Football's fresh faces: Rules in England favouring youth will bring change to England's top flight
The richest league in the world gets under way again next weekend with all manner of intrigue and interest, fuelled by new rules on squad numbers that threaten to leave a clutch of highly-paid stars sitting in the stands with no football to play other than cup games.
It all starts with today's Community Shield between Chelsea and Manchester United at Wembley, never a true barometer of what to expect in the subsequent nine months but always an eagerly-awaited curtain-raiser.
Both sides will be without a string of injured or unfit players though Alex Ferguson has promised both Wayne Rooney and the luckless Michael Owen will feature. Ferguson and his opposite number Carlo Ancelloti are being extra careful as to how much involvement their World Cup players will have ahead of another gruelling league campaign.
"There is no point pushing players too early, so I don't think we will get the benefit of these players until the third week of the season," says Ferguson whose chief summer purchase was the exciting Mexican striker Javier Hernandez. "The World Cup is probably the pinnacle of a lot of players' careers. The intensity and profile of it means it does take a lot out of them and we have to give them a proper rest."
Unlike Ferguson, Ancelotti is keen to put down a marker for the rest of the season by winning today, especially having lost his last four pre-season friendlies. "We need to win because we have lost too many games - we are not happy," says Ancelloti, who has lost Joe Cole to Liverpool but is on the verge of signing Brazilian midfielder Ramires for 17m and has added Yossi Benayoun as he freshens up an ageing squad many believe reached its peak with last season's double.
The new era at Anfield, with Hodgson a calming influence, Fernando Torres committing his future to the club and new Chinese investors waiting in the wings, has given the fans fresh hope that seventh place was a one-off. Liverpool will doubtless improve but it is hard to see them ending the season as champions for the first time since the Premier League was introduced.
Not with Arsene Wenger still in the manager's seat at Arsenal. There is a growing belief in the red half of north London that this will be a big season. It has to be, particularly now that Cesc Fabregas has decided to stay.Wenger cannot afford to go a sixth campaign without a trophy and even his players, let alone the fans, are becoming restless. Playing beautiful football has reached its sell-by date, says French full-back Bacary Sagna. "I'm fed up with being so close to a trophy," says Sagna. "Top four is not bad but I want to achieve something this season. Everyone is very focused to have our best season ever."
Across north London, anticipation has rarely been greater at White Hart Lane after Harry Redknapp's Tottenham broke into that elusive top four while at the other end of the scale, the very presence of Blackpool's tangerine men - living proof that the little guys can battle their way into the elite - will give the season a refreshing injection of colour. Literally and metaphorically.
Arguably the most intriguing aspect in the build-up to next weekend is the effect of new rules on home-grown players. Mirroring UEFA's policy in European competition, top-flight clubs must submit 25-man squads by the end of the transfer window, of whom eight have to be home grown. Clubs, however, can supplement squads with an unlimited number of players under the age of 21.
Just to complicate matters, home-grown doesn't necessarily mean English. As a compromise to meet European law, the definition also covers imported players provided they have been developed for a minimum three years in England or Wales before they reach 21.
The Premier League says the new rules are designed to increase the number of young domestically trained players, the long-term aim being to produce a more competitive national team. Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore, often accused of being self-serving, believes home-grown quotas are the best way forward to stop the hoarding of players. "It will encourage youth development and the promotion of young players," Scudamore said.
Not everyone agrees. Wenger, a past master at developing raw talent, is the biggest critic. "It will put many players without clubs," he says.
"Secondly it puts the clubs in a weak position most of the time because when you already have 25 players and you buy another one, you know you have to get rid of one. It's a disastrous decision for football and for the players." He has a point. Manchester City currently have 37 registered players, including new 25m Spanish winger David Silva, of whom only six qualify as U21s. In order to prune their squad and with only the richest clubs able to pay big bucks, urgent loan deals will have to be struck. The 25-player ceiling, which only applies to league games, is also posing a headache for Hodgson whose squad is top-heavy with overseas players. The Liverpool boss is keen to follow up Joe Cole's arrival with further high-profile signings but can't bring any in until he ships out a raft of foreigners.
Hodgson is in favour of the home-grown rule but is in a race against time to secure deals for several players.No club can loan out more than one player to the same party and Hodgson said: "It is affecting everybody's thinking. Twenty-five is not a big number of players for a Premier League club attempting to fight on four fronts. You could have 60 matches a year, and although three goalkeepers and 22 outfield players sounds a lot, it isn't."