Confidence at Man City is palpable

[PREMIER LEAGUE PREVIEW] The 2011-12 season wasn’t the finest hour in English Premier League history, but it definitely provided a riveting final few seconds.

Chelsea’s one-part-skill, two-parts-luck, three-parts-grit run to Champions League glory, combined with the Premier League title changing hands in stoppage time on the last day of the season, put a shiny coat of paint on a decidedly average year in the world’s richest soccer league.

Manchester City was clearly the most talented team in England last year, but only a desperate finish rescued its first EPL crown, which included two stoppage-time goals against QPR in the final game of the year. Sergio Aguero took City from second to first, ahead of defending champion Manchester United, when he scored the winner in Manchester with only seconds remaining, as some United players were seen celebrating at Sunderland, to complete the most exciting finish in league history.

The EPL prides itself on being not only the richest league in world -- it signed a three-year domestic television contract for nearly $5 billion -- but also the most competitive league.

Last season did not bring much evidence of that, as City and United ran away from the rest of the league, and outside of Chelsea’s unforgettable Champions League run, the Premier League laid a collective egg in Europe.

HEAVYWEIGHTS. Apparently even the richest league in the world has a price, and Manchester City’s Sheikh Mansour agreed to meet it. Since the Abu Dhabi Group purchased it in August 2008, Manchester City has spent nearly $700 million  on transfer fees alone. City finished fifth in 2010 and third in 2011, and the reigning champions look to stay on top of the EPL.

City’s first title since 1968 seemed much more an omen of things to come than a smash and grab, and manager Roberto Mancini will look to improve upon the margin of victory this time around. The Italian went from being concerned about his job security to “the perfect man for the job” just as quickly as Mario Balotelli’s tap to Aguero won them a title. The margin of victory was razor thin, but the confidence is now palpable.

Balotelli showed at Euro 2012 his immense potential may be worth all the headaches, David Silva shined for Spain, Vincent Kompany is an excellent captain, and Yaya Toure was simply the best player in the EPL last season.

The news got even better when Carlos Tevez came into camp in great shape and looked lethal combining with countryman Aguero. Everton's Jack Rodwell has been the only signing thus far, but he should spell Toure and provide insurance. A little depth wouldn’t hurt the biggest spenders in England for their Champions League run, especially after getting bounced out during group play last year.

Manchester United, the gold standard of English soccer, had a disappointing season by its standards in 2012, yet it still took a near miracle in the closing moments from City to beat the Red Devils, on goal differential. City’s unbelievable finish exposed a Man U team far too reliant on Ryan Giggs, 38, and Paul Scholes, 37, with little in proven goal scorers outside Wayne Rooney.

The Red Devils are hoping the signing of Robin Van Persie from Arsenal just days before their opener for $38 million changes all that. United now have the top two scorers in the EPL from last season, when Rooney and Van Persie combined for 57 goals. The most critical relationship in the Premier League this year will be between RVP at striker and Rooney just behind him in the hole. Rooney has grown into much more than a goal scorer and Van Persie began his career playing Rooney’s position.

Strikers Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck are still young, while Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Nani are quality wingers but perhaps not the players Ferguson was hoping for when he signed them.

Man U’s major transfer acquisition before Van Persie was the dangerous Japanese Shinji Kagawa from two-time German champion Borussia Dortmund. He played behind the striker -- where Rooney plays -- or on the wing -- another position of strength at Old Trafford. But it’s surprising United hasn’t addressed its back four, or defensive midfield.

The bold move for Van Persie could inject a lot of optimism into a United fan base that isn't used to needing one or staring up at its "noisy neighbors." Despite a lackluster IPO on Wall Street, one would’ve expected more player investment from the Forbes “most valuable sports franchise on the planet."

NEXT IN LINE. The betting houses have Chelsea at 5/1 to win the EPL next year, well ahead of Arsenal, and the only club outside of Manchester that's less than 10/1. We’ll skip the wagering, but here are the next four in order of 2012 finish.

Van Persie, who carried a flawed Arsenal team to a third-place finish and another Champions League berth behind his 30 goals, let Arsenal know right after the season he wanted to play somewhere he could win titles, which meant a change of scenery.

Now Van Persie joins this list of quality players who’ve left Arsenal over the last seven years: Patrick Vieira (2005), Ashley Cole (2006), Thierry Henry (2007), Mathieu Flamini (2008), Emmanuel Adebayor (2009), Gael Clichy (2011), Cesc Fabregas (2011) and Samir Nasri (2011).

There are still rumors that Barcelona is interested in Alex Song to replace Seydou Keita. Song says he’s aware of the interest but “happy at Arsenal.” He’d be a major loss for the Gunners, the type of of midfield presence manager Arsene Wenger couldn’t replace on the current roster.

In anticipation of RVP’s leaving, Wenger finally brought in some talented players of legal drinking age. The Gunners signed 27-year-old Lukas Podolski, who scored 18 goals last year in the Bundesliga. Olivier Giroud, 25, led the French first division with 21 goals and helped tiny Montpellier win its first Ligue 1 title. Santi Cazorla, 27, was signed from Malaga and could be the next big EPL star from La Liga.

But the Gunners are treading water in the top four. They haven’t won a trophy since the FA Cup in 2005 but continue to qualify for Champions League play. This trend should continue next season, as Wenger’s troops haven’t closed the gap on the top two in Manchester but remain a cut above Newcastle and Tottenham. If Arsenal can fend off Chelsea, it could finish the season in third yet again.

Off the field, no one had a stronger rooting interest in the 2012 Champions League final than Tottenham. When Bayern Munich choked during penalty kicks, handing the Blues their first European championship, Spurs' hard-earned ticket to next year’s Champions League was exchanged for the much less coveted Europa variety, meaning it was forced to forgo the money that comes with Champions League qualification -- and the new player transfers that money brings.

Andres Villas-Boas, the new manager at White Hart Lane, is still feeling the repercussions of his former club's success. Star Luka Modric is on the verge of moving to the bright lights of Real Madrid, and Tottenham could really use some attacking flair. Another major loss is Ledley King, the heart and soul of the Spurs defense who finally succumbed to his bad knees and retired at the age of 31.

Adebayor, who scored 17 goals while on loan from Man City, is locked in a contract battle with Man. City and might return to Tottenham. Jermain Defoe, 29, is the only other striker on the roster and hasn’t started more than 16 games in three seasons.

Tottenham's other moves brought a very good center back, 25-year-old Belgian international Jan Vertonghen, from Ajax, and Icelandic midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson, the EPL player of the month in March, from Swansea, while three veterans left: Niko Kranjcar to Dynamo Kiev, Vedran Corluka to Lokomotiv Moscow and Steven Pienaar back to Everton.

Newcastle was third, unbeaten after 11 games last season, when it lost to Manchester City. The Magpies experienced winless streaks and embarrassing losses after that, but did just enough to finish fifth, only five points back of Arsenal in third. Papiss Cisse, a revelation with 13 goals in 14 appearances, fellow Senegalese Demba Ba and Frenchman Hatem Ben Arfa formed a quality attacking mix. If manager Alan Pardew can make it through August without losing any of his prized assets they should be even better this season.

Chelsea actually spent most of Villas-Boas’ shorter tenure higher up the table than its sixth-place finish, but no one was happy. Nicolas Anelka and Alex asked for transfers out during the winter break and got them. In February, John Terry became the first player to be stripped of the English captaincy twice. There was infighting all through the team, and Fernando Torres couldn’t score to save his life, so on March 4, with the Blues in fifth place, Villas-Boas was fired.

Chelsea’s season seemed to turn around almost immediately. Assistant Roberto Di Matteo took over as manager and two days later Chelsea beat Birmingham City to advance to the FA Cup quarterfinals, a competition it would eventually win. Chelsea won its first EPL match under Di Matteo before a match that probably defined its season. On March 14, Napoli came to Stamford Bridge with a 3-1 lead in the Champions League quarterfinals, but Chelsea found a way to finish regulation up 3-1 and win the game in overtime. This victory gave the players a belief in Di Matteo, and beating Barcelona over two legs in the semis only reinforced that. When Chelsea finished off Bayern Munich in Germany to win the trophy, it completed one of the biggest turnarounds in EPL history.

A few veterans are heading out. Salomon Kalou and Jose Bosingwa aren’t huge losses, but Didier Drogba leaves Stanford Bridge after eight years with 100 league goals and a reputation as a big-game performer. Drogba scored nine goals in nine cup finals. His final touch in a Chelsea shirt was the game-winning penalty that brought home Chelsea's first Champions League title.

How do you replace a guy like that? Owner Roman Abramovich spent more than $100 million this summer on three attacking youngsters with style.

The Blues signed Marko Marin, 23, from Werder Bremen for $11 million, and uber talented Eden Hazard, 21, for $55 million from Lille. Both can play attacking mid or wing. Chelsea then signed 20-year-old Oscar, the heir to the No. 10 of Brazil's Selecao in Brazil, from Internacional for $44 million.

Chelsea feels like an odd mix of young players and veterans who prefer different styles of play. Petr Cech and Ashley Cole are still among the best at their positions. But Frank Lampard is 34, and Terry begins the season facing possible suspension from the FA for racial abuse. He’s already escaped criminal prosecution for the same incident with Anton Ferdinand.

From bookmakers to prognosticators, it seems everyone believes last year’s sixth-place team will ride its wave of European success past Arsenal into third. Many picked Chelsea to overtake United, until the Van Persie signing. Battling Arsenal for third sounds about right, and fourth place probably gets Di Matteo another year under the notoriously impatient Abramovich.

TEAM TO WATCH. Conventional wisdom holds that possession soccer doesn’t work in the rough and tumble EPL. So when Brendan Rodgers’ Swansea team won the 2011 playoff at Wembley to get promoted playing one-touch ball, it was deemed relegation fodder. Swansea quickly dispelled this thinking by playing beautifully with “inferior talent," finishing mid-standings and earning Rodgers the head job at Liverpool, where it will be fascinating to see what he can achieve with a fatter checkbook, playing a style more familiar to La Liga than what fans are used to at Anfield.

Andy Carroll seems a daily reminder of out-going manager Kenny Dalglish’s poor decisions. Carroll came in on a record transfer but has been a disaster during his two years at Anfield, scoring six goals in 42 league appearances. He’s ill suited for Rodgers’ style of play, and Liverpool has been trying to offload him.

Liverpool will be a work in progress while Rodgers finds players that can excel in his system. Liverpool beat out multiple suitors for Swansea’s midfield playmaker, 22-year-old Joe Allen, who cost $25 million. Fabio Borini, a 21-year-old striker who  spent part of 2011 at Swansea under Rodgers, and arrives from Roma for $16 million.

For a while, it sounded like Clint Dempsey would be in the fold, as he was eager to join the Reds, but Fulham has been holding out for the right price. The Deuce is a player whom Rodgers could plug in at multiple positions and who could feel comfortable.

PROMOTION/RELEGATION. For only the second time, all three promoted EPL teams stayed up: Swansea (11th), Norwich (12th) and QPR (17th). Bolton and Blackburn were both relegated after 11 years in the EPL, Bolton on the final day of the season. Wolves also went down. Reading won the League Championship and returns after four years down. Southampton needed two promotions to return to the top, while West Ham is back after only a year outside the EPL.

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