English Premier League 2019 Preview: Manchester City’s European dreams vital for Liverpool’s challenge
At the start of this year, Liverpool found themselves on the brink of winning the Premier League title – their first league title since 1989. The Reds were nine points clear of Manchester City on the top position, and with half of the season gone, manager Jurgen Klopp was on the precipice of fulfilling the dream. Then, things went downhill. The Scousers drew four of their six encounters, between January and March, dropping eight points in the process. By the end of the season, the Pep Guardiola’s side pipped Liverpool by a point to win their second consecutive title.
As the new season approaches, it seems highly likely the same two teams will once again be challenging for the title. Neither of them tried to make too many changes to the squad, relying heavily on the one they already have. City’s acquisition of Atletico Madrid’s midfiedler Rodrigo promises them a solid option who can replace Fernandinho in the future and Joao Cancelo can be a cover for Kyle Walker. Liverpool released Simon Mignolet and injury prone Daniel Sturridge. West Ham goalkeeper Adrian has been bought for free, which provides an alternate for Alisson.
The “lucky” Community Shield win showcases City’s abilities to somehow find a way to topple the challenge for Liverpool, and hence Guardiola’s side appear to have their noses front at the moment. This could be the year when the Citizens can truly paint Manchester blue, as they become the only team to win the Premier League three years in a row after arch-rivals Manchester United. But for the Spanish manager, there is one unfulfillled desire that can prove to be a distraction – the Champions League.City’s dream of winning the quadruple was shattered last year after they were eliminated from the Champions League following a controversial VAR-affected defeat to Tottenham in the quarterfinals. City have been one of the best teams in English football for almost a decade, now. Yet, somehow, the European glory has remain away from them, which remains only thorn in Guardiola’s otherwise impeccable stay at Etihad.
“The Champions League is an important tournament, difficult to win. But I don’t want to go to the casino and gamble everything I have in my pocket for seven games. I don’t want it… The Premier League always is the most important thing, the local competition because it is every weekend,” the manager had told reporters before the Liverpool clash.But despite Guardiola’s reaction, Liverpool fans will be hopeful that the unfulfilled desire strays City’s campaign, which could open up a few leaks in their Premier League performance, and give Liverpool a chance to edge out the Champions to become one.
The battle between City and Liverpool can also take dramatic turns depending on how many points the two are able to save against the so-called “top six” clubs. After a torrid transfer window, with more twists than an M Night Shyamlanan movie, Tottenham appear to have done the best business among the teams. The departure of Kieran Tripper could see Spurs struggling in the right-back option, just how they did in the early days of Kyle Walker. But the addition of midfielder Lyon’s Tanguy NDombele, along with possible inclusion of Giovani Lo Celso, Bruno Fernandes and/or Paulo Dybala, looks to be a Champions League-worthy midfield, even if Christian Eriksen departs to Real Madrid. The fact that mastermind Mauricio Pochettino has stayed back further puts Spurs as one of the possible contenders to cause an upset.
Arsenal’s pre-season was a shoddy affair, with the side winning just 3 of their 7 encounters. But the front line of Nicolas Pepe, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang promises a pacy, physically strong front-line that can make up for Unai Emery’s extremely vulnerable back-four. Manchester United, on the other hand, managed to sort out their defensive woes with Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka set to bring much-more oomph in the back. The latter was brilliant in the pre-season, and it looks like there could be a healthy rivalry between him and Diego Dalot for the position. But the Red Devils failed to offload several players, did not buy a commanding striker and still have a wobbly midfield without Ander Herrrera and a Paul Pogba that “is looking for another challenge”. The Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side can see still struggle to get to top four this season.
Chelsea, perhaps, appear to be in the worst shape, among the top six, despite a hopeful pre-season. The new manager Frank Lampard will not get to work with the squad he would have liked in his first season, due to the transfer ban. The Blues will find it hard to replace Eden Hazard in the midfield, despite the presence of Christin Pulisic and Mateo Kovacic. In the front, the side has to rely on Olivier Giroud and youngsters Tammy Abrahams and Callum Hudson-Odoi. Whether the three strikers can do the job for the entire season, remains to be seen. But if Chelsea struggle, it can open the doors for Wolves, Leicester City and Everton to break into the big club.
Even before the transfer window appeared, it became evident that Newcastle United are in troubled waters. The tensions between club owner Mike Ashley and manager Rafa Benitez finally hit the water, and a new deal could not be struck between the two parties. Benitez’s vision for the football club resonated with the fans. But his desire to transform the club and bring in talent was met with red tapes throughout his stay a St James Park. Eventually, he was replaced by Steve Bruce. The new manager has failed to inspire confidence in the fans, and despite the club making a couple of late signings, it has failed to bring in a solid replacement for striker Ayoze Perez who left for Leicester. The Magpies are expected to have a tough season and it will be up to Bruce to somehow save them from relegation.
Among the promoted teams, Sheffield United will once again rely on Chris Wilder to work his magic and somehow save the side in the marathon, that is Premier League. Wilder has led the club from League One in 2016 to the top level. Regarded as one of the legends of the club, there is no one who gets the club more than him. The club has broken transfer window four times this season, packing the squad with Championship-tested players. But can they perform at the big stage remains to be seen.The addition of former Manchester United youth Ravel Morrison, who was once regarded as a future star, before behavioral issues derailed his career, could be an exciting prospect.
United, though, could find themselves fighting a long and hard relegation battle, along with Newcastle and fellow promoted team, Norwich City, which has not been too active in the transfer window and is choosing to survive with the Championship winning squad. Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace, newly promoted Aston Villa and Brighton, who were just saved from the relegation last season by two points, are the other teams who are likely to be involved in the battle for survival this season.
VAR: The unpredictable factor
The English Premier League has become one of the most unpredictable leagues across Europe in the past few years. This year, the introduction of VAR could further spice thing up. Since the arrival of technology in assisting referees during a match, there have been several contentious decision-making that has completely turned the fate of the match.
Just last year, Manchester United were helped by a VAR-decided penalty as they stole a win from PSG to advance further in the Champions League. City’s defeat to Spurs, Real Madrid’s loss to Ajax and Inter’s tie against Fiorentina are some of the other major upsets that were caused by the new technology last year.
The technology is not guaranteed to bring in accurate-decision making since the final decision still lies with the interpretation of referees. The VAR, though, is likely to bring in controversies and complications in its first season in Premier League, and could completely turn the table around by the end of the season.
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