The Olympics proved what a wonderfully unpredictable phenomena sport can be... but is predicting the beautiful game the easiest job in the world?
Having spent the past few months cheering the tennis, really deeply appreciating the rowing and spitting foul-mouthed, disbelieving vitriol at the horse dancing, football is, as you may have noticed, back. Following a summer dominated by sport, many of our beloved football personalities (and Gordon Taylor) out there in personality-land have expressed the hope that the marvellous spirit of the Olympics – if you ignore the whole badminton hoo-ha – will rub off on the beautiful game.
Is that really what we want though? Remove the controversy and the pantomime villains from football and the relationship between us fans and the game itself runs the risk of ending up like a passionless marriage, which is something no-one wants. Unless passion isn't really your thing, in which case you might be interested to know that the National Dressage Championships canter into view in just three weeks time.
No, what the Olympics have actually proved is what a wonderfully unpredictable phenomena sport can be. Who would have ever tipped Mo Farah to become both a double gold medal winner and an already-exhausting internet meme almost overnight? Who would have thought that sixty-three consecutive choruses of “Hey Jude” could get just a little bit wearing? And what were the chances of the GB men’s football team reaching a tournament quarter-final, struggling against middling opposition and ultimately meeting a cruel penalty-based end? Oh.
Anyway, those of you with long memories and/or empty lives may recall that this time last year I was delighting in the comfort of the familiar, parachuted as I was back into the Premier League battlefield with a reassuring bout of Joey Barton petulance, a phenomenon which, as it turned out, book-ended the season nicely. Glad I was that at such an angst-riddled time some things remained as certain as night following day.
And, sure enough, certain reassuring patterns have re-emerged again this season. Just as Manchester City came from the behind to snatch the league from the hands of their bitter rivals in the dying seconds of the 2011-12 campaign, so this season began with a topsy-turvy encounter against an unfancied newcomer, falling behind as they did to Southampton only to rally and regroup, emerging 3-2 to the good and probably wondering if this whole 'winning' thing is actually all that tricky after all.
Arsenal too have given us our now-standard opening day goal-famine, while QPR went one better (or worse?) than last season with their traditional home humbling-to-nil, this time at the hands of last years neutrals' favourites Swansea. Shorn of the inspirational Brendan Rogers and with a departed backbone of Caulker, Allen and Sigurdsson, the visitors were widely tipped to struggle. The last thing we expected was a performance of such attacking brio, but here we are, as Michael Laudrup – Danish footballing legend, newly installed Swans boss and all-round lovely bloke – fist-pumped his way along the Loftus Road touchline, a stark contrast to the glowering fury etched on the fizzog of one-man Mark Hughes fanclub Mark Hughes. Who can claim they saw that one coming? Not I, and clearly not Sparky either, as within 72 hours he was busy bidding for stoppers like a mad man at a plug auction.
And who can honestly say they noticed the aforementioned Barton's loan move to Marseille lurking behind the transfer window’s billowy curtain? Once more we must plead ignorance, although the more I think about it, the more sense it sort-of makes. Barton has been all about the broadening of horizons in recent times, what with his reinvention as a wisdom-dispensing, 140-character-abusing, irony-non-comprehending moral crusader, and so a rejuvenating spell east of the channel could be just the ticket. Joe Cole got on rather well in France last season. If Barton manages to return without the aid of the British Embassy, Hughes could probably label it a success.
Further surprise came in the £24m shape of Robin van Persie's move from Arsenal to Manchester United, a departure which, by the Gunner's standards, was completed in whip-smart time. A mere 49 days elapsed between van Persie's non-renewel announcement and his arrival at Old Trafford, and the deal even appeared to take Sir Alex Ferguson by surprise. “If he hadn't told Arsenal he wanted to go to Manchester United, the transfer wouldn't have happened”, wide-eyed Sir, which is a bit like saying “this taxi would never have gotten me home if I hadn't told the driver exactly which road I live on.” Nevertheless, the very mention of the mercurial Dutchman (is there any other kind?) rocking up in Salford would have seen you led away to the madhouse mere weeks ago. Arsenal, for their part, foresaw their captain's departure with the signings of Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud, which means it's entirely possible that Arsene Wenger – and you'll like where I'm going with this – noticed something that the rest of us missed. You just can't write that kind of material.
All of which unexpected to-ing and fro-ing makes me wonder if the role of footballing pundit might actually be the easiest job in the world? As I see it, there appear to be three basic types of prediction one can make as a pundit: the safe pass, the mid-range chancer and the somewhat more impudent, noticed-the-keeper-off-his-line-from-your-own-half effort. Get any of these right and expect to be praised for your foresight and acumen. But what if you’re wrong, I hear you exclaim? No matter, you can simply haul out the time-tested 'it’s a funny old game' defence quicker than Alan Pardew laughs off a common assault.
With that in mind, dear reader, I hereby offer up to you my top tips for the coming Premier League season, presented at no obvious risk to myself or my reputation:
First up, the safe bet, and for me that means Fernando Torres, who, despite an utterly wretched eighteen months of false starts, false hope and more misses than a serial polygamist, will finally come good. With Didier Drogba traipsing off to China to rekindle his friendship with Nicolas Anelka, Roberto Di Matteo will basically have no choice but to tailor Chelsea's attacking impulses to the Spaniards wants. And what Torres wants is incisive, cunning build up and the chance to manoeuvre himself into the kind of positions which accentuate the benefits of his movement and instinct. With players like Mata, Oscar, Ramires and the already-impressive Eden Hazard supplying the bullets, Torres will finally be shooting to kill. That, and he's grown his hair out again.
Next, it’s Everton, who I am confidently naming as my Surprise Package of the Season – or as much of a surprise package as any team which consistently finishes in and around the European places can realistically be. Notoriously slow starters, this year Everton have gotten their transfer business out of the way early, which will be a huge benefit. Having dressed Jack Rodwell up as Danielle Di Rossi and sent him off to the Etihad, David Moyes may for once have some money to burn. History suggests he'll spend it wisely. He's also held onto Phil Jagielka and Leighton Baines whilst securing the permanent return of Steven Pienaar. I'm calling a top six finish for the Toffeemen – and their opening weekend victory over United means I'm already feeling pretty confident about this one (us pundits like to utilise all the tools available to us, including predicting stuff that's already happened).
Last, and quite possibly least, West Brom, who are the subject of my very own big, brave, ballsier-than-a-night-in-Vegas-with-Prince-Harry, long-shot prediction. Having said a tearful goodbye – and a much-needed goodluck – to the departing Roy Hodgson at last season’s end, the Albion begin the new campaign under their fourth coach (permanent or otherwise) in a shade over 18 months. Despite bolstering their goal scoring options with Romelu Lukaku and Sweden’s Markus Rosenberg, I worry for West Brom because Steve Clarke, in his first managerial role, will have to learn on the job. The history of assistants successfully moving to the front of the dugout is neither a particularly long nor decorated one, and it is for this reason that I am tipping the Baggies for the drop.
Now don’t forget: if Torres ends up spending the second half of the season on loan at Torquay, Everton suffer relegation for the first time in 62 years and West Brom snatch an unlikely Champions League berth, don't go blaming me. It is, after all, a funny old game.