Manchester City saw their main rivals for the Premier League title get off to a flying start on Saturday before the champions stumbled at Tottenham on Sunday.

Son Heung-min continued his phenomenal recent record against City with the only goal, while Pep Guardiola's men drew a blank for a third consecutive game in all competitions. Perhaps there's someone in north London who could help them out with that?

Manchester United and European champions Chelsea revelled back in front of full houses and Liverpool gave newly-promoted Norwich City a reality check.

But those are the bare facts. Let's delve a little deeper to examine some of the quirkier happenings on the Premier League's opening weekend.

Stumbling start for City

Guardiola suggested his stars returning from Euro 2020 and Copa America duty might be undercooked and so it proved. The 1-0 loss at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium puts City in territory they are not used to.

You have to go back to 2008-09 and a 4-2 defeat at Aston Villa for the previous time City lost their opening Premier League fixture.

In that same campaign, Guardiola's fledgling Barcelona tenure got off to an inauspicious start with a reverse against Numancia that indicated little of the treble win that was about to unfold. The Catalan had overseen 11 subsequent opening day wins since then.

Perhaps it was always going to be Spurs who halted his run, Guardiola has now lost more away games against Tottenham (five) in all competitions than any other opponent in his career.

It is also worth considering whether he is chasing the wrong Spurs forward. Only Jamie Vardy (nine) has more than Son's seven goals against City since Guardiola took charge in 2016.

Liverpool defender Ben Davies has joined Sheffield United on a season-long loan deal.

Davies joined Jurgen Klopp's men amid a centre-back shortage at Anfield, though he has failed to make a single senior appearance since his arrival in February.

The centre-back, 26, has returned to the Championship, having previously made 136 appearances for Preston North End, where he was named Player of the Year in 2018-19.

In that standout campaign, Davies led Preston's charts for duels won and interceptions, with 255 and 54 respectively, and also ranked second in terms of successful aerial duels – two behind Andrew Hughes' 175.

"I'm really happy to be here," said Davies. "I always liked playing against Sheffield United and the atmosphere.

"Hopefully I can fit into the manager's plans well. I've missed match days and the buzz of having fans in grounds.

"That's part of the excitement of coming here and hopefully having a successful year."

The Blades were relegated from the Premier League last term with six games remaining, becoming the fourth side condemned to the drop with as many matches still to play.

No side has been relegated from the Premier League with more matches left to play – Ipswich Town (1994-95), Derby County (2007-08) and Huddersfield Town (2018-19) also went down with six games outstanding.

With Slavisa Jokanovic in charge now, United will be hoping their manager – who has previously taken both Watford and Fulham back up – can immediately restore their top-flight status.

Nine of the rebel clubs that signed up for the doomed Super League project have been welcomed back into the European Club Association (ECA).

Six Premier League teams – Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal – are back in the independent body that oversees the European club game, along with LaLiga champions Atletico Madrid and Serie A rivals Milan and Inter.

That amounts to three quarters of the initial breakaway dozen, with the financially stricken Barcelona retaining a commitment to the ill-fated collaboration along with Real Madrid and Juventus.

All 12 founding Super League clubs quit the ECA in April before the quick collapse of the new competition amid supporter protests and opposition from governing bodies.

"Following the receipt by ECA of specific requests asking the ECA Board to consider the withdrawal of their previous resignation requests of April 2021, the ECA Executive Board has agreed that the following clubs will retain their ECA ordinary membership for the current 2019-23 ECA membership cycle: AC Milan, Arsenal FC, Chelsea FC, Club Atletico de Madrid, FC Internazionale Milano, Liverpool FC, Manchester City FC, Manchester United FC and Tottenham Hotspur FC," an ECA statement read.

"In its decision, and after an exhaustive process of re-engagement by the clubs and re-assessment by ECA over recent months, the ECA Executive Board took into consideration the clubs’ acknowledgement that the so-called European Super League project was not in the interests of the wider football community and their publicly communicated decisions to abandon said ESL project completely.

"The ECA Board also acknowledged the clubs’ stated willingness to engage actively with ECA in its collective mission to develop European club football – in the open and transparent interests of all, not the few."

The nine teams re-admitted to the ECA, which is now chaired by Paris Saint-Germain chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi, previously reached a financial settlement with UEFA, amounting to a combined payment of €15million and five per cent of revenues from one season of European competitions.

Additionally the clubs agreed to be fined €100m if they attempt to play in any future unauthorised competition.

Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk has disclosed the tough mental hurdle he had to jump on his return from injury and warned it will take time to reach peak form as he is "not a robot".

The Netherlands international came through the full 90 minutes of Saturday's 3-0 win at Norwich City in Liverpool's opening game of the 2021-22 Premier League campaign – his first competitive outing since October 2020.

Van Dijk had started every league game for the Reds in the prior two campaigns but sustained anterior cruciate ligament damage in a challenge with Everton's Jordan Pickford that ended his season and ruled him out of Euro 2020.

He also featured three times for Liverpool in pre-season, but the centre-back – voted the PFA Player of the Year in 2018-19 – acknowledged it will take more than one full 90-minute run out to get back to his best.

"Being back is not the closing of a chapter," he said. "It is still getting there. I wanted to be out there. I wanted to be playing from the first match because I feel I need it and it will improve me. 

"From my point of view, knowing my own body, there are plenty of things to improve but I am not a robot. I cannot be back to 100 per cent immediately. 

"The first game was very emotional and very tough for many reasons. You visualise the game so many times in your head before you actually play.

"I was tired because of everything around the game. It was sort of like a hurdle. I had to get over that, I felt like then it will come again. So that is what happened in my point of view. 

"I kept training well and felt confident in my knee. It's been a tough road but I am just happy to be out there again."

Liverpool sorely missed Van Dijk's leadership and defensive attributes last season, with only one player in the league bettering his 191 aerial wins during the Reds' title-winning campaign of 2019-20.

The Dutchman attempted and completed more passes than any other defender that campaign, while Trent Alexander-Arnold was the sole defensive player to have more than his 3,624 touches.

He slotted in seamlessly against Norwich, helping his side to a clean sheet and completing the joint third-most passes of any player in the division in gameweek one, level with Jorginho (82) and behind only Caglar Soyuncu (87) and Andreas Christensen (105).

Reflecting on his first match back, Van Dijk said: "To win the first game 3-0 is something we will sign for, but if you look at the game critically, there is a lot to improve.

"It is the start of the season and we will improve. That is how we hopefully get better and we will give it a go next week.

"I am proud of myself and proud of the people who helped me, like my wife and kids, and at the club. The first step is to get match fitness and be back to my best. I need games, time and repetition. I'm just lucky we have a fantastic manager who helps me."

Is Kylian Mbappe's future nearing a resolution?

Mbappe is out of contract at the end of the season and the Paris Saint-Germain forward is no closer to extending his contract in the
French capital.

Real Madrid are reportedly poised to pounce.

 

TOP STORY – MADRID NEARING MBAPPE DEAL?

Real Madrid are closing in on Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe, according to the front page of Monday's Marca.

Mbappe is in the final year of his PSG contract and he has reportedly made it clear he has no intention of re-signing in Paris.

Long touted to join Madrid, the LaLiga giants' pursuit of Mbappe is set to enter a decisive phase this week.

The Transfer Window podcast, however, claims Liverpool will attempt to sign Mbappe on a free transfer at the end of the 2021-22 season.

 

ROUND-UP

- Sport reports Barcelona are monitoring Arsenal pair Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as they look to rebuild following Lionel Messi's departure to PSG.

- Inter are eyeing Napoli captain Lorenzo Insigne but want a discount on the Italy star, claims Sky Sport Italia. Napoli value Insigne at around €25-30million with one year remaining on his contract. Lazio's Joaquin Correa, Atalanta forward Duvan Zapata and Fiorentina sensation Dusan Vlahovic have also been linked to Inter.

- Sport Italia says Tottenham are in talks with Fiorentina for centre-back Nikola Milenkovic, who has been linked with West Ham. Spurs are also keen on Fiorentina star Vlahovic, according to Sport Italia.

- According to Cadena SER, Antoine Griezmann is open to returning to Atletico Madrid this off-season. Griezmann swapped Atletico for Barca in 2019.

Luka Jovic has decided he wants to join Inter on loan, per Nerazzurri Siamo Noi. The Madrid outcast has also been linked with Eintracht Frankfurt, Sampdoria and Genoa.

Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City are tracking Metz's 18-year-old midfielder Pape Matar Sarr, claims the Daily Mail.

Manchester City's interest in signing Tottenham forward Harry Kane is well known.

The two sides will meet on Sunday in the Premier League with the situation adding spice.

Spurs have held out on City's interest although the matter will develop as the conclusion of the transfer window approaches.

 

TOP STORY – SPURS HOLDING FIRM ON KANE

Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy is refusing to budge as Manchester City attempt to sign Harry Kane, reports The Telegraph.

Levy will come face to face with City officials in Sunday's Premier League meeting between the two sides.

The report claims the Spurs chairman is unwavering in his plan to retain his best player despite Kane expressing his desire to leave.

ROUND-UP

- Despite that, Tottenham continue to be linked with big-money moves, hinting they are expecting funds in their pockets soon, with Villarreal's Pau Torres firmly in their sights for £55m (€65m) according to The Mirror.

- Tammy Abraham's proposed switch from Chelsea to Roma is imminent according to The Athletic. The fee is reportedly worth €40m (£34m) with a buy-back clause after his second season.

- Calciomercato claims that Bayern Munich are willing to accept Hector Bellerin as part of a straight swap with Arsenal for Corentin Tolisso .

- Despite heavy speculation, Liverpool are yet to formally lodge a bid for Atletico Madrid's Saul Niguez claims AS.

- Former Atletico Madrid and Chelsea striker Diego Costa is set to complete his move to join Brazilian club Atletico Mineiro until December next year reports Fabrizio Romano.

Liverpool have condemned an "offensive and inappropriate" chant heard during their Premier League win over Norwich City on Saturday.

The homophobic chant, which could clearly be heard on television coverage of the match, appeared to be aimed at Norwich's on-loan Chelsea midfielder Billy Gilmour.

Liverpool's LGBTQ+ fan group, Kop Outs!, highlighted the issue on social media.

"Great result today marred by homophobic chanting by some of our fans targeting Chelsea loanee Billy Gilmour," the group posted.

"If you can't support without resorting to bigoted nonsense, you don't understand YNWA [you'll never walk alone]."

The club have previously criticised airings of the same chant and shared the post.

Liverpool added: "The chant is offensive and inappropriate – a message we have repeatedly communicated alongside Kop Outs. 

"We urge supporters to remember the inclusive values of the club and to refrain from using it in the future."

Capacity crowds returned to Premier League stadiums this week for the first time since the 2019-20 campaign due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Jurgen Klopp conceded his Liverpool players will have to get used to playing in front of crowds again after overseeing an opening 3-0 Premier League win at Norwich City.

Mohamed Salah set a new Premier League record by scoring on a fifth successive opening weekend, having laid on goals for Diogo Jota and substitute Roberto Firmino.

But Klopp felt Liverpool were not at their best before Jota's 26th-minute opener and suggested the capacity Carrow Road crowd was a factor.

"We saw on Sunday and Monday playing against [Athletic] Bilbao and Osasuna, we were sensationally lively from the start," he told Sky Sports, referencing Liverpool's final pre-season friendlies played out in front of fans at Anfield.

"It was not the case today. Let's get used to it. I could see it in the eyes of the players. That's fine for the first game but, of course, we want to start differently.

"And, yes, everybody has to get used to an atmosphere again. Hopefully we have a great atmosphere next Saturday [against Burnley at Anfield] and let's try to use it.

"We scored goals and controlled the game apart from two or three situations.

"It was not perfect, of course, but that's not important. It's important that we get the result and can build on it and work with it. We can work with this performance very well."

Virgil van Dijk came through 90 minutes on his first competitive appearance since last October.

"Top," Klopp said of the Dutch centre-back's display. "After that long time being out, having the pre-season he had and now being back on the pitch… it feels different.

"You could see all his quality, all his class in all moments. It was hard for him to go 90 minutes, maybe he will need a mobile ice bath.

"Kostas [Tsimikas] did really well on his first Premier League start until about 80 minutes when somebody pulled the plug. It was a very professional performance."

There was a clinical edge to Liverpool's play, one exemplified by the prolific Salah.

"They are all in good shape up front, in training they all look really sharp. But Mo is just a good footballer and he loves the competitions," Klopp added.

"As soon as it starts getting competitive again, he goes to the next gear and you saw that today."

Paul Pogba assisted four of Manchester United's goals as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side started their 2021-22 Premier League campaign with a 5-1 thrashing of Leeds United.

Bruno Fernandes netted three of them, with Mason Greenwood and Fred also getting in on the action as United issued a statement of intent.

Chelsea followed up that victory with a 3-0 win over Patrick Vieira's Crystal Palace at Stamford Bridge, while Liverpool rounded out the day by beating newly promoted Norwich City by the same scoreline.

Leicester City, Everton, Watford and Brighton and Hove Albion also claimed wins to get their seasons started in style.

Using Opta data, we take a look at the key statistics from across Saturday's fixtures.

 

Manchester United 5-1 Leeds United: Pogba and Fernandes leave Whites reeling

Pogba became the seventh player in Premier League history to assist four goals in a single game on Saturday, as he and Fernandes helped United seal a record 20th opening-day win. 

Dennis Bergkamp, Jose Antonio Reyes, Cesc Fabregas, Emmanuel Adebayor, Santi Cazorla and Harry Kane had previously teed up four goals in a Premier League match.

Two of Pogba's assists were for Fernandes, whose hat-trick was the 10th scored on the opening weekend of a Premier League season, while the playmaker was the first United player to achieve the feat since Lou Macari in 1977.

Mason Greenwood benefitted from a sublime Pogba pass shortly after Luke Ayling's sensational equaliser – the full-back's first top-flight goal – and he is now the fifth-highest scoring teenager in the history of the competition with 18 goals.

United netted five goals in their opening game of a Premier League game for only the second time, after beating Fulham 5-1 in August 2006, while Leeds shipped five in an opener for the first time.

Norwich City 0-3 Liverpool: Records tumble as Salah stars

Liverpool might have relinquished their Premier League title last season, but Mohamed Salah picked up where he left off last term as he scored and provided two assists in Liverpool's 3-0 win at Norwich.

Salah teed up both Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino before netting himself in the 74th minute. It means he has scored on matchday one in all five of his Premier League seasons with Liverpool, while he is the first player in the competition's history to find the net on five consecutive opening weekends.

Norwich have now lost 11 successive top-flight games – only Sunderland have had a longer losing streak in the competition.

Firmino came on from the bench to score Liverpool's second. It was the 49th league goal scored by a substitute under Jurgen Klopp, the most of any side in the competition since the German joined in 2015, while the Brazil international also brought up the Reds' 8,000th league goal in the process.

Chelsea 3-0 Crystal Palace: Pulisic predictably punishes Eagles again

This trip to Stamford Bridge played out in painfully familiar fashion for Palace, who have lost more Premier League games against Chelsea (19) than versus any other side in the competition's history.

In a routine 3-0 opening-day victory, the Blues became the third team – after Tottenham (nine) and Liverpool (eight) – to win eight in a row against Palace in the Premier League era.

The nature of the first two strikes was predictable, too, with Marcos Alonso netting Chelsea's 50th direct free-kick goal in the competition – trailing only United (64) – before Christian Pulisic grabbed his fifth in five games against Palace, more than versus any other opponent.

The third was slightly more surprising, as centre-back Trevoh Chalobah's superb strike made him the second youngest Chelsea player to score on their Premier League debut for the club after Paul Hughes (22y 40d for Chalobah, 20y 274d for Hughes against Derby County in 1997).

Everton 3-1 Southampton: Benitez off to a winning start

Rafael Benitez was a contentious appointment at Everton but his tenure started with a 3-1 win over Southampton. It was the first time the Toffees have won a league match in which they trailed at half-time since September 2015.

On the other hand, since Ralph Hasenhuttl took over at Southampton in December 2018, they have lost 60 points from winning positions in the Premier League, more than any other side.

Adam Armstrong opened his Southampton account to put the visitors ahead at Goodison Park. Since the start of 2019-20, only Ivan Toney (55) has scored more goals in the top four tiers of English football.

Fresh from Olympic glory with Brazil, Richarlison scored the equaliser and has now netted in each of his last four league games against Southampton.

With Abdoulaye Doucoure lashing Everton ahead, Dominic Calvert-Lewin made it 3-1 with a diving header. He has now netted 12 headed goals in the league since the start of 2019-20, four more than any other player.

Elsewhere, Leicester City saw off Wolves 1-0 thanks to Jamie Vardy's first-half effort. The Foxes have lost just one of their last 25 home league games against the Midlands club.

Only Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney and Alan Shearer (all eight) have scored more goals on the opening weekend of Premier League campaigns than Vardy (seven).

Watford 3-2 Aston Villa: Ings on the spot but post-Grealish era starts in defeat

Watford have now lost their opening league match in just one of the past 15 campaigns (W8 D6), after the Hornets overcame Aston Villa 3-2.

Emmanuel Dennis became the fourth different Nigerian player to score on his Premier League debut to put Watford ahead, with Ismaila Sarr registering his 20th goal for the club before Cucho Hernandez became the first Colombian to net on his debut in the competition.

John McGinn scored his second goal in the space of four league appearances, as many as he had in his previous 55, to pull one back, before Danny Ings converted a late penalty.

He is the 24th player to score on his Premier League bow for Villa, while his spot-kick was the 2,000th penalty scored in Premier League history.

Meanwhile, Burnley are now winless in their last 11 home league games (D5 L6) since beating Villa 3-2 in January, equaling their longest run without a win at Turf Moor, after Brighton came from behind to win 2-1.

Virgil van Dijk stated Liverpool had room for improvement despite a 3-0 win at Norwich City on his long-awaited Premier League return.

Van Dijk was playing a competitive match for the first time since suffering a serious knee injury in a collision with Jordan Pickford during the Merseyside derby against Everton at Goodison Park last October.

Goals from Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino either side of half-time put Liverpool in control before Mohamed Salah established a new Premier League record by scoring for a fifth consecutive opening weekend.

The Reds were able to close out a clean sheet but a final Opta expected goals (xG) calculation of 1.6-1.4 in Norwich's favour suggested Liverpool rode their luck at times and Van Dijk certainly thought this was the case.

"Winning here 3-0 sounds comfortable but at times we made it difficult for ourselves," he told Sky Sports.

"Maybe that's fatigue, we have to do better. But we can’t be negative about tonight.

"I need games. The manger knows it, I know it. It's time to recover and hopefully I'm ready for next week and it’s going to be a very tough one again against Burnley."

Van Dijk explained how tough it was to watch on from the sidelines as an injury-ravaged Liverpool squad saw their title defence subside last time around.

"In the beginning, mentally it’s tough," he said. "You are going from one day being fully fit to the next day you can't walk, you're full of medication and you can't sleep.

"Everyone has their opinion and you read those things because you have nothing to do.

"We struggled last season with key injuries in key positions. We couldn't play our game with high pressure. When you have midfielders playing centre-back it's not easy and the guys did a fantastic job coming third."

In terms of whether Liverpool can mount a sustained title bid against the likes of champions Manchester City, Manchester United and European champions Chelsea this time around, Van Dijk was keen not to be drawn – instead focusing upon his excitement over being back in the heat of battle.

"I don't know. The only thing we can focus on is the next game," he added, having topped the Liverpool charts for touches (92), passes (85) and successful passes (79) over the course of the 90 minutes.

"I think it's exciting to see the Premier League like this. The quality that the Premier League has with the players coming in and coming back is exciting.

"I enjoy that. If I'm thinking about our team, if we stay fit, we have a good chance to be up there. We'll see what the season brings, we have to enjoy it.

"To play against world class strikers and world class teams against where you can't predict. It’s amazing."

Liverpool got their Premier League title bid off to an untroubled start with a 3-0 win at newly promoted Norwich City.

Diogo Jota opened the scoring in the 26th minute, having been selected to start alongside Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane up front.

Roberto Firmino, recently back in training following Brazil's run to the Copa America final, replaced Jota with an hour played at Carrow Road and swiftly got on the scoresheet.

Salah claimed both assists – the second seemingly far more intentional than the first – and duly got in on the act, finishing emphatically with 16 minutes remaining and becoming the first player to score on five consecutive Premier League opening weekends.

Tim Krul extended himself to tip over an 11th-minute header from Portugal forward Jota before his opposite number was given some work.

Teemu Pukki got in behind the returning Virgil van Dijk on the end of Todd Cantwell's dinked throughball and Alisson had to save sharply at his near post in the 19th minute.

A pleasing back and forth had developed as Salah crashed a volley just wide from Mane's chipped delivery and it was Liverpool who found the breakthrough when the Egypt star failed to control Trent Alexander-Arnold's cross, with the ball falling kindly for Jota to slot home.

Salah made a truer contact on the volley when a left-wing corner was partially cleared, with his strike blocked by Ben Gibson before Pierre Lees-Melou got in the way of Joel Matip's follow-up.

Last-ditch Norwich defending continued early in the second half as Max Aarons and Grant Hanley combined to thwart Mane.

Konstantinos Tsimikas, playing at left-back for Liverpool in the absence of Andy Robertson, stung Krul's palms after the hour and the second goal inevitably arrived when Salah retrieved another blocked Mane effort and cut the ball into Firmino's path for a simple finish.

The goal Salah's endeavours deserved arrived when he snaffled a Gibson clearance and curled impeccably beyond Krul.

Jurgen Klopp has "no doubt" Liverpool will reach a compromise with captain Jordan Henderson over his future.

Reports emerged last month suggesting talks between the two parties had reached an impasse.

Henderson has spent the past decade with Liverpool, winning the Premier League and Champions League among other trophies during that period, and has two years to run on his existing contract.

Despite doubts being raised over Henderson's future, Klopp remains optimistic that the situation will soon resolve itself.

Asked how important it is to sort out the England international's future, Klopp said: "Important, but it will happen.

"We will sort it, we will sort it. However it will be, we will sort it, no doubt about that."

Henderson was given an extended break by Liverpool after playing five times for England at Euro 2020 and has made just one substitute appearance in pre-season.

However, Henderson is in contention to play Liverpool's opening Premier League game against Norwich City on Saturday and Klopp has no concerns over his fitness.

"I spoke to him yesterday and it looked like he is ready to play," Klopp said.

Questions regarding Henderson's future are particularly pertinent as Virgil van Dijk, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Fabinho and Alisson have all signed new contracts this week.

The 31-year-old has played 392 times for Liverpool since arriving from Sunderland in 2011 and is fourth on the list of all-time appearance makers for the club in the Premier League.

He was a key part of Liverpool's title-winning side of 2019-20 but endured a frustrating 2020-21 campaign beset by injury problems that restricted him to 28 appearances overall.

Henderson still led the way for interceptions (1.79) and successful passes (83.51) per 90 minutes among Liverpool players to play more than six times in the top flight last season.

Here we go again. The Premier League race begins once more, despite some players barely having the chance to unpack their suitcases after short-lived pre-season breaks.

Last time out, Manchester City turned a potentially intriguing title battle into a procession. They had plenty of tests along the way, just mostly of the PCR variety as the teams pushed on amid the continuing coronavirus pandemic.

Thankfully, fans will be in grounds to watch from the start this time around, while some familiar faces have returned. Romelu Lukaku is back. Patrick Vieira – a three-time Premier League winner in his playing days – and Rafa Benitez, a former red now aligned to the Blues, are on the touchline. Norwich City and Watford, meanwhile, have negotiated the Championship to secure a quick reunion.

Still, there is always a freshness to every campaign, aided by summer signings and, this time, the presence of a newcomer.

Brentford provide a new, exciting chapter to the Premier League story, though it is perhaps expecting too much to hope for riveting plot twists when it comes to the likely contenders to be crowned champions.

THE THOROUGHBREDS READY TO RUN AGAIN

When Manchester rivals City and United drew 0-0 in an instantly forgettable derby in December 2020, one that left those who had watched on wondering what else they should have done with their time instead, Pep Guardiola's side were sitting outside the top seven in the table. It was actually an upturn in their position – they had languished down in 11th during the previous month.

By the time they hosted their neighbours in the return fixture in March 2021, however, City had won 21 in a row in all competitions and held a double-digit lead at the head of the league. The stunning run did come to an end that day, but it was just a case of delaying the inevitable.

The rich have got richer in pursuit of a third title in four years, in terms of talent at least. Spending £100million to get Jack Grealish has add further creativity, as if they really needed it. The squad could still be bolstered by Harry Kane, too. If the Tottenham striker moves north, the deck will be stacked even more in City's favour.

Yet there are reasons for the others who finished in the top four to be optimistic. Chelsea denied Guardiola in the Champions League final, giving a silver-lined finish to the promising early form under Thomas Tuchel. They have strengthened in attack, Lukaku back at the Bridge to sort out some unfinished business. A glaring gap in the squad (sorry, Timo Werner) has been filled.

Adding goals will be a key factor for the Blues, as they managed only 38 in all competitions following the appointment of the German coach. To put that number into context, United and City managed 58 and 70 across the same period. Even Tottenham topped them with 49.

OLE JOCKEYS FOR SILVERWARE

United finished second but will hope Jadon Sancho can lift them even higher, albeit the arrival of Raphael Varane could be even more crucial, considering the Red Devils conceded 28 goals at home last season – their most in a single campaign since 1962-63. Tighten up and it could well be their year, but they do not want to continue the habit of giving opposing teams head-starts again in games.

Those two marquee signings, which came in the transfer window following unrest among the fanbase aimed at the club's ownership, have rightly raised expectations. Now, for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, there is a need to secure something tangible, a piece of silverware to show he can clear the final hurdle.

The caretaker appointed to lift the gloom after Jose Mourinho is just three Premier League games short of a century in charge – if United triumph in all of them on the way to that Solskjaer milestone, the Norwegian will have the same winning percentage at the magical 100 mark as Arsene Wenger and Jurgen Klopp.

As for Klopp and Liverpool, there is a degree of uncertainty. The outstanding winners in 2019-20 required a fast finish – the Reds' run of five consecutive league wins in May was more than they managed in 12 games in February, March and April combined – just to squeeze into the top four. They began to rebuild fortress Anfield, knocked down during a record-breaking losing run.

Injuries did decimate the squad during a tepid title defence, but Virgil van Dijk is now fit again and, just in case, Ibrahima Konate has come in to provide added depth at the heart of the defence. If Sadio Mane can rediscover his scoring form and ease the burden on Mohamed Salah, the ingredients are all there to mount a sustained challenge again.

THE FADING FORCES DESPERATE TO FIND FORM

In times of cutbacks, have the 'Big Six' been reduced to a 'Big Four'? Arsenal and Tottenham still retained enough pulling power to be included as part of the failed European Super League plan, but neither have ended up above Leicester City in the final league table in the past two years.

The Foxes came up short in their Champions League quest again, though the frustration at a second successive fifth-place finish was eased somewhat by lifting the FA Cup. The underappreciated Brendan Rodgers has never lacked belief, and Leicester have backed their boss in the transfer market with the signings of Patson Daka and Boubakary Soumare.

Spurs' transfer business is now being carried out by new managing director Fabio Paratici, while Nuno Espirito Santo was eventually selected to take over as head coach, despite at one stage appearing to be off the lengthy list of candidates. Both are carrying out their duties amid uncertainty over Kane, the competition's disgruntled Golden Boot winner determined to get a move.

Tottenham will be the Premier League's first participants in the Europa Conference League, which could either offer welcome relief from league issues or be a midweek nuisance. Come on, though, who doesn't want to go to Latvia in winter? Arsenal may well wish they had such concerns - they will not be playing in any European competition for the first time in 26 years.

Ben White has come in at great expense as the Gunners have put a focus on getting younger. Really, they just need to get better. To that extent, getting more out of Thomas Partey, not to mention Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who managed just the 10 league goals in 29 games, would help.

Mikel Arteta has much work to do to make sure the gap to the head of the field does not grow wider.

THE OUTSIDERS HOPING TO EMERGE

West Ham finished above the north London duo last time thanks in no small part to the impact made by Jesse Lingard during his loan spell.

The attacking midfielder scored nine goals and four assists in 16 games to propel himself back into England contention, even it remains to be seen if it was enough to rekindle his Manchester United career.

Without Lingard, David Moyes will have to conjure up more magic from within his squad as they also tackle the added workload of playing in the Europa League. Goalkeeper Alphonse Areola is unlikely to have the same kind of impact during his temporary stint from Paris Saint-Germain, leaving cravings for 'J-Lingz'.

Leeds United will hope to build on a positive first year back in the top flight, steered diligently by the boss on a bucket, Marcelo Bielsa, while Aston Villa have wisely elected not to replace the talismanic Grealish with just one player, instead bringing in several to try and fill the void.

There is still time for teams to strengthen, particularly as the leading clubs look to cut away some of the unnecessary fat in their bloated squad lists. Lingard demonstrated what a difference the right signing can make to a team.

However, another underdog story to match the wonderful tale of Claudio Ranieri's Leicester appears impossible. Instead, after two consecutive seasons with runaway champions, it would just be nice if the 2021-22 Premier League Stakes at least provided a little more drama by the time we enter into the closing stages.

Virgil van Dijk has signed a new long-term contract with Liverpool on the eve of their first game of the 2021-22 Premier League season.

The Netherlands captain, who made his return from a serious knee injury in pre-season following a nine-month absence, has committed his future to the Reds "well into the coming years".

Van Dijk's previous contract ran until 2023 but the big-money signing from Southampton has agreed to extend his stay on Merseyside.

He told Liverpoolfc.com: "Amazing. It is something to be very proud of, that I am very proud of, that my wife and my kids are very proud of and obviously my agency.

"All the hard work we've put in so far continues and I am looking forward to what the future brings together with Liverpool. I'm delighted, very happy and proud."

The commanding centre-back became the most expensive defender of all time when he left the Saints to join Liverpool for a fee of £75million in January 2018.

Former Celtic defender Van Dijk has been key to the Reds' success, helping Jurgen Klopp's side win the Premier League, Champions League, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup.

He has made 130 appearances for the club, scoring 13 goals, and follows Trent Alexander-Arnold, Fabinho and Alisson in signing new contracts in recent weeks.

Van Dijk and fellow defender Joe Gomez, who also suffered a serious knee injury, were sorely missed by Liverpool last season as they failed to defend their Premier League crown but were able to secure a Champions League spot.

They will travel to Norwich City for their opening game of the 2021-22 campaign on Saturday, with Klopp having suggested Van Dijk will not be rushed back into action – although the player feels ready to return after a good pre-season.

"I feel good. Obviously [they were] friendlies, you get your match fitness up, get into repetitions of doing things again and again," he said.

"I feel like I am ready for the weekend, so we'll see what the manager decides. It is going to be a totally different atmosphere and mindset for me personally as well. It is something we fight for, for the points, and hopefully we can get a positive result out of it."

Virgil van Dijk has signed a new long-term contract with Liverpool on the eve of their first game of the 2021-22 Premier League season.

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