Premier League roller coaster is ready to begin all over again
Over 380 games and nine months, interweaving and intriguing plot lines will feature a cast of thousands of characters, from the ubiquitous to the otherwise unknown.
It will be an examination of endurance and ability alike, marked by deceptive rises and precipitous slumps. It will be a marathon of money and management, of strikes and saves, of sweat and tears.
It will be determined by some combination of collective strength and individual inspiration, and it will produce conclusions notable for the presence of those antithetical twins, triumph and disaster.
Or it will, anyway, if last year is any guide. If the 2011/12 Premier League season kicks off as scheduled on Saturday, supposedly simultaneously, at Anfield, Craven Cottage, the DW Stadium, Ewood Park, Loftus Road and White Hart Lane, it is in the knowledge that its predecessor inked indelible images in the mind.
Of Blackpool recording home-and-away wins over Liverpool, and displaying remarkable dignity in demotion on the final day.
Of a mumbling Avram Grant inexplicably conducting post-match interviews after being sacked, following West Ham United's relegation.
Of Cheik Tiote volleying the superlative equaliser that sealed Newcastle United's four-goal comeback to draw against Arsenal.
Of Kenny Dalglish's dramatic return to the dugout and his eulogising by the Liverpool supporters who had demonised Roy Hodgson.
Of Fernando Torres's unexpected impotence in a Chelsea shirt and of a midwinter slump that ultimately cost Carlo Ancelotti his job.
Of the overhead goals scored by Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney to defeat Liverpool and Manchester City respectively, and of Manchester United's euphoric celebrations of their historic 19th title.
The drama sets the scene for the sequel. In the truest traditions of follow-ups, it is both familiar and different. This is a battle of young, in Chelsea's 33-year-old manager Andre Villas-Boas, against old, in Ferguson, who turns 70 in December.
It is a contest of new forces in Manchester City, revived greats in Liverpool, and the unflagging constants in Manchester United.
It is the annual assessment of Arsenal's unchanging ideals in an ever-evolving environment that occasionally indulges the romantics, but rarely rewards them.
It is a year where the newcomers add to the fascination. Gervinho, Sergio Aguero and David de Gea have the potential to be pivotal; so, too, do men who were bit-part characters in the grander narrative, but have moved up in the world, players such as Phil Jones, Ashley Young, Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson.
There are those who are aiming to ensure they will not be written out altogether: for Ryan Giggs, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Jamie Carragher, the task is to ensure they are not deemed fading forces.
For others, there are reputations to rebuild or repair: Andrey Arshavin, Alberto Aquilani and Mario Balotelli could do with providing quantifiable proof of their gifts; Wayne Rooney, top of the class in 2009/10, was the most prominent underachiever for much of last season before that unwanted tag was taken by Torres.
And yet a focus on the famous can obscure the more deserving. One of the more endearing aspects of last season was the recognition afforded to the previously unsung. Charlie Adam and Scott Parker were both shortlisted for the PFA Player of the Year award, even if neither could quite enable his employers to retain their Premier League status.
They were a microcosm of strength in depth and individual examples of a refusal to be cowed that was shared by supposed lesser lights.
The best proved more fallible last season, with Manchester United's 80 points making them the lowest-achieving champions in a dozen years and only Manchester City of the first six finishers improving upon their record of the previous campaign.
The rest, in contrast, rallied, shocks becoming less shocking with the regularity. As the concertina effect took hold, two teams, Birmingham City and Blackpool, averaged more than a point per game and still lost their top-flight status.
With five of the top six regressing, in statistical terms anyway, the unpredictability came at the expense of invincibility, perhaps even quality.
Such is Barcelona's supremacy as the world's finest team, as the Champions League final showed, that it is hard to brand the Premier League summit as the pinnacle. Instead, the division's appeal lies in part in its competitiveness. The entertainment value comes from the gifts of top talents, but also from the element of the uncertain.
That, in itself, offers hope for the arrivals from the Championship. With West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle safely ensconced in mid-table and Blackpool, though departing the division, doing so with a surfeit of plaudits, it suggests Queens Park Rangers, Norwich City and Swansea City will not be the whipping boys that previous promoted teams proved. Without top-flight football in 15, six and 28 years respectively, each offers something different.
In the latter two cases, that includes promising managers, in Paul Lambert and Brendan Rodgers, respectively.
QPR are led by the seasoned controversialist Neil Warnock, one of a trio of coaches making a comeback. There is the avuncular Martin Jol at Fulham and, most contentiously, Alex McLeish at Aston Villa, no sooner relegated with Birmingham than returning to the top flight with their immediate rivals.
The close season's theatre has come off the field, whether in McLeish's Midlands maelstrom, the sagas involving Cesc Fabregas and Carlos Tevez or the shadow boxing between the probable contenders for the services of Samir Nasri and Luka Modric.
Yet, as the thrilling Community Shield illustrated, none of it is a satisfactory substitute for the action itself. Prime among last season's achievements was the compelling relegation battle, eventually determined in the final minutes of the campaign, providing ample consolation for the inability of some of the favourites to challenge United at the other end of the table. That Ferguson's men prospered with 80 points rendered it a missed opportunity for Arsenal and Chelsea, in particular.
A repeat, however, should not be envisaged. The story of the season should be driven by the challengers trying to raise their standards and the underdogs seeking to ensure they retain their bite. It should, once again, be gripping.
Published: August 11, 2011 04:00 AM