Armchair Pundit

Premier League predictions: 1st-4th

Alex Chick

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Oh, very daring. The Big Four in the top four.

But before you throw accusations of a chronic imagination deficiency, remember that according to the bookies, Manchester City are third favourites to win the title. The oddsmakers have Liverpool finishing outside the top four again, and City bettering Arsenal.

The lack of change at the top is logical. After a summer in which the transfer market (City aside) pulled the shutters down and went on a three-month lunch break, why would anyone expect the established order to be disrupted?

You only have to look at the top four's very familiar predicted line-ups to see that - unless somebody makes some dramatic moves before the end of the month - it will be more of the same.

So, who will be champions? Scroll down for one man's shot in the dark...

4th - LIVERPOOL (Last season: 7th)

First off, a reminder: the starting XI is based on the current situation at Anfield. If they are taken over and Roy Hodgson literally gets all the tea in China to spend in the transfer market, all bets are off. Javier Mascherano features for the same reason, even though he is surely Inter-bound.

Takeover or not, things are looking up as Roy Hodgson has kept Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard at the club. And the affable Uncle Woy could hardly be more different from the cold, distant Rafa Benitez.

There remain big problems at Anfield - they are just as reliant on a few key players as ever, and one of those (Mascherano) is on his way out. There is still too much dead wood, a situation characterised by the re-signing of Fabio Aurelio.

Everybody seems to love Joe Cole for what he might produce, not what he does. But, at 28, he is no longer a promising talent. He is what he is - a gifted and sometimes decisive midfielder, but inconsistent and a defensive liability. So pretty much the same as Yossi Benayoun, then.

A fit Torres (not a certainty) will make a huge difference, but the key man is Gerrard. Can he return to his former glories, or is he in terminal decline? The answer to that question could define Liverpool's season.

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3rd - ARSENAL (Last season: 3rd)

Arsenal have been touted as dark horses to win the title, but I'm not buying it - even though it looks like Cesc Fabregas is staying.

It is not just that they haven't won a trophy since Patrick Vieira's last kick as a Gunner in 2005. With Vieira, they finished first or second eight seasons in a row. Since his departure, they have never done better than third.

Arsenal Wenger is clearly a genius, uncovering superb young players year after year and competing with the best while turning a net profit in the transfer market. But there are times you just want to lock him in a padded cell while somebody goes out and spends £20 million on a goalkeeper. Just sign Igor Akinfeev. Do it. The upgrade from Manuel Almunia could be worth eight points a season.

In defence, William Gallas will be missed (on the pitch, not off it), and Laurent Koscielny needs to make a quick start.

Jack Wilshere looks set for a senior England call and is a truly exciting talent, but he plays in the attacking midfield position in which Arsenal have an embarrassment of riches. Despite the arrival of Marouane Chamakh, Robin van Persie's fitness (or lack of it) could prove just as important as Fabregas's future.

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2nd - MANCHESTER UNITED (Last season: 2nd)

Mexico striker Javier Hernandez's fine World Cup and sprightly pre-season has created genuine excitement at Old Trafford. He looks like the player Michael Owen used to be - lightning-quick, skilful and a deadly finisher.

It is usually unwise to read too much into a good World Cup (see: Diouf, El Hadji) or pre-season (see: Lupoli, Arturo) so let's give it a couple of months to see exactly what 'Chicharito' is made of. The Hernandez Effect has enlivened an otherwise deathly quiet summer, with the only other arrival Chris Smalling, whose signing was secured in the winter.

There remains huge discontent over the Glazers, and major doubts over how much money Alex Ferguson really has in his transfer kitty. Those Wesley Sneijder and Mesut Ozil transfer rumours certainly came to nothing.

Owen Hargreaves and, increasingly, Rio Ferdinand look crippled by chronic injuries while Michael Owen has warned that the Wembley pitch could cause him yet another twist, tweak or pull. Then there's tobacconists' favourite Wayne Rooney, whose predicament is neatly summarised by Jim White here.

United always contend for silverware, and this season will be no exception. But in a season when the top spot is up for grabs, their failure to recruit more actively could prove their undoing.

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1st - CHELSEA (Last season: 1st)

When trying to pick the champions, you want one team to leap out at you as the cream of the crop. That is not the case with Chelsea, who are top dogs largely because the teams around them have failed to make major improvements.

Having transformed the Blues from a relentless results machine into the Premier League's great entertainers, Carlo Ancelotti could be forgiven for concentrating on the Champions League crown Roman Abramovich so craves. But Chelsea have proved they have the depth and the resilience to compete on all fronts.

Ancelotti's ageing squad would benefit from some fresh legs, and the arrival of Ramires, plus the return of midfield colossus Michael Essien, more than compensates for Michael Ballack's departure. The summer's other senior arrival, Yossi Benayoun, is a proven impact player whom Ancelotti clearly prefers to Joe Cole.

Question marks are growing over John Terry on and off the pitch, particularly in light of an atrocious World Cup, but the former England skipper always reserves his best performances for club level, and Ricardo Carvalho, Alex and Branislav Ivanovic are all on hand should Terry go off the rails completely.

Once again, Chelsea's challenge rests on the attacking touchstones Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba. Both 32, there will come a time when their stellar performance levels drop. But it won't be this season.

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Premier League predictions: 5th-8th | 9th-12th | 13th-16th | 17th-20th

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