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Friday, Aug. 15, 2003

PREMIER REPORT

Usual suspects favored for Premier title


LONDON -- With the 12th Premier League season set to kick off on Saturday, here is a look at how the 20 teams shape up:

ARSENAL

Christopher Davies

Strengths -- Team spirit, quality in most positions and in Thierry Henry, a player who would grace any side. Arsene Wenger has brought in only one new face, goalkeeper Jens Lehmann who is an experienced, outstanding goalkeeper. In Patrick Vieira, it has, arguably, the most influential midfielder in the Premiership.

Weaknesses -- Lack of cover especially in defense with no money to bring in more players. Needs a right-back and a central defender to play alongside Sol Campbell. Martin Keown is 37 and Pascal Cygan, Kolo Toure and Igors Stepanovs are not good enough at this level.

Key addition -- Jens Lehman (B. Dortmund).

Key departures -- David Seaman (Man City), Oleg Luzhny (Wolves).

ASTON VILLA

Strengths -- New manager David O'Leary will want to make an immediate impact after his ignominious departure from Leeds. Some excellent young players in Gareth Barry, Darius Vassell and Jlloyd Samuel but O'Leary needs to get Juan Angel to belatedly show consistent goal-scoring form.

Weaknesses -- Dreadful away form last season must be improved. Losing twice to and finishing below rival Birmingham City for the first time in the top flight since 1959 will not be tolerated again. O'Leary has only a small kitty to delve into though.

Key additions -- Thomas Sorensen and Gavin McCann (Sunderland).

Key departure -- Oyvind Leonhardsen (released).

BIRMINGHAM CITY

Strengths -- The personality of manager Steve Bruce is evident in his team whose battling qualities have been supplemented by Blackburn's talented midfielder David Dunn. Robbie Savage's dogs of war approach will again upset opponents and referees but the Welsh international typifies the Blues' commitment.

Weaknesses -- Despite the arrival of Luciano Figueroa, Birmingham still looks short on goal power. And while it did well to finish six points clear of relegation last season, the Blues will need to be more skillful than scrapping to build on 2002-03.

Key additions -- David Dunn (Blackburn), Luciano Figueroa (Rosario Central).

Key departures -- none

BLACKBURN ROVERS

Strengths -- It has probably the Premiership's best goalkeeper in Brad Friedel, while manager Graeme Souness knows how to get the best out of his team. It has lost Damien Duff and David Dunn, but Steven Reid and Brett Emerton seem more than adequate replacements.

Weaknesses -- Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke can't go on forever and the Rovers could struggle for goals unless Matt Jansen, absent for most of last season, regains full fitness.

Key additions -- Lorenzo Amoruso (Rangers), Steven Reid (Millwall), Brett Emerton (Feyenoord).

Key departures -- Damien Duff (Chelsea), David Dunn (Birmingham).

BOLTON

Strengths -- Bolton's ability to survive against the odds said much for its spirit, determination and commitment. Jay-Jay Okocha gives it pace in attack and Youri Djorkaeff is still a class act but its fate could again be settled on the final day.

Weaknesses -- A dreadful away record and Ivan Campo, now signed from Real Madrid after a season's loan, who must improve his discipline after being shown a Premier League worst 13 yellow cards (and one red) last season.

Key additions -- Stelios Giannakopoulos (Olympiakos), Colin Hendry (Blackpool), Kevin Davies (Southampton).

Key departures -- Stig Tofting (released), Gudni Bergsson (retired).

CHARLTON ATHLETIC

Strengths -- Brilliantly coached by Alan Curbishley, Charlton can be tactically inventive, playing outstanding football. The arrival of Paolo Di Canio will give it an extra dimension. The sum total is greater than the individual parts which has seen Charlton over-achieve in the past few seasons.

Weaknesses -- Its lack of goals puts pressure on the defense and there was an alarming slide toward the end of last season when complacency set in.

Key additions -- Matt Holland (Ipswich), Paolo Di Canio (West Ham).

Key departure -- John Robinson (Cardiff).

CHELSEA

Strengths -- The almost bottomless pit of money since Roman Abramovich's takeover means Chelsea can compete with any club in the world. Claudio Ranieri has the biggest squad in the Premiership with enviable riches especially in defense and midfield.

Weaknesses -- The size of the squad means there will be some unhappy big-name players left out so Ranieri will need to use all of his man-management skills. Whether so many new players will take time to settle in remains to be seen, but Chelsea still needs more of a cutting edge in attack.

Key additions -- Roman Abramovich (owner), Glen Johnson and Joe Cole (West Ham), Geremi (R. Madrid), Damien Duff (Blackburn), Wayne Bridge (Southampton), Juan Veron (Man Utd), Adrian Mutu (subject to work permit).

Key departures -- Gianfranco Zola (Cagliari), Graeme Le Saux (Southampton).

EVERTON

Strengths -- The best young English player in the Premiership, Wayne Rooney, burst onto the scene in style last season. Manager David Moyes is the best young manager in English football and its seventh-place finish was as much down to the Scot as the players.

Weaknesses -- Money is tight at Goodison Park and the squad is thin. Everton has raised fans' expectations but goals could be hard to come by.

Key additions -- none

Key departures -- none

FULHAM

Strengths -- Very few.

Weaknesses -- Many. A manager [Chris Coleman] who must learn his trade in the Premiership, no ground of its own -- Fulham will again share with Queens Park Rangers -- no money, disillusioned fans and apart from Steed Malbranque an alarming lack of true talent.

Key addition -- Mark Crossley (Middlesbrough).

Key departures -- Steve Finnan (Liverpool), Abdesl am Ouaddou (Rennes).

LEEDS UNITED

Strengths -- Most of Leeds' strengths, its best players, have left over the past year. Only striker Alan Smith and Paul Robinson are genuine quality, though there are high hopes for midfielder James Milner who is only 17.

Weaknesses -- The exodus of top players, financial restraints on manager Peter Reid, low morale and a small squad.

Key additions -- Jody Morris (Chelsea), Zoumana Camara (Lens).

Key departures -- Harry Kewell (Liverpool), Olivier Dacourt (Roma).

LEICESTER CITY

Strengths -- Manager Micky Adams has done a superb job steering Leicester back to the Premiership. The manager has brought in 11 new players and has cover in every position.

Weaknesses -- The Foxes probably have more quantity than quality. Adams will ensure his team is well-organized, but goals are unlikely to be plentiful.

Key additions -- Les Ferdinand (West Ham), Ben Thatcher (Spurs), Lilian Nalis (Chievo), Craig Hignett (Blackburn), Ricard o Scimeca (N. Forest), Steve Howey (Man City).

Key departures -- none

LIVERPOOL

Strengths -- Experience, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard and a burning desire to prove Liverpool can be genuine title contenders rather than pretenders.

Weaknesses -- Six goals in 30 Premiership starts by Emile Heskey last season was simply not good enough and a run of four months without a win showed worrying faults in an expensively assembled side. The side still lacks width and support for Owen.

Key additions -- Steve Finnan (Fulham), Harry Kewell (Leeds).

Key departures -- Patrik Berger (Portsmouth).

MANCHESTER CITY

Strengths -- City finished ninth in its first season back in the Premiership and Nicolas Anelka's 14 goals showed the striker can still produce the goods. A new stadium will also give City new impetus.

Weaknesses -- Its longest unbeaten run last season was three games which highlighted City's inconsistency. Robbie Fowler looks a spent force and it remains to be seen whether 40-year-old David Seaman can still perform a full season at the highest level.

Key additions -- David Seaman (Arsenal), Paul Bosvelt (Feyenoord), Trevor Sinclair (West Ham), Michael Tarnat (B. Munich).

Key departures -- Shaun Goater (Reading), Steve Howey (Leicester), Peter Schmeichel (retired).

MANCHESTER UNITED

Strengths -- How long have you got? Roy Keane remains an inspirational leader, Ryan Giggs is the best left-winger in the Premiership and Ruud van Nistelrooy possibly the best striker in the world. Then there's Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand . . . and a manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, who is the most successful in Premiership history.

Weaknesses -- The loss of David Beckham and Juan Veron could be more telling than Ferguson would like. The defense gives cause for concern and for all United's array of stars there is a lack of tactical variety about its play.

Key additions -- Eric Djemba-Djemba (Nantes), Tim Howard (MetroStars), David Bellion (Sunderland), Kleberson (Paranaense), Christian Ronaldo (Sporting Lisbon).

Key departures -- David Beckham (R. Madrid), Juan Veron (Chelsea).

MIDDLESBROUGH

Strengths -- The return to fitness of Juninho gives Boro extra creativity and defensive lynchpins Ugo Ehiogu and Gareth Southgate are as good as any.

Weaknesses -- Boro travels as well as Nigerian wine and the loss of Geremi in midfield will leave it short of steel and skill. The side looks better at the back than in attack.

Key addition -- Doriva (Celta).

Key departure -- Alen Boksic (released).

NEWCASTLE UNITED

Strengths -- Some of the best young talent in England in Jermaine Jenas and Kieron Dyer is supplemented by Alan Shearer, Shay Given, Craig Bellamy and Jonathan Woodgate. Going forward Newcastle looks as good as anyone.

Weaknesses -- Defensively, especially in the air from set pieces, Newcastle is vulnerable.

Key addition -- Lee Bowyer (West Ham).

Key departures -- none

PORTSMOUTH

Strengths -- The enthusiasm and momentum generated by promotion should carry Portsmouth through the early weeks. Manager Harry Redknapp knows the Premiership as well as anyone and Teddy Sheringham should still have a few goals left in him.

Weaknesses -- A thin squad with too many unproven players at this level.

Key additions -- Teddy Sheringham (Spurs), Dejan Stefanovic (Vitesse), Patrik Berger (Liverpool).

Key departures -- Paul Merson (Walsall), Gianluca Festa (Cagliari).

SOUTHAMPTON

Strengths -- Gordon Strachan has made ordinary players into good players and good players into outstanding performers. James Beattie has been a consistent scorer and in Antii Niemi the Saints have a top-class goalkeeper.

Weaknesses -- Can be too predictable and often survive on draws, many of them goalless.

Key additions -- Graeme Le Saux (Chelsea), Fitz Hall (Oldham), Neil McCann (Rangers).

Key departures -- Wayne Bridge (Chelsea), Kevin Davies (Bolton).

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

Strengths -- Emerging young players such as Ledley King and Simon Davies should progress and Helder Postiga could be one of the best additions to the Premiership in 2003-04.

Weaknesses -- Inconsistency and a habit of capitulating in games, especially away from home.

Key additions -- Postiga (FC Porto), Bobby Zamora (Brighton), Freddie Kanoute (West Ham).

Key departures -- Steffen Iversen (Wolves), Ben Thatcher (Leicester), Steffen Freund (Kaiserslautern), Teddy Sheringham (Portsmouth), Matthew Etherington (West Ham).

WOLVERHAMPTON

Strengths -- The relief at finally reaching the Premiership will be reflected by all at Molineux, which will be sold out for every game. Some interesting new additions, notably Isaac Okoronkwo, could surprise a few people. Goalkeeper Matt Murray might advance to the England squad if he fulfills his potential.

Weaknesses -- Too many of its players are Premiership castoffs.

Key additions -- Isaac Okoronkwo (Shakhtar Donetsk), Steffen Iversen (Spurs), Jody Craddock (Sunderland), Oleg Luzhny (Arsenal), Henri Camara (Sedan), Silas (UD Lieira.

Key departure -- Cedric Roussel (Genk).

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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