After being absolutely spoilt for sport over the summer, the Premier League is back this weekend and fans will return to cheering on a new multi-million-pound signing rather than those who could go faster, higher, stronger in Stratford.
Thanks to Euro 2012, the cricket Test series between England and South Africa, and, of course, the Olympics, the swing of Sergio Aguero’s boot which so dramatically won the title for Manchester City just more than three months ago still seems like only yesterday.
However, almost under the radar, much has changed in the world of the Premier League and many questions are surrounding the 2012/13 kick-off. Can City defend their title? Will Robin van Persie make the difference for Manchester United? Has Chelsea’s spending turned them into contenders? Is Brendan Rodgers the right man for Liverpool? Who will be relegated? In short, welcome back.
Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City begin the defence of their title by hosting Southampton at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday. The reigning kings of England’s top flight have been comparatively quiet in the summer transfer market, with only Jack Rodwell arriving so far from Everton, and Mancini has been sounding his frustration at a lack of activity and possibly showing signs of nerves after watching City’s rivals recruit in style. Nigel Adkins’ Southampton, last season’s Championship runners-up, will be looking to take advantage of any potential slow start. It would be a huge shock, given City only dropped a record-equalling two points at home in 2011/12.
Sunday’s lunchtime kick-off is also available to watch on Sky Sports and it sees European championsChelsea start against Roberto Martinez’s Wigan Athletic. Manager Roberto Di Matteo was eventually given a two-year contract at Stamford Bridge over the summer having last season guided the club to a stunning UEFA Champions League and FA Cup double. Whether it is the work of Di Matteo or the London club’s billionaire owner, Roman Abramovich, there has also been more than £60million in close-season investment at Chelsea to give them an ominously creative appearance. Wigan, who in the last campaign again avoided relegation, will be aiming to prevent their DW Stadium visitors from making a perfect start to an attempt to close a previous 25-point deficit on the two Manchester clubs.
With 2011/12 runners-up Manchester United not in action until Monday night’s trip to Everton, the main focus of Saturday’s 3pm kick-offs will likely be upon a Van Persie-less Arsenal against Sunderland at Emirates Stadium. The Dutchman, formerly the Gunners captain, has moved to United in a £24m deal to leave those in North London with mixed emotions. After recruiting Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla over the summer, there was a wave of optimism that Arsene Wenger’s men could at least end a seven-year trophy drought. Some had even ambitiously been tipping Arsenal as potential title winners. Whether those predictions still exist now Van Persie has gone remains to be seen. Martin O’Neill’s Sunderland, meanwhile, travel to the capital knowing they have only beaten Arsenal in the league once in the last 17 attempts. O’Neill has been keen to add firepower to his attack after they ran out of a bit of steam at the end of last season. But has so far only managed to bring in Louis Saha, so a trip to Arsenal is a tough task.
Liverpool will be an intriguing prospect in the new campaign. There is a sense that the appointment of Brendan Rodgers will be either a great success of a horrible flop, anything but mediocrity. The Anfield club, who in May parted company with Kenny Dalglish after a hugely disappointing eighth-placed finish – although the League Cup was won and they also reached the FA Cup final, continue to strive for evidence of renewing fortunes. But Liverpool’s principal owner John Henry has himself said: "You can’t turn an ocean liner around like you can a speedboat." West Bromwich Albionrepresent another potential iceberg for Liverpool at The Hawthorns and Steve Clarke, Dalglish’s former assistant, will know there would be no better way to begin his career as a manager than to upset his former employers.
Saturday’s evening game between Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur at St James’ Park is arguably the pick of the opening day’s fixtures in what is a meeting between two clubs who both have aspirations towards finishing in at least the top four and qualifying for the Champions League. Hosts Newcastle enjoyed a remarkably successful last campaign and went into the final weekend with a chance of qualifying for Europe’s top table. Boss Alan Pardew has endured a slightly frustrating summer in the transfer market and will be desperate to prove a previous fifth-placed finish was not a flash in the pan. Tottenham are perhaps under even greater pressure before kicking off, having parted company with Harry Redknapp and appointed former Chelsea flop Andre Villas-Boas. Spurs were only denied a place in the Champions League due to Chelsea winning the competition and so general consensus is that Villas-Boas has to do better than finish fourth.
Amid a summer of managerial changes, Aston Villa are another club who have a new boss ahead of their return to action. Paul Lambert swapped Norwich City for Villa Park in the wake of the abysmal failure that was the decision to recruit Alex McLeish from Birmingham City. General opinion is that things can only get better for Villa after avoiding relegation by just two points. But West Ham United will be out to make sure there is not optimism about the future come the final whistle at Upton Park and Sam Allardyce’s club have been busy recruiting the likes Alou Diarra and Mohamed Diame, while also bidding for Andy Carroll, to give the impression the Championship play-off winners mean business upon their return to the top flight.
Reading finished above West Ham and Southampton in the second tier with a run to the title which was as well-timed as anything Usain Bolt delivered over the summer and their reward is an opening day game against Stoke City at the Madejski Stadium. Tony Pulis’ Stoke are the perfect model to follow for promoted clubs who wish to turn themselves into an established Premier League club and Reading would be well advised to take note. But Brian McDermott will be using the match as much more than a research mission.
Queens Park Rangers were the side defeated by City and Aguero on that unforgettable final day of last season. But the Loftus Road side still avoided relegation by the skin of their teeth and Mark Hughes, who succeeded Neil Warnock during the campaign, is expecting much better. There has been lots of money spent by QPR and they will be feeling confident ahead of hosting Swansea City. The Swans had followed QPR up from the Championship and took the Premier League by storm to finish 11th in the Premier League. But they have lost their manager, Rodgers, and arguably their best player, Joe Allen, to Liverpool. European footballing legend Michael Laudrup is a remarkable recruitment and his task will be to avoid any mention of Second Season Syndrome in Wales.
Fulham and Norwich City at Craven Cottage completes the line-up for the opening weekend’s fixtures. Martin Jol’s home side finished in an excellent ninth place in 2011/12 and will have their work cut out to improve on that standing. Likewise, Norwich enjoyed a memorable season under Lambert and Chris Hughton will work wonders if he can improve on 12th position.