How will the Premier League unfold?
Chelsea and Manchester United set the tone for the battle at the top of the Premier League in a Community Shield encounter liberally sprinkled with spice and confrontation.
The traditional quartet will jostle at the sharp end of the table - but can anyone break up the cartel of the so-called "Big Four"?
Can Liverpool end a 20-year wait to bring the title back to Anfield? Who will emerge from the pack? Who will consolidate? Who will be condemned to a season fighting for survival? It will all unfold once the top-flight campaign commences next Saturday.
Time to polish off the crystal ball and study the prospects of those hoping to make an impact in the Premier League in 2009/2010.
Arsene Wenger heard the first strains of discontent from the previously unquestioning Arsenal support last season after four years without a trophy. Is potential now simply a cover for under-achievement at the Emirates?
For all that, there is still no-one better to guide Arsenal's fortunes - although a meaningful title pursuit and at least one piece of silverware is required.
Wenger has done superb business to take the best part of £40m off Manchester City for Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure, although £10m recruit from Ajax Thomas Vermaelen will be expected to toughen up a defence regarded as having a soft centre.
Andriy Arshavin's genius was underscored last season, while Robin van Persie is a glorious talent when fit. Big season for Theo Walcott - with the incentive of a World Cup at its conclusion.
If Wenger can add a midfield enforcer (surely the return of Patrick Vieira came from the realms of romance rather than realism) then Arsenal may last the pace better than last season.
Will be attractive and dangerous - but the cups remains their best bet. Not title winners.
Big season for Villa and boss Martin O'Neill. Sixth place was not exactly a disappointment last time out, but they faded spectacularly late in the season and made no serious impact in the cups, the tame Uefa Cup exit causing particular consternation.
O'Neill has stuck to his tried and trusted policy of investing mainly in English talent, with Stewart Downing arriving from Middlesbrough as the highly-experienced and influential Gareth Barry moves to Manchester City.
Fabian Delph comes from Leeds United with rave reviews but no Premier League pedigree - so he is one for the future as opposed to one to make immediate impact.
Expect the usual O'Neill template of pace, power and width, with Ashley Young the jewel in Villa's crown. O'Neill will also surely have addressed the reasons why Villa fell off the cliff after threatening the Champions League places.
Dangerous on their day, especially away from home, but I expect more of the same in terms of league placings with more emphasis on success in the cups.
Verdict: Top Six.
Birmingham City were functional as opposed to spectacular in winning promotion last season, but that will matter not one jot to their experienced manager Alex McLeish. The means justified the end.
Now the real battle begins and Birmingham have been busy working the markets. Joe Hart is a sound signing on loan from Manchester City in goal, but Barry Ferguson never cut it in the Premier League with Blackburn Rovers in his prime, so it takes a leap of faith to imagine he will do it now - although it is one McLeish is happy to take for a player he knows well.
James McFadden has top-flight experience in attack, but the real wild card is club record signing Christian Benitez, who arrived from Mexican side Santos Laguna for a fee that could rise to £9m. Unknown quantity and much will depend on how he adapts, especially with a chequered injury history.
Roger Johnson, a £5m buy from Cardiff, was a good performer in the Championship and he is another whose development in the Premier League is key to Birmingham's hopes. May just have enough to stay up.
VERDICT: Season of struggle.
Sam Allardyce negotiated a route to Premier League survival for Blackburn last season, and expect them to nestle comfortably in and around mid-table this time, despite the loss of Roque Santa Cruz to Blackburn.
Allardyce's tactical approach may be an acquired taste for some - it was certainly not acquired in Newcastle - but he fashioned a system to suit Blackburn. El-Hadji Diouf, Benni McCarthy and Jason Roberts should give them a threat up front, while Ryan Nelsen and Christopher Samba will operate within the no-frills defensive framework Allardyce demands.
VERDICT: Mid-table comfort.
Gary Megson fights a permanent - and mostly losing - battle for the affection of Bolton fans, but he kept them up last season and will have high hopes of repeating the feat.
Sean Davis will provide experience in central midfield, while keeping hold of the coveted Gary Cahill is a coup for Megson. He will now have assistance from new boy Zat Knight.
Kevin Davies will be his usual physical self up front, and it is highly unlikely many Bolton games will have the purists purring, but the thick-skinned and combative Megson will be supremely disinterested in that small matter.
Whether Bolton fans like him or not, I expect Megson to retain their Premier League status once more.
VERDICT: Tough but survivors.
Fantastic story and the return of one of football's great old clubs will add real romance to the Premier League - but how will they fare?
In Owen Coyle Burnley have one of the best young managers in the game and it is a tribute to both him and everyone at the club that Celtic's attentions were deflected as Turf Moor basked in the after-glow of promotion.
Coyle is a disciple of the passing game, but realism suggests he will tailor this style for the top flight and bank on Steven Fletcher, a £3m buy from Hibs, to bring goals south of the border.
Wade Elliott is already being tipped as a Premier League star of the future, while all men of a certain age will keep an eye on how 37-year-old Graham Alexander copes with the Premier League.
Expect some great occasions at Turf Moor this season - and nothing more than a gut feeling tells me tee-totaller Coyle may just celebrate survival.
VERDICT: Staying up but only just.
Carlo Ancelotti is the latest manager through Stamford Bridge's revolving door and needs to make a fast start as the legacy of Guus Hiddink's masterly spell in charge remains fresh in the memories.
If Chelsea's players respond to Ancelotti's urgings and the big players - John Terry, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Michael Essien - stay fit, then they will be serious contenders for every competition.
Chelsea's attempts at big-spending have been thwarted by Real Madrid, but Yuri Zhirkov is a gifted left-sided player and Daniel Sturridge was a real talent in the making at Manchester City.
Miserly in defence, versatile in midfield and powerful in attack, Chelsea also possess the concrete-clad mental strength needed to last the whole course.
If Ancelotti makes the transition from Serie A and AC Milan to the Premier League, Chelsea will be the team to finish above to win the title.
The FA Cup final and fifth place in the Premier League was a superb return for an Everton squad ravaged by serious injuries down the spine of the team - Phil Jagielka, Mikel Arteta and Yakubu - and built without the aid of a huge budget.
The motivational and organisational skills of manager David Moyes and the resilience of his squad must not be under-estimated, but financial circumstances make it almost impossible to forecast a similar league finish this term.
Chairman Bill Kenwright has been unable to bring major investment to Everton, while close rivals Villa, Spurs and particularly Manchester City have splashed out. It leaves Moyes to perform a trick which gets more difficult with every passing season.
Everton's determination to keep Joleon Lescott away from Manchester City shows they still have ambition, but without the money to fuel that ambition it is hard to see another fifth place this season.
VERDICT: Top Ten.
Roy Hodgson used all his years of expertise to take Fulham to seventh and a place in the Europa League last season - a superb effort and one that made him a candidate for Manager of the Year.
Hodgson built an attractive side on sound defensive principles and they are especially formidable at home. He will hope to keep central defender Brede Hangeland beyond August, while Danny Murphy's experience and tactical awareness keeps things ticking over in midfield.
With Hodgson in charge Fulham can expect more of the same this season.
VERDICT: Mid-table security.
Phil Brown's feat in keeping Hull City in the Premier League last season should have been heralded as a miracle - but some of the lustre of the achievement was lost because of an astonishing collapse that brought only one win in their last 21 league games.
Brown was heavily criticised for his infamous half-time team talk on the turf at Manchester City, and even his celebratory survival sing-song at the KC when Hull lost to Manchester United but stayed up was used as a stick to beat him.
It will be even tougher this time (surely there cannot be another miracle start?) and Brown has had trouble tempting his top transfer targets to Hull City, with Michael Owen, Habib Beye, Bobby Zamora and Fraizer Campbell all going elsewhere.
Defender Michael Turner is admired by many top clubs, so it will be an even bigger test of Brown's managerial abilities this time around. He may at least be able to call on £5m signing Jimmy Bullard at some point this season as he recovers from another serious knee injury.
Great support that graced the Premier League last season, but a very long road ahead, I fear.
Hopes have never been higher that the title will be reclaimed after a 20-year barren spell - but was last season the great missed opportunity or the primer for the Premier League crown?
Liverpool lost only two league games last season and still finished second. It was too many home draws that did for them and they cannot afford a similar failing this season.
Glen Johnson is a sound, if expensive, recruit at right-back, but it is in question whether the gifted but fragile Alberto Aquilani can make Liverpool's midfield tick over in the manner of Xabi Alonso, now a part of the Real Madrid re-fit.
Liverpool's title hopes rest on manager Rafael Benitez refusing to become distracted by Manchester United, as he did so pointlessly last season, and on the well-being of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres.
If this world-class pair stay fit and play in the manner that propelled Liverpool so beautifully through the last three months of last season, then all the optimism and expectation is justified, despite a stuttering pre-season.
The great unpredictables - even when they are backed by the biggest transfer fund in British football. Such finance brings pressure and Manchester City and manager Mark Hughes need to make a fast start.
Make no mistake, they are a better squad than last season but they will be judged on how swiftly Hughes marshalls those new recruits.
Gareth Barry is an excellent common sense signing, while Carlos Tevez will provide attacking verve and industry. Kolo Toule is a steady performer, but question marks remain over the expensive Roque Santa Cruz (fitness) and Emmanuel Adebayor (consistency.)
Stephen Ireland is as influential as any of the big-money buys - an outstanding midfielder - and do not expect Craig Bellamy to accept his time is up as he fights for a place with Robinho, Tevez, Santa Cruz and Adebayor.
The big worry is central defence, which is why Everton's Joleon Lescott was pursued with such vigour. How Hughes strengthens in that area will be crucial - but still an unknown quantity.
VERDICT: Europa League places and cup contenders
Old Trafford is now a Cristiano Ronaldo-free zone - but where there is Wayne Rooney there is hope and Sir Alex Ferguson will have a glint in his eye as sets his sights on a fourth successive Premier League and passing Liverpool's record of 18 titles.
Ferguson must find a way of compensating for Ronaldo's departure, but not many predicted signing Michael Owen from Newcastle United would be part of his solution.
This could yet prove a master-stroke and he will provide competition for Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov, while Antonio Valencia has already shown his promise in pre-season.
Rooney carries so many of United's hopes on all fronts this season, but he has the ability and confidence to cope.
But how will the elder statesman Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes fit in? Will Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic stay fit? Will Ben Foster finally succeed Edwin van der Sar in goal?
The biggest question of all is how the old master will shape his side without Ronaldo. How Ferguson does it will decide the destiny of their season.
It is the most hazardous of occupations to predict United will not win the title, but a quartet of Premier League triumphs may just be beyond them.
Not huge amounts of good news here. Glen Johnson and Peter Crouch gone, more departures possibly in the offing and all pre-season plans shrouded in the uncertainty of a protracted takeover.
Throw in the bad publicity of David Nugent and Marc Wilson being fined two weeks' wages after a "serious breach of club discipline" on a trip to Portugal and you get the idea. Optimism is in short supply.
The Harry Redknapp era, when players like Crouch and Jermain Defoe were arriving and the FA Cup was being paraded, seems an age away and the highly-respected Paul Hart faces a huge task to stop the slide.
Pompey simply have to hang on to keeper David James and the creative force of Croatia's Niko Kranjcar in midfield otherwise this season will be a long haul, probably into the Championship.
To visit the Britannia last season was to sample Premier League life in the raw - something that also applied to Stoke City's opponents. Noisy, atmospheric, exhilirating and the main reason Tony Pulis's side stayed in the division.
Stoke, backed by feverish fans, made it a harrowing afternoon for many Premier League sides, although there was more to them than Rory Delap's much-publicised long throws.
Pulis built a side in his own image and likeness. Hard-working, honest, uncompromising, and it was a winning formula for survival.
The Britannia may not be such a culture shock this season, but I still back Stoke and Pulis to have enough about them to maintain their Premier League staus.
VERDICT: Staying up again.
Just survived last season, but a shrewd choice of manager in Steve Bruce and a big transfer budget that he will manipulate wisely means they can look forward to better times this season.
Bruce has excelled in the past in the transfer market, utilising contacts abroad while scouring for talent at home. He may be a Newcastle United fan, but Sunderland are in safe hands.
Darren Bent has been derided for his time at Spurs, but he scores goals and is a wise acquisition, while former Marseille captain Lorik Cana will add (and this is putting it politely) steel in midfield. Fraizer Campell is a promising talent, and if either he or Bent forms a partnership with Kenwyne Jones then Sunderland could be in business.
VERDICT: Top ten.
Harry Redknapp's shrewd manouevres in the transfer market and the use of the forces he inherited meant good progress was made by Spurs last season - now there will be expectations that he will build on that platform.
No close season is complete without hectic transfer activity down the Lane, and the addition of Kyle Naughton to Spurs' array of right-backs is a shrewd move. He was widely regarded as the most promising young defender outside the Premier League when he was at Sheffield United.
Luka Modric will again be the brains of the operation while we can expect to see Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe reunited once more in attack after their brief partnership at Portsmouth. But what of Robbie Keane? Surely the happy wanderer will not find himself surplus again?
Central defence is a worry, not because Spurs lack quality but because they lack good health. Ledley King, Jonathan Woodgate and Michael Dawson are all troubled by injuries, hence the outlay of £8m on Sebastien Bassong from Newcastle United.
Spurs have talent but will they have the consistency? If they do, expect further improvement.
VERDICT: Top six and potential cup winners.
WEST HAM UNITED
Gianfranco Zola made a promising start at West Ham last season - no surprise there given his pedigree, style and personal dignity.
He has footballing principles that appeal to the Upton Park psyche and with the astute Steve Clarke at his side, expect West Ham to settle comfortably towards the middle of the Premier League.
Nothing in the way of serious big-money signings in the new frugal era, but plenty of quality sprinkled around Zola's squad in the shape of keeper Robert Green, Scott Parker, Mark Noble, Jack Collison and others.
Young players have been secured on long-term contracts while all at West Ham will hope the outstanding Dean Ashton can finally rid himself of injury.
VERDICT: Middle of the road with cup ambitions.
Steve Bruce's departure was a blow to Wigan, but chairman Dave Whelan has attracted someone regarded as one of the brightest and most imaginative managerial talents in the game in Roberto Martinez.
Martinez is unproven at Premier League level, but his Swansea City side won rave reviews for their cultured approach and it will be intriguing to see if the Spaniard can transport this to the top flight.
He suffered a grievous loss when Antonio Valencia went to Manchester United, but he has placed his trust in two of his Swansea City old boys in the shape of striker Jason Scotland and gifted midfield man Jordi Gomez.
James McCarthy was regarded as a major prospect in Scotland with Hamilton while Wigan fought off interest from old boss Bruce at Sunderland to sign Honduras midfield man Hendry Thomas.
Wigan will aim for survival again - and if Martinez achieves this he can regard it as a job well down.
VERDICT: Lower reaches but staying up.
Just like Burnley, another great old name returns to the Premier League and we should welcome them with open arms.
Mick McCarthy's wise leadership and experience will be a huge help this season - as will the passionate Molineux crowd, although there will be times when they have to stick by their side in adversity.
McCarthy will hope Kevin Doyle's £6.5m arrival from Reading as partner to the prolific Sylvain Ebanks-Blake will give Wolves the firepower to keep them up.
Andrew Surman's ability to make the leap from Southampton to the Premier League will also have an influence while Michael Kightly is another they will lean on.
McCarthy is realism personified and he knows survival is the aim as they return to the elite - anything else will be a plus.
VERDICT: Fighting Birmingham for final relegation place.
You can follow me throughout the forthcoming season at twitter.com and join me at Facebook (requires registration)