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Football: The Premiership: The stakes are higher than ever; SEASON PREVIEW: Football's in financial crisis and the race for the title has become a lottery.

Byline: MICHAEL SCULLY

A WORLD Cup summer and a close season more notable for the scarcity of big-name - and big-money signings - leads us into the brand new Barclaycard Premiership campaign.

It's fitting, in a way.

The heaving spending of previous campaigns hasn't materialised, everyone's still catching breath after the adventures of the Far East.

But more crucially, all those years of fiscal mismanagement have finally given way to a more frugal reality and that has led to a slowing down in transfer dealings.

For the first time ever a Premiership transfer window has also been introduced and that may have had some influence on the relative inactivity.

Of course all of this hasn't stopped Manchester United from flexing their financial muscle for long.

For the second season running the Old Trafford power-brokers have pulled out all the stops.

Last year it was Veron, this time around it's Ferdinand, that's Rio (not Les).

For United, the gloves have come off big-time. Careful financial dealings have left the club in a position to spend, spend, spend.

And they have had to do just that.

Last season was a disaster for United, and while they have to qualify for the Champions League group stages their main Premiership rivals are already there.

United's third place finish last season behind title-winners Arsenal and rejuvenated Liverpool is seen as failure.

But both Arsenal and Liverpool have finally caught up with United, and it is in this trio's battle for supremacy that the Premiership will live up to it's billing.

Certainly, there's a lot of nonsense spoken about the Premiership.

For the most part it's a celebration of style over substance.

Clubs like Southampton, Everton, Charlton Athletic, Bolton Wanderers and Sunderland add little in terms of skill values.

Middlesbrough may just have moved out of that pack, at last. Manager Steve McLaren has made some shrewd signings in Massimo Maccarone, Juninho and George Boateng. And the Riverside club's impressive end to last season will have given their fans real hope.

Down the road from Boro, Newcastle United were the real surprise of last season, and with Bobby Robson still at the helm, they will be at the business end of things again. He's added another couple of gems in Hugo Viana from Sporting Lisbon and Ipswich Town's Titus Bramble.

But the quality still resides at the top, where it should reside of course, but the problem is there's not enough teams good enough to live with Arsenal, United and Liverpool.

And so it is from this trio that an overall winner will emerge.

If Arsenal sort out their defence once and for all, then they will be the side to beat again.

But it they are to retain the title, they must kill off the poorer sides at home. The Gunners were unbeaten away all last season which is a surprise because that has been their achilles heel in the past.

Too often slip ups at Highbury looked like being their undoing as Arsene Wenger's men lost to Charlton and Newcastle at home.

Liverpool have bought some skill and flair at last in Senegal striker El Hadji Diouf. But it is his international teammate Salif Diao who could be the real find.

The midfielder was a revelation as the Africans stormed to the quarter-finals of the World Cup.

Gerard Houllier has also added other players to his squad but they aren't as good as what was there before.

An ominous sign, unless Damien Duff is finally snapped up by the Anfield club, who will be under more pressure than ever to win the Premiership after years of getting closer and closer.

NEWCASTLE, Chelsea, Leeds United and Aston Villa and to a lesser extent Tottenham will remain the great pretenders.

Good enough to finish around the UEFA Cup positions, good enough perhaps to take the lead in the League for a while, they don't have the strength in depth or consistency to really trouble the others.

Chelsea, if they hold on to Hasselbaink and Gudjohnsen, could become a formidable force and there are signs that Claudio Ranieri is turning things around at Stamford Bridge. But the gap is still too wide at present to suggest the Londoners can really go for it and the financial pinch has hurt them more than most.

Another club to feel the strain is Leeds United who have a new manager in Terry Venables but too much baggage remains. El Tel has a lot of work to do to change the ethos at the club in such a short pace of time.

Meanwhile, Villa and Spurs look set to swop places in and around the top six just like they did last season.

Villa finished the season miserably under Graham Taylor and only the signing of Marcus Allback can give their fans anything to look forward to.

Likewise at White Hart Lane, Glenn Hoddle has been busier than a bargain hunter at a jumble sale.

In have come midfielders Jamie Redknapp and Milenko Acimovic on frees but it is in the striking department that the North Londoners need strengthening.

Tottenham's conquerors in the Worthington Cup, Blackburn finally look ready to challenge the top 10 again.

And Graeme Souness may just have got the bargain of the summer after re-uniting Dwight Yorke with his old Manchester United partner Andy Cole for just pounds 2million.

And what will happen to the teams who were promoted?

Manchester City ran away with the First Division title but that's normally no indication of what is in store.

They are THE yo-yo club in six years, they have been promoted and relegated on three occasions each.

Kevin Keegan has spent a fortune in an attempt to bring some stability to the blue half of Manchester, with pounds 13million splashed out on Nicolas Anelka.

But there's a lot of experience in the side, with another new signing, Peter Schmeichel, just one of many players with top-flight knowledge at City.

The same cannot be said about West Brom and Birmingham City, although the latter have spent well on bringing in Irish pair Ken Cunningham and Clinton Morrison.

Birmingham may struggle to create chances for new marksman Morrison, though, as they lack creativity.

West Brom's strength lies in a defence that conceded only 29 goals in 46 games.

But that record will be sorely tested - and we'll know more about the Baggies' hopes - after the opening three games.

They play Manchester United, Leeds and Arsenal within 10 days of the big kick-off.

It will be a tough for them. But that's the Premiership for you.
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Aug 16, 2002
Words:1093
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