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Expect drama in three-horse PL race
In the end, the contenders are the same. The winner will be culled from a small group of serious applicants. But before we get there, before the Barclays Premier League reaches its spring-time climax and anoints Manchester United, Manchester City or Chelsea as its champion, there will be drama.
If the outcome seems all but a given, considering the vastness of the chasm between the aforementioned three and the rest of the pack, there is nevertheless a great amount of uncertainty concerning the path to the title. And with the Premier League, the journey invariably compensates for the predictability of the end result. A big team will win. But its road to the championship will be winding and fraught and fickle.
Going into this season, there is more up in the air than ever.
Three of the league’s better players have an unresolved transfer stand-off. Wayne Rooney is trying to leave United, making his umpteenth attempt to twist the club’s arm into selling him. Luis Suarez hopes to talk a club he deems worthy of his tantalizing talent into extricating him from moribund Liverpool and its denial about the glory long since faded. Tottenham Hotspur’s Gareth Bale is wating to see if his mega-deal to Real Madrid goes through, which, of course, would bring him a mega-cut and a new mega-contract.
The only feasible destination for Rooney would seem to be Chelsea, while Arsenal covets Suarez. Either move could upset the league’s somewhat ossified balance of power. Unless Rooney isn’t merely inconsistent anymore but simply past it. Or not even Suarez can help bridge Arsenal’s distance to the big three.
If Rooney does indeed go to Chelsea, his new manager Jose Mourinho will have to wedge him into a stacked team. The Blues already have three players -- Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard -- who command free roles, the sort of liberty Rooney is best suited to as well. But Mourinho -- a man with a talent both for bonding with players and turning them against himself -- has a bigger challenge in trying to get on with Russian oligarch owner Roman Abramovich, whose ego proved irreconcilable with Mourinho’s in his previous spell at the club.
At United, David Moyes doesn’t just need to keep Rooney on board and interested, but succeed an institution in Sir Alex Ferguson. He’s never won anything besides a third-tier league title but is expected to replicate Ferguson’s two decades of success. And while he hopes to land an elite central midfielder, several attempts to sign either Thiago Alcantara and Cesc Fabegras away from Barcelona have proved futile.
Across town, Manuel Pellegrini is charged with getting City playing again. But there are a lot of big characters in the locker room, into which he’ll have to incorporate expensive recruits Alvaro Negredo, Jesus Navas, Fernandinho and Stevan Jovetic. And he’ll have to win in Europe as well, after two early flame-outs under Roberto Mancini.
It bears watching if Pellegrini, Moyes and Mourinho can bring about the long-overdue stylistic revolution England’s big clubs badly need to compete continentally with their rivals from Spain and Germany, as was so plainly obvious last season. The league as a whole remains largely over-reliant on its archaic combination of brawn and the long ball, with many of its players stuck in a 20th-century version of the game -- and an early one at that.
Two years ago, newly-promoted Swansea City played pretty, progressive soccer and has kept it up ever since, holding out as the small-time team that plays like it’s big-time. But whether newly-promoted Cardiff City, Crystal Palace and Hull City have the nerve to take the same approach is highly questionable.
Stoke City and Sunderland would do well to break out of their stodgy systems and improve their chances of ending in the top half, where their level of investment fairly well requires them to be. Mark Hughes -- who has Americans Brek Shea, Juan Agudelo, Maurice Edu and Geoff Cameron in his care -- has taken over the former and Paolo Di Canio -- who manages Jozy Altidore -- will continue his re-building project with the latter.
Spurs, meanwhile, hope that their zippy brand of soccer will see them break back into the top four and finally reach the UEFA Champions League -- with or without Bale. Roberto Soldado might finally provide the answer up front.
Everton and USA goalkeeper Tim Howard enters life after Moyes. Roberto Martinez was hired away from relegated Wigan Athletic for his uncanny ability to overachieve -- something he shares with Moyes. And if Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines hang around, fourth place could even be a possibility.
That doesn’t seem to be the case for Liverpool, which continues to try to drag itself out of the morass of mediocrity it has sunken. Brendan Rodgers’ fast-passing style is laudable but has yet to turn them into a contender. And with Suarez, their best player by some distance, rather vocally wanting out, the Reds are faced with the question if they’re a big club at all anymore.
Will Luis Suarez get his wish and leave Liverpool before the transfer window closes? (Photo: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC/Getty Images).
If Arsene Wenger, now the league’s longest-tenured manager, doesn’t win Arsenal anything, it will be their ninth consecutive season without a trophy, and they too will have to ask themselves some hard questions.
Up in Newcastle, Alan Pardew has been given almost endless rope. He is only a year into the eight-year contract his clueless owner Mike Ashley gave him. But all the money he has pumped into his squad on almost exclusively French players has yielded no dividends. Last year, they missed relegation by just five points.
While the clubs have plenty of riddles to solve of their own, the Premier League’s corps of referees has to turn in a better performance than last season. They’ll have the help of goal-line technology now. But it is on them alone to coax more respect out of the players, and to stamp out racial abuse once and for all.
Questions abound; 38 rounds of games to find answers.
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