james debate
james debate

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Developed by EA Maxis
Published by Electronic Arts
Genre Life Simulation
Platform PC

the sims 4 ea maxis terrible awful disaster debacle simcity electronic arts

Once upon a time there was a great videogame developer called Maxis Software, headed up by legendary designer Will Wright. Wright was the creative force behind some of the most celebrated, early genre defining games ever made, including Sim City, The Sims, and pretty much anything with "Sim" in front of it. Without doubt a legend of the industry, Wright's gift was the ability to take complex or mundane activities, like the ministerial running of a city, the management of an ecosystem, or simply just going through one's daily routine, and turn it into a game that was not only deep and compelling, but accessible to all gamers.

Unfortunately that company no longer exists. Mega-sized videogame publisher EA bought Maxis and all its intellectual properties, killed it, and hung the carcass on its mantle in the form of subsidiary EA Maxis, a company which is linked with the old Maxis in name only, with Wright and all of the original team having left the company soon after the takeover.

But without a doubt Maxis' most commercially successful creation has been The Sims, one of the last great franchises created before the takeover by EA. As most everyone will know, The Sims is a life simulation game, whereby players design an individual and play through their daily life, managing relationships, careers, friendships and family. The Sims also worked splendidly as an interior designer game, allowing players to build and furnish the homes of their dreams using the hard-earned cash their Sims accumulated during the game. Each new game in the series has gone from strength to strength, introducing new features and ever-greater depth. Then EA happened.

Blah blah blah, anti-corporate whining, right? Well hold on there sparky, EA has quite a storied history of destroying great companies and franchises. EA acquired Bullfrog, developer of beloved games Theme Park and Theme Hospital, then literally gutted the company. It doesn't exist, and neither do those franchises any more. EA acquired Westwood, developer of the hugely famous Command & Conquer, a series that essentially created the real time strategy genre, and inexplicably took out all the base-building and strategy of the series and gave us the critically panned abomination that was Command & Conquer 4.

But the most recent and high profile debacle was the new SimCity 5, one of the most famous games franchises of all time, and the first videogame ever to be nominated for war-crimes at The Hague. EA took what was once a deep simulation of huge urban expanse and turned it into a glorified Facebook game. Tiny plots of land, cartoonish art design, forced and unnecessary multiplayer components, and most unforgivably, an always online requirement (a thinly veiled security check against piracy as it turns out). Not only was it an appalling game, it was barely playable due to having to connect to their congested servers.

Given the universal shitstorm EA suffered after SimCity 5, you would expect them to learn from their mistakes and deliver a better product with The Sims 4. It's incredible then, that The Sims 4 appears to be an even bigger catastrophe than SimCity 5.

The name of the game appears to be streamlining. The Sims 4 has been designed to run faster and smoother on more low-powered computers, and to accomplish this EA have cut a huge number of features out of the game.

One of the big new innovations of The Sims 3 was that everything took place in a single continuous world, which had the benefit of eliminating the need for loading screens, and also allowed Sims to leave their home and simply wander about town, or head to their jobs, shops, restaurants etc. This was really quite brilliant, as one of the weaker points of old Sims games had always been the disjointing disconnect between the isolated home and the rest of the world, for the first time in The Sims 3 Sims had complete freedom of movement via walking, or owning their own vehicle, not to mention the possibilities for exploration and discovery of secrets out in the game world.

This has all been cut from The Sims 4, individual homes are now isolated once again. In fact homes are more isolated now than they ever have been in The Sims series before. Sims can no longer walk to other properties, can no longer own vehicles, and in fact don't even get a carpool or bus to work. Now when Sims leave the property they simply "disappear". It seems fitting then that there is far less reason than ever to leave the property in the first place, with no restaurants or shops, and lacking even the most basic ability to go visit neighbours. If all that is not bad enough, the neighbourhood itself is no longer an animated, evolving, viewable location, having been replaced by a static cartoon map where you simply select the house to play.

All of those things essentially take The Sims series back to the very basic mechanics of the first Sims game... but then it gets even worse (We're going to be saying those words a lot in this review by the way).

The most inexcusable, inexplicable, impossible to believe change in the game concerns the career paths your Sims can take. It's a fact that the vast majority of Sims players project themselves into the game somewhat, and play the game at least semi-realistically. To this extent the previous games in the series have allowed Sims to pursue any manner or real-life profession, from doctor to teacher, police officer, businessman, politician, lawyer, etc. Incredibly these most basic of things have been cut from The Sims 4. The only careers present in the game now are cartoonish fantasy careers like secret agent, criminal mastermind or astronaut. In one fell swoop, EA have taken away the ability to play The Sims the way that probably 90% of people play it. It beggars belief.

So then the life-simulation aspect of the game is essentially gone. Sims can no longer leave the home to do anything, there's no town or public areas to visit, and no real careers to pursue. We really can't stress enough just how gutted out this part of the game is. You ever see the movie Misery? Because that's the life your Sims are forced to live now, reclusive and lonely hermit existences. I look forward to the first expansion pack "agoraphobic stuff".

Most learnable skills are gone, relationship managing is hugely streamlined (read: overly simplistic, even by Sims standards), there's honestly just nothing to do in this game. And of course since it's a new Sims game all of the stuff from add-ons like pets, vacations, etc are all gone, you'll have to pay another £40 each if you want those in the near future. The most laughable omission though? Toddlers are gone. That's right, your Sims now grow from a baby (which in Sims 1 style is now simply a movable object rather than another person) to a fully grown child.

But nevermind, maybe the home-building/interior decorating has been improved? Wrong. House building is now much more restrictive. Smaller lots, fewer floors, and only one foundation allowed per lot (so no sheds or guest houses). In addition major series hallmarks have been removed like swimming pools, gardens, most things really.

Another of The Sims 3's major improvements, the create-a-style which ingeniously allowed players to create their own patterns and textures for all items and clothing in immaculate detail, is completely gone. Many familiar items like pool table, hot tub, all gone. Book shelves, gone, as are all books in general. The Ephemeric likes to pretend that The Sims 4 is set in some dystopic nuclear wasteland whereupon leaving the home at all you will be mauled by angry mutated guinea pigs, and as luxury items are so rare all one can do is mournfully watch TV until the sweet caress of death takes you to Simheaven.

Also there are no dishwashers, and The Ephemeric doesn't want to live in a world without dishwashers.

So what has been added to the game? Not a whole lot. The Sims 4 looks pretty much the same as The Sims 3 from a graphics standpoint, which is still quite pretty. Some additional customization of Sim mannerisms has been added which gives a nice bit of character to your Sims. Quite notably the motives and aspirations systems have all been removed and replaced with a new "emotion system" which does pretty much the same thing, but in a much less nuanced entirely "on/off" way... not sure why anyone thought that would be an improvement.

By far the biggest (and possibly only) improvement is the addition of multi-tasking. Sims can now do multiple things at once, and in fairness that is pretty brilliant, it's just like real life. For example as we speak The Ephemeric is multi-tasking, simultaneously writing this review and contemplating over rock hard scotch why he keeps giving EA his money when they churn out such utter tosh. It's like battered-wife syndrome for gamers.

The create-a-sim mode has also been improved, allowing players to drag facial features and craft some pretty nicely detailed Sims, but of course the lack of create-a-style means that clothing your nicely detailed Sims is very restrictive, especially with the tiny selection of default clothing available.

We could go on forever about everything that's been cut out of the game, and the cynical among us would suggest that they'll all be added at a later date, and probably you'll have to pay extra for it, and at the end of the day that's exactly what The Sims 4 feels like. The Sims 4 has far, far less content than it's predecessor games, and adds very little indeed. Honestly it's incredible that this is a final, finished product rather than a very basic proof-of-concept beta version.

At best, The Sims 4 has been stripped down into a very barebones, casual Facebook-style version of The Sims without any of the depth of its predecessors, at worst it's a cash grab designed to sell you an empty shell and then charge for all the content. It's The Sims, but with half the content removed, and likely to be sold to you in addition to the hefty price you already pay for the base game. The question for existing Sims players is why would you pay this much money for a game you already own, but with all the content taken out and costing additional coin? We can't think of an answer, so save your money and get your Sims fix from The Sims 3.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Genre Folktronica
Label Parlophone
Producers Damon Albarn, Brian Eno

damon albarn debut solo album everyday robots 2014

There are precious few musicians in the game today who can really claim to be among rock-royalty. With a career spanning a good 25 years, and some of the most celebrated songs produced during that time credited to his name, Damon Albarn has surely earned that right.

Albarn is widely known as the frontman of iconic Britpop band Blur, and more recently as the founder and principal creative force behind the chart conquering Gorillaz project. It would take all day to list just some of the world famous tunes he has written as part of those two acts, but what impresses most is simply the breadth of his work, delving into an incredible range of different genres, and inventing whole new ones. This chameleonic nature and distinctive vocal qualities have often earned Albarn comparisons to another British great, David Bowie, and as time passes it's a comparison that seems ever more apt.

It's somewhat of a landmark event in British music then for Albarn to be releasing his first album as a solo artist, Everyday Robots, and true to form it's almost nothing like anything Albarn has done before.

While a wide gulf can be drawn between the spangly Britpop of Blur and Gorillaz's more club-focused dance music, Albarn has always put distance between the musician and the person. Both bands are known for radio-friendly pop, with subjects ranging from the environment to general life in London. With his first solo work, Albarn has delved much deeper into his own mind to bring us his most intimate music yet.

Everyday Robots strikes a more downbeat and introspective tone. Albarn lays bare his demons and explores his own troubled past with drug addictions, relationships and insecurity. The result is something more revelatory than revolutionary.

Without doubt the highlight of the album comes in the stunning double-sided track You and Me. The opening "you" segment begins in chasteningly paranoid fashion, brutal and demoralizing, before breaking down with a flurry of steel drums into the gorgeously cathartic "me" section. Absolutely incredible.

Elsewhere the quality remains high with the beautifully nostalgic Hostiles, delicately acoustic and hauntingly sparse, while The Selfish Giant is a dazzingly lovely opine on narcissism and loneliness in the digital age.

The trouble with Everyday Robots is that it is too relentless. It's all very dark, and melancholic, and introspective. While some of the songs are absolutely brilliant, others are much less memorable, and the relentless drudgery of it all makes sitting through the entire album hard work. From Albarn we have come to expect variety, but with his debut solo album the listener is forced very single-mindedly through his worst nightmares. The music may be brilliant, but like Schindler's List it's the sort of classic you may want to listen to once and then only sparingly after. Have a listen, pick out the key songs and cherish them, but you won't stick around for the rest.

Must Listen :
You and Me
The Selfish Giant

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

That magical time of the year is almost upon us. Sure, we had a pretty entertaining World Cup to kick off the 2014 summer, but the barren, football-less month since it ended has been as empty as a Germany fan's soul. The Premier League season is about to commence, and as per usual the Ephemeric is here to run the rule over every team in the Premier League and render a few inevitably accurate predictions. Read on for the ultimate preview of what awaits us these next nine months.

premier league 2012/13 preview

Premier League 2014/15 Predictions in a nutshell:
Champions: Manchester City
Champions League qualifiers: Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal
Relegated: West Brom, QPR, Burnley
Golden Boot winner: Sergio Agüero (Manchester City)
Golden Glove winner: Joe Hart (Manchester City)
Player to watch: Eden Hazard (Chelsea)
New signing to watch: Alexis Sánchez (Arsenal)
Young player to watch: Romelu Lukaku (Everton)
First manager to get the sack: Paul Lambert (Aston Villa)
Shock of the season: Southampton's outgoing players won't justify the £100 million spent on them


Nickname: The Gunners
Ground: Emirates Stadium
Capacity: 60,000
Position last season: 4th
Manager: Arsene Wenger

With the standard of competition among the league's second tier of top clubs, Arsenal's 4th place finish last season appeared even more uncertain than usual. With just a few weeks of the season remaining, Roberto Martinez's resurgent Everton side seemed firmly in the driver's seat, and Arsenal fans were no doubt left eternally grateful for the Toffees' unexpected collapse that allowed Arsenal to once again scrape into the Champions League qualification round.

To top that, Arsenal also managed to end their decade long wait for a trophy by staging a late comeback to claim the FA Cup against a weakened Hull team. The significance of this victory should not be understated. Numerous jokes abound about how drastically the world has changed in the decade since their previous trophy (seriously, what's Facebook anyway?), but suffice it to say there is literally a generation of Arsenal fans for whom this is the first trophy they've ever seen the team win, and that's a morale boost that sees Arsenal start the season on a confidence high the likes of which have not been seen for a long time. Still Wenger's brow remains eternally furrowed.

That said, the strategy by which Arsenal are becoming relevant again is important to highlight, marking a complete reversal in club policy. Gone are the days when Arsenal fans would lambast their rivals' large cash investments and rely on bringing up youth. Last summer Arsenal broke all club records to sign Mesut Özil for £50 million. This summer they have continued this strategy by spending a whopping £75 million, outspending both Chelsea and Manchester City.

At the same time it is worth noting the struggles of the club at youth level, with the Arsenal U21s relegated to the bottom division of youth football last season, while Chelsea and Manchester City battle it out for the top flight title. Suddenly it is Arsenal that increasingly rely on the transfer market, while Chelsea and Man City dominate the youth development in England. Arsenal fans will need to find something new to taunt rivals with, though if all goes according to plan, for once they might actually have something on the pitch to talk about.

Among these new signings is the criminally underrated former Barcelona attacker Alexis Sánchez, a player who should instantly become a star in this Arsenal side, and indeed the league as a whole. With him and Özil leading the line this is looking like the strongest Arsenal side in many years. Say it with hushed tones, but Arsenal might just be title contenders once again. 

Key Signing: Alexis Sánchez
Key Man: Mesut Özil

Verdict: Arsenal are well positioned to stage their first title challenge in over a decade, but will face a tough challenge from their strengthened rivals.


Nickname: The Villans
Ground: Villa Park
Capacity: 42,593
Last season: 15th
Manager: Paul Lambert

Aston Villa are starting to have the air of a club in stagnation. Paul Lambert, once the toast of young English managers, has not been able to have the impact at Villa Park that many had hoped. At the end of the day this is still the club that forced Martin O'Neill out with the owner's "unorthodox" policies. To add to the instability is the fact that the aforementioned owner is so keen to sell the club, something they have as yet been unable to do.

In such an environment it would be a challenge for any manager to thrive, but Lambert starts the season on borrowed time, and a poor start could see him crowned this year's winner of the managerial sack race. It's the harsh reality of football, but Lambert has not gotten results, and far from  his preferred vision of bringing in young and hungry players his financial restrictions have forced his hand in signing the aging likes of Joe Cole, Kieran Richardson and Philippe Senderos (who will no doubt be relishing the opportunity to play against Drogba again). Elsewhere Roy Keane has joined the fun as assistant manager, because let's face it who better to bring stability in a crisis situation.

While another relegation struggle seems likely all is not lost. After all Ron Vlaar and Christian Benteke have been very impressive of late, and the likes of Jores Okore and Charles N'Zogbia are back following prolonged injuries last season. Meanwhile left back Aly Cissokho from Valencia seems a more promising signing. Certainly this Villa side looks more complete and fit than last season, which will afford Lambert even less of an excuse should he fail to deliver.

A great deal depends on whether Benteke can come back from injury and stay fit for long enough to make an impact on the season. If he does then Aston Villa should be able to avoid the drop, but without him they could be in real trouble.

Key Signing: Aly Cissokho
Key Man: Christian Benteke

Verdict: A tough season awaits. Villa will survive, but will Lambert?


Nickname: The Clarets
Ground: Turf Moor
Capacity: 22,546
Last season: Promoted (2nd)
Manager: Sean Dyche

Burnley were a surprise package in last year's Championship. No one expected them to be within a shout of promotion, let alone automatically qualify. This perception of how they measured up in the lower league should give you some expectation as to just how unfavoured they are in this year's Premier League.

Burnley are not a club that is blessed with financial assets or squad depth, but what they have is a very efficient manager in Sean Dyche, the man who masterminded their surprising success last season. Still such is the worryingly small squad size that Burnley have had to recruit to the tune of six players so far, all for practically nothing. The reliance on bargain buys says everything about where this squad is at. This will be a much tougher test for Dyche and his boys.

On the bright side Burnley can rightly claim to be one of the best supported clubs in the country, with the highest ratio of match attendance to town population in England. The fans will be in full voice no matter what happens to the club, so that's one way in which they beat Manchester United.

These fans will be desperately hoping that the club can hold on to top scorer Danny Ings who has been linked with a move to similarly depleted Southampton. Meanwhile the signing of Matthew Taylor from West Ham seems a very smart buy for a team that will be looking to play tough and competitive this season in a league that frankly looks like to spit them right back out unless they can pull off something remarkable. Burnley defied the odds in stunning fashion last season, can they do it again?

Key Signing: Matthew Taylor
Key Man: Danny Ings

Verdict: A tough fight against relegation, one that they are not expected to win.


Nickname: Blues
Ground: Stamford Bridge
Capacity: 41,837
Last season: 3rd
Manager: José Mourinho

Last season's Chelsea were a markedly improved side compared to recent seasons. The return of Mourinho has clearly galvanized the club, and impressively contended for the Premier League title despite having a surprisingly young and inexperienced squad.

Ultimately what put the nail in Chelsea's coffin last season was the lack of a reliable striker, in retrospect a shocking oversight from the previous transfer window, especially with Lukaku going off on loan to Everton. Chelsea had the best defensive record of any club last season, and remarkably took more points against the top clubs than any other team in the league. However with just weeks remaining and sat top of the table, Chelsea dropped out of the race by failing to find the net against defensively-minded bottom half of the table minnows. Points dropped against the likes of Aston Villa, Sunderland, Crystal Palace and West Brom. Two wins from any of those games and Chelsea would have been champions. The team lacked that ability to break down a tight and committed defence, didn't have a striker who could consistently make the difference in tight games.

This summer the club has sought to remedy this by signing Diego Costa from Atletico Madrid. Costa scored a remarkable 40 goals last season, and if his excellent pre-season form is anything to go by he looks set to hit the ground running. Still doubts remain over a striker who has only managed twice in his career to score 10 goals in a season. It's especially a worry with Lukaku now permanently moved on to Everton, and only the aging Drogba and misfiring Torres (or as Liverpool call him, Agent Fernando) as back up should Costa run into any problems. Chelsea made a catastrophic error three years ago when they switched Sturridge for Torres, could history be repeating itself with Lukaku?

Joining Costa is Atletico team mate Filipe Luis as a replacement for the outgoing Chelsea legend Ashley Cole. Luis' quality is without question, but approaching 30 himself and with little international experience one wonders how long-term a replacement he could possibly be. César Azpilicueta excelled in that position last year, but as a natural right back was playing out of position. The only other alternative at left back looks to be youth product Nathan Aké, a versatile player who can play in midfield or defense, and has been extensively used in pre-season.

Meanwhile former Barcelona and Arsenal midfielder Cesc Fabregas is joining the club to take Lampard's position in deep central midfield, ostensibly with the aim of unlocking stubborn defences with his playmaking ability. Again there is little doubt of his ability, instead one has to question his attitude. Fabregas has consistently been a nasty player on the pitch, and his antics in recent years have seen him ostracized from his boyhood club and kicked out of the international World Cup camp. Fabregas will need to settle down and concentrate on his game if he wants to reach the potential that so many have seen in him. And if not then he can always warm himself with fire of a thousand Arsenal shirts being burned by former fans in his honour.

While many players in this squad are on the young and inexperienced side, particularly in the attacking positions, there is now a lot more proven pedigree at Mourinho's disposal. In particular one needs to watch Eden Hazard, one of the league's best players last season, arguably the best with Suarez now gone, and seemingly on the cusp of reaching the very top of world football. Really Mourinho can have no excuses if his team fails to secure silverware this season.

Key Signing: Diego Costa
Key Man: Eden Hazard

Verdict: One of the clear favourites for the title along with Man City.


Nickname: Eagles, Glaziers
Ground: Selhurst Park
Capacity: 26,309
Last season: 11th
Manager: Tony Pulis

After a poor start to the season that saw the Eagles seemingly destined for the drop, Palace made the game-changing decision to switch managers, with the highly pedigreed Tony Pulis brought in to replace the highly humorous Ian Holloway.

Pulis pulled off some remarkable feats during his tenure at Stoke and so far looks to be doing an even better job at Palace, who arguably ended the season as one of the league's form sides, and became something of a bogey team for the title challengers, winning Pulis the FA Manager of the Year award in the process. The question for this season is simply, can it continue?

Crystal Palace have taken real strides in recent years, and the mood is buoyant right now, but fans would be wise not to get ahead of themselves. The truth is that Crystal Palace still have a very thin squad by Premier League standards, especially when it comes to experience. It seems the season is very much hinging on the transfers that Pulis brings it. It's all been quite quiet so far, but the focus right now must be on proven top flight quality.

In particular Palace are weak in numbers in defence, though the recruitment of veteran Fulham centre half Brede Hangeland (a very Pulis-esque player) goes some way towards rectifying that, and are in need of a winger and central midfielder. Elsewhere the signing of Frazier Campbell is seen as a good bit of business and will bolster the side's talent up front, but the key man in the side will remain no-nonsense captain Mile Jedinak. Jedinak was the heart and soul of this Palace team, and fans will be praying that he hangs on for another year.

If Palace handles these issues adequately, a comfortable finish in the middle of the table looks very realistic for the club, but otherwise there runs the risk of being dragged down into the scrap at the lower end of the table.

EDIT: Since writing this Tony Pulis has quit his job over some transfer policy issues, the day before the start of the season. Thank you so much Tony for making our job easier. Whatever, I'm not writing a new one. Palace will probably be relegated without Pulis... or not, what do I know, I'm a blog, not the Oracle.

Key Signing: Brede Hangeland
Key Man: Mile Jedinak

Verdict: Pulis can keep them up, no he can't.


Nickname: Toffees
Ground: Goodison Park
Capacity: 40,170
Last season: 5th
Manager: Roberto Martínez

Roberto Martinez's first season at Goodison Park was what some might call a stunner. His Everton side played with a verve and swagger not seen since the club's glory days of the 1980s, and were desperately unlucky not to pip Arsenal in their struggle for 4th place. In the end Everton ended up with their highest points total in the Premier League era, a tally that would have earned them Champions League football in any other season. In just one season, Martinez has become one of the hottest managers in Europe.

But far from resting on his dream debut season, Martinez is setting his sights higher. Champions League qualification is very much the aim for Everton this year, and for once the club has put its money where it's mouth is, declaring their ambition with the marquee signing of Chelsea youngster Romelu Lukaku for a club record £30 million. Lukaku may only be 21 years old, but has already had two goal-filled seasons in the Premier League, and has sky high potential. Lukaku could well turn out to be one of the signings of the season and lift Everton to a new level.

Elsewhere Phil Jagielka, Leighton Baines and Sylvain Distin are all well proven Premier League stars at the back, while Tim Howard is on a massive high after his World Cup heroics. Kevin Mirallas had a top notch first season in England, as did breakthrough youth product Ross Barkley. If there is a weakness in this squad, it's that many key players are starting to get old, particularly in defence, and while Everton has promising prospects coming through, one wonders if they've done enough over the summer to bolster their squad to the standard one might expect of a top four contender.

The key to success with this squad will be Ross Barkley in the midfield, looking to build on his spectacular past season and make the heart of that Everton team his own. Barkley has the look about him of a young Steven Gerrard, except that people can actually understand him when he speaks, and if given the chance could be a huge player for both club and country.

Everton will be exciting to watch this season, with the ambition to challenge the big boys and the players to make it a real possibility. With a few more signings, they could be a real force this season. Exciting times to be an Everton fan.

Key Signing: Romelu Lukaku
Key Man: Ross Barkley

Verdict: A top four challenge is realistic, but the top of the table is looking more competitive than ever.


Nickname: The Tigers
Ground: KC Stadium
Capacity: 25,586
Last season: 16th
Manager: Steve Bruce

The end of last season saw two big wins for Hull City. First and foremost, the club survived in the Premier League, and will play top flight football for another year. The second is the Premier League's rejection of club owner Assem Allam's proposal to change the team name to "the Hull Tigers" because "City" is too common a name. With that embarrassment aside, fans breathe a sigh of relief and look ahead to the new season.

Hull was also hugely impressive in reaching the FA Cup final for the first time, being desperately unlucky to lose it to Arsenal having gone a few goals up early on. A repeat of that is unlikely this season, but their presence in the final does mean that they will contend in the Europa League this year. This is the club's first appearance in European competition, a remarkable feat. But at the same time this presents a risk, history shows us that clubs having to juggle domestic and European football simultaneously invariably have a tougher time of it.

As excited as Hull will be to play in Europe, the first priority must be to stay in the Premier League again. Fortunately in this regard, Steve Bruce is a master. Few managers have as much experience as him at fighting against relegation. In order to prepare for this year's struggle he has recruited well over the summer. Jake Livermore, who paired up so well with Tom Huddlestone last year, has been signed on permanent basis, as has Snodgrass from Norwich. But potentially the most interesting signing will be promising former Blackpool winger Tom Ince, signed on a free transfer following the expiration of his contract.

Add to that Tom Huddlestone and Curtis Davies, rocks down the spine of the team with good experience, and Hull look like a side who should be able to stay up.

Key Signing: Tom Ince
Key Man: Tom Huddlestone

Verdict: Should avoid the drop, provided Europe doesn't prove too taxing on the squad.


Nickname: The Foxes
Ground: King Power Stadium
Capacity: 32,262
Last season: Promoted (Champions)
Manager: Nigel Pearson

The first thing that needs to be said about Leicester: they were very, very impressive in the Championship last season, winning the league at a cantor and becoming only the fifth team to exceed 100 points in that division. The second thing? This will mean very little when they make the step up to the big time.

The return of Nigel Pearson as replacement for outgoing Sven-Goran Eriksson turned out to be an inspired decision. It's easy to forget that Pearson enjoyed a highly successful first spell with the club, until he was forced out by a takeover consortium, who in their infinite wisdom decided that Sven-Goran Eriksson was a better man to lead the club, based on his success some thirty years ago. Lesson learned; suits in charge of football clubs often don't know what they're doing. Back comes Pearson, and Leicester are back in the top flight.

The team has thrived around a solid core consisting of Kasper Schmeichel in goal, yes that Kasper Schmeichel son of one of the greatest keepers of all time, and considered the next big thing at Man City until Sven (him again?) ruined his career. But now Kasper is becoming a well renowned keeper in his own right and will surely be relishing the opportunity to prove himself in the top flight again. He is supported by the impressive Wes Morgan and experienced Paul Konchesky in defence, while in the midfield Danny Drinkwater and Anthony Knockaert have been hugely impressive. David Nugent leads the front line and has scored more times for England than you.

Leicester's transfer activity is certainly interesting, including veteran centre back Matthew Upson, formerly hotly tipped Marc Albrighton, and a big money move for Argentinian striker Leonardo Ulloa, whose name sounds suspiciously like the Martian battle cry from War of the Worlds. That's got to count for something right?

Of all the newly promoted sides Leicester look to have the best shot at staying up this year. They have a strong defence and pace in the attack. It will be a huge undertaking, and questions must be asked about their squad depth in what has been a surprisingly quiet transfer window, but confidence is high.

Key Signing: Ahmed Elmohamady
Key Man: Robbie Brady

Verdict: Should have enough to stay up and pick a nice safe spot in the lower mid table.


Nickname: Reds
Ground: Anfield
Capacity: 45,362
Last season: 2nd
Manager: Brendan Rodgers

Plenty has been said on Brendan Rodgers, suddenly one of European football's top managers, who steered Liverpool to within a whisker of a first league title in 25 years. Ultimately it was Rodgers' former mentor Mourinho who derailed what looked like an inevitable title triumph, although some say Steven Gerrard may have had something to do with it.

Whatever the story, there's no doubting now that Liverpool are back among the big dogs. But can they repeat this season of success, or even go one step further and finally reclaim the top spot of English football?

Liverpool have a strong team. Daniel Sturridge was superb for Liverpool, reminding Chelsea repeatedly what they're missing out on, while Coutinho and Raheem Sterling continued to take their game to new heights. Steven Gerrard was like a man reborn after many years of looking like a man in retirement. Mignolet turned out to be an inspried signing in goal, while even Jordan Henderson, once the butt of so many jokes, turned in a top notch season. This was a Liverpool side bristling with quality (shaky defence aside).

But the key to this Liverpool team was always the front three of Sterling, Sturridge and Suarez. Luiz Suarez is in the Ephemeric's opinion, one of the best, if not the best, footballers in the world right now. True, Sturridge bagged a lot of goals last season, but would he be as successful without his partnership with Suarez? We have serious doubts.

His loss is irreplacable for Liverpool. Frankly despite how good his teammates are, if Suarez had not been in this team last year Liverpool would not have been in the title race. So common sense would dictate that they have little chance of repeating their success this season. Liverpool's hopes will depend very much on how they replace Suarez.

In that respect they have spent a good £90 million, the most of any team in the Premier League, in order to build a team that can win the title. In comes Rickie Lambert for £4million, his Southampton colleagues Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren join him for £50 million between them, Former hotly tipped Emre Can and Belgian World Cup starlet Divock Origi are in for £10 million a pop. It's a big outlay, but are these transfers worth it? Origi and Can are both very much unproven players, while Lovren and Lallana are never worth anywhere near as much as Liverpool spent on them. Lambert is certainly being brought in as a back up. Instead the key signing for Liverpool is someone that few had heard of before this summer, the Serbian Lazar Marković signed for £20 million.

Liverpool are a good side, certainly in the mix for the title. But is filling your squad with players who finished mid table last season really going to elevate you from 2nd to 1st? Can anyone really replace Luis Suarez? This is shaping up to be the most competitive Premier League season of all time, and even to get into the top four Liverpool will likely have to fend off the resurgent Manchester United, a newly confident Arsenal, and the ambitious upstarts from Everton and Tottenham. The Liverpool revolution may have ended before it ever really begun.

Key Signing: Lazar Marković
Key Man: Daniel Sturridge

Verdict: An outside title contender, unlikely to go as close as last season. Top 4 is a more realistic goal, but even that is far from certain.


Nickname: Blues
Ground: Etihad Stadium
Capacity: 48,000
Last season: Champions
Manager: Manuel Pellegrini

In the entire history of the Premier League, only Chelsea and Manchester United have managed to win back to back titles. It's a big ask for any team. Arsenal's invincibles failed, Ancelotti's double winners failed, and Liverpool... couldn't even win the one title. Can Manchester City make history and join these ranks?

Manchester City have one of the strongest squads in all of Europe, and in Pellegrini they have a gifted manager. They begin the season in a confident mood, as arguably the best team in the country right now. But certain concerns stand between them and another title.

For starters, City have so far disappointed continually in the Champions League, leading to speculation that this might be their priority in the coming year, distracting them from domestic football. This is a real possibility, after all Chelsea only managed to be crowned champions of Europe in a season in which the league seemed almost an after thought for them.

At the same time by running afoul of Financial Fair Play rules, City have severely limited their operations in the transfer market, having been slapped with a fine (that they'll care very little about) and a net spend limit of £49 million. Although when you think about it, it's very hard to spend £49 million more than you bring in from sales unless you really go hog wild.

With that in mind, City have sold a good £30 million worth of players, and spent a relatively meager (by their standards) £50 million. Right back Bacary Sagna has been brought in for free from Arsenal, while Willy Caballero will provide competition for Joe Hart in goal, but certainly the headline signing is that of France international centre half Eliaquim Mangala. In Mangala, City have found who they hope will be the ultimate long term partner for captain Vincent Kompany, and certainly he comes hugely hyped from his time at Porto. Still it's worth noting that several big clubs have been looking at him for a long time, and opted not to make a move, and doubts persist over his mentality.

Otherwise there is little transfer activity expected, this is after all an absurdly strong squad already. Samir Nasri will be looking to follow up his impressive season, while Vincent Kompany continues to go from strength to strength. Key to Citys' fortunes will be whether Sergio Aguero can stay fit up front, and how talisman Yaya Touré responds following his well publicized antagonism with the club over the summer. We'd make a birthday cake joke, but it's just too easy.

Regardless of any difficulties though, City go into the season as one of the clear favourites for the title.

Key Signing: Eliaquim Mangala
Key Man: Sergio Agüero

Verdict: Without doubt a title favourite, whose squad depth probably just edges out Chelsea.


Nickname: Red Devils
Ground: Old Trafford
Capacity: 76,000
Last season: 7th
Manager: Louis Van Gaal

Last season's "Chosen One" David Moyes turned out to be one of the biggest flops in Premier League history. Manchester United went from champions to failing to even qualify for Europe in one season, and so it is no shock that Moyes was promptly shown the door.

Enter stage left Louis Van Gaal, legendary dutch manager with a glittering career of success and a very impressive World Cup behind him. Van Gaal has thoroughly shaped European football, known as a mentor to some of the world's finest coaches from Mourinho to De Boer and Pep Guardiola, and much of that comes from his ruthless mentality that has earned him the nickname "the Iron Tulip". This guy makes the bold decisions and doesn't care what people think. During this past World Cup, for example, he switched his goalkeepers before penalty a shoot  out, and promptly ran out winners. Dude has cojones.

On the way in is the big money £30 million pound signing of Ander Herrera, a very fine player who will fit well into the United side. Next is the equally big money £30 million pound signing of youngster Luke Shaw, a promising defender who has only had one season of Premier League football. This one seems slightly harder to understand, especially when one considers the allegedly absurd wages the 19 year old is on. United throwing this much cash on such an unproven player just shows how desperate the club really is.

Otherwise United has seen a surprising lack of business over the summer, especially strange considering how many players have left the club, from Ferdinand to Vidic, Evra and United legend Bebe. For now though, this is very much the same United squad as last year.

The question becomes, were Man United a mediocre team playing above themselves under Ferguson, or a good team playing below themselves under Moyes? The answer is probably somewhere in between, but it would be highly presumptuous to assume that Van Gaal is just going to waltz into Old Trafford and sort everything out, there is much work to be done.

So far the key to reinvigorating United seems to be, somewhat anti-climatically, employing common sense football tactics. David Moyes insisted on some very strange ideas during his doomed tenure, whether it was the decision not to play Rooney and Van Persie at the same time, or his record signing of Chelsea star Juan Mata, only to continually push him out of position on the wing. United fans will be relieved then that Van Gaal's first act has been to switch to a more sensible 3-5-2 system, with Van Persie and Rooney collaborating up front, and Mata playing right behind them. It seems obvious really... play your best players and put them in their best position. Obvious to everyone except Moyes apparently.

So with a competent manager, and players looking happy and confident again, what can we expect? United will be a lot more competitive this season, that much seems certain. Between Mata, Rooney and Van Persie they have three of the league's very best players, true gamechangers. This is a United team that can beat anyone on their day, and a manager who knows how to win. But the team's defence looks highly suspect, with the old guard now retired and moved on, and there is shockingly little depth on the bench. The hype is high, but surely they don't look like a title contending squad?

Key Signing: Luke Shaw
Key Man: Juan Mata

Verdict: Will be competing for a top four place, with only a wistful glance at the top of the table.


Nickname: Magpies
Ground: St. James' Park
Capacity: 52,387
Last season: 10th
Manager: Alan Pardew

Alan Pardew's boys now seem well established as a midtable side. A club with this much history is always going to have the ambition to do more, but they are certainly nowhere near that stage yet, and questions abound as to whether Pardew is even the man who can take the club there (might be worth an cheeky bet on the sack race!).

A decent squad on paper, with Tiote, Coloccini, Tim Krul, and a seemingly never ending stream of promising French talent. Newcastle made a promising start last season, only to be undone by inconsistency and the typical Toon drama.

This has been a particularly active summer for the squad though, with a new striker in Emmanuel Riviere, Remy Cabella tipped as the new Yohann Cabaye, and Siem de Jong seemingly pegged for the missing number 10 role. Newcastle have signed no fewer than eight players. The club's success will depend largely on how well these new boys settle. In recent years the club has shown itself to be quite astute at signing relatively unknown players, and fans will be hoping for more of the same.

A bigger problem is Pardew, not the most popular manager in any quarter. Pardew's spats with the playing staff are well documented, and have resulted in the freezing out of stars like Hatem Ben Arfa, while his pitch side shenanigans repeatedly land him in hot water with the football authorities.

Still, Newcastle can rest comfortable going into a season knowing that their relegation threat seems subdued for now, and that in the next few years they can hopefully cast their eyes upwards once again.

Key Signing: Siem de Jong
Key Man: Tim Krul
Verdict: A mid table season of consolidation and transition.


Nickname: The Hoops
Ground: Loftus Road
Capacity: 18,489
Last season: Promoted (playoff)
Manager: Harry Redknapp

Everyone's favourite team returns! I mean who doesn't love a cocky London club bankrolled by a wealthy benefactor? Especially when that club has the ever lovable Ferdinand brothers on board, and Harry Redknapp, although for some reason all his payslips are made out to a "Rosie"?

The truth is that QPR, for all their financial backing, have been a fairly shambolic club in recent years, and despite a massive outlay on transfers, ended their last season in the top flight relegated with only 25 points. Still, this is a club with considerable resources, and for all his flaws, Harry Redknapp is an astute and experienced manager who knows how to keep a weak team treading water. Much more will be expected this time around, and QPR fans are quietly optimistic that this is the start of a new era for the club.

The key this time around will be stability. So it's a good thing then that they have a goalkeeper known for this, and a new defender known for this, and then Joey Barton... well... let's not even google that one.

On the bright side though, they have signed Steven Caulker, a very promising young defender, and Jordan Mutch, who comes hotly tipped from Cardiff. Meanwhile in Charlie Austin and Loic Remy they have two very fine strikers, and with Bobby Zamora some good dependable experience.

Despite this though there is just so much risk of history repeating, with the disruptive influences mentioned above, and just so many imponderables. Can Harry keep them afloat? It's very possible, but it just seems too darn inevitable that the whole thing will implode once again, and send QPR right back down where they came from.

Key Signing: Steven Caulker
Key Man: Loic Remy
Verdict: A real relegation contender, but a glimmer of hope is there.


Nickname: Saints
Ground: St. Mary's Stadium
Capacity: 32,690
Last season: 8th
Manager: Ronald Koeman

Southampton were one of the great success stories of last year, floating right around the top of the table for much of the season, and settling in a very respectable 8th place. Not bad for a young and inexperienced team that had only been promoted a few years prior.

But that success comes with a cost. Mauricio Pochettino was rightly lauded for his team's success, and subsequently poached by Tottenham, while no fewer than five of their stars from last season have moved on to bigger clubs. Suddenly one of the country's most exciting up and coming teams has been torn back down, with only a shell of a squad and an unproven manager remaining.

So to recap, the sky is falling for Southampton fans. Or at least that's the impression one would get from the general buzz in the build up to this season.

The reality is that Ronald Koeman is an experienced and capable manager, with a good three Eredivisie titles and one Copa del Rey to his name, not to mention all his experience as a world class player.

The reality is that they have retained several key players in Jose Fonte, Nathaniel Clyne, and Jack Cork, and now they have a whopping £100 million transfer kitty to spend after all the overpriced outgoing players. So far they have spent this money well, bringing in the very promising duo of Dušan Tadić and Graziano Pelle in the attack, not to mention the proven Fraser Fortster in goal who will relish the opportunity to test his skills in the Premier League.

They've also brought in proven Premier League striker Shane Long, loaned in Chelsea fullback and Champions League winner Ryan Bertrand, and they've still got over £50 million left in the till for more signings. Last but not least, they have a secret weapon in youngster James Ward-Prowse, hotly tipped as this season's Ross Barkley. Ward-Prowse could be set for a breakthrough season.

Suddenly things don't look so bleak for Southampton.

Key Signing: Dušan Tadić
Key Man: James Ward-Prowse

Verdict: Will do better than people expect, nice midtable finish.


Nickname: Potters
Ground: Britannia Stadium
Capacity: 28,384
Last season: 9th
Manager: Mark Hughes

The loss of manager Tony Pulis was seen by some as a deathknell for this club, especially with the appointment of Mark Hughes who had become something of a laughing stock in recent years following failed stints at Manchester City, QPR, and a hugely embarrassing attempted switch from Fulham to Aston Villa that ultimately left him unemployed and unwanted by either club.

It surprised many, then, to see that Mark Hughes has actually had a decent first season in charge of the club. It shouldn't, after all Mark Hughes was a major success at Blackburn, and people forget that he was actually doing a good job at Fulham before he put his foot in his mouth, and then there's Manchester City and QPR, two clubs where Hughes' failings are probably more attributable to well publicised behind the scenes shenanigans than his own talents.

So say it quietly, but this could be a pretty good year for Stoke. The club still has a solid cast of Begovic in goal, Palacios, Odemwingie, N'Zonzi, Shawcross, Huth and several other experienced Premier League players.

New bou Marko Arnautovic is an exciting signing, as is Phil Bardsley, but without doubt the main addition to the squad is former Barcelona superstar Bojan Krkic. Bojan is arguably the most interesting signing in the entire league; once tipped as a future world superstar, Bojan went on to win La Liga titles, Champions Leagues and others before the Delorean hit 88 mph and he was stranded in 1885 (we've since been informed that he may actually have been playing for Roma and Ajax). Few would ever have predicted he'd end up at Stoke, still in the prime of his career at age 23, but here he is, and with everything to prove.

So we have a settled manager, a solid squad, and ambitious new signings. It's a far cry from the former "hoof it and hope" approach of which Stoke have been accused. This is a team that Hughes is looking to get playing decent football, and winning games through quality rather than brute strength.

Stoke have clearly improved this year, but at the same time so have most of their rivals. The mood is one of cautious positivity at this point, which is a new sensation at the Britannia. Nonetheless, at the time of writing there is one potential road bump on the club's prospects, and that is the future of N’Zonzi. To the casual fan he is probably best known for on-pitch strops, fighting with Lucas Leiva, and performing a hit and run on an innocent cyclist. But in purely football terms, the player is a Baskerville Shark swimming amongst fish.

Key Signing: Bojan Krkic
Key Man: Steven N'Zonzi

Verdict: A decent pre-season run and a good start to the season should see them looking at a top half of the table finish.


Nickname: Black Cats
Ground: Stadium of Light
Capacity: 48,300
Last season: 14th
Manager: Gus Poyet

Imagine the shock when Paolo Di Canio was sacked last season. No seriously imagine it... because we sure can't! The famously volatile Di Canio's only previous managerial position ended in spectacular fashion and involved accusations of theft and breaking and entering. Honestly it's hard to imagine what the board were thinking when they picked him.

Nevertheless they've brought in former Chelsea man Gus Poyet, generally considered a rising star in the management game, and he promptly steadied the ship and put Sunderland into a safe midtable position. Gus is a clear step up on the bench, but does the squad have enough about them to stay safe this season?

Decent strikers in Steven Fletcher and Connor Wickham, the latter of which in particular looked finally to be hitting his often hyped potential towards the end of last season. Adam Johnson is a very talented winger, while Lee Cattermole and Sebastian Larsson are very solid midfielders.

The club has not been bashful in the transfer market either. The signing of Jack Rodwell is an exciting one, while versatile defender Billy Jones from West Brom will provide extra depth at the back. Quite interesting is the signing of former Chelsea youth product Patrick van Aanholt, a very hotly tipped young left back with already an international cap to his name.

It's a good squad, and they've reinforced well. What the club needs now is some stability. Poyet has all the tools to bring calm to the dressing room and start putting out the results, and if he does that then the club will be in good shape.

Key Signing: Patrick van Aanholt
Key Man: Connor Wickham

Verdict: Unpredictable, but should finish safely in the midtable.


Nickname: The Swans
Ground: Liberty Stadium
Capacity: 20,532
Last season: 12th
Manager: Garry Monk

Another year another manager. Michael Laudrup started so well, but ultimately turned out just to be feeding on the scraps of the impressive Brendan Rodgers era. Laudrup is gone now, and in his place we have Garry Monk.

Following Laudrup’s departure Garry Monk was installed first as temporary gaffer during the club’s recruitment process, with chairman Huw Jenkins stating that the club legend had been getting involved with backroom affairs and learning ready for this possibility.

Despite interest from Dutch great Ronald Koeman, following positive results and guaranteed Premier League football for the next term, Monk was given the backing of the board to lead the club with a permanent contract. The question will be, can Monk bring his own style to a club that is still so largely shaped in the image of Brendan Rodgers, and establish them as a dependable midtable side?

On paper Swansea are still a very impressive team. Wilfried Bony was one of last season's break out stars up front, while Nathan Dyer is always dangerous. Former Liverpool man Jonjo Shelvey is hotly tipped to have a big year this season, and most interestingly, the club have brought back former key-man Gylfi Sigurðsson. This is all good stuff, but it's only scratching the surface of the summer's activity.

This summer has seen the club bring in no fewer than eight players, including former Arsenal keeper Fabianski as replacement for the outgoing Vorm, exciting Ecuadorian Jefferson Montero, and Bafetimbi Gomis as extra firepower support for Bony.

The key to starting the season well will be to ensure that Bony does not leave before the transfer window shuts. He was the key man last season and surely will be again, although with Gomis they at least look prepared should the unthinkable happen.

With this team intact, and a little luck on the injury front, this Swansea side will push for the top half of the table.

Key Signing: Bafetimbi Gomis
Key Man: Wilfried Bony

Verdict: Swansea have strong foundations but with the generally improving standard of the league will probably finish about the same in midtable again.


Nickname: Spurs
Ground: White Hart Lane
Capacity: 36,236
Last season: 6th
Manager: Mauricio Pochettino

Last season was pretty humiliating for Spurs. The perennially sacked, big talking, little accomplishing André Villas-Boas went out and spent an incredible £100 million last summer, breaking the club's transfer record not once but twice. Despite this, the club ended up very far from the level of title contenders, and most of the roughly £30 million a pop signings have generally been considered flops.

Compared to the mayhem of last year, this summer has been relatively calm for Tottenham. Mauricio Pochettino, who rocketed to fame after his successful year as manager of Southampton, has been appointed as the new Spurs boss, and a very different policy of consolidation has been adopted. Only four players have been brought in, for a total of around £10 million, in stark contrast to the previous incoherent splurge.

So can we expect much improvement from a seemingly troubled squad that has invested so little in the new season? Stability can only be a positive force for this club, and let's not underestimate the effect that a competent manager can have. Perhaps Pochettino's most impressive feat from his time at Southampton was how he managed to progress the players in his squad from one season to the next, from relegation strugglers to a side pushing into the top 10. The transformation under his watch was remarkable. If he can get some of those flop Tottenham signings from last year to start hitting the kind of form that inspired their purchase, that will be as important as any new signing.

To that end, the creative key to the team is the one signing from last year who did himself proud, Christian Eriksen. Long admired by the top clubs, Eriksen was a revelation, especially considering the modest transfer fee he commanded. Elsewhere much will depend on whether other big money signings Erik Lamela and Robert Soldado can justify their fees after very poor debuts.

Of the new boys this summer, Eric Dier looks to be the most crucial. He is a promising defender who will slot right into the team. Otherwise this is still very much the same playing staff from last year. Tottenham spent a lot of money on these players, the only question has to be whether they can finally show that they were worth it.

Tottenham have a strong squad, but it is undoubtedly weak compared to their top rivals, and has a lop-sided look to it. The fact that Gareth Bale has not been adequately replaced is a glaring failure on the part of director of football Franco Baldini, and certainly accusations have been raised that last summer's wrecklessness smack more of desperation than ambition.

So where will the club find themselves in 9 months time? They'd certainly like to think they can push for a top four place finally, but it's hard to see that happening this season. The top six or so clubs have all strengthened hugely in the past year, while pressure from the next tier of clubs is increasing all the time. Spurs are still capable of mixing it with the best of them, but unless they find greater consistency it's hard to see them realistically looking at anything more than Europa League qualificaiton.

Key Signing: Eric Dier
Key Man: Christian Eriksen

Verdict: Top seven probably, top six, possibly.


Nickname: Baggies
Ground: The Hawthorns
Capacity: 26,500
Last season: 17th
Manager: Alan Irvine

West Brom are living dangerously. Last season left them very close to the drop, and despite this being their 5th season in the top flight and despite the very positive financial developments off the pitch, this is a club that lacks stability.

West Brom ran through two managers last season, Steve Clarke, who had previously been the golden boy of the Premier League new managers (how quickly these things can turn) and Pepe Mel, who I'm still not sure who he is. Frankly if you took 20 football fans in a room and asked them who the West Brom manager was, maybe one would know the answer. Alan Irvine (that's who it is by the way) has his work cut out for him if his club is going to stay afloat.

A good eight players have been brought in this summer, while a good number of the club's surplus squad members have moved on. Joleon Lescott, formerly of Manchester City, looks a good signing for the club, as does former Sunderland midfielder Craig Gardner. Equally intriguing is new Belgian left back Sébastien Pocognoli who has impressed in the Bundesliga.

But the key signing has been Brown Ideye, with Anelka's ignominious departure last season, and Peter Odemwingie's much more amusing self destruction, West Brom desperately need someone who can score goals. At £10 million, West Brom are certainly betting that Ideye is going to be the man who can bring that.

The truth is that if you look beyond some interesting signings the squad right now is paper thing, and we mean that in the most literal sense. It is a tiny squad despite all the signings, and frankly you'd be hard pressed to pick out any of the old boys as players with real top flight quality. It's a long season ahead for West Brom.

Key Signing: Brown Ideye
Key Man: Brown Ideye

Verdict: Relegation candidates


Nickname: The Hammers
Ground: The Boleyn Ground
Capacity: 35,016
Last season: 13th
Manager: Sam Allardyce

From promotion to midtable stability in just a few years, one would be tempted to say that Big Sam has done it again. It's hardly the most glamorous football, but beggars can't be choosers, and the fact is that Sam Allardyce keeps you competitive, and more importantly, keeps you safely in the top flight.

And yet somehow we begin the season with Allardyce being talked about as one of the contenders to get sacked first. Why?

You see, West Ham are a unique breed of football club, one that isn't particularly good, and yet still clings on to this ideal of itself as one of England's grand old clubs, a club that prides itself on it's commitment to good, English football.

The reality is that this club was in a heap of trouble until Big Sam came along, and the future of the club will be best served by stability over the next few years. Still, this is the Premier League, every season you see the weaker clubs sacking managers in some inexplicable gesture of grandeur. This year it could be West Ham.

Matters are not helped by Andy Carroll being out for months, and Ravel Morrison being dragged through the courts currently. Pre-season has been a mess and the club are right to be concerned. On the bright side, Teddy Sheringham is in as an attacking coach to calm things down, while Mauro Zarate and Enner Valencia are exciting new signings for fans to salivate over. Carl Jenkinson less so.

The existing squad, built around Kevin Nolan, Mark Noble and the likes should be nice and familiar to Premier League fans, while Carlton Cole, as far as emergency back ups go, isn't terrible and comes with plenty of top flight experience.

As long as the club doesn't do something stupid, like sack Allardyce, they should be safe, and with a bit of luck and some inspiration could push into midtable. But at the same time a few bad results, an ill-advised sacking, and this club will be pulled right down into the thick of the relegation battle.

Key Signing: Mauro Zarate
Key Man: Kevin Nolan

Verdict: Should be safe, assuming the club stays the course

Predicted table:
1. Manchester City
2. Chelsea
3. Manchester United
4. Arsenal
5. Liverpool
6. Everton
7. Tottenham
8. Stoke
9. Newcastle
10. Sunderland
11. Crystal Palace Southampton
12. Swansea
13. Hull
14. West Ham
15. Leicester
16. Aston Villa
17. Crystal Palace
18. West Brom
19. QPR
20. Burnley

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Welcome back to the Ephemeric! We are taking a break from the painstaking preparation of our annual guide to the new Premier League season in order to bring you an urgent message.

robin williams dead suicide 2014 obituary best films roles funniest

Late last night we said goodbye to Robin Williams, a legendary figure in pop culture, and without doubt one of the funniest men to ever have lived. But to refer to Williams simply as a funny man fails to recognize the incredible dramatic talents he possessed, producing serious performances that are just as, if not even more memorable than the comic roles for which he is well known.

An Oscar winner, and an inspiration to many in Hollywood. But rather than simply mourn such a tragedy, we at the Ephemeric want to take this moment to celebrate the remarkable life and career of one of the 20th Century's greatest artists. Here for your consideration, appreciation and enjoyment are the five best Robin Williams movies.

5. Good Will Hunting

good will hunting robin williams oscarOf course no list of Robin Williams films can be complete without mentioning the one for which he finally claimed his Oscar.

His turn as therapist Sean Maguire is Williams' most sensitive and nuanced role, demonstrating better than any of his other work that he can keep his eccentricities in check and deliver a subtle performance of the very highest quality.

Largely a supporting role, that Williams manages to steal the show from the sidelines is remarkable in itself. Touching monologues are brilliantly delivered Other actors have done the "kindly mentor" schtick well, but Williams' performance is one of uniquely human quality.

4. Dead Poets Society

robin williams dead poets societySome have suggested that Williams' Oscar win for Good Will Hunting represents something of a consolation win following other, more deserving nominations. One such nomination is for the Dead Poets Society.

Williams is in full earnest mode as inspirational English teacher John Keating in this powerful look at art, both as a form of expression, and as an essential value of human purpose.

"We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for."

3. Aladdin

robin williams genie disney aladdinSo highly did Disney value Williams as a performer that they designed their character of the Genie entirely around his brand of humour and style of comedic delivery.

When at first Williams was not interested in doing a cartoon, Disney animators simply threw together a quick animation sequence of the Genie doing one of Williams' stand up routines. Williams reportedly "laughed his ass off", and signed up.

His performance in this movie goes down as one of the all time great voiceovers, and great cartoon characters. Once he was on board, Williams put his full genius into the role, ad-libbing and improvising to bring the full character of his comedy to the role. Allegedly so much of the Genie's dialogue was improvised that Aladdin was denied eligibility for a screenplay Oscar nomination.

2. Mrs. Doubtfire

robin williams mrs doubtfireArguably the film for which Robin Williams is best known with today's generation, and also one of his very funniest performances.

Mrs. Doubtfire is the type of film that if it were made today, or perhaps just with any other lead actor, it would be terrible. The core concept of man dressing up as old British lady to win back his estranged kids sounds like the fare of a bad Martin Lawrence in a fatsuit movie. But in these deftly comic hands, and with Robin Williams on song, it was magic.

As enjoyable for adults as it is for children, Doubtfire largely succeeds on its star's talent for physical comedy and rapid-fire delivery, but also touches on issues of divorce and family in a way that relates to audiences as with few other films. Such is the charm oozing from this movie that it has permanently ingrained itself upon the pop culture landscape.

1. Good Morning Vietnam

robin williams good morning vietnamBut the top prize goes to what is often seen as Williams' breakout role. For Good Morning Vietnam Robin Williams earned his very first Oscar nomination, at a time when he was still see mostly as a comedian. Disney/Touchstone took a chance on his ability as a dramatic actor, and it truly paid off.

What makes Good Morning Vietnam the greatest of all Robin Williams films is its ability to showcase both sides of Williams' talents. Williams brings to the screen the real life story of Adrian Cronauer, a popular military radio broadcaster for the Americans during the Vitenam war. Williams' irreverent portrayal, fast paced ad-libbing and pitch perfect impressions bring the laughs, but is constantly set against the backdrop of suffering and horror. It's a juxtaposition that adds great poignancy to the humour and set a template for storytelling that is still used frequently as an inspiration in movies and television alike.

There are few actors at any point in history who could have so convincingly straddled such humour and tragedy in one setting, but such was the remarkable depth of talent of Robin Williams that even roles of great complexity come off with the greatest of ease.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Directed by Josie Rourke
Written by James Graham
Starring Joshua McGuire, Gunnar Cauthery, Paul Chahidi, Jonathan Coy, Nina Sosanya, Michelle Terry
Theatre Donmar Warehouse

donmar theatre london privacy snowden assange guardian nsa

When The Ephemeric first heard about Privacy alarm bells went off. Artists are traditionally pretty left-wing to begin with, and here was a play about privacy in the post-Snowden era, featuring contributions from staff of the Guardian, and even dramatizing a large portion of the Guardian/Edward Snowden history.

That's not to say that we don't sympathize with their position to an extent, or that we consider ourselves anti left-wing, far from it. But the chances seemed good that this might be a politicized production designed to agitate and preach more than a genuinely compelling piece of theatre. Any contentious issue, when being described by one of the key parties, runs an obvious risk of bias, and here all the signs pointed to a complete political whitewash.

In addition "technology" as a subject generally has never transferred well into media. The fact is that most people really don't understand much about technology, and to a large extent that includes the playwrights. This makes it all too easy to craft a heavily exaggerated and stilted presentation of internet privacy issues, simplified into nice alarmist packages for your average layman to digest, but in reality far from representative of the real issues.

The Donmar's latest production attempts to take these concerns head on. Before curtains up, everyone is handed a sheet of card presented in the style of an aircraft safety brochure, which includes a wifi network name and password and instructions on how to connect. During the production people are invited to submit various information and photos to the network server, which are then worked into the production by the on-stage IT guru, permanently sat at a desk with a very impressive looking computer set-up.

It's all very clever and slickly produced, but the real brilliance comes when an audience member is called upon, and the on-stage tech guru then proceeds to pull all kinds of intimate information about them, and make eerily accurate inferences about many personal aspects of their life based on seemingly innocuous online activity.

Brilliant, because instead of simply telling us how scary the internet is, they go one better and actually show us. This expertly sidesteps any accusations of hyperbole by showing us an actual practical example. It's clever, funny and quite terrifying. In this first act the production accomplishes everything it set out to do and more, despite The Ephemeric's serious doubts.

But unfortunately all is not as it seems. At the end of the production all audience members are sworn to secrecy, but since a good few months have now passed (and since it is absolutely vital to any true review of this play) I feel obligated to inform at the very least that most of what has just transpired is completely fake.

Suffice it to say that none of the techno-wizardry that has seemingly been employed to such devastating effect has actually happened. It's fiction masquerading as reality explicitly to avoid accusation of bias, and the fact that none of it is real completely undermines the effect. At the end of the day, everything Privacy shows us is just fiction, and so all the pre-show concerns of hyperbole, politicization and, frankly, bullshit, still apply.

There's still much to be enjoyed here. Privacy is highly entertaining: funny, well produced and acted, and raises awareness of an important issue. But as is all too inevitable with such plays it runs the line of being a tool for political gamesmanship and revisionist history, rather than an actual sober consideration of a very technical subject. Privacy is good fun, but ultimately it is shown up just as scaremongering, a tool for the author's political views, and not to be taken too seriously.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Genre Alternative Rock
Label Parlophone
Producers Tim Bergling, Coldplay, Paul Epworth, Daniel Green, Jon Hopkins, Rik Simpson

coldplay ghost stories midnight magic sky full of stars album 2014

It's been three years since Coldplay's last album Mylo Xyloto, and six years since their last good album Viva la Vida, and yet such is the band's star power that a new album commands worldwide attention. Ghost Stories is no exception.

This latest album marks quite a departure for the band, which has become synonymous in recent years with roof raising, stadium filling anthems. The first album to be written since frontman Chris Martin's much publicized break up with Gwyneth Paltrow, Ghost Stories takes a decidedly more introverted style, full of ballads and semi-acoustic tracks.

On paper it's a good move for them, seemingly a throwback to the band's earlier style in the days of Yellow, Trouble and the Scientist, but unfortunately Ghost Stories never really recaptures the delicate brilliance of those songs, and far too much of this album feels lacking in inspiration.

There are bright spots. A Sky Full of Stars is a stunning track, Coldplay at their stadium filling best. This is the only track on the album that attempts this style and it's a real corker. Maybe there's a reason Coldplay record so many songs in this style after all.

Midnight, on the other hand, shows how good the band can be when they try something different. Not quite a throwback to their early acoustic stuff, not quite embracing the electronica bent of Mylo Xyloto. Midnight will inevitably draw unfair comparisons to Imogen Heap's Hide and Seek, but this does a disservice to a wonderful song.

Unfortunately other than this, there's not much else of note in the short 9 track album. It's not that the other songs are bad, mind you; Ink, Oceans, True Love, pretty much every song is perfectly decent and pleasant to listen to, but they're very unremarkable. There is nothing here that anyone will remember in a year's time.

It also doesn't help that many songs here happen to sound distractingly similar to other songs. Ink bears a guitar riff identical to that of Tracy Chapman's classic Fast Car, and hugely similar verse structure. Another's Arms has pretty much the same verse as James' Peaches. Say nothing of Midnight which we've already covered. Again, it's not that they're bad songs, it's just that even on the first listen I could have sworn I'd heard them all before.

Ultimately though, Ghost Stories marks a definite improvement on the mediocre Mylo Xyloto. When this album hits it hits good with some of Coldplay's finest moments in a long time. Sky Full of Stars in particular is an instant Coldplay classic. The rest is perfectly fine, but fairly forgettable. Pop a few tracks on your summer playlist and move on.

Must Listen :
A Sky Full of Stars

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

I don't know about you guys but I for one am starting to feel the symptoms of football withdrawal. It's a seasonal disorder that tends to affect English men in the summer and is associated with increased sobriety and an obsession with otherwise tedious transfer gossip.

Well the good news is help will soon be at hand. This summer belongs to the World Cup in Brazil. 32 teams will do battle over 64 games and all that is certain is that there will be but one winner, and that England will go out early.

world cup 2014

The host this time around is the homeland of joga bonito, the beautiful game. Brazil is famed as one of the finest purveyors of football in the history of the sport, and their national team has won the competition more times than any other team. Sadly this year's tournament has all too often been mired in controversy amid claims of corruption, failure to get stadiums and infrastructure ready in time (at the time of writing, merely a week before the big kick off, the stadiums are still not entirely ready), and general criticism levelled at a Government that is spending millions on an extravagant party while so many of their people remain destitute. Ever the optimist, The Ephemeric decides to focus primarily on the football, and leave any politics to those so inclined. I am absolutely buzzing with excitement, and on the pitch at least the tournament promises to be quite the celebration of the game.

As always, each team has it's own unique story to tell. So here is our team by team guide to World Cup 2014.


Manager: Luiz Felipe Scolari
Key player: Neymar
World ranking: 3

The Brazilians have won the tournament more times than any other team, but have not won it since 2002. Such is the weight of expectation on the Brazilian football team that any time they fail to win is considered an upset back home, and it will be about ten times worse this year with the country hosting the tournament.

The manager Luiz Felipe Scolari has already won the World Cup previously with Brazil, and following trophiless spells at Chelsea and Portugal, he returns to his home country with the hopes of becoming only the second manager to win the competition twice.

The squad has been criticized in recent years as underwhelming by Brazilian standards, but in reality it still contains attacking talent from stars such as Hulk, Willian and Neymar. Defensively the team is arguably among the stronger in Brazil's history with David Luiz, Thiago Silva and Dani Alves, while youngster Oscar has been key in his deep lying midfield engine role.

The key man certainly is Neymar, a young man upon whom great expectation has been placed. Some pundits already rate him among the best in the world, while his goalscoring rate at such a young age has earned him comparisons with Pelé.

Brazil are expected to win, and Neymar is expected to be the man to deliver the trophy. Brazil have the home advantage, and it's worth noting that no European team has ever won a World Cup in South America. That makes Brazil a strong favourite, and The Ephemeric's bet for victory.

Verdict: Winners

Manager: Niko Kovač
Key player: Ivan Rakitić
World ranking: 18

This Croatia side have gone off the boil recently, having once been tipped as the next big thing. The performance throughout qualification has been poor, just scraping through the qualification in what was not the most difficult group. But still, there is plenty to like in the squad.

Croatia is blessed with two of the finest central midfielders in Europe this season, Luka Modrić of Real Madrid, and Ivan Rakitić who is on the verge of signing for Barcelona. Add to this Bayern Munich's formidable Mario Mandzukić up front, and Southampton's in-form Dejan Lovren at the back and this is a team with some solid talent. However at the same time this is still a team that relies on has-beens like Vedran Ćorluka and Darijo Srna in their starting line up, and suddenly it's clear why qualification was such a chore.

Most remarkable about this Croatia side is the stewardship of the tournament's least experienced manager; Croatia legend Niko Kovač, national legend though he may be, only took over the side for the two-legged qualification playoff, and has just 7 competitive games to his CV, 5 of which were in charge of the U21s team. Huge question marks hang over a side that is unlikely to get out of the group stage.

Verdict: Group Stage

Manager: Miguel Herrera
Key player: Oribe Peralta
World ranking: 20

It's been somewhat of a stop-start qualification campaign for Mexico, full of managerial changes and mass rotations in squad makeup. Still this is a side with enough quality to qualify for the knockout round.

Oribe Peralta is the key man, having scored 10 goals in 10 games for Mexico, while the mercurial Giovani dos Santos usually turns up for the big tournaments, and at 24 is now reaching a point where he must take on a key role. Former star player Javier Hernandez will be on the bench due to a lack of game time with Manchester United, but still presents a potent threat if utilized. Beyond this the bulk of the squad plays their club football domestically, so there may be a surprise package or two for European viewers.

Manager Miguel Herrera was the fourth manager to take the Mexico job over the space of a month during an unusually turbulent period, and like Croatia's manager has only been in the job since the playoff stage, but an able 9-3 aggregate win over New Zealand certainly marks a strong start.

Mexico are nevertheless a strong side with great motivation and the advantage of playing a World Cup in South America. They stand a good chance at going through to the next round, but any further than that may be a stretch.

Verdict: Second Round

Manager: Volker Finke
Key player: Samuel Eto'o
World ranking: 56

Despite qualifying for the World Cup an impressive 7 times, Cameroon have only once made it out of the group stage. New manager Volker Finke has had a remarkable career in German club football, and has brought a much needed focus to a team otherwise plagued with internal politics and moody players.

No player is more moody than Samuel Eto'o; one of Africa's greatest ever footballing superstars, and yet has never reproduced his form for Cameroon. Many fans of the Lions consider him to be more of a disruptive influence on the team rather than a boon. Still, it is the Chelsea striker who captains Cameroon for this World Cup.

The rest of the squad is an interesting mix of promising players, and players who never lived up to their promise. They'll give a decent showing at the tournament, but will find it difficult to advance to the knockout stages for the second time in their history.

Verdict: Group Stage


Manager: Vicente del Bosque
Key player: Andrés Iniesta
World ranking: 1

What more can you say about the defending World and European Champions? Few teams have ever done the World Cup/European Championship double, and no team has ever won three major competitions in a row. Spain has done just that, and while the prospect of pulling of an unprecedented double double might seem ludicrous, so was claiming that third title in a row in 2012.

In Vicente del Bosque they have an old school manager, and a proven winner, while their team is full of world class experience. Players like Iniesta, Xavi, Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas have seen and won everything, while hungry young superstars in the making have recently joined the squad like Koke, Alcântara, and Azpiliqueta. Also joining the squad is Chelsea's new man Diego Costa, a man who has had a phenomenal 40 goal season last year.

Still, as good a side as they are, the odds are firmly stacked against them. Not only is there the statistical and historical unlikeliness of yet another victory, there's the fact that no European team has ever won a World Cup in South America, there's the fact that Brazil have the home advantage, and there's the fact that many of Spain's best players are just that little bit older now. Surely they won't win it again. The Ephemeric concludes that they probably will not.

Verdict: Quarter Finals

Manager: Louis Van Gaal
Key player: Arjen Robben
World ranking: 15

You never know what you're going to get with the Dutch. In Euro 2008 they faltered in the knockout stages, having played some of the most stunning football seen in International competition for decades. In World Cup 2010 they reached the final playing some horrendously ugly and physical football. Then in Euro 2012 they didn't even make it out of the group stage. Who knows what team will turn up this year?

The problem with the team is clear when looking at the roster. The team sheet is full of big names, none of whom command as much respect as they once did. Robin Van Persie was arguably the best striker in Europe a year or two ago, but has had a torrid season at Manchester United; Dirk Kuyt and Klaas Jan Huntelaar were once pretty big deals, but now no longer; Wesley Sneijder was one of the best midfielders in the world back in 2008, but now languishes in the Turkish league. Only key man Arjen Robben is currently playing to his peak abilitiy. This is a Dutch side where the best players are past their peak or out of form, meaning extra responsibilities will need to be placed on less experienced players like Jasper Cillessen and Bruno Martins Indi.

The Netherlands still have a strong team, and their World Cup qualification campaign was very strong, albeit against some pretty weak teams. The good news is that after last time, expectations are low. Chile will give them a hard time, but the Netherlands' relative strength throughout the squad should see them through past the group stage. Unfortunately with a likely Brazil match up awaiting, probably no further.

Verdict: Second Round

Manager: Jorge Sampaoli
Key player: Arturo Vidal
World ranking: 14

Chile were something of a surprise package in 2010, coming close to upsetting eventual champions Spain and performing far above what most people expected thanks to some stunning fast paced attacking football.

Chile are blessed with some exceptionally gifted attackers in Alexis Sánchez of Barcelona and Arturo Vidal of Juventus. Their weakness in the past has always been defensively. Chile would attack relentlessly and perform well against teams who are similarly oriented, but against any team with defensive tactics they'd struggle. This is where key man Arturo Vidal comes in; the versatile Juventus midfielder solidifies that Chile core, and can even fill out in defence if needed. He will be absolutely vital to any challenge Chile hopes to pose to more prestigious sides.

Attacking sides like Spain and Netherlands probably suit Chile just fine, but while they could well upset one of the two sides, they are unlikely to beat both, and third place seems likely.

Verdict: Group Stage

Manager: Ange Postecoglu
Key player: Tim Cahill
World ranking: 62

Yes, Tim Cahill is still the key man, that should say it all really. Not to disrespect Australia's all time top goalscorer, he's been a quality player who can change games in an instant for both club and country, but he's 34 now and plies his trade in the MLS, he's not going to be able to salvage anything in such a tough group.

Manager Postecoglu will have to come up with a bold gameplan in order to have any impact on this tournament. Most probably Aussie fans should look at this as a warm up ahead of the Asian Cup they're hosting this year.

Verdict: Group Stage


Manager: Jose Pekerman
Key player: James Rodríguez
World ranking: 8

As a footballing nation with a proud history, it's hard to believe that this is the first time that Colombia have qualified for the World Cup in 16 years. Colombian football has seen something of a renaissance recently, spearheaded by Radamel Falcao, arguably one of the finest strikers in the world right now. Unfortunately Falcao is set to miss the World Cup through injury, and so too seemingly goes any real hope of Colombia causing a major upset at this year's tournament.

But that doesn't really tell the full story. Falcao has been injured for much of the season, and Colombia have remained impressive without him. This is a Colombia that, even without their talisman, is not lacking for talented technical players like Jackson Martinez up front and Monaco playmaker James Rodriguez in the midfield. But equally strong is their defensive unit, with the more cautious midfielder Freddy Guarin and goalkeeper David Ospina particular highlights.

With Falcao, this is a team that could have gone far as a surprise package this year. Without him they're still good, and will qualify for the knock out stages, but are unlikely to go any further.

Verdict: Second Round

Manager: Fernando Santos
Key player: Sokratis Papastathopoulos
World ranking: 12

Euro 2004's shock winners have qualified for another major competition, and once again, little is expected of them. Greece have carved a reputation for adopting an all out defence mentality, and nicking the game by the odd goal. It won them Euro 2004 and it has earned them qualification to every major tournament since.

This year we expect more of the same, and the key man through all this will be Borussia Dortmund defender Papastathopoulos, the lynchpin of this defensively minded Greece side. Going forward though the team is still very suspect, a major problem when facing other teams with a similarly cautious approach. Greece will do their best to frustrate and win at all costs, but are likely to come up short again and fall at the first hurdle.

Verdict: Group Stage

Ivory Coast
Manager: Sabri Lamouchi
Key player: Yaya Touré
World ranking: 23

It's a case of too little too late for the Ivory Coast. Long regarded as one of the more promising squads in African football, Ivory Coast has featured stars from all over Europe including talismanic captain Didier Drogba, midfield dynamo Yaya Touré, Salomon Kalou and others. But every year they have been drawn in tough groups featuring the likes of Brazil and Netherlands, and fallen at group stage.

This year the Ivory Coast has found itself in what would be a very winnable group, but it may simply be a case of their star players being just a bit too old to reach their potential. Didier Drogba is a shadow of the player he used to be, as is Kolo Touré. Salomon Kalou never reached his potential, nor did Didier Zokora or Gervinho. It's only Manchester City's all-conquering midfielder Yaya Touré who appears to be in the peak of his game, and newcomer Swansea striker Wilfried Bony. These two will be the key men for any hopes Ivory Coast have.

Group C is arguably the hardest to call in the tournament, with four very evenly matched teams. Ultimately The Ephemeric expects that Ivory Coast will have enough power to break through Japan and Greece, and are likely to finally progress to the knockout round, but unlikely to go any further.

Verdict: Second Round

Manager: Alberto Zaccheroni
Key player: Keisuke Honda
World ranking: 46

A hugely underrated side, Japan were impressive in World Cup 2010 where they reached the second round, and were unlucky not to make the quarter final. For a team that until recently considered itself lucky just to qualify for the World Cup, a lot has changed very quickly. Japan recently won the Asian Cup and were the first team to qualify for this World Cup tournament.

The Japanese team now finds itself full of players with real top European league pedigree, from Manchester United's Shinji Kagawa to AC Milan's play maker Keisuke Honda. They are no longer just a team with some fancy technical skills, but a well honed and experienced side.

It is unfortunate for the Japanese that what is generally a pretty lightweight, non-physical team has found itself in a group surrounded by three teams which are the exact opposite. While Japan have the quality to push for the knockout stages, there's too great a risk of them being bullied into submission by the far more physically imposing opposition, and are more likely to fall in group stage.

Verdict: Group Stage


Manager: Óscar Tabárez
Key player: Luis Suárez
World ranking: 7

Last time the World Cup was played in Brazil, it was Uruguay who won it. It was their second and last World Cup victory at a time when Brazil had yet to win any. Originally it was Uruguay who were the big boys of world football.

Their star has fallen in the decades since, but recent years have seen a rebirth for the nation. Semi finalists at the last World Cup, and they've only gotten better since then. Luis Suárez has questions remaining over his fitness, but if he's in good shape then Uruguay will thrive. His sheer brilliance gives Uruguay the freedom to sit back and focus on defence more while he rampages up front, it's a hugely effective balance. Suárez is arguably one of the world's form players at the moment, and with his country facing the opportunity to relive their most famous hour, and the benefit of playing in South America, Uruguay are without doubt one of the key sides to watch at this year's tournament.

They are unlucky to find themselves in one of the tougher groups, facing the likes of Italy and England, but with the home advantage and a fit Suárez they look good to get out of group stage and could well go far this year.

Verdict: Semi Finals

Costa Rica
Manager: Jorge Luis Pinto
Key player: Keylor Navas
World ranking: 28

Don't let their decent world ranking fool you, Costa Rica are whipping boys here.

That's not to say that they don't have talented players. Fulham's Bryan Ruiz will be huge for them, as will goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who has been a revelation in La Liga this season. The trouble is they don't have enough of them, and the rest of the squad is padded out with relatively mediocre talent. Costa Rica can count themselves among the weaker teams in the tournament and are highly unlikely to get out of this tough group.

Verdict: Group Stage

Manager: Roy Hodgson
Key player: Wayne Rooney
World ranking: 10

England surprised many with a decent showing at Euro 2012, but no one was ever fooled into thinking they had what it takes to go all the way. Now they find themselves in a very tricky group, one from which they could well struggle to escape.

The sad thing is that as always, England's problems are of their own making. Divisions are still rife within the team and the mild mannered but unremarkable Roy Hodgson has yet to convince while wielding an England team largely built by his predecessor Fabio Capello. And following the FA's ill-advised campaign to force talismanic captain John Terry out of the set up, we can't even say we have our best squad available. Together John Terry and Gary Cahill have formed arguably the strongest central defensive pairing in all of Europe if not the world, and it is mind boggling that we will not be making use of by far our greatest asset.

Instead much of our hopes will now have to rest on Wayne Rooney's shoulders. Poor Wayne has never really lived up to his billing for the England team since his stunning Euro 2004 breakthrough was cruelly cut short, and has yet to score a goal in the World Cup finals. In a team bereft of many of the leadership figures of old, Wayne will need to have a massive tournament for England to meet their goals.

Elsewhere one would hope that emphasis will be placed on the young talent in the side, especially those in Liverpool colours on the back of such a remarkable season. England would be foolish not to put the gifted goalscoring talents of Daniel Sturridge, and the youthful energy of Raheem Sterling up front and centre in this team.

If England's young talent is used effectively, if Wayne Rooney finally hits his peak, and if Cahill can form a good defensive partnership with Phil Jagielka, this England team can get out of this group, but it's a tough ask, and the smart money says they'll drop at the group stage.

Verdict: Group Stage

Manager: Cesare Prandelli
Key player: Andrea Pirlo
World ranking: 9

Italy are always a hard side to predict. For one they have a fantastic World Cup record over the years. But at the same time they often exceed low expectations, winning in 2006 despite pre-tournament billing as also-rans, and then defending said title by bowing out pathetically at the group stage in 2010. Euro 2012 saw a strong performance from the Italians, reaching the final, and if Prandelli can keep that momentum going it could be a good tournament for Azzuri.

The usual caveats apply for Italy; old, defensive, overdependent on Juventus. But since when has that ever stopped them? Andrea Pirlo will still pull the strings in midfield, and every indication is that his strong form since joining Juventus has carried right on through to the World Cup. Meanwhile Mario Balotelli and Giuseppe Rossi (if fit) make a formidable strike partnership up front. Giorgio Chiellini is still one of the finest defenders around, and Buffon remains an example to all goalkeepers. Equally interesting are some of the youngsters included in the squad, if called upon to play. PSG's Marco Verratti is extremely hotly tipped, as is Napoli's Lorenzo Insigne.

As we've stated, group D is a very difficult one. But you would be a fool to ever bet against Italy progressing in the World Cup, and The Ephemeric's mama didn't raise no fool.

Verdict: Quarter Finals


Manager: Ottmar Hitzfeld
Key player: Xherdan Shaqiri
World ranking: 6

The sixth best team in the world if FIFA's world rankings are to be believed. It's a little less ridiculous sounding when you look at the excellent qualification campaign they've just had, storming convincingly through what was a reasonably difficult group, at the same time amassing the best qualification record in all of UEFA.

How did this happen? After all just a few years ago Switzerland were a Greece-lite, disciplined and defensive, nicking 1-0 wins to advance. Well that has all changed now. This Swiss team places the emphasis on attack, and is generally considered to be among, if not the, best Swiss football sides of all time.

They are coached by one of the great old pros in football Ottmar Hitzfeld, a man who has won everything... twice. He has crafted this Swiss team into a surprisingly incisive, tactically flexible unit. The key man without doubt is Bayern Munich star Xherdan Shaqiri, an explosive winger in the mould of teammate Franck Ribéry. Shaqiri provides that bit of special quality, but is flanked by very capable team mates Barnetta, Behrami, Fernandes and others. Particularly worthy of note is fullback Ricardo Rodriguez, who scored more goals and provided more assists than any other fullback in the Bundesliga last season.

All the dark horse attention is on Belgium, but Switzerland are worth a look too. The Swiss should be able to navigate this group, but with a likely Argentina match up awaiting, that should be the extent of it.

Verdict: Second Round

Manager: Reinaldo Rueda
Key player: Antonio Valencia
World ranking: 26

Colombia-lite. Good all-round football, full of energy and stamina that never runs out. Many will remember Ecuador's solid run into the knock out stages back in 2006. This is not a team to be underestimated by any stretch of the imagination, but at the same time one shouldn't expect too much of note.

Ecuador's energy levels are buoyed by their home ground being some 3,000 metres above sea-level, a ground on which they are undefeated (not too surprisingly) they won't have that advantage here, but they will still be well equipped to deal with some of the harsh climate conditions in Brazil, and with the high stamina that high altitude training affords.

Antonio Valencia is the clear star, hugely experienced in the English Premier League and a role model for the rest of his team. Otherwise the side mainly consists of local players, a double edged sword in that none of them are superstars, but on the bright side they all know each others' game well. Ecuador won't be easy, but they'll have to up their game to pip Switzerland to the next round.

Verdict: Group Stage

Manager: Didier Deschamps
Key player: Franck Ribéry
World ranking: 17

France's disastrous early exit from World Cup 2010 was the stuff of legend. Fortunately manager Raymond Domenech was promptly shown the door, a move long overdue for a man who, 2006 aside, had managed to internally sabotage his country's performances at tournaments every year since 2002.

The new man in charge, Didier Deschamps, has revitalised the side on the back of a strong qualification campaign. Karim Benzema has regained his club form and rightly taken his place at the front of an impressive French attack which sees him flanked by Franck Ribéry and backed by one of Europe's top young prospects in Paul Pogba. Meanwhile the side also features some very impressive deep lying midfielders in Yohan Cabaye and Blaise Matuidi. France was always a better team than 2010 suggested, and now they have the confidence and competent management to help bring that potential to the pitch.

If the team does have a weakness it's the lack of real leaders on the pitch. There's no Zidane or Vieira or Thuram. But the group they face is not the toughest in the tournament, and they should have enough to progress to the next round. Realistically though anything beyond a quarter final finish seems unlikely.

Verdict: Quarter Finals

Manager: Luis Fernando Suárez
Key player: Wilson Palacios
World ranking: 33

Something of a surprise qualifier, but as they showed England in the recent friendly encounter they are no pushover. After all they did qualify ahead of Mexico, a side that is generally pretty well regarded in the competition.

Still it is never a good sign when your star man is a Stoke City player. Wilson Palacios is strong and good at starting his team's plays from his deep midfield position. But he will have a job on his hands to get anything out of the group stage. The Ephemeric does not expect much.

Verdict: Group Stage


Manager: Alejandro Sabella
Key player: Lionel Messi
World ranking: 5

The two-time World Cup winners can always consider themselves among the favourites for the competition, especially when they play in South America. Still they have not won since 1986. All the stops will be pulled out in order to win the World Cup this time on the soil of arch rivals Brazil.

There's is a team that is stocked with world class talent, from Ángel di María to Sergio Agüero, Ezequiel Lavezzi, and of course, one of the world's top two players: Lionel Messi. But while they team's attacking options may be the envy of any team in the world, defensively they are far more suspect. There is no clear star in defence, and doubt over who best to play in goal. This is a team that will have to prevail through offence as a form of defence.

After a few years in the wilderness, Argentina have finally started to show some of their promise. Messi in particular is beginning to replicate his club form for country. If he can do that consistently at the World Cup then Argentina have a good shot at winning the whole thing. The pressure is on, but with the talent available Argentina will surely be there or thereabouts.

Verdict: Runners Up

Bosnia and Herzegovina
Manager: Safet Sušić
Key player: Edin Dzeko
World ranking: 21

The perception is a team full of no-name whipping boys from a country that didn't exist until a few years ago. No-hopers who are just here to make up the numbers and will be home early. The reality is that Bosnia have a very decent team.

Goalkeeper Asmir Begović and star man Edin Dzeko will be familiar to any English Premier League fans, and Dzeko in particular can be a monster on his day, adding well rounded hold-up play to his excellent goal scoring record. The team has considerable talent elsewhere in the form of Roma's Miralem Pjanić and Hoffenheim's Sejad Salihović. Bosnia is not just here as a makeweight, they will have an influence on this group.

Getting out of the group stage will be a challenge though for a squad that is relatively inexperienced on the big stage and thin in depth beyond their starting lineup. Bowing out in the group stage is most likely, but don't be surprised if they nick that second qualification place.

Verdict: Group Stage

Manager: Carlos Queiroz
Key player: Ashkan Dejagah
World ranking: 43

Iran are the team with probably the most unknown players. Many of them play domestically or in the lower leagues, and their star man is a Fulham winger, albeit a quick and tricky one.

Still Iran are not going to be the pushovers everybody expects. Their team is well drilled and enthusiastic, while they are particularly deadly from set pieces.

The problem Iran face is that while they are not a terrible team, they're probably the worst one in this group. The Ephemeric considers it highly likely that they will get knocked out at this first round.

Verdict: Group Stage

Manager: Stephen Keshi
Key player: John Obi Mikel
World ranking: 44

Despite their relatively low ranking, Nigeria are entering the World Cup as African champions, and in a good position to have an impact on the group.

A strong counter-attacking side. Nigeria is built around a core of good top flight talent including Chelsea trio John Obi Mikel, Victor Moses and Kenneth Omeruo. Meanwhile goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama has had a fantastic season in the French leagues, coming very close to setting a new all time record for most consecutive minutes without conceding a goal. Their considerable pedigree also features familiar names such as Joseph Yobo, Peter Odemwingie and Victor Obinna.

This is a deceptively solid team, and one of the better African teams in the tournament despite their ranking. Nigeria have a good shot at getting out of this group stage if they can negotiate their way past Bosnia, but with a potential match up against France in the next round, probably no further.

Verdict: Second Round


Manager: Joachim Löw
Key player: Mesut Özil
World ranking: 2

Germany: one of the best national teams in the world, with an impressive three wins, behind only Italy and Brazil in the winners rankings. They went pretty close in 2006 to winning on home soil, and gave good accounts of themselves in every major tournament since. With Bayern Munich getting such hype in recent years there is a lot of buzz that this could finally be the year for Germany.

This is a squad full of world class talent for sure, but one gets the feeling that this tournament is coming at a bad time. Many of the key players are in unconvincing form, with the Bayern stars unconvincing in Europe this season, and even talisman Mesut Özil has had a largely invisible debut season with Arsenal. This makes it seem unlikely that Germany will become the first ever European side to win a South American World Cup, but still this is Germany, and the Germans usually turn up for the big tournaments, often confounding any pre-tournament predictions.

Germany finds themselves in arguably the toughest group in the tournament, but are probably the strongest team in it. They should get through to the next round, difficult though it will be. A quarter final defeat to one of the South American big boys seems the likely end for Germany this year.

Verdict: Quarter Finals

Manager: Paulo Bento
Key player: Cristiano Ronaldo
World ranking: 4

Portugal have taken Spain's mantle as the world's serial underperformers; blessed with a formidable array of talent yet always just not quite up to the task of winning. Euro 2012 was a very impressive showing from the team, losing to the eventual champions despite being the better of the two sides over 90 minutes. Now they hope to go one further in the World Cup.

Leading the charge will be the current best player in the world Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo is arguably one of the finest footballers of all time, and when he is on his game he is simply untouchable. An incredible blend of pace, power, technique, and vision. But that's not to disregard a squad that's strong in all departments: a defence featuring Pepe, Bruno Alves and Coentrao, a midfield with Moutinho, Veloso and Nani, and of course the big man up front. Consistency has always been an issue for Portugal and this will be no different. If they can fire on all cylinders they can go far, if not then they'll underperform yet again.

Portugal have one of the very best teams in the competition, and probably the best player at the moment. They have a very good shot of taking the big prize, perhaps more so than any European team. Their group is a very tricky one, but they should be able to navigate it successfully. The Ephemeric thinks they can make it as far as the semi finals.

Verdict: Semi Finals

Manager: James Kwesi Appiah
Key player: Kevin-Prince Boateng
World ranking: 37

Ghana have been giving a good account of themselves in recent years, in particular the last World Cup in 2010 where they became only the third African side to reach the World Cup quarter finals. But for all their strengths over the years there is the feeling that some of their previous star players may be on the decline.

Michael Essien, arguably one of the best midfielders in the world in 2010, has aged very quickly and now seems a shadow of himself for both club and country. Then there's key striker Asamoah Gyan who's star has fallen considerably since his big money move to Sunderland in the wake of the 2010 World Cup. He now finds himself playing in the Middle-Eastern leagues.

Instead the focus will be on Milan's Kevin-Prince Boateng, always a man for a big occasion and Kwadwo Asamoah of Juventus. Most interesting will be to see the emergence of Ghana's promising youth; players like Jordan Ayew, Christian Atsu, and Majeed Waris.

This is a very intriguing Ghana team indeed, but with such a tough group before them, they are unlikely o have much opportunity to showcase their talents.

Verdict: Group Stage

United States of America
Manager: Jürgen Klinsmann
Key player: Michael Bradley
World ranking: 13

This is an interesting one. For a while it looked as though American football was getting increasingly better, with genuinely high quality players like Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey making waves in international competition. Then with the appointment of German legend Klinsmann, who as a manager almost won the World Cup with Germany and has received incredible praise for his management style, it seemed as though American football would be set for another big step up.

Instead the team seems to have gone strangely backwards in the past few years. Sure, they won the Gold Cup, but the team appears to be lacking in recognizable quality more than ever now. Even the manager concedes that his side have no chance at this World Cup, and claims to be building for 2018.

For sure, even if the roster was looking among the best of teams that the United States has fielded, this group is particularly difficult, and the USA will face Germany, Portugal and the third, easier team is their bogey team Ghana, who knocked them out of the past two World Cups. Getting out of this group will be a near impossible task for the United States.

Verdict: Group stage


Manager: Marc Wilmots
Key player: Eden Hazard
World ranking: 11

Everyone's favourite dark horses at this World Cup, Belgium have on paper one of the finest squads in the world. This Belgian golden age has everything: one of the best goalkeepers in the world in the form of Thibault Courtois, a strong defence featuring Thomas Vermaelen, Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. The creative midfield has Eden Hazard, Axel Witsel, Kevin de Bruyne, Steven Defour and Marouane Fellaini. The attack Romelu Lukaku, Adnan Januzaj, and Kevin Mirallas.

I'm going on and on, but the fact is that every single one of these players is a household name, plying their trade at one of Europe's top clubs. This is a young, hungry, and high quality team, one that on paper can match up to any in the world.

But translating that potential into an actual team, and producing it on the biggest stage of all, is a tough ask, especially for such a young group of players. With all the hype that is currently pouring on them, disappointment seems an inevitability.

Group H is by no means easy, but it also isn't the most difficult group in the tournament. It is very winnable for Belgium, but the next round promises either Germany or Portugal, and for all their talent on paper, they could well come up short against the big players.

Verdict: Second Round

Manager: Fabio Capello
Key player: Igor Akinfeev
World ranking: 19

Fabio Capello is one of the top managers in the world and has been for a long time. After being wrongly pushed out of his job as England manager, he sought refuge in Russia, with the aim of turning them into a top national side. This is not without precedent of course; under Hiddink, Russia were one of the best sides in Euro 2008. Attacking players Arshavin, Zhirkov all sparkled. Akinfeev was formidable in goal, and youngster Alan Dzagoev was one of the top young prospects in Europe.

Their Euro 2012 bid under Dick Advocaat started well enough, but ended in disappointment. Since then they have never quite reached the potential they hinted at in 2008. Arshavin is gone, Dzagoev, once a hot talent, has fallen out of favour with the manager. Now the key man will be Akinfeev, holding that back line together as Capello likes to do. Otherwise the emphasis seems to be on young, domestic talent. Indeed, that every player in the squad plays in the Russian league is quite remarkable.

This year seems mainly to be about blooding young Russian players so that they will be ready for 2018's World Cup on home soil, but still they should not be discounted. Russia love to be the dark horse, and if Capello handles them the right way, they could have a good tournament. Qualification from the group stage seems a strong possibility, but with Germany or Portugal waiting, that will probably be the extent of it.

Verdict: Second Round

South Korea
Manager: Hong Myung-Bo
Key player: Son Heung-Min
World ranking: 57

Like Russia, South Korea are probably best remembered in football as a side to be buoyed by Guus Hiddink's magic when they reached the World Cup semi final on home soil back in 2002. Since then they've never really performed to the same level, but that's not to discount them entirely. South Korea are still a collection of very technically gifted players who can cause trouble.

But make no mistake, they will be up against it here. South Korea just scraped into this World Cup past Uzbekistan, and their lightweight squad will struggle against the far more physical opposition of Algeria and Russia, while their technical abilities, though worthy of praise, will be matched by Belgium. This looks to be a very short tournament for South Korea.

Verdict: Group Stage

Manager: Vahid Halilhodžić
Key player: Sofiane Feghouli
World ranking: 22

Anyone who saw Algeria play in the 2010 World Cup will know they are not to be taken lightly. Halilhodžić likes his team to play a highly organised, tactical game, while his squad are powerful enough to tussle with the best.

The squad's main dose of quality comes from Feghouli, formerly short listed for the French national team but convinced to play for the country of his parents. Feghouli has La Liga pedigree on the wing for Valencia, and all signs indicate that he can deliver on a big stage. Indeed a promising array of youthful additions to the squad suggest that the Algerians have improved even on their 2010 showing.

Algeria will be concerned by their defensive vulnerabilities, particularly with the likes of Belgium to contend with. They certainly have a shot at pushing for the second round, but the chances are that once again they will be home after three games.

Verdict: Group stage

So there we have it. Get excited because the tournament starts just this next week. The Ephemeric may be missing much of the tournament thanks to the joy of work, but we will be there with you all in spirit.

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