Classy Arsenal too much for Stoke

With Christmas fast approaching, there was a bit of a festive feel about the Emirates Stadium, with banners such as ‘Santa is a Gooner’ prominently displayed. Arsenal, however, weren’t really getting into the charity of the season, clinically dispatching with Stoke and replacing Chelsea at the top of the Premier League, at least for the time being.

Arsenal started on top in the possession count, but before the half-hour was out they had fallen behind thanks to an errant elbow from Granit Xhaka which brought down Joe Allen in the box. The resultant spot-kick, which could only be taken after Allen was removed from the area, was converted by Charlie Adam, and as half-time approached it looked as if the Potters would maintain their lead.

They didn’t. Instead, two goals either side of the break gave Arsenal the lead and Stoke little chance to catch up. Theo Walcott netted first, after some brilliant play from Hector Bellerin. Bellerin, a right back in one of his first games back from an injury, had been named on the bench but was brought on early for an injured Shkodran Mustafi. After the goal, he flipped the game on its head, pushing forward and ruthlessly exploiting the defensive weaknesses of forwards who he, by rights, should have been marking.

Bellerin added another player to the attack on the right wing, and with Walcott cutting inside he received the ball. His cross was perfect, and Walcott placed it into the bottom corner with ease, leaving Lee Grant with no chance. It was a poacher’s goal, expertly taken with pace, power and precision. The second was even easier for Arsenal.

It was Mesut Ozil who scored it, lobbing Grant after getting in behind a failed offside trap. Giannelli Imbula, serving as left back for a couple of minutes while Erik Pieters received treatment, made the mistake, undoing the good work of centre backs Marc Muniesa and Bruno Martins Indi. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played the ball over, and Ozil, onside due to Imbula’s poor positioning, headed it home. He had been quiet, but he was never going to miss such a simple chance.

Arsenal continued to push, not allowing Stoke any sustained time in their own half. When Alex Iwobi scored the third, receiving the ball after Alexis Sanchez was fouled outside the box and driving it past Grant without breaking stride, it merely served to confirm a result which had seemed inevitable for some time.

Of course, Stoke were not without opportunities. Joe Allen and Marko Arnautovic combined twice to create chances. The second opportunity came just before Walcott’s goal, with the power of Allen (despite his diminutive stature) allowing the skill of Arnautovic to shine through. He moved his feet as if he was walking on hot coals, weaving through both centre backs and only missing out after a desperate block from Nacho Monreal. Mame Biram Diouf somehow missed an excellent chance in the air as Stoke looked to level, and Peter Crouch forced a top-class save from Petr Cech seconds after entering the game.

In the end, however, the better side came out on top, with Arsene Wenger’s men showing class and composure in spades to deliver an excellent performance. Whether this is their year, however, remains to be seen, and only time will tell whether they are still delivering in a few months’ time.

London – Emirates Stadium
Arsenal 3 (Walcott 42, Ozil 49, Iwobi 75)
Stoke City 1 (Adam 29 pen)
Referee: Lee Mason

Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Cech – Gabriel, Mustafi (Bellerin 25), Koscielny, Monreal; Coquelin, Xhaka; Walcott, Ozil, Oxlade-Chamberlain (Iwobi 69); Sanchez (Giroud 78).
Stoke City (4-2-3-1): Grant – Johnson, Martins Indi, Muniesa, Pieters; Imbula, Adam (Sobhi 81); Shaqiri (Ngoy 86), Allen, Diouf (Crouch 72); Arnautovic.

Top 5
1. Hector Bellerin (Arsenal)
Bellerin transformed Arsenal’s attack when he came on at right back, adding an extra player to the attack and creating more space for Walcott to move into. As ever, he was defensively solid, and his cross to provide the first goal was perfectly placed.
2. Theo Walcott (Arsenal)
Walcott was a dangerous presence throughout, and his combination with Bellerin provided a significant challenge for Stoke to deal with. He scored the first goal, and, with his pace and goal sense, he was a force to be reckoned with.
3. Marko Arnautovic (Stoke City)
Arnautovic provided a challenge for Arsenal for the whole game, using his pace, skill, height and power to work his way into dangerous positions and create excellent chances. He combined very well with Allen to create a couple of opportunities, and was always a threatening presence.
4. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Arsenal)
Oxlade-Chamberlain provided the assist for Ozil’s goal with a beautifully weighted pass, and he had a massive impact on the game with his pace and skill. He was unlucky not to score on a couple of occasions, and while he was taken off in the second half he left his mark on the match.
5. Bruno Martins Indi (Stoke City)
Martins Indi was defensively solid throughout, positioning himself well and averting a number of dangerous situations with his strength and pace. He kept Sanchez mostly out of the game, and while he was not able to stop Arsenal from scoring he put in a solid performance.

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United thwarted once again

It seemed to hang in the air for an eternity. It was just before stoppage time in the second half of the match between Manchester United and Arsenal, a match which United had dominated in front of their home fans. Now, however, all that good work was to be undone in a single moment, a moment which came from nowhere to shock United to the core. It was done in slow motion, one which all who were watching could see, but do absolutely nothing to stop. It was the ultimate shock to the system for United fans everywhere.

Before that, United had been defying expectations and giving Arsenal all sorts of problems. United manager Jose Mourinho came into the game with an under-performing team languishing well outside the top four, while Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal were playing some of their best football in a long time. One might have expected that Arsenal, full of attacking flair and class, would have taken the game to their opponents, but United did not allow them any space to move in the early stages and soon had a firm foothold in the match.

The Gunners eventually worked into the match, and Alexis Sanchez should have done better when presented with a header on the edge of the six-yard box, but United were still on top as they started to close in. It all began with controversy, when Antonio Valencia went down in the box after an attempt by Nacho Monreal to impede him. Referee Andre Marriner emphatically signalled play-on, leaving Mourinho furious on the touchline and the home fans incredulous.

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Frustration: Jose Mourinho protests after Manchester United were denied a penalty.

The incident brought the best out of United, and they set about getting their noses in front before the break. It was Juan Mata who came agonisingly close, getting on the end of a good ball from Paul Pogba, beating Shkodran Mustafi and forcing a fingertip save from goalkeeper Petr Cech. Cech was called into action again minutes later, when some skilful build-up by Pogba, Ander Herrera and Anthony Martial gave the latter a chance in a strong position. Cech was there, and the ball was tipped over the bar.

United continued to dominate, but they did not look like finding the back of the net despite trying very hard to do so. Then it came. It was Pogba who started it, finding Herrera as he made his way to the by-line to whip in a cross. The cross came to Mata at the top of the box, catching Arsenal out as they moved towards their own goal, and Cech did not stand a chance as the ball was drilled into the bottom corner, well out of his reach.

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Heartbreak: Olivier Giroud (left) scores Arsenal’s only goal as everyone else watches on.

It was desperation time for Arsenal as the game continued, but the Gunners could not even get themselves a shot, let alone a goal. United, while sitting back a little further, still looked more dangerous, while Arsenal’s playmakers just looked lost. They were moving forward, but they seemed to have no bite when it came down to it.

Then they levelled. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had the ball, with Marcus Rashford looking to ensure he got no further. He failed, as Oxlade-Chamberlain used his pace to get past and find space for a cross, which looped devilishly towards the back post, as Olivier Giroud closed in. Phil Jones fell over in a desperate attempt to get the ball, and the big Frenchman had no-one to compete with as he rose above all others to ram it home. It was all done.

In the aftermath, refereeing decisions will be examined and re-examined, as with moments where it could have been so different. In the end, however, it is another missed opportunity for United, who can hardly afford any more slip-ups if this campaign is to carry any success, both at home and abroad.

Manchester – Old Trafford
Manchester United 1 (Mata 68)
Arsenal 1 (Giroud 89)
Referee: Andre Marriner

Manchester United (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Valencia, Jones, Rojo, Darmian (Blind 64); Carrick, Herrera; Mata (Schneiderlin 85), Pogba, Martial (Rooney 63); Rashford.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Cech – Jenkinson (Oxlade-Chamberlain 84), Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal; Elneny (Giroud 73), Coquelin (Xhaka 80); Walcott, Ozil, Ramsey; Sanchez.

Top 5
1. Juan Mata (Manchester United)
Mata was in top form, working his way into pockets of space and causing massive problems for Arsenal with his awareness and skill. He scored United’s only goal after finding space in the box, and generally put in a very strong performance.
2. Ander Herrera (Manchester United)
Herrera was a solid midfield presence throughout, but it was his ability to get forward which caused big problems for Arsenal. His pace and skill allowed him to combine well with Pogba and others, and he provided the assist for Mata’s goal with a tricky ball to the top of the box.
3. Petr Cech (Arsenal)
Cech was in top form in Arsenal’s goal, making a number of key saves and getting into good positions to continually thwart United. His save to deny Mata late in the first half was particularly solid, and he was the main reason that Arsenal were able to escape with a draw away from home.
4. Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
Pogba was in excellent form playing in attacking midfield, using his incredible skill on the ball to set up his teammates and unlock Arsenal’s defence. His control was impeccable, and he was unlucky not to find the back of the net when he ventured into the box.
5. Antonio Valencia (Manchester United)
Valencia allowed United to function with the fluency they had, pushing forward from right back to give Mata freedom to roam wherever he saw fit. Valencia was one of the best in his own right as well, using his pace to open up holes in the defence when he pushed up field.

Hull outclassed in destructive performance

It was the goal that said it all. The game was done, Arsenal having already sealed a crushing victory, and play had slowed to its lowest ebb. Arsene Wenger’s men were content to pass the ball around in midfield, letting the clock run out. It was against this backdrop that Granit Xhaka finished off a masterful performance in style. He received the ball deep in Hull’s half from Mohamed Elneny, and he dribbled towards goal looking for an option. No-one presented themselves, so he shot. The ball found the top corner from thirty yards, but there was little acknowledgement of the stunning goal. Instead, Xhaka merely raised his hand to the crowd, with a few teammates coming together to join him in celebration. This goal, and the reaction, summed up Arsenal’s night in a nutshell: minimum effort, minimum fuss.

The game had started fairly evenly, with both teams controlling the ball well and neither side looking like making any errors. Even still, Arsenal soon established their superiority, creating some dangerous chances and throwing plenty of bodies forward at every opportunity. They had the first goal within twenty minutes, with Francis Coquelin proving the catalyst. The Frenchman collected the rebound from his own blocked shot before playing a nice pass to Santi Cazorla, who in turn found Theo Walcott. Eldin Jakupovic dived well to parry the resultant cross, but the ball fell to Alex Iwobi, whose shot deflected off Alexis Sanchez on its way into the back of the net. Minimum effort, minimum fuss.

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Teamwork: Theo Walcott (left) celebrates Arsenal’s second goal with Alex Iwobi.

The goal breathed new life into Arsenal, and soon Hull had no answer to the dynamic passing of the Gunners. They cut through their opponents like a breadknife slicing through butter, with minimum effort and minimum fuss. Andrew Robertson made a costly mistake when he accidentally provided Sanchez with a perfect through ball, and Hull were lucky to escape as the left-back slid in to save the goal. Minutes later, Mesut Ozil should have scored after Jakupovic saved brilliantly to deny Iwobi, but the German proceeded to miss an open goal. Hull should have been conclusively out of the contest minutes before half time when Jake Livermore was given his marching orders for a handball inside the box, and the Tigers were left to face a penalty. Sanchez stepped up to take it with confidence, but he could not add a second as Jakupovic dived well to make an excellent save.

Hull were lucky to only concede once in the first half, but it did not end there. Arsenal were brimming with confidence, and they continued to play the ball around in their forward half easily, seemingly oblivious to the presence of their opposition. There was always someone there, someone ready to receive the next ball in the chain, and it was only a matter of time before they added a second. It was Walcott who delivered, playing the ball to Iwobi before running through to receive a beautiful back-heeled pass. Walcott was one-on-one with Jakupovic, and there wasn’t much the keeper could do as the ball was chipped past him into the back of the net. Minimum effort, minimum fuss.

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Take cover: Andrew Robertson (in orange) ducks as Alexis Sanchez blasts the ball past him for Arsenal’s third goal.

There was no contest as the second half progressed. Hull weren’t just out for the count; the hosts had been knocked out for a long time. Occasionally they would look dangerous on the break, but Arsenal would stop their attack and hit back savagely, running wild before meeting resistance on the last line of defence. Anything Hull could do, Arsenal could do better. Then Hull scored, and it looked as if the game was about to change dramatically. Petr Cech was the culprit, the keeper taking out Dieumerci Mbokani in the box after an incisive pass from Ryan Mason. The penalty was belatedly awarded, and Robert Snodgrass was all class as he clinically drilled the ball into the back of the net. It was 2-1 with ten minutes to go, and it looked as if Hull had somehow manufactured a contest.

They hadn’t. Sanchez scored again less than five minutes later after collecting the rebound from another Jakupovic save, and he had no trouble blasting the ball past the defenders standing on the line, who were there more in hope than anything else. Arsenal were content to slow the pace of the game down to that of a Sunday walk, and Xhaka’s stunning strike was merely icing on the cake after a scintillating performance. Minimum effort, minimum fuss.

Hull – KCOM Stadium
Hull City 1 (Snodgrass 79 pen)
Arsenal 4 (Sanchez 17, 83, Walcott 55, Xhaka 90+2)
Referee: Roger East

Hull City (4-1-4-1): Jakupovic – Elmohamady, Livermore, Davies, Robertson; Clucas; Snodgrass, Huddlestone (Mason 58), Meyler, Diomande (Maguire 42); Hernandez (Mbokani 77).
Sent-off: Livermore 40.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Cech – Bellerin, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal; Coquelin, Cazorla (Xhaka 66); Walcott (Perez 88), Ozil, Iwobi (Elneny 77); Sanchez.

Top 5
1. Eldin Jakupovic (Hull City)
Jakupovic was in top form despite conceding four goals, rebuffing Arsenal time and time again and making them work for everything. He saved a penalty and made multiple top-drawer saves as he looked to keep Hull in the match, and if he had not been there the scoreline would have looked much worse. He played brilliantly, and can take confidence from his performance.
2. Francis Coquelin (Arsenal)
Coquelin was at the heart of everything for the Gunners, making incisive runs into the box and distributing the ball wherever he saw fit. He was in excellent touch, and he caused plenty of problems for Hull with his control and ability to pick holes in the defence.
3. Alex Iwobi (Arsenal)
Iwobi finished the game with two assists, and he was unlucky not to score himself on a number of occasions. His back-heel to set up Walcott for Arsenal’s second goal was pure class, and he created plenty of problems for Hull with his skill and ability to find the ball in dangerous positions. He played very well, and should continue to hold his place in the team.
4. Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal)
Sanchez netted twice, and while he did miss a penalty he probably shouldn’t have been taking he was exceptionally dangerous and was a nightmare for the Hull defence. He dropped back and pushed forward wherever necessary, and whenever he touched the ball he looked as if he was going to do something. A class performance.
5. Sam Clucas (Hull City)
Clucas was one of the hardest working players on the pitch, rebuffing Arsenal on a number of occasions with his ability to go in and win the ball in tough spots. He didn’t have much of an influence when Hull went forward, but his defensive play was top rate and he can hold his head high after a strong performance.

2016-17 Premier League Preview – The Contenders

The Premier League season is fast approaching, and as clubs look around frantically to improve their squads I am going to assess how they are shaping up before the new season. This season promises to provide plenty of excitement, and after Leicester City’s historic title win last season the field is more open than ever. In the days leading up to the start of the season I will be looking at all twenty teams in depth, beginning with those sides who I think are in the hunt for the title. Enjoy.

Arsenal

Manager: Arsene Wenger
Captain: Laurent Koscielny
Ground: Emirates Stadium
Last Season: 2nd
Top Scorer: Olivier Giroud (16)
Most Assists: Mesut Ozil (19)
Prediction: 4th

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Wojciech Szczesny, 13. David Ospina, 26. Emiliano Martinez, 33. Petr Cech.
Defenders: 2. Mathieu Debuchy, 3. Kieran Gibbs, 4. Per Mertesacker, 5. Gabriel Paulista, 6. Laurent Koscielny, 16. Rob Holding, 18. Nacho Monreal, 21. Calum Chambers, 24. Hector Bellerin, 25. Carl Jenkinson.
Midfielders: 8. Aaron Ramsey, 10. Jack Wilshere, 11. Mesut Ozil, 15. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, 17. Alex Iwobi, 19. Santi Cazorla, 29. Granit Xhaka, 34. Francis Coquelin, 35. Mohamed Elneny.
Forwards: 7. Alexis Sanchez, 12. Olivier Giroud, 14. Theo Walcott, 22. Yaya Sanogo, 23. Danny Welbeck, 27. Serge Gnabry, 28. Joel Campbell, 32. Chuba Akpom, Takuma Asano.

Arsenal had a fairly strong season last time around, but while they did finish second they never really looked like mounting a serious challenge for the title. Not much has changed since, with Arsene Wenger staying fairly quiet in the transfer market. Granit Xhaka has been brought in from Borussia Monchengladbach, and he will be one of the leading candidates to match up with Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil (pictured) at the heart of a very strong midfield. Up front, Wenger is looking to add another striker, but Olivier Giroud’s strong form at Euro 2016 may convince him to stick with the French target man. Petr Cech has a very solid defence in front of him, and Arsenal are not likely to concede too many goals.

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The Gunners have a strong all round team and could lift the trophy come the end of the season, but they have not changed much and they may struggle to keep up. They have consistently finished in the top four over a prolonged period of time, and while they maintain a constant presence in the Champions League they have not really looked like lifting any silverware besides their two recent FA Cup wins. Ultimately, winning the title is not something which they expect to do anymore, and as such the big changes which would be required to match the biggest clubs are not being made. Arsenal will definitely be around the top of the table at the end of the season, but a title win looks highly unlikely.

Star Player: Mesut Ozil

Ozil is at the centre of Arsenal’s team, providing plenty of chances for the strikers with his ability to put good balls in behind the defence. The German star led the Premier League for assists last season, and he was just one short of breaking the Premier League record for most assists in a single campaign. He can also hit the scoreboard himself, and his brilliance in attack will prove crucial as Arsenal look to contend for the title once more.

Key Player: Laurent Koscielny

With Per Mertesacker out for five months it will be up to new captain Koscielny to be the rock at the heart of the defence alongside Gabriel Paulista, who is still relatively inexperienced. He has been in good form, and if that does not continue in the early stages of the season Arsenal could have some major problems down the track.

One to Watch: Hector Bellerin

Bellerin is still only 21, but he has firmly set himself at right back in Arsene Wenger’s team. He has incredible pace and he was the only Arsenal player named in the Premier League team of the season at the end of last campaign. He was left on the bench by Vincente del Bosque at Euro 2016, but he has plenty of potential and should develop further this season.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): Cech – Bellerin, Koscielny, Paulista, Monreal; Ramsey, Xhaka; Cazorla, Ozil, Sanchez; Giroud.

Chelsea

Manager: Antonio Conte
Captain: John Terry
Ground: Stamford Bridge
Last Season: 10th
Top Scorer: Diego Costa (12)
Most Assists: Cesc Fabregas (7)
Prediction: 5th

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Asmir Begovic, 13. Thibaut Courtois, 27. Jamal Blackman, Bradley Collins.
Defenders: 2. Branislav Ivanovic, 3. Papy Djilobodji, 5. Kurt Zouma, 6. Baba Rahman, 20. Matt Miazga, 24. Gary Cahill, 26. John Terry, 28. Cesar Azpilicueta, 30. Michael Hector, 34. Ola Aina, 37. Jake Clarke-Salter, 39. Fankaty Dabo, 43. Fiyako Tomori, Todd Kane, Kenneth Omeruo, Alex Davey.
Midfielders: 4. Cesc Fabregas, 7. N’Golo Kante, 8. Oscar, 10. Eden Hazard, 11. Pedro, 12. John Obi Mikel, 15. Victor Moses, 16. Kenedy, 17. Juan Cuadrado, 21. Nemanja Matic, 22. Willian, 29. Nathaniel Chalobah, 31. Christian Atsu, 33. Cristian Cuevas, 36. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, 41. Charlie Colkett, Danilo Pantic, Isaiah Brown, Jordan Houghton, Lucas Piazon, Marco van Ginkel, Mario Pasalic, Marko Marin.
Forwards: 14. Bertrand Traore, 18. Loic Remy, 19. Diego Costa, 23. Michy Batshuayi, 42. Tammy Abraham, Dominic Solanke, Patrick Bamford, Islam Feruz.

After the high of a title win in 2014-15 Chelsea crashed back down to earth in a spectacular manner last season. Jose Mourinho was sacked after a shocking run of results in the first half of the season, and Guus Hiddinck was only able to get them as high as ninth place. Antonio Conte has come in to replace Hiddinck as manager, and the former Italian coach has already set about making his mark on the team. Michy Batshuayi has come in from Marseille, and the midfield has been bolstered by the signing of N’Golo Kante from title winners Leicester City. Conte has one of the best tactical brains in world football, and he is likely to use his trademark 3-5-2 formation with his new side. The formation will give Chelsea a massive defensive boost, and it should give Conte plenty of opportunities to use the squad depth he has at his disposal.

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While the arrival of Conte is sure to boost Chelsea’s chances of lifting the title, they will need plenty of improvement across the board. Thibaut Courtois will be looking to show the form he showed at the Euros, and the defence will need to lift in order to protect him. Eden Hazard (pictured) was incredibly disappointing last season, and if Chelsea are to win everything they will need him to regain his best form. Diego Costa is likely to retain his place up front despite an average season, and he will be looking to lift. If these players show some dramatic improvement then Chelsea will be very tough to beat, but there is no guarantee that this lift will occur. Conte is likely to need some time to adjust to his new surroundings, and another title is highly unlikely.

Star Player: Eden Hazard

Hazard has incredible technical ability, and when he is at his best he is incredible to watch. He can tear a team apart with his ability to dribble past defenders, and he is one of the top players in the Premier League when he is on his game. He struggled last season, and Chelsea fans will be hoping he can regain his touch.

Key Player: Cesc Fabregas

Fabregas was trained in the Barcelona academy, and his ability to distribute the ball from the centre of midfield is exceptional. He creates plenty of chances for the strikers, and while Conte will be looking for him to do this he will also be looking for more defensive solidity. Fabregas is the team’s main link between defence and attack, and Chelsea need him to be in top form.

One to watch: Kurt Zouma

Zouma moved to Chelsea from Saint-Etienne in 2014, and he will be groomed over the course of the season as a replacement for John Terry, who is approaching retirement. He may take Branislav Ivanovic’s place in the heart of defence as Conte looks to revert to a back three, and while he is unlikely to be a regular starter he is sure to get an excellent chance in the first team.

Likely team (3-5-2): Courtois – Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry; Azpilicueta, Fabregas, Kante, Willian, Hazard; Costa, Batshuayi.

Leicester City

Manager: Claudio Ranieri
Captain: Wes Morgan
Ground: King Power Stadium
Last Season: 1st
Top Scorer: Jamie Vardy (24)
Most Assists: Riyad Mahrez (11)
Prediction: 6th

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Kasper Schmeichel, 12. Ben Hamer, Ron-Robert Zieler.
Defenders: 2. Richie de Laet, 5. Wes Morgan, 6. Robert Huth, 15. Jeff Schlupp, 17. Danny Simpson, 18. Liam Moore, 27. Marcin Wasilewski, 28. Christian Fuchs, 29. Yohan Benalouane, 30. Ben Chilwell, Luis Hernandez.
Midfielders: 4. Danny Drinkwater, 8. Matty James, 10. Andy King, 11. Marc Albrighton, 13. Daniel Amartey, 22. Demarai Gray, 26. Riyad Mahrez, 33. Gokhan Inler, Hamza Choudhury, Nampalys Mendy.
Forwards: 9. Jamie Vardy, 16. Tom Lawrence, 20. Shinji Okazaki, 23. Leonardo Ulloa, Ahmed Musa.

To call Leicester City’s historic title win last season a miracle would be an understatement. Under the guidance of experienced Italian manager Claudio Ranieri the Foxes exceeded all expectations, starting the season at the top of the ladder and holding on despite the odds. They have kept many of their stars from last season with the exception of N’Golo Kante’s departure to Chelsea, and while they may still lose Riyad Mahrez (pictured) they should line up much the same come the start of the season. Wes Morgan and Robert Huth are very solid down back, and new recruit Luis Hernandez should provide excellent cover in the case of injury. Danny Drinkwater is solid in midfield, and Mahrez is likely to provide plenty of goals and assists as he did last season. Jamie Vardy has a great eye for goal, and he will be ably complemented up front by Shinji Okazaki and Ahmed Musa.

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Leicester have been fairly active in the transfer market over the break, but they have not really improved their side and could struggle to keep up with the bigger clubs. They may be Premier League champions, but Leicester are still a comparatively small club, and their chances of lifting the trophy again are incredibly slim. They are a good side and should stay in the hunt, but if Mahrez departs it would cause huge problems. Ranieri is an exceptionally smart coach and could take his team to another title, but it is highly unlikely to happen.

Star Player: Riyad Mahrez

Mahrez, like so many of his teammates, came out of nowhere last season to set the Premier League alight. He scored 17 goals and assisted 11, showing great skill as he led his team to the title. Now one of the most sought-after players in Europe, the Algerian winger is sure to be tightly marked as Leicester look to go back-to-back.

Key Player: Wes Morgan

Morgan has plenty of experience, having played over 350 times for Nottingham Forest and having won over 180 caps for Leicester. He is the captain and it will be his job to marshal the defence, ensuring that not much gets through. He was at the top of his game last season, and he will need to return to his best if Leicester are going to get anywhere this time around.

One to watch: Nampalys Mendy

Mendy may not be well-known in England, but he is a top quality midfielder and he is an ideal replacement for the departed Kante. He has drawn comparisons with Chelsea legend Claude Makelele, and he came very close to joining Manchester United before swapping Monaco for Nice. He is still young, but he has plenty of experience and should slot effortlessly into Leicester’s midfield.

Likely team (4-4-2): Schmeichel – Simpson, Huth, Morgan, Fuchs; Mahrez, Drinkwater, Mendy, Musa; Vardy, Okazaki.

Manchester City

Manager: Pep Guardiola
Captain: Vincent Kompany
Ground: Etihad Stadium
Last Season: 4th
Top Scorer: Sergio Aguero (24)
Most Assists: David Silva (11)
Prediction: 2nd

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Joe Hart, 13. Willy Caballero, 45. Ian Lawlor, 54. Angus Gunn.
Defenders: 3. Bacary Sagna, 4. Vincent Kompany, 5. Pablo Zabaleta, 11. Aleksandar Kolarov, 20. Eliaquim Mangala, 22. Gael Clichy, 28. Jason Denayer, 30. Nicolas Otamendi, 50. Pablo Maffeo, 53. Tosin Adarabioyo, 69. Angelino.
Midfielders: 6. Fernando, 7. Raheem Sterling, 8. Samir Nasri, 15. Jesus Navas, 16. Ilkay Gundogan, 17. Kevin de Bruyne, 18. Fabian Delph, 21. David Silva, 25. Fernandinho, 35. Oleksandr Zinchenko, 36. Bruno Zuculini, 42. Yaya Toure, 59. Bersant Celina, 62. Brandon Barker, 75. Aleix Garcia.
Forwards: 9. Nolito, 10. Sergio Aguero, 14. Wilfried Bony, 72. Kelechi Iheanacho.

Manchester City were disappointing last season, barely scraping past Manchester United on goal difference to sneak into the Champions League. Manuel Pellegrini is gone, and former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola has been drafted in to replace him. He has inherited an excellent squad who are more than capable of taking home the trophy, and new additions Nolito and Ilkay Gundogan should slot effortlessly into the first team. Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva will provide plenty of chances for Sergio Aguero (pictured) up front, and Yaya Toure will combine with Fernandinho and Gundogan to provide solidity in midfield. Aguero is a proven scorer at both club and international level, and he will cause plenty of problems for opposition defences.

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Manchester City have the attacking power to penetrate any defence in the league, but there are still some defensive problems. Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta are very strong players, but Guardiola is still in need of another centre back. Nicolas Otamendi is not young, and the idea of using Fernandinho as a defender may not work. Similar issues exist at left back, where neither Aleksandar Kolarov nor Gael Clichy are sustainable long term options. Joe Hart is an experienced keeper, but he is nowhere near the best in the Premier League and lets in a number of unnecessary goals. Manchester City are the best attacking side in the Premier League and will be in the hunt, but their defensive issues may prove costly.

Star Player: Sergio Aguero

Aguero is a goal machine, having scored 102 Premier League goals in 150 games since joining Manchester City in 2011. He has plenty of place and an incredible eye for goal, and he provides plenty of problems for defenders. If Manchester City are to win the title they will need him to perform, as it is his ability to score which keeps them in the hunt every season.

Key Player: Yaya Toure

Toure has developed into one of the best midfielders in the Premier League, and his ability to anchor the midfield while providing the occasional goal will be key as Manchester City look to push for the title. He has plenty of experience at the highest level, and Guardiola will be hoping he can step up to take Manchester City to the next level.

One to watch: Kelechi Iheanacho

Iheanacho’s first season in the Premier League was a massive success, with the 19 year-old Nigerian playing 26 league games and scoring 8 goals. He still only has one season of professional football under his belt, and he will only continue to improve as he looks to take on a greater role under Guardiola. He is an exciting prospect and he will be great to watch.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): Hart – Zabaleta, Fernandinho, Kompany, Kolarov; Toure, Gundogan; Silva, de Bruyne, Nolito; Aguero.

Manchester United

Manager: Jose Mourinho
Captain: Wayne Rooney
Ground: Old Trafford
Last Season: 5th
Top Scorer: Anthony Martial (11)
Most Assists: Wayne Rooney (6)
Prediction: 1st

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. David de Gea, 20. Sergio Romero, 32. Sam Johnstone.
Defenders: 3. Eric Bailly, 4. Phil Jones, 5. Marcos Rojo, 12. Chris Smalling, 23. Luke Shaw, 33. Paddy McNair, 36. Matteo Darmian, 38. Axel Tuanzebe, 43. Cameron Borthwick-Johnson, Tyler Blackett.
Midfielders: 8. Juan Mata, 14. Jesse Lingard, 15. Adnan Januzaj, 16. Michael Carrick, 17. Daley Blind, 18. Ashley Young, 21. Ander Herrera, 22. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, 24. Timothy Fosu-Mensah, 25. Antonio Valencia, 27. Marouane Fellaini, 28. Morgan Schneiderlin, 31. Bastian Schweinsteiger, 44. Andreas Pereira.
Forwards: 7. Memphis Depay, 9. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, 10. Wayne Rooney, 11. Anthony Martial, 19. Marcus Rashford, 48. Will Keane, James Wilson.

Manchester United were disappointing last season, finishing fifth in the league and exiting the Champions League in the group stage. Victory in the FA Cup was not enough to save Louis van Gaal, and Jose Mourinho has come in to replace the Dutchman. He has added Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan (pictured) over the off-season, and French midfielder Paul Pogba looks set to join the club for a world record fee. Mourinho is sure to add some much-needed solidity to the defence, and with the potency of Ibrahimovic and Anthony Martial in attack there will not be any shortage of goals. Mkhitaryan will provide plenty of chances for the strikers, and Mourinho has many good options in the centre of the park.

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Manchester United have some excellent players all over the park, but they do not have any obvious starters in defence. Chris Smalling has not been in the best of form recently, and Phil Jones is not necessarily the right option either. This uncertainty in defence is a serious problem, and it could leave David de Gea with plenty of work to do. Wayne Rooney is listed as captain, but with the new arrivals he is no longer good enough to command a place in the starting line-up. He has been playing in attacking midfield, but Mkhitaryan is a better player who will have a greater impact. This leaves Mourinho with a serious selection dilemma, one of many he could face over the course of the season. Even still, Manchester United have the quality to win the title, and if Mourinho gets it right they could be unstoppable.

Star Player: Henrikh Mkhitaryan

Mkhitaryan has been brought in from Borussia Dortmund, where he developed into one of the best playmakers in the world. He led the Bundesliga for assists last season, and he is able to find the back of the net as well. He has brilliant technical ability and he will open up plenty of space for the strikers with his pace and his effective passing.

Key Player: David de Gea

Manchester United were minutes away from losing de Gea at the start of last season, but a failure to hand in paperwork proved to be a blessing in disguise for the Red Devils. The Spanish keeper has since developed into one of the best in the Premier League, and if Manchester United are to overcome their defensive weaknesses he will need to be at his best.

One to watch: Marcus Rashford

Manchester United have many great prospects coming through, but none are as exciting as Rashford. He scored after just three minutes on his international debut, and made two substitute appearances for the English at Euro 2016. He is still only 18, and he is sure to make plenty of progress over the course of the season.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Darmian, Smalling, Bailly, Rojo; Herrera, Blind; Mata, Mkhitaryan, Martial; Ibrahimovic.

Tottenham Hotspur

Manager: Mauricio Pocchettino
Captain: Hugo Lloris
Ground: White Hart Lane
Last Season: 3rd
Top Scorer: Harry Kane (25)
Most Assists: Christian Eriksen (13)
Prediction: 3rd

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Hugo Lloris, 13. Michel Vorm.
Defenders: 2. Kyle Walker, 3. Danny Rose, 4. Toby Alderweireld, 5. Jan Vertonghen, 16. Kieran Trippier, 21. Federico Fazio, 27. Kevin Wimmer, 32. DeAndre Yedlin, 33. Ben Davies.
Midfielders: 6. Nabil Bentaleb, 8. Ryan Mason, 11. Erik Lamela, 12. Victor Wanyama, 15. Eric Dier, 19. Mousa Dembele, 20. Dele Alli, 22. Nacer Chadli, 23. Christian Eriksen, 24. Alex Pritchard, 25. Josh Onomah, 28. Tom Carroll, 29. Harry Winks.
Forwards: 7. Son Heung-min, 9. Vincent Janssen, 10. Harry Kane, 14. Clinton N’Jie.

Tottenham exceeded all expectations last season, challenging for the title and only finishing third after a bad run of results late in the season. They unearthed new stars in Dele Alli and Eric Dier, and they have developed Harry Kane (pictured) into one of the most dangerous strikers in the Premier League. Vincent Janssen has been added to the squad from AZ Alkmaar after he netted 27 times in the Eredivisie, and the Dutch youngster is sure to provide plenty of excitement for Spurs fans. Christian Eriksen, Erik Lamela and Alli are sure to create plenty of opportunities for the strikers, and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris is backed up by an excellent defence. Fullbacks Kyle Walker and Danny Rose were rare bright spots in England’s campaign at Euro 2016, and Belgian centre backs Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen are sure to provide plenty of solidity.

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Tottenham have an excellent squad, but they are still very young and inexperienced. Alli, Kane and Dier have only burst onto the scene in recent times, and before Janssen’s explosion in the second half of last season he was virtually unknown. Vertonghen suffered an injury at the Euros, and he is in doubt for the early parts of the season. Dier is likely to move into defence to replace him, but he has been playing as a midfielder for some time now, and he may struggle to adjust. Spurs have a lot of players in their starting line-up who are not yet proven at the highest level, and some of their young stars could crash back down to earth over the course of this campaign.

Star Player: Harry Kane

Kane has become a scoring machine, scoring 49 goals in the last two Premier League seasons and breaking down defences with power and pace. He was disappointing at the Euros, but he is an incredibly consistent scorer and he is likely to return to form very quickly. He is a strong presence up front for Spurs, and he will require plenty of attention from opposition defences.

Key Player: Toby Alderweireld

Alderweireld is a key presence in the Tottenham defence, and he has formed an incredible combination with fellow Belgian international Vertonghen. He is very experienced at the highest level, and he is capable of filling any defensive holes that may appear. He was a constant presence last season, and he will need to ensure that not much gets through.

One to watch: Vincent Janssen

Janssen burst onto the scene over the second half of last season, becoming the first player in 52 years to score 20 Eredivisie goals after the winter break. He is still only 22, and while he may take some time to adjust to the improvement in opposition he has developed well and has the potential to be a massive success.

Likely team (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Walker, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Rose; Dier, Alli; Lamela, Eriksen, Chadli; Kane.

2015-16 UEFA Champions League Preview – Group F

Teams: FC Bayern Munich, Arsenal FC, Olympiacos FC, GNK Dinamo Zagreb

FC Bayern Munich (Germany)

Manager: Pep Guardiola
Captain: Philipp Lahm
Ground: Allianz Arena, Munich
Qualified: Bundesliga, 1st
Best Champions League Finish: Champions (1973-74, 1974-75, 1975-76, 2000-01, 2012-13)
2014-15 Champions League: Semi-Finals

Form Guide

Bayern swept to a seventh league title in ten seasons by a comfortable margin, and they further asserted themselves as the superior side in Germany through their Champions League performance, where they were knocked out by Barcelona in the semis. They have made good progress over the summer transfer window, picking up Chilean superstar Arturo Vidal alongside Douglas Costa, and the side should be as strong as ever.

Strengths

Bayern have had incredible success in the league, and Manuel Neuer is solid as a rock in goal. Douglas Costa joins Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben, and Mario Gotze in attacking midfield, and Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski provide scoring options up front. Vidal will hope to provide compensation for the loss of Bastian Schweinsteiger in midfield, and Xabi Alonso, Thiago Alcantara and Javi Martinez will also be able to combine well. Philipp Lahm, David Alaba and Juan Bernat are all very strong fullbacks, and they can contribute to the midfield and attack, and Lahm and Alaba can and have been used in the centre of midfield. Mehdi Benatia and Jerome Boateng are very strong in the centre of a solid defence.

Weaknesses

Benatia is a very good player, but he has not yet proven himself at Bayern, and the loss of Dante to Wolfsburg will hurt, possibly more than they imagine. During their win over Leverkusen they used a three-man defence of Lahm, Alaba and Bernat, which does not seem particularly solid. Some of the best players in the team are getting older, and this is not great for the team. There is plenty of immediate depth, but if Bayern are forced to delve much deeper into their squad then they will struggle. After a couple of disappointing semi-final exits the pressure will be on Bayern and Guardiola to progress further, and this could be a burden upon the team.

Star Player: Manuel Neuer

Neuer’s performance in the World Cup affirmed his standing as one of the best goalkeepers in the world, and in a team full of stars he is a cut above. He has been the best keeper in Germany for years, and he has been crowned German footballer of the year and best goalkeeper in the World Cup. With him in goal Bayern will be incredibly tough to defeat.

Key Player: Xabi Alonso

Alonso has vast experience playing for both Liverpool and Real Madrid, and now that Schweinsteiger has departed for Manchester he will be in charge of the midfield. Much of Bayern’s success could rest upon how they cover for the loss of the German captain, and Alonso’s performance is critical as a result.

Arsenal FC (England)

Manager: Arsene Wenger
Captain: Mikel Arteta
Ground: Emirates Stadium, London
Qualified: Premier League, 3rd
Best Champions League Finish: Runners-up (2005-06)
2014-15 Champions League: Round of 16

Form Guide

Arsenal were solid last season without being extraordinary. They are showing signs of improvement, however, and a second consecutive FA Cup added to the silverware that Arsene Wenger has won with the club. After years of finishing fourth and needing to qualify for the Champions League they finished third for a second consecutive season, although in the Champions League they went out to Monaco on away goals.

Strengths

Arsenal have a very strong and versatile attack which allows Wenger to use plenty of different combinations. Up front, Olivier Giroud is a taller option, while players like Alexis Sanchez, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott add plenty of pace to the set-up. The midfield is strong as well, with Aaron Ramsey, Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere, Francis Coquelin, Santi Cazorla and German World Cup winner Mesut Ozil all very good options. Down back, Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny shore up the centre of defence, and there is good competition for a starting place on the flanks between Kieran Gibbs, Nacho Monreal, Mathieu Debuchy and Hector Bellerin. Petr Cech has come in from Chelsea and is still a great keeper, and he is backed up by David Ospina.

Weaknesses

Arsenal have plenty of squad depth, but the side lacks a consistent set-up. Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott have been used almost interchangeably, and given how different the two players are this could create difficulties for the midfield when adjusting their delivery. With so many options all around the park Arsenal have only one area which has remained fairly solid in the defence. Gabriel Paulista is currently  replacing an injured Mertesacker, and Bellerin seems to have upstaged Debuchy, but neither of these players has much Champions League experience and this is a worry. Coquelin and Arteta are not the strongest players in the centre of midfield, and although the former has played all five games this season he is not very experienced.

Star Player: Alexis Sanchez

Arsenal shelled out big money to bring in the talented Chilean from Barcelona, and in his first season at the Gunners he did not disappoint. In the league he managed 16 goals without playing as a centre forward, and he scored 25 times in all competitions. He has plenty of European experience from his time in Spain, and he could be brilliant this season.

Key Player: Mesut Ozil

Ozil burst onto the scene at the 2010 World Cup, and in 2013 Arsenal paid 42.5 million pounds to bring him in from Real Madrid. He will almost certainly be Arsenal’s main creator this season, although two assists in the first 5 matches is not brilliant. He has the potential to be a real danger, but he has previously been shut off by tight man-marking, and he will need to get around this.

Olympiacos FC (Greece)

Manager: Marco Silva
Captain: Giannis Maniatis
Ground: Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium, Piraeus
Qualified: Superleague Greece, 1st
Best Champions League Finish: Quarter-Finals (1998-99)
2014-15 Champions League: Group Stage

Form Guide

Olympiacos swept comfortably to their fifth consecutive league title, defeating Panathinaikos by 12 points and further asserting their stranglehold upon Greek football. They were drawn into a tough Champions League group, and despite winning all of their home games their poor form away from home eventually cost them a spot in the last 16. They did go through to the Europa League, but they lost to Ajax in the round of 32 after losses home and away.

Strengths

With Brown Ideye coming in from West Brom the attack is as strong as ever, and the Nigerian should combine well with Jimmy Durmaz and Alejandro Dominguez. Dominguez was dominant in the Greek league last season, netting 15 times and leading the league with 11 assists. Alfred Finnbogason, Felipe Pardo, Pajtim Kasami, Alan Pulido and David Fuster are also capable of finding the net, and there should be no shortage of goals. Giannis Maniatis, Luka Milivojevic and Esteban Cambiasso shore up the midfield, and the defence is strong, only letting in 23 goals last season. Roberto is solid in goal, and his back four of Omar Elabdellaoui, Manuel da Costa, Dimitris Siovas and Arthur Masuaku should ensure he doesn’t have too much to deal with.

Weaknesses

Olympiacos are not facing much tough competition, and last season 3 of the 18 sides suffered serious financial troubles and were simply no match for Olympiacos. This lack of real competition could mean that all but a select few players are ready for the rigours of playing against Bayern and Arsenal, two of the biggest clubs in the world. Maniatis is injured and may miss a large part of the group stage, and some questions remain about personnel. Siovas is more a converted midfielder than centre back, and while they win most of the time while at home their performances away could well cost them. Last season they lost all their games away, and a repeat of this would almost certainly rule out any prospect of progressing.

Star Player: Esteban Cambiasso

Cambiasso has moved around a bit over the past couple of years after leaving Internazionale, where he won 5 Serie A titles and the Champions League. He has great experience, and he has played 94 European matches for Inter and Real Madrid. He brings this experience to the table for Olympiacos, and will no doubt play a key role with the injury to Maniatis.

Key Player: Alejandro Dominguez

Dominguez scored 15 goals and assisted 11 last season, and he will slot into Marco Silva’s side as a traditional number 10, most likely playing in behind Ideye. It will be interesting to see how he can provide for Ideye and the other forwards, and he has a heavy burden on his shoulders as the main creator. If he can deliver then Olympiacos will do much better in a tough group.

GNK Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia)

Manager: Zoran Mamic
Captain: Domagoj Antolic
Ground: Stadion Maksimir, Zagreb
Qualified: Prva HNL, 1st (defeated CS Fola Esch, Molde FK and KF Skenderbeu Korce in qualifying)
Best Champions League Finish: Group Stage (1998-99, 1999-2000, 2011-12, 2012-13)
2014-15 Champions League: Third Qualifying Round

Form Guide

Dinamo breezed through to their tenth consecutive Prva HNL title without losing once, and so they progressed to the qualifying, where they beat Fola Esch. They went on to play Molde in the third qualifying round, where they edged out their opposition on away goals, and they progressed to play Albanian champions Skenderbeu Korce. Josip Pivaric’s 93rd minute winner gave them an edge for the return leg at home in Zagreb, and a 4-1 win ensured qualification.

Strengths

In El Arbi Hillel Soudani the Croatian champions have a player who can consistently find the back of the net, and he scored three goals in the play-offs against Skenderbeu, with one the equaliser in the first-leg win in Albania. Marko Rog, Marko Pjaca and Angelo Henriquez regularly found the net, and Dinamo will hope that Chilean striker Junior Fernandes and Armin Hodzic can chip in as well. Ivo Pinto, Leonardo Sigali, Jeremy Taravel and Josip Pivaric make up a solid back four, and former Portuguese number 1 Eduardo starts in goal. Paulo Machado, Domagoj Antolic, Arijan Ademi and Goncalo are all options in the centre of the park.

Weaknesses

As evidenced by their ten straight league titles, Dinamo do not come up against very strict competition in Croatia. In the past they have failed consistently to make the step-up to the Champions League, and there is no real difference in the side this time around, apart from the loss of striker Duje Cop to Malaga. Henriquez and Fernandes may be players who have played at Europe’s biggest clubs, but neither was able to break into the first team, and they can’t compete with teams like Bayern and Arsenal. They are trying to improve every time they play in the Champions League, but improvement is not happening and they failed to qualify for the group stage in 2013 and in 2014.

Star Player: El Arbi Hillel Soudani

Soudani is a winger who scores once every two games for Dinamo and Algeria. He has had experience playing against the best, and he won the Taca de Portugal with Vitoria de Guimaraes, scoring an equaliser in the final against Benfica. He has become a regular at Dinamo, and if he can keep popping up on the scoresheet at timely moments then he could make a real impact.

Key Player: Paulo Machado

Machado came to the club in 2014 after two successful seasons with Champions League rivals Olympiacos, and his experience could prove helpful. He will be responsible for shoring up the midfield, but Dinamo will also look for him to provide chances for the forwards. It will be crucial to Dinamo’s success for him to manage both, but it will be tough.

Prediction

Dinamo will almost certainly struggle, and it is difficult to see Bayern and Arsenal failing to progress to the knockout stages. Arsenal are good, but Bayern just have too much star power and should finish first. Olympiacos are unlikely to score a spot in the last 16, but they are good at home and could sneak a couple of wins against the top sides.
Prediction: 1. Bayern Munich, 2. Arsenal, 3. Olympiacos, 4. Dinamo Zagreb.

UEFA Champions League Matchday 1 Preview

On Tuesday the UEFA Champions League begins again, with Europe’s best battling it out on one of the world’s greatest stages. This year we see Liverpool’s return and Manchester United’s departure from the elite, as well as the remarkable return of Monaco, who were just two years ago in the second tier of French football. Real Madrid will be on a high after becoming the first European side to win ten continental titles, but can anyone knock them off their perch? It will be very interesting to see. In this preview I will look in depth at the first matchday, providing predictions, key matches, players to watch and also key questions. Enjoy.

Matches: (Predicted winner in bold)

Tuesday September 16

Olympiacos vs Atletico Madrid, Karaiskakis Stadium, Piraeus (1-2)
Atletico should be too good despite recent losses in the transfer market.
Juventus vs Malmo, Juventus Stadium, Turin (4-0)
Newbies Malmo no match for the experience and class of Juve.
Liverpool vs Ludogorets Razgrad, Anfield, Liverpool (4-0)
Ludogorets will really struggle against the stronger opposition.
Real Madrid vs Basel, Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid (3-0)
On a high after great success it is hard to see Real going down.
Monaco vs Bayer Leverkusen, Stade Louis II, Monaco (1-1)
A close contest that really could go either way.
Benfica vs Zenit St Petersburg, Estadio da Luz, Lisbon (1-3)
Zenit should have too much class for a slightly weakened Benfica.
Galatasaray vs Anderlecht, Turk Telekom Arena, Istanbul (3-0)
Galatasaray should cruise past Anderlecht, especially at home.

Key Game: Borussia Dortmund vs Arsenal, Signal Iduna Park, Dortmund
These two sides met in the group stage of last year’s tournament, with the odds split evenly over the two matches, in both cases the away side winning by a goal. With Dortmund losing centre forward Robert Lewandowski to rivals Bayern in the summer their attack has been weakened, and it is still to be seen how new recruit Ciro Immobile will cope with the pressure. On the other side, Arsenal have splashed out a bit in the transfer market, reeling in Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck, both of whom will be key to the attack, as well as Mathieu Debuchy and David Ospina in defence. This will be an extraordinarily exciting game, and it should be a very close one in the end.
Verdict: Both sides incredibly strong but home-ground advantage tips it slightly in Dortmund’s favour. Borussia Dortmund 2-1.

Wednesday September 17

Roma vs CSKA Moscow, Stadio Olimpico, Rome (3-1)
Roma return to the European stage and should knock off CSKA at home.

Key Game: Bayern Munich vs Manchester City, Allianz Arena, Munich
Whenever the champions of England and Germany collide, it is going to be a very big match. While these two sides picked up their titles in dramatically different fashions (Bayern cruised through while City snatched it from Liverpool with 5 straight wins late in the season) they are both brilliant sides. Bayern have lost young star Toni Kroos over the summer, but with players such as Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben, Xherdan Shaqiri, Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm and David Alaba, Bayern are a serious contender for the title. While Manchester City have under-performed in Europe in past tournaments they should not be underestimated, and now that their players have had some experience of the Champions League they are a good enough side to go a very long way.
Verdict: Manchester City are a good side but Bayern are just too good. Bayern Munich 2-0.

Barcelona vs APOEL, Camp Nou, Barcelona (5-0)
With Neymar and Messi fit again APOEL will be no match for Barca.
Ajax vs Paris Saint-Germain, Amsterdam ArenA, Amsterdam (0-2)
Ajax are strong but PSG should out-do them.
Chelsea vs Schalke 04, Stamford Bridge, London (1-0)
Schalke will provide a challenge but Chelsea should meet it at home.
Maribor vs Sporting CP, Ljudski vrt, Maribor (1-1)
Interesting match-up, but neither side quite strong enough to win.
Porto vs BATE Borisov, Estadio do Dragao, Porto (2-0)
Porto have a strong enough team to cruise past the Belarusians.
Athletic Bilbao vs Shakhtar Donetsk, San Mames, Bilbao (2-2)
Shakhtar will provide a test but Athletic should match them at home.

Players to watch

Toni Kroos (Real Madrid)
After playing brilliantly during Germany’s World Cup triumph Kroos was picked up by Real. A very good provider of aerial chances from dead ball situations, he has the skills to fit perfectly into the system of Real Madrid and it will be very exciting to see how he performs at his new club.

Diego Costa (Chelsea)
After scoring 8 Champions League goals to help Atletico make the final of the tournament Costa has moved to London. He had a very disappointing World Cup and he will be looking to rectify this against Schalke. If he fires then Chelsea could mount a serious challenge.

James Rodriguez (Real Madrid)
James picked up the golden boot at the World Cup, scoring 6 times in 5 games for Colombia. Such form was enough for Real Madrid to pay €75 million for his signature. They will be hoping for the versatile midfielder to repay them, and he is easily able to provide goals and assists for Carlo Ancelotti’s team.

Raheem Sterling (Liverpool)
In Sterling both Liverpool and England have a player who could easily become a superstar. He has incredible pace and after a brilliant league campaign last season he is fully ready to showcase his talent upon the European stage. Expect excitement, and lots of it.

Ciro Immobile (Borussia Dortmund)
After being offloaded to Torino by Juventus at the start of last season Immobile went on to shine, scoring 22 times. Having been bought by Borussia Dortmund to replace Robert Lewandowski, however, he has the weight of expectation on his shoulders, and it will be interesting to see how he copes.

Neymar (Barcelona)
As the host nation’s talisman in the World Cup, Neymar shone until a bad challenge from Juan Zuniga in the quarter-finals left him with a broken back. Now available after returning from his injury it will be very interesting to see how he fares against a relatively weak APOEL team.

Key Questions

How will Liverpool and Monaco fare on their return to Europe’s elite?
Liverpool have been drawn into a group that they should progress from, as Basel and Ludogorets are not good enough to really worry them. Plenty of players in the side have some experience at this level, and with young stars Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge both explosive players in attack Liverpool should be fine. Monaco, on the other hand, are a different proposition. They have offloaded Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez to Manchester United and Real Madrid respectively, and in a tough group containing Benfica, Zenit and Bayer Leverkusen they may struggle, as this side is not near the team that came second last season in class.

Will this be the season when English sides meet their potential?
It will be interesting to see how the English teams fare in this tournament, with Manchester City and Arsenal facing an early test this week. They face German powerhouses Bayern and Borussia Dortmund, and with Liverpool drawn into a group with reigning champions Real Madrid we should soon find out how these sides compare with the best in Europe. Chelsea have been drawn into a much easier group with Schalke, Sporting and Maribor and they should easily progress. Also, in terms of class and experience, Chelsea are probably the best of the English sides and I would be surprised if they did not at least reach the quarter-finals of this season’s tournament.

How will Atletico Madrid recover from their big losses over summer?
Atletico have lost some of the key members of the team that made the final of last season’s tournament, losing keeper Thibaut Courtois, left-back Filipe Luis and striker Diego Costa to Chelsea, as well as strikers Adrian Lopez (Porto) and David Villa (New York City) and attacking midfielder Diego (Fenerbahce). They have made extensive signings to compensate for this, mainly in attack where Mario Mandzukic, Raul Jimenez, Angel Correa, Alessio Cerci and French winger Antoine Griezmann have been picked up. Miguel Angel Moya and Jan Oblak have been picked up to rectify the goalkeeper situation, but whether these signings can replace Courtois, who is one of the best keepers in the world, and Costa, who contributed 38 goals in all competitions last season, remains to be seen. If anyone can pull them through it is Diego Simeone, whose coaching feats were incredible last season, and they have a reasonable draw, but it would take a very special effort to replicate last season’s all-round success.

Can Real Madrid be beaten?
After a stunning 4-1 victory (after extra time) over Atletico in Lisbon a tenth European crown was claimed for Real Madrid. On a high after completing ‘La Decima’ the champions have signed three stars of the recent World Cup in Costa Rican keeper Keylor Navas, Colombian attacking midfielder James Rodriguez and German playmaker Toni Kroos. Combine these players with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Marcelo, Isco, Sami Khedira, Karim Benzema and Luka Modric amongst others and you begin to see why Real are the best team in Europe. There are teams who can beat them, and Barcelona and Bayern Munich immediately spring to mind, but Real are looking like pretty strong favourites at the moment.

2014-15 Premier League preview

On Saturday the English Premier League engine kicks into gear once more, and 20 teams compete either for a Championship or to avoid the second division. This year Leicester, Burnley and QPR replace Fulham, Norwich and Cardiff in the top flight. Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool have spent big in the summer, but can they take the title away from Manchester for the first time since 2010? It will be very hard to tell, as twenty sides embark on the roller-coaster ride that is the Premier League season. In this preview I will tell you all you need to know, as well as provide a prediction and the team that I would pick. Hopefully you will be able to refer back to this as the season progresses.

Arsenal

Last Season: 4th
Based: London
Ground: Emirates Stadium (capacity 60,338)
Manager: Arsene Wenger
Squad: Arteta (c), Campbell, Cazorla, Chambers, Coquelin, Debuchy, Diaby, Flamini, Gibbs, Giroud, Gnabry, Koscielny, Martinez (gk), Mertesacker, Monreal, Miyaichi, Ospina (gk), Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ozil, Podolski, Ramsey, Rosicky, Sanchez, Sanogo, Szczesny (gk), Walcott, Wilshere, Zelalem.

Arsenal were FA Cup winners last season despite some disappointing results in the league, with the best clubs starting to pull away. Wenger has tried to delay this process with the signings of David Ospina and Alexis Sanchez (both excellent in the recent season and the World Cup). Plenty of depth in the centre of midfield, with players like Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini all strong players. Giroud up front is an excellent target, but will need star players Mesut Ozil and Sanchez to deliver if he is to have a prolific year. The loss of Thomas Vermaelen to Barcelona is not ideal, but Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker are both good enough to fill the void.

Verdict: Very strong team but will need playmakers to deliver. 4th.

My first team:
Ospina;
Debuchy, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs;
Arteta, Wilshere;
Walcott, Sanchez, Ozil;
Giroud.

Aston Villa

Last Season: 15th
Based: Birmingham
Ground: Villa Park (cap. 42,682)
Manager: Paul Lambert
Squad: Vlaar (c), Agbonlahor, Bacuna, Baker, Bennett, Bent, Benteke, Burke, Cissokho, Clark, Cole, Delph, Donacien, El Ahmadi, Gardner, Given (gk), Grealish, Guzan (gk), Herd, Hutton, Kozak, Lowton, N’Zogbia, Okore, Richardson, Robinson, Senderos, Stevens, Weimann, Westwood.

Aston Villa have been hanging around the bottom of the table for a few years now, and nothing they have done in the market this season seems particularly special. Christian Benteke was brilliant two years ago and will be crucial to their hopes this season. Andreas Weimann, Libor Kozak and Gabriel Agbonlahor are also very good, and the return of the experienced Darren Bent is very good for the club. Kieran Richardson will give the side a lot of flexibility on the left edge, and Ron Vlaar, Jores Okore and Ciaran Clark are all excellent players. Brad Guzan will be very important between the posts. Karim El Ahmadi, Ashley Westwood, Joe Cole and Fabian Delph are all strong in midfield. Injuries to Benteke and Kozak will affect the side at the start of the season.

Verdict: Will struggle, especially early in the season. 16th.

My first team:
Guzan;
Lowton, Clark, Vlaar, Cissokho;
Agbonlahor, El Ahmadi, Westwood, Richardson;
Benteke, Weimann.

Burnley

Last Season: 2nd (Championship)
Based: Burnley
Ground: Turf Moor (cap. 21,401)
Manager: Sean Dyche
Squad: Shackell (c), Arfield, Barnes, Cisak (gk), Duff, Gilks (gk), Heaton (gk), Hewitt, Ings, Jones, Jutkiewicz, Kightly, Lafferty, Long, Marney, Mee, O’Neill, Reid, Sordell, Taylor, Trippier, Vokes, Wallace.

Burnley returned to the Premier League on the back of some brilliant form from Sam Vokes and Danny Ings up front. Dyche has been busy in the market, signing Michael Kightly, Matt Gilks, Lukas Jutkiewicz, Marvin Sordell and Steven Reid amongst others. A baptism of fire is prepared for the side, however, facing Chelsea in their first Premier League match since 2010. Vokes and Ings will combine with Sordell or Jutkiewicz up front, and this is where Burnley have a lot of flexibility. There is some good experience in midfield but the side could struggle a bit defensively. Michael Duff has masses of experience but is also getting on, while the rest of the defence have little to no experience at this level.

Verdict: A real struggle for Burnley this season and relegation is a definite possibility. 20th.

My first team:
Gilks;
Trippier, Shackell, Mee, Lafferty;
Kightly, Arfield, Jones, Sordell;
Ings, Vokes.

Chelsea

Last Season: 3rd
Based: London
Ground: Stamford Bridge (cap. 41,837)
Manager: Jose Mourinho
Squad: Terry (c), Ake, Azpilicueta, Blackman (gk), Cahill, Cech (gk), Christensen, Costa, Courtois (gk), Drogba, Fabregas, Hazard, Ivanovic, Luis, Matic, Mikel, Moses, Oscar, Ramires, Salah, Schurrle, Schwarzer (gk), Torres, van Ginkel, Willian, Zouma.

Chelsea have made some huge signings over the summer, and in terms of depth probably have the best list in the league. Petr Cech and Thibaut Courtois are both brilliant keepers and are well backed up by the defence despite the losses of Ashley Cole and David Luiz. The signing of club talisman Didier Drogba is huge, and Diego Costa had such a good season with Atletico Madrid that his poor World Cup form was not enough to discourage the Londoners. With the likes of Eden Hazard, Oscar, Willian, Andre Schurrle and now Cesc Fabregas competing for a spot in attacking midfield, and Ramires, John Obi Mikel and Nemanja Matic going for the slots behind them, this team will be hard to beat.

Verdict: Squad is incredible, and should have the resources to go all the way. 2nd.

My first team:
Courtois;
Azpilicueta, Terry, Cahill, Luis;
Ramires, Fabregas;
Hazard, Oscar, Schurrle;
Costa.

Crystal Palace

Last Season: 11th
Based: London
Ground: Selhurst Park (cap. 26,255)
Manager: Keith Millen (caretaker)
Squad: Jedinak (c), Bannan, Binnon-Williams, Bolasie, Campbell, Chamakh, Dann, Delaney, Garvan, Gayle, Guedioura, Hangeland, Hennessy (gk), Kebe, Kelly, Kettings (gk), Ledley, Mariappa, McCarthy, Murray, O’Keefe, Price (gk), Puncheon, Ramage, Speroni (gk), Thomas, Ward, Williams.

Palace did incredibly well last season to avoid relegation after a string of losses early in the season. Mile Jedinak did an incredible job in the centre of midfield and he will be key to any success this season. The addition of Brede Hangeland is huge for the club, and the Norwegian will provide the defence with much needed solidity. Martin Kelly is a big gain at right-back. Scott Dann and Adrian Mariappa provide extra assistance in defence, and the midfield has a lot of depth. Fraizer Campbell adds firepower to an attack of Marouane Chamakh, Dwight Gayle and Glenn Murray, and although they are still well behind the big clubs another mid-table finish would be expected.

Verdict: Strong all over but may struggle to compete with big clubs. 14th.

My first team:
Speroni;
Kelly, Hangeland, Dann, Mariappa;
Ledley, Jedinak, Bannan;
Chamakh, Campbell, Gayle.

Everton

Last Season: 5th
Based: Liverpool
Ground: Goodison Park (cap. 39,572)
Manager: Roberto Martinez
Squad: Jagielka (c), Alcaraz, Atsu, Baines, Barkley, Barry, Besic, Browning, Byrne, Coleman, Distin, Duffy, Galloway, Garbutt, Gibson, Grant, Hibbert, Hope, Howard, Kone, Long, Lukaku, McAleny, McCarthy, McGeady, Mirallas, Naismith, Osman, Oviedo, Pennington, Pienaar, Robles (gk), Stanek (gk), Stones.

Everton were one of the best sides in the league last season, and were challenging for a Champions League slot until very late in the season. They have very good players in every area of the park, with Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka and Ross Barkley all in the English World Cup squad. Tim Howard is a brilliant keeper, and fullbacks Baines and Seamus Coleman played incredibly during last season. Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry are both excellent players, and Barry will combine well with new signing Muhamed Besic. The depth in midfield is incredible, and an admirable performance in the transfer market means that this Everton side is stronger than ever, and a good league position is expected.

Verdict: Interesting to see how side copes with the double load of European football and the league. 7th.

My first team:
Howard;
Coleman, Jagielka, Distin, Baines;
Barry, Besic;
McGeady, Barkley, Atsu;
Lukaku.

Hull City

Last Season: 16th
Based: Kingston-upon-Hull
Ground: KC Stadium (cap. 25,400)
Manager: Steve Bruce
Squad: Davies (c), Aluko, Boyd, Brady, Bruce, Chester, Elmohamady, Figueroa, Harper (gk), Huddlestone, Ince, Jakupovic (gk), Jelavic, Livermore, Maguire, McGregor (gk), McShane, Meyler, Quinn, Robertson, Rosenoir, Sagbo, Snodgrass.

Hull City managed to qualify for European football through the FA Cup, and it will be interesting to see how they cope with that burden. The signing of Harry Maguire helps out the defence consisting of players like Curtis Davies and Maynor Figueroa. Robert Snodgrass and Thomas Ince are very helpful signings, and with Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore the midfield is especially productive. Up front the side looks extremely strong, with Yannick Sagbo, Nikica Jelavic and Sone Aluko. Elmohamady and Brady are also very strong, and the side seems good enough to cope with losing Robert Koren to Melbourne City. Alan McGregor was very good between the posts last season and Hull will hope that this form sticks.

Verdict: A strong side, but may struggle with the added pressure of European football. 12th.

My first team:
McGregor;
Elmohamady, Davies, Maguire, Figueroa;
Ince, Huddlestone, Snodgrass, Brady;
Jelavic, Sagbo.

Leicester City

Last Season: 1st (Championship)
Based: Leicester
Ground: King Power Stadium (cap. 32,262)
Manager: Nigel Pearson
Squad: Morgan (c), Albrighton, Bakayogo, Barmby, de Laet, Drinkwater, Hamer (gk), Hammond, Hooper, James, King, Knockaert, Konchesky, Logan (gk), Mahrez, Moore, Nugent, Schlupp, Schmeichel (gk), Smith (gk), Taylor-Fletcher, Ulloa, Upson, Vardy, Wasilewski, Wood.

Leicester gained promotion easily from the Championship, and the team looks strong. Mark Albrighton has experience at this level with Aston Villa and is an excellent signing. The side is extremely well stocked in attack, with players like David Nugent, Chris Wood, Leonardo Ulloa and Jamie Vardy amongst others. The defence has plenty of experience, with former English international Matt Upson as well as Wes Morgan and Marcin Wasilewski all available, while left-back Jeff Schlupp provides a youthful influence. In midfield Albrighton is ably assisted by players like Danny Drinkwater, Andy King and Riyad Mahrez, while Kasper Schmeichel is a very strong keeper.

Verdict: Strong team, but could struggle a bit in the big league. 15th.

My first team:
Schmeichel;
Upson, Wasilewski, Morgan, Schlupp;
Drinkwater;
Albrighton, King, Mahrez;
Nugent, Ulloa.

Liverpool

Last Season: 2nd
Based: Liverpool
Ground: Anfield (cap. 45,276)
Manager: Brendan Rodgers
Squad: Gerrard (c), Adorjan, Agger, Allen, Assaidi, Borini, Brannagan, Can, Coates, Coutinho, Enrique, Flanagan, Henderson, Ibe, Ilori, Johnson, B Jones (gk), L Jones, Lallana, Lambert, Leiva, Lovren, Manquillo, Markovic, McLaughlin, Mignolet (gk), Peterson, Phillips, Robinson, Rossiter, Sakho, Skrtel, Sinclair, Sterling, Sturridge, Suso, Toure, Ward (gk), Yesil.

Liverpool will be desperate to succeed this season after they threw away the title to Manchester City in incredible circumstances. This summer, despite the loss of Luis Suarez (scorer of 30 goals last season) to Barcelona, Liverpool have done well, netting Dejan Lovren, Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert from Southampton amongst others. The 2-man attack looks good, with Lambert an able assistant for Daniel Sturridge, and in midfield Jordan Henderson, Steven Gerrard, Emre Can and others are all options. Raheem Sterling is one of the best young prospects in the Premier League, and he will be joined on the wings by Lallana, also very skilful. Mamadou Sakho, Daniel Agger, Lovren, Jose Enrique and Glen Johnson make sure the defence is strong.

Verdict: Very strong side, and almost certain to challenge for the title. 3rd.

My first team:
Mignolet;
Johnson, Agger, Lovren, Enrique;
Sterling, Henderson, Gerrard, Lallana;
Sturridge, Lambert.

Manchester City

Last Season: 1st
Based: Manchester
Ground: Etihad Stadium (cap. 47,405)
Manager: Manuel Pellegrini
Squad: Kompany (c), Aguero, Boyata, Caballero (gk), Clichy, Demichelis, Dzeko, Fernandinho, Fernando, Guidetti, Hart (gk), Jovetic, Kolarov, Lampard, Mangala, Milner, Nasri, Nastasic, Navas, Negredo, Richards, Sagna, Silva, Sinclair, Toure, Wright (gk), Zabaleta, Zuculini.

Manchester City took the title from Liverpool in incredible circumstances last season, winning their last five to go from third to champions. The side is still incredibly strong, with the midfield stocked brilliantly. Yaya Toure and Fernandinho are a brilliant combination in the centre of midfield, while David Silva and Jesus Navas are all class, pushing players like Samir Nasri, James Milner and possibly even loan recruit (and former Chelsea legend) Frank Lampard out of the first team. Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko and Alvaro Negredo amongst others make for a brilliant attack, and the defence is also stocked very nicely. Joe Hart is a great keeper but if out Willy Caballero would be a great replacement, and this team looks as strong as it’s ever been.

Verdict: One of the strongest, and it will be interesting to see how they go in the Champions League this season. 1st.

My first team:
Hart;
Zabaleta, Mangala, Kompany, Clichy;
Navas, Toure, Fernandinho, Silva;
Aguero, Dzeko.

Manchester United

Last Season: 7th
Based: Manchester
Ground: Old Trafford (cap. 75,731)
Manager: Louis van Gaal
Squad: Rooney (c), Amos (gk), Anderson, Carrick, Cleverley, de Gea (gk), Evans, Fellaini, Fletcher, Hernandez, Herrera, Januzaj, Johnstone, Jones, Kagawa, M Keane, W Keane, Lawrence, Lindegaard (gk), Lingard, Mata, Nani, Powell, Rafael, Shaw, Smalling, Valencia, van Persie, Varela, Vermilj, Welbeck, Wilson, Young, Zaha.

Last season was a horror for Manchester United, and the fans will desperately be hoping that former Dutch manager Louis van Gaal can fix this. The side hasn’t changed an awful lot since last season, with Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw the only ins. The defence looks pretty good, with 18 year-old England starlet Shaw the standout, and with players like Herrera, Marouane Fellaini, Antonio Valencia, Shinji Kagawa, Michael Carrick and Juan Mata they have plenty of depth. Young guns Adnan Januzaj and Wilfried Zaha will help out on the wings, while Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck make for a great attack. Under van Gaal you can guarantee that his side will be tough to beat, and fans will hope for this.

Verdict: Strong and will presumably play in a very solid style. 6th.

My first team:
De Gea;
Rafael, Smalling, Jones, Shaw;
Carrick, Herrera;
Januzaj, Rooney, Mata;
Van Persie.

Newcastle United

Last Season: 10th
Based: Newcastle-upon-Tyne
Ground: St James’ Park (cap. 52,405)
Manager: Alan Pardew
Squad: Coloccini (c), Aarons, Abeid, Alnwick (gk), Ameobi, Anita, Armstrong, Ben Arfa, Bigirimana, Cabella, Cisse, Colback, de Jong, Dummett, Elliott (gk), Ferguson, Ferreyra, Good, Gouffran, Gutierrez, Haidara, Janmaat, Kemen, Krul (gk), Mbabu, Obertan, Perez, Riviere, Santon, Satka, Sissoko, Streete, R Taylor, S Taylor, Tiote, Vuckic, Williamson, Woodman (gk), Yanga-Mbiwa.

Newcastle have a strong team, and have the potential to do very well. Tim Krul is very solid between the posts, and in players like Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Fabricio Coloccini and others the side has a lot of depth in the centre of defence. Davide Santon is very good at left-back, while Daryl Janmaat is a perfect replacement for the departed Debuchy. Cheick Tiote, Moussa Sissoko and Vurnon Anita occupy the centre of midfield, while Hatem Ben Arfa, Siem de Jong and Remy Cabella provide the creative spark for the attack of Papiss Cisse, Emmanuel Riviere, Facundo Ferreyra and Yoan Gouffran. If Cisse can regain his form of a couple of years ago then Newcastle will be a force to reckon with.

Verdict: Very solid side and a good league position expected. 9th.

My first team:
Krul;
Janmaat, Coloccini, Yanga-Mbiwa, Santon;
Tiote;
Ben Arfa, de Jong, Cabella;
Riviere, Cisse.

Queens Park Rangers

Last Season: 4th (Championship)
Based: London
Ground: Loftus Road Stadium (cap. 18,489)
Manager: Harry Redknapp
Squad: Hill (c), Austin, Barton, Caulker, Cesar (gk), Dunne, Ehmer, Faurlin, Ferdinand, Green (gk), Harriman, Henry, Hoilett, Isla, Jenas, Murphy (gk), Mutch, Onuoha, Petrasso, Phillips, Remy, Simpson, Taarabt, Traore, Wright-Phillips, Yun, Zamora.

QPR gained promotion through the play-offs, and have regained the players who they loaned out for last season. Loic Remy will be an excellent addition to the attack of Charlie Austin and Bobby Zamora, and with the signings of Steven Caulker, Mauricio Isla and Manchester United legend Rio Ferdinand, the defence is first-class. Junior Hoilett, Adel Taarabt and Mathew Phillips are great set-up players, and with Joey Barton, Jordan Mutch and Shaun Wright-Phillips the centre of midfield also looks very strong. Julio Cesar and Robert Green are both extremely experienced goalkeepers, and Harry Redknapp is almost certainly the manager to bring this side together and hopefully avoid relegation.

Verdict: A strong side who shouldn’t go down, but you just never know with QPR. 13th.

My first team:
Cesar;
Isla, Ferdinand, Hill, Caulker;
Barton;
Hoilett, Taarabt, Phillips;
Austin, Remy.

Southampton

Last Season: 8th
Based: Southampton
Ground: St Mary’s Stadium (cap. 32,589)
Manager: Ronald Koeman
Squad: Fonte (c), Bertrand, Boruc (gk), Clyne, Cork, Cropper (gk), K Davis (gk), S Davis, Forster (gk), Gallagher, Gardos, Gazzaniga (gk), Hooiveld, Isgrove, Long, Mayuka, McQueen, Pelle, Ramirez, Reed, Rodriguez, Schneiderlin, Stephens, Tadic, Taider, Targett, Wanyama, Ward-Prowse, Yoshida.

Southampton have been hit hard in the transfer market, losing Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, Dejan Lovren and Luke Shaw to their rivals, but they still have some class. Graziano Pelle will be good up front, and he will be ably supplied by Dusan Tadic, Gaston Ramirez and Jay Rodriguez. Victor Wanyama, Steven Davis, Morgan Schneiderlin and Saphir Taider are all very strong in the centre of midfield, and Jose Fonte was very good in the centre of defence last season. Maya Yoshida may not be as strong as Lovren, but will be able to fill the void, and with Ryan Bertrand coming in as a replacement for Shaw the side does not look bad at all. Fraser Forster and Artur Boruc are both excellent keepers and it will be interesting to see how this season pans out.

Verdict: Not as strong as last year but still very impressive. 8th.

My first team:
Forster;
Clyne, Yoshida, Fonte, Bertrand;
Taider, Schneiderlin;
Tadic, Ramirez, Rodriguez;
Pelle.

Stoke City

Last Season: 9th
Based: Stoke-on-Trent
Ground: Britannia Stadium (cap. 27,740)
Manager: Mark Hughes
Squad: Shawcross (c), Adam, Arnautovic, Bardsley, Begovic (gk), Butland (gk), Cameron, Crouch, Diouf, Huth, Ireland, Jerome, Krkic, Muniesa, N’Zonzi, Odemwingie, Palacios, Pieters, Shea, Shotton, Sidwell, Sorenson (gk), Texeira, Walters, Whelan, Wilkinson, Wilson.

Stoke have picked up some very handy players, including Mame Biram Diouf and Bojan Krkic to supplement the already strong attack containing Peter Crouch, Jonathan Walters and Peter Odemwingie. Steve Sidwell brings experience into midfield, combining with Wilson Palacios, Glenn Whelan, Steven N’Zonzi and Charlie Adam in the centre. Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth form an extremely solid core in the centre of defence, and versatile fullbacks Erik Pieters and Geoff Cameron will assist nicely in attack. Asmir Begovic was very good in the recent World Cup and Stoke will be hoping that his form continues into the upcoming season. All-in-all, Stoke look like a very strong side and should get a good position.

Verdict: Side fits together very nicely, with plenty of experience. 10th.
My first team:
Begovic;
Cameron, Huth, Shawcross, Pieters;
Whelan, Sidwell;
Walters, Arnautovic, Odemwingie;
Diouf.

Sunderland

Last Season: 14th
Based: Sunderland
Ground: Stadium of Light (cap. 48,707)
Manager: Gus Poyet
Squad: Agnew, Altidore, Bridcutt, Brown, Buckley, Cattermole, Cabral, Diakite, Fletcher, Giaccherini, Gomez, Graham, Johnson, Jones, Larsson, Mandron, Mannone (gk), Mavrias, N’Diaye, O’Shea, Pantilimon (gk), Roberge, Rodwell, Smith, van Aanholt, Vergini, Watmore, Wickham.

Sunderland avoided what seemed to be certain relegation last season through an incredible run of form, beating Manchester United and Chelsea along the way. This season will be tough for Poyet’s side, but they have made some very nice acquisitions over the summer. Jack Rodwell and Costel Pantilimon come to the club from Manchester City, and the former will fit in brilliantly with Sebastian Larsson, Emanuele Giaccherini and Adam Johnson in midfield. Steven Fletcher and Jozy Altidore are very good up front, and John O’Shea will marshal the defence ably. Younger players like Charalampos Mavrias and Connor Wickham will be important in attack, and overall, while this side may struggle, they may just pull through with their class.

Verdict: A good side, but still candidates for relegation due to relatively weak defence. 19th.

My first team:
Pantilimon;
Vergini, Brown, O’Shea;
Rodwell, Bridcutt;
Larsson, Johnson, Giaccherini;
Altidore, Fletcher.

Swansea City

Last Season: 12th
Based: Swansea
Ground: Liberty Stadium (cap. 20,750)
Manager: Garry Monk
Squad: Williams (c), Amat, Bartley, Bony, Britton, Canas, Cornell (gk), Donnelly, Dyer, Emnes, Fabianski (gk), Fulton, Gomis, Ki, King, Kingsley, Montero, Obeng, Rangel, Richards, Routledge, Sheehan, Shelvey, Sigurdsson, Tate, Taylor, Tiendalli, Tremmel (gk).

Swansea have captured Bafetimbi Gomis from Lyon and he will combine with Wilfried Bony to form a brilliant attack. Jefferson Montero, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Nathan Dyer are very strong when it comes to assisting the forwards. Jonjo Shelvey and Korean star Ki Sung-Yeung are both very strong in the centre of midfield, and Leon Britton and Jose Canas will also push for a first-team slot. Former Arsenal back-up Lukasz Fabianski comes in to fill the void left by Michel Vorm’s departure to Tottenham, and he will compete with Gerhard Tremmel for a first-team place. The defence has lost Chico Flores and Ben Davies, and while these are big losses the Swans should be safe from the drop.

Verdict: Despite some defensive worries, the side should hold up. 11th.

My first team:
Fabianski;
Rangel, Williams, Amat, Tiendalli;
Ki;
Dyer, Sigurdsson, Montero;
Gomis, Bony.

Tottenham Hotspur

Last Season: 6th
Based: London
Ground: White Hart Lane (cap. 36,284)
Manager: Mauricio Pochettino
Squad: Dawson (c), Adebayor, Assou-Ekotto, Bentaleb, Capoue, Carroll, Chadli, Chiriches, Davies, Dembele, Dier, Eriksen, Friedel (gk), Fryers, Holtby, Kaboul, Kane, Lamela, Lennon, Lloris (gk), Mason, Naughton, Paulinho, Rose, Sandro, Soldado, Townsend, Vertonghen, Vorm (gk), Walker.

Spurs are very strong but were unable to win the big games last season, with this ultimately costing them as they finished sixth. They have strengthened their defence over the summer with the signings of keeper Michel Vorm, Eric Dier and Ben Davies. The depth in the centre of defence is great, with Younes Kaboul, Michael Dawson, Jan Vertonghen and Vlad Chiriches but they may struggle in the left-back position. Lewis Holtby, Nacer Chadli, Christian Eriksen, Aaron Lennon, Erik Lamela and Andros Townsend are excellent in attacking midfield, and behind them Sandro, Paulinho, Etienne Capoue, Moussa Dembele and Algerian starlet Nabil Bentaleb make sure that the side has optimum depth in midfield. With Roberto Soldado up front this side is very strong.

Verdict: Under Pochettino anything could happen, with Champions League a serious possibility. 5th.

My first team:
Lloris;
Walker, Kaboul, Dawson, Vertonghen;
Paulinho, Bentaleb;
Lamela, Eriksen, Chadli;
Soldado.

West Bromwich Albion

Last Season: 17th
Based: West Midlands
Ground: The Hawthorns (cap. 26,445)
Manager: Alan Irvine
Squad: Brunt (c), Anichebe, Baird, Berahino, Daniels (gk), Davidson, Dawson, Dorrans, Foster (gk), Gamboa, Gardner, Garmston, Ideye, Jones, Lescott, McAuley, Morrison, Mulumbu, Myhill (gk), Nabi, Olsson, O’Neil, O’Sullivan, Pocognoli, Roofe, Sessegnon, Wisdom, Yacob.

Manager Irvine has signed plenty of defenders, and with Joleon Lescott, Andre Wisdom, Jonas Olsson, Gareth McAuley and Sebastien Pocognoli his side is extremely well-stocked in the centre of defence. Jason Davidson and Cristian Gamboa come in as fullbacks, and with Ben Foster in goal West Brom look like they could be hard to score against. Claudio Yacob, Chris Brunt, James Morrison and Youssouf Mulumbu are strong in midfield. Brown Ideye comes in to the side to back up young gun Saido Berahino, and Stephane Sessagnon will provide the creative spark, but the side may struggle in attack. Overall West Brom have the potential to go well but will be on their guard after a poor 2013-14.

Verdict: Stayed up by a game last time, and may be lucky to avoid the drop again. 18th.

My first team:
Foster;
Gamboa, Olsson, Lescott, Wisdom;
Yacob;
Brunt, Sessegnon, Morrison;
Ideye, Berahino.

West Ham United

Last Season: 13th
Based: London
Ground: Boleyn Ground (cap. 35,016)
Manager: Sam Allardyce
Squad: Nolan (c), Adrian (gk), Burke, Carroll, Cole, Collins, Creswell, Demel, Diame, Downing, Jaaskelainen (gk), Jarvis, Jenkinson, Kouyate, Morrison, Noble, O’Brien, Potts, Poyet, Reid, Sakho, Tomkins, Valencia, Vaz Te, Zarate.

West Ham have tried to bolster their attack over the summer with the signings of Enner Valencia and Mauro Zarate joining the attack of Andy Carroll, Carlton Cole and Ricardo Vaz Te. It is the midfield, however, that is the strongest link, with Mark Noble, Kevin Nolan, Matt Jarvis, Stewart Downing and Ravel Morrison all very strong players. Carl Jenkinson will bolster the defence, coming into the side on loan from Arsenal. James Tomkins, James Collins, Winston Reid and Joey O’Brien make for a reasonably solid back four, and with the versatile Cheikhou Kouyate joining from Anderlecht manager Allardyce will have plenty of options all over the park. Overall the side looks good, and it will be interesting how they end up.

Verdict: Solid but may struggle against relegation. 17th.

My first team:
Jaaskelainen;
Jenkinson, Reid, Tomkins, Kouyate;
Downing, Noble, Nolan, Jarvis;
Valencia, Carroll