LONDON: There is little time for the Premier League’s stars to shake off a World Cup hangover as less than a month on from Russia’s summer showpiece, the chase to catch champions Manchester City begins in earnest on Friday.
On top of the quick turnaround from the World Cup, a shortened transfer window that closes 24 hours before the season kicks off has left many sides scrambling at the last minute to strengthen their squads, none more so than Manchester United.
The Red Devils raise the curtain on the campaign at home to Leicester City on Friday night hoping to put a troubled pre-season dominated by manager Jose Mourinho’s outbursts behind them.
Mourinho has rounded on the club’s hierarchy for failing to build on last season’s runner-up finish — United’s highest placing since Alex Ferguson retired after delivering a 20th title in 2013 — despite the signings of Brazilian international midfielder Fred and Portuguese full-back Diogo Dalot.
As United dither, Liverpool have emerged as second favourites for the title behind City after splashing over 170 million ($220 million) on goalkeeper Alisson and midfielders Fabinho, Naby Keita and Xherdan Shaqiri.
“The other clubs who compete with us are really strong and already have fantastic teams. Or they are investing massively like Liverpool, who are buying everything and everybody,” warned Mourinho. “If we don’t make our team better it will be a difficult season for us.”
United are further hamstrung with a host of key players including Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford involved in the later stages of the World Cup limiting their pre-season preparations.
“They return on Monday, train Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and today so you can imagine that they are not really fit and ready,” Mourinho said, although he was happy that Chilean Alexis Sanchez was raring to go after a full pre-season.
Mourinho is now characterizing last season’s second place as “one of my biggest achievements in the game,” although the 19-point gap underscored just how far City has pulled ahead of their Manchester neighbours.
KLOPP ABANDONS PRINCIPLES
By contrast, Liverpool are well-placed to hit the ground running ahead of Sunday’s kick-off at home to West Ham United as Virgil van Dijk, Keita and Fabinho missed out on the World Cup, while Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane bowed out at the group stage with Egypt and Senegal.
Even if the 18-time English champions cannot win the title for the first time since 1990, the lavish outlay means the team has to be more than challenging for the Premier League. Reaching the Champions League final last season, which they lost to Real Madrid, masked how Liverpool barely scraped back into the Champions League with a fourth-place finish, 25 points behind champions City.
Now Liverpool have even managed to outspend City. It has required manager Juergen Klopp to compromise on his own principles after pledging to “do it differently” while grumbling about United’s big spending two years ago.
The 72.5 million euros (about $84 million) required to sign Alisson from AS Roma as a response to blunders in the Champions League final by goalkeeper Loris Karius seems to suggest otherwise. So does the $120 million forked out on central midfielders Fabinho and Naby Keita. Don’t forget the $100 million in January to make Van Dijk the world’s most expensive defender.
“The players from last year are responsible for the excitement, and then we brought in a few new players as an icing on the cake,” said Klopp on the club’s promising pre-season tour in the States. “It’s not just that we have to be more consistent, we have to create circumstances where we can be more consistent.”
City haven’t dipped into the deep pockets of their Abu Dhabi owners as significantly as Pep Guardiola’s first two summers in charge, but have still strengthened with club record signing Riyad Mahrez.
Despite missing a host of World Cup stars, City looked in ominous form as they dismissed Chelsea 2-0 to lift the Community Shield at the weekend.
EMERY SET FOR BAPTISM OF FIRE
Arsenal fans heading to their clash with City on Sunday will do so with a sense of excitement and a little trepidation as new manager Unai Emery begins the post-Wenger era with the toughest of all opening matches.
Last season’s runaway champions provide the opposition at the Emirates Stadium as Arsenal begin a season without Frenchman Arsene Wenger in the dugout for the first time since 1996.
With his second league match away to London rivals Chelsea, former Sevilla and Paris St Germain coach Emery could hardly have a tougher start to his first campaign in England.
The Spaniard is not the only new manager hoping to make an instant impact in the capital.
The experienced Maurizio Sarri is the latest incumbent in the Chelsea hot seat having replaced Antonio Conte last month.
The Italian takes his side to Huddersfield Town on Saturday where Kepa Arrizabalaga, the world’s most expensive keeper at 71 million pounds ($91.43 million), is set to make his debut.
Tottenham Hotspur, third last term, are heading into the new campaign with a gleaming new 62,000-seat stadium, which will be ready in Septemner, having not added a single player to their roster hours before the transfer window closed on Thursday.
His side will have a familiar look away to Newcastle United in Saturday’s early game.
A fourth successive top-four finish would represent a good outcome for Spurs, but they will be under pressure from Chelsea and Arsenal who finished fifth and sixth last year, while big-spending West Ham could push for a top-six finish.
Of the three promoted clubs, Fulham and Wolverhampton Wanderers look capable of flourishing in the top flight after strengthening but it could be a long haul for Cardiff City who mark their return away to Bournemouth on Saturday.
Fulham host Crystal Palace while Wolves face Everton.
Published in Dawn, August 10th, 2018