Pressure starts here for the pretenders

Phil Shaw foresees a tricky kick-off for much-fancied Newcastle on the first day of a tempting Premiership season
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Alan Shearer is not alone in anticipating "the greatest season in English football history". This weekend, as Dennis Bergkamp, Ruud Gullit and David Ginola embrace the Premiership, we will gain the first inkling of whether such hopes have any basis in reality or merely prove the claim that heading the ball destroys brain cells.

It does not require an IQ substantially higher than Shearer's shirt number to work out that, with the exception of the August after England's World Cup triumph of 1966, the opening-day fixtures are more eagerly awaited than any since the first post-war season. The influx of foreign stars has much to do with the buzz, though there is also a popular perception that the top division is more open and unpredictable than for years.

Yet only months ago it seemed that Blackburn and Manchester United would continue to carve up the transfer market and the major prizes for the forseeable future. In fact, five clubs have already won the championship during the 1990s, and a groundswell of opinion backs Newcastle to emerge from a free-spending pack to make it six.

St James' Park, that maelstrom of machismo, will today resound to a song about boys who will be girls, the Kinks' "Lola" having become "La la la Gino-la!" But Newcastle may find Coventry, bolstered by Ron Atkinson's stealthy overseas dealing, disinclined to let the Frenchman and Les Ferdinand run amok as Andy Cole and Co did in last year's 4-0 romp.

Coventry are traditionally good starters - as Arsenal fans will recall uneasily - who tend to view the season's final day with greater trepidation than its first. By contrast, Newcastle must perform under the pressure of knowing that Tyneside expects. After his pounds 14m summer spree, Kevin Keegan can have no excuses.

John Salako, who spurned Wor Kevin and later signed for Big Ron, should get an interesting reception. Travelling so far north is likely to induce nosebleeds in the former Crystal Palace winger.

As champions, and with the European Cup looming, Blackburn might have been expected to parade more than one unexceptional newcomer, Matty Holmes from West Ham, at home to Queen's Park Rangers. Unless the money has run out, however, Ray Harford will surely buy as and when the need arises. Moreover, Shearer promises 40 goals for club and country, and the fixture computer has granted them an eminently winnable opener.

Liverpool, who have not added to their record 18 title successes in five years, introduce Stan Collymore at the expense of the 31-goal Robbie Fowler against Sheffield Wednesday. At pounds 8.5m, Collymore cost more than 100 times what the visitors paid for the man David Pleat has lined up to mark him, the former Rotherham defender, Julian Watts.

Manchester United go to Aston Villa - usually one of the season's epic occasions - bereft of new faces and of several familiar ones. After months of turmoil, much of it self-inflicted, Alex Ferguson needs good early results to quell disquiet over his transfer policy.

With Ryan Giggs, Andy Cole and Steve Bruce all out, the United manager may be about to learn just how good his vaunted youngsters are. Villa, meanwhile, expect great things from a 21-year-old, Savo Milosevic, the Serbian striker for whom Brian Little paid pounds 3.5m on the strength of video evidence.

At Highbury, the air of anticipation is almost tangible. Bruce Rioch's determination to re-invent Arsenal, of which the advent of Bergkamp and David Platt was impressive proof, has gripped the imagination of their followers. Should they fail to defeat Middlesbrough tomorrow - and do it in style - the sense of anti-climax might be equally exaggerated.

Nick Barmby, probably the only footballer ever to leave London in order to be closer to Hull, makes the Salako trip in reverse. The former Spurs striker has a lot to live up to, having cost Middlesbrough four times their record fee.

While Arsenal finished 12th and Everton 15th, their respective prospects have enthused punters and pundits alike; a sign of the volatility created by the new money in English football. The FA Cup winners start away to Chelsea and Ruud Gullit - a case of Captain Dreadlock meets the Dogs of War - with Mark Hughes launching his career in the capital against the club he all but joined last winter.

Leeds, fifth in May, begin as they did a year ago, at West Ham. It ended 0-0 that day, but in the second half of the season, with Tony Yeboah on board, Leeds took a point more than Blackburn and one less than Manchester United. Making the Ghanaian "permanent" may yet prove one of the summer's shrewdest moves.