LONDON - Manchester United open the new Premier League season at home to Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday looking for signs that they are ready to mount a sustained assault on Chelsea's title.
Last season's equivalent fixture, a 3-0 home win on March 15, proved the belated catalyst for a run of form that ensured Louis van Gaal ended his first season as manager with United back in the Champions League places.
But with some £77 million ($120 million, 110 million euros) having been spent on new players including Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger, United have set their sights a little higher.
"(Last season) we could see that we were getting better gradually, but we just needed that consistency in our performances and then, obviously, in results," captain Wayne Rooney told ESPN this week.
"But we could see in each game we were getting better. I feel this season for the first time, rather than the last two seasons, we're ready to challenge again." Saturday's lunchtime game at Old Trafford will give United's fans a clearer idea of how their team will line up this season, with Rooney expected to lead the line as a lone striker in a 4-3-3 formation.
Tottenham finished fifth last term, six points below fourth-place United, and will hope to make a more convincing case for Champions League qualification despite a relatively quiet transfer window.
Spurs' defence has been bolstered by the arrivals of Toby Alderweireld, Kevin Wimmer and Kieran Trippier, but in attack, Harry Kane is under pressure to repeat the feats of his stunning 31-goal breakthrough season.
Chelsea begin their title defence at home to Swansea City, who will be looking to repeat their sensational opening-day exploits from last season, when they won 2-1 against United at Old Trafford.
The champions have spluttered in pre-season, failing to win any of their five games and losing 1-0 to Arsenal in the Community Shield, and could be without last season's top scorer Diego Costa due to a hamstring injury.
Chelsea finished eight points above second-place Manchester City, the outgoing champions, in May, but manager Jose Mourinho believes this season's title race will be a much tighter affair.
- Liverpool seek atonement -
"Maybe I'm wrong, but I think fewer points will win the title," he said. "You have a minimum of five title contenders and the other teams get stronger and stronger.
"Every club has very good players so I think it's difficult for the top teams in England because of the competitive nature." Arsenal, bolstered by the arrival from Chelsea of goalkeeper Petr Cech, begin their season with a home fixture against London rivals West Ham United, who now have their former defender Slaven Bilic at the helm.
City travel to West Bromwich Albion on Monday, while Liverpool, sixth last season, start out at Stoke City, where they were dealt a humiliating 6-1 defeat on the campaign's final day.
"We didn't end the last season particularly well and I think we owe it to the fans to make amends," said Liverpool's German midfielder Emre Can.
"This is why the first few matches are especially important. I think we can start to put (the Stoke result) right with a few good results." Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers is expected to hand competitive debuts to a number of new signings, including James Milner, Roberto Firmino and Christian Benteke.
All three promoted clubs are in action on the opening day, with Watford visiting Everton, Norwich City hosting Crystal Palace and Bournemouth tackling Aston Villa in the first top-flight match in their 116-year history.
Having romped to the Championship title, Bournemouth are expected to make a mark in the Premier League, but manager Eddie Howe has warned his players that he will not show them "foolish loyalty".
"I do what's best for the team and if that means being ruthless and making some tough calls, I've proved in the past I'll do that," he said.
Former England manager Steve McClaren begins his Newcastle United tenure at home to Southampton, while Claudio Ranieri starts life as Leicester City manager with a home game against Sunderland.
Fixtures Saturday (1400 GMT unless otherwise stated): Bournemouth v Aston Villa, Chelsea v Swansea City (1630 GMT), Everton v Watford, Leicester City v Sunderland, Manchester United v Tottenham Hotspur (1145 GMT), Norwich City v Crystal Palace Sunday (1230 GMT unless otherwise stated): Arsenal v West Ham United, Newcastle United v Southampton, Stoke City v Liverpool (1500 GMT) Monday (1900 GMT): West Bromwich Albion v Manchester City