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PREMIER LEAGUE REPORT CARD: Liverpool, Man City, Man United, Newcastle and Norwich season preview

The new Premier League season is upon us with all the giddy excitement and optimism that brings.

We can expect the usual drama from the self-styled ‘best league in the world’ where, as we’ve seen time and time again, anyone can beat anyone.

Manchester City will be looking to defend their title but can expect to be pushing hard by Manchester United, Liverpool and reigning European champions Chelsea.

Manchester City won the Premier League title last season and start as favourites once again

FA Cup holders Leicester City will again be trying to crack the top four, leading a cluster of sides with designs on qualifying for Europe.

And towards the bottom, the three newly-promoted clubs – Watford, Norwich and Brentford – will be hoping their Premier League experience isn’t a brief one while the likes of Burnley, Brighton and Southampton battle to keep heads above water.

Ahead of the big kick-off on Friday night, we will preview the new Premier League season in four parts, assessing the prospects for all 20 teams. Part three covers Liverpool through to Norwich.

LIVERPOOL

Though they failed to win any silverware, Liverpool really did pull something satisfactory out of the fire last season.

An outstanding late season run of 10 Premier League games unbeaten, with eight wins, saw Jurgen Klopp’s side finish in third, a highly improbably scenario in mid-March.

While the continuation of Champions League cash is obviously welcome post-pandemic, it also proved conclusively that the ‘mentality monsters’ fighting spirit Klopp has instilled at Anfield remained very much in tact.

Liverpool will be hoping for better fortune with injuries in order to challenge City for the title

Liverpool will be hoping for better fortune with injuries in order to challenge City for the title 

They fell a long way short of defending their title but given the debilitating blows of defensive injuries, round peg midfielders being jammed into square holes at the back and forwards well short of their best form, it was as good as could be hoped.

Klopp, who well and truly lost his pizzazz amid a string of mid-season defeats which came alongside his mother’s passing and Covid restraints, will feel it can’t be any worse this time.

Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip are due to filter back into the team in the first weeks of the season, which will permit Fabinho and Jordan Henderson to return to more familiar duties.

But the departure of Georginio Wijnaldum, who joined for PSG on a free after failing to agree a new contract at Liverpool, will concern supporters.

Virgil van Dijk (left) and Joe Gomes (right) are on their way back to full fitness after injuries

Virgil van Dijk (left) and Joe Gomes (right) are on their way back to full fitness after injuries 

Wijnaldum played in all 38 league games last season but his importance was apparently not reflected in the offer that was tabled.

Up front, Diogo Jota revitalised the established front three of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino but everyone will need to go again to keep pace with Man City’s Rolls Royce attack.

The £36m signing of Ibrahima Konate from Leipzig will prevent a repeat of defensive vulnerabilities if the worst should happen again.

But losing three first choice centre-backs to injury this season as last would truly be rotten luck.

If Liverpool can harness the winning momentum from the spring, they have every chance of keeping up with the team that stole their crown.

The strong finish to last season proved Jurgen Klopp's side have retained a strong mentality

The strong finish to last season proved Jurgen Klopp’s side have retained a strong mentality 

MANCHESTER CITY

Can anybody stop them?

The champions have become even stronger with the £100million British record signing of Jack Grealish one hell of a statement of intent. And that’s before you even consider Harry Kane.

Pep Guardiola’s side finished 12 points clear last season for their third title in four years and it really is difficult to see beyond them again this time.

The hope is that Chelsea – who denied Guardiola and City’s owners this long-craved Champions League glory back in May – Liverpool and Manchester United can challenge and make the title race more exciting.

Manchester City's £100million signing of Jack Grealish has laid down the gauntlet

Manchester City’s £100million signing of Jack Grealish has laid down the gauntlet 

But all the indications point to further City success and probably the crossing of that final European frontier as well (though PSG may have something to say about that).

City stand above their title rivals in having at least two top quality players in every position, combining a resolute defence, classy midfield and dazzlingly creative strike force.

When that is married to Guardiola’s unsurpassed man management skills and the financial clout to buy almost anyone – City are approaching the £1billion spending mark in five years of Pep – they begin to look irresistible.

City will once again look to midfield talisman Kevin De Bruyne to inspire them this season

City will once again look to midfield talisman Kevin De Bruyne to inspire them this season

The one area they need to address is finding the long-term successor to Sergio Aguero up front. If they do land Kane at a cool £150m that settles the matter for the next four to five years.

And if you add the 30 goals a season Kane guarantees you, then City will dominate until Guardiola gets bored.   

Pep Guardiola's appetite to success is undiminished and now Europe is the final frontier

Pep Guardiola’s appetite to success is undiminished and now Europe is the final frontier 

MANCHESTER UNITED

Manchester United missed a decent centre half to firm up a vulnerable back line last season. They now have one.

United lacked a world class right-sided attacker who could score and create goals in abundance last season. They now have one.

So Ole Gunnar Solskjaer really has no excuses left. The arrivals of Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane, for a combined £114million, plus his own new contract, have seen the club back him to the hilt. Now he must deliver trophies.

Manchester United have splashed out £73m on Jadon Sancho as they launch a title charge

Manchester United have splashed out £73m on Jadon Sancho as they launch a title charge 

And United are certainly better placed than they were 12 months ago after summer transfer business that was surprisingly brisk and straightforward.

As a club legend, Solskjaer has more slack than most managers but another season finishing a distant second to City without winning anything else won’t be acceptable.

With PSG splashing out on Lionel Messi, it looks like their pursuit of Paul Pogba is over as well so United should end up stronger in midfield as well even if a holding player is still needed.

What is clear is that Solskjaer cannot afford the kind of slow start that suffocated United’s title challenge right away in the past two seasons.

There won't be any excuses for United not to win silverware in the season ahead

There won’t be any excuses for United not to win silverware in the season ahead 

While Sancho and Varane will obviously need time to settle in, they must hit the ground running because City, Chelsea and Liverpool won’t be hanging around.

A run deep in the Champions League will also be anticipated. United cannot crash out at the end of the group stage as they did last December, albeit going on to reach the Europa League final.

Solskjaer’s tenure has seen slow and steady forward progress but always with the caveat that ‘we need another player or two.’

That line of argument has now vanished with United’s squad looking stronger than at any point post-Ferguson. Time to deliver.

United will once again look to Bruno Fernandes to produce the magic and score goals

United will once again look to Bruno Fernandes to produce the magic and score goals

NEWCASTLE UNITED

At no Premier League club will the return of fans to stadiums influence the mood as much as at Newcastle.

The St James’ Park regulars, on the whole, continue to be seriously underwhelmed by manager Steve Bruce, who guided them to a wholly respectable 12th-placed finish last season.

There were plenty of times when Bruce sailed pretty close to the sun – especially during a bleak midwinter that at one stage saw six losses on the spin – and he maybe survived only because the Gallowgate wasn’t there to vent its fury.

Steve Bruce is unpopular with many fans but guided Newcastle to a 12th-placed finish last term

Steve Bruce is unpopular with many fans but guided Newcastle to a 12th-placed finish last term

Mike Ashley’s loyalty to Bruce ultimately led to mid-table security but you don’t have to go far to find Newcastle fans who vehemently believe they should be doing an awful lot better.

An impartial look at Newcastle’s squad tends to come up with an opposite opinion and they have yet to get any transfers over the line.

However, news that a £22million fee for last season’s loan star Joe Willock will help soothe anxieties ahead of the new campaign.

A fee of £22million has been agreed with Arsenal to make Joe Willock's loan permanent

A fee of £22million has been agreed with Arsenal to make Joe Willock’s loan permanent 

The hope is that Joelinton finally comes up with the goods, that Willock, Miguel Almiron and Allan Saint-Maximin find enough defences to run through, and that the back line is less leaky.

A pre-season working under Bruce’s assistant Graeme Jones – who improved matters when he arrived from Bournemouth in January and is fresh from helping Gareth Southgate’s England to the Euros final – will hopefully help.

Ashley’s arbitration case against the Premier League over the halted Saudi Arabian-led takeover of the club will be a sideshow to a season likely to feature much of the same.

Speedster Allan Saint-Maximin will be one of Newcastle's principal threats going forward

Speedster Allan Saint-Maximin will be one of Newcastle’s principal threats going forward

NORWICH CITY

Look who’s back again.

Norwich once again bossed the Championship but now really is the time to cast off that yo-yo club reputation and establish themselves in the top flight.

Last time they were round this way, in 2019-20, they went down with just 21 points and barely a whimper, losing every single match after the post-lockdown restart.

Somehow, it has to be a lot better this time around but achieved without talisman Emiliano Buendia, who has moved to Aston Villa.

Norwich City are back in the Premier League again after domination in the Championship

Norwich City are back in the Premier League again after domination in the Championship

At least the £40million raised from the Argentine’s departure has been reinvested into new acquisitions for Daniel Farke’s squad, giving the German more of a chance than last time.

Wide forward Milot Rashica has come in from Werder Bremen for £8m, while United States international Josh Sargent has followed him.

The loan signing of Billy Gilmour from Chelsea also looks an astute move and at the back, Ben Gibson has made his loan from Burnley permanent.

Talented Chelsea midfielder Billy Gilmour is an exciting addition for Norwich on loan

Talented Chelsea midfielder Billy Gilmour is an exciting addition for Norwich on loan 

While we can expect Norwich to remain true to themselves and seek to play football that’s pleasing on the eye, their latest Championship promotion was notable for a greater defensive steel.

You sense that will prove of greater value in the Premier League, where they shipped 75 goals last time but don’t expect any change to the gloomy predictions of an immediate return to the Championship.

Norwich do look better equipped this time around to stay up but you have to say that would come as a surprise.

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