The Premier League Returns
Saturday August 14 2010. The Premier League season begins in earnest. We may still be shaking off our World Cup hangovers, as the tournament climaxed in Johannesburg just five weeks ago. But at least the English players have had a bit more time off.
Here are nearly twenty reasons to be very, very excited about the 2010-11 English Premier League season, the best league in the world.
Off to a flyer
As a mate of mine has just written on Facebook: "Could there be a more perfect start to the season?" Spurs and Manchester City get us underway on Saturday lunchtime in north London.
These are the two sides who could finally put the nail in the coffin of "Big Four" dominance. Spurs ended four consecutive seasons of Chelsea-Manchester United-Arsenal-Liverpool premiership last term, and should play in the Champions League for the first time. Their prodigiously talented midfield is up to the task.
City have spent over £100 million this summer, and should chuck their new signings in at the deep end in the season opener. The brash boys in sky blue are far from shy when it comes to talking about their ambitions for the summit of the Premier League's new order.
Manchester City's defense
Now they mean business. Close to £20 million for a left back, Serbian Aleksandar Kolarov, and another 10 for the powerful German Jerome Boateng, show that Roberto Mancini is learning last season's lessons. City now appear to be following the Chelsea route and building from the back in order to shoot for the title. With the assured Vincent Kompany ready to take his place in the center of defense, Joleon Lescott never need play again.
I could write 20 just on Manchester City. I won't, although the signing of "Super Mario" is worth writing home about. The 20-year-old Italian striker is considered one of the finest young talents on the global stage. Technically gifted and brutishly strong; like Didier Drogba but more skilful. His time at Inter was full of controversy and fallings-out, he is ready to replace Craig Bellamy at the Bad Boy of the City of Manchester Stadium dressing-room.
The "home grown" rule
From September 1, clubs will have to register a squad of up to 25 senior players. Eight of those must be "home grown", meaning they were registered domestically for at least three years before turning 21. An unlimited number of current under-21 players can also be used during the season. Clubs with few senior English players, such as Liverpool, will simply have to give youngsters a shot if injuries are accrued. The rule is a major step forward for the future of English football.
Roy Hodgson, reigning Manager of the Year, has rejuvenated Liverpool already. Although the financial direction of the club is far from resolved, the arrival of the honest and likeable former Fulham man in the Anfield dugout - replacing the dour Rafa Benitez - has changed the whole mood of the place. Gerrard and Torres are staying - back towards the top four they go.
The main beneficiary may just be Joe Cole though. After Chelsea refused to meet his wage demands, he chose to head to the north west and the promise of first-team football at last. The former West Ham midfielder is starting to get on, and needs to find his best form if he is not to be remembered as an unfulfilled talent. We have always known how good he is, but he needs a boss who trusts him. Hodgson may be just that man.
On the other side of the city come the club who have become everyone's - well at least my - second favorite team in recent years. What's not to like about Everton? In David Moyes, a proper manager, a team that plays the right way, and trusts its young talent. Full back Seamus Coleman has a very bright future, while Leon Osman must get a call from Fabio Capello sooner or later. After a shocking start to last season, recovered well to end up eighth - which means no Europa League to be faffing about with, and all guns blazing towards a top six finish.
The best of the Everton bunch, powerful midfielder Rodwell has reportedly been the subject of some big-money bids from the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United during the off-season. His dynamism and eye for goal saw him used in advanced roles last season, but he is considered to be a natural center-half when he matures. Still only 19 but already experienced, this could be the year he explodes onto the big stage.
The 18-year-old's top-flight debut against Chelsea last season was described by BBC Match of the Day pundit Alan Hansen as "unbelievably good." Born and bred in Lancashire, the Blackburn Rovers center-back is a both physically strong and tactically intelligent defender. Sam Allardyce is ready to trust him at the heart of his back four, and who better to learn from than captain Ryan Nelsen?
Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere
Two teenage, British, midfield talents at Arsenal. Welshman Ramsey was quickly cementing his place in the first team when he broke his leg back in February; he is expected back in November. Wilshere spent the latter part of last season learning to rough it a little bit at Bolton, and made his England debut in the friendly against Hungary this last week.
Chelsea head coach Carlo Ancelotti has repeatedly said he is looking to blood his academy players in the first team this season, and that could mean we get to see a lot more of Josh McEachran. The left-footed midfielder, born in 1993, helped Chelsea win the FA Youth Cup and England claim the Euro Under-17s last year. Able to glide past players, and a natural finisher, this kid is a little bit special.
The Ghanaian international missed the second half of last season after aggravating a knee injury at the Africa Cup of Nations. The muscular rampager is ready to make the Chelsea midfield his own this year. He feels like a new signing at Stamford Bridge. Someone that is that is box-to-box midfielder Ramires, whose transfer from Benfica has been confirmed. A top-draw Brazilian in the Premier League can't be bad news.
Aston Villa fans haven't had the best of pre-seasons. Popular boss Martin O'Neill has thrown in his towel, angered by a lack of ambition. Meanwhile, for the second year in a row, Manchester City have opened their wallet and pinched the Midlands club's best player - James Milner in this case. This second piece of news could be good news, I think. Stephen lreland, frozen out by Roberto Mancini, is set to head to Villa as part of the Milner deal. Remember his form of two years ago? The Irishman is an equal to Milner in terms of ability and will have the bit between his teeth.
The Seasiders will play in the top flight for the first time since 1971, having claimed an improbable Championship play-off triumph. Naturally favorites for relegation despite having bolstered their squad this week, Bloomfield Road will be a difficult place to visit. Thankyou for giving the always-entertaining Ian Holloway a chance to prove himself at the top.
They're back. After just the one season in the Championship, The Magpies return to the big time. The Tyne-Wear derby with Sunderland is back on, and the army of fanatics who so regularly fill St James' Park get to see Premier League football again.
Excited, about Stoke? Yes, actually. This will be their third season in the Premier League, as Tony Pulis looks to continue delivering lessons in more-than-respectable low-budget holding-your-own-with-the-big-boys. Pulis broke the club's transfer record to bring in striker Kenwyne Jones for £8 million, but otherwise sticks with a largely homegrown squad. Matthew Etherington on the left wing is a standout player in a workmanlike team.
Sir Alex Ferguson is very pleased with himself. Securing the young Mexico striker for less than £10 million looks like a bit of a steal. The pacey Hernandez will look to put Dimitar Berbatov in the shade and form a mouth-watering partnership with Wayne Rooney. If he doesn't manage that, then you can always content yourself watching the video of his off-my-own-face finish in the Community Shield again and again.
Bowing out in style?
Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville are expected to hang up their boots at the end of the season at the end of the season, after 55 years of service to Manchester United between them. Club captain Neville is a proud man who will want to win back the Premier League crown, Giggs' form in the season before last earnt him a number of awards, while Scholes showed he still has it with a passing masterclass in the Community Shield. They will all want to go out in style.
As will the man who has overseen their careers at Old Trafford. Sir Alex Ferguson will have enjoyed 25 years at the club, and be months off his 70th birthday, in the summer of 2011. He wants to win the Champions League a third time, but it must be time to go.
Who will replace him? Jose Mourinho, after just a year in Madrid? A Guus Hiddink or Louis van Gaal? Or someone closer to home? The patient, and Scottish, David Moyes? Martin O'Neill? Or one of Ferguson's former-United apprentices? Steve Bruce, Mark Hughes, Roy Keane?
A question for another day? Perhaps. In the mean time, there's football to watch.
Tom Sheldrick is a freelance writer and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org