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Friday, August 17, 2012
ESPN FC Premier League preview

Roger Bennett

With perfect timing, a tacky Olympic closing ceremony put the "not so great" back into Great Britain and brushed the spectacle and sportsmanship of London 2012 under the carpet. Having had its eyes opened wide to the athletic joys of handball, beach volleyball and platform diving, the British public will narrow them once more and return to obsessing over the singular pursuit that monopolizes its feverish hopes and dreams. The English Premier League is back.

Part sporting competition, part outlandish soap opera, the EPL is the most watched league in the world. It's a kaleidoscopic collision of heroes, heels, haircuts and hard cash. Yet, bereft of the salary caps, revenue shares and drafts that bring parity to American sport, the league remains an anarchical entity in which results are guaranteed as much by the balance sheet as the team sheet.

The financial imbalance means that in reality, the league is not one competition but three loosely connected leagues within a league. There is "The Battle of the Champions League" waged among an elite band of sheiks, oligarchs and the beneficiaries of a recent New York Stock Exchange IPO; a "Race for Respectability" for the middling teams that lollop toward the consoling placebo of a Europa League place; and the "Race of Death" between the cellar dwellers who are forced to scrap it out to avoid the trapdoor of relegation like slaves at the Roman Colosseum.

Three hundred and eighty games played over nine months lie between us and the inevitable sting in the tail; 34,200 minutes in which eye-popping goals will be thumped, legends forged, villains revealed, ill-advised tattoos unfurled, scandals exposed, false hopes dashed and the answers to the following questions slowly revealed:

1. Will Manchester City be its own worst enemy?

If the EPL truly were a soap opera, then petro-dollar-fueled champion Manchester City would warrant a spin-off of its very own. What a wacky drama it would be, propelled by fast-paced, flip-flopping storylines acted out by a screwball cast of characters: Mario Balotelli! Carlos Tevez! Yaya Toure! Roberto Mancini!

After Manchester City landed its first title in 44 years, confidence at the Etihad Stadium should be sky-high, but the preseason mood has been muted. In previous years, this Abu Dhabi-funded club has attacked the transfer window with the wanton abandon of a retail-therapy-craving tween visiting an Orange County mall. Yet the specter of Financial Fair Play has necessitated a tightening of the purse strings. Young Everton midfielder Jack Rodwell is the only arrival for $18.8 million. He's a player so injury-prone, City could only have made a worse investment if it had bought Manchester United shares.

Can City successfully defend its title? Enigmatic manager Mancini has attempted to use his patented "underpromise and madcaply deliver" school of reverse psychology to declare, "We are maybe second, third or fourth [favorites]," he said. The world-class depth of his squad makes that proposition hard to believe, yet the club's main challenge will be to prove it can mount a successful Premier League campaign while legitimately threatening in the Champions League at the same time.

2. Can Manchester United's on-the-field performance outstrip that of its IPO?

After a season in which its trophy room collected only dust for the first time since 2005, Manchester United made two big moves. The first was on the floor of the NYSE, where a sluggish IPO saw it morph into stock ticker MANU.

The second was the avaricious capture of last year's player of the season, Robin van Persie. An attritional saga so drawn out, it felt as though Arsenal had tried to force United to import Piers Morgan along with the Dutchman in the deal. After complaining about the lack of value in the transfer market for the past five seasons, Sir Alex Ferguson splashed $37.7 million on a 29-year-old with no resale value and a patchy fitness record. Will it be worth it? Van Persie led the Premier League last season with an astonishing 30 goals, but he will have to forge a quick understanding with Wayne Rooney and the rest of his new team to repeat the feat.

United fans can try to dream only of their new striking tandem's future escapades, but memories of last year will still intrude. Its midfield appeared thinner than a bald man with a comb-over. That is less a veiled jab at Wayne Rooney and his mutating hairline and more a statement that their lack of a world-class central midfielder is apparent to all. New Japanese midfielder Shinji Kagawa, who has impressed teammates with his intelligence and creativity, prefers a more advanced midfield role.

Much will rest on 23-year-old Tom Cleverley's shoulders. Will he be able to reclaim the inventive form he displayed before losing much of last season to injury? And perhaps just as impressively, can he do so while sporting a new home jersey whose design appears to have been based on a 1970s couch?

3. Will Chelsea taste champagne football?

The Londoners won the Champions League last season, but the negative style they employed caused owner Roman Abramovich to receive the trophy with the relish of a man who had demanded a bottle of Perrier-Jouet champagne only to be handed a stem of award-winning broccoli. The oligarch craves vivid, attacking football. Although coach Roberto Di Matteo has had the "temporary" removed from his job title, he may have just 38 games to prove his keep.

Di Matteo must grapple with multiple challenges. Can the inventive big-money additions to the squad, including Eden Hazard and Oscar, adjust to the Premier League's relentless rhythm? Will John Terry's elephant-tranquilizer-esque pace become an increasing liability at the heart of the defense? Most pressingly, who will replace the scoring menace of Didier Drogba? Likable striker Fernando Torres' long-term impotence has been as unpleasant to witness as baby seals being culled. His return to form is often heralded. He will have to augment his return of seven Premier League goals in 46 appearances, or else Di Matteo will experience every minute like a grain of sand gushing through an egg timer.

4. Will Arsenal fans trip over the thin line between love and hate?

For the past eight seasons Arsenal fans have suffered as their captains have disappeared, while somehow retaining pride and optimism. This grinding summer dominated by the debate surrounding their "lack of ambition" and decline into a "feeder club" may change all that.

Last season, many supporters chafed at the accusation they were a one-man team. That one man, Robin van Persie, has jumped ship, so it remains to be seen whether its new arrivals -- Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla -- can pick up the 30-goal slack. Some may claim the money received for a gray-haired icon compensates for his loss, but like a cheap Sanyo television, Arsenal's once-mighty squad now seems to have inferior components. Jack Wilshere's return from long-term injury will be welcome, but Arsenal fans' only pleasure may be found in arguing which of their defectors they most despise: Manchester City's Samir Nasri, Chelsea's Ashley Cole or Manchester United's van Persie.

5. Can Newcastle avoid being the new "Fairweather Johnson"?

Last year's revelation, Newcastle United, needs to look no further than Hootie & the Blowfish or the Spin Doctors to uncover cautionary tales about the dangers of "that difficult second album." Senegalese striker Papiss Cisse succeeded fellow countryman Demba Ba as the team's headline hogger, but Toon fans will draw solace from the fact they have held on to the coveted Cheick Tiote, Yohan Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa. This potent midfield spine compares favorably with all comers. Their form may be the club's greatest weapon to stave off a sophomore slump.

6. Can Liverpool exhume its now-ancient history?

Last season, Liverpool was accused of bringing a naive flavor-of-the-month quality to the transfer market. Supporters will hope bright new coach Brendan Rodgers is not a product of the same approach. Can he import the short-passing game he coaxed out of Swansea, or will he be disappointed as he was during the six-month failed stint at Reading that preceded it? The arrival of tiny pass master Joe Allen and return of the steely Lucas will provide a boon, but Rodgers has admitted, "It's going to take time, and whether it will be in my time, I'm not so sure." That's a candid reality check for a fan base proud of its team's tradition. In modern times, that tradition has been one of frustration and mediocrity.

7. Can AVB stand for anything other than humiliating failure?

The rapid Premier League return of Andres Villas-Boas and his knee-length raincoat will be one of the most interesting subplots of the season. His eight-month humiliation at Chelsea was soaked in pathos, and AVB will be hampered by the long-awaited departure of Luka Modric, absence through injury of the formerly invincible Scott Parker, and the fact that the patchy Jermain Defoe is the squad's only experienced striker. While the arrival of the creative Gylfi Sigurdsson should provide invention, Tottenham is taking a high-stakes gamble that AVB's desperate desire to prove himself will propel the team back into the top four. The young manager may have to settle once more for Ivanka Trump's definition of success: "Gorgeous hair is the best revenge."

8. Who will win the race for respectability?

A muck of muddling teams will clog the middle of the table, clamoring for the mixed reward of a Europa League place that promises all of the excitement of a vice-presidential debate. The best most fans can wish for is to trump their regional rivals and experience the cheap thrill of an FA Cup run. Aston Villa and West Brom will sample life under new management. Goal-shy Sunderland and Stoke will embark without a repeat of their 2011 spending sprees. Witnessing Stoke's new 6-foot-3 U.S. international Geoff Cameron be introduced to Tony Pulis' cruel tactics should be like watching "My Fair Lady" in reverse.

Fulham will pray the rumored departures of club stars Clint Dempsey (not just the 17 goals scored, but the 56 chances created) and Moussa Dembele do not condemn them to the mire. Meanwhile, Everton fans will wonder what their gutsy club needs to do to experience a positive start. If the season began Jan. 1, Tim Howard's team would have finished third last year.

9. Who will survive the race of death?

The battle at the bottom of the table may prove to be this season's most competitive, fought out as it is with loan players, heavy perspiration and big dreams. The newly promoted trio of gritty Reading, defensively suspect Southampton and bludgeonlike West Ham will all require substantial strengthening if they are to survive. Southampton appears particularly under-resourced. Reading has just been taken over by a 30-year-old Russian tycoon, Anton Zingarevich, whose Victoria's Secret model wife, Yekaterina Domankova, has captured the imagination of the English tabloids. The only sure thing about West Ham's return is it will instantly double the number of full-arm tattoo sleeves on display in the Premier League.

This vulnerable trio can draw strength from this discussed stat: In the Premier League era, 28 percent of teams that survived the first campaign after gaining promotion were relegated the next season. QPR, which had to wait until the final day to secure survival, will hope the arrival of Park Ji-Sung and Fabio (loan) from United and the effervescent Junior Hoilett from Blackburn enable them to avoid a similarly anxious experience this time round. Swansea City was hailed as the Welsh Barcelona last year but must prove it can still pass and move now that Rodgers has left it. Norwich is also under new, more conservative management, and may struggle.

All three teams will look at last year's miracle survivor, Wigan Athletic, and pray that Roberto Martinez is unable to repeat his Houdini-like antics of last year.

10. SPOILER ALERT: Is this the 2012-13 EPL top three?

Donning my Paddy Power lucky underpants, I predict we will see:

1. Manchester City defend its title in a canter.
2. Chelsea push on after the January transfer window.
3. Manchester United grind out third, though its share price will be at $3.27.

Roger Bennett is a columnist for ESPN, and with Michael Davies, is one of Grantland's "Men In Blazers." Follow him on Twitter: @rogbennett.




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