It has been a crazy summer of sport, with an excellent European Championships in Poland and the Ukraine followed by a sensational Olympics here in London. We have the Paralympics starting in 10 days time but before we can even take a breath it's time for the return of the English Premier League. The last competitive club football I witnessed was the Champions League final in May and I've been trying to forget it ever since, so a new season with a clean slate can't start soon enough. It also means the return of Yahoo Fantasy Football which is just plain awesome.
Aside from Chelsea, the off-season has been surprisingly quiet transfer-wise, or at least it seems that way (I haven't seen any "total spend" figures yet), with the two transfers that were likely to start a merry-go-round, Luka Modric to Real Madrid and Robin van Persie to Manchester United or Manchester City yet to be completed (UPDATE: both moves look set to go through within 48 hours). I imagine there will be plenty of movement before deadline day on 31st August, but it would be nice if the season was able to begin with all teams having their cards on the table.
With Modric training on his own and extremely unlikely to be included in the squad, it has echoes of the beginning of last season when an under strength team lost the first two games of the season by an aggregate of 8-1 to the Manchester clubs. At least Spurs actually play in Week 1 this season; remember last season's opener against Everton was postponed due to the riots in North London.
Anyway, as I mentioned in my Early Week 1 Team post it's a double week for just two teams, Chelsea and Reading. This a bit of a shame - I really dislike "Two Team DWs" as it limits your scope massively, so it's not an ideal way for a new fantasy season to kick-off, but needs must and you'll need to fix up your side with a number of players from these two teams to give yourself a chance of two rounds of points.
CHELSEA: @Wigan, Reading
READING: Stoke, @Chelsea
Chelsea are the pick of the bunch by far as the Blues face two relatively easy fixtures away at Wigan and of course, Reading (at home), while Reading themselves host Stoke at home before they visit Stamford Bridge.
MANCHESTER CITY v Southampton
ARSENAL v Sunderland
Aside from Chelsea and Reading there has to be some interest in Manchester City players as they face newly promoted Southampton at home and Arsenal who I expect to beat Sunderland at home quite comfortably. I would be focusing on these four teams unless you have a hunch from one of the other 16 Premier League sides.
Now on to my player picks. Unsurprisingly they are Chelsea heavy and VERY similar to Neal's in The Week Ahead. That's probably a good sign, so here we go ...
Get Petr Cech in your team. In my opinion he is the only goalkeeper worth considering for Week 1 at a cost of just over 10. He is guaranteed two games (unless he gets injured or sent off) and Chelsea should pick up at least one clean sheet. Personally I don't feel it's worth spending 16 on Joe Hart when you have two game Cech for 6 units less. If this recommendation fails I will publish my address on the blog which will allow you to hunt me down and hit me with big sticks.
I believe you should pick a minimum of two Chelsea defenders for Week 1 and I'm fairly certain the three I have listed above will start both games. Branislav Ivanovic avoided a suspension for his red card on Sunday and remains the only right-back in the squad, Ashley Cole has made the left back spot his own for over the past 6 years and John Terry will start if he's fit. I am considering picking all three, but at the moment I'm going for two.
The third defender I'm considering is Reading's Ian Harte, who has been around for the best part of two decades and is one of the best penalty takers I have ever seen. He weighs in with his share of free-kicks and corners and is priced at 6.01 so with Reading playing twice he should be seriously considered. I do have a slight concern a 36 years old may struggle to play twice in a few days, but his experience will be vital so I'll probably take a punt.
From the single gamers Vertonghen is tempting at his entry price and if I don't pick him up for Newcastle I'll definitely be grabbing him for Week 2 onwards as a possible season-keeper. Another potential season keeper is Fabio, on loan at Queens Park Rangers this season and priced at just 2.25. Finally, if you think Arsenal can keep out Sunderland or just fancy some attacking full back points, Kieran Gibbs is priced at 7ish.
There is a real lack of two-game options in Chelsea's midfield with Marko Marin an injury doubt, Oscar only just joining up with his new team and Frank Lampard expensive, playing an England friendly tonight and no longer a certain starter anyway, so for those reasons I'm probably sticking with Ramires as my only representative. He is inconsistent but has a goal in him with his surges in to the box and his well priced for the kick-off. My Reading representative an old favourite of mine from his Crystal Palace days, Jobi McAnuff, who was the creative fulcrum in his club's promotion last season and could make name for himself in the big leagues.
I've not seen too much of Arsenal's new signing Santi Cazorla but I trust Neal and other Gunner-type mates who have told me that this guy is the real deal and could be a fantasy steal at his current price below 6, with a winnable home game against Sunderland. Manchester United's entry-priced Shinji Kagawa could also be worth a punt at slow-starting Everton and I really wish it has been single matches all-round for all so we could've invested in far more of these new signings in Week 1. Anyway, back at Reading, Danny Guthrie is another potential double gamer at a phenomenally low price who will get to take the odd set piece. Don't expect a hat-full of points, but Guthrie could easily return double figures across two matches.
If you want a Manchester City midfielder then I have a hunch that Yaya Toure is your man ahead of David Silva or Samir Nasri and this leads me to my big hunch of the week. I was going to keep it to myself but what would kinda defeat the point of writing for a fantasy advice blog, so step forward West Ham's Mark Noble. He's the penalty taker at Upton park, he takes most other kicks and The Hammers have a decent chance of a result against Aston Villa with the home fans behind them. He's also performed well in the fantasy game in previous season, so he'll be taking a slot in my side. I'm also throwing Michael Essien in as a filler who should play some part in both matches for Chelsea.
Exactly the same strikers as Neal has recommended plus Juan Mata. I expect Eden Hazard and Fernando Torres to start both matches and with Chelsea playing two nice fixtures I expect goals for both men. Mata has been involved in tournaments all summer so is a slight risk, but he's also key to how Chelsea play so I imagine he'll start and be subbed early if fatigue sets in. For Reading, Pavel Pogrebnyak is the only option and a pretty good one at that if you're looking for an affordable "double week" forward.
You'll pay big bucks for Sergio Aguero but I'm currently considering doing just that as I expect him to pick up where he left off last season at home to newly-promoted Southampton with at least one goal. A cheaper way to get a City striker in is Carlos Tevez who looks in much better shape after a full pre-season, but there is always a chance Mario Balotelli or (less likely) Edin Dzeko get a start. Finally, Lukas Podolski has been bagging goals in pre-season so he's my pick of the Arsenal forward line.
That's it for the players. The opening weekend is notoriously tough to predict line-ups for but we should get some information from the manager's press conferences closer to the deadline so please ensure you check back here on Friday for all the important team, injury and suspension news.
As for my own team, it's remains almost the same as I posted last week ...
Cech, Harte, Ivanovic, Cole, McAnuff, Ramires, Noble, Kagawa, Torres, Hazard, Aguero
... with Noble in for Marin the only change. You can read my in-depth thoughts on the players I've selected HERE, but I expect some adjustments before the first deadline.
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Let me know how your team is shaping up. I'm looking forward to seeing you back here on Saturday morning (UK timezone) for the first Pre-Deadline Countdown Live Chat of the season.