The English Premier League kicks off this weekend, and the main talking point is whether Chelsea can hold onto the title after winning it so comfortably last season.
Chelsea have been the quietest so far of the big clubs in summer spending, their most significant acquisition being Radamel Falcao from Manchester United, on loan. Falcao was a flop at Old Trafford as a loan signing, scoring only four times in 29 games.
He looked destined to return to his club, Monaco, but Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho must have spotted something nobody else saw because he signed the 29-year-old Colombian for a season.
Falcao can blame injury on his poor showing at United, but there will be no room for excuses in a Chelsea squad that includes proven goal-scorers Diego Costa and Loic Remy, as well as midfielders as dependable as Eden Hazard, Oscar, Ramires, Willian and Nemanja Matic.
Hazard won the Player of the Year award, and Mourinho typically hyped up his talent, claiming he was almost on par with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. The Belgian midfielder was flattered but insisted that his finishing has to improve considerably to be compared with them.
That point was proven on Sunday when late in the game Hazard missed a clear chance to grab an equalizer.
Costa was a revelation at the start of last season, scoring virtually at will. But persistent hamstring injuries blighted the second half of his campaign, and when he did play, he was not as potent.
Costa is still niggled by his hamstrings, having to pull out the day before Sunday’s Community Shield game against Arsenal at Wembley.
A superb goal by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain separated the teams and gave Gunners boss Arsene Wenger his long-awaited first win against Mourinho.
Arsenal keeper Petr Cech spent 11 years with Chelsea, so it was an emotional 1-0 victory for him too.
The Gunners seem to have their strongest side in years, and if they can avoid a long injury list, which usually befalls them in mid-winter and scuppers their title hopes, they are likely to be Chelsea’s closest challengers.
Jack Wilshere is getting treatment for yet another injury. Danny Welbeck, another England international, is recovering from injury too. When they return, Wenger will have an embarrassment of riches.
Also missing on Sunday for Arsenal was Alexis Sanchez, rested after nonstop football for more than a year. He starred for Chile at last summer’s World Cup in Brazil and has just returned from playing in the Copa America tournament in his homeland. Chile won it, beating Argentina 4-1 on penalties after a 0-0 draw.
Sanchez took a while to settle in at the Emirates last term after arriving from Barcelona, but then had a sparkling debut season and was one of the league’s outstanding players.
Theo Walcott seems to have settled his long-running battle with Wenger over where he should be played. He prefers an attacking midfield role, whereas Wenger prefers him on the wing. Walcott proved a point and was effective against Chelsea, laying on the pass for Oxlade-Chamberlain’s goal.
Chelsea face Swansea City at home on Saturday and should have no problems getting off to a positive start.
Arsenal have a London derby at the Emirates against West Ham on Sunday and they too should bag all three points.
Manchester City were pressing Chelsea for the title until January, then fell away badly and were grateful to settle for second place as Arsenal finished strong behind them.
City have spent $76 million, a British record fee, to tempt Raheem Sterling away from Liverpool. The 20-year-old winger went off the boil when things turned nasty at Anfield last term, but with a new team, Champions League action and millions in his pocket, he has all the motivation needed to make City a force again.
James Milner made the switch the other way, moving to Liverpool from City. He is a replacement for the legendary Steven Gerrard, who left for LA Galaxy after 17 years at Anfield. Milner certainly has big boots to fill, but he should acquit himself well. He will partner in midfield with Jordan Henderson, the new Liverpool captain. If they can click and Brendan Rodgers can get the best out of his other expensive summer signings, Liverpool may improve their sixth-place finish, but probably will not be good enough to get in the top four.
Manchester United are the most likely side to qualify for a Champions League place, along with Chelsea, Arsenal and City.
Louis van Gaal has spent a king’s ransom since arriving at Old Trafford last year – and he is not done yet. He has until Sept. 1 to tempt a big-name player away and has not given up hope of bagging Gareth Bale from Real Madrid.
The defiant Dutchman does not take no for an answer easily and is quite prepared to pay a world record fee of $130 million to lure Bale away from Madrid where he is not totally happy.
Fans, media and players alike resent the fact that in his two years there he has not really made an effort to learn Spanish and he is not popular in the dressing room and seen as aloof and distant.
A move back to England may suit the 26-year-old Welshman, especially to a gigantic club like United who seem to be entering an exciting era with van Gaal. United won three of their four matches on their U.S. tour last month, and one victory was against the mighty Barcelona, the European champions.
Even though Messi and Neymar were left at home, Barca still fielded some world-class names, including Luis Suarez, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique and Pedro. If United entice Pedro away from Barcelona, he will have a formidable side. The only worry for the United faithful is how can half a team of new players, no matter how good they are, gel quickly enough to be Premier League champs.
Van Gaal is vastly experienced and knowledgeable. His judgment was questioned at the start of last term when United’s results were patchy, but then he found the right chemistry with what he had and they finished strong.
Memphis Dupay, Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger are all classy players who should make an impact. Schweinsteiger was one of the finest midfielders at the World Cup last year and a main reason why Germany won the trophy. Van Gaal insists United can win the title this season, but that seems like wishful thinking considering they are involved in the Champions League.
United play Tottenham on Saturday, which should be a lively game because the north Londoners finished fifth last term and their best player, Harry Kane, was also the league’s top scorer with 21 out of a total of 31 in all competitions.
Kane, 22, had previously shown promise, but this was his breakthrough season, winning the Young Player of the Year award and marking his England debut against Lithuania with a goal a mere 80 seconds after coming on as a sub.
Liverpool are away to Stoke on Sunday, never an easy fixture. Manchester City are away to West Brom on Monday.