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Aug 13, 2010

A season of sense?

Back without much of a bang and certainly with a whimper from those suffering from World Cup burn-out, the Premier League's return would seem low-key compared to its previous big build-ups. When Johnny Heitinga is among your list of top performers in South Africa, it's perhaps best to draw a Barclays-sponsored veil over the summer's events, and especially when your prime stars flopped to a man, give or take Cesc Fabregas' late cameos for Spain.

• Spurs out to repeat heroics
• Chelsea face returning hero

At last count, very few of the best boys of summer have headed to England, to reflect a summer of financial realities being addressed. Plenty of big prices are being bandied about with very few takers; it has been constipation rather than speculation in neither a buyer's nor a seller's market. 'Value' is the new watchword, especially in the case of that old trend-setter Sir Alex Ferguson, so, with one notable exception, the expected challengers have a hugely familiar look to them.

The old adage of building from a strong position appears, notwithstanding a late rush on the transfer market that looks unlikely at best, to have been abandoned this season. It has been a close-season of slim pickings for those trying to generate word-counts and column inches from transfer talk.

Martin O'Neill's departure from Aston Villa serves as a microcosm. In the spirit of celebrity supporter Rt Hon David Cameron MP, this had been a summer of penury for Villa, with a lack of new resource meaning that an assault on reaching the Champions League looked already beyond their ken. James Milner will yield them a healthy bonanza but the inability to spend it as their owner reined in budgets led O'Neill to quit when he felt his ambitions could not be achieved under such circumstances.

Manchester City alone have spent big, with over £100 million expected to have been coughed up by close of business on August 31. With Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool's additions all bearing the value hallmark and last season's nemesis in Tottenham Hotspur similarly lacking in reinforcements, City have had the ability to spend when others clearly feel unable to do so.

Theirs has not been a Real Madrid-style haul of the world's biggest stars but that has probably been for the best too. A lack of Champions League football lowered targets from the likes of Torres and Kaka to a list of performers of potential. Aleksandar Kolarov and Jerome Boateng are additions to a defence that looks still to lack an organiser, while midfield has been bolstered by two arrivals from Spain's Primera Liga in David Silva and Yaya Toure. While neither of the latter pair's reputation is quite that of a couple of years ago, both are of the type who would have been welcomed by the 'big four' in a previous life.

Roberto Mancini is thus a man under pressure to deliver results, and he need only look to the fate of his predecessor, Mark Hughes, if he is to seek guidance on those expectations he must meet. If anything, more spending will likely see them placed higher by his Arab paymasters. The exploits of the man in the blue polyester scarf are bound to be among the most keenly followed stories of the season.

Of the expected elite there is a significant new arrival. Roy Hodgson's reputation as a gentleman of the game provides Liverpool with an almost direct opposite of the prickly Rafael Benitez, whose standoffishness warmed few neutral hearts. Hodgson must operate with limited resources, with a free transfer in Joe Cole as his keynote signing, and with no little turmoil surrounding the future of the club's ownership. For now, though, he has goodwill on his side.

That he shares a mutual admiration with Sir Alex Ferguson throws up an interesting dynamic, as United seek the historic significance of a 19th title to take them beyond Liverpool. After falling short last season, they must attempt it with a hugely familiar group, with veterans Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs still expected to play a full role. Only Javier Hernandez and Chris Smalling have been added, with, in the spirit of the age, both filed under potential rather than guaranteed class.

Champions Chelsea and fellow Londoners Arsenal have followed similar lines. Yossi Benayoun will step into the Joe Cole role at Chelsea while Marouane Chamakh and Laurent Koscielny are typical Arsene Wenger additions from France's Ligue 1 and will actually replace Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure.

Yet the middle-tier teams are not in a position to strike against the prudence of the big boys. Everton's David Moyes has admitted he cannot afford to add Landon Donovan to his squad on a permanent basis, so his aims centre on keeping a small squad fit. Fulham's season of Euro travelling must be forgotten if anti-climax under Mark Hughes is not to occur in the post-Hodgson era.

Below those lie a group of teams for whom the comfort of mid-table is an end in itself. Wolverhampton Wanderers boss Mick McCarthy's recent honesty in admitting that he would settle for 15th position if it were offered now was met with some considerable disquiet. However, his colleagues in the bosses' club would most probably agree that the serenity of mediocrity would do for them. And as Sam Allardyce's Blackburn proved in gaining 50 points with a top goalscorer who netted just nine times proved, there is a formula. Just don't expect it to be particularly inspiring, that's all.

Last season, the gaining of just 31 points would have been enough to remain in the Premier League but those in the bottom group of survival hopefuls must beware that there are a lack of relegation certainties in the fashion of Portsmouth, Burnley and Hull to bail them out this time. Only Blackpool, from whom more is expected from manager Ian Holloway's mouth than his team of veterans and unknowns, look to possess such "qualities" and so the likes of Wigan and Sunderland may find that inconsistencies can draw them into trouble.

Even the return of the club most associated with high expectations is playing things down. Newcastle United are back after a season in the Championship that was far more enjoyable than those that preceded it in the Premier League. In the quiet approach of Chris Hughton and with just about the same squad, considering that major recruit Dan Gosling may not be fit until 2011, even Toon Army sights are settled on little else than trying to enjoy being back in the top division.

So, could this be a season in which sense actually descends on the Premier League? With finances being tightened as UEFA circles and 25-man rules preventing bloated squads full of foreigners, it certainly appears if might be. Last time it was Chelsea who profited from the stasis of others in what proved an engaging campaign while Tottenham similarly seized their opportunity. Such unpredictability can only be welcomed.

After a poor Champions League showing and the woes of the World Cup, the Premier League's credibility as the self-styled best in the world may have suffered significant blows in 2010 but at least it appears that a concertina-ed, competitive division can result in 2010-11. And that's no bad thing, surely? If entertainment can result, then perhaps a new age of austerity will be welcomed.


Soccernet Team Predictions

John Brewin:

Premier League top four: Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City
Premier League relegation: Blackpool, West Brom, Sunderland
FA Cup: Chelsea
Carling Cup: Manchester City
Europa League: Zenit St Petersburg
Champions League: Barcelona
Player of the Year: Paul Scholes

Martin Williamson:

Premier League top four: Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City
Premier League relegation: Blackpool, West Brom, Wigan
FA Cup: Chelsea
Carling Cup: Spurs
Europa League: Pass
Champions League: Barcelona
Player of the Year: Wayne Rooney

Jon Carter:

Premier League top four: Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, Manchester City
Premier League relegation: Blackpool, West Brom, Wolves
FA Cup: Arsenal
Carling Cup: Liverpool
Europa League: Manchester City
Champions League: Real Madrid
Player of the Year: Wayne Rooney

Dale Johnson:

Premier League top four: Chelsea, Man United, Man City, Arsenal
Premier League relegation: Blackpool, Newcastle, Wigan
FA Cup: Chelsea
Carling Cup: Man City
Europa League: Liverpool
Champions League: Real Madrid
Player of the Year: Didier Drogba

Dom Raynor:

Premier League top four: Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool
Premier League relegation: Wigan Athletic, West Bromwich Albion, Blackpool
FA Cup: Chelsea
Carling Cup: Manchester City
Europa League: Liverpool
Champions League: Barcelona
Player of the Year: Michael Essien

Tom Adams

Premier League top four: Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, Manchester City
Premier League relegation: Wigan, West Brom, Blackpool
FA Cup: Chelsea
Carling Cup: Manchester City
Europa League: Zenit St Petersburg
Champions League: Barcelona
Player of the Year: Michael Essien

Mark Lomas:

Premier League top four: Manchester United, Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea
Premier League relegation: Blackpool, West Brom, Wolves
FA Cup: Liverpool
Carling Cup: Chelsea
Europa League: Marseille
Champions League: Barcelona
Player of the Year: Cesc Fabregas

Robin Hackett:

Premier League top four: Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, Manchester City
Premier League relegation: Blackpool, West Brom, Wolves
FA Cup: Arsenal
Carling Cup: Liverpool
Europa League: Manchester City
Champions League: Real Madrid
Player of the Year: Wayne Rooney

Brett Taylor:

Premier League top four: Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City
Premier League relegation: Blackpool, West Brom, Wolves
FA Cup: Manchester City
Carling Cup: Everton
Europa League: Liverpool
Champions League: Real Madrid
Player of the Year: Fernando Torres

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