Man City face first test of their Premier League title defence

In some ways, Manchester City strolled to the Premier League title last season. They might have had Liverpool keeping pace with them for the majority of the way, but nonetheless Pep Guardiola’s team still went much of the season unchallenged by the rest of the English top flight.

By doing this, City managed to retain a Premier League title for the first time and now there are signs that what Guardiola has built could become a dynasty. The 2019/20 Premier League season started last week and there’s no suggestion that City won’t be the frontrunners to win a third-straight title.

Only Liverpool and possibly Tottenham Hotspur can challenge Guardiola’s defending champions. We will find out more about Spurs this weekend when Mauricio Pochettino’s team travel north to take on Man City at the Etihad Stadium. It’s the first marquee, top-of-the-table clash and do a lot to determine the title race for the season ahead.

However, we will also learn a lot about City and whether they can be potentially caught. Spurs have made progress over the summer, signing Tanguy Ndombele, Ryan Sessegnon and Giovani Lo Celso to significantly strengthen what was already a strong squad. Pochettino led his team to the Champions League final last season, but he wants even more this season.

City were mightily impressive in the opening Premier League fixture of the season, putting five past West Ham away from home. This will be more of a test, though. Spurs aren’t just a strong team, but a group of players with the golden carrot of a piece of silverware still in front of their nose, leading them on. They are a motivated bunch.

There is a certain pressure that comes with being the chased. Man City, as the two-time defending Premier League champions, now play every week with a target on their back. Opposition sides up their game to take on Guardiola’s men and this will certainly be the case when Spurs come to visit this weekend.

What’s more, this is a side that caused City problems at the Etihad as recently as April, when Spurs knocked out the Premier League leaders on their way into the final four of the Champions League. Guardiola and his players cannot afford to take their challenge lightly. We will learn more about the dynamic between the two teams after Saturday.

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Eden Hazard already has doubters to prove wrong at Real Madrid

He was Real Madrid’s marquee summer signing. Eden Hazard had been trailed by the Spanish giants for a number of years and this summer they finally got their man, paying Chelsea around £100 million to sign the Belgian. He was, in the eyes of many, the natural successor to Cristiano Ronaldo who left the Santiago Bernabeu one year previously.

On his day, Hazard is indeed one of the best players in world football. He demonstrated this over ____ years at Chelsea. It was little surprise that Real Madrid prioritised his signing. Hazard has the sort of X factor that players need to succeed in the Spanish capital.

He hasn’t shown that so far, though. The 2019/20 season has yet to start in Spain, but Hazard is already finding that he has more than a few doubters to prove wrong. Pre-season has been difficult for Real Madrid and the Belgian has become the embodiment of these struggles.

For starters, questions have been asked about Hazard’s weight since he returned from his off-season break. The Belgian has always been a little stocky, but it’s true that over pre-season he looked a little heavier than usual. Whether this was enough to compromise his performances on the pitch is another matter, but it has provided critics with ammunition.

There are also questions over where the former Chelsea man will fit into Zinedine Zidane’s team. Vinicius Junior broke through last season and looked to have nailed down a place as a regular starter for Real Madrid. But surely there’s no place for both the Brazilian teenager and Hazard in the same side given that they play off the same wing?

What’s more, Hazard has picked up a hamstring injury that will rule him out of action for the first few weeks of the new season. With Marco Asensio already on the sidelines, set to miss the whole season with a torn ACL, this leaves Zidane somewhat short on attacking options following a summer when close to £300 million was largely spent on attackers.

It already feels like Real Madrid’s season is spiralling out of control and they haven’t even played a competitive game yet. Defeat to Celta Vigo this weekend would see the pressure heaped on Zidane and Hazard could also find himself a target. Some believe his lack of professionalism is a problem.

The Belgian will likely come good in Spain. It’s far too early to make any firm judgements, but Hazard already has his doubters and such is the nature of the football scene in the Spanish capital it will take a lot to silence them.

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European Super Cup win proves Jurgen Klopp has banished ghosts of the past

The sight of Jurgen Klopp sprinting across the pitch at the sound of the full time whistle is one we, as football fans, have witnessed more than once over the last year or so. Indeed, the German coach has done a lot of winning of late and he kept that trend going by leading Liverpool to the European Super Cup on Wednesday night.

It wasn’t as convincing a win as the victory over Tottenham Hotspur in the final of last season’s Champions League, only seeing off Chelsea in a penalty shootout, but nonetheless, it was a result that saw Liverpool get their hands on a second piece of silverware in the space of just a few months.

Some people see the European Super Cup as nothing more than a glorified friendly. There is something in that, but victory in Istanbul on Wednesday night proved that Klopp has banished the ghosts of the past. The German has become a hardened winner over the past year to 18 months.

This was always the criticism of Klopp – for all that he had turned around the fortunes of Liverpool, he had still win a title until last season. Worse still, there was a common suggestion that the Reds froze on the big stage, that Klopp lacked the necessary quality to get his team over the line when it mattered most.

Of course, winning the Champions League last season quelled these criticisms, but beating Chelsea in the European Super Cup went some way to proving that it wasn’t a fluke. That Liverpool now have that trait that all legendary teams have – they want to collect trophies and winners’ medals.

There was mocking of Liverpool’s reaction to Adrian’s penalty save from Tammy Abraham, the moment that saw the Merseysiders come out on top, but this was the sign of a team that has grown to crave winning. They will carry that into the 2019/20 Premier League season as they attempt to catch Manchester City at the top.

Klopp has always been a master at generating a positive dressing room environment. His players want to play for him, would do anything for him. But now Liverpool’s players are playing for more than just their charismatic German coach. They’re playing to win and the European Super Cup win demonstrated that. Klopp has taken Liverpool to the next stage.

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The clock is already ticking on Zinedine Zidane Real Madrid

It wasn’t entirely certain who would walk through the door and into the Santiago Bernabeu press room. The Madrid press had been assembled for the presentation of a new Real Madrid manager, with Jose Mourinho presumed to be Florentino Perez’s first choice the week before. There had been suggestions that Zinedine Zidane would return, but few in that room that day would have put their house on it.

Of course, the Frenchman did indeed return to the Santiago Bernabeu, taking over less than a season after he’d quit at the end of the 2017/18 season. Real Madrid needed Zidane having gone through two managers since his departure. Their season was all but over and so the former Ballon d’Or winner was given the freedom he wanted in the first place to rebuild the side.

That rebuild happened over the summer with around £300 million spent on the squad. Eden Hazard was the marquee addition, the natural successor to Cristiano Ronaldo who should have arrived at the Santiago Bernabeu a year prior, but there were also big money moves for Luka Jovic, Eder Militao, Rodrygo, Ferland Mendy.

Despite all this, though, the early signs of Zidane’s rebuild have not been all that positive. Pre-season is only pre-season, but the temperature of Real Madrid’s preparations for the new campaign have been cold. The vibe has not been good and there is a sense that the clock might already be ticking on Zidane.

Before wins over Fenerbahce and Red Bull Salzburg, Real Madrid had lost all four of their pre-season games played over the summer, with the most damaging lost coming against rivals Atletico Madrid in New Jersey, where they shipped no fewer than seven goals.

Of course, this sort of thing can happen in pre-season, but Zidane is still struggling to impose an identity on his team. They have looked exceptionally open and vulnerable to opposition attacks all through pre-season, lacking in shape at the back and energy through the middle of the pitch. It’s a concerning combination from a Madridista perspective.

Real Madrid won’t hesitate in sacking Zidane should it come to that point this season. They were one result away from doing this just months before the Frenchman claimed a third successive Champions League title – indeed, it’s an open secret Zidane would have been dismissed had Real Madrid fallen to Paris Saint-Germain in the round of 16.

Just because Zidane was called upon as the saviour doesn’t mean that he will continue to be seen that way. Public image is very fluid at the Santiago Bernabeu (just as Gareth Bale) and Zidane’s will be tested over the coming weeks and months after a difficult summer.

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Did Liverpool miss an opportunity this summer?

It would be incorrect to say Liverpool went through the entire summer transfer window without making a signing. Technically speaking, the European champions made three additions to their squad, with teenagers Sepp van den Berg and Harvey Elliott and former West Ham goalkeeper Adrian all signing.

It would, however, be fair to say none of these signings will greatly improve Liverpool in the short term, with the combined sum of just £1.7 million used to capture all three. In these case of van den Berg and Elliott, these were additions with one eye, maybe even both eyes, on the future. And Adrian was signed to replace Simon Mignolet as the Reds’ number two behind Alisson Becker.

Indeed, it was a quiet summer at Anfield. Last summer saw Liverpool make Alisson the most expensive goalkeeper in history, with Naby Keita also signed for big money. Six months before that they made Virgil Van Dijk the Premier League’s most expensive defender, smashing their club record transfer fee. The contrast between all this and the crickets of this summer was stark.

Some will argue that Liverpool didn’t need to make many squad adjustments. They are European champions, after all. But it is almost always a good idea to strengthen from a position of power and Jurgen Klopp’s side failed to do that this summer transfer window.

As historic as the 2018/19 season was for Liverpool, they still finished behind Manchester City in the Premier League table. The Reds may have pushed them all the way, but as far as their title ambitions are concerned there is still work to do to catch Pep Guardiola’s champions.

City made two big signings to improve their starting lineup, with Rodri signed from Atletico Madrid as the successor to Fernandinho and Joao Cancelo lured from Juventus. Both these players will strengthen a squad already considered the strongest in the Premier League, maybe even in Europe.

Klopp has moulded this Liverpool team in his own through good coaching, but the acceleration of their development came through ruthless spending. When the Anfield side needed a centre back, they got the best one they could find. When they needed a goalkeeper, they did the same.

There was nothing ruthless about Liverpool’s business this summer. It’s difficult to escape the feeling that having given themselves such a strong platform last season they have spurned an opportunity. Improving on last season was always going to be difficult. Even more so now.

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Man City might have pulled off the deal of the summer

Having racked up an incredible 198 points over the past two Premier League seasons, it was difficult heading into the summer to envisage where Manchester City might improve. No team has dominated the English top flight like Pep Guardiola’s side has of late and so any signing would have be a big one to take them any higher.

The addition of Rodri for a club record £62.8 million went some way to meeting this benchmark. The midfielder is a player in the mould of Guardiola and will fit in well at the Etihad Stadium. He has previously been compared to Sergio Busquets and so it was natural that City should seek him to be Fernandinho’s long term successor at the club.

Beyond that, there was the re-signing of full back Angelino for just £6 million to provide some depth and most assumed that would conclude Man City’s transfer business for the summer. One last deal, concluded with just hours of the window left, has many praising the Premier League champions. Indeed, it might just be the deal of the summer.

The £28 million signing of Joao Cancelo was announced on Wednesday, with Danilo heading to Juventus as part of the deal. The Portuguese international represents a significant upgrade on City’s present full back options and gives Guardiola the right back he’s always wanted, the right back he always wanted Kyle Walker to be.

In the current inflated market, £28 million (even if it includes a player heading to Turin in part-exchange) for a player of Cancelo’s quality and pedigree is shrewd business. Consider that Manchester United were forced to pay over £50 million for Aaron Wan-Bissaka, a right back with only one season of senior experience under his belt, earlier in the window.

City have recognised the situation at Juventus, where they need to balance the books after the big money signings of Cristiano Ronaldo and Matthijs De Ligt in the past two summer windows, and have taken advantage of it by prising Cancelo from their grips for a fee that is surely well below market value.

Their ruthlessness must be admired. It’s just two years since they made Walker the most expensive full back in football history and now after one below-par season they have already replaced him with a stronger option. This is the sort of joined-up thinking that has made Man City the team they are today and the addition of Cancelo only underlines this further.

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Gabriel Jesus is ready to become Manchester City’s main man

Shirt numbers don’t always mean a lot. Asamoah Gyan, for instance, always wore the number three on his back despite being a forward. But there was a certain symbolism to Manchester City handing Gabriel Jesus the number nine shirt this summer.

Jesus has long been viewed as the next big thing at the Etihad Stadium, signed for £27 million (a fee that represented a massive investment in a teenager at the time) from Palmeiras as one for the future. Now, however, as the Brazilian enters his third season at the club he is expected to deliver.

This is why the award of the number nine shirt was significant. It shows that Pep Guardiola has faith in Jesus to become the striker City believed he would be. This could be the season in which he becomes the club’s main man, their primary centre forward to match the shirt number now on his back.

Jesus demonstrated during the Copa America for Brazil this summer that he can handle the pressure with being the main goal-getter for a frontrunner. Before this summer, Jesus had never actually scored for the Selecao at a major tournament, but he broke that duck and then some, leading Brazil to their first piece of silverware since the Confederations Cup six years ago.

Guardiola demands a lot of his centre forwards. We saw that at Barcelona, where Zlatan Ibrahimovic was cast aside after just one season at the Camp Nou. There were also suggestions at the start of Guardiola’s stint at Man City that Sergio Aguero would be sold as the Catalan wasn’t convinced he could perform the role he wanted from his centre forward.

This makes all the more impressive that Jesus has managed to stick around at the Etihad Stadium. Guardiola clearly has faith in the Brazilian and the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss is very rarely wrong about the potential of players.

Injuries have previously derailed Jesus’s challenge to become Man City’s centre forward, but now things finally seem to be falling into place for him. Aguero is still one of the best goalscorers in the European game, but there has long been a sense that Guardiola wants something a little bit different from the man leading the line. In Jesus, he might well have that and the Brazilian is ready to truly flourish.

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Rodri has potential, but could be Man City’s Fabinho

Having spent somewhere close to £1 billion on new players in the past decade, this summer has been somewhat quiet for Manchester City. They have, by and large, left the transfer market bluster to others around them. They did, however, break their club transfer record to sign Rodri from Atletico Madrid.

The Spanish international looked like the perfect fit for Pep Guardiola’s style. He is good on the ball, possesses excellent positional awareness and a sharp footballing brain. Indeed, Rodri is a footballer built in the mould of the Catalan coach. It wasn’t a surprise that Guardiola was interested in him.

The 23-year-old made his competitive debut in the Community Shield win over Liverpool on Sunday. There were moments that hinted at the potential of the former Atleti midfielder, but he was also caught on the ball a few times. For all that Rodri’s brilliance cannot be doubted, it might take him a while to get used to his new surroundings.

He could find himself in a similar situation to that of Fabinho last season. He too was a big money summer signing designed to slot into Liverpool’s central midfield. However, the Brazilian was kept out of the starting lineup by Jurgen Klopp for a number of weeks as he adjusted to his new team. Rodri might experience the same thing.

“I think he has lots of talented players but maybe one of the things the team can get is more physical,” Rodri explained in an interview during Man City’s pre-season tour of Asia. “We have lots of players that are great or small and you never know if it’s good or bad, but having a mix of players is always good.

“Football is changing now. It’s getting more physical. It’s good for me to have that physique in the position I play. I noticed years ago that I had to become both a defensive and an attacking player if I wanted to be good enough to be in Manchester.”

The physicality is just one aspect Rodri will need to adapt to. He seemed somewhat surprised by the high pressing game of Liverpool in the Community Shield, losing the ball more than a couple times as a result. Man City face this on a near weekly basis in the Premier League and so Rodri will need to get better in this sense as well.

Fabinho ultimately played a crucial role in what was an historic season for Liverpool. Rodri has been bought with one eye on the long term future. He is seen as the natural successor to Fernandinho, but it might be a while before he fully embraces that role.

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Van de Beek would fit Real Madrid’s new policy better than Pogba

It has been one of the transfer sagas of the summer, but the closer the deadline looms the less likely it appears that Paul Pogba will become a Real Madrid player. Zinedine Zidane has spoken warmly about the Frenchman, the player himself has made clear his desire to join, but Manchester United have refused to budge.

Indeed, the Old Trafford outfit’s valuation of Pogba – around £150 million according to reports – has priced Real Madrid out of a move in a summer window in which they have already splurged £300 million on new players. This has led them to reportedly look at other midfield options.

Donny Van de Beek is one of those options. He was one of the breakthrough stars of Ajax’s run to the semi finals of the Champions League last season, turning in a particularly impressive performance against Real Madrid in the round of 16. Maybe it was then that Zidane first thought about the prospect of the Dutchman in his team.

With Pogba out of reach, at least for this summer, Real Madrid are treating Van de Beek as their secondary target. However, the 22-year-old would arguably fit their new transfer strategy better than Pogba. If the Spanish giants are building for the future then Van de Beek represents this better than the Frenchman.

Of course, the signing of Eden Hazard from Chelsea is something of an outlier here. The Belgian is 28 and in his peak years. Looking past Hazard, though, Real Madrid have prioritised the targeting of young players who have yet to reach their peak. Eder Militao, Ferland Mendy, Luka Jovic, Rodrygo… the strategy has been clear.

Van de Beek would fit into this.. At 22 years old, he is already considered one of the best central midfielders in the game. Real Madrid could build around him for years to come, especially with Toni Kroos and Luka Modric seemingly fading as forces at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Pogba is a different sort of player to Van de Beek. Jose Mourinho wanted him to be an anchoring midfielder when Pogba has always found his best form further up the pitch. Would Zidane liberate him in this way or make the same mistakes Mourinho did during his time at Manchester United?

It feels like Real Madrid have one last big signing in them this summer. Some will see their failure to land Pogba as an embarrassment, such is their status as the ‘Galacticos,’ but Van de Beek might actually turn out to be a better option, but in the short and the long term.

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Why does it feel like Pep Guardiola still doesn’t trust Leroy Sane?

He is considered one of the best young wide attackers in the European game. Indeed, Leroy Sane has become a star during his time at Manchester City, winning back-to-back Premier League titles and a domestic Treble last season. The German has more justified his place at the Etihad Stadium.

And yet there is still a lingering sense that Sane is not fully trusted by Pep Guardiola. There have been suspicions of friction between the pair and this had led to suggestions that the German international could leave Man City this summer as he seeks a club where he will be guaranteed of a starting spot.

Bayern Munich have been very open in their pursuit of the 23-year-old, with Niko Kovac publicly describing him as their “dream player.” Bavaria would be a good place for Sane to end up with the Bundesliga champions currently looking for wingers following the departure of Frank Ribery and Arjen Robben at the end of last season.

Guardiola insists that he wants to keep Sane. “I like him a lot, I think he has an incredible chance to be better, incredible in terms of being connected in the game,” he said. “I think I said two times or three times, we want to keep him. We want him to stay, that’s the reason why for more than one year he has an offer waiting to talk with his agent to extend the contract.

“It’s not in our hands or in my hands. He has to decide if he wants to stay and if our agreement is good. If he’s going to leave we will be sad, but what can we do? Hopefully he stays.”

This isn’t the first time that the Catalan coach has made the case for Sane to stay, but when it comes to the big games Guardiola often omits the German. There remains a feeling that the Man City boss doesn’t fully trust Sane and that could result in the 23-year-old leaving the Etihad Stadium sooner rather than later.

From the outside, such a stance makes little sense. Sane gives City a different dimension to the likes of Riyad Mahrez who prefers to cut inside and make things more compact in the centre of the pitch. Bernardo Silva had an excellent season last term, but he does the same. Sane surely deserves to be shown a little more faith.

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