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Friday, August 17, 2012
Meet the big five

James Tyler

This is the final installment of a four-part series breaking down all 20 teams ahead of the new English Premier League season. For Part 1, click here. For Part 2, click here. For Part 3, click here.

In the final part of the preview, it's time to deal with the five teams most pundits will care about. The other 15 clubs are just white noise, coverage-worthy in the event of shock results and/or improbable win streaks.

Meanwhile this quintet has plenty to play for: the title, the four golden Champions League tickets and the scant consolation of a berth in the Europa League, UEFA's ugly duckling tournament.

Manchester United

Last Season: Second (89 points)

Key Signings: MF Nick Powell (Crewe), MF Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund), FW Robin van Persie (Arsenal)

Key Departures: MF Paul Pogba (Juventus), MF Park Ji-Sung (Queens Park Rangers), Fabio (Queens Park Rangers, loan)

Core Story: Write off United and run the risk of eternal peril, though don't go so far as to anoint it on par with well-heeled City, either. Such is the precarious balance of the Red Devils: While the Glazers flaunt and promote their nutrition-less IPO flotation on the New York Stock Exchange, Sir Alex Ferguson is figuring out how his midfield is going to look and whether he has the belief -- not just in his nascent squad, but in himself -- to quickly squash his crosstown rival's ominous rise.

But in signing van Persie, there is a glimmer of hope. The Dutchman brings a polished skill set around goal and has plenty of talent around him to thrive.

However, that marquee bit of business for United completely fails to address the side's key need: Who marshals the midfield? While Shinji Kagawa was an astute signing and should serve as the chief creator, the likes of Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick and even the returning Darren Fletcher are on the wane.

There are other head-scratchers, too. Can Patrice Evra shake off his season-long mediocrity from last year? How healthy is Rio Ferdinand? How healthy is Nemanja "Torn ACL" Vidic, for that matter? Which Phil Jones shows up: the untamed, chest-thumping monster that frightened the league prior to Christmas or the clueless, lackadaisical beast that underwhelmed after the holidays?

All that said, the title would have been United's for a record 20th time had Sergio Aguero not performed his late magic against Queens Park Rangers. Such is the fickle fun of the Prem; that said, keeping pace this time around might not be nearly as simple.

Fans will be happy that: Kagawa has joined the Red Devils' cause. His dynamic, insightful conduct in Borussia Dortmund's dominant (and double-winning) midfield will serve United's coterie of talented attackers well. He and RvP should thrive, especially with Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez also in the mix.

Fans will be sad that: There is such disorder off the field. The Glazers are about as popular at Old Trafford as Luis Suarez, while Sir Alex rightfully has taken criticism for being so supportive of the American owners' legalized tyranny. The knock-on effect is clear: Several big transfer targets have steered clear (Lucas Moura being the most disappointing, considering the strength of United's efforts). No offense to Kagawa or van Persie, of course.

Star to savor: There are plenty to admire -- Rooney and his hair plugs, Chicharito the super-sub, Kagawa's nuance -- but I'll plump for Antonio Valencia. After injuries and the pressure of replacing Cristiano Ronaldo on the wing, the Ecuadorian thrived last season to the tune of four goals and 13 assists in 27 league games.

Intangibles: Fergie himself. Losing the title on goal difference with virtually the last kick of the season will have been painful enough; that it was City doing the kicking made it even more so. Fergie's peerless when it comes to management, but while City simply purchases the EPL's catbird seat, how will he respond? And more importantly, how many more years can he do this?

Prediction: Second. Again. The Rooney/RvP tandem will keep it close, but the midfield's flaws can't be masked.

Manchester City

Last Season: First (89 points)

Key Signings: none

Key Departures: MF Vladimir Weiss (US Pescara), DF Wayne Bridge (Brighton, loan)

Core Story: What do you get for the team that has everything? Sheikh Mansour has pumped over a billion pounds into the Citizens over the past four years, and his investment is slowly bearing fruit; a slack Champions League effort was erased by a wobbly but successful title pursuit, the club's first league trophy in 44 years.

But it's not all smooth sailing. If it weren't for the final-day heroics of Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero, whose two goals versus QPR in the final three minutes of stoppage time turned an Etihad mausoleum into an all-night rave, United would have been champion yet again. As good as the story is -- do you remember where you were when little Kun scored? -- it doesn't obscure that for that much money, title chases should be over by Christmas.

And so, Roberto Mancini has been talking up superstars this summer yet unable to sign a single one so far because of the expensive vestiges of seasons past. Relics such as Emmanuel Adebayor, Roque Santa Cruz and Wayne Bridge are perennially loaned, yo-yoing back onto the payroll each summer, and must be permanently shipped off to cut an embarrassing payroll.

Similarly, what of top performers such as Carlos Tevez, a high-risk/high-reward player, and Dzeko, unsettled and unhappy with a secondary role? Both are well-paid -- and arguably surplus. (A Deloitte report noted that City spend 114 percent of its 2010-11 revenue on payroll, amounting to 174 million pounds.)

Such is the danger of having so much money to spend: other clubs know it, big-name players know it and, more crucially, the players' agents know it. Ergo, years of careless wage structures and carefree transfer fees must now cease, and if City is to continue to improve it must sell before it can buy. Thank UEFA's financial fair play laws, flimsy as they might well be, for at least forcing Mansour and Mancini to think twice about the transfer window.

So far, the title winners have been rebuffed on all fronts. City failed to snare van Persie; Daniel Agger has a 25 million pound price tag because of who's asking; Daniele De Rossi demands too much in salary; and Edinson Cavani is flatly uninterested.

Mancini already has voiced his frustration at the lack of new signings, which is hilarious to any team that actually tries to live within its means. Where it goes from here is anyone's guess.

Fans will be happy that: The first league title is under the belt. City showed composure and pedigree down the stretch with six straight wins and clearly can handle the pressure at the top.

Fans will be sad that: There are no new signings (yet) to crow about. While Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United have all rearmed to varying degrees, that City is left with the same misshapen, combustible squad is a worry.

Star to savor: It's all about Yaya Toure. David Silva labored in the second half of the season as teams packed the defensive third and restricted his space, but few could contain the rampaging, do-everything Ivorian in the middle of the field.

Intangibles: The tender nerves and powder keg egos of City's forwards. Space is limited up front in Mancini's regime, so who of Tevez, Dzeko, Aguero and Mario Balotelli gets regular playing time? And how does that impact those left on the bench? All four are gifted, expensive and not without flaws.

Prediction: First again, but another struggle, as per last season.

Arsenal

Last Season: Third (70 points)

Key Signings: FW Lukas Podolski (FC Cologne), FW Olivier Giroud (Montpellier), MF Santi Cazorla (Malaga CF)

Key Departures: GK Manuel Almunia (Watford), MF Denilson (Sao Paulo, loan), FW Robin van Persie (Manchester United)

Core Story: The sky is falling at the Emirates. Or it's just another transfer window in which a key player departs in search of greener vales and more lucrative pay packets. The palpable sense of dread is so strong that the Gunners could exploit it as another revenue stream if bottled and sold.

So with van Persie off to Old Trafford -- on the back of an injury-free season in 2011-12 and career-best 30-goal, nine-assist mark -- what is left for Arsene Wenger?

For once, there's plenty of talent still at his beck and call. Normally, such news (the acrimony of Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas' departures still lingers) would send Arsenal fans into therapy, but in a spot of prescience two new strikers are already in training.

Whether Giroud (Ligue 1's top scorer last term) and Podolski (31 goals in his last two Bundesliga seasons) can match or surpass van Persie's prodigious goal-a-game pace remains to be seen. But what can be quantified is the addition of Santi Cazorla, a gifted Spanish playmaker at ease anywhere in the attacking third. Backed by Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta in midfield -- rumors of Song leaving are offset by talks of Real Madrid loanee Nuri Sahin as a possible replacement -- it seems as if Arsenal is well-positioned to handle any further storms.

Yet it's never that simple. Wojciech Szczesny has cemented himself between the posts, yet could do with more help on defense. Per Mertesacker was a lead-footed liability at center back and Andre Santos was an average, injury-prone left back, and though Laurent Koscielny was superb, he could do with a full season from Thomas Vermaelen alongside him.

In short, the Gunners are as close to another 8-2 at Old Trafford as they are capable of throttling Chelsea 5-3 at Stamford Bridge. But this time the club is being proactive to ensure its squad can handle whatever comes its way.

Fans will be happy that: The club is spending money. Normally, the summer transfer window is a comedy in which Wenger refused to be drawn into bidding wars before splurging on B-/C+ talent right before it slams shut. This time around the Gunners have not only identified points of weakness but have invested in shoring up and acquiring depth.

Fans will be sad that: Van Persie chose to torpedo a promising summer. Plus, Jack Wilshere's continued injury problems (he's not expected back until October) are a worry.

Star to savor: Cazorla should provide a welcome spark in attacking midfield and relieve some of the pressure on Arsenal's strikers and wingers to do all the heavy lifting. But to suggest he's the be-all and end-all is not the case.

Intangibles: The attacking depth is much improved, but what about the back line? If Carl Jenkinson plays more than 10 minutes in 2012-13, Arsenal fans will need something stronger than antacids and lager to calm the nerves.

Prediction: As usual, the Gunners will loiter near the top but fail to cohere and compete. Fourth or fifth given RvP's exit.

Chelsea

Last Season: Sixth (64 points); won FA Cup and Champions League

Key Signings: MF Oscar (Internacional), MF Eden Hazard (Lille), MF Marko Marin (Werder Bremen)

Key Departures: FW Salomon Kalou (Lille), FW Didier Drogba (Shanghai Shenhua)

Core Story: Roberto Di Matteo has a full-time shot at the manager's job, an iconic striker has moved on and the aging Blues ended the season far adrift of the league title yet crowned as Kings of Europe. If ever a club triggered thoughts of soccer as being a "funny old game," it would be Chelsea. That it came barely two months after the supposed New Special One, Andre Villas-Boas, was unceremoniously fired for a lackluster league campaign (fifth place!) makes it all the more hilarious.

The Champions League was Roman Abramovich's personal Moby Dick, the enemy he'd chased for years without success; Now that it's finally in his trophy cabinet (which is presumably aboard his sonar-equipped mega-yacht), the austerity and academy building of recent seasons has been shelved in favor of classic big spending from the Russian ego maniac.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Frank Lampard's age and Michael Essien's injuries necessitated plenty of changes in the midfield; in comes a trio of talented, attack-minded dribblers (Oscar, Eden Hazard and Marin) to add extra dimensions to the Blues' attack, though it's of concern that none of the new signings are particularly useful tracking back on defense.

But perhaps the biggest change is up front, as Drogba shuffles off to join Nicolas Anelka in China for one last payday. Though the Ivorian's brute force had been blunted in recent seasons, his absence leaves a nagging void in Di Matteo's blueprints. Fernando Torres will now be expected to punctuate every flowing move with a goal, something he has proven is not as easy for him as it once was. There's Daniel Sturridge, still too inconsistent and raw to be handed the keys to this rebuilt and obscenely expensive attack. (Oscar and Eden Hazard cost 25 million and 32 million pounds, respectively.)

As for Romelu Lukaku, he's also not ready to fit in -- the Belgian striker will begin the season on loan to West Brom -- leaving the Blues (and Di Matteo) with an obvious dilemma: If an amazing attacking midfield has no finisher, is it really that amazing?

The summer tuneups on a U.S. tour exposed these problems and many more, but no one at Stamford Bridge has cause to be agitated. Not yet, anyway. If Di Matteo is given time to integrate Abramovich's shiny new toys and keep his squad motivated. No pressure, Roberto.

Fans will be happy that: The midfield has been improved. Juan Mata now has several teammates who mesh well with his style -- no offense to Raul Meireles -- and the extra speed should help keep the Blues' offense (fourth-best in the Prem last season) at a high click.

Fans will be sad that: The defense has yet to see similar upgrades. David Luiz is still a weak link alongside John Terry or Gary Cahill, while the passable Branislav Ivanovic can only hold that right back spot until an expensive, high-profile replacement is signed. (Latest reports have connected Marseille's Cesar Azpilicueta with a move to London.)

Star to savor: Oscar, 20, comes over from the Brazilian league with few caveats and plenty of praise. He'll soon be the Selecao's permanent attacking fulcrum and will be equally brilliant at Stamford Bridge.

Intangibles: Lampard has had an impressive summer, particularly against the MLS All-Stars, showing his vision and reading of the game to be as sharp as ever. How he will fit among all the moving parts in midfield could be crucial.

Prediction: Onward and upward for the Blues. Third with a strong fight for second, though the Champions League crown will slip off. Was fun while it lasted.

Tottenham Hotspur

Last Season: Fourth (69 points)

Key Signings: DF Jan Vertonghen (Ajax Amsterdam), MF Gylfi Sigurdsson (TSG Hoffenheim)

Key Departures: MF Luka Modric (Real Madrid), MF Steven Pienaar (Everton), MF Niko Kranjcar (Dynamo Kiev), DF Ledley King (retired)

Core Story: The Spurs' motto of "to dare is to do" has never rung this true. Harry Redknapp's departure as manager ended an uncomfortable few months in which his fondness of the England job derailed his day-to-day work: As such a three-month grip on third place (and faint whispers of sustaining a title chase) ended with just four wins in Spurs' final 13 league games. And subjugation once again to hated Arsenal.

In comes Andre Villas-Boas, carrying a chip on his shoulder the size of the Rock of Gibraltar. His move to Chelsea last summer was supposed to be a seismic event, given his Mourinho-lite credentials and similar Iberian swagger. Yet he was fired by March, unable to bend the Blues' locker room to his will, but his rebound gig across London gives him a chance to show the Prem that he is more than just an empty brand.

Will it work? AVB is a tinkerer and tactician in a way Redknapp was not. Known for compiling deep dossiers on upcoming opponents, expect to see similar tomes at White Hart Lane. Where 'Arry was fond of keeping it simple and letting his players thrive on instinct, Villas-Boas will demand commitment to his plans, whether he sticks with the current 4-4-2 or the quick-moving 4-3-3 he is known for from his Porto days.

While those kinks are worked out, there's a van Persie-esque situation brewing with midfield star Modric. Set to join Real Madrid for 26 million pounds -- surely below chairman Daniel Levy's 40 million pound insistence -- the White Hart Lane brain trust must now scramble to replace his considerable talent. With money in hand, AVB might target Porto's Joao Moutinho or French rising star Yann M'Vila, but given the elegance of Modric over the past two or three seasons, fans will need time to adjust.

And all the while, Spurs fans will be wondering if the new boss is really an improvement over the old boss. Three straight seasons of fifth place or better is a hard mark to match, even for a supposed Special One.

Fans will be happy that: Levy is keeping things tight in the boardroom. Tottenham hasn't yet needed to outspend itself to compete at the top end, and that's down to the chairman's shrewd business practices. Yet it's essential that the cash generated by Modric's sale is reinvested immediately for Spurs to stay in that top-five conversation.

Fans will be sad that: Ledley King retired because of knee injuries he's carried for years. He was barely capable of training or playing more than once a week, yet still played brilliantly in the Prem and Champions League when able. Will be missed.

Star to savor: Sigurdsson is a great signing and will complement the Spurs' midfield with his passing vision and capabilities from free kicks and corners.

Intangibles: Will Andre Villas-Boas silence his critics? Are Spurs the club at which he can prove that he's as special as his Portugal days and Mourinho apprenticeship would have us believe? And what about goal scorers? Jermain Defoe, Rafael van der Vaart and Gareth Bale contributed 31 combined goals last term, but fans will be hoping for another loan deal or permanent move for Adebayor, whose 17 league tallies and 11 assists will be hard to make up.

Prediction: A stumble. It will take AVB time to settle and implement his grand ideas. Without Modric, that transition will take even longer. Sixth place.




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