It was little over 10 weeks ago, on May 24, that one of the longest and most one-sided Premier League title processions came to an end.
Didier Drogba was afforded a hero’s departure at Stamford Bridge as Chelsea sealed yet another victory over Sunderland before being anointed as champions.
In truth, it was all a bit tedious, the manner in which Jose Mourinho’s side had sewn up the club’s fourth Premier League crown at a canter, even with their most potent striker Diego Costa struggling for much of the second half of the season with a hamstring injury.
The sense of excitement that surrounds the start of the new campaign this weekend is due in part to the growing belief, however, that we now have an open title race.
Chelsea are vulnerable
Chelsea’s sale of Petr Cech was viewed by some as Roman Abramovich showing his human side, allowing a long-running servant to leave the club in the pursuit of first-team football without having to relocate.
But not only have Chelsea strengthened a direct rival, but they have shown signs of sluggishness during pre-season that would suggest they are a weaker outfit to the one that finished eight points above Manchester City last term.
The chasing pack
But where is the threat coming from?
It’s a perfectly valid question, when you consider the fallibilities of the other genuine contenders.
Arsenal have looked good in pre-season, with Cech adding greater assurance to their defence, and both Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain showing great promise in a trophy-laden month for the Gunners.
The loss of Jack Wilshere is becoming less of a blow with each fresh flair-up, but Wenger may live to regret his decision not to strengthen his defensive midfield options, as good as Francis Coquelin was after his return from a loan spell at Charlton.
Questions marks still linger over Walcott as an able deputy to Olivier Giroud, and with Arsenal not finishing inside the top two in 10 years, there is reason to argue that a 12-point swing to overtake Chelsea is unlikely.
While there might be an air of ‘as you were’ for those two foes, there is greater intrigue regarding last season’s runners-up, Manchester City.
Manuel Pellegrini remains in charge, but you get the sense he is keeping the seat warm for someone else.
Both Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola have been sounded out as potential replacements before a ball has been kicked, with the latter reported to have agreed to take over at the Etihad next season.
Pellegrini has far from been a disaster at City, having won the club’s second Premier League title in 2014 and finished as its top-scorers in the last two seasons, but his approach to tackling an ageing squad this summer suggests he is building for his successor’s future.
Despite the options simply not being there for the City board to make a change in management this summer, the club still have an extremely good side on their day that has been improved by the signings of Raheem Sterling and Fabian Delph.
A club with the likes of Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure and – when fit – Sergio Aguero running through its spine has already garnered two Premier League titles, but doubts remain over the defence.
Pellegrini has seen his side concede four goals on two separate occasions during pre-season. He had no option but to give youth a chance as Cameron Humphreys and Jason Denayer both played against Real Madrid.
His faith in Eliaquim Mangala to repay the astronomical outlay last summer seems misplaced, while Martin Demichelis is now 34. Their title quest may again centre on whether or not they can outscore the opposition.
The intrigue comes further up the pitch, where the arrival of Delph should help prevent the defence from being so brutally exposed against better opponents, while the departures of Edin Dzeko and Stevan Jovetic will finally allow Wilfried Bony to flourish.
Manchester United have been dealt a major blow with Louis van Gaal announcing that David De Gea will not be starting the season in goal against Tottenham.
For all the sense of optimism at Old Trafford generated by the £80million spent on a brand new midfield, it was De Gea who was largely responsible for the side’s return to the Champions League.
While Cech may, as John Terry predicts, win Arsenal 15 points this season, the sale of the Spaniard may have the opposite effect for the Red Devils, however explosive Memphis Depay may prove to be.
The intrigue continues in the shape of Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool, whose line up against Stoke on Sunday will be in stark contrast to the one that was humbled 6-1 on the final day of last season at the Britannia Stadium.
The arrivals of Roberto Firmino, Christian Benteke, Divock Origi and Danny Ings provide much-needed firepower, while the acquisition of James Milner may prove to be not only the perfect replacement for Steven Gerrard but the shrewdest piece of summer business.
The Reds’ transfer committee would seem less persuaded to part with another sizeable sum on the defence following the signings Mamadou Sakho and Dejan Lovren in recent times, but Nathaniel Clyne is a considerable upgrade on Glenn Johnson.
We will know soon enough just how good this Liverpool side is, with several of their nearest rivals hosting them in the opening few months, but the early indication is that a return to the Champions League will be dependent on how well Benteke adapts to life at Anfield.
Spurs are an improving side, armed with last season’s breakthrough act Harry Kane and a nice blend of youthful, technically gifted players, but news of De Gea’s likely departure from United will provide added intrigue to the opening game of the new campaign.
Tottenham travel to Old Trafford for the early kick-off sensing an opportunity to catch United during a time of transition, with Van Gaal unlikely to know his best side, but his admission that De Gea will not be playing turns the spotlight on Hugo Lloris’ status at White Hart Lane.
Mauricio Pochettino’s own preparation for the curtain-raiser have been affected by a delay in return flight from the Audi Cup in Munich this week, but it has otherwise been a fruitful summer for Spurs.
News of the new £400m stadium aside, much of the deadwood that the Gareth Bale money was wasted on have been sold and the arrivals of Dele Alli, Kieran Trippier and of most immediate consequence Toby Alderweireld should shore up a defence that conceded 53 goals last term.
It is what Spurs do between now and the end of August that will prove pivotal to whether they can improve on fifth place and a Capital One Cup final appearance. Roberto Soldado and Emmanuel Adebayor are heading for the exit, after which point Pochettino must look to bring in another striker to help the 22-year-old Kane shoulder the burden.
The Europa League candidates
The battle to avoid the Europa League will be fiercer than ever, with the likes of Stoke City and Crystal Palace showing signs of greater ambition, while Everton surely cannot be as bad as they were last season.
With West Ham already unable to take their Fair Play pass in European competition beyond the start of the domestic campaign, it is only Spurs, Liverpool and Southampton who will be playing Thursday night football, although there is still time for United to join them should the Champions League play-off against Club Brugge prove unkind.
The Saints were impressive in their 5-0 aggregate win over Dutch club Vitesse in their opening qualifying round, and Ronald Koeman’s side look well-equipped to go far in the competition, despite the loss of key players for the second consecutive summer in Morgan Schneiderlin and Clyne.
Their progress in Europe may well come at the cost of a few places in the Premier League, but don’t expect them to be drawn into a skirmish with the relegation candidates in the same way that Roberto Martinez’s Toffees were last time around.
The relegation candidates
Those who may well be looking nervously over their shoulder are Aston Villa. The statistics make grim reading for Tim Sherwood’s side heading into the new campaign, with 19 of the 31 goals scored last season having departed for pastures new.
Tom Cleverley and Andreas Weimann joined Delph and Benteke in heading for the Villa Park exit, and the manner in which Sherwood has hastily assembled his squad with the addition of no fewer than five French-speaking Premier League unknowns headed by the £12m purchase of Rudy Gestede from Blackburn Rovers suggests a scatter-gun approach.
Micah Richards has been installed as team captain, while his former Manchester City team-mate Scott Sinclair will also have a point to prove, but even the promise of Jack Grealish cannot convince many against forecasting a long 10 months ahead for the Midlands club.
Their regional rivals Leicester City finished last season as the form team, winning an incredible seven of their last nine games to lift themselves to the relative comfort of 14th position.
But the departure of Esteban Cambiasso shortly after manager Nigel Pearson had been dismissed for his irreconcilable differences with the Foxes’ Thai owners has undoubtedly jolted the level of buoyancy at the King Power Stadium.
The likeable Claudio Ranieri has his work cut out in winning over a squad that had played for Pearson during his drawn-out and often ugly relationship with the media.
The pressure is on 24-year-old Frenchman N’Golo Kante to take on the Cambiasso role with the steeliness that saw him make more successful tackles than any other player in Europe’s top five divisions last season for Caen.
If the Foxes are to once more escape the drop, then it is Sunderland who will be most fearful of the Premier League newcomers.
Dick Advocaat performed the first of the summer’s U-turns when the experienced manager opted for a prolonged stay at the Stadium of Light after successfully steering them clear of relegation at a late juncture last term.
Advocaat’s was the most important recruitment of the close season for the Black Cats, given the acute need for stability in these parts, and the respect for the Dutchman in the Sunderland dressing-room could be felt through television screens as safety was secured amid tears of joy at the Emirates in May.
His pedigree has enabled the North-east club to lure Advocaat’s compatriot Jeremain Lens, whom the 67-year-old worked with at AZ Alkmaar for one season in 2010, from Ukrainian side Dynamo Kyiv. But Sunderland’s problems last season stemmed from a lack of goals, which has hardly been remedied by the £9m sale of Connor Wickham to Palace.
The rediscovery of Sebastian Coates as the defender who helped Uruguay win the 2011 Copa America during an impressive points return when it mattered last time around will be needed over the course of the season, otherwise the Black Cats – who have managed under 40 points in each of the last three campaigns – may find themselves out of lives.
Indeed, of the last 57 teams to come up from the Championship, 32 have survived in their first season in the top flight (56 percent), meaning there is plenty of cause for optimism among fans of Bournemouth, Watford and Norwich City.
Eddie Howe will be looking to continue Bournemouth’s incredible rise through the ranks, emulating the surge of Swansea – and with a defence that kept 18 clean sheets in last season’s second tier bolstered by club-record signing Tyrone Mings and the wily Sylvain Distin, the south coast club will upset a few established top flight teams along the way.
Callum Wilson and Matt Ritchie are worthy of their place at this level, with the former playing League One football for Coventry just 15 months ago, and the latter having rebuilt his career after being let go by Portsmouth, first at Swindon before moving to the renamed Vitality Stadium in 2013.
Given the historic chaos among clubs in the nether reaches of a Premier League campaign that will only be made more frantic by the dangling carrot of the new television deal next season, the Cherries appear ripe to remain above the drop zone.
Watford, by contrast, are a minefield. Like Bournemouth, the club boast a natural goalscorer in Troy Deeney, but that is where the similarities end.
The experiment in 2012-13 that nearly saw the Hornets promoted to the Promised Land with 15 loanees – 12 of whom came from owner Gino Pozzo’s other business ventures Udinese and Granada – has to a degree paid off.
Slavisa Jokanovic’s basic salary demands led to his unprecedented departure from Vicarage Road having secured promotion in the summer – becoming Watford’s fourth managerial casualty in under a year – and the high turnover doesn’t bode well for new incumbent Quique Sanchez Flores, who has brought no fewer than 10 new arrivals in his bid to stave off an immediate return to the Championship.
While Watford have chosen to twist, Norwich have made as much change to their squad as there is between the club’s three kit offerings this coming season: not a great deal.
The make-up of the squad that was relegated from the top division in 2014 remains largely intact, with John Ruddy hoping to put in the sort of performances in goal that could lead to an England call-up in time for the European Championships in France next summer.
Alex Neil took over from Neil Adams as manager at the turn of the year, and guided his side through the play-offs having lost only three of his 25 games in charge, but the former Hamilton Academical manager – who started his 2014-15 campaign in front of under 500 fans just over a year ago – will find the Premier League a whole different animal.
A packed Carrow Road each fortnight will help the Canaries’ cause, but the arrivals of Andre Wisdom, Graham Dorrans, an already-injured Youssouf Mulumbu and an over-priced Robbie Brady doesn’t inspire too much confidence in their survival hopes.
Predicted Premier League Table 2015-16
- Manchester City
- Manchester United
- Stoke City
- Crystal Palace
- West Ham United
- West Bromwich Albion
- Newcastle United
- Aston Villa
- Leicester City
- Norwich City