Pre-season games are over, the Community Shield has been played and the Championship is underway. All that's left is for the Premier League to get started - and there are just five days to go. Chelsea have a new manager, a new formation and a new Russian winger, and it looks likely we're in for another rollercoaster season. But what about our rivals?
In the days running up to Saturday's big kick off, bridgeviews.co.uk will day-by-day take a look at each of Chelsea's biggest rivals - who they've signed, who they've sold and how they'll get along next season. First up, last season's Champions and this season's Community Shield runners up - Manchester United.
Up until yesterday afternoon most bookies had Man Utd as favourites to win the Premier League. Apparently a narrow win on penalties is enough for them to reconsider however, and Ladbrokes now have both United and Chelsea at 3-1, and William Hill have Chelsea as marginal favourites. A strange knee-jerk reaction, or a realistic prognosis for a declining force?
Ins and outs
Yes, £80m is a lot of money. But in reality, the money that Utd received for Ronaldo is almost useless, such is the scarcity of players of his ability. It's oft written that Chelsea are lacking that one creative player - that 'spark' that can make the team tick and dig it out of holes. But where is that spark in the United side now that Ronaldo's gone? Is it Valencia? Nani? Rooney? Berbatov? No, I'm not convinced either.
That said, there are plenty of goals left in that side. In Rooney and Berbatov they have two strikers the equal of any other in the league and Owen - provided he can stay relatively injury free - will score goals. His signing could well be a masterstroke - and a relatively cheap one at that, with his signing likely to cost only £5m over two years (click here to see what I said about Owen two months ago). A snip for one of England's highest goal scorers who has played at some of the biggest clubs in world football (no, not Newastle). Antonio Valencia is good young player, but goal shy, and won't make the difference - this season, at least.
I almost forgot - someone called Tevez left United too. I've made no secret of the fact that I don't think Tevez is worth £25m and that I wouldn't have been excited had he signed for Chelsea (read my article on the Argentine here). He's an expensive terrier who doesn't score enough goals. United won't miss him.
If he steps up, they'll win the league
I suspect United fans might not agree, but it's Dimitar Berbatov. When he signed for United last season, I was convinced he was the final part of their jigsaw. They had the defence, they had flying wingers and a solid midfield. But it didn't quite work out like that. Berbatov has an exquisite first touch and extraordinary imagination on the ball. Yes, he has a laissez-faire demeanour, but doesn't Drogba? Didn't Cantona? Berbatov was a 20+ goal a season man at Spurs - if United find out how to fit him in the side they can get more goals out of him. If they do, he and Rooney will play havoc with most Premier League defences.
But United's youth might also do the trick. A string of viable young players - Evans, Macheda and Gibson, for example - might arguably give United the edge in terms of squad strength and depth, especially when compared to Arnesen's youth debacle at Chelsea. Evans and the Silva brothers are pretty much proven now - but we'll need to see the the likes of Macheda for a longer period before we can make an informed judgement on their quality.
Where they'll lose it
There's no room for failure for Berbatov, Rooney and Owen. If these three don't chip in with their fair share of goals, a light-looking midfield will expose Man United. Park, Valencia and Anderson are relatively goal shy, Scholes and Giggs are <another> year older and I don't 'buy' Anderson. It's not just goals that will be missing, either - as last season's Champions League final proved - Fletcher and Carrick are very good players but certainly not world beaters. Furthermore, the likes of Park and Nani don't have that star quality. It didn't happen at Wembley yesterday, but United's midfield might find itself either undone or short of firepower a few too many times over the course of a long season.
bridgeviews.co.uk predicted finishing position
I've been as confused as the bookies over the last few weeks. Before the pre-season friendlies, I was convinced that Chelsea would be able to take advantage of the loss of Ronaldo and snatch the league. But Ancelotti's persistance with a 4-4-2 diamond - a formation I'm convinced matches neither Chelsea's squad nor the Premier League - gave me second thoughts.
It should be close. Each side's defence is as good as the other and with the departure of Ronaldo the strikers aren't too much different either. Chelsea certainly have the quality to win it, but a vaguely settled team at United coupled with them having a manager who is more familiar with English football than the back of his own hand, could (depressingly) mean that they're favourites to lift the trophy once again.
But, as a Chelsea fan desperate to be optimistic, my verdict is: United will finish second.
You might also be interested to read:
- A look back at what Chelsea's pre-season tour of the US tells us
- Who Man Utd are actually worrying about - could it be Man City?