Richard Dunne with a sweat-on in Hong Kong; www.metro.co.uk
Finally, the Premier League is back on Saturday. While friendlies are nice money spinners for clubs, and also offer opportunities for football fans from around the world to see European teams on their doorstep, they are often dire.
Aston Villa vs Blackburn Rovers. The kind of tie that would find itself last on Match of the Day but, in the world of pre-season friendlies, is a lucrative semi-final in the 2011 Barclays Asia Trophy.
I watched the first half of the game before I instead opted to decipher the rules of Gaelic Football instead. It just wasn’t very nice to see an extremely soggy claret and blue shirt cling to the generous exterior of Richard Dunne. We can safely rule out that he wasn’t struggling with the job of marking Jason Roberts (who has averaged under 5 goals a season in his 5 years at Blackburn), it was because Hong Kong was so humid.
This meant the game was played at a pace well under the norm - it was simply a very warm warm-up - and it made Dion Dublin’s job as commentator extremely difficult as he continually lied about what an interesting game it was, and how competitive.
But now, following Manchester United’s Community Shield win over their ‘noisy neighbours’ on Sunday, we are close to the start of the best league in the world.
So, club-by-club, what have we got to look forward to? Who are the important players?
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain unveiled today; www.arsenal.com
Arsenal - Today Arsene Wenger signed 17 year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from Southampton. He’s not expected to make an instant impact at the Emirates, but is a huge talent who should make at least a couple of contributions off the bench. Other signings include Ivorian forward Gervinho for £11m, who helped Lille to the Ligue 1 title and Coupe de France last season. Sought-after pair Fabregas and Nasri are somehow still at the club; as are snort-laughter pair Emmanuel Eboué and Nicklas Bendtner.
Aston Villa - Villa actually beat Blackburn courtesy of a Darren Bent goal, but lost in the Asia Trophy final to Chelsea. The main spotlight will obviously be on Alex McLeish’s attempts to win over the Villa Park faithful following his controversial move from arch-rivals Birmingham City. Marc Albrighton will be given more responsibility and Charles N’Zogbia expected to settle immediately after the exits of Stuart Downing and Ashley Young.
Blackburn Rovers - Blackburn finished third in the Asia Trophy, beating Hong Kong side Kitchee in the third-place playoff. Steve Kean currently has the unwanted title as the Premier League manager most likely to lose his job first, so will be looking to the now-fit Mauro Formica and the improving David Hoilett to help Blackburn on their way to safety. Despite the signing of David Goodwillie (a very presumptuous name) a few days ago, Rovers look a bit thin on the ground.
Bolton Wanderers - The loss of Lee Chung-Yong to injury is massive, so Owen Coyle will be looking towards new boy Chris Eagles to raise his game and compensate for a lack of fire-power following the departures of Johan Elmander and Daniel Sturridge. Kevin Davies will continue to lead the side in what will be his ninth season at the club.
Chelsea - Andre Villas-Boas will hope to have a deal for teenage striker Romelu Lukaku wrapped up before the season starts, and will also expect an impact from Daniel Sturridge after his successful loan spell at Bolton. Otherwise, much of the focus will again be on Fernando Torres who has been a flop since his record £50m move from Liverpool.
Rodwell and Jagielka; www.telegraph.co.uk
Everton - Will they continue their trend of starting a season badly, and then finish off looking strong? Consistency is the key for Moyes who has been typically quiet in the transfer window and will see keeping the growing influence of Jack Rodwell and defender Phil Jagielka at the club as a coup.
Fulham - The capture of John Arne Riise from Roma is a shrewd move from Martin Jol, and keeping Andrew Johnson and Bobby Zamora fit is also important. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Jol delved into the transfer market a couple more times yet.
Liverpool - Much is expected of Liverpool after some big buys by Kenny Dalglish. Steven Gerrard will miss the start of the season, so new signings Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson will have a chance to make the central midfield their own. Their defence may be their Achilles’ heel though with Jamie Carragher turning 34 this term and no new players brought in to cover any defensive role.
Manchester City - Will Tevez ever play for City again? Who knows. But while the capture of Sergio Aguero is big, Mancini will be hoping for more from Edin Dzeko and Mario Balotelli. Expect a couple more signings before the end of August.
Manchester United - High off a Community Shield win topped-off with impressive performances from the youngsters, United will expect the title again. David de Gea has to fill the void left by Edwin van der Sar but Ashley Young will fit into the side with ease. Whether Ferguson will sign a replacement for the retired Paul Scholes remains to be seen.
Demba Ba in pre-season; www.chroniclelive.co.uk
Newcastle United - Demba Ba is a great signing and exactly what Newcastle needed to strengthen their faltering attack, but it’s the gap in central midfield left by Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton (who seems unlikely to appear for the Magpies again) that is vital. The French duo Yohan Cabaye and Sylvain Marveaux have joined, and, along with Cheick Tioté and Dan Gosling, will look to ensure that Nolan and Barton are not missed.
Norwich City - Captain Grant Holt will once again step up a division after spending the 2008/09 season in League Two with Shrewsbury Town, and then moving to Norwich where he has enjoyed back-to-back promotions from League One and then the Championship. Keeping Holt amidst reported interested from Newcastle, as well as sustaining new boy James Vaughan’s fitness, is important in a squad with very little Premier League experience.
Neil Warnock; www.guardian.co.uk
Queens Park Rangers - Neil Warnock is back! Cue post-match rants, touchline fallouts, and maybe some sneaky cheating from the Yorkshireman. QPR still, just, have Adel Taarabt as their creative spark in midfield, and have bolstered their attacking options in the acquistions of DJ Campbell from Blackpool for £1.25m and Jay Bothroyd from Cardiff City on a free.
Stoke City - As I have mentioned in a previous article on this blog, Tony Pulis needs to buy. Their midfield isn’t the best and, while it is sandwiched by a weighty defence and front-line, it will be found out on numerous occasions this season. The added physical demands of the Europa League will stretch the squad to its limits. A big two-and-a-half weeks in the transfer window for Pulis.
Sunderland - In contrast, Sunderland have been very busy: they have signed no less than ten players. After Darren Bent moved to Aston Villa last January, coupled with a lengthy injury list, Sunderland dropped down the table following a very strong start, and were looking nervously over their shoulders at the relegation places. Steve Bruce has moved to ensure it doesn’t happen again: ex-Manchester United duo John O’Shea and Wes Brown and ex-Birmingham City men Sebastian Larsson and Craig Gardner add experience to their defence and midfield respectively, while Ji Dong-Won and Connor Wickham bring youthful exuberance to the Sunderland attack. A deal for James McClean from Derry City also looks on the verge of being completed, while Bruce also weighs up making a bid for Manchester City’s Craig Bellamy.
Swansea boss Brendan Rodgers celebrates play-off promotion; www.mirrorfootball.co.uk
Swansea City - Swansea have spent more than the other two promoted sides, bringing in experienced Premier League players Wayne Routledge and Leroy Lita, goalkeepers Jose Moreira and Michel Vorm, last-season’s top Championship goalscorer Danny Graham, and young defender Steven Caulker on loan from Tottenham Hotspur. It will be interesting to see if Scott Sinclair can make the step-up from the Championship after he previously failed to make the grade at Chelsea.
Tottenham Hotspur - The biggest news so far for Spurs fans is that they’ve kept hold of Luka Modric despite interest from Chelsea, and Gareth Bale. Otherwise it has been an uncharacteristically quiet summer from wheeler-dealer ‘Arry Redknapp, who will look to take advantage of Arsenal’s apparent vulnerability and topple their neighbours. Brad Friedel will give the defence more confidence after having to play in front of Heurelho Gomes, who weakly brushes at high balls more than a Roman Catholic priest, for three seasons.
West Bromwich Albion - Roy Hodgson has made a catalogue of bargain buys as he looks to build on last season’s 11th placed finish. Zoltan Gera has re-joined Hodgson on a free from Fulham, and utility player Billy Jones is also a good signing from Preston. Despite having five players bought in for nothing, with Shane Long looking set to join for a club record fee, more of the same from captain Chris Brunt and striker Peter Odemwingie will be the first aim at The Hawthorns.
Wigan Athletic - After miraculously escaping relegation last season, Wigan are expected to endure another season of struggle. Martinez has secured the services of goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi from Bolton in a permanent deal, and has signed David Jones from Wolves, but the departure of Charles N’Zogbia to Aston Villa is a huge loss and something Martinez will be looking to address before the transfer window closes.
Roger Johnson (left) has a disagreement with former Wolves captain Karl Henry last season; www.skysports.com
Wolverhampton Wanderers - Another club who ensured survival on the final day, but are given a better chance of survival than Wigan by most bookies. Roger Johnson was signed from Birmingham City, immediately installed as captain, and will be vital in shoring up Mick McCarthy’s defence. Jamie O’Hara has also been signed on a permanent basis from Tottenham, while the purchase of Dorus de Vries from Swansea looks to address the problem goalkeeping position. Up front more goals will be expected from Kevin Doyle, who may favour another striker beside him rather than being continually used in the lone striker role.