It's looking a lot like same again

LIAM MACKEY: It's looking a lot like same again
HOLDING THE LINE: Manchester City’s Kyle Walker, Nicolas Otamendi, Rodrigo, John Stones, and Oleksandr Zinchenko defend a free-kick in the Community Shield clash with Liverpool at Wembley last Sunday. Champions League glory will be top of Pep Guardiola’s wishlist this season. Picture: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Appropriately enough for the season in which VAR takes its bow at the elite end of the English club game, the consensus is the new Premier League season will have a strong whiff of deja vu about it.

Whatever way you study the big picture starting out, whether in real-time, slo-mo or from multiple angles, it’s hard to come to any conclusion other than that last year’s top two will ultimately dominate again, with the best of the rest struggling, perhaps even more than last season, to keep up.

It wasn’t just the brilliance but the astonishing consistency of Manchester City and Liverpool which gave us a title race to savour and, in just reward for such high achievement, saw two terrific football teams crowned, respectively, kings of England and Europe.

And with no compelling reason to believe standards will drop under Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, the main fascination of this campaign could well reside in its potential for role-reversal, at home and abroad.

On the face of it, it might seem absurd to regard a Champions League triumph as a kind of consolation prize but, in the case of Liverpool, the notion is hardly far-fetched.

Europe was certainly hugely rewarding for the faithful last season, not least in providing a spectacular semi-final comeback against Barcelona which was more than worthy of a place in the pantheon of all-time greatest nights at Anfield.

And even if the final against Spurs failed to live up to billing as a showpiece, victory for Liverpool ensured a season which would otherwise have been remembered as an agonising near-miss ended on a note of real celebration.

And yet, and yet… is there anyone out there who seriously thinks that, if forced to choose, any self-respecting Kopite wouldn’t have gladly swapped a sixth European crown for a first domestic title since 1990? The craving to end a drought which is now heading for its 30th year will be what drives Liverpool now.

Alex Ferguson famously talked about the satisfaction of Manchester United knocking Liverpool “right off their fucking perch”. Perhaps phrased slightly more diplomatically, Klopp will now desperately want his Liverpool to knock Manchester City off theirs.

By contrast, you would imagine that for Pep Guardiola, success in the Champions League — a trophy he hasn’t lifted since 2011 — has to be the biggest target this season but, interestingly, former City man Richard Dunne doesn’t think that’s a view which would necessarily gain much traction among supporters.

“The pressure’s not on the players to go and win the Champions League,” he suggests.

As much as the players and the manager will go and do their best in the Champions League, they won’t be side-tracked. They’ll know full well that while the fans will want them to win it, they won’t be that fussed if they don’t.

"But they will want them to win the Premier League. Because they expect it now. The Champions League? I think the owners want it more than the fans do.”

And such will be the continued intensity of City’s focus domestically that Irish legend Dunne believes a luckless Liverpool will be forced to play second-fiddle again, not that he expects Jurgen Klopp to ship any flak if they do.

“I think everyone realises how unfortunate Liverpool are to be playing in the era that they are, with Man City,” he says. “It’s 30 years but it’s not 30 years of Klopp, you know? He’s done really well — to get a team to 97 points and not win the league is just bad luck, because the other team are just so, so good. The unfortunate thing for Liverpool is you just don’t see Man City relenting over the next couple of years either. So it’s whether Klopp at some point turns around and goes, ‘If I can’t beat them maybe I’ll piss off and go and take over the German team’ — and then they’re back to square one again. I think they’ll hang onto him for as long as they possibly can.”

The season won’t be short of intriguing sub-plots but there is still too much uncertainty around all the other potential contenders to convince that any one of the usual suspects might have enough about them to disrupt the status quo at the very top.

If they haven’t already hit peak-Pochettino, Spurs, with a couple of quality additions, look set to lead the chasing pack but, across North London, David Luiz’s surprise arrival at Arsenal does nothing to suggest the Gunners, like their latest acquisition, won’t continue to blow hot one day and cold the next. And to the west of the city, while Frank Lampard’s arrival back at Chelsea might have a feelgood factor about it, the loss of the exceptional Eden Hazard is the harsh reality check with which they will struggle to cope.

And then there’s Manchester United, where the spotlight on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be unforgiving as he seeks to prove that he really is made of the right stuff to manage a club where, by its own highest historical standards, the level of dysfunction is such that even the much-trumpeted arrival of Harry Maguire continues to be drowned out by Paul Pogba’s controversial place in the scheme of things.

Richard Dunne’s fellow Premier Sports analyst, former Irish international Gary Breen, isn’t convinced by Solskjaer’s attempts to channel the spirit of his old gaffer as he seeks to restore order at Old Trafford.

“Listen, why wouldn’t you reference Ferguson, he was brilliant, but you can’t be a clone of him because he was a one-off,” he observes.

When you look at Ferguson, he not only cultivated players from within but he bought well. But what was so impressive about him was how ruthless he was. Even established world-class players were deemed surplus to requirements. And I’m not sure if Solskjaer has that type of presence.

“I would hate to think that any player at United doesn’t realise what a symbol of the club Alex Ferguson is but there have been other instances that were uncomfortable to listen to, like talking about taking them back to the Cliff training ground. I don’t know what players would think of that, this romantic notion about trying to get back to the past. It’s about the future. I like Solskjaer, I want him to do well, but it’s unconvincing.

“In terms of the bad run at the end of last season, if he wasn’t a cult hero, the fans would have turned on him already. I think they’re looking at him now in terms of his bold statement that he was going to rip it all up and cull so many people.

"There wasn’t a cull. In fact, players who have been at United and finished sixth twice in the last three years got renewed contracts. United supporters will be excited by the arrival of Maguire but I think Solskjaer is under a lot of pressure. He’s a good coach and knows Manchester United through and through but I still can’t see past the fact that that’s not the CV that warrants getting the Manchester United job.

“That song that they keep singing, ‘Ole’s at the wheel’. I don’t know what he’s at the wheel of but he’s certainly not at the wheel of that juggernaut that Ferguson used to have.”

Nope. The noisy neighbours have commandeered that one now, and especially if a fit Kevin de Bruyne can consistently hit the heights again, the 2019/20 Premier League season looks very much like being a case of lights, camera, action replay.

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