The past two seasons in the Premier League have given fans some surprises. Two years ago, Leicester City won a championship out of nowhere. Last year, Chelsea — 10th place the previous year, with a new coach and a raft of new players — gelled quickly enough to coast to the title. It’s tempting to pick another unlikely champion this season, but the year looks to be shaping up as a two-horse, one-town race. One of the Manchester squads — City or United — has to be the favorite.
Manager Pep Guardiola, fresh from conquering the world at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, took over at Manchester City last year. But his new team finished a distant third and without a single trophy. Guardiola’s freewheeling offensive style was let down by an extremely fragile defense. The lowlight was the Champions League round of 16, when City scored five goals in the first leg and still lost to Monaco, after giving up three goals in both matches.
With that fragility in mind, Guardiola spent big in the offseason, bringing in the two most expensive defenders in history in Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy. Expect them to help solidify City’s back line, and expect Guardiola’s trophy-free streak to end before it reaches a second season.
Standing in his way, though, will be Manchester United and manager Jose Mourinho, who is aiming to keep an impressive streak going. In five consecutive managerial stints, “The Special One” has won the league title in his second season. It speaks to Mourinho’s strength: clearly identifying his team’s weaknesses, and working ruthlessly (and expensively) to correct them.
That blend of pragmatism and big-money spending has yet to fail Mourinho, and it would be something of a surprise if things were different at Manchester United, where he’s now entering his second year. The Red Devils have not finished in the top three since 2013, but that’s a streak that should end this season.
Chelsea, as defending champions, will be the most likely to break Manchester’s grip on the title. But the Blues have to focus on the Champions League this year as well and might be one or two players short of what’s required to compete on two fronts.
Tottenham only lost one player from last year’s second-place squad but has brought in no reinforcements. It has to play its home games at Wembley Stadium this year as White Hart Lane is rebuilt.
Liverpool couldn’t push for a league title last year, with no European distraction, and now, like Chelsea, has two competitions to deal with. Arsenal is still mired in the ugly end stages of manager Arsene Wenger’s career.
Apart from perhaps Everton, no other team looks to have enough firepower to break into the top six this season. At the top, this year is shaping up as a Manchester duopoly. Picking one of the two is difficult, but picking both to compete for the Premier League title seems obvious.
• Apart from Manchester United and Manchester City, I like Chelsea and Tottenham to take the other two top-four Premier League spots. At the bottom, Brighton & Hove Albion and Huddersfield Town seem likely to make a quick return to the second division. My guess is that Swansea City will join them. And, if I must make a solitary pick for the title, I’ll take Manchester United to return to the top of England.
• Second-division club Miami FC dominated the North American Soccer League spring season, but owner Riccardo Silva keeps making waves for other reasons. First, he very publicly offered to buy MLS’ media rights, even though they aren’t for sale and won’t be for six more years. Apparently, he did this so that he could claim that the league had turned him down because he wanted to introduce promotion and relegation. Now, he has applied to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in an attempt to force FIFA into making U.S. Soccer introduce promotion and relegation. I’m starting to wonder why Silva doesn’t just buy an MLS franchise and get the whole thing over with.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Premier League: Liverpool at Watford, 6:30 a.m. Saturday, NBCSN. If Liverpool is going to be part of this year’s title race, the Reds cannot afford a slow start. Jurgen Klopp’s men appear to be somewhat unsettled, with Barcelona in hot pursuit of attacker Phillipe Coutinho, while Watford breaks in a new manager and a few new players at home.
Premier League: Manchester City at Brighton & Hove Albion, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Ch. 11. It was only a few years ago that Brighton & Hove Albion nearly folded, with the club bankrupt and the stadium sold to pay off the debts. Now, it’s climbed all the way to the Premier League. Amex Stadium should be rocking for opening day.
Premier League: Tottenham at Newcastle, 7:30 a.m. Sunday, NBCSN. It’s hard to believe that Newcastle, traditionally one of England’s biggest clubs, could ever be relegated, but controversial owner Mike Ashley has achieved it twice. After only one season in the second division, though, Newcastle is back. Can it live up to its reputation this time?
Premier League: West Ham at Manchester United, 10 a.m. Sunday, NBCSN. West Ham largely flew under the radar last season, mostly because of a bad home record in its first season at Olympic Stadium. It’s a new year, though, and the Hammers have Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez in the fold. He will return to Manchester United, his old club, with something to prove.