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Football's open championship

Today and tomorrow see last season's top three from the English Premier League kick off the new campaign, with Liverpool at home to Southampton and Manchester City at Newcastle this afternoon and Chelsea away to Burnley tomorrow night.

Diego Costa should be a breath of fresh air in the Chelsea attack Photograph: Getty
Diego Costa should be a breath of fresh air in the Chelsea attack Photograph: Getty

That's when we'll get the first indication of how credible the League's biggest selling point - that it's a multi-horse race with more top sides than anywhere else - really is.

Right now, the capsule review says City will be better, Chelsea will be more Mourinho-like and Liverpool's fate will depend on whether their many newcomers add up to more than Luis Suarez.

You expect City to be stronger, but not necessarily because of their new signings. They have half-a-dozen new faces but none - except maybe for Eliaquim Mangala and even then not for a while - are likely to be full-time regulars. Rather, Manuel Pellegrini has a year's worth of Premier League experience and that matters, for any foreign manager. Plus, you'd expect Sergio Aguero to not miss half the campaign like he did last time.

Over at Chelsea, Jose Mourinho has a side built in his image. Physical, aggressive, defensively stout and built to punish in transition and at set-pieces. Diego Costa was perhaps the best counterattacking striker in the world last term and his intensity is in sharp contrast to what the Londoners had up front in 2013-14.

The return of Didier Drogba means Mourinho has an impact sub up front, which he's lacked for a while. Most intriguing is the arrival of Cesc Fabregas, who seems tailor-made to provide the assists on the counter. The shift from the possession-based approach back when tiki-taka was all the rage to a more direct, pounding style is complete.

Liverpool have spent big - another £40 million on top of the Suarez money. They have a deeper squad and, apart from Rickie Lambert, most of their newcomers are guys who can reasonably be expected to improve.

Strength in depth is important but you still play with 11 men and it will be fascinating to see how Brendan Rodgers finds his balance. Having Daniel Sturridge as a lone finisher to convert into goals what the likes of Adam Lallana, Steven Gerrard and Raheem Sterling create might be more rational than last season's set-up - if Sturridge proves his goalscoring last season weren't a mere by-product of Suarez's presence.

We could well have another three-horse race but Arsenal have spent big, Tottenham will - at the very least - be more stable and Manchester United (yesterday's result notwithstanding) should be better as well.

This type of balance at the top -along with slick packaging, history and full stadiums - are why the Premier League can weather the loss of its top stars every year.

Obviously, losing your manager on the eve of the season is not particularly clever. Tony Pulis leaves Crystal Palace "by mutual consent" - that familiar boilerplate - which means at the very least that both he and his boss, co-chairman Steve Parish, agreed that things weren't working.

What went wrong with a manager who took over a relegation- threatened side and helped them all the way to 11th place?

Simple. Rows over transfers. Pulis was unhappy with the club's recruitment and the control he had over scouting matters. It was a situation he was unused to, given that at his previous club, Stoke City, he had a director of football, John Rudge, who reported to him.

At Selhurst Park, there was a head of recruitment, Iain Moody, who answered directly to Parish.

You can debate the merits of such a system versus one with an omnipotent Sir Alex Ferguson-style micro-manager at the top.

What's obvious, though, is that whichever set-up you choose you need to have people who are comfortable within it.

And that's where you can question Parish's judgment. Pulis is a certain kind of manager who does things a certain way. You have to decide if he can fit into the way you want to operate. Presumably, Parish thought he could. Clearly, he got it was wrong.

Now there's speculation that Malky Mackay could be on his way to South London, with Moody remaining part of the set-up. Moody and Mackay, of course, were the duo who, while at Cardiff, were accused of overspending by Vincent Tan. Both were dismissed and it ended with both apologising to the Cardiff owner.

Parish take note. Another judgment call is coming up.

Louis van Gaal's bold new experiment got off to a rocky start when Manchester United opened their campaign against Swansea at Old Trafford. With his team a goal down at half-time, Van Gaal ditched his 3-4-1-2 set-up for a more orthodox back four, albeit with Ashley Young at left-back. United equalised on a set-piece, but Gylfi Sigurdsson fixed the final score at 2-1.

Van Gaal has talked about his teams starting slowly and yesterday they lived up to that. The back three will get a lot of attention and some will see the switch at half-time as an admission that the system doesn't work, at least not with Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Tyler Blackett as the personnel involved.

It's true that it takes time to learn a system and that, in terms of individual quality, United could do better at the back. Yet there were issues everywhere on the pitch yesterday. Wayne Rooney, goal apart, did not look comfortable interacting with Juan Mata and Javier Hernandez, who departed at half-time. Van Gaal's belief in pushing youngsters - Jesse Lingard started as well as Blackett - is admirable, but can come at a price.

The good news is that Van Gaal was honest and direct afterwards. "We were disappointing," he said. "We weren't at the level we should be at, the level we were at in the last friendlies."

That honesty, plus his reputation, buy him time. But clearly there's work to do, for Van Gaal and for the man charged with overseeing the club's transfers, Ed Woodward.

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