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Premier League returns with stronger Man United

LONDON -- The return of the Premier League this weekend cannot come quickly enough for English fans still lamenting their national team's worst-ever World Cup showing. With the league's riches, global reach and non-stop drama, it remains England's projection of footballing power.

But as the waning impact of English sides in Europe last season demonstrated, the Premier League's allure remains under threat from Spain. Gareth Bale left Tottenham for Real Madrid last year, and the new season begins with Luis Suarez at Barcelona rather than Liverpool.

Liverpool cashed in around US$130 million for the Uruguay striker, who is banned from soccer until the end of October for biting an opponent at the World Cup in Brazil. But Liverpool is now without the player who led the club to a rapid return to the elite, and the Premier League marketing machine is without one of its most recognizable names.

Replenishing the Liverpool squad with a trio of players from eighth-place Southampton at a cost of US$80 million doesn't seem the obvious way of turning last season's second-place finish behind Manchester City into a first championship since 1990. The 27-year-old Suarez, whose 31 goals earned him the player of the year titles, has been replaced by 32-year-old Southampton striker Rickie Lambert, who played just three minutes for England at the World Cup.

“(Suarez) left Liverpool after his time as a world-class talent,” Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers said. “But we will move forward.”

Manchester United seems more likely to make a big jump forward than Liverpool. Louis van Gaal has replaced David Moyes, who took over from Alex Ferguson as manager last season but wilted in the Old Trafford spotlight as the team fell from champions to seventh place.

Moyes arrived a year ago without a trophy to his name, but Van Gaal already has an aura of authority gained from years at Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. He also led the Netherlands to a third-place finish at the World Cup last month. With United out of the Champions League for the first time since 1995 — and out of Europe completely — the 63-year-old Dutchman can focus on returning United to the top four.

“He'll find the competition in this league will be different to any other league that he's worked in,” Rodgers said. “This is a league where the top team plays the bottom team and on any given day you can lose.”

Van Gaal has set about repairing a squad he described as imbalanced and “broken” in a summer that has seen veteran defenders Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic leave and Ryan Giggs retire.

United spent about US$90 million on signing Spanish midfielder Ander Herrera from Athletic Bilbao and teenager defender Luke Shaw from Southampton, which has seen an exodus of players to rival clubs and manager Mauricio Pochettino leave to take over at Tottenham.

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In this July 17 file photo, Manchester United's new manager Louis van Gaal speaks during a press conference at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England. The new English Premier League season starts on Saturday, Aug. 16 (AP)

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