The Premier League returns this weekend for a season like none before it.
There will be no fans in the grounds, at least not at first, and the delayed start date means the schedule will be more packed than ever before. There will be little respite but plenty of excitement.
- Six games on Sky on opening weekend
- How to watch 207 live PL games this season
- Premier League 2020/21 season previews
It begins at Craven Cottage, where Arsenal face newly-promoted Fulham in Saturday's early kick-off, and the action continues throughout the afternoon, with champions Liverpool facing Leeds United in a mouth-watering contest at Anfield, live on Sky Sports Premier League from 5pm.
Manchester United and Manchester City are among the sides permitted an extra week of preparation time, but there are four more games live on Sky Sports on Sunday and Monday, including Tottenham vs Everton and Brighton vs Chelsea. It's a breathless start to what's sure to be a fascinating campaign and there is intrigue up and down the table.
Liverpool, Man City to renew rivalry
For Liverpool, so dominant last season on their way to their historic title triumph, the challenge is to retain their crown. It is a feat few sides have managed in the Premier League era. In fact, since the 2008/09 campaign, only Pep Guardiola's Manchester City have done it.
It was Liverpool who prevented City from making it three in a row last season, but the bookmakers favour the runners-up to return to the summit this year. Liverpool have been remarkably consistent over the last two seasons. They won last year's title by an 18-point margin. But the question many are asking is can they keep it up?
It remains to be seen whether their stuttering form during Project Restart was a temporary dip or a sign of something more ominous. Jurgen Klopp's squad remains formidable, a combination of elite players at the peak of their powers and rising stars with plenty more to give, but it has been another quiet summer in the transfer market.
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That is not necessarily a bad thing, of course. Klopp favoured stability last summer and look where it took them.
But concerns over their squad depth are legitimate and there are question marks over their freshness too.
"Liverpool are the team to catch and there's no doubt it will become a stress for them," said Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville.
"They've had the same players for almost three seasons now - Champions League final, Champions League victory, going so close in the Premier League and then winning it.
"It's a massive demand psychologically, mentally and physically to place upon the players without stimulating them again."
A deal for midfield playmaker Thiago Alcantara, however, would go a long way to easing those concerns.
"That's the only area of the team where I'd say they are not world-class," added Neville "You put him in there and you've got a genuine world-class presence in the middle of an already brilliant team and that would also do a number of things.
"It would tell the current players, 'We're going for it again', which is sometimes the message you need to give to a team that has been successful. It would give the current players that challenge of a different type of player coming into the squad. It would stimulate them, it would send a message to everybody else, and it would improve that area of the field."
Jamie Carragher added: "Sometimes you just need a bit of freshness adding to it, mentally as much as anything. Liverpool have got five or six midfield players - they rotate well because they need energy in that position - but a lot of the players are pretty similar. Thiago would be something different."
For now, however, and with the exception of a new back-up left-back in Kostas Tsimikas, Klopp's armoury is largely as it was last season.
The summer has not been straightforward for Manchester City either, of course. Nathan Ake and Ferran Torres have arrived to add greater depth, but David Silva is gone, a mooted move for Kalidou Koulibaly is yet to happen, and, most significantly, Lionel Messi is staying at Barcelona.
Messi's possible arrival at the Etihad Stadium was a thrilling prospect which would have spelled trouble for Manchester City's rivals, but it's also true that scoring goals has never been their problem. Last season, Guardiola's side hit 102 in the Premier League alone - 17 more than Liverpool.
What's more important for City is that they tighten up at the other end. If Ake lives up to his £41m price-tag, and if more defensive reinforcements arrive before next month's transfer deadline, then Manchester City may prove difficult to stop - even without Messi added to their ranks.
"City have the best squad and that's why I always give them the biggest chance," said Sky Sports pundit Micah Richards. "It's going to be difficult to bridge the gap to Liverpool but I do think it will be between City and Liverpool again."
Will other contenders emerge?
The gulf to Liverpool and Manchester City is vast but the rest of the traditional big six, and perhaps even some of the Premier League's other upwardly mobile sides, will hope to at least shorten it.
Chelsea, fourth-placed finishers last year, are perhaps best placed to mount a title challenge. Timo Werner, Kai Havertz and Hakim Ziyech, recruited at a combined cost of around £150m, have more than enough quality to transform their misfiring attack, while Thiago Silva and Ben Chilwell should improve them at the other end too.
"For 15 years, Roman Abramovich has wanted a flamboyant team, and every time he's gone for the flamboyant managers to try and get the flamboyant team, he's been pulled back to that more methodical type of approach that's been successful for the club," added Neville.
Roman Abramovich wants excitement, he wants thrill around Chelsea and that's why he's invested this summer
"I think he's investing this year partly because of Covid and seeing an opportunity to exploit the market, but also because Frank Lampard has reinvigorated him. The academy players finally coming through, the emergence of (Christian) Pulisic and other young players, a team that plays a different way, more energetic and really good to watch.
"Abramovich wants excitement, he wants thrill around Chelsea and that's why he's invested this summer, to go again at this moment because he sees a team that's got something he has always wanted."
Chelsea are not the only ones seeking drastic improvement. Manchester United became far strong following the signing of Bruno Fernandes last January, climbing to a third-placed finish in the Premier League, and they now hope Donny van de Beek will help them to continue their evolution under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the new campaign.
"I still think Manchester City, rather than Manchester United, will be the biggest obstacle to Liverpool retaining the title but I do see United getting a lot closer," said Carragher. "The signing of Bruno Fernandes has been fantastic. He was outstanding in the second half of last season and I'm really excited to see him for a full season."
"I really like Donny van de Beek," added Graeme Souness. "He will improve Manchester United. They got better and better in the last few months, and Van de Beek will give them something they didn't have. The mix of Van de Beek, Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba will be interesting to watch and their front three are exceptional."
In north London, Mikel Arteta and Jose Mourinho are preparing for their first full seasons in charge of Arsenal and Tottenham respectively.
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Arteta has fostered belief at Arsenal and will hope to build on their FA Cup final triumph at the end of last season. Mourinho, meanwhile, has insisted from the start that his Spurs needed at least two transfer windows to take shape. He will hope to put his stamp on the side in the new campaign.
Even if the title battle remains a two-horse race, the fight for the European places is sure to be fascinating. Leicester and Wolves should not be discounted after their achievements last season and the same goes for Sheffield United. Everton, meanwhile, will surely be stronger for the midfield additions of James Rodriguez, Allan and Abdoulaye Doucoure.
Bielsa's Leeds provide intrigue
Leeds are back in the big time after a 16-year absence and their return to the Premier League is made doubly intriguing by the identity of the man in the dugout. Marcelo Bielsa comes with a reputation as one of the most influential managers in the modern game. It will be fascinating to see how his side fare in the top tier.
They certainly dominated the one below it. Bielsa, known as much for his eccentricities as his managerial ability, has completely transformed Leeds since his appointment in the summer of 2018 and the hope for them now is that the possession-based, high-intensity football he is known for will prove similarly effective in the Premier League.
It certainly has precedent - Guardiola counts him as his biggest stylistic influence and same is true of Mauricio Pochettino - but predictions about where Leeds will finish range from top 10 to bottom three.
They played the best, most effective football in the Championship last season, but sceptics will wonder whether the physical demands Bielsa places on his players will prove too much for them in a condensed Premier League campaign. Do they have the depth to go the distance?
Carragher thinks so. "I think Leeds will establish themselves," he said in a recent Daily Telegraph column. "We know Bielsa's teams start quickly and at times have faded, so you might see Leeds get off to a good start and maybe the second half of the season will be a little more difficult for them. But if crowds get into Elland Road in the second half of the season, it will be tough going there."
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Like Leeds, West Brom and Fulham, managed by Slaven Bilic and Scott Parker respectively, will also seek to make their mark on the division having won promotion last year. The two sides have bounced between the Premier League and Championship in recent years but this time they will hope to stick around for the long-term.
In order to do that, however, they will need some of last year's survivors to slip backwards. According to the bookmakers, Aston Villa, Newcastle, Crystal Palace and Burnley are the most likely candidates. The battle at the bottom of the table promises to be as eventful as the one at the top.
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