Five does not go into four, let alone one, so at least one big team is going to be left sorely disappointed come the end of the new Premier League season. One thing is almost certain, however: The fans will be left feeling anything but.
The 2014/15 Premier League season, which gets underway with Saturday’s early kick-off between Manchester United and Swansea City at Old Trafford, promises to be one of the hardest to predict in many, many years.
United are one of the five teams that most observers seem to have identified as potential title challengers, although, like Liverpool, they are perhaps the nominal "outsiders" of that vaunted bunch.
For many, it seems to be Chelsea and Manchester City who will be battling for glory once again, with Arsenal a wild card depending on how injuries—and the assimilation of Alexis Sanchez—hamper or help them this term.
Of course, that still leaves Everton and Tottenham on the outside looking in, with many of their fans insistent that they should not be underestimated so soon. Both sides have strengthened in the summer, another reason why it is difficult for the bigger teams to be confident of even securing a top-four finish and Champions League qualification, let alone anything more impressive.
It should be a finely poised race. Managers of all seven clubs go into the season with something to prove, with Arsene Wenger even seeming a touch anguished by Arsenal’s 3-0 triumph over Manchester City in last weekend’s Community Shield—aware the game and the manner of the performance had only served to heighten the expectations surrounding his side.
He, like his long-term rival, Jose Mourinho, will carry an expectation to win the title into this tighter-than-ever race, while Louis van Gaal begins his reign at Old Trafford with high hopes he will immediately catapult his side back into the reckoning by employing a 3-5-2 (or 3-4-1-2 or 3-2-2-1-2 formation, depending on your interpretation) line-up that the Premier League has rarely seen.
B/R UK columnist Janusz Michallik has tipped Chelsea for the title, pointing to Mourinho's shrewd transfer dealings this summer:
If you viewed last season's Chelsea as very good, what the Blues are doing this offseason is frightening. Having already bought Filipe Luis, Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas—and with the transfer window far from over yet—one look at the squad tells you that Chelsea are already equipped to deal with any and all competitions, while having flexibility to play just about any system home and away in the Premier League as well as any style of play when it comes to Europe.
Beyond the top seven, it looks increasingly likely the rest of the teams will be primarily involved in a scrap simply to ensure Premier League survival and the massive television-rights payments that come with such status. If things have never looked tighter among the top seven, then the disparity between them and the rest of the league only seems to be growing.
Last year it was Southampton who were the best of the rest, but after losing their manager and the vast majority of their best players during the summer break, surely their aim this season is simply to finish somewhere higher than 18th.
With a squad full of new players, it will be interesting to see if Ronald Koeman’s squad hits the ground running or makes the sort of stumbling start that has ushered in so many surprise relegation campaigns before them.
If they do falter, then Stoke City and Newcastle perhaps look best placed to be “the best of the rest," although West Ham might feel they could have something to say about that if Sam Allardyce manages to fulfill the ultimatum given to him at the end of last season about bringing attacking football back to the Boleyn Ground.
It is at the bottom of the league, however, where so much attention will lie. Newly promoted Leicester City, Burnley and Queens Park Rangers will doubtless be favourites to go straight back down—but you have to go back to the 2007/08 season for the last time more than one promoted side was relegated straight back to the Championship.
QPR, having invested heavily in experienced players, will like their chances of continuing that trend—with Leicester also seemingly well equipped to continue the winning habit that led them to the second-tier title.
It would be folly to write off Burnley, however—especially after Crystal Palace showed last term what the right blend of tactical organisation and hunger can achieve.
Palace, of course, will now be many people’s favourites for the drop after the architect of last season’s 11th-place finish, Tony Pulis, left the club in frustration at the lack of transfer activity on the eve of the new campaign, per Neil Ashton of the Daily Mail. They will need to find a new manager quickly and hope the likes of West Bromwich Albion and Sunderland also hit problems of their own as the season progresses.
It should be an enthralling season at both ends of the table. There will be winners and losers, but neutral observers will surely always be in the former category.
Week 1 Fixtures (all games 3 p.m. BST kick-offs (10 a.m. ET) unless stated)
Manchester United vs. Swansea City (12:45 p.m., 7:45 a.m. ET)
Leicester City vs. Everton
QPR vs. Hull City
Stoke City vs. Aston Villa
West Brom vs. Sunderland
West Ham vs. Tottenham
Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace (5:30 p.m., 12:30 p.m. ET)
Liverpool vs. Southampton (1:30 p.m., 8:30 a.m. ET)
Newcastle United vs. Manchester City (4 p.m., 11 a.m. ET)
Burnley vs. Chelsea (8 p.m., 3 p.m. ET)
1. What to watch out for this week
• Instant reunion... If this summer's transfer activity was not painful enough for Southampton fans, then an opening game against Liverpool will pour salt in already open wounds. Dejan Lovren and Rickie Lambert could well face their former side at Anfield, although Adam Lallana will not be fit to play against his boyhood club in his first competitive game for his new side.
The Saints, however, will be no pushovers. The new signings—like Dusan Tadic, Graziano Pelle and Shane Long—will have a point to prove, while those left behind by the likes of Lallana and Lovren may well want to show the grass is not always greener.
• Awkward encounter... On a similar theme, here's a brilliant story from the Newcastle Chronicle about a young Magpies fan who has swapped his allegiance...to Sunday's opponents, Manchester City. Honestly, the youth of today.
• One game does not make a season... For the second year in a row, a new manager begins his Manchester United tenure with a game against Swansea City. Twelve months ago, David Moyes got his reign underway with a 4-1 win in Wales, a result that very much proved not to be a harbinger of things to come. Win or lose, then, perhaps fans and journalists should avoid getting ahead of themselves after Louis van Gaal's first game is completed.
• A tough act to follow... After losing to Arsenal in the Community Shield, it will be interesting to see how Manchester City start their campaign against Newcastle, a side that has made a number of intriguing purchases during the off-season. Last time they won the title, City made a pretty poor fist of their title defence. It will be interesting to see if there is a similar "hangover" effect this time around.
2. Video of the week
The Premier League is back, which means Ted Lasso is back. If the new season means a new video with the greatest coach in Tottenham Hotspur's history, then that's fine with us.
3. Player to watch
Diego Costa. Other players start with more pressure on their shoulders, certainly, but few others carry a weight quite like the Brazilian turned Spaniard will do this term. Not only does the striker have a £32 million price tag to live up to, but he also has to deal with the expectation that he will be the difference for a side that—as Jose Mourinho told us time and time again—was one prolific goalscorer away from winning the title last season.
Costa was bought to be that final piece of the puzzle. A first game away to Burnley will give him a stark look at the less glamorous side of Premier League football, but in theory it should also give him a great opportunity to get off to the goalscoring start Chelsea fans all want for him.
4. Game of the weekend
Liverpool vs. Southampton. After a summer of upheaval for both sides, both Brendan Rodgers and Ronald Koeman will be anxious to see how their new-look sides might fare over the coming season. It is worth remembering that 12 months ago Liverpool kicked off the new season with a 1-0 win over Stoke, a result only secured after Simon Mignolet made a last-minute penalty save.
It was a moment that seemed to propel Liverpool to a brilliant start to the season, giving them valuable momentum that stayed with them almost until the bitter end. A similar win at Anfield may give Rodgers' post-Suarez side the belief they can repeat last season's efforts even without their talisman.
For Southampton, meanwhile, getting something from the game would assuage fears that the many summer sales have weakened the club to the point of being relegation candidates—while also getting early revenge against a club that stole away a number of their most beloved players.
It should be an intriguing battle, giving us a number of clues to the season ahead.
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