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 Posted by Miguel Delaney
Aug 15, 2014

Prem's 'Top 7' tighter than ever

ESPN FC's Tommy Smyth looks ahead to this weekend's Premier League fixture list and highlights the odds and bets he would choose.

Back before all the current excitement for the new season began, in one of the summer's quieter moments, Jose Mourinho offered a statement that was rather short on bombast -- at least as far as his own team was concerned.

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"I know Chelsea will be better, but maybe the other teams will be better too," the Portuguese manager said. "So it will again be the kind of league where you don't know if you're going to finish first or finish sixth."

That's probably pushing it for his Chelsea team, who are favourites, but not pushing it enough for the Premier League itself. It's genuinely hard to know who's going to finish between first and seventh, let alone sixth. The old certainties of the 2004-09 "big-four" era now feel long gone. The stats indicate it. Last season was the latest that any side qualified for the Champions League since the competition expanded.

The pressure is on the Special One to deliver a trophy in 2014-15.
Jose Mourinho's Chelsea side are a fashionable pick to win this season's Premier League title. But the Portuguese manager says he doesn't know whether they'll finish first or sixth.

Manchester City are champions, having enthrallingly scored more goals than anybody in the Premier League era, and with many of Manuel Pellegrini's squad talking about how they feel even more in tune with his attacking ideas.

Chelsea meanwhile feel a world away from the managerial ructions of 2007 to 2013, with their most cherished-ever coach preparing for another season, and his second campaigns historically proving the most productive.

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?

Elsewhere, Manchester United have appointed the type of manager in Louis van Gaal they should have got last summer, as Arsene Wenger gets to put together the type of team he has waited at least seven summers for: a young core kept together, while finally benefitting from the experience of winning a trophy.

Beyond that, each of Liverpool, Everton and Tottenham Hotspur are currently employing three of the brightest and most progressive young coaches in Europe.

All seven clubs have a right to be hugely optimistic.

Of course, that does mean three of them are going to be left disappointed by the season's end, but the route there could be more rip-roaring than ever.

Right now, even if we are at the giddy eve-of-season stage, it's almost impossible to imagine Manchester United being as meek as under David Moyes, or Tottenham Hotspur collapsing in the manner they did so often against those above them, or Arsenal not moving up a level.

The clashes could make for a gloriously chaotic top end of the table. While it is still difficult not to see Chelsea and City leading the way, that is not guaranteed to come with ease, and it gets much more difficult to pick the positions beyond them.

A burgeoning rivalry between Arsenal and Manchester City will only get more heated after City snagged Bacary Sagna in the offseason, and then the Gunners thumped the Prem's reigning champs 3-0 to win their recent Community Shield match.

As regards how we've got to this point, it's even more difficult to ascribe any grand narrative. It merely feels like a rare happy coincidence that clubs made such good decisions around the same time, rather than any kind of natural consequence of how the Premier League is constructed.

The competition is still beset by deeper divisions, and you only have to look at Southampton's situation to see how the glass ceiling quickly comes down on one of the sides outside of an expanded elite. Similarly, some of that elite could swiftly fall away, with Everton looking susceptible if they were ever to lose Roberto Martinez.

For the foreseeable future, though, a number of other narratives and subplots only enrich the intensity of the competition further.

Most obviously, there are the managers: Mourinho against his old master, Van Gaal, as well as his old apprentice Brendan Rodgers, not to mention the Portuguese's long-running rivalries with Pellegrini and Wenger.

City and Arsenal are also developing their own bubbling feud, particularly because of the manner in which the champions have taken so many of their players. Now, Wenger has at last got to build a team on his own terms with no major sales. In that, this season almost offers a case study to settle one of the grand debates of the past few years: whether Arsenal's difficulties were solely down to the economic situation, or the manager had lost something himself. Much of that will be revealed.

There is a similar intrigue at Liverpool. We will effectively get to see how much of last season's sensational second place was down to Luis Suarez's historic brilliance, and how much was down to Rodgers' highly impressive coaching.

Martinez has by contrast got to keep his main players in Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry, which lays quite a marker for the Everton manager, and may be crucial. The Spaniard is a coach whose approach is based on cohesion and integration. The high number of annual sales at Wigan, however, meant that was always badly disrupted every season. Martinez had to keep rebuilding tracts of his team, and trying to redevelop that cohesion. That has not happened at Everton. As such, this summer is the Spaniard's first in the Premier League in which he has kept a side together. It makes for an exciting time at Goodison Park, and Everton's potential evolution will be telling.

Mauricio Pochettino will meanwhile hope to have as swift an impact at Tottenham Hotspur as he did at Southampton, but the grandest question of all revolves around Van Gaal's impact at Old Trafford: is his quality enough to return United to a title race?

Whatever happens, the competitiveness of last season's top end is not just likely to return. It's almost certain to be deepened.

Miguel Delaney

Miguel Delaney is London correspondent for ESPN and also writes for the Irish Examiner, the Independent, Blizzard and assorted others. He is the author of an award-nominated book on the Irish national team called 'Stuttgart to Saipan' (Mentor) and was nominated for Irish sports journalist of the year in 2011.

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