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GRAHAME L. JONES / ON SOCCER

Chelsea FC a wild card in English Premier League preview

As the English Premier League begins play Saturday, Chelsea might be able to challenge Manchester United for the top spot, but there are a lot of question marks.

August 06, 2011|Grahame L. Jones | On Soccer
  • Chelsea's Fernando Torres, right, celebrates with teammate Didier Drogba after a goal against Aston Villa in the Barclays Asia Trophy final in Hong Kong last weekend.
Chelsea's Fernando Torres, right, celebrates with teammate Didier… (Vincent Yu / Associated…)

What do shooting stars and dinosaurs have to do with Chelsea FC or, for that matter, with the English Premier League, which launches its 2011-12 season on Saturday?

Nothing and everything.

Recently a story circulated about a Malaysian businessman who took delivery of a gold- and platinum-plated yacht that cost him a staggering $4.5 billion, or more than it would have cost him to buy Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool combined. Amid all the glitter, the vessel, named the History Supreme, has as part of its decor a wall made from a meteor and a statue made from the bone of a Tyrannosaurus rex.

The toy has put Chelsea's owner Roman Abramovich's own $450-million yacht -- the one with the helipads and the missile defense system -- into dry dock, so to speak.

Abramovich, a Russian billionaire, knows all about shooting stars that flame out -- after all, he spent $80 million in January on Fernando Torres.

Abramovich also knows about dinosaurs -- after all, John Terry still inhabits Chelsea's lineup.

Barring a bold move or two by the Blues before the transfer window closes on Aug. 31, it appears that Chelsea will rely this season on a young coach, Portugal's Andre Villas-Boas, getting one last sprint out of some old bones.

But if Villas-Boas can resurrect Torres' career and persuade Colombian forward Radamel Falcao to move from FC Porto to London, and add Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka, Chelsea might have a potent enough strike force to challenge for the top spot in the Premier League.

Last season, the top clubs finished in this order, from first to sixth: Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool.

The same half-dozen clubs will occupy the top again come next May, but the order might be shuffled. A lot will depend on which team can put together the best attack.

No matter what anyone says, it's all about goals.

Their relative scarcity is what makes them invaluable and is also why the world's top strikers invariably earn the world's top salaries and command the highest transfer fees.

Fans who favor defense over offense will quickly point out that in the last decade, every team that has won the Premier League title has allowed less than a goal a game.

Fans who prefer the offensive side of things, will counter that it takes a minimum of 70 goals to win the league, defending champion Manchester United being the only exception in the last decade when it scored "only" 68 goals en route to its 2009 title.

So, first-class finishers are at a premium.

Defending champion Manchester United already has Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov, although Berbatov's future at Old Trafford has recently been cast into some doubt.

Coach Alex Ferguson has spent $50 million on new players this summer. Although the newcomers do not include a striker, they do include a new goalkeeper, David De Gea from Atletico Madrid, and Ferguson might still reel in Dutch playmaker Wesley Sneijder from Inter Milan.

The De Gea signing makes for an interesting subplot, because rival Manchester City splashed out $62 million to buy the goalkeeper's former Atletico Madrid teammate, Argentine striker Sergio Aguero.

Liverpool, which is where Stuart Hughes, the jeweler who designed the unknown Malaysian's $4.5-billion floating ego platform, is based, moved earlier this year to strengthen its offense.

Coach Kenny Dalglish landed forwards Andy Carroll and, more important, Luis Suarez, in January, to complement last season's top scorer, Dirk Kuyt.

It might not be enough, and Liverpool's American owner, John W. Henry (who owns the Red Sox), has let Dalglish know that a top-four finish is expected. "It's too early to talking about winning the league," Henry told the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet. "In my opinion, Manchester United are the ones to beat. Our main goal is to qualify for the Champions League. If we don't, it would be a major disappointment."

Ferguson believes the challenge to Manchester United is more likely to come from Liverpool and Manchester City.

"I expected more buying, especially [from] the likes of Arsenal," he told Inside United magazine. "I thought they'd have bought a few players. But it's early days. Aug. 31 is a long way off and a lot can happen."

Indeed, but probably not at Arsenal, which has spent the better part of the year fighting off ongoing attempts to spirit Cesc Fabregas back home to Barcelona and Samir Nasri to one of the Manchester clubs.

All Arsenal Coach Arsene Wenger has netted so far has been Ivory Coast striker Gervinho from Lille in France for a modest $17-million, to partner Robin van Persie up front.

Manchester City Coach Roberto Mancini has Aguero, but two of his other forwards, Argentina's Carlos Tevez and Italy's Mario Balotelli, want to leave. Also, Emmanuel Adebayor has somewhat reluctantly returned from a loan spell with Real Madrid, and Edin Dzeko, acquired in January for $44 million, has yet to show signs of life.

Meanwhile, Tottenham Coach Harry Redknapp is already preparing his excuses, complaining that Spurs can't compete with the wealthier clubs. "If you want to be a top-four side, it's difficult because we can't pay those kinds of wages," he told the tabloid Sun.

All of which will not offer much encouragement to strikers Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe, Roman Pavlyuchenko, Giovanni Dos Santos and Robbie Keane, any of whom could be leaving soon.

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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