Big-spending Pep Guardiola leads chase of Chelsea as big guns recharge ahead of new season
Top clubs spending lavishly in an effort to close the gap on Conte’s side
Empowered by a close-season transfer splurge of some £200 million (HK$2.04 billion), Manchester City are the early favourites to topple Premier League champions Chelsea.
Pep Guardiola endured a bruising first season in English football as City failed to challenge for the title, eventually finishing 15 points adrift of Chelsea in third place.
The club reacted with a glut of new signings – three new full-backs in Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and Danilo, plus goalkeeper Ederson and playmaker Bernardo Silva – and now look a force to be reckoned with.
“I think Manchester City are the team to beat,” said Manchester United great Ryan Giggs in a recent Sky Sports column.
“I looked at them towards the end of last season and the forward players they’ve got is scary.”
While City shimmered in attack, they frequently looked vulnerable in defence and resculpting the back four has been Guardiola’s main priority.
Brazilian Ederson replaces the error-prone Claudio Bravo in goal, while dynamic pair Walker and Mendy will add thrust on the flanks after becoming the world’s two most expensive defenders.
City also have John Stones and Eliaquim Mangala on their books, giving them four of the most expensive defenders ever, but with total spending in the league having exceeded £900 million, Guardiola is unrepentant.
“I would like to pay less for the club, for everybody, but the market is the market,” said the City manager.
“All the clubs spend a lot of money – not just us.”
Across town at Manchester United, Guardiola’s old sparring partner Jose Mourinho is also looking to kick on after ending a difficult debut season with a silver flourish.
United finished outside the top four for the third time in four seasons, but secured a Champions League berth by winning the Europa League and also tasted glory in the League Cup.
Mourinho’s teams traditionally peak in his second season and he has strengthened in each department with the acquisitions of Victor Lindelof, Nemanja Matic and Romelu Lukaku.
Mourinho won the league in his second seasons at Porto, Real Madrid and Inter Milan, as well as in both of his stints at Chelsea, but he expects this season’s title race to be an almighty scrap.
“Normally the second season should be better than the first, but again, this is modern football. The reality is totally different,” he told ESPN.
“It’s getting much harder for everyone, so we don’t know.”
Chelsea, the champions, have thus far failed to significantly enhance a squad that now faces the twin rigours of a league title defence and Champions League campaign.
Alvaro Morata has replaced the exiled Diego Costa up front, Tiemoue Bakayoko has taken Matic’s place in midfield and Antonio Rudiger brings extra defensive cover, but Chelsea still look a few players short.
In the meantime, manager Antonio Conte says his main priority is to avoid what he has saltily called “the Mourinho season” in reference to the 10th-place finish that followed Chelsea’s 2015 title win.
Chelsea were sensationally upstaged by Arsenal in last season’s FA Cup final and lost to them again in Sunday’s Community Shield, but Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger retains little margin for error.
While Wenger has pulled off the big-name signing of Alexandre Lacazette from Lyon, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil are now in the last years of their contracts and fan dissent will quickly return if results go awry.
Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur are trusting in the same formula that swept them to second place last season and must adapt to a new temporary home at Wembley while White Hart Lane is rebuilt.
Fourth last season, Liverpool have signed relatively modestly, adding Mohamed Salah, Dominic Solanke and Andrew Robertson to their ranks.
Both Juergen Klopp’s team and their title rivals will be mindful of the menace posed by Everton, whose ambitious transfer dealings articulate their determination to crash the top six.
Everton have splashed out on young English talents like Jordan Pickford and Michael Keane, as well as bringing Wayne Rooney back to the club after his record-breaking 13-year spell at Manchester United.
Having secured promotion from the Championship alongside Newcastle United, Brighton and Hove Albion and Huddersfield Town return to the top flight for the first time in 34 and 45 years respectively.
In a novelty for the 2017-18 season, players suspected of diving will face retrospective disciplinary action that could result in two-game suspensions.