It is early days in the 2019/20 English Premier League season but already the league table is starting to take a familiar shape.
Liverpool and Manchester City look almost certain to go neck and neck for the title once again, leaving Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal to fight over the remaining European places.
However, with all four of these English giants experiencing either transition or uncertainty in one way or another, there is a small group of clubs below looking up and sensing a window of opportunity.
I have ranked the five sides most likely to shake up the top half of the table and possibly even finish in the top six come May 2020.
Brendan Rodgers has quickly turned a lacklustre Leicester side into the hungry Foxes we came to know and love in their thrilling title-winning season.
The Northern Irish coach has made an impressive impact since his return to the Premier League from Celtic. The astute tactician is getting the best out of Leicester’s exciting young talent including Manchester United target James Maddison.
Marry that with the return to form of every defender’s worst nightmare Jamie Vardy, and Foxes fans could be in for an interesting 2019/20 campaign. Leicester might not be challenging at the very top but I would single them out as the most likely to cause concern to the top teams.
Leicester became too easy to play against following the departure of Claudio Ranieri, but under Rodgers’ regime they have the organisation and quality to pick up plenty of points away from home this season.
If the club can collectively make the King Power the fortress it was in 2015/16, they can finish above Chelsea and Arsenal. Failing that, I fully expect them to finish seventh.
Despite ‘Silva Out’ being spray-painted on a wall outside Goodison Park this week, I would still give the Toffees an outside chance of breaking the top six monotony.
Portuguese manager Marco Silva seems a good fit for Everton but that won’t necessarily buy him a lot of time, as Ronald Koeman discovered during his brief spell in charge. The Gladys Street faithful’s patience is now drawing wafer thin. For a club with Everton’s history, 25 years is far too long to go without lifting any silverware.
In fact, a large proportion of Toffees supporters will be too young to remember the club’s glory days of the 1980s. The Klopp revolution across Stanley Park only agitates the fan base further.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Everton have exceptional young talent in their ranks including England’s first-choice goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, streaky forward Richarlison who is a regular starter for Brazil, and a summer coup from Arsenal in Alex Iwobi.
More patience will be required but a cup final and a top-six finish is certainly achievable this season. My only concern is the Blues’ lack of a prolific striker.
West Ham United
It has taken a little time to settle into their new address at London E20 but the bubbles are starting to fly high again for West Ham United. Things are certainly starting to look up for Manuel Pellegrini’s talented squad.
When fit, the creative flair of Felipe Anderson and Manuel Lanzini ensure West Ham pose a frightening attacking force alongside record signing Sebastien Haller. The £45 million signing from Eintracht Frankfurt has led the line in exemplary fashion so far this season and has already chipped in with goals and assists.
The main cause of concern for West Ham fans at the beginning of the season would have been in defence. In previous seasons, the Irons have lacked a steely underbelly but that issue has been rectified with the blossoming talent of 20-year-old Declan Rice. No other midfielder in the Premier League has made more tackles than the England international this season.
Having addressed their defensive frailties and invested in attack – and let’s not forget the title-winning manager sitting in the dug-out – there is no reason why a top-six finish should be pie in the sky for the East Londoners.
Once again Bournemouth have made a solid start to the new season. Despite losing to reigning champions Manchester City and Brendan Rodgers’ revitalised Leicester City, the Cherries have picked up seven points from their three winnable games on paper.
That is what Eddie Howe and Bournemouth do. They plan and execute. Howe is amongst the brightest English managers in the game and it would have been no real surprise had he been lured to coach at a bigger club by now. Clearly he believes Bournemouth can punch even higher, and who would doubt him.
Since joining English football’s elite in 2015, the Cherries have established themselves as part of the Premier League furniture. That’s some achievement given their stadium capacity is the league’s smallest by some margin.
This season, the swashbuckling south coast side want more than mid-table safety. Keeping England forward Callum Wilson at the Vitality during the summer was brilliant business, as was the signing of his namesake Harry, on loan from Liverpool.
Much burden will fall on these young shoulders this season but they are ready for the challenge. Eddie Howe will have made sure of it.
Before the first game of the season I would have added one of Wolverhampton Wanderers or Crystal Palace to this list. However after five matches Wolves have made a very sluggish start to their difficult second season in the top flight.
Following on from their heroics of last season – they finished seventh, their best placing since 1980 – Wolves’ aim for this season should consist of a good run in the Europa League and a comfortable mid-table league finish.
A season of consolidation would also suit the Wolves’ owners, the Fosun Group, who revealed this week that they are seeking fresh investment in order to accelerate the club’s growth.
Crystal Palace have begun their campaign in decent fashion but the fact that Wilf Zaha is unlikely to see out the winter in South London would suggest that any European ambitions will end with his departure in the January sales.
Which brings me to my left-field choice of Southampton, who quite understandably are viewed generally as relegation contenders, but in fact have been quietly reassembling over the summer months following two tumultuous seasons scrapping for survival.
In recent years the recruitment of both players and managers has been dismal but this season there is a renewed optimism around St Mary’s, and for the first time since Ronald Koeman was appointed, a genuine belief in the manager.
Austrian Ralph Hasenhuttl worked wonders in Germany guiding RB Leipzig to second in his maiden Bundesliga season. Hasenhuttl’s style of play has earned him the notable nickname of the Alpine Klopp and his excitable persona has quickly rubbed off on Southampton players and fans.
The Saints may surprise a few people this season and a top-ten finish would be a fantastic achievement. I predict a few of the big clubs may come undone against their dynamic new attacking line-up featuring Che Adams and Moussa Djenepo.