The English Premier League kicked off last night. Singapore soccer fans would have joined at least 1.3 billion viewers around the world to watch the start of yet another season of addictive soccer madness, Covid-19 or no Covid-19. I declare my pecuniary interest. I am a Liverpool fan, so I will be rooting for Jurgen Klopp’s team to win the title again just like they did in 2019-2020 before relinquishing it to Manchester City in 2020-2021. Virgil van Dijk and Diogo Jota are back, Sadio Mane and Mo Salah look fresh. But BBC soccer pundits say no, with many predicting Liverpool will come in at most third or fourth.
The bets and the race are on.
Before I dived into what’s really piquing me about the EPL lately, let me give you my unabashedly biased views about two of the other three contenders for 2021. Chelsea is untouchable EPL royalty, having won enough EPL titles to prove its pedigree. It even snared a second UEFA Champions League trophy last year. Manchester United has lost it since the departure of the great Alex Ferguson. Its current manager has been struggling to fill the massive boots left behind. While the other top clubs have spent to get the best coaches available, MU does not seem to have any vision yet about its post-Ferguson future.
And what about Manchester City? Yes, City has won the EPL a couple of times. To be precise, it practically bought its way to the top. Wikipedia: “Since Sheikh Mansour’s Abu Dhabi United Group acquired Manchester City in 2008, the club has spent a staggering US$1.8b (Sing$2.44b) on 70 signings — an investment that has been instrumental to the Blues rapid rise to the elite of European football over the past 13 years.” Money could not buy European recognition yet (no UEFA Champions League yet). Pedigree still matters.
As Liverpool, Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs fight it out in this new season, two things intrigue me.
First, what has happened to the mighty Arsenal? During its Thierry Henry inspired Invincibles golden era under Arsene Wenger, it was the team to beat and it was also invariably the big brother of the London clubs. Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur were floundering it its shadow. No more. Last year, Arsenal finished eighth, missing out on European competition for the first time in 26 years.
It is not as if Arsenal had suddenly lost its way. The Gunners has always been a big club, with an illustrious history, strong fan base, good financial backing and lately a fabulous home (the $730 million Emirates Stadium). But recent ownership changes have destabilised the club somewhat, with rumbles among fans and players over the club’s direction and ability to keep up with the pace set by the other major teams.
Here’s what ex-Arsenal fullback Martin Keown has to say about his former club: “Arsenal is in transition at the moment. There will be some pressure on Arsenal early on, because they have got some very difficult early fixtures against Chelsea and City in the first couple of weeks. …the club has tumbled down the league, and there are other clubs with more resources than them now.” Not at all optimistic.
I believe it is not just about having the resources. In sports, it is also about ambition, belief and values.
Leicester City has an abundance of these.
The club won the Premier League in 2016, two years after promotion to the top tier of English league soccer. It finished fifth last year but captured its first ever FA Cup after beating Chelsea 1–0.
Yet, the Foxes could have easily succumbed to a tragedy which took place in its ascent to a stable place at the top. Club owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha’s helicopter crashed outside the King Power Stadium, shortly after taking off from the pitch on 27 October 2018, killing Vichai and all four other people on board.
But the club did not. Its players and fans rallied round the new owner, Aiyyawatt, Vichai’s son, who took over his dad’s place as CEO and Chairman of the Thai-led consortium Asian Football Investments which owned the club. Leicester City players, including team striker and England player James Vardy, flew all the way to attend Vichai’s funeral in Thailand.
For a club with relatively limited resources, Leicester seems to have been over-performing. Or has it? Almost everyone at the club appears to have something to prove.
The players picked themselves up and played with even greater passion. Their manager himself is hell bent to prove something after having been pushed out of Liverpool to make way for Jurgen Klopp. Brendan Rodgers wants to be known as the best British football manager of the moment. A near-miss with Liverpool for the EPL title, triumphs with Celtic in the Scottish Premier League and now mixing it up at Leicester, all ready to do better than fifth.
He has players and a highly motivated young owner sharing the same burning desire to reprise 2016. Fifth place in 2020-21 is not at all a bad springboard from which to mount another title assault in 2021-22.
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company. Follow us on Social Media
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