For the first time in years, the English Premier League begins a new season with its preeminent position under threat. Thanks largely to the symbolic departure to Madrid of Cristiano Ronaldo and the manner of Barcelona's victory in the UEFA Champions League final, it is La Liga that ends the summer as the top flight in focus.
Yet although Real Madrid have spectacularly dominated the close season headlines, another bunch of big spenders have created the prospect of an English title race that could put even the Galacticos in the shade. Mindful that success comes at a price, Manchester City have shelled out £130 million in the hope of grappling with the Premier League's established 'big four' and wresting the title from their city rivals.
Over the past two decades, no manager has proved as adept at coping with the departure of key players as Sir Alex Ferguson. However, although the wily old Scot has quickly and successfully replaced stars such as Eric Cantona, David Beckham and Ruud van Nistelrooy, many believe Cristiano Ronaldo leaves a bigger void than any who have gone before.
The FIFA World Player of the Year brought pace, power and unpredictability to the Red Devils' attack, not to mention contributing a remarkable 68 goals in his final two seasons. "There is no doubt it is a huge loss," admitted Ferguson. "It won't be the same without Ronaldo. He is the best player in the world - by absolutely miles."
The subsequent cross-city switch by Carlos Tevez merely deepened the sense of gloom around Old Trafford, with supporters and pundits alike questioning the credentials of Michael Owen and Luis Antonio Valencia as replacements. Both, however, impressed during pre-season, and with Dimitar Berbatov also showing signs that he might yet justify his £30.75 million price-tag, Ferguson believes a touch of tactical tinkering could keep his side on top.
"Fans will see us playing a slightly different style of football this season," he said. "I will be looking to Park Ji-Sung, Nani, Antonio Valencia - even Danny Welbeck and Kiko Macheda - to contribute 40 goals between them."
United may be the champions, but it is Manchester's other club that everyone is talking about. The acquisitions of Tevez, Emmanuel Adebayor, Gareth Barry, Kolo Toure and Rogue Santa Cruz have created a buzz of anticipation, and set everyone speculating on whether a title challenge could be in the offing.
While Ferguson and Rafael Benitez have been dismissive, Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill has said that: "Instead of a top four, I believe now everybody would accept there is a top five." Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard has also suggested that City's spending has made them genuine contenders for English football's biggest prize, although crucially, only "if it all clicks together for them".
This question of whether Mark Hughes' signings will gel, and whether he has invested disproportionately in forwards, are the key issues facing a side with ambitions every bit as big as their transfer budget. Yet the fact is that Tevez, Toure and Adebayor's arrivals have not only strengthened City, but depleted two of their key rivals, this in a summer that ends with three of the traditional big four ostensibly weaker than they were at the start.
United's losses have been well documented, but Liverpool have also watched a key player depart for Madrid in Xabi Alonso, while Arsenal have lost Adebayor and Toure and only been able to add Thomas Vermaelen. Chelsea have strengthened, adding Yuri Zhirkov while crucially holding on to John Terry and Didier Drogba, but their hopes rest on Carlo Ancelotti immediately coming to grips with the unique demands of the English game.
The bookies, however, make them joint-favourites with United, and if Drogba can stay fit and motivated and Frank Lampard thrives at the apex of Ancelotti's midfield diamond, the Londoners could well live up to their billing.
Everton and Aston Villa have offered the most consistent threat to the big four in recent years, but odds of 250-1 for either to win the title shows just how unlikely a championship challenge is considered to be. Toffees manager David Moyes has endured another frustrating summer in the transfer market, and while Villa have added Stewart Downing and the highly-rated Fabian Delph, the loss of Barry was a severe blow.
Players to watch
Ancelotti will rely heavily on Chelsea's traditional spine of Petr Cech, Terry, Lampard and Drogba, while Liverpool are hugely dependant on the form and fitness of key duo Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres. In Manchester, Robinho will be expected to improve considerably amid a new all-star supporting cast, while United are likely to need Owen to rediscover his form and Nani and Berbatov to come good if they are to retain their crown.
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