Monday, 24 August 2015

The Ashes 2015: Consolation for Australia, celebrations for England

FIFTH TEST: Australia 481 beat England 149 & 286 (f/o) by an innings and 46 runs Scorecard
Man of the match: Steve Smith

AUSTRALIA restored some pride with a dominant innings win in the fifth Test at the Oval - but England, of course, could already celebrate a fourth successive home Ashes triumph.

Steve Smith (143) scored his second big ton of the summer as the Aussies set up a platform on days one and two to control the final chapter of this bewildering campaign.

For this Ashes series can only accurately be described as having been bewildering. From the start, it has constantly confounded expectations.

It seems a long time ago now but Australia went into the series as favourites having completed a whitewash over England only 18 months previously.

England, though, won the first Test by the not insignificant margin of 169 runs before Australia dwarfed that with a massive 405-run victory at Lord's.

Perhaps, it was thought, it had just taken the Aussies a little time to wake up. Perhaps now they would pulverise England the rest of the series.

But no - it was the English bowlers who dominated at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge with Steven Finn and James Anderson spearheading the first of those efforts before Stuart Broad produced, in the absence of Anderson, his now legendary spell of 8-15.

Australia were blown away for 60 in their first innings in Nottingham, the shortest first innings in Test history - and, having only done slightly better second time around, had lost the Ashes and looked a shambles of a team.

Surely then England would cap a glorious summer at the Oval by grinding the Aussies' noses in the dust to emerge as 4-1 winners.

Alas, sadly not. Despite England winning the toss, any early Aussie vulnerability was steadied at the top of the order by Chris Rogers (43) and David Warner (85).

The openers guided the tourists to 82-0 at lunch on the first day - and their position at the end of day one, 287-3, was no less dominant with Smith at the crease alongside Adam Voges.

Voges had played himself into a bit of form at the back end of the fourth Test with an unbeaten half century there - but he will have enjoyed his 76 at the Oval far more.

There was, however, no last big satisfying score for outgoing skipper Michael Clarke. He made just 15 before being caught behind off Ben Stokes - and, by later enforcing the follow-on for the first time ever, did not get a second chance.

Australia eventually made 481 as Smith found another useful ally lower down the order in Mitchell Starc (58).

The big question at that point was whether England, facing similar first innings scoreboard pressure to that which affected them at Lord's, could do any better this time.

In short, they could not. On the stroke of tea on day two, the hosts lost skipper Alastair Cook (22) - castled by Nathan Lyon - and, after the interval, the rest of the team collapsed in a heap to 92-8.

Only a bit of counter-punching from Moeen Ali (30) and Mark Wood (24) pushed England onto three-figures. However, both were dismissed by Mitchell Johnson early on the third day.

Clarke then made his momentous decision to enforce the follow-on for the first time ever in his final Test match.

With one eye on the inclement British weather, and England trailing by a massive 332 runs, it was really the only sensible choice.

But, by denying himself the chance to improve on his own first innings score, Clarke admirably favoured the value of a crushing win over any valedictory vainglory.

Australia delivered for him. Peter Siddle may have been terribly under-employed on this tour but he was belatedly able to show his quality by taking 4-35 in the second innings for match figures of 6-67.

Notably, Siddle twice dismissed Adam Lyth cheaply - and, with the Yorkshireman having failed to make any sort of truly significant contribution in this series, it now seems certain he will be dropped for the winter tours.

Ian Bell, meanwhile, is rumoured to be on the verge of international retirement, satisfied with a career which has made him a five-times Ashes winner.

Bell, of course, will always have the 2013 series to cherish, his three centuries being the foundation stone to that England victory.

But it would not be unfair to suggest that this series has rather passed him by. He has averaged 26.87, and even that mark is boosted by a strong performance on his home ground which was not repeated elsewhere.

So, the wheel turns for England again - ahead of a completely different sort of challenge against Pakistan on the dry pitches of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah in October.

Captain Cook, however, remains steadfastly at the head of the ship - and deservedly so after such an unexpected series victory.

Of course, there has still been some horror shows with the bat from England but a lot of the bowling has been genuinely thrilling.

Remember, it was this England attack which was the first Test side in history to have four different players take at least six wickets in four consecutive innings at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge.

And while Clarke and Australia can continue to moan all they like about the pitches favouring the hosts, they have no real argument unless they transform the Gabba in Brisbane or the Waca in Perth into a dry-turner for a visit of Pakistan or India.

English pitches in England should not really come as a surprise to Australia - there were, after all, few complaints from them about the surfaces in 1989 or 1993 or 1997. Or 2001 for that matter.

Yes, it is now 14 years since Australia last won a series in England - and it will be 18 years by the time they are scheduled to arrive on these shores for Tests again.

England, in the meantime, can bask in the glory of holding the urn for the next two-and-a-half years before the next contest Down Under in the winter of 2017-18.

For, although the series ended on the damp squib of a defeat at the Oval, the performance level overall from a developing side has restored some faith in the team around the country.

My preview suggested most supporters would be satisfied with a 2-2 draw and some entertaining cricket, even if that meant the Aussies retaining the urn.

In that case, a 3-2 victory - even when finishing on an innings defeat - is more than satisfactory. Now, if only the infuriating inconsistency could be sorted out.


THE ASHES 2015: ENGLAND WON 3-2
8-11 July1ST England 430 & 289 beat Australia 308 & 242 by 169 runsCardiff
16-19 July2ND Australia 566-8d & 254-2d beat England 312 & 103 by 405 runsLord's
29-31 July3RD England 281 & 124-2 beat Australia 136 & 265 by eight wicketsEdgbaston
6-8 August4TH England 391-9d beat Australia 60 & 253 by an innings and 78 runsTrent Bridge
20-23 August5TH Australia 481 beat England 149 & 286 by an innings and 46 runsThe Oval
Man of the series: Joe Root (England)

TEAM AGGREGATES
Runs scored England 2365, Australia 2565
Wickets taken England 80, Australia 81 

CENTURIES
Australia 3-2 England
215 Steve Smith (Australia) in the second Test, Lord's
173 Chris Rogers (Australia) in the second Test, Lord's
143 Steve Smith (Australia) in the fifth Test, The Oval
134 Joe Root (England) in the first Test, Cardiff
130 Joe Root (England) in the fourth Test, Trent Bridge

TOP RUN SCORERS
508 Steve Smith (Australia)
480 Chris Rogers (Australia)
460 Joe Root (England)
418 David Warner (Australia)
330 Alastair Cook (England)
293 Moeen Ali (England)
215 Ian Bell (England)
201 Ben Stokes (England), Adam Voges (Australia) 

BEST BATTING AVERAGES
60.00 Chris Rogers (Australia)
57.50 Joe Root (England)
56.44 Steve Smith (Australia)
46.44 David Warner (Australia)
36.66 Alastair Cook (England)
36.62 Moeen Ali (England)
29.50 Jonny Bairstow (England)
28.71 Adam Voges (Australia)
26.87 Ian Bell (England)
25.75 Mark Wood (England)

FIVE-WICKET HAULS
England 4-2 Australia
8-15 Stuart Broad (England) in the fourth Test, Trent Bridge
6-36 Ben Stokes (England) in the fourth Test, Trent Bridge 
6-47 James Anderson (England) in the third Test, Edgbaston
6-79 Steven Finn (England) in the third Test, Edgbaston 
6-111 Mitchell Starc (Australia) in the fourth Test, Trent Bridge 
5-114 Mitchell Starc (Australia) in the first Test, Cardiff

TOP WICKET TAKERS 
21 Stuart Broad (England)
18 Mitchell Starc (Australia)
16 Josh Hazlewood (Australia), Nathan Lyon (Australia)
15 Mitchell Johnson (Australia)
12 Steven Finn (England), Moeen Ali (England)
11 Ben Stokes (England)
10 James Anderson (England), Mark Wood (England) 

BOWLING AVERAGES minimum 10 wickets
20.90 Stuart Broad (England)
22.50 Steven Finn (England)
25.75 Josh Hazlewood (Australia)
27.50 James Anderson (England)
28.25 Nathan Lyon (Australia)
30.50 Mitchell Starc (Australia)
33.45 Ben Stokes (England)
34.93 Mitchell Johnson (Australia)
39.10 Mark Wood (England)
45.50 Moeen Ali (England)

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

The Ashes 2015: Broad leads the way as England take back the Ashes

FOURTH TEST: England 391-9d beat Australia 60 & 253 by an innings and 78 runs Scorecard
Man of the match: Stuart Broad

ENGLAND regained the Ashes in style on Saturday after taking an unassailable 3-1 lead with an innings victory in the fourth Test at Trent Bridge.

In all honesty, the match was effectively over in just 94 minutes as Australia contrived to follow up their weak batting display at Edgbaston with an even worse one in Nottingham.

Notts man Stuart Broad was the architect of the Aussies' downfall, at one stage holding figures of 5-6 on his way to a remarkable 8-15 - so it is fair to say then that England coped pretty well in the absence of their all-time leading Test wicket-taker James Anderson.

With one wicket apiece for Steven Finn and the recalled Durham paceman Mark Wood in addition to Broad's magnificent haul, Australia were humiliatingly all out for just 60 in 18.3 overs, their lowest Ashes total since 1936.

The whole innings, in fact, was a statistician's delight, being the shortest ever completed first innings of a Test in terms of the number of balls bowled.

Broad's five-fer, meanwhile, came off just 19 balls, the joint-shortest spell for five wickets in a Test and the shortest when taken from the very start of a match.

Moreover, Broad's final analysis of 8-15 were the best ever figures in a Test at Trent Bridge - and the best ever return by an English seamer in Ashes cricket.

In fact, they were the third best figures by any Englishman in the Ashes - and, only Jim Laker twice, with 9-37 and 10-53 in his eponymous match at Old Trafford in 1956, has ever done better.

It was not only the bowling which was a bit special from England - much improved in their catching generally in this series, Ben Stokes produced an absolute ripper at fifth slip to dismiss Adam Voges.

But, while that perhaps was moment of the match, no one was going to deny Broad from being named man of the match.

For some years now, he has been a top frontline bowler - but he really stepped it up in front on his home ground.

It is not even a stretch to say he actually acquired legendary status with his spell on Thursday as he joined Fred Trueman in joint fourth-place on the all-time list of England Test wicket-takers, with 307 scalps. Only Anderson (413), Ian Botham (383) and Bob Willis (325) are still ahead.

Of course, in the context of the match and this Ashes series, Broad's bowling and the Aussies' collapse meant England had to bat only half-competently to take complete control.

Thanks to Joe Root's second glorious century of the campaign, the hosts fared rather better than that, eventually reaching 391-9 before a declaration of intent shortly before lunch on day two.

Alastair Cook's decision was the first time he had actually been able to declare a first innings closed in his three-year tenure as permanent captain.

And, as well as giving Australia a tricky spell before the interval, it also meant he denied the tourists the pleasure of having at least bowled England out.

As it happened, Australia survived unscathed before lunch - and, in the afternoon, progressed serenely past their first innings total without loss and onto 113-0.

Thankfully, England never panicked. Internally, they knew if they persisted with the correct lines and lengths, the rewards would eventually come - after all, David Warner, having been dropped twice, was hardly playing a chanceless innings.

Duly, the precious wickets began to arrive. Chris Rogers (52) was caught by Root - and Warner (64) by Broad - both off the excellent Stokes.

The breaking of the opening partnership sparked another collapse as Steve Smith (5) and Shaun Marsh (2) both continued their respective poor runs - and, at tea on day two, Australia were 138-4, still a hopeless 193 runs behind.

From that point onwards, it quickly became a case of whether England could win inside two days, just as they had threatened to do at Edgbaston.

First, though, a few words on the beleaguered Australia captain Michael Clarke who was out for unlucky 13. After all, though his swipe to Wood outside off-stump was injudicious, it was also juggled by his counterpart Cook and caught on the rebound by Ian Bell.

It was, however, the shot of a broken man who could sense his time was over, not only in this Test but in his career as a whole, something he went onto confirm immediately after the defeat.

Australia at least survived the night, though not before Stokes had recorded a second Ashes career five-fer, following on from the 6-99 taken in Sydney in the nightmare whitewash 18 months ago.

Peter Nevill and, to the delight of the crowd, Mitchell Johnson were Stokes' evening victims on a much happier occasion as Australia reached 241-7 and England settled off for coming back refreshed on the third day to regain the urn.

When they did resume, there was indeed little resistance from the broken Aussies as the unbeaten Voges (51*) understandably made no attempt to farm the strike for three days.

Mitchell Starc (0) was caught by Bell off Stokes who eventually recorded 6-36 as England became the first Test side in history to have four different players take at least six wickets in four consecutive innings.

Anderson, Finn, Broad and Stokes have proven to be a lethal combination and - having caused complete mental disintegration in the Australian batting line-up - they have ultimately been the difference between the two sides.

Wood, too, has more than played his part - and, with only him and Stokes bowling on the third morning, it was effectively Durham v Australia.

Durham won, Wood flattening Josh Hazlewood's middle stump for a fifth Aussie duck of the match, before he also comprehensively defeated Nathan Lyon (4).

England had done it - regaining the Ashes in just 14 days of play, and only 18 months after being whitewashed.

This disparity in results has already prompted a slightly unnecessarily spirit-dampening article about the dominance of home sides in recent series.

Meanwhile, England selector Angus Fraser has used the victory to turn his fire on the detractors of Cook and others, acting as if any previous criticisms of the set-up had no validity.

Instead of that, England should be enjoying this moment in the sun. After all, this unexpected triumph has come from a still developing team which, as even Cook admits, has perhaps not been properly battle-hardened.

In terms of the team itself, Cook remains without a reliable opening partner after Adam Lyth (14) was out cheaply again - while Moeen Ali currently contributes far more with bat than ball for a frontline spinner.

For the rest of the side, an Ashes win will do wonders to strengthen the sometimes fragile confidence of some of its members.

Undoubtedly, though, England will face far tougher examinations than that eventually posed by this set of touring Australians, not least on the tours this winter against Pakistan in the UAE and in South Africa.

Nevertheless, in favourable conditions, England have shown they are back to their invincible best, reaching a performance level that has matched anything produced by the team which enjoyed world number one status for a year in 2011-12.

Naturally, this young side will not always have such bountiful matches - and, as the Lord's Test in this very series demonstrated, there will still be a few dark days ahead.

If this team achieves its potential, however, those dark days will be far outshone by countless days and matches of brilliance. These are exciting times for English cricket.

THE ASHES 2015
8-11 July1ST England 430 & 289 beat Australia 308 & 242 by 169 runsCardiff
16-19 July2ND Australia 566-8d & 254-2d beat England 312 & 103 by 405 runsLord's
29-31 July3RD England 281 & 124-2 beat Australia 136 & 265 by eight wicketsEdgbaston
6-8 August4TH England 391-9d beat Australia 60 & 253 by an innings and 78 runsTrent Bridge
20-24 AugustFIFTH TESTThe Oval

CENTURIES
215 Steve Smith (Australia) in the second Test, Lord's
173 Chris Rogers (Australia) in the second Test, Lord's
134 Joe Root (England) in the first Test, Cardiff
130 Joe Root (England) in the fourth Test, Trent Bridge

FIVE-WICKET HAULS
8-15 Stuart Broad (England) in the fourth Test, Trent Bridge
6-47 James Anderson (England) in the third Test, Edgbaston
6-79 Steven Finn (England) in the third Test, Edgbaston 
6-36 Ben Stokes (England) in the fourth Test, Trent Bridge 
6-111 Mitchell Starc (Australia) in the fourth Test, Trent Bridge
5-114 Mitchell Starc (Australia) in the first Test, Cardiff

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Premier League preview 2015/16: Arsenal close in on Chelsea crown


ARSENAL The Gunners - Emirates Stadium - @Arsenal
Last season 3rd + FA Cup Winners + League Cup 3rd round + Champions League Last 16
Last major trophy FA Cup 2015
Manager: Arsene Wenger (since October 1996)

Players In: Petr Cech
Players Out: Lukas Podolski, Abou Diaby, Carl Jenkinson+, Wojciech Szczesny+
Pre-season results:
W4-0 v Singapore XI (A)
W3-1 v Everton (N)
W6-0 v Olympique Lyonnais (H)
W1-0 v Wolfsburg (H)
W1-0 v Chelsea (N) [FA Community Shield]
Prediction: Champions
Arsenal are almost ready. Winners of the FA Cup for the past two seasons, the Gunners have built on their success at Wembley with a solid pre-season featuring two minor trophies and a FA Community Shield win over Chelsea. The North Londoners will surely have enough goals from the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla to go much closer than they have in recent seasons - and, at the other end of the pitch, new signing Petr Cech will complement a defence which steadily improved last season under the leadership of Laurent Koscielny, conceding just 14 league goals after Christmas. The only major concern is over Olivier Giroud and his frustrating and unfathomable inconsistency up front.

ASTON VILLA The Villains - Villa Park - @AVFCOfficial
Last season 17th + FA Cup Runners-up + League Cup 2nd round
Last major trophy League Cup 1996
Manager: Tim Sherwood (since February 2015)

Players In: Scott Sinclair, Micah Richards, Jordan Ayew, Rudy Gestede
Players Out: Christian Benteke, Fabian Delph, Darren Bent, Andreas Weimann, Matt Lowton, Shay Given
Pre-season results:
L1-3 v Fulham (N)
D0-0 v Braga (A)
W2-0 v Swindon Town (A)
D1-1 v Walsall (A)
D2-2 v Wolverhampton Wanderers (A)
D3-3 v Nottingham Forest (A)
Prediction: 18th
Villa did well just to stay in the Premier League last season after Paul Lambert departed in February with the club in the bottom three having scored a pathetic total of 12 goals in 25 league games. There was quite a recovery under new boss Tim Sherwood but this was tempered in May by three dispiriting defeats to Southampton, already-relegated Burnley at home, and - of course, a 4-0 mauling in the FA Cup Final to Arsenal. Further bad news has followed this summer with the sale of prize assets Christian Benteke to Liverpool and Fabian Delph to Manchester City, the latter even having gone back on his word. It will be Benteke, though, who will be particularly missed having featured in almost half of Villa's goals in 2014-15 - and his replacements, Jordan Ayew and Rudy Gestede, are both unproven in the Premier League.

BOURNEMOUTH The Cherries - Dean Court - @afcbournemouth
Last season
1st (promoted) + FA Cup 4th round + League Cup Quarter finals

Last major trophy None
Manager: Eddie Howe (since October 2012)
Players In: Tyrone Mings, Max Gradel, Lee Tomlin, Christian Atsu, Sylvain Distin, Artur Boruc

Players Out: Brett Pitman
Pre-season results:
W4-1 v Philadelphia Union (A)
W2-1 v Exeter City (A)
L1-2 v Salisbury (A)
D0-0 v Nantes (A)
W3-0 v Yeovil Town (A)
L2-3 v Cardiff City (H)
D0-0 v Hoffenheim (A)
Prediction: 16th
Far from a completely against-the-odds underdog story, AFC Bournemouth's ascent into the elite for the first time is actually the result of substiantial backing from Russian owner Maxim Demin. It can, however, legitimately claim to be a real rags to riches fairytale, with the Cherries having started a season as recently as 2008-09 with a 17-point deduction in League Two. Demin arrived a little later, in 2011, with Bournemouth up to League One following Eddie Howe's first spell on the south coast - and, after an ill-fated spell at Burnley, the now 37-year-old manager has returned to build a hugely exciting squad graced by the talents on Matt Ritchie in midfield and Callum Wilson up front. Refreshingly, in a tight battle for promotion, Bournemouth effectively succeeded simply by outscoring their opponents, eventually hitting 98 league goals. Given the size of the club, it may still be unlikely - but, if some of that brave attacking play can be replicated this season, survival is not out of the question.

CHELSEA The Blues - Stamford Bridge - @chelseafc
Last season Champions + FA Cup 4th round + League Cup Winners + Champions League Last 16
Last major trophy Premier League 2014-15

Manager: Jose Mourinho (since June 2013)

Players In: Radamel Falcao+, Asmir Begovic
Players Out: Petr Cech, Christian Atsu, Didier Drogba, Marco van Ginkel+, Patrick Bamford+, Filipe Luis
Pre-season results:
L2-4 v New York Red Bulls (A)
D1-1 v Paris Saint-Germain (N) (won 6-5 on pens)
D2-2 v Barcelona (N) (won 4-2 on pens)
L0-1 v Arsenal (N) [FA Community Shield]
L0-1 v Fiorentina (H)
Prediction: 2nd
The defending champions begin the season as the bookmakers' favourites to win the Premier League again - and, indeed, it is difficult to see a side featuring John Terry, Nemanja Matic, Eden Hazard, Oscar, and Diego Costa not going close to more silverware. One thing is for sure, though - any success in the league will be nowhere near as clear-cut this term as it was during the last campaign when the Blues led from start to finish and were able therefore to nullify their main rivals in head-to-head encounters later in the season. For a start, Costa - who enjoyed a brilliant start to his career in England - has continued to be plagued by niggly injuries which are likely to disrupt the opening weeks of his campaign. And, without so many of his goals, Chelsea are unlikely to pull away from the pack so quickly this time.

CRYSTAL PALACE The Eagles - Selhurst Park - @CPFC
Last season 10th + FA Cup 5th round + League Cup 3rd round
Last major trophy None
Manager: Alan Pardew (since January 2015)

Players In: Yohan Cabaye, Connor Wickham, Alex McCarthy, Patrick Bamford+
Players Out: Shola Ameobi, Peter Ramage, Kyle da Silva, Lewis Price
Pre-season results:
W5-3 v Barnet (A)
L0-2 v Union Berlin (A)
W4-0 v Supersport United (A)
L0-2 v Sporting Lisbon (N)
D1-1 v Fulham (A)
L0-1 v Dagenham & Redbridge (A)
Prediction: 10th
Never mind the old football cliche of a game of two halves, Crystal Palace fans have now endured a season of two halves for the last two years. Having gained promotion under Ian Holloway in 2012-13, and stayed up under Tony Pulis after a difficult start to life back in the top flight under Holloway in 2013-14, the Eagles turned to Neil Warnock last summer when Pulis suprisingly left them on the eve of the season. Warnock never settled at Selhurst Park and it almost came as a blessed relief when prodigal son Alan Pardew arrived at New Year to guide the south Londoners to safety and, more still, a surprise top half finish. At least Pardew's popularity in SE25 will mean there will be no change at the top by chairman Steve Parish this time around - while canny investment in a well-balanced squad has included the astute addition of Yohan Cabaye in midfield and Patrick Bamford up front, on loan from Chelsea. 

EVERTON The Toffees - Goodison Park - @Everton
Last season 11th  + FA Cup 3rd round + League Cup 3rd round + Europa League Last 16 
Last major trophy FA Cup 1995
Manager: Roberto Martinez (since July 2013)

Players In: Tom Cleverley, Gerard Deulofeu
Players Out: Antolin Alcaraz, Sylvain Distin
Pre-season results:
W4-0 v Swindon Town (A)
D0-0 v Stoke City (N) (won 5-4 on pens)
L1-3 v Arsenal (N)
W3-1 v Hearts (A)
W2-0 v Dundee (A)
L0-2 v Leeds United (A)
L1-2 v Villareal (H)
Prediction: 8th
Everton ensured last season's Merseyside misery was not confined only to the red half of the city after they slipped to their first bottom-half placing in nine seasons. Spanish boss Roberto Martinez, who helped the Toffees finish fifth in his first season in charge, seemed powerless to prevent a dangerous skid down the table which was only relieved by a relatively late run of 16 points out of 18 in March and April. With three further losses in the last four games at the back end of the campaign, and little improvement to the playing staff over the summer, it would appear that the Goodison Park faithful will have another testing campaign ahead. Indeed, it is perhaps only the lack of the Europa League as a distraction which could help a worryingly thin squad sneak unconvincingly back into the top half. 

LEICESTER CITY The Foxes - King Power Stadium - @OfficialFOXES
Last season 14th + FA Cup 5th round + League Cup 2nd round
Last major trophy League Cup 2000
Manager: Claudio Ranieri (since July 2015)

Players In: Shinji Okazaki, N'Golo Kante, Robert Huth, Christian Fuchs, Yohan Benalouane
Players Out: Chris Wood, Esteban Cambiasso, Matthew Upson, Paul Konchesky+
Pre-season results:
W3-1 v Lincoln City (A)
D1-1 v Mansfield Town (A)
W2-1 v Burton Albion (A)
W2-1 v Rotherham United (A)
W3-2 v Birmingham City (A)
Prediction: 19th
For a team which eventually avoided relegation, Leicester City spent a record 140 days on the bottom rung of the Premier League table - and yet they survived with a reasonable degree of comfort after seven wins in their last nine games. Manager Nigel Pearson led the recovery and emphasised the togetherness of his squad even in the tough times - but, strangely, he himself was responsible for much of the instability at the club following a series of high-profile run-ins. The final straw, though, came in June with the emergence of a sex tape of Pearson's son James, two other young players, and a couple of Thai prostitutes who were racially abused in the film. Subsequently, the club's Thai owners declared "fundamental differences in perspective" to Pearson - but the worry ahead of the new campaign now comes from the fact that his replacement, Claudio Ranieri, has had a patchy recent record - including a defeat to the Faroe Islands as Greece manager. If the Italian is unable to gain the same loyalty as Pearson did, there could more trouble ahead at the King Power Stadium.
 
LIVERPOOL The Reds - Anfield - @LFC
Last season 6th + FA Cup Semi finals + League Cup Semi finals + Champions League Group stage + Europa League Last 32 
Last major trophy League Cup 2012
Manager: Brendan Rodgers (since June 2012)

Players In: Christian Benteke, Roberto Firmino, Nathaniel Clyne, James Milner, Danny Ings, Joe Gomez
Players Out: Raheem Sterling, Steven Gerrard, Glen Johnson, Brad Jones, Sebastian Coates, Rickie Lambert, Andre Wisdom+
Pre-season results:
W4-0 v Thai Premier League XI (A)
W2-1 v Brisbane Roar (A)
W2-0 v Adelaide United (A)
D1-1 v Malaysia XI (A)
W2-0 v HJK Helsinki (A)
W2-1 v Swindon Town (A)
Prediction: 5th
Brendan Rodgers must have had a wry smile when the first ever instance of a repeat Premier League fixture sent his Liverpool side back to Stoke City, the scene of their last day 6-1 humiliation which confirmed their one-year decline from title chasers to Europa League also-rans. Of course, much of the Reds' relative failure could be attributed to the big-money sale of Luis Suarez to Barcelona - and the high-stakes saga was repeated this summer with the roles instead being taken by Raheem Sterling and Manchester City. At least, Liverpool will presumably see more goals for the money spent on Christian Benteke and Brazilian Roberto Firmino than they did from flop Mario Balotelli - but both arrive with the pressure of a price tag and the other signings of Danny Ings and James Milner are not particularly getting pulses racing. Whatever happens, Rodgers needs to get this season right - or else patience with him at Anfield will finally run out. 

MANCHESTER CITY The Citizens - Etihad Stadium - @MCFC
Last season Runners-up + FA Cup 4th round + League Cup 4th round + Champions League Last 16
Last major trophy Premier League 2013-14
Manager: Manuel Pellegrini (since June 2013)

Players In: Raheem Sterling, Fabian Delph, Patrick Roberts
Players Out: Scott Sinclair, James Milner, Dedryck Boyata, Micah Richards
Pre-season results:
W2-0 v Adelaide United (A)
W1-0 v Melbourne City (A)
D2-2 v Roma (N) (won 5-4 on pens)
L1-4 v Real Madrid (N)
W8-1 v Vietnam (A)
L2-4 v VfB Stuttgart (A)
Prediction: 3rd
Manchester City may have finished last season strongly in terms of their results - winning all of their last six games - but, by then, the battle to retain the title had already long been lost. With no latter stage involvement in the FA Cup or in Europe, it can still therefore only be considered that the Citizens effectively stumbled to the line in May. Fortunately for manager Manuel Pellegrini, especially given the lofty expectations at Eastlands these days, Arab owner Sheikh Mansour has opted to keep the faith for now. Moreover, yet more moolah has been invested in the squad with £49m spent on Raheem Sterling alone following a tiresome transfer saga. However, neither Sterling nor any of the other signings so far have gone anywhere near to solving Man City's big problem at the centre of defence - and the number of goals conceded in pre-season suggests the problems which were there in the last campaign have not just disappeared overnight.

MANCHESTER UNITED The Red Devils - Old Trafford - @ManUtd
Last season 4th + FA Cup Quarter finals + League Cup 2nd round
Last major trophy Premier League 2012-13
Manager: Louis Van Gaal (since July 2014)

Players In: Memphis Depay, Matteo Darmian, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin, Sergio Romero
Players Out: Robin Van Persie, Tom Cleverley, Nani
Pre-season results:
W1-0 v Club America (N)
W3-1 v San Jose Earthquakes (A)
W3-1 v Barcelona (N)
L0-2 v Paris Saint-Germain (N)
Prediction: 4th
Louis Van Gaal has got his eye in - and, having achieved the first target last season of restoring Manchester United to the Champions League (provide they successfully negotiate a playoff against Club Brugge), the Dutchman will now be looking at a much bigger picture. The arrivals of Memphis Depay, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Morgan Schneiderlin will freshen up the midfield and make Man United a better watch this year - but Robin Van Persie's decline and departure puts the onus for a major goals contribution almost entirely on the shoulders of Wayne Rooney. More urgently still, weaknesses remain at the back, something which will only be exacerbated further if goalkeeper David De Gea opts to leave as seems likely. Clearly, after the dreadful David Moyes reign, the Old Trafford fans are desperate for Van Gaal and his team to succeed - and they will get closer in this season than they did in the last. Fundamental flaws cannot be ignored, however - and so a series of one-off performances in a cup run might actually be the Red Devils' best bet of ending their two-year trophy wait.

NEWCASTLE UNITED The Magpies - St James Park - @NUFC 
Last season 15th + FA Cup 3rd round + League Cup Quarter finals
Last major trophy UEFA (Fairs) Cup 1969
Manager: Steve McClaren (since June 2015)

Players In: Georginio Wijnaldum, Aleksandar Mitrovic, Chancel Mbemba
Players Out: Jonas Gutierrez, Ryan Taylor
Pre-season results:
W1-0 v Gateshead (A)
L1-2 v Club Atlas (N)
W1-0 v Sacramento Republic (A)
L3-4 v Portland Timbers 2 (A)
D2-2 v Sheffield United (A)
L1-2 v York City (A)
L0-1 v Borussia Moenchengladbach (H)
Prediction: 12th
Following last season's flirtation with disaster, Newcastle United have turned to Steve McClaren in the hope of arresting the slide - even though the former England boss had turned them down twice previously. Additionally, in a summer of much change on Tyneside, owner Mike Ashley has finally forked out some serious cash for a trio of players - creative midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum, striker Aleksandar Mitrovic and defender Chancel Mbemba. But, while the presence of Mitrovic up front and Wijnaldum's late runs into the opposition box will be a welcome sight at St James Park, the signing of just one centre-back is a hardly adequate repair job to a defence which conceded 63 league goals last season. Indeed, it is difficult to escape from the conclusion that such negligence will probably condemn the Magpies to another bottom half finish. 

NORWICH CITY The Canaries - Carrow Road - @NorwichCityFC
Last season
3rd (promoted via playoffs) + FA Cup 3rd round + League Cup 3rd round

Last major trophy League Cup 1985
Manager: Alex Neil (since January 2015)
Players In: Graham Dorrans, Youssouf Mulumbu, Robbie Brady, Andre Wisdom+, Jake Kean

Players Out: Cameron McGeehan, Mark Bunn
Pre-season results:
W7-0 v Gorleston (A)
W10-0 v Hitchin Town (A)
W3-1 v Cambridge United (A)
L0-1 v Maccabi Haifa (N)
W2-1 v Augsburg (N)
L0-1 v West Ham United (H)
W2-1 v Brentford (H)
Prediction: 17th
Norwich City may have only made it back to the Premier League via the playoffs last season - but, in the end, their immediate return to the top flight was actually a pretty convincing one. The Canaries lost just three times in the league after the turn of the year as new manager Scotsman Alex Neil diligently cleaned up the mess of his predecessors. Neil, of course, has never managed in the Premier League - and, in fact, only had one season with Hamilton Academical in the Scottish top flight. Nevertheless, the 34-year-old possesses a squad packed full of Premier League experience - and those players are well aware themselves, for better or worse, about the rigours of a top flight campaign in England. This alone might just be enough to keep Norwich safe this time - but do not expect anything other than another season-long struggle.
 
SOUTHAMPTON The Saints - St Mary's Stadium - @SouthamptonFC
Last season 7th + FA Cup 4th round + League Cup Quarter finals 
Last major trophy FA Cup 1976
Manager: Ronald Koeman (since June 2014)

Players In: Juanmi, Cedric Soares, Maarten Stekelenburg+, Jordy Clasie, Steven Caulker+
Players Out: Morgan Schneiderlin, Nathaniel Clyne, Dani Osvaldo
Pre-season results:
L4-5 v RB Leipzig (N)
L0-1 v Valencia (N)
L0-2 v Red Bull Salzburg (A)
W1-0 v Brighton & Hove Albion (H)
W3-0 v Groningen (A)
W10-0 v Quick 20' (A)
W3-0 v Feyenoord (A)
W3-0 v Vitesse Arnhem (H) [UEL third qualifying round, first leg]
D1-1 v RCD Espanyol (H)
W2-0 v Vitesse Arnhem (A) (won 5-0 on agg) [UEL third qualifying round, second leg]
Prediction: 11th
A disconcerting sense of deja vu is affecting Southampton this summer following the departures of Nathaniel Clyne to Liverpool and Morgan Schneiderlin to Manchester United. Last year, no fewer than four players headed to the north west as, in all, the Saints sold more than £90m worth of talent, prompting many pundits to predict they might struggle. Instead, the replacements - the likes of Graziano Pelle, Dusan Tadic and Saido Mane - did even better than their predecessors - and, while Southampton's unlikely top four challenge duly faded in the New Year, a spot in Europe via the top seven was the least they deserved. However, a second off-season of selling some of their best players might not work out so well - and it would not be a surprise, particularly with the extra games in Europe, if Southampton failed to reach anywhere near the height of last season domestically.

STOKE CITY The Potters - Britannia Stadium - @stokecity
Last season 9th + FA Cup 5th round + League Cup 4th round
Last major trophy League Cup 1972
Manager: Mark Hughes (since May 2013)

Players In: Philipp Wollscheld, Marco van Ginkel+, Shay Given, Glen Johnson, Ibrahim Afellay
Players Out: Asmir Begovic, Steven Nzonzi, Robert Huth
Pre-season results:
D0-0 v Everton (N) (lost 4-5 on pens)
W2-0 v Singapore Select XI (A)
W6-0 v Wrexham (A)
L0-2 v Brentford (A)
L1-2 v FC Koln (A)
L0-3 v Porto (N)
Prediction: 7th
Continuous improvement may be one of those horrible management buzzwords - but, if applying such tedious metrics to the Premier League, Stoke City would be hitting their goals. Freed from the shackles of potential bottom-half stagnation at best under former boss Tony Pulis, the Potters have finished ninth in successive seasons under Mark Hughes - indeed, last season, the Staffordshire club accumulated their best-ever Premier League points tally (54). This progress has not gone unnoticed - and signings for Stoke nowadays seem to be coming more easily with Ibrahim Afellay joining Bojan Krkic in swapping Barcelona for the Britannia. As such, it would be no surprise if Stoke continued to challenge even the top sides, starting with Liverpool at home on the opening day. 

SUNDERLAND The Black Cats - Stadium of Light - @SAFCofficial 
Last season 16th + FA Cup 5th round + League Cup 3rd round
Last major trophy FA Cup 1973
Manager: Dick Advocaat (since March 2015)

Players In: Jeremain Lens, Sebastian Coates, Younes Kaboul
Players Out: Connor Wickham, Santiago Vergini+
Pre-season results:
W4-2 v Darlington 1883 (A)
L0-1 v Sacramento Republic (A)
L1-3 v Pachuca (N)
W2-1 v Toronto (A)
L0-2 v Doncaster Rovers (A)
W1-0 v Hannover 96 (A)
Prediction: 15th
Folklore tells us that even lucky Black Cats only have nine lives - and, if so, Sunderland must surely have used most them up already. For, while this is a ninth consecutive season in the Premier League for the Wearsiders, only one of the previous eight has resulted in a top-half finish. The last two campaigns, in particular, have been plagued by a protracted battle against the drop, only for generous neighbours Newcastle United twice to turn up, gift six points and secure Sunderland their safety. But, heading into this season - and hoping to prevent a repeat performance, American owner Ellis Short made perhaps the biggest Sunderland signing in years by convincing manager Dick Advocaat to stay on at the Stadium of Light following his initial refusal. An experienced campaigner, and the oldest manager in the top flight this season, the Dutchman and his tactics may yet prove to be the difference for a squad which, Jermain Defoe aside, still looks desperately short on firepower. 

SWANSEA CITY The Swans - Liberty Stadium - @SwansOfficial
Last season 8th + FA Cup 4th round + League Cup 4th round
Last major trophy League Cup 2013
Manager: Garry Monk (since February 2014)

Players In: Eder, Andre Ayew, Franck Tabanou
Players Out: Jazz Richards, Rory Donnelly, David Cornell
Pre-season results:
D1-1 v Borussia Moenchengladbach (N)
W2-1 v TSV 1860 Munich (A)
D1-1 v Reading (N)
D1-1 v Nottingham Forest (A)
D0-0 v Deportivo La Coruna (H)
Prediction: 9th
These continue to be heady times on the south Wales coast, Garry Monk having led Swansea City to eighth place and a best ever points haul via league doubles over both Arsenal and Manchester United last season. Even when Wilfried Bony made his seemingly inevitable departure to Manchester City in January, Bafetimbi Gomis stepped up and replaced the missing goals - and, better still, the Frenchman will now have welcome support in the guise of compatriot Andre Ayew, signed this summer from Marseille. With Icelander Gylfi Sigurdsson and South Korean Ki Sung-yueng continuing to pull the strings in midfield, the Swans should have no problems competing in what is a fifth consecutive top-flight season. Indeed, the celebration next May at the Liberty Stadium of another comfortable top half finish is probably the likeliest outcome.

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR Spurs - White Hart Lane - @SpursOfficial
Last season 5th + FA Cup 4th round + League Cup Runners-up + Europa League Last 32
Last major trophy League Cup 2008
Manager: Mauricio Pochettino (since May 2014)

Players In: Tony Alderweireld, Kieran Trippier, Kevin Wimmer
Players Out: Paulinho, Lewis Holtby, Etienne Capoue, Younes Kaboul, Benjamin Stambouli
Pre-season results:
L1-2 v MLS All-Stars (A)
L0-2 v Real Madrid (N)
W2-0 v AC Milan (N) 
Prediction: 6th
Having shipped more than a half-century of league goals last season, it has been no surprise to see Tottenham Hotspur reinforce their defence this summer with the signings of Toby Alderweireld from Atletico Madrid and Kieran Trippier from Burnley. But, given the lack of activity with the rest of the squad, it can only be presumed the North Londoners are relying on Harry Kane repeating his phenomenal season from last year when he became the first Spurs striker since Gary Lineker in 1991-92 to score more than 30 goals in a season. With little in the way of support coming from the languid Emmanuel Adebayor and the struggling Roberto Soldado, Mauricio Pochettino may live to regret not yet signing more back-up for Kane. For, as talented as he has shown himself to be, there is only so much one 22-year-old can do - even if he is, to the delight of White Hart Lane, one of their own.

WATFORD The Hornets - Vicarage Road - @WatfordFC
Last season
2nd (promoted) + FA Cup 3rd round + League Cup 2nd round

Last major trophy None
Manager: Quique Flores (since June 2015)
Players In: Etienne Capoue, Valon Behrami, Sebastian Prodil, Matej Vydra, Miguel Britos, Jose Manuel Jurado

Players Out: Uche Ikpeazu, Lewis McGugan
Pre-season results:
W4-0 v St Albans City (A)
D2-2 v AFC Wimbledon (A)
W4-1 v SC Verl (A)
W2-0 v Paderborn 07 (A)
W1-0 v Dundee United (A)
L1-2 v Cardiff City (A)
L0-1 v Sevilla (H)
Prediction: 19th
Credit to Watford - after all, in a season of four managers, normally downwards is the only exit route out of a division - but, rather than collapsing in turmoil, the Hornets held their nerve in a tight promotion battle to grab the second automatic spot and reach the Premier League for a third time. Of course, the Hertfordshire club's two must recent seasons at the top level - in 1999-00 and 2006-07 - both finished with the team relegated in bottom place, but the current ambitious Italian owners, the Pozzo family, would be highly disappointed if Quique Flores' men recorded an unenviable hat-trick on their watch. Unfortunately, their unpredictability makes that more likely than not - and it would be difficult to see them getting away with a second successive season of upheaval if Flores does not make the grade. 

WEST BROMWICH ALBION The Baggies - The Hawthorns - @WBAFCofficial
Last season 13th + FA Cup Quarter finals + League Cup 4th round 
Last major trophy FA Cup 1968
Manager: Tony Pulis (since January 2015)

Players In: James McClean, James Chester, Rickie Lambert
Players Out: Graham Dorrans, Youssouf Mulumbu, Chris Baird
Pre-season results:
L1-3 v Red Bull Salzburg (N)
L1-3 v Orlando City (A)
W2-1 v Charleston Battery (A)
W2-1 v Richmond Kickers (A)
W4-1 v Swindon Town (A)
W2-0 v Walsall (A)
Prediction 13th
To paraphrase another old cliche, the three most certain things in life are death, taxes and Tony Pulis teams keeping clean sheets. After all, only Chelsea shut out their opponents more often than West Bromwich Albion last season - and Pulis, who has famously never been relegated as a manager, has always built and rebuilt his sides from the back. Naturally, the purists among the Albion fans want the Welshman to be a little more expansive - and it did not go unnoticed that young star striker Saido Berahino sometimes cut a frustrated figure up front on his own even though he still finished the season with a highly commendable 20-goal haul. Whether Berahino stays at the Hawthorns or not, though, there is surely no chance of Pulis even slightly tweaking a set-up which has rewarded him for the last 23 years. Yes - West Brom will stay up and Pulis will keep his brilliant record - but, unfortunately for the neutrals and the Baggies' hardcore, it is unlikely to be thrill a minute stuff.

WEST HAM UNITED The Hammers - Boleyn Ground - @whufc_official
Last season 12th + FA Cup 5th round + League Cup 2nd round +  
Last major trophy League Cup 1981
Manager: Slaven Bilic (since June 2015)

Players In: Dimitri Payet, Angelo Ogbonna, Pedro Obiang, Carl Jenkinson+
Players Out: Stewart Downing, Carlton Cole, Guy Demel, Jussi Jaaskelainen
Pre-season results:
W3-0 v Lusitanos (H) [UEL first qualifying round, first leg]
W1-0 v Lusitanos (A) (won 4-0 on agg) [UEL first qualifying round, second leg]
W1-0 v Birkirkara (H) [UEL second qualifying round, first leg]
L0-1 v Birkirkara (A) (drew 1-1aet on agg, won 5-3 on pens) [UEL second qualifying round, second leg]
D2-2 v Astra Giurgiu (H) [UEL third qualifying round, first leg]
L1-2 v Astra Giurgiu (A) (lost 3-4 on agg) [UEL third qualifying round, second leg]
D3-3 v Peterborough United (A)
W3-2 v Southend United (A)
D0-0 v Charlton Athletic (A)
W1-0 v Norwich City (A)
L1-2 v Werder Bremen (H)
Prediction: 14th
West Ham United bid farewell to the Boleyn Ground this season ahead of their impending move next summer to the Olympic Stadium - and the pressure is on to give the old stadium a fitting send-off. At least, in former player Slaven Bilic, the Hammers have a head coach who will appreciate the occasion, the east London club having ditched the grim architect of hoof ball Sam Allardyce at the end of his contract. Nevertheless, Bilic's own record as coach - since his infamous win with Croatia over England at Wembley in 2007 - has been patchy, and his appointment appears to be based more on sentiment than anything else, a frankly dangerous game at the best of times. Already this summer, West Ham have had to say goodbye to the Europa League after a dreadful attempt to make it through the qualifying rounds - and, whether Bilic makes it to next May or not, Hammers fans can only hope the adieu to the Boleyn is a rather more memorable experience.

+Loan signing 

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