City, United spend heavily to topple Chelsea
The leaders of Manchester’s two biggest soccer clubs break the bank to build a team that can challenge their rival in London
ROB HARRIS LONDON
Theway Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho have been spending, the Premier League trophy should be returning to Manchester in May.
In an off-season that has seen more than £1-billion ($1.7-billion) invested in players, Manchester rivals City and United have accounted for more than a third of that spending.
It was the inevitable reaction to feeble title challenges that saw Guardiola’s City finish 15 points behind the victorious Chelsea side in third place and Mourinho’s United finish nine points further adrift.
For a serial collector of trophies at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, finishing his first season in English football without a single title was an unusual feeling for Guardiola.
If the overhaul of the squad, costing more than £200-million, doesn’t deliver silverware, there will be further uncomfortable questions for the Spaniard.
Guardiola has started rebuilding from the back by recruiting fullbacks Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker for around £50-million apiece.
Signing Walker was particularly eye catching. The England right back forced his way out of a Tottenham team that finished ahead of City in second place.
With its rigid pay structure, Tottenham lacks the will to break its budget to offer big salaries. Or, in this transfer window, spend anything yet on reinforcing a squad that delivered Tottenham’s highest league finish in more than 50 years.
Rather than being a platform to build on to challenge for a first title since 1961, Tottenham’s ownership appears more focused on building its new stadium. Still, the north London club has kept its key talent – notably Harry Kane and Dele Alli, who scored 47 league goals between them last season.
In search of goals, Manchester United turned to last season’s second-highest scorer. Striker Romelu Lukaku cost at least £75-million, while Mourinho offloaded captain Wayne Rooney in the opposite direction to Everton.
Lukaku isn’t the only player being reunited with Mourinho, who also convinced former club Chelsea to sell Nemanja Matic to United. A fee of £40-million proved too substantial for Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich to turn down, even if manager Antonio Conte wanted to retain the midfielder he still called “very important for our team” on Wednesday.
“Sometimes you must accept this crazy transfer market,” Conte told British broadcaster Sky Sports, “and sometimes you must accept different decisions. But he is a great loss for us.”
The danger for Chelsea is that the harmonious atmosphere reestablished by Conte after Mourinho’s bitter departure will erode. Although Conte has brought in striker Alvaro Morata from Real Madrid, he is finding it hard to sell another forward – Diego Costa.
Chelsea had wanted to bring Lukaku back to Stamford Bridge, a transfer thwarted by Mourinho. Despite finishing sixth in the league, the Portuguese coach completed his first season at United with two trophies. While the League Cup is little regarded, the Europa League provided a ticket into the Champions League – and probably the signature of Lukaku.
It was one of the costliest moves in Europe during a summer transfer window that has seen United midfielder Paul Pogba replaced as the most expensive player in football by Neymar, who joined Paris Saint-Germain for €222-million ($346-million).
“I don’t think we’re going to see that replicated [in England],” Premier League chairman Richard Scudamore said. “And, in some ways, I’m glad it’s not the Premier League holding that particular record.”
Yet, there is set to be a knock-on effect, particularly at Liverpool.
Liverpool now appears to have a fight on its hands to retain attacking midfielder Philippe Coutinho as Barcelona looks to reinvest some of its Neymar windfall in another Brazilian. Losing such a key player would hamper Juergen Klopp’s hopes of using his second full season at Anfield to show his upbeat demeanour can be matched with silverware.
Arsenal also embarks on a new campaign uncertain whether it will hold on to a key member of its squad. Striker Alexis Sanchez, who has been ruled out of Friday’s opener against Leicester, is in the final season of his Emirates Stadium contract.
Losing Sanchez would jeopardize Arsenal’s attempt to rejoin the elite. For the first time in 20 years, Arsene Wenger’s side will be missing from the Champions League as a consequence of its fifth-place Premier League finish.
But Arsenal has already reinforced its attacking options by signing Alexandre Lacazette, and brought in burly defender Sead Kolasinac. Wenger is also looking to trim players surplus to requirements – an issue he discussed with fellow managers at a meeting this week.
“It looks like everywhere there is many, many players and a bit of congestion at the moment everywhere,” Wenger said.
Manager Antonio Conte, right, led Chelsea to a Premier League title in his first season with the club, but he will have to fend off challenges from rivals that spent heavily in the off-season.