Premier League Preview

The best of the rest

August 11, 2009
By Chris Murphy

After avoiding relegation by the skin of their teeth in 2008, Fulham had a fine season under Roy Hodgson last term, culminating in a seventh-place finish and European football. At the cornerstone of their success was a strong back-line, with goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer in superb form and Brede Hangeland forming a solid centre-back pairing with Aaron Hughes in his first full season at Craven Cottage.

Roy Hodgson
GettyImagesRoy Hodgson: The old hand has worked wonders at Fulham

The 28-year-old has since been targeted by Arsenal, but with Fulham reluctant to sell and Hangeland cool on signing a new contract stalemate has been reached. Clearly, he will be key to a campaign which is unlikely to yield the fruits of last year. An ageing Danny Murphy remains the midfield lynchpin while Clint Dempsey and Simon Davies attempt to provide the bullets but scoring will remain a problem, unless Andy Johnson significantly improves on his seven goal return last term.

Bobby Zamora is industrious but can't finish; Erik Nevland can but contributes much less to the team ethic. Diomansy Kamara may well get the nod to start but Hodgson seems reluctant to swap hard work for flair. With Bjorn Helge Riise the Cottagers' sole summer signing, a failure to attract new recruits before the transfer window closes will increase the likelihood of a mid-table finish.

West Ham may ply their trade at the opposite end of the District Line in the capital but they have a raft of problems similar to their aristocratic neighbours. A failure to attract new faces means the Hammers will do well to better last season, but surely they will benefit from an upheaval-free season. The resignation of Alan Curbishley and installation of Gianfranco Zola within ten September days did much to ruin the first half of their 2008 campaign, but a bright finish has sparked hopes of European football come May 2010.

The return of injury-prone pair Danny Gabbidon and Kieron Dyer will feel like two new signings (although the latter will probably have sustained a career-threatening knock by the time you read this) while Julien Faubert is back from his bizarre loan spell at Real Madrid. It is the Hammers' clutch of young players who will be expected to plug the gaps if the club can't attract any marquee names. Jack Collison and James Tomkins got a taste of first-team action last season and acquitted themselves well, while big things are anticipated for Savio, who became the club's record signing when he moved from Serie B side Brescia in January.

While the Hammers may boast quantity over quality in midfield, they lack both up front. Without Carlton Cole's ten goals they may have slipped into the lower reaches of the league. With Dean Ashton struggling for fitness and David Di Michele back at Torino, West Ham need bodies up top. A sturdy defence will only take you so far in the top flight and barring any major purchases (unlikely given the club's financial plight), a top-half finish would be a good return.

Wigan were dreaming of Europe as they sat pretty in seventh at the turn of the year but a run of just four wins in 2009 relegated them to 11th spot. Steve Bruce then went to Sunderland and Roberto Martinez, who spent six years with the Latics as a player, was drafted in. As such, acceptance will not be a problem but an early transformation of style may well be.

Emile Heskey and Antonio Valencia are gone and in their place have come two players who were instrumental in Martinez's success with the Swans, playmaker Jordi Gomez and Jason Scotland. Goals are at a premium but those two will be relied upon to create them. Hugo Rodallega had a promising end to the season, scoring three goals in nine games, but there is little in terms of depth, even allowing for the arrivals of Scott Sinclair and the promising James McCarthy.

At the back, goalkeeper Chris Kirkland is reliable and Paul Scharner and Titus Bramble had solid seasons under Bruce. Motivating the former should not be a problem, keeping the latter focused always has been. Hanging on to midfield terrier Lee Cattermole is imperative.

Roberto Martinez
GettyImagesRoberto Martinez: Wigan's manager is the new kid on the block

Martinez may have to bide his time to merge his penchant for expansive, passing football with the grit and determination that is prevalent throughout the squad. Another season of mid-table mediocrity would suit him and chairman Dave Whelan just fine.

Sunderland should finally enjoy a year of looking up rather than down with Bruce but the gap between that and European football may be too big to bridge. He wasted little time in bolstering his squad in all departments, beating off a number of clubs to sign Fraizer Campbell from Manchester United. Midfielder Lornik Cana arrived from Marseille with a wealth of experience while centre-half and Paraguay captain Paulo da Silva promises to be no mug.

The Black Cats have the nucleus of a good squad with Anton Ferdinand, Keiran Richardson and Kenwyne Jones offering a solid, English spine. The addition of Darren Bent will provide extra pace up front. He may not have been Harry's cup of tea but he still managed to net 17 goals last season. If injuries can be avoided the Black Cats could be flirting with Europe in 2010.

Blackburn are another side hoping to banish memories of last season's relegation scrap. Big Sam has performed the necessary as a fire-fighter, and Rovers fans delighted in his ability to grind out results while they were threatened with the drop. But now they have survived he will be expected to rise above that level - something that was problematic for Allardyce at Newcastle, but not at Bolton.

Roque Santa Cruz has been the most high-profile departure but he only scored four goals in an injury-hit campaign. Even his 18-year-old brother Julio may beat that after joining from Paraguayan club Cerro Porteno. Chelsea's Franco Di Santo has also been taken on loan but it will be Jason Roberts and Benni McCarthy who are again relied upon for the majority of goals. Teams organised by Big Sam will always be relatively stable at the back but with much relying on a pair of ageing strikers and a brace of young ones, Europe will be too much for Rovers.

Gary Megson has been much-maligned as Bolton boss since he took over in October 2007. His immediate task was survival after the 'real football' experiment post-Allardyce failed miserably in the hands of Sammy Lee. He saved Wanderers that year and consolidated the next, though a 13th place finish was a tad disappointing after they only won one of their final 11 games. Whether he and they can push on from here is open to debate.

Four new players have arrived at the Reebok Stadium but Zat Knight, Paul Robinson, Sean Davis or Samuel Ricketts are hardly likely to get the pulses racing. This time last year it was the £11m capture of striker Johan Elmander that did, yet the Swede managed just five goals in 30 league games. A lot will depend on his form and fitness if the 'Ginger Mourinho' is to improve on last season's return. Wanderers are, at best, an outside bet for the Europa League.