There was a suspicion that Real Madrid’s seduction of Cristiano’s Ronaldo one year ago would prove the gateway for an exodus of headliners from England to Spain. The fact that, between them, Barcelona and Real Madrid lusted after but were ultimately spurned by Ashley Cole, Nemanja Vidic, Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas this summer extinguished that notion.
Another theory that could well be laid to rest is that the Premier League title race, which has been won by either Chelsea or Manchester United six seasons running, has become a monotonous two-team affair. Indeed, Arsenal and Liverpool have cultivated their squads wisely, while Manchester City have spent more than the aforementioned quartet put together during the close season. FIFA.com previews what Blues manager Carlo Ancelotti and his United counterpart Sir Alex Ferguson believe is likely to be the most wide-open fight for glory in years.
The defending champions
The fact that Ricardo Carvalho, Belletti, Deco, Michael Ballack and Joe Cole have left Stamford Bridge, with Ramires and Yossi Benayoun the only newcomers through the gates, suggests Chelsea will be a weakened version of the model that conquered England in May. Scratching under the surface, however, uncovers some positive omens: the mightily influential Michael Essien is fit after missing much of last season through injury; 22-year-old centre-back Michael Mancienne has returned from a year’s loan at Wolverhampton Wanderers during which he excelled; and the exceptionally skilful Gael Kukuta is fresh from illuminating the UEFA European U-19 Championship. The Blues, who will start as the marginal favourites for gold, will hope left-back Ashley Cole, prolific midfielder Frank Lampard and hulking striker Didier Drogba can replicate their admirable output of 2009/10.
Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs may be another year into their comparative antique, but Manchester United can count on some animating youngsters: athletic centre-back Chris Smalling has joined from Fulham; Brazilian twins Rafael and Fabio, having just turned 20, appear physically ready to cope with the rigours of the Premier League; and Javier Hernandez has made the £7m the club paid for him in April look like a steal. The Red Devils, a point shy of Chelsea last season, will once again look to defenders Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, fleet-footed winger Antonio Valencia and striker Wayne Rooney.
Arsene Wenger, who crucially persuaded captain Fabregas to remain at the Emirates, believes his young Arsenal squad can emerge triumphant. In Thomas Vermaelen, Andrei Arshavin and Robin van Persie they have some outstanding performers, and if Nicklas Bendtner can prove as consistent as he is capable or self-assured, perhaps the Gunners can seize the crown for the first time since 2004. Liverpool, with proven creators in Joe Cole and Milan Jovanovic, and without the distraction of Champions League football, will hope to go all the way domestically. That, too, is undoubtedly the target of Manchester City, who have spent exorbitantly to compliment a star-stacked squad that already included the likes of Gareth Barry, Carlos Tevez and Emmanuel Adebayor.
Tottenham Hotspur caused a notable shock by disrupting the monopoly of England’s ‘big four’ and qualifying for the 2010/11 UEFA Champions League. That accomplishment has served to increase their manager’s ambition. “We want to win the championship,” declared Harry Redknapp recently. “We're never going to get a better chance.” The consensus is, by contrast, that the 2010/11 title race has just five contenders.
Spain winger David Silva, Ivorian midfielder Yaya Toure, Serbian wingback Aleksandar Kolarov and the versatile German Jerome Boateng have supplanted Roberto Mancini’s options at Eastlands, as have the returns of England goalkeeper Joe Hart and Brazil forward Robinho following loan spells with Birmingham City and Santos respectively.
Chelsea and Manchester United have made just two noteworthy purchases apiece: Ramires and Yossi Benayoun will run out in blue this season, with Smalling and Hernandez donning red jerseys. Liverpool will bank on Cole and Jovanovic providing the flair they have been lacking in recent years, while Arsenal will hope Laurent Koscienly can strengthen their rearguard and striker Marouane Chamakh can maintain his rousing pre-season form.
Other intriguing signings include Tottenham’s addition of emerging Brazil midfielder Sandro, Birmingham City’s capture of towering striker Nikola Zigic, and Argentinian goal-getter Mauro Boselli’s switch to Wigan Athletic.
Players to watch
The destination of the trophy could be dependant on the output of five of the world’s finest forwards, namely Didier Drogba, Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Carlos Tevez and Fernando Torres. Essien, Lampard, Valencia, Fabregas and Gerrard could also have a prominent say. Tottenham Hotspur playmaker Modric, Aston Villa winger Ashley Young and Everton’s teenage midfielder Jack Rodwell will also be well worth keeping an eye on.