By John EGBOKHAN
The long wait is over for football fans in England and Spain as the glitz, glamour and razzmatazz of the Premier League and La Liga return this weekend with champions Manchester United and Barcelona flagging off their campaign against Swansea and Levante respectively.
After beating Wigan 2-0 in the season heralding Community Shield on Sunday, David Moyes will have his first bite of the Premier League cherry as Man Utd coach as his charges hit the road to play Swansea City. Moyes will be banking on Robin van Persie to fire the Red Devils to a morale-boosting opening win to stave off early pressure from rivals Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool.
With all clubs set to play 38 gruelling matches in a season ending on May 11, 2014, they will be keen to begin on a winning note.
For Chelsea, who face new boys Hull City on Sunday at Stamford Bridge, Coach Jose Mourinho will be the star attraction as he makes his return to the EPL after leaving in 2007. Blessed with a full compliment of stars like Eden Hazard, Juan Mata, Frank Lampard, Jon Mikel Obi, Victor Moses and Fernando Torres, Mourinho will fancy his chances of starting his EPL return with a convincing home win, to send out a message to his rivals that he is the real deal in the absence of Sir Alex Ferguson.
For Manchester City, winners in 2012, life under Manuel Pellegrini starts in earnest with a Monday night match against Alan Pardew’s Newcastle at the Ethihad Stadium. City have arguably bought the best buys of the summer transfer with the additions of Jesus Navas, Alvaro Negredo, Fernandinho, Stevan Jovetic and Javi Garcia all joining an already impressive stars’ list, who were unable to flourish under former coach Roberto Mancini.
In other games holding this weekend, Liverpool host Stoke City in the lunchtime kickoff, Arsenal welcome Aston Villa to the Emirates Stadium, West Brom are at home against Southampton, Everton are on the road to battle Norwich City while Crystal Palace entertain Tottenham.
Over in Spain, the rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid take a new turn under new coaches Tata Martino and Carlo Ancelotti respectively, as the La Liga begins with champions Barcelona hosting Levante at the Nou Camp while Real await Real Betis at the Santiago Bernabeu.
With La Liga losing some of its best strikers in the summer transfer market, the coast seems clearer for Barcelona and Real to further dominate the scene for another year.
The addition of Brazilian Confederations Cup winner, Neymar to the Barcelona line-up is expected to make the Catalan side better up front But Ancelotti is spoilt for choice in Real midfield. Xabi Alonso or Illarramendi look set to be tasked with the role of bringing the ball out of defence but the impressive displays by Casemiro and Modric in the centre have given the former PSG coach food for thought.
Casemiro has been the great revelation of Real’s pre-season campaign and has gone from a stand-in player to a man worthy of a starting place. Considering the fact that Khedira played for Germany on Wednesday and Casemiro will have had a good rest, it would not be surprising if the Brazilian is picked to start against Betis on Sunday.
He can play as a holding midfielder in front of the back four, and can partner another anchorman in the middle of the park and he can also play on the right side of Ancelotti’s sometimes-used midfield triangle. Modric and Özil have been regular starters but would have to battle for their shirts.
A Messi-Neymar combination seems a romance made in heaven but it would be foolhardy to bet against the Ronaldo-led Real side to hold their own in this top-of the chart battle. It is still a long way to decide who the winner will be come May 18, 2014 but what fans can expect is another fireworks of football fiesta in Spain and England.