The new Premier League season is nearly upon us and George Pitts provides the outright preview, with a look at the winners, top four, potential top six and relegation.
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Who will win the Premier League?
As good as Liverpool were last season, it is difficult to see anyone but Manchester City winning the Premier League at this moment.
The Citizens (4/7), after a first year of adaptation under Pep Guardiola, have collected an amazing 198 points in the last two seasons and have strengthened by breaking their transfer record again to sign Rodri from Ateltico Madrid for £62.8 million. The young Spanish midfielder's addition looks like it will only make them stronger as a long-term replacement for Fernandinho.
The main question mark remains around how they will get on without stalwart Vincent Kompany, both in terms of leadership and presence at the back. But due to his injury problems in recent years they are accustomed to playing without him and, with back-to-back title triumphs, this squad now has a fair bit of experience.
City fell behind last Christmas and showed resilience to beat Liverpool and complete a 14-match winning run to edge the Reds to the title. A potential distraction is their hunger for a Champions League success, but they have the luxury of being able to rotate and Guardiola should be able to do this again while ensuring the league remains a priority as he did last term.
Liverpool (3/1) came so close to trumping them in 2018/19 but Jurgen Klopp's side have not made first-team additions while losing a couple of squad players, so there is a concern over whether the Champions League winners can perform as brilliantly on a consistent basis.
Pairing that with the fact key players Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino have all had extended breaks due to international tournaments in the summer, they could take a while to find their flow. Although it is harsh to say a team which collected 97 points needs strengthening, you would at least like to see some new faces and it could backfire for Klopp's Champions League winners.
Tottenham (22/1) have smashed their transfer record to sign French midfielder Tanguy Ndombele who, going on his pre-season cameos, looks like a strong addition but the question remains over the strength in depth in Mauricio Pochettino's squad to balance the schedule of the Premier League with three other competitions.
It is strange to say they look short at full-back now, when at one stage they had two good options in each position, but after Kieran Trippier's departure that is now the case.
Injuries affected them massively last term, with Harry Kane missing over a quarter of the season, Dele Alli picking up various issues along the way while Heung-min Son was unavailable at two different times due to international commitments. Keeping Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld is a huge positive though, and it's an even better boost that Pochettino himself has stayed put. The Argentinian has got the best out of this squad and with a bit of luck on the injury front they can at least go close to pressuring City and Liverpool in their first full season at their new stadium.
Chelsea (40/1), Man United (50/1) and Arsenal (80/1 in places) still have some way to go in terms of the title, but we we'll come to that.
Liverpool's greatest hope is that those other top sides can do them a favour by stealing points from Man City, who showed in back-to-back losses over the Christmas period (to Crystal Palace and Leicester, then at Newcastle in January) that even they can have an off day or two.
But they also showed fighting spirit to bounce back from those disappointments, despite the constant pressure from Liverpool. They have a favourable start, while the Reds could stutter and be playing catch up for the rest of the campaign as City look to become just the second team (after Man United around the turn of the century) to win the Premier League three times in a row.
So that's Man City, Liverpool and Tottenham all expected to be in again, but who takes the final spot?
All three remaining sides in the so-called 'Big Six' have a weakness that could cost them a place in the Champions League but, as hard as Leicester and Wolves may be pushing to enter the top six, they might just have to settle for best of the rest.
Chelsea completed the top four last season, actually leapfrogging Spurs to third in the end, but they have to adapt to life without Eden Hazard, life under a transfer ban, and life under Frank Lampard.
The former Derby boss could have done with a revamp of his squad and it looks like he will try to do that with some youth players, following their successful loan stints. But it remains to be seen how the bulk of this group can perform, and whether Tammy Abraham, Michy Batshuayi or even Christian Pulisic can be the 20-goal-a-season striker they need.
Lampard might just have to carry the team through to next summer before shaping his desired squad. They have showed promise in pre-season, but that is so easily done when the pressure is off, and they're hard to fancy in terms of mounting a serious title challenge.
Chelsea may be short of goals but Arsenal should have them in abundance with Golden Boot-winning forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang alongside Alexandre Lacazette, supported by flare in attacking midfield which is bolstered by the addition of record buy Pepe. It is their defence that lets them down, however. Arsenal remain massively short at the back going into the new campaign and if it is not addressed then that is a serious worry for their top-four or even top-six hopes. They could miss out on Champions League football again.
Manchester United are getting a huge late boost in the transfer window by making Harry Maguire the world's most expensive defender, having previously seen their summer dominated by 'will they, won't they?' questions hanging over the futures of Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku, as well as Bruno Fernandes and Paulo Dybala as potential arrivals.
While Lukaku is apparently not going to be disruptive should he have to stay, getting him and Pogba - wantaway players - out of the squad and bringing in hungry players in the process could totally transform this side.
They will be a lot more solid with Maguire at the back, energetic purchases Dan James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka (who has looked excellent in pre-season) add more pace to a team who, with Marcus Rashford, showed how quick they can be on the counter when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made his impressive start.
The Premier League nowadays seems to have several mini leagues - the breakaway two at the top, the top four, the top six, four or so clubs vying for best of the rest and the bottom half which is full of teams scrambling to get clear of relegation.
There is hope for the likes of Everton, Leicester, Wolves and West Ham that a bad start for Lampard or Solskjaer at Chelsea or United respectively could free up a spot in the top six. The gap between the six and those closest certainly looks to have closed slightly.
Whether any of these sides can break into it remains to be seen. Wolves have strengthened well with Patrick Cutrone arriving from AC Milan and Jesus Vallejo on loan from Real Madrid, both young promising talents. You would expect them to be there or thereabouts, but (providing they qualify, of course) Europa League football could provide another distraction in an already hectic schedule.
West Ham have recruited well, too, but could be more impressive going forward than at the back, while Everton may finally have found a long-term replacement for Romelu Lukaku in Moise Kean from Juventus.
But the standout from this group has to be Leicester. Brendan Rodgers arrived at the King Power at the end of February after Claude Puel's dismissal. The Northern Irishman won six and drew two of their last 11 in the Premier League, with a clear improvement in performances, team shape and, importantly, getting Jamie Vardy looking dangerous again.
With Vardy sharp, promising English stars James Maddison and Demerai Gray and summer signings Youri Tielemans - an excellent addition - and Ayoze Perez, they really could be in for a strong campaign even without Harry Maguire.
The best price of 7/2 available on them to finish best of the rest is tempting with Everton surprisingly favourites, while they are as big as 10/1 in places to infiltrate the top six.
Preference, though, is to back them in the outright handicap at a more eye-catching 16/1. With the Foxes expected to be pushing the top six, they could finish on somewhere in the region of 60 points. With the +33 handicap possibly leaving them in the 90s, backing them each-way (paying four places) is a great option in a campaign where big-price ante-post winners look difficult to come by.
Who will get relegated?
We are now seeing shockingly large sums being spent in one transaction by bottom half teams with the gamble of ultimately keeping them in the riches of the top flight.
Sheffield United have broken their transfer record four times, three of which have come from the Championship. Is Chris Wilder investing wisely or has he got nothing more than a second-tier squad? If you are a Blades fan, you have to trust a man who is Sheffield through and through, who has twice guided them to promotion and proved himself as an adaptable manager. But it's got to be a worry.
Can the excitement of being back in the Premier League alone keep them up for the first season? Possibly. Just. We saw it happen with Huddersfield a couple of years back but Sheffield United's opening fixtures, after two winnable games, look tough and you would certainly expect to see them reasonably close to the drop come May.
Fellow newcomers Aston Villa have broken the £100m mark but, as Fulham showed last term, that does not guarantee anything but an increased wage bill. That said, Dean Smith looks to have struck a good balance with new recruits including Tom Heaton and Tyrone Mings in the spine of the side. They should be all right and towards the top of the bottom half.
While splashing the cash is no guarantee of success, followers of Sky Bet Championship winners Norwich have to be concerned at an estimated spend of £1.1million, the club instead opting to tie promotion-winning stars to new contracts while recruiting cheaply. A tough start could set the tone for a long, hard campaign.
Daniel Farke's side have recruited well in previous seasons, but banking on their title-winning squad to last the marathon that is the Premier League is another thing and it could be a huge learning curve for Farke and the club's board. They have a talented squad, there is no doubt, but doubts remain as to whether it's one which can keep them up.
Steve Bruce's Newcastle are another side around whom there have to be real concerns.
They've brought in Joelinton on a £40m transfer, and later added fellow striker Allan Saint-Maximin for £20m and left-back Jetro Willems to give their beleaguered fans some signs of hope for the coming season.
Their defence looks far from strong enough though and Bruce will have his work cut out to make his side tough to beat.
Fans will no doubt support Bruce on match day, but their anger towards the board and Mike Ashley could create an unpleasant atmosphere at St James' Park and underline further just what a great job Rafa Benitez did in keeping their heads above water.
While Brighton are expected to be embroiled in the relegation scrap, Graham Potter demonstrated his managerial nous under tough conditions at Swansea last term and the Seagulls could just be wise enough to survive. That is providing soon-to-be 36-year-old Glenn Murray and under-fire Jurgen Locadia are firing along with new £18m forward Leandro Trossard, as well as fending off potential interest from Leicester in Lewis Dunk.
Burnley should be steady enough with Sean Dyche at the helm as they have no Europa League football to contend with, and the other real worry is for Crystal Palace.
Roy Hodgson has found the knack of guiding clubs clear of danger in recent years, but he has come close to failure and Palace may well fall short, especially if Wilfried Zaha leaves for Everton or Napoli before the deadline. They have not reinvested the £50m received for Aaron Wan-Bissaka from United, instead spending just £2.5m to keep Jordan Ayew at the club on a permanent basis as well as the free transfer of goalkeeper Stephen Henderson. It's hardly inspiring.
A good second half of the campaign helped the Eagles to secure their top-flight status in 2018/19, but they look to be a little thin on the ground this time around and supporters have to be worried when they see others around them strengthening.
Prediction: Crystal Palace, Newcastle & Norwich all to be relegated
Golden Boot: Premier League top scorer 2019/20 - coming soon...
Final table prediction
- Manchester City
- Manchester United
- West Ham
- Aston Villa
- Sheffield United
- Crystal Palace
- Norwich City
Odds correct as of 1100 BST on 05/08/19
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