After narrowly securing fourth place in the Premier League last season, winning three of their final four games without conceding once to fend off a determined challenge from Arsenal, Liverpool know that a repeat finish is the minimum requirement for 2017/18. Their quest to retain their place in the top four begins with a trip to Watford, where the Reds eked out a 1-0 win last May to begin that impressive run-in which secured a Champions League play-off. Three points are imperative if Jurgen Klopp are to avoid playing catch-up on their rivals from the outset, but their opponents will be determined to improve under new boss Marco Silva. They strengthened their striking options this week with the addition of Andre Gray, who scored for Burnley when they inflicted an early season defeat on Liverpool a year ago. The brief for the Merseysiders is simple – win, even if it’s hard-fought like their last trip to Vicarage Road.
That’s the Saturday lunchtime kick-off on opening weekend, but the season begins on Friday night when Arsenal welcome Leicester to the Emirates Stadium. The Gunners lost out to Liverpool in the hunt for Champions League football last term and Arsene Wenger is under pressure to restore the Londoners to the top four. Lifting the Community Shield on Sunday allows them to head into the Premier League campaign on a high and a win on Friday enables them to put their feet up for the rest of the weekend and set the bar for their rivals to match. Leicester will be hoping for a steadier season after 2016/17 took them worryingly close to the drop zone before a late resurgence under Craig Shakespeare, who is now in full-time charge. Riyad Mahrez has been heavily linked with a move to Arsenal in recent months but remains with the Foxes for now.
Liverpool’s next opponents in the league are Crystal Palace, who begin their season with a home fixture against newly-promoted Huddersfield. The Eagles didn’t secure their top flight place until the penultimate game of last season and the man who led them to safety, Sam Allardyce, has made way in the meantime for the substantially more cultured Frank de Boer. Palace should be more expansive this term, although whether that will suit ex-Liverpool striker Christian Benteke is a pertinent question. Huddersfield fans will be buzzing to see their team embarking on a maiden Premier League campaign under Klopp’s pal David Wagner, whose tactical approach is similar to that of the Anfield gaffer. If the Terriers can so much as claim a point at Selhurst Park on Saturday, they will be jubilant.
The other Premier League debutants are Brighton, who are at home to Manchester City in the Saturday evening kick-off. After knocking on the door for several seasons, Chris Hughton’s men are finally in the top division and they might just fancy an upset against a team that fully expects to challenge for the title. Pep Guardiola’s City failed to muster a serious tilt at the title last season and the Spaniard has spent big in his mission to usurp Chelsea. Of the three wing-backs who signed over the summer, will Danilo, Kyle Walker or Benjamin Mendy be left on the bench?
Another team hoping to make a sustained charge for the title in 2017/18 are Manchester United, who begin their season at home to West Ham on Sunday. Jose Mourinho has also been liberal with the chequebook over the summer, bringing in Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic and Viktor Lindelof for a combined £160 million. They were second best against Real Madrid in the Super Cup on Tuesday but will be expected to have too much for the Hammers, who will hope for better fortunes this term after a difficult first season at London Stadium. Plenty of attention will inevitably focus on new signing Javier Hernandez, given his previous at Old Trafford, and he’s one man to whom United’s defence will need to pay close watch.
Tottenham could be hard pressed to repeat last season’s second-place finish and they face a tricky opener on Sunday away to Championship winners Newcastle, who are riding the crest of wave under ex-Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez. The Spaniard has by and large remained faithful with the squad that achieved immediate promotion, so they will hope that striker Dwight Gayle can maintain his superb scoring form of 2016/17. Of course, Spurs have a more than potent goal threat of their own in Harry Kane, winner of the Golden Boot in each of the last three campaigns.
Champions Chelsea begin the defence of their title at home to Burnley, a fixture that surprisingly wasn’t chosen for live TV coverage. Antonio Conte’s Blues romped to the crown last term but penalty shoot-out defeat to Arsenal in the Community Shield may check their momentum. Still, they will expect to have too much for Burnley, who won just one away game all of last season and look set for another year of battling to beat the drop. Sean Dyche has made some astute summer purchases, though, not least burly striker Jon Walters from Stoke. Andre Gray will be a loss, however.
Virgil van Dijk, the subject of arguably the most laborious transfer saga of the summer, is not likely to feature for Southampton in their season opener at home to Swansea. Saints are under new management in Mauricio Pellegrino, who promises a more fluid style of football than dour predecessor Claude Puel. New record signing Mario Lemina will be expected to make his debut for the south coast club. Swansea will also hope to put a sobering 2016/17 behind them and they have had transfer speculation of their own with which to contend, but Gylfi Sigurdsson remains with the Welsh side for now.
Liverpool’s cross-town rivals Everton welcome Stoke to Goodison Park, with Ronald Koeman getting his transfer business done earlier than most. Wayne Rooney’s return has grabbed the headlines, but the additions of Jordan Pickford, Michael Keane, Davy Klaassen and Sandro Ramirez signal notable strengthening in all areas of the field. By contrast, transfer activity has been at a premium for Stoke, whose manager Mark Hughes is under pressure to avoid the type of dreadful start which held them back last season. The Welshman could be among the early favourites to be the first manager sacked this term.
Two teams hoping for another solid mid-table finish this season meet at The Hawthorns, with West Brom playing host to Bournemouth. The Baggies are by now accustomed to being middle of the road, a stability of which their supporters are beginning to tire. There is also much irritation over the less than breathtaking style of play implemented by Tony Pulis. Bournemouth, on the other hand, are quite happy to frequent the mid-table positions and achieved the club’s highest ever finish of ninth last term in swashbuckling style under Eddie Howe. Can Joshua King pick up where he left off and will Jermain Defoe be as prolific as he was in a loan spell with the Cherries as a young striker?
The targets of the 20 Premier League clubs will vary, but all will be itching to get off to a flying start. That’s especially the case for Liverpool, for whom any positive season of recent times has included a succession of encouraging results in the opening weeks. Failure to win at Watford will raise the stakes for tricky games against Crystal Palace, Arsenal and Manchester City, not to mention the must-win Champions League play-off against Hoffenheim.