Dreaming of the Europa League
So close yet just out of reach. It's hard enough to participate in a league where honors are shared as often as "The Wire" won Emmys, but to be in that echelon just below the glory is a true test of nerve.
To borrow an Olympic analogy, it's like finishing fourth in every event you compete in. No one remembers fourth. Heck, silver and bronze are footnotes, but they still count. To finish fourth is barely like finishing at all and if the anonymity doesn't get you, the mental anguish of wondering what could have been is lurking in the shadows to cripple you.
For these five clubs, there will be sparkling runs of form that border on the VIP club, but they will end up kicked back outside the velvet rope come mid-May. Not to worry -- there's still plenty of pride and personal glory at stake.
Last Season: 5th (65 points)
Key Signings: MF Gael Bigirimana (Coventry City), FW Romain Amalfitano (Stade de Reims), MF Vurnon Anita (Ajax)
Key Departures: FW Peter Lovenkrands (Birmingham City), GK Fraser Forster (Celtic), MF Danny Guthrie (Reading), FW Leon Best (Blackburn Rovers)
Core story: All hail Alan Pardew. And no, I never thought I'd have to write that sentence. Having ditched several players last summer -- Kevin Nolan, Jose Enrique, Joey Barton -- that defined the Magpies in seasons past, in came a slew of well-scouted, reasonably priced continental buys who gave Newcastle its best top-flight finish since 2003-04.
The credit goes to the manager who, backed in full by a mellower Mike Ashley in the boardroom, was bold enough to flip the Magpies from an outmoded long-ball collective into a more attractive, pass-first side. (Well, kudos should also go to chief scout Graham Carr, whose work identified many of the players responsible for the style revolution: striker Papiss Demba Cisse, creator Hatem Ben Arfa, holding midfielder Cheick Tiote and deep-lying playmaker Yohan Cabaye.)
Demba Ba was the catalyst up front. Released for free from West Ham due to health concerns, the Magpies' gamble cashed out with 16 Prem goals. That he was joined in January by fellow Senegalese striker Cisse, who added 13 more at a goal-a-game pace, bodes well for this coming season. Newcomer Anita, comfortable in midfield or full back, will add much-needed depth in key positions.
Given the ideal creator/destroyer partnership of Cabaye and Tiote in central midfield, along with Jonas Gutierrez's work on the left wing and Fabricio "Sideshow Bob" Coloccini's sturdy and elegant defense, the future is plenty bright at St. James's Park.
Fans will be happy that: Only fringe players have been sold off. The Magpies garnered plenty of attention last season, yet none of their core could be convinced to leave. Also, Carr signed an eight-year contract extension. If his talent-spotting mojo continues, Newcastle could consolidate and improve without spending as much as the Big Four.
Fans will be sad that: They have only the Europa League to look forward to outside the league slate. Three defeats in the final four games of last season put a serious damper on an impressive season that began with a three-month unbeaten streak.
Star to savor: Papiss Cisse. Though Ba carried the first half of the season, it was the January signing (traditionally, the winter window is full of duds) that prolonged the Magpies' charge. And his outside-of-the-foot long-range volley versus Chelsea was the consensus goal of the season.
Intangibles: Depth at the back is a concern. When Stephen Taylor was injured in early-December, it coincided with a dismal run of form that Pardew would do well to address. Another quality center back is required.
Prediction: Expect the Magpies to consolidate and sustain a fight for fourth.
Last Season: 9th (52 points)
Key Signings: FW Hugo Rodallega (Wigan Athletic), FW Mladen Petric (Hamburg SV)
Key Departures: MF Dickson Etuhu (Blackburn Rovers), FW Andrew Johnson (Queens Park Rangers), MF Danny Murphy (Blackburn Rovers)
Core story: The Cottagers are extremely easy to love. An irascible boss in Martin Jol, several cult heroes in Clint Dempsey, John Arne Riise, Danny Murphy, big Brede Hangeland and Moussa Dembele, plus plenty of memorable results worth toasting -- including the club's first-ever league double over an admittedly not-what-it-used-to-be Liverpool. All this performed under high pressure, within a miserly budget and in one of the Prem's most intimate, iconic stadiums.
But looking ahead yields only caveats and cause for concern. For starters, the potential of losing Dempsey and Dembele is all too real as both seek consistent European action. If one or both leave, Fulham would lose a lot of its attacking spark.
Dempsey in particular hit several milestones last season: his 17 Prem goals set a new club single-season record; he became the first American to score a hat trick in the EPL; and he notched his 50th league goal, another U.S. first. Not only that, but his tenacious, feisty and energetic play would be an asset to any suitor.
As for Dembele, his emergence as the striker-turned-midfield-creator was a Jol innovation that enlivened his side's generally sensible play.
There are also the quotidian worries of away form (17 points from 19 road games, including defeats at relegated Wolves and Blackburn) and consistency around goal -- the two players besides Dempsey to score five or more league goals, Pavel Pogrebnyak and Bobby Zamora, are with new clubs.
All of which leaves Fulham in fearful, yet familiar, territory. After all, to love Fulham means to accept such limitations and spend each weekend trying to transcend.
Fans will be happy that: Jol is figuring out how to use his idiosyncratic squad. At times, natural forwards Dembele and Bryan Ruiz have shifted into midfield to offer more punch while young stars like Kerim Frei have smoothly transitioned into the first-team squad. Should Dempsey leave, there is evidence that the Dutchman can readjust.
Fans will be sad that: Murphy has left Craven Cottage after a smooth five-season stint; though his pace has slowed and he no longer seemed to fit Fulham's counterattacking style, he was still one of the most serene and astute readers of the game in central midfield. And few were so cool from the penalty spot.
Star to savor: Has to be the Nightmare from Nacogdoches. If Dempsey sticks with the club that has been able to harness his feral brilliance, things can only get better.
Intangibles: The overall age of the squad isn't bright. Damien Duff is 33, Mark Schwarzer is 39 and three of the four regulars in the backline (Hangeland, Riise and Aaron Hughes) are the wrong side of 30 (the other, Stephen Kelly, is 29 in early September). Though all held up reasonably well last season, there are no guarantees.
Prediction: A real Groundhog Day of a year with some notable scalps, some humbling defeats and general upper-midtable security.
Last Season: 8th (52 points); won Carling Cup
Key Signings: FW Fabio Borini (AS Roma), MF Joe Allen (Swansea City)
Key Departures: MF Alberto Aquilani (Fiorentina), MF Maxi Rodriguez (Newell's Old Boys), FW Dirk Kuyt (Fenerbahce)
Core story: Another reset for the hard-luck Reds, whose 2011-12 season was punctuated with the fleeting joy of a Carling Cup, several humiliating league results, a crumbling sense of superiority at Anfield, and the exchange between Luis Suarez and Manchester United's Patrice Evra that brought great shame to a proud and iconic club.
But unlike the wary hope felt under Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish, optimism for new boss Brendan Rodgers feels less like a pipe dream. Having won praise for his measured possession approach with Swansea, it's hoped that he can translate it wholesale to a Reds squad that is rich with talent yet desperate for direction. Rodgers' 4-3-3 demands quick passing and fluid movement, hallmarks of the Liverpool teams that conquered the world three decades ago (though soccer has changed a lot in the years since).
Obviously, it's still early, but there is a sense that the ex-Swansea boss has a crystal-clear tactical vision -- and the support to implement it -- that both Dalglish and Hodgson lacked.
New signings Borini and Allen have both been exposed to Rodgers' ways, which inspires confidence in fans on another level: transfer dealings with a purpose. Last summer's spending felt less like buying for need and more like hoarding for the apocalypse as one high-priced midfielder after another -- Charlie Adam, Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson -- was rolled out with little regard for how the pieces would fit. (Hint: They really didn't. Henderson had minimal impact, Downing didn't register a single league assist all season, and Adam was inconsistent and injured.)
And so this season, expectations have been adjusted -- owners John W. Henry and Fenway Sports Group have not targeted a Champions League spot, at least not on the record -- and the crippling, self-imposed pressure that the Reds tend to apply has been toned down. With Rodgers, there's a hope that he's beginning on a long-term plan. With fans, players and owners alike, there's hope that he'll get the bandwidth and results to see it through.
Fans will be happy that: Lucas Leiva is fit and healthy. Though it took him some time to adjust to the English game, the Brazilian midfielder has been the Reds' best and most consistent player for the past couple of seasons. His injury in early December was a massive blow to an already difficult season. Rodgers has already earmarked him as an essential player to his plans; he isn't the first Liverpool boss to do so.
Fans will be sad that: Rebuilding processes have to start somewhere, and after two seasons of false starts under Henry and FSG, this year might carry more of that work-in-progress vibe.
Star to savor: It's still all about Steven Gerrard. He's 32 and starting to decline, but he was one of few England players to look good at Euro 2012 and will be an important, experienced link between defense and attack in Rodgers' system.
Intangibles: Which Luis Suarez does Anfield get to cheer for this season: the troublemaker or the prodigious scorer? And how does he readjust and focus himself within a league whose fans have hounded him every weekend? There's no question that the Uruguayan can be a game-changer, but last season's controversies both on and off the field will challenge him to rise above in 2012.
Prediction: Marginal improvement -- up a place or two -- but it will take another season under Rodgers to really blossom.
Last Season: 7th (56 points)
Key Signings: MF Steven Pienaar (Tottenham Hotspur), FW Steven Naismith (Rangers)
Key Departures: MF Tim Cahill (New York Red Bulls)
Core story: Most seasons at Goodison Park begin soaked in existential dread. As clubs in Everton's peer group pay handsomely to retool (albeit with varying rates of return), David Moyes knows that financial backing is slimmer than Kate Moss on a liquid diet. Given that big spending has resurrected Chelsea and Manchester City over the years, Toffees owner Bill Kenwright's longtime search for a well-heeled suitor looks even sadder in context.
Yet the results never show the strain of the club's bank balance. Moyes has an astute, harmonious squad that doesn't know when to quit, as evidenced by finishing above its rich, dysfunctional neighbors for the first time in seven years.
This summer, the positivity of 2011-12's robust season gave way to opportunism. Following the clever 5 million pound coup for Rangers' Nikica Jelavic this past January -- 11 goals down the stretch proved invaluable -- Moyes seized on the SPL giant's collapse to sign Steven Naismith, a burly presence who should ease the loss of Tim Cahill to MLS. Then there was the smartly brokered return of Steven Pienaar, who tried and failed to conquer Europe with Tottenham Hotspur.
Elsewhere, the core is settled and knows the drill. Marouane Fellaini and the ageless Phil Neville gleefully crack skulls in the middle, Leighton Baines (as yet unsettled by Manchester United's overtures) is the best left back in the league, Phil Jagielka looks as robust as he did before his ACL injury in 2009, and Tim Howard is his usual shouty, brilliant self between the posts.
The youth crop is still incubating -- spare a thought for Jack Rodwell, who should become the star we've been promised any day now, albeit at new club Manchester City -- and the squad is thin overall, but come May, it's all just a footnote. No matter which players leave, falter or fade away, the Toffees prevail.
Fans will be happy that: The club is showing initiative in the transfer window. Traditionally, summers pass with Everton looking on, poor as Charlie Bucket, while other clubs conduct business. But Naismith and Pienaar's permanent return augurs well.
Fans will be sad that: Tim Cahill, who with Fellaini was the gritty, beating heart of the Toffees, is now with MLS.
Star to savor: The crafty Jelavic. His canny off-the-ball runs and instincts inside the box should see him score 15 or more in a full Prem season.
Intangibles: Squad depth is of particular concern. How well Naismith reconnects with old teammate Jelavic in the attacking third will also determine the Toffees' season.
Prediction: Scraping at its ceiling once more, Everton will lock down seventh place and wonder what could be with just a bit more money.
Last Season: 11th (47 points)
Key Signings: MF Miguel Perez Cuesta (Rayo Vallecano), DF Chico (Genoa), MF Jonathan De Guzman (Villarreal, loan)
Key Departures: MF Joe Allen (Liverpool)
Core story: With Brendan Rodgers skipping up to Liverpool and taking his eye-pleasing, possession-heavy 4-3-3 with him, the Swans are at an intriguing junction. It's the Second Season Conundrum; having been comfortably ensconced in midtable last year and winning boatloads of praise from the punditerati, what comes next for soccer nerds' secret season-long fling?
New manager Michael Laudrup was a legend during his playing days and has won plaudits for his efforts in La Liga -- he took minnow Getafe to the UEFA Cup quarterfinals in 2007 and miraculously kept Mallorca from relegation despite major financial problems -- but one wonders how well it might translate to the EPL. The initial signs are promising as Laudrup looks set to be yet another Rodgers: charismatic, forward-thinking, motivational and already a disciple of the fluid formation that propelled Swansea into England's top tier.
Yet whatever the great Dane does bring, the Swans have retained almost all of their core players (though Joe Allen's move to Liverpool is a massive blow) and have added talent smartly this summer. After all, Laudrup knows how to find value in the Spanish leagues: Michu scored 16 for Rayo Vallecano last season and cheaply fills (2 million pounds) the attacking midfield void left by Gylfi Sigurdsson's permanent move to Tottenham. As for Chico and de Guzman, both played under Laudrup at Mallorca and should have little trouble slotting into his tactical plans.
Fans will be happy that: The Swans handled their maiden Prem voyage with such aplomb. Besides Allen and Rodgers, two major figures in Swansea's rise, the bulk of the squad is motivated to thrive in Year 2.
Fans will be sad that: Gylfi is gone. The Icelandic maestro enlivened the Swans in his six-month loan cameo from TSG Hoffenheim, as lethal from the set piece as he was with the ball at his feet in open play. Already, expectation weighs heavily on Michu to become the new dynamo in the attacking third.
Star to savor: Michel Vorm was one of the Swans' smartest signings last summer. Eredivisie goalkeepers traditionally see plenty of action, but Vorm adapted brilliantly to the Prem, winning fans for his lively, idiosyncratic style.
Intangibles: The Swans were one of the few clubs to have a strong record against the bigger teams last season, taking four points from Liverpool, three from Manchester City and three from Arsenal.
But there's plenty of concern about that away record (16 points from a possible 57) and whether the same output can be coaxed from unlikely sources. Can Danny Graham muster 12 league goals again? Will Leon Britton be as imperious and effective in possession?
All told, if the Swans are to gain a firmer footing in the middle third of the table, some of these outlying numbers will need to be replicated. Never a sure thing.
Prediction: Laudrup will quietly impress a suspicious Prem with positive tactics and a highly motivated underdog squad. That, and the Swans are the only side I felt might make the leap from the midtable five I previewed Monday.