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PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 August, 2010, 12:00am

A summer of soul-searching in English football will be replaced today by a fresh wave of optimism that this could be the most exciting season in the history of the Premier League, with four or perhaps five teams battling for the title deep into next spring.

Most of the Premier League's huge army of fans around the globe will hope that is the case, but in the betting market the cold, hard reality is that Chelsea are 2.45 favourites and Manchester United are second favourites at 3.0. That translates to a 41 per cent chance of Chelsea retaining the title and a 33 per cent chance of United regaining it - not surprising, given that those two clubs have monopolised the title race for the past six seasons.

Chelsea, with the potent combination of a top-notch defence and the best attack in the Premier League, certainly are worthy favourites. And if Carlo Ancelotti's moves to refresh his squad with younger players bring more improvement, the other title aspirants will have to be nudging a 90-point total to stop them.

Only a point separated Chelsea, on 86 points, and deposed champions United last season, but Ancelotti appears to have the right balance to maintain and perhaps stretch his advantage. He can still rely on the backbone of John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, but what he added last season was the excitement craved by owner Roman Abramovich, with Chelsea racking up 103 league goals. That ability to blow teams away, while holding firm at the other end, makes Chelsea the team to beat again.

United are likely to push them closest, because at their best they have that same combination of stout defence and blistering attack. But in defence they are too reliant on the increasingly injury-prone Rio Ferdinand and in attack on Wayne Rooney, even if Javier Hernandez's summer arrival promises to add a new dimension up front.

Even if Chelsea merely stand still, Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool - respectively third, fourth and fifth in the title betting - have huge gaps to make up. Those three could spice up the title race, as long as their best players stay fit and in form, but there is more hope than confidence that they can take the great leap forward.

The betting suggests City will at least break into the top four - a not unreasonable proposition given how close they came last year and the fact that Tottenham may have trouble repeating last year's top-four finish, now that they face the extra demands of the Champions League.

That means Liverpool could be the biggest barrier to City's progress. There is no certainty Roy Hodgson's rigid methods will work as well with top-quality players as they did at a lower level with Fulham, but he inherits last season's third-best defence and there must be more goals to come if Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard can play together regularly.

What is happening with the club is the big unknown with Liverpool, as it is with Aston Villa following Martin O'Neill's departure. Villa could implode if there is an exodus of their best players, as their squad is quite shallow and the shockwaves caused by O'Neill's timing are likely to reverberate for some time.

Everton finished last season strongly and look as solid as ever, while the improvers in mid-table are most likely to be Stoke and Fulham, who could take the places of Birmingham and Blackburn in the top half. Having consolidated in their second season, Stoke could push on, while Fulham should do at least as well under Mark Hughes as under Hodgson.

Sunderland are fancied in many quarters to move up from 13th last season, but they are a team that could go either way, having started so well last season before tailing off.

The relegation dogfight is likely to between the three promoted clubs and the poorest survivors from last season - West Ham, Wigan, Wolves and Bolton. Those four strugglers from last season may be more nervous this time because Newcastle and West Brom, the teams that gained automatic promotion, have the right profiles to survive. West Brom, for so long a yo-yo club, could be the surprise team, as long as they can negotiate a tricky set of early fixtures. Blackpool, who came up through the play-offs, would have to perform miracles to stay up and logic says they won't.

If Blackpool are the only promoted team to go straight back down, West Ham and Wolves look most vulnerable. Next on the shortlist are Wigan, who must improve against the lesser teams as their survival last season owed much to improbable home wins over Chelsea and Arsenal.

Shortlist: Tottenham, Everton, Stoke, Crystal Palace, Leicester, Lille.

Top five bets

1 Chelsea to win the Premier League Scoring power, allied to strong defence, makes them a winning machine

2 Everton away win Only Chelsea and Manchester United have gained more points in 2010

3 Stoke away win Potential improvers who lost only one away to bottom-half sides last season

4 Liverpool v Arsenal over 2.5 goals Even Rafa Benitez's negativity could not stem the goals in this match-up

5 Crystal Palace away win Starting to put troubles behind them and are a Championship team to watch