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Premier League still offers fiercest competition

Elsewhere in Europe, the champions are almost preordained, but that's not the case in England

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 August, 2014, 9:48pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 August, 2014, 12:25am

The summer's major transfers have confirmed Spain as the main attraction for the cream of the world's top players, but there is no doubt the fans' choice for excitement and competitiveness will be the English Premier League.

La Liga added Luis Suarez, James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos to play alongside the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Lionel Messi and Neymar, but at best there will be a three-horse race between giants Real Madrid and Barcelona and last season's surprise champions Atletico Madrid.

Other major European leagues have become even less competitive, with Bayern Munich, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain dominant in Germany, Italy and France respectively, but the Premier League is more open than ever.

Chelsea had obvious need of a top striker and the pressure will be on Diego Costa to deliver

Liverpool's resurgence, along with the expectation of a much better showing from Manchester United under Louis van Gaal, means five teams have realistic title hopes. Chelsea are favourites at 2.75, closely followed by Manchester City at 3.0, United at 4.6, Arsenal at 7.0 and Liverpool at 9.0. By contrast, all the other major European leagues have an odds-on favourite and little expectation of a real contest.

The competition in the Premier League extends well down the table. Top spot looks beyond Tottenham (50.0 for the title) and Everton (100.0) but they are capable of getting involved in the battle for the four Champions League places, while the value of staying in the Premier League (both in terms of money and prestige) means the lower teams will also fight for every point.

Chelsea are favourites largely because improvement is expected now Jose Mourinho has been able to mould the team more to his liking, particularly with the recruitment of Diego Costa from Atletico Madrid. Having lagged 30 goals behind Manchester City and Liverpool last season, Chelsea had obvious need of a top striker and the pressure will be on Costa to deliver.

If he does, Chelsea have an excellent chance as they had the best defence last season and have only four points to make up on champions Manchester City. It is also notable that Mourinho has won the title in every second season he has had as a manager.

City set the standard, having won the title in two of the past three seasons with totals of 89 and 86 points. In between, they dipped to 78, but their strong squad and improving profile under Manuel Pellegrini (particularly on the road) suggests they will be in the mid-to-high 80s again.

The biggest drag on City's performance might come from prolonged involvement in the Champions League, which has yet to happen and might well take priority over the Premier League if they are in with a chance.

Liverpool will have to cope with the Champions League, as well as the departure of Suarez, and it would be an incredible achievement even to get near last season's 84-point total.

Arsenal are much more accustomed to fighting on multiple fronts, even if their efforts had been in vain for years until May's FA Cup triumph, and they look set to mount a strong challenge. Last season they led the Premier League for points taken against bottom-half teams (53) and that gives them a solid foundation if they can improve against the elite sides. The signing of Alexis Sanchez might give them the extra dimension they need.

Perhaps surprisingly, Manchester United were second to Arsenal for points against bottom-half teams (50) and from that platform Van Gaal's tactical acumen in big games could take them a long way back towards their former heights. Winning the title in Van Gaal's first season might prove beyond United, but they should put up a good fight.

My top five are Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool. Tottenham and Everton should come next and best of the rest might be Newcastle and Stoke.

In mid-table should be Southampton, Swansea, Sunderland and West Brom, possibly a surprise package.

That leaves a bottom seven of West Ham, Crystal Palace, Burnley, Aston Villa, Leicester, Queen's Park Rangers and Hull. Burnley also have the profile of a team that might cause a few surprises.

On the opening weekend, three bets catch the eye.

Everton visit Leicester and, assuming the promoted hosts are going to finish in the bottom half, the stats favour Roberto Martinez's side. Last season Everton won six out of 10 (with no defeats) away to bottom-half teams.

QPR have an easier reintroduction to the Premier League at home to Hull and they look a decent bet on the handicap, while Stoke are worth backing at home to prime relegation candidates Aston Villa.