World Cup summers are exhausting for soccer stars but ideal for fans. We only needed to wait a month between the final weekend of the Premier League season (May 11) and the opening group match in Brazil. Now we’re just five weeks removed from Germany going Götze crazy, and it’s already time to jump right back into the weekly mayhem of European soccer.
The English Premier League kicks off Saturday at 7:45 a.m. EDT, with Manchester United taking on Swansea City at Old Trafford. Before it starts, let’s look at some of the league’s juiciest story lines.
Life without Luis Suarez
It’s time to revisit the perpetual debate of quantity vs. quality. Would you rather have Luis Suarez, the mercurial striker who’s just as likely to score a hat trick as chomp down on a Serbian defender, or $125 million worth of new players to round out your roster?
Love him or loathe him, Suarez was by far the best player in the league last season, scoring or assisting on 42.5 percent of Liverpool’s 101 goals. Brendan Rodgers and Co. used the money acquired in Suarez’s transfer to Barcelona to sign several players, most notably Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Lazar Marković. But even with the new signings, Liverpool is unlikely to replicate last season’s third-place finish, even if it has the English Messi (according to their manager, anyway). On a broader level, losing Suarez is a blow to the league, similar to losing other La Liga defectors like Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Luka Modrić in past years.
Can Arsenal actually win the league?
Arsenal’s ownership finally got its finances from its new stadium deal in order, opened up the checkbook and — surprise! — ended its trophy drought, winning the FA Cup last season and the Community Shield over Manchester City last week. Continuing what has become an annual tradition, Arsenal also lost a player, this time popular fullback Bacary Sagna, to a Manchester team (City, this time). But considering the recent talent drain — Robin Van Persie, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, to name a few — this summer Arsenal was finally a buyer instead of a seller, adding Barcelona star winger Alexis Sanchez. Last season, Arsenal sat atop the league table for 128 days, longer than any other team, only to stagger to the finish line, barely hanging on to a coveted top four spot.
Aaron Ramsey was the best midfielder in the Premiership and most important player on the team before suffering an injury that submarined the Gunners’ title ambitions. His health will be key to any trophy talk, but by no means the only question mark surrounding the team. Will the new additions be enough? Will fans ever fully embrace/trust Olivier Giroud? Will Arsenal fans miss being able to condescendingly criticize the cash-rich competition?
The Louis van Gaal era
Last season, Manchester United was the Los Angeles Lakers of the Premier League — a tremendously successful franchise that struggled mightily to the delight of every other fan base. After 20 years of stability behind the ruthless pragmatism of Sir Alex Ferguson, his successor, David Moyes, barely lasted the entire year. Player revolt, weekly leaked reports of locker room discord — United’s season had it all. Man U finished seventh, its worst Premiership result in 25 years and the first time it failed to qualify for European football since 1990.
Things will be different, very different, with Louis van Gaal taking over as coach. Van Gaal most recently managed the Netherlands national team and he might be the only manager with an ego comparable to Ferguson or Chelsea’s José Mourinho. Speaking of which, the United-Chelsea clashes should again become the league’s marquee rivalry with those two megalomaniacs squaring off. Brian Phillips of Grantland dug up several fantastic van Gaal’s anecdotes, including this one:
“It’s the early 2000s. Gerard Piqué is a teenage defender for Barcelona’s youth team. One day, Piqué’s grandfather, who’s a club director, takes the boy to meet van Gaal. Feeds the coach some kindly old-man stuff — you know, this is my grandson, really admires you, someday he’ll be a Barcelona defender. Van Gaal looks Piqué up and down and then, without warning, shoves him to the ground. “You’re too weak to be a Barcelona defender!” he shouts.”
Sorry Moyes, van Gaal belongs at that club.
Will Premier League teams continue to disappoint in the Champions League
Last season, only two EPL teams made it to the quarterfinals and Chelsea went the furthest, losing in the semifinals. That was actually an improvement over the previous 2012-13 season, when there wasn’t a single English team in the quarter finals. Yes, Chelsea won the tournament three seasons ago, but even that looks like an anomaly when you consider that it finished sixth in the Premier League that season and no other English team made it as far as the final eight. With Barcelona and Real Madrid locked in another transfer market arms race, combined with Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain poised for strong seasons, you have to wonder if the underperformance of English teams will change anytime soon. The Premiership is often given the title of best European soccer league, but it’ll be difficult to continue to make that case if the teams keep falling short against other top European clubs.
My final prediction for the top six:
3. Manchester City
4. Manchester United
What’s your pick?