The 2012-13 English Premier League season kicks off next weekend, so it's time to make some predictions on the upcoming campaign. Here is how I think the season will play out:
1. Manchester City - the defending champions have the best goalkeeper in the league and some tough stalwarts in the back, but where they are most dangerous are up front. Carlos Tevez was stellar at the end of last season and will lead the attack, but Mario Balotelli is coming off an amazing Euro 2012 tournament for Italy and might be ready to become one of the finest forwards in the world. Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko would be leading goal scorers on most other clubs but will be complementary for City unless Tevez is sold or Balotelli continues his trend of behavioral problems.
2. Manchester United - last year's runners up are hungry after just missing back-to-back EPL championships, but they did not make many changes to their roster for the upcoming season. Shinji Kagawa will be an entertaining player to watch in the midfield, creating for the likes of Wayne Rooney and Chicharito, though continued rumors surrounding Robin Van Persie may cost the Mexican star playing time. RVP may make the difference for Red Devils.
3. Chelsea - many forget that the surprise winners of last year's Champions League only finished sixth in the EPL standings and would not have qualified for this year's CL if not for their win over Bayern Munich in the final. This year's club is without star forward Didier Drogba, but the additions of Brazilian star Oscar and Eden Hazard from Belgium add star power to a strong club.
4. Arsenal - all Arsenal fan eyes are pointed toward star forward Robin Van Persie, who is in the final season of his contract and said in the off-season that he would not resign. Many of the top clubs in the EPL and some outside the league are rumored to be inquiring about RVP, but no move has been made yet. If RVP stays with Arsenal, they should compete for another Champions League berth. Spain's Santi Casorla and Germany's Lukas Podolski will add creativity and firepower to the attack.
5. Tottenham - another team seemingly in limbo, as Emmanuel Adebayor is scheduled to return to Manchester City after being loaned to Tottenham last year and Luka Modric is being courted by Real Madrid. If Tottenham loses these two stars and does not reinvest that money quickly, they could be looking at a mid-table finish. That said, new manager Andre Villas-Boas will likely see some new faces coming in with that lost talent and rally the troops to a Europa League berth.
6. Liverpool - Brendan Rogers takes over the helm of one of last season's most enigmatic clubs. Liverpool finished eighth - its worst league finish in nearly two decades - but made it to the final of the FA Cup and won the Carling Cup. The offensive attack is in good shape led by Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll, with Italian signing Fabio Borini added to the group and American star Clint Dempsey a likely signing in the coming days from Fulham.
7. Everton - the Blues may finally have some serious talent on David Moyes' perennially overachieving squad. Steven Naismith and Steven Pienaar join last year's signing of striker Nikica Jelavic to give Everton a decent attack, while Leighton Baines and John Heitinga stabilize a decent set of fullbacks. Tim Howard remains one of the finest netminders in the league.
8. Newcastle United - Alan Pardew led the biggest surprise on the positive side in last year's season, but the bar has certainly been raised. Demba Ba unleashed an amazing scoring campaign and will be called on again to lead the attack for a squad that did not make many changes in the offseason. A mid-season transfer window pick up or two could do wonders for their upcoming season.
9. Fulham - like Arsenal, Fulham is in a bit of limbo with the uncertainty surrounding one of its biggest stars...in this case, Clint Dempsey who scored an amazing 23 goals last season. Dempsey looks to be all but gone to Liverpool, so Fulham must get more consistent contributions from the likes of Bryan Ruiz and Moussa Dembele.
10. Norwich City - the Canaries had a solid, mid-table return to the EPL last year. Led by Grant Holt and Steve Morison, they never were really in danger of relegation and that's about all you can hope for in the first year of an EPL tenure.
11. West Bromwich Albion - WBA finished last season about as strongly as any squad, and recent loan signing of Chelsea forward Romelu Lukaku should help significantly if he comes in hungry and pairs up well with Peter Odemwingie.
12. Sunderland - coming off a solid campaign, Martin O'Neill looks to get Sunderland into the top half of the table led by youngsters in forward Nicklas Bendtner and winger James McClean. Transfer target Steven Fletcher from Wolves would be a great addition to its offensive attack.
13. Swansea City - the loss of manager Brendan Rogers to Liverpool is significant, but Swansea still has some serious talent up front with Scott Sinclair and Danny Graham.
14. Southampton - promoted side finished second in the Championship last year, but had the highest goal differential and possesses a potent attack led by Richard Lambert, who scored 29 goals in all competitions last season. Adam Lallana is a young midfielder to watch.
15. Reading - last year's Championship winner is a more conservative side than Southampton, relying more on its defense, solid goalkeeper Adam Federici, and balanced scoring to lead the way. Young forward Adam Le Fondre is someone to keep an eye on, as he scored 12 goals in 16 games for Reading after being picked up from Rotherham United in League Two.
16. Stoke City - Peter Crouch and the Potters sounds like a bluegrass band, but that's what Stoke City (nicknamed the Potters) often looks to offensively, with the 6' 7" forward posing a great threat on set pieces. Stoke needs an influx of young talent and its aging squad could be in trouble late in the season in what should be another closely packed group at the bottom of the table fighting to stave off relegation.
17. Wigan Athletic - it seems every year that Roberto Martinez puts in a yeoman effort to keep Wigan in the Premier League. Wigan entered the EPL in 2005 for the first time in club history and has remained there ever since, but this looks like another year where it will be a challenge to stay in the top tier.
18. Aston Villa - The Villains are a squad in peril, having reported to lose £53.9 million last season and barely avoiding relegation. Villa is one of the founding members of the Premier League, but this might spell the end of their time in the league for a while unless owner Randy Lerner can finalize his sale of the NFL's Cleveland Browns quickly and pour his profit from that transaction into the squad. Darren Bent and Gabriel Agbonlahor lead a decent offensive attack that could make some noise if Lerner can spend some money and bring in good talent behind the forwards.
19. West Ham United - the third of the promoted sides, West Ham has some scorers up front in Carlton Cole and Kevin Nolan and could make a run at staying up in the EPL, but its back is suspect with Robert Green in goal and some suspects in front of him.
20. Queens Park Rangers - QPR's season ended in high drama, as they blew a late lead to Manchester City that gave City the EPL regular season crown. Enigmatic Joey Barton was red carded in that match, likely his final one for QPR due to a series of issues both on and off the field. QPR showed some pride late last season by winning five straight home wins and solidifying its return to the EPL, but this year I can't see them staying up.