So the weekend saw Man United defeat Chelsea on penalties in the FA Community Shield. This result isn't significant for any reason (after all, who remembers Liverpool doing the same thing at the beginning of last season) other than it represents the return of yet another English Premier League season this coming weekend. That said, it's hard to see the league being anything but a two-horse race between Man United and Chelsea once again, in fact the first four spots in the EPL are probably easier to pick than any other top league in the world. Here's my quick look at how I expect the EPL to shape up this season: Top Dogs -- Man U, Chelsea. Man United's plethora of attacking riches, bolstered by the capture of Carlos Tevez (sheer overkill) gives coach Alex Ferguson an incredible array of offensive options. The offense is so potent that it'll easily compensate for a shaky defense that will be United's lone vulnerability -- although the signing of defensive midfielder Owen Hargreaves will go a long way towards remedying that. Watch for Brazilian teenager Anderson to make a quicker-than-expected progression into the lineup. He obviously won't displace Paul Scholes, but he'll receive plenty of playing time. Prediction: First Chelsea is reverting to a 4-3-3 this season and a more attacking mind-set. New addition Florent Malouda could form a prolific partnership on the wing with Didier Drogba -- the two ran together at unfashionable Guingamp when both were just starting out and have a keen understanding of how the other plays. However, unless Andriy Shevchenko and Michael Ballack (if he stays) starts living up to their wages, and so far nothing this preseason has indicated they will, then Chelsea will probably have to settle for second once more. Prediction: Second Champions League spot contenders -- Liverpool, Arsenal and Spurs. Liverpool -- Following the offseason splurge which saw the Reds snare the highly-touted duo of Fernando Torres and Ryan Babel, hopes are high on Merseyside that Rafa Benitez finally has the squad he needs to end the 17-year title drought. The pressure will be on Torres to deliver and prove that he's a great goal scorer, as opposed to those that regard him as a scorer of great goals and not nearly prolific enough to carry a team. Benitez's failure to add a world-class winger will probably be his undoing though, since Liverpool still lacks the necessary creative element. Jermaine Pennant's simply not good enough, Harry Kewell is injury-prone and unless Yossi Benayoun exceeds expectations on the right side of midfield, Liverpool will probably fall short again -- although they'll be markedly improved. Prediction: Third Arsenal -- life after Thierry Henry. It's not all doom and gloom for the Gunners, who will still play arguably the most attractive soccer in the EPL. How good they'll be depends on how much young talents like Denilson and Theo Walcott blossom and whether or not Robin Van Persie or Eduardo Da Silva can pick up the scoring slack. Prediction: Fourth Spurs -- the most intriguing team this season, possessing the best striker quartet in the EPL. Assuming Dimitar Berbatov picks up where he left off last season and Aaron Lennon improves his delivery, Spurs can challenge both Liverpool and Arsenal for a spot in the Champions League. The money spent on record signing Darren Bent ($31 million) would have been better served spent on a stud midfielder but German U-21 international Kevin-Prince Boateng might turn out to be that guy. Prediction: Fifth.
Middle of the Pack -- Aston Villa, Blackburn, Man City, Everton, Portsmouth, West Ham, Reading, Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Bolton.This bunch will spend most of the season jostling for midtable safety and UEFA Cup spots and trade the odd surprising result here and there. Martin O'Neill's Villa seems the best-placed to challenge Spurs, and Blackburn remains dangerous with its excellent winger duo, Morten Gamst Pedersen and David Bentley, raiding the flanks. Everton could surprise again, but lack depth and if Tim Cahill remains out longer than expected, David Moye's men will be hard-pushed to finish in the Top 10. Reading are unlikely to replicate their success last season but should remain comfortably in the safety zone, while Sven-Goran Ericksson, with the aid of mountains of cash, will begin his transformation of Man City into Arsenal-lite. Last season's no-hoper West Ham squad no longer has Tevez to carry them, but Alan Curbishley's managed to get rid of some of the malcontents and has started to bring in players more to his liking. Expect the Hammers to stay up comfortably this time round.
Also-rans -- Sunderland, Fulham, Derby.These three teams will vie with each other for the remaining relegation spot. Fulham will ride its three Americans (with Clint Dempsey reportedly looking very sharp in preseason), while Sunderland will ride the sheer force of will of manager Roy Keane. The fortunes of both teams will depend on which of their new signings at striker are able to make the adjustment to the EPL after starring at Championship level. For Fulham, Diomansy Kamara and David Healy hold the key and for Sunderland it's Michael Chopra. Derby has the least talented roster of the three, but plenty of squad spirit, although the talented Giles Barnes will need to play out of his mind all season for this team to survive.
Dead in the water -- Birmingham, Wigan. Both teams lack talent and both are fairly dead certs for relegation. It doesn't help that Wigan's two big additions the last two seasons have been a forward that can't score (Emile Heskey) and a defender that can't defend (Titus Bramble). As for Birmingham, its 'star' offseason capture was Hossam Ghaly, who was subsequently booted back to Spurs for refusing to run in training -- enough said.