I feel like it was just yesterday that I was watching Eden Hazard come to life and score the vital game-tying goal against Tottenham that handed Leicester City the unlikeliest of English Premier League triumphs. The Foxes, as they are known, pulled off one of the greatest feats in the history of sports by winning the EPL by not one or two points, but by 10 full points!
Before the season started, the Foxes were merely an afterthought as they had just escaped relegation the season prior. Because every team gets odds to win the league at the start of the season, Leicester was near the bottom, boasting long odds to the tune of 5000-1. They became the first team since Nottingham Forest in 1977-78 to win their first English championship. This triumph obviously tops their second-place finish in the 1928-29 season.
Unfortunately for Leicester City and the sporting world that loves a long shot, Leicester won't be taking any teams by surprise this season and could be in for a real difficult championship defense as they not only have to deal with the EPL season but also the added rigours of the Champions League. For the most part, Leicester City will field the same team as last, with the exception of out-of-the-blue start N'Golo Kante, who was lured away by Chelsea. Up front, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez figure to play another prominent role, and the man pulling the strings, Claudio Ranieri, just signed a contract extension until June of 2020.
Despite all that went well for Leicester en route to winning the title, plenty of things went wrong for other top contending teams down the stretch. Arsenal faded down the stretch thanks to a lack of depth, Chelsea looked relegation threatened for three-quarters of the season, Liverpool started very slow and only really played half-decent football when Jurgen Klopp arrived, Man City suffered from a slew of injuries, as did Man United, but the Red Devils also suffered from a lame-duck coach. And the last challengers the Foxes had to dispatch, Tottenham, slipped up when the pressure got to them.
The Premier League kicks off Saturday morning when Leicester travel to Hull in what I'm sure will be a hostile environment. There are many storylines to follow heading into this season, with the best ones touched on more in depth below.
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The relegation battle is almost as good as the title race itself. Fan bases are tortured as teams featuring incompetent managers and players claw tooth and nail to stave off relegation and stay in the top flight of English Football. That should be read: stay in the top flight or else the team loses money.
Looking at the relegation from a betting perspective, the favorite is Hull City (-163), with eight other teams behind them with odds smaller then +600. Burnley (+100), Middlesbrough (+200), Watford (+200), West Brom (+225), Sunderland (+225), Swansea (+300), Bournemouth (+400), Crystal Palace (+600) round out the list. Burnley is in the EPL as second division champions, which in my opinion gives them the best shot of the three newcomers (Hull, Burnley and Middlesbrough) to stay up for a at least one year.
The Coaching Carousel
This would make a great category on a show like "Sports Jeopardy". As is the case in every sport on this planet, coaches are usually the scapegoat when a team is underperforming. They are the first ones fired and blamed for the failures, yet they usually have a job within six months. This year in the EPL, eight teams have new touchline maestros calling the shots. Manchester United, Manchester City, Sunderland, Chelsea, Everton, Watford, Southampton and Hull City all will rely heavily on a new voice inside the dressing room to get the lads ready and perfect the Xs and Os.
As is usually the case, the biggest names in the league fetch the highest-profile coaches. Manchester United is set to embark on their first season with Jose "The Special One" Mourinho at the helm. The Portuguese boss, best known for his sideline antics, is hoping to find similar success he had with Porto (Champions League Winners) and Inter Milan (Treble Winners - Seria A, Coppa Italia, Champions League). This year, he might very well have a team good enough to contend in every trophy competition they take part in.
The "other" Manchester team, Manchester City, were not to be outdone by their city rivals. They were able to ink the signature of highly-regarded Pep Guardiola from Barcelona in hopes to return to the top of the Premier League for the first time since 2013-14. Guardiola brings his 14 trophies from his time at Barcelona to the Ethiad at a time when the team really needs a shot in the arm. It will be interesting to see how he adapts to his third league in four years.
And last but certainly not least is the new Chelsea skipper Antonio Conte. Conte spent the last five years of his club coaching career at Juventus, where he took a seventh-place team in 2009-10 and turned them into a three-time defending champion. For the last two years, Conte was at the helm of the Italian National squad, and he made them much better. If anyone can get the Xs and Os right with a Chelsea team lacking ambition, it's this man-motivation guru.
The Title Race
Year after year, season after season, the narrative is the same. We can expect the same four or five teams to be right at the top of the table. Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City and Tottenham. With the exception of last year and Leicester City's title shock, no first-time team had won their first title since 1977-78. So that leaves us right where we should be.
Arsenal's title hopes hinge on Arsene Wenger, and as I wrote that I picture Arsenal fans ripping their hair out. Arsenal is currently +600 to win the title, which leaves them as fourth favorites. The summer transfer window proved to be a mixed-bag for the Gunners. Yes, they did sign Borussia Monchengladbach's Granit Xhaka to patrol the midfield, but they did lose Mikel Arteta, Tomas Rosicky and Mathieu Flamini. The key to success for Arsenal is a having a healthy season, because after the starting XI, the drop off is quite steep considering their bench and role players. As is usually the case, the "over" seems to be the likely play when talking about Arsenal matches.
In my opinion, Chelsea (+55.0) got better this offseason with the appointment of Conte. I understand that it's up to the players to perform, but Conte will have their undivided attention. I even expect clowns like Diego Costa to buy in, should he remain with the team. They got stronger in the middle of the park by adding N'Golo Kante from Leicester, and upfront they added a supposed star in the making, Michy Batshuayi, from Marseille. The defense is always the concern with Chelsea, as they will likely deploy a back three of John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic and Gary Cahill.
The two Manchester teams I will group together and break them down side by side as they are the top two favorites for the title this season (City +250, United +333).
The coaching edge, in my opinion, goes to United because I feel that Jose Mourinho, while stubborn and harsh sometimes, can make more out of less with the team he has. Thankfully, he doesn't have a weak lineup, which only bodes well for him this season. Guardiola walked into two great situations in Barcelona and Bayern, where he inherited already great teams and had nothing to do but tinker a few things here and there. Man City is neither Barcelona or Bayern Munich, and it has yet to be seen if Pep can actually coach Xs and Os.
Both teams had amazing summer transfers this year and gained way more talent than they lost. The big signings for City were Leroy Sane, Ilkay Gundogan and Nolito, all three very good players. The big signings for United were more household names like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba. They also added Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who is no slouch either. I give the edge to United on this one because I think they have more to work with as a whole team. It will be interesting to see what Mourinho does and how he deploys his assets.
If I was a betting man, and I am, and I had $1000 bucks to place on who I think will be crowned EPL Champion come May 2017, I would put that money on Manchester United. Ultimately, they just have too much fire power up front and a stellar goalie in net that can steal one or two or three games when the team desperately needs it. It's going to be a fun season, and I wouldn't ever rule out the impossible again.
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