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Preview: The English Premier League

By Matthew Weiner for CNN
The goals of Didier Drogba and Nicholas Anelka will be the key if Chelsea are to retain the Premier league title.
The goals of Didier Drogba and Nicholas Anelka will be the key if Chelsea are to retain the Premier league title.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Champions Chelsea still the team to beat thanks to Drogba/Anelka strike force
  • Roberto Mancini under heightened pressure to challenge for the title
  • Manchester United's new striker Javier Fernandez must lessen goal-scoring burden on Wayne Rooney

London, England (CNN) -- The new English Premier League season kicks off with the first round of fixtures this weekend - Fanzone details what to expect from the new campaign:

So what's new?
There is no doubting the biggest Premier League news of the close season was Rafa Benitez leaving Liverpool to join European Champions League holders Inter Milan. With the increasingly cranky Spaniard gone, Liverpool plumped for Roy Hodgson who defied the odds last term by taking little old Fulham to the UEFA Cup final. Hodgson has arrived at Anfield bearing gifts: Chelsea's out-of-contract midfielder Joe Cole, who joined the Reds swapping places with the Israeli Yossi Benayoun, and Danish hard man Christian Poulsen.

Frugality, however, clearly remains the order of the day in English football. That is apart from big spending Manchester City who continued to sprinkle some much needed glitz into the title race with big-name signings such as Yaya Toure, David Silva and Jerome Boateng. Such an outlay means that Roberto Mancini will now be under tremendous pressure to deliver a top-four finish.

If City are going to upset the status quo they will need to stop the Chelsea juggernaut. Last season the London side boasted easily the league's strongest squad -- particularly up front where they were able to draw on the goal-scoring abilities of Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka. This term they will benefit should Brazilian international midfielder Ramires replace Michael Ballack but the move of Ricardo Carvalho to Real Madrid could prove a major loss.

The red half of Manchester continues to take a cautious approach to their spending with Alex Ferguson opting for talented young prospects to boost his squad with the likes of Fulham defender Chris Smalling, Mexican forward Javier Hernandez and Portuguese striker Bebe.

Arsenal spent the close season battling to hold onto their captain Cesc Fabregas while attempting to plug the gaps in an already porous defence created by the departure of William Gallas, Sol Campbell, Philippe Senderos and Mikael Silvestre. Initial signs from Arsenal's preseason suggest that Arsene Wenger may have once again pulled a couple of rabbits out of his hat with the signing of new boys Laurent Koscielny and Marouane Chamakh. Arsenal will have to be on top of their game if they are to once again keep the likes of Manchester City and Champions League debutants Tottenham Hotspur from overtaking them.

"I see money talking loudest, with Manchester City finishing behind United and Chelsea but above Arsenal and Tottenham."
--CNN's Alex Thomas
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If being relatively hard-up wasn't enough of a cross to bear for the Premier League's football bosses, they have also had to deal with a new 'home-grown' ruling which demands squads must contain no more than 25 players over 21 with eight of those having spent at least three years in England from under the age of 21. The aim of this new law is to encourage young talent in the British game and to prevent the stockpiling of foreign stars. Take note, Roberto Mancini.

Key players:
When all was said and done last season, Chelsea won the title because they could rely on the goal-scoring heroics of two world class strikers: Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka. When one was injured or out of sorts, the other would come into the team and do the business. No other side could boast such an embarrassment of riches especially in these financially difficult times. Ferguson will need at least one of Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Owen, Federico Macheda or Javier Martinez to help lessen the burden on Wayne Rooney if United are to wrestle the title back from Chelsea. Meanwhile, if Liverpool are to fire their way back into the Champions league, new boy Milan Jovanovic, who turned down Real Madrid to join the Anfield outfit, will need to offer the kind of goal threat that the side so often lacked in the absence of Fernando Torres.

Key clubs:
Once again, all eyes will be on Manchester City to see if they can maintain an assault on the top spots. Last season, many of their new signings failed to gel and a lack of consistency saw Tottenham seize that crucial Champions League slot. City's squad looks considerably stronger this season with a number of big name signings. Their bid for European football may be made easier if Spurs struggle to cope with the increased demands of playing in Europe. Outside of Manchester United and Chelsea, the only club who could conceivably make a bid for the title are Arsenal. However, unless Arsene Wenger can fix his side's defensive frailties, a lack of steel could prove to be their undoing again. At the other end of the table, the Premier League welcomes back Newcastle United who spent last season in the Championship but returned as worthy champions. The Magpies are joined by perennial yo yo club West Bromwich Albion and Blackpool who are led by the ever entertaining Ian Holloway. The team known as "The Tangerines" -- due to their bright orange kits -- may not be expected to gain many points this coming season but should be entertaining.

Video: Kolo Toure hopeful for new season
Video: Man Utd send message to rivals
Video: Yaya Toure confident at Manchester City

Expert view:
CNN's Alex Thomas - "12 months ago, I correctly predicted that Chelsea would stop Manchester United's run of Premier League triumphs -- but that doesn't make it any easier to pick this season's English champions.

"Chelsea's squad is still strong, although their defense is weaker now that Ricardo Carvalho has left and Alex is injured. And I'm not convinced by Branislav Ivanovic at center half.

"However, the Blues should be stronger in attack if Florent Malouda and Salomon Kalou build on the improvement they showed last season, while Michael Essien and Jon Obi Mikel will benefit from the extra rest after injuries prevented them playing at the World Cup.

"Although plenty of experts predict an open race for the Premier League title, it's hard to see anyone but Manchester United pushing the champions by the time we get to the dying weeks of the season.

"Even Alex Ferguson admitted his team missed Cristiano Ronaldo last season but wingers Nani and Antonio Valencia will only get better and the club has bought well. If they add an attacking midfielder to their squad they are my pick to win back the title.

"The other two places in the top four will be contested by the usual suspects and I see money talking loudest, with Manchester City finishing behind United and Chelsea but above Arsenal and Tottenham.

"Liverpool will have a fight on their hands to improve one place to sixth, with Merseyside rivals Everton their closest challengers. Martin O'Neill's late exit has shot Aston Villa in the foot."