With a new European season fast approaching, we got in touch with various bloggers, prolific members of the footballing twitterati and friends of The Equaliser to make a few pre-season predictions that will undoubtedly make us all look very silly in ten months’ time.
So, here are the results of our collective FIFA-approved crystal ball gazing…
With Montpellier coming close to claiming the Ligue 1 title last season, are there any “dark horse” teams in with a realistic chance of winning a title in Europe in 2010/11?
Barry Landy: Tottenham have been priced by some bookies at 40/1 to win the Premier League and, whilst not having the depth of staff and experience as other title contenders, can mount a serious challenge. As we have seen in the past, Harry Redknapp is not afraid to sacrifice European glory for domestic success.
Ben Thomas: If Bayern slip up then I am confident that Schalke have the quality to be a serious threat this term, depending on how the added pressure of the Champions League affects the squad. From what I saw last year, Felix Magath has got his team playing some nice stuff and I think they could be in with a shout for the Bundesliga title.
David Bevan: I’m no expert on Italian football, but – from the outside looking in – how about Fiorentina? Benitez may struggle to maintain Inter’s momentum, Milan’s signings have been downright mediocre and if not Roma, then perhaps La Viola?
David Dickson: I think it will be a predictable season. If Man City are a “dark horse” then they may end up poking their noses in if they add the players they are rumoured to be looking at. A similar story in Rome, where Roma will likely run Inter close again. Both teams are more light brown rather than dark horses though aren’t they?
Jamie Cutteridge: Would Manchester City be classed as a “dark horse”? If they can, then I think they’ve got a chance of finishing second. Outside of that I can see a McClaren-inspired Wolfsburg challenging for Bundesliga again if they keep Dzeko and Grafite.
Jasper Spanjaart: Tough question. Maybe Sint-Truidense in Belgium, they did very well during the first-half of last season.
Simon King: The power seemed to be shifting last season and the opportunity for one of the “smaller” clubs to have a crack at the Serie A title this time around. It would also be nice to see Steve McClaren get another foreign title under his belt.
The Equaliser: Steve McClaren’s Wolfsburg if they can be considered a “dark horse”. Other than that I could see Genoa giving some of Serie A’s “bigger” clubs a real challenge such is the quality of the squad they’ve patiently assembled of late.
Tom Goulding: Sampdoria perhaps. Actually, on reflection, probably not.
Zac Hann: Sure, why not? Fiorentina are my dark horses for Serie A and, despite a disappointing 11th place finish last season, are a team littered with talent and can give Inter and Roma a run for their money.
Are there any “giants” that you think might falter this season?
BL: Having lost David Silva and David Villa this summer, Valencia may well struggle to replicate last season’s Champions League qualification. In Italy, Massimo Allegri might struggle to turn Milan’s fortunes around.
BT: If Manchester United don’t find solid replacements for the likes of Giggs, Scholes and Neville then the next twelve months could be a difficult time for the club. Also, I’m not sure if you’d call them a “giant” of European football, but I’m fully expecting Bordeaux to slump into mid-table obscurity.
DB: Well, things don’t look great for Stockport… If pushed I’d guess that Milan will again fail to fulfil Berlusconi’s lofty ambitions. I suppose it would be big news if Arsenal slipped out of the top four, too.
DD: Being a Chelsea fan I know what the Mourinho aftermath feels like. Rafa Benitez has a lot to live up to in Milan and, with the rumoured departure of key players such as Maicon and Mario Balotelli, Inter could see themselves deposed this season.
JC: I’d like to say Benitez will struggle at Inter but I think he’ll do a good job. My outside bet would be Barcelona to go out of the Champions League earlier than expected, perhaps in the first knock-out stage. I am prepared to look very silly on that one.
JS: I think AC Milan will have a very tough year, the squad just seems to old. They could have massive problems this season.
SK: I think the Milan clubs are set to struggle this season. Arsenal and Valencia could also have a few problems along the way.
TE: It would pain me to see it happen, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Milan “did a Juventus” this season and really struggled. The squad isn’t being refreshed quickly enough and I’m not sure Massimo Allegri is the man to spark the team into life.
TG: Milan – if they can even be considered a giant anymore.
ZH: I’m tempted to go for the European Champions. The arrival of Benitez won’t exactly help Inter progress, will it?
Who are you backing for the Champions League and why?
BL: Jose Mourinho will, regardless of what he may claim, will be eyeing the achievement of winning the Champions League in successive seasons with two different clubs. Madrid’s flair and Mourinho’s organisation will give Los Blancos an edge.
BT: Bayern Munich. Simply because they have a superb squad and you could see how much losing last season’s final hurt the players. The confidence is there, so if they can keep Bastian Schweinsteiger and get Arjen Robben to look up and pass a bit more then I have high hopes for them.
DB: Barcelona? Because they are bloody brilliant? Real Madrid? Because they are about a zillionth of a degree less brilliant? One of the two. A Barca – Madrid final would be out of this world.
DD: Barcelona were rampant last year before being shut out by Mourinho. With the addition of Villa I simply can’t see any of the English sides stopping them, nor Bayern or a weakened Inter. I also believe that they would have the upper hand over Madrid over two legs.
JC: Real Madrid beating Chelsea in the final.
JS: Bayern Munich, I think they have an absolutely fantastic squad at the moment. I’m backing them to go all the way.
SK: It’s hard to look past Barcelona. No doubt Chelsea will get “controversially” knocked-out again. I hope the clubs from the “lesser” leagues can continue to improve and not just be whipping boys in the early stages.
TE: Barcelona. They are quite simply the team of their generation.
TG: Barcelona. For obvious reasons.
ZH: Real Madrid. They can banish the nightmares of recent campaigns and have a manager for the big occasion. They’re due a European trophy and Wembley could be the perfect stage for it.
…And the Europa League?
BL: Liverpool have a manager who loves this competition and a group of players keen to prove that they belong at a higher level. That said, the Europa League is wide open depending on how the Champions League groups pan out, something which makes its renaissance more exciting.
BT: Lille have been improving season after season for the last three years now and some of their youngsters, such as the famed Eden Hazard, have really come through. Their recent progress in both Ligue 1 and Europe should buoy them on this season.
DB: No idea. Who’s in it apart from Liverpool and Bangor City? Joking aside, I think Juve, Porto, CSKA Moscow and, of course, Manchester City will all be strong. I’ll go for Porto.
DD: A difficult question to answer before the arrival of the Champions League rejects. Based on the teams starting the competition I’d take a punt on Liverpool, they have a team of decent “cup” players and are coached by a good “cup” manager. They could go far.
JC: Liverpool, sadly.
JS: Liverpool will do well, they can win it.
SK: One of the charms of the competition is that any team stands a chance of making reasonable progress. It’ll be a long season for them, but I can see Roy Hodgson setting his sights on the trophy again after coming so close with Fulham.
TE: I’m going to go for Villarreal now that they’ve been handed Mallorca’s place in the competition. Godin, Capdevila, Senna, Rossi and Nilmar are all far too good for the Europa League.
TG: Got to be Juventus hasn’t it?
ZH: Bar Fulham’s inspirational run to the final, English teams have an unfortunate habit of falling at the first hurdle. I’ll plump for either Stuttgart or Villarreal with a slight leaning towards the former.
Any tips for the “Golden Shoe”?
BL: Villa, Ronaldo, Rooney and Fabiano will be the likely candidates, but if everyone’s favourite goalkeeper, Luis Suarez, stays at Ajax he could fire his team back to the top of the Eredivisie given the right circumstances.
BT: Having dined out on my winnings after backing Diego Forlan to be top scorer in South Africa, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him do it again for Atletico. That said, you can’t overlook David Villa now he’s at Barcelona.
DB: Hard to look past David Villa really isn’t it? Especially if Zlatan the indefensible clears off.
DD: I can’t see repeating their goal-scoring feats of last season, so that rules Luis Suarez out. The tight nature of the Premier League will restrict Drogba and Rooney, so, with a backing troupe like never before, I’ll plump for Villa.
JC: David Villa and Messi will split the goals so neither will win. I’m intrigued to see how Suarez does if he moves, but I’ll go with Higuain.
JS: If he can take his World Cup form into the new season then Diego Forlan will be a real contender.
SK: Lionel Messi or David Villa.
TE: Villa’s the stand-out candidate, but he’ll have to fight Messi for the goals at the Camp Nou. I think I’ll opt for Gonzalo Higuain.
TG: Higuain ain’t a bad shout.
ZH: It’s got to be between Barca teammates Messi and Villa. Messi is perhaps the obvious choice, but one couldn’t help but be seduced by Villa’s natural goal scoring ability during the World Cup.
Which young player(s) can you see making the biggest impact this season?
BL: John Fleck, the 18 year-old talent in the Wayne Rooney mould, is likely to be thrust into the limelight at Rangers given the club’s financial difficulties and inability to sign new players.
BT: Ryan Boudebouz of Sochaux. Several “big” clubs have been on his case for a while now. Other’s I rate highly are Toni Kroos of Bayern Munich and Genoa’s Argentine holding midfielder Franco Zuculini.
DB: It’ll be interesting to watch the development of Sergio Canales at Real Madrid. He’s already shown that he’s good enough for La Liga, so I’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t get much playing time. The same goes for Iker Muniain of Athletic Bilbao.
DD: Balotelli. Partially because he will end up playing as part of a superb front-line at Manchester City if and when he goes there, and partially because nobody will expect much from a youngster that is supposedly so indisciplined.
JC: My Aston Villa heart is tipping Nathan Delfouneso to score a few goals, but I’m not sure he’ll get enough of a chance. Adam Johnson won’t get enough games for Man City, but I reckon Hernandez might impress for United, particularly with a lack of other options up top.
JS: Ajax’s Gregory van der Wiel is already one of the best right-backs around. Whether he stays in Amsterdam or moves on to a bigger club he’ll make a real impact. Thomas Muller at Bayern is, of course, another one to watch.
SK: Adam Johnson and Jerome Boateng will have an impact on Man City’s season, with Javier Hernandez looking exciting prospect for their Old Trafford rivals. I expect to see Phil Jones get more opportunities at Blackburn and Szczesny get his chance at Arsenal.
TE: Ever Banega is a superb player and hopefully he’ll continue his development into a world-class defensive midfielder this season. I’m also excited to see more of Jonathan Dos Santos and Jeffren in the coming months.
TG: Kyle Walker, perhaps flashes of Kakuta. Is 22 young? If so, Alex Song will be massively important for Arsenal.
ZH: Stevan Jovetic of Fiorentina. He’s already an established member of La Viola and has attracted interest from around Europe, even turning down Barcelona. A star in the making.
The Premier League is arguably more open this season than it has been for some time. Who’s going to win it?
BL: It’s difficult to look beyond Chelsea who, on the back of last season’s success, have enjoyed a relatively stable pre-season. The favourites and rightly so.
BT: I’m not sure it is more open than before. I can’t see the likes of Spurs or Manchester City winning the league this season. With a new ‘keeper and a bit of luck I could see Arsenal mounting a stronger challenge than last term, so I’m not going to rule my own club out. Unless some of Manchester United’s youngsters really step up I can see the title going back to Stamford Bridge for another year.
DB: I think it’s between Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs. City’s signing of David Silva should take them up another notch.
DD: I’m never overly optimistic, but I’m going to jinx my beloved Chelsea. Without an Africa Cup of Nations getting in the way a fresher, younger Chelsea squad should at least equal last season’s triumphs.
JC: Chelsea. They’ve got the players to grind out results, more so than their rivals. I think the next couple of years will see United rebuild. Arsenal will be closer to winning the title than they have been recently, whilst it will be a season too soon for Man City.
JS: For some reason I can’t see Man United winning it this season. When you look at the squads Chelsea have the strongest side and I think they’ll claim the title again this time around.
SK: I think the points gap between the top six will be smaller than ever this season, but the experience of Chelsea and Manchester United will surely pay off for one of them in the end.
TE: Is it wrong to say Liverpool? It feels sort of wrong. I’ll sound like an idiot saying it, but if everything clicks then I honestly think they could be in with a chance of winning the title. It’ll probably be Ancelotti’s mob though.
TG: Manchester United. They’re always there or thereabouts and are probably the most likely.
ZH: Manchester United should be favourites with their strength in depth despite falling short last season. I expect Chelsea and Arsenal to run them close, but it will/should be United’s year again.
Will Jose Mourinho bring the good times back to Real Madrid?
BL: If trophies constitute “good times” then the Portuguese will have the Real fans smiling before long. Mourinho’s style of play has been called into question, but, with Barcelona stronger than ever, Madrid simply need to win. They’ve got themselves a winner.
BT: There are parallels with the return of Capello in Madrid in 2006. Even though the Italian won the league he was criticised for the way his team played. Then they sacked him. I can see the same thing happening to Mourinho.
DB: Who’d bet against Jose? Then again, Barca have signed David Villa! It’s so difficult to predict. His appointment reminds me of Capello taking the England job – if he fails, where else can they turn?
DD: No. The buck has to stop somewhere and I believe overcoming Barcelona with the crop of players he has at his disposal will be a step too far. His obsession with the Catalans could also prove self-destructive.
JC: He’ll certainly close the gap on Barcelona, but I’m not sure he’ll win the league. I can see them winning the Champions League though. In terms of “good times” I can’t see him bringing massively attractive football to Madrid.
JS: I think so, yes. Mourinho is, in my opinion, the ideal coach for Real, but Barcelona are a huge obstacle to his success.
SK: Without wanting to sound too much like Richard Keys, if there’s a manager that can bring success back to the Bernabeu it’s Mourinho. The question is whether he’ll be allowed to do it his way and not be forced out because his tactics are “unattractive”.
TE: I’m undecided. He’s the era’s greatest manager, but in Barca he’s up against its best team. I’m expecting to see him find a way of stopping Guardiola’s side when he meets them in league, but I still don’t think that’ll be enough for Madrid to win the title.
TG: If “good times” means La Liga or the Champions League, then no, probably not. Their ‘Clasicos’ should be less embarrassing for them though.
ZH: Why not? A managerial great in the modern game. The Champions League is a realistic target, although the league is far more difficult to call.
First manager to lose his job?
BL: Serie A is so often a managerial graveyard and Gigi Del Neri needs a good start with Juve if he is not to suffer a premature end to his time in Turin. After his heroics with Chievo in the early 2000s, Del Neri suffered three successive sackings. A case of history repeating itself?
BT: Harry Redknapp. He is going to prison.
DB: I’ll go for Alex McLeish. Birmingham were superb last season, perhaps setting the bar too high for themselves. The heightened expectations could see McLeish struggle.
DD: Predictable, but I don’t think Newcastle will stick with Chris Houghton too long, he’s not a big name that they’d be scared of offloading. I reckon he’ll be closely followed by Steve Bruce.
JC: If Villa don’t start well I can’t see O’Neill being around for long, the same goes for Mancini with Man City. It also wouldn’t surprise me if Steve Bruce wasn’t still at Sunderland come the end of the season.
JS: Sam Allardyce. I think Blackburn will be poor this season.
SK: For no particular reason, Owen Coyle, or someone in League One.
TE: If there’s any justice it’ll be “big” Sam Allardyce.
TG: In the Premier League? Chris Houghton.
ZH: It’s got to be Chris Houghton. The axe will fall all too quickly if The Magpies get off to a slow start.
And finally, what do you think will be the season’s major talking point?
BL: With the spotlight on the financial insecurity of several English clubs, the new season’s big issues may yet unfold off the pitch rather than on it. If injuries become frequent a winter break will rise up the agenda.
BT: The new faces in the England squad following the realisation that the country really needs to do something about the future of its national team. I also expect the Bundesliga to get more attention this season following the good performances of Bayern and Germany in recent times.
DB: I think club ownership will be a big issue. From the top down, focusing on checks and balances involving supporter input, something has to be done.
DD: Mourinho hating the Spanish press more than the Italy’s. City’s inevitable trophy whitewash/capitulation/managerial merry-go-round. Barcelona becoming the best team since, well, the Barcelona of 2009. Probably all three. Unless Balotelli head-butts Howard Webb or wears a United shirt to the Christmas do.
JC: The worrying state of Manchester United’s finances while City finish ahead of them. There will be more calls for video replays too.
JS: Perhaps Liverpool’s success in relations to last season’s performances. I think they’ll do very well under Roy Hodgson.
SK: As with most competitions recently, the subject of goal-line technology will be a major talking-point again.
TE: Hopefully ways in which the terrible fashion in which English clubs have been run can be righted. In reality it’ll probably just be who John Terry’s shagging.
TG: The gazillion-way title race.
ZH: The extra officials in European games will be under the spotlight with the debate surrounding technology in sport. One huge mistake and demands for inquests will be all over the back pages again.