In the first of a new weekly feature for the Premier League season, Dave Tindall assesses the opening fixtures and forecasts away-day glory for Liverpool and Man Utd.
Zlatan and Pogba – instant magic?
Landing both Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a huge statement of intent by Manchester United. As is bringing in Jose Mourinho of course. So, will this big-name trio turn the Red Devils from also-rans into champions? Or is it all a bit FIFA 16/17? Questions abound. Will Pogba be weighed down with constant reminders that he’s now the world’s best player and should play like one week in, week out?
It looks as if we’ll have to wait a while to find out given that the Frenchman isn’t match-fit yet. Will Zlatan just be a provider of intermittent social media-friendly flicks and tricks and the odd flashy goal? He’s already caused a buzz by scoring with a scissor kick just minutes into his debut in the friendly against Galatasaray and heading home the winner against Leicester in the Community Shield. The doubters will point to the lacklustre performances of both men in Euro 2016 and also question whether they can weave immediate magic in a much faster-paced league. Is a trip to Eddie Howe’s nice Bournemouth a friendly way to ease this new-look United in or actually a potential banana skin?
Reality check for Leicester?
Jamie Vardy took just 11 minutes to put Leicester ahead against Sunderland in their opening match of last season. No-one really noticed. Even when a Riyad Mahrez double made it 3-0 after just 25 minutes it seemed nothing more than some fun in the August sun. Anyone suggesting the eventual 4-2 win over a likely relegation rival was the first step in an amazing and almost preposterous journey to title glory would have been laughed out of town.
Leicester were under the radar. As champions, they are now firmly in the spotlight and many are expecting them to be suffer a mighty crash to earth. An away trip to unfashionable Hull sets the stage for an immediate trip up and it’s the sort of match where the now departed N’Golo Kante would have been ideal. Will Leicester have the swagger of champions or will the added pressure weigh them down?
Guardiola to Pep up Man City?
Manchester City managed just 66 points last season. For all the focus on Chelsea underachieving, that represented a huge drop-off for the men from the Etihad. In the previous four campaigns they’d managed 79, 86, 78 and 89. Knowing the manager was leaving didn’t help and the run to the last four of the Champions League certainly changed priorities. City smacked of a team in need of a boot up the backside and a boss that could give them much-needed intensity.
Step forward Pep Guardiola. One of the most respected managers in world football will seek perfection in every aspect of the club and the Spaniard has plenty of talent to shape and mould. But it’s one thing making already dominant teams dominant. Unlike Spain and Germany there will be more than just one or two rivals to beat off and this makes it his toughest challenge yet. City fans will expect to see plenty of immediate signs of a revolution when Sunderland visit on opening day.
Early clues at The Emirates
Arsenal v Liverpool. Wenger v Klopp. It’s, without doubt, the glamour match-up in the first round of Premier League fixtures. Only once in the last 20 years has a team been defeated in their opening match and gone on to win the title (Man Utd going down 1-0 at Everton in 2012/13) so the stats are already loaded against the loser here.
Liverpool have a poor record at Arsenal (W1, D7, L8 in the last 16 away trips) but Gunners fans won’t need reminding of recent opening days – the 3-1 home loss to Aston Villa three years ago and a 2-0 reverse by West Ham at the Emirates last season. On the plus side, the winner could use this as a slingshot to bed themselves in at the top of the table and certainly a Liverpool win would make a big statement.
Count on Conte?
In many ways, for Guardiola at Manchester City, read Antonio Conte at Chelsea. The Italian is also walking into a new league with the challenge of taking a recent title-winning side back to top spot. Chelsea went from first to 10th last season and from 87 points to 50. Has there ever been such an alarming dip?
The lack of European football will be an obvious help and after the fiasco of 2015/16 there really is only one way to go for a squad that boasts some serious talent. They may just have made the signing of the summer as well by signing N’Golo Kante. A home game against West Ham is a dangerous way to start though given how well Slaven Bilic’s men did in the big early away games last season.
The two Manchester clubs head the Premier League betting (5/2 City, 3/1 United) and both have winnable opening weekend fixtures.
I’m not convinced that Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be a constant threat as the season progresses but the signs are there that he could prove an instant hit. A goal on debut? That would be very Zlatan, wouldn’t it, and I’m prepared to put my money down and back him to set United on their way to victory at Bournemouth.
Arsenal v Liverpool is an intriguing clash but history says the Gunners are vulnerable in these early games and they also have big problems in central defence.
Fuelled by the confidence-boosting 4-0 win over Barcelona, Liverpool look a bit of value to come away from the Emirates with all three points.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic to score the first goal in Bournemouth v Man Utd at 7/2 (General)
Liverpool to beat Arsenal at 11/5 (Stan James)
Not only have we written our season preview for Betsafe, we’ve also produced a betting preview for this weekend’s round of fixtures.