BARCELONA, Spain (AP) – The Barclays Premier League season kicks off Saturday morning live on Fox Soccer, Fox Soccer Plus and across our FOXSoccer.tv, iPhone and iPad apps. (Real-time coverage of every BPL game is exclusively on the @FoxSoccerTrax Twitter feed .)
This season is expected be tight at both ends of the table. Six teams have realistic chances of grasping silverware . Another six look to struggle with the threat of relegation. Loaded with star power and buoyed by another year of incredible transfer spending, the Premiership looks to be a dogfight with few predictable winners and losers.
Manchester United return as de-facto favorites , but even after an $80 million off-season splurge on Ashley Young, David de Gea and Phil Jones, the Red Devils are far from a sure thing. For one, they lost two big veteran names to age as Edwin van der Sar and Paul Scholes retired from the game. For another, United were brutally exposed by Barcelona at Wembley in May as a team good enough to gut out games in England but lacking the midfield control and flair to rule Europe.
Tom Cleverley, returning from last season's loan to Wigan, looks like an immediate force in midfield where Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs are showing wear and tear. Phil Jones could slot in well for the brittle Rio Ferdinand, and Chris Smalling has grown by leaps and bounds to become a potent force at right back. But a major concern for United is the performance of De Gea, a young, talented but inexperienced goalkeeper who will have little room for error. The health of Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez is also a worry - he misses the first few games due to concussion but there are reports that he has an underlying neurological condition.
No one counts United out, but they will be pushed hard by a resurgent trio. Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City all have points to prove and all are under serious pressure to deliver.
Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini is already feeling the heat after his team blew a 2-0 lead in the Community Shield, falling 3-2 to United in the final minute of play. With one of the most expensive squads in the game, City have few excuses and Mancini has no margin of error. The addition of Kun Aguero gives them a potential breakout superstar striker, but City must figure out how to win big games. Too often, City is content to play a congested, defense-first style that is dangerous stuff in the Premier League.
Chelsea have an aging squad but a youthful new manager, Andre Villas-Boas. With him, the Blues have reason to hope . Fernando Torres remains a major bust but the Mourinho-trained gaffer's touch has put the lie to both his age and lack of experience this preseason. The Blues will miss the long-term injured Michael Essien badly, but they get Yossi Benayoun back and added the promising Oriol Romeu. Daniel Sturridge will reinforce a sometimes feckless strike corps.
Most intriguing has to be Kenny Dalglish's Liverpool. With the club diving for the depths last season under manager Roy Hodgson, Dalglish pulled off one of the greatest reclamation acts in the game, steering the club to a 6th place finish and almost totally overhauling the club in the process. New boys Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing are expected to step right into the mix from day one, taking pressure off the slowly-recovering Steven Gerrard (groin) and giving the Reds enviable depth. With Luis Suarez, Dirk Kuyt and Andy Carroll forming what is arguably the deadliest strike force in the league, Liverpool will be the team to watch .
On the outside looking in are Arsenal and Tottenham, two teams with thin squads and outsized ambitions.
Tottenham overachieved last season and have to avoid a slump . They will once again play in Europe - this time in the booby-prize that is the Europa League - and will have to rely on three key players to carry them. Gareth Bale, Rafael van der Vaart and Luka Modric are simply indispensible to Hotspur. Losing any one of them makes the North Londoners a one-dimensional side. They got some help in keeper Brad Friedel, but strained finances have kept them from truly adding depth where they need it: up top.
The knives are already out at Arsenal, a club that continues to baffle. Their defensive weaknesses are so well-known that it has become comedic short-hand for ineptitude. And yet, the club has chosen to ignore that, signing two attacking players in Gervinho and the promising Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain. This has led to palpable unrest in their locker room, with Samir Nasri refusing to sign a new deal and captain Cesc Fabregas pressing for an exit to boyhood club Barcelona. The Gunners desperately need a commanding goalkeeper and anyone other than Sebastien Squillaci in the center of their defense. As yet, they have neither and look to be a troubled team that will leak a lot of goals .
At the other end of the table, new boys Queen's Park Rangers, Swansea and Norwich City will be under immediate pressure, with the Canaries perhaps the most vulnerable of the trio. Manager Paul Lambert has done an incredible job with Norwich, pulling them up two levels in just two years. However, his squad looks thin and slow for the Premier League game, and while he has grit to spare, his team is going to struggle.
But the new boys will be buoyed by the fact that at least three teams in the Premiership are as bad if not worse. Blackburn are appalling ; Aston Villa are in real decline and Wolverhampton and Wigan look like teams that will be very tough to watch.
Of the quartet, Blackburn are odds-on faves to go down right now. They have been brutally mismanaged by new owners Venky's and have a squad that looks close to collapse. Promises of big signings have come and gone and there is a growing sense that manager Steve Kean is not qualified for this task. Rovers could be out of the running by December.
Villa are the more troubling case. They look to be a team that has been shattered by a series of managerial mishaps and setbacks, leading to a squad that isn't performing anywhere close to its potential. New man Ally McLeish doesn't fill observers with confidence, and with good reason: His old club Birmingham City went down twice under his stewardship and often looked miserable while doing so. Villa also lost several key players in the off-season and haven't entirely replaced them; only Shay Given can be said to be comparable to the man he's replacing.
Starting Saturday, Villa and the other 19 clubs in the league start to bring focus to the speculation. The action starts at 10:00 a.m. ET on FOX Soccer when King Kenny Dalglish ushers in Liverpool's season, welcoming Sunderland to Anfield. At 12:30 p.m. ET no FOX Soccer, Arsenal returns to the site of last season's ultimate embarrassment, visiting Newcastle.
On Sunday, last year's dynamic duo - Manchester United and Chelsea - open their seasons in live matches on FOX Soccer, all part an opening match day that sees seven of the Premier League's nine fixtures available on FOX Soccer, FOXSoccer.tv or FOX Soccer Plus.