Ferguson and Mancini will go head-to-head again this season. Tim Hales/AP/Press Association Images
Fever Pitch

Five questions to be answered in the Premier League this season

Have City ended United’s dominance? Who are the ‘top four’? What of the newly-promoted sides?

IT IS 96 DAYS since Martin Tyler screamed Sergio Aguero’s name as the little Argentine ghosted by a couple of QPR defenders and won the title for Manchester City in the most dramatic season finale ever witnessed in English football.

The Premier League, now in its 21st season, resumes tomorrow and, as ever, several fascinating plots, sub plots and side stories will unfold over the next nine months.

Before a ball is kicked, here are five questions to consider.

1. Can United wrestle back the title from City?

Four years and a couple hundred million euro worth of talent on from taking over Manchester City, Sheikh Mansour has delivered on his promise. The Citizens can finally call themselves the Premier League’s top team after a 44-year drought and, with one title in the bag, they intend to remain at the top.

While they are yet to add to their squad this summer, the squad Roberto Mancini has in his possession is still arguably superior to the other 19 clubs in the division. A delay in new arrivals can be put down to the trouble they are having offloading some expensive dead weight. Nevertheless, as the transfer deadline draws closer there will almost certainly be one or two buys in the coming days, meaning the City will be good shape to defend their title.

What then of city rivals United, who not so long ago scoffed at their ‘noisy neighbours’? 2011/12 will go down as one of those rare seasons to forget during Alex Ferguson’s 26-year (and counting) reign. No silverware, an early exit from the Champions League followed by the slightly strange sight of first, participation, then elimination, from Europe’s second tier competition.

There are a couple of undeniable weaknesses in this current United team. One which refuses to go away is the midfield dilemma. Paul Scholes, a legend in the game but now 37-years-old, has earned a contract extension after coming out of retirement and while Darren Fletcher made a brief appearance during the friendly with Aberdeen earlier this week, uncertainty lingers around his playing career.

Anderson has never fulfilled his promise and could be out the door before August 31 but if Michael Carrick and the highly-rated Tom Cleverley, who had a torrid time with injury during what was supposed to be his breakthrough season last year, can strike up an understanding as a deep-lying midfield partnership, the options Fergie has to choose his front four from is impressive.

A signing of real intent, last season’s top scorer in the Premier League Robin van Persie has been added to the striking department of Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez, which the Scot has likened to his 1999 four – Yorke, Cole, Sheringham and Solskjaer. In supporting roles, there is Nani, Luis Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and another recent arrival Shinji Kagawa, who many expect to add that spark of creativity which they have lacked at times.

Further back, competition is badly needed for Patrice Evra but with captain Nemanja Vidic back in the heart of their defence, United look like a force once again. And, let us not forget, they were a matter of seconds away from being crowned champions last time out.

At 70, the club’s most successful manager shows no signs of letting up but the simple fact is he can’t go on forever and bouncing back to win a 20th league title would be a satisfying way to sign off if that was his wish.

The question is, then, has City’s emergence spelled the end of United’s Premier League dominance, or will they return stronger in a similar fashion to past power struggles with Arsenal and Chelsea?

2. Who are the ‘top four’?

When the final points were tallied up and all was said and done last May, Chelsea found themselves outside the top four positions for the first time in ten years. During what can only be described as a rollercoaster season for the Pensioners – which began with new hope in the form of Andre Villas Boas and ended in a barely believable victory in a European final – Chelsea’s league form, by their own standards, was not up to scratch.

Former midfielder Roberto Di Matteo went from temporary caretaker to club saviour thanks to a first Champions League success coupled with an FA Cup triumph. Those achievements have earned the Italian a longer stay in the hotseat, and deservedly so. The team did, however, look a tired bunch at times and Roman Abramovich has been quick to address that. Out the door went Anelka, Drogba, Malouda, Bosingwa and Kalou. In their place, new models Eden Hazard, Marko Marin and Oscar. And there will no doubt be a few more added between now and deadline day.

With Chelsea once again likely to stake a claim among the top three clubs, how do the other contenders match up?

Arsenal have bought wisely in ready-made talent Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski. Along with Olivier Giroud, they will add to a group of players who are accomplished but came up well short on occasion during the last campaign. Laurent Koscielny must continue to improve alongside newly-instated captain Thomas Vermaelen if they are to shore up their leaky defence and more consistency from players like Theo Walcott is vital.

Just as the departures of Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Cesc Fabregas did in the past, Robin van Persie’s exit will have hurt Arsene Wenger. Apart from losing their best player from last season, it is a psychological blow to the club… but there are positives to take. €24m for a 29-year-old with a history of injuries and one year left on his contract who has publicly stated that he does not want to continue at the club represents a figure simply too good to turn down for the Gunners.

With reinforcements already brought in to lessen the blow, one more shrewd signing would give Arsenal a fair shot at maintaining their position as the league’s third best team. News that Barcelona are set to make a bid for midfielder Alex Song is not what their fans will want to hear, however.

Up the road, it’s out with the old and in with the new for fellow North Londoners Tottenham. Harry Redknapp has left the building and in his place, a man desperate to prove doubters wrong. Andre Villas Boas felt he wasn’t given a fair crack at the whip during the brief time with Chelsea but has been offered a second chance by Spurs.

Like Wenger, he has had to deal with a player keen to leave all summer and the sooner Luka Modric heads off to Real Madrid, the better. Ajax captain Jan Vertonghen is an excellent signing, especially with Ledley King retiring, and Gylfi Sigurdsson showed real potential at Swansea last season. The big task will be finding a replacement for their Croatian schemer in a short space of time and, will ultimately determine how high they can finish.

Newcastle were one of the real surprise packages last time out and although they have held onto their key players, equalling that feat of fifth place will be extremely difficult for Alan Pardew. You do have to admire the job their scouting team has done in the past year and Dutch midfielder Vurnon Anita, signed from Ajax, is the latest player the Magpies will be hoping can follow on in similar vein to Yohan Cabaye, Cheick Tiote and Papiss Demba Cisse.

Vurnon Anita. Credit: Joe Giddens/EMPICS Sport

3. Can the new generation of managers produce?

Redknapp, Hodgson, Bruce, McLeish, Dalgleish are all out and, in the past year, a young batch of managers has emerged to give a new lease of life to the Premier League. The likes of Paul Lambert, Brendan Rodgers, Roberto Di Matteo, AVB and now Brian McDermott and Michael Laudrup have brought a freshness as well as their own ideas on tactics, training methods, man-management and handling the media.

Unfortunately, not all with cut it at the top and a couple could even be out the door come Christmas.

It will be fascinating to see how they cope, especially the ones in new jobs. Take Rodgers, for instance. Lauded last term on his debut in the top flight, the style and flair with which Swansea played was a joy to watch. When one of the traditional big clubs came knocking, he felt he was ready to make the step up and agreed to take charge of Liverpool. Along with a bigger wage package and greater prestige comes added responsibility and pressure.

Early signs have been positive and Rodgers has already been praised for the manner in which he handles his press briefings. It may be a cliche but results are what matter and playing attractive football will mean little to Kop fans if they’re not picking up points. The fixture list hasn’t been kind – after Saturday’s opener against West Brom, they place United, City and Arsenal in the first six games.

Hopefully, the former Northern Ireland international, who is Liverpool’s fourth manager in as many seasons, is afforded the necessary time to put his imprint on this team by John W Henry and the Fenway Sports Group.

4. How will the promoted teams fare?

The three teams to earn promotion from the Championship in 2011, Swansea, Norwich and QPR, all managed to retain their Premier League status last term. Will Southampton, Reading and West Ham all be able to the same? Probably not.

Southampton return after a seven-year absence from the division thanks to a runners-up spot in the Championship. Suffering relegation to League One and administration in 2009, a second promotion on the bounce is a remarkable feat for manager Nigel Adkins, who took charge two years ago.

In Rickie Lambert and Billy Sharp, they possess two strikers who are proven goalscorers in the lower tiers and who will be desperate to show their worth in the top flight. Swansea and Norwich were evidence that you don’t need a squad of players with vast Premier League experience to stay up, but it does help and you would fear for the Saints’ chances. First up, Manchester City away.

Under Steve Coppell, Reading earned plenty of plaudits during their last spell in the Premier League. Promoted for the first time in 2006, they beat the drop that year with Irish trio Kevin Doyle, Stephen Hunt and Shane Long in their ranks but were unable to avoid it the following season.

Coppell has since left and, after a short spell under Brendan Rodgers, Brian McDermott is now in charge. Like Southampton, holding their own over the course of the season will prove extremely difficult but there chances have been boosted by the arrival of Russian tycoon Anton Zingarevich. He has already splashed out on striker Pavel Pogrebnyak, who spent last season on loan at Fulham, and they will need more signings of that calibre between now and the deadline.

Of the three promoted teams, West Ham look the most capable of mixing it in the big time. The Hammers return to the Premier League via the play-offs a year after going down. Sam Allardyce’s direct style was criticized last term from fans who believed the club’s traditional style of football should be adhered to but none could complain when he delivered on his promise of instant promotion.

With the likes of Kevin Nolan, Mark Noble, James Collins, Mohamed Diame and Carlton Cole in their ranks and a proven manager in Allardyce, West Ham appear the most probable to finish outside the bottom three come May.

5. In the Premier League pantomime, who will play this season’s leading roles?

In 2011/12, we had:

Sergio Aguero – the hero

John Terry and Luis Suarez – the villains

Mario Balotelli – the lovable rogue

Joey Barton – the village idiot

Robin van Persie – the hitman

Fabrice Muamba – the fighter

But who will be cast in these roles, among others, this time out…?

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