Premier League title winner 2021/22 - Sky Sports' writers verdicts

Will Man City defend Premier League crown or will Champions League-winners Chelsea mount a sustained challenge?; spotlight on Man Utd after Jadon Sancho arrival; how will Liverpool respond with fans back at Anfield?

PREMIER LEAGUE TITLE RACE

Manchester City's latest title defence starts this weekend but will their rivals push them closer for the Premier League crown this season?

Pep Guardiola's side finished 12 points ahead of nearest challengers Manchester United in 2020/21, but, while they have served notice of their intent to stay at the top of the pile by breaking the British transfer record to land £100m-man Jack Grealish, the sides around them have strengthened too.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has added Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane to his ranks, while Chelsea, buoyed by their Champions League triumph, hope Romelu Lukaku can provide a cutting edge.

How much of a boost will returning fans to Anfield give Liverpool as the Reds look to claw back ground after slipping off the pace last term? And could another side spring a surprise? Ahead of the 2021/22 term, the Sky Sports writers give their early tips for glory...

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Ahead of the opening round of the 2021/22 Premier League season, we take a look at the best stats for Matchweek One's fixtures

Peter Smith: Lukaku can fire Chelsea to title

Romelu Lukaku urged Inter Milan to accept a transfer offer from his former club Chelsea
Image: Will Romelu Lukaku push Chelsea closer at the top?

With real strength in depth to call upon, all the signs are pointing towards a Premier League title challenge from Chelsea in 2021/22. The signing of Romelu Lukaku will surely make that a reality.

The Blues' record in cup competitions has been an impressive one of late. But to achieve success across a 38-game season entails different demands.

To become league champions requires a relentless consistency, winning week in, week out. But while they have pulled off brilliant performances in one-off games, Chelsea's wastefulness in front of goal has meant they have been unable to match the standards set by Premier League-winners Manchester City and Liverpool in recent seasons.

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Take a look at some of Romelu Lukaku's best Premier League goals

Only six teams had a lower shot conversion rate than Chelsea in the Premier League last season and three of those sides were relegated. Only four sides had a poorer return on their Expected Goals figure.

But Chelsea supporters will believe they have their new star striker now. Or should that be their old one? At 28, they are getting a Lukaku in his pomp - and, although he will play it down, he has a point to prove.

Adam Bate: Man City still look too strong

Manchester City won their fifth Premier League title in 2021.
Image: Manchester City won their fifth Premier League title in 2020/21

Manchester City were underwhelming at Wembley in the Community Shield and it is a little alarming to hear that a number of first-team players are keen to move on. The Harry Kane saga is ongoing and if he does not arrive then the balance of the squad looks a little odd.

Is the Premier League even the priority? Jack Grealish alluded to the importance of the Champions League in his opening press conference and there is a clear sense that this is the trophy that Manchester City will pursue with most vigour if they are close come the spring.

And yet, for all the caveats, for all the little setbacks, the question marks and the less than optimum circumstances, will that be enough to stop them? Phil Foden and Kevin De Bruyne are not fit for the start of the season, but Jack Grealish and Riyad Mahrez are.

Nathan Ake erred at the weekend but he is fourth choice at centre-back. Sergio Aguero has departed but he contributed only four goals to a title won by 12 points. Others will improve. But for them to win the title, City must decline. Pep Guardiola has enough to retain it.

Ben Grounds: Liverpool to wrestle back crown

Virgil van Dijk has made his long-awaited return
Image: Virgil van Dijk is back for Liverpool

Manchester City still look very nascent in their pre-season and that figures as they had friendlies cancelled owing to positive Covid tests. Pep Guardiola has previously gone on record to speak about his side not being ready ahead of a campaign to dampen down expectations, but the evidence would suggest the champions really are undercooked.

There is a fair amount of uncertainty surrounding the title favourites: Phil Foden and Kevin De Bruyne have both come back with injuries, while Jack Grealish still looks a few weeks away from full fitness.

Then there are players who want to be sold - Bernardo Silva and Aymeric Laporte are unsettled, while Gabriel Jesus could be offloaded to make room for Harry Kane. A lot hinges on whether Kane joins in the coming weeks, and a slow start might just force City's hand.

If Spurs hold firm, Manchester United and Chelsea will fancy their chances having strengthened over the summer, but Liverpool look well-equipped to wrestle back the crown. Thiago started to show signs of his former self towards the back end of last season, while Ibrahima Konate's arrival allays fears over Virgil van Dijk's fitness.

Jurgen Klopp will need his core 15-16 players fit but, having ended their 30-year title wait without a trophy parade, winning a second Premier League title in front of their supporters provides an extra incentive.

Nick Wright: Man City to power home again

Pep Guardiola
Image: Pep Guardiola's Man City remain hot title tips among our writers

Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool have all strengthened but I expect Manchester City to retain their crown.

Their pre-season preparations have perhaps not gone as smoothly as Pep Guardiola would have liked. Players have returned late from international tournaments. Some have returned injured.

But their formidable squad depth remains and in Jack Grealish they have acquired a player capable of adding a new dimension to their attack.

Sergio Aguero has gone, of course, but in truth his importance to the side had already diminished.

A deal for Harry Kane looks likely before the window closes but let's not forget that Guardiola's side managed just fine without an out-and-out striker for much of last season.

Guardiola has plenty of solutions available to him all over the pitch and even if City do not start the season at maximum capacity, they will still have too much for the rest between now and May.

Jack Wilkinson: Something's stirring at Man Utd

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Image: Can Ole Gunnar Solskjaer bring the Premier League trophy back to Old Trafford after an eight-year absence?

In recent seasons, Manchester United's attempts to reunite with the Premier League trophy have simply failed to get off the ground. Suspect results at home have contributed to slow starts and left the club with simply too much ground to make up.

But the ruthless manner in which they dismantled Everton in their final pre-season outing suggests Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side are poised to start fast, and with a favourable fixture list keeping United away from any of last season's top five in their first seven games, the platform is there to lay down a marker in the title race. The question is: can they seize it?

United have had an encouraging summer. Weaknesses in the squad have been addressed by swift business in the transfer market, while key personnel already at the club have returned to Old Trafford on the back of successful international tournaments with their countries.

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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer says he's excited by his current Manchester United squad and is determined to bounce back from the heartache suffered after losing the Europa League final to Villarreal last season

The performances of captain Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw at Euro 2020 have seen the stock of United's defence rise, while the imminent acquisition of Raphael Varane, a World Cup and four-time Champions League winner, is set to elevate it further.

In front of arguably the division's best back four, United have brought balance into the team in the form of Jadon Sancho, a player Solskjaer believes Manchester United now possess one of the most creative players in Europe.

Sancho's arrival, coupled with Marcus Rashford finally undergoing surgery on his long-standing shoulder problem, and Anthony Martial's return to fitness, means United have the attacking firepower to match their defensive strength.

The timely return of fans means all the ingredients are there for United - who were unbeaten away from home through the whole of last season - to turn Old Trafford back into a fortress. Do that, and they could have their hands on the biggest prize of all for a 14th time.

Charlotte Marsh: Pep's pack to stay on top

Pep Guardiola gives instructions to Jack Grealish as he prepares to come on in the second half (AP)
Image: Pep Guardiola has added Jack Grealish to his already formidable ranks

Pep Guardiola is the master of downplaying any expectations. A few months ago, he said Man City did not have the funds to spend millions on replacements for Sergio Aguero - before splashing £100m on Jack Grealish and linked with an even more eye-watering sum of £150m for Harry Kane.

City may have had a stalled pre-season, but that was always going to be an issue with players away on international duty across the world. A good pre-season is nice to have under your belt, but not always vital for an intense nine-month season.

Guardiola still has one of the most resolute defences - keeping a league-high 19 clean sheets in the 2020/21 season - with Ruben Dias winning multiple player of the season awards and John Stones earning a new contract.

Attacking talent has never been Man City's big issue under Guardiola. Yes, injuries to De Bruyne and Foden will be keenly felt early on, but they will return before long with the same class and quality, especially once the Champions League group stage kicks in - still City's biggest target.

Much could hinge on Kane's potential arrival. City have proven they can win a Premier League title without a recognised striker, but the England captain would elevate them to an entirely new level. But even if they do not land their man, City still have plenty in their ranks - and arguably even more now Grealish has arrived - to retain the Premier League trophy this season.

Gerard Brand: City still the team to beat

Manchester City's Ilkay Gundogan celebrates with the trophy after the final whistle in the Premier League match at the Etihad Stadium, Manchester. Picture date: Sunday May 23, 2021.
Image: Manchester City's Ilkay Gundogan celebrates with the Premier League trophy

Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool all have reason to be optimistic, and can all argue they have bridged the gap, but City will be too strong.

For all the talk of City's attacking options, balance through the lines wins you titles, and Pep Guardiola's defence is still the strongest in the division. I will be interested to see if John Stones picks up where he left off, fresh from signing a new contract.

They also start this season with a stronger central midfield than 12 months ago - Rodri has improved massively, and Ilkay Gundogan was formidable for four months of 2020/21 - meaning the shell is there to allow their front line to flourish again.

Phil Foden, Joao Cancelo, Riyad Mahrez, Stones, Rodri... nearly all of City's starting XI are better now than they were a year ago, and that is a scary thought.

Even if Harry Kane is not signed, Guardiola has already proven you do not need a No 9 to win a title. Goals simply will not be a problem for City this season.

Expect more expert tinkering as City look for that elusive Champions League crown, but Guardiola has all the tools to fight on several fronts again.

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