It’s back. Already.
Less than one week following the end of the London Games, the new English Premier League season begins.
The EPL’s popularity has grown immensely in North America over the past few years, to the point of it becoming America’s ‘fifth sport’ despite it being played 3,500 miles away from the U.S. East Coast.
This weekend alone, seven of the opening ten fixtures will be aired on ESPN, Fox Soccer, and Fox Soccer Plus, giving the league even more exposure than in its native England. (The traditional 3 PM local time slot for games – 10 AM U.S. East Coast Time – has always been blacked out of British television in fear of attendance suffering if games were to air on TV live. That would be like if the NFL were to decide to go dark on television every Sunday for their 1 PM block of games.)
If you are a fan, enjoy the coverage. The US television contract is up after this year, and FOX Sports hasn’t been faring well keeping the coverage of other soccer leagues.
Fox Soccer has already lost the rights to Italy’s Serie A and France’s Ligue 1, who have gone to a new middle-eastern owned entity that just launched a U.S.-based channel, currently only carried on Dish TV and Direct TV. Spain’s La Liga’s matches have also moved to that network (from GolTV). Good luck with Time Warner and Comcast negotiating to carry the new channel anytime soon.
It has also been a momentous week in world football news. One of the two annual worldwide transfer windows continues through the end of this month and has just seen the EPL’s Most Valuable Player from last year change addresses.
Since I had incredible luck predicting most of the score-lines on the final week of last year, I will do so again for Round 1 of the new campaign.
(10 AM ET)
West Ham not surprisingly returned to the top level after a one-year hiatus in the Championship Division. What was a surprise was that the Hammers slumped down the stretch of the 2011-12 campaign and had to earn the third and final promotional spot via the playoffs.
Aston Villa owner Randy Lerner is in the middle of selling the Cleveland Browns. As bad as his NFL entity has been, AVFC has not been much better, finishing 16th of 20 teams last year. If they don’t watch it, Villa could be this year’s big name to get relegated.
- PREDICTION: West Ham 2, Aston Villa 1
Sunderland away to Arsenal
(10 AM, ESPN)
Veteran manager Martin O’Neill molded Sunderland into a very competitive mid-table team for much of last year. Meanwhile, Arsenal struggled for much of last season despite having the league’s top scorer, and for a while it appeared the Gunners would not even finish top-four.
Look for Arsenal to spend the rest of this month using the money they just got selling off RVP to add new pieces to the puzzle. They will be a work in progress for a while.
- PREDICTION: Arsenal 2, Sunderland 1
Stoke City away to Reading
Top level football returns to Madejski Stadium after four years this weekend. With new owners and possibly increased cash flow, the Royals could stick around for a while. Look for them to start off on the right foot in a winnable match v. luke-warm Stoke.
- PREDICTION: Reading 1, Stoke 0
Norwich City away to Fulham
(10 AM, FOX SOCCER PLUS)
The Norwich Canaries had a hugely successful return to the top flight last year, finishing in a three-way tie for tenth (12th after goal differential tie-breaker). The second year may prove to be a larger challenge.
In some late-breaking news, Clint Dempsey will not be in the Fulham lineup, not only this week but probably ever, as the American International (23 goals/46 matches) has told FCC he would like to move on to a team participating in the Champions League. I’m guessing Clint gets his wish by August 31.
- PREDICTION: Fulham 1, Norwich 1
Both of these 2011-12 newcomers were successful in surviving the first year, although Swansea did it surprisingly easily while QPR avoided relegation by the skin of their teeth.
With plans of a new stadium on the horizon, QPR is thinking big and has added payroll. Meanwhile Swansea (in top-flight for first time ever last year) has to prove the so-called experts wrong again, which may be more difficult this time around.
Do not expect controversial midfielder Joey Barton to ever suit up again for QPR – last seen going absolutely nuts in the season finale at Manchester City, Barton has been left off the 25-man roster and has not even been assigned a jersey number, he is expected to be loaned out once his 12-match suspension ends.
Expect the Swans to give another gritty effort against at Loftus Road against a QPR side that may need some time to gel.
- PREDICTION: QPR 1, Swansea 1
Liverpool away to West Brom
(10 AM, FOX SOCCER)
Two sides with much to prove heading into the 2012-13 campaign square off at the Hawthorns.
WBA is coming off its best ever BPL showing finishing tenth last year, but most pundits are expecting a fall after manager Roy Hodgson left for the England National Team.
Liverpool meanwhile has slipped last couple of years and have to prove capable of being a player in a league that has gotten considerably more crowded near the top.
- PREDICTION: Liverpool 1, West Brom 0
Tottenham away to Newcastle United
(12:30 PM, FOX SOCCER)
A battle between sides who ultimately found themselves on the wrong side of earning one of the four BPL Champions League bids at the end of last year.
The next domino to fall in the transfer window silly season is likely to be Tottenham’s Luka Modric, who has been absent from the training facility amidst reports that he’s about to be sold off to Real Madrid. If/when Modric goes, teammate Gareth Bale and others may not be far behind.
Newcastle, meanwhile, has improved dramatically just a few years removed from the organization being an embarrassing mess.
- PREDICTION: Spurs 1, Newcastle 1
Chelsea away to Wigan
(8:30 AM, FOX SOCCER)
These were two of the best stories in the football world at the end of last season.
Wigan (historically more of a rugby town) annually is in danger of relegation and needed several results against the BPL’s elite in the season’s final weeks, which incredibly they got.
Meanwhile, Robert Di Matteo took over as Chelsea’s caretaker manager in mid-season as the Blues’ regular season hopes for a top finish were hopeless. However CFC came alive in the Champions League and scored an improbable championship after defeating Barcelona and then Bayern Munich on its own turf in the final. Now RDM has to figure what to do for an encore, and his chances of being CFC’s manager long-term may not be good.
- PREDICTION: Chelsea 2, Wigan 2
Southampton away to Manchester City
(11 AM, FOX SOCCER)
BPL football returns to the South Coast with the Saints back in the league after an extended absence.
Long-time BPL fixture Portsmouth has run into money troubles the past few years and has now fallen two tiers from the top flight. Southampton was in the same boat financially and also two levels below before earning promotion in successive campaigns.
The Saints will know very quickly how they stand compared to the top of the BPL in its first four games, which areaway to Man City, home to Wigan, home to Man United, and away to Arsenal.
- PREDICTION: Man City 3, Southampton 1
Everton away to Manchester United
(3 PM, ESPN)
You really didn’t think MUFC was going to take losing the title to rival Man City lying down, did you?
Enter Robin Van Persie, who goes from elite Arsenal to even more elite Manchester United for $38 million.
The Glazer family will worry about the expanding red ink at Old Traffford later. Pending him passing his medical, RVP should be in the starting XI Monday night.
If you like watching teams that win without having the biggest bank account, then Everton is a good team to follow that always finishes in the top 6-8. This is obviously a tough assignment to start the year though.
- PREDICTION: Man United 2, Everton 0
- Manchester United
- Manchester City
- Norwich City