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English Premier League returns – with new Covid protocols and fans

Virgil van Dijk of Liverpool during the English Premier League match between Liverpool and Arsenal London in Liverpool, Britain, 28 September 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Jason Cairndruff / POOL)
By Craig Ray
15 Aug 2021 0

The English Premier League’s return with fans in stadiums represents something close to ‘normality’ after 18 months of Covid-19 disruptions.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

The self-styled yet undeniably “biggest league in the world” is back for a 2021/22 edition of the English Premier League (EPL) that will most vitally welcome fans into stadiums again.

While the sounds of roars from the terraces and cash registers ringing will be a welcome backdrop to the drama, what unfolds on the field will have a familiarity to it this season, with the same actors vying for the title.

Can anyone stop Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City from winning a fourth title in five seasons? Are Chelsea able to back up their 2021 Champions League triumph with a first domestic title in five years? Will Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool rediscover the form that saw them romp to the title by 18 points in 2020?

Can Manchester United sustain a season-long challenge again after spending heavily in the transfer window and will Tottenham Hotspur be able to claw their way back into the top four, possibly without talismanic striker Harry Kane?

Are Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds able to back up their superb return to the Premier League with another strong run and are Arsenal capable of rising among the elite of English football again?

These are just some of the subplots of a season that will inevitably involve several managerial sackings by the time it has run its course, as well as controversy, hyperbole and brilliance. And that’s before the controversial use of the Video Assistant Referee is factored in. 

Manchester City’s manager Pep Guardiola reacts during the FA Community Shield soccer match between Leicester City and Manchester City at Wembley Stadium in London, Britain, 7 August 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Andy Rain / POOL)

The elite

On the basis of previous form, squad depth, individual brilliance and managerial genius there really are only a few sides capable of winning the 2021/22 title, unless something dramatic happens.

Manchester City are rightly installed as favourites and, after winning three of the previous four titles, they appear stronger, rather than weaker.

Despite having the squad with the deepest talent in almost every area, as well as a manager in Guardiola who is recognised as someone who creates footballing art, City also have a bottomless pit of money at their disposal. In the modern game that is vital for success.

Although City won the league at a canter last season and have suffered no significant player losses in the off season, Guardiola has spent £100-million (R2-billion) on English wing Jack Grealish, who joined from Aston Villa.

And, as if that wasn’t enough, City are set to make a £127-million (R2.6-billion) bid for Kane. If they prise England’s captain away from Spurs it could be the final piece of the puzzle that ensures another league title. City and Guardiola, though, are perhaps even more driven for success in the Champions League, where they have fallen short.

Grealish’s signing is viewed as one of the most exciting of the season, though. His arrival has been welcomed by fellow Englishman Raheem Sterling.

“Grealish is a player [who] always wants the ball, he gets in good pockets of space and he is creative,” Sterling said on the club’s official website.

“It adds another creative player to this team, which I am really excited about… When you add good players to your team it is always a good thing. He is a player I believe can truly have a great career here.”

Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel starts his first full campaign after being brought in midway through last season, when the club was listing under former boss Frank Lampard.

Tuchel immediately solidified the team’s defence and they went on to win the Champions League and also the European Super Cup. Tuchel now has to bring the domestic title back to Stamford Bridge and to that end he has splurged £97.5-million (R1.95-billion) on centre-forward Romelu Lukaku from Inter Milan.

The big Belgian signed on 12 August and will add much-needed finishing to Chelsea’s misfiring attack. The acquisition of German duo Timo Werner and Kai Havertz before the start of last season hasn’t produced the goals needed to win the Premier League.

The 28-year-old Lukaku, who failed to make a huge impact as a Manchester United player, found a new lease on life in Italy, where he created scoring records at Inter. Lukaku scored 24 league goals in his debut campaign and was named Serie A’s Most Valuable Player last season, but more crucially he provided 10 assists as well. That contribution could be vital to Tuchel’s team.

The return to fitness of defender Virgil van Dijk is a major reason why Liverpool could challenge for the title again. In their title-winning run in 2019 and 2020, Van Dijk’s brilliance ensured that Liverpool were rock-solid in defence and that their risky, high-pressing game worked because he provided a shield.

When Van Dijk suffered a season-ending knee ligament injury six weeks into last season, Liverpool struggled without the talismanic Dutchman as the last line of defence. They conceded 42 goals compared with the 33 when Van Dijk played through the entire season.

But the Reds won their last five games of the 2020/21 campaign to secure fourth place and a spot in the Champions League, and will hope to take that momentum into the new season.

Klopp has not delved deeply into the transfer market in the off season. The only significant signing was defender Ibrahima Konaté, while the club sold the influential Gini Wijnaldum to Paris Saint-Germain.

Manchester United are an outsider to offer a challenge to the other three. Although they finished second last season and have spent lavishly on French defender Raphaël Varane and England rising star Jadon Sancho, nothing less than silverware will do.

Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is under pressure to bring the title back to the red side of Manchester for the first time since 2014.

At the other end of the spectrum, the likes of Norwich, Watford, Brentford, Brighton and Burnley are expected to struggle. Southampton and Wolves also appear light in depth and could be in a scrap for survival. 

Covid-19 protocols

With an easing of restrictions fans are allowed back but there is still some debate in the UK whether proof of vaccination will be required later this season.

As it stands now, a negative Covid-19 test and a vaccination “passport” are not needed under Premier League regulations.

But some clubs, such as Brighton & Hove Albion and Spurs, have asked fans for proof of their Covid-19 status before entering the stadium. They appear to be preempting the likely regulations.

Chelsea have gone further and are asking for proof of full vaccination from all fans entering Stamford Bridge from at least 14 days prior to the match date.

Liverpool have “encouraged” fans to have Covid-19 tests at least 24 hours before attending games and are trialling a new ticketing system to reduce the amount of contact through the physical handling of tickets. Some other clubs have asked fans to wear face masks while at the stadium.

Despite the new restrictions and challenges, on the field at least, it looks like it will be more of the same, with familiar names vying for the title and familiar teams struggling in the basement. DM168

PSL players and teams to watch

By Yanga Sibembe

Predicted top five:

Manchester City

Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City have managed to win the league in three of the past four Premier League seasons. They are again favourites to conquer England. Having Jack Grealish, who can play on either wing and as an attacking midfielder, will give Guardiola options. Add to this the side’s solid defence and they will be close to unplayable.

Chelsea

The reigning European champions have put together a formidable side, with the latest addition being a component they’ve been starved of since the departure of Diego Costa in 2017. With Romelu Lukaku up front they look to capitalise on the creativity of the likes of Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic.   

Liverpool

Jürgen Klopp’s team had a rollercoaster season last time out. Injuries to a number of first-team defenders set the Reds back massively. Now they have a full complement of centre backs. If their defenders manage to stay fit and their front three of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino fire on all cylinders, they will be a major force this season.

Manchester United

The Red Devils were the only side to keep City looking over their shoulder last season. But they still ended the season 12 points behind their neighbours. They’re still short of some firepower up front though and largely depend on the ageing Edinson Cavani and a fatigued Bruno Fernandes for goals. French forward Anthony Martial has so far failed to live up to his potential and cannot be relied on fully.

Leicester City

Leicester City agonisingly missed out on the top four in the past two seasons. That trend is set to continue although they’ve made some signings to boost them in the new season. Striker Patson Daka has joined from RB Salzburg, midfielder Boubakary Soumaré from Lille and left back Ryan Bertrand on a free transfer.

Players to watch:

Kevin De Bruyne

With Manchester City the favourites to win the division the logical answer might be to just pick their best player and assume he will win it. Last season the Belgian midfielder maestro was still integral to City’s league win despite only 25 league appearances due to injury. He was directly involved in 18 goals in those games, scoring six and creating 12.

Romelu Lukaku

Chelsea’s record signing returns to Stamford Bridge with a ton of expectation on his shoulders. He joins a Chelsea side that struggled in front of goal last campaign. Lukaku himself finished second in the Serie A scoring charts, behind only Cristiano Ronaldo with 24 goals.

Jadon Sancho

Jadon Sancho has exploded on to the European football scene with Borussia Dortmund. The 21-year-old finally has a chance to shine on an even bigger stage with one of the best clubs in world football. Sancho is an exciting prospect able to contribute with goals and assists from the wing, as shown by his 50 goals and 64 assists in 137 for Dortmund.

Mohamed Salah

If Liverpool are to improve on their display last season, the Egyptian will once again be front and centre. He is undoubtedly the crown jewel for the Reds.

Bukayo Saka

The English starlet had an outstanding season, which resulted in him being named Arsenal’s player of the season. He also made a meaningful contribution as England reached the final of Euro 2020. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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