The greatest moment in the history of the Premier League? Has to be Sergio Aguero’s heart-stopping, stoppage-time title-winner for Man City in 2012. The greatest achievement in the history of the Premier League? Can’t be anything other than Leicester City’s 5,000-1 triumph two years later.
As the new season in England’s top flight comes around again, it’s probably too much to hope that it will give us a story to match either of those once-in-a-lifetime events, but, after City’s swaggering but ultimately all too predictable procession to the title last year, the 2018/2019 campaign could certainly do with delivering something a tad more compelling by way of a competitive contest.
The conventional wisdom is that it will, though not because anyone is tipping Wolves, say, to do a Leicester, even if Nuno Santo’s team may be the most highly regarded side to win promotion in years.
No, the reason most people think the Premier League’s reigning champions won’t have it all their own way this time is because one team, above all others, won’t let them. And that team is Liverpool.
Which is quite a statement of faith when you consider that Jurgen Klopp’s side actually finished fourth last season, a whopping 25 points behind the winners, but then they also reached the final of the Champions League and, on their day, were such a devastatingly effective attacking force that even near all-conquering City were forced to bow down to them not once, not twice, but three times.
On the face of it, there’s every reason to think that the Merseysiders are primed to present an even more formidable challenge this season, with the established triple threat of Salah, Firmino and Sane only likely to be enhanced by the acquisition of accomplished midfielders Fabinho and Naby Keita, as well the arrival of a game-changing option in Xherdan Shaqiri, a bonus buy if ever there was one.
If Alisson proves to be the reliable and thus badly needed last line of defence which Klopp is clearly convinced that he is, then a more consistent Liverpool can go into this season with serious designs on pushing City all the way and, whisper it, perhaps even end that title drought which now extends to a staggering 28 years.
Yet, I still don’t think the biggest threat to Man City’s crown will come from Merseyside. Or London. Or, for that matter, their own increasingly noisy neighbours. Man City’s biggest challengers could well prove to be Man City, the enemy within.
Even if they fell short of becoming the English game’s new ‘Invincibles’, City set all sorts of records for Premier League dominance last season, from most goals scored (106) and biggest goal difference (+79) to ‘doing the ton’ with their unprecedented points tally at close of play.
However, it was the substance behind the stats which impressed even more: At their best, which they were for the vast bulk of the domestic campaign, City were an irresistible treat for football purists, playing a brand of football which pretty much defined the concept of what Danny Blanchflower famously dubbed “the glory game” which was, the sage
explained, all about “doing things in style and with a flourish, about going out and beating the lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom”.
Certainly, nobody ever accused Pep Guardiola’s team of grinding out results.
So, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Surely all that’s required of City to repeat the feat is to deliver more of the same, only now with added Riyad Mahrez factor and also the realistic possibility of a breakthrough season for highly-rated
18-year-old Phil Foden.
Except that, as sport repeatedly tells us, maintaining the highest of high standards is easier said than done. No team has retained the Premier League since Manchester United’s three-in-row from 2007 to 2009, which in itself matched their triple crown from 1999 to 2001 and Liverpool’s identical achievement in the early to mid-80s.
United also put together two league doubles in the 90s, further testament to Alex Ferguson’s extraordinary leadership but, in the last nine years, the title has changed hands every season even if, Leicester apart, it has continued to remain the preserve of the usual suspects.
The domestic goal for Manchester City now is transform the majesty of one hugely successful campaign into a reign for the ages, beginning with the retention of their crown in the season ahead.
However, like all champions, they go into this one as the most prized of scalps. The magnificent Kevin De Bruyne might as well walk onto every pitch wearing a target instead of a number on his back.
Most of City’s opponents will set up to try to stifle and suffocate and perhaps even intimidate and the top-flight’s minnows will instinctively raise their game for every meeting with the champions as if they were dreaming of giant-killing in the FA Cup.
Then there’s also the fact that, for all that they achieved last time, City have one massive point to prove this season: That the champions of England are good enough to be champions of Europe. All that moolah wasn’t spent on
assembling the best team and acquiring the best manager solely to be the best in Blighty. The Manchester City ‘project’ has always been about domestic dominance, not as an end in itself, but as a springboard to ultimate success in the Champions League and, after last season’s disappointment in that arena, the stakes in Europe will be so much higher this time that there has to be a risk that retaining the Premier League title will feel like a secondary consideration.
To cope with all that, City must find the inspiration within. Worryingly for all the other hopefuls, Pep Guardiola, a hat-trick title winner at both Barcelona and Bayern Munich, understands that better than most.
Also, from what he was saying almost immediately after they lifted the trophy last May, the manager will be keenly alert to any hint of complacency, sense of entitlement or blunting of appetite among his troops.
“Next season will be more difficult,” he said.
My relationship with the players will be harder. It happened at Barcelona and Bayern. I have to press them more – the time they arrive at training sessions, what they have to do with the ball and without the ball. If they don’t, they’ll be caught out. I want a team that’s like a machine every day.
If the City players can match their manager’s drive, it’s hard to see how any of the other nominal big guns will be able to stand in their way. At Manchester United, Jose Mourinho seems to have spent most of the pre-season getting his excuses in first.
Chelsea and Arsenal are both under new management and beset by uncertainty on and off the pitch and Spurs have to cope with a new stadium and a squad which appears urgently in need of refreshment.
All of which brings us back to Liverpool as the team best equipped to halt Manchester City’s gallop and start one of their own, but can the red moon really eclipse the blue moon? In Dublin last week, Robbie Fowler surveyed the Premier League 2018 landscape and summed it all up in one persuasive line.
“If Liverpool finish ahead of Manchester City, they will be the champions,” he said.
However, even Anfield legend Fowler was forced to concede that that’s one hell of a big ‘if’.