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Saturday, Aug. 13, 2011
Man United still set the standard
LONDON — Selecting the elite group from which the 2012 English champion will come is easy: Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City.
Picking the winner from the four-horse race is less straightforward, but Premier League history dictates the team — if any — that finishes above Sir Alex Ferguson's serial title winners will lift the trophy.
United remains the yardstick for the chasing pack. It won its 19th title last May despite dropping 32 points on its travels, but it was still too good for the rest who will look back on a wasted opportunity.
Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Edwin van der Sar have retired but the next generation of the Red Army look ready to take over the baton.
Paul Jones, happy in defense or central midfield, has arrived from Blackburn; Ashley Young, the ex-Aston Villa winger, will add power to United's already potent forward line. David de Gea was brought in from Atletico Madrid to fill van der Sar's gloves and, despite a shaky Community Shield, the Spaniard will probably be Iker Casillas' successor in the national team.
Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck are back from loan spells at Wigan and Sunderland, and with the rapidly improving Chris Smalling, Fergie's fledglings are ready for the ultimate challenge — a first-team place at Old Trafford.
Chelsea starts the season with a new manager — no change there then — and the 33 -year-young Andre Villas-Boas will be aware finishing second cost Carlo Ancelotti his job.
Apart from keeping owner Roman Abramovich sweet, AVB must win over a dressing-room with more politics than the House of Commons and somehow find a way to make Fernando Torres a feared striker again.
City is the Premier League's Hollywood: plenty of big names and even bigger egos all vying for top billing. Keeping those in the team happy, let alone the supporting cast, is bordering on impossible for Roberto Mancini. At times they are Moanchester City.
Mario Balotelli, Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko, Emmanuel Adebayor and Craig Bellamy are Mancini's options for the two striker positions -who knows, by Aug 31 there may be a seventh contender.
In the elegant David Silva, City has a playmaker of rare class, but the spirit that makes United great is still missing at Eastlands.
Arsenal has almost made an art form out of conceding goals from set-pieces yet Arsene Wenger still hasn't brought in the commanding defender every single Gunners fan believes is needed. If he doesn't, Arsenal will again be a beautiful loser.
Liverpool's Luis Suarez is a decent bet to finish top scorer and the Merseysiders are the most likely "outsiders" to challenge for a top-four finish.
The season kicks off in the wake of civil unrest in England, which has seen Tottenham's opener against Everton postponed.
Tottenham High Road saw the worst of the troubles and it is sad if understandable that the actions of mindless yobs have claimed a fixture three days after England's friendly against Holland was also called off.
But the Premier League is back and will no doubt again prove to be the world's most entertaining football show.
* * *
HERE'S A Premier Report exclusive. This is the new contract for a Premier League player:
"I ___ agree to sign this five-year contract with ___ I will earn loads of money with a loyalty bonus kicking in after three months. However, should I think I can do better elsewhere you must let me break my contract. Also, if I find the city isn't quite to my liking, I'll be off."
Of course, but this non-contract is uncomfortably close to the truth. Player-power is now at such a level the top stars are able to walk away from the multi-million pound longterm contracts they were happy to sign.
Cesc Fabregas always seemed destined to return to Barcelona where he left as a raw 15-year-old. Arsene Wenger and Arsenal have helped him become a European and world champion, but his DNA is Barcelona.
In some respects we should be grateful the transfer is finally on the brink of being finalized after 15 months of Fabregas being "about to" sign for Barcelona, since it made its first rejected offer for the player.
The departure of an outstanding player is normally greeted with sadness, but in Fabregas' case there is a sense of relief that the saga is over. His transfer has become football's Groundhog Day.
Arsenal will receive around £35 million for Fabregas, which some will regard as excellent business given the midfielder's continuing injury problems that have seen him miss 39 percent of Arsenal's league games over the past three seasons.
He won't be playing regularly for Barca, but for different reasons. If the forward line of Pep Guardiola's Dream Team is fit then Fabregas, who signed a six-year contract through to 2015 at Arsenal, will be a Nou Camp substitute.
The emergence of Thiago will be another challenge for Fabregas apart from Xavi and Andres Iniesta.
Samir Nasri seems another likely to be leaving the Emirates to join Gael Clichy at Manchester City. The French pair's desire to move on is to "win things," but if they were as good as they think they are wouldn't they have helped the Gunners win a trophy or two since their last silverware six years ago — or was failure everyone else's fault?
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.