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FOOTBALL: CARRYING THEIR TEAMS

August 20, 2017

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Harry Kane
Harry Kane

As the English Premier League kicks off, betters and pundits are busy making predictions about who might win the league this year. But who are the special players each of the contenders are relying on to get them there?

ARSENAL: ALEXIS SANCHEZ

Alexis Sanchez
Alexis Sanchez

It’s an open secret that Alexis Sanchez will leave Arsenal at the end of the season. This summer, Arsenal have already rebuffed enquires from Manchester City, Bayern Munich, and Paris Saint-Germain for the diminutive forward. And to Sanchez’s credit, he has respected Arsenal’s wish for him to stay on another year. After all, nowhere else will he have Mesut’s magic to play alongside with.

Nobody at Arsenal would want Alexis to leave but then nobody would begrudge Alexis his free transfer at the end of the season either. Two FA Cup victories in three years means that Alexis isn’t seeking a move for sporting reasons. In December, Alexis will turn 29, which gives him five years at the top at best before his relentless passion for the game starts taking its toll on the body. Alexis’ new contract, wherever it is, will be about maximising financial returns. And given that he’ll be a free transfer, he’s liable to a hefty signing on fees as well.

Eos singles out the one player from the seven Premier League title challengers this season who could make all the difference

Will there be elation of winning the title before the inevitable heartbreak of seeing a fan favourite leave? If anyone can drag Arsenal to the title, it is Alexis.

CHELSEA: EDEN HAZARD

Eden Hazard
Eden Hazard

The main man for Chelsea is currently in the treatment room, recovering from an ankle fracture sustained on international duty. Hazard’s importance to Chelsea cannot be underestimated: with Diego Costa on his way out, Chelsea have lost a reliable source of goals. Alvaro Morata needs time and in the meanwhile, the onus falls on Hazard to create and to score.

The closest in terms of creating chances that Chelsea have is Cesc Fabregas or Willian, neither of whom have enjoyed the absolute loyalty of manager Antonio Conte. Both are not even direct replacements for Hazard since neither enjoys the drive and penetration of the Belgian. Last season, the Belgian missed only two games of Chelsea’s title winning season, scoring 16 goals and assisting another five. But in a season where Chelsea have failed to add meaningfully to their attack, Hazard will be thrust into the limelight more often than not.

Conte’s great hope will be that Hazard does not wilt under pressure.

EVERTON: WAYNE ROONEY

Wayne Rooney
Wayne Rooney

In an unprecedented summer for the blue half of Liverpool, over 100 million pounds have already been spent by Ronald Koeman. And the spending promises to continue with Gylfi Sigurdsson rumoured to be the next arrival at Goodison Park. But the most significant remains Wayne Rooney, the former Manchester United captain, who returns to his boyhood club to help them enter the top four of the Premier League.

Although most Manchester United fans would not feel downbeat on Rooney’s transfer (many believe he should have been ushered out by Sir Alex Ferguson), what Rooney brings to Everton is a change in mindset in the dressing room, where a draw is not enough and a loss is anathema. He has lost much of the pace and ferocity that were once his chief weapons, but the technique remains intact. While the younger strikers find their feet in England, Rooney will be expected to shoulder the team’s attacking verve.

LIVERPOOL: SADIO MANE

Sadio Mane
Sadio Mane

With a potential move for Coutinho nearing its conclusion, Liverpool are likely to be shorn of their creator-in-chief, the man who makes the others tick and the who one who’d conjure magical free-kicks reminiscent of David Beckham. Although Mohammad Salah has arrived from Roma to add greater penetration from the wings, Sadio Mane is as crucial to Liverpool as Hazard is to Chelsea. With 13 goals and five assists in his debut Liverpool season, the great hope for Liverpool will be that Adam Lallana can step into the Coutinho-shaped hole and find Mane with regularity.

Silva will still have his glorious moments of magic but if City were trailing 2-0 at half-time to Tottenham, and a midfielder had to give way, it’ll be Silva to come off rather than de Bruyne.

MANCHESTER CITY: KEVIN DE BRUYNE

Kevin de Bruyne
Kevin de Bruyne

You were probably wondering why Sergio Aguero is not on this list. Or why Silva has been ignored. Or even none of the new mega-million pound signings have made the cut. To put it simply, City are now Bruyne’s bastion.

Even while Aguero was fit last year, manager Pep Guardiola relied on Gabriel Jesus. Silva has a sublime, silky touch but his age (31 at the beginning of the season) means that Guardiola has forced him to pass on the baton. In Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Bernardo Silva, City have plenty of pacey options on the wing. But it was the playmaker’s spot that has kept everyone guessing. Silva will still have his glorious moments of magic but if City were trailing 2-0 at half-time to Tottenham, and a midfielder had to give way, it’ll be Silva to come off rather than de Bruyne.

With six goals and 18 assists last season, de Bruyne has much scope to improve. And if anyone can eke out the last drop of talent out of him, it is Pep Guardiola.

MANCHESTER UNITED: PAUL POGBA

Paul Pogba
Paul Pogba

With a season to bed in, a new midfield anchor besides him, and a new striker to latch on to his through-balls, the once-upon-a-time world record transfer will be ready to take the league by the scruff this year. ‘Size matters’ is Manchester United’s transfer philosophy this season but not all big men have talent on their side too (see Fellaini, Marouane). Except that in this United team, the key characters all have plenty in the reserve.

TOTTENHAM HOTSPURS: HARRY KANE

Where would Tottenham be were it not for Harry Kane and Dele Alli? Comfortably mid-table, the new Southampton if you will. Kane edges out Alli in importance to Tottenham simply because of his ability to find something out of nothing. While Alli bagged 18 goals and seven assists last season, Kane bagged 29 goals and seven assists.

Tottenham may not make too many signings this year given the construction costs of their new stadium. In what is reminiscent of Wenger’s youth project that ultimately paid off dues accrued in constructing Arsenal’s new stadium, Arsenal’s neighbours too have settled on certain players that they will keep hold of as long as possible. But while Arsenal’s options were Emmanuel Adebayor and Robin van Persie, Kane is having to carry that load and more.

Here’s where it gets tricky: despite professing his love for Tottenham, how long will Kane wait for the club to win a major trophy? If the search for silverware remains elusive, expect next summer to be a Harry Kane transfer saga in the vein of Robin van Persie.

The writer is a member of staff.
He tweets @ASYusuf

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 20th, 2017