The return of the Premier League this weekend cannot come quickly enough for English fans still lamenting their national team’s worst World Cup showing. With the league’s riches and global reach, it remains England’s projection of soccer power.
But as the waning impact of English sides in Europe last season demonstrated, the Premier League’s allure remains under threat from Spain. Gareth Bale left Tottenham for Real Madrid last year, and the new season begins with Luis Suarez at Barcelona rather than Liverpool.
Liverpool cashed in around $130 million for the Uruguay striker, who is banned until the end of October. But Liverpool is now without the player who led the club to a rapid return to the elite, and the Premier League marketing machine is without one of its most recognizable names.
Replenishing the Liverpool squad with a trio of players from eighth-place Southampton at a cost of $80 million doesn’t seem the obvious way of turning last season’s second-place finish behind Manchester City into a first championship since 1990. The 27-year-old Suarez, whose 31 goals earned him the player of the year title, has been replaced by 32-year-old Southampton striker Rickie Lambert, who played just three minutes for England at the World Cup. “(Suarez) left Liverpool after his time as a world-class talent,” Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers said. “But we will move forward.”
Manchester United seem more likely to make a big jump forward than Liverpool. Louis van Gaal has replaced David Moyes, who took over from Alex Ferguson as manager last season but wilted in the Old Trafford spotlight as the team fell from champions to seventh place. Moyes arrived a year ago without a trophy to his name, but Van Gaal already has an aura of authority gained from years at Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. He also led the Netherlands to a third-place finish at the World Cup last month. With United out of the Champions League for the first time since 1995, and out of Europe completely, the 63-year-old Dutchman can focus on returning United to the top four. “He’ll find the competition in this league will be different to any other league that he’s worked in,” Rodgers said. “This is a league where the top team plays the bottom team, and on any given day you can lose.”
Van Gaal has set about repairing a squad he described as imbalanced and “broken” in a summer that has seen veteran defenders Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic leave, and Ryan Giggs retire. United spent about $90 million on signing Spanish midfielder Ander Herrera from Athletic Bilbao and Luke Shaw from Southampton, which has seen an exodus of players to rival clubs. Manager Mauricio Pochettino left to take over at Tottenham.
Dithering in last summer’s transfer window contributed to United’s unexpected fall. The unwillingness of Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger to spend early in previous offseasons has contributed to title challenges collapsing since 2004. Jolted by the failure to claim the trophy last season, finishing fourth after spending more time at the top than any rivals, Wenger seized the chance in July to take Chile striker Alexis Sanchez from Barcelona for $60 million.
Wenger opens the season without the burden of failure, having ended a nine-year trophy drought in May by winning the FA Cup. Mesut Ozil, Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski went on to become World Cup winners, but must now swiftly return to the Arsenal fold. “It always makes it difficult mentally to be sharp and hungry straightaway again,” Wenger said.
It is a challenge Manchester City must also confront in trying to defend their second title in three years. By winning the Premier League and League Cup, City enjoyed their most successful season since 1970, but only sustained success will confirm the Abu Dhabi-bankrolled team as England’s new force. While City haven’t made any headline-grabbing additions, goalkeeper Willy Caballero, midfielder Fernando and defender Bacary Sagna should add depth to make a greater impact in the Champions League.
Few managers have been as shrewd as Jose Mourinho over the summer. He has generated $115m for Chelsea by offloading out-of favor defender David Luiz to PSG, and striker Romelu Lukaku to Everton. Raising cash to reinvest in the squad was vital after Mourinho ended his first season back empty-handed, unable to replicate the glory years. Cesc Fabregas was enticed to join Chelsea, striker Diego Costa and defender Filipe Luis were bought from Atletico Madrid, and 36-year-old Champions League winner Didier Drogba is making a crowd-pleasing return to the Blues.
“Why I like (EPL) so much is that at this moment, nobody knows who is going to win the title,” Mourinho said.
Watch out for…
The Premier League is back, and it looks more competitive than ever this season. Here are five things to know about the first round of matches:
CITY REPEATING MISTAKES of old?
To some, there are shades of the summer of 2012 when Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini failed to make any jaw-dropping signings after a title success, allowing United to seize back the initiative and eventually oust City as champions.
ANOTHER NEW ERA AT UNITED
Expect things to be different under the more new coach Louis Van Gaal. For starters, Wayne Rooney has been appointed captain and will be part of a new 3-5-2 formation that the Dutch favours and has worked well in preseason, winning all of their six friendlies.
CHELSEA COMPLETE WITH COSTA
With Diego Costa signed up, it’s difficult to find a weakness in Chelsea’s title challenge. Jose Mourinho craved a lethal striker last season, one which Chelsea finished without a trophy mainly because of the lack of goals from Samuel Eto’o, Fernando Torres and Demba Ba up front.
OPTIMISM AT ARSENAL
The high-profile arrival of Alexis Sanchez, the feel-good factor carrying over from last season’s FA Cup success and a 3-0 win over Man City in the Community Shield last weekend has Arsenal feeling optimistic going into their opener.
LIVERPOOL WITHOUT SAUREZ
The post-Luis Suarez era at Liverpool begins versus Southampton, whose summer firesale of top players has seen three head to Anfield, Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren. They appear in great shape, having thrashed Dortmund 4-0 in a friendly last weekend. (AP)