The compact surroundings of the recently built, 17,250-seat Brentford Community Stadium will usher in another Premier League campaign on Friday.
In reality, though, a season that will be marked by the return of capacity crowds for the first time in 17 pandemic-blighted months will only start in earnest once a summer-long, potentially title-defining transfer saga is settled one way or the other.
Harry Kane’s “will-he, won’t he?” move to Manchester City from Tottenham remains in the balance and may only be decided in the final days, perhaps even the final hours, of a summer transfer window that closes on Aug. 31.
If City, the star-studded defending champion, clinches a signing of the England captain — for maybe as much as $200 million — many will view the title race as over before it barely started, such will be the depth and quality of resources available to City manager Pep Guardiola. After all, City, which won the league by 12 points last season, has already bought midfielder Jack Grealish for a British-record fee of 100 million pounds ($139 million).
If Kane stays at Tottenham? Well, it’s game on, given how City’s rivals stack up this season.
Somewhat quirkily, the opening round of the Premier League, which starts with Brentford — a unheralded side playing top-flight football for the first time in 74 years — hosting Arsenal, is headlined by Sunday’s meeting between Tottenham and Man City, Kane’s current club and his suitor.
Talk about an early-season narrative.
Kane, who had the most goals and assists in the Premier League last season, hasn’t been seen since he trudged off the field at Wembley Stadium following England’s penalty-shootout loss to Italy in the European Championship final on July 11. He failed to report for preseason fitness checks at Tottenham last week, angering fans amid his apparent interest in joining City, and is currently observing a five-day quarantine at the club’s training ground.
It makes it highly unlikely Kane will make what could be a divisive appearance in Sunday’s game at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. It’s the latest episode in what could be a seismic, game-changing episode in English soccer.
Hoping Kane doesn’t make the move north to Etihad Stadium — Tottenham aside, obviously — will be Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool, who are expected to be the main challengers to a City team aiming for a fourth title in six years under Guardiola and a sixth title in the past 11 seasons.
Chelsea, the European champion after its win over City in last season’s Champions League final, will be much stronger with the expected arrival of striker Romelu Lukaku for a reported $135 million. United has bought England winger Jadon Sancho and will add France center back Raphael Varane, too, after spending a combined $150 million. Liverpool, the 2019-20 champion, crucially has star defender Virgil van Dijk back fit.
City getting Kane, however, would leave Guardiola’s team streets clear of them all for a season which, in some respects, will see normality resume.
Capacity limits, enforced last season and at the end of the 2019-20 season amid the coronavirus pandemic, were lifted by the British government on July 19. Spectator-free stadiums will be replaced by full-capacity crowds, with fans at matches needing to be prepared to prove they are fully vaccinated or have recently tested negative for the virus. Kickoff times will no longer be staggered, which had been the case during the pandemic to allow soccer fans to see each match.
What won’t be changing is the sight of players taking a knee before games as a protest against discrimination and racial injustice. All 20 club captains have unanimously committed to their teams continuing to perform the gesture, which was booed by some fans at Euro 2020.
Expect the use of video review to carry on being divisive, too. Changes are being made to the way the VAR interprets offside decisions, which — according to referee chief Mike Riley — has “reintroduced the benefit of the doubt to the attacking player.”
Four teams will have new managers this season and some of them aren’t without controversy, either. Rafa Benitez has been hired by Everton, leaving some fans unhappy because he was previously in charge of local rival Liverpool. Nuno Espirito Santo was hired by Tottenham despite clearly being down the club’s list of targets following something of a botched search.
Former Arsenal and France star Patrick Vieira will lead Crystal Palace in his first senior role in the Premier League, while Bruno Lage has replaced Nuno at Wolverhampton, for whom Raúl Jiménez has returned after recovering from a skull fracture suffered in November.
While Brentford will be largely unknown to the Premier League’s vast global fanbase, the two other promoted teams — Norwich and Watford — are making immediate returns to the top division following relegation last year.
They will come back into a league where money continues to flow freely despite the economic impact of the pandemic, at a time when big teams like Barcelona and Inter Milan are having to offload stars and reduce their wage bill because of financial issues. There have already been 10 offseason signings for more than 20 million pounds ($27.6 million) in the Premier League, with Lukaku and Varane still to be confirmed.
And then there’s Kane, whose potential transfer is overshadowing the start of a season already looking rich in plot lines.
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