My Premier League 2012-13 predictions
The after-glow of London's 2012 Olympics still burns fiercely - but Premier League football takes its place back on centre stage as the new season begins on Saturday.
Will Manchester City retain the title they claimed so dramatically in the final moments of last season or will Manchester United restore what Sir Alex Ferguson will regard as normal service?
Will big-spending Chelsea challenge under Roberto Di Matteo, who was confirmed as permanent manager after winning the Champions League? And what about the fortunes of Tottenham and Liverpool, under new management in the shape of Andre Villa-Boas and Brendan Rodgers?
There will be plenty of interest in all parts of the Premier League as West Ham United, Reading and Southampton return to the top tier.
With the usual armour-plated protection required in these circumstances, here are my Premier League predictions for 2012-13.
Despite the impending departure of last season's top scorer Robin van Persie to Manchester United there is cause for real optimism thanks to a transfer policy that appears more structured than last season's late trolley dash by manager Arsene Wenger.
For all the turbulence that engulfed Arsenal at times last season, they still finished third and the signings of Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski gives them a real potential for added potency. Wenger might also have pulled off one of the shrewdest deals of the summer by landing outstanding winger Santi Cazorla from Malaga.
A first trophy in seven years is a must - not title contenders but top four beckons once more and contenders in the cups.
Finishing position - 4th
The air will be cleared around Villa Park after the end of Alex McLeish's fruitless and unpopular season in charge - and by the appointment of one of the domestic game's finest emerging managerial talents in Paul Lambert.
The Scot did superbly at Norwich and the divisive atmosphere that bordered on rebellion at times on the Holte End will be replaced by a unity of purpose Lambert will hope to replicate on the pitch.
They have been busy in the transfer market but the main reason for predicting a much-improved Premier League placing for Villa this season is the arrival of the single-minded Lambert. I expect Villa to be much more formidable this season.
Finishing position - 8th
Roberto Di Matteo deservedly holds the manager's post after a truly remarkable conclusion to his spell in interim charge, following up an FA Cup triumph by finally claiming the crown owner Roman Abramovich craved above all others - the Champions League.
The Russian owner has responded with renewed generosity in the transfer market. Marko Marin's arrival from Werder Bremen was confirmed last season but the big arrivals came in the shape of the much-prized Eden Hazard from Lille and Brazil's Oscar.
Can Di Matteo maintain his Midas touch? Can he manoeuvre such rich midfield resources successfully? Can he stave off the onset of time for key men like Frank Lampard and John Terry? And can Fernando Torres adequately replace the huge match-winning influence of Didier Drogba.
Abramovich will expect the title. Not so sure that will arrive but the Blues have a squad with enough experience and quality to challenge for trophies.
Finishing position - 3rd
Everton's season will depend on whether they can shed their tag of slow starters. They finished seventh last season despite once again not getting their campaign going until January. They can be genuine top-six contenders if they can kick off with everyone else.
Nikica Jelavic proved an outstanding signing and at long last gives them a serious goal threat in attack. Steven Pienaar made Everton tick once he returned on loan from Tottenham and manager David Moyes will be elated at completing his permanent return. Steven Naismith could prove another shrewd acquisition from Rangers if he can avoid injury. Moyes will look to him to replace the goals provided by arguably his finest piece of transfer market business Tim Cahill, who has left to join New York Red Bulls.
The departure of Cahill and Jack Rodwell gives the squad a somewhat skeletal look and Everton may prove vulnerable to injuries. Even so I expect them to finish at least as high as last season - and perhaps time for Moyes to win some silverware after more than a decade at Goodison Park?
Finishing position - 7th
Martin Jol oversaw a solid season at Craven Cottage after his appointment and there is no reason to expect anything other this time around. The former Tottenham manager proved to be a good choice and showed he knows his way around the Premier League.
The experience of Danny Murphy will be missed but Jol will hope Hugo Rodallega and Mladen Petric will ensure another campaign that confirms the Cottagers as a member of the top-flight establishment.
I expect Fulham to achieve respectability once more and Jol might just fancy a shot at one of the cups as an added bonus. No trouble here.
Finishing position - 11th
Kenny Dalglish paid the price for only finishing eighth last season following a dubious return on his transfer market business and was sacked despite winning the Carling Cup.
New manager Brendan Rodgers has spent plenty of time outlining his grand vision for Liverpool based on his work at Swansea City, but he will know demands are always high at Anfield despite some careful expectation management from the men who appointed him.
Rodgers is a manager of real promise but Liverpool will be an alien environment to anything he has experienced before. He certainly does not lack confidence but this is a huge test.
He will rightly expect patience while he puts his plans in place. For all the talk of new arrivals setting the tone for a fresh era, especially Joe Allen from Swansea City, Rodgers will still rely heavily on Liverpool's iconic captain Steven Gerrard and the brilliance of Luis Suarez.
They finished below neighbours Everton last season but I expect their greater depth of squad to just reverse that this time around - and it would be a major surprise if Liverpool were not in contention for one of the cup competitions.
Finishing position - 6th
Manchester City cleared the weight off their shoulders by pipping Manchester United to the Premier League title courtesy of Sergio Aguero and virtually the last kick of the season. Manager Roberto Mancini has complained about lack of transfer market activity - but he already had a squad strong enough to repeat the feats of last season.
Jack Rodwell adds depth in midfield and it would be a major surprise if more big arrivals did not pitch up at the Etihad before the end of the season.
They have the best squad and best first XI in the division. Champions again.
Finishing position - 1st
Manchester United's squad may not be regarded as one of their greatest - but those who choose to dismiss them do so at their peril and should be reminded they only lost out on title number 20 in the dying seconds of the season.
Sir Alex Ferguson will be hurting - never good news for his rivals - and he has made a major statement in the transfer market, signing Robin van Persie from Arsenal. Van Persie's arrival adds world-class quality to the Old Trafford squad. What a partnership he could now form with Wayne Rooney.
Shinji Kagawa brings intelligence and energy in midfield while young players such as goalkeeper David de Gea and Phil Jones will be better for a season at Old Trafford. Questions still remain, however, about the quality of United's central midfield. How long can Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs be relied upon to turn back time?
United will win a trophy this season - but I suspect it may not be the Premier League and certainly not the Champions League. I fully expect a serious title challenge though and they will still be feared if they are anywhere near contention towards the end.
Van Persie aside, I will stick with City as champions.
Finishing position - 2nd
Newcastle had a magnificent season under manager Alan Pardew to finish fifth last time out on the back of some wonderful work in the transfer market inspired by veteran chief scout Graham Carr.
They may find it difficult to reproduce that again this time around. Expectations, however, will be very high on Tyneside but the goals of Papiss Cisse, a deadly attacking presence after his arrival from SC Freiburg, make that understandable.
Newcastle will be formidable in front of their own fanatical support - but will the Europa League prove a distraction or a bonus? I fully expect another good season for the Toon Army to enjoy, but perhaps not quite as good as the last one.
Finishing position - 9th
Norwich City have chosen wisely in replacing manager Paul Lambert with Chris Hughton - a calm presence who has proved his quality at Newcastle United then Birmingham City.
Hughton has given Robert Snodgrass and Steven Whittaker the opportunities to prove they can thrive in the Premier League after their moves from Leeds United and Rangers respectively, while it was not long ago Michael Turner was being touted as a defender of outstanding promise.
Under Hughton's guidance, I expect Norwich to survive.
Finishing position - 14th
Queen's Park Rangers
QPR manager Mark Hughes has embarked on a hefty rebuilding programme after surviving on the final day of last season - and he looks to have done enough to ensure there will be no repeat.
He will expect big things of Park Ji-sung after his arrival from Manchester United while Robert Green, Ryan Nelsen and Andrew Johnson all provide Premier League experience.
Most exciting of all, perhaps, for QPR fans is the signing of Junior Hoilett from Blackburn Rovers. The exciting youngster's decision to move to Loftus Road could prove a real coup and is certainly a sign of how they are now viewed in a very positive light as a club of potential under Hughes.
Hughes always sets his sights on trophies so do not be surprised at a cup run - beyond that I expect a much more satisfying season than last year.
Finishing position - 13th
Premier League new boys Reading have been busy in the transfer market backed by the finances of new Russian owner Anton Zingarevich after Sir John Madejski handed over the baton. Whether this will be enough to ensure a prolonged stay in the division remains to be seen.
Brian McDermott has done brilliant work and he will hope the signings of experienced striker Pavel Pogrebnyak from Stuttgart and the additions of the likes of Chris Gunter, Garath McCleary, Danny Guthrie and Adrian Mariappa can make the Royals a force.
It will be a tough transition and I see it as a season of struggle back in the top flight for Reading.
Finishing position - 20th
Big club with big ambition and a fine manager in Nigel Adkins. No shortage of ambition in the boardroom at St Mary's either as proved by the signings of Steven Davis, Jay Rodriguez and the youngster tipped for such great things in Nathaniel Clyne from Crystal Palace.
Saints will get great support at home but, like Reading, I fear the haul of the long season will turn into one of anxiety. Borderline - but relegation candidates in my opinion.
Finishing position - 19th
Stoke City are unloved in quite a few places but not here. Manager Tony Pulis has done a wonderful job in establishing them firmly in the Premier League and there is no reason to suspect this season will be any different.
A visit to the Britannia is always atmospheric - or harrowing if you are the opposition. Home form alone in front of fervent fans usually guarantees a comfortable league placing, and Pulis and Stoke would not say no to a run at a cup competition.
Finishing position - 12th
Martin O'Neill had the desired effect of instant improvement when he replaced Steve Bruce but Sunderland's season faded somewhat after a disappointing FA Cup quarter-final replay defeat against Everton at the Stadium of Light.
O'Neill will have had a solid summer's work with his players now and will feel that if he can add the powerful striker he always makes a centrepiece of his teams, with Wolves' Steven Fletcher seemingly the chosen one, Sunderland can hit the top 10 this season.
I expect them to achieve this, although I suspect plenty will disagree, while O'Neill has always had a liking for the cups.
Finishing position - 10th
Swansea City have had a turbulent summer with the departure of Brendan Rodgers to Liverpool, followed in the same direction by gifted young playmaker Joe Allen. Also Gylfi Sigurdsson, so impressive on loan, is now at Spurs.
Chairman Huw Jenkins responded with an imaginative managerial appointment in Michael Laudrup, a figure of real presence and experience with the capacity to prove another wise choice from the Swansea board.
Sound judges believe he has pulled off a real coup in landing Michu from Rayo Vallecano for just £2m - tougher than last time but I am still backing the Swans to stay up and maintain the attractive style that was their trademark under Rodgers.
Finishing position - 17th
Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy clearly felt fourth place last season under Harry Redknapp was not good enough - hence his sacking.
The task of improving on that now falls to Andre Villas-Boas, dismissed after a brief and desperately unfulfilling spell at Chelsea last season but backed by Levy on the basis of the reputation he forged as an outstanding young coach at Porto.
The wisdom of Levy's decision hangs in the balance because of those contrasting performances but Villas-Boas has a fine squad at his disposal, augmented by the signings of Gylfi Sigurdsson and central defender Jan Vertonghen, excellent at Ajax and adding strength in a department weakened by the retirement of Ledley King.
The potential loss of Luka Modric to Real Madrid will be a blow, such is the little Croat's artistry, but Levy will undoudtedly let Villas-Boas strengthen further.
If Villas-Boas can regain his touch from Porto, Spurs will be real contenders for the Champions League places once more - if it is the AVB of Stamford Bridge then Levy will be swiftly reminded that he has made a mistake.
Finishing position - 5th
West Bromwich Albion
West Brom's comfortable top 10 placing last season cost them manager Roy Hodgson to England, allowing Steve Clarke the chance to prove he can make the occasionally hazardous journey from respected number two to the man in charge.
The Scot is vastly experienced and has worked alongside some of the game's most illustrious figures so has plenty of pedigree to call on. He has a workmanlike squad at The Hawthorns and will hope Peter Odemwingie can provide the goals required to ensure safe passage through next season.
Finishing position - 16th
West Ham United
Sam Allardyce had his detractors at Upton Park but he delivered what was required as West Ham returned to the Premier League.
He has been typically busy in the transfer market, with his old Bolton loyalist Jussi Jaaskelainen arriving as goalkeeper. James Collins is back at West Ham and will be vital, he is a proven Premier League defender in the mould Allardyce loves.
There may be bumps along the road but expect the Hammers to stay up and revel in the return of one of the grand old clubs to the Premier League playing at one of the most atmospheric grounds.
Finishing position - 15th
Wigan manager Roberto Martinez was hailed as a genius for his work in the last two months of last season and victories against the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal that saw them stay up.
It even put him in contention for the Liverpool job - but the question has to be asked why he seemingly cannot get the job done in the first six months of the season.
It is hopeless trying to predict Wigan Athletic as the outcome of their campaign depends on what time of the season they get out of bed. Will it be any different this time? Will Martinez finally be tempted away?
With little degree of confidence or conviction I tip these great unpredictables as relegation strugglers.
Finishing position - 18th