Premier League 2018/19 preview: Liverpool likeliest to push Manchester City in title battle

Manchester City signalled their intentions to continue where they left off in the Community Shield victory over Chelsea, but Pep Guardiola knows a repeat of last season’s exploits will be difficult.

The Catalan failed to win any silverware in his first season in England, while the Premier League has not been retained since Manchester United in 2009, but you get the sense that he is just embarking on his work on these shores.

Competition for places has been boosted by the return to fitness of Benjamin Mendy, while Phil Foden looks ready for this level despite only just turning 18; Aymeric Laporte will be better for his first pre-season at the club, and the only area that City appear slightly light in is cover for Fernandinho at the base of midfield.

Jose Mourinho can only wish for such minor concerns. United were a distant second last season, 19 points adrift, and the Portuguese admits he is relieved a tumultuous summer is coming to an end. He has been unable to strengthen his first-team squad beyond the arrivals of Fred and Diogo Dalot, both of whom will take time to adjust to England.

Liverpool have been hailed by many as the summer’s big winners having kept hold of their star names and added four keys signings to bolster their hopes of a first league title since 1990. The 5-0 dismantling of Napoli in Dublin was further proof of their credentials, and Jurgen Klopp has identified and acted upon areas of weakness.

Tottenham head into a new era at a new stadium having committed Mauricio Pochettino and Harry Kane to long-term contracts, but a failure to bring in new faces in addition to the uncertainty surrounding the future of Toby Alderweireld means supporters are understandably concerned about whether a title challenge is possible in this transitional year.

Manchester City v Chelsea - FA Community Shield

Both Arsenal and Chelsea are under new management and face the prospect of a season dictated by Thursday-Sunday football due to their Europa League commitments; while Unai Emery can reflect upon an unbeaten pre-season within 90 minutes, Maurizio Sarri has swiftly become aware of the difficulties he faces, from choosing his preferred formation to having the right personnel to carry out his tactics.

Chelsea are likely to be without Thibaut Courtois, who has refused to return to training, while Eden Hazard has already set his heart on a move to Real Madrid. Losing both at this stage of the window would be catastrophic to the club’s chances of at least returning to the top four.

With two of the traditional top six at a stage in their cycles that is far from conducive to a title tilt, it does open the door to a possible outsider to break the status quo. Everton had been expected to do so last term, but poor investment left a lopsided squad that did well to recover eighth place. Marco Silva has been streamlining, but defensive weaknesses are yet to be fully addressed, so patience will be needed.

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West Ham co-owners David Gold and David Sullivan backed their new manager Mauricio Pellegrini by bringing in seven new recruits, spearheaded by club-record signing Felipe Anderson, while Jack Wilshere will be hoping to have more joy than Joe Hart in relaunching his career in East London. An intriguing season awaits even if the long-term absence of Manuel Lanzini comes as a major blow.

Leicester manager Claude Puel has thus far been frugal in the market since the departure of Riyad Mahrez, and while Jonny Evans’ arrival for £3.5m could prove the snip of the season, a lot rests on whether they can keep Harry Maguire away from the clutches of United. Kelechi Iheanacho has enjoyed a productive pre-season, scoring four goals in three games, and Foxes fans will hope he can fill the void in supporting Jamie Vardy.

Newcastle finished 10th last campaign, but that was largely due to a terrific spike in results after March, and with the players fighting with the club over bonuses, optimism is in short supply on Tyneside. A lot will depend on whether Rafa Benitez stays, but the Spaniard has at least secured striker Salomon Rondon, a player he rates highly and is capable of becoming a cult figure at St. James’ Park.

Another side who finished last season strongly are Crystal Palace under Roy Hodgson. The Eagles have thus far managed to keep hold of Wilfried Zaha despite interest from Chelsea and Tottenham, and the arrival of Max Meyer is somewhat of a coup, offsetting the return of Ruben Loftus-Cheek to Chelsea following his loan spell. If Palace can avoid their annual poor start, a productive campaign awaits.

Crystal Palace v Toulouse - Pre-Season Friendly

Bournemouth have taken their time to quietly go about their business with David Brooks joining from Sheffield United, while Diego Rico and Jefferson Lerma have cost a combined £35m, a year after they joined Levante and Leganes respectively for less than £1m. Eddie Howe will continue to play enterprising football that will win games, and keeping hold of Lewis Cook is a major boost, but the club are yet to strengthen at centre-half having conceded 61 goals last term.

Burnley were the surprise package in 2017/18, set on day one by their 3-2 win at champions Chelsea – but they have only added Ben Gibson and Joe Hart to a squad that will be stretched to the limit if they reach the Europa League group stage. Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes are one of the most underrated partnerships in the league, but clubs will be far more alert to their danger this time around. Sean Dyche will have a dilemma when all three of his goalkeepers are fit.

Watford, Brighton, Huddersfield and Southampton – four teams who ended within five points of each other last time out – will all target consolidation but the strength of two of the promoted sides means another wide-open relegation battle looms. Javi Gracia initially steadied the ship at Watford following the departure of Silva, but a poor end to the season and the sale of Richarlison points to an arduous nine months ahead.

Watford v Sampdoria - Pre-Season Friendly

Brighton have added Alireza Jahanbakhsh for a club-record fee in the region of £17m and his versatility across the forward line will take the burden off Pascal Gross. Goals could again prove hard to come by with just 34 scored last term (the fourth fewest), so Chris Hughton’s search for a central defender in the coming days takes on greater significance.

Southampton moved to appoint Mark Hughes on a permanent basis after he managed to keep the club up at the expense of Swansea City, but the 3-0 home defeat to Borussia Monchengladbach in their final pre-season game underlines fears that were heightened by Hughes’ admission the further business is unlikely to be forthcoming. Stuart Armstrong will be keen to prove a point having made the £7m switch from Celtic.

Huddersfield performed miracles in staying afloat last season, with Jonas Lossl’s heroics in the 1-1 draw at Chelsea epitomising the team ethos under David Wagner. The Terriers have a new badge while there have been eight new arrivals which have included Terence Kongolo and Florent Hadergjonaj’s loans being made permanent. The players now know what to expect, but offloading Tom Ince to Stoke for £12m could come back to haunt them given their dearth of creative options.

Such attacking flair propelled Wolves and Fulham back into the top flight, and both can be confident of avoiding a relegation scrap. Nuno Espirito Santo has become the Pied Piper of the West Midlands in coaxing big names to the Premier League newcomers; it is a project that will either catch fire or spectacularly fail, but the quality and experience of Rui Patricio and Joao Moutinho means a mid-table finish should be the target.

Fulham v Sampdoria - Pre-Season Friendly

Fulham have enjoyed a fruitful pre-season with the surprise addition of Jean Michel Seri, while there was a surprising lack of competition in attracting Alfie Mawson and Aleksandar Mitrovic on a permanent deal. Slavisa Jokanovic is hopeful of adding Calum Chambers on loan from Arsenal with Southampton now reluctant to strengthen a potential rival by selling Matt Targett. A lot will depend on how Ryan Sessegnon adjusts to the step-up in class having scored 16 Championship goals last term.

Cardiff City manager Neil Warnock admits it would be his biggest achievement in football if he manages to keep his odds-on relegation favourites up, but with very little pressure on the Bluebirds, they will take heart from Huddersfield’s maiden Premier League season. Warnock will relish coming up against the likes of Guardiola, Mourinho and Klopp for what could his final time, so expect fireworks if nothing else.

Predicted Premier League table

  1. Manchester City
  2. Liverpool
  3. Tottenham
  4. Arsenal
  5. Manchester United
  6. Chelsea
  7. Everton
  8. West Ham
  9. Crystal Palace
  10. Leicester City
  11. Wolves
  12. Burnley
  13. Fulham
  14. Bournemouth
  15. Newcastle
  16. Brighton
  17. Southampton
  18. Watford
  19. Huddersfield
  20. Cardiff City
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Redemption night as Everton flex their muscles to derail Arsenal’s title bid

 

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Arsenal hadn’t lost a league game since the opening day of the season. They had only lost once away this calendar year in the Premier League. They had just one defeat in 18 league games against Everton.

Few had given the hosts hope of only a second win in 12 games in all competitions after a desperately poor performance in the 3-2 loss at Watford four days ago, especially after a nervous opening 20 minutes saw them fall behind to Alexis Sanchez’s opener.

But the spirit that has now seen them claw back 11 points from losing positions  – more than any other Premier League side this season – has been somewhat disguised by the results of the past three months.

“There won’t always be games with a Cup final feel to it,” Alan Stubbs rightly pointed out in the BT Sport studio following a ferocious show of character that lifted the side back up to seventh in the table.

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Seamus Coleman typified such a never-say-die attitude, dragging the side level with a well-placed header, screaming at his team-mates down the right throughout, reminiscent of the role played by Phil Neville for many years.

Ashley Williams had quite a night. From villain of the piece to match winner. But he was not alone in needing to put right the many wrongs during a woeful run of form.

Actions speak louder than words, and after Koeman had his Wikipedia picture changed to Pat Butcher in the hours leading up to the game, this was his ‘F*** You’ to those dissenters.

Questions of mental and physical fragility asked by Koeman himself were emphatically put to bed here. There’s no need for an inquest after the final 70 minutes of blood and thunder that added this to the pantheon of great Goodison nights.

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“It was very difficult – you know the qualities of Arsenal,” the Dutchman said immediately after a thrilling 2-1 victory over Arsene Wenger’s side. “We had the sending off of Jags in the final minute and we were lucky with the last challenge in the box, but you need that in life.

“You can as a manager tell the players what needs to change, but if you start as we did today, you won’t win any games in the Premier League. We were very nervous, but if we fight for every ball and if we’re aggressive you can see the reaction of the crowd.

“We went face to face, and with a lot of aggression you can make it very difficult. We deserved the win today. We showed after 20 minutes how we need to play, the commitment and aggression was there and the crowd reacted. It’s a big result.”

Williams gestured a heart with his fingers as he looked towards the box where his family watched on as he celebrated his goal, a reminder of the ‘Together Stronger’ slogan that took Wales to the last four of Euro 2016.

Coleman called on the fans to remain with the players now after such a morale-boosting win heading into the Merseyside derby next Monday night.

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“A lot of teams would’ve given up after going a goal down, and you could sense the crowd getting a little on our back,’ he said.

“But we got the next goal and we know that if we put in a performance we can make the crowd happy and they are like a 12th man so it’s important that we get them right behind us and for them to stay with us.”

Thirty seconds into this contest, James McCarthy went in late on Granit Xhaka. More aggressive, more compact and more fight. This was the midfielder making his intentions known from the off.

Despite McCarthy’s best efforts, the first 20 minutes belonged to Arsenal. Everton sat back, looked to be compact and allowed their opponents to play in front of them. Co-commentator Steve McManaman on BT Sport called it ‘playing with fire’.

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This was quite clearly Koeman’s game plan, hoping to pick Arsenal off on the break with the speed and directness of Valencia and Lennon.

What wasn’t drilled on the training ground was the suicidal minute of madness which led to Arsenal taking the lead.

Three Everton players had the chance to clear, as Enner Valencia, Ross Barkley and Williams were guilty of sloppiness in possession. Idrissa Gueye ended up being clattered by Williams in the self-inflicted chaos on the edge of the penalty area.

Phil Jagielka was the man to eventually halt Arsenal in their tracks, taking out Sanchez, but the Chilean then ensured he did not escape with just a yellow card.

His free-kick was hit low but Williams, lacking mobility with his hands behind his back, compounded his error as he tried his best to adjust his feet, only managing to deflect the ball into the net via the hand the diving Maarten Stekelenburg after it had skidded off his shins.

The groans came back, balls that could have been crossed by both Barkley and Valencia ended back at the feet of an Arsenal player, Aaron Lennon shot when a pass was on for the Ecuadorian.

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But Everton slowly shook off the blow to an already low level of confidence as Coleman rode forward to win a corner, which was flashed over by the involved Valencia.

The crowd responded to a flurry of tackles that rattled into Xhaka and Co, Lennon being released down the left, carrying the ball into the box. But he shot over with his weaker left foot. Again no end product.

Everton were getting some joy down the left, Baines stayed on his feet as both Theo Walcott and Hector Bellerin dangled then withdrew a leg. Lukaku urged his team-mates to squeeze with him from the front. The Gwladys Street roared their approval.

The fans showed further appreciation as Barkley pick-pocketed Coquelin before slipping in Lukaku down the left but he hurried his shot. Petr Cech still hadn’t had a save to make.

Arsenal had shown ruthlessness at Everton’s moment of uncertainty but Everton didn’t show such a clinical side when Nacho Monreal miscued his clearance. Lennon prodded his shot wide of the mark again after being teed up by McCarthy.

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The Wigan midfielder, in front of the watching Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane, looked as though he was playing for his future, winning the ball high up, snapping into another challenge on Francis Coquelin to go into Mark Clattenburg’s book.

For all of Everton’s endeavour, Arsenal absorbed everything that had been thrown at them until they were breached in remarkably easy fashion.

Gueye picked up Barkley’s pass and again looked down the left with the always available Baines. Walcott raced across to shut down the space, but couldn’t slow down quick enough, his momentum inviting the full-back inside onto his right.

Baines produced the perfect inswinging cross for Coleman to cushion his header down low into the corner past the rooted Cech. From one full-back to another, two players criticised defensively this season showed battling qualities to drag their side back into the contest.

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Wenger wore a concerned face to go with his tailored winter coat, and the Frenchman was happy to hear the half-time whistle as the players had to be separated following a bit of afters between Coleman and the peripheral Mesut Ozil.

Even the bouncing Everton first-team coach Duncan Ferguson, still playing in his head and in his Copa Mundials, intervened to help pull the players apart as they headed down the narrow tunnel into the changing rooms. It was then you felt this would be one of those nights.

Into the second period, Everton’s press was evident again from the start, but Sanchez began to assert himself as Arsenal enjoyed an early spate of possession with the hosts sitting in and snapping when the ball broke loose on the slick surface.

Everton were guilty of again failing to clear when Jagielka had the chance, looking to play out through Gueye – Arsenal almost made them pay with Sanchez finding the onrushing Ozil who stroked his ball over when he looked set to score.

Everton were next to go close. Jagielka’s directness this time almost paid dividends, finding the chest of Lukaku whose lay-off to Barkley was flashed just wide of Cech’s left-hand post from the angle.

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But chasing the win they needed to return back to the summit, Wenger urged his players to go up the gears and frantic moments around the box saw Coquelin and Sanchez both denied by last-ditch clearances.

Koeman looked to fresh legs as Kevin Mirallas replaced Lennon, applauded off after a far better showing than in his recent starts. The Goodison crowd roared again as Lukaku won a foot race with Gabriel and Valencia ran himself into the ground to chase another lost cause.

Everton had found a second wind from somewhere but no one was on hand to run onto a loose ball inside the six-yard box after Barkley had outsmarted Sanchez. Arsenal’s defending was becoming increasingly desperate.

Coleman was next to test their resolve as his cross was snuffed out by the impressive Laurent Koscielny after another tepid ball out from the back by Arsenal had been intercepted.

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Into the final 15 minutes, could Arsenal find a way of winning ugly as Chelsea had done against West Brom? Wenger brought on Olivier Giroud but Koeman looked to youth, calling back England under-20 international Dominic Calvert-Lewin to get ready.

With the home crowd beginning to get nervous, the introduction of debutant Calvert-Lewin for the tireless Valencia received a standing ovation. Another talented local boy was thrown into the bowels of the famous bear pit.

It was a masterstroke from Koeman just at the moment the home side needed another lift to go again for the final 10 minutes as the 19-year-old took his place behind Lukaku.

Everton had to be careful not to over commit, but with the exuberance of Calvert-Lewin quickly involved, this was never likely to be a case of two sides settling for a point.

The striker took a one-two off the excellent Gueye and then won a corner from another Baines delivery. Who said Koeman didn’t look to academy players? This was precisely what the fans had been crying out for.

Everton got their heads down, harnessed the passion of the crowd and won another corner.

Barkley this time beat the first man, with the ball falling to Jagielka but Cech managed to claw the shot around the post. Any sense that the danger had been averted, however, was short-lived as Barkley had now, finally, found his range.

Redemption comes in many forms, and Barkley’s positive response to being taken out of the side was given its crowning moment from the ensuing delivery, as Williams rose unmarked to crash his header off the ground and high into the roof of the net.

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The towering Wales captain ran the length of the field, along the side of the Main Stand passing Ferguson on his way, who had done the same memorably for his first goal against Liverpool and twice against Manchester United in his prime.

Coleman eventually caught up with the impassioned centre-half, holding him down as Calvert-Lewin jumped on his back and Gueye was close behind. Lukaku jumped on board while McCarthy was there to give him the final thunderous nod of approval.

It was one huge outpouring of emotion that was mirrored by the usually composed Koeman on the sidelines, heading an imaginary ball as Williams rose before removing his hands from his pockets to celebrate it hitting the net with an almighty fist pump.

The passion in the celebrations said everything. This was Everton’s night. The fans responded with a chorus of songs, how they had suffered for this, but there were still four minutes plus stoppages to hold on.

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Stekelenburg frantically claimed a teasing ball from Sanchez before McCarthy was replaced by Ramiro Funes Mori as Koeman looked to batten down the hatches.

Barkley then exposed the space by running clear down the right but he shot when a ball was on at the far post. It was a rush of blood to the head when both Mirallas and Calvert-Lewin were on for the pass.

It may well have proved costly as after a corner down the other end wasn’t cleared, Jagielka was caught the wrong side of substitute Lucas Perez and was rightly shown a second yellow card.

The veteran ruled himself out of the home clash with Liverpool in the process, but Everton’s concerns were more immediate as with the side one player short for the final minute of stoppage time, Arsenal had a glorious chance to snatch a point.

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Twice they were thwarted by last ditch blocks in the same incredible phase of play as both Monreal and Alex Iwobi had shots blocked, first by Funes Mori and then Leighton Baines on the goal-line.

The ball broke loose, and Mirallas may well have brought down Sanchez who had come up his blind side to pinch the ball, but Clattenburg allowed play to go on.

After his role in a Merseyside derby in 2007 – a 2-1 win for Liverpool in which he awarded the Reds two penalties and failed to give one for Everton led to six years without him refereeing a game at Goodison – some would say this too was a night of redemption for him.

Everton could still have scored a third with Cech stranded up the pitch in pursuit of the equaliser, but neither Barkley nor Mirallas could get a shot away. It was a breathless end to the game as Everton held on.

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Williams slunk to the ground in exhaustion at the final whistle, brought back to his feet by Stekelenburg as Baines was lifted in the air by Coleman and Gueye, never far from anything.

The players had responded to Koeman’s comments after the hapless showing in Hertfordshire, this was him planting his flag in the sand.

Williams could reflect on an eventful night. “It’s nice to get my first goal, I’m obviously disappointed with their goal, so it’s great to get the winner in the end. I was desperate to score to make up for it. It gives us a massive confidence boost.

“It was about looking at ourselves in the mirror, and looking to put it right. We fell behind but we battled back and the fans responded as well. Next week is a massive game, and it’s great we can take this into the derby.”

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Coleman admitted after another famous night under the lights: “We’ve been nowhere near good enough, but the only place to put it right is back on the football pitch. We know that our form has not been good enough and there were some nerves.”

After some strong criticism from supporters who had already begun to question their new manager, this was a major step in the right direction for Koeman leading into the festive fixture pile up.

“Liverpool will be a total situation after tonight,” he said. “We go into it on the back of a good performance with three points in the pocket.

“We’re still unbeaten at home, and we know the importance of the Merseyside derby. If we play with the passion we showed tonight, we can have a good result.”