With the Premier League season kicking off Saturday, here's what the next nine months might have in store ...
1. Another closely fought title race? Signs are that the days of champions finishing double figures ahead of their closest challengers (and 18 points ahead of the team in third, as Chelsea did in 2004-05) are over. In the last three seasons, an average of 2.3 points has separated first and second. Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal, which stumbled late in 2009-10, may still be running a closed shop in terms of potential winners, but the least we can hope for is another entertainingly tight race and a photo finish.
2. Will splashing the cash turn Manchester City into a top four certainty? Three years after Roman Abramovich's arrival, Chelsea lifted the title for a second consecutive season. By the end of the coming season, it'll be three years since Abu Dhabi United Group took over at Eastlands, so it'll be interesting to see what $470 million bought it. Pundits are touting City not only to challenge for fourth but also to mix things up closer to the top. The new arrivals (Yaya Toure, David Silva, Jerome Boateng and Alexander Kolarov) look impressive, but is a leap from fifth to first asking too much from a new-look side?
3. Who'll win the sack race? Last season, Portsmouth manager Paul Hart was sacked before the end of November -- upsetting those who'd staked their mortgage on Mark Hughes going first. The bookies' favorite this year is Ian Holloway (4/1), but given the challenge Blackpool faces, chairman Karl Oyston will be aware that luring others to the seaside would be tough. Chris Hughton (10/1) has done a fantastic job at Newcastle, but it's had eight managers in four years. How will the bigwigs react if the club gets off to a bad start?
4. How will the men in black fare? There have always been bad referees, or at least, bad decisions. But in the last couple of seasons, Premier League referees have attracted almost as many headlines as the top players (and cost openly critical managers such as Sir Alex Ferguson and Steve Bruce hefty FA fines). Sepp Blatter might think mistakes add to the theater of soccer, but they get people grumpy over in England. Will this be another season littered with free kicks that shouldn't have been, and sendings-off that never were?
5. Will 4-2-3-1 take over whiteboards in locker rooms up and down the land? It was the combination that cracked the World Cup, fielded by both finalists and a German team that the English will take a while to forget, and it made 4-4-2 look rather sorry for itself. It's not like 4-2-3-1 hasn't reached British shores; Liverpool used it under former manager Rafael Benitez, for example, and Chelsea used it to exciting effect last season. But not many can make it look that good, and even fewer can hold on to the ball like Spain. It'll take a brave manager to fashion his side in the ultra-defensive Internazionale mold, too.
1. Aston Villa. Another summer of transfer wrangling with Manchester City looks set to end the same way: with one of Villa's best players leaving at the last minute, and there's the small matter of manager Martin O'Neill's resignation on Monday. The (non-) use of funds raised in James Milner's imminent move was at the heart of O'Neill's decision, which doesn't bode well for his replacement. How Villa copes with the untimely upheaval will add intrigue to the Premiership's second-tier mini-league (fifth to eighth).
2. West Ham United. The Hammers survived by the skin of their teeth under Gianfranco Zola last season. Limited expectations are probably wise, but there's ample room for a surprise from the east Londoners. The appointment of Avram Grant looks canny -- he got Chelsea to its first Champions League final, and almost won the FA Cup with Portsmouth last year -- and he's done some good business in the transfer market. The run to Christmas, at least, should be worth keeping an eye on.
3. Liverpool. Last season's shocking tumble, from second to seventh, cost Benitez his job -- an inevitable move, given the growing disgruntlement over his reign, but less inevitable was that his replacement would be Roy Hodgson. Having held on to both Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, Hodgson will fancy his chances of improving on last year, even as his reported interest in players such as Fulham's Paul Konchesky doesn't sit well with the Kop.
4. Blackpool. With a threadbare squad, Holloway stands on the brink of his first season as a Premier League manager like a snowball waiting outside the gates of hell, but even if he can't overcome the odds, he'll be worth tracking. His postmatch news conferences are things of wonder, once likening a win over Chesterfield to leaving a nightclub with a less-than-attractive woman. "But she was very pleasant and very nice, so thanks very much, let's have a coffee," he concluded.
5. Bolton Wanderers. This will be Owen Coyle's first full season in charge, having taken over from Gary Megson (less popular than the flu) in January. In the remaining four months of last season he dragged Bolton out of the relegation places into 14th -- helped, no doubt, by the atrocious form of those that went down, but playing an improved brand of soccer nonetheless. The likes of Lee Chung-yong and equally tricky new man Martin Petrov promise the kind of play Wanderers fans can barely remember; will they deliver?
1. Nani, Manchester United. All eyes are currently on Javier Hernandez, the baby-faced striker whose pre-World Cup signing from Guadalajara for $9 million looks like a bargain, even if he scores every goal by volleying the ball into his own face. But pay close attention to Nani's performances this season. After worries that he might fail to make it at United long term, Nani looked a hairsbreadth from matching his potential after the turn of the year. He says he's growing in confidence at the club: "I realize where I am now. ... I hope to start this season better than the last."
2. Jack Rodwell, Everton. It's coming up on three years since Rodwell made his debut for Everton at 16, and since then his eminence as one of England's best prospects has only grown. A skillful, two-footed and athletic player -- who looked exceptionally assured as captain of England's U-21s this week -- Rodwell will again be at the heart of Everton's midfield travails. It'll also be interesting to see how Jermaine Beckford gets on, having been signed from Leeds United with a good reputation but a less appetizing chances-to-goals ratio.
3. Giovani dos Santos, Tottenham Hotspur. In the two seasons since he joined from Barcelona, dos Santos has made just seven league appearances for Spurs, a combination of early-season injuries and an apparent lack of faith from Harry Redknapp keeping him on the fringe or on loan. The young forward was impressive for Mexico in South Africa, however, and has had a bright and bubbly preseason campaign. Pace, confidence with the ball at his feet, instinctively goal-seeking -- with no new signings up front imminent, Redknapp should have few qualms about working with what he's got.
4. Joe Cole, Liverpool. Cole, who made his top-flight debut with West Ham more than 11 years ago but is still only 28, will make for compelling viewing if his early outings in a Liverpool shirt are anything to go by. His last two seasons at Chelsea were hit by injury and the improved form of Florent Malouda, who made the left side of midfield his own. The crafty attacker's thirst for pitch time makes him ill-suited to 20-minute substitute appearances. Likely to be one of the first names on Hodgson's team sheet, this could be an entertaining season from Cole.
5. Marouane Chamakh, Arsenal. There have been lingering doubts about whether Chamakh's impact on the Premier League can match his form for Bordeaux in Ligue 1, but his preseason goals and performances demonstrated just how much difference he might make for Arsenal. The Gunners' characteristic lack of direct, penetrative forward play could become a thing of the past with Chamakh leading the line. He's faster and more lethal than Nicklas Bendtner and quickly developed an understanding with the players around him during the Emirates Cup. He's also scored the most headed goals (17) in the top-five European leagues over the past two seasons.
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