Eight days on from the dramatic finale of the football World Cup, the return of English league football may come as a surprise to some, and to the resentment of some football-overloaded others.
Here’s everything one needs to know about the league’s major contenders, as the narrative of one of the world’s most popular sporting competitions resumes.
Arsenal in title race
Arsenal have been good this season. No, they really are looking good.
Mikel Arteta has effectively integrated a host of new signings into their system this season.
They have looked fluid in midfield and attack, and won big London derbies against Chelsea and Tottenham, as well as convincingly trumped Liverpool. The team has instilled belief in the ever-passionate global fan base of the North London team.
A fan base that will be quick to remind everyone that Arsenal are five points clear at the top of the league table at Christmas, a superstition in English football undoubtedly sullied by the layoff.
Arteta’s side has, for the most part, answered the questions critics have posed at them in the first half. But after losing crucial striker Gabriel Jesus to injury, and seeing an already light squad go through an intense World Cup, keeping up with their star-studded rivals will be a big ask.
Haaland is back
The magic of a World Cup is in watching the planet’s best players fighting for the sport’s foremost prize, but fans were robbed of the opportunity of seeing Manchester City’s latest goal-scoring sensation Erling Haaland.
It took the Norwegian less than 10 minutes to get on the scoresheet in City’s 3-2 thriller against Liverpool in the League Cup on Thursday. Haaland has scored 18 of the team’s table-topping 40 this season, and looks hungry to prove himself after a six-week break.
Add to that Pep Guardiola’s winning machine that has won four of the last five league titles, and a hungry Kevin De Bruyne, one of the best midfielders of his generation determined to do well after disappointment with Belgium in Qatar, and Arsenal have a lot to worry about at the top.
Liverpool have spent three of the last four years contending for the title, and won it once, but in a transitional phase this season, it seems that a more realistic goal is making it into the top four.
While their performance against City was not exactly inspired, and off-field distractions are aplenty after their owners put the club on sale in October, they are well rested for the post-World Cup rush of fixtures that are coming their way.
Fabinho was mostly unused by Brazil, Thiago – bafflingly to some – was not called up by Spain, both Luis Diaz and Diogo Jota are on their way to recovering from injury, and other squad mainstays like Andy Robertson, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joel Matip have got a crucial break. After the six weeks off, talisman Mohamed Salah also has the chance to recover his form.
Race for Top 4
Several fumbling clubs, who have been disappointing for the last few seasons, make up the rest of the contenders looking to ensure European football for next season.
Erik Ten Hag’s Manchester United have been streaky, looking good in parts. And without the distraction of the Cristiano Ronaldo fiasco, they will look to go on a run of form. However, the start may be tetchy, as first-choice defensive partnership Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane played the World Cup final only eight days prior to the season restart.
Tottenham have one of Europe’s more glamorous coaches – in fame but not playing style – in Antonio Conte, but have looked far from settled. Under new ownership and the surprise managerial change in replacing Thomas Tuchel with Graham Potter, Chelsea’s woeful form – two points in the last five games – has them languishing in eighth place.
Amid these teams, Newcastle United, bolstered by the influx of Saudi Arabian cash and a buoyant and energetic team under Eddie Howe looking to wake up an English football giant, find themselves in third place having won five games on the trot. They will be a major player in the top-4 race.