Premier League 2015-16 season preview: Epic title race set to take center stage

3 Comments

Are Manchester United’s new boys up to the challenge?

Louis van Gaal has spent another $120 million on new signings this summer, as his total expenditure on transfer fees alone since taking charge at Old Trafford 12 months ago has risen to $320 million. With those huge amounts of cash comes a huge amount of expectation.

[ MORE: PST’s writers predict the final PL standings ]

With five new signings arriving this summer, this side is now a true reflection of van Gaal and his philosophy. The Dutchman delivered a top four finish last season, exactly what he promised, but if he doesn’t at least finish in the top two this season, serious questions will be asked. 

[ MORE: All of PST’s PL season previews

Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger have arrived to bolster the holding midfield positions, while Matteo Darmian will start at right back and the eccentric, but hugely talented, Dutch youngster Memphis Depay will support Wayne Rooney in attack. Following the departure of Falcao and Angel di Maria this summer after an unsuccessful year at United, van Gaal will be hoping his new signings have a significantly bigger impact.

On paper, United’s midfield is the strongest in the PL but if Rooney goes down following the departure of Robin van Persie, they only have Depay who can play centrally in a pinch, and young striker James Wilson. At the back, question marks remain in central defense, but if Chris Smalling and Phil Jones stay injury free they can provide the solidity needed to mount a serious title charge, providing Rooney and Co. take care of business at the other end of the pitch.

[ MORE: Can United mount a serious title challenge? ]

The big question mark heading into this season for United remains whether or not goalkeeper David de Gea will remain at Old Trafford. The 24-year-old Spanish international has yet to commit his future to United and with just one-year left on his current deal and the links with Real Madrid persisting, LVG could start with new ‘keeper Sergio Romero on the opening day of the season against Tottenham Hotspur. De Gea was the star of the show for United last season and was the reason they finished in the top four. If he leaves or this situation continues to drag on, the Red Devils’ chances of challenging for the title will be a lot slimmer.

Can Chelsea hold off the big spenders?

Reigning PL champs Chelsea have had a frugal summer, and Jose Mourinho is fine with it. The Blues have added Asmir Begovic in goal and Radamel Falcao on loan to boost their already strong squad. But have they strengthened sufficiently to deal with the challenge of United, Arsenal and Manchester City?

[ WATCH LIVE: Stream every PL game via Live Extra ]

The main area of concern is up front. Diego Costa’s hamstring issues have continued throughout the summer and with Didier Drogba gone, Mourinho only has Loic Remy and Falcao in attack to replace Costa. Mourinho has admitted he cannot reassure Chelsea as to the future health of Costa and although Eden Hazard has been pulling off Lionel Messi-esque moments during preseason, he can’t do it all on his own. Losing the focal point of their attack for most of the second half of last season severely hampered Chelsea’s attacking prowess and if Costa is missing for large chunks of this season, relying on Remy and Falcao may not cut it. Defensively the Blues look as sound as ever, but as we saw during their Community Shield defeat to Arsenal, the competition is catching up fast which should make this a much tighter title race than last season.

Is Cech the final piece in Arsenal jigsaw?

Petr Cech’s arrival seems to have already given the fans, players and coaches at Arsenal a big lift, with the veteran goalkeeper finally adding what the Gunners have lacked for nearly a decade: a world class stopper. Cech, 33, finally got fed up of sitting on the bench behind Thibaut Courtois at Chelsea and after plenty of negotiations between Mourinho and Chelsea’s owner Roman Abramovich, Cech was allowed to leave for the club of his choice. That turned out to be Chelsea’s London rivals Arsenal, who are now serious rivals to Chelsea’s title.

[ MORE: Can Arsenal win the title with Cech on board? ]

For years Arsene Wenger’s side have played the most attractive soccer in the PL but have failed to win the league since 2004. The main reason for that has been defensive solidity and organization. However when  you sign Cech, a goalkeeper who has won 13 major titles during his 11-year stint at Chelsea, you don’t just get a great stopper. You get a guy who can organize the back line and with Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny solidifying their central defensive partnership, the Gunners looked an incredibly strong defensive unit against Chelsea in the Community Shield. Now, if Wenger can add a true 25 goal-plus striker (Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain continue to be linked) before the end of the transfer window, the Gunners will be legit title contenders.

Pellegrini under pressure, as City look for Sterling to deliver

Talking of title contenders, Manuel Pellegrini has been bullish about Manchester City’s title hopes this season but many, including most of our writers in their preseason predictions, have City slumping. Despite signing Raheem Sterling for an eye-watering $75 million, the only other additions this summer have been Fabian Delph and young striker Patrick Roberts. With Pellegrini signing a new contract extension on the eve of the new season, there is some stability but it is still a huge season for the Chilean manager.

[ MORE: Latest transfer news ]

City finished second last season but you feel that anything other than a title winning campaign will spark the end for Pellegrini, even with his new deal. The erratic form of Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure was crucial in City’s demise last season, but with Sergio Aguero as sharp as ever, plus Sterling and David Silva linking up well in preseason, that trio could dazzle this season. There will be plenty of pressure on Sterling but like his manager, there is faith in their abilities from City’s owner. Now, they must deliver.

Liverpool’s rebuild; can Spurs and Saints challenge top four?

For the second summer in a row, Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers has undertaken a huge revamp of his squad after key departures. Last summer Luis Suarez left, this summer it was Steven Gerrard and Raheem Sterling departing as over $115 million has been spent on the likes of Christian Benteke ($50 million) and Roberto Firmino ($40 million) to significantly boost their chances of returning to the top four after a disappointing sixth-place finish last season. Add in the Nathaniel Clyne, James Milner and Danny Ings singings and Rodgers has added players with plenty of PL experience to guide his side back to the top four, plus Daniel Sturridge will return from injury in September.

[ MORE: Second rebuild in a row for Liverpool ]

With the Europa League a distraction for Liverpool, their main aim will be to finish above Chelsea, Arsenal, and the two Manchester clubs. Whether or not that’s attainable will become quickly apparent and the pressure will pile on Rodgers if another new-look side struggles in the early part of the season.

Tottenham and Southampton finished either side of Liverpool last season in fifth and seventh respectively, and both harbor hopes of once again flirting with a top four position. Spurs have strengthened their sieve-like defense consisderably (Toby Alderwiereld is the key addition) but with Mauricio Pochettino in his second season in charge at White Hart Lane, his players know his philosophy and his young squad must finally fulfill its potential and achieve a top four finish. As for Pochettino’s old club Southampton, they will have a struggle on their hands to replicate their best-ever PL finish of seventh from last season. Ronald Koeman has once again wheeled and dealed admirably in the transfer market but after losing Schneierdlin to Manchester United and Clyne to Liverpool, plus having a potential Europa League group stage to deal with, the Saints may not go marching on much further this season. Another intriguing storyline to look out for is the emergence of Swansea, Crystal Palace and Stoke City as established PL clubs. All three finished in the top 10 last season and have made shrewd signings this summer. They may not challenge for a top four berth yet, but these clubs will be vying for the top eight.

New boys on the block

Bournemouth, Watford and Norwich City join the part this season as the trio were promoted from the English Champions (second-tier) last season. For Bournemouth, their tiny Vitality Stadium holds under 12,000 fans but under a wealthy Russian owner and a progressive, young head coach in Eddie Howe, the Cherries should cause plenty of upsets along the way and have a good chance of staying up in their first-ever season in the PL.

As for Watford, they have a host of new signings (12 in total) and new manager Quique Flores will have his work cut out to gel everything together. The Hornets have been relegated straight away in their previous two seasons in the PL, but they can expect a little better this time around with Troy Deeney up front.

Finally there’s Norwich; Make sure you sit down and read Joe Posnanski’s brilliant longform article on the Canaries, as young manager Alex Neil took charge midway through last season and guided them straight back to the PL. Norwich have bags of PL experience but not strengthening this summer could haunt them.

Foreign imports: top five to look out for

With over $750 million spent on new signings by Premier League clubs already this summer, there are plenty of new players to look out for.

In the video above I select my top five new guys who will grace the PL for the first-time in their careers this campaign.

New managers have tough task to turn things around

Steve McClaren and Slaven Bilic have tough jobs on their hands to steady the ship and progress Newcastle United and West Ham United respectively. Both have been given plenty of money to spend this summer, but McClaren will be feeling plenty of pressure to deliver a top 10 finish for a club whose fans and owner always demand more. As for West Ham, they have turned to their former defender Bilic to lead them in their final season at their famous Upton Park stadium and although they have brought in plenty of players with experience of European soccer, the Hammers already crashed out of the Europa League in the qualifying rounds to start the season off on a bad note.

Although these two new managers have the talent in their squad to be in the top 10, they could well see their teams embroiled in a relegation battle this season. Elsewhere, Claudio Ranieri has a big job on his hands at Leicester City. The veteran Italian manger — infamously known as “The Tinkerman” during his time at Chelsea — has inherited a squad of players signed by Nigel Pearson and following his firing this summer, despite keeping the Foxes up against all the odds last year, Ranieiri will have to hit the ground running. Other managerial storylines to keep on eye on include Roberto Martinez at Everton and Dick Advocaat. Both will be on a short leash if they have a poor start to the season.

Don’t miss a second, all season long

For the third season in a row we will bring unprecedented coverage of the Barclays Premier League. From video highlights, injury and team news, analysis, recaps and more, here at PST we will give you all the important information you need from the PL.

And of course, you can stream every single game live online via NBC Sports Live Extra and the NBC Sports Live Extra App. Plus there will be at least four feature games on NBCSN, NBC and USA every weekend. If you’re looking for full-event replays of Premier League games, you can find them here. Looking for game highlights? Try this.

Right, are you ready? Let’s do this.

Champions League preview: Spurs host Leipzig, Valencia visits Atalanta

Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Two more UEFA Champions League Round of 16 ties kickoff Wednesday, including one being labeled as the biggest in a club’s existence.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

That would be Serie A side Atalanta, which hosts Valencia at 3 p.m. at Gewiss Stadium.

Atalanta had played in two consecutive Europa Leagues, but this is their first move into the Champions League. To make the knockout rounds is exceptional, and club president Antonio Percassi is fired up.

“We must be honest, this is the most important game in the history of this club,” Percassi told Sky Sport Italia. “It doesn’t seem real. It’s exciting just thinking that tomorrow we’ll be in a Champions League Round of 16. It’s wonderful for our fans too. … This is going to be a unique experience that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.”

Atalanta finished second in its group to Manchester City, and is fourth in Serie A. Valencia won its group.

There’s a Premier League side in action on Wednesday, too, as Spurs begin life without Heung-Min Son.

Jose Mourinho spun a tale about how badly Tottenham will need its fans against RB Leipzig, comparing the home-field advantage to an emergency rescue crew of sorts.

Leipzig is led by Julian Nagelsmann, who was once referred to as “Baby Mourinho” by his players.

The 32-year-old was quick to distance himself from the story.

“Tomorrow it is Leipzig against Tottenham, not Mourinho v. Baby Mourinho,” he said. “I have great respect for Mourinho. He has won lots of titles with big clubs, the Champions League twice. He has made his mark on European football at some big European clubs. I think it his 59th knockout game in the CL and it is my first so there is obviously respect there.”

Liverpool’s Robertson not a fan of Atletico Madrid theatrics

Photo by Mateo Villalba/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Liverpool fullback Andy Robertson was not impressed with Atletico Madrid’s display as his side fell 1-0 in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League’s Round of 16 tie on Tuesday.

The Reds fell behind on a fourth-minute Saul Niguez goal and couldn’t get a shot on target despite 73 percent possession in Spain.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

Atleti executed its plan to near-perfection, slowing restarts and taking advantage of counterattacking opportunities to assuage the constant pressure of Liverpool.

At times it was reminiscent of early-century Italian national team play, and both neutrals and Liverpool knew what they were in for once Atleti took the lead.

“We gave them the best possible start to get the fans behind them and then they can start falling over and things like that, trying to get under our skin a bit which I think we handled quite well to be honest,” Robertson told BT Sport. “We know we are better than (how they played). We put in a decent performance and we can be better than that. Luckily we have got a second leg to put it right.”

Given the performance and the reputation, you’d still fancy the Reds to “put it right” at Anfield. Jurgen Klopp thinks Atleti will feel plenty of pressure at Anfield, and he will certainly feel the officiating will be more to his liking.

Liverpool’s Klopp: ‘Our people will be ready’ for second leg at Anfield

Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Jurgen Klopp didn’t have any issue with Diego Simeone’s defense-first Atletico Madrid in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie on Tuesday.

The Spanish side flummoxed Liverpool’s attack and the Reds didn’t manage a shot on target despite eight attempts and 73 percent possession at the Wanda Metropolitano.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

What Klopp didn’t appreciate was the referee’s work, though, implying that Polish official Szymon Marciniak was overwhelmed by the occasion. Marciniak has worked UCL matches for six seasons, twice overseeing quarterfinal ties.

Klopp was shown a yellow card in the second half, and the Liverpool boss felt Sadio Mane was harassed by Atleti. Klopp removed yellow-carrying Mane at halftime.

“He was targeted obviously,” Klopp said after the game. “The only thing they wanted was to make sure he got a yellow card. The score is 1-0, that’s all but you need to be really strong as a ref in this atmosphere. So many things happened, after 30 minutes already three players were on the ground. The first yellow card was a striker from us. I’m not sure they even got a yellow card, which is funny.”

Atleti’s Angel Correa was shown a yellow, while Klopp, Mane, and Joe Gomez were cautioned for Liverpool.

The Liverpool boss found himself laughing a few times, especially when he was asked about Simeone’s touchline personality.

Klopp said before the game that if the German was a four in intensity, then Simeone was a 12. Simeone followed suit by constantly urging the crowd to get behind the home side on Tuesday.

That didn’t bother Klopp, but he issued a public relations officer’s dream in reacting to it.

“Wow, wow,” he laughed. “That’s energy. I don’t think I have to do it that much (at Anfield). Our people will be ready. Welcome to Anfield. It’s not over yet.”

Klopp finished his remarks by saying of Jordan Henderson‘s removal from the game with a hamstring injury, “I hope it was a precaution, but I’m not 100 percent sure”

Haaland wins first leg after Borussia Dortmund-PSG comes to life late

Photo by Erwin Spek/Soccrates/Getty Imagese
Leave a comment

Erling Haaland scored twice in a mid-second half flurry as Borussia Dortmund beat Paris Saint-Germain 2-1 in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie on Tuesday.

The hosts also got an assist from teenager Giovanni Reyna, who became the youngest American to appear in a Champions League match.

Haaland now has 39 goals in 29 appearances between Red Bull Salzburg and BVB, 11 of those for his new German employer.

Neymar scored off a Kylian Mbappe goal for PSG, who brings an away goal back to the Parc des Princes for a March 11 second leg.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

Neymar had an early free kick, missing just wide of the far post.

Jadon Sancho troubled the keeper twice in the first half hour, first with a cross that Mats Hummels headed over goal. Then, Keylor Navas picked another Sancho offering out of the air.

Sancho kept serving, and Erling Haaland couldn’t turn a promising cross on target.

Dortmund walked into halftime with a scoreless match but a 7-2 edge in shot attempts. Neither of PSG’s shots were on target.

[ MORE: Premier League stats ] 

Borussia Dortmund boss Lucien Favre put in American teen Giovani Reyna in the 67th minute.

Two minutes later, it was 1-0 to the hosts through Haaland’s close-range goal.

Neymar replied from close range himself after a powerful, clever dribble from Kylian Mbappe led to a pass through the box.

But Haaland got his second in the 77th minute with a scorching shot that serves as the first senior assist of Reyna’s senior career with Dortmund (Watch it here).