Wednesday August 15th, 2012

They called it The Greatest Season Ever, and in terms of drama, the 2011-12 Premier League campaign will be hard to beat. A little more than three months, another Spanish tournament victory and a successful Olympic Games later, and the Premier League is back and likely to dominate the British sporting agenda -- like it or not -- for the next nine months. Here are 10 storylines to monitor in the run-up to kickoff.

Last season was simply the best Premier League campaign ever. It wasn't just the late drama, with Sergio Aguero winning the title for Manchester City with the last kick of the season; nor was it just the fact that Champions League/Europa League and relegation issues weren't resolved until the final day. It wasn't solely the games between the top sides, which saw United beat Arsenal 8-2, City wallop United 6-1 and Arsenal defeat Chelsea 5-3 and Tottenham 5-2. It was all of that and more: Swansea and Norwich did well under bright managers with interesting ideologies (who have both since left); Chelsea won the Champions League despite its domestic problems; Newcastle and Liverpool surprised us for different reasons; and individuals like Papiss Cisse, Michel Vorm and Ramires emerged. Thanks to the presence of Mario Balotelli and Joey Barton, controversy was also never far from the surface.

It's a bit too much to ask for the same again, but if we could have something half as exciting, it wouldn't be a disappointment in the least.

Former Arsenal captain Van Persie was the Premier League top scorer last season, with his 30 goals securing the club's place in the Champions League. But over the summer, he blinked first in an effort to force a move by questioning Arsenal's ambition. "We disagree on the way Arsenal should move forward," he said in a statement.

Van Persie is now off to Manchester United, and, in a way, that will suit all parties. Three days before the new campaign gets underway, Man U agreed to pay Arsenal £24m for Van Persie, which for a 29-year-old with 11 months left on his contract and a history of injuries, is difficult offer to turn down. (The idea that United are also getting a player over rival Manchester City, which also wanted the Dutchman, is a significant psychological factor.)

The next Van Persie question, then, is whether he will ever enjoy another season like his last one. Van Persie's campaign was his first in eight seasons in which he has completed more than 30 league games and scored more than 18 goals. Now 29, can he come close to those totals this season, or potentially the one after that? And if so, would that happen playing in a 4-4-2 alongside Wayne Rooney, or perhaps a 4-2-3-1 with Rooney just behind?

In his first full season as Manchester City coach, Roberto Mancini guided the club to FA Cup success. Last season, thanks to that dramatic last-minute goal from Aguero, he captured the Premier League crown. This season his target is even greater: regain that title and go a long way in the Champions League.

Despite a slow summer recruitment -- much to Mancini's frustration (his simmering discord with football director Brian Marwood could be an interesting subplot to the season) -- early indications are that City will play a 3-5-2 system, which will make them even more attacking than last season. With Carlos Tevez looking fit and, for once, happy to be at City, this team could break Chelsea's Premier League goal-scoring record of 103 goals in 2009-10. In the seven games in which Aguero partnered with Tevez last season, City won them all and scored 21 goals -- 13 of which were shared between the two Argentines. And that's before you even factor in Mario Balotelli, still the most charismatic star of the league.

We wondered how Roman Abramovich would respond to Chelsea's Champions League success, and now we have the answer. No English team spent more than the £65m Chelsea doled out to Eden Hazard, Oscar and Marko Marin, all players bought to help reduce the burden on Juan Mata, who played over 50 games last season and was in action at Euro 2012 and the Olympics. Yet it seems strange that Chelsea bought three very similar players to help Mata while failing to replace Didier Drogba with a new center forward and, so far, struggling to complete a deal for a new right-back to cover for Branislav Ivanovic. For all the money that Chelsea has spent, it still feels like a lopsided squad with too many creative players and not enough finishers.

The big danger for coach Roberto di Matteo, who was Andre Villas-Boas' assistant, is that a poor start to the season could leave him similarly at risk. Chelsea desperately needs stability, but you can't escape the thought that Di Matteo is keeping the coach's seat warm for Pep Guardiola. It will be interesting to see if Di Matteo can see out the season, or in fact, start the one after.

Rodgers will attempt to repeat last season's remarkable achievement with newly promoted Swansea at his new club Liverpool, while Villas-Boas, 12 months after Chelsea brought him in to oversee a change in staff and style of play -- tasks which he was never allowed to complete -- has another shot at the Premier League with Tottenham.

That clubs seems a much better fit for the Portuguese, although he already is suffering the same August transfer-window frustrations that afflicted his predecessor Harry Redknapp. Elsewhere, Steve Clarke (West Brom), Nigel Adkins (Southampton), Brian McDermott (Reading) and Michael Laudrup (Swansea) are first-time Premier League bosses, and it could be Laudrup that is the revelation of the campaign. I wonder if Liverpool ends up wishing it had gone for him instead.

In this age of austerity, with UEFA's Financial Fair Play regulations one season from kicking in, clubs (with a few exceptions) have been cutting their cloth accordingly. Keeping that in mind, teams have prioritized retaining current talent ahead of bringing in new players. The news in late-June that Gareth Bale signed a new Tottenham deal, taking him up to 2016, was greeted with relief by Spurs fans; the summer's contract extensions for Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal) and Luis Suarez (Liverpool) were equally well-received.

Keeping your best players may be a costly exercise -- all four players received hefty pay hikes on their deals -- but it works out better than bringing in new ones. And with the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona and Juventus sniffing around, the market is fluid enough for clubs to need to protect their best assets.

In today's landscape, one good season is enough to earn a huge pay rise. If only it worked like that in the real world.

Although it did coincide with a suspension served by captain Vincent Kompany, Manchester City's poorest run of last season came in January, when Yaya Toure was with the Ivory Coast squad, eventual runners-up in 2012 African Cup of Nations. The tournament is being held again next January, in South Africa, which means that some clubs will be without their top players once again.

Because this edition has come around so quickly, the qualifiers will be played over two legs in September and October -- with the most interesting match between Senegal and Ivory Coast. If Senegal wins, Newcastle will be without strikers Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba. If Ivory Coast wins, City will miss the Toures, Arsenal will miss Gervinho and Newcastle (which loses either way) will miss Cheikh Tiote.

We have already seen the difference between a top team's No.1 and his backup: It's unlikely that Manchester City's Joe Hart would have spilled Daniel Sturridge's shot as Costel Pantilimon did, allowing Ryan Bertrand to pull a goal back for Chelsea in the Community Shield. Of the top six teams, one could argue that only Manchester United (and possibly Arsenal and Tottenham) has two goalkeepers close in standard. Manchester City and Liverpool certainly don't, while it's impossible to imagine Chelsea winning the Champions League -- or indeed, keeping a Premier League clean sheet -- with backup Ross Turnbull instead of Petr Cech in goal. (Chelsea conceded five goals in the two league games that Turnbull played last season.)

It is a surprise that clubs are willing to spend more than £20m on an attacking player relegated to a role on the bench, but they won't spend one-third of that amount on a reserve goalkeeper. Not that Arsenal would be too bothered. It benefited, on the final day of the season, from a calamitous performance of West Brom reserve Marton Fulop, in for injured Ben Foster, in its 3-2 victory that secured third place.

It took Manchester City's owners four years and €486m in transfer fees to win the Premier League, while QPR's boss Tony Fernandes spent heavily last January just to keep the team in the division. The latest benefactor-owner to join the Premier League is Anton Zingarevich, a 29-year-old Russian who acquired newly promoted Reading for €30m in the summer. Coach Brian McDermott, a former scout, has spent sensibly for the new season, signing a mix of players from the Championship and the Premier League, with the only marquee name being Zingarevich's compatriot Pavel Pogrebnyak. He is also funneling money into the club's academy to produce more young talent like Simon Church and Hal Robson-Kanu, first-teamers who have been at the club since they were 15. But which club will be bought next? Everton and Wigan are still on the market and have yet to find buyers, while Newcastle owner Mike Ashley is unpredictable and could sell his club for a healthy profit.

The FA brought in the pre-match handshakes at first to mirror the Champions League ritual in 2004-05, but it made them a centerpiece of its 'Respect' campaign in 2008. They might not last. Given that the row between Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra flared up over a Handshake That Never Was and that QPR's players refused to shake the hand of former England captain John Terry following his racism charge, of which he was acquitted, respect was in fairly short supply for much of last season.

QPR coach Mark Hughes, for one, would not be upset if the handshakes were cancelled. "Why give handshakes if they're not done with integrity, they are an irritation," he told the press last season.

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