With less than a fortnight to go until the new Premier League season kicks off at Old Trafford with Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United welcoming Swansea City, as they did on the opening day last year, things are shaping up to be as close as ever at both ends of the table.
Former heroes such as Luis Suarez have left to be replaced by new stars including Alexis Sanchez and Diego Costa, with some familiar faces such as Cesc Fabregas returning in almost acrimonious fashion. August 16th is the day to mark on your calendars - we can’t wait.
One side who will go into the new season with a new-found sense of hope are Arsenal, buoyed once more by a marquee summer signing. Alexis Sanchez arrives fresh off the back of a stellar World Cup campaign with Chile and a good season with Barcelona, and Arsenal finally look to be building a squad capable of mixing it with the Manchester Cities and Chelseas of the world.
Last season, the signing of Mesut Özil galvanized the squad to such an extent that early on in the season they were not just contenders, but title favorites. Despite the ridiculous insistence of the English press that Özil had been a failure, his class was evident, even with the static Olivier Giroud as his main outlet for his stunning through balls; with Sanchez, a returning Walcott and an emerging Joel Campbell ready to tear defenses apart, scoring goals should not be a problem.
Many will still want a central defender and a defensive midfielder brought in, especially if Thomas Vermaelen leaves, but Arsene Wenger has begun to strengthen his back line. Bacary Sagna will be missed but Mathieu Debuchy is a ready-made replacement and Calum Chambers is versatile enough to make a difference to an often flaky Arsenal squad.
The arrival of David Ospina will also keen Wojciech Szczesny on his toes, and Yaya Sanogo has shown in pre-season that he knows where the goal is. An exciting year for the Gunners, but the title will probably be beyond them despite having some World Cup champions amidst their squad.
Enjoying a less successful transfer window so far have been Aston Villa, bringing in only three players to add to a squad which finished 15th last season and has lost arguably one of its brightest talents in Marc Albrighton, who has moved to newly-promoted Leicester City. Their signings - Joe Cole, Philippe Senderos and Kieran Richardson - divide opinion, with some arguing that they add experience to a youthful side and others describing them as ageing nearly men.
Ron Vlaar and Christian Benteke have been constantly linked with moves away from Villa park over the summer, and their touted replacements, including Victor Moses and Scott Sinclair, are unlikely to set pulses racing.
This will not be an easy campaign for the already under-pressure Paul Lambert, but there are positives in that players who started last season as relative novices now have an entire year of top flight football under their belts, and the return from injury of Benteke means he could rekindle an exciting partnership with Austrian forward Andreas Weimann, who had a fairly underwhelming season last term.
Burnley were arguably last season’s token surprise package in the Championship, and they will ride into the Premier League on the crest of a wave having played some great football under young boss Sean Dyche. Danny Ings scored 21 goals at the age of just 22, winning the Championship Player of the Year award in the process. He has the quality to trouble top-level defenses if he maintains his form this year.
Dyche has added to his attacking options with the signings of Lukas Jutkiewicz and Marvin Sordell, though both have flattered to deceive - showing signs of promise without notching up too many goals. While their richer contemporaries Leicester and QPR may attract more of the attention with more established names in their squad, sides like Southampton, Swansea and Hull have shown in recent years that ye shall ignore the underdog at your own peril. Don’t bet against them enjoying a fruitful season.
And now, onto a side who must be ranked among the favorites for some major silverware following a fairly flat season. Chelsea have navigated the summer transfer window with consummate ease, somehow raking in £50million for dodgy Brazilian defender David Luiz as well as £36million for Romelu Lukaku and Demba Ba, replacing them with Cesc Fabregas, Filipe Luis, Diego Costa and Thibaut Courtois.
It is impossible to find a weakness in their probable starting eleven for next year, and they have a bench that lesser sides could only dream of. One of their greatest ever servants, Didier Drogba, returns as backup and Andre Schurrle established himself in Brazil as super-sub extraordinaire.
Kurt Zouma, Tomas Kalas and Nathan Ake are hugely exciting talents to have at the back as cover for the league’s best defense last year, and Jose Mourinho will rather worryingly be a man on a mission following another trophyless year in which one of his great rivals, Arsene “specialist in failure” Wenger lifted another FA Cup. Simply put, should the Blues finish the season without another trophy to furnish the Bridge, their season will have been a failure - but Jose doesn’t do failure.
Last season’s relegation-fodder Crystal Palace caused a lot of surprises, and presumably made the bookmakers an awful lot of money along the way. Since the Tony Pulis revolution began, Palace have played attacking, incisive football and been a major thorn in the side of some of the Premier League’s big boys - had they folded at 3-0 down against Liverpool, the Reds could well have been defending champions by now.
Fraiser Campbell is a good signing for a side who stream forward at lightning pace on their day, and the tying down of flying winger Yannick Bolasie to a new three-year deal will be a welcome boost. Some of the dead wood including Aaron Wilbraham, Danny Gabbidon and Dean Moxey has been cleared out, but Palace will no longer have the element of surprise on their side - other teams will know exactly what Crystal Palace are all about now, so they will have to guard against complacency following a successful season.
One signing which may have gone under the radar of many is that of Brede Hangeland, a center-half thought just a couple of years ago to be one of the best in the country. He has experience of a relegation battle as well as experience of a run to a European final, something that could be invaluable to a fairly green side. The new year may lack last season’s fireworks, but Palace are no pushovers.
Everton have had a successful time this summer, tying down their highest-priority target Romelu Lukaku to a long-term deal for a club-record £28million fee. There are some who have argued that the price tag is rather too hefty for such a young player, but the fact is this: Lukaku has more league goals at the age of 21 than Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Robin van Persie, and he has the majority of them in the most competitive top-level league in the world.
With all the hubbub surrounding Lukaku, a permanent deal for Gareth Barry has been widely ignored but his contributions last season were arguably just as crucial as the Toffees finished fifth, only seven points away from a long-awaited return to the Champions League. Bosnia’s German-born World Cup star Muhamed Besic is another canny acquisition, and he is the sort of player who could flourish under the inspirational Roberto Martinez.
No senior stars have had to be offloaded thus far, and they have even managed to tie down the in-demand Ross Barkley on a four-year deal. Big things lie ahead for Everton for sure, and this year could be the season things start to really happen for them.
You would have been hard-pressed to find many people backing Hull City to find themselves at Wembley at the beginning of last season, but Steve Bruce’s men showed that they can mix it with the best on their day. It should be remembered that they were only four points clear of the drop zone at the end of last season, and the rigors of European football could put a lot of strain on the Tigers’ squad, but Bruce has made some good acquisitions.
Robert Snodgrass brings some useful experience alongside his obvious goal threat from midfield, and Tom Ince should be regarded as one of England’s best youngsters at the moment. He failed to make much of an impact at Selhurst Park last season, but in his time at Blackpool he has scored and assisted a hugely impressive number of goals despite his tender age - he is still only 22, and has plenty of time to try and live up to his father’s illustrious name.
Faithful servant Robert Koren has left Humberside for the sunnier shores of Australia after four years at the club and he will be missed, but Hull should have enough about them to avoid relegation - a sensible target for a team who may have an awful lot of games to play this year.
Leicester City stormed to the Championship title last season, and have looked to bolster a strong squad with some sensible summer signings. Leonardo Ulloa is a proven goal threat, but the £7million fee seems a little steep for a 28-year-old who has never played in the top flight, though he will offer something different should David Nugent and Jamie Vardy’s goals dry up.
In Kasper Schmeichel they have a solid goalkeeper who many will be surprised to find out is also 28-years-old - he finally has the chance to show why he is so highly regarded at the highest level. Danny Drinkwater was almost faultless last season and Nigel Pearson has Premier League experience under his belt, but sides like QPR have shown in the past that the side who win the second division are not always best suited to playing in the first.
The Foxes should be looking for a solid first season, and given the financial firepower they have behind them they could really have something to build upon here - as long as they make it through the first season.
Now it starts to get really interesting. Liverpool have had, let’s say, a mixed transfer window so far, losing their brightest star for £75million but replacing him with some talented youngsters, a proven, 100% Scouse goal-getter and half a Southampton squad. It would be impossible for a side to lose a player like Luis Suarez and not feel the ill effects of it afterward, but during the many times he has been unavailable they have shown that they are still a very good attacking side.
Daniel Sturridge should be nearing his peak and Philippe Coutinho should be aggrieved - if a little relieved - to have been left out of Brazil’s World Cup squad, and they have added strength in depth to what had been a thin squad. Rickie Lambert is a guarantee of goals, Divock Origi can wreak havoc with his physical power and they have two more fantastic prospects in Emre Can and Lazar Markovic.
Add silky playmaker Adam Lallana into the equation and Liverpool have an embarrassment of attacking riches at their disposal, and Brendan Rodgers is still working on his porous defense following the arrival of Dejan Lovren to Anfield. They may not have a violent, temperamental superstar in their ranks anymore, but they do have a very strong side. Expect another title challenge.
Manchester City have not been especially active in the transfer market so far, but then the champions haven’t really needed to be. The potential return of Sergio Aguero to full fitness could be as good as a big-money signing at the Etihad, but the brilliant forward did have an injury-hit and fairly average World Cup.
Despite an end of the season wobble at Anfield last year, City claimed their second title in three years with ruthless efficiency, outscoring Liverpool despite constant cries of the Reds having the best attack in the country and conceding far fewer goals in the process. Now, City may well be distracted by their attempts to finally step up onto the highest level and make an impact in the Champions League, something they have failed to do in recent years having been placed in admittedly difficult groups. However, you have to beat the best to be the best and they have recruited wisely in the hope of doing this.
Fernando will add some steel to an already frightening midfield and Bacary Sagna will be welcome cover for Pablo Zabaleta with plenty of European experience behind him. Manuel Pellegrini has also done well to tie Edin Dzeko down to a new deal - he may not be the most glamorous player in the team or the nicest to watch, but the big Bosnian will always be a goal threat - he managed 26 last year, only two fewer than Aguero despite being usurped from the team by Alvaro Negredo at the beginning of the season.
If Aguero can sort out his fitness and Negredo can find his shooting boots again, there is no reason why City can’t repeat the trick and defend their title.
Click here to read Part 2 of our Premier League 2014/15 Season Preview.