LONDON – Antonio Conte is not happy. Jurgen Klopp and Jose Mourinho are not happy. Arsene Wenger is reasonably happy and so is Mauricio Pochettino.
The happiest of all the Premier League’s heavyweight managers is Pep Guardiola. The 2017-18 season starts with differing moods among the men who will contest the title in the world’s richest league.
Conte’s dark mood surrounds Chelsea’s inability/refusal (take your pick) to bring in more players — “the final decision lies with the club,” said the Italian leaving no one in any doubt that he is not getting what he wants. Chelsea has not added to the squad, effectively only replacing John Terry, Nemanja Matic and Diego Costa with Antonio Rudiger, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Alvaro Morata and Conte does not believe the squad has the depth to deal with the extra challenge of the Champions League. While Conte did a magnificent job in leading Chelsea to the title using mainly 13 players, he believes the likes of Victor Moses and Marco Alonso may not be able to reach such unlikely heights again and that his side can be as injury-free for a second successive season.
There are almost three weeks before the transfer window shuts until January though it appears unlikely three or four top-class recruits will be making their way to Stamford Bridge. The suspicion is that Conte will be on his way next May, either shown the exit door by Roman Abramovich who is almost addicted to changing managers or that the Italian will feel he has done his time and is ready for another challenge. Given the unpredictability of the Russian billionaire and an ambitious, stubborn coach nothing would come as a surprise at any time.
Klopp was probably born smiling and his engaging personality remains a positive feature of English football, but Barcelona’s relentless pursuit of Philippe Coutinho has angered the German. Barcelona usually gets its man and with £199 million of Neymar money in the Nou Camp coffers Liverpool will drive the hardest of bargains if push comes to shove. Losing its playmaker will leave a big void in the midfield, which is also missing thigh strain victim Adam Lallana until October.
Coutinho has been the heart of Liverpool over the past two seasons with his passing, inspiration and finishing — even with a generous sum available for a successor, replacing the Brazilian would be difficult going on impossible.
Like Conte, Mourinho is waiting for Manchester United — or more specifically Mr. Woodward, as the Portuguese calls executive vice chairman Ed Woodward — to complete the summer spending. Mourinho has a strong squad, not least in the center of defense where Victor Lindelof, the £31 million signing from Benfica, Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones plus the versatile Daley Blind are competing for places. United has almost two players for each position, except left-back where Blind or Matteo Darmian will fill in until Mr. Woodward springs into action.
United has not raised the pulse as much as its supporters would like, but Mourinho remains a trophy magnet and after one year in charge at Old Trafford he has already won as many pots as Liverpool and Tottenham have managed in the last decade.
After some serious movement in and out of Etihad Stadium, Manchester City now has Guardiola’s thumb print on the team. The Abu Dhabi-based owners have backed the Catalan to the tune of £211 million this summer and with the arrival of Benjamin Mendy, Kyle Walker, Bernardo Silva, Ederson, Danilo and Douglas Luiz the Middle East money men will expect either the Premier League or the Champions League — ideally both — from Guardiola.
Despite City’s transfer extravagance, Guardiola knows how the importance of captain Vincent Kompany staying fit will be and the Belgian defender has struggled with injuries over the past two seasons.
Arsenal got the season underway against Leicester on Friday night after beating Chelsea in a Community Shield shootout. The problem with Arsenal is that it continually flatters to deceive because of familiar failings — defensive frailty and a disproportionate injury list. This correspondent has had his fingers burnt too often by tipping the Gunners to be champions, so time to play safe and predict Arsenal will win the F.A. Cup, which it usually does.
Amazingly — in fact, unbelievably — Tottenham has not brought in a single player this summer. Pochettino has a very accomplished team, but his squad lacks the depth for the challenge of the Premier League and Champions League (plus domestic cups) which was obvious last season. Spurs relocated to Wembley while White Hart Lane is refurbished and the national stadium has not proved a happy hunting ground for the club in Europe. Pochettino has rightly won praise for the way he has fashioned such an exciting side, but finishing above Arsenal is not enough for continued celebration and the Argentine has to prove he is a winner.
Under Ronald Koeman, Everton is ready to challenge the top order if any of them slips up, though the gap between seventh and sixth is, in many ways, wider than just one place.
As City prepares for Saturday’s potential banana skin away to promoted Brighton — the visitors’ defense cost more than the home team’s Amex Stadium — it remains the team to beat in this season’s title race. City finished last season with one defeat in its last 17 games and the front four or Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero, Jesus and Leroy Sane is the best in the league. Behind that quartet Guardiola can choose from Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva, Yaya Toure, Bernardo Silva, Fernandinho and the almost fit again Ilkay Gundogan. The back line of Kyle Walker, Kompany, John Stones and Benjamin Mendy should help Ederson, who cost a world record fee of £35 million for a goalkeeper, settle in following his move from Benfica.
Guardiola’s inability to deliver a trophy in his first season was seen as a failure. He is unlikely to be perceived in such a way come next May.
Panel to examine diving
A panel of former players and referees will rule retrospectively on matters of diving this season. Players found guilty of simulation will be suspended for two matches. Good luck to those who decide the fate of the divers because I predict chaos, controversy and possible legal challenges.
Last Sunday, Willian was cautioned by referee Bobby Madley for diving in the Community Shield against Arsenal. “A fantastic call, there was no contact,” said Mark Clattenburg, who took charge of the 2016 European Championship final.
Former Premier League referee Graham Poll disagreed.
“At first it looked like a dive, but replays showed that accidental contact meant that Willian was off balance and clipped himself, causing him to fall,” said Poll. “It wasn’t a penalty or a dive.”
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
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