Premier League set for kick-off
The familiar faces of Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger are still around, while new characters such as Andre Villas-Boas have entered the drama that is the English Premier League. One certainty is that, between Saturday and 13 May, there will be great games, great goals, controversy and plenty of talking points.
But who will emerge triumphant? For the past seven seasons, the Premier League trophy has remained at either Stamford Bridge or Old Trafford, but this time around both Liverpool and Manchester City have designs on the prize, having spent serious money to improve their squads over the summer. FIFA.com previews the new season, highlighting the champions, challengers and players to watch.
The defending champions
There has been joy and pain, as well as hellos and goodbyes, at Old Trafford following the end of last season. The elation of winning a record 19th championship was somewhat diminished when United were convincingly beaten by Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League final in a game that marked the farewells of Edwin van der Sar and Paul Scholes. However, while another club stalwart, Gary Neville, also announced his retirement earlier in the same season, Ferguson appears to have acquired fine replacements.
Talented youngsters David de Gea, Phil Jones and Ashley Young have arrived at the club, with rumours of a further big-name midfield signing to come. Last season United only dropped two points at home, but they will need to improve on their away form in order to distance themselves from the chasing pack once again. However, their stunning comeback against Manchester City in last Sunday's Community Shield suggests that they are once again the Premier League's team to beat.
United's biggest threat appears to be from the team Ferguson once called his club’s "noisy neighbours". However, Manchester City had good reason to create a racket last May when they won the first piece of silverware for 35 years. Backed by wealthy owners and great self-belief, they have improved their team still further with the signing of Sergio Aguero and the impending arrival of Samir Nasri. Roberto Mancini's squad will also have to cope with a debut appearance in the Champions League but the depth of their squad suggests that they can mount a challenge on multiple fronts.
On the final day of last season, Carlo Ancelotti was sacked as manager of Chelsea and replaced by Villas-Boas, who followed the Jose Mourinho route of arriving at Stamford Bridge via FC Porto. The 33-year-old has inherited a squad of contrasts, with experience in the form of John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, and potential, with Josh McEachran, Daniel Sturridge and Romelu Lukaku all tipped to make a major impact with the London club this season.
Kenny Dalglish has been backed with a war chest of over £100m by Liverpool's American owners as they seek to re-enter England's elite once again. This summer, the Scotsman has signed England internationals Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing, together with former Blackpool captain Charlie Adam, to complement the January acquisitions of Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez.
Arsenal's credibility as genuine outsiders for the Premier League title received a double blow on Thursday, with Arsene Wenger confirming the departures of Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona and Samir Nasri to City. Wenger has been promised the cash to spend on new players, and the impact of any potential new arrivals could be key to how the Gunners perform this season. It has now been six years without a trophy for Wenger and many fans are growing restless.
Despite signings made by the top four clubs hitting the headlines, it is arguably Sunderland who have operated best in the transfer market. Former Manchester United defenders Wes Brown and John O'Shea will add quality to their backline, midfield trio Seb Larsson, Craig Gardner and David Vaughan all have Premier League experience and, in Connor Wickham, signed for £9m from Ipswich Town, they have a future England international.
New Aston Villa manager Alex McLeish has attracted Shay Given and Charles N’Zogbia following the departure of Brad Friedel, Young and Downing. The signing of Republic of Ireland striker Shane Long from Reading may turn out to be a real coup for West Bromwich Albion, while former England internationals Kieron Dyer and Jonathan Woodgate have been handed last chances by Queens Park Rangers and Stoke City respectively as they enter the veteran stage of their injury-plagued careers.
Players to watch
In a league which has its fair share of foreign talent, there are plenty of young English players to keep an eye on this season. As well as Chelsea duo McEachran and Sturridge, two other ‘Blue’ boys, namely Ross Barkley and Jack Rodwell at Everton, are tipped to have good seasons under the watchful eye of David Moyes.
Marc Albrighton showed flashes of excellent form for Aston Villa in 2010/11, while Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck appear to have benefited immensely from loan spells at Wigan Athletic and Sunderland respectively, and have returned to Manchester United expecting to make their mark on the Red Devils' first team.