LONDON – We know the short list from which the Premier League champion will come.
It’s been the same for the last four years and shows little sign of changing. Money talks and those talking loudest are Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United with Arsenal and Tottenham trying to make themselves heard.
The days of a surprise team breaking into the gang of five are gone. Blackburn, Nottingham Forest, Derby and Leeds can only dream of repeating their title-winning achievements between 1972 and 1995.
Since Blackburn was champion 18 years ago, the Premier League title has been shared between United, City, Arsenal and Chelsea. Tottenham and Liverpool have the potential to be contenders, but remain on the outside of the magic circle.
Everton overachieved during David Moyes’ 11 years in charge and will need to keep Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellaini from rejoining the Scot to maintain its momentum.
The three main heavyweights all have new managers, though The Special One, Jose Mourinho, has been at Chelsea previously. Manuel Pellegrini and Moyes will offer a different, less confrontational perspective in Manchester than Roberto Mancini and Sir Alex Ferguson — the bookmakers, who are right more often than they are wrong, make City the favorite.
While United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea, have been involved in tedious transfer sagas this summer, City, with minimum fuss, have invested heavily and shrewdly in Fernandinho (Shakhtar Donetsk, £30 million), Stevan Jovetic (Fiorentina, £22m), Jesus Navas (Sevilla, £14.9m) and Alvaro Negredo (Sevilla, £20m).
Pellegrini has quality and quantity in his squad and his biggest problem could be keeping everyone happy at a club where, under Mancini, civil war was only a team-sheet away.
In midfield, James Milner, Samir Nasri, Yaya Toure, Fernandinho, Gareth Barry, Javi Garcia, Jack Rodwell, Navaz and David Silva will compete for three or four places. In attack, Jovetic, Edin Dzeko, Sergio Aguero and Negredo will add to the sort of selection headaches any manager would want.
The new, mild mannered (so he says, we’ll see after the first dodgy goal against Chelsea) Mourinho is back and the Portuguese inherited a squad to which he would love to add Wayne Rooney.
It is difficult to find many weaknesses, especially in midfield where three or four of Frank Lampard, Ramires, Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel, Oscar, Eden Hazard, Juan Mata, Victor Moses and new signing from Vitesse, Marco van Ginkel, won’t even be on the bench.
There remains the problem of Fernando Torres, who scores a fair amount of goals, but not against the top clubs. With the passion and personality of Mourinho, Chelsea will be far more of a force than last season.
For the first time in Premier League history, in fact since November 1986, there will be no Sir Alex Ferguson in the dugout. There have been no big signings — yet — by Moyes, who has spent the first months of his tenure repeating that Rooney is not for sale.
Apart from Rooney getting his head fit, the champions will hope Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck move up a level and Wilfried Zaha can build on his Crystal Palace promise. Michael Carrick was the only midfielder to be consistently good last season and Moyes will want more from Shinji Kagawa, who promised more than he delivered following his transfer from Borussia Dortmund.
As usual, Arsenal has vowed to strengthen its squad, but the arrival of Yaya Sanogo from Auxerra on a free loan has a “same old” look about the Gunners’ summer dealings. It continues to pursue Luis Suarez, whose CV goes against all Arsenal stands for — apart from a striker it also needs a goalkeeper, a central defender, plus Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to show they are the players everyone predicted they will be.
Tottenham’s season could rest on whether Gareth Bale stays. Fifty million pounds has been spent on Nacer Chadli (FC Twente), Paulinho (Corinthians) and Roberto Soldado (Valencia), but the suspicion remains Spurs will be competing with Arsenal for fourth place.
With or without Suarez, Liverpool’s realistic hopes of glory remain in the domestic cups. Luis Alberto (Sevilla) and Iago Aspas (Celta Vigo) are largely unknown, but in Simon Mignolet (Sunderland) Liverpool has bought an excellent goalkeeper, while Kolo Toure will help to cover the absence of the now-retired Jamie Carragher.
Everton, with Roberto Martinez in charge, may take time to adapt to the Spaniard’s passing game after Moyes’ more pragmatic style. It finished sixth, ahead of seventh-place Liverpool last season and the gap between the best and the rest was illustrated by the fact West Bromwich, in eighth position, was some 12 points adrift of Liverpool.
Life in the Northeast is rarely boring and Newcastle has added to its French connection with the arrival of Olivier Kemen (Metz) and Loic Remy on loan from Queens Park Rangers. It brought the total of French or French speakers to 14, and as only eight players have English as their mother tongue, this presents obvious problems. Newcastle is capable of finishing sixth or 16th.
Manchester United won the Premier League without much competition last season. It can expect Chelsea and Manchester City to be far greater threats this time around and the title is likely to go to a team in blue.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.