Back once again like a renegade master
The Premier League is back, and so is its most narcissistic critic. The Fifth Official is fully aware of how these erratic predictions will return to haunt him, but he'll batter on anyway.
Title contenders: Great minds meet
When I came face-to-face with Sir Alex Ferguson on a London street near Buckingham Palace this week (true story) it was a meeting of great minds; a synergy of iron will and fierce intellect. The energy positively fizzed back and forth between us. We stared into one another's eyes for a split second too long and before I could hurl any of the obscenities I'd prepared for this precise moment, the grumpy old beggar shuffled into his chauffeur driven limo while I was forced to re-mount my push bike.
As much as the man induces feelings of chronic indigestion in the pit of my guts, the look in his eyes convinced me that this is the season when he'll finally knock Liverpool "off their f***ing" perch and grab his team an 18th title. The Community Shield did little to convince me otherwise. Nice to see all it took for England flop Wayne Rooney to resettle into his familiar life and form for United was 20 fags a day since the World Cup and the odd lash up. If he'd only come on just for one kick - the sublime cross that led to United's opener - he still would have contributed more than in four games in South Africa. Of course, El Chicarito announced his arrival too - by smashing one in off his face. Perhaps he's blessed with all the luck Michael Owen still thinks he's owed.
IMHO (that stands for in my hilarious opinion) it'll be a straight shoot-out between United and Chelsea for the title, but plenty of that depends on Didier Drogba's form and fitness as well as the Blues' very own World Cup misfit - John Terry and his insatiable gob. Should he keep it relatively shut, and his off-field antics reasonably less derailing, he may rediscover some semblance of form circa-2008, finally accept he's no longer England captain and then we may have another ding dong on our hands.
Man City are The Expendables
Sorry Manchester City fans, I just can't see how a bunch of renegades thrown together by an obscene amount of money will suddenly gel like wallpaper paste and launch a title bid. I mean, £220,000-a-week for Yaya Toure, Barcelona reject? Do me a favour. They are becoming more and more like a footballing version of The Expendables. Mind you, they'd be better off with Sly Stallone in charge rather than the feeble Mancini. He's like Capello-lite.
Arsenal may have squeezed another year out of Cesc Fabregas, but he'll be cursing the club and Arsene Wenger as soon as he realises they haven't got a shot at winning the title (in late September), while their defence fills me with about as much confidence as chicken pox. Robin van Persie should bang them in if he can stay injury free and Marouane Chamakh is a decent signing, but it's still not enough.
An outside bet to join the race may well be Everton, who for the first time since they were formed look as if they have enough fit players for it not to become an excuse within weeks of the big kick-off. Ooh look, there's Phil Jagielka stretching off, and there's everyone's favourite haircut Marouane Fellaini, blimey, even Mikel Arteta is breaking into a light jog. Mind you, so are Phil Neville and Tony Hibbert, so that should even things out.
Europa League misfits
Tottenham: enjoy your brief Champions League run this season because you won't be sailing off for glamorous European destinations next year. Instead of 8% wheat beer in a fine Belgian cafe it'll be knock-off Smirnoff in some former Communist grief hole that gets on average 48 minutes of sunshine each year. Judging by the immediate environs around White Hart Lane it shouldn't be too much of a shock.
Martin O'Neill's walk out at Villa has catapulted them downwards from the section above, and whoever comes in will clearly have a battle on his hands to prevent a Lost-style exodus. With the right appointment, given that they still have a flimsy reserve of promising youth, they may just cling on to a top-six place. With the wrong one, they could plummet.
And cuddly Roy Hodgson may have been installed as Liverpool manager, Stevie and Nando may have agreed to stay (for now) and the tactical nomad Joe Cole may have joined, but Liverpool are in for another bog standard campaign I'm afraid. And I'll only take slightly less delight in it this time round because Uncle Roy is an altogether more likeable human being than the previous two incumbents. Concentrate on the cups would be my advice, Roy.
So, who will comprise the soggy mess in the middle of the Premier League? That collection of teams people across the globe instantly overlook when they wibble on about English football being the best. I wonder how many people became embroiled in heated debates in shebeens across South Africa arguing that Sam Allardyce and Blackburn embody everything that's good about the English game?
You know full well who will make up the padding between the winners and losers: Fulham, Stoke, Sunderland, Birmingham, West Ham, Bolton, Wigan and Blackburn. Of course (make way for massive caveat) it is entirely possible that any of these sides could punch ever so slightly above their weight, or implode and sink deep into relegation trouble. In fact, that's probably where most will be come Christmas before they splurge from the depths like someone desperately trying to squeeze the last drop of toothpaste out of the tube.
In the twilight zone between mid-table fluff and relegation fodder will be everyone's favourite crisis club, Newcastle United. Joe Kinnear may have gone (even if he still thinks he is manager) and Dennis Wise may be a distant, dwarf-like memory, but Xisco is still there, and so is their clueless chairman, the man JK likes to call Derek Lambeze. The cuddly Sol Campbell has also been acquired, though he won't be playing until Christmas judging by the size of him. Also still alive, and loading on the hubris without an ounce of brains or skill to back it up, is Joey Barton, the man who clearly thought he wasn't unpopular enough, so decided to grow a Hitler-style moustache for the new campaign. You've got to hand it to him - that takes balls. Well, one, if the rumour is to be believed.
If the Premier League was decided on entertainment provided by managers, Blackpool would be leading contenders to top the table, but it isn't so they will sadly sink without a trace. Ian Holloway has already delivered this gem, on the work the club have been doing to prepare for their season: "It's a jigsaw, we need far too many pieces and the picture isn't on our box lid. We were expecting a different box." Whatever the box Olly, it surely reads relegation.
Down there with them will obviously be West Brom, who you would find bobbing up and down in an interactive dictionary under the heading yo-yo club. Roberto Di Matteo may have more of a clue than his predecessors but players like Roman Bednar and Nicky Shorey aren't going to save the Baggies from the inevitable.
The final place will probably be taken by Wolves, who have added two mediocre players from two of last season's relegated clubs. Steven Fletcher scored eight goals in 35 games for Burnley (only three more than Jody Craddock) while Stephen Hunt is the sort of player who everyone thinks is half decent because he picks up the odd fantasy point. Don't be fooled.
• Don't forget, you can help The Fifth Official's bid to attract more followers on Twitter than Sepp Blatter at www.twitter.com/fifthofficial