Premier League: Chelsea first, Arsenal third, Man Utd fifth
Who'll win the race for Premier League title and Champions League qualification? Our top six predictions
The Premier League returns this weekend and fans could be in for another roller-coaster season at the top of the table. Last season Manchester City held off the unexpected challenge of Liverpool to win the title, and things could be even more exciting this time round.
If Liverpool can survive the departure of Luis Suarez they will hope to compete once again, while Jose Mourinho's Chelsea will expect to improve on third place. Arsenal failed to last the distance last time out, but they are back in the trophy business and hungry for more silverware after winning the FA Cup and Community Shield, while Man United appear reinvigorated under Louis van Gaal.
So who will finish where?
Chelsea: Last year will go down as the season in which Jose Mourinho reacquainted himself with the Premier League before attempting to remedy the obvious shortcomings in his squad. The Blues were flaky at times and lacked presence up front, but they still pulled off one of the results of the season, beating Arsenal 6-0, and finished third despite a determination not to captilise on their rivals' slip-ups.
Things should be different this time round. "Mourinho has undertaken extensive surgery to his squad to create a lean, Blue Machine at Stamford Bridge," says the Daily Telegraph. His so-called "little horses will be thoroughbreds this season and, by the Chelsea manager's own admission, back in contention for the Premier League title".
Who to watch: Diego Costa was the marquee signing this summer, Thibaut Courtois could depose Petr Cech after a decade between the sticks, but Cesc Fabregas is the key man. His "arrival from Barcelona is arguably as important as Costa's, filling the void for a creative central midfield player that has been evident over the past couple of seasons", says ESPN.
The Week prediction: Title winners
Man City: City's last attempt at a title defence, in 2012-13, was hardly convincing and they ended the season 11 points adrift on Man United. But this time round Manuel Pellegrini's squad will be battle-hardened and used to the rigours of the Champions League, and will be there or thereabouts at the end of the season.
Yaya Toure's tantrums aside there has been less turmoil than usual at City in recent months, although the club has done solid business in the transfer market. This summer's arrivals, including Frank Lampard, Fernando, Bacary Sagna and Eliaquim Mangala look well thought-out purchases. But "there remains a danger that Toure will become a negative force after enjoying such a successful campaign last year", warns the Telegraph.
Whether City can prevail in a title race that could be even more hotly contested than last season remains to be seen.
Who to watch: Eliaquim Mangala. The arrival of the Frenchman addresses the most obvious weakness in City's squad, the lack of strength in depth in defence. Vincent Kompany may finally have an equal alongside him at the back. "Martin Demichelis was an important factor during City’s title-winning run-in but his pace is suspect and at 33 – and after an arduous campaign playing in Argentina’s run to the World Cup final – he is past his best," notes The Guardian.
The Week prediction: Runners-up
Arsenal: "Arsenal have not entered a season with more confidence for almost a decade", says the Telegraph. The end of the nine-year trophy drought and some excellent business in the transfer window has the Gunners dreaming of the title. Indeed, winning the FA Cup last season has "had a transformative effect on the club's confidence and mentality".
Pace will be Arsenal's weapon this season. Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott can form a lethal partnership and if Yaya Sanogo can settle his nerves in front of goal he can bring even more speed to the attack. The fast men should also bring the best out of Mesut Ozil.
But can the Gunners maintain their title challenge this time round, and will they have the steel to survive against their title rivals? Defeats to the top teams last season "robbed them of pride as well as points and sent a once high-flying team into a dangerous tailspin", notes ESPN.
Who to watch: It's an obvious choice, but in Chilean Alexis Sanchez "Arsenal have acquired a footballer who has the qualities to transform their attacking style", says the Guardian. "While he can operate wide, off a more traditional target in the shape of Olivier Giroud, Wenger is also keen to play him centrally, which will give the team a different shape and focus."
The Week prediction: Third
Liverpool: "The start of a wonderful new Anfield era or the great missed opportunity?" asks the BBC of last season. Steven Gerrard's unfortunate slip against Chelsea and Luis Suarez's tears after Crystal Palace's comeback are two of the abiding memories from Liverpool's closest brush with the title for a generation. And after such a big effort last time out, it could be asking too much of a team, shorn of Suarez and facing a Champions League campaign, to mount another charge on the Premier League, but don't bet against it.
The most obvious hole in the side is the one left by Suarez, but that is the part of the team that requires least surgery, says the Telegraph. Liverpool scored 100 goals last season, partly because they had to. "Their prospects will be determined not just by how they fill the void left by the Uruguayan but whether they can be meaner at the back," says the paper. "For Brendan Rodgers, the evolution of this side is maintaining fluency in attack while eradicating the carelessness in defence."
Rodgers has brought in seven players this summer, using the money Barcelona paid for Suarez. But comparisons with Spurs's post-Gareth Bale spree last season "do not stack up", says the Guardian. "The manager's philosophy and style are embedded, the club has advanced ahead of schedule as a result, and Liverpool enter the campaign in need of fine-tuning rather than a tactical overhaul."
Who to watch: If Liverpool's progress rests on improvements at the back then Dejan Lovren must prove that he is worth the £20m invested in him. Rodgers is concerned about the lack of authority at the back and Lovren is being touted as the new Jamie Carragher.
Man United: 'King Louis', 'the Iron Tulip', call him what you want – what is clear is that it will be the Louis van Gaal show at Old Trafford this season. But those hoping to see Man United rise from the dead may discover that the scars of last season will take more than a change of manager and formation to heal. "Do not expect United to be on the outside looking in at the top-four fight again this season – but it will still be intriguing to see what Van Gaal can get out of a squad that looked in serious need of renewal last season," says Phil McNulty of the BBC.
There is plenty of quality in the United squad, and much will be expected of new captain Wayne Rooney along with Robin van Persie and Juan Mata going forward. But there are still issues at the back, where Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans must step up to the mark now that Vidic and Ferdinand are gone. Despite the arrivals of Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw, United are still in need of reinforcements.
Last year's disaster could have a silver lining, notes ESPN. "The ignominy of finishing seventh means no European football this season, but as Liverpool proved last term, that could allow the club to solely – and successfully – focus on domestic matters."
Who to watch: Ander Herrera. A year after David Moyes's failed attempt to sign him, the midfield general will be key to United's prospects, and so far he's looked the part. Why is he so crucial? Because, as ESPN points out, he is "the only player of note in a desperate midfield".
The Week prediction: Fifth
Everton: David Moyes's Old Trafford nightmare was not the only indignity he suffered last season: watching his former club Everton prosper under new management would also have been something of an embarrassment. The Toffees finished fifth, eight points above United, playing an attractive but solid style of football. They will expect to do something similar again this term.
Moyes left Everton with a reputation for tenacity, and that remains. Everton's recent success is based on "a fierce determination within the players, aided by an ultra-positive manager hungry for success," says ESPN. In Ross Barkley, Seamus Coleman and John Stones, Everton have young emerging talents to complement more established players like Leighton Baines and Gareth Barry. New signing Muhamed Besic will bolster the midfield, while the arrival of Romelu Lukaku from Chelsea looks highly significant.
As Spurs begin yet another project under another new manager, Everton should be able to cement their top six status.
Who to watch: Throwing £28m at Romelu Lukaku after a season on loan from Chelsea was a massive decision. But the purchase means more than just goals, says The Guardian. "In convincing Lukaku to sign a five-year contract, Everton's manager and board alike have truly demonstrated intent." The Belgium striker is the talisman for Everton's push for glory.