Friday, 7 August 2009

Who will win the Premier League? United, Chelsea, Sky Sports or ESPN?

I might be kissing the hallowed trophy now but who's lips will be puckering up to the Premier League crown next May? Rio Ferdinand? Steven Gerrard? John Terry?... Richard Dunne?

And as ESPN enters the UK's TV market, will their arrival provide Sky Sports with food for thought?

Jonny talks to ESPN's new Premier League presenter, Ray Stubbs

Across the land, hopes are raised for a title tilt, Europa League qualification or a successful fight to avoid the drop, depending on which of the twenty clubs you're behind.

It's a reality of the modern era that every club calibrates its hopes according to revenue forecasts. The Premier League is divided into three, so newly-promoted Burnley aren't about to repeat the achievements of Nottingham Forest's extraordinary Championship victory in their debut season, however adept Owen Coyle appears to be in his top-flight bow.

But Manchester United will attempt something which remains the stuff of fable in 120 years of league football - by retaining the title for a fourth successive year.

They won't!

Just as with Huddersfield, Arsenal, Liverpool and United of the early noughties - they fall beyond the hat-trick hurdle.

Sir Alex Ferguson is no lagger but summer events have subsumed even his pro-active plans. United's great side is disassembling. Cristiano Ronaldo's realised his boyhood dreams and the itinerant Carlos Tevez has packed his work ethic in a bag bound for Manchester City. Fergie's not been quick enough to plug those holes in the face of stiff competition.

No, the trophy will be housed in a new cabinet from next summer - and look no further than the air-conditioned vaults of Stamford Bridge or Anfield for where you'll find it.

As Ray Stubbs told me in the attached interview, nothing will concentrate Anfield minds more than United drawing level with them at eighteen-all in league titles (and that's a fact!) The most successful English club in history are being caught by the Fergie Fablemaker - and it hurts.

But it's within Rafa Benitez's gift to nose ahead once more. The Reds came close to claiming last season - but were let down by a series of unlikely goalless home draws.

Xabi Alonso's defection to Madrid is a blow but the collective resolve of the remaining squad is too big for that to have a lasting effect.

For all of Alonso's contributions, his effect on the Anfield dressing room was negative. He and Rafa didn't get on. Any form of disquiet is a hindrance to a winning team.

Steven Gerrard's put fight night behind him (Southport or Southpaw?) Fernando Torres promises iconic goals if he stays fit and Jamie Carragher, Yossi Benayoun and Dirk Kuyt are essential cogs in a title-winning outfit.

But for me, it's Chelsea's season.

It's been a good summer for the Blues. FA Cup glory was followed by Carlo Ancelotti's recruitment as coach, then John Terry confirmed he was staying put after a lairy flirtation with Manchester City. His decision is significant for if he'd left, it would have been akin to the ravens leaving the Tower of London. Surely Lampard and Drogba would have followed him out the exit door in doublequick time - now emphatically off the agenda, Chelsea look tooled up.

I've not mentioned Arsenal yet. In fact, no one is in the same breath as potential champions. The truth is their an unknown commodity. A young side on the edge of maturity. The question is, can they step upto the plate and launch a realistic challenge?

Underestimate Arsene Wenger and his troops at your peril. They have a habit of getting the bit between their teeth and going on long unbeaten runs. Trouble is no one knows if Fabregas, van Persie, Arshavin, Wilshere and Walcott have a new maturity or a soft underbelly - one thing is for sure:

Reports of their demise as a top four club are overstated. The Gunners are too strong to be consumed by the marauding chasers of Everton, Aston Villa and Manchester City. Pretenders to the Champions League those three will remain. Arsenal will prevail as one of the big four, and who really knows what they're capable of?

It's also a big season on the silver screen. Sky Sports now have meaningful competition as ESPN become new entrants into the UK's Premier League market.

But new kids on the block they certainly aren't: the Disney-backed titan runs over forty channels worldwide and they've invested a million pounds a game in securing 46 live and exclusive games this season. It all starts with Everton v Arsenal on August 15th and I caught up with Ray Stubbs, who after twenty years with the BBC will front their big games.

I never become tired of the Premier League!

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