The 2016/2017 season promises to be one of the most intriguing and exciting across England, with all of the top four divisions likely to throw up plenty of shocks and surprises along the way.
This is certainly the case in the Premier League where Leicester enjoyed a remarkable rise to prominence through avoiding relegation by the skin of their teeth to finishing as champions within the space of a year. Some would argue that Leicester prevailed during a season in which all of the perennial favourites failed to perform, but although it takes away from the wonderful success that Claudio Ranieri and his players worked so hard to earned, big managerial changes at three of the archetypal big guns would suggest that they will look to bounce back to prominence.
The arrival of Pep Guardiola (Manchester City), Jose Mourinho (Manchester United) and Antonio Conte (Chelsea) certainly suggests that they mean business, with a flurry of transfer activity across the board also likely to intensify the level of difficult and competitiveness within a league in which anything is possible.
There is no question that the Championship comes with the same qualities, with its reputation as the strongest second-tier division in world football doing justice to the level of drama, excitement and tension that is created at both ends of the table. The fact that anyone can beat anyone, combined with the ability of at least one team to surpass all expectations and challenge for promotion to the top flight, makes the league so unpredictable and difficult to call, with Coral getting none of their Championship football betting predictions right last week.
They will hope to get it right next time, particularly with an exciting meet-up between Derby and Aston Villa on the horizon, but although both divisions will provide eye-catching fixtures for the fans to enjoy, there are certain teams who look in good shape to finish top of their respective leagues.
The English Premier League
It is difficult to make concrete decisions based on the opening weekend of a new Premier League season, but the first round of games certainly offered an intriguing insight into who could knock Leicester off their perch.
Manchester City started the 2016/2017 season as favourites with Coral, namely through the arrival of Guardiola who could get the very best from a team that flattered to deceive on numerous occasions under Manuel Pellegrini. His first league game will certainly have been an eye-opener as to what to expect during his time in England, with Sunderland putting up a resilient fight despite going behind after only three minutes to a Sergio Aguero penalty.
The visitors almost snatched a point as Jermaine Defoe finished off a rare, but excellent attacking move from David Moyes’ men, before a late own- goal secured the points for Manchester City. Their performance certainly resembled a team going through a ‘work in progress’ stage, but the manner in which they ruthlessly tore Steaua Bucharest apart at will during their recent Champions League qualifier should have sent a shudder down the spines of their Premier League rivals.
Bringing John Stones and Ilkay Gundogan to the Etihad Stadium certainly adds more quality to areas that needed strengthening, and although there are suggestions that Joe Hart may leave the club after being left on the bench in both games, Manchester City appear the team to beat.
One side who could fancy their chances of overhauling the favourites are city rivals Manchester United, with Mourinho making a big statement of intent through his wish to win everything during his first season. He has more than delivered on the transfer front, with Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Eric Bailly representing superb business from a club who have merely gone through the motions over the last three years following Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
They were arguably the most impressive team during the opening weekend, with their clinical 3-1 victory at Bournemouth a sign of things to come; Manchester United played with more intent and purpose to their game, with the injection of quality in the final third following Ibrahimovic’s arrival could reap dividends as the season goes on.
Another team who impressed during the opening weekend was Chelsea, with Conte making an instant impact at Stamford Bridge with a deserved 2-1 victory against West Ham. They were almost made to pay for wasting a number of chances as Chelsea looked much more dangerous than they did last season, with Eden Hazard in particular looking back to his best, but Diego Costa’s fine strike from outside the box sealed the points. It remains to be seen whether Conte can make improvements to a back four that looked anything but secure under Mourinho and Guus Hiddink, but early indications would suggest that Chelsea have the quality to be there or thereabouts come next May.
Brighton’s surge from avoiding relegation in 2015 to finishing third on goal difference and then lose in the play-off semi-finals in May is proof, if needed, that the Championship has the potential for one team to emerge from nowhere and challenge at the top. Huddersfield, Barnsley and Bristol City are amongst a number of teams who have made a blistering start to the 2016/2017 season, despite being tipped by some in the Championship football betting odds to struggle at the wrong end of the table, but Brighton’s rise to prominence could see them go one step further and make Premier League football a reality.
Chris Hughton has done a superb job to transform their fortunes, with Glenn Murray’s return to the club on loan already reaping dividends as the striker has scored three goals in as many games. The Seagulls certainly appear to have put last season’s heartbreak behind them by surging to the top of the table and failing to concede a goal, and although keeping hold of Lewis Dunk and Anthony Knockaert before the transfer window closes may prove difficult, Brighton look in good shape to challenge for promotion once again. Newcastle have endured a miserable fall from grace, with Rafa Benitez unable to save the Tynesiders following Steve McClaren’s ill-fated spell in charge at the club.
Their relegation illustrates that no team is too good to turn down, and although they arrive in the Championship with the likes of Tim Krul and Moussa Sissoko still at St. James’ Park, a string of poor performances in the Premier League ultimately led to their demise. Losing their opening games against Fulham and Huddersfield will have provided a harsh lesson of what the Championship has in store for Newcastle, although the recent 4-1 victory at home to Reading may put the promotion favourites back on track. Benitez has spent big in order to improve his team’s chances of going up, with Dwight Gayle and Matt Ritchie likely to play key role if Newcastle are to return to the Premier League.
Another team who will look to bounce back up at the first attempt is Norwich who failed to adapt to life in the Premier League, with a shortage of goals ultimately proven their downfall. Alex Neil has certainly proven himself in the Championship before, having taken the Canaries up in 2014/2015 following a scintillating run of form upon his arrival at the club from Hamilton.
The core of the squad which earned promotion with Norwich have remained, with Wes Hoolahan, Cameron Jerome and John Ruddy among those who will play important roles for a team who certainly have the quality in all areas to be strong contenders to finish top of the table.