The summer is officially over. The English Premier League is back and the nine-month long season appears to be better than ever. Six teams have a chance to win the league. There will also be a competitive relegation battle as eight or nine teams could be fighting to stay in the top flight of English soccer. Here are my predictions on the table and a short preview of the top six teams.
1. Chelsea- I think this is the season Chelsea wins the Premier League. It looked like the Blues were in control at the top of the EPL late last season until shocking defeats at Crystal Palace and at home to Sunderland. Chelsea finished four points behind champions Manchester City so those losses even more painful for Jose Mourinho’s men. I think Mourinho will make sure Chelsea won’t lose matches against lesser opponents and that they will have a focus on wining the EPL as oppose to the Champions League. Chelsea signed a pair of Spanish internationals in striker Diego Costa and midfielder Cesc Fabregas to sure up their side. Costa could solve Chelsea’s striker problem and Fabregas is familiar with the EPL after spending most of his career at Arsenal. The duo joins plenty of other attacking talent including Eden Hazard, Oscar and World Cup super-sub Andre Schurrle. Mourinho won La Liga with Real Madrid in his second season as coach. I think he will do the same at Chelsea in the second season of his second stint in West London.
2. Manchester City- The defending champions had a quiet summer for their standards after facing sanctions for breaking financial fair play rules. Most summer transfer windows at Manchester City have included bringing in high-prized attacking talent to bolster their squad. They did bring in center back Eliaquim Mangala and Arsenal right back Bacary Sagna to strengthen the back line. Manchester City is led by captain Vincent Kompany and he will likely have a new center back partner in Mangala. They employ four strikers in Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko, Alvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetic. The midfield is also stacked with Yaya Toure, David Silva, Jesus Naves and Samir Nasri. I think the priority at Manchester City will be the Champions League. They will have a strong season but won’t repeat as champions.
3. Machester United- This is one of the most fascinating teams in the EPL this season. They have a new coach in Louis Van Gaal who is coming off a third place finish as the Netherlands manager at the World Cup. Predicting Manchester United to finish third might be ambitious especially with questions marks on what formation Van Gaal will play. There is also uncertainty on the players Manchester United will buy and sell before the transfer window closes on September 1. Van Gaal might install a 3-5-2 formation at Old Trafford. This would put a lot of pressure on center backs Phil Jones, Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling to play well. Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra all left the club this summer so Manchester United is in the market for another defender. The Red Devils are lacking a strong central midfielder so that might be a position that Van Gaal addresses by the end of the month. New captain Wayne Rooney, Robin Van Persie, Juan Mata, Danny Welbeck and new signing Ander Herrera all will have big roles this season. Manchester United might struggle early but I think they will be strong after Boxing Day and return to the top four. Continue reading
Belgium recorded nine points in a favorable Group H. They dispatched Algeria, Russia and South Korea with late second half game-winners. Belgium had the shortest amount of travel during the group stage between their games. The United States had the most travel of any team and played in a group with Germany, Portugal and Ghana. The United States went through on goal differential over Portugal.
There are still some question marks with the Belgium side after the group stage. There is talent at every position on the pitch but they weren’t convincing in their first three games. Captain Vincent Kompany is an injury doubt, which would be a huge loss to the Belgian back line. Eden Hazard is the most danger attacking player for Belgium and has to potential to play much better. The United States got good news Monday when it was announced Jozy Altidore would be available. The striker might not start but he could give the USA a boost off the bench. Clint Dempsey has played alone up top as a striker, which isn’t his best role.
The matchup I’m looking forward to is the battle of midfield triangles. Belgium looks like they have found a good mix with Kevin De Bruyne playing in front of holding midfielders Axel Witsel and Maurouane Fellaini. The United States central midfield trio of Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman have logged many minutes and covered a lot of territory in the group stage. It will be important that they neutralize the Belgians and try to improve on keeping possession for the United States.
Also it will be interesting to see who the USA starts on the wings. This is an idea for Jurgen Klinsmann:
Prediction: Belgium 2, USA 1 (after extra time)
I think this will be a very close match that can go either way. The amount of travel for the United States could be a difference against a fresh Belgium team that was able to rest some starters in their final group match.
Photo by Erik Drost
Argentina won their group with a maximum nine points. They defeated Bosnia, Iran and Nigeria by one goal each. Switzerland was the seeded team in Group E but finished second. They beat Ecuador and Honduras with a forgettable showing against France in between.
The belief is that Argentina can play much better than they did in the group stage. Lionel Messi has scored four goals and is one of the only bright spots for Argentina. The defense has been vulnerable and there isn’t much service from the midfielder for strikers Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero. Ezequiel Lavezzi will likely start because Aguero is injured. Xherdan Shaqiri is Switzerland’s best player and he proved why with a hat trick against Honduras. Striker Josip Drmic and midfielder Granit Xhaka are players that could give problems to the Argentina defense.
Prediction: Argentina 2, Switzerland 1
I think Lavezzi will have a strong match for Argentina and play well with Messi. Argentina will score the first two goals and the Swiss will pull one back very late.
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Germany topped the “Group of Death” with seven points. They defeated Portugal and the United States, and drew Ghana. Algeria is one of the best stories this World Cup. They played Belgium tough in their first match but conceded two second half goals. The Desert Foxes beat South Korea handily 4-2, and mustered out a draw against Russia to progress to the knockout stage.
Germany is still one of the tournament favorites despite not playing with a true striker. Thomas Muller has four goals this tournament including a hat trick against Portugal. He will need support from Mesut Ozil and Mario Goetze. The Germany back line had a rough evening against Ghana in the group stage but responded well against the United States. They might be challenged more tonight if Algeria can get their counterattack going. Algeria striker Islam Slimani was the hero for Algeria in the last two matches. He scored the opening goal against South Korea and the goal to send them to this phase with a header against Russia.
Prediction: Germany 2, Algeria 0
I think Algeria will try to flood the central part of the midfield and make it tough for the Germans to attack. Germany will break through twice in the second half.
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France was the strongest team at the World Cup after the first two group matches. They beat Honduras and Switzerland by three goals each and collected eight goals over the two games. Just needing a draw to win the group, they played Ecuador to a 0-0 stalemate in the last group match. Nigeria’s big result of the group stage was hanging on to a 1-0 victory against Bosnia. That match was sandwiched between a draw against Iran and a 3-2 loss to Argentina.
France has plenty of offensive options. Striker Karim Benzema is the focal point of the French attack. He is joined by Mathieu Valbuena and Oliver Giroud. Blaise Matuidi has been one of the best midfielders this tournament. After not scoring against Ecuador, expect France to be direct in their attack like what we saw against Switzerland. Nigeria played well against Argentina. Ahmed Musa scored both goals. Peter Odemwingie and Emmanuel Emenike will be key players in this match against France’s shaky defense.
Prediction: France 3, Nigeria 1
France gets back on track with goals from Benzema, Valbuena and Paul Pogba.
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Not many people expected these two teams to play at this stage in Recife. Costa Rica amazingly won their group that featured Uruguay, Italy and England. They recorded seven points including shock wins against Uruguay and Italy. Greece were in trouble after only managing a draw in their first two matches. Greece saved their best performance for the last group game against Ivory Coast. They scored a late goal in each the first and second halves to send them to the next round in dramatic fashion.
Costa Rica has been very organized defensively. Oscar Durate and Giancarlo Gonzales have turned in great performances in the back. Offensively, the Ticos have been inspired by 21-year-old striker Joel Campbell and captain Bryan Ruiz. Greece also are an organized side that defends well. They won’t make many mistakes and rely on a counterattck going forward. Georgios Samaras was the hero of the match against Ivory Coast. Captain Giorgos Karagounis was also inspirational that match. The 37-year-old is a valuable leader for the Greeks.
Prediction: Costa Rica 1, Greece 0
This will be a low scoring game and both teams will struggle to create chances. Costa Rica will break through in the second half.
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The Group B winners play the Group A runners up in Fortaleza. Netherlands recorded a maximum nine points from their group. They put on a clinic in a 5-1 rout of Spain. They followed that up with wins against Australia and Chile. Mexico grinded out a victory against Cameroon in the rain. They proved how well they can defend in a 5-3-2 formation against Brazil where they earned a draw. They scored three second half goals to defeat Croatia and make it out of their group.
Netherlands was a team built around three attacking stars in Robin Van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder. Van Persie and Robben have been superb this tournament. The question mark for the Dutch was an inexperienced back line. However, the youth defenders like Stefan de Vrij, Daryl Janmaat and Daley Blind have been serviceable. Mexico coach Miguel Herrera has pushed all the right buttons this World Cup. Starting goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa was his first of several great decisions. In-form striker Oribe Peralta has looked fine starting instead of Javier Hernandez. Center back Rafael Marquez has turned back the clock and is putting together a memorable tournament. The Mexico back line will be tested against the Netherlands attacking trio but El Tri have the personnel and tactics to get that done.
Prediction: Mexico 1, Netherlands 1 (Mexico advances 4-3 on penalty kicks)
I think Mexico will go the quarterfinals behind another strong defensive performance and some good fortune in penalty kicks.
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