London: Manchester City have Premier League immortality in their sights as they start their title defence this weekend, but Liverpool’s burning desire to get their hands on the trophy will fuel a heavyweight battle for supremacy.
In the blue corner, treble winners City are at the peak of their powers and look capable of enjoying a period of sustained dominance not seen since Manchester United earned three successive Premier League titles from 2007 to 2009.
But in the red corner, European champions Liverpool, chasing a first English title since 1990, have more than a puncher’s chance of ending City’s reign after pushing Pep Guardiola’s side all the way to the final day last season.
The first blows will be landed this week as Liverpool kick off the new Premier League campaign against promoted Norwich at Anfield on Friday, before City head to West Ham on Saturday.
Sunday’s no-holds-barred Community Shield clash showed the growing rivalry between England’s pre-eminent teams, with City beating Liverpool on penalties following a 1-1 draw that underlined how little there is to separate the sides.
Adding Atletico Madrid’s Rodri for a club-record ?63 million ( 77 million) gives Guardiola an even greater embarrassment of riches.
With five major trophies over the past two seasons — including Premier League crowns clinched with unprecedented hauls of 100 and then 98 points — City are the bookmakers’ favourites to become only the second club to win a hat-trick of English titles in the past 35 years after United did it twice.
Guardiola is a keen student of football history and has revelled in City’s record-breaking feats, so the opportunity to further bolster his team’s credentials as one of England’s all-time greats will not be lost on the Spaniard.
Although City have never won the Champions League and Guardiola last lifted it back in 2011 with Barcelona, he said domestic bliss remains his preferred passion.
“To maintain the health and focus of the team, the most important thing is the Premier League,” Guardiola said.
“It is the standout competition because it is every weekend. In the Champions League, many things can happen in one or two games.
“We will be closer to achieving in Europe when we have more Premier League titles. That is a nice process and the right process to do at Manchester City.
“If I could have one thing this season, right now, it would definitely be the title.”
– No hangover –
It would be a surprise if Liverpool do not make City sweat right to the finish once again after bouncing back from last season’s agonising near-miss in the title race by winning their sixth European Cup. No team has ever gathered more points without winning the Premier League than second-placed Liverpool did last season with their tally of 97.
Jurgen Klopp’s side lost just once in their 38 league games — crucially that defeat came against City — but their 2-0 Champions League final win over Tottenham ensured there was no title hangover.
Liverpool had the Premier League’s meanest defence last season and boast an attack featuring two of the campaign’s three leading scorers in Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane.
Despite that wealth of talent, Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum admits making a fast start is essential to stop City establishing a stranglehold at the top.
“You just have to collect as many points as possible, especially in the beginning, and try to build a team who will be even better at the end of the season,” Wijnaldum said.
“We can try and do even better than last season. Basically it starts now because now we have the whole team together.”
Challengers to City and Liverpool are likely to be thin on the ground. Since winning the Europa League, Chelsea have lost star playmaker Eden Hazard to Real Madrid and hired an idolised but inexperienced new manager in Frank Lampard, who is working under the club’s transfer ban.
Guardiola suggests Manchester United are contenders after making ?80-million-man Harry Maguire the world’s most expensive defender and landing young talents Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James.
But it is hard to imagine United, who ended 32 points adrift of City in sixth place, bridging that gap this season.
Arsenal have the look of pretenders rather than contenders, while Tottenham have not invested enough to satisfy boss Mauricio Pochettino despite a paying a club record of around 54 million for Lyon’s Tanguy Ndombele. (PTI)