City a serious title threat and other Premier League storylines to follow
With the start of the new Barclays Premier League season just over a week away, here's a few things to keep an eye on:
"The most important thing is that we prove to our fans and everyone else that Man City are coming," said Yaya Toure, ahead of City's meeting with Manchester United in the Community Shield curtain-raiser. Though the well-publicized unhappiness of Carlos Tevez and now Mario Balotelli highlights that City's transformation in to title contenders isn't exactly straightforward, the signing of Sergio Aguero is worthy of the babbling excitement it has elicited, especially when you consider the potential linkup with David Silva. They say you can't judge the table until the season is 10 games old -- how close will the two teams be when City meet United again in week nine?
It's fair to say that Martin Jol received a warmer welcome on arriving at Fulham than Alex McLeish did as he moved across town from Birmingham City to Aston Villa, which affords him rather more breathing space as the season gets going. There's not been too much transfer excitement at Fulham so far this summer, but McLeish will have to hope the arrival of Charles N'Zogbia helps Villa cope with losing Ashley Young and Stewart Downing. The pair face off at Craven Cottage on the opening day of the season and then neither has to face more than one top six side in his next nine games in charge. Can they build up a head of steam?
With rumors still linking Manchester United to Wesley Sneijder, it seems no one in the press can quite believe Sir Alex Ferguson will dare go into the new season without improving the center of his midfield. But he's already taken quite the gamble by making David de Gea (with only one season as a No. 1 behind him) his new first-choice keeper. It's not so much that the Spanish Under-21 international is doomed to blunder -- though he's likely to be targeted from set pieces and wide areas as opponents test his command of English and the penalty area -- but that, in the 24/7 media environs of the Premier League, he will be allowed few mistakes without comment.
The people in charge at Tottenham Hotspur like to talk as if they are not running a selling club, but their resolve is apt to fail at the sight of a row of zeros on transfer deadline day. And however heartily they might cackle about the profits made on players such as Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Carrick, Spurs' scattergun approach to spending the spoils can sometimes undermine the point. So what is it to be this year: Modric pulling the strings again or another key player sold to supposed rivals? With the "Big Four" becoming the "Big Six." there's probably never been a more important time for the club's nerve.
It took only 90 minutes of the 2010-11 season for a manager to work himself up in to a fury over a referee: at the end of Sunderland's opening day draw with Birmingham City, Steve Bruce was furious about Lee Cattermole being sent off just before half time. Presumably he was irritated that the young official had allowed Cattermole to stay on so long, having missed him using his elbows like a Black Friday shopper. So how long will the FA's Respect campaign feign life for this season? And will there be any more Heurelho Gomes-style incidents before we get FIFA's verdict on goal line technology in March?
A trawl through the preseason cuttings archive will tell you that Chelsea's squad has been "aging" for so long it's a wonder they're still standing unaided, but the arrival of Andre Villas-Boas does show up the gray whiskers among the playing staff. At 33, he's the same age as Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, and will only be able to replace senior players with fresher faces if he can find other clubs willing to match their considerable wages. Signs are that youngsters who are already on the books, like Daniel Sturridge and Josh McEachran, will get plenty of playing time this season. They looked ready for that challenge last season, so it'll be interesting to see what kind of an impact they have now -- could Sturridge outscore Fernando Torres?
In Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson and Andy Carroll, Liverpool have three of the most expensive young Englishmen going; if, as Shakespeare mused, expectation is the root of all heartache, they will be under extraordinary pressure to justify not just the price tag (mad as the sums can seem, they're not the players' doing) but Kenny Dalglish's masterplan, which has also brought Charlie Adam and may yet entice Newcastle's Jose Enrique to Anfield. In a largely underwhelming performance against Valerenga this week, Downing and Carroll combined nicely, but how will Henderson and Adam get on in a midfield that had more than coped even without Steven Gerrard last season?
Staying up is hard to do, as Neil Sedaka didn't sing, and Newcastle haven't made things easy for themselves after a summer of Twitterific soap opera. At a time when a marquee signing bought with the Andy Carroll millions was just about all that would suffice, the club has instead sold captain Kevin Nolan, apparently bungled Jose Enrique's contract negotiations and now transfer-listed Joey Barton for making public his anger at goings-on. At three out of three of the club's most influential players last season, that's some going, and the squad's ability to cope without at least two of them is uncertain at best. George Orwell-quoting Barton will, of course, be his own storyline, wherever he ends up.
There isn't really much wrong at Arsenal. Its style of play is admired far and wide and, despite those famously tight purse strings, the club has finished in the top four every year since 1996-97 -- not by coincidence the season that Arsene Wenger took charge. And the six trophyless years don't bother fans as much as the newspapers think. What irks them is that the same blind spots and failings are showing up year after year -- irks them enough to boo the surrendering of a meaningless pot like the Emirates Cup. With changes afoot at shareholder level, there's increasing chatter about the security of Wenger's tenure. Probably just mindless gossip, but will we see more tantrums in the dugout and disquiet in the stands?
The European Court of Justice's verdict on the use of foreign satellite decoders in UK pubs is expected at some point in October, the next turn in a story of satisfyingly David-and-Goliath proportions. Faced with an $11,800 Sky bill, pub landlady Karen Murphy opted for a Greek decoder that was almost 90 percent cheaper, and won the approval of ECJ advocate general Juliane Kokott earlier this year. In theory, EU laws on the movement of goods protect Mrs. Murphy's right to shop around, but the Premier League is confident that the official judgment will instead back its right to sell territory-by-territory. Given how directly the league depends on the huge amounts of money it makes from selling to broadcasters in this way, the court's decision could have major ramifications if not.