82 days since the last ball was kicked, the biggest and most exciting league season is back. A summer full of extraordinarily large transfer fees, ridiculous rumours and record breaking deals this season could be one of the very best in the 25 year history. The opening day fixtures will include 3 new teams and numerous new faces across the 20 clubs, here I look at what we could expect in the first fixtures of a new Premier League campaign.
Friday night start
Unconventionally, the season kicks off with a Friday evening fixture at the Emirates as Arsenal play Leicester City. Arsenal will be buoyant off the back of the Community Shield success last weekend, but still carry doubts about their title credentials. The Alexis Sanchez transfer saga will no doubt rumble on until the window slams shut at the end of the month and it will be interesting to see what impact this has on the individual, manager and the club as a whole. Sanchez was seen as a doubt for the opening fixture following his Confederation Cup involvement with Chile but has since been confirmed as absent. Arsene Wenger looks keen to continue with the 3 at the back formation, but will still be without the suspended Laurent Koscielney.
Arsenal have been fairly quiet over the summer on the transfer front, but their big signing, Alexandre Lacazette will no doubt spearhead the attack. He showed glimpses of his talent on Sunday, but will be expected to fire a similar goal ratio to what he had at Lyon and take the pressure off of Sanchez.
Leicester have had a summer that has been overshadowed with transfer speculation of some of the current squad leaving the club, yet nothing has actually materialised. Riyad Mahrez handed in a transfer request at the start of the summer but seems only Roma remain interested in his services. The former Player of the Season seems to have fallen from grace rapidly and you think that a lot of this Leicester side have missed their opportunity to move to a big club following their league success. Kasper Schmeichel has been linked with various clubs and most recently Danny Drinkwater linked with a move to Chelsea.
Incomings, they have brought in Harry Maguire to add some youth to their ever aging back line and Kelechi Iheanacho in attack. I like these 2 deals, Maguire impressed me at Hull last season and Iheanacho was simply frozen out once Pep Guardiola brought Gabriel Jesus to the club. He will be hoping to restart his once impressive start to the professional game and could cause havoc if the partnership with Jamie Vardy develops. I fully expect Arsenal to win this game and for it to be high scoring. The Leicester defence does not look the greatest and Lacazette will be looking to get off to a flyer. Arsenal also do not look rock solid at the back with key players missing, so can see Leicester scoring.
Weekend football is back
As we head into the first Saturday of the season, one strange occurrence is that for the first time in my memory, the defending champions are not one of the 5 televised games on show. Instead Chelsea kick off their defence with the visit of Burnley. The summer has been a strange one for Chelsea, seemingly having their number one target snatched from under their nose when Romelu Lukaku opted to join United then selling one of their top performers in Nemanja Matic to the same club. On top of this, the Diego Costa transfer saga continues to bubble away in the background. Of the transfers that have been made, Tiemoue Bakayoko is injured, Antonio Rudiger seems to have a battle to break into the first team and Alvaro Morata looks like he will take time to settle in to this Chelsea outfit. There still seems to be rumours that Antonio Conte remains unsure on his position regardless of the new contract he has signed over pre-season. It will also be interesting to see how they get over the Community Shield defeat to Arsenal even if it was via a penalty shootout.
The arrival of Burnley at Stamford Bridge will offer a honest test for Conte’s men if Sean Dyche has them playing anything like last season, especially defensively. Although this challenge is somewhat harder with the departure of impressive Michael Keane to Everton and their biggest goal threat, Andre Gray, moving to Watford. Burnley struggled in front of goal last season but with Keane and the great form of Tom Heaton, they managed to steal enough points by not conceding too many and having a strong home record. Jon Walters comes in and will deliver something similar to what he has at Stoke for so many years, plenty of work, energy and chipping in the with the odd goal and Jack Cork will offer some technical improvements to the midfield following the loss of Joey Barton, but it is hard to see where the goals come from in the Burnley side, especially without Gray leading the line. Chelsea will want to put a message out to the rest of the top 7 clubs to show they still are the team to beat. However, with some teething issues and the loss of top performers Eden Hazard and Diego Costa, this may not be as straight forward as it would have looked on paper, although I still fully expect to Chelsea to get their defence of to a winning start.
United’s biggest rivals open their campaign
The 2 televised games on Saturday see 2 more of last seasons top 7 and United’s closest rivals, when Liverpool travel to Watford in the early kick off and Man City travel to newly promoted Brighton. Watford will be hoping that Marco Silva can produce similar magic that he produce at Hull, where he almost pulled off a miracle and survived relegation. I was thinking Silva would use that as a stepping stone to a move into one of the bigger jobs in the Premier League, but has opted to go to Watford, who themselves will be considered a relegation candidate. He has brought in some decent signings, with hope that Andre Gray’s arrival will deliver more goals and that Will Hughes and Nathaniel Chalobah will fulfill their potential and become solid premier league players. Liverpool will no doubt be looking to improve on their top 4 finish from last season, where in the big matches they more than held their own, picking up some big wins along the way. But as injuries took their toll on certain players such as Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mane, their title aspirations went with them, resulting in some losses to what are known as the lower teams in the division. The Coutinho links to Barcelona will not go away until either he moves or the window closes and it will be crucial to Jurgen Klopp that he holds on to him. He will also have to decide how he fits Coutinho, Mo Salah, Mane and Firmino in the same team, no doubt meaning a big name will be missing out somewhere in the midfield, but the injury to Adam Lallana has helped in this regard. If they could bring in a Centre half to partner Joel Matip to improve their defensive records from last season then there is no reason why they could not be serious title contenders, United and all other clubs will definitely be having superb season if they finish above Klopp’s men. The added distraction of the Champions League could hinder them a little but then there are 5 other teams in the same boat, so this should even itself out. Liverpool should be too strong for Watford, but these are the games that Liverpool stumbled last time out, this will be a quick test to see if they have improved.
As with Liverpool, the main target for Pep Guardiola was to improve a defence that conceded to often last term. Other than the signing of Bernardo Silva in attack, all other signings have come in that department, at at some cost. Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy look like they will be first choice fullbacks, book ending a defence to the tune of over £100 million pound, sandwiched by £50 million John Stones and a fit again Vincent Kompany. There is also a new goalkeeper in town so City fans will be hoping they can all gel quickly to aid the very impressive attacking options at Pep’s disposal. Similar to Klopp, Pep will have to find the correct balance, with one of Sergio Aguero or Gabriel Jesus leading the line and a choice of Bernardo Silva, David Silva, Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne and Leroy Sane to play behind them. All big names, players, price tags and more importantly ego’s, it will be interesting to see how Pep copes with shuffling his pack. Brighton would have hoped for an easier opener then to the league favourites and Chris Hughton will be looking for a solid start, with defeat the likeliest outcome, how they perform and the scoreline could be a confidence booster if they get it right. With very little transfer movement, Hughton will be trusting the group of players that have got them where they are. Brighton will be amongst the favourites to go down and Saturday will likely not have a huge impact on the rest of the season. City are expected to win comfortably saturday and are clear favourites for the league. I am with them on both counts, I think they will provide United with the biggest challenge, if we finish above City and I think the title will be coming back to Old Trafford.
The return of Rooney
The remainder of the 3 o’clock kick offs see Palace, Everton, Southampton and West Brom host Huddersfield, Stoke, Swansea and Bournemouth respectively. The stand out fixture from a United perspective will be the first Premier League game for Wayne Rooney, back in the colours of Everton. Ronald Koeman has played Rooney regularly in pre-season and he started both of the recent Europa League qualifiers. All United fans will be keeping an eye on how Rooney goes this season, will his return to Merseyside spark a fresh lease of life into him or will he show exactly why Jose Mourinho felt it was time for him to move on. Along with Rooney, Everton have been one of the big spenders over the summer, bringing in Keane and Jordan Pickford to strengthen at the back, with Davy Klaassen and Sandro Ramirez brought in to fill the void left by Lukaku’s departure to United. Koeman will still hope to add Gylfi Sigurdsson to the ranks in what he hopes will be a season that pushes Everton a little closer to the top 6. The visit of Stoke should be a friendly start for Koeman’s men, due to a very quiet transfer window in terms of new players to the club. Kurt Zouma will look to gain some confidence following his bad injury 2 seasons ago but other than his addition, Stoke look well short of quality heading into the season. Everton will be expected to get off to a winning start here and Mark Hughes will hope he can bring some players in, to boost their chances of further progression under his leadership.
United kick off Sunday
Heading into Sunday and the final 2 league games of the weekend, sees the return to the Premier League of Rafa Benitez and his Newcastle side up against Spurs and United completing the fixtures with the visit of West Ham to Old Trafford. Spurs will be looking to push on from yet another positive league campaign last season, where they were the nearest challengers to Chelsea. The starting 11 at Spurs is without doubt one of the strongest in the league, however adding to the squad is proving to be a difficult task for Mauricio Pochettino. Injuries to Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen or Deli Alli, would cause a huge hole in the attacking threat, and on the eve of the Premier League return, he is yet to add to the squad. Instead, he has seen his first choice right back leave for rivals City, and other rumours surfacing on some unrest amongst other players, noticeably, Danny Rose’s recent comments about the possibility of leaving for United. The other top sides have all added to their squads, meaning Spurs’ grip on the top 4 will be under threat, add in the Wembley factor and this will be a challenging season all round. If they can compete once more and bring in some silverware, then I could see this Spurs side going from strength to strength. If they fail to do so, along with a small wage structure, I could see the side being ripped apart come next summer. A similar undertone of negativity seems to be bubbling at St James’ Park also, with rumours the manager is unhappy with the lack of spending at the club, missing out on a number of top targets. The evidence is there, that Newcastle head into the season with more or less the side that got them promoted, so Benitez will need to produce every ounce of his management nous to keep them in the Premier League. The last time these 2 met, was on the last day of the season, 2 seasons back, when Newcastle walloped Spurs. Benitez will be looking for a similar result, but i can see Spurs being too strong for the returning Magpies.
This leaves United and Jose Mourinho to take on West Ham. The defeat to Real Madrid on Tuesday night will be disappointing, but the side should take some positives from the game. They easily could have gone down for 3 or 4 goals, but instead they battled and nearly clawed their way back to a draw. The bright performance of Marcus Rashford will surely see him start on Sunday to add some directness to the front 3. Mourinho still has a slight problem in midfield, with Nemanja Matic showing why he will be first choice in the deeper role and likelihood of Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba playing in front. But Henrikh Mkhitarayn looked at his best when moving centrally, creating a number of chances from the number 10 position. I could see Mourinho using a similar formation to Real Madrid soon, with a diamond shape in midfield, Rashford playing with Lukaku and allowing the full backs to add the width to the side. The challenge for United last season was to finish teams off, especially at home, and with 2 up top, this could produce the firepower he needs to do this. West Ham were 1 of many teams who should have been dispatched with ease last season, so this opening game could be the perfect chance to show we can put this right. As a little side plot, Sunday will see the return to Old Trafford of a former United hero, when Javier Hernandez makes his West Ham debut. Mourinho has spoken in glowing terms of Hernandez on a number of occasions, it is a possibility he could come back to haunt him. West Ham have been productive themselves over the summer, adding Marko Arnautovic, Joe Hart and Pablo Zabaleta to the squad, hoping they can push them back up the league after a struggle last season.
The first game of the season will never determine any Championship, top 4 or relegation battles but it will show any weaknesses a club may have from day 1. The top 6 are likely to be the same this season, with a lurking Everton watching for any slip ups. United will want to put an early stamp on their season but some 4pm on Sunday, they would have seen the other 5 rivals all play and probably all win. Mourinho will not want to fall behind early and will be expecting the side to bounce back from the midweek defeat, and record a convincing win. The season is back and I am excited to see how United will progress from the last. The challengers will remain the same, will they be able to rise to the top once more, I can not wait to find out.