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.

Klopp: Liverpool almost made statement in Chelsea win

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Liverpool is a perfect 6-0, even after a not-so-perfect 2-1 win over Chelsea on Sunday, and that result under those circumstances only seems to underscore its power.

The Reds built an early 2-0 lead that nearly disappeared and perhaps should’ve led to a draw had Michy Batshuayi and Mason Mount provided the finishing touch.

[ MORE: Match recap | 3 things ]

But they didn’t, and a sloppy second half at the back didn’t hurt the Reds aside from N’Golo Kante’s undressing of Fabinho.

Yes, there’s a certain vibe of destiny around this unit, and everything is going according to Jurgen Klopp‘s plans. He’s downright giddy, but you can tell he cares about matching performances like Man City’s 8-0 clobbering of Watford and that any goal against his men is a bit of luck.

“3-0 would have been a statement but then N’Golo Kante makes his little run and with his big toe kicks it in.

“Then it is completely normal that you come under pressure but we defended well. There were a couple of good saves from both goalkeepers. Good situations in an exciting game and that is how it is in the top six and in the Premier League.”

Apologies to Klopp, but the Kante quip is an absolute scream. Chelsea’s midfielder left Fabinho for dead and then took advantage of slow-to-react Joel Matip and Virgil Van Dijk to smash a delightful goal past Adrian with the side of his foot. Just tip your cap, Jurgen.

The Reds are now the first PL team to go 6-0 to start consecutive seasons, though it seems there’s a certain team in his head.

“It is exceptional. What can I say? We have to keep on going. It never looks as easy as it did for City yesterday but we have not had these games yet. We have to work for it.”

Circle Nov. 10 at Anfield, okay? The next round of Klopp v. Pep.

10-man Arsenal wins thriller over Aston Villa

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Remember how many joked that Arsenal was just gonna have to go outscore everyone due to their firepower up top and not much at the back?

They did it again Sunday, coming back from a goal down and a man down to beat Aston Villa 3-2 at the Emirates Stadium.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Calum Chambers, and Nicolas Pepe scored to help overcome Ainsley Maitland-Niles‘ pair of early yellow cards as Arsenal moved fourth with 11 points.

John McGinn and Wesley Morales provided Aston Villa 1-0 and 2-1 leads in the game. Villa remains 18th with four points.


Three things we learned

1. David Luiz might be a Chelsea secret agent: The ex-Chelsea man was again heavy in blame in the concession of an Arsenal goal, as his sleepy, tepid attempt to stop Jack Grealish‘s cut back to Wesley ended with the latter smashing the ball into the goal moments after the Gunners had equalized from the spot. The veteran defender has been almost automatic for a big error per game.

Also, don’t just hate on Luiz. Look at this defending on the first Arsenal goal.

2. Aubameyang in the rarest of airs: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has played for two attack-forward teams, and drawn so many, “Yeah, buts” from critics, but the Gabonese wonder has been absolutely sensational. He has seven goals in seven matches this season across all competitions, and where would the Gunners be without him?

3. Gunners step up late: Down a man and 72 hours after playing in Germany, the Gunners had to find a hero. They found two, one likely and the other not so much. Chambers found a wonderful Guendouzi pass and outworked two Villa defenders to level the score at 2, and Aubameyang slashed a free kick home in the 84th.

Man of the Match: It was probably Pepe, who got his first Arsenal goal to go with an industrious day down the right. His vision is exceptional, perhaps outdone only by his freakishly athletic skill set. But you’re forgiven if you plug Aubameyang’s name in this space. And McGinn was terrific in defeat, but flubbed a chance to make it 3-3.


[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Ainsley Maitland-Niles could’ve had Arsenal ahead in the first minute, but he sent Saka’s cross high into the stands despite his station unmarked near the spot.

John McGinn forced Bernd Leno into the first save of the match two minutes later at the other end. The same keeper would stop the same shooter in the 11th minute.

Aubameyang couldn’t get purchase on a headed pass from Sead Kolasinac in the 16th minute after a Nicolas Pepe cross.

McGinn’s third bite at the apple was wide open and successful, as Anwar El Ghazi‘s cross spotted his run at the penalty spot and Leno had little hope of interfering with the opportunity. 1-0, 20’.

Maitland-Niles then slid into a challenge and caught a stamp during his foul. A second yellow was awarded and Arsenal was down a goal and a man.

Villa couldn’t find a second goal despite numerous chances, and Matteo Guendouzi won a straight-forward penalty off barging defender Bjorn Engels. Pepe converted the goal.

But Villa restored its lead within a minute, Jack Grealish blazing down the left side to cut back to the middle, where Wesley darted in front of sleepy David Luiz to finish the chance.

Chambers was the next to finish off a terrific pass from Guendouzi and even better work from the fullback. And Aubameyang’s free kick… holy smoke (embedded atop the page).

Three things we learned: Chelsea v. Liverpool

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LONDON — Liverpool beat Chelsea 2-1 at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, as Jurgen Klopp‘s men stay top of the Premier League table with a perfect record after six wins from six. 

First half goals from Trent Alexander-Arnold and Roberto Firmino set them on their way, with a disallowed goal for Chelsea, via VAR, causing plenty of debate. N’Golo Kante’s sublime strike in the second half set up a tense finish and Chelsea should have at least grabbed a point.

[ MORE: Match recap | Klopp reacts ]

Here’s what we learned from a dramatic encounter at Stamford Bridge.


VAR DELIVERS ALMIGHTY MOMENTUM SWING

In the space of about 60 first-half seconds Chelsea went from scoring a deserved equalizer to trailing 2-0. An almighty momentum swing was delivered, courtesy of VAR, and Chelsea never quite recovered. The fact Mason Mount‘s toe was offside made the pill even tougher to swallow, as just like the incident involving Heung-Min Son for Spurs at Leicester on Saturday, it knocked the stuffing out of Chelsea.

They had recovered after going 1-0 down to a piece of magic from Alexander-Arnold, but after prolonged celebrations following Cesar Apzilicueta’s ‘equalizer’ the moans and groans around the Bridge reflected how the home players felts as their shoulders slumped in unison. Premier League teams are still dealing with the momentum swings VAR decisions bring, and Chelsea’s youngster didn’t cope well with it at all. Initially.

In fairness, they roared back in the second half and should have grabbed a point from this game. But VAR is delivering the correct decisions, no matter how close the calls are, and players aren’t quite able to cope with the loss of momentum.


LIVERPOOL GRIND OUT YET ANOTHER WIN

Liverpool have now lost just once in their last 45 PL games, and are unbeaten in 23, their longest run in PL history. The last time they were unbeaten in 23 league games was back in 1990.

1990 was the last time they won the title.

It is now six wins from six this season and 15 victories Premier League victories in a row for Jurgen Klopp’s side. And just like the rest of this season, so far, Liverpool barely had to get out of second gear. That is the scary thing about this team.

The fact Jordan Henderson was barking at Alexander-Arnold for a slightly misplaced pass when Liverpool were 2-0 up tells you about the desire of this team. They aren’t happy with simply winning. They are becoming perfectionists and their five point lead atop the table feeds into that narrative. They are perfect six games in, and bigger tests than beating an inexperienced Chelsea side await. But the ease with which Liverpool are brushing aside their opponents is becoming all too familiar.

We are only six games into the season but Klopp’s side are a well-oiled machine who will push Manchester City all the way for the title once again. They were far from their best at Chelsea but they have a very handy habit of winning regardless of their performance.


DEFENSIVE ISSUES HOLDING CHELSEA BACK

Sure, Emerson Palmeri and Andreas Christensen went off injured in the first half and Antonio Rudiger is out, but the basic errors Chelsea are making continue to cost them. Lampard’s men could do nothing about TAA’s moments of magic from a free kick but to allow Firmino a free header six yards out is just not on. Chelsea have now conceded the second-highest number of goals (13) in the Premier League this season and unless they can somehow shore up their leaky defense a top four finish seems unlikely.

N’Golo Kante’s stunning strike gave the scoreline the look it deserved and his return from injury solidified midfield, as Liverpool’s famed speed on the counter barely surfaced. Chelsea are a work in progress under Lampard and the biggest area he has to work on is at the back. After creating numerous chances going forward, they won’t be worried about scoring goals this season. Keeping them out is their Achilles heel.

Lampard’s side were applauded off the field at the final whistle and the home fans are encouraged by the progress this young side is making. It wasn’t enough to get the past Liverpool, but if Chelsea can cut out silly defensive errors, the rest of their game is looking good.

Liverpool hangs on for win over wasteful Chelsea

Photo by Chris Radburn/EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images
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Liverpool built a two-goal lead, then rode its luck to keep its perfect season alive.

Roberto Firmino and Trent Alexander-Arnold scored first half goals as the Reds beat Chelsea 2-1 at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

N’Golo Kante scored a sensational goal to bring the Blues within one, but Chelsea couldn’t finish several terrific opportunities to tie the match.

Now 6-0, the Reds restored their five-point lead over second place Man City, while the Blues sit 12th with eight points.


The main takeaways

1. Alexander-Arnold at both ends: TAA’s exceptional work in the attacking third is nothing new, and it says something that it comes as little surprise when he produces something sublime like the opening goal off a set piece, but Alexander-Arnold’s goal line clearance in the 68th minute adding some icing to the cake as Chelsea looked pull a goal back from its 2-0 deficit. A fine performance from the right back.

2. Liverpool gets big let-off: Liverpool’s defending and passing was poor over the final 30 minutes or so, and if the Reds have something resembling a weakness it is their overall back line when the opposition is in the Liverpool half. Michy Batshuayi and Mason Mount should’ve both troubled Adrian in the latter stages, but were let off the hook by a Chelsea team with only one sub available to it after the break. More on that below.

3. Bats, not the Yank: Frank Lampard opted against starting Christian Pulisic again on Sunday, and two defensive subs in the first 42 minutes meant there was only one left for the second half. Lampard chose target forward Michy Batshuayi over Pulisic, Ross Barkley, and Pedro. Batshuayi drew a free kick upon introduction, and coudn’t flash an opener header on frame in the 88th.

Man of the Match: Firmino, whose steady presence, strong dribbling, and — most importantly — powerful header steadied the match for a time, moments after VAR denied the Blues an equalizer.

Honorable mention: Kante was everywhere, stopping Mohamed Salah‘s long dribble toward goal late as a highlight. Another highlight, this. See ya later Fabinho.


[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

A foul-heavy, physical start yielded a free kick atop the Chelsea 18 after Andreas Christensen got tangled with Sadio Mane.

A training ground play had Salah roll a shot pass for Alexander-Arnold to belt past Kepa Arrizabalaga in the 15th minute.

An injury to Emerson Palmieri then introduced Marcos Alonso to the match, a 16th minute substitution adding insult to the, well, you know.

Adrian saved Tammy Abraham‘s 1v1 chance in the 24th minute, a misstep from the youngster and great moment for Liverpool’s No. 2 backstop.

Azpilicueta looked to have leveled when he mopped up a sloppy final third performance from the Reds celebrated back line, but VAR ruled Mason Mount as offside.

Liverpool then made it 2-0, adding insult to insult, when unmarked Firmino hammered a header into the goal.

A calamitous first half continued with Christensen waylaid by an injury, as he subbed off for Kurt Zouma. Forty-two minutes in, two subs down.

The game could’ve been effectively put to bed on a 46th minute set piece, but Virgil Van Dijk‘s back post effort tame and allowed Arrizabalaga to make a fine save.

Chelsea found some footing in the second half, and Liverpool was cautioned for time wasting. N’Golo Kante dragged a shot wide in the 59th minute.

Kante was the next man on the score sheet, turning Fabinho and dribbling free into the 18 to blasting a 71st minute effort past Adrian. Game on.

But Batshuayi couldn’t flash a late header on goal, and Mason Mount butchered a difficult near-post chance to make it 2-2 late. Liverpool escaped, and is starting to feel a bit like the dreaded term: Team of Destiny.