The Premier League season is back with a bang, and after a tumultuous transfer window that saw Arsenal and Manchester United strengthen considerably, the big question is who will finish top of the pile.
Here are the Gulf News predictions from Matthew Smith, Deputy Sports Editor, for the nine-month roller coaster ahead:
While reigning champions Manchester City look like the team to beat and having already claimed Liverpool’s scalp in the Community Shield last week, Jurgen Klopp’s men look like they have the strength in depth to get over the line. While the Anfield signings have not quite grabbed the headlines, their trust, unity and bench strength can see them home for a first domestic title in 30 years.
After all, they won the Champions League last term and came within one point of ousting City as Premier League holders. They ooze class — from goalkeeper Alisson and ‘Defender of the Earth’ Virgil van Dijk at the back, right through to Sadio Mane, Robert Firmino and Mo Salah up front, their clinical authority with see them home. While they failed to impress in pre-season, Klopp will get his men right in time.
2nd Manchester City
Pep Guardiola has strengthened, but the new faces are not the glamour buys we have seen in the recent past.
Rodri looks like a bit-part replacement for the outgoing David Silva at the end of the season and their midfield trio of Fernandinho, Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne — despite their amazing talents — are all to well-known for their injuries.
Ilkay Gundogan has just signed up for five more years, but the long-term injury to Leroy Sane will not help their chances.
Up front they have the ever-dependable Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling, but Gabriel Jesus was found wanting last season. Maybe it is time for Pep to unleash England youngster Phil Foden to realise his potential.
3rd Tottenham Hotspur
Mauricio Pochettino aired his grievances over the transfer business at Spurs during the pre-season, but his summer shopping has been pretty good, even if he insists it is out with his control. Tanguy Ndombele, a club record signing at £53.8 million (Dh238.33 million), will bring brilliant strength to the midfield that already is burgeoning with talent.
And then there is Harry Kane up-front, a resilient backline and dependable pair of hands in the shape of goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
There is no chance of competing for the title, but a comfortable third will satiate the Spurs fans. Maybe a cup will come along too.
Oh Chelsea. The prodigal son, Frank Lampard, has returned as manager, but they are hamstrung by a transfer ban that has meant they can get no cover for the departed Eden Hazard.
Top four is, however, a real possibility due to their youngsters and academy prospects. Just remember how Ajax’s outrageously gung-ho team took Europe by storm last season. The Blues may just do the same this time around with a youthful spring in their step under a new manager and there is also the added carrot of Champions League silverware, having got into the top four last time around.
While Arsenal may have done some of the best transfer window businesses, bringing in Kieran Tierney from Glasgow club Celtic for £25 million — one of the best left-backs in the game — and taking an eyebrow-raising plunge on Chelsea defender David Luiz, they are looking strong at the back. With Nicholas Pepe arriving from Lille for a club record £72 million to embolden the front-line alongside Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, their only real weakness looks to be the middle of the field. If Unai Emery can find a leader in the middle now Aaron Ramsey has gone, they just might get their hands on some silverware.
Dani Ceballos could be the key man.
This might sound strange but bear with me. Where are Manchester United? We will get to them but I believe this is the season that we will see the ‘Big Top Six’ stranglehold broken. Everton were one of the best teams towards the end of last season and have only got stronger with the new arrivals. They defeated Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United in the home stretch last campaign and will only be tougher to beat with the arrival of Andre Gomes to replace Idrissa Gueye. And then there is the incoming Jean-Philippe Gbamin and Moise Kean. A last-minute swoop for Alex Iwobi from Arsenal will only help them break the dominance at the top of the table.
7th Manchester United
Here they are. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer bet big on Harry Maguire to solve their defensive issues. There is no way he is an £80 million player. The departure of Romelu Lukaku without finding a strong replacement will hurt them and as soon as Paul Pogba starts acting up again, the midfield will fall apart. Ole my be a goner before the end of the season. Other new arrivals Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James may prove the difference between success and failure.
8th Leicester City
As you were with the shock champions a few years back. How they have managed to hang on to Jamie Vardy is one of life’s mysteries. But he again will provide the goals to keep them safely inside the top 10.
Maguire’s departure is a loss, but he is not irreplaceable. And Leicester got some serious money in return to help develop their academy players. New arrivals include Youri Tielemans and striker Ayoze Perez. Expect a few upsets.
9th Wolverhampton Wanderers
After a tremendous season and some savvy spending, Wolves are here to stay. I just think Europa League football will take too much out of them to repeat last season’s top-seven finish. Striker Patrick Cutrone from AC Milan will be an asset to help out Raul Jimenez and Diogo Jota on the goal front.
10th West Ham United
Into the usual middle men now, and West Ham will lead the bunch. Manuel Pellegrini established his mark on the team last time out, and will look to consolidate with another comfortable campaign. Pablo Fornals will add a potency up front, but silverware will be out of reach once again.
A run to the FA Cup final last season gave the team a real boost, but they have been fairly quiet in the post-season and another trip to Wembley looks off the cards. Safety in mid-table is their best bet as they continue to rely on an ageing Troy Deeney.
The Saints managed to stay up during a tumultuous campaign last season. Securing Nathan Redmond on a long-term deal will bolster their confidence and they should have a less fraught time this time around. Ralph Hassenhuttl in the manager’s chair looks like a deft move. Danny Ings and Che Adams look like their key men.
Even the transfer-banned Chelsea made more headlines than Eddie Howe’s side this summer. It could be a long season for them, but on their day, we know they can cause an upset — especially with Ryan Fraser and Callum Wilson in the ranks.
14th Aston Villa
The first of the new arrivals and the last to secure their place in the top flight, thanks to their Championship play-off win over Derby County. But they have splurged big time in a bid to stay up. And it will pay off. Manager Dean Smith has brought in — deep breath — Jota, Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings and Anwar Al Gazi. Big risks will be Wesley, Trezeguet and Douglas Luiz. They look to have a safe pair of hands in Tom Heaton in goal.
Scary times at Burnley for Sean Dyche. If he can’t get it right, then he could be the first manager of the season on the chopping block. Keeping them up last season was a fine piece of work for a weak team. Jay Rodriguez could be the main man to help keep Dyche in a job as he returns to the club.
16th Crystal Palace
Palace may struggle with the loss of Wan-Bissaka to United. Manager Roy Hodgson will be glad that Wilfried Zaha has decided to stay, but a restless player in the dressing room can sometimes cause more problems than they solve.
They somehow survived by the skin of their teeth last season and I am pretty confident they will do it again. Chris Hughton lost his job last term, but Graham Potter can help keep them up. This is by no means a compliment as it just seems there are weaker teams this time around and they will have the edge. New recruits include Leandro Trossard and Adam Webster and they will be key to another money-spinning year at the top.
18th Sheffield United
A team that has failed to get pulses racing for what feels like decades, United will have a fairly anonymous season and pack their bags for the Championship again next season. Phil Jagielka is back. but they have all the airs of a Championship side just flirting with the big boys.
19th Norwich City
The Canaries are also back at the top after a long time in the lower leagues. Sadly, it won’t last as the team have failed to strengthen significantly and will be left behind by their rivals. Daniel Farke has his side playing well, but the Premier League will be a step too far. Too much reliance on striker Teemu Pukki will be their undoing.
20th Newcastle United
A team in a complete shambles following a dreadful season, the departure of manager Rafa Benitez and the farce of Mike Ashley in the boardroom. Steve Bruce has come in to provide a helping hand, but even Pep and Jurgen combined cannot save them this time. The fact they have re-signed Andy Carroll is an illustration of how far they have fallen. Even the loyal Toon Army have voiced their displeasure over and over at the situation at the club. The unheard-of Joelinton and Allan Saint-Maximin are the other signings of note.
1. MANCHESTER CITY: Too loaded and stable on experience not to deliver a third straight title.
2. LIVERPOOL: One more season for Klopp’s men as the proverbial bridesmaid.
3. TOTTENHAM: Tough ask to get past either Liverpool or City with limited resources.
4. CHELSEA: Lacking depth in players due to the prevailing ban on signing.
5. MANCHESTER UNITED: New focus and direction with coach Ole fully aware of club philosophy.
6. ARSENAL: Lone motivation perhaps could be fighting for a place in the Uefa Champions League.
18. BURNLEY: Sean Dyche just doesn’t have the firepower to stay put another season.
19. NORWICH CITY: Will struggle to survive demanding ravages of the EPL.
20. SHEFFIELD UNITED: Very little depth in squad following 12-year absence from top-notch competition.
1. LIVERPOOL: Perseverance will finally pay off in Merseyside, 30 years after their last league title.
2. MANCHESTER CITY: The loss of Vincent Kompany and inability to replace him will see City just miss out.
3. ARSENAL: A second season under Unai Emery will see notable improvement at the Emirates.
4. TOTTENHAM: Even if they can keep everyone together, the moment at Spurs has well and truly passed.
5. CHELSEA: Frank Lampard’s youngsters will put on an admirable display despite the player ban.
6. MANCHESTER UNITED: Mediocrity at Old Trafford will settle even further into the norm.
18. NEWCASTLE UNITED: Losing Benitez, a buyout that never was, and the continued leadership of Mike Ashley spells trouble.
19. BRIGHTON: They survived by the skin of their teeth last season, but won’t be so lucky again.
20. ASTON VILLA: The last team to come up via the Championship playoffs will go straight back down.
1. MANCHESTER CITY: It’s a no-brainer. There’s more depth in the star-studded squad, which is arguably the best in Europe.
2. LIVERPOOL: Disastrous transfer window. Failed to add depth in the squad and they are just a VVD injury away from finishing outside the top three.
3. CHELSEA: They will surprise everyone. Lost their talisman, but it’s about time they utilise the plethora of talent in their academy with a gaffer who knows them very well.
4. TOTTENHAM: Had a brilliant window, but not enough fortitude to challenge for the title.
5. ARSENAL: Menacing in attack and they could push for a top-four place, but will fall just short considering their murky defence
6. MANCHESTER UNITED: Ole’s tactically inept and not at the wheel. Solidified the defence but lack of firepower in attack will haunt them in the long run.
18. BRIGHTON: Sacking Hughton was a mistake and they will pay the price.
19. NORWICH CITY: They were the best team in the championship last season, but didn’t bolster their squad to compete in the Premier League.
20. SHEFFIELD UNITED: Championship quality and they will go back to where they actually belong.