While the kick-off of the new SPL season seems to come around sooner every year, this time around it is genuinely the case as the first round of new fixtures is played on the baffling early date of July 22nd. Whatever your feelings on the early kick off, it is great to have some competitive football to watch again, particularly with the promise of a half-decent Aberdeen side this season. My optimism is cautious - lest we forget the first day thumping of Hamilton last season that brought about jubilant scenes among Dons fans. The fact that that fixture acted as a precursor for one of the most depressing and embarassing seasons in living memory means that any success in the early stages this time around will be laced with pessimism. Nevertheless, in Craig Brown we have a gaffer with a wealth of experience who did a good job steadying the ship last season. Whether he can kick on and bring Aberdeen the top six finish that they should be aiming for is another question.
Despite the unfortunate illness suffered by number one shot stopper Jamie Langfield, Aberdeen's last line of defense seems to be in a relatively healthy state. With experienced International goalkeeper David Gonzalez coming in on loan from Manchester City and former Blackburn reserve Jason Brown joining on a free, there should be a healthy amount of competition between the sticks even before Langfield's return. Both Gonzalez and Brown are untested at SPL level but their pedigree suggests that they should both be accomplished keepers for Aberdeen.
Arguably the weakest area of Aberdeen's side last year was the defense, and with relatively few new signings you could be forgiven for being pessimistic about signs of improvement. Nevertheless, Youl Mawene looks to be a good signing and will bring some much needed experience to the centre of defence, aiding Rory McArdle and Andrew Considine who have both looked impressive at times, if inconsistent during their respective Dons careers. 19 year old Irishman Joe Shaughnessy has made just one appearance for the Dons as yet, but has come into the first team this season and should provide cover. Of course this is without mentioning Kari Arnason, who signed on a free from Plymouth this month is currently lacking in match fitness but could turn out in a number of positions, one of them being centre back.
At full back Aberdeen's squad yet again looks decidedly more uncertain, with new captain Richard Foster seeming the only certain incumbent of the position. Youngsters Clark Robertson and Ryan Jack have turned out there as well as versatile new signing Chris Clark. While Craig Brown has spoken of his hope of turning Steven Smith's loan deal into a permanent one, the Norwich City left back now looks to be out of the clubs price range.
Despite there seeming to be a dearth of options at either side, this may not be as big a problem as it first seems if Craig Brown is to opt for a somewhat unusual 3-5-2 formation. The set-up was trialed in the shambolic 4-1 cup reverse against Celtic last season, and despite that setback Brown has persisted with a back three in pre-season and it would be no surprise if the Dons lined up in that style on Saturday.
As with at the back, Aberdeen boast comparative riches in the centre of midfield when compared to out wide. While the departure of Sone Aluko has been offset by the signing of Chris Clark, the versatile midfielder may be required in defence, leaving the squad looking decidedly bare on the wings. Peter Pawlett at least looks to be putting his injury woes behind him, and impressed against Villarreal on Tuesday night. However, along with Chris Clark and Ryan Jack he appears one of very few options in his position and should Craig Brown choose to play with wingers he will undoubtedly be key to Aberdeen's success. Strikers Darren Mackie, Michael Paton and Josh Magennis have all played on the wing at various points, but all will be hoping that their eventual position lies up front.
The side looks comparitively well stocked in the centre of midfield. One of last seasons few success stories Robert Milsom has signed a two year deal and should compete for a place with summer signing Isaac Osbourne and forgotten man Yoan Folly who should be back in the side once he returns to full fitness. Of course this is without mentioning young starlet Fraser Fyvie, who is also returning to the first team after a long lay off, as well as Ryan Jack who can play in the centre as well as out wide. With Nicky Low and the highly rated youngster Jack Grimmer waiting in the wings, Aberdeen should have few worries in the centre of the pitch. Indeed, I would not be surprised were Craig Brown to line his side up with three in the middle, whether that be in a 4-3-3 or a 3-5-2 shape.
Aside from last seasons top scorer Scott Vernon, Aberdeen's striking situation seems uncertain. With a replacement for Chris Maguire looking unlikely his reinforcements may be limited the oft-pilloried Darren Mackie and the raw trio of Michael Paton, Josh Magennis and Mitchel Megginson. With none of them a regular scorer at SPL level, the goalscoring burden on Scott Vernon may be rather large, and one of them may need to step up to the plate. Darren Mackie has recently pledged to score 100 goals for Aberdeen, and however unlikely that seems he may be the most viable option. Already off the mark in the pre-season he has made regular appearances including one as captain, and may be the man to partner Vernon.
While there is some cautious optimism on my side, it is difficult to deny the holes in the Dons squad. While full back has been strengthened since last seasons pre-season of madness, the squad looks weaker out wide and up front and seems sorely lacking in goal threat. It may be up to the youngsters to come in and show their often underachieving seniors how its done - but then I say that every year...
My Prediction: A cautious 6th Place