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

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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?

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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.

Finlay goal gives Minnesota win over former club Columbus (video)

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It had to be him.

As Columbus continues to search for itself under new management, it’s no surprise that one of its old heroes broke its heart on Saturday.

[ RECAP: Man City 6-0 Watford ]

Ethan Finlay, he of the 166 Crew appearances before being traded to Minnesota United, said earlier this week, “I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t want to beat up on them pretty bad.”

So of course Finlay scored a 70th minute tap-in to give his Loons a 1-0 win over Columbus on Saturday in St. Paul. It wasn’t “pretty bad,” but it probably felt pretty good.

The goal was Finlay’s first of the season for United, keeping the hosts unbeaten at home.

Columbus falls to 1-5 away from home under Caleb Porter, and has won just once in its last seven outings.

Brighton ready to pay release clause for Swans manager

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Brighton and Hove Albion is ready to bring one of England’s brightest managerial prospects into the Premier League.

The Seagulls are set to pay a $3 million release clause to lure Graham Potter away from Swansea City, one year after the manager left Swedish club Ostersunds FK.

[ RECAP: Man City 6-0 Watford ]

Potter was 35 when he was hired by the Swedish club in 2010, and helped Ostersunds to three promotions before moving to Wales in 2018.

Swans finished 10th this season, its first in the Championship after relegation from the Premier League.

Brighton regressed in a big way during the second half of this season, and remains in the top flight largely because Cardiff City was unable to take advantage of the Seagulls’ huge struggles.

The report says Swansea offered Potter a new deal to stay at the Liberty Stadium, but the manager wants to try the Premier League.

If he takes the job, Potter will manage against one of his former clubs; Potter played eight times for Southampton in the Premier League.

Pep: Domestic treble harder than winning Champions League

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Manchester City won its third tournament of the season on Saturday, battering Watford 6-0 at Wembley Stadium to add an FA Cup to its League Cup and Premier League titles.

[ RECAP: Man City 6-0 Watford ]

In doing so, City is the first club to win a domestic treble. Manager Pep Guardiola wants to win every competition he enters, but said winning all three is extra special.

“I love the Champions League but it is more difficult to do what we have done than to win the Champions League,” Guardiola said.

Wait, what?

From ManCity.com:

“It’s not easy being there every three days. We lacked a little bit of energy but it’s normal. It’s been so tough this week. We could not have had more energy but we kept it at the right time.”

Well, that makes sense. Whereas Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp risked less with his cup lineups, knowing his desire for the Premier League and Champions League, Guardiola’s lineups were aimed at winning everything.

And that’s largely why they’ve done it. City might’ve needed penalty kicks to beat Chelsea in the League Cup Final and a John Stones clearance to win the Premier League (or a Vincent Kompany thunderbolt), but the treble is impressive.

AC Milan boss Gattuso insists fifth “not a failure”

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For a solid four months, it appeared AC Milan was on track for a return to the Champions League for the first time in six years. Then, it all fell apart.

Still, manager Gennaro Gattuso is insisting their season is not a failure, adamant that a fifth-placed finish would not be considered a disappointment for the club. His reasoning will not be exactly endearing to fans.

“Fifth place absolutely wouldn’t be a failure, not because I want credit myself, plus what would Roma and Lazio say?” Gattuso said during his pre-match press conference ahead of Sunday’s game against Frosinone. “There’s regret because for two months we’ve had our fate in our hands and we dropped so many points, but it’s not a failure.”

Milan was as high as third place in the Serie A table in mid-March and seemed close to wrapping up a return to Champions League play, but a stretch of one win in seven league matches saw them tumble down into the crowded battle below, with Atalanta, Roma, Torino, and Lazio all in a pack. AC Milan now sits sixth, and while they still remain in the mix for the fourth position, they would need to make up a three-point deficit in just two matches. Fifth-placed Roma drew today, so they can jump to fifth with a win against Frosinone.

Milan was a European powerhouse for decades until the club declined following its 2007 Champions League victory, ultimately falling out of the running for Europe’s top competition, with just a few Europa League appearances since 2014. Gattuso’s comparison to Lazio and Roma, two strong Italian clubs without Milan’s history, is bound to infuriate fans, along with his acceptance of the club’s shortcomings.

The late-season collapse has called Gattuso’s job security into question, but he said that will wait until the end of the season. “Both the club and I have put aside our small talk to reach our objective,” Gattuso said during the presser. “There will be time to talk about the future.”

“There are two games left and we’re still playing for our objective.”