Premier League preview: Who will finish 1st-5th
The start of the new Premier League season is just one day away and we conclude our four-part preview.
The start of the new Premier League season is just one day away and Early Doors is taking a break from its normal routine to conclude our four-part, team-by-team preview ahead of the big kick-off.
Today it is the turn of the teams who will be fighting for the title, or failing that a place in the Champions League.
It may have taken a last-minute winner on the final day of the season to secure their first league championship in 44 years, but few would argue that City were worthy champions. Now that the squad has gone through a season of highs and lows together and instilled a winning mentality by virtue of claiming the title, all signs point to them being even better this term.
Sheikh Mansour's millions have transformed City from Manchester's second club to the top side in England over the past four years, but it looks as though that absurd level of spending is a thing of the past now that they are at the top of the tree.
Manager Roberto Mancini may have said recently that the squad needed "three, four, five players" this summer, but so far he has only brought in Jack Rodwell to augment his already enviable midfield department. Still, with Carlos Tevez welcomed back into the fold after spending much of last season perfecting his putting, City will present even more of an attacking threat than they did in winning the title.
PREDICTED FINISH: 1st
KEY MAN: VINCENT KOMPANY
The Belgian centre-back was the imperious and unruffled lynchpin of the league's meanest defence, and the statesmanlike way he has conducted himself as club captain since the Tevez spat has added a great deal of credibility to a club which has flagrantly bought the title. How he was not in the running for the main prizes last season remains a mystery, but City cannot be accused of undervaluing his contribution — last month they handed him a huge new six-year contract.
ONE TO WATCH: JACK RODWELL
To date the only significant summer addition for the champions, Rodwell's move after a season curtailed by injury is a curious one. The 21-year-old has shown himself to be talented and versatile under David Moyes's management at Everton, but that may well count against him at the Etihad Stadium. At an age when he should be blossoming as a player with regular football, Rodwell runs the risk of stagnating on the bench.
TRANSFERS IN: Jack Rodwell (Everton, £12m).
TRANSFERS OUT: Wayne Bridge (Brighton and Hove Albion, loan); Owen Hargreaves, Stuart Taylor (both released); Greg Cunningham (Bristol City, undisclosed); Omar Elabdellaoui (Feyenoord, loan); Vladimir Weiss (Pescara, undisclosed); Andrea Mancini (Real Valladolid, free); Ben Mee (Burnley, undisclosed); Ahmed Benali (Brescia, free); Gai Assulin (Racing Santander, free); Joan Angel Roman (Barcelona, free).
United finished their final game of last season top of the table, and yet somehow wound up as runners-up instead of champions. It was the bitterest pill to swallow, as they were usurped by their local rivals and long-time bragging rights punch bag Manchester City.
Both Sir Alex Ferguson and United have been here before, of course. Blackburn, Arsenal and Chelsea have all punctuated United's dominance of the Premier League era, but the title has always returned to Old Trafford at the end of those spells.
This time, however, things could be different, even if United did make a huge statement when announcing a deal to sign Robin van Persie on Wednesday. City's financial might is at odds with the draining financial burden which continues to be placed upon United as a result of the Glazers' leveraged takeover, meaning it may be another few seasons before they are able to extend their record haul of titles to 20, even if Van Persie and Wayne Rooney do strike up a productive partnership.
PREDICTED FINISH: 2nd
KEY MAN: WAYNE ROONEY
Manchester United's only true superstar player prior to the signing of Van Persie, Rooney had his best ever season last term, scoring 35 goals and creating six more in all competitions, but he did not add any more winners' medals to his collection. Yet another indifferent performance at a tournament for England this summer should not bear much relevance to how the forward starts the new campaign and he should relish the chance to perform alongside his new Dutch colleague when the Van Persie transfer is completed.
ONE TO WATCH: SHINJI KAGAWA
The acquisition of one of the key members of the Borussia Dortmund side which retained the Bundesliga title was a real get for United. Kagawa virtually had his pick of suitors once Dortmund let it be known that he was available, and United wasted little time in making a deal happen. With 13 league goals and eight assists last season, the typical ignorant comments about an Asian player being signed just to sell shirts are conspicuous by their absence.
TRANSFERS IN: Robin van Persie (Arsenal, £24m), Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund, undisclosed); Nick Powell (Crewe Alexandra, undisclosed)
TRANSFERS OUT: Park Ji-Sung (Queens Park Rangers, undisclosed); Michael Owen (released); Fabio da Silva (Queens Park Rangers, loan); Tomasz Kuszczak (Brighton, free); Paul Pogba (Juventus, free); John Cofie (Sheffield United, loan); Ritchie de Laet, Matty James (both Leicester City, undisclosed); Oliver Norwood (Huddersfield Town, undisclosed); Reece Brown (Coventry, loan); Ben Amos (Hull City, loan); Liam Jacobs (Oldham Athletic, undisclosed); Sean McGinty (Oxford, undisclosed).
FIRST THREE GAMES: Everton (A), Fulham (H), Southampton (H).
Roman Abramovich can hardly be accused of complacently basking in the glory of his club's unlikely Champions League triumph. Rarely has there been such an overhaul of a squad in the wake of a team being crowned European champions.
The departure of Didier Drogba and the arrival of Eden Hazard are highly symbolic of the club moving in a new direction for the first time since the Russian bought the club nine years ago. How former manager Andre Villas-Boas could have benefited from such investment last season when he was brought in to ring the changes at Stamford Bridge, only to be met with stubborn resistance that cost him his job.
Current incumbent Roberto Di Matteo had hardly been given the most ringing endorsement, only getting a one-year contract despite picking up the pieces and leading Chelsea to European glory and an FA Cup triumph. That uncertainty in the dugout and the upheaval in the squad is likely to make this season a transitional one, although a marked improvement is expected.
PREDICTED FINISH: 3rd
KEY MAN: FERNANDO TORRES
After enduring so many false starts to his Chelsea career, everything is now in place for Torres to finally be the player he was signed for a British record £50m to be. Drogba's departure and the absence of a new striker arriving in his stead makes the Spaniard undeniably first choice for the Blues this term. Winning Euro 2012 as the tournament's top scorer should see him head into the new season full of confidence, too. It's now or never for the 28-year-old.
ONE TO WATCH: EDEN HAZARD
Hazard is arguably the most exciting young attacking talent in European football, and he certainly revelled in that status as he openly mulled over which major club to join during the first half of the year. An exceptional return of 20 goals and 16 assists in Ligue 1 last term gives promise of the Belgian justifying his lofty reputation sooner rather than later.
TRANSFERS OUT: Didier Drogba (Shanghai Shenhua, free); Salomon Kalou (Lille, free); Jose Bosingwa (released); Jeffrey Bruma (Hamburg, loan); Thibaut Courtois (Atletico Madrid, loan); Rohan Ince (Yeovil Town, loan); Tamas Kalas, Patrick van Aanholt (both Vitesse Arnhem, loan); Milan Lakovic, Matej Delac (both Guimaraes, loan); Ulises Davila (Sabadell, loan); Sam Walker (Bristol Rovers, loan); Jacob Mellis (Barnsley, free).
Last season Arsenal endured their worst start to a season in six decades. They were thrashed 8-2 at Old Trafford. They picked up just three points from their first five games. And they still finished the campaign third in the table, above local rivals Tottenham.
Whereas last summer's deadline-day signings of Mikel Arteta, Per Mertesacker and Andre Santos smacked a little of uncharacteristic desperation on the part of manager Arsene Wenger, this transfer window he has overseen three high-calibre acquisitions well in advance of the Gunners' first match.
The only problem is that, for the fourth time in seven seasons, they have been forced to say goodbye to their captain, with Robin van Persie reinforcing Manchester United. It is perhaps too early to assess just how big the damage will be but Arsenal certainly approach the season with a cloud hanging over them once again.
PREDICTED FINISH: 4th
KEY MAN: SANTI CAZORLA
Like the rest of the big clubs struggling to play catch-up with champions Manchester City, Arsenal have signed an outstanding creative talent. Cazorla may not be good enough to get a start for Spain, but that should not detract from his excellent passing ability and eye for goal which should make him a hit at the Emirates.
ONE TO WATCH: LUKAS PODOLSKI
Had 'Poldi' made the move to Arsenal later in the summer and directly from Bayern Munich then perhaps his transfer would have been greeted with a level of excitement more in keeping with his talent. The striker may have returned to Cologne having been a flop at Bayern, but you don't become the youngest European player to reach 100 caps by accident. The Germany forward is well-equipped to shoulder the goal-scoring burden following Van Persie's exit.
TRANSFERS OUT: Robin van Persie (Manchester United, £24m), Manuel Almunia (released); Joel Campbell (Real Betis, loan); Thomas Cruise (released); Denilson (Sao Paulo, loan); Gavin Hoyte (released); Pedro Botelho (Atletico Paranaese, loan); Carlos Vela (Real Sociedad, undisclosed); Rio Miyaichi (Wigan, loan); Benik Afobe (Bolton, loan); Jeffrey Monakana (Preston, free).
It is a mark of how far Spurs have come as a club over the past few years that they were gutted to only finish fourth last season. In any other year that would have earned them a Champions League spot, but that was cruelly wrenched from their grasp by London rivals Chelsea after they won the competition.
Harry Redknapp's fondness for speaking to the media on everything from the England job to other clubs' players ultimately tested the patience of the club to the point where they felt they had to let him go. The appointment of Andre Villas-Boas as his replacement is one which could potentially go either way.
The first task of the Portuguese coach is to effectively manage the transition to life without star playmaker Luka Modric, who is all set for a move to Real Madrid, while the signing of another decent striker on top of making Emmanuel Adebayor's loan move permanent is just as imperative if Spurs are to keep pace with the clubs above them.
PREDICTED FINISH: 5th
KEY MAN: RAFAEL VAN DER VAART
With Modric expected to leave the club, a lot more of the creative responsibility will be heaped on to Van der Vaart's shoulders. The Dutchman has hit double figures in his goal tally in both of his two seasons at the club, and his role as set-piece maestro remains hugely important. Doubts persist over his ability to complete 90 minutes on a regular basis, however.
ONE TO WATCH: JAN VERTONGHEN
For a long while Vertonghen was a target for Arsenal, but after captaining Ajax to back-to-back Eredivisie titles the centre-back now joins the Gunners' local rivals. A versatile defender who likes to play the ball and chips in with his fair share of goals, Vertonghen's arrival should plug the gap left by the retirement of Spurs stalwart Ledley King.
TRANSFERS OUT: Ledley King (retired); Niko Kranjcar (Dynamo Kiev, undisclosed); Vedran Corluka (Lokomotiv Moscow, undisclosed); Bongani Khumalo (PAOK, loan); Ben Alnwick (Barnsley, free); Ryan Nelsen (Queens Park Rangers, free); Louis Saha (released); Massimo Luongo (Ipswich, loan); Steven Pienaar (Everton, £4.5m).