If early form is anything to go by, Chelsea has again emerged as favourites to top the 17th edition of the 20-team English Premier League of football. Following closely behind are defending champion and 10-time winner Manchester United, and Liverpool. Perennial favourite Arsenal, from whatever we have seen on the field and off it—rigid wage structure and the relative inactivity in the transfer market—might struggle for “legs” towards the end of the season. Fans will remember that Arsenal’s biggest hurdle last season was a lack of experience and strength on the pitch.
West London-based Chelsea hit the road running in 2008 when it demolished Portsmouth on the opening day of the Premier League. When you have the likes of Frank Lampard, Micheal Ballack, Joe Cole and Deco—freshly signed from Barcelona in June—in midfield with Michael Essien waiting in the wings, Chelsea has the talent to score from all over the pitch.
Red September: Manchester United’s latest recruit Dimitar Berbatov shows off his new team jersey to the press earlier this month. Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP
But there is more than just sheer quality working for Chelsea. For a change, there is no turmoil, at least at the outset, with billionaire team owner Roman Abrahmovic. Remember that Chelsea had lost a very crucial match at Old Trafford against eventual champion Manchester United last season—the very weekend that then coach Jose Mourinho left the club. Mourinho’s short-lived successor Avram Grant did lead Chelsea to the brink of Champions League and FA cup championships, but as his predecessor Mourinho put it, “Almost is nothing in football.”
Manchester United enters the season as champion and fans are getting used to the familiar slow start to the season. But United will welcome the return of Cristiano Ronaldo from ankle surgery in October. The recent signing of Bulgaria’s Dimitar Berbatov from league rivals Tottenham Hotspur will strengthen the front line. United’s defence is largely unchanged from last season and one can only hope that Nani and Anderson grow in stature in the midfield.
Liverpool remains a mystery. One needs to go back 20 years to talk about Liverpool being a dominant force in English football. For starters, the Anfield faithful will be hoping that coach Rafael “Rafa” Benitez finds a winning team combination and sticks with it, instead of shuffling player relentlessly like last season.
But where are the goals going to come from for the Merseysiders? All roads lead to exciting Spaniard Fernando Torres who was perhaps the best signing last season. In the 2007-2008 season, Liverpool managed just 67 goals—24 of them from Torres’ boots—as opposed to the 80 netted by United. Unless someone steps up besides Torres, it’s unlikely Liverpool will get more goals. Rafa however will be hoping that July signing Robbie Keane comes good.
Wisdom puts these clubs, with their budgets and championship experience, ahead of the rest.
Sreenivasan is prime anchor with television channel Neo Cricket and a regular sports presenter on Worldspace Satellite Radio.
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