In part one, I covered last season’s top three teams in this years battle for the Champions League spots; so now it’s time to look at the other contenders.
First up is Manchester City, who announced the arrival of new manager Pep Guardiola before last season had even finished and it remains to be seen if that had an adverse effect on how their team finished that campaign. One thing you can be certain of is that Guardiola will not tolerate any such slackness or loss of focus. The former Barcelona boss is a meticulous and intense coach, who is high on discipline and professionalism from his players. He also demands players approach training the same way they approach matches and is as much about work rate as he is about beautiful football. The popular misconception is that he had it easy at Barcelona and took over a ready-made team of world beaters, but he transformed the ethic and ethos of an underperforming club with too many prima-donnas. With his discipline, willingness to promote from within and sharp football brain, he helped create one of the greatest teams ever seen.
Some may argue that is reminiscent of the squad he inherits at The Etihad and although that may be somewhat harsh, City have largely underperformed in recent campaigns, so he has plenty of talent to work with. The expected drove of departures hasn’t materialised, but the addition of Nolito could be a smart one and Ilkay Gündogan, when fit again, should be a tremendous acquisition. Making the transition to Guardiola’s preferred style of play may take time and might even scupper a title challenge this campaign, but City are almost certainties to finish in the top four.
Neighbours Manchester United also have a new manager in the shape of Jose Mourinho, who will be keen to prove he is better than Chelsea’s implosion and calamitous title defence that saw him sacked mid-way. His reputation is built on a tenure of around three years and includes delivering at least one trophy and whether or not his stay at Old Trafford obviously remains to be seen, but he has immediately the mood amongst fans and raised expectations. The squad he inherited will struggle to win a league title, even with Mourinho at the helm, but United have never been shy to spend big and you can bet further additions will be on their way.
So far, Zlatan Ibrahimovic on a free transfer, Henrikh Mkhitaryan for €42m and Eric Bailly at €39m have all signed, with the much publicised potential world record breaking deal for Paul Pogba possibly next on that list. As I’ve already said, I think the Premier League may be a step too far at this stage, but a top four finish is extremely likely.
After a settling period, Jürgen Klopp has begun changing the face of the Liverpool squad. However, I feel Klopp is still in the early stages of shaping the squad he wants and this is still essentially a transitional period at Anfield. Out have gone Martin Skrtel, Jordan Ibe, Brad Smith and Joe Allen, not to mention other fringe players and it appears Christian Benteke will follow them. Loris Karius, Ragnar Klavan, Marko Grujic, Sadio Mane, Joel Matip and Georginio Wijnaldum have all arrived and there could yet be one or two more to come as Klopp further implements the style and approach he desires.
With his contract extension, Klopp and Liverpool have committed to each other for the long term and that is how Klopp works, so although I expect to see some improvements from The Reds this term, they are not the finished article and will probably miss out on a top four spot for another season.
Finally, another club with a new man in charge is Chelsea, whose appointment of Antonio Conte could prove to be a very good one. The Italian showed as National coach this summer just how good he is at organising and setting up a team, as well as being tactically smart. Chelsea traditionally are defensively strong, so he could be the perfect fit at Stamford Bridge. What will be intriguing is if he tries to implement a back three and if does, how that transitions because often, changing a defensive shape can be a problematic process. The signings of N’Golo Kante and Michy Batshuayi help strengthen Chelsea in an area that needed reinforcement and despite a poor campaign last season, this is still a very strong squad. It would take a brave person to bet against Chelsea finishing in the top four and I feel a title challenge is very likely as they may not be spectacular, but I would expect them to be very solid.
So there you have it, all the top contenders for what should be a tense and highly competitive top six this year in what promises to be a much improved Premier League in terms of quality, especially given the managers and some of the players brought in to compete for the Premier League crown. With the transfer window still open for another month, things could still change, but I find it hard to envisage the title going anywhere but Manchester or London and probably the same for the top four spots as well.