By Andrew Warshaw
August 10 – As reaction continues to pour in from across the globe over Neymar’s eye-watering world record move, the English Premier League’s big boys have not exactly been standing still in their own pursuit of domestic and European glory – beginning tomorrow.
It may seem blindingly obvious to say that any team can win the league but the way most of the usual contenders have gone about their pre-season business, lashing out lavish sums like there was no tomorrow, only re-inforces the dog-eat-dog pressure on the respective managers to deliver and to ensure, nine months down the road, that they are not left behind.
The start of the 2017-18 campaign breaks new ground by kicking off on a Friday night for the first time ever as Arsenal host Leicester City in the latest break with tradition to serve the interests of television. The first full programme then kicks in over the weekend as the usual suspects vie for early supremacy having splashed the cash to cement their title aspirations.
The biggest hype surrounds the managers of Manchester City and Manchester United, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho. Having bedded in during their respective first seasons, neither can afford to slip up after a close-season in which both invested heavily.
If the title were awarded to the club with the most resources, City would land it on a plate. But as Guardiola found out last season, often with a look of painful frustration, it’s not as simple as that. The Spaniard has done much to overhaul his squad with a massive summer investment of close to £300 million knowing that if he doesn’t improve on third place he may not be around for a third season.
Should his new players gel quickly, City could be one of the most dangerous teams in Europe. If they don’t, they could be playing catch-up once again. Certainly there are no excuses now that Guardiola has got the fullbacks he wanted in Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy, players who can at last provide width to stretch the play. Add Bernardo Silva, Ederson (world record fee for a goalkeeper), Danilo and Douglas Luiz to that list, throw existing match winners Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus and especially Kevin de Bruyne into the mix and you have a team bursting at the seams with frightening talent. Sort out the defence, over which there are still question marks, and City will take some stopping.
Mourinho claimed three trophies in his first season at United yet had to rely on Europa League success to clinch a Champions League spot. Seventh, fourth, fifth and sixth is a poor league return for United since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement and Mourinho will need to put in a strong title challenge and refrain from inventive excuses now that he has one again been rewarded with his preferred targets: Romelu Lukaku replacing Zlatan Ibrahimovic to score the goals, Victor Lindelof from Benfica to strengthen the defence and Nemanja Matic from Chelsea to stiffen the midfield.
No team in Premier League history won more matches than Chelsea in 2016/17 but the fact is Antonio Conte’s side played a miserly 47 games in all competitions.
This time they have the Champions League to contend with and whilst they have conducted arguably the most exciting piece of business of any top-flight side by acquiring striker Alvaro Morata, Conte faces an entirely new ball game. With two weeks of the transfer window to go, there is considerable speculation over the future of Diego Costa who won’t want to play second fiddle to Morata whilst another concern is the fitness of Eden Hazard, who suffered an ankle injury on international duty in June, and will miss the start of the season. Manchester United were the last team to win consecutive titles back in 2009. Since then everyone else have tried and failed.
“We need more players to improve our squad’ both in terms of quality and the size of it,” admitted Conte.
Dark horses Liverpool won’t be happy with another fourth-place finish and will be looking, under Jurgen Klopp, for the consistency that has been lacking. Much could depend on whether they can hang on to the mercurial Philippe Coutinho and fend off continuing interest from Barcelona. If they can, they pose a formidable threat, again blessed with frightening pace.
“Make other teams crazy with the qualities we have,” is Klopp’s mantra as the club maintains its desperate craving for a first league title since 1990. “Our biggest challenge is to be stronger defensively as a team.” Which is why they are reported to be chasing Southampton’s much-vaunted centreback Virgil van Dijk.
For the first time since arriving at Arsenal a generation ago, Arsene Wenger finds himself in the Europa League instead of Europe’s elite competition. Many – perhaps most – observers thought he would leave after the worst league place in 21 years but instead he signed up for another two years and for once has got the marquee signing he was after in striker Alexander Lacazette from Lyon. Winning another FA cup in May meant Arsenal finished last term on a high and Wenger seems refreshed and confident. But the Gunners will take a significant step back if they lose the world-class Alexei Sanchez before the transfer window slams shut.
Which leaves, among the high-fliers at least, the enigma that is Tottenham Hotspur. While everyone else – even those for whom Premier league survival is the goal – have spent to improve, Mauricio Pochettino’s side are conspicuous by having done precisely nothing in the market. Whether this is because chairman Daniel Levy invariably leaves things late, whether it is because Tottenham pay lower wages than their rivals in order to run a tight ship or whether it is simply a case of Spurs having to be cautious because of the huge outlay on their new stadium – perhaps a mixture of all three – the fact is that having finished runner-up last time, their best return for half a century, Tottenham were expected to push on.
In a sense Pochettino is caught between rock and a hard place. Expensive new signings and big egos could disrupt a settled starting eleven, jeopardise his philosophy on giving youth a chance and jeopardise team spirit . On the other hand lack of any significant transfer activity could send out the wrong message.
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