With London burning in an ugly wave of violence and public unrest, the start of the new English Premier League season has a somewhat strange feel to it.
One opening-day fixture – Everton vs. Tottenham – already has been called off, and a time that would normally see sports-mad Britain stirring itself into a gentle sporting frenzy has instead become consumed with more serious matters.
Yet nothing can keep soccer out of the English psyche for long, and with strong measures underway to curb the troubles, thoughts will presumably return to the national game with a sense of haste once calm has been restored.
Sports is by no means perfect, but it does have a habit of promoting unity in tough times – and it is hoped that will be the case this season. If ever a dynamic campaign full of intriguing storylines was needed, it is now.
A busy summer of off-field maneuvering has indeed given fans and pundits alike plenty to talk about when they stack up the pros and cons of the EPL's heavy hitters and play the annual game of predicting a champion.
You will forgive this column for tooting its own horn, but 12 months ago we predicted the eventual top seven in correct order. With such a hard act to follow, it was tempting to adopt a different format for this year's preview and avoiding selecting the 1 through 20 finishers, as has become our annual norm.
But that would be cheating, so here were are with five key factors to watch for the new campaign, plus our picks for who will be in the mix come May.
• Renovations from within: For a while there, it looked as if Manchester United's title challengers had some cause for cheer. With Paul Scholes retired and a summerlong chase for Wesley Sneijder not coming to fruition, there looked to be a hole in the heart of the midfield which left the champions looking a little depleted.
But then came a domineering performance in the Community Shield, sparked by a youngster in Tom Cleverley whom few had previous heard of, and suddenly the famous Old Trafford conveyor belt had solved another potential dilemma.
Such is life at United, which has been practicing success for so long that it knows no other way. Despite a few doubts over the goalkeeping position following Edwin Van Der Sar's retirement, Sir Alex Ferguson's side remains very much the team to beat.
• Splashing the cash: It was summertime, which could mean only one thing: Manchester City would spend a lot of money. Again.
This time, it was Sergio Aguero who headed the list of expensive offseason acquisitions funded by City's Arabian billionaire owners.
Aguero is a phenomenal player who should find the rough-and-tumble of the EPL to his liking. There can be no doubt that soccernomics dictate that the club's massive spending will one day result in the kind of success it craves. But are they ready yet?
Carlos Tevez looks to be staying, despite his much-publicized homesickness, and the squad is deeper than any other. But City doesn't yet have the harmony needed to sustain a title challenge for the entire campaign.
• Fresh mind, fresh legs: This time last year, we were asking if Chelsea was getting too old. Now the question is whether they are too young. Incoming head coach Andre Villas-Boas, at 33, is a mere baby in managerial terms and has a crop of emerging kids such as Gael Kakuta and Josh McEachran to work into his first-choice lineup.
AVB must try to find a resolution to the Fernando Torres conundrum, a situation that would be made more politically tricky if Didier Drogba makes a flying start to the campaign with performances which demand a starting role ahead of the expensive Spaniard.
Roman Abramovich continues to crave the Champions League more than any other; if Villas-Boas puts together a big run in Europe, then an EPL crown might not be necessary to satisfy his impatient owner.
• Not-so-fond farewell: By the time you read this, it is likely Cesc Fabregas will be a Barcelona player, ending one of the most drawn-out soccer courtships of recent years. The timing of the move, just hours before the start of the season, leaves Arsenal in a state of limbo and boss Arsene Wenger under serious pressure.
After six trophyless years and no imminent signs of improvement, Wenger's God-like status at the club is showing signs of cracking.
Fabregas was the glue that held the Gunners together – a role that may now pass to Jack Wilshere – and Wenger's ability to quickly and effectively spend the Cesc cash will determine his ongoing popularity.
Gael Clichy has gone too, with Samir Nasri perhaps about to follow him to Manchester City, and Arsenal looks weaker now than at any time since Wenger's arrival.
• Loftus Road rumblings: Queens Park Rangers' promotion to the EPL was supposed to spark a frenzy of spending that would elevate the club into the top half.
Doubt over the future of boss Neil Warnock, however, curtailed the signing spree and drove down expectations.
QPR already has a decent squad at its disposal, though, and there is nothing to stop the club's purchasing power to be used to good effect in January if needed.
Sure, there are some issues with Warnock, but that might be little more than a temporary clash between his big personality and that of the successful businessmen who own the club. Expect things to calm down and for QPR to put together a solid campaign – albeit one not quite as thrill-a-minute as once thought.
Predicted finishing order
1. Manchester United
2. Manchester City
9. Aston Villa
10. Bolton Wanderers
12. Stoke City
13. Queens Park Rangers
14. West Bromwich Albion
15. Newcastle United
16. Wigan Athletic
17. Wolverhampton Wanderers
18. Blackburn Rovers
19. Norwich City
20. Swansea City
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