The world's most watched sports league kicks back into action this weekend and in all four corners of the globe debate is raging as to how the fresh Premier League campaign will pan out.
While the league has sometimes attracted criticisms of predictability, with big clubs such as Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal dominating for countless years, this season has generated a series of intriguing plotlines that only adds to the sense of anticipation.
The summer has brought its usual glut of transfer chicanery with a flurry of new faces and flying checkbooks, not just with players but also a swathe of new coaches taking charge of the league favorites.
PREMIER LEAGUE 101
NBC's fresh coverage of the Premier League has been hailed as a defining moment in spreading soccer to a new audience in the United States. So, for the benefit of the uninitiated, here are a few of the basics about the most popular soccer competition in the world.
• The PL has 20 teams, but no one is guaranteed a place from one year to the next. Each season the bottom three are relegated, or demoted, to the Championship division below, with three others winning promotion to replace them.
• There is no overtime or playoffs in the PL, just a straight format whereby each club plays every opponent twice, once at home and once on the road. With three points for a win and one for a tie, the team with the greatest number of points is crowned champion.
• Manchester United is the current title holder and traditionally the PL has been dominated by a handful of major clubs. A top four finish is enough to clinch qualification for the following season's Champions League, the world's strongest inter-club competition.
• There is no such thing as a draft so teams acquire players either from their own youth team systems, signing free agents or by purchasing or trading directly with other clubs.
• Given England's smaller geographic nature than the U.S., the concept of away support is far more prevalent. Road teams often take thousands of traveling fans with them to away games, although the rival supporters are kept segregated to avert potential conflict.
• Most of the owners of PL clubs are billionaire investors from overseas, like Chelsea's Russian chief Roman Abramovich or Liverpool's John Henry (also owner of the Boston Red Sox). Despite having to pay enormous salaries, the tycoons make the bulk of their money from sharing in ultra-lucrative television rights packages to countries around the world. The UK deal is naturally the biggest, with Sky Sports paying close to $5 billion over three years.
– Martin Rogers
Here Yahoo! Sports delivers the five story lines to watch over the next nine months, the tales that will either decide the fate of the championship or at least provide the most entertainment.
We follow that up with our predictions for 2013-14 – and why the return of a former favorite son will tilt the race for the trophy in Chelsea's favor.
Going … for broke
It has been a long time since Liverpool entered a new season with such a spring in its step but there is a newfound flush of optimism around a giant club that has languished for too long.
If Steven Gerrard can squeeze another season of mighty productivity from his tiring legs, if teenage phenomenon Raheem Sterling can grow up in a hurry and if young coach Brendan Rodgers can continue to settle in, then a top-four finish and a spot in the Champions League could be within reach.
That's a lot of ifs, but don't expect Rodgers' team to die wondering this year. A more aggressive, positive and attacking approach beckons as the manager's philosophy shifts in a more upbeat direction.
Going … mad
Geordie Shore, MTV's spinoff about the British version of those unlovable Jersey dimwits, is based in Newcastle but even that doesn't compete with the mayhem and madness going on at the local Premier League club.
Owner Mike Ashley continues to alienate fans and director of football Joe Kinnear embarrassed both himself and his club with a cringe-worthy radio interview in which he messed up the names of four of his leading players.
Coach Alan Pardew struggles on through the circus, which isn't close to calming down anytime soon. Far from it, Newcastle already looks a sure bet to create some of the season's wackiest stories.
Going … to win
Don't be fooled by his sharp suits and effortless sense of style, Jose Mourinho's soccer blueprint is built around defensive toughness and that will be his first priority after taking over the West London club for the second time.
Mourinho returns after controversy-filled spells at Inter Milan and Real Madrid and is desperate to wrest back the Premier League crown. If he can retain Chelsea's attacking flair while tightening up that shaky defensive line, he might just achieve it.
Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has spent most of the last six years regretting the disagreement that led to Mourinho's first departure and the fiery coach will get some extra latitude for his regular mood swings this time around.
Going … back where they came from
Trouble surely looms for this season's promoted teams, who are likely to quickly discover that the PL is a very different place to the second-tier Championship.
Cardiff City, Hull City and Crystal Palace all look to be overmatched and are the favorites to make a swift departure from the top division after only one season.
Survival would be a significant achievement in itself for any of the three, though hopefully some rays of sunshine await for Palace boss Ian Holloway, one of the most likeable and humorous men in English soccer.
Gone … for good
Sir Alex Ferguson has waltzed off into the soccer sunset after nearly three decades of spectacular success at Manchester United. The challenge of taking over from him falls upon David Moyes, and though Moyes inherits a fine squad that won last season's title, this job could be a poisoned chalice.
Following on from the Ferguson era comes with extreme pressure and weight of expectation and United will need a strong start to the campaign to ease the inevitable tension for its new chief.
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