The World Cup in Qatar had its curtain call last Sunday when Argentina were crowned champions, but that doesn’t mean the footballing world is now devoid of top action. In fact, it has already kicked off as the Carabao Cup and Copa del Rey return on Tuesday.
Thanks to the unusual timing of this World Cup, European clubs from top leagues have been working throughout the World Cup, preparing their returns to their respective campaigns, and in the Premier League it is no different. It’s fair to say that this past month has been handled as a second preseason for teams in the richest league in the world, as many clubs have traveled to warmer climates for training, friendlies and much-needed adjustments.
The truth is, however, that even though clubs’ itineraries in recent weeks seemed similar to a July and August offseason schedule, the stakes in this particular situation are much, much higher. There is no blank slate or a new season set to begin — rather, what comes next is the second act as there is already a storyline to continue or try to reverse.
If this were a Shakespearean tragedy, this would be the moment where the plot set in motion becomes more complicated as more questions arise. Can Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal maintain their five-point lead despite losing key players to injury? How about Newcastle United and their continued quest to add more pressure to the top-four race? What will Man City and Liverpool do and, most importantly, what can we expect from the freshly rejuvenated Erling Haaland and Mohamed Salah given they missed the World Cup?
Here are the biggest Premier League questions ahead of the return to action on Dec. 26.
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Can Arsenal keep going?
After watching their side beat AC Milan and Lyon in Dubai, before losing 2-0 to Juventus in a friendly at the Emirates, no other fan base may be happier for the return of the Premier League on Boxing Day than Arsenal. Arteta’s team are five points clear at the top of the Premier League — their biggest lead in pole position since 2013 — and have looked great doing it. With 12 wins and 37 points, the Gunners are also enjoying their best record ever this far into a season.
There are pressing issues, however, as Gabriel Jesus’ knee injury will keep him out for around 10-12 weeks, depending on how smoothly his recovery goes. Thus, Arteta surely must find a replacement in January that he can only hope will make up for the Brazilian’s contributions of five goals and six assists in 14 league appearances.
The Arsenal attack is not all about the 25-year-old, but he is no doubt a big part of Arsenal’s strategy. “We are looking and we are active in the possibilities,” Arteta said last week. “If we can find the players that will strengthen the team, we will try.”
There is good news as Emile Smith Rowe gets closer to a return after a lengthy absence due to a groin injury. The 22-year-old was tremendous last season, with 10 goals from 21 league appearances, second in the Arsenal tally only to Bukayo Saka, so he could prove vital in 2023. The attacking area does need a little help, given the fact that Gabriel Martinelli is still away after his spell with Brazil and only Eddie Nketiah is a central striker.
For Arteta, the objective is clear: Keep going, match by match. This is, of course, easier said than done, especially as the Europa League comes into play and the schedule becomes more congested. It will take an entire squad to fully take charge and hand Arsenal their first Premier League title since 2003-04, which was their momentous Invincibles season.
Can rejuvenated Haaland offset Man City’s World Cup absentees?
Erling Haaland, the Norwegian version of a Transformers character, has used the past month to recharge both mentally and physically. Time is a commodity not often available at this time of the season, especially to professional players at this level, and the question is how much that may help Haaland, who spent the first half of the Premier League season scoring at a record-setting clip of 23 goals in 18 games.
Man City manager Pep Guardiola allowed his players to take a long break before their Abu Dhabi five-day camp earlier this month, which included seven first-team players and the club’s development squad, and Haaland spent it wisely at his home in Marbella, Spain. Once he returned, Man City training sessions must have felt pretty lonely for the 22-year-old, as the club had 16 players from the first team in Qatar, the most out of any Premier League club.
But there’s no reason to doubt that he used this almost-empty environment as fuel, and Haaland will be more than ready to go against Leeds United on Dec. 28. After camp, Haaland featured against Girona last week — the club’s only friendly during this break — and scored. We’ll have to see how many minutes he plays against Liverpool in the Carabao Cup round of 16 on Thursday night, but something tells us he’s eager to feature in every single game.
Haaland took part in almost every match before the World Cup, and this caused a small knock to the striker, forcing Guardiola to give him a break in some of the last matches before Qatar. Now that the Premier League Golden Boot leader is back — and with the fantastic Julian Alvarez out for a while after his incredible campaign in Qatar, which ended him in being crowned a World Cup champion with Argentina — Haaland has to take more responsibility for Man City. It’s a big role, as the club will do everything in their power to retain the league title and finally win the Champions League.
– O’Hanlon: Why Messi is the greatest male athlete ever, period
Are Newcastle United title contenders?
Here’s a fact: Newcastle United return to the Premier League with 30 points. Under manager Eddie Howe, they have only lost once this season, sitting two points behind Man City and seven from Arsenal, albeit with an extra game played. What’s more impressive, however, is the manner in which they were playing before the World Cup break: relentless going forward, defensively strong [they have the joint-best defensive record alongside Arsenal] and full of confidence.
St. James’ Park is a fortress once again, and teams are legitimately wary of the Magpies. This is a very strong team, and thanks to their Saudi Arabia-backed ownership, they are financially prosperous. The other good news for Newcastle fans is that the first-team players who took part at the World Cup didn’t really play many minutes, so their contributions upon returning should not be too limited. Oh, and Miguel Almiron, who had the World Cup break off as Paraguay didn’t qualify, is freshly rested.
The Magpies’ schedule is tougher in 2023 and their biggest challenges will come in the second half of the season. But even so, it’s more than fair to say that Newcastle have a very realistic opportunity to enter the title race. They also have one advantage over Man City and Arsenal: they don’t have continental competition to worry about. The question is, will they make the most out of it?
Who can still upset the leaders in race for top four and Europe?
It’s a very aggressive battle for a UEFA Champions League spot in the Premier League. Only eight points separate first-place Arsenal and fourth-place Tottenham. There is an extra game played, but the point still stands — anyone at the front of the pack can take something out of anyone right now. Below that, it becomes even more intriguing as the difference between fifth-place Man United and eighth-place Chelsea is five points. Even newly-promoted Fulham have a chance as they are just behind in ninth with 19 points.
As tight as this narrative continues to be, Liverpool and Chelsea know there is no time to be careless in the second half of the season. Liverpool, just like Haaland and Man City, will require a fresh Salah up top to help climb up the table. This is especially true as Jurgen Klopp’s side face notable absences such as winger Luis Diaz, who will be out for three months after requiring knee surgery. Klopp called it a “proper smash in the face” while in Dubai for training. It’s better news for Portugal forward Diogo Jota, who could come back by the end of next month after being sidelined since October due to a calf injury.
Regardless, Liverpool — who are listening to offers as Fenway Sports Group put the club up for sale — know they need to strengthen in the January transfer window as the aforementioned Salah, Darwin Nunez and Roberto Firmino are the only fit and available attackers. Sitting in sixth place, the red side of Merseyside have to improve in order to attain a Champions League spot.
For Chelsea, it’s similar, but at least Klopp has the backing of his fan base and proven experience of guiding Liverpool out of tricky situations. It’s very different for Graham Potter, who only took the helm of Chelsea in September after leaving Brighton, a team that just so happen to be above Chelsea in the table on goal difference. After Chelsea’s loss to Newcastle in the last matchday before the World Cup, Potter became the first Blues manager to lose three consecutive league games since Jose Mourinho in 2014-15, and the writing was on the wall by the time Mourinho was fired later that year.
Chelsea need to get it together and fast. With news of striker Armando Broja out for the rest of the season after a knee injury during their warmup fixture against Aston Villa, co-owner Todd Boehly has to act once again in January. With Christopher Nkunku reportedly not joining from RB Leipzig before the summer, there’s a lot to do next month in the window. Can Chelsea climb up the table? Do the fans trust Potter? We’ll have to wait and see.
Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens discuss a possible move to Aston Villa for Atletico Madrid forward Joao Felix.
Can any teams in the bottom half of the table surprise us?
The difference between ninth and 20th on the Premier League table is nine points. Three victories — that’s it. With the added fact that most of those squads didn’t even have that many players in Qatar, this break has been a perfect chance for them to fully regroup ahead of trying to make a run up the table. Whether these teams used the break to their advantage remains to be seen, however.
We already saw Aston Villa’s bright start under manager Unai Emery as the Spanish manager came out with two wins in his first two league matches against Man United and Brighton respectively. The World Cup break has featured warmup matches where we’ve seen a more organized and creative side, and with World Cup champion Emiliano Martínez returning, confidence should be high at Villa Park. The board promised Emery a budget for January, so there should be action in the transfer window. Perhaps not for €100m-rated Atletico Madrid forward Joao Felix, as some had hoped, but the ambition is legitimate.
Meanwhile, Emery’s compatriot, Julen Lopetegui, is in charge not too far away at Wolves, also near the bottom of the table. The former Real Madrid and Sevilla manager has a lot to do in order to climb out of the relegation zone, but he is a very good tactician who is already creating a plan, reportedly aiming for six transfers in January. We’ll see how he does in the Premier League and if he can get them out of the drop zone.
Elsewhere, Nathan Jones will hope to change Southampton’s ways as the former Luton manager replaced Ralph Hasenhuttl, whilst West Ham’s next three matches might just determine David Moyes’ fate.
Oh, and finally, let’s end this discussion with Bournemouth and their new part-owner Michael B. Jordan. The club, who are only three points off the relegation zone, announced the actor’s minority stake after billionaire Bill Foley’s takeover was confirmed. Jordan will work together with Foley “in areas including global marketing and internationalization of the club,” per Foley’s company Cannae Holdings, who also own NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights.
So I guess we can call him Michael Bournemouth Jordan? Apologies for Thomas Muller-esque joke. Couldn’t resist.
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