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Strong trio of Premiership title contenders will be hard to beat

Odds suggest United, City or Chelsea are likely winners, but Mourinho is most experienced

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 August, 2013, 2:31am

Only a week to go until the kick-off of the English Premier League, which is shaping up as the most intriguing contest in years after managerial changes at all three of the leading title challengers. With the future of so many star players also up in the air - notably Gareth Bale, Luis Suarez and Wayne Rooney - it feels like a new beginning.

Fresh ground will certainly be broken if Manchester United, Manchester City or Chelsea win the title, which the odds suggest is a high probability. If one of them is successful they will become the first club in 30 years to take the title with a manager aged 50 or older at the time of their appointment - and the first since the formation of the Premier League.

Another statistic against David Moyes and Manuel Pellegrini is their lack of league-winning experience anywhere in Europe, but that cannot be levelled against Jose Mourinho, who has won titles in Spain, Italy, Portugal and twice in England during his previous reign as Chelsea boss.

Mourinho starts with a clear edge in that respect and he will be looking to press home that advantage from the start of the season. In his first stint at Chelsea, he surprised even Alex Ferguson with the ferocity of his campaign from beginning to end, which ran counter to the established practice of a steady start followed by a more intensive spring offensive.

In his first season, Chelsea led Arsenal by five points at Christmas and United were another four points behind. The next season, United were second behind Chelsea, but still their deficit was nine points. Then Ferguson adapted to the new reality and made sure United were on their game from the start of the season. That was the only way to re-establish United's dominance and it was a huge compliment to Mourinho that the most successful manager in the history of the English game was forced to change his approach.

Mourinho seems as driven as ever and is the most likely of the new managers to defy the age stats. His Chelsea squad does not seem as strong as his earlier version, with weaknesses in both defence and attack, but he should get more out of them. At the odds Chelsea make most appeal, and even more so if they sign Rooney.

Manchester City have the greatest strength in depth and they are also open to improvement after last season's bout of seconditis. Their talented attackers let them down last season, scoring 27 goals fewer than in their title-winning campaign. If Pellegrini is bold from the beginning, they could be too hot to handle, but any settling-in stage may prove fatal.

United don't have problems scoring, as long as they have Robin van Persie, but they have not been able to strengthen yet and may lose Rooney. Ferguson might have coped with that, but it is a huge test for Moyes in his first season at this level.

Arsenal will be serious contenders if they manage to prise Suarez away from Liverpool. They finished last season strongly and were second only to United in points gained against teams outside the big six, which gives them a solid base. With only one of their first nine games against a team from last season's top seven, they have a great opportunity for a flying start. Suarez would raise their threat in the big clashes, but the defence remains a worry.

Andre Villas-Boas is the only young manager at one of the main Champions League hopefuls and this summer's signings have been a chance to mould the team more to his liking. Tottenham shouldn't go backwards, even with the likelihood of losing Gareth Bale.

Liverpool may improve in Brendan Rodgers' second season, even if Suarez leaves, but the top four still looks beyond them.

The rest divide into three groups: higher mid-table, lower mid-table and relegation candidates. As always, the three promoted teams have to be on the relegation shortlist, although there is some reason for hope with Cardiff and Hull. Crystal Palace are the most obvious candidates for the drop, while more established teams who might struggle are Sunderland, Newcastle and West Brom.

The higher mid-table teams could be Everton, Southampton, Stoke and Fulham, while in lower mid-table might be Swansea, West Ham, Norwich and Aston Villa.

For now, the Championship is the best place for a bet and Ipswich at home to Millwall are the top pick today.

Best Bets

1. Nottingham Forest on handicap One defeat in 11 under Billy Davies against teams below them last season

2. Ipswich home win Excellent at home under Mick McCarthy

3. Watford home win Likely to be one of the best Championship teams again