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The little horse no more: Why Chelsea will be Premier League champion

By Chris Murphy, CNN
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
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CNN's English Premier League predictions
CNN's English Premier League predictions
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The 2014-15 English Premier League season starts on Saturday
  • Chelsea, led by Jose Mourinho, is favorite to lift its first title since 2011
  • Defending champion Manchester City has added six players to its squad
  • Manchester United hoping to restore glory under new boss Louis van Gaal

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(CNN) -- Jose Mourinho was precisely as we had remembered him.

Provocative, outspoken, manipulative, supremely confident, and utterly compelling.

The only thing lacking in the Portuguese's first campaign back in charge at Chelsea was the usual glut of trophies.

But if you listened to the former Real Madrid and Inter coach opine on the English Premier League title race last season, his side was never in the running.

Despite managing a club owned by Roman Abramovich, who is worth a reputed $10 billion, Mourinho decried his team as the "little horse" in the scurry for the finish line.

This season, ominously, his tone is different.

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The acquisition of two big names from Spain -- Cesc Fabregas of Barcelona and Diego Coasta from La Liga champion Atletico Madrid -- has taken his squad onto a different plane, while the return of stalwart Didier Drogba adds an unashamedly sentimental sheen.

"We have the squad that we want to have," Mourinho told reporters on the eve of the new season. "It is a squad for tomorrow, for next season and also a squad with big possibilities for the next five or 10 years with so many young people."

Chelsea may have finished third last season, but Mourinho's tactical prowess was still in evidence.

Not only did he propel the Londoners to home and away wins over eventual champion Manchester City, he did the same to Liverpool -- a morale-crushing 2-0 victory at Anfield in late April was the beginning of the end for the Reds' title aspirations.

It was against the lesser lights Chelsea faltered, but with his squad now bolstered by yet more quality, Mourinho's charges won't be as generous this time around.

Verdict: Surely, a third Premier League title under Mourinho awaits.

Read: Lampard on MLS adventure

MANCHESTER CITY

Champion twice in the past three seasons, City might have to play second fiddle to Mourinho and Chelsea in 2014-15.

Last season's triumph was a mass of contradictions -- for large parts of the campaign big-spending City was considered favorite but became ultimately reliant on Liverpool's last-gasp stumble to claim top honors.

Manuel Pellegrini's charges spent just 15 days at the top over the whole campaign; the irony of this season may well see it spend more time at the summit without finishing as top dog.

The club's Chilean coach is a year older and wiser as to the travails of English football however, and it has lavished more cash on fleshing out a squad that already has more depth than an Olympic swimming pool.

City has raided Portugal to prise Fernando and Eliaquim Mangala from Porto, while goalkeeper Willy Caballero and Bruno Zuculini have arrived from Spain.

That quartet's lack of English experience has been offset to a degree by the arrival of two seasoned Premier League campaigners plucked from City's rivals.

Frank Lampard, a three-time title winner, has joined on loan from City's subsidiary club New York City FC after being released by Chelsea, while France defender Bacary Sagna has signed from Arsenal.

As ever, City's success will hinge on its twin titans: midfielder Yaya Toure, who has resolved to stay at the club despite threatening to leave after he received a modest birthday present; and prolific Argentina striker Sergio Aguero, who has signed a new five-year contract.

Verdict: Close but no cigar as City settles for second best.

Read: Mangala signs for Man City

MANCHESTER UNITED

This is where the waters become muddied.

Can Louis van Gaal transform Manchester United into a serious title contender by sheer force of personality alone?

The great Alex Ferguson was able to, propelling his team to title success in his final season despite notable deficiencies in his squad.

Man United owner Malcolm Glazer dies
Louis van Gaal will be hoping to restore English Premier League giant Manchester United to its former glories after succeeding David Moyes as manager. Louis van Gaal will be hoping to restore English Premier League giant Manchester United to its former glories after succeeding David Moyes as manager.
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But those holes remain -- not filled by David Moyes in his disastrous sole season in charge -- even if June's purchase of Ander Herrera from Athletic Bilbao in Spain will add some much-needed creativity in the middle of the park.

Promising English left-back Luke Shaw has also been added for what many believe to be a vastly inflated sum, but the 19-year-old will miss the opening month through injury.

For all its limitations, this is still a team that boasts a strike force as lethal as they come.

Wayne Rooney, newly installed as Van Gaal's captain, needs 15 goals to move third on the Premier League's all-time scorers list.

And Robin van Persie's four goals at the World Cup were crucial as Van Gaal led Netherlands to third place in Brazil.

There are no European Champions League distractions for United after last season's malaise, finishing a lowly seventh, so the squad should stay fresh and hungry.

Whatever happens, it won't be dull with Van Gaal around.

Verdict: An up-and-down season to end in third place.

Read: Can Van Gaal cut it at Man Utd?

ARSENAL

The Gunners have become masters of deception in recent years.

Promising Premier League campaigns have frittered away and shots at silverware squandered.

That is precisely what happened in the top flight last season. Arsenal spent 128 days atop the division in 2013-14 but suffered maulings at the hands of Chelsea and Liverpool as a familiar post-Christmas slump took hold.

A spike as spring emerged helped usher in Champions League qualification for the 17th straight year but then came a watershed moment in May -- an FA Cup triumph.

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Victory over Hull City in England's premier knockout competition slaked a nine-year thirst for a trophy and eased the pressure on Arsene Wenger that had been steadily mounting throughout that time.

A change of direction that began with the marquee signing of Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid this time last year has continued, with £66 million ($110m) spent ahead of the new campaign.

The purchase of Alexis Sanchez from Barcelona after his fine World Cup with Chile has convinced many fans the Gunners can stay in title contention as 2014-15 reaches its business end.

In taking right-back Mathieu Debuchy from Newcastle United, Wenger has replaced departing Frenchman Bacary Sagna with an equally competent compatriot.

Colombia World Cup star David Ospina represents competition for Wojciech Szczesny in the race for the goalkeeper's jersey and teenage defender Calum Chambers -- who cost a reported $25 million from Southampton -- indulges Wenger's "one for the future" passion.

Another couple of signings before the window shuts on September 1 could catapult the London side into the title reckoning, but a top-four finish should still be comfortable even without.

Verdict: A fast start before a predictable fade to fourth place for the third successive season.

Read: Sanchez joins Arsenal

LIVERPOOL

How do you replace Luis Suarez? The simple answer is you can't.

The Uruguayan's move to Barcelona may have engendered an $128.5 million windfall, but he takes with him wistful memories of a luxuriant season that reaped 31 goals and 12 assists.

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Manager Brendan Rodgers has chosen to disseminate that cash liberally, rather than try to plug the gap with one marquee signing.

That has one obvious advantage and one undeniable negative.

Eight new arrivals means Liverpool's options are now rich and plentiful but, as Tottenham found out so painfully when trying to replace Gareth Bale last season, it is rare they all hit the ground running.

Add to that a phalanx of extra games now that the Reds are in the European Champions League after an absence of four seasons, and repeating last year's push for the title seems unrealistic.

The likes of Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren, both plucked from Southampton, have Premier League and World Cup experience while the likes of midfielder Emre Can and striker Divock Origi have huge potential -- though the latter, who scored Belgium's winner against Algeria at Brazil 2014, has been loaned back to French club Lille.

Rodgers' renowned man-management skills will be tested as he and aging captain Steven Gerrard attempt to bed the new arrivals into the Liverpool way.

Unless assimilation takes less time than expected, this season is destined to become one of transition for the Reds.

Verdict: A fifth-place finish after a long winter of adjustment..

Read: Barca 'Suarez is ours'

Which team do you think will win the title? Have your say in the comments box below or continue the conversation with CNN FC on Twitter or on Facebook.

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