Six fighting for four spots. That is how the Premier League is shaping up this season, as title-holders Chelsea face Arsenal, Liverpool, both Manchester clubs, and Tottenham Hotspur in a heavyweight slugfest to finish within the Champions League spots, the minimum accepted result for those battling to be crowned league winners.
Expect this fight to go the distance. There are no new managers — in these top clubs — acclimatising to the rigours of the Premier League. No major overhauls of playing squads, requiring large numbers of recently acquired players to bed in. There will also be no excuses for failure.
However, despite all that and the mass amount of money spent to improve each side (other than Spurs, yet), two clubs will still end up falling by the wayside. Expectations won’t be met, and inquisitions that follow will be painful and public. Answers will have to be found as to why they were unsuccessful in their quest to reach the promised land of the top European tournament.
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For this season is expected to be the tightest of all in the Premier League’s 25-year history. In turn, the most compelling. The requirement to get quick results, intensified by the increase in funds through television rights and wealthy owners, has meant that managers turn to immediate fixes. Already transfers in the league amounting to over £1 billion have gone through.
When tasked to win the title this season, there is little point in looking beyond the next 10 months when you are acquiring players. They have to make an instant impact.
You need only to glance at Manchester City and United to ascertain the financial lengths taken to improve their prospects. Paying a premium for an established Premier League player is an accepted course of action. However, outlaying almost £100 million pounds for the combined purchases of Nemanja Matic and Kyle Walker, two unglamorous if hard-working signings, shows how desperate clubs are. At times like these, it’s simpler to buy ready-made talent than blood promising youngsters.
It is an approach that could backfire in the not too distant future if more money doesn’t flow into the competition. It is unlikely — unless websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Netflix or Amazon get involved in UK sport — that the current £5.14billion domestic deal will be bettered.
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That said, the increased interest from global fans, means international broadcasters are willing to shell out more money for exclusive rights. Only last November, the Premier League agreed a fee believed to be worth almost £500m with Chinese video streaming service PPTV for a three-year contract. Star India, whose EPL deal runs out at the end of the 2018/19 season, are predicted to pay a lot more than the £100m they agreed in 2016.
This extra income allows those outside the top six to try and bridge the gap. No side offers a greater threat to the existing power sextuplet than Everton. Under coach Ronald Koeman and director of football Steve Walsh, they have spent in excess of £100m revitalising a stagnating squad. They should not be underestimated.
However, it would be incredible to see one of the favoured top six slip so far that Everton are able to replace them. None are dwelling in a period of transition any longer.
Jose Mourinho has won the league in his second season at each of his previous clubs, a trend Manchester United will hope they can continue. Meanwhile, their noisy neighbours have added depth and upgraded defensive positions, much to the liking of head coach, Pep Guardiola.
Chelsea retain the team that lifted the trophy last season, as well as strengthening ahead of their return to European matches.
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Mauricio Pochettino owns the best-balanced side (Tottenham Hotspur) around, and the most prolific striker in Harry Kane. Jurgen Klopp has fashioned a Liverpool side that could finally make history and win the Premier League. And then there’s Arsenal, a team that finished second two years ago and has now reinforced areas of weakness. It really is too close to call.
The finish at the bottom of the league might not be so dazzling, but the stakes are just as high. On just one occasion have the three newly promoted Premier League teams returned from where they came at the first opportunity. This season is not going to be the second.
Newcastle, once a club jostling with the giants of the modern game, are too strong to go straight back down. Adding young talent to a side rapidly improving under the management of Rafa Benitez, they should finish safely with ease.
The other two new teams — Brighton and Huddersfield, both appearing in the Premier League for the first time — are probably not going to share the same outcome. They will likely start well, as so many do on arrival to the division, but may encounter difficulties in the New Year when the old bastions have worked out their style of play.
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If Brighton’s relative lack of top tier experience is a concern, then Huddersfield have a serious dilemma on their hands. Just one player of theirs has featured in the Premier League in the past decade, which is more first-hand experience than the management team. The latter point did little to prevent them from reaching the Premier League though, and it is this ‘unknown force’ effect that may last longer for Huddersfield than Brighton.
They will not be alone in the fight for survival. Burnley, Crystal Palace, Swansea and Stoke are all candidates for relegation, while Bournemouth and Watford will need to build on last year’s success to ensure they don’t experience the plunge.
Whatever the conclusion, one thing is guaranteed: we’re in for an entertaining ride this season.
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