At last, let the fun and games commence

Olmpics? What Olympics?

With wall to wall coverage of Robin Van Persie’s move from Arsenal to Manchester United hogging the airwaves this past few days, football hasn’t even required the actual kick-off of the new season to unceremoniously shove London 2012 aside.

Still, the conventional wisdom has it that England’s national game has a job on its hands to reclaim the affection of a sporting public which fell head over heels in love with the Olympic Games. And self-styled opinion-makers have been queuing up to contrast unfavourably the joyful pride exhibited by the amateur competitors at London 2012 with the surly egomania of the professional footballers who make their outlandish living in the Premier League.

Leaving aside the fact that it’s obviously a stretch to try to accommodate the word ‘amateur’ and ‘Usain Bolt’ in the same sentence, the central message is clear: the Olympic Games restored credibility, excitement and a sense of fun to big time sport, slaying cynicism on a grand scale and even allowing the host nation to fall in love with itself for the first time in years. Which, given how much its sports-mad citizens have had to suffer watching the national football team under-achieve for decades, is perhaps easy enough to understand.

And, of course, thanks in particular to the uplifting triumph of Katie Taylor, we on the neighbouring isle required no extra encouragement to make the most of our rather more limited success at the Olympics, having only recently experienced dismal anti-climax on the second-biggest stage in the biggest sport on earth.

But all those who like to bolster their own sense of smug superiority by dwelling on football’s flaws — of which, as we need no reminding, there are many, from divas to diving — are entirely missing the point when they hold up London 2012 as a paragon of virtue and give the Premier League the order: folly dat, if you can.

In truth, there is nothing for it to follow: the Olympics might have been staged in the same country but, aside from its own mini-international football tournament and a minor intrusion by the Saturday game in the form of the ritual booing of Luis Suarez at Old Trafford — ah, they hadn’t gone away, you know — its links to the season-long drama of league football in England were tenuous to the point of invisibility.

No, the hard act to follow for Premier League 2012/13 isn’t London 2012; it’s Premier League 2011/12, widely regarded, and with good reason, as the most exciting in top-flight history.

And the best of all the good reasons, of course, was its own compact but sensational closing ceremony, 10 seconds which shook the world as Sergio Aguero wrested the title for City from United with the very last act of the season. For sheer, staggering ‘I’m-seeing-it-with-my-own-eyes-and-I-still-can’t-quite-believe- it’ drama, nothing in even a wonderful Olympic Games came close, as a football marathon finally resolved itself into a sprint, victory secured by a nostril hair on the finishing line after a race which had taken 10 months to complete.

And probably only the Premier League could have fashioned such an extraordinary script. We’ve often taken issue in these pages with the ritual description of England’s top tier as ‘the best league in the world’, pointing out that while it might well be the most exciting league in the world — as, indeed, last season confirmed — that’s not quite the same thing. In Europe, the highest quality club football is still to be found in Spain, with Italy and Germany not too far behind. And even Chelsea’s improbable Champions League win in May, while fully deserved, was the exception which proved the rule, Roberto Di Matteo’s side winning not by playing their natural game but by preventing the opposition from playing theirs.

Meanwhile, England’s top two were foundering in the Europa League.

But, happily, not in their own league, even if neither side ever hinted at approaching an invincibility that would have turned the campaign into a one-horse rate. For which we should be grateful: it’s the flaws as much as the finer points, the fact that the big guys can be chopped off at the knees by the little ’uns, which gives the Premier League its unpredictable and therefore hugely entertaining character.

And there’s no reason to expect very much different this time around, with the Mancunian candidates likely to be tug-of-warring over the title again. United have already raised the stakes with the biggest signing of the summer, the acquisition of van Persie prompting Alex Ferguson to claim that he now has a strikeforce to match the one with which United did the treble in 1999.

Yet, Wayne Rooney is the player who really makes United tick and, after failing to make any kind of impression at the Euros, he will need to hit the ground running if the team are to make the most of van Persie’s firepower.

City’s failure to match their rivals with a big name move might be a cause of some concern for Roberto Mancini but the champions are already pretty much saturated with star quality in any event and, in Carlos Tevez, have the equivalent of major new signing given his lack of availability throughout much of last season.

If Tevez can stay on-message with Mancini, his value to City as a game-changing player is inestimable. And, to a degree, the same can be said of Mario Balotelli though, clearly, you wouldn’t want to be absolutely banking on him to deliver. But, having done it the hardest possible way last season, I expect City to have a little more to spare in claiming back-to-back titles this time around, even with the added distraction of greatest expectations in Europe.

The reverse applies to Chelsea, with a fresh round of spending by Roman Abramovich suggesting he recognises the need to close the gap on the pace-setters at home.

Eden Hazard will grab plenty of headlines, for good or ill, but Fernando Torres will need to grab the goals as the transitional Blues head into a new era and life after Didier Drogba.

Faced with the usual concerns about lack of ambition at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger got his retaliation in first with the signing of Lukas Poldolski, Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud but the buzz of their arrival has been dulled by the departure of van Persie, and, once again, the sense of one step forward, two steps back at the Emirates is hard to ignore.

Arguably the most fascinating moves of the close season have been managerial, with all eyes on the new men in charge at Anfield and White Hart Lane. As potential title contenders, Liverpool still look short of quality on the pitch but, player for player, certainly pack more punch than their Swansea counterparts. Buying into Brendan Rodgers’ expansive style is one thing; the real test will be if they can turn it into championship points.

As for Andres Villas-Boas, it looks like his second coming in London will be even more challenging than the first, with Luka Modric heading for the sun and a lack of firepower a major concern.

Or, at least, so it seems from the vantage point of the morning of the first day, a place which it’s rarely good to revisit at season’s end when so many finely-honed predictions have turned to dust. And especially when the evening of the final day can leave you gasping for superlatives at the wild unpredictability of it all.

But that’s the Premier League for you: flawed, fascinating and fantastic. And who would have it any other way?

Let the games commence.


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