Ah, football fans! You miss them when they’re not there. And you realise just what it is that you’ve been missing when they’re back. Take Liverpool’s supporters at the away end of Norwich’s Carrow Road stadium serenading the club’s Brazilian striker Roberto Firmino with the song ‘Si Señor’, after he scored the Red’s second goal. Or the giant roar of release at full time from Tottenham fans when their team held on for a memorable 1-0 win over the mighty Manchester City. Or the warm applause from Everton fans that rippled through Goodison Park when new manager Rafael Benitez’s name was announced over the stadium speakers. These moments of collective joy and release were just some of the scenes that were played out again and again in every stadium, as the 2021-22 Premier League season got underway last weekend.
Most sporting contests over the past year have seemed to diminish a little as the covid-19 pandemic ravaged the world, with athletes forced to do their thing behind locked doors, in empty stadiums. Football, given its very tribal nature, seemed suffer more than others. As the last season progressed, the novelty of coaches and players screaming to each other in empty, echoing arenas soon paled. And the less said about the artificial “fan noise” during live telecasts of matches the better. To see and hear English stadiums heave with the rolling thunder of thousands of fans while players from around the world entertained them was something to behold.
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And so, another season of the Premier League, the world’s biggest, richest and the most popular football league, is underway. After a summer of non-stop international knockout tournaments, from the Euros to the Olympics, the return of a year-long narrative of league struggles, joys and tears is most welcome.
There are two very clear favourites to win the league this season, Manchester City and Chelsea. They are also two of the richest clubs in the world, bankrolled as they are by a petro-state and an oligarch respectively. And both have spent eye-watering amounts of money on building squads stocked to the gills with the best footballing talent. City has been bolstered by the arrival of the exciting English forward Jack Grealish for a £100million, and may yet buy Harry Kane from Tottenham for close to £150million. Chelsea have strengthened an already glittering squad with the arrival of Romelu Lukaku, currently one of the best strikers in the world.
Elsewhere, the arrival of winger Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund and the classy defender Raphaël Varane from Real Madrid have elevated Manchester United into serious contenders. 2019-20 champions Liverpool haven’t made any big moves in the transfer market (apart from buying the young French defender Ibrahima Konaté), but they have the fit-again defensive colossus Virgil van Dijk back in the starting lineup. These four teams will most likely battle for the title this season, and on the basis of the first round of games, it will be interesting to say the least.
Last weekend, Liverpool, United and Chelsea all cantered to comfortable wins. Liverpool, for one, were keen to remind the rest of the league of the attacking riches at their disposal as strikers Firmino, Diogo Jota and the brilliant Mohamed Salah all scored against the newly-promoted Norwich City. The impressive Salah added a couple of assists to go with his stunning second-half strike. Manchester United crushed Leeds 5-1 in an effervescent attacking display where Bruno Fernandes scored a hattrick and Paul Pogba pulled the strings by providing four assists. Chelsea, meanwhile, were unfussy and clinical in dispatching Crystal Palace 3-0 with goals from left back Marcus Alonso, midfielder Christian Pulisic and exciting young talent Trevoh Chalobah.
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It was defending champions and favourites Manchester City that stumbled. And that too against Tottenham, the club that they’re trying to prise England captain Harry Kane from. The plot of the game couldn’t have been better scripted. Tottenham welcomed the club that wants to take their talisman to Manchester, and although Kane wasn’t playing, he remained the star of the show, the focus of the contest. How would Tottenham cope without him? Does City even need him? The answers to both those questions seem to be yes. As Tottenham showed against a far superior team, they can withstand an early onslaught, plunder a goal with a devastating counter attack (that the excellent Son Heung-min buried) and then hold on to win. City, on this evidence, do need a ruthless poacher of Kane’s quality to put away the chances.
City has always required a prolific striker to succeed, and a replacement for Sergio Agüero was needed at least two years ago. The club’s current number 9 Gabriel Jesus flatters to deceive, and just doesn’t have the clinical eye for goal that Kane possesses. For all of Jack Grealish’s brilliance, he’s not a striker, and manager Pep Guardiola will find it difficult to retain the Premier League crown without a cutting edge in front of goal.
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For Tottenham, a season of rebuilding under new manager Nuno Espírito Santo gives the club a chance to mould the team around the brilliance of Son, whether Kane leaves or stays on for another year.
While it is obviously too early to pass a decisive judgement, this season already looks very different to the pandemic-shaped 2020-21 season. Squads have had a proper pre-season this year, and players aren’t arriving for the beginning of the season exhausted, with poor conditioning and feeling isolated in covid-19 bubbles. That could yet pave the way for a club like Liverpool to return to their intense, high-pressing game and succeed. With van Dijk at one end and Salah scoring fluently at the other, the club can’t be written off. Once Lukaku starts, the current champions of Europe, Chelsea, will be even more formidable. But, as always, how the team fares will depend entirely on the sustained brilliance of midfield maestro N’Golo Kanté. Manchester United finally has a squad without any obvious flaws and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will have to buttress his team’s continued improvement with a trophy this year. In all, this promises to be an explosive season.