Mystery surrounds Man City title challengers
INTRIGUE surrounds the ‘Big Six’ ahead of the 2018/19 season. Not its makeup — the same teams look unchallenged in the first half-dozen slots — or even the champion, with Man City prohibitive favourites with the bookies.
But coming off a World Cup, managerial changes, new signings, off-field upheaval and a shortened transfer window all make the start of this season something of a step into the unknown.
With a fast start vital in the Premier League any World Cup hangover could prove costly, although the heavy involvement of players from the top clubs could cancel each other out.
Of course any potential effect remains to be seen.
Chelsea won the 2014/15 season by eight points from Manchester City after having 18 players involved in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
TOP SIX RUNDOWN
Last season: Champions
Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City)
Cladio Gomes (PSG)
Philippe Sandler (Pec Zwolle)
First game: v Arsenal (A) Monday morning 1AM (AEST)
Odds to win title: $1.65 (TAB)
WHO can stop the Man City juggernaut?
This season will be the third year of Pep Guardiola’s reign and after his side dominated the Premier League last season to claim the title with a record 100 points as well as winning the League Cup, City fans can reasonably expect a similar performance this time around.
While City has been fairly quiet in the transfer market so far, securing only the excellent wide man Riyad Mahrez from Leicester and promising 19-year-old midfielder Claudio Gomes from PSG, the club boasts a squad of incredible depth and quality.
Stars such as Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus, Leroy Sane, David Silva, Fernandinho and Raheem Sterling will all be looking to help City overwhelm opponents once again.
Left-back Benjamin Mendy, who made such an impact at the start of last term before his year was cruelled by injury in September, will be back to his best and effectively like a new signing for the club.
After not tasting Champions League success since his win with Barcelona in 2011, Guardiola will be hungry to win the tournament again and this could, potentially, cause a lack of focus in the Premier League.
As well, winning back-to-back titles is notoriously difficult in the Premier League, with the last team to do it City’s great rivals Manchester United in 2008-09.
Those doubts may have little basis however, with a hungry City scoring an imperious 2-0 win over Chelsea in the Community Shield on Sunday to show they once again mean business.
Last season: 3rd
First game: v Newcastle (A) Saturday night 9.30PM (AEST)
Odds to win title: $17 (TAB)
SPURS fans have full faith in manager Mauricio Pochettino but are growing anxious over a lack of activity in the transfer market, with a total of zero players joining the North London club so far this pre-season.
The club moves into its new $1.5 billion (AUD), 62,000 seater stadium this season and while Arsene Wenger at North London rivals Arsenal found himself hamstrung for years in the transfer market following the Gunners’ shift from Highbury to the 60,000 seat Emirates Stadium in 2006, Spurs bosses insist it won’t be the case for Pochettino.
But with the transfer window closing on Thursday August 9 UK time, Tottenham are cutting it super fine if they are to land anyone.
Spurs have a strong squad but may need to find a replacement for right back Kieran Trippier if rumours of a move to Real Madrid, Juventus or PSG prove correct.
Support for striker Harry Kane would also seem a priority if Tottenham are to better last season’s third place finish.
On the plus side, Brazilian Lucas Moura, a January buy from PSG, looks to have settled in and is playing well in pre-season. Spurs will be looking for the winger to develop a strong combination with key midfielder Christian Eriksen.
A title challenge looks a step too far for Spurs but they will be aiming to nail down a Champions League place while a trophy of any kind would be seen as a success for their long-suffering fans.
Last season: 2nd
Ins: Fred (Shaktar Donetsk)
Diogo Dalot (Porto)
Lee Grant (Stoke City)
First game: vLeicester (H) 5AM Saturday (AEST)
Odds to win title: $8 (TAB)
AFTER United finished second to their Manchester rivals City last season, the talk ahead of kick-off should be about how the Red Devils, with stars such as the World Cup-winning Paul Pogba and striker Romelu Lukaku, will look to mount a serious title challenge.
Instead the soap opera-like focus is on manager Jose Mourinho and his relationship with the club board and players, specifically his young players and stars such as Pogba and fellow Frenchman Antony Martial.
United’s pre-season tour of the US was not a happy one, with Mourinho whingeing about a lack of new signings and the quality of the young talent at his disposal with his World Cup stars still on holiday.
He also had a crack at Martial for not returning to the team immediately after the birth of the young forward’s son in Paris and that relationship now appears broken.
The manager and $155 million (AUD) signing Pogba did not always see eye-to-eye last season and although Mourinho has declared his star midfielder is not for sale (blocking an alleged big-money bid from Barcelona) how the pair get on this term will be a matter of keen interest for United observers.
Mourinho’s outbursts follow a familiar pattern. He tends to last roughly three seasons at clubs (Chelsea, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, Chelsea again) and there is the possibility this pre-season drama is part of an orchestrated plan by the Portuguese, for reasons known only to him, to encourage United to relieve him of his duties.
He is already a 5/1 favourite among bookies to be the first Premier League manager sacked this season.
Despite Mourinho’s bleatings, he still has a strong squad and his teams, despite being coached to play football that could best be described as ‘pragmatic’ get results.
Last year in the league United recorded their highest place (2nd) and points total (81) since 2013 but the gap between them and their cross-city rivals was 19 points.
Whether Mourinho’s side can close that gap while holding off expected renewed pushes from the likes of Liverpool and Chelsea remains to be seen.
Perhaps the bigger question is if United think he is still worth the trouble.
Last season: Fourth
Alisson Becker (Roma)
Naby Keita (RB Leipzig)
Xerdan Shaqiri (Stoke City)
First game: v West Ham (H) 10.30PM Sunday (AEST)
Odds to win title: $5.00 (TAB)
EXCITEMENT is building on Merseyside and for good reason.
After a fourth-placed Premier League finish and a Champions League final appearance last season, manager Jurgen Klopp has invested heavily, spending $176.5 million (AUD) so far this summer to bring in quality players in key positions.
Signing Brazil’s No. 1 goalkeeper Alisson from Roma for a world-record fee $114 million (AUD) is probably the biggest statement of intent and should resolve the goalkeeping issues the club has battled with over the past few seasons.
As well, defensive midfielder Fabinho, midfielder Naby Keita (signed last season but joined the club this summer) and wide midfielder Xerdan Shaqiri will all strengthen a squad built to play Klopp’s brand of high-pressing attacking football.
Talented striker Daniel Sturridge returns from loan and will bring his undoubted quality, although it remains to be seen if he can develop the consistency that has eluded him his entire career.
Reds fans will be looking for another big season from last year’s top scorer Mohamed Salah and his pre-season form indicates he is ready to resume where he left off.
On paper, Liverpool appear to have the players and game plan to give the title a shake. And their Champions League quarter-final wins over Manchester City suggest Klopp may be getting the wood over Guardiola in head-to-head meetings.
Still, going on the stats from last season, there will have to be a big lift in performances against their top six rivals (Liverpool gleaned just 10 of a possible 30 points in their 10 Premier League meetings against top six clubs) as well as a conversion of draws into wins.
Liverpool scored 84 goals last season, second only to champions City with 106 goals, but drew 12 of their 38 games, with some of those draws (notably twice against relegated West Brom) coming in games they were strong favourites to win.
Robert Green (Huddersfield Town)
Last season: 5th
Odds to win title: $13 (TAB)
ALL change at Chelsea again, with manager Antonio Conte shown the door following two seasons in which he won the league at his first attempt and then presided over what appeared an increasingly dispirited side that limped to a 5th placed finish last term a full 30 points behind champions Manchester City.
Conte’s replacement, fellow Italian Maurizio Sarri, is the club’s 12th manager in the past 14 years and is charged with revitalising a highly-talented squad.
Sarri earned a reputation for exciting, attacking football first at Empoli and then Napoli, who he steered to second place in Serie A last season.
His game plan centres on a 4-3-3 formation with Jorginho, whom he brought across from Napoli, sitting at the base of the midfield three and getting the team on the attack, often through long passes to his wide players and striker.
His addition will likely see champion midfielder N’Golo Kante employed in more box-to-box role in right midfield.
Cesc Fabregas, who ended up carrying a heavy defensive workload in Conte’s 3-4-3 formation, has been freed up to play a more attacking role and appears delighted with the change.
As well, Brazilian central defender David Luiz, effectively frozen out of the Chelsea side last season following a training ground argument with Conte, is back and has given Sarri a public vote of approval.
Chelsea’s don’t welcome back their World Cup stars, including Eden Hazard and World Cup winner Kante until a few days before Chelsea’s first Premier League match, against Huddersfield on August 11.
The Blues may also have to sign a new goalkeeper, with Belgian World Cup star Thibaut Courtois strongly linked with Real Madrid.
Last season: 6th
Stephan Lichtsteiner (Juventus)
Bernd Leno (Bayer Leverkusen)
Sokratis Papastathopoulos (Borussia Dortmund)
Lucas Torreira (Sampdoria)
Matteo Guendouzi (Lorient)
First game: v Man City (H) Monday morning 1AM (AEST)
Odds to win title: $23 (TAB)
ARSENAL fans will have to get used to having a new manager after Arsene Wenger’s 22 years in charge.
Spaniard Unai Emery has a reputation for being a restless innovator, an extremely thorough operator who is prepared to adapt his tactics game-by-game and who is renowned for his heavy reliance on video analysis, to the extent he will give his players ‘homework’ of personally tailored video clips. (His winger at Valencia Joaquin once said ‘Emery put on so many videos I ran out of popcorn).
He tends to favour setting his side up in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, the same as Wenger, but the key difference fans will notice under Emery is an insistence on structure and a relentless high press.
Emery has taken over a side that, short of confidence and direction, leaked 51 goals last season as it finished sixth and missed out on Champions League football for the first time since the year 2000.
Sorting the defence then, was a key priority and Emery, who won three Europa Leagues in a row with Sevilla before spending the past two seasons at PSG winning Ligue 1 last term, has moved to do just that with some key signings and a focus in training on defensive structure.
His 18m pound signing of Greek international central defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos is a positive move, as his landing of vastly experienced right back Stephan Lichsteiner from Juventus, to put pressure on Hector Bellerin.
Emery has also brought in defensive midfielder Lucas Torreira from Sampdoria and the aggressive ball-winning Uruguayan should bring the midfield steel Arsenal has arguably been lacking since Patrick Vieira patrolled the park in the mid-2000s.
In goals, Bernd Leno, a 20m signing from Bayer Leverkusen, looks in line to take the gloves from veteran Petr Cech.
The Gunners have plenty of talent up front of course, with Alexandre Lacazette fresh after missing out on World Cup selection with France while there is plenty of expectation fellow striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who scored 10 goals in 13 games in his first season for Arsenal last term, will really hit his stride.
And with no international commitments, Mesut Ozil will be free to concentrate his creative talents on the Gunners.
Arsenal then look well balanced and from all reports Emery is building a strong team spirit. How quickly the side can gel, and how quickly Emery will adjust to a new league remain key questions for the North London side.
The Gunners will have an instant test of their pre-season progress — their first PL fixture is against champions Manchester City.
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Originally published as Mystery surrounds Man City title challengers