Man United still the favorite as Premier League readies for kickoff
Man United has looked impressive in preseason and remains the favorite
Big-spending Man City have reloaded with addition of Sergio Aguero
Swansea and Blackburn both appear to be strong contenders for relegation
The new Barclays Premier League season is upon us and the teams are jockeying for position on the starting line. Here are my thoughts on how the pack is likely to break up this season: the top six, the bottom five, and the tight bunch in the middle. The clubs are not necessarily listed in order but I'm tipping Manchester United to take the title:
MAN UNITED --
New signings: Phil Jones, Ashley Young, David de Gea
Players out: John O'Shea, Wes Brown, Owen Hargreaves, Edwin van der Sar, Paul Scholes
It bodes extremely well for Alex Ferguson that a young side (average age during much of the second half: 22) dealt so well with the physical challenge of Manchester City and the mental challenge of turning around a losing position to claim the Community Shield; it's still only preseason, but they maintained the zip of United's U.S. performances and appear to be a set of calm heads. Whether Anderson can really provide the answer in central midfield remains to be seen, but permission to get carried away with Nani's performance, please.
New signings: Oriol Romeu, Romelu Lukaku
Players out: Yuri Zhirkov, Jeffrey Bruma, Nemanja Matic, Fabio Borini
Chelsea finished level on points with Manchester City last season and is tipped by many to lose ground. The Blues have the opportunity to build momentum, however, with all three promoted sides and only United and Arsenal of last year's top four to play before December. Signings (so far) this summer have been relatively low-key, but Andre Villas-Boas has some impressive young players in positions that could do with freshening up (especially Romeu and Josh McEachran) and he will be more willing to use them than previous managers.
MAN CITY --
New signings: Costel Pantilimon, Stefan Savic, Gael Clichy, Sergio Aguero
Players out: Jo, Shay Given, Patrick Vieira, Jerome Boateng
Once again City's summer spending has elevated expectations -- not least because more than half of what they've spent so far went on the outrageously talented Aguero. And once again we start the season wondering if having all the component parts is enough to challenge not just for second, which they ought to do, but also for the title. A lot could depend on how often Roberto Mancini fills out his teamsheet with names like Adam Johnson, rather than Gareth Barry.
New signings: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gervinho, Carl Jenkinson
Players out: Cesc Fabregas, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, Denilson, Gael Clichy
Preseason previews for Arsenal are becoming a copy-and-paste job. "We are a young team and we can only be better," Arsene Wenger has said recently, as he does every summer; Cesc Fabregas' move to Barcelona casts a shadow; defensive reinforcement is urgently needed; and what if Robin van Persie gets injured? Signing Southampton youngster Oxlade-Chamberlain is a typical Arsenal move, but something more calculating than habit may be required before the window closes; last season Wenger's side notched up its lowest points total in four seasons, and was plain lucky that Liverpool did the same.
New signings: Jordan Henderson, Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam, Jose Enrique, Alexander Doni
Players out: Milan Jovanovic, Paul Konchesky
Owner John W. Henry has made no secret of the fact that he expects Liverpool to return to the top four this season -- "if we don't, it would be a major disappointment" -- and the battle with Arsenal looks fascinating: the opening weeks of the season throw the same nine teams at both and they play each other in week two. Whether Liverpool's best starting XI is drastically improved for the recent £54 million ($87.5M) outlay is debatable -- Downing is the only summer arrival who adds something previously lacking: width -- but Enrique is an upgrade at left back and a full season of Luis Suarez certainly quickens the pulse.
TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR --
New signings: Brad Friedel
Players out: Kyle Naughton, Jonathan Woodgate, Jamie O'Hara
Even if Luka Modric stays, Tottenham's standing in the top five looks vulnerable. Rafael van der Vaart is still carrying niggling injuries, Sandro (who looked capable of orchestrating things further back) will have to work his way back from a knee operation and there is still no sign of the kind of deadly striker Harry Redknapp has long courted -- which is a shame, because Gareth Bale's preseason form promises the supply. Still, the existing strikers can't have two stinking seasons in a row, can they?
NORWICH CITY --
Last year's finish: promoted from Championship in second place
New signings: Steve Morison, Ritchie de Laet, James Vaughan, Elliott Bennett, Bradley Johnson, Anthony Pilkington, Kyle Naughton
Players out: Owain Tudur Jones, Jens Berthel Askou, Samuel Habergham, Matthew Gill
The Canaries' chances really depend on whether your glass is half full, or half empty. After two successive promotions (Norwich started the 2009-10 campaign in the third tier), will momentum or gravity triumph? Does last season's dependence on clutch goals (22 points won after the 80th minute) make Paul Lambert's team irrepressible or vulnerable? Does the lack of "star players" suggest a thoughtfully constructed, effective unit capable of securing a second season in the Premier League, or an ordinary bunch of hopefuls? I'm leaning toward the former.
QUEEN'S PARK RANGERS --
Last year's finish: promoted after winning the Championship
New signings: DJ Campbell, Kieron Dyer, Jay Bothroyd, Danny Gabbidon
Players out: Peter Ramage, Mikele Leigertwood
QPR was very impressive on the way to last season's Championship title, with a tight defense and a dynamic front six centering on Adel Taarabt -- who, assuming he doesn't get the high-profile move he desires, will be keen to show that he can cut it in the Premier League having proved too mercurial for Spurs. He won't be the only one, in a squad of varying Premier League experience and success. They certainly need to hit the ground running given their tough run-in (each of last season's top six in the final 10 games, finishing at Eastlands on the final day).
New signings: Mariano Pavone, Myles Anderson, David Goodwillie
Players out: Phil Jones, Benjani, Zurab Khizanishvili
Assessing Blackburn is complicated: its held on to Chris Samba, which was critical given Jones' departure; players such as Junior Hoillett and Martin Olsson can provide excitement; and Goodwillie looks like a good signing. But much of the rest of the squad is as unconvincing as Steve Kean, the manager Venky's originally installed as a stopgap measure. Certainly not too good to go down.
New signings: Steven Caulker, Danny Graham, Jose Moreira, Leeroy Lita, Wayne Routledge
Players out: Darren Pratley, Dorus de Vries
Swansea's playoff triumph was stylish and emphatic but the parallels with Blackpool do not bode well. The transfers in haven't (yet) rocked the Richter scale but the loss of goalkeeper de Vries -- chosen by the rest of the team as player of the season in 2010-11 -- is a significant loss. It may well be that only one promoted side is relegated and despite a decent preseason, Swansea could be the unlucky ones.
WIGAN ATHLETIC --
New signings: Ali Al-Habsi, David Jones
Players out: Charles N'Zogbia, Steven Caldwell
For two seasons running, Wigan has stayed up by the skin of its teeth and despite winning only nine games -- and now Roberto Martinez will have to do without N'Zogbia, who last season scored or created almost half of Wigan's goals. Unless the manager has a transfer coup planned, it's difficult to see anyone providing ingenuity or productivity on a similar scale.