Bitter battle on the cards

Andres Villas Boas, Chelsea's latest manager in charge (centre), needs to motivate a side that went through a chaotic period during the second half of last season.-AP Andres Villas Boas, Chelsea's latest manager in charge (centre), needs to motivate a side that went through a chaotic period during the second half of last season.

As usual, the English Premier League promises to be spirited, combative and riveting, but the bigger question about the general health of the English game might go unanswered, writes Ayon Sengupta.

The English fans, discontented with the growing season ticket prices at every other ground and the ever-increasing gap between the island nation's elites and that of the silken sorcerers from the Catalunya hinterland, can at least expect to see a bitter battle for the Premiership crown this time.

Last season, Manchester United, playing way below potential was handed the title in a salver as challengers Chelsea and Arsenal, both, suffered mid-season sprawl from which they never recovered. That United won its coveted 19th League title, surpassing Liverpool as England's most successful club with a healthy nine-point margin, only to be brought to ground by Barcelona's tiki-taka football at its own backyard, the Wembley Stadium, in the Champions League final, gave most football pundits an accurate sense of inequalities between the two clubs. And also just how much catching up the English giants need to do, for having any realistic chance of leaving an impression in the European stage.

But League football in England does look robust with a healthy competition between the front and back benchers, though that can't be trusted as the general pointer to good health. Closer scrutiny is needed for that.

Holder Red Devils has already spent big despite winning four titles in the last five seasons. Regardless of his bravado, deep down Sir Alex Ferguson will for sure grasp the part luck played in last year's campaign and the temperamental Scotsman would not like to have his faith solely hinged on something so undependable for two years running.

Last year the quality at the top of the league was reasonably poorer compared to a past seasons. Barcelona's bashing being the final proof of it.

While Fergie, who remains as belligerent as ever would, in due course, want to close in on the European champions, his immediate task at hand has been to fend off challenge at home. To maintain his iron grip on the English game, the manager has cleverly invested in youth (as has been the policy for long), bolstering up his midfield and defence with the signing of impressive English talents, Ashley Young and Phil Jones. Spain's under-21 goalie David de Gea, a GBP18 million signing, is reasonably expected to fill in the big boots of Dutch-star Edwin van der Sar.

Ferguson's latest acquisitions, though the United boss would do well to bring in a creative midfielder to fill in the void left after Paul Scholes' retirement, should hold him in good steed to fend off the relentless perusal of the big-moneyed city rival, Manchester City.

After ending a long 34-year wait for silverware, the club, bankrolled by the millions of the Abu Dhabi royal family, looks as the most likely challenger on United's way. Roberto Mancini has successfully cut himself and his team's fortune from Argentinean Carlos Tevez's wandering line. And with the addition of Sergio Ageuro, City has added more flair to a side already filled to the brim with attacking options. With nerves soothed after the FA Cup triumph, the Italian is sure to opt for a more adventurous approach given the quality at his disposal. Few sides in Europe can boast of creative geniuses like Aguero, Mario Balotelli and David Silva. And mind it; these are only a few morsels in the abundant coffers of City's riches. The depth and the balance of the side would come in handy in a season when the club would need to shuffle its priorities between the League and European competition.

For Chelsea it's another season, another manager and hopefully another title challenge. The club has always been in transition since the Russian Roman Abramovich came in with bags full of cash in 2003.

Andres Villas Boas or the ‘New Special One', the latest manager in charge, needs to manage a side that went through a chaotic period during the second half of last season.

Despite many new arrivals for the top job the core of the Chelsea squad has remained almost similar for quite a few years now. The players' huge wage bills and advancing age making them not too popular transfer targets elsewhere.

John Terry and Peter Cech were erratic within their usual high standards and Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba were either injured or out of form for too long in the last campaign. Each being on the wrong side of 30 a repeat can never be ruled out and the new manager has done nothing so far to address the predicament. With Michael Essien ruled out for a majority of the season and John Obi Mikel and Fernando Torres looking shaky as ever, the job for Villas Boas to follow on the footsteps of the original ‘Special One' might turn out to be a tricky one. Chelsea, as usual with its pedigree, will be a threat to many but without any hefty summer spending, its fortunes and that of the manger too might ride on Torres. The Spanish striker's return to form is the only wick that needs to be ignited if Chelsea aims to compete for the top slot.

Kenny Daglish's arrival has put a spring in Liverpool's step and the rich transfer hauls so far fills one's mind with dreams of rich rewards. The likes of Luis Suarez, playing his first full season, Charlie Adam (Blackpool) and Stewart Downing (Aston Villa) should add some attractive quality in the midfield and forward line, giving the Merseyside giant one of the most feared attacking shape in the country.

However, a lot of Liverpool's fortunes would depend on whether English players Andy Carroll and Jordan Henderson realise the full potential of their enormous price tag. Unfortunately, very few prospective English talents make it really big — due in large part to their self destructing culture— and the chances of these two going the same way is always high.

But still the Reds looks good for a top four finish and hopefully King Kenny's magic would rub on Carroll and Henderson too, and thus securing a Champions League slot.

Arsenal, on the other hand is facing a mutiny. And no success this year might spell the end of Arsene Wenger's wrong rule at the Emirates. Wenger has earned ample latitude after almost 15 years at the wheel, but the Frenchman's refusal to recognise his side's long-standing weaknesses looks more and more like mulish obduracy.

Though Ivory Coast international Gervinho has moved in from France, the Gunners again has failed to attract any substantial, established talent to pretend as a serious title contender. With the ever-going Cesc Fabregas saga with Barcelona, the club's attention has been somewhat skewed. Many flashes of brilliance and a brief spell at the top of the League table is all Arsenal can dream to muster, unless of course Wenger decides to change his outlook at the nth hour after years of doggedness.

Tottenham and Everton will remain happy in securing Europa League football after failing to strengthen the ranks adequately in the summer window.

At the drop zone, the relegation battle would be more keenly fought. The three newcomers — Swansea, Norwich and QPR — being the usual suspects. With little qualitative addition to its squads, the three can find it tough to hang on with the big boys. But the likes of Blackburn Rovers, Wigan Athletic and Wolverhampton Wanderers will give them hope. The three have failed to replenish on to their squads adequately after surviving the drop last season and it would be no surprise to see the sides scuffling again to hold on to their spots in the lucrative League. Aston Villa, too, will be hard pressed with the departure of Young and Downing.

As usual, the EPL promises to be spirited, combative and riveting, but the bigger question about the general health of the English game might go unanswered.