Written by Rhys Paul
On Saturday, it will be two weeks until the 2016/17 Premier League campaign begins and it is fair to say it will not be a moment too soon. The countdown to kick-off is well and truly underway with clubs in the midst of pre-season and fans are naturally looking ahead to what the upcoming season has in store for their team. The title-winning heroics of Leicester City made a mockery of last season’s predictions, but it remains to be seen whether their exploits have opened the gates for other teams to enjoy similar success in disrupting the traditional status-quo. There is a greater sense of anticipation, unpredictability and competitiveness about the new season and this will surely contribute to the most open campaign in some time. The gap between the ‘top’ clubs and the rest is smaller than ever and with this in mind, I have identified three teams who I believe have a lot to look forward to. It might not be surprising to see these clubs enjoy success – let’s face it, nothing will match the shock of last season – but they are still ‘dark horses’ and all three have the potential to exceed expectations.
credit Ben Sutherland
Upon returning to the top flight in 2008, Stoke immediately established themselves as a solid mid-table side under Tony Pulis. Under Mark Hughes, they have improved considerably and three consecutive ninth-placed finishes are evidence of this improvement. Stoke have one of the best squads outside of the ‘top four’ and the recruitment of the club has been nothing short of exceptional over the last few seasons. The signing of Joe Allen is yet another sign that the club are no longer the long-ball, bully-boy merchants they were under Pulis. Ramadan Sobhi, along with Allen, could prove to be a very shrewd signing for a club who seem incapable of doing anything but smart business at the moment. I’ve admired Bojan since his Barcelona days and, along with Marko Arnautovic and Xherdan Shaqiri, there are few teams who can match the attacking prowess on display at the Britannia (let’s not call it the bet365 stadium) and, in Jack Butland, they have one of the finest goalkeepers in the league. Fans of Watford, Bournemouth and West Ham (among others I’m sure) will also tell you just how good a player Giannelli Imbula was for Stoke after signing in January and his ability to run the game could play a big part in their success. A better start to the campaign will be needed and they will also need to avoid the slumps in form that essentially prevented them from realistically challenging for anything last season. If they do this and improve defensively, Stoke could turn some heads over the course of the 2016/17 season.
credit filmIeri korku
Liverpool might be the second most successful team in English football, but in recent years they have become an unexciting, mid-table outfit. A 2nd placed finish in 2013/14 was an anomaly. Excluding that, they have not finished higher than 6th since 2009. Unlike Stoke, they have an average squad for what is expected of them and they have been guilty of investing heavily in the transfer market with the belief it will translate into success. This transfer window has been no exception with Sadio Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum joining for a combined fee of £59 million. The extortionate fees aside, they do improve the existing squad and, on the other side of the coin, Joel Matip on a free transfer is surely one of the best bits of business of the window so far. They need to improve in the striker department since Daniel Sturridge cannot be relied on to stay fit for the whole season and Christian Benteke’s time at Anfield will surely come to an end after a disappointing debut season for the club. Consistency will be key, but the effect Jurgen Klopp had after joining the club in October 2015 suggests this is more a case of ‘when’ and not ‘if’. Klopp is the main reason why Liverpool have made this list. As the Klopp-effect continues to be established, Liverpool will become a greater force and expect this to be showcased this season. With one of the best managers in the game at the helm, the future looks bright for Liverpool.
credit Richard Fisher
The 2016/17 season will go one of two ways for Crystal Palace. Either they will threaten in the top-half or they will languish in mid-table. Much of this will rely on Alan Pardew – a manager who always hits the ground running at a new club before eventually losing his momentum and seeing his team fall into mid-table obscurity. His record shows he has a shelf-life of around three seasons, so it will be interesting to see how this effects Palace. It must be said that Palace is the perfect job for Pardew and it is the ideal place for him to disprove such a record. Last season they defied expectations in the first half of the season, but all that hard work was undone at the turn of the year as the club remained winless in 2016 until April. This slump saw the club briefly, albeit not too seriously, flirt with the relegation battle. Fortunately, the fans were able to take some consolation in the fact the club reached the FA Cup final. It is also good to see a Premier League club actively looking to sign English players with Andros Townsend and James Tomkins joining from Newcastle and West Ham respectively. It represents good business for the club and the cut-price signing of Steve Mandanda (although unnecessary) means that all three signings are an improvement on their existing first-team choices. A striker is desperately needed if Palace want to seriously establish themselves as a top-half team and unsuccessful moves for Benteke and Michy Batshuayi shows the club has both the ambition and the money to make this happen. As a team who are most dangerous on the counter, Palace should take the greatest inspiration from Leicester, but it remains to be seen whether both the squad and the manager have it in them to sustain such a push on the better teams in the division.
Do you think one of these teams will be the surprise package this season? Let us know in the comments below!
featured image by Ben Sutherland