Sat, Aug 19, 2006 - Page 18 News List

Premiership sides gear up for kickoff

FIRST FIXTURES A number of sides are looking to dislodge Chelsea as champions but for others merely staying in English football's top division will be an achievement

AFP , LONDON

The English Premiership bursts back into the limelight today with Chelsea eyeing a third successive title.

The Blues cruised to a second straight crown in May, and their would-be challengers have been plotting their revenge for three long months.

Chelsea, like Manchester United, do not start their campaign until tomorrow, meaning the likes of Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham have the chance to flash their credentials and fire an early warning shot.

And the three teams newly promoted from The Championship -- Reading, Sheffield United and Watford -- will be out to send a message to those predicting a swift return that they intend to stick around.

The first match kicks off at Bramall Lane, where Sheffield United host FA Cup holders Liverpool, who gave themselves a boost on Sunday by beating Chelsea 2-1 to claim the FA Community Shield.

The 2005 European champions are already in their stride, having won the first leg of their Champions League qualifying tie with Maccabi Haifa, and, of course, put one over on Chelsea.

Reds boss Rafael Benitez reckons his pre-season purchase of Craig Bellamy, Jermaine Pennant and Mark Gonzalez has added the width and pace the team need to become serious title contenders.

But the Blades will be out to blunt Liverpool's new attacking threat and Neil Warnock, their livewire manager, will relish the chance to claim an early scalp.

Arsenal have gone through a rocky pre-season since they lost in the Champions League final to Barcelona, with legend Dennis Bergkamp retiring, Robert Pires and Sol Campbell departing, Jose Reyes and Ashley Cole itching to leave and the club moving to their new Emirates Stadium.

But that is nothing compared to the chaos at Aston Villa, their opponents today in the first competitive match at the 60,000-seater Emirates.

Villa have seen managers, chairmen and phantom player revolts come and go, leaving new boss Martin O'Neill on a hiding to nothing in his first game back in management after quitting Celtic in May last year.

If Arsenal turns on the style, with their only pre-season signing Tomas Rosicky set to make his home debut, then the size of O'Neill's task could become starkly visible.

Tottenham, who ran Arsenal mighty close in the race for the final Champions League spot, travel to Bolton looking to build on last season's progress under Martin Jol.

Newcastle kick off at home to Wigan who will be keen to repeat their excellent start to last season which kept the Latics in the Premiership on their top-flight debut.

Magpies boss Glenn Roeder has depleted resources in attack minus the retired legend Alan Shearer and the injured England goal machine Michael Owen and unable to attract a new top-class goalscorer to St James' Park.

Republic of Ireland winger Damien Duff is set to make his Newcastle competitive debut after leaving Chelsea, but the likes of Shola Ameobi and Albert Luque might not polish off his crosses as well as his former teammates.

Football League champions Reading, in their first season in the top flight, welcome Middlesbrough to the Madejski Stadium.

The Royals' only major signing, South Korea winger Seol Ki-hyeon, is set to make his Premiership debut, while Boro boss Gareth Southgate will be given his first managerial test after taking over from England boss Steve McClaren.

Watford, who won the Championship play-offs, are the bookmakers' favorites to finish bottom of the table.

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