English football’s Olympus didn’t quite fall last year, but it felt an almighty tremor.
Leicester City’s Premier League title win bore the hallmarks of a bona-fide legend come to life, and is likely to be remade into at least one movie.
Victories came with swashbuckling style, led by the demi-god talents of Riyad Mahrez and the goals of Jamie Vardy, the personification of a rags-to-riches story. At the helm was a manager with more heart-warming whimsy than a mechanical owl hooting on Harry Hamlin’s shoulder.
But the footballing deities look determined not to be so ruffled again. A transfer window of unprecedented spending, including Paul Pogba’s world record return to Manchester United, has followed an influx of some of the globe’s finest managerial talent to England’s big boys.
A seven-way scrap to restore the order of things will now ensue, a veritable clash of the titans staged at eye-bulging expense in what could be the grandest spectacle in league football history. Here, we examine the hopefuls.
Leicester stunned the world to claim the trophy. They certainly won’t intend to surrender it lightly.
Balancing a first ever Champions League campaign with a title defence will be no small feat for Claudio Ranieri’s thin squad, but the anticipated exodus of top talent has stopped at the feet of N’Golo Kante – much like dozens of opposition attacks last season.
Kante may have answered the siren’s call of Stamford Bridge, but Ranieri’s other stars stayed loyal. Vardy spurned Arsenal to sign a new deal, and Mahrez is expected to do likewise. Add Ahmed Musa to the mix, and Leicester’s challenge to the establishment is only faintly diminished.
For Chelsea fans still reeling from the hangover of last season, Antonio Conte plus N’Golo Kante makes for the perfect tonic.
Defeats to Bournemouth, Crystal Palace, Stoke City, Sunderland and Swansea were five separate nadirs of the worst title defence ever seen. The results and the in-fighting saw Jose Mourinho ousted by December, and Guus Hiddink could do little to lighten the mood of a club who became more baffled by their own collapse with every Eden Hazard horror-show.
Kante, compared to Claude Makelele in spite of his own complaints, will bring new manager Conte’s teeth-gnashing will to win to the heart of a team who will not have to balance European commitments. If Michy Batshuayi can supply the goals, with a Juventus and Italy hero in charge, a fifth title in 12 years is very much a possibility.
Manchester United’s 2013 championship triumph feels long ago indeed. Louis van Gaal may have fixed some of the David Moyes damage since Alex Ferguson’s retirement, but an FA Cup win was deemed insufficient return after spending nine figures on a team who played like they were frightened of the goal posts.
‘Thrill-a-minute-football’ might not be the first thing to come to mind with Mourinho – a laborious 2-1 Community Shield win doesn’t inspire optimism, either – but his appointment showed an acceptance at Old Trafford that now is the time for a seasoned general still within his sell-by date.
A Faustian pact with the Red Devils has paid off in recruitment, at least. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Eric Bailly, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pogba are the standard-bearers for a United revolution that already looks more way more fun than last year’s insipid trudge to fifth place.
Mourinho has plenty to prove, though – not least to his contemporaries, who would have fought to suppress a smile or two as his Chelsea machine fell to bits. He’s already renewed hostilities with Arsene Wenger, Jurgen Klopp, Arsene Wenger, Pep Guardiola and, for good measure, Arsene Wenger again, before a ball has even been kicked. The Manchester derby on September 10 could be spectacular, and may well give an indication as to whether a fourth Premier League medal is within Mourinho’s reach.
Pep Guardiola, for his part, has been unwilling to mark his heralded arrival by coughing up old sour grapes with Jose Mourinho. “It’s not just about us,” he said on his first official day as Manchester City boss, for which he has been planning ever since Manuel Pellegrini was unceremoniously encouraged to start looking for new employment in February.
Guardiola, the end game in City’s plans to reach the very top, brings with him a legacy of style and silverware unmatched in modern football. Some of Europe’s best young talent in Leroy Sane, John Stones and Ilkay Gundogan have followed him to the Etihad Stadium, bolstering a supreme squad that chronically underachieved in the league last season.
The question persists over whether the Guardiola system can stand up to the hurly-burly of English football. “It’s why I’m here – to prove myself, to prove that I can do that,” was his own steely-eyed response. “It would have been comfortable to stay where I was.” With the weapons at City’s disposal, you suspect his rival managers wish he had chosen a cushier option.
Speaking of comfortable – is that Arsene Wenger on the edge of an Arsenal precipice?
No title since 2004 and no trophies at all last season, the 66-year-old is in the final year of his contract at the Emirates Stadium and has admitted that his immediate future could, for once, depend purely on success.
Cultivating the Arsenal brand of attractive but unfulfilling football has been enough to keep Wenger secure during a barren second decade at the club, but the influx of cutting-edge younger managers has left him off-balance on his pedestal.
Of course, the Gunners finished second last term, twice beat the eventual champions and went through pre-season without defeat. Granit Xhaka is a shrewd signing and at least one more will probably follow, despite Wenger’s concerns over the morals of the market.
But sustaining a title fight beyond the first few days of April still looks a difficult task for a team who, with an injury crisis having already struck, have become the masters of fighting tooth and nail to stay perfectly still.
Tottenham’s shock title challenge was spectacular in its implosion, but his team’s ruthless, riveting style won Mauricio Pochettino admirers across the country.
The transfer market has been solid if unspectacular – Vincent Janssen and Victor Wanyama have arrived to nominal fanfare – but Harry Kane, Dele Alli and the rest of Spurs’ young stars will only improve after another diligent Poch pre-season.
A title tilt is not out of the question, but with a Champions League campaign to manage, they might have to settle for finishing above Arsenal after 38 matches for the first time since 1995.
No assessment of the title challengers would be complete without Liverpool. And that’s not been said with any degree of sincerity since Luis Suarez took his habit of scoring for fun to Barcelona.
Daniel Sturridge says pre-season has been the most intense he has ever experienced – in fact, it’s already got him injured – while Sadio Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum have bolstered a formidable-looking side, albeit one so top-heavy it’s in danger of tripping over its own gegenpress.
Jurgen Klopp brought passion, pizzazz and no little promise when his guffaws echoed around Anfield for the first time last October. But 10 months, two final defeats (he’s lost five in a row now) and an eighth-placed league finish later, Liverpool have little to show for their tactical evolution.
“If you are looking for the biggest challenge then you need to go to England,” Klopp said last month, proud to be gearing up for a title fight unlike any seen before. It’s a challenge from which he will not shy away, but with worries aplenty at the back, even the most manic of fist-pumps to the crowd may not be enough for him to keep Liverpool in the mix come May.