I was getting ready to draft my Premier League preview when I stumbled across the news of ESPN's agreement to air games in the U.S. this season. Talk about a great way to start the season. Now that I've calmed a little from that excitement, it's time to talk Premier League!
If there is a silver lining to the global economic crisis, it might be this: With wild spending down, we are looking at potentially the most competitive season in the history of the Premier League. Only Manchester City flashed serious cash this summer, while the big four migrated back to the pack. A second tier of contenders might have a shot at the title.
But let's not get carried away. The leading candidates are still the big names we're accustomed to seeing, led by Manchester United and Chelsea. Last Sunday's entertaining Community Shield clash could foreshadow a see-saw battle between the winners of the last five EPL titles. While ManU will clearly miss Cristiano Ronaldo and, to a lesser extent, Carlos Tevez, the Red Devils will still contend for a record fourth-straight crown. ManU has gotten off to slow starts but recovered to win the league the last two seasons. To avoid another sluggish opening, they'll need goaltender Ben Foster to show he's capable of replacing the injured Edwin van der Sar on a permanent basis.
The biggest off-season addition among the big four wasn't a player, but rather new Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti. The former AC Milan skipper is the fifth man to hold the top post at Stamford Bridge since 2007, but it would be surprising if he doesn't bring stability to the position. Chelsea return a loaded roster, but you have to wonder if their primary focus is the Premier League the Champions League. Europe's biggest prize is the only one Roman Abramovich's men are missing. After crushing defeats against Liverpool, Manchester United and Barcelona the last three seasons, the quest remains the same. Ancelotti actually won more Champions League trophies (two) than Serie A titles (one) in his time at the San Siro. If that trend is any indicator, the Blues could be celebrating in Madrid in May, while someone else takes the EPL.
Could that someone else be Liverpool? In Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, the Reds have a leading duo as good as any in the world. But in order to capture their first Premier League title, Rafa Benitez's team will need to overcome the maddening inconsistency that sunk their 2009 title bid. Liverpool took 14 points from six matches against ManU, Chelsea and Arsenal, highlighted by a 4-1 romp at Old Trafford. But a series of baffling draws against lesser opponents left the Reds in second, despite only two losses. If they can convert those draws into wins, a long-awaited title will be coming to Anfield.
Arsenal aren't going plummet, but Arsene Wenger's team has suffered too many losses to mount a serious challenge. Waiting to take their place in the leading quartet are Manchester City. Backed by big bucks from their UAE-based ownership, the Blues roster now features Gareth Barry, Roque Santa Cruz, Carlos Tevez, Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure, along with last year’s key addition, Robinho. But many superstar-laden teams have looked unbeatable on paper. How this group gels under manager Mark Hughes remains to be seen, and questions abound regarding the ManCity defense.
If the race remains tight, Everton, Aston Villa and Tottenham could sneak into the mix, but realistically those sides are hoping for a Champions League slot at best. Look for last year's top three to pull away again in 2010. While my heart pulls for Liverpool, by head says Chelsea. God I hope I'm wrong.
If you want EPL previews from more knowledgeable outlets, here are some options:
The Times of London