The Premier League season begins on Saturday, but there are still question marks hanging over three of the best players in the league ... not to mention the league's longest-serving coach. It promises to be a fascinating season ahead in England, leading up to next summer's World Cup in Brazil. Here are five talking points to watch ahead of the new season.
1. The Rooney saga is a big deal
There are three major players whose futures are up in the air: Wayne Rooney, Luis Suarez and Gareth Bale. All are under contract with their clubs, but the Rooney situation is different. Suarez and Bale both know they can move to bigger and better clubs to further their careers -- even fans of Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur respectively, would admit to that (even if the Reds would balk at Arsenal being a bigger club) -- but Rooney, well, he won the Premier League title last season and Manchester United, historically, rarely sell players who go on to improve elsewhere. And by historically, I mean United under Sir Alex Ferguson.
New coach David Moyes has spoken in glowing terms about Ferguson, (rightly) claiming that his predecessor deserved the Community Shield title, his first as a coach, after the weekend win over Wigan. But there must be moments when Moyes curses the Rooney legacy that Fergie has left him: Rooney wants to leave United, reportedly, because he feels his relationship with Moyes will be colored by Ferguson's input. It is ironic, as The Times' James Ducker wrote on Monday, that Rooney once demanded the club show ambition in the transfer market otherwise he would leave; and when it did, buying Robin van Persie, it compromised his position in the first team and now, he wants to leave.
Both parties are taking a big risk in their approach: Moyes and his new chief executive Edward Woodward have yet to sign anyone -- they have also made the mistake of talking about bids for players like Thiago and Cesc Fabregas -- and the coach is insisting that Rooney is not for sale and will not be leaving. Rooney still wants to go and join Chelsea and work with Jose Mourinho. (This is another interesting point: One World Cup winning coach recently told me that top players "are desperate to improve and want to be coached" and that in soccer there is a sense that "coaches back off from the best players and think they can't teach them anything").
If, on Sept. 3, Rooney is still a United player, Moyes will have won one battle; his next will be motivate a player who doesn't want to be there. On the other hand, if Rooney does leave, Moyes will be made to look weak, United will be without a player who scored 10 and made 12 goals, last season, and title rival Chelsea will be strengthened. It promises to be a tense three weeks.
2. Is this Arsene Wenger's last season in England?
This has been a decent summer for Arsenal, at least compared to the past three. Yes, it's involved in a transfer saga with Luis Suarez but for once its players are not the ones leaving: in recent offseasons, Arsenal has lost Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas and Van Persie: losing Andrei Arshavin and Sebastien Squillaci, as it has this summer (both having seen their contract expire) is not quite the same. That's not to say the Gunners don't have any concerns.
With Arsene Wenger having just one more year on his contract,chief executive Ivan Gazidis spoke of his confidence in June that Wenger would extend his deal: "I think he is still ambitious, still driven and sees the potential of the club as he looks forward and I think he is very excited by that. We have got a lot of confidence in Arsene that he is the right person to take the club forward and I think he will want to do that."
You get the sense that the Frenchman will see how this season pans out before deciding to commit. The fact that Arsenal is trying to spend big for once -- it failed to sign Gonzalo Higuain and is still trying for Suarez, but its board is coming across as an entity that is not used to closing big-money deals -- suggests that Wenger sees this year as an opportunity to compete at the top of the table: with the top three clubs all changing coaches, maybe this is his chance for a last hurrah (not dissimilar to Ferguson signing Van Persie last summer). One thing you can be sure of: once the Suarez saga is finished, Wenger's future will be back on the agenda, and the Arsenal support will be split into those who are pro and those against him staying on.
3. Which young English players will break out this season?
There is less than a year until the 2014 World Cup gets underway in Brazil and even though England's qualification is still in the balance, this season represents a huge opportunity for one or two players to make the breakthrough into the squad for Brazil. Who will make the leap?
England coach Roy Hodgson took the Under-21s' coaching session last week so would have seen some of the squad at close quarters: will it be one of the Merseyside youngsters currently winning rave reviews: Ross Barkley at Everton, described by his coach Roberto Martinez as "an incredible talent" or Liverpool's Andre Wisdom? Other English players have moved clubs to help their chances: the likes of Nathan Redmond (Norwich), Jack Butland (Stoke), Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United), Jonjo Shelvey (Swansea) and Steven Caulker (Cardiff): I would expect at least one of them to make England's World Cup squad, but then again, England needs to make it to Brazil first, which as it stands, is not quite certain.
4. The Premier League has some competitive balance
This title race could be the most open for years. While the leagues in Spain and Germany have been reduced to two-horse races, and it's arguably the same in France, in Italy and England it promises to be much more open. Chelsea has Jose Mourinho back, Manuel Pellegrini's Manchester City has completed its recruitment early in the summer while champion Manchester United has, in Van Persie, the league's outstanding individual. If Arsenal does sign Suarez (a big if), could it join the top three and challenge?
5. The promise of Brazil 2014 will be a recurring narrative
The competition for spots in World Cup squads is not just limited to the England team; elsewhere in the Premier League there are pockets of national team players fighting it out to be in Brazil. Take the Spanish strikers (not that it won Euro 2012 with any): not only have Fernando Llorente (Juventus) and David Villa (Atletico Madrid) moved clubs, but Alvaro Negredo (Man City) and Roberto Soldado (Spurs) have moved to England while Fernando Torres will hope for a Jose-shaped jolt to his career. The subplot between Brazilian midfielders is also interesting, especially given that two of them, Paulinho and Sandro, should be starting for Spurs; Ramires and Oscar are at Chelsea and could be joined in London by Luiz Gustavo, currently linked to Arsenal.
France's midfield, if it gets to Brazil, could be made in England: Yohan Cabaye, Moussa Sissoko (both Newcastle), Etienne Capoue (Spurs), Samir Nasri (Man City) and even, if he maintains his fitness, Abou Diaby (Arsenal) -- sure to be heralded as "like a new signing" if he strings four games together.
Other looming questions
Who will be the season's Michu? Will new Everton coach Roberto Martinez outshine his fellow former Swansea coach Brendan Rodgers and finish above Liverpool? Can $13.1m striker Andreas Cornelius score the goals to keep up newly promoted Cardiff City? Can Sam Allardyce breathe new life into the careers of Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll? Will Stoke coach Mark Hughes restore his reputation as a coach who can overachieve within a certain type of club? If Norwich's new signings Martin Olsson, Leroy Fer and Ricky van Wolfswinkel gel, can it finish in the top 10?