Jose Mourinho has promised that Chelsea will be a better team next season, but warned that other teams will improve too – so much so that he cannot tell whether we’ll finish 1st or 6th. So who will be the Blues’ main rivals for honours next year? The candidates are obvious – but there may well be surprises in store as to which are the strongest.
It will be no shock to see Manchester City at or about the top of the table. They have a thoroughly impressive squad at the height of its powers and have already significantly added to it with the purchase of Porto midfielder Fernando. Manuel Pellegrini has proved he has the nerve and talent to succeed in English football, winning the league title in his first year, and will only improve in his second.
Having said that, there are a number of reasons for suspecting that they may stumble slightly next season. First, there is the question of whether they can retain Yaya Toure, the driving force at the heart of their midfield. The Ivorian has made public his unhappiness with the club, albeit in a somewhat bizarre manner, and although City have stated that Toure is going nowhere, the word is that they will let him go if an acceptable offer comes in.
Second, they have a couple of squad weaknesses which have yet to be addressed. Their back four is not the strongest of the top teams, Joe Hart has shown himself to be occasionally unreliable, and their main striker Aguero continues to be plagued by injury. This last factor becomes more critical with the possiblt departure of Dzeko and/or Negredo – so don’t rule out City making a huge bid for a striker like Edinson Cavani or Jackson Martinez.
Third, they will be prioritising the Champions League this season. It is a competition they have so far failed to thrive in, and is the one their Abu Dhabi owners covet for the prestige and financial reward that it brings. It isn’t inconceivable that they will take their eye off the league to focus on Europe.
Liverpool have already made intelligent moves to bolster the squad that nearly won the league for the first time in 24 years. Suarez and Sturridge are probably the most lethal striking combination in the country, Sterling is an immensely impressive young talent, and Gerrard and Coutinho provide a strong intelligent midfield that will be boosted by the purchase of Lallana.
But Suarez may well have departed by the time the next season starts – Barcelona appear determined to sign him this summer – and even if he doesn’t, his latest biting ban means he won’t play until November. Gerrard, now 34, is unlikely to have as good a season as he did last year, and the team’s defence is still a fundamental weak point.
More worrying for the Scousers is that now they have qualified again for the Champions League, they will have to play two games a week for most of the season. Mourinho was insightful when he pointed out last summer how much of an advantage Liverpool would gain by playing far fewer games than their rivals. Losing that plus could have a huge effect on their form.
It’s hard to predict yet whether Arsenal can replicate their success of last season, as they have not yet made their moves in the transfer market. In order to improve on last year, they must surely buy a more potent striker than Giroud; while the loss of Sagna and probably Vermaelen weakens their defensive roster.
It seems unlikely that Spurs can challenge the top four, unless the post-Bale purchases can gel together better than they did in the last campaign. Without another superstar sell-off to fund new transfers, the squad is likely to be broadly unchanged – and this may hamper the ability of new boss Mauricio Pochettino to effect the necessary managers. However, he is a more tactically astute coach than the hapless Tim Sherwood, so he himself may well prove to be the most important new arrival at White Hart Lane.
The biggest threat to Chelsea’s hopes of regaining the title, however, may reside at Old Trafford. It may seem strange to say that Manchester United, who had such a traumatic time in their first post-Ferguson season, will be able to turn things around to such an extent inside 12 months. But that ignores the scale of the changes that have already happened or are in store up in Salford.
Louis Van Gaal was an inspired choice as a replacement for David Moyes. Van Gaal is truly one of the greats of his generation, alongside figures like Heynckes, Capello and Hiddinck. He is a ruthless, egocentric genius who will not baulk at treading on the sensibilities of the United board or the reputations of his players to get his own way. He has already uncovered the major flaws in the squad – the astonishingly poor defence, the weak midfield and the debilitating effects of kowtowing to Wayne Rooney – and approved the purchases of Luke Shaw and Anders Herrera. Expect several more expensive high-profile arrivals in the next couple of months.
Furthermore, United will benefit from the “Liverpool” effect of not being in Europe – that is, only having to play one game a week – and in my opinion will exploit to even greater effect than their Merseyside rivals.
My prediction for the title – any one of Chelsea or the two Manchester clubs.