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Aug 14, 2014

Bring on the chaos: The Premier League is back

Sone Aluko's goal against AS Trencin has kept Hull City's European dreams alive in what has been a frantic preseason.

It's one of English football's oddly unchanging rituals. Most of what we know about football has changed during the game's colossal upheaval over the past generation but preseason remains essentially the same.

You report for training, arduous fitness work, eventually the introduction of a football and then increasingly testing friendlies against smaller local clubs. Next up comes either a glamourous home fixture against someone big, or if you're big yourself, a gruelling jaunt abroad to export your brand to new markets -- then the big kickoff some time in August.

Sure, the exact details have changed. Meticulous sports science has replaced timing who can do 20 laps of the training field the quickest. Or slowest. Going to the Far East has taken the place of a training camp in Scotland or Essex. But its basic structure and the order of things has not appreciably altered; a rare constant in a sport that's in thrall to its own permanent revolution.

That's why it'll be fascinating to see whether Hull City's decidedly unorthodox preseason helps or hinders. Their first competitive fixture of the 2014-15 campaign was on July 31, some 16 days before the first Premier League match and at a time when most clubs were still part-way through their preparations.

PREMIER LEAGUE PREVIEWS

As we count down to kickoff on Aug. 16, ESPN FC previews all 20 teams in this season's competition. Can Burnley, QPR and Leicester stay up? Will the new signings of Alexis Sanchez, Diego Costa and Adam Lallana help usurp Man City's crown? Will Manchester United get back on track under Louis van Gaal?

Indeed, for long periods, the two Europa League third qualifying round fixtures against the Slovakian side FK AS Trencin had a strange whiff of preseason about them despite the high stakes.

Just three days after that narrow escape, the Tigers played another friendly, against the German side VfB Stuttgart. The usual clutch of practice matches, two competitive fixtures, a friendly abroad, then QPR away in the Premier League? It's fair to say we haven't really seen a preparation like this before.

It means City shouldn't encounter the perennial preseason problem of being undercooked. The fright against Trencin ought to guarantee that on its own -- how many other Premier League sides have already seen exit from a major competition flash before their eyes and have had to really strive for a result? That may have brought a genuine glint of sharpness to City, for the victory against Stuttgart this past Sunday was so impressive that Steve Bruce enthusiastically lauded his charges -- and he doesn't come across as a man easily wowed by displays in practice matches.

If City are slightly but usefully better prepared for the new season than many of their Premier League rivals, it's a pity the opening fixture may see that advantage nullified on two counts -- one internal to City and one caused by their opponents' situation. QPR will have carried the euphoria of promotion with them all summer, and like so many new arrivals to the top flight, can almost be relied upon to hit the ground running.

Meanwhile, the Tigers have spent much of the week wondering whether to accept an eye-wateringly excessive offer from Southampton for Shane Long, and whether the player will depart if they do. Neither the prospect of losing a regular first-team striker nor its unfortunate timing are ideal, but money talks, for players and clubs alike.

What will carry the more weight -- QPR's adrenaline-fuelled excitement or a two-week head start? What will the unexpected situation with Long do? It's a fascinating fixture in so many ways. It'd certainly be a dismaying one to lose. Were QPR to suffer a home defeat on the opening day to a side they'll fancy overcoming, a little of that summer jubilation would leak away. For City, who've invested heavily of late and want to establish themselves rather than falling victim to "Second Season Syndrome," getting beaten by a newly promoted side could only be disappointing.

But hey, there are 37 games after this one to right any wrongs. No one ever got relegated on the first day of the season.

It's a day to look forward to, and perhaps we ought not dwell upon imaginary consequences too much, for that way lies madness. Here come nine months of chaos, controversy, soaring highs and plummeting lows. A football season, in other words. And soon we'll know whether Hull City's unusual preparations were a help or a hindrance.

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