The Premiership's back - and Chelsea are going to win it

Munich anniversary may distract champions but Liverpool could have say in closest three-horse race for years. By Steve Tongue
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The Independent Football

Just at a time when relations between Westminster and the Kremlin are at their lowest point since the Cold War, Moscow has become the centre of attention for a new season of English football. Next month, Guus Hiddink brings his Russia squad to Wembley for England's second European Championship home game in five days, both of which need to be won.

If they are not, pessimism will increase over not only the return match in the Russian capital on 17 October but the national team's chances of being represented at next summer's finals. Meanwhile, the usual gang of four Premiership clubs with designs on the Champions' League (in which all four have reached a semi-final at least over the past two seasons) will have noted that the competition's next final is at that Moscow stadium in May.

There will then be precisely 16 days between that event and the start of Euro 2008, as world football, just like the British game, increasingly gives the impression of forcing a litre into a pint pot. On the same June day this year that Holland won the European Under-21 Championship final – bringing down the curtain on one campaign – the first round of the InterToto Cup heralded the start of new one.

If there is a compensation this time, it is that fewer players have been involved during June and July than in a World Cup or European Champion-ship year. But the Premiership begins seven days earlier than usual next weekend and an additional complication is January's African Nations' Cup, right in the middle of the dom-estic season during a hectic period when injuries tend to kick in; it was at precisely that time last season that Chelsea, badly missing John Terry and Petr Cech, surrendered nine points in quick succession which would eventually cost them their title.

The injury factor is one of three which tend to afflict whichever team become Premiership champions. Firstly, everyone tries even harder to beat them. Secondly, they concentrate, subconsciously, on the European Cup. Thirdly, the law of averages means their good fortune with injuries (without which they would not havewon the title) may evaporate. Manchester United, for alltheir strengths, are likely to be affected by all three this time.

They will, of course, still be a force and should remain much the most exciting side to watch, all the more so if Carlos Tevez is finally integrated into the team (something that took an awfully long time at West Ham).

Little may be seen for a while of the expensive younger recruits Nani and Anderson, but Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney will do to be going on with, whether or not they manage to play as many games as last season. Owen Hargreaves, once fit, will solidify the centre of midfield, allowing Michael Carrick to do some of the running for Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, who are 34 and 33 respectively this November. But from the moment the Champions' League draw is made on 30 August, it will be difficult for Old Trafford eyes not to be focusing on Moscow and another European triumph, 40 years after the first one and 50 years on from the Munich air disaster, which will bring an outpouring of emotion next February.

A year ago, Chelsea were widely expected to walk away with a third successive title, on the basis that they had added Andriy Shevchenko and Michael Ballack to what was already the best squad in the country. No one would have believed that this pair of global superstars would make so little impression on the Premiership, Ballack's failure to do so after arriving from the not-dissimilar Bundesliga being in many ways the more shocking. This summer's purchases already appear more efficacious – not to mention cost-effective – as Roman Abramovich turns away from whatever is the Russian for galactico and looks to break even by 2010.

The hope is for the closest contest since United caught Arsenal on the run-in in April 2003. Could it even become a three-horse race? Only if the financial muscle demanded by Rafa Benitez the morning after losing the Champions' League final, and subsequently flexed, can support a real Liverpool threat. For the last three seasons they have begun badly, as Benitez rotated furiously, feeling the benefit only much later on in a sustained European challenge. Finding the right combination of strikers now that Fernando Torres and Andriy Voronin are on board will be crucial.

Liverpool should at least maintain their supremacy on Merseyside; Arsenal risk losing face and fourth place to their north London rivals Tottenham, who can improve on last season and take advantage of their neighbours' uncertainties. Everton's recruitment has been disappointing thus far, but they could be sixth best again as long as the influential Tim Cahill's injury does not drag on.

Part of the reason for that is that although three financially strong northern clubs in Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Manchester City have the capacity to improve after finishing in the bottom half of the table, allappear to have too great a task to make the top six yet. Sam Allardyce has quickly discovered how much needs to be done at St James', where Joey Barton already has an injury and Michael Owen is still not over his. Fitness concerns of a different sort surrounding City's controversial new owner Thaksin Shinawatra do not extend to the long-suffering fans, who have welcomed his money and Sven Goran Eriksson's capacity for spending it, but how quickly can a coherent team emerge from the arrivals lounge at Manchester airport?

If Bolton and the surprisingly successful Reading and Ports-mouth face dropping below the halfway line this time, they should avoid the worst trouble at the bottom, where the most obvious relegation candidates are the three promoted clubs plus last season's fortuitous survivors Wigan and Fulham. Those two are under new management, and Lawrie Sanchez may just have bought better than Chris Hutchings. Sunderland and Birmingham will hope to finish above both, but an underpowered Derby cannot be as optimistic.

Watch Chelsea-Birmingham (1.30pm),Man Utd-Reading (4pm), live on Sky Sports next Sunday. More sport: independent.co.uk/sport

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