8 Aug 2015

English Premier League: Can Chelsea repeat?

5:44 am on 8 August 2015

The newest instalment of the world's most popular sporting league is back, and the main storyline is one of missing parts.

The English Premier League begins in style at 11.45pm NZT, when Manchester United face Tottenham Hotspur.

(L-R) Chelsea's Ivorian striker Didier Drogba, Cesar Azpilicueta, John Terry,  Cesc Fabregas during the English Premier League football match between Chelsea and Crystal Palace at Stamford Bridge in London on May 3, 2015.

Chelsea's Ivorian striker Didier Drogba celebrates the victory with teammates. Photo: AFP

London side Chelsea return as favourites, having eased over the finishing line last season without so much as a challenging breath on the back of their neck.

But the Blues have a strange air of vulnerability about them this time around.

Never mind their defeat to Arsenal in last weekend's almost meaningless appetiser - the Community Shield - manager Jose Mourinho has stood still in the transfer market this summer.

Mourinho's only major signing has been that of Colombian striker Falcao on loan, who last season not so much resembled a fish out of water for Manchester United, as a gazelle in a lion habitat.

Radamel Falcao failed in his first EPL season at Manchester United.

Radamel Falcao failed in his first EPL season at Manchester United. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Chelsea are hoping the overawed 29-year-old finds his missing shooting boots, but their main concern should be at the back.

The side's defence is one or two injuries away from resembling a New Zealand Conservative Party board meeting.

There are three teams who can realistically challenge the champions: Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United.

For Arsenal, as fans seem to boast every August, this has to be their year.

In signing Petr Cech for a song, they've got a reliable goalkeeper who will keep the backline in check.

If the old wizard Arsene Wenger can nab a top striker before the end of next month to front arguably the league's most creative midfield, he'll be riding off into the sunset swinging his cowboy hat.

The Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.

The Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Manchester City have hedged their bets on the bolshie 20-year-old Raheem Sterling, who spent most of last season either sulking, or with his eyes lit up by pound signs.

For more than $115 million, he should be expected to deliver more than the seven league goals he scored last term.

Yet, if the league's best striker, Sergio Aguero, can fire on all cylinders, all Sterling has to do is sit back and count his stacks on stacks.

And then there's Manchester United, who for the second summer in a row have embarked on a shopping spree Carrie Bradshaw would be proud of.

But for all the money the club has thrown about Europe, it's the missing parts that dominate the conversation.

The Red Devils will score goals, but with Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand having long disappeared from the rearview mirror, the side lacks a domineering defensive player.

Wayne Rooney of Man Utd celebrates after scoring.

Wayne Rooney of Man Utd celebrates after scoring. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Down the Mersey, run by the increasingly bemused-looking Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool look one Steven Gerrard short of a picnic.

The big Belgian recruit Christian Benteke may have to walk alone.

Neither Tottenham Hotspur nor Everton have improved their squads enough to constitute a run at the top four, while the improving Southampton and Swansea City should sit comfortably in the league's top half.

Further down, newly-promoted Watford and Norwich City are expected to swirl around the dreaded relegation cauldron.

The other newcomers, Bournemouth, may have a team more unrecognisable than the cast of the latest Fantastic Four movie, but are built on the type of fairytale fearlessness that will make them something to behold.

Either that, or they'll be cannon-fodder and doomed by March.

When Aston Villa staved off relegation last season, Tim Sherwood's unrestrained joy resembled someone who just found out Downton Abbey had been renewed for another season.

Aston Villa manager Tim Sherwood.

Aston Villa manager Tim Sherwood. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The vest-loving manager should be wary of further struggles, but it's Sunderland who have looked ominously average in the last few years.

Plenty rests on the shoulders of England outcast Jermain Defoe, who might not be able to carry the weary legs of John O'Shea and the eternally crocked Sebastian Coates.

There's also the token New Zealander - Winston Reid - whose big time move away from West Ham United failed to materialise.

He'll be coached by Croatian Slaven Bilic, who looks like someone you wouldn't want to cross in a dark alley.


Champions: Arsenal.

Relegated: Watford, Norwich City, Sunderland.

Top goal scorer: Sergio Aguero.