Martin King gives his predictions of what we might expect to see during the first weekend of the 2017/18 Premier League season.
Time is a tricky concept.
It is highly demanded yet comes in short supply. You have your three pleasant months of summer, eighteen colourful years of childhood, two days of a party-filled weekend and then there is your ninety minutes of simply staggering football.
None of these periods last forever, meaning the primary focus is to always create moments out of them that will.
Enter the 2017/18 Premier League season.
As the English top flight makes its returns to screens worldwide this Friday night, there is an unerring feeling that this will be a season made not by triumphs, defeats or the overall journey from August to May but by the moments that will define this upcoming nine month period and ultimately Premier League history.
So, let’s take our first look forward to the already exciting action, with an opening round of predictions.
Watford vs. Liverpool
The summer of 2017 has produced some moments of contrasting fortunes for Liverpool.
From shooting themselves in the foot with a bleak transfer apology, to beating German giants Bayern Munich, the Reds have both endured and enjoyed a roller-coaster ride of a pre-season. Now it’s time to get down to the real business.
Jürgen Klopp enters his second full season in charge of the club following a fourth place league finish, which helped to secure his side a place in this season’s UEFA Champions’ League.
That achievement was reached thanks to some pulsating attacking football which saw the Reds score an impressive 78 league goals, alongside holding an unbeaten record against their top seven rivals.
The 2016/17 campaign, however, still ended with a cloud of unease hanging over Anfield. Fans were pleased with a fourth placed finish but there was still a strange feeling of disappointment, as everyone agreed Liverpool could’ve finished higher – maybe even won the Premier League – had it not been for such a poor performance against the lesser sides.
Those are demons the Merseyside club still have to kill and they will be given a first opportunity to do that with a trip to Vicarage Road.
Enter Watford, who do so with yet another new manager in the shape of Marco Silva.
Last season the Hornets, managed by Italian Walter Mazzarri, had a largely disappointing campaign which ended in a 17th placed finish – narrowly escaping relegation.
Despite his former club Hull City failing to do the same, Silva is expected to bring some of the strong-willed football his Tigers side displayed on occasion to Watford, whose owners demand an improved league finish.
And with the knowledge that the Hornets are capable of giving anyone who is not up to it a difficult day, the Pozzo family will just as much be calling for a result against Liverpool in their opening league game.
It’s a tricky one to predict because you know a top class Liverpool are supposed to batter Watford without trouble but you also know the sinking feeling you get when the Reds let it slip by looking bang average.
Either way, I’m predicting a similarly tense game to their last one at Vicarage Road, when they won 1-0, and I think they’ll come out the winners again by three goals to one.
Prediction: Watford 1-3 Liverpool
Arsenal vs. Leicester City
Before Liverpool’s lunch-time kick-off on Saturday afternoon comes the official Premier League opener on Friday night, when Arsenal host Leicester City.
It was a tumultuous 2016/17 season for the Gunners, whose largely unsatisfying performances led them to a fifth placed finish – the first time they’ve ever finished outside the league’s top-four under manager Arsené Wenger.
This finish, as well as Arsenal’s campaign towards it, saw fans turn on the long-serving boss and his players, raising up multiple banners reading “Wenger out” and occasionally chanting “You’re not fit to wear the shirt” at certain members of their squad.
Still, their last competitive game of the season and their first one of 2017/18 has yielded two trophies and with two integral summer signings in highly-rated striker Alexandre Lacazette and full-back Saed Kolasinač, the Gunners look well geared and strongly determined to improve on their fifth placed finish.
If they can add top scorer Alexis Sanchez staying to their list of good fortunes, a return to Premier League glory could just be a possibility.
The Emirates side will host Leicester City, who, following their failed defence of the Premier League title, are being tipped for a more realistic season in the top-flight.
The Foxes are being fancied by pundits for a top-half finish come the end of the campaign and having so far kept hold of their star players in Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, alongside adding to their line-up with the signings of Kelechi Iheanacho, Harry Maguire, Vicente Iborra and Eldin Jakupovič, that certainly looks like a realistic aim for Craig Shakespeare’s men.
According to captain Wes Morgan, the Foxes are raring to go.
“It’s been a long pre-season and it’s always tough,” Morgan said to the club’s official website.
“I don’t enjoy it but it’s a good feeling when you get through it because you’re fit and ready to go.
“You’ve got the season ahead to look forward to and everyone’s raring to go. We’ve got our first game this Friday coming and we can’t wait to get started.”
Leicester can take some hope from the fact Arsenal have disappointed in front of their fans on an opening day before, though, I’m expecting a Gunners win from this game. I think they’ll be in fine shape following a testing display against Chelsea.
Prediction: Arsenal 2-0 Leicester City
Chelsea vs. Burnley
For Antonio Conte’s defending champions, this season is not only about continuing Chelsea’s winning traditions but about breaking what seems to be a worrying trend at Stamford Bridge.
Ever since 2009, no Chelsea manager has survived a single season in charge after winning a major trophy, as all of Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Di Matteo and Jose Mourinho were sacked in the seasons following their sides lifting respective Premier League trophies and a Champions League title.
Pressure on Conte then, though, he’d be excused for not feeling it. The Blues boss knows all about retaining a league title, as his three consecutive Serie ‘A’ titles with former club Juventus can attest.
Conte has bolstered his side with the signings of defender Antonio Rudiger, midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko and striker Alvaro Morata, who given the likely departure of top scorer Diego Costa, will hope to repay the £70 million worth of faith his new boss has placed in him from the get-go.
Chelsea host Burnley, who are coming off a solid season in the English top flight and are determined to keep their Premier League status yet again.
Home form was vital for the Clarets, who took 33 out of 40 points available to them at Turf Moor last season, however, manager Sean Dyche will know that things are bound to be tougher this time around and that his side need to improve on their woeful form away from home.
Their campaign will be helped by the addition of experienced players in the shape of Jack Cork and Jonathan Walters, who joined the club from Swansea and Stoke City respectively this summer, though just as important for Burnley, will be preventing any further departures, as defender Michael Keane’s loss to Everton already presents a difficult challenge for the side.
Burnley have never won at Stamford Bridge in the Premier League. I don’t see them making Saturday afternoon a first, so I’m going to back Chelsea for a win.
Prediction: Chelsea 3-0 Burnley
Newcastle United vs. Tottenham Hotspur
It’s fair to say that Tottenham Hotspur are under just as much pressure as Chelsea to continue their fine form in this new Premier League season.
The Lily Whites finished as runners-up last season but could’ve won the league in 11 other Premier League seasons, with their best total of 86 points and their goal difference of 60, the highest of a non-title winning team.
With a new stadium under construction, Spurs will be relying on Wembley Stadium to bring them a feeling of home comfort, however, having struggled in their European games there last season, that may not be a straight-forward task.
Manager Mauricio Pochettino has so far decided against dipping in the transfer market for new talent, choosing instead to retain faith in his current squad, but with yet another Champions League campaign added to their domestic schedule, could that prove to be a costly decision?
Hosting them this Sunday will be newly-promoted Newcastle United.
The Magpies return to the top flight a season after being relegated under former Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez. The 57-year-old has recently admitted to being unhappy with the club’s transfer dealings this summer, though, will surely be pleased by the level of Premier League experience his squad boasts compared to their newly-promoted counter-parts – that alone could be a vital game-changer.
Newcastle will expect to be pushing for survival but perhaps with the pedigree of Benitez, their loyal Geordie fan-base may afford to dream about an even better achievement.
For this game, though, I’m not quite sure about their chances of winning it. I like St. James’ Park for its loud atmosphere, something which turns Newcastle on and can catch any side off, but I think if Spurs bring their A-game they’ll get a win.
I’ll bravely predict a draw, though.
Prediction: Newcastle United 1-1 Tottenham Hotspur
Southampton vs. Swansea City
Aah Southampton, Liverpool’s best friends in the transfer market.
Okay, so maybe they’re not the best of friends because the Saints will be eager to put all things ‘Virgil van Dijk to Liverpool’ to bed in order to concentrate on making a good start to their Premier League season against Swansea City at Saint Mary’s.
Like Watford, they come into yet another season with yet another new manager and having established themselves as a top half club, new boss Mauricio Pellegrino will be expected to keep the South Coast club’s standards high, even with the difficult prospect of losing arguably his side’s best player.
Swansea, meanwhile, have faced a similar dilemma under Paul Clement, who is hoping to keep midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson at the club beyond the end of this month. The Swans spent most of last season fending off the likelihood of relegation, eventually finishing in 15th and where they finish this season will possibly depend on whether or not they keep Sigurdsson in South Wales.
Their biggest strength, along with Southampton in this match, will be their attacking capabilities. I think the biggest questions to be posed at both sides will be towards their respective defences, who tend to concede one goal too many.
As for who will concede the least, I’m going to pick Southampton.
Prediction: Southampton 2-1 Swansea City
Manchester United vs. West Ham United
Jose Mourinho’s first season at Manchester United was successful on all fronts but the Premier League as the Portuguese led his side to two trophies and a sixth placed league finish.
This time around, United are being tipped to return to former glory in the top flight and from the outside looking in, they are ready.
Mourinho has strengthened his side in three integral positions this summer, paying big money to sign defender Victor Lindelof, midfielder Nemanja Matic and striker Romelu Lukaku, signings that are certain to bring both goals and stability to the Old Trafford side.
Consistency of the right kind will be something United search to grasp this season, as their record 25-game unbeaten run of last season is arguably more frustrating than pleasing to look back upon thanks to their lack of killer instinct – the Red Devils recorded 12 draws during that period.
Solve that problem and retain their Old Trafford fear factor and they could have a huge say in where the title ends up come May.
West Ham travel to the red side of Manchester looking to be the cat amongst the pigeons.
The Hammers are coming off a fairly disappointing campaign, which saw them finish below mid-table in 11th – a large fall from the grace of finishing 7th in the previous season.
Manager Slaven Bilic would’ve been pulling his hair out more often than not, as his team lost a massive 22 points from winning positions and struggled to make their new London Stadium home a fortress (dare I also mention the departure of Dimitri Payet?).
The London club, though, have given themselves a good opportunity to improve on last year’s performances with the additions of experienced heads in the shape of goalkeeper Joe Hart, defender Pablo Zabaleta and strikers Marko Arnautovic and Javier Hernandez.
Anything West Ham get out of this game, though, will be a huge bonus to their hopes of making it a better season in my opinion.
Man United are simply the overwhelming favourites.
Prediction: Manchester United 3-0 West Ham United
Crystal Palace vs. Huddersfield Town
When you look at Crystal Palace over the past two seasons, there’s not too much to separate the Eagles of 2015/16 and those of 2016/17, in fact the former season’s 15th placed finish was only bettered by the latter by one point and one position.
All in all, however, the very same problems – leaky defence, inconsistent attack – still existed, which is the immediate challenge facing new manager Frank de Boer, who took over from Sam Allardyce in the summer.
The Dutchman is reportedly looking to bring in a new style of football to Selhurst Park, which we will surely learn more about in the next few weeks, with an opening match in front of the club’s fans presenting him with the best opportunity to make an immediate impact.
New boys Huddersfield are coming to South London for the first time in the Premier League.
Lead by David Wagner, the Terriers won the promotion play-off to earn a place in the top flight and are immediately confronted with a difficult challenge. You get a feeling it’s going to be that way for most, if not all, of the season and it will be interesting to see how they deal with the challenge.
I see a win for Palace in this one.
I think any promoted side would prefer a home game to kick things off in the Premier League and a trip to Selhurst Park is just too difficult for Huddersfield.
Prediction: Crystal Palace 2-0 Huddersfield Town
Everton vs. Stoke City
Everton have easily established themselves as the seventh member of the Premier League’s top six.
The Toffees finished seventh last season, impressing in their first season under Ronald Koeman and earning a place in the UEFA Europa League. They may have lost top scorer Lukaku to Manchester United this summer, however, have had a very impressive transfer window, which has seen them acquire the services of several talented players, including their very own Wayne Rooney.
The challenge for Koeman will now be to break into the top six, which is a task easier said than done, though, with the Goodison side never lacking in ambition and drive, expect them to be giving it their all.
Their first challenge comes in the shape of Stoke City, who will be looking to break into the top half of the table again after an underwhelming 2016/17 campaign saw them finish in 13th place.
I think we will witness an Everton win to kick-off their season.
Stoke have just lost some of that attacking spark in the departures of strikers Walters and Arnautovic and I honestly think they are set for a struggle, while Everton’s new look side can be dangerous – the Goodison crowd should be entertained.
Prediction: Everton 3-1 Stoke City
West Bromwich Albion vs. AFC Bournemouth
Life was, on most occasions, a breeze at the Hawthorns last season, as home team West Bromwich Albion finished 10th, their best league finish in four years.
One can’t necessarily set any targets for them this season outside of either repeating or bettering that feat because for them success equals Premier League status and they’ve got a match made in heaven with Tony Pulis, who is well experienced at achieving such.
The Baggies host Bournemouth on Saturday and for Eddie Howe’s men, a third consecutive season in the top flight is an achievement on its own, but even more impressive, however, will be the route they’ve taken to it.
The Cherries improved on their 16th placed debut season finish by moving up seven places up to 9th last season and having kept their team together as well as adding to it with the acquisitions of Nathan Ake, Asmir Begovic and Jermaine Defoe – who are all fit for this match – they look well geared for another competitive season in the top flight.
I always look at every match between West Brom and Bournemouth as a real clash of styles. You already know that Pulis’ side will be rock solid whilst Howe’s men have what it takes to keep that defence busy.
As for who will come out on top in this one, it’s tricky, but I’m just going to back Bournemouth with Defoe to nick it.
Prediction: West Bromwich Albion 1-2 AFC Bournemouth
Brighton & Hove Albion vs. Manchester City
Last season’s Championship runners-up Brighton come into the top flight as some awkward customers.
You immediately feel like their primary target under Chris Hughton this season will be survival, but you don’t want to underestimate them because with this being the Premier League, they could surprise you with a beating.
That is the challenge facing Manchester City and Pep Guardiola this Saturday, who come into the Spaniard’s second season in charge with a desire for redemption in the air. Last season saw Guardiola come like something of a messiah to City, as his high profile arrival was expected to bring major success to the Etihad Stadium.
City seemed to be heading down that path as they won six out of their first six league matches, with Pep finding life rather easy-going in the Premier League, however, his team failed to follow that stainless form up as the reality of just how tough the English league is set in on the former Barcelona boss, whose side eventually finished third, without even a single trophy to their name.
Their transfer business this summer would immediately suggest that a massive improvement on last season is a must for the Sky Blues, who are one of the favourites to win the Premier League title.
This will be another tricky affair for Guardiola, though, who visits yet another English ground for the first time in the league.
I expect them to win it, though, even though I also see Brighton putting up a bit of a fight.