Get your kicks – it’s silly season
“Revons plus grand,” or “think bigger,” is not only Paris Saint-Germain’s motto, but also a good description of everyone involved in soccer at the start of a new season. Those fans in the French capital though could be excused for that extra bit of excitement following the biggest scoop of the summer, the €221 million acquisition of Brazilian superstar Neymar from Barcelona, which, for critics of the “Beautiful Game,” was the tipping point at which all sense of logic and reason had finally flown out the window.
PSG fans won’t be complaining though, and should all things go to plan and the club finally realize its dream to lift club soccer’s biggest prize, the Champions League trophy, it will seem like a gamble worth taking. Domestically their first challenge will be putting last season’s upstarts Monaco back in their place, and while scoring on his league debut helped, the purchase of Neymar was more than just about settling local disputes – the pressure to win the Champions League, or at least to reach the final for the first time, is now more intense than ever. Only then will we truly be able to see whether the Brazilian star is true value for the money.
Neymar’s former teammates at Barca may have other ideas. Still licking their wounds after an uncharacteristically early exit from last season’s Champions League, ironically at the hands of PSG in the Round of 16, their campaign ended with the indignity of coming second behind bitter rivals Real Madrid, who compounded the Catalans’ pain by adding the Champions League trophy for a record 12th time. With new coach Ernesto Valverde at the helm, the club is in a state of transition, so perhaps Barca’s best chance of avoiding a repeat, may depend on whether Los Blancos from the capital retain their hunger for winning silverware, having won the prestigious Champions League and La Liga double last time around. Mind you, a treble this season isn’t beyond the realms of fantasy either, especially bearing in mind how they swept aside Barca in the Super Cup.
In England, a more normal order was re-established last season with Chelsea winning the Premier League title, one year after Leicester’s miraculous victory. Despite Claudio Ranieri’s team proving that really anyone can win the league, the Italian was gone by February and Antonio Conte’s side eventually ran out as comfortable victors ahead of Tottenham, Manchester City and Liverpool.
Chelsea, despite a nightmare start, will surely be in the mix again, although they were more restrained in the transfer market than some of their opponents, who at times were breaking their own previous records on a regular basis. Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United, who squeezed into this season’s Champions League by winning the Europa League final, after ending in a disappointing fifth spot, are a case in point.
After nudging the €100 million mark for Paul Pogba last summer, United fell short upfront, which they sought to rectify by paying Everton €75 million for Romelu Lukaku. Perhaps even more significantly though, by prizing Nemanja Matic from Chelsea, Mourinho may have tipped the scales in United’s favor in the final shake up, especially judging by their blistering start in the league.
Across Manchester meanwhile, Pep Guardiola at City perhaps has the biggest challenge of his career this season. After the relative comfort of leading Barcelona and Bayern Munich, his failure to win silverware in his first season in England was a blow to his hitherto unblemished reputation, and like Mourinho in the red half of the city, his report card would read “must do better.”
He acted swiftly in the summer transfer market breaking the world transfer record for a goalkeeper with the signing of the Brazilian Ederson Moraes from Benfica while a new look back line was expensively completed with the additions of Kyle Walker, Danilo, and Benjamin Mendy, whose €58 million price tag was yet another world record for a defender.
Current title holders Chelsea aren’t resting on their laurels in the attacking department either, breaking their own record to sign the Spaniard Alvaro Morata from Real Madrid. Although the Manchester clubs seem the most popular choices to take the throne, Conte is well aware that it was a similar case last year, too, and his side still won the league in the end at a canter.
Tottenham came close last year, but they have a unique challenge that may hinder their chances this time around as they get used to playing their “home” games at Wembley, while they wait for their new stadium to be built. Experience from playing there in the Champions League suggests that this may be a deal-breaker as far as this season is concerned.
‘Chelsea will surely be in the mix again’
Liverpool meanwhile would be popular winners home and abroad, but the nagging suggestion, despite what already looks like a canny move for Mohamed Salah, is that there is still just too little depth in the squad at Anfied, while Arsenal, despite the record-breaking addition of Alexandre Lacazatte, still feel like an outside bet.
Over in Italy, Serie A could be the most intriguing of all. Juventus may have ruled the roost for the past six years, but there’s a growing feeling that time may catch up with “The Old Lady” this year. Milan, boosted by a huge cash injection from a Chinese investment management company, and also by the luring of star defender Leonardo Bonucci from reigning champions Juve, are eager to reclaim the glory days that not so long ago made them one of soccer’s most feared opponents. They may just manage it.
But it’s still only September and there is plenty of soccer still to be played over the next seven months or so. As everyone else is making predictions, we’ll stick our necks out and say champagne corks will be flying in the capitals of France and Spain and the red half of Manchester come the summer. For many fans of everyone outside the elite though, the pre-season hope and expectation is already starting to wane, as reality starts to bite.
Or, as they say at PSG, “plus ça change...”
Text: Geoff Mortimore