Manchester United's Community Shield victory over Portsmouth yesterday was the last so-called tune-up before the start of the Premier League season. This coming Saturday, they all count.
Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool have had a stranglehold atop the standings over recent years. The only blip was in 2004/05 with Everton knocking its Merseyside rivals out of the top four. There is very little reason to believe anything is going to change this time around.
The Premiership and Champions League winners, Manchester United will be defending its title with virtually the same squad. Thus far, Sir Alex Ferguson has resisted the temptation to open the pocketbook for any summer signings. This may be about to change.
With the Cristiano Ronaldo distraction behind him and a lack of depth up front, Sir Alex has said he would like to sign a new striker by the end of the week, with recent rumours linking Thierry Henry to the club.
But with the sterling play of striker Carlos Tevez and the continued development of winger Nani, Sir Alex may not need reinforcements.
Tevez and Nani both looked lethal in the Community Shield, and once United has players return from injury, illness and the Olympics, they still will have the most talented squad in all of England, if not Europe.
For United, its unsung hero is Tevez. Whether in a starting role, or coming off the bench, his presence has been irreplaceable. The way he holds the ball with such poise and vision, combined with a work ethic second to none, Tevez may be the player to watch in the Premier League this season.
As for United's main rivals, Chelsea's biggest summer addition was its manager. Luis Felipe Scolari has taken over and already has cut the size of his squad, while adding familiar faces from his time with the Portuguese national team, signing midfielder Deco and right back Jose Bosingwa. And rumours still are prevalent that Portuguese-speaking, Brazilian-playmaker, Robinho is poised for a move to Stamford Bridge.
At Chelsea, second place is not good enough for owner Roman Abramovich, so the pressure will be on Big Phil to win now.
However, as currently constructed, there are too many under-achievers on the club and too many players who play similar roles. Scolari will be hard-pressed to get more out of his side than his predecessors did.
If Chelsea is little Portugal, Liverpool might well be little Spain.
And if there's pressure on Scolari, it's nothing compared to the pressure piled on manager Rafa Benitez. Very few names of substance have come through the door at Anfield. The one exception may be former Tottenham striker Robbie Keane, but he's far from a sure thing.
At times, Keane found minutes hard to come by at White Hart Lane. Under Benitez, Liverpool's preference to commit itself to the Champions League instead of League play has been reason for concern.
A team with the likes of Steven Gerrard or Fernando Torres should be able to compete with anyone in the world on any given day. But the manager's wavering commitment to Premiership play, combined with defensive woes, both in organization and ball distribution, has hurt the side.
Ball distribution has never been an issue for Arsene Wenger's Arsenal side. In terms of style, no team can touch the Gunners. But of concern to Wenger was last season's second-half collapse.
Wenger's savvy eye for untapped talent cannot be matched, but his reliance on youth instead of tried and tested players was his team's undoing.
That being said, Wenger's summer-signing, attacking midfielder, Samir Nasri has all the makings of being something special. If he can fill the role left by Alexander Hleb and Mathieu Flamini, the Gunners have a shot at doing some serious damage.
The side making the most noise this summer was Tottenham. A trio of midfielders (David Bentley, Luca Modric and Giovani Dos Santos) have arrived at White Heart Lane; all of the attack-first mindset. The quality of the three certainly will be there, but it will take time before it can really be determined whether they all can co-exist in the same system.
Odds are that manager Juande Ramos will revert to a 4-5-1 system -- as long as striker Dimitar Berbatov sticks around. The aforementioned Sir Alex has Berbatov at the top of his hit-list, and if rumours are true that Tottenham are hot in pursuit of Russian-playmaker Andrei Arshavin, than a Berbatov sale certainly would finance Arshavin's ticket to North London. But then again, is another playmaking midfielder what Tottenham needs?
While Tottenham is the trendy sleeper pick, beware of Aston Villa.
What the squad lacks in depth, it makes up for in quality. Striker Gabriel Agbonlahor and winger Ashley Young both are legit stars in the making, and are deserving of significant roles with the English national team sooner rather than later.
Manager Martin O'Neill's summer signings all have been proven Premiership players, which should help them with consistency. As long as midfielder Gareth Barry sticks around, Villa should enjoy a nice run through Europe and set themselves up for a nice challenge to the 'Big Four.'