Well, well, well...
It's that time of year again. Are you ready for some football?
English Premier League football that is. Psych.
Last year I killed myself doing a four-part club-by-club breakdown. Succinctly, I've learned my lesson the hard way.
Now considering it seems a new soccer blog pops up roughly every 4.3 seconds, how now could I make this year's preview standout?
I thought long.
I thought hard.
I considered taking a page from Bill Simmons and assigning all 20 team a quote from say, 'The Big Lebowski' and write something off that.
I thought of the abstract, comparing all 20 teams to something completely different which seems to be the rage across these Internets, like what kind of vegetable Sir Alex Ferguson would be (sugar beet?).
I thought about not even doing a preview.
One good 'Burly Shove' and I came to my senses.
Finally, I came to the conclusion that since I'm not getting paid for this, why not just do what comes naturally -- a mixture of insight and insipidness that you've all grown to know and love here at TOP.
Hell, even the EPL mixed it up with a newer, more regal looking Lion for its logo and badges, so I can too.
Now as we all know the EPL is billed as the most exciting sports league in the world. But is it really? Unlike say, NFL football, where just about anything can transpire during a season thanks to the salary cap, the EPL is rather cut and dried. Now, if you're the kind of person that gets all a-twitter over UEFA Cup spots, maybe I take that last statement back.
Yet again, for the seemingly 100th straight season, it seems only four teams have a legitimate shot at the top spot -- Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. And after the exit of Thierry Henry from North London, that list might just go down to three.
Don't believe me? Since the 2000/01 season those four teams have occupied 24 of the 28 top-four finishes in the table. Only Everton in 2004/05 have broken this stranglehold over the past four seasons.
Still, last season we had an excellent title race between Manchester United and Chelsea. Of course, there's always the bottom end of the table relegation scrap. And with th big, fat and juicy new worldwide television contract, even the minnows of the league can lavish some cash on new talent.
With that in mind, I'm breaking the 20-team table into six different grouping. Today we'll look at the first three, tomorrow-ish the final three.
Our first zone is pretty simple, on paper at least Derby County looks D.O.A. The last two EPL campaigns produced two clear basement dwellers -- Sunderland and Watford. Derby looks in their class.
Who are ya? -- Derby County (Last year's Championship playoff winners.)
Best case scenario -- Avoid matching Sunderland's EPL-worst 15 points set in 2005/06
Worst case scenario -- Not only are the Rams relegated, there EPL TV-rights check of some roughly $65 million bucks bounces.
Player of note -- Robert Earnshaw, formerly of Norwich City is Derby's largest-ever signing. The guy can score, but he's the type of player that's just good enough to play for a relegated team.
Kidding around -- Try it, say Dean Leacock without smirking.
Final note -- As certain as Olivia Munn is going to wear a cleavage-revealing top on G4's nightly 'Attack of the Show', Derby County is going straight back down.
As in, these are teams staring straight into the abyss.
This is where it gets juicy...if you're into failure. These are the teams that'll be singing for their Premiership supper. Unlike our American counterparts where your Los Angeles Clippers, Kansas City Royals, etc can just mail it in...these teams need to keep their whits to keep their pale and paunchy fans happy.
Who are ya? -- Sunderland (Promoted, Championship winners)
Why they're here -- Despite a manager who could knock a man cold -- Roy Keane -- the Black Cats roster isn't exactly Premier-caliber.
Fun with Wikipedia -- Who would have thought a mere letter 'E' seperates well-traveled Trinidad Black Cats striker Dwight Yorke from Black Supremacist Dwight York. Oh right, he also used to have relations with Katie Price who has some reality show on E! Network. The footballer, that is.
Little Bro -- Quick, Sunderland's top rival? Yep, Newcastle. This one dates back to the 17th Century English Civil War. I think it might include something about funny hats, or lack thereof. My English history begins and ends with Oliver Cromwell.
Not bad, but ... -- Sunderland by all accounts are a hearty, close-knit, tough, etc. team. That problem lies that the Black Cats just don't seem to have the quality...on paper.
The joke's on you -- Northeast England isn't exactly the kind of place you'd think to find a place called the Stadium of Light, but that's precisely where Sunderland plays.
Who you calling minor? -- Sunderland has a pipeline to Trinidad, one of those players -- Stern John -- spent a couple seasons with the Columbus Crew. After moving to England and bouncing around, he's back in the bigs.
Keep an eye on -- Kieran Richardson. Sunderland's most high-profile move was inking the former Manchester United fringe player. Richardson, as you'll recall, scored for England against the USMNT in that friendly at Solider Field in Chicago a couple years ago.
In closing -- Sunderland is a "classic" English team, yet seems one of those outside the big-four doomed to flip/flop between the top two tiers.
Who are ya? -- Fulham (39 pts., 16th place, one point from drop zone.)
Why they're here -- One of these years the bottom is finally going to fall out for the Cottagers, who were a 'c-***'s hair' from the drop last season.
Big man, little man -- Another fun fact, at 6-foot-4 Fulham manager Lawrie Sanchez is the tallest manager in the Premier League so it makes perfect sense his marquee transfer-window signing was 5-foot-8 'wee' Northern Ireland striker David Healy (and his pot o'gold).
America...fuck yeah? -- Despite the presence of three Americas in West London -- Carlos Bocanegra, Brian McBride and now Clint Dempsey -- this really isn't a team to throw your support behind, again unless mid-table (at best) mediocrity is your bag. It sucks for Dempsey, who was brought in by former Fulham boss Chris Coleman and is now caught in the transition of Sanchez. Dempsey already endeared himself to the Cottagers with his famous goal vs. Liverpool, but who knows if he'll get a steady run this year. McBride has been Fulham's best player the last two years, I wonder how much tread is left on the tire (tyre). And as stated before, Carlos Bocanegra outscored Andriy Shevchenko in the league last year.
Cult of Personality -- There isn't a more likable bloke in the Prem that Fulham midfielder Jimmy Bullard. Just watch.
Keep an eye on -- Moritz Volz. The German Hasselhoff-devotee is a very versatile player who likely won't be around Craven Cottage too long.
Closing the Cottage door -- Perhaps after living on the edge with Coleman for so many years, Sanchez ushers in a new era for Fulham. I'm not holding my breath. At least there new Nike-made kits are nice.
Who are ya? -- Wigan Athletic (38 pts, 17th place...beat out Sheffield United by one goal to avoid relegation.)
Why they're here -- Umm...signing Titus Bramble is considered an upgrade on the defense?
Get lost -- You know those baseball fans that still moan about the DH and interleague play? You know like Bob Costas? Well, I guess in England those sorts bemoan the fact that Wigan is somehow in the Premier League when hallowed clubs like -- Leeds, West Brom, Wolves, (both) Sheffields, etc. -- are languishing in lower leagues. I don't try to understand it either.
Hello, goodbye -- Had manager and all-around good-guy Paul Jewell not walked out on the team I'd possibly have listed Wigan as downright feisty. Who know what Chris Hutchings can put together. The Latics have a decent array of talent, but Henri Camara and Emile Heskey to be your No. 1 attacking options has its limits.
Hello, (the Oasis song) -- Despite not having played for the club, Wigan appointed well-traveld Dutchman Mario Melchiot captain upon his signing.
Despite his name... -- Leighton Baines is a good player. Clearly Wigan's best. The problem is that by the time you're reading this he'll probably be at Everton or Newcastle.
One to watch -- Welshman Jason Koumas appears to be an excellent (borrowing another baseball term) "Four-A" player. He also seems to be a temperamental asshole, but a talented asshole nonetheless. Something askew in those Welsh.
The last word -- With a collection of decent, hard-working players (no, not goons...well Paul Scharner and Fitz Hall fit that bill) Wigan, at least at the JJB could be one of those proverbial teams nobody wants to play.
Who are ya? -- Manchester City (42 pts., 14th place)
Why they're here -- Three words, including an umlaut -- Sven-Göran Eriksson.
Shitty City? -- Admittedly, City's roster isn't as vomit-inducing as a I envisioned. Steven Ireland, Micah Ricards, Richard Dunne and Darius Vassell are useful, solid players. Yet the influx of the 'Sven-a-lution' leaves something to be desired. Are two Bulgarians -- Martin Petrov and Valeri Bojinov going to be the difference. It's doubtful lightning strikes like it did for Spurs with Dmitar Berbatov. You hear good things about Brasilian Elano, but overall I just don't see it for City. Overall City seems to be lacking two things that drive English football -- grind-it-out midfields and guys that can score goals on a consistent basis.
Avert ye eyes -- I'm not saying City has a strikeforce that would gag a maggot, but... Émile Mpenza, Rolando Bianchi, Paul Dickov, Georgios Samaras, Bernardo Corradi, Bojinov and Vassell... I guess if you have crap, at least you have it in bulk.
Horatio Alger, Thai-style -- City just got sold to Thai businessman/former P.M. Thaksin Shinawatra. It's a fun story, a man begins life as a humble police cadet, making billions in mobile phones, becomes prime minister, gets usurped by a military coup, faces possible human rights violations, buys into English football. Fun.
Please Ricky Hatton don't hurt me -- Last year I was wrong about Portsmouth, so maybe City emulates Pompey's surprising early season frisk. Still, with Svennis in charge, despite his success at Lazio and Benfica, I just don't see it. This has disaster written all over it. Maybe they'll at least look good in their purple away shirts.
Who are ya? -- Middlesbrough (46 pts., 12th place)
Why they're here -- Boro hangs right on the precipice of suck-a-tude. Adding Jérémie Aliadière to replace Mark Viduka isn't helping things at the Riverside.
Get me to a bridge -- If you can't find 'Boro boss Gareth Southgate, just check under the nearest bridge. (Sorry this one never gets old.)
Yeah, but? -- From a talent standpoint, the first XI of 'Boro can stand with nearly any team in the league. But for whatever reason this team never seems to play with any shred of consistency. This is the kind of team that can beat Chelsea one week, then lost to Wigan 4-0 the next.
Zero pieces of flair -- Despite his Brasilian status and cool name, Fabio Rochemback might be the least flashy player from that country, wresting the title away from Arsenal's Gilberto Silva. Still, Rochemback is excellent player that gets overlooked since he plays in Middlesbrough.
Tag team-- The Natural Disasters, the Legion of Doom, the Midnight Rockers, the American Males, pick a tag team of wrestling yore. The central defensive pairing of Jonathon Woodgate and Robert Huth has that potential for 'Boro, if they can stay healthy.
Your guess is as good as mine -- Honestly, who knows what this club is going to do?
Homer: Kids, how would you... like to go to... Blockoland?
Bart and Lisa: Meh.
Homer: But the commercial gave me the impression that…
Bart: We said “meh.”
Lisa: M-E-H: Meh.
Here's your teams that aren't really good and aren't really that bad. Kind of like channels that still show reruns of 'M*A*S*H' on Saturday afternoons -- taking up space. One bad injury and these guys can slip down a zone. By the same token, with a little inspiration they could push for the Inter Toto Cup. Consider these teams grateful like, Alan Alda to still be receiving royalty checks.
You know how players always talk about dreaming of playing in England. These clubs likely aren't in those dreams, even if one of them probably turns out being better than I give them credit for. (Ah, hedging your bets.)
Who are ya? -- Birmingham City (Second in Championship, auto-promotion.)
Why they're here -- Even though they finished second to Sunderland in the Championship, the Brummies have the most Premier-tested lineup of the three promoted teams, which make them less likely to face relegation.
Whip it out -- There's no lack of comedy when a team's chairman -- David Gold -- is a smut peddler. Can we get Larry Flint to buy the Memphis Grizzlies?
Man, mountain, rock -- Radhi Jaïdi, Tunisia for hair-perm. The big dude has a knack for scoring on headers, probably because no one wants to put a body on him. I'd estimate his residual perspiration is eaqually as toxic as Patrick Ewing circa 1993.
Gooners loss, our gain -- Two of the Brummies better players are Swede Sebastian Larsson and Fabrice Muamba, both came up through Arsenal and ended up in the Midlands on loan. Unlike Niclas Bendtner, they decided to stick it out in Birmingham due to their love of Black Sabbath. In fact Larsson has Geezer Butler's face tattooed on his right breast.
What's in a color -- Now with the Brum back in the top flight we have three teams unofficially called 'The Blues' -- Chelski, Everton and Birmingham.
Score one for the gaffer -- In this age where players rule the roost, credit Brum boss Steve Bruce for telling Tottenham transfer Hossam Ghaly to get lost, when the Egyptian criticized the Blues level of players and too much work.
Final thoughts -- This might not be a funny assessment, but two years ago Birmingham was sorry at home, they obviously have to improve their form at St. Andrews if they want to stick around.
Who are ya? -- Bolton Wanderers (56 pts., 7th)
Why they're here -- Easy, no more Big Sam Allardyce to pull the strings.
A desperate cry into the night -- Anyone want to sign my petition which would ban Bolton from any games on Fox Soccer Channel?
SuperCuts UK -- John Terry can sleep well tonight. The Chelski captain no longer has the worst haircut in the Prem thanks to Bolton's Swede winger Christian Wihelmsson. His girlfriend/wifey might be amazing, but he's even more of a Metro-sexual than Freddie Ljunberg.
Runs in the family -- Bolton added Mikel Alonso on-loan from Real Socieidad. He's the younger hermano of Liverpool's Xabi Alonso. Wonder if they can jointly Basque in English glory?
I.H.O.F. -- This is old, but Bolton is truly the International House of Football with an astounding 22 different nations represented on its roster including outliers like Iran, Oman and the United States. Bolton even has most of Scandinavia with Iceland, Sweden, Norway and Finland (yeah not really technically Scandy) represented. Too bad Dane Henrik Pederson left.
On that note -- A Dane could appreciate the Lego-like quality of Bolton, with its million different interlocking pieces. Who knows if new boss Sammy Lee can build them into a spaceship or a castle or a race track ...or a life size old man sitting on a bench.
Who are ya? -- Aston Villa (50 pts, 11th place)
Why they're here -- To reference, yet again, 'Back to the Future', Villa was big, like Marty McFly in the 80s. To my knowledge though, Villa's fall from the spotlight was caused by a faulty flux capacitor.
Trans-Atlantic trading places -- Hut, hut...hike!!! Credit to Villa owner Randy Lerner, he knows mediocrity in two leagues on two different continents thanks to the Cleveland Browns. How about a Brady Quinn for Gareth Barry swap? No? Kellen Winslow for John Carew?
You can't run a spread offense -- To continue the NFL allusions, Villa is pretty deep at forward -- Ashley Young, Luke Moore, Marlon Harewood, John Carew and Gabriel Agbonlahor -- how Martin O'Neil manages this clog remains to be seen. On the flip, aside from Barry, Stiliyan Petrov and Nigel Reo-Coker the midfield is razor thin. Perhaps youngsters Shaun Maloney and Isiah Osbourne can show something. It's doubtful the bespectacled O'Neill would opt for a 4-2-4.
Why doesn't anyone listen to me? -- A couple years ago, longtime Villa standby, Olof Mellberg bemoaned the team's small squad and how it would keep it from gaining entry to Europe. Right now Villa only list 22 players on the first team, which is the smallest by a long mile in the league. Lerner must be a fan of old timey NFL football, you know leather helmets and playing both ways. (No, not that way.)
Parting shot -- By all accounts O'Neill is a winner, a man with a plan. Still, it seems for the up-teenth year Villa is simply running in place. If they get off to a good start they might be the best candidate amongst the 'Mehs' to leap out of midtable mediocrity.
Who are ya? -- Reading (55 points, 8th)
Why they're here -- After a dazzling debut campaign that saw the Royals finish eighth, the only way to go is down for this small, tight-knit unit.
Run, don't walk to the bank -- For all its success in its first season-ever in the top flight, Reading kind of seems just happy to be here and cash the check. The Royals let their best player -- Steve Sidwell -- leave for free to Chelsea and brought in a bunch of marginal players. Of course, this type of fiscal sanity has its merits, as the team does in fact seem genuinely happy to be in the Premier league after 120+ years. I guess to quote the old WWF standby, Rocky Johnson, the Royals "Know their role." Nothing wrong playing within one's means, no?
Better than average -- Though not household names in America, Reading's trio of Dave Kitson, Kevin Doyle and Leroy Lita give boss Steve Coppell very competent attacking options every week, one of which is straight ginger.
America, fuck yeah (Part Duex) -- Reading suits up two Yanks -- keeper Marcus Hahnemann and winger Bobby Convey. Hahnemann is a Reading cult-hero and Convey is coming back off injury.
Do these make me look thin? -- Guess Reading gets some props for the only team in the Prem that wears what the blokes call, 'hoops'.
Keep an eye on -- James Harper. Not flashy, won't score a lot of goals, but the 26-year-old is a solid, glue-type guy that gets the job done. Reading FC personified.
Encore? -- After a wonderful eight-place season last year can Reading recapture it's magic? It just doesn't seem possible. In a roundabout way, Reading decided the title last year, anyway. If Petr Cech doesn't have his skull fractured in a collision with
So that's our first part. Tomorrow we'll get into the better teams, and hopefully some better jokes on my part.
(Oh, when you fire off the angry email with all my grammatical errors and spelling mistakes, please put that in the subject line. Thx.)