When the name of Jose Mourinho was brought up again at Chelsea's training ground on Friday, Carlo Ancelotti managed not to scream. In fact, he barely flinched and even offered the sort of compliment rarely heard between the pair who were managing the two big Milan clubs last season.
Mourinho, he admitted, "worked very well in Chelsea and with him they won the championship after 50 years". There was even a legacy, he implied, of a "motivated, very good group" of players. Avram Grant, Luiz Felipe Scolari and the more highly regarded Guus Hiddink were unable to take full advantage and emulate one of Mourinho's title wins, let alone two. Now it is the amiable Ancelotti's turn as the club's fifth manager in two years, and Chelsea's chances of becoming champions look as good as anyone's.
That has been the case before, of course, and for three years running Manchester United have been able to profit from the chaos at Stamford Bridge to finish above them, by margins of six, two and seven points. Since no club have ever won four English titles in succession, there is incentive enough for Sir Alex Ferguson's team, although history illustrates how demanding a task it will be.
The loss of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, permanently, and Edwin van der Sar, Nemanja Vidic and a whole crop of right-backs, temporarily, adds further weight to the belief that even Fergie may not be able to pull this one off.
If not United, then who? Liverpool still have their backers and there is certainly greater reason to favour them than in most other seasons since that last success in 1990. Ferguson's argument is that they had their best season for years last time out, with 86 points and only two defeats, and still failed. Yet the fact is that one goal in any two of the 0-0 draws that teams like Stoke, Fulham and West Ham somehow held out for at Anfield last autumn would have made Liverpool champions. As it was, they outscored United by nine and beat them home and away. And if teams have now rumbled their 4-2-3-1 system, how were they able to take 10 wins and a draw from the last 11 games of the season?
The doubts over Rafa Benitez's team are firstly, how deep the talent runs once first-choice players pick up injuries; and secondly, whether the gifted but fragile Italian Alberto Aquilani – who may not be fit until October – can replace Xabi Alonso. More adventurous he may be, and a more likely goalscorer, but as Fabio Capello said of the midfielder to whom he gave a debut for Roma in 2003: "He has to understand English football." That takes most foreign players the best part of a season.
Mourinho proved that it need not be the case for the top managers, and one of Ancelotti's advantages is that he is effectively dealing with the same squad as last season. Yuri Zhirkov is the only major new signing and both Michael Ballack and Florent Malouda are available in his position until he learns the ropes. Milan's Andrea Pirlo, touted as a marquee signing, "was not necessary" as Ancelotti put it of his former midfield playmaker. "It was important not to lose players," he added, which may be why Mourinho, and Mark Hughes, were frustrated at being unable to sign any of them.
The new man believes it will be harder to win the Premier League than Serie A, which he achieved only once in his eight years with Milan, despite reaching three Champions' League finals (with two victories and the scarcely credible 2005 defeat by Liverpool on penalties). He is playing up his rivals' credentials as much as Chelsea's: "There are a lot of great teams who can win. I don't think there is a favourite. At the same level are Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal. And it will be interesting to see Manchester City, who have bought a lot of players."
It will indeed. There has been much hand-wringing about the effect of City's millions, just as there was with Roman Abramovich's, but most neutrals would surely be happy to see a genuine challenger emerge to the perennial top four by whatever means. Arsenal, having sold Kolo Touré and Emmanuel Adebayor to them, would appear to be the most vulnerable of the quartet and now face a potentially nervous play-off against Celtic even to make the Champions' League.
So far, however, City have confirmed only what their supporters already knew after Sven Goran Eriksson's hasty spending spree two years ago: that a long list of new recruits cannot be forged into a team straight away; indeed under Eriksson they never really were. Pre-season results have been disappointing, although neither Tevez nor Roque Santa Cruz has yet been sufficiently fit to make an impact. It may even help that the Paraguayan will not be ready until next month, allowing Tevez to form a relationship in attack with the equally expensive Adebayor.
Aston Villa's manager Martin O'Neill has already awarded City a place in a new famous five of English football. Having lost Gareth Barry to them, O'Neill's more homely squad should still challenge for fifth place again, like Tottenham and Everton (who along with Arsenal, Liverpool and United constituted the original Big Five when ITV made their snatch of the day some 20 years ago and wanted to show only those teams).
It will not help Villa, Everton or last season's overachieving Fulham, to be competing in the Uefa-Cup-under-any-other-name and all three could well drop a place or two as a result. Tottenham, with Peter Crouch to play alongside Robbie Keane or Jermain Defoe, look better placed than West Ham to take advantage.
Relegation candidates abound and, as ever, the promoted clubs have to be considered. Last season it was a surprise that the champions West Bromwich Albion were the only ones to fall straight back while Hull (by the skin of Phil Brown's teeth) and Stoke with their direct play survived. Hull may not be so lucky this time; Stoke have found it hard to attract the quality they can now afford.
Wolves, having bought shrewdly, ought to be able to avoid their neighbours' fate, leaving Burnley, who conceded 60 goals against Championship opposition, and Birmingham more vulnerable. Neighbouring Blackburn and Bolton might be expected to swap places in the lower reaches and Steve Bruce ought to keep Sunderland safe.
There must be fears, though, for Portsmouth at a miserable time on the south coast. Any club receiving almost £35m as their share of the Premier League hand-out for last season and still floundering in financial waters deeper than the Solent are in serious trouble, all the more so with another bank repayment due shortly. The best that can be said is that their predicament offers a warning to clubs at every level, on two counts: overpaying in wages and transfer fees and becoming dependent on a single benefactor who grows bored even after winning an FA Cup and wants to take his ball (and chequebook) home.
Arsène Wenger, the Premier League manager with the economics degree, has warned that football is underestimating the full effect of recession. As an Arsenal fan, the Football Association's new chief executive Ian Watmore tends to think that "Arsène knows" and his view while sitting in the FA's new Wembley home last week was: "The broader economic climate that football is in remains very, very uncertain. I think the full force of the credit crunch has yet to work its way through the economy as a whole and football will not be exempt from that. That's not just a debt issue, it's about people's disposable income to spend on games or whatever."
The small print of attendance figures will be studied as closely in some quarters over the next few months as the scorelines above them.
Life and times
Name: Carlo Ancelotti.
born: 10 June 1959, Reggiolo, Italy.
Height: 5ft 11in.
Playing career: Parma 1976-79; Roma 1979-87 – Serie A champions 1983; Italian Cup 1980, '81, '84, '86; Milan 1987-92 – Serie A champions 1988, '92; European Cup winners 1989, '90; Italian Super Cup winners 1988.
International career: Italy 1981-91, 26 caps, 1 goal.
Managerial career: Reggiana 1995-96 – Serie B champions 1996; Parma 1996-98; Juventus 1999-2001; Milan 2001-09 – Champions' League winners 2003, 2007; Serie A champions 2004; Italian Super Cup winners 2003, '04; Chelsea 2009-present.
At the double: One of only six coaches to win the Champions' League as both a player and coach.
Height of fashion: Played alongside Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Mauro Tassotti and Alessandro Costacurta in defence, Frank Rijkaard and Roberto Donadoni in midfield and Marco van Basten in attack in one of the finest Milan sides ever.
Blue note: Chelsea's fifth manager in 21 months, following Jose Mourinho, Avram Grant, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Guus Hiddink.Reuse content