Fairy tale to be short-lived for Leicester City as Manchester clubs look for early Premier League blood
Expectation is high ahead of kick-off but, as is often the norm, there are only a handful of genuine contenders for the title, with Chelsea and Arsenal among them
Leicester’s astonishing title triumph added a new layer to the global appeal of the Premier League and, with an exciting influx of top-rated managers and players, England will once again be where eyes turn this season.
Perhaps more so than ever, as pundits and punters look for another surprise team and wonder which of the big clubs will be first to get back to the top in an ever more crowded competition for first place.
Unfortunately for the romantics, a repeat of the Leicester fairy tale is highly unlikely and much more probable is that the title will go to one of the Manchester clubs or Chelsea, who between them took 11 titles in a row before they were usurped by Leicester and have each responded by appointing one of the world’s top managers.
City are favourites and it will be fascinating to see how Pep Guardiola adapts to the helter-skelter of the Premier League with his favoured passing game.
His new squad is not as strong as the ones he created at Barcelona and Bayern Munich and key aspects will be whether he can improve their defensive record and away form (both fifth-best last season).
Chelsea’s catastrophe in finishing 10th last season could play into their hands as they will not have the distraction of European football.
Antonio Conte looks a good fit as manager and the arrival of N’Golo Kante from Leicester should help to re-establish their old defensive stability but, in contrast to City, the question with Chelsea is whether they will score enough goals to take them back to the top.
Jose Mourinho is happy with United’s summer business but the addition of superstars like Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic may not be enough to raise the overall performance of a squad that still looks weak in places.
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Even after last season’s problems at Chelsea, there is no doubt about Mourinho’s credentials but, like Guardiola, he is used to working with stronger squads. Taking United from fifth to first in one leap would be an impressive achievement.
Arsenal and Tottenham reached recent highs in finishing second and third respectively last season but must now shake off their ‘choker’ tags. With so many headlines being made elsewhere, they are the forgotten contenders in the title race and yet both have young squads with room for improvement.
Liverpool still look the weakest of the big six even if they appear to be heading in the right direction under Jurgen Klopp.
The only significant departure from Leicester is Kante and they look top-six material on paper, except that the Champions League and a sense of post-party blues may weigh heavily on them.
Everton, under-achievers in the last two seasons, may also challenge for the top six under new boss Ronald Koeman, and West Ham should go well again under the impressive Slaven Bilic. Southampton and Stoke may be next best.
At the other end of the table there is the inevitable focus on the three promoted clubs as prime relegation candidates, even though they have a pretty good survival record.
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The Championship play-off winners have been relegated in six of the past 10 seasons, which suggested a difficult season for Hull even before the departure of manager Steve Bruce, a deep injury crisis and a lack of signings.
Burnley, deserving winners of the Championship last season, went straight back down under Sean Dyche two seasons ago but might put up a stronger fight this time with that experience under their belt.
The Championship title-holders have survived in six of the past 10 seasons and at least two promoted teams have stayed up in seven of the past eight seasons, which suggests Middlesbrough might also go well.
Boro have been the most active of the promoted teams in the transfer market, acquiring defensive midfielder Marten de Roon for a reported £12 million (HK$121 million) and former Manchester City striker Alvaro Negredo on loan, and it is interesting that the last eight Championship runners-up have survived. Perhaps falling just short in the Championship provides a greater sense of realism about the need for further improvement.
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If a couple of the promoted teams manage to survive, as they did last season, the question then is who might follow Newcastle and Aston Villa in dropping out of the Premier League. The most likely candidates, in order according to British bookmakers, are Watford, West Brom, Sunderland, Bournemouth, Swansea and Crystal Palace.
That order seems fair enough, although the more left-field choice is Swansea, who have been a selling club this summer and might be a team to drop, along with Watford and Hull.