After a hiatus of just twenty-five days since the World Cup Final, the Premier League is back tonight with an opening evening (that still feels very weird to say!) clash between Manchester United and Leicester City. With the transfer window having slammed shut (© Sky Sports!) for Premier League clubs who are no longer able to bring players in, we can now run the rule over the likely challengers to Manchester City’s title crown.
The manner in which City swept to the title last time out has many already predicting that they will inevitably be the first team to secure back-to-back championships since their cross-city rivals did so a decade ago. Last season Pep Guardiola’s men set record after record: the most points, the biggest title-winning margin, the most goals, the most wins, the most away wins, and the best goal difference. While it would seem unrealistic to expect any team to match, let alone surpass those achievements, City are clearly still the team to beat.
Having finally acquired Riyad Mahrez, after the will-he-won’t-he saga last January, City have further bolstered their already highly potent attacking armoury. However the improvements made by the chasing pack and the desire of the club, and no doubt the manager, to finally make their mark on the biggest stage of all, the Champions League, could mean it is a much more even contest this time around.
José Mourinho and Manchester United will be absolutely desperate to challenge City properly this year, it must gall the self-avowed ‘Special One’ that while he has no doubt improved upon the Moyes and Van Gaal tenures, the record Premier League winners have not as yet produced a genuine challenge to regain the title since Fergie stepped down. Citing as evidence his track record of leaving previous clubs in his third year and his ongoing, deliberately disenchanted and tetchy public persona, there even seems to be a growing feeling that this season may be the Portuguese’s last in charge.
It is true to say that United’s investment over the summer has been somewhat underwhelming, at least in comparison to the vast sums they have thrown around previously. Realistically only Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk looks like a genuine first-team starter and, if the media reports are to be believed there is a very real chance that World Cup winner Paul Pogba may be off to pastures new (or should that be Nou?) before the end of the month.
However assuming they do retain a potentially rejuvenated Pogba there are still grounds for optimism for United with a fully rested Alexis Sánchez and the now established talent of Jesse Lingard offering much-needed support to Romelu Lukaku in attack, and a first-choice line-up that looks more balanced and founded on Mourinho’s tried and trusted 4-3-3 blueprint. If City do suffer something of a hangover after last season’s dominance, United may just be poised to take advantage, assuming it all doesn’t turn even more toxic and end with the manager’s departure before Christmas!
Liverpool have spent the thick end of £170 million on additions to the squad ahead of the new season, without even considering the £70 million spent bringing in Virgil Van Dyke in January. In doing so they have addressed identified weaknesses in the squad especially in goal and in central midfield.
There seems to be little question amongst the Anfield faithful that Jürgen Klopp has galvanised the club and improved the team to make it even better than the one that so very nearly won the club’s first championship in two and a half decades four years ago. However having been at the helm for three years this autumn and given the investment authorised by the Boston-based owners, the expectation has to be that tangible success will be delivered in the form of silverware.
Granted it could have all looked very different if not for Sergio Ramos’ cynical removal of key man Mo Salah from the Champions League Final, yet the 25 point deficit in the final league table to a team that they demonstrated they are capable of beating on three out of four occasions points to a need for consistency across the entire campaign, especially against the lesser lights. If Jürgen Klopp can find a way for his charges to overcome the packed, organised and deep-lying defences that they increasingly face, his team will justify the predictions by many that they are the team to genuinely challenge Manchester City.
No one seems to be admitting it around the newly named Tottenham Hotspur Stadium but it is hard not to view Tottenham’s lack of signings this transfer window as not being related to the cost of the stadium build. Mauricio Pochettino’s side have unquestionably established themselves amongst the Champions League places over recent seasons; but with so many first teamers having been involved in the later stages of the World Cup and their ongoing over-reliance on a first eleven due to a lack of squad depth, questions abound over whether they are capable of lasting the pace for a sustained challenge.
Chelsea start the season with their eighth permanent manager since Roman Abramovich took over the club fifteen years ago, this time they are under the guidance of Maurizio Sarri who led Napoli in a valiant challenge to Juventus’ domination of the Scudetto in Italy.
It is difficult to know what to make of Chelsea this season following an uninspiring title defence last time out and question marks over whether an established squad will be able to adapt to the new style of play the new manager will bring with him. Jorginho seems like a shrewd acquisition and a long-overdue replacement for Nemanja Matić in the midfield engine room, and if we assume that Kepa proves an adequate replacement for Thibaut Courtois, then Chelsea’s main transfer business may well be defined by whether Eden Hazard and Willian remain at the club despite rumoured interest from the continent.
It is the dawn of a new era for us Gooners, as for the first time in a very long time we go into a new season without the familiarity of Arsène Wenger being our manager. While that is going to be a bit of a shock to the system and will take some getting used to, it does mean for the first time in a long time we don’t know what to expect from the campaign. We hope that through some promising recruitment and a greater focus on high-pressing, tactical discipline and defensive organisation Unai Emery will make the team harder to beat and more resilient, something that has been badly needed for a number of years. Whether it will be enough to return us to contention for the Champions League places once again, may be as dependant on some of those above falling down the table as much as any improvement at the Emirates.
So here we go then, while it seems certain that the title and top four places will be contested once again by the cartel of the six biggest and richest clubs, this time around there is so much uncertainty surrounding most of them that it promises to be a thrilling race. Here’s hoping so!