The hooplah over tonight's English Premier League kick-off comes after a summer of record transfers to Spain, writes Martin Pegan.
It has been another summer of drama for the English Premier League, and as usual money was an important part in the plot. But rather than seeing the biggest names in football mesmerised by Sky TV's millions and the strength of the pound, several stars have shot over to Spain.
Much of this was due to Real Madrid and the spending spree that saw the Spanish club claim Manchester United magician Cristiano Ronaldo for a record-smashing transfer fee of £80m ($160 million), Liverpool midfield maestro Xabi Alonso for £30m ($60 million) and several other leading lights from some of the biggest clubs in Europe.
This not only shifted the balance of power to La Liga in the ever-irrelevant battle to be the "Best League in the World", but severely weakened the two teams that topped the Premier League table last season.
Man United will be playing for a record fourth league title in a row -- and more importantly for their fans, First Division / Premier League title number 19 -- which would take them past their bitter rivals Liverpool. But after the departure of Ronaldo (66 league goals in the past three seasons) and Argentinean ace Carlos Tevez' crosstown move to Manchester City, it seems inevitable United will fall back to the pack.
Much will be expected of British bulldog Wayne Rooney and the brooding Bulgarian Dimitar Berbatov, but it could be the surprise signing of former Liverpool forward Michael Owen -- on a free transfer -- that keeps the goals flowing.
There is currently greater expectation in Liverpool than on New Year's Eve in Sydney, after the Reds came closer to winning the title last season than they have for 20 years.
The loss of Alonso will hurt but if the talismanic Steven Gerrard can move on from being charged with assault and affray -- and spend more time on the pitch. With Spanish sensation Fernando Torres on side, the long wait could be over.
Chelsea will challenge for the title again, but attempts to lure a player worthy of top billing over the summer proved unsuccessful. New manager Carlo Ancelotti will take on the same, ageing squad that "our Guus" revitalised earlier this year.
Arsenal are seen as the team most likely to drop out of the Big 4, and strangely have sold two of their best players to the side many expect to replace it -- the nouveau riche Man City.
While Man City hopes to break up the Champions League cartel using the wealth of owner Sheikh Mansour and the rest of the Abu Dhabi United Group, they have been as shrewd with their windfall as a bonus-chasing banker, signing several strikers and forgetting to throw $100 bills at the other holes as well. Socceroos captain Lucas Neill could be one to strengthen the defence, but only if he finally decides to leave West Ham.
Expect Tim Cahill and his ever-impressive Everton teammates to sneak up the table again, and if Mark Schwarzer performs as well as he did last season, when he was voted Australian player of the year, Fulham will again push for a spot in Europe.
Vince Grella and the injured Brett Emerton are likely to have a tougher time at Blackburn Rovers, but not as daunting as Mark Viduka’s season could be if rumours of a move to Portsmouth prove correct -- could it be his third time relegated after suffering the same fate with Leeds United in 2004 and Newcastle United last year?
It's only 39 weeks until all will be revealed, and with little separating the top three teams there should be a thrilling conclusion.
- The Big 4: Liverpool, Man United, Chelsea, Arsenal
- The best of the rest: Man City, Everton, Fulham, Aston Villa, Tottenham
- Mid table mediocrity: Sunderland, West Ham, Birmingham City, Bolton, Stoke City, Blackburn Rovers
- Relegation battle: Wigan, Wolves, Portsmouth, Hull City, Burnley