We're salivating at the thought of the Champions League returning this week, so here are five games to look forward to. How will Liverpool cope against Real Madrid?
Twenty questions on twenty goalkeepers, one for each of the teams in the Premier League. Maybe not as easy as it sounds...
The importance of pre-season training for footballers cannot be overstated. This is not simply the shedding the excesses of a six-week break associated with the grassroots game (although I'm sure this does feature) - a defined and sculpted fitness programme helps to build muscle strength and endurance, alongside that most prized of footballing abstract notions, match fitness.
A thorough pre-season also serves a crucial purpose in minimising injuries during the eight months to follow. Whilst contact or 'freak' injuries cannot be prevented, the work done in July vastly reduces the potential for soft tissue damage. Hamstring tweaks and strains are the most common injury in the game, and effective pre-season work is key to prevention. Finally, the weeks before the season begins can be utilised to increase team morale and bonding (or 'banter', to them), particularly important if numerous players have been recruited.
Traditionally, pre-season at a typical football club consisted of several days of heavy fitness work ('make them beg for the ball'), followed by a tour of Scotland or Ireland involving a number of games in a ten-day period, all topped off by a series of games against local opposition closer to home. Different players and formations would be used, and players genuinely able to enhance their first-team chances through impressive performance. Larger clubs could well welcome a more grandiose opposition in order to shift a substantial amount of tickets (and new replica shirts) but attendances, for the large part, were not of great concern. Instead, this time was reserved for the players and staff - they were the priority as all within the club appreciated the importance of having a squad suitably primed for the rigours of an upcoming season.
Now, however, preseason is a hugely altered entity. With a busy schedule from August to May (and June assigned to international tournaments or rest and relaxation), July is now the month in which the advertising and marketing aspirations sit at the forefront of clubs' thinking. This is the time at which overwhelmingly modern football concepts such as brand recognition and market expansion are prioritised, all plans made with the eventual aim of raising revenue. Such ideals can be worked on throughout the season, but the playing staff are the main draw of the football club, and therefore their exploitation is demanded in order to sell merchandise and generally drip-feed propaganda to new frontiers.
This summer, Chelsea's players will have clocked up 30,455 miles playing friendlies in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and USA, with Manchester City's trips to Finland, Hong Kong and South Africa racking up over 29,500 miles. Liverpool have played matches in Australia, Indonesia, Thailand and Norway, whilst Manchester United players took in Japan, Australia, Thailand, Hong Kong and Sweden. The Bahamas, Vietnam and Costa Rica are just three other destinations and, in total, 11 Premier League clubs have embarked on tours in North America, Africa or Asia.
That would be fine if such trips were made for football reasons, but this is so obviously not the case. Sunderland, Spurs and Manchester City were forced to play on a pitch in Hong Kong that caused injury to Jan Vertonghen and risked many others, Arsenal scored 14 goals in two games in Indonesia and Vietnam, Liverpool are yet to concede this summer and it is unclear quite how much Jose Mourinho learnt from an 8-1 victory over the BNI Indonesia all-stars other than a potential case for false advertising.
There is not even any attempt from clubs to cover up such blatant marketing exercises. Manchester United's players were seen drinking tomato juice in Japan for an advert, whilst Chelsea's official site claims that such trips "create localised brand ambassadors that take the values of Chelsea FC to the mass market". A story on Sunderland's website regarding their tour to Hong Kong states: "The club is rapidly expanding internationally...This event is part of our comprehensive international development strategy and we are looking to continue expanding on the partnerships front." Forgive me while I vomit into my own lap.
Players, for whom pre-season is intended to best support, are instead mere cogs in the wheel, expected to be paraded around far-flung corners of the globe in order to sell shirts and indoctrinate a new army of customers. Not fans - customers. The squad must deal with jetlag, alternative cultures and constant media frenzy, before returning home and expected to perform at peak for eight months. Liverpool's official website even quotes Steven Gerraqrd admitting as much: "As players, we have to openly admit this is not the time of year you enjoy. Training is very difficult, we're jetlagged at the moment and our sleep is all over the place."
The final nail in the coffin of sense is that we are constantly told that our players are tired, with the added pressure and increased number of matches adding to a general fatigue amongst footballers. Roy Hodgson will undoubtedly plead that his England squad his jaded in the lead up to nest year's World Cup, thus causing the inevitable failure. Then, less two weeks after the tournament, such players will once again embark on far-off destinations. Harry Redknapp recently admitted that even the managers at the club have no say on such matters, powerless to the economic demands of owners.
One option to deal with player fatigue is to introduce a winter break, but the response from clubs is predictable. Rather than allow their squad much-needed recuperation, clubs would simply play money-making glamour friendlies in the Far East, pushing their players down the catwalk adorned in their replica kit. Until such clubs demonstrate that they will prioritise players' fitness in preseason, why should such desires be pandered to?
It gets rather tiresome to keep making the comparison, but whilst the biggest clubs in England and Spain travel in search of the yen, baht and dollar, German football has managed to keep things in perspective. Not a single Bundesliga club will leave Europe this summer, neither Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund giving in to the financial temptation of Asia and beyond.
Speaking before the Super Cup victory over Bayern Munich at the weekend, Jurgen Klopp insisted that for him, pre-season was simply about "testing as many variations [of players and formations] as possible, while always keeping an eye on the start of the season." Not a single mention of market expansion, you understand.
Daniel Storey - follow him on Twitter