Premier League stars can still shine
It wasn't quite an action replay -- the departing star bade farewell to Liverpool rather than London and he was headed for Barcelona, not Madrid. Otherwise, it was a case of deja vu: For the second successive summer, the Premier League lost the reigning Footballer of the Year. For Gareth Bale in 2013 read Luis Suarez in 2014.
Whereas the Uruguayan stepped up seamlessly to replace the Welshman as the division's dominant player, now Suarez leaves a vacancy, and not merely at Anfield. The English top flight has lost a marquee talent.
One possibility is that the senior citizens will again assert their authority, but the fact is that Robin van Persie, Steven Gerrard and Yaya Toure are already in their 30s.
Wayne Rooney, an old 28, can seem one of their peers. If, instead, the torch is passed to the men who are younger than Suarez, there are still plenty of contenders with the ability to take a giant stride forward.
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Club: Manchester City
Go back to last autumn and Manuel Pellegrini was bracketing Sergio Aguero alongside Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the world's top three players. He also seemed in a straight shootout with Suarez for the title of top scorer. After Aguero's injury-hit second half of the season and underwhelming World Cup, it is easy to forget just how potent he was. A run of 25 goals in 23 games was notable not only for his consistency but for his reliably deadly finishing.
The reason, perhaps, that Aguero hasn't won the individual honours is that he struggles to stay fit over the course of a whole season. Groin, calf and hamstring injuries have pockmarked his Manchester City career. Play the entire campaign, however, and Aguero could establish himself as the Premier League's alpha male.
Compared to Paul Gascoigne by many and likened to Michael Ballack by Everton manager Roberto Martinez, Ross Barkley's tasks include justifying the hype. Last season was a breakthrough year for a player who began it with only four Premier League starts under his belt. Now he has a four-year contract, rewarding his rise, even if it will not prevent predictions that he will be lured from Everton before its conclusion.
Barkley has to compete with the 28 million-pound signing Romelu Lukaku for top billing at Goodison Park and has to use his considerable gifts to create more goals -- he didn't record a single assist last season -- but, at 20, he is one of a group of young pretenders who, as Bale has done before, could convert potential into pre-eminence.
By a process of default, Eden Hazard should be the man to step up. He was the runner-up in the PFA Player of the Year and, with Suarez out of the picture, could be his natural replacement. Chelsea's summer business means the Belgian faces competition if he is to retain top billing at Stamford Bridge.
Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas are two who could displace him as Chelsea's top scorer. They could also relieve the burden on Hazard after others weren't creative or prolific enough in the second half of last season. If Chelsea are a more potent team, Hazard could benefit. As it is, few score and supply goals in such quantities. He struck 14 times and recorded seven assists in the league alone last season. Top those tallies and a man who has been shortlisted for the individual honours in both of his seasons in England may make off with the silverware.
Club: Manchester United
A miserable season finished with a reminder of Juan Mata's gifts. After failing to score in the Premier League all season, he ended with six goals in as many games. Now he has a manager who, unlike David Moyes, appears to be building a team around him. Mata was ineffective on the wings under the Scot, but Louis van Gaal has installed him as the No. 10 in a 3-4-1-2 formation in United's preseason programme.
In effect, he has restored him to the position Mata occupied for Chelsea in the 2012-13 campaign, when he managed 20 goals and 25 assists in all competitions. Along with Van Persie and the exiles in Spain, Bale and Suarez, he was one of the four finest players in England that season. Repeat that form and, if Van Gaal revives United, then this might be Mata's time.
Like Aguero, Ramsey had a spectacular season when he was fit. He brought up 15 goals for club and country by the end of November. It was a remarkable return and, while Toure overhauled him as the top-scoring midfielder when Ramsey was injured, he illustrated his impact again by ending Arsenal's nine-year trophy drought with the winner in the FA Cup final.
What this season should prove is whether the Welshman was a one-season wonder. The chances are he isn't. He has leapfrogged Jack Wilshere to become the premier talent among Arsenal's young generation. This summer, like last, Arsene Wenger has spent heavily on a flagship signing from Spain. Ultimately Ramsey outperformed Mesut Ozil. One of his challenges is to overshadow Alexis Sanchez as well.
The "SAS" is no longer. Liverpool simply have the "S": Daniel Sturridge. He was outscored by his strike partner Suarez last season, but not by anyone else and, without the Uruguayan, Sturridge should have a team built around him. There were days last season when he played on the wings to accommodate Suarez; now he is the main striker.
One issue is whether Sturridge can see off the challenge of the fast-improving Raheem Sterling to remain the biggest name among Liverpool's younger players; another is whether he can repeat his form last season. He had never approached 21 league goals before. The feeling, though, is that he will again, and Golden Boot winners tend to figure in any discussion about the Footballer of the Year award.