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let the mind games begin!

On the eve of being open for business, the floor managers of the new Premier League season are busy titivating and tweaking their squads in readiness for the hectic schedule ahead.

Star players can turn a match in an instant, grab the extra few points that edge them in front of the chasing pack and, perhaps, ensure that there's silverware on show at the end of the campaign.

But it's the managers, those put-upon souls who enviously eye their rivals' spending budgets and are forever praying to Lady Luck to keep their squad free from long-term injuries, who ultimately win or lose the title race.

Over the years we've seen managers implode (hello, Kevin!). And we've seen managers come a cropper. Last season, Paul Hart managed two wins in thirteen league games with Portsmouth before being relieved of his duties. We've even seen some managers absorb stress as if it was a vital lifeforce.

This season won't be any different.

Before a ball has been kicked, we've had the sensation of Aston Villa's Martin O'Neill throwing in the towel.

Those Premier League managers who struggle to put a few points on the board will have an added reason for sleepless nights knowing that O'Neill is on the jobs market.

Debutante Chris Hughton faces a torrid introduction to Premier League management when newly promoted Newcastle United meet old adversaries Manchester United at Old Trafford in their first match on Monday. But the former Ireland international is a solid citizen. He's urging supporters to be realistic. "We've just had a season in the Championship and without a huge outlay you can't expect a team outside the top flight to finish in a European spot," he says. "We've been through tough periods and have to build again as a football club."

By contrast, stark contrast, Hughton's opposite number on Monday, Alex Ferguson, has been voted Manager of the Year in England more times than anyone in history.

Ferguson's record is remarkable. 11 Premier League titles. Five FA Cups. Four League Cups. Two Champions League titles and, with a 3-1 victory over Chelsea on Sunday, nine Community Shields.

As he surveys what will be his twenty-fourth league campaign, Ferguson predicts, "There'll be a bit of a dogfight for the top four places this season."



Dogfight

A dogfight. When you consider the managers who are most likely to be thrown into the pit, who do you reckon has the crucial mix of aggression, courage, cunning and street smarts to come out top dog?

Ferguson has proved his mastery of tricky situations time and again. His experience is mind-boggling. He's built team after team at Old Trafford and won something with most of them. But he's not immune to getting it wrong. There have been phenomenally dodgy signings -- £28.1m for Juan Sebastian Veron in 2001, for example. The Argentina international failed to get into his stride and was sold for half his fee.

There were others. Djemba-Djemba, Kleberson and Massimo Taibi are the names that haunt Man United fans.

With the supporters desperately unhappy with the club's owners, the Glazer family, Ferguson will be on a tightrope this season as he attempts to regain the Premier League title. A win would mean a new record nineteen titles. And this season will be Man United's fifteenth Champions League campaign in a row.

While no figures have been officially released for his new signings, Ferguson has been cautious with his spending.

But his two new signings seem solid business and 21-year-old Mexican international Javier Hernandez (said to be £10m) has been displaying all the hallmarks of becoming an Old Trafford legend. Having already shown the fans he knows where the goals are, he'll be the perfect cover for Wayne Rooney. Chris Smalling from Fulham (for £8m) seems a dependable full-back.

As he looks back on last season, Ferguson makes the point that things have changed in the league. "The top four found it difficult and dropped points in games they wouldn't have been expected to," he notes.

But it's the top four or five who are most likely to pose the biggest threat across the board.

And, with an eye on the Champions League, Chelsea continue to spend lavishly. Manager Carlo Ancelotti is a calm, cool customer. Despite the storms of controversy that broke around skipper John Terry and defender Ashley Cole, in his first season at Stamford Bridge he landed the League and FA Cup double.



Scrutiny

On closer scrutiny, it seems this might be the season that Ancelotti's squad will begin to creak with age. With Deco, Joe Cole and Michael Ballack gone from the club, billionaire owner Roman Abramovich is unlikely to refuse a request for some major signings to freshen up the side if required.

Given that it was eventual Champions League winners Inter Milan who knocked Chelsea out of a race that might have landed them a historic treble, Abramovich will continue to back his grey-haired maestro.

And Ancelotti is quietly bullish ahead of tomorrow's league opener. "Our training has been good," he says. "In two weeks the players who came back late will be 100 per cent fit. We will improve. We will be at the top."

While Chelsea have spent consistently, over £400m, since they shelled out £121m in 2003-04, last year's outlay was a modest £23.5m by comparison.

But there's a new high-spending kid on the Premier League block. With £113m in 2008-09 and £124m last season, Manchester City have never had it so good. However, fifth place in the league won't be good enough for owner Sheikh Mansour this season so the pressure's on manager Roberto Mancini who's already adding to his star-studded team of international heavyweights.

Spain's star David Silva (£26m) from Valenica, Serbia's Aleksandra Kolarov (£17m) from Lazio, Ivory Coast's Yaya Toure (£24m) and Germany's Jerome Boateng (£11) are the most recent additions to the Man City juggernaut.

But having such a massive array of talent at his disposal will present problems of choice for Mancini. As Shay Given, who has England's Joe Hart to contend with for the No1 shirt, has indicated, keeping players happy if they aren't getting their game is likely to prove a hassle for the suave Mancini.

One addition to his backroom team is worth noting.

David Platt seems an inspired signing and is sure to play a major role in fine-tuning Man City's drive for success.

While the professorial Arsene Wenger should never be underestimated, he's likely to have his work cut out to ensure that want-away Cesc Fabregas delivers for Arsenal. Third last season, Wenger desperately wants to get the club back to being champions. But has he addressed the problems at the back that have been costing him precious points?

Ancelotti, Ferguson, Wenger and Mancini might feel they're likely to be the ones battling it out at the end of the season. Not even the most deluded punter or pundit would believe that Harry Redknapp will guide Spurs to a league win this year. But there's another dark horse in the race. A man with a weight of a club tradition behind him that can only strengthen his hand.

For Liverpool and new manager Roy Hodgson the only way is up after the psychological asset-stripping that blighted the club in the downfall years of Rafa Benitez.

It's hard to believe that Liverpool have been waiting twenty years for another league title and it's fanciful to think that Hodgson can perform just such a miracle in his first season at a club that's burdened with a crippling debt.

But Hodgson is just what Liverpool need right now. A steadying influence. A prudent housekeeper. A man of proven footballing intelligence and a genial glint in his eye that inspires players and supporters.



Gripping

He's been around the block since he first began managing in the mid-1970s. But he's not a mere journeyman. Fulham's gripping Europa League adventure last season is eloquent testimony of the man's abilities.

Given the calibre of many of his squad, Hodgson is the man to get the most out of them. He's already proved his worth by persuading key players to stay at Anfield and a club that's punch drunk and emotionally drained.

The enthusiasm with which Gerrard scored his two goals for England on Wednesday suggests that the positive Hodgson Effect is already at work.

As he embarks on what promises to be a fascinating season, Hodgson's main concern is likely to be the business dealings of owners Hicks and Gillett.

But you can bet that rival managers will view Hodgson's Liverpool as a serious threat.