The old boys: Chelsea and Manchester United
LONDON • Come Sunday, for all the romance of the Old Trafford meeting of the homecoming club legends in suits, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Frank Lampard, reality should feature as prominently as nostalgia.
After all, in an era of big-name foreign managers that began with Arsene Wenger's foray into the Premier League, Manchester United and Chelsea now have relative novices in the hot seat attempting to catch the runaway pair of Manchester City and Liverpool.
Lampard's task is the more arduous, given setbacks in recent months - and not to mention the big shoes to fill. Maurizio Sarri achieved third place in England and won the Europa League before being poached by Juventus.
Chelsea are under a transfer embargo and have lost their best player Eden Hazard to Real Madrid. Their predicament would suggest they risk falling further behind City, who finished 26 points ahead.
Yet the divisive Sarri tenure is no more with the return of the record scorer, and there was an air of positivity even as they drew their opening friendly against Bohemians in Dublin. Lampard has also earned a reputation for playing attractive football and giving youth a chance.
"Every year we've had the chance to bring trophies back to the Bridge," said the 41-year-old, who has been managing for a year and finished sixth in the second-tier Championship with Derby County and lost the play-off final.
A new football chapter awaits as the 28th EPL season is upon us. The Straits Times continues its countdown with the title hopefuls.
MAN UNITED TRANSFERS
• Daniel James from Swansea, £15 million
• Aaron Wan-Bissaka from Crystal Palace, £45 million
• Harry Maguire from Leicester, £80 million
• Ander Herrera to Paris Saint-Germain, free
• Antonio Valencia to LDU Quito, free
• Mateo Kovacic from Real Madrid, £40.2 million•
• Eden Hazard to Real Madrid, £88.5 million
• Gary Cahill released
• Gonzalo Higuain to Juventus, loan ended
Note: Transfers are selected and accurate as of press time. £1 = S$1.67
"Now we have something unusual, the transfer ban, which gives a chance for a lot of young players, players coming back from loan.
"We're not going to win anything thinking about the past or complaining."
Among the chief beneficiaries are the injured English duo of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who signed a new deal after he arrived, and Callum Hudson-Odoi, the 18-year-old coveted by Bayern Munich, who is closer to a new contract. He will also have the 20-year-old Christian Pulisic, bought for £58 million (S$97 million) from Borussia Dortmund before Fifa's punishment.
He would need time to settle in and Ross Barkley has said he is ready to step up to ensure that Hazard, the top scorer and supplier of assists last term with 16 and 15 respectively, will not be missed.
Lampard has changed his role, with greater emphasis on getting into the box and being "hungry for goals" too.
"I have been playing a bit further forward, to think like a striker, especially as a No. 10, but try to help out defensively and work hard off the ball," said Barkley, who scored three and set up five in 27 league matches, 14 as a substitute.
"He was one of my idols as a kid. I was always watching Match of the Day; you always saw him every week scoring goals."
For Solskjaer, 46. though, the honeymoon is over.
It is difficult to know what to expect from the Norwegian after his Jekyll and Hyde start since replacing Jose Mourinho. They enjoyed a purple patch and a top-four spot looked likely but it all ended with a whimper, a 2-0 home defeat on the final day by relegated Cardiff.
After finishing an embarrassing 32 points behind champions City, many questioned the hastiness in appointing Solskjaer full-time.
There will not be Champions League football to paper over the cracks. Instead, it will be the second-tier Europa League on Thursday nights for the 20-time EPL winners, who have missed out on the top four in four of the six seasons since Alex Ferguson stepped down.
The club have had a positive pre-season, with wins over Tottenham and the two Milans, but there are still lingering issues on the pitch.
United had problems at both ends of the pitch last term, the 54 goals conceded, the most in a league season since 1978-79, was at the root of their struggles.
To that end, Leicester's Harry Maguire will be a massive plug for the hole. The England centre-back is on the verge of becoming the world's most expensive defender at £80 million.
Highly rated right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka has joined from Crystal Palace, with Solskjaer describing the 21-year-old as "one of the best upcoming defenders in the league".
At the other end, which is right up the alley of Solskjaer, an impact supersub forward in his Old Trafford days, they ended up scoring 30 fewer than the City goal machine.
Marcus Rashford, while still only 21, will have to step up and show emphatically that he deserves to wear the No. 10 shirt and the new four-year deal he signed last month.
The Englishman may have some sublime strikes among his 17 goals in 54 appearances last term for club and country but his elevation to 20-plus-goal striker would compensate for a lack of a goal threat elsewhere.