Two-horse race restarts

Two-horse race restarts

Despite lack of spending, hunger for more success and good balance give Reds the edge

LONDON • Eighteen years after former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson claimed that his greatest challenge had been “knocking Liverpool right off their perch”, Jurgen Klopp’s men have returned to the top of English football.

The challenge is staying there.

In ending their 30-year wait for an English top-flight title, Liverpool now have the opportunity to match United’s record as 20-time winners this season and come full circle to the pre-Ferguson era when they were the country’s dominant team in the 1970s and 80s.

Last term, the Reds were utterly ruthless, wrapping up the title with a record seven games to spare, finishing 18 points ahead of nearest challengers Manchester City and remaining unbeaten at Anfield for a third straight campaign.

The world champions will still be the team to beat this campaign but it is a universal sporting truth, particularly in English football, that retaining the title is harder than winning it. In the Premier League’s 28-year history, it has been retained only eight times – six by United and once each by City and Chelsea.

Before Pep Guardiola’s men did so last year, the Red Devils were the last to achieve that feat in 2008, with Jose Mourinho once claiming the difference between one-off winners and serial champions was a question of mentality.

Under Klopp, Liverpool are unlikely to have a problem with motivation. Looking ahead to the new season, he told Sky Sports: “As long as we stay humble and greedy, we have a good chance to remain a really uncomfortable opponent…

“Next season, you can write stories about us being the defending champions but… we will not defend anything, we will attack it.”

There will be renewed challenges from their main rivals City as well as Chelsea and United, all of whom outspent Liverpool.

Pundits like Graeme Souness and Jamie Redknapp have expressed disappointment at the lack of transfer activity at their former club. But that should not come as a surprise. Last summer, Klopp was similarly quiet, moving only for a handful of youngsters.

BEST FORM OF DEFENCE

Next season, you can write stories about us being the defending champions but… we will not defend anything, we will attack it.

JURGEN KLOPP, Liverpool manager.

    LIVERPOOL TRANSFERS IN

    • Kostas Tsimikas (Olympiakos, for £11.75 million, S$21 million)

    OUT

    • Dejan Lovren (Zenit St Petersburg, £10.9 million)

    • Adam Lallana (Brighton, free)

    • Nathaniel Clyne (free)

The German used just 24 players last term and, barring the potential signing of Bayern Munich’s Thiago Alcantara, he is set to keep faith with the same squad that won the Club World Cup and league title.

Unlike their rivals, who are at different stages of transition, Liverpool appear to be the finished article. Perhaps they could do with more competition for places, but the capacity for improvement is what sets them apart.

Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold continue to reinvent what it means to be full-backs in the modern game – only City’s Kevin de Bruyne had more assists than the pair – and the Reds’ defence is primed to be the meanest for the third consecutive year.

There is also an expectation at Anfield that Takumi Minamino is ready to stamp his mark on English football. The Japan forward has been one of their best players in pre-season and Klopp has hinted that with nine months to adapt since his transfer, the 25-year-old is pushing for a starting place.

They also have a promising crop of academy graduates breaking through – in particular the trio of Neco Williams, 19, Harvey Elliot, 17, and Curtis Jones, 19.

Liverpool face a tricky start to their title defence, hosting newly promoted Leeds before facing Chelsea and Arsenal in quick succession, but it is hard to dislodge them as favourites.

With fans set to return to stadiums later this year, there will not be a better driving force than lifting their 20th league trophy.

Blinding up front but City must tighten up at the rear in push for EPL, Champions League

LONDON • The first time Pep Guardiola failed to win the English Premier League in his maiden season at Manchester City, he responded by making four defensive summer signings: Ederson, Benjamin Mendy, Kyle Walker and Danilo.

City regained the title a year later with a record 100 points.

As Guardiola enters a fifth season at a club for the first time in his managerial career, the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss faces challenges old and new.

Strengthening the defence is again the priority given his lack of trust in John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi, while the injury-ravaged Aymeric Laporte has yet to fully replace City’s former captain Vincent Kompany.

The Champions League remains Guardiola’s holy grail after missing out on the semi-finals in four attempts with City.

Reuniting with Barca star Lionel Messi would have bolstered hopes of winning Europe’s elite club competition, with the six-time Ballon d’Or winner’s ability to provide moments of magic an additional weapon in knockout games.

Yet, even before the Argentinian decided to stay at the Nou Camp, City were already the bookmakers’ favourites to win the Premier League, never mind that they finished 18 points behind champions Liverpool last season.

Scoring is hardly City’s problem – they netted 102 goals in the top-flight last campaign – 17 more than Jurgen Klopp’s men – and won 10 games by four or more goals.

NEW EXPERIENCE

It’s a challenge for me, I’ve never done five years at one club and also the challenge to see if we can maintain the levels that we have in the previous seasons.

PEP GUARDIOLA, Man City manager.

    MAN CITY TRANSFERS IN

    • Nathan Ake (Bournemouth, £40 million, S$71 million)

    • Ferran Torres (Valencia, €23 million, S$37 million)

    OUT

    • Leroy Sane (Bayern Munich, €45 million)

    • David Silva (Real Sociedad, free)

    • Claudio Bravo (Real Betis,free)

They remain spoilt with attacking options.

Gabriel Jesus will push fit-again Sergio Aguero for the central striking role, with reigning Premier League and PFA Player of the Year Kevin de Bruyne behind.

Home-grown midfielder Phil Foden, 20, appears ready to step into the big creative boots left by David Silva, while Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez, Bernardo Silva and new boy Ferran Torres – the replacement for Leroy Sane – are wide options.

Signing a right-sided centre-back to employ alongside Laporte has always topped the transfer wish list, even though the arrival of versatile Nathan Ake, with 146 Premier League appearances at the age of 25, has provided defensive reinforcements.

The Netherlands international can also play at left-back, another problem position for City, or as a defensive midfielder.

But it is Napoli star Kalidou Koulibaly who could be the crucial piece in Guardiola’s jigsaw.

City are reportedly in negotiations to sign the €75 million-rated (S$121 million) centre-back.

Although the 29-year-old is unlikely to retain much sell-on value, he will be able to make the instant impact City require.

Sevilla’s Diego Carlos, 27 – another player in his prime – and Atletico Madrid’s Jose Gimenez are reportedly alternative options.

Laporte, limited to 15 league appearances last season, is already a doubt for City’s opener against Wolves on Sept 21, a delayed start due to their European involvement in a coronavirus-affected season.

The Frenchman and Mahrez have tested positive for Covid-19 and are self-isolating.

Like seventh-placed Wolves last term, City suffered nine league defeats.

Guardiola, in analysing why Liverpool beat his side to the title, pinpointed City’s lack of consistency.

Addressing shortcomings and rebounding from disappointment – as he did in 2017 – has allowed him to refocus.

Yet rebuilding and re-motivating a talent-laden squad is uncharted territory for Guardiola as he heads into the final year of his contract at the Etihad.

“It’s a challenge for me, I’ve never done five years at one club and also the challenge to see if we can maintain the levels that we have in the previous seasons,” said the Spaniard.

A third league title in four seasons could persuade him to stay – and Messi to arrive.