EPL in 2014: New money rises in England as old powers slip
London: Manchester City and Chelsea, England's nouveaux riches, appear poised to dominate the Premier League in 2015, with traditional powerhouses Manchester United and Liverpool working their way through periods of transition.
United began this year as champions and Liverpool came agonisingly close to succeeding them, but it was City who prevailed in the 2013-14 title race and it is Chelsea who approach the New Year in pole position.
In truth, United's grip on power had weakened long before the clock struck midnight on January 1, as they lurched from calamity to calamity under David Moyes, hapless successor to legendary manager Alex Ferguson. The axe finally fell in April, when Moyes was sacked 10 months into a six-year contract.
Under the temporary guidance of Ryan Giggs, United eventually finished seventh -- their lowest placing since 1990. The straight-talking Louis van Gaal, architect of Holland's third-place finish at the World Cup, succeeded Moyes in July and after spending £150 million ($234.4 million, 188.6 million euros) on new players -- including £59.7 million British-record signing Angel di Maria -- United have started to move in the right direction.
The same cannot be said of Liverpool, who could not have imagined the trauma that awaited them as they took to the field against Chelsea on an overcast afternoon at Anfield on April 27. Five points clear at the summit, Brendan Rodgers's side required seven points from their last three games to secure a first title since 1990 after a thrilling run of 11 straight wins that had captured neutral hearts.
But a freak slip by Steven Gerrard enabled Demba Ba to set Chelsea on their way to a 2-0 win and when Liverpool blew a 3-0 lead at Crystal Palace eight days later, the title was City's for the taking. Following a dismal World Cup, Gerrard said he had been through "the worst three months of my life".
Inspired by man-mountain Yaya Toure, City amassed 102 league goals, while success against Sunderland in the League Cup final meant that manager Manuel Pellegrini ended his first season in England with two trophies.
"If you want to be a big club, this must be one of so many," said City captain Vincent Kompany after lifting the league trophy for the second time in three years. The summer brought more pain for Liverpool with the sale of player of the season Luis Suarez to Barcelona, while a lavish recruitment drive costing around £116 million brought squad depth but not star quality.
With Daniel Sturridge injured and new signing Mario Balotelli misfiring, Liverpool fell off the pace in the league and limped out of the Champions League in the group phase. Arsenal ended a nine-year trophy drought by coming from behind to beat Hull City 3-2 in the FA Cup final thanks to an extra-time goal from the reborn Aaron Ramsey, but the old frailties remained.
The north London club lost 5-1 at Liverpool, were destroyed 6-0 by Chelsea in manager Arsene Wenger's 1,000th game, and have shown patchy form this season despite the brilliance of star signing Alexis Sanchez. - Mourinho's 'little horse' - Constrained by UEFA's Financial Fair Play regulations, City and Chelsea -- both owned by super-rich foreign investors -- were obliged to move prudently in the transfer market.
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, who had described his team as "the little horse" in last season's title race, skilfully used the proceeds from player sales to re-shape his squad. Headline acquisitions Diego Costa and former Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas slotted in seamlessly as Chelsea made a sensational start to 2014-15, winning 10 and drawing two of their first 12 games.
But in recent weeks they have come under threat from City, who restricted themselves to just one big-money signing in the form of £32 million French centre-back Eliaquim Mangala.
Norwich City, Fulham and Cardiff City went down, with Leicester City, Burnley and Queens Park Rangers replacing them. If Southampton were the surprise success story, thriving despite losing a host of players to bigger clubs, French striker Nicolas Anelka and Newcastle United manager Alan Pardew were the villains of the year.
Anelka was sacked by West Bromwich Albion after his allegedly anti-Semitic 'quenelle' salute earned him a five-game ban, while Pardew got a seven-match suspension for headbutting Hull midfielder David Meyler. Meanwhile, allegations that Malky Mackay exchanged racist and sexist text messages with a colleague prior to his dismissal as Cardiff manager showed England still had work to do in the fight against discrimination.