It's risky to write this article before the almost inevitable rash of international fixture injuries occur but we will have to deal with those on Friday evening before we lock in opening day teams for good. So with that in mind, here are the next 5 previews for the new season, including three teams in the so called big five:
Projected Team: Reina, Insua (Auerlio), Skrtel, Carragher, Johnson, Mascherano, Lucas (Aquilani), Riera, Kuyt, Gerrard, Torres
Liverpool came close to great things last year and fairly argue that they might have snatched the title had Torres (11.5m) played the whole season. However Benitez hasn't really built on this success with major squad improvements with Johnson for Arbeloa and Aquilani for Xabi looking like maintaining the status quo (at best). In fantasy terms we can expect similar levels of performance to last year, with Gerrard (12.5m) and Torres the undoubted stars, surrounded by a few others who can contribute on a weekly basis.
At the back the value pick looks likely to be Martin Skrtel (6m) provided he shakes off injuries and the competition from Daniel Agger (6.5m). Insua (6m) also looks to be good value, though it is likely that Fabio Aurelio will regain his spot at left back when fit, despite the impressive showings of the young Argentine. Johnson (7.5m) will be a popular selection based on the assumption that anyone who can score 115 points on a poor Pompey team can top 150 in a solid Liverpool side, but the caveat here is that Benitez will restrain the English fullback somewhat and his freedom to roam the wings will be limited. Expect therefore an increase in defensive points to be offset by a decline in offensive scoring, resulting in a smaller net increase than one would think.
In midfield, all things start with Gerrard, especially after the departure of Xabi to Real Madrid. While I prefer Lampard, there would be no arguments heard against taking Gerrard over his English colleague as they represent positions 1a and 1b at the top of the fantasy charts. Alongside him is a bit unclear, and only really Kuyt (9.5m) is guaranteed consistent minutes on a weekly basis. I like Riera (7m) to have a bit of a breakout year, coming in around the 140 point mark with around 5 goals and 8+ assists. Mascherano (5m) could be the best bench player around as he is guaranteed to play every minute when fit (assuming he doesn't move to the Camp Nou) and should chip in with the odd goal or assist as well as plenty of clean sheet points. He may be allowed more freedom when partnered with Lucas (5m) than when Aquilani (7.5m) steps into the team, if he ever recovers from what appears to have been a 2 year injury. The former Roma is just too unknown and injury prone to warrant consideration for now.
Up front for the Reds starts and ends with Torres, who is really Liverpool's only Premier League quality striker. I like the Spaniard to top the scoring charts this year and can see him eclipsing the 24 he scored in his debut season in 2007/08 (on his way to a 193 point season). Yes he is expensive but I think the only player with this much potential for less money is Drogba (10.5m) and the question marks surrounding him are much greater than El Nino. He did pick up a knock against former team Athletico last week, but Benitez has urged Spain to wrap him in cotton wool and we can expect him fit for the opening game at Spurs for now.
Recommendation: Obviously, Gerrard is a great pick but better value can possibly be had with Fernando Torres. With 36.5% of all players selecting him, he might just be the new Ronaldo in that you simply have to have him.
Projected Team: Given, Richards, Dunne, Toure, Bridge, De Jong, Barry, Ireland, Robinho, Adebayor, Tevez
Of all the team previews, this projected team is probably the hardest as I am not even sure what formation Hughes will go with. One assumes he will deploy the 4-3-3 based on his excellent strike force but recent friendlies against Celtic and Rangers have seen them start 4-4-2. Come kick off on Saturday I think Hughes will be unable to resist deploying three of his 'big four' with Santa Cruz the odd one out due to injury.
At the back City look set to improve on last year based on the capture of Toure and the potential arrival of Lescott. Even without the Everton back, the defence looks solid and should build on the decent total of 10 clean sheets from last term. Although Dunne (5m) is the cheapest of the bunch, I think his time in the first team is limited and he will be replaced soon either by a new signing (Lescott, Upson etc) or even youngster Onuoha. The pick I like best is therefore Wayne Bridge (5.5m) who has little competition at left back and should contribute the odd assist (as he did against Celtic last weekend) to his defensive total.
City's midfield looks very appealing with Ireland (9m), Barry (8m) and De Jong (5m) all having potential fantasy value. Despite his meteoric rise in price, Ireland still looks like he has room to grow, as he looks to play the Iniesta role if City deploy the 4-3-3. After the new big three of Lampard, Gerrard and Arshavin, Ireland is by far the next best option, even ahead of Fabregas who I am a huge admirer of. The protection afforded by Barry and De Jong/Kompany will allow Ireland to pull the strings behind perhaps the best strikeforce around and 180 points isn't out of the question. Barry (8m) has a lower ceiling but should continue along the same lines of the past 3 seasons with 150 or so points. The danger is that he will lose out on penalty and free kick duties which has been the life blood of his points whilst at Villa. De Jong (5m) and Kompany (5m) are comparable to Mascherano, Mikel and Neville who if played every week will provide a good source of 3 and 4 point weeks.
Up front is really where the action happens, with perhaps the best strikeforce in the Premier League. Adebayor (10m) should play the most minutes and has the highest ceiling of all City players, as highlighted by his 24 goals, 200 point 2007/08 season. However, his temperament is questionable at best and if things don't go well early well, expect the former Arsenal man to start sulking once more. Robinho (9.5m) is unlikely to bag 20 goals but his 14 goal tally from last year was impressive and he could certainly replicate that total again, along with a few more assists and bonuses. Tevez (8.5m) looks too likely to be rotated to be a fantasy starter right now.
Recommendation: Stephen Ireland's value has increased by 4.5m from last year but he still looks good value and the only way is up for the Irishman.
Projected Team: Van der Sar, Evra, Vidic, Ferdinand, Brown, Valencia, Carrick, Fletcher, Park, Rooney, Berbatov
For such a good team there are relatively few fantasy studs here, largely due to the depth of the squad which makes all but a select few likely to suffer from rotation all season.
The back four looks the most settled with only the right back slot (and a temporary goalkeeper spot) up for grabs. I have put Brown (6m) in for now but O'Shea (5.5m) looks set to start the season in his absence and could well end up with the most minutes come season end. Vidic (8m) is held by some 16% of all fantasy players but I think he is slightly overvalued as 27 of his points last year were 'non defensive'. Without those he scored just 5 points more than Jamie Carragher who can be had for a whole 1m less. You are effectively therefore betting 1m every week that Vidic will either score or win bonus points or else you are not getting the best value for money. I do not like to count on my defenders for anything but clean sheets so I will be staying away for now.
The midfield is a fantasy mess though a potential star is Carrick (7.5m) who has not yet had the 'wow' season where he pulls it all together. Limited to just 24 appearances last term, the former Hammer still managed 4 goals, 8 assists and 21 bonus points, which over a 35+ appearance translates to 183 points (.698 PPMS). With Ronaldo gone, even more of the play will flow through Carrick and he could take the next step to being considered a great, rather than a good player. Valencia's (8.5m) good off season was brought down to earth by the fact he started on the bench against Chelsea, though Nani's injury will at least ensure the ex-Wigan winger gets a few chances to impress early on. Unless he starts taking a significant amount of set pieces I think better values lies with a player that is the focal point of a team, such as Ireland, Arteta or Modric. Anderson (5m) has the highest room for value, though with just 11 games last year and zero goals (he broke his United duck in pre-season) it is hard to back the youngster just yet.
Up front, many are talking about Owen (8.5m) but better value might be found in Berbatov (10m) whose extra minutes might justify the extra 1.5m. Ferguson has been singing the Bulgarian's praises of late and a 15-18 goal season is not out of the question. With that should come 160+ points, considering that Ronaldo's almost inevitable 3 bonus points are now up for grabs. The main beneficiary of those however could be Rooney (11m) who the pundits simply can't get enough of. Rooney's goalscoring has been consistent (12, 12, 14, 16, 11) whilst at Old Trafford but 11m is a steep price for a player who has topped 25 appearances and 12 goals once in the past three years. Yes he will improve from last year, but for 0.5m more you could have Torres, and for 0.5m less you could have Drogba so for me Rooney owners are paying the Englishman premium so often suffered by real life managers.
Recommendation: I would love to say Anderson here but I think he may still be a season away from greatness. Therefore its all about Michael Carrick who could develop into the puppet master for this team and a real fantasy bargain over the coming weeks and months.
Projected Team: James, Hreidarsson, Campbell, Distin, Kaboul, Belhadj, Kranjcar, Mullins, Vanden Borre , Nugent, Piquionne
On paper, Pompey's squad looks quite weak, but the team has enough ability to cause team's problems and if Paul Hart can get them to gel, they should do okay this year. With the financial future of the club looking uncertain, Hart has made the best of it and despite the losses of Johnson, Crouch and Davis, the team is still made up up 10 internationals, with only Mullins yet to get a cap for his national team.
The defence was pretty poor last year, shipping 57 goals, 5th worst in the league. No improvements have been made and Johnson is now playing his trade in Liverpool. However, if the group can stay fit they should be better, but probably not enough to be fantasy starters. The arrival of former Liverpool fan Steve Finnan (4.5m) could be interesting if he can force his way into the side as is the arrival of the much heralded Anthony Vanden Borre, who is yet to be added to the game but could be useful is classified as a defender. If a sub-5m player can force his way in then consider him for bench, if not then look elsewhere until Hart can prove he has better control of his ageing backs.
The midfield talent starts and ends with Niko Kranjcar (7m), who is valued at 2m more than his teammates. Kranjcar has already stated that he is leaving the club, which does not put him on a great footing for the start of the season. He has the talent but has never delivered, with his best season coming in 2007/08 when he scored 4 goals and added 4 assist for a solid but uninspiring 118 points. At 7m he is grossly overvalued compared with the likes of Carrick and Modric and I would advise all to stay away for now.
One week ago I would have concluded in one line that Pompey have no strikers worth considering (sorry Nugent, I'm not convinced). However, one debut and two goals later, Frederic Piquionne (5.5m) looks like he deserves at least some investigation. The Frenchman has not been prolific in his career, scoring 14 goals in 65 games whilst at Monaco and Lyon in the last 2 years, so we shouldn't expect too much too soon. However, for a player with little competition , he should play every week and 8-10 goals is a reasonable expectation. I personally prefer Ebanks-Blake (5.5m) but Piquionne may be worth a look if your bench needs a cheap striker.
Recommendation: If Vanden Borre is classed as a defender he could get enough midfield appearances to be good value. If not, then there isn't too much here to recommend so I'll go with new boy Piquionne to be a decent sub option.
Projected Team: Sorensen, Wilkinson, Faye, Shawcross, Higginbotham, Etherington, Delap, Whitehead, Lawrence, Fuller, Beattie
Stoke had a wonderful season last year, with their home form good enough to keep them up. The team is largely unchanged though the depth is much improved and should allow for better consistency this year. The attacking quality in midfield is still lacking a bit and the Potters might slip down the league a bit, but they should have enough to remain in the top flight this year.
I don't normally highlight 'keepers but at 4m Sorensen is a absolute steal and is a no brainer to have on the bench or in a rotation strategy. So long as Wilkinson (4m) holds off the challenge of Andy Griffin (4.5m) he will also be a great option for your bench and should warrant starting consideration when Stoke are at home against a weaker side.
The midfield depth has been improved but still lacks sufficient quality to warrant fantasy consideration. Etherington's (5.5m) 2 goals and 4 assists in 20 games look promising though I feel better options are available at this price. Delap (5.5m) gets alot of attention for his long throws, which do cause havoc, but he is often not credited with an assist as the ball cannons around, and he notched a decent 6 last year on his way to 106 points. Again, better options can be found elsewhere.
Up front Stoke have an underrated strikeforce as both Beattie (6m) and Fuller (6m) know where the net is and both could score in double digits this year. I like Beattie more due to his consistency and bonus point potential (12 in 16 games last season) though Fuller is also worth looking at. For 6m, Beattie is the safest bet around who should reach double digits providing he gets enough games (he has reached double digits in every season he has played more than 18 games).
Recommendation: James Beattie is the pick of this side, with the potential to outscore anyone available for under 8m. Green light games in weeks 3, 5 and 7 make the journeyman a good addition to open the season with.