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7 talking points ahead of the new Premier League season

We look ahead to the first round of games as another exciting-looking campaign gets underway.

1. Can Chelsea’s new signings adapt promptly?

Soccer - Pre Season Friendly - Chelsea v Real Sociedad - Stamford Bridge Source: Andrew Matthews

WITH MANY PEOPLE tipping Chelsea to ultimately win the league, the pressure is on Jose Mourinho’s men to deliver this season.

They spent heavily during the summer and two of their most high-profile signings — Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa — were part of the Spain squad that flopped badly at the World Cup.

However, Chelsea’s backline are likely to be far more solid than the likes of Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos were, so this pursuit should turn out to be contrastingly fruitful for the duo.

The most pertinent question perhaps is how quickly Costa and Fabregas — along with Filipe Luis – can adapt to the notoriously unique, frenzied pace of the Premier League.

Fabregas isn’t expected to struggle much in this regard, given his extensive experience with Arsenal in English football and provided he is fully fit, as opposed to the pale shadow of his usual self that appeared towards the end of last season, Costa should thrive and consolidate his place as the London club’s main striker.

The Blues’ clash away to Burnley on Monday could be an intriguing affair, as it was against the weaker teams who they were expected to beat last season where Chelsea at times came unstuck. Presumably, the extra creativity and attacking potency should render the club more reliable in this regard, owing in particular to the influence of their summer signings.

2. Has Louis van Gaal settled on United’s best formation?

Soccer - Pre Season Friendly - Manchester United v Valencia - Old Trafford Source: Barrington Coombs

A considerable portion of the pre-season talk regarding United has focused on the formation they will play under Louis van Gaal.

Judging by the admittedly often deceptive indicator of pre-season games, they will favour a 3-5-2 with Antonio Valencia and (once he attains full fitness) Luke Shaw as the primary wing-backs.

But while supporters may be getting used to the idea of a three-man defence, it would not be a surprise if Van Gaal eventually shakes things up both in terms of personnel and the system.

The veteran coach is regarded as a bit of a maverick and tinkerman, as was demonstrated time and again at the World Cup, so don’t be surprised if he frequently adapts his lineup to combat the style of the opponents they’re up against.

In tomorrow’s early 12.45pm kick-off, United start their campaign against Swansea — a seemingly straightforward fixture, yet those fans who have yet to extinguish their memories of David Moyes’ catastrophic and mercifully brief tenure will remember that the Welsh side knocked the Red Devils out of the FA Cup at Old Trafford last January. Any similar slip-up tomorrow would put LVG under immediate pressure.

3. Is Rickie Lambert good enough to lead the line for Liverpool?

Soccer - Pre-Season Friendly - Preston North End v Liverpool - Deepdale

The word ‘fairytale’ is seriously over-used in football nowadays, yet Rickie Lambert’s journey is a rare instance of a case where the term genuinely applies.

Having spent years toiling away in the lower divisions, the striker has enjoyed a new lease of life in recent seasons, reaching double figures in the last two Premier League campaigns — a far cry from the individual who managed just eight goals in 35 appearances in the Third Division for Mansfield during the 2001-02 season.

However, despite the incredible improvement he has undergone, critics are continuing to doubt the star with the consensus decreeing that Liverpool badly need another striker to complement the excellent Daniel Sturridge.

With few other options, Lambert could start against his former club on Sunday at Anfield — where the Saints handed the Reds a rare loss last season.

Yet even a goal from the former Stockport County striker this weekend will do little to quell the suspicion that Liverpool have yet to properly replace the departed Suarez. That said, it would be foolish to write off Lambert completely, given that he’s made a habit of overcoming the odds during his career.

4. Will Arsenal achieve their potential?

Soccer - Community Shield - Arsenal v Manchester City - Wembley Stadium Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

It seems to happen almost every year — Arsenal at one point are considered serious title contenders before their challenge collapses in dramatic fashion at some point in the latter half of the season.

The Gunners have made some impressive-looking signings in Mathieu Debuchy and Alexis Sanchez, with the latter impressing for Chile at the World Cup over the summer, frequently demonstrating the kind of work-rate that the Gunners are sometimes accused of lacking.

And while last season had the moments of dread that Arsenal fans have come to expect in recent years — the respective thrashings by Man City, Chelsea and Liverpool being prime examples — there is also evidence to suggest they are improving slowly but surely.

After all, they only ultimately finished seven points behind champions Manchester City last year, once again securing Champions League football while also winning the FA Cup — their first trophy in nine years.

If they can find the level of consistency that all too often deserts them when they come up against the top sides, they will surely launch a serious challenge for the league, though like the other less fancied title contenders, they could do with one or two more players, particularly up front, to push on significantly from last season.

A Tony Pulis-less Crystal Palace at home in Saturday’s late kick-off should be straightforward enough, though Wenger and co need only think of last season’s opening day 3-1 loss against Villa to quell any potential sense of complacency.

5. Can Man City take a step towards greatness?

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Manchester City v West Ham United - Etihad Stadium Source: Martin Rickett

Two titles in three years is highly impressive, though three in four for Man City would surely be enough to instigate talk of ‘greatness’.

And the Eastlands outfit are undoubtedly good enough to secure a second successive title. They are a side with a number of big characters — Vincent Kompany, Pablo Zabaleta and new recruit Frank Lampard — mixed with supreme talent epitomised by players such as Yaya Toure, David Silva and Sergio Aguero.

There are doubts though — the side were distinctly underwhelming the last time they set about defending a Premier League title, though that was at least partially due to Roberto Mancini’s increasingly ill-fated attempt to retain his players’ respect.

This year, under the far more calm reign of Manuel Pellegrini, they should be strong enough to launch a sustained defence of the league, particularly with the considerable experience they’ve accumulated in title run-ins over the last three years.

First and foremost though, Sunday’s meeting against Newcastle is a potentially tricky clash — the Magpies blew hot and cold last year, though they did cause serious problems for some top sides at St James’ Park, taking points off Liverpool and Chelsea among others there. But with City at close to full strength, they should prevail no matter which version of Alan Pardew’s consistently mercurial side turn up.

6. Big season for Irish stars

Shane Long

With Martin O’Neill’s side finally set for some competitive action in the coming months, it’s crucial that his Irish stars enjoy a good season at both domestic and international level.

Of much interest will be Shane Long, whose £12million (€14.9m) transfer to Southampton this week raised many eyebrows. Yet even if he struggles for goals, as has been the case in recent seasons, his Dirk Kuyt-esque work-rate and attitude will surely win him some admirers regardless.

Elsewhere, Irish fans will be keeping a keen eye on Everton — James McCarthy and Seamus Coleman should look to build on impressive campaigns last year, while Shane Duffy, Aiden McGeady and Darron Gibson will hold more modest aims of securing the first-team football that eluded them last year for various reasons.

Watching Hull will be similarly intriguing from an Ireland perspective. Robbie Brady will hope to start this year the way he began last season (before succumbing to long-term injury) while Stephen Quinn, by contrast, will seek to emulate the manner in which he finished it. David Meyler, meanwhile, showed steady consistency throughout the 2013-14 campaign, and doing so again could be enough to put him in contention for an Ireland starting spot. Finally, Paul McShane will be hoping for a bit more luck, after he picked up a long-term injury, having just started to come into form last year.

Moreover, at Villa, Roy Keane’s motivational skills may not be enough to prevent another dire season for the club, though the Irishman’s presence is surely a plus for up-and-coming stars such as Jack Grealish and the more established ones like Ciaran Clark.

7. Relegation battle unpredictable as ever

Soccer - Pre Season Friendly - Mansfield Town v Aston Villa - One Call Stadium Source: Joe Giddens

If last season illustrated anything, it was that the relegation battle is increasingly becoming a 10 or 11-horse race.

There are arguably only seven sides (the same teams who finished in the top 7 last year) who are effectively guaranteed to be safe from the drop come May.

So-called lesser teams who excelled last year, such as Stoke and Southampton, may dispute the above assertion, but as Crystal Palace and many other teams in the past have demonstrated, it only takes a sudden ill-advised change in manager or mass selling of players to plunge a club into chronic uncertainty.

Of the teams fighting against the drop this time around, expect Leicester, Burnley and West Brom to be there or thereabouts, while Hull, Aston Villa and QPR probably won’t be too far behind them. Palace as well could implode, though a side good enough to ultimately finish 11th last year should have enough ability and determination to avoid the drop, with or without their inspirational manager.

Predictions (all games Saturday 3pm kick-off unless stated otherwise)

Man United 3-1 Swansea (12.45)

Leicester 1-2 Everton

QPR 1-1 Hull

Stoke 2-1 Aston Villa

West Brom 1-2 Sunderland

West Ham 1-2 Tottenham

Arsenal 3-0 Crystal Palace (17.30)

Sunday

Liverpool 3-1 Southampton (13.30)

Newcastle 1-2 Man City (16.00)

Monday

Burnley 0-4 Chelsea (20.00)

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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