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Ready for Kick-off: Premier League Fantasy Football 09/10

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Who will play more, Lee Cattermole or Anderson? Not usually a question that truly matters in the wide context of Premier League football, but then as we already know, Fantasy Premier League is a different territory entirely.

With just days to go until the start of the 2009/10 English Premier League season, armchairs and swivel chairs are getting very sweaty indeed as managers look to finalise the last details of their title-challenging squad. Welcome ladies and gentlemen to my new column, which should give players the low-down on what’s hot, what’s not, and what might be in the coming weeks.

1. Star Names

Phew! Thank god he’s gone eh? Now the rest of us can have a chance. Cristiano Ronaldo, having monopolised the Fantasy Premier League scoring charts for the best part of two seasons, may have departed for the gleaming white of Real Madrid, but still the league retains some of the best point-scoring stars in the world. And with Manchester City flashing cash like a lawyer in a strip joint, there are now eleven 10m+ players to choose from, now spread tantalisingly across five teams.

The usual suspects are there of course, in midfield Steven Gerrard & Frank Lampard daren’t be separated by anyone so they sit atop the price list at £12.5m apiece- though Lampard has outscored his peer for two of the past three seasons, and faces an easier opening day fixture than Stevie G. Behind them Andrey Arshavin is intriguingly classed as a midfielder, and bracketed at £11m, with his Arsenal skipper Cesc Fàbregas close at heel at £10.5m.

In the forwards section things hot up. Nicolas Anelka was the Premier League’s top scorer last season, but the guys at Premierleague.com obviously believe that in Fernando Torres, Wayne Rooney & Didier Drogba, the Chelsea man has stiff competition this term. Torres leads the way at £11.5m, with Rooney second at £11m, and the Chelsea pair of Drogba & Anelka tied on £10.5m. Behind them, there is a three way tie for “Best of the Rest” supremacy, with Dimitar Berbatov, Robin Van Persie & Emmanuel Adebayor busting banks nationwide at £10m.

2. Last season’s stars

But it isn’t all about big names and big egos you know. There is something reassuring about picking a player as a money-saver early in the season, and then watching as he matures into a match-winning contributor. The trouble with these players is, naturally, that their price inflates on the back of the good season, and players have to judge whether or not they can maintain their form for a second season.

Brede Hangeland, on the face of it, shouldn’t have too much difficulty in this respect. The giant Norwegian had a sterling campaign with Fulham last term out, and has been courted by Arsenal & Aston Villa over the summer. At £5.5m he falls into the second bracket of defenders, but with the shrewd Roy Hodgson set to keep a similar looking line-up down at Craven Cottage, he can be reasonably expected to justify his price, especially with his aerial prowess from attacking set pieces.

Likewise the likes of Thomas Sørensen & Ryan Shawcross at Stoke. The Potters defied expectations to finish 12th last season, and possessed one of the best home records in the league. Sørensen may not be the flashiest of keepers, but at £4m he represents value for money in the truest sense of the word. Shawcross is a defender maturing every day, and his goal threat from corners and free kicks is ever-increasing. For £4.5m he should be considered at least for a bench slot.

Keep an eye on the seemingly less glamorous sides as the season progresses, it is here where the real bargains lie. Last season the likes of Maynor Figueroa (Wigan), Michael Turner (Hull), Danny Murphy (Fulham), Gretar Steinsson (Bolton), Kevin Davies (Bolton) & Carlton Cole (West Ham) offered marvellous value for relatively low fees, and most of these players, plus plenty others, look good to repeat the trick this season.

3. The newly promoted sides

As a general rule, it can be dangerous to load your side with players from the newly promoted sides. After all, no-one knows at this stage whether Wolves, Birmingham & Burnley are likely to be a Stoke kind of side, or a Derby kind of side. In addition, Mick McCarthy, Alex McLeish & Owen Coyle have been busy this summer bolstering their squad, meaning that trying to guess their respective starting XI’s is rather difficult.

The upshot of the newboys of course is that their players tend to be pretty low priced. Ideal for squad building. And of course you might just find a gem or two- think Shawcross at Stoke last season, or Geovanni at Hull. In that respect, Wolves’ top-scorer Sylvan Ebanks-Blake looks a decent bet as a third striker, priced at £5.5m. The 23 year old racked up 25 goals last season, and will be looking to hit the ground running in the manner of contemporaries such as Marcus Stewart, Kevin Phillips, and his new strike partner Kevin Doyle, all of whom came from First Division to top flight and continued their scoring form.

Elsewhere, finding hidden talent is not so easy. Burnley were the surprise promoted team last season, but their squad looks threadbare both in quantity, and quality. The Scotsman Graeme Alexander may represent a useful punt, he is listed as a defender but often plays in midfield, and his penalty taking skills mean he may just offer a return on his £4.5m price tag.

For Birmingham, the exciting Ecuadorian striker Cristian Benítez broke Brum’s bank at £7.7m, but a shoulder injury looks set to delay the start of his season. Perhaps on-loan goalkeeper Joe Hart (£4m) represents a safer bet, although an opening weekend trip to Manchester United means an alternative will likely be required.

4. New signings

First thing people check when they go on the new season’s game, I guarantee. How much are the newboys valued at? How many can I get in? The truth is, it can be a dangerous game. New signings are exciting, but not all of them set the world alight from the off. There are exceptions of course, Fernando Torres & Jermain Defoe both started strongly at their new clubs over the past two years (Defoe twice), but for every one of those, there is another- Robbie Keane, Johan Elmander, David Nugent- that hasn’t. The key is to study both fixture list, and player history.

Manchester City have been the most high-profile spenders this summer, recruiting Premier League nous in abundance with the likes of Emmanuel Adebayor, Carlos Tévez, Gareth Barry, Kolo Touré & Roque Santa Cruz. Of those, Barry & Touré are pretty much certs to start at a decent level, whilst the other three look a lot less sure-fire- especially Santa Cruz, whose tendonitis problem is set to curtail the start of his season and possibly hamper the rest of it too.

At Manchester United, a lot of weight will be placed on the shoulders of their two main signings- Michael Owen & Antonio Valencia. Stepping into the poser-shaped shadow at Old Trafford will be tough, and neither player is guaranteed a starting berth, despite useful performances in pre-season.

Liverpool have picked up just two new signings this summer (assuming Alberto Aquilani’s deal goes through as expected), but in Glen Johnson they have certainly obtained a ready-made first-teamer. His price tag (£7.5m) is indicative of a good campaign last season, and his attacking raids from full back mean he offers a great defensive option, particularly with Rafa Benítez’s side so well drilled in picking up clean sheets.

Elsewhere, you might want to have a look at the likes of Peter Crouch at Tottenham (£7.5m), Darren Bent at Sunderland (£7m) and Yuri Zhirkov of Chelsea (£7.5m) as examples of new signings that could start the season in fine style.

5. My team

Ok, cards on the table time. Money where mouth is and all that. I must confess I used a bold tactic this summer, with star names taking priority over lesser lites in attacking positions. It left me short in some areas, but I think I have compensated with a good blend of lower table players, and the odd nifty bargain too.

So ok, two newly promoted keepers is a gamble. Especially with Wolves having added Marcus Hahnemann this summer, but at £4m both Joe Hart (Birmingham), and Wayne Hennessey (Wolves) should be worked hard enough to pick up a few points. I did consider Thomas Sorensen of Stoke, but having two players from the same team in your backline is risky.

At the back, Hangeland, Shawcross & Figueroa all had stellar seasons last term (and offer the threat of goals/assists), whilst Kamil Zayatte of Hull & Wolves’ Kevin Foley should be first choice players for their clubs, and represented bargain basement picks.

Midfield sees Lampard & Fàbregas, two of the most consistent points scorers when fit, capable of both goals and assists. Anderson should, theoretically, take on greater attacking responsibility this season and at £5m could be the bargain of the season, whilst Charles N’Zogbiais fast developing into a fine attacking midfielder at Wigan, and should benefit from Roberto Martinez’s slick style of play. At £5.5m, he looks nifty business. His team-mate James McCarthy, signed from Hamilton this summer for £3m, is a gamble but was SPL young player of the season last term and has a big future ahead of him.

Up front it is a big name trio. Didier Drogba saw his last campaign wrecked by injury, but if he stays injury free is arguably the most complete forward in the league. A new contract should ensure he stays focused, whilst Wayne Rooney should step into the void left by Ronaldo at Manchester United with typical aplomb, and Emmanuel Adebayor will undoubtedly be the focal point of a Manchester City side intent on busting into the big four cartel this season.

This team of course is subject to change before the start of the season- and the observant among you will notice it lacks any Liverpool players (points over principles!)- but I fancy its chances this season. Let me know what you think, and if you haven’t already signed up, then do it now you crazy fool, you’ll regret it if you don’t!

6. The best Fantasy Football League this season

And don’t forget to enter your team in our very own fantasy football league for the upcoming season. Pit your wits against all the experts from the site (and me!), make sure you have a leg up on your opponents by getting the best fantasy football tips and get discussing things on our message boards. I’ve already revealed mine (provisional side), lets hear what you have to say about it, and yours!