in Europe; Madrid completed their cash and grab on Cristiano Ronaldo; Tevez has gone to Man City's 'Pleasure Island'. In response, Fergie scoured the (relative) bargain bin to bring in the likes of Michael Owen and Antonio Valencia. Whether they suffer some form of sensory overload remains to be seen, but Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick and co. should relish proving that United were never a one-man team. Only fools will write them off, yet it's likely that Fergie will face some potentially career-defining challenges this season.

Portsmouth

Coach: Paul Hart
Star player: David James
Youngster to watch: Matty Ritchie
Top signing: Aaron Mokoena
Objective: Survival

Pompey are in a transitional phase at present. There's a take-over looming, quality players are leaving in every transfer window and boss Paul Hart remains largely unproven at this level. A mixed bag of players will start the season: a few remaining stars like Sylvain Distin mixing with signings such as loan striker Frederic Piquionne and freebie Steve Finnan. They should still have enough quality to see off the challenge of the promoted teams from the last two seasons, but it will be very hard for the south coast side to generate momentum from a standing position.

Stoke City

Coach: Tony Pulis
Star player: Abdoulaye Faye
Youngster to watch: Ryan Shawcross
Top signing: Dean Whitehead
Objective: Lower mid-table

Rory Delap's long throws; Tony Pulis' baseball cap; an awkward collection of journeymen... it somehow all added up to 12th place last season for Stoke. The danger now is a second season slump; it can happen to any team, yet Pulis' no-frills, set-piece reliant Potters are perhaps more susceptible than most. They're unlikely to change their approach, so survival be a case of winning their winnable games, particularly against their fellow strugglers-to-be.

Sunderland

Coach: Steve Bruce
Star player: Kenwyne Jones
Youngster to watch: Fraizer Campbell
Top signing: Lorik Cana
Objective: Top half

Steve Bruce tends to work wonders wherever he goes, quietly building solid outfits with the right mix of graft and flair. His latest challenge is one which only the bravest managers would attempt at present: working in the North East. Bruce, with rich owners behind him, has been linked with a lot of hot European talent, but he hasn't had much luck, perhaps due to Sunderland's middling profile. His first season, then, will likely be about getting the Black Cats back in the mix; they haven't finished higher than 15th this decade. To do this, several players will have to up their level, with new skipper Lorik Cana overseeing things on the pitch.

Tottenham Hotspur

Coach: Harry Redknapp
Star player: Luka Modric
Youngster to watch: Giovani Dos Santos
Top signing: Peter Crouch
Objective: Europa League

It's time for Spurs to grab the bull by the horns. They don't fare well against the big teams and their huge potential has gone untapped in recent seasons due to poor signings, OTT pressure on decent managers and a general lack of oomph. Their defence is frail - more physically than anything due to the likes of Ledley King and Jonathan Woodgate being made of glass - yet their attack should pack a punch this season. Big signing Crouch, Robbie Keane and Jermain Defoe should cause headaches all season long - but it's up to the likes of Modric and Aaron Lennon to provide the ammunition. Not enough depth and too many question-marks, perhaps.


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West Ham United
Coach: Gianfranco Zola
Star player: Matthew Upson
Youngster to watch: Junior Stanislas
Top signing: Luis Jimenez
Objective: Mid-table

Rookie boss Zola and assistant Steve Clarke are one of the most promising managerial partnerships in football, having led the Hammers to a ninth-place finish last season. However, the Upton Park club remain in financial peril and Zola's main aim will be to hold onto his very solid core of English players. If he can do that, he's shown that he has the tactical nous for top-flight management, so a similar finish isn't out of the question. Another task will be keeping a threadbare squad fit, though.

Wigan Athletic

Coach: Roberto Martinez
Star player: Lee Cattermole
Youngster to watch: James McCarthy
Top signing: Jason Scotland
Objective: Mid-table

New boss Martinez comes from success in the Football League clearly believing that his talent will translate to the Premier League, also signing a couple of players like Jason Scotland on that principle. He could do worse than inheriting a Steve Bruce side, yet it's still a massive ask to improve upon 11th-place. The much-improved Titus Bramble and co. will continue to work their socks off under Martinez, but with the club's one true touch of class - Antonio Valencia - having moved on, much of the pressure will be on the shoulders of hotly-tipped Lee Cattermole.

Wolverhampton Wanderers

Coach: Mick McCarthy
Star player: Sylvan Ebanks-Blake
Youngster to watch: Sam Vokes
Top signing: Nenad Milijas
Objective: Survival

Mick McCarthy, whose last stint in the division with Sunderland was something of a disaster, has taken Wolves back to the Premier League as champions. This time, both club and gaffer will feel that they have much to prove. The main concern is a virtual abundance of experience. The likes of Michael Kightly and the prolific Ebanks-Blake will relish a shot at the big guns, but Wolves struggled at times last season and are unlikely to get many second chances here. Derbies with Villa and Birmingham should get them riled up, at the very least.

Greg Ptolomey, Goal.com