Can Neymar and Messi co-exist? and four other things to look out for this season

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Every one of Europe’s top five leagues has the potential to have a thrilling title race this season. Sam Thompson, of TTTFootball, takes a closer look at who will be challenging at the top in England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France…

1. A three-horse race in the Premier League

Premier League title races have normally revolved around Manchester United and their nearest rivals. First it was Blackburn Rovers, then Newcastle United, then Arsenal, Chelsea and most recently Manchester City. This year though, there seems to be a genuine three-way battle between both Manchester clubs and Chelsea – largely because all three of these sides go into this season with a new man at the helm.

David Moyes knows he has big shoes to fill at United this season and has so far failed to make a marquee signing, after reportedly failing with a third bid for Barcelona’s Cesc Fabregas – at least he has pinpointed United’s glaring lack of options in the middle of the pitch. Another issue yet to be dealt with is Wayne Rooney’s future and this could carry on until the transfer window shuts.

It’s Chelsea who have taken on the mantle as favourites this season with the returning Jose Mourinho expected to lead his Stamford Bridge side to the title. New signing Marco van Ginkel is unlikely to muscle his way in between a double pivot of Frank Lampard and Ramires initially and likewise Andre Schurrle seems unlikely to remove one of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard or Oscar.

With Fernando Torres not the player he was, Demba Ba struggling for goals since his move and Romelu Lukaku looking like a bit-part player, Mourinho may yet bring in a striker before the season starts.

Manchester City have done a decent job this summer of getting rid of some of the deadwood with the likes of Kolo Toure, Maicon and Roque Santa Cruz all leaving. So too has Carlos Tevez but City have replaced him well with both Stefan Jovetic and Alvaro Negredo joining.

Manager Manuel Pellegrini will also have Fernandinho to add to his options in central midfield and Jesus Navas to utilise out wide, and ensure that City have genuine width in attack for the first time since Shaun Wright-Phillips left in 2011.

2. Will Neymar and Messi get on?

Barcelona are another major European side with a new manager after the devastating news of Tito Vilanova resigning in order to focus on his battle with cancer. Replacement Tata Martino will be thrown in at the deep end with Barca set to meet Atletico Madrid twice in the Spanish Super Cup early on, as well as Malaga and Valencia away.

Thiago Alcantara has already left the Catalan giants with Cesc Fabregas another player who might head for the exit but in terms of new additions, Barcelona have made just the one, Neymar – perhaps a surprise given the number of defenders they were missing for large parts of last season.

The question is then, how will Messi and Neymar get on? Will Neymar buy into the ethos in the same way as Pedro Rodriguez has done – by understanding that for Barca to succeed, Messi must succeed? Or will Neymar instead welcome some of the creative burden and attract some of the defenders away from Messi?

The Catalans will of course have to deal with rivals Real Madrid again on the domestic front. Under the stewardship of Carlo Ancelotti, Madrid have so far had a very successful transfer window, getting a combined €50m for Gonzalo Higuain, Raul Albiol and Jose Callejon – all of whom have moved to Napoli.

With that money, Madrid have attracted Daniel Carvajal who will challenge Alvaro Arbeloa for the right back slot, but more impressively they’ve signed two future Spanish international’s; Asier Illarramendi and Isco.

The La Liga title race may well be another two-way battle but it’s certainly going to be an exciting one, with Gareth Bale and/or Luis Suarez likely to join Real Madrid before the transfer market ends. The possibility of Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo up against Messi and Neymar is, to put it simply, mouth-watering.

3. A wide open Serie A

The Premier League isn’t the only major league with a three-way battle for the title. In Italy, Juventus, Napoli and AC Milan will all challenge for the top spot, with added competition from the likes of Inter Milan, Udinese, Roma and Fiorentina.

Antonio Conte’s Juventus are the clear favourites and it’s understandable why when you look at the depth of their squad. In midfield Paul Pogba is a now a year older, and will provide superb competition for Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio. Plus, the additions of Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente could be the final pieces of the jigsaw that sees them join Europe’s elite.

Napoli have also made the most of the transfer market and were very quick to replace Morgan de Sanctis and the highly influential Edinson Cavani, with Gonzalo Higuain and Pepe Reina. Rafael Benitez has also strengthened his defence with the signing of Raul Albiol and added extra creativity out wide in signing Jose Callejon and Dries Mertens.

You can also expect a challenge from Massimiliano Allegri’s Milan side, who have a great mix of experience in midfield (Nigel de Jong, Riccardo Montolivo and Antonio Nocerino) and plenty of creativity and pace in attack from the likes of Robinho, Mario Balotelli, Stephan El Shaarawy and M’Baye Niang.

Outside of the big three, new Inter manager Walter Mazzarri will be expected to improve considerably on last year’s ninth placed finish and has signed the highly-rated Argentine striker Mauro Icardi. Roma have lost Marquinhos and Maarten Stekelenburg but most importantly have so far retained the services of Daniele De Rossi and added Kevin Strootman.

Udinese have finished in the top five in the last three seasons but perhaps the best bet for outsiders for the title are Fiorentina, who despite losing Stegan Jovetic, have signed the likes of Mario Gomez, Massimo Ambrosini, Josip Ilicic and Joaquin.

4. Is there any stopping Bayern?

Pep Guardiola has joined the best side in Europe. A side that last year won the Bundesliga with a record number of points, beating the previous record by 10, the German Cup, the German Super Cup and the Champions League – where they beat Arsenal, Juventus, Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund in the knockout stages.

This is a side that finished 25 points ahead of second-placed Dortmund, that won 29 of their 34 league matches, including 14 in a row, and kept 21 clean sheets in total. A side that has just added Thiago Alcantara after he starred at the Under-21 European Championships, and Mario Gotze, one of the key creative talents at their closest rivals.

Under Guardiola, Bayern’s friendly results are as follows; 9-1, 3-0, 6-0, 4-0, 15-1, 13-0, 4-0, 5-0, 2-0 vs. Barcelona, 2-0 vs. Sao Paulo and 2-1 vs. Man City. The Spaniard has one of the most talented young goalkeepers in his squad, and one of the best role models on the pitch for a captain. Plus a midfield including Thiago, Javi Martinez, Gotze, Toni Kroos, Luiz Gustavo and Bastian Schweinsteiger, with wingers like Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben and Thomas Muller and Mario Mandzukic as his main striker.

However, football isn’t played on paper and Bayern have already lost to rivals Dortmund this season, in the German Super Cup. Dortmund have quietly added well this summer, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Sokratis and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang all joining and Roberto Lewandowski, most importantly, staying. So perhaps there is some hope. Jurgen Klopp’s side certainly won’t go down without a fight and perhaps having finished runner-up to Bayern in three competitions last year will push them on this season?

Further afield, Schalke with Christian Clemens joining the likes of Julian Draxler and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar will surely challenge for a top three finish this season. As will Bayer Leverkusen, although having lost Andre Schurrle and Daniel Carvajal, this may be a season of rebuilding.

5. Will Monaco challenge PSG?

Normally a side that gains promotion from the second division to the first aims for nothing more than to consolidate their position the following season. However, Claudio Ranieri’s Monaco side will be expected to challenge with PSG and Marseille for the Ligue Un title in 2013-14.

So far, Monaco’s Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev has spent an astonishing €128m this summer on recruiting the likes of Jeremy Toulalan, Joao Moutinho and James Rodriguez. Eric Abidal and Ricardo Carvalho have also been added in defence but the most impressive signing to date is Radamel Falcao – who netted twice during Monaco’s resounding 5-2 friendly victory over Tottenham.

It’s no surprise then that Monaco are expected to challenge with PSG domestically this year. Of course there is a clear disadvantage in that the PSG ‘project’ has been going on for several years now and so their superstars have had more time to gel. PSG will however be competing in Europe, and expecting to go far in it too, meaning Monaco have a slight advantage in terms of playing less matches throughout the season.

It’s also worth pointing out the extent to which PSG themselves have improved during the transfer window, with Laurent Blanc aware that he needs a squad capable of playing three games a week for the majority of the season. Much sought after centre back Marquinhos has joined for €32m from Roma and so too has the impressive left back Lucas Digne.

The big signing however is that of former Napoli striker Edinson Cavani. A potential front line of Cavani, Zaltan Ibrahimovic and Ezequiel Lavezzi will strike fear into any side. Throw in Thiago Silva at the heart of the defence and the youngsters Marco Verratti and Lucas Moura in midfield, both of whom are another year older, wiser and stronger, and all of a sudden the Ligue Un title race has the makings of being one of the best contests in Europe this year.

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