THE ESTABLISHED STARS
Robin van Persie, Manchester United
At the end of last season, Sir Alex Ferguson was asked when he had known that United would be champions. "When we signed Van Persie," he replied.
The Dutch striker scored 28 goals last season, an absolutely vital factor given the dearth of goals from United's midfield; Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley, Ryan Giggs, Danny Welbeck and Antonio Valencia scored just seven league goals among them.
If Wayne Rooney does leave - although that seems less likely now - his role will be even more significant. United have lacked a truly dynamic midfielder since Roy Keane left and, although Marouane Fellaini may yet arrive from Everton, bringing his scoring ability, it is still Van Persie who elevates this United side into challengers - not just with his finishing but also his hold-up play and ability to drift wide.
If his form falters or he suffers an injury, it's hard to see United having the cutting edge to defend their crown.
Juan Mata, Chelsea
Amid the saga of Wayne Rooney's proposed transfer from Manchester United to Chelsea, the most intriguing aspect was the suggestion he might be part-exchanged for Juan Mata or David Luiz. The idea that Mata would be sold, never mind part-exchanged as a makeweight in another deal, seemed baffling, and Chelsea quickly moved to deny the rumours.
But questions were raised about whether the diminutive Mata is the sort of player to fit into a Jose Mourinho side. He is not, it's true, the sort of muscular runner Mourinho has habitually favoured, but Mata was exceptional last season, registering 12 assists – the most in the Premier League – and scoring 12 goals, while continually to work tirelessly, always chasing and tracking.
His stamina, perhaps, was the most impressive aspect: he made 67 club appearances last season, his energy levels apparently never dipping.
Yaya Toure, Manchester City
There was something not quite right about Manchester City last season, a sloppiness, a lack of hunger and edge that led ultimately to the dismissal of Roberto Mancini. It is not to say he was responsible to point out that Yaya Toure embodied that slight fall from the heights of the previous season.
In 2011/12 he was an awesome prospect, a huge athletic presence who swept from box to box, putting in tackles at one end and scoring goals at the other. Last season, perhaps wearied by playing a second Cup of Nations in successive seasons, he never seemed quite as dominant.
If City are to reclaim their title, they need him quickly to develop a relationship with Fernandinho, who can sit in front of the back four and distribute passes short and long, giving Toure freedom to get forward, while at the same time offering more of a creative threat than Gareth Barry.
THE COMEBACK AND BOUNCE BACKS
David Meyler, Hull City
Hull’s return to the Premier League also means a return for Meyler, an aggressive Irish midfielder who looked highly promising at Sunderland and had become regular at 20 before suffering two serious knee injuries in quick succession. If he is healthy, his energy and reading of the game make him still a potentially top-class player.
Sandro, Tottenham Hotspur
Cruciate injuries are not the automatic career-enders they once were, but there’s always a doubt as to whether a player will ever return to be quite what he was. Sandro was a vital, controlling presence at the back of the Spurs midfield last season; they need him at his best.
Jack Wilshere, Arsenal
Wilshere’s talent is no in doubt but, especially with a World Cup coming up, he needs a full season to develop further. Arsenal need him, as well: his combination of ball-winning and creativity, the sense of control he gives them, makes him an unusually complete player.
Thomas Vermaelen, Arsenal
At this stage of last season, Vermaelen was being hailed as one of the few outstanding players at Arsenal. He was good on the ball, scored goals and exuded class. Now, he faces a struggle to get back into the side, his confidence having deserted him, leading to a series of rash sorties from the back.
THE NEW ARRIVALS
Emanuele Giaccherini, Sunderland
Of all the many arrivals at Sunderland this summer, the most intriguing is Giaccherini. The signing showed ambition – the idea of a regular Italy international playing for Sunderland still takes a mental adjustment – but also great opportunism; they were first to recognise that Juve, having signed Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente, were likely to be offloading a forward, and then persuaded him that Sunderland was a club for whom he wanted to play.
Jesus Navas, Manchester City
City, arguably, have signed more wisely than any other top side in Europe this summer, bringing in four elite players without breaking the bank, and significantly enhancing the quality of their squad. Navas, bought from Sevilla, offers not just technical ability but also extreme pace on the right, which should improve City as a counter-attacking force while also offering them an option to puncture massed defences, arriving on passes from deep at high speed.
Andre Schurrle, Chelsea
At 22, Schurrle is already a regular in the Germany national team, and seems a bargain for Chelsea at £18m. Chelsea’s attacking midfield line, with Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard supported by Victor Moses, is already formidable: Schurrle gives them pace, aggression and greater depth in that area as well. He is also a good finisher and offers a significant threat, scoring a goal every three and a half games for both Bayer Leverkusen and Germany.
Fernandinho, Manchester City
“He is a superb athlete with a wide range of passing, can score goals and, most importantly, can quickly turn defence into attack,” said Manuel Pellegrini of the Brazilian, who will sit deep in front of the back four as a distributor. His potential role in counter-attacks is especially key: long balls into the path of charging Navas could become a City staple. Fernandinho has a ferocious long-range shot and seems to have retained his pace through the broken leg he suffered in 2010/11.
Paulinho, Tottenham Hotspur
Formerly, Brazil was the home of the skilful No 10, but these days it seems to mass-produce deep-lying midfielders. Paulinho, signed by Spurs from Corinthians for £17 million (Dh96.4m), is not a typical holder, but tends to sit deep and break forward, almost as a box-to-box midfielder. A scoring threat as well as a man who breaks up opposition attacks. He averaged a goal every four games for Corinthians.
Ricky van Wolfswinkel, Norwich City
There is perhaps no greater indication of the financial might of the Premier League than the fact Norwich were able to sign Ricky van Wolfswinkel. The Dutch forward scored a goal every other game for Sporting and is widely recognised as one of Europe’s more exciting young talents, yet he has left Portugal and continental football for Norfolk and what could be a relegation battle. With Van Wolfswinkel and Gary Hooper up front, though, Norwich should not be short of firepower.
Craig Bellamy, Cardiff City
At 34, Bellamy’s pace is just beginning to desert him but he remains an important member of the Cardiff City squad, both in terms of his technical ability and his leadership, and is fulfilling a dream in playing for his hometown club in the top flight.
Ryan Giggs, Manchester United
Ryan Giggs has become like the ravens at the Tower of London: you wonder if the Premier League could carry on without him. Now 39, he will take on coaching responsibilities this season but you know he will also be sitting in midfield, calmly distributing from deep.
THE YOUNG GUNS
Romelu Lukaku, Chelsea
This could be Lukaku’s breakthrough season. He is 20 and was highly impressive on loan at West Bromwich Albion last year; now he is one of only three forwards at Chelsea and with his pace and power offers a different option to either Fernando Torres or Demba Ba.
Raheem Sterling, Liverpool
Sterling, who turns 19 in December, was outstanding for Liverpool last season, his pace and trickery making him a persistent threat. His off-field antics are a concern, but he is a key figure in Brendan Rodgers’s Liverpool, adding a dash of the unpredictable to the neat passing.
Christian Benteke, Aston Villa
Of all Aston Villa’s bright young stars, none is brighter than the 22-year-old Belgian centre-forward Christian Benteke. An aggressive, powerful striker, he scored 19 goals last season – a remarkable record in a struggling team. It is easy to understand why Villa went to such lengths to keep him as he sought a move to Tottenham.
Nathan Baker, Aston Villa
Baker’s introduction to regular first-team football last season, partnering Ciaran Clark at the centre of defence, coincided with some Villa horror shows, but by the end of the season he had proved himself both in the centre and at left-back. An international call-up is a prospect this season for the 22-year-old Englishman.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Arsenal
Oxlade-Chamberlain turned 20 this week but it feels like this is a season when he has to establish himself. He has been talked about for a long time, and become a regular in England squads, but so far his talent has been seen mainly in cameos. He needs to dominate the occasional game.
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