Once again it's the time of year when even many half-hearted football fans feel duty bound to enter a fantasy competition or two, where they choose a portfolio of players whose real Premiership performances earn them points in mini-leagues against friends, work colleagues and, indeed, complete strangers. Everybody has their favourite superstars, but when you've spent half the game budget on four household names, where do you go to fill in the rest of the squad? Are the three teams promoted from the Championship any good? Should any of the exotic foreign signings be trusted to make an immediate impact? Is there an unknown youngster poised to make a big impression?
Our own fantasy league will be available once again here (League name: Londonist, Code to join: 319926-64249) and, in two articles published today and tomorrow, we take you through some of our top recommendations for value-for-money selections that are not screamingly obvious. Tune in tomorrow morning for our absolute number one no-team-should-be-without-him pick, but today we offer diamonds in the rough from clubs whose names begin with the letters A through to L. With our hand on our heart as "London Calling" blares out from the tannoy, we feature the capital's sides first.
Arsenal: Emmanuel Eboué won’t be cheap, but he's our top Gunners choice because he could prove to be a bargain if pushed forward in front of Arsene's parsimonious defence to use his attacking instincts on the right wing while accomodating French international Bacary Sagna at full back. Squad midfielder Vassiriki Diaby got a surprising amount of goalmouth action last season, notching two goals from a number of strikes in 24 appearances, while tall Dane Nicklas Bendtner, who first caught Londonist's eye in the reserves a couple of seasons back, nabbed 11 Championship goals from 38 starts at Birmingham last term and could be ready to take up some of the post-Henry striking slack.
Chelsea: Not exactly the home of undiscovered fantasy football value, but it’s worth noting that striker Salomon Kalou quietly made 33 appearances last season, scoring 9 goals. He might be inexpensive and he seems to have José’s trust. Also snap up new left-winger Florent Malouda if he’s underpriced.
Fulham: New manager Lawrie Sanchez is still apparently finalising his starting XI, but one man who keeps getting chances to impress in pre-season is American winger Clint Dempsey (pictured). Fulham seem to be spreading the goal opportunities around in friendlies, but we think Dempsey, who can strike from long distance, create his own chances and use his heading effectively, has the biggest upside in Fulham’s attacking-midfield-by-committee. Watch out also at Craven Cottage for cameo appearances featuring the incisive dribbling of Lee Cook, recently acquired from former landlords QPR.
Aston Villa: Stilian Petrov got 55 goals in 228 league matches for Celtic from midfield, but only 2 in 30 last year for Villa. The arrival of Nigel Reo-Coker to perform a lot of the defensive duties alongside him should free Petrov up to support the attack.
Birmingham City: Tunisian international Radhi Jaidi scored 8 for Bolton in 43 matches a couple of seasons back, so is a great gamble as a goalscoring centre back, though his defensive points will doubtless be limited. Better value is to be had in midfield from where Gary McSheffrey struck 13 goals last season in the Championship having managed about 1 in every 3 games at previous club Coventry.
Picture of Fulham's very own Clint Dempsey via wjarretc's Flickr stream.
Blackburn Rovers: Not a lot has changed at Ewood Park, traditionally the home of a tough defence. Former Liverpool left back Stephen Warnock adds the bonus of regularly joining the attack, scoring one and making two after Christmas last year with, we believe, the promise of better things to come this time round.
Bolton Wanderers: In contrast to near neighbours Blackburn, Bolton’s fortunes post-Allardyce are anybody’s guess, as is the regular line-up. Beyond the perennial fantasy football candidates in that mix, Lubomir Michalik might be asked to take the central defensive berth formerly occupied by new Chelsea man Tal Ben Haim. The six foot four Slovakian showed an eye for goal on loan at Leeds late last season, especially at set-pieces, and he could be one to stash away on the bench.
Derby County: Not a squad to be approached lightly from a fantasy point of view, but starlet midfielder Giles Barnes will be interesting to watch when he returns from injury in a few weeks while many people will have forgotten that new frontman Robert Earnshaw bagged 14 Premiership goals playing for West Brom in 2004/5. He’s still only 26 and shouldn't be an expensive selection.
Everton: Solid performers who, like Spurs, are in dogged pursuit of a top four finish. Their defence has traditionally been a source of great value fantasy points and it has just acquired attacking left back Leighton Baines who is probably priced in fantasy games as if he were about to start the season in Wigan’s much more suspect rearguard.
Liverpool: Like Chelsea, there’s not much about this team that isn’t already well known. The best potential for a surprise contributor comes from Ukrainian international Andriy Voronin, a regular scorer over the last three seasons for Bayer Leverkusen and, with Rafael Benitez’s penchant for tinkering, sure to get a first team run sooner rather than later.