Saturday 17 March 2018

Stephen Hunt: Neymar's knock-on effect will bring new look to contenders

Alexis Sanchez
Alexis Sanchez
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

As we come to terms with the mind-boggling world record transfer of Neymar, it is worth asking how much impact it will have on the outcome of the Premier League title race.

The money from this deal will filter through the whole of Europe, and Liverpool and Chelsea will be nervously waiting to see who Barcelona want to replace the €222m Brazilian. Because if they want Coutinho or Eden Hazard, or even both, they will get them.

And just because Hazard (pictured below) is injured at the moment, don't rule out Barcelona making a move. He is one of the most talented footballers in the world, and he will make a full recovery from his achilles injury. If Mick McCarthy can sign me with a six-month injury, I am pretty sure Barca can sign an injured Eden Hazard.

Neymar's move will have a knock-on effect throughout the leagues because clubs on the next rung of the ladder, like Liverpool, will have to replace Coutinho from the very top of the market. And they are not cheap. The Neymar transfer may be done but the fun of the transfer market is just beginning. The Premier League's top six squads are sure to look very different by the time the transfer window shuts at the end of this month.

It won't be pretty, but I am making Manchester United my title favourites. Last season, once he had worked out that the Europa League was in his sights and he was running out of fit players to compete in the Premier League, Jose Mourinho sacrificed a top-four spot and Champions League qualification through the league position.

It was a gamble, but it was a clear demonstration of Mourinho's winning mentality. He would rather go all out for silverware and win a cup than go through the motions in the Premier League. He knew he could not compete with Chelsea, Spurs and Manchester City for the title, but he also knew his team was capable of winning the Europa League.

Chelsea's Eden Hazard. Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Chelsea's Eden Hazard. Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Mourinho has shown he means business from day one in pre-season. He still needs one more signing to complete the squad but he has made three very good additions, particularly in Romelu Lukaku.

The £75m United paid Everton is a lot of money for a striker who is far from the finished article. He is still learning his trade and still developing. But he is the type of forward Mourinho likes with his size and pace, and he is more than capable of scoring 20-plus goals, which is precisely what United need to compete for the title.

Nemanja Matic is another excellent addition, and his signing changes things considerably for Paul Pogba. I think Mourinho knows that Pogba does not have the discipline to be a holding midfielder, and that caught him out a few times last season. But with a player like Matic behind him, he can be as random and adventurous as he was at Juventus.

Mourinho also appears to have managed to convince David de Gea to stay at Old Trafford. He deserves a medal if that is the case because I thought his move to Real Madrid was a certainty after he was left out of the Europa League final in May.

The United players will be better for a year under Mourinho but it is still a big season for many of them. Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have all got to improve their consistency.

I was surprised that Chelsea were prepared to sell Matic to one of their direct rivals. And I am even more surprised that they are willing to lose Diego Costa too. Although he is probably on his way back to Atletico Madrid, if I was a manager of one of the Premier League's top six, I would be straight on to Costa and his advisers to see how much he wants. If Chelsea are daft enough to sell, then why not?

This is going to be a much more challenging season for Antonio Conte; playing the role of the strict Italian disciplinarian can only work for so long before players get tired and bored with the act. It would not surprise me if Chelsea and Conte concentrate on the Champions League this season after missing out on last season's competition and their league challenge suffers as a result. The owner will be happy with that.

It is going to be a demanding season for many top managers, and particularly Arsene Wenger, who is facing an early challenge to his authority from Alexis Sanchez. The Arsenal manager said the Chilean is not for sale. That should be the end of the matter but it is probably just the beginning.

It all depends on Sanchez and his agent. He only has one year left on his contract so Arsenal may eventually decide this is the time to cash in, particularly if Sanchez decides to down tools and make life difficult for the club. It is hard to see him staying at the Emirates beyond the end of the month.

Like Wenger, but for very different reasons, Pep Guardiola needs a good solid start to the season. He has released half of his squad and spent serious amounts of money, so the City board and fans will be demanding a return for that outlay.

Many of the signings he has made are unproven. I acknowledge that Monaco were a very good side last season but they are this summer's vogue team. You're talking about the French league, probably the fifth best league in the world and perhaps not even as good as the EFL Championship.

Their players are the safe option for scouts and managers, which is why a lot of them have left Monaco. Manchester United didn't come calling for Leicester players last summer because they won the league; they were braver and went deeper into the transfer market. With the vast amounts being offered for untried players, of course Monaco have cashed in. Their owner must be the happiest man in football right now.

I tipped Liverpool to win the league last season and I stuck with them for too long as they started to fall away before Christmas. If Coutinho does leave, it will be a huge blow and leave an enormous hole in Jurgen Klopp's side. You would like to think they have someone lined up already, and that they can handle the situation better than the mess they have made of signing Virgil van Dijk. I still think the Southampton defender will end up at Anfield but every day that passes, the Saints can add on a few extra million.

Spurs have yet to make a signing. Asking Harry Kane and Dele Alli to stay injury-free and carry the team is a lot. They also have the added pressure of handling the temporary move to Wembley, which is not going to be easy. They will miss the tradition, history and atmosphere of White Hart Lane.

They proved me wrong last year, especially in the second half of the season when I thought they would bottle it, but if they can win games at Wembley regularly they can challenge for Champions League qualification again.

From an Irish perspective, I am sure most people will be hoping Chris Hughton and Brighton stay up. They will probably need to adopt the mentality of playing at Championship pace, as we did at Reading all those years ago, and coming out of the blocks quickly to gain as many early points as possible. The big test is whether they will have the goals to survive.

We'll all be keeping an eye on Burnley, who have five Irish lads in their squad, all looking to establish themselves at Turf Moor in a World Cup year. Sean Dyche and his players will be keen to kick on after staying clear of the bottom three last season but they probably need an X-Factor signing who is going to give them a lift.

The problem of course, as all clubs are finding, is that there are not many of those players around, and they certainly don't come cheap.

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