Premier League Preview: Everton, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United
The Premier League season gets under way this weekend, and we're looking at all 20 clubs ahead of the all the action. Today, we look at Everton, Leicester, Liverpool, and both Manchester City and United.
2014/15 finish: 11th
An argument could be made that Everton were the victims of their own success last season. Having finished fifth under Roberto Martinez in his first season in charge, last season saw the normally consistent Toffees fall foul of the rigors of Europa League football.
After a brief flirt with the lower reaches of the table, Everton managed to find some of their form from the previous season once they were our of Europe, and with no such worries this season, they should be looking to make a bigger impression on the Premier League.
The return of Gerard Deulofeu from Barcelona on a permanent basis is their biggest outlay in the transfer market so far, but for Martinez keeping hold of the much sought after John Stones could be his main priority.
Key Transfer: Gerard Deulofeu: His loan spell at Goodison was seen as a success on both the player and the club's part. With fans happy to have him back for good, he could make a significant difference as Martinez looks to bring back more of his swash-buckling style.
Star Player: Romelu Lukaku: The Belgian striker has the ability to make a huge impact for Everton. That he scored 20 goals in all competitions last season but was generally seen as under-performing says a lot about how much is expected of the striker.
Season Expectations: Top Half finish
FTD Says: With no Europa League football, Everton should be able to push back into the top half of the table quite easily, and if they get Lukaku firing, could make another push for European football, but would they really want to after last season?
2014/15 finish: 14th
After their dramatic turnaround in form which saw them go from bottom of the table to safe with a game to spare, many were looking to Leicester to see how they would fare in their second season back in the top tier.
The speculation intensified further when manager Nigel Pearson left the club before pre-season, and there were certainly some raised eyebrows after former Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri was named as his replacement.
The club have turned to Europe as they look to strengthen their squad. Christian Fuchs is a solid signing with a lot of Bundesliga appearances for Schalke, whilst Shinji Okazaki scored 12 goals in the same league for Mainz last season. Signing Robert Huth permanently, who made such an impact coming in on loan from Stoke last season, is also a frugal piece of business.
Key Transfer: Shinji Okazaki: The Japanese forward will be expected to add goals to Ranieri's side.
Star Player: Jamie Vardy: His rise from non-league to the Premier League was widely discussed last season, especially as he made his England debut. He will be looking to prove he is an established top flight player, and his non stop attitude and attacking endeavor will be vital to Leicester staying in the league.
Season Expectations: Bottom half/relegation battle
FTD Says: Leicester's season will hinge on whether Ranieri can inspire the same kind of performances as previous manager Pearson, who though controversial in the media always retained the support of his squad. If he can win them over, they should have enough about them to avoid the drop, but they will need their new signings to make an impact.
2014/15 finish: 6th
This season could well define Brendan Rodgers' tenure as Liverpool manager. After coming so close to winning the title, the loss of Suarez to Barcelona and Sturridge to injury, combined with a general failure of their new signings, led to rumblings of discontent around Anfield as Liverpool had a stuttering season.
It's been widely speculated that a poor start to this season could be the end for Rodgers, and if he is to avoid the sack he will need this summer's signings to make a more significant impact than the likes of Mario Balotelli and Rickie Lambert did last year.
There is certainly a lot more optimism surrounding the latest crop of Anfield arrivals, with James Milner arriving on a free seen as a coup by many. Beefing up the front line with Danny Ings and in particular Christian Benteke was more than necessary after the failure of Liverpool's strikers last season, whilst Nathaniel Clyne offers another option at the back. Brazilian Firmino could also link up well with compatriot Coutinho.
Key Transfer: Christian Benteke: If one man can ease Rodgers fears for the new season, Benteke could be it. Marking his Liverpool debut with a stunning volley in a friendly, his all round goal scoring threat and ability to lead the line is something Liverpool lacked last season. Rodgers' job may pretty much rest on the young Belgian's shoulders.
Star Player: Jordan Henderson: Following club legend Steven Gerrard's departure at the end of last season, Henderson is the man to try and step into his shoes. Already proving he can lead in Gerrard's absence for periods last year, if Henderson can add goals more regularly to his game, he could prove to be a worthy replacement.
Season Expectations: Champions League/ Europa League
FTD Says: Liverpool have a tough start to the season, with Arsenal, Manchester United, Everton, Spurs, Southampton and Chelsea all to come before the end of October. If they are still within reach of the top four after that, they have a good chance of ousting one of the Manchester clubs. If they don't start well, Rodgers could well be gone before Christmas. Apparently a certain Jurgen Klopp is looking for a new club...
2014/15 finish: 2nd
City again made a poor show of defending their Premier League title last season, and many were surprised that Manuel Pellegrini was still at the Eithad at end of the season.
With the shadow of Pep Guardiola looming large it seems almost a forgone conclusion that this will be Pellegrini's last season at the club, before the current Bayern boss makes the move to Manchester.
In terms of the effect that might have on their season, it could go one way or the other. On one hand, knowing he has nothing to lose, Pellegrini could go all out to make an impact both in the league and Europe. Or, with the squad knowing he was on his way out, their season could unravel into a write off as everyone prepares for life under Pep next season.
The signings of Fabian Delph and Raheem Sterling show that the club still has serious intentions of challenging for the title, and more big names are expected before the end of August.
Key Transfer: Raheem Sterling: The one major transfer saga that has been resolved, his £49m move from Liverpool was widely expected and indeed happened. Whilst many have balked at the price tag, none can doubt his potential and he could prove to be a key player for City in the coming years.
Star Player: Sergio Aguero: Even though he seems to have his fair share of injury problems, the Argentinian forward is comfortably one of the most lethal strikers in the Premier League. His strike rate of 78 goals in just 120 Premier League appearances signifies how vital he is to City, and his fitness and form could prove decisive to their season.
Season Expectations: Title Challenge/Champions League qualification
FTD Says: With the uncertainty surrounding their manager, and no additions to their shaky defense as of yet, City will struggle to outdo both Chelsea and Arsenal to win the League. Having said that, they should still have enough quality to finish comfortably in the top four, with question marks still surrounding Liverpool and their Manchester rivals. Speaking of which...
2014/15 finish: 4th
Louis van Gaal's debut season at Old Trafford showed promise as they got back into the top four, but there are still questions to be asked of their back four and the Dutchman's playing style. Some players seemed to struggle to adapt initially to van Gaal's tactics and 'total football' approach.
United's two biggest signings last summer also failed to impress, with Radamel Falcao's loan hindered by lack of fitness and form, and British record signing Angel Di Maria seemingly unhappy in England, with a move to PSG this summer all but confirmed.
The signing of Memphis Depay early in the summer, as well as midfield reinforcements in the shape of Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger indicate that van Gaal is starting to get his squad how he wants it, but with Robin van Persie also leaving this summer, another striker to support Wayne Rooney should be on the cards.
Key Signing: Memphis Depay: The young Dutch winger is highly regarded by his compatriot and former Dutch manager van Gaal. He definitely fits the mold of a typical explosive winger that United fans love so much, and if he can adapt quickly to life in the Premier League, he could provide great support for Rooney up front, as well as chipping in with a few goals himself.
Star Player: Wayne Rooney: The club captain handled his new leadership responsibilities well last season, and was selfless in playing out of his favoured positions at times. As United's only established striker at the club presently, he can expect to be leading the line more often than not this season, and there aren't many strikers in the Premier League whose records compare to his when he plays up top.
Season Expectations: Title Challenge/ Champions League Qualification
FTD Says: Despite adding more bite in midfield, United still look vulnerable at the back, and with Rooney essentially their only striker presently, an injury to their captain and United could be in trouble. Like City, they don't look capable of ousting both Arsenal and Chelsea to take the title back to Old Trafford, and unless the problems mentioned above are resolved, they could be looking behind at the likes of Liverpool and Spurs as they look to hold on to that final Champions League place.