Amongst sides to be relegated from the Barclays Premier League in recent seasons, the demotion of Reading was the most curious. After coming seventh in their first season after promotion in 2006-07, Reading collapsed dramatically in their second season, despite retaining the core of the team.
Premier league football returns to the Madejski Stadium, but the ownership of the club has changed hands. The influence of Anton Zingarevich can already be seen in the signing of Pavel Pogrebnyak, surely the best striker to be signed by a newly promoted team in recent history. Chris Gunter and Danny Guthrie are two other Premier League signings, otherwise Reading have maintained the same squad that served them well in the Championship.
Zingarevich obviously has faith in the abilities of manager Brian McDermott, who did a sterling job in getting automatic promotion with a remarkable run that started in November and culminated in Reading winning the Championship with a game to spare. Despite McDermott's nous, Zingarevich will have to loosen the purse strings either before the August 31st deadline or in January, if Reading are to have a realistic chance of surviving this season.
Stoke enter their fifth successive season in the Premier League, a laudable achievement for a club their size. Tony Pulis' methods might not find favour amongst most fans, but it's hard to argue against Stoke's achievements on their return to the top flight.
There does come a point though when lower mid-table security achieved through unimaginative and at times nasty methods has to be questioned. Despite spending a fair amount of money on transfers, Pulis has not supplied entertainment or flair, that too while not progressing in the table. Those expecting Pulis to change tack this season are bound to be disappointed.
Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant will be expected to deliver crosses from the wings, with Peter Crouch and Kenwyne Jones entrusted to be the goal-scorers. Rory Delap, Dean Whitehead and Ryan Shawcross will once again form the strong physical backbone of the team.
Stoke should survive partly due to their record at the Britannia, but there is a possibility this year, that the close victories they are so adept at grinding out, could easily be turned into close defeats. Expect this to be Pulis' toughest year in charge.
Prediction: Having the first game of the season at home for a newly promoted almost always delivers a victory. The players are pumped up about playing in a higher division, there is an added fervour amongst the crowd as well. Reading will use the momentum to their advantage, and gain a victory over Stoke who are usually poor starters on the road.
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