The FA Premier League kicks off tomorrow, and while we Americans may annoy the Brits with our fixation on this league above all others, and our insistence on referring to it as the "EPL," there is no question that we here on 116th Street cannot get enough of this competition. Everyone and their cousin seems to be making EPL previews these days (and yes, I have no qualms about referring to it as the EPL; as long as Scotland calls their league the SPL, I'm doing what I want to do, it's a free country), so rather than to dally in who's whos and American equivalents, I am going to take this time to talk about the most compelling Premiership storylines making the rounds of 116th Street.
No player has us more fixated presently than Frank Lampard, Chelsea superstar, England underperformer and general enigma. Lampard scores goals by the boatload, works pretty hard on the field and seems as invaluable a member of the squad as Chelsea has. Thing is, he hasn't really been in form for quite some time; Chelsea's slip in the table last season (they barely hung on to win the title, nearly squandering a 15-point lead, if you'll recall) could be more than slightly attributed to Lampard's slip in play, and he carried his lack of sharpness over to the World Cup, where he might have been the worst high-profile player in Germany. Lampard's inability to create chances for others, or find the net at the World Cup, has reared itself again in the preseason, as Chelsea has struggled to put together a cohesive side. If he cannot find his form soon, the formerly indispensable player may find his way to the bench, usurped by high-profile names such as Ballack, Essien, or even Obi Mikel.
Lots of new Americans in the Prem this year, and the boys from Reading arrive with much fanfare. We get our first look at Bobby Convey
and Marcus Hahnemann
this year when Reading hosts Middlesbrough tomorrow afternoon, in a match televised (perhaps not coincidentally) by Fox Soccer Channel. Of course, we are already pretty familiar with both Convey and Hahnemann, both from their days in our own domestic league as well as through their lofty status as members of the U.S. national team. So no disrespect to them or Cory Gibbs
(newly signed to Charlton but sidelind by injury), but the Yank we really want to see is Jay DeMerit, on-the-rise defender from newly-promoted Watford. With roster spots on the U.S. team up for grabs as the squad enters its next cycle, players such as DeMerit and West Ham's Jonathan Spector bear special attention. Naturally, we will be keeping up on the activities of the other Americans scattered throughout the league, but we always like to give extra props to the new kids on the block.
Over at Old Trafford, we couldn't care less whether Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo are getting along, because there is a much more important conflict going on at Manchester United: who is going to rock the mullet harder this year, Michael Carrick
or Darren Fletcher
? Both players were working on fairly impressive "starter kits" last season, but now that they are teammates, the stakes have been raised. Carrick, for his part, seems headed for a full on Billy Ray Cyrus look, while Fletcher appears to be going for more of a Tyler from "Life Goes On" kind of thing. Which mullet will win? Hopefully neither player got a haircut during the offseason.
We loved the rise of West Ham last season, with their collection of kids taking them all the way to the FA Cup final (I know, it's not technically the Prem, but it was still fun). West Ham's academy is unparalleled, but it has been raided before; how long can Nigel Reo-Coker, Anton Ferdinand and Bobby Zamora stick with the Hammers? Will they follow in the footsteps of Carrick, Lampard, Joe Cole, Jermain Defoe and Rio Ferdinand away from Upton Park? For this season, at least until January, Hammers fans can enjoy the youngsters, who could potentially bring United one more memorable season.
Who the eff is going to score for Newcastle? With Michael Owen out, possibly for the season, the Magpies have only one striker to start the season with, Shola Ameobi. For a Toon Army used to the scoring heroics of now-retired Alan Shearer, the lack of goals may be difficult to stomach. This squad needs to make a serious move before the window closes, or it could be an ugly, ugly season at St. James' Park. Newcastle has already missed out on attainable targets like Craig Bellamy, Andy Johnson, Dean Ashton and Dirk Kuyt, so the pickings at forward are somewhat slim at this point. Nevertheless, this squad is in dire need of forwards, and playing a 4-5-1 might not help them this year. Damien Duff might have to pull off some real miracles from the wing to save Newcastle.
Speaking of transfers, Arsenal's offseason drama surrounding Ashley Cole and Jose Antonio Reyes are not helping a squad trying to keep North London rivals Tottenham at bay. The Gunners need to find reinforcements immediately, as the squad has a ton of young talent but little depth. Spurs, meanwhile, will need a strong performance from new signing Didier Zokora to effectively replace their engine, Carrick. The battle for fourth place was decided by two points last season, and key losses could sink either of these squads.
Finally, we here on 116th Street nominate Luis Garcia of Liverpool as the breakout star of the Barclaycard Permiership for 2006-07. Luis Garcia has excelled in a few different roles for the Reds in seasons past, but we feel that he has all the potential to be the next Raul (yes, we really did just say that) if given a proper opportunity. Given the chance to partner up front with Dirk Kuyt, we expect him to supplant Craig Bellamy in Liverpool's pecking order and become one of the true stars of this league. It is due to the potential of the Kuyt/Luis Garcia combination, as well as the continued brilliance of Steven Gerrard and a nightmarishly stifling defense, that we here on 116th Street predict Liverpool to win their first Premier League crown and 19th English championship overall. Chelsea will take a while to get it together, Arsenal and Manchester United are not title ready, and Tottenham is too far away from serious contention, meaning that in 2007, you'll never walk alone.