It will be a season like no other. The 2020-21 English Premier League starts this weekend but we can’t be sure it will finish.
There will be no fans but TV audiences will be huge; finances have crashed but spending is still enough to keep the world’s economy ticking over; on the pitch, there is more pressure on the hounds than the hare.
If that is not contrary enough, the club that has spent the least still looks to have the most. Sure, champions Liverpool will be chased harder than last season, when they were mostly out of sight, but they have nothing to prove.
Champions of the world as well – and kings of Europe until recently – they are a formidable squad with an untouchable manager. It’s the pack – and their managers – who have it all to do.
As serious title contenders, it is hard to see beyond last season’s top four. Unlike Jurgen Klopp, the bosses of the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea have to improve or they may find the axe falling.
Not only have they been handed big budgets, they have been shown patience – a rare commodity at these levels.
If there are good reasons for that, all three will know that this season is when that patience could run out.
Bookies’ perennial favourites – well, since Fergie retired anyway – are Manchester City. But that in itself heaps the pressure on Pep Guardiola after a season which, by his lofty standards, was a disaster.
Losing the title by 18 points was one thing; yet another timid and premature surrender in the Champions League was another.
An equally lame loss to Arsenal in the FA Cup meant the much-derided Carabao Cup was the only trophy they won.
But it is the defeat to Lyon – as inept as it was inexplicable – that will be hardest to erase.
That it was the fourth time in a row he’d not reached the last four of a competition he once ‘owned’, the failure assumes a greater magnitude.
Knowing he will be judged more on how he does in Europe than in England could adversely affect City’s domestic performances.
Next season will be more congested than ever and if City find themselves still involved in all competitions in February, something will have to give.
If he makes Old Big Ears his priority, it may allow a rival to slip away, as Liverpool did last season, never to be caught.
Now that Lionel Messi won’t be coming – perhaps ever – there may be more cash for the kind of top central defender they sorely missed last season.
Without one, the Carabao Cup may be their limit again and, unless Messi does sign for the following season, Pep may have had enough anyway.
Despite an upturn that was almost entirely down to Bruno Fernandes, Ole Gunnar Solskjær knows he is still the manager who shouldn’t be there.
The caretaker who was handed the throne, he is still to convince many United fans that he’s up to the task.
His signings have generally been decent but, like Pep, he needs a centreback and leftback or the Devils will remain vulnerable on the counter.
The news that they are closer to adding Jadon Sancho to midfielder Donny van de Beek suggests they will have plenty going forward but great teams are built from the back – as Fergie would tell him.
It is a lesson Frank Lampard could also learn and that top centrebacks have become an endangered species is why Chelsea had to turn to Thiago Silva, 35 years young.
But at least they have experience and class there now – as long as the great Brazilian still has the legs.
And they have a leftback, too, in £45m Ben Chilwell who is better known for his attacking than defending.
But it is up front where the Blues are likely to be at their most impressive.
In a return to the big-spending days when Roman Abramovich took over, they have splashed well over £230m, the bulk on attacking players: £47.5m on striker Timo Werner, £37.5m on attacking midfielder Hakim Ziyech from Ajax, and £90m on Kai Havertz, the long-term replacement for Eden Hazard.
Excitement among Chelsea fans is tempered by fears that the academy kids, who shone last season, may be seen only rarely this time.
They also wonder how Lampard is going to keep 10 international attacking players happy and if they still might miss Willian who has gone to Arsenal. And there’s still the small matter of finding a decent keeper.
Klopp will look on without fear – he has arguably the best goalie and definitely the best centreback in the world, not to mention a formidable front three.
Above all he has a team – the challengers still have to gel – and it will be fascinating to watch it unfold.
Let’s hope it’s able to finish and preferably with fans. But here we go back to contrariness. Just as EPL boss Richard Masters was insisting it’s ‘critical’ for fans to return, the British government was reviewing plans for them to do so. Welcome to the new EPL season – let’s enjoy it while it lasts.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.