Chelsea resists big-spending of rivals for title defense as tiny Bournemouth makes EPL debut



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After a summer of a sleaze at FIFA, it's time for an even richer force in world football to take center stage: The English Premier League.

For all the turmoil at FIFA since Chelsea lifted the Premier League trophy in May, it's been a relatively sedate off-season in England with little of the upheaval of recent years at the big clubs.

All but three clubs will go into another Premier League season with the same managers.

Brendan Rodgers' job security seemed precarious but the Liverpool manager survived a post-season inquest into the team's decline and then had to oversee the summer transfer window's most fraught move.

Raheem Sterling's switch from Liverpool to Manchester City left an unpleasant taste at Anfield but was resolved with relative haste. The 49 million pounds ($76 million) forked out by City was the most ever paid for an English player, a gamble on Sterling's future development given that the winger has only been a topflight regular for a couple of years.

The move represented a return to the heavy spending that City's Abu Dhabi ownership was restricted from embarking on the previous year as a consequence of breaching UEFA's Financial Fair Play rules.

Across Manchester, the breathless pace with which United's squad is being reconstructed under Louis van Gaal continues. It's barely recognizable from the title-winning side that Alex Ferguson bequeathed to David Moyes two years ago, with more than $350 million spent in the last year.

There has been a clear-out at Old Trafford, with forwards Robin van Persie, Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria going, and an attempt to rebalance the squad. Midfielders Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin, defender Matteo Darmian, forward Memphis Depay and Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero have joined the 20-time English champions.

Last season was about Van Gaal repairing the rot of Moyes' brief, ill-fated reign, and returning United to the Champions League — albeit with a playoff still to negotiate later this month. Now the Glazer family that owns United will be expecting silverware again, rather than just a top-four finish.

But such was the ease Chelsea strolled to the title in May by eight points, the west London club is likely to be a formidable force again.

Mourinho is entering the third season of his second spell at Chelsea, with Stamford Bridge far more harmonious than in 2007 when the Portuguese manager exited barely a month into his third campaign.

"In this moment I don't think I am the champion," Mourinho said ahead of this weekend's opener against Swansea. "Saturday starts that fight for the points."

While chiding rivals for their spending, Mourinho has been relatively parsimonious so far in this transfer window. The principal arrival has been Falcao on loan from Monaco — despite the forward being so ineffective at United — while goalkeeper Petr Cech was surprisingly allowed to join London rival Arsenal, which is chasing its first league title since 2004.

"Other teams are going to improve for sure because they invest a lot in their squads and their squads are obviously much better," Mourinho said. "We are the same. We have to be better."

Cech joins an Arsenal side that is growing in confidence after a third-place finish and a successful defense of its FA Cup trophy last season, helped by the inspired form of Chile striker Alexis Sanchez. However, it needs to avoid the kind of injuries that blighted last season for Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Arsenal's north London rival Tottenham will similarly be hoping that striker Harry Kane remains injury-free and as prolific after being the revelation of the Premier League last season and scoring 31 goals in all competitions.

May witnessed some high-profile Premier League farewells, with Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard leaving England to see out their careers across the Atlantic in Major League Soccer.

However, some faces from the past are returning to the world's most-watched domestic soccer competition.

Claudio Ranieri, the so-called "tinkerman" ditched at the start of Roman Abramovich's Chelsea revolution for Mourinho in 2004, was the shock appointment at Leicester. Out of work since being fired by Greece, the Italian replaced Nigel Pearson, who was dismissed despite unexpectedly keeping Leicester in topflight.

At West Ham, Slaven Bilic replaced Sam Allardyce as manager 18 years after playing for the east London club, which is preparing for its last season at Upton Park before moving into a revamped Olympic Stadium.

The Croatian takes his first job in English management just as Steve McClaren embarks on the latest step in his managerial rehabilitation since his dismal 18-month England reign ended in 2007 with a loss to Bilic's Croatia.

Almost a decade after leaving Middlesbrough, McClaren left Derby to return to the topflight by filling the void left by the firing of John Carver, who came close to relegating Newcastle.

The Premier League newcomers are Norwich, Watford and a first-ever appearance in the topflight by Bournemouth.

The trip to the southern seaside town will see teams playing in front of barely 11,000 fans — almost seven times smaller than United's Old Trafford.

"We have to use it as an advantage," Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe said. "It's a small stadium, hopefully the atmosphere will be very good, potentially clubs won't enjoy coming."

Just getting the opportunity to host Aston Villa in Saturday's Premier League opener is remarkable. Bournemouth came close to going out of business and narrowly avoided dropping out of the fourth professional division six years ago before being rescued by Russian investor Maxim Demin.

Staying in the Premier League will be a colossal achievement, but another Russian-owned team — Chelsea — is likely to be the team to catch at the top once again.


Rob Harris can be followed at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris

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