AUGUST 12 — The English Premier League kicks off this weekend and debate about the pros and cons of the potential winners is heated.
Reigning champions Chelsea are clearly contenders to retain the crown they won so convincingly last season, but they will now also have to contend with the heavy additional demands of competing in the Champions League, and there’s also a question mark over whether new striker Alvaro Morata will be able to provide the same kind of firepower as departing Diego Costa.
The two Manchester clubs are both expected to be much stronger than they were last season, with respective managers Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho now settled into their roles and significantly strengthening their squads over the summer. If they don’t at least come close to taking the title, their season will be considered a failure.
Any chance of Liverpool challenging appears to hinge upon whether the Reds can succeed in withstanding Barcelona’s determined pursuit of star player Philippe Coutinho, and the same could be said of an Arsenal team which would surely struggle to challenge if dynamic forward Alexis Sanchez departs the Emirates Stadium before the end of the summer transfer window.
It will also be fascinating to see whether last season’s second placed team, Tottenham, can continue their impressive progress under highly rated manager Mauricio Pochettino despite a lack of activity so far in the transfer market.
And there we have it: the EPL is set for an exciting campaign, with each of those six teams harbouring hopes — albeit some more realistically than others — that this could be their year.
But haven’t we forgotten something? Ah yes. In fact, we have neglected to mention 14 more teams, 70per cent of the competition, who will also be playing 38 games over the course of the next nine months.
Really, though, it’s very easy to forget those 14 teams because, let’s face it, they are only there to make up the numbers.
Hands up if you can name Stoke City’s strongest starting eleven? Hands up if you’re planning to watch West Bromwich Albion on a regular basis this season? Hands up if you could speak for two minutes on the merits and deficiencies of top flight newcomers Brighton?
No, me neither.
The truth is that very, very few people possess a balanced knowledge of the league as a whole, and that nearly everybody will be focussing 99per cent of their energies on the six teams who actually have a chance of becoming champions.
There’s a good reason for that and, like many aspects of the modern world, it’s money.
Rather than being an even and equal contest between peers, the EPL has become to all intents and purposes a test of who has the most money and how well they spend it.
Not just the EPL, of course. The same could be said in every major European league, with hardly anyone in any kind of position to challenge the dominance of giants like Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Juventus.
European football is now such a big business it’s only inevitable that titles are decide by the matter of which Russian oligarch or Arab oil baron invests his money more wisely, and the vast majority of clubs in Europe’s top flights are heading into the new campaign with the depressing knowledge that they have no chance of even coming close to the title.
The only way that could be stopped is by following the example of American sports and introducing a wage capping system, which would set a ceiling for the amount clubs are allowed to pay their players.
That way, it would be impossible for Manchester City to sign Sergio Agüero and Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva and Gabriel Jesus — instead they would have to choose just one or two of those high earners, ensuring a more even spread of talent across the league.
As appealing as that idea might be, however, the strong likelihood is that it will never happen. Firstly because the top teams are unlikely to ever approve a measure which would threaten their own dominance, and secondly because it would infringe European Union restraint of trade laws in any case.
And so, barring an occasional miracle like Leicester a couple of seasons ago, we will continue to see the same old teams competing for major honours year after year.
I suppose there’s not much point in raging against that state of affairs too much — it’s just the reality of the modern world.
But we should probably at least make the effort, every now and then, to at least remind ourselves that Burnley and Huddersfield do actually exist.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.