The Premier League makes its long-awaited return this week, with three choice encounters on the docket in Week 1 to start what should be an excellent run-in to New Year's. Here are 10 matches to watch in 2014.
Manchester United versus Swansea, Aug. 16
After a full year of unprecedented and hugely unfamiliar problems for the modern Manchester United -- and then a World Cup summer in which anticipation about manager Louis van Gaal has only grown -- Old Trafford will finally get to welcome and celebrate its new main man. The energetic atmosphere will demand attention; the football will start to tell us how influential the team can be in the title race and just how far-reaching Van Gaal's effect can be. If his innovation in the Netherlands' fine run to the semifinals of the World Cup was not enough, there have already been signs from preseason, with his side developing impressive style and speed remarkably quickly. Despite that, this game feels like it has been a long time coming for United. Swansea City, meanwhile, continue to adjust to a new era of their own under Garry Monk. They will also have to adjust to a new United, but the Welsh side's well-defined approach could offer some awkward questions of Van Gaal's team, too.
Liverpool versus Southampton, Aug. 16
As if the summer couldn't get any worse for Southampton, they will first face perhaps the worst possible opponents: the Liverpool team that stripped away more of their players than anyone else, and who will therefore most deeply remind Ronald Koeman's team of the on-pitch realities of that fire sale. We'll be seeing a completely different Southampton. How that will look could depend on the deeper dimension to this game: how Liverpool adapt without Luis Suarez, and the degree to which signings like Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert will compensate. Can they get anywhere close to the run they achieved in last season's remarkable title race? This campaign almost provides a case study: was it Suarez's form that made Liverpool so good, or was that another effect of Brendan Rodgers' management? We'll start to find out, as Koeman starts from scratch.
West Ham versus Tottenham Hotspur, Aug. 16
A game so decisive, so early. Most obviously, there is the very real prospect that the first game of the season could be Sam Allardyce's last as West Ham United manager. Their dismal close season -- which has involved two defeats on a tour of New Zealand -- has been deeply complicated by an apparent faceoff between the owners and the coach. They seem to clearly want a more attacking form of football, but the club has so far been unwilling to take the initiative and actually change manager. That all feeds into the wider unrest surrounding Allardyce's management among the support, and the Boleyn Ground could have a hugely distinctive atmosphere for an opening day if things do get ugly against a club with which they have such a rivalry. That danger is all the deeper because, after a complex season of their own in which West Ham actually beat Tottenham Hotspur three times, the White Hart Lane club appear to have finally solved their own long-term issues. New Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino is one of the most modern coaches around, and in a game like this, his progressive approach will put Allardyce's style in starker light. The West Ham boss needs an early response.
Manchester City versus Liverpool, Aug. 25
It was Liverpool's otherwise admirable 2-1 defeat at the Etihad last season that convinced the Manchester City squad that Rodgers' side would be contenders for the title come the end, and the exact same fixture this August could tell much the same about this season's race. Beating sides like Southampton without Suarez is one thing, after all. Taking on the champions and the team that just pipped you to that trophy is something else entirely.
Arsenal versus Manchester City, Sept. 13
The enmity between these teams has been bubbling away for half a decade, with Manchester City regularly relieving Arsenal of some of their finer players, and Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger responding with repeated pronouncements about the nature of the champions' wealth. Now, there is the possibility that we may finally see a new dimension to this duel. With Arsenal flexing their new financial muscle with a second successive big signing in Alexis Sanchez, the feeling grows that they may at least be ready to mature as a team, to step to a proper title race. There would no greater indication of that than victory against another of the big teams that so battered them last season -- especially given that the generally dire results against City, Chelsea and Liverpool were the principal reason Wenger couldn't convert an initially fine league campaign into a lasting race for the league.
Crystal Palace versus Burnley, Sept. 13
Crystal Palace were one of the stories of last season, and also set something of an example for the likes of Burnley to follow, even if some of Palace manager Tony Pulis' football is hard to repeat. This game may not be an obvious choice but it will come after the international break, when the initial distorting enthusiasm of a new season starts to fade. As such, this is one of those games that will tell us more about what's actually to follow: whether Palace will be as robust, or whether Burnley can be one of the promoted three to offer a surprise.
Manchester City versus Chelsea, Sept. 21
It finally feels like we're in the future that was so long predicted. After a span in which both of these teams used their ample wealth to build -- but still had the monolith of Alex Ferguson's Manchester United -- the sense is they are now out there on their own as England's two finest teams. The transfer business of the summer only adds further evidence, especially since Chelsea seemed to have done the most to close the gap on City. There were of course hints of this last season. This exact fixture was one of the tensest and most engaging of the entire campaign, with Jose Mourinho offering a tactical masterclass. That 1-0 win wasn't enough to keep Chelsea in the title race right until the end, as Liverpool surprised everyone. It would be an even greater surprise, though, if Chelsea don't build on that and take it further. City, meanwhile, will look for revenge, and to reassert precisely why it was Manuel Pellegrini's team who ended up as champions.
Liverpool versus Everton, Sept. 27
The nature of Liverpool's 2013-14 campaign -- not to mention one brilliant 4-0 win over their local rivals -- went some way to ensuring that Everton's own progress was that bit more obscured. Because, other than Southampton, these were the two sides that enjoyed the most progress last season. It's also arguable that they have the two most proactive and forward-thinking managers in the game at present. Yet, while Liverpool have potentially taken a step back with the failure to retain Luis Suarez, Everton have crucially kept Gareth Barry and Romelu Lukaku. As such, Everton manager Roberto Martinez can justifiably hope that his team can keep improving, that there is no let-up. More than anything, it should offer some excellent football, as last season's 3-3 at Goodison Park displayed.
Chelsea versus Arsenal, Oct. 5
Arsenal return to the stage of their most painful defeat last season, but with Chelsea already having added insult to the various injuries of that 6-0 thrashing, the Stamford Bridge club ensured they brought in former Gunner Cesc Fabregas, with Jose Mourinho also seeking to make a few barbed comments. It adds to a fixture that should again crackle, as Wenger will hope to get a first-ever career win over the Portuguese.
Manchester United versus Chelsea, Oct. 26
The story here is obvious, but no less compelling for it: master meets apprentice, but as equals. Jose Mourinho takes on his mentor Louis van Gaal. So far, beyond the odd line about transfers, there has only been overwhelming respect and even displays of friendship between the two. It will tell a lot about how their seasons are going if that changes.
Miguel Delaney is London correspondent for ESPN and also writes for the Irish Examiner, the Independent, Blizzard and assorted others. He is the author of an award-nominated book on the Irish national team called 'Stuttgart to Saipan' (Mentor) and was nominated for Irish sports journalist of the year in 2011.