This year there are six teams able to make a run at hoisting the Premier League. It is arguably the most wide-open race in recent memory, and is showing that the league - helped by lots of money - is approaching a new level of excellence.
The kicker, unfortunately, is that as the big teams have reloaded, many of the mid-tier teams were picked over and discarded in a ruthless summer transfer window. Blackburn, Newcastle, and Aston Villa got worked over and their decline points up a growing race for the bottom as the mid-tier teams approach parity.
Here are the six choices to seize the silver -- and the team we pick to go down.
Liverpool: Admit it, you're wondering if Kenny Dalglish can strike gold twice. He pulled off one of the rescues of the season (ironically, Roy Hodgson was behind the other with WBA) but there's a nagging thought in the back of your head that says: "What if that was all luck?" After all, Dalglish had two unspectacular management runs prior to his Anfield return. What makes this time different? That's a good question and it's not certain we'll know the answer until a few months in, but the sense around the club -- shared by most outside observers -- is that this Liverpool team is poised to be special.
They have a deadly attack in Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll; have a lot of depth at midfield; and one of the better keepers in the league holding together the weak spot: a fairly average defense. But Liverpool also have a bit of a leg-up: they are out of Europe this season and can concentrate on building confidence and maybe -- just maybe -- nicking the Premier League crown back from Manchester United.
They don't yet have that swagger, nor do we have the sense that on any day, the Anfield lads can beat anyone, but this is a team that bears watching. Love 'em or hate 'em, this could be the story of the
Manchester City: On paper, this is the best team in the country. If they played games on paper, or perhaps, with paper, City would be running away right now with the trophy.
Roberto Mancini has everything a manager could want in terms of squad depth and talent, but with that comes enormous pressure, and the sense is that if the train is slow to leave the station this year, he's on the firing line.
Unfortunately, he's tended to play things a bit too safe: he's got a muscular defense, but has failed to instil the needed linkup play to get the ball upfield.
The man who normally totes that bale is Carlos Tevez, a want-away of two years now who, to be fair, does show up for the games. If he goes,
Sergio Aguero is supposed to be his replacement, but City fans should be hoping he'll stay: the thought of having Tevez, Aguero, David Silva and Yaya Toure at their beck and call is potent.
Mancini will have to figure out how to play a bit more expansive soccer over
the coming months, but if his guys can keep a cool head, they can win this whole thing.
Chelsea: Chelsea are being overlooked this year. That's foolish. Andre Villas-Boas may be young and he may have very little track experience, but on the evidence he looks like he knows what he is doing. Of graver concern is finding a replacement for Michael Essien and getting something out of Fernando Torres, who looks just terrible.
Didier Drogba remains the main man with Nicolas Anelka as his mercurial partner. And yet, there is cautious optimism here. Despite the swan dive last year -- and the uncomfortable fact that since the Special One decamped, the team has won the crown just once -- this aging team is finally starting to show signs of belief again.
Is it young Daniel Sturridge, a holy terror last season for Bolton? Is it David Luiz, who remains raw but infinitely talented? Is it the steadiness of John Terry, Petr Cech and Frank Lampard? Or is the "inexperienced" Villas-Boas, a man with just 20 months of high level work (and two big titles) really the man to calm it all down?
Arsenal: Only included here because they could finish fifth. They are not title contenders and have serious issues that they have utterly failed to confront. One suspects that the players have figured this out as well - that's why so many want to leave. It's become a broken record: the needs are defenders, a commanding goalkeeper, another goalscorer, and in that order.
Gervinho is the only tick of any of those boxes yet made and it's going to take him some time to settle. By that time, Arsenal will probably lost a few more to clubs looking for talented young players who actually want to win trophies.
Sadly, the board and Arsenal fans continue to enable the situation, and as a result, Arsene Wenger is clinging on and coasting on the past. Expect them to lose some games quite badly this season ... and don't be shocked if there is a quick Euro exit, too.
Tottenham: Rank outsiders after a career year all around, Harry Redknapp's boys faded badly at the end of the season and without a healthy Gareth Bale, often looked very one-dimensional.
If they lose key playmaker Luka Modric as well that could take them tumbling back into the pack. They do have a couple advantages: The pickup of
Brad Friedel in goal is excellent, and he will save them some points this year.
What Spurs have not done is gotten rid of the baggage: Robbie Keane, Sebastien Bassong and David Bentley are not giving the club anything but are collecting a handsome sum to do so. Imagine what the club could do with that room? Rafael van der Vaart, Aaron Lennon, Tom Huddlestone and Benoit Assou-Ekotto are all quality, but when Roman Pavyluchenko is your backup? Yeeesh.
Manchester United: The favorites, with one big asterisk. United have reloaded over the summer, getting back the brilliant Tom Cleverley from loan; adding gutsy Phil Jones and the impressive Ashley Young to bulk up a squad that looked a bit ragged last year.
There's a lot of talent out there -- Berbatov, Hernandez, Rooney, Nani, Park, Vidic -- but they were exposed as one-dimensional in the Champions League final last year and need to make serious moves in the midfield. Giggs and Carrick can't cut it. The biggest loss is the retirement of Edwin van der Sar.
In comes young David De Gea, an expensive and uncomfortable-looking pickup from Atletico Madrid who had better get his act together quickly. This young keeper is the weak link and the Community Shield showed that to a fare thee well. He'll make for some sleepless nights.
AND: Blackburn Rovers. The only non-"Big Four" team to ever win a Premier League title look to be heading down fast. They looked abhorrent in pre-season, seem rudderless in the dugout and have a front office that frankly looks comically incompetent. Could be a classic case of big dreams and just enough money to get into trouble. Steve Kean should be first to get the sack; on the evidence Rovers could be struggling for survival right from the start.