Philadelphia, PA – After a 2012-13 Premier League season in which Manchester United cruised to a 20th top-flight title in relatively simple fashion, a host of offseason changes yielded hopes of a more wide-open chase for silverware.
But while the title run-in may prove to be more closely contested, the first round of Premier League play indicates a clear division of prowess between teams within the top-six.
David Moyes, Manuel Pellegrini and Jose Mourinho assumed control of the touchline duties for Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea, respectively. The byproduct of these changes gave hope to Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool of displacing the "usual suspects" at the top of the Premier League table by season's end.
Granted, each team is only 90 minutes into a season that lasts 3,420, but Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool struggling to put together as emphatic performances as the three teams they are chasing signals there is still some considerable ground to make up.
Perhaps the biggest story of the opening weekend was Arsenal's implosion in a 3-1 home loss to Aston Villa. The Gunners may be able to assign some of the blame to referee Anthony Taylor, who issued a total of nine cards in the match and controversially awarded Villa a penalty at the hour mark when Laurent Koscielny put in a fair challenge on Gabriel Agbonlahor in the box, but losing at home to a club that narrowly avoided relegation last term does not inspire a great deal of confidence.
It will be interesting to see if the added pressure mounting on manager Arsene Wenger results in any last-minute purchases before the close of the transfer deadline like it did for the club in 2011 following an 8-2 loss at Manchester United inside the opening month of that season. But even with reinforcements, it's tough to envision the Gunners making a dent in the title race.
Tottenham and Liverpool both managed to claim maximum points from their respective openers at the weekend, but they did so in rather unconvincing fashion.
Spurs were the better side in a 1-0 victory over newly promoted Crystal Palace, but only managed to get the win thanks to a 50th-minute penalty from Roberto Soldado. The club was without talisman Gareth Bale, who was ruled out of the match due to a foot injury, but Andre Villas-Boas' men should have done better at Selhurst Park considering the sizeable investments to bring in Soldado and Paulinho during the summer.
Liverpool, meanwhile, emerged victorious from Anfield on Saturday behind a 1-0 defeat of Stoke City, needing a late penalty stop from Simon Mignolet to preserve all three points. The Reds, the least likely to crack the title race, just lacked the composure in front of goal to put the match away, making the late penalty a warning sign. Liverpool made it through the decision unscathed, but failing to finish off opponents over the course of the season will result in enough dropped points to quickly drop Brendan Rodgers' side out of contention.
The two Manchester clubs did not experience such inefficiency on the offensive end this weekend as both sides bagged four goals apiece in their respective wins.
City turned out a controlling performance against a pedestrian Newcastle side at the Etihad on Monday, earning a 4-0 thrashing of the Magpies to begin their quest to regain the title in style. Pellegrini had the Citizens humming as their virtually flawless showing was perhaps the toast of the weekend.
But it is fair to question the quality of opposition City faced in the opening weekend, and Newcastle had the appearance of a team that could face a relegation battle all season.
Meanwhile, United arguably had the toughest test of any contending team as the reigning champions traveled to the Liberty Stadium to face Swansea City. The Red Devils didn't skip a beat under Moyes, though, claiming a 4-1 win over the Welsh side.
While the Swans had the better run of play in the opening 30 minutes, United turned the match in its favor thanks to two goals in quick succession before doing what Liverpool couldn't, killing the match with a third goal courtesy of Robin van Persie, his second of the day. Swansea pulled one back, but Danny Welbeck made sure of the victory by completing a brace of his own with a late chip.
That leaves Chelsea, a club that could go in either direction this season. The Blues, who welcomed Jose Mourinho back as manager, looked as if they would run rampant on newly promoted Hull City after producing two goals in the opening 25 minutes, but they failed to build upon that lead, instead settling for a 2-0 home win.
Mourinho's men certainly should have added to the lead, but the exuberance and creativity shown by the Blues was enough to validate the club's title merit.
The managerial turnover at Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea potentially opened the door for other clubs to sneak into the title race, but it was promptly slammed shut behind such emphatic performances to open the season. It should come as no surprise, but United, City and Chelsea are firm title favorites after demonstrating they are a cut above the rest of the country.
It's still early days, but the Premier League looks poised to become another three-horse race with Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool playing second-fiddle once again.