Top of the pops

Top of the pops

1) Erik Lamela (Tottenham)

The so-called Second Album Syndrome is not a problem if the first album was awful.

Fortunately for Lamela, his first season at Tottenham was a shocker. Supposedly one of "The Beatles" signed to replace Elvis (Gareth Bale), the Argentine midfielder proved to be one of The Muppets.

But there was always an element of misfortune, with two managers failing to make the most of Tottenham's record £30-million ($63m) signing from Roma.

Lamela's form and fitness problems didn't help, but there was no doubt that Andre Villas-Boas and Tim Sherwood weren't sure what to make of him. Lamela thus made just nine league appearances.

But the appointment of his compatriot, Mauricio Pochettino, seems to have revitalised the winger.

Three pre-season goals in four matches instilled confidence and the 22-year-old is the kind of intelligent, inventive wide player that Pochettino favoured at Southampton.

Lamela can't get any lower. The only way is up.

2) Wayne Rooney (Man United)

Considering the striker was one of United's most consistent performers last season, it seems ludicrous to suggest that Rooney is sipping a shandy at the last-chance saloon.

But the 29-year-old is trapped inside the body of a battered, heavyweight boxer who went one round too many.

A burly, physical specimen, Rooney has run himself ragged since his Everton debut at 16, perhaps at the expense of a cool, clear head.

The red mist has descended too many times in recent years, as he sulked, complained, demanded a pay rise or agitated for a mood.

But he's finally met his match in the dugout. Louis van Gaal has been dealing with temperamental superstars since Rooney was a scowling Scouse teenager terrifying all-comers in street games.

He won't stand for anything except consistency. Fortunately, his formation favours Rooney's preferred position and playing responsibilities. The bruiser could save his best for the final rounds.

3) Dejan Lovren (Liverpool)

Had the Reds' defence boasted the Croat last season, they might not have succumbed in the title race.

Liverpool's quick pressing game and a lack of pace at the back often left them exposed to a swift counter-attack, as Chelsea demonstrated.

Steven Gerrard was often forced to defend much deeper than he would've liked, occasionally popping up as a third centre back.

Rodgers has fixed this formation flaw with Lovren's signing. Loud, confident and brave, the former Southampton man is very much from the same school of hard knocks as Jamie Carragher.

The retired skipper's physical and vocal presence was sorely missed last season.

A lack of communication undid Liverpool at set-pieces. Like Carragher, Lovren doesn't twist particularly well, but he can certainly shout.

His imperious defending in the opening months of last season was fundamental to Southampton initially having one of the meanest defences in Europe. He is likely to be Rodgers' smartest signing.

4) Diego Costa (Chelsea)

A monster of a man with a chip on his shoulder, Diego Costa is Jose Mourinho's kind of striker.

A wonder goal against Fenerbahce in a pre-season friendly, where he waltzed past four defenders before firing the ball into the net, inspires confidence.

Expectation comes with a £32-million price tag and Costa has something to prove.

His World Cup was horrendous, with no goals, no shots on target and very little pride left after the adopted Spaniard was mercilessly mocked by his home country.

Brazil will never forgive the striker for turning his back on the Selecao and Chelsea supporters are likely to be just as impatient if he ends up being another Fernando Torres.

But the 25-year-old is a muscular menace around the penalty box; a rough-edged Didier Drogba with an eagerness to please.

With the old Ivorian master on hand to offer advice, Costa can have a dream season at the Bridge.

5) Louis van Gaal (Man United)

Of all the managers likely to succeed this season, the Dutchman stands alone.

His experience goes hand in hand with his ego, one feeding the other.

Even if United somehow fail, he is still likely to succeed in some capacity; whether it's through a cup campaign that he masterminds or a late dash for Europe.

Van Gaal will leave his mark like no other manager.

His resources are not entirely to his liking, but the same could be said for Holland.

And yet, he was a penalty shoot-out away from taking them to the World Cup final.

Before a Premier League ball has been kicked, he has already surpassed the negligible achievements of David Moyes.

Under van Gaal, United won all five pre-season friendlies, albeit one through a penalty shoot-out.

He has instilled belief. United aren't likely to win the league, but they'll at least believe they can.

Top of the flops

1) Rickie Lambert (Liverpool)

The Liverpool-born and bred Reds fan (inset) fulfilled a lifelong ambition when he joined the Anfield club, but the Meyseyside Cinderella Man may end up going to the bench more often than the ball.

The Reds have benefited from signing veterans in the past - Gary McAllister springs to mind - and Lambert must do all he can to emulate the Scottish great.

At the moment, his Last Big Job storyline after a late-blooming career has a whiff of Grant Holt about it, though Lambert is undoubtedly the better player.

2) Didier Drogba (Chelsea)

Never swim in the same river twice, particularly when you're older and slower . The temptation must be overwhelming.

Joe Cole, Robbie Fowler and Thierry Henry are just a few examples of stars returning for a final hurrah with varying degrees of success.

At 36, Drogba (below) is older than all of them and re-signing for a title-challenging side.

If he is restricted to minor cameos and half-time speeches, his legacy will endure.

Anything more than that and Drogba risks tarnishing his legendary status at Stamford Bridge.

3) Fernando (Man City)

Manchester City struggled at times without a natural defensive midfielder last season - because he was playing at Everton.

Gareth Barry is now a full-time Toffee and Fernando feels like a poor man's Barry, much less Fernandinho.

The former Porto player has never got close to selection for one of the most abject Brazilian national sides of all time and yet City believe he can perform the role that Luiz Felipe Scolari denied him.

And Scolari reveres industrious, no-frills defensive midfielders.

The 27-year-old will need a cushion for those wintry evenings on a Manchester bench.

4) Andy Carroll (West Ham)

This season will determine whether the injury-prone striker makes amends or goes down as the worst West Ham signing of all time. Considered England's World Cup hope at one point, Carroll now finds himself out again until at least November with an ankle injury, still earning £100,000 ($210,000) a week. If he doesn't fix his fragile body, his career could be over.

5) Mauricio Pochettino (Tottenham)

It never ends well for Spurs managers and Pochettino needs more than his broken English to repair a broken squad.

Tottenham's bloated side have enough dead wood to build a log cabin.

The new manager has inherited haphazard talent and muddled mediocrity.

If he's given time, it would be a first. He needs at least two seasons to fill the holes, but patience has never been a virtue at Tottenham.

This article was first published on August 13, 2014.
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