"I’ll be stunned if we don’t get at least two teams in the semi-finals. I think we’ll probably get three, and maybe even four!”
As predictions go, Joe Cole’s is bold to say the least. Bold but understandable.
The former Chelsea and Liverpool midfielder is looking ahead to the Champions League, which gets underway this week, and anticipating a season, maybe even an era, of Premier League dominance.
“It's hard to look past the Premier League when you're talking about the main contenders,” Cole says. “There's so much quality there already, and when you look at the signings that have been made this summer on top of that, it's hard to look past the Premier League when you're talking about the main contenders.”
Cole makes a valid point. After all, last season's final was an all-English affair, and this year's four Premier League teams - Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, and holders Chelsea - all appear to be in better shape than last year.
So much for the transfer market's bubble deflating, and so much for a new era of caution and prudence. While the rest of the sports world is counting the cost of the coronavirus outbreak, Premier League teams have smelled blood.
In that perspective, the summer transfer window was the ultimate flex, with English teams spending an estimated £1.1 billion (€1.3 billion/$1.5 billion) on new players. According to CIES Football Observatory analysis, they have been responsible for 45 percent of total transfer expenditure across Europe's main five leagues over the last three windows, up from 35 percent between January 2012 and January 2020.
Manchester City were able to make Jack Grealish the most expensive English player of all time, despite La Liga being at a low ebb and the Bundesliga and Serie A struggling to keep their top names and skills. If Tottenham had played ball, they would have done the same with Harry Kane.
Chelsea also broke their own transfer record when they brought Romelu Lukaku back to Stamford Bridge from Inter.
Manchester United, on the other hand, landed Jadon Sancho's immense promise, Raphael Varane's class and pedigree, and, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo's record-breaking acquisition. There are no more excuses for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his team.
Don't forget about Liverpool, either. Their summer was a little less spectacular, however Ibrahima Konate's purchase from Leipzig was a nice one. The return from injury of Virgil van Dijk, among others, is more important to Jurgen Klopp, who still has the majority of his Champions League-winning team at his disposal.
Their attraction is difficult, but writing them out of the narrative would be either daring or stupid, or probably both.
So, who will be able to halt the Premier League's dangerous quartet? Which of Europe's heavyweights has survived the Covid era?
Most bookmakers have Paris Saint-Germain as the competition favourites after adding Gigi Donnarumma, Achraf Hakimi, Sergio Ramos, Gini Wijnaldum, and a little-known Argentine named Lionel Messi to their already star-studded lineup.
Mauricio Pochettino's side may not have won Ligue 1 last season - the team that did, Lille, was dismantled in a matter of days - but they will be expected to go all out this time. With Messi, Neymar, and Kylian Mbappe on the offensive, how could they not?
“Perhaps they're the ones who can shatter the [Premier League] mould,” says Cole, who, like many others, is waiting to see how Pochettino will manage his team with so many big stars vying for playing time and attention.
PSG, however, should be anticipated to be there or thereabouts again after reaching the semi-finals last season and the final the year before. Their clashes with City in the group stage could provide a fascinating glimpse into how much stronger they are this time.
Bayern Munich, perhaps? Is it possible for the winners of 2020 to reclaim their title? Anything is conceivable with the free-scoring Robert Lewandowski - his absence cost them so much in last season's quarter-final loss to PSG - but the Bundesliga champions are not without their troubles, despite an outstanding win over title rivals Leipzig on Saturday.
Despite the signing of Dayot Upamecano, they are completely reliant on Lewandowski, and there are a number of defensive issues.
So, how about the Spanish test? Real Madrid, after all, had the stronghold on this competition not long ago and, despite their problems, reached the semi-finals last season. Carlo Ancelotti has won five titles as a player and as a manager, but does he have the team to win a half-dozen more?
Ramos and Varane have left, their attempt to sign Mbappe was thwarted, and the group now appears to be a mix of the old and the new, with little in between. Karim Benzema is still crucial, but can Eden Hazard or Gareth Bale turn things around?
The prospect of a major challenge from Camp Nou is also improbable. Barcelona has had a comical summer, with their dirty laundry on display for all to see. They began the summer with Messi and ended it with Luuk de Jong, allowing Antoine Griezmann to return to Atletico Madrid.
That doesn't matter how good Pedri and Ansu Fati are - and they may be world-class in no time - it isn't enough. The Blaugrana's demise has been spectacular, and it may not be over yet.
Atletico Madrid is a more intriguing option, considering their style and the fact that they were able to snag Griezmann from a rival, much like they did with Luis Suarez a year ago. They're the reigning La Liga winners, and they appear to be the most well-rounded and well-coached of the Spanish teams. Few teams will enjoy meeting them since they are tenacious, consistent, and defensively excellent.
Diego Simeone's team, on the other hand, disappointed when they were eliminated in the 2020 quarter-finals by Leipzig and were disappointingly weak against Chelsea in the last 16 last season. They've had a lot to prove, and their group, which includes Liverpool, AC Milan, and Porto, appears to be one of the most difficult to predict.
To say the least, it would be surprising if Serie A produced a title challenger. Inter won their first league title in 11 years in May, but have since lost their manager, star striker, and talented Hakimi, while Juventus have been caught in a rut for a few seasons. They haven't advanced past the quarter-finals since 2017, losing in the last three seasons to Ajax, Lyon, and Porto.
Following the departure of you-know-who, they appear to be a team lacking in genuine star quality. Federico Chiesa is a wonderful player, but Juve appear to have too many questions hanging over them, as indicated by their poor start to the current domestic season.
Then it appears to be a five- or possibly six-horse contest. PSG takes on the Premier League, with Bayern Munich keeping a close eye on the first slip and the others hoping for the best.
English football hasn't looked this good since the mid-late 2000s. Between 2004 and 2012, the Premier League produced three semi-finalists in both 2008 and 2009, and at least one finalist in seven of the eight seasons. Those epic battles between Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United, and Arsenal will be remembered for a long time.
Is it possible that history will repeat itself? Messi and his ilk will have something to say about that, but the Premier League will be difficult to stop this season and beyond.
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