The Premier League season begins tomorrow and, as was the case since this blog started, the vast majority of matches will be written about right here. With a bunch of television money being injected into the league this year, we were expecting teams to make a big splash in the transfer market. Indeed, Manchester United broke the all time transfer record to bring Paul Pogba to town. Several other teams, including the defending champion Leicester City, also broke club transfer records to improve their squad.
We also get the reigniting of the long time managerial rivalry between Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola. Both men take make their teams instant title contenders on paper, but will they take a season to settle in at their new jobs? Arsenal could be in their final year of Arsene Wenger, who may be known for finishing fourth place, but he has taken the Gunners to the Champions League every season he's been in charge.
Then there will be the defending champs. How will Leicester City react to no longer being the long shot underdogs we always saw them as? Will Claudio Ranieri and his troops be able to make another run at the title despite losing their star holding midfielder, N'Golo Kante, to Chelsea.
Hull City, Middlesbrough, and Burnley all make their returns to the Premier League as well. Will they continue their yo-yo club reputations or will they be able to maintain their status as top tier clubs? Will minnows like AFC Bournemouth, Crystal Palace, and Sunderland be able to hold off relegation?
So many questions, no definite answers until May. For now, a few predictions:
Relegated: Burnley, Hull City, Sunderland
Champions: Manchester City
Rest of the Top Four: Arsenal, Manchester United, Tottenham
The Manchester Clubs tend to be the favorites amongst most pundits. With Manchester City having the more title ready squad, I feel Guardiola steps in and leads his men to the top before Jose Mourinho does. United was a bit of a mess in terms of their squad last year and the injection of a new manager and a bunch of new players probably won't lead to immediate success. I think it takes them a year to settle in and you can pencil them in for the 2017-18 title before a 2018-19 collapse.
I do like United to get back into the Champions League after a year off, though. They do have a very talented squad and one of the best managers in the world. Tottenham and Arsenal will do battle with each other while they make another run towards the top four. Chelsea has a long way to go to recover from last year's disaster. I think they settle for the Europa League this year.
Other clubs to watch will be West Ham United, who head to the Olympic Stadium for this season. They competed at times last year and spent some big money to bring in new attacking options to help Dmitri Payet out. Southampton always seems to find their way into the top half of the table despite rich clubs looting their young talent every season. This year they will have to deal with just having their manager poached. Ronald Koeman is now in charge at Everton, who blamed Roberto Martinez for their struggles last year. Stoke City are usually highly touted early on in the season, but often fall into mid table obscurity by January. Their collection of failed Barcelona prospects and Xherdan Shaqiri are often fun to watch, though. Liverpool has some people in their corner thanks to the success of Jurgen Klopp in the Europa League. I'm not sure they quite have what it takes to get themselves in the top four conversation however.
The trophy for the most boring club in 2016-17 will likely be Watford. They do have a new manager, but they fell to irrelevancy late last year after starting out strong. They are about as mid table as it gets this season.
As for the back end of the table, Hull City lost their manager within a month of the new season beginning. That and their history of being a yo-yo club will take them back down. Burnley doesn't have the talent, or the financial resources to improve enough, to compete and stay up. Sunderland has been fighting the drop for a while, and, even with the well regarded David Moyes now in charge, I think this is the year they finally succumb to their fate and fall down to the Championship.
Other relegation candidates include Crystal Palace, who tumbled hard last season, Swansea, who also looked like a relegation bound team at times. West Bromwich Albion is included in some circles, but their defensive minded play usually keeps them from losing many games, giving them enough points to hold on. AFC Bournemouth, despite staying up last year, is still a tiny little club that lacks the resources to stay up in the Premier League. They should be safe for this season. Middlesbrough, as a newly promoted club, will also be on relegation watch.
So, where does that leave Leicester City? They will compete well, but I think they will lack the depth to keep a run going for the entire season. With the Champions League now clogging the first half of their schedule, they may have to rest players that were consistent presences in the lineup in last year's title run. The loss of N'Golo Kante will probably slow down their counter attacking style and put more pressure on the back four to keep goals out. They will fall short of the Champions League, but still get themselves in the top half of the table.
While the top of the table looks like it belongs to Manchester, the rest of the top four is anyone's guess. However, if last year is any proof, predicting the Premier League is a difficult task. For all we know, the Manchester clubs will collapse somehow and allow one of the other contenders, or off the radar clubs, to win it all in the end.