Man City should repeat, but Chelsea and Man United lurking



12:58 PM ET

Ian DarkeESPN.com writer

CloseDarke, who called games for the network during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, is ESPN lead soccer voice in the United States. He has covered the Barclays Premier League and the Champions League since 1982, and has one of the world’s most recognizable soccer voices.

Manchester City have won three of the last four Premier League titles and if they have both Jack Grealish and Harry Kane on board by the time the transfer window closes, it would take a brave gambler to bet against them being champions again. But is it really quite so clear-cut as many good judges appear to believe? Especially if City’s focus switches to the elusive Champions League crown.

Behind Man City, the plot thickens and the chasers go into the new campaign with realistic ambitions to knock the champions off their perch.

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Chelsea beat Pep Guardiola’s team in the Champions League final, and Thomas Tuchel is hopeful that Romelu Lukaku will arrive from Inter Milan to add undoubted goal power to an already gifted team. Manchester United, runners-up last season, will believe that Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane can help them win a first title since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013 while Liverpool, with a packed Anfield again and Virgil Van Dijk back to help them, will see no reason why they can’t rediscover their champagne form of two seasons ago.

It all promises to make for a fascinating season, particularly with full stadiums and new VAR directives that’ll mean an end to the hated “by a toe-nail” offsides calls and fewer soft penalties. Last season’s record 125 spot kicks was almost farcical as players tumbled to the turf, seemingly with every puff of wind.

Ahead of Friday’s opening match, here are my club-by-club thoughts, though predictions at this stage must always be tempered by the fact that other major transfer developments are still very likely with the window closing at the end of August.

Pep Guardiola and Man City strolled to the title last season and have added Jack Grealish to the squad. Can anyone catch them? Michael Regan/Getty Images

ARSENAL

The £50m addition of Brighton and England defender Ben White is the sort of statement signing the Gunners needed, but much more is required after two consecutive eight-place finishes. Youngsters like Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe are only going to get better, though their success depends on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang rediscovering his scoring form. The jury remains out on manager Mikel Arteta.

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ASTON VILLA

How will they cope with the loss of their talisman, Grealish? That has to be the key question despite Dean Smith splashing out on Danny Ings, Leon Bailey and Emi Buendia to add to the attacking options and the return of Ashley Young to add some much-needed experience. Expect another mid-table finish as Villa consolidate their Premier League status.

BRENTFORD

The West London club, for so long a lower-league outfit, will be the 50th team to play in the Premier League and their Danish manager Thomas Frank has the squad believing that their enterprising approach can cause shocks. But they will need star striker Ivan Toney to bring his 33-goal form from last season into the top flight. The Bees certainly deserve their chance after some agonising near-misses in the promotion stakes.

BRIGHTON

Easy on the eye last season, but only managed to finish 16th with 41 points. They will feel the loss of Arsenal-bound White, but have enough defensive cover in Lewis Dunk, Adam Webster and Dan Burn and Yves Bissouma is one of the best midfield men in the league, attracting several admirers. It would help if they could get rampaging wing-back Tariq Lamptey fit.

BURNLEY

There’s not been much significant transfer movement under the new owners ALK, but they are smart enough to know the value of keeping manager Sean Dyche sweet. The Clarets recovered from an awful start to finish 11 points clear of trouble last season, and they have enough nous and fight — and very good pros led by Ben Mee, James Tarkowski, keeper Nick Pope and striker Chris Wood — to stay above the water line again.

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Chelsea legend Frank Leboeuf is happy for Romelu Lukaku who is reportedly closing in on a return to Stamford Bridge.

CHELSEA

Perhaps the team most likely to threaten title-winners Manchester City, whom they beat with a perfect tactical display in the Champions League final. This is a multi-talented squad, but they were only the eighth-highest scorers in last season’s Premier League. At the time of writing, it looks as if Romelu Lukaku will arrive from Inter for around £98m to solve that problem. The Belgian is not longer the callow kid who failed to fire in his first spell at Stamford Bridge, though where that leaves last summer’s big signing, Timo Werner, is another question.

CRYSTAL PALACE

It’s been a summer of change at the Palace. Patrick Vieira takes over from Roy Hodgson as the club goes for something of a makeover. About a dozen players had come to the end of their contracts, but star man Wilfried Zaha and a reborn Christian Benteke stay, crucially, and Palace have added two good defenders in Joachim Andersen and Marc Guehi, as well as the promising teenage playmaker Michael Olise. Nevertheless, it’s an acid test for Vieira.

Dan Thomas is joined by Craig Burley, Shaka Hislop and others to bring you the latest highlights and debate the biggest storylines. Stream on ESPN+ (U.S. only).

EVERTON

Carlo Ancelotti jumped ship for Real Madrid and in comes Rafa Benitez, who some Toffees fans will never forgive for calling them a “small club” when he was managing Liverpool over a decade ago. Can Rafa win over his critics, or will there be turmoil at Goodison Park for a team that rather faded into 10th place last season? Nothing that has happened yet in the transfer market makes you believe they can improve on that. New signing Demarai Gray still has to prove he can cut it as a top-flight regular, though winger Andros Townsend might get a new lease of life on Merseyside.

LEEDS UNITED

Crowned a superb return to the top flight with a ninth-place finish last season and with Elland Road turned up to full volume as fans return, Marcelo Bielsa’s turbo-charged team might even threaten the top six unless they are hit by “second season syndrome.” The classy, articulate Patrick Bamford could force his way into the England reckoning, and Junior Firpo has arrived from Barca for £13m.

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2:05

Julien Laurens explains why he feels Villarreal’s Fer Nino should not play football until Wesley Fofana’s return from injury.

LEICESTER

A broken leg in preseason for the Foxes’ outstanding young defender, Wesley Fofana, is a terrible blow, and it may leave them a little thin at the back. Despite missing out on the top four again, that first-ever FA Cup win made it a triumphant season. Patson Daka, Boubakary Soumare and Ryan Bertrand are great additions to Brendan Rodgers’ options and he still has all his big-hitters on board, with Harvey Barnes back from injury and James Justin progressing nicely.

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LIVERPOOL

Intriguing to see if we see the “old Liverpool” that waltzed to the title two seasons ago. After a horrendous run in mid-season after some big injuries, they did well to finish third in May. The return of Virgil Van Dijk and the £36m signing of Ibrahima Konate certainly give them a more solid look, but they need Curtis Jones to step into Gini Wijnaldum’s boots after his departure to PSG. There’s also the cloud of the contract dispute with captain Jordan Henderson hanging over the preseason.

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Mark Ogden debates how Pep Guardiola will utilise Jack Grealish and wonders whether Man City even need him.

MANCHESTER CITY

An embarrassment of riches. How will Pep Guardiola fit Grealish in? The England man’s ability to run with the ball, draw fouls and set up chances would enhance any team. He is a unique talent and if Kane arrives as well, City’s attack would take on a frightening look with the likes of Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez battling for the other places, and Bernardo Silva probably on his way out. Remember, too, that Kevin De Bruyne started only 23 Premier League games last season and should be back to his magnificent best this time. City were champions by 12 points last season, but this year will be tougher.

MANCHESTER UNITED

The club have issued a big vote of confidence in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to hand him an extended contract to 2024 and the funds for Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane. With Marcus Rashford out for two months with a shoulder problem to start the season, Sancho has the chance to show off his sensational talents while Varane and Harry Maguire looks a winning pairing at the back. If Bruno Fernandes bounces back from a poor Euros (he looked tired), United should be in the mix at the top of the table, though the usual uncertainty over Paul Pogba (his contract expires in June, 2022) hardly helps.

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1:43

The ESPN FC crew look at all the factors that will affect how Raphaël Varane meshes with the Manchester United defense.

NEWCASTLE

A club in seemingly endless turmoil, they nevertheless recovered to finish 12th last season as Steve Bruce answered his many Toon critics. They need to keep Callum Wilson fit and seal the deal with Arsenal for Joe Willock, whose flurry of goals proved vital at the end of last season. They’ve been quiet in the transfer market …so far.

NORWICH CITY

Bounced back into the top flight at the first time of asking, and as Championship winners, having kept faith with manager Daniel Farke. They’ve lost their main chance creator, Buendia, to Aston Villa, but have done very well to acquire Chelsea’s excellent young midfield man Billy Gilmour on loan. The Canaries have been a little more ambitious in the transfer market than in their last trip to the Premier League, but it looks like a relegation fight for this yo-yo club.

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1:03

Sebastian Salazar and Herculez Gomez discuss Josh Sargent’s move from Werder Bremen to Norwich.

SOUTHAMPTON

The sudden sale of striker Danny Ings to Aston Villa will have sent off alarm bells for Saints fans. Reliable left-back Ryan Bertrand (Leicester City) has gone too, and there will probably be bids for captain James Ward-Prowse. Unless they can beef up the squad between now and the end of August, the Saints are in danger of being surprise strugglers.

TOTTENHAM

These are difficult times in north London, with so much hinging on the outcome of the Kane saga. It’s not been an easy start for new boss Nuno Espirito Santo, but at least Spurs have added Sevilla winger Bryan Gil and £47m defender Atalanta defender Cristian Romero is an expensive addition too as Toby Alderweireld leaves. The less-than-glamorous new Europa Conference League is the price they pay for only finishing seventh last season. How they go about replacing Kane (if he goes) will be crucial to their prospects, though Inter’s Lautaro Martinez is being pursued.

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Craig Burley says it is going to be difficult but Tottenham has to find a way to transfer Harry Kane to another club.

WATFORD

The precocious Club Brugge youngster Emmanuel Dennis could make some waves as the Hornets return to the top flight. Former England left-back Danny Rose and Middlesbrough striker Ashley Fletcher are among other new arrivals, while the dangerous winger Ismaila Sarr is still there, too. But it might be a long hard winter at Vicarage Road.

WEST HAM

How will they cope with the Thursday-Sunday routine of matches as they prepare for the Europa League? It was certainly a bold showing last season to finish sixth with a team led by England regular Declan Rice and with the likes of Tomas Soucek and Michail Antonio as real danger men. They would love to get Jesse Lingard back from Manchester United after a productive loan, and add a top defender like Kurt Zouma of Chelsea or Marseille’s Duje Caleta-Car. Expect a busy late August from David Moyes.

WOLVES

Last season was a wake-up call as they slipped to 13th with only 45 points after two successive seventh-place finishes. The Nuno era is over — he’s rebuilding Tottenham now — and Bruno Lage has come in. At least top striker Raul Jimenez is fit after suffering a horrific fractured skull last season. There have been a few low-key signings, but it might be a difficult year again unless the exciting young Pedro Neto and Adama Traore (if he stays) can form an effective supply line for Jimenez. Winger Francisco Trincao from Barca could excite the fans at Molineux.



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