Premier League Restart – The Preview (Part One)
With Premier League football finally returning to our lives on Wednesday evening, plenty of clubs have a lot to play for. Here, Jamie Braidwood looks at the top ten sides in England and previews what the end of the season could spell out for each club.
With the title all but won, can Liverpool continue their relentless push?
Liverpool have established themselves as the best team in England by some margin this season, and are receiving praise as also being one of the best sides in Europe.
The Premier League champions-elect need just six points to secure their first league title in 30 years, but could end that wait as early as Sunday if results go their way and they beat rivals Everton at Goodison Park.
If the title is wrapped up that quickly after the restart, then Liverpool will turn their attention to breaking the Premier League record for most points in a season, set by Manchester City’s 100-point total in 2017/18. Liverpool were on course to smash that figure prior to the league’s suspension – if they had continued their pace of 2.83 points-per-game, Jurgen Klopp’s side would have finished on 107 points – but 19 points from their remaining nine fixtures would suffice to set a new record.
Back to full strength, will we see the best of City to finish the season?
For the first time this season, Pep Guardiola is able to field his strongest team. Much has been made of City’s patchy form this campaign, but the return of Leroy Sane and Aymeric Laporte from long-return injuries is undoubtedly a huge boost, and should see City back firing on all cylinders.
Huge questions are likely to remain, however – not to mention the impending verdict that will determine whether City’s two-year Champions League ban is upheld. For much of this season City have looked like a side in need of a rebuild, but with the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic set to wreak havoc with the summer transfer window, that may not be possible. The likelihood is that City keep this team together for another season, and with Sane and Laporte back in the side, that remains a daunting prospect for the rest of the league.
It is also worth remembering that City remain one of the favourites for this season’s rescheduled Champions League. With little else to play for in the Premier League, we could see Guardiola prepare for his team to peak at the end of the campaign, just in time for the proposed restart of the European competitions.
Can Leicester finish the job and secure Champions League football?
Although their form dipped in January, Leicester City have comfortably been the third-best team in the Premier League this season and deserve a top four spot. The focus for the rest of the season will be finishing the job, and with an eight-point lead over fifth-placed Manchester United, Brendan Rodgers’ side will be confident of doing just that.
The return of integral midfielder Wilfred Ndidi – injured for much of their poor stretch of form in January and February – is a boost to their chances, while Jamie Vardy should have benefitted from a period of rest and will be looking to rediscover his scoring touch. Vardy has a two-goal lead over Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as he aims to win his first Premier League Golden Boot.
With reinforcements to come, can Chelsea’s young stars finish what they started?
Chelsea have allowed a surplus of youth talents first team football for what seems like the first time ever, with many prospects building positive national and international reputations as a result of their season so far.
While there is already huge excitement over how Chelsea are going to look next season – with Timo Werner set to join Hakim Ziyech in bolstering the Blues’ frontline – Frank Lampard’s side must keep their focus on the next nine games in order to secure a top-four spot. And with Manchester United having cut the gap to Chelsea to just three points prior to the league’s suspension, that job is far from over.
Inconsistency has held Chelsea back at times this season, which is to be expected from such a young squad. The performances of Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount have epitomised that – some of their games have been excellent, others a little off. Perhaps they will have benefitted the most from the break, in order to recharge their batteries, and could thrive in the behind-closed-doors environment in the absence of pressure from supporters.
What will United’s push for Champions League tell us about Solskjaer?
Things were beginning to look promising for Manchester United prior to the Premier League’s suspension in March, with the arrival of Bruno Fernandes having galvanised Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side. While the break has halted that momentum, the return of Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba means that United are back at full strength, just in time to aid their bid of catching Chelsea. United’s run-in is certainly more favourable than Chelsea’s, and many have them as favourites to pip Lampard’s side to fourth place.
On the pitch, it will be interesting to see how Solskjaer decides to fit his pieces together, and there will be a frenzy of commentators and analysists dissecting every move he makes. Can Fernandes and Pogba play together in midfield? You would imagine so, but the finger of blame will be pointed Solskjaer’s way if they cannot, and if United fall away from the top-four pack.
Will a focussed Wolves spring a surprise?
Wolves have been very impressive this season in that they have been able to balance a hectic schedule of both domestic and European fixtures, having never had to worry about this level of congestion before.
As with Chelsea, Manchester United, Sheffield United, as well as Tottenham and Arsenal, Wolves will have their fingers crossed that Manchester City’s Champions League ban is upheld and that fifth-place becomes a Champions League qualification spot.
Prior to the league’s suspension, Wolves’ momentum had stalled with a couple of frustrating draws, and their attention drifted towards launching a fully focussed bid to progress to the latter stages of the Europe League. But with that competition now pushed back until after the Premier League is completed, Wolves have a clear schedule in order to challenge the Champions League chasers. While the table might not show it, there are few sides better than Nuno Espirito Santo’s team when they are on form.
How far can Sheffield United go?
Chris Wilder’s Blades have been the feel-good story of the league this year and are still very much in contention for the European places come the end of the season.
The Blades were perhaps enjoying the most impressive season by a promoted side in Premier League history prior to the suspension, and will be targeting what would be a dream qualification for European football for next season. Sheffield United open the restarted Premier League season on Wednesday and will move above Manchester United into fifth if they beat Aston Villa.
Chris Wilder’s side have a tough run-in after that, however, and will face fellow challengers Leicester, Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham over their remaining nine games. Their results in those games will be crucial to their final position – as will the short-term future of goalkeeper Dean Henderson, who is yet to extend his loan from parent club Manchester United for the remainder of the rescheduled season.
Will we see hope for Mourinho’s Spurs?
Jose Mourinho may have welcomed the suspension over anyone else – the time away from football will have allowed his injury-plagued squad to return to fitness and prepare to challenge for the European places.
Spurs were in a malaise prior to the Premier League’s suspension, with a number of injuries to star players and a poor defensive record. The return of Harry Kane and Heung-min Son should bring some positives, as Tottenham attempt to salvage what has been a difficult campaign with a late push for the European places.
With Spurs unlikely to invest in player recruitment over the off-season transfer window, due to the economic implications of the pandemic, Jose Mourinho’s focus may well turn to using the remaining nine fixtures to prepare his side for next season, and get players such as Kane back to full fitness.
Can Arteta restore the feel-good factor at Arsenal?
The Gunners are in a similar position to that of their North London rivals, and remain within touching distance of the crowded pack challenging for next season’s European places. Manager Mikel Arteta is still fresh to the Arsenal job, and will likely spend the remainder of the campaign figuring out his squad for next season.
Much of the talk around Arsenal during lockdown has concerned the futures of their attacking stars Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazatte, with the former’s contract situation a cause for concern. Finishing the season on a high with some promising performances and results could be key to restoring the feel-good factor around the Emirates, and keeping those stars signed on for another campaign. Wednesday’s trip to Manchester City is a tough start.
Can Burnley remain in the top half?
Sean Dyche has been one of the most underrated managers in recent years and could see his Burnley side manage yet another impressive finish to this campaign.
Sean Dyche has overseen another outstanding season at Turf Moor, with his side’s Premier League status for next season all but secured. Burnley even have an outside chance of finishing in the European places, but it would require a stunning surge to usurp the teams above them.
Maintaining their position inside the league’s top 10 would still be a fine achievement for Burnley, who could also have a big say on who goes down this season as they face relegation-threatened Watford, West Ham, Norwich and Brighton over the course of the run-in.