So here we go. After the Year of the Fox, the most unpredictable season in the history of the Premier League, we’re now on the edge of what will surely be the most competitive. After Leicester’s shock victory in May, the next ten months really are anyone’s game, with some of the world’s best players, and, undoubtedly, the world’s best managers. Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger, Jurgen Klopp, Antonio Conte, Mauricio Pochettinio, Claudio Ranieri, and, for the first time, Pep Guardiola will all grace our country’s dugouts from Southampton to Sunderland in a division that is surely undergoing its biggest revolution since the collapse of the Big Four.
After a disappointing last campaign, Guardiola’s Manchester City find themselves slight favourites in a competition where the odds, frankly, mean very little. Pep has inherited an aging side, with some of the Prem’s elder statesmen such as Vincent Kompany, Joe Hart and Yaya Toure all still present. With age comes experience, however, and combined with – whisper it quietly – perhaps two of the world’s best finishers in Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne, the Citizens look set to go close again, having come outside the top three last season for the first time since 2009-10.
Local rivals Manchester United could be the biggest threat, finding themselves, after a bizarre twelve months in English football, managed by former Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho. United have been under close scrutiny since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson three years ago; accusations were rife that under the leadership of the eccentric Louis Van Gaal they played boring, defensive football and whether or not this was warranted they ended up in an ultimately fairly lucky fifth place. The Special One will be hoping that new signings including Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba (who signed for a world-record fee), can help recapture the magic at the Theatre of Dreams.
Chelsea, hoping to bounce back from their most disappointing showing in years last season, Arsenal, the league’s perennial underachievers but coming in off a second place finish last time, Liverpool, under the watchful eye of the masterful Jurgen Klopp, and fast-improving North Londoners Tottenham all have to be in with a shout as well, and we haven’t even mentioned the defending champions yet. Leicester City, pulling off the biggest upset possibly in the history of sport with their spectacular victory, will have more on their plate than ever in the coming months, but can they be ruled out of the running? No chance.
And what of those at the other end of the table? Arguably the relegation fight has the potential to be just as compelling, with three seasoned top flight campaigners in Burnley, Middlesborough and Hull all making the jump back up to the world’s most watched league. They will all have their work cut out to survive this year, but are no pushovers, and there may well be weaker sides in the division. Watford started last season brightly but ended up losing both place and their manager, while West Brom have been in the league since 2010 but have been wobbling of late. Bournemouth silenced their critics with a solid first season after being promoted in 2015, but need to be careful that doesn’t lead to complacency, while Sunderland and Swansea fans will also likely be keeping one eye on the drop zone as the weeks go on.
The beautiful thing about what this league is developing into though is that nowadays it really is anyone’s game – at either end of the table. And so it is that some of the teams not yet mentioned may the most intriguing seasons of all. The ever unpredictable West Ham have had an eventful off-season, moving home to the Olympic Stadium (sorry, the London Stadium) and signing the likes of Andre Ayew and Sofiane Feghouli. Southampton, too, fresh from finishing in their highest position in English football since 1985 and with a new manager in Claude Puel to boot, can look forward to an exciting campaign.
What happens between now and next May is anyone’s guess. After last year all bets are off and the game is wide open. Throw in any other sporting cliché you like and you can bet in applies, in some way at least, to the prospect of the next ten months. So ready yourselves, everyone; it’s going to be emotional.
[Image: Premier League]