Powered by record sprees, Premier League ready for landmark season
Fuelled by an historically lavish spending spree, the Premier League returns on Friday when Arsenal host Leicester in the opening game of the hotly-anticipated new season.
Taking advantage of astronomical broadcast contracts and lucrative sponsorship deals, England's superpowers have been splashing the cash at an unprecedented rate.
Since the end of last season, transfer records have been shattered across the country as over one billion pounds has changed hands in a frenzy that could well set a new high for a single window.
While some fear the spending is unsustainable and will put clubs' long-term stability at risk, the 25th year of the Premier League era should deliver a title race more fiercely contested than ever.
Desperate to dethrone champions Chelsea, club record fees have been paid by Manchester United, who splurged a British record £75 million for Everton striker Romelu Lukaku, Arsenal, who forked out £52 million on Lyon forward Alexandre Lacazette and Liverpool, who put down £37 million for Roma winger Mohamed Salah.
Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola set the tone with a series of early deals that took his spending in this window to an eye-watering £218 million.
Frustrated by City's failings in his trophyless first season in England, Guardiola has overhauled his squad with defenders Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and Danilo, plus goalkeeper Ederson and playmaker Bernardo Silva.
Guardiola's old rival Jose Mourinho hasn't been shy about raiding the United coffers, with the Lukaku swoop headlining a £140 million spree that also brought Benfica defender Victor Lindelof and Chelsea midfielder Nemanja Matic to Old Trafford.
Mourinho won the league in his second seasons at Porto, Real Madrid and Inter Milan, as well as in both of his stints at Chelsea, but he expects this season's title race to be an almighty scrap.
"Normally the second season should be better than the first, but again, this is modern football. The reality is totally different," Mourinho said.
"It's getting much harder for everyone, so we don't know."
The no limits spending of Chelsea's title rivals prompted a tetchy response from Stamford Bridge, where boss Antonio Conte has been grumbling about his club's failure to land Lukaku and several other targets.
- No margin for error -
Even so, Conte has done his best to get billionaire Blues owner Roman Abramovich to throw his financial muscle behind Chelsea's title defence.
A club record £58 million lured Real Madrid forward Alvaro Morata from the European champions, while Tiemoue Bakayoko and Antonio Rudiger also joined Chelsea, whose spending climbed over £130 million.
Fans will get their first glimpse of how one of the contenders will fare when Arsenal, fresh from their Community Shield victory over Chelsea, face Leicester in the season opener at the Emirates Stadium.
Arsene Wenger brokered a fragile truce with Arsenal's dissenting fans by winning the FA Cup last season, but the Gunners boss has no margin for error after going 13 years without Premier League glory.
Last season was by far the most difficult of Wenger's 21-year reign, with Arsenal's on-pitch travails exposing him to furious protests from angry fans.
Having ended months of speculation by signing a new two-year contract, Wenger believes if his players put on a united front, the exasperated fans will fall into line behind them.
"A lot of the trouble was created by my own situation. Maybe I made a mistake," said Wenger, who will be without want-away Chile star Alexis Sanchez against Leicester due to injury.
"Overall I believe that it's down to us. The trend has always to come from the team."
The bulk of the opening weekend's fixtures will be played on Saturday and Sunday, with Chelsea starting at home to Burnley.
City travel to new-boys Brighton, back in the top tier after a 34-year absence, while United host West Ham.
Liverpool, trying to fend off Barcelona's interest in £100 million-rated forward Philippe Coutinho, are at Watford.
Despite finishing second last season, Tottenham, who face promoted Newcastle on Sunday, have boldly abstained from the spending and are yet to make a single signing.
The merits of that cautious approach should become clear throughout a fascinating season that serves as a referendum on the go for broke era.
Fixtures (1400 GMT unless stated):
Arsenal v Leicester (1845 GMT)
Brighton v Manchester City (1630 GMT), Chelsea v Burnley, Crystal Palace v Huddersfield, Everton v Stoke, Southampton v Swansea, Watford v Liverpool (1130 GMT), West Brom v Bournemouth
Manchester United v West Ham (1500 GMT), Newcastle v Tottenham (1230 GMT)
© 2017 AFP