MANCHESTER, United Kingdom, Aug 13 – Boasting perhaps the most compelling cast of characters in its 24-year history, the Premier League resumes this weekend with the duel between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho taking centre-stage.
England’s elite have spent big in the hope of usurping champions Leicester City and nowhere will the battle be more intense than between Manchester City manager Guardiola and his Manchester United counterpart Mourinho.
The former El Clasico rivals have each sanctioned outlays of around 150 million pounds ($194.9 million, 174.1 million euros) on new players, with United notably luring Paul Pogba back to Old Trafford and City capturing John Stones.
City start the campaign as British bookmakers’ favourites, but despite United’s fifth-place finish in May, Mourinho declared on Friday: “We feel that we are candidates to win the title.
“We know that not one or two or three more than that have the same ambitions. We cannot speak differently. We want to fight for the title.
“If at the end of the season we are not champions because someone is better than us then great, that’s football.
“But at Manchester United Football Club, you cannot say differently, we have to fight for the title.”
Mourinho led FA Cup winners United to a 2-1 win over Leicester in last weekend’s Community Shield and will take charge of his first league game at Bournemouth on Sunday.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Eric Bailly and Henrikh Mkhitaryan could get their first tastes of English league football at the Vitality Stadium.
But Pogba, who returned to United from Juventus for a world-record fee of 89 million pounds, must observe a suspension carried over from last season’s Coppa Italia.
Guardiola will begin life in English football with a home game against Sunderland, for whom David Moyes will be starting out in the dug-out after succeeding new England manager Sam Allardyce.
Guardiola has warned that it will take time for City to start playing like his Barcelona and Bayern Munich teams, but he says there will be no excuse for anything less than maximum effort.
“Tomorrow (Saturday), to create something we need time. To create something with ideas to attack, we need time,” he told reporters.
“But to play with soul, with something inside, we don’t need time.”
– Leicester look ahead –
England centre-back Stones is in line to make his City debut following his 47.5 million pounds switch from Everton, but fellow new recruits Leroy Sane (hamstring) and Ilkay Gundogan (knee) are injured.
Three months and six days after their glittering coronation as champions, Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester open the new season with a trip to promoted Hull City on Saturday.
The novelty of their 5,000-1 triumph is still to wear off, but Leicester are already looking to the future.
Midfield lynchpin N’Golo Kante and transfer mastermind Steve Walsh have both left, but the club have signed several new recruits and Ranieri is determined to ensure they do not fall off the map.
“We’re building and slowly getting better. It’s important to forget last season and build our squad,” said the Italian, who has signed a new four-year contract.
“Last season we made something unbelievable. But now the big teams will come back, I am sure.”
Tottenham Hotspur, who fell away to finish third after threatening to pip Leicester to the title, begin their campaign at Everton, where Ronald Koeman has succeeded Roberto Martinez as manager.
The Spurs team that starts the new season will be very similar to the one that finished the last one, with Mauricio Pochettino at the helm and the first-choice XI largely unchanged.
The first heavyweight clash of the season arrives on Sunday, when Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, who crushed Barcelona 4-0 in a recent friendly, visit Arsene Wenger’s injury-depleted Arsenal.
Former Italy manager Antonio Conte begins his Chelsea repair job at home to West Ham United on Monday.
All three promoted teams are in action on Saturday, with Championship winners Burnley hosting Swansea City and Middlesbrough entertaining Stoke City.
There will be two new managers on show at St Mary’s, where Claude Puel begins his Southampton tenure against Walter Mazzarri’s Watford.
Meanwhile, beaten FA Cup finalists Crystal Palace take on West Bromwich Albion at Selhurst Park.
Saturday (5PM unless otherwise stated):
Burnley v Swansea City, Crystal Palace v West Bromwich Albion, Everton v Tottenham Hotspur, Hull City v Leicester City (2:30PM), Manchester City v Sunderland (9:30PM), Middlesbrough v Stoke City, Southampton v Watford
Bournemouth v Manchester United (3:30PM), Arsenal v Liverpool (6PM)
Chelsea v West Ham United