It is either a blessing or a curse that I have only been at this for this decade. I don’t have the experience of watching Fergie and Co. winning every year; or the real memory of an Arsenal side that didn’t fall to a comfortable level sometime just after New Year’s; or the heady days when the two arrivistes bleus in both London and Manchester first opened their checkbooks to a world of promise.
I see things through a more standard lens from this side of the pond. Where the Yankees, Celtics, Packers, Cowboys—hell, even the Lakers these days—all fell from their proud perches and didn’t get back up for a long time, sometimes a decade or more. I simply do not believe that everything will magically come into place for all these big club managers—and certainly not this campaign. And I subscribe to the notion that whatever happened those last four weekends, when a young team comes close to the brass ring, their hunger, talent and experience usually means they’re going to get even closer, whether they win a title or not.
So I am not one those many who simply consign Spurs to 4th—or worse—and leave Poch’s XI out of the title conversation altogether. Not when we undressed City, United, Chelsea (season before and for a half at Stamford Bridge before we lost the plot) and should—in the manager’s biggest error—have closed out the Gooners and 2nd place at the Lane when we had the chance. Not when for all but the first and last months of the campaign, Fox Trot or no Fox Trot, our lads were the best and most dynamic side in the league. No we didn’t win a slew of 1-0 results, and nor will Leicester be able to repeat the trick, but what we did is infinitely more sustainable.
LEICESTER: Lightning doesn’t strike twice. No Kante and it sure seemed like Wes Morgan had an enjoyable summer in Jamaica for all the defending he didn’t perform at Wembley on Sunday. I think their focus will be in Europe—simply surviving the group stage and having at least one or two winter nights hosting the likes of Barcelona or Bayern Munich or Juventus will be another pretty amazing notch on the Foxes’ belt. And if Mahrez stays and a big club or two stumbles, look for a return to Europe, if on Thursday nights;
LIVERPOOL: The problem with the “look what we did last time we didn’t have the distraction of Europe” argument can be narrowed to four words: “Luis Suarez” and “Daniel Sturridge”. The former is long gone; the latter a shell of the player who flourished that magical 2013-14 season. And with all due respect to Herr Klopp, one of many new arrivals from the continent whose reputations precede them, a) seems to me that the Reds went through a 7-6-8-7 stretch from 2009-13, and he has already had most of one season to begin to make an imprint. And where are the goals going to come from? Could they finish Top Four? Yes, but barely. They aren’t a title contender;
ARSENAL: The only thing that gives me pause—other than the sad fact we thought would finally be put to rest up until an inexplicable collapse—is that this might be Monseiur Wenger’s final campaign and maybe, a la Sir Alex at the death, he could produce a whole greater than the sum of the parts. But the parts, per usual, are reliable, efficient and not enough. Xhaka is it? Still Giroud up front? Still a shaky defence? Take the Liverpool forecast, advance it a place (they could finish 3rd), throw in another disappointing Champions League experience, maybe they win a Cup—who cares? They are not winning the league. And even the most fanatical Gooner knows it;
MAN UNITED: Zlatan scored! He scored! It’s Cantona all over again! What a difference maker! And Pogba will be—what?–the second coming of Keano?? Really? The knee jerk reaction to crown the Red Devils kings again is what I was talking about at the top… I’ll give Mourinho a year to figure it all out and then maybe he’ll pull it off. He’s capable. And he’s got if not Abramovich money to play with, pretty close. But for now, Zlatan is 35. Pogba is enigmatic. Rooney hasn’t really figured out how to age gracefully. The Back Four (though Bailly showed promise Sunday) is still unstable. And let’s be honest, Jose is more comfortable putting the Theatre of Dreams asleep with 1-0 victories than in feeding the beast of “Attack!”, “Attack”! Could they? Anything’s possible—including 5th place. And were the problems at Stamford Bridge simply the product of a post-title hangover, an ill father, and a 3 year track record of coach losing team?
CHELSEA: The two fixtures between us and them may be the highlights of the season. That was a real thing that night last May—even though our boys fell for all the crap, I still admire the fact that they refused to be bullied. That was the lasting impression on both teams. Signori Conte is quite capable, I’m sure—and he has in his near-namesake and Batshuayi some real talent ready to explode. Surely Hazard will be much closer to 2014-15 vintage that the impostor we all witnessed last year. And if United can claim the budding skill of Rashford, and us Dele Alli, the Blues can point to Loftus-Cheek and Kenedy. And this is a case where the lack of European distraction is going to help. I can’t imagine them not finishing Top Four, and probably Top Three. This may be an all-Blue affair for Top, but I feel they’re still a little less complete than either of the other two remaining “Azzurri” contenders. They’ve got Back Four issues as well;
MAN CITY: If I had to bet, here’s where my money would be landing. Pep just managed a transition from one big club to another pretty darn seamlessly, even if the Champions League performance was found wanting. He’s got talent everywhere. DeBruyne could easily be this year’s 2013-14 Hazard; Aguero is still the most dependable goal-scorer in England; Sane is coming fast. Age in the spine is a worry with Kompany and Toure far past their best days. And Hart may be displaced in goal. But Sheik Mansour will buy what they need, and Pep is a master motivator;
US: I’ll make it short and sweet. We are young, hungry, dependable in the back—more so than any of our major competitors, deeper now with Janssen, Wanyama and certainly one more midfielder yet to arrive. Last year was no fluke. Any worries about a European hangover should have been thrust out a Norwegian window after the thrashing of Inter Milan (which forced Mancini out). The 8 player combination—any six of which should be on the pitch for the vast majority of both Premier League and UCL fixtures—of Dier-Dembele-Wanyama-Lamela-Alli-Eriksen-Janssen-Kane—is as good as any squad in the league. Period. And we have two dynamic fullbacks who will pressure most defences flanking three solid center-backs and a world-class keeper hungry for a trophy. Am I still a bit worried that Poch’s training demands might cause them to run out of gas sometime in April? Sure… But they’re a year into this, or two for many, and this is the time to strike. We won’t finish worse than third. We’ll be in the race until the final two weeks—and with a bit of fortune, this could be the year.
So, gun to my head it’s:
- MAN CITY SPURS 3. CHELSEA 4. MAN UNITED 5. ARSENAL 6. LEICESTER (or WEST HAM) 7. LIVERPOOL
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