Paul Pogba assisted four of Manchester United's goals as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side started their 2021-22 Premier League campaign with a 5-1 thrashing of Leeds United.

Bruno Fernandes netted three of them, with Mason Greenwood and Fred also getting in on the action as United issued a statement of intent.

Chelsea followed up that victory with a 3-0 win over Patrick Vieira's Crystal Palace at Stamford Bridge, while Liverpool rounded out the day by beating newly promoted Norwich City by the same scoreline.

Leicester City, Everton, Watford and Brighton and Hove Albion also claimed wins to get their seasons started in style.

Using Opta data, we take a look at the key statistics from across Saturday's fixtures.

 

Manchester United 5-1 Leeds United: Pogba and Fernandes leave Whites reeling

Pogba became the seventh player in Premier League history to assist four goals in a single game on Saturday, as he and Fernandes helped United seal a record 20th opening-day win. 

Dennis Bergkamp, Jose Antonio Reyes, Cesc Fabregas, Emmanuel Adebayor, Santi Cazorla and Harry Kane had previously teed up four goals in a Premier League match.

Two of Pogba's assists were for Fernandes, whose hat-trick was the 10th scored on the opening weekend of a Premier League season, while the playmaker was the first United player to achieve the feat since Lou Macari in 1977.

Mason Greenwood benefitted from a sublime Pogba pass shortly after Luke Ayling's sensational equaliser – the full-back's first top-flight goal – and he is now the fifth-highest scoring teenager in the history of the competition with 18 goals.

United netted five goals in their opening game of a Premier League game for only the second time, after beating Fulham 5-1 in August 2006, while Leeds shipped five in an opener for the first time.

Norwich City 0-3 Liverpool: Records tumble as Salah stars

Liverpool might have relinquished their Premier League title last season, but Mohamed Salah picked up where he left off last term as he scored and provided two assists in Liverpool's 3-0 win at Norwich.

Salah teed up both Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino before netting himself in the 74th minute. It means he has scored on matchday one in all five of his Premier League seasons with Liverpool, while he is the first player in the competition's history to find the net on five consecutive opening weekends.

Norwich have now lost 11 successive top-flight games – only Sunderland have had a longer losing streak in the competition.

Firmino came on from the bench to score Liverpool's second. It was the 49th league goal scored by a substitute under Jurgen Klopp, the most of any side in the competition since the German joined in 2015, while the Brazil international also brought up the Reds' 8,000th league goal in the process.

Chelsea 3-0 Crystal Palace: Pulisic predictably punishes Eagles again

This trip to Stamford Bridge played out in painfully familiar fashion for Palace, who have lost more Premier League games against Chelsea (19) than versus any other side in the competition's history.

In a routine 3-0 opening-day victory, the Blues became the third team – after Tottenham (nine) and Liverpool (eight) – to win eight in a row against Palace in the Premier League era.

The nature of the first two strikes was predictable, too, with Marcos Alonso netting Chelsea's 50th direct free-kick goal in the competition – trailing only United (64) – before Christian Pulisic grabbed his fifth in five games against Palace, more than versus any other opponent.

The third was slightly more surprising, as centre-back Trevoh Chalobah's superb strike made him the second youngest Chelsea player to score on their Premier League debut for the club after Paul Hughes (22y 40d for Chalobah, 20y 274d for Hughes against Derby County in 1997).

Everton 3-1 Southampton: Benitez off to a winning start

Rafael Benitez was a contentious appointment at Everton but his tenure started with a 3-1 win over Southampton. It was the first time the Toffees have won a league match in which they trailed at half-time since September 2015.

On the other hand, since Ralph Hasenhuttl took over at Southampton in December 2018, they have lost 60 points from winning positions in the Premier League, more than any other side.

Adam Armstrong opened his Southampton account to put the visitors ahead at Goodison Park. Since the start of 2019-20, only Ivan Toney (55) has scored more goals in the top four tiers of English football.

Fresh from Olympic glory with Brazil, Richarlison scored the equaliser and has now netted in each of his last four league games against Southampton.

With Abdoulaye Doucoure lashing Everton ahead, Dominic Calvert-Lewin made it 3-1 with a diving header. He has now netted 12 headed goals in the league since the start of 2019-20, four more than any other player.

Elsewhere, Leicester City saw off Wolves 1-0 thanks to Jamie Vardy's first-half effort. The Foxes have lost just one of their last 25 home league games against the Midlands club.

Only Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney and Alan Shearer (all eight) have scored more goals on the opening weekend of Premier League campaigns than Vardy (seven).

Watford 3-2 Aston Villa: Ings on the spot but post-Grealish era starts in defeat

Watford have now lost their opening league match in just one of the past 15 campaigns (W8 D6), after the Hornets overcame Aston Villa 3-2.

Emmanuel Dennis became the fourth different Nigerian player to score on his Premier League debut to put Watford ahead, with Ismaila Sarr registering his 20th goal for the club before Cucho Hernandez became the first Colombian to net on his debut in the competition.

John McGinn scored his second goal in the space of four league appearances, as many as he had in his previous 55, to pull one back, before Danny Ings converted a late penalty.

He is the 24th player to score on his Premier League bow for Villa, while his spot-kick was the 2,000th penalty scored in Premier League history.

Meanwhile, Burnley are now winless in their last 11 home league games (D5 L6) since beating Villa 3-2 in January, equaling their longest run without a win at Turf Moor, after Brighton came from behind to win 2-1.

Mason Greenwood is a man and no longer a boy, according to Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Bruno Fernandes fired a hat-trick in an emphatic 5-1 win over Leeds United at Old Trafford, while Paul Pogba illuminated his side's Premier League opener with four assists – more than the three he managed in the entirety of the 2020-21 top-flight campaign.

The landslide scoreline did not appear on the cards when Luke Ayling's piledriver brought Leeds level in the 48th minute, but soon afterwards Greenwood latched onto Pogba's majestic pass to hurl the floodgates open.

The 19-year-old forward missed England's Euro 2020 campaign through injury but was quickly up to speed on the opening weekend.

Although nominally playing as a centre forward, Greenwood only touched the ball in the Leeds box twice – one of these for his goal.

Instead, he caused persistent problems by dropping deep and disrupting the Leeds midfield, such as in the build-up to a first-half opportunity for Pogba when the game was goalless.

"I've got forwards who can play different positions. He scored a goal from the left-wing position, he's so effective from the right, he can still be a number nine and centre-forward but he drops in," said Solskjaer, who sent on Jadon Sancho for a second-half debut.

"He's a natural footballer and the way he's developed the past couple of seasons… the way he burst away on that second goal, that's a man compared to the boy who was in the first team two years ago.

"He's worked so hard in pre-season to get his fitness up and he's ready to go.

"I think you can see the forwards we've got into the team with Mason, Jadon, Marcus [Rashford], Anthony [Martial] and Dan [James], they can play different positions.

"Edinson [Cavani] is probably our only one who is fixed in one position. The rest of them we should leave them to enjoy developing in their careers.

"I remember Wayne [Rooney] Carlos [Tevez] and [Cristiano] Ronaldo playing together. Good players can always play together. We need movements and that's what we had today."

 

Greenwood's lead-restoring goal drew a particularly rapturous response from the Stretford End and Solskjaer explained the promise of playing in front of fans had persuaded veteran Uruguay striker Cavani to extend his Old Trafford stay.

"The last 18 months have been strange. The only interactions have been through the media," he said.

"You watch the games on tele, you haven't had that feeling of connection. To be reunited with the fans again, it’s important for the players.

"This is the real Man United, this is how I sold Man United to Edinson, for example. You can't leave after one season playing with no fans. Man United is fans and players and everyone together."

That answer had been in response to a query over whether Pogba was more likely to remain a United player in these circumstances after further speculation about his future.

"The short answer is, 'yes'," Solskjaer added.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer hailed Bruno Fernandes' risk-taking and explained how he gave Paul Pogba the freedom to inspire Manchester United to a 5-1 opening-day demolition of Leeds United.

Fernandes scored his first United hat-trick, the 10th opening-day treble in Premier League history, while Pogba laid on four assists to kick-start their challenge to dethrone Manchester City in style.

Pogba is the seventh player to assist four goals in the same Premier League game, his performance serving as an emphatic demonstration of his quality amid speculation over his future with the France star's contract set to expire at the end of the season.

On Saturday's evidence, Fernandes and Pogba can successfully spearhead United's quest for their first Premier League title since 2013, with Solskjaer heaping praise on both.

"He's a risk-taker, he's a Man United player. When you're a forward at Man United, you need to have confidence, a little bit of arrogance and take risks," Solskjaer told BT Sport of Fernandes.

Explaining Pogba's role, Solskjaer said: "I've had a great relationship with Paul since he was a kid. Today was just about 'go out there enjoy yourself' because he had 45 minutes against Everton [in pre-season] that were not his best, but today we just gave him the freedom of roaming wherever you want to go and get on the ball.

"All the best players would want to feel our trust in them and confidence, and Paul is one of them who can create moments out of nothing. I was impressed by his fitness, so that's a good sign."

Jadon Sancho came off the bench to make his debut, while United confirmed the signing of former Real Madrid defender Raphael Varane before kick-off, Pogba's France team-mate receiving a rousing reception as he was introduced to the fans.

"There's eight or nine players that aren't here today, you've got a bench with quality, we've done well in the summer window, Raphael coming in today as well, which I think gave the crowd a boost and the players, so you're excited of course," said Solskjaer of United's depth.

"There's always a next game, this is one, great start. This is the way I want to see my team play, it's not just because it's Leeds, but I want to see them running, going forward, taking risks and we looked fit and some of these players haven't played more than 45 minutes before today."

After the very wholesome and, well, very Arsenal scenes at the Brentford Community Stadium on Friday, a little bit of the other side of football with fans landed in Manchester for the resumption of a simmering and bitter rivalry.

Running scraps between Manchester United and Leeds United supporters in the city centre, including one clobbering another with a bin. The Leeds contingent not so politely enquiring over the identity of new signing Raphael Varane as he was paraded to the Old Trafford faithful, who then burst into a hearty rendition of, "We all hate Leeds scum!" inside 20 seconds.

Nature is healing.

Of course, novelty becoming normality with all its warts is something everyone can broadly get behind after the past 18 months. Ideally without WWE re-enactments using waste disposal facilities, but you play the cards you're dealt.

Another familiar narrative as the masses returned to the Stretford End was Paul Pogba's future in Manchester and how uneasily it sat. Once again, the France midfielder was reported to be keen on a move away from the club he re-joined for £89.3million in 2016 – a fee only overtaken as a British record by Jack Grealish's switch to Manchester City earlier this month. Once again, he appears to be going nowhere.

Lionel Messi's arrival means there is no longer enough elasticity in the Paris Saint-Germain books to bring Pogba to the French capital, leaving him to make the best of a curious status within Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's squad.

Jadon Sancho is the new headline signing and Bruno Fernandes' bottomless well of goals and assists has led some to idly question whether Pogba would be missed that much.

But, aside from both being attacking midfielders, they are elite players of different and contrasting qualities. When those talents mesh as they did in United's riotous 5-1 win over their foes from the other side of the Pennines, they suggest the most obvious route to quenching a four-season trophy drought.

The difference in approach was highlighted by two first-half one on ones, with such openings always on the agenda due to a porous Leeds midfield that badly missed Kalvin Phillips at its base.

In the 27th minute, after Mason Greenwood snaffled a loose ball in the centre circle, Pogba was sent clear. His stepover worked an angle to beat countryman IIlan Meslier in the Leeds goal and he clipped a left-footed finish just wide.

Had it gone in, it would have been a beautiful finish, every bit as attractive as the throughball with which Pogba released Fernandes three minutes later. The Portugal star mashed a shot towards goal that bounced off Meslier and spun in. Fernandes lacks Pogba's aesthetics but he gets things done and relentlessly so.

Luke Ayling's blistering 48th-minute equaliser gave us a more agreeable instance of top bins and could have been a pivot point in the contest. Well, it was. Just not the one you might have expected.

For once, there seemed to be little danger when Pogba collected possession inside the United half in the 52nd minute, but the pass with which he brought Ayling back down to earth and sent Greenwood scampering away to finish via the post was a piece of implausible perfection.

Fernandes made it 3-1, clumping a shot into a crowded goalmouth that Ayling cleared from behind the line. Not pretty, but no matter.

Pogba now had a hat-trick of assists and his partner in crime claimed the matchball as he thundered home Victor Lindelof's raking pass. Beauty but of a more visceral kind than Pogba typically deals in.

Twenty minutes on from Ayling's leveller, Fred made it 5-1 and Pogba had gorged himself to surpass his Premier League assists tally of three from 2020-21 in a single lunchtime.

He departed to a standing ovation as the new hero Sancho entered the fray alongside Anthony Martial. Once the England winger is up to full fitness and Marcus Rashford returns from shoulder surgery, it will be fascinating to see what configuration Ole Gunnar Solskjaer opts for.

Granting Pogba the roving role from the left flank that allowed him to decimate Leeds would leave a couple of high-profile wide attackers disgruntled most weeks.

There could be changes in formation, with Saturday's 4-2-3-1 wheeled out as much by necessity as design. But Pogba's six passes to Fernandes were more than he made to any United team-mate and look what that led to.

A deeper role for the Frenchman when the other attackers return would be the easy call, but why sever an alliance that looked utterly unplayable here? The start of Fernandes' story at Old Trafford once looked like it might be the end of Pogba's. They should be allowed the chance to script something far more compelling in tandem.

Bruno Fernandes scored his first Manchester United hat-trick and Paul Pogba produced four assists as they made a superb start to their Premier League challenge with a 5-1 win over Leeds United.

With Old Trafford buoyed by the signing and introduction of Raphael Varane on the pitch before kick-off, the returning fans were treated to an excellent attacking display.

Fernandes and Pogba – aided by a generous Leeds defence – were to the fore, the former benefiting from Pogba's creative talents in opening the scoring on the half-hour mark.

Pogba laid on two further assists for Mason Greenwood and Fernandes to put United in command in the second half after Luke Ayling's screamer had briefly levelled matters.

And, after Fernandes completed his treble, the former Juventus man teed up Fred to complete the rout in the 68th minute.

Leeds' defending throughout the first half was distinctly haphazard and Illan Meslier had to be alert to turn the ball behind after Pascal Struijk's backpass deflected off Greenwood.

Greenwood was involved again as he slid Pogba through on goal, only for the France midfielder to waste a golden opportunity and fire wide of the near post.

Yet Leeds refused to heed those warnings and Pogba made amends with a superb pass to tee up Fernandes after Meslier punted the ball straight to Scott McTominay, the Portuguese squeaking the ball under the goalkeeper's legs.

For all United's dominance in the first half, they were pegged back three minutes into the second when Ayling left David de Gea with no chance with a vicious right-footed drive from just outside the area.

But Old Trafford was in a stunned silence for just over three minutes as Pogba responded in equally remarkable fashion, his pinpoint long-range pass met by Greenwood, who raced down the left flank and restored the hosts' lead with a strike across the face of goal that went in off the post.

Solskjaer's men then gave themselves breathing room as Pogba made it a hat-trick of assists by finding Fernandes, whose neat turn sent Junior Firpo to the turf and was followed by a composed finish that Ayling could not prevent from crossing the line.

Fernandes' third breached the Leeds goal much more emphatically, Victor Lindelof this time the supplier as United's number 18 latched onto his ball over the top and beat Meslier with an unstoppable volley.

A hugely enjoyable day for the United fans was rounded off by Fred's simple close-range finish and Jadon Sancho coming off the bench to make his debut, Pogba leaving the pitch to a standing ovation after a display that illustrated why signing him to a new contract should be top of the club's to-do list.

Raphael Varane's move to Manchester United has finally gone through.

United confirmed at the end of July that they had reached an agreement with Real Madrid to purchase the France centre-back for a fee believed to be in the region of £42.7million (€50m).

Varane had one year left on his contract with Madrid, who have been looking to trim their squad due to the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Having moved to the Santiago Bernabeu in 2011, Varane has won three LaLiga titles and the Champions League on four occasions.

He racked up over 350 appearances for Los Blancos and arrives at Old Trafford as one of the world's finest defenders. Indeed, Varane has played 79 times for France, winning the World Cup in 2018 before featuring in all four of Les Bleus' games at Euro 2020.

With his switch to United now official, Stats Perform used Opta data to assess just what he can bring to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's defence.

 

FRONT-FOOT DEFENDING AND AERIAL DOMINANCE

In the absence of Sergio Ramos for much of last season, Varane ranked second among Madrid defenders in terms of both duels won (110) and interceptions (36) in LaLiga.

His aerial presence also came to the fore – with the former Lens man registering 72.3 successful aerial duels, more than double the figure that any of his fellow Madrid defenders managed.

Out of LaLiga defenders to contest 20 or more aerial battles last term, Varane led the way with a 76 per cent success rate.

Combined with Harry Maguire's ability when it comes to winning headers, United seem set to have a centre-back pairing which can dominate in both boxes.

Perhaps surprisingly given Maguire's aerial power, United conceded a total of 14 set-piece goals in the Premier League last season, a tally surpassed only by Leeds United (15) – the Red Devils' first opponents of 2021-22.

Varane would seem to immediately offer a greater impact in this regard than Victor Lindelof, who won just 59.4 per cent of the aerials he went up for in 2020-21, while Maguire won 72.9 per cent of his tussles in the air.

When compared per 90 minutes played, Varane won 2.4 aerial duels across all competitions as opposed to Lindelof's tally of 1.8.

But when we broaden the comparison to encompass all duels, Varane comes out on top among all three of them (66.5 per cent). Maguire wins 63.8 per cent of those contests, whereas that drops to 53.1 per cent for Lindelof.

United fans have been crying out for a more physically dominant defender to partner Maguire and, in Varane, they seem to have a centre-back to rival him in those stakes.

THE BEST FORM OF ATTACK IS... DEFENCE?

Another flaw in United's backline was that they often looked cumbersome when Maguire and Lindelof were up against direct runners.

Varane will add some much-needed pace, and that extra speed should – in theory – enable United to push further upfield: their average starting position of 42.3 metres from their goal last season was deeper than six other Premier League sides.

A higher line would make attacking easier and perhaps keep the opposition shot count down. United faced 317 in 2020-21, more than Arsenal, Wolves, Brighton and Hove Albion, and relegated Fulham. Limiting attempts on goal would also reduce the pressure on the goalkeeper, as David de Gea and Dean Henderson, who is still recovering from coronavirus, continue to battle for the number-one spot.

Varane also offers a tactical bonus, to which Solskjaer has already hinted: he can play comfortably enough in a back three.

Maguire, Varane and Lindelof would represent an imposing rearguard and allow the rejuvenated Luke Shaw to push up as a wing-back. If United's pursuit of Kieran Trippier proves fruitful, even better. A 3-4-1-2 would give Solskjaer that balance of defensive security without compromising too much on attacking quality, which could be essential for the biggest derbies, knockout games or cup finals.

ON THE BALL

In terms of possession, there is not a great deal separating Varane and Lindelof, the man whose position is surely in doubt.

The Sweden international – who has a wicked long pass in his arsenal – averaged fractionally more successful passes (58.1 to 55.9) and accurate passes in the opposing half (17.81 to 17.77) per 90 minutes last season, but that could be a reflection of slightly differing styles of play implemented by the teams rather than ability.

Opta sequence data suggests the duo are similar as well. While Lindelof (14) may have been involved in four more goal-ending passing sequences, the expected goals (xG) value attached to Varane in those instances is actually higher (8.9 to 8.8), meaning the current United man's influence is likely being exaggerated by particularly good finishing from his team-mates.

Even their ball carrying tendencies are not hugely different, though Lindelof does boast a greater average carry distance of 11.3m to 10.9m, while his average progress up the pitch of 5.7m is a minor improvement on the 5.4m posted by the Madrid man.

Manchester United have completed the signing of Raphael Varane from Real Madrid.

United confirmed at the end of July that they had reached an agreement to bring France centre-back Varane to Old Trafford.

However, Varane had to go through a quarantine period upon his arrival in the United Kingdom due to coronavirus travel restrictions.

The France international was finally introduced to the Old Trafford fans minutes before kick-off in their Premier League opener with Leeds United on Saturday.

Varane, who had less than a year remaining on his Madrid deal, has now sealed his move to the Red Devils and will play in the Premier League for the first time.

United are reported to have paid a fee of £42.7million (€50m) to secure the services of the 28-year-old on a four-year deal.

Having also brought in Jadon Sancho, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has now added one of the world's best defenders.

Varane, who moved to Madrid in 2011 from Lens, has a wealth of experience, winning three LaLiga titles and four Champions League crowns as he has racked up over 350 appearances in the Spanish capital.

In the absence of Sergio Ramos for much of last season, Varane ranked second among Madrid defenders in terms of both duels won (110) and interceptions (36) in LaLiga.

It was Varane's aerial presence that really shone through at the back and his 73 successful aerial duels were more than double the tallies of his defensive colleagues.

Indeed, out of all defenders in LaLiga to contest 20 or more aerial duels, Varane's success rate of 76 per cent was the best during the 2020-21 campaign.

That ability in the air will boost a United side lacking in that sense last term, despite Harry Maguire's expertise. Excluding penalties, only Leeds United (15) conceded more Premier League goals from set-pieces than United's 14.

 

Varane's vast experience even beyond his Madrid exploits should aid Solskjaer's side, too.

The defender has played 79 times for France, winning the World Cup in 2018 before playing in all four games at Euro 2020 on the way to Les Bleus' shock last-16 exit.

Varane was the only France defender who saw action and was not dribbled past by an opponent at the Euros, showing his talent on the ground as well as in the air.

With pace to get out of trouble, Varane appears an excellent foil for Maguire as United look to improve on last campaign's second-placed Premier League finish.

Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is confident Anthony Martial can put last season's disappointment behind him and ease some of the goalscoring burden on Bruno Fernandes.

The 25-year-old finished as United's top scorer in 2019-20 but netted just seven goals in an injury-plagued 2020-21 campaign that saw him feature 36 times in all competitions.

Martial's goal tally was his lowest in a single season since joining United from Monaco in 2015, while the 29 chances created was also his lowest creative output to date.

He made 26 starts in total last season, which was curtailed in March by a knee issue, and attempted 66 shots with a conversion rate of 10.61 per cent.

That compares to a conversion rate of 28.33 for Edinson Cavani (from 60 attempts), 17.07 for Marcus Rashford (from 123) and 12 for Mason Greenwood (from 100) among United's other forwards.

Fernandes led the way with 28 goals last time out, albeit 13 of those came from the penalty spot, and Solskjaer accepts others – including Martial – must step up this campaign.

"As I've said before, we really rate Anthony," he said at a news conference ahead of Saturday's opening Premier League game of the season against Leeds United. 

"Last season was disappointing. He had injuries, he lost some form, but the season before he was our top scorer.

"If Anthony is taking all the penalties, or Rashford last season would have taken all the penalties, that's another 10-15 goals for a centre forward.

"But we've got Bruno who's so confident on pens that you can't take that away from him really.

"I'm very confident and I like what I see from Anthony when I see him in training now, and when I see him in the gym, he has that little bit of grit between his teeth again."

United have strengthened their attacking ranks on the back of finishing second in the Premier League last season with the high-profile addition of Jadon Sancho.

With Rashford recovering from shoulder surgery, Cavani being given an extended break and Sancho building up his fitness, Martial is expected to lead United's line against Leeds.

"I think with the forwards that we have, Anthony will score more goals than he did last season," Solskjaer added. 

"I think Mason will only develop. Edinson started late in the season and I think he'll score more goals. 

"Jadon will chip in with goals so I feel confident that the burden is not just on Bruno to score goals. An attacking midfielder shouldn't be the only one scoring 15-20 goals."

Jadon Sancho would be "buzzing" to take on Lionel Messi and Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League but knows he must "step up” his game to reach that same level.

Sancho has joined Manchester United from Borussia Dortmund in one of the biggest deals of the year, although it was dwarfed by Messi's transfer.

After 778 appearances, 672 goals and 265 assists for Barcelona, Messi became a free agent when his only senior club could no longer fit his contract within strict salary restrictions.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner subsequently signed for PSG to form a frightening forward line alongside Kylian Mbappe and Neymar.

The trio scored 66 goals in LaLiga and Ligue 1 between them last season, even with Neymar only featuring 18 times, and the French side appear clear favourites for the Champions League.

United winger Sancho certainly recognises the threat but is ready to rise to the challenge, having had 19 goal involvements in 26 Bundesliga outings in 2020-21.

"I use [the Messi move] as a motivation," he told Rio Ferdinand in a BT Sport interview. "PSG are a great side, got great players like Mbappe, Neymar, Messi.

"As a young player, I'm looking at that: woah, that means I need to step up my game, try to show the world that I'm not at that level yet but I can get to that level.

"It's good competition. Every young player should thrive for big games like that.

"If we did ever face them in the Champions League, I would be buzzing, I'd be ready to go. They've got a great side, definitely."

United have their own superstars, though, and Sancho picked out Bruno Fernandes for praise as the Portugal international aims to build on a Premier League campaign that brought 18 goals and 12 assists – his 30 goal involvements seven clear of the next-best midfielder in Europe's top five leagues.

"Bruno, we were on the same team [in training] and linked up really well," Sancho said. "Me and him love winning.

"I'm glad we have the same mindset because it's needed, especially in a big team like this. If you want to win things, you have to learn how to win in training and in matches.

"I think the whole team is a great squad. Speaking to Luke [Shaw] and H [Harry Maguire] and Marcus [Rashford] at the Euros, they were just telling me there's a great bunch of lads.

"I watched some of the games last season and the attack is very good. To be a part of that now is going to be kind of crazy.

"I've seen what Bruno is doing, what Marcus is doing, [Mason] Greenwood, [Edinson] Cavani... to add more goals and assists to that is going to be exciting."

Jadon Sancho will be involved for Manchester United against Leeds United on Saturday but Raphael Varane is not available, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has said.

England winger Sancho, a £73.9million (€85m) signing from Borussia Dortmund, has been training this week after struggling with illness following his holiday.

Red Devils manager Solskjaer confirmed Sancho is ready to make his competitive debut against Marcelo Bielsa's men at Old Trafford.

"Jadon is going to be involved," Solskjaer told reporters on Friday. "Unfortunately, he was ill after his holiday, so we lost out on a few days of training, but he's gelled really well with the group. He's going to be involved."

However, centre-back Varane will miss the game as his move from Real Madrid has yet to be finalised.

The France international has been isolating after arriving in England, as per coronavirus protocols, but there are some outstanding matters to resolve before he can be registered as a United player.

"He's not trained with us," Solskjaer said. "Things take time. Unfortunately, with the isolation, the delay, it's not 100 per cent done yet. I can't say he will be involved, I can probably say he won't be.

"It always happens, it's little things. The big hold-up was isolation, quarantine. It'll be done soon."

There have been questions over the involvement of Anthony Martial, who has been linked with a possible move away from United in the transfer window.

The France international missed the final two months of last season with a knee injury but played 45 minutes of the 4-0 friendly win over Everton.

Solskjaer insisted he has no plans to allow the forward to leave despite the reported interest from elsewhere.

"I wouldn't be surprised if other teams targeted Anthony because he's a very good player," he said. "I've got no plans whatsoever for him to play against us.

"He's come back strong, hungry, with a determination to prove his fitness and quality, because last season was a disappointing one for him. He's up for the challenge. He's a Man United player and we're happy to have him. He's proven doubters wrong so many times."

Solskjaer added that there is little update on the future of Paul Pogba, who is in the final year of his contract at United.

"It's been spoken and written about so often," he added. "Every discussion I've had with Paul was a positive one, he knows what we want and hopefully he keeps on in the background and they make decisions. It'll always be like with this with Paul; he's a media magnet."

Jurgen Klopp is not surprised to see Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United spend with "no limits" and says Liverpool can be successful living within their means.

Champions City forked out a British record fee of £100million for Jack Grealish, while Chelsea smashed their club record when they re-signed Romelu Lukaku for a reported £97.5m on Thursday.

United have also splashed the cash with a £76.5m move for Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane is poised to complete a big-money switch to Old Trafford ahead of the 2021-22 season.

The Reds have recruited Ibrahima Konate from RB Leipzig for a reported £36m, while Virgil van Dijk on Friday followed Alisson, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Fabinho in signing new deals.

Manager Klopp has no problem with a lack of new faces as his rivals make big statements in the transfer market.

He said in a press conference on the eve of Saturday's Premier League opener at Norwich City: "I'm never surprised about the financial power of City, Chelsea or United. I've been in the country long enough to know they always find a solution to do these things.

"For us, it's our way. We keep the team together, that's important as well. I know it's not as exciting as signing new players.

"People think that if you don't sign, you don't work - that's not the case. We are constantly thinking short term and long term - what can we do? How will the team look this year and next?

"I know it's not as exciting, but if you're a real Liverpool fan you're excited about the news the club delivered in the last few weeks - Allisson's new contract, same with Trent Alexander-Arnold, Fabinho and Virgil van Dijk. Others will follow, so that's great.

"It's not as spectacular but it's great news - if other teams wanted to sign these players they'd have to pay a lot of money and we have them already. We have a good squad together and are in a better situation than we were last year. Let's try to build on that and see where we end up."

Klopp also took exception to a reporter questioning why Georginio Wijnaldum, who joined Paris Saint-Germain after his contract, has not been replaced.

"You tell me if you would sign a midfielder and tell me the name and I will think about it," Klopp said. "That would be really interesting.

"We can count our midfielders and you tell me if we need to replace Gini Wijnaldum. So we have now Henderson and Thiago have been not really been involved in the pre-season, we've played quite a few games now with [James] Milner, Naby Keita and Harvey [Elliott].

"We have another midfield that I think played the same game that is [Alex] Oxlade-Chamberlain, Fabinho and Curtis Jones. Curtis is another player who can and will sure make the next step. 

"Apart from the year in which we sign Ali and Virg it always looks like we don't sign enough [players], but we work constantly on improving the team and part of it is signing new players.

"The most important thing, and I think our fans appreciate that, who is fun to watch, who is exciting to watch, who is fighting together, who is definitely 100 per cent committed to the club and the values of the club?

"We have that, so let's fight with all we have but we cannot just add players to the squad and say 'let's have a look what works' because we have to deal with the squad the whole year. If somebody wants to leave or leave, we have to think do we replace them or not?

"With Gini it's like that, we have two players who are not new, but can make the next step in Harvey and Curtis. And Naby can make the next step, he had an exceptional pre-season. We cannot just ignore that.

"We cannot compare to the other clubs, they obviously don't have any limits, we have limits but we were quite successful with having limits in the last few years and that is what we should try again, not using it as an excuse.

"If we don't win again we will not say 'it's because we did not have him or him', that will not be the case. We want to use our resources; that's passion, a good way, desire, a clear plan, direction, flexibility.

"That's our football, let's see which is the right way. We cannot spend money we don't have, at least we cannot, maybe others can, be we cannot."

Here we go again. The Premier League race begins once more, despite some players barely having the chance to unpack their suitcases after short-lived pre-season breaks.

Last time out, Manchester City turned a potentially intriguing title battle into a procession. They had plenty of tests along the way, just mostly of the PCR variety as the teams pushed on amid the continuing coronavirus pandemic.

Thankfully, fans will be in grounds to watch from the start this time around, while some familiar faces have returned. Romelu Lukaku is back. Patrick Vieira – a three-time Premier League winner in his playing days – and Rafa Benitez, a former red now aligned to the Blues, are on the touchline. Norwich City and Watford, meanwhile, have negotiated the Championship to secure a quick reunion.

Still, there is always a freshness to every campaign, aided by summer signings and, this time, the presence of a newcomer.

Brentford provide a new, exciting chapter to the Premier League story, though it is perhaps expecting too much to hope for riveting plot twists when it comes to the likely contenders to be crowned champions.

THE THOROUGHBREDS READY TO RUN AGAIN

When Manchester rivals City and United drew 0-0 in an instantly forgettable derby in December 2020, one that left those who had watched on wondering what else they should have done with their time instead, Pep Guardiola's side were sitting outside the top seven in the table. It was actually an upturn in their position – they had languished down in 11th during the previous month.

By the time they hosted their neighbours in the return fixture in March 2021, however, City had won 21 in a row in all competitions and held a double-digit lead at the head of the league. The stunning run did come to an end that day, but it was just a case of delaying the inevitable.

The rich have got richer in pursuit of a third title in four years, in terms of talent at least. Spending £100million to get Jack Grealish has add further creativity, as if they really needed it. The squad could still be bolstered by Harry Kane, too. If the Tottenham striker moves north, the deck will be stacked even more in City's favour.

Yet there are reasons for the others who finished in the top four to be optimistic. Chelsea denied Guardiola in the Champions League final, giving a silver-lined finish to the promising early form under Thomas Tuchel. They have strengthened in attack, Lukaku back at the Bridge to sort out some unfinished business. A glaring gap in the squad (sorry, Timo Werner) has been filled.

Adding goals will be a key factor for the Blues, as they managed only 38 in all competitions following the appointment of the German coach. To put that number into context, United and City managed 58 and 70 across the same period. Even Tottenham topped them with 49.

OLE JOCKEYS FOR SILVERWARE

United finished second but will hope Jadon Sancho can lift them even higher, albeit the arrival of Raphael Varane could be even more crucial, considering the Red Devils conceded 28 goals at home last season – their most in a single campaign since 1962-63. Tighten up and it could well be their year, but they do not want to continue the habit of giving opposing teams head-starts again in games.

Those two marquee signings, which came in the transfer window following unrest among the fanbase aimed at the club's ownership, have rightly raised expectations. Now, for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, there is a need to secure something tangible, a piece of silverware to show he can clear the final hurdle.

The caretaker appointed to lift the gloom after Jose Mourinho is just three Premier League games short of a century in charge – if United triumph in all of them on the way to that Solskjaer milestone, the Norwegian will have the same winning percentage at the magical 100 mark as Arsene Wenger and Jurgen Klopp.

As for Klopp and Liverpool, there is a degree of uncertainty. The outstanding winners in 2019-20 required a fast finish – the Reds' run of five consecutive league wins in May was more than they managed in 12 games in February, March and April combined – just to squeeze into the top four. They began to rebuild fortress Anfield, knocked down during a record-breaking losing run.

Injuries did decimate the squad during a tepid title defence, but Virgil van Dijk is now fit again and, just in case, Ibrahima Konate has come in to provide added depth at the heart of the defence. If Sadio Mane can rediscover his scoring form and ease the burden on Mohamed Salah, the ingredients are all there to mount a sustained challenge again.

THE FADING FORCES DESPERATE TO FIND FORM

In times of cutbacks, have the 'Big Six' been reduced to a 'Big Four'? Arsenal and Tottenham still retained enough pulling power to be included as part of the failed European Super League plan, but neither have ended up above Leicester City in the final league table in the past two years.

The Foxes came up short in their Champions League quest again, though the frustration at a second successive fifth-place finish was eased somewhat by lifting the FA Cup. The underappreciated Brendan Rodgers has never lacked belief, and Leicester have backed their boss in the transfer market with the signings of Patson Daka and Boubakary Soumare.

Spurs' transfer business is now being carried out by new managing director Fabio Paratici, while Nuno Espirito Santo was eventually selected to take over as head coach, despite at one stage appearing to be off the lengthy list of candidates. Both are carrying out their duties amid uncertainty over Kane, the competition's disgruntled Golden Boot winner determined to get a move.

Tottenham will be the Premier League's first participants in the Europa Conference League, which could either offer welcome relief from league issues or be a midweek nuisance. Come on, though, who doesn't want to go to Latvia in winter? Arsenal may well wish they had such concerns - they will not be playing in any European competition for the first time in 26 years.

Ben White has come in at great expense as the Gunners have put a focus on getting younger. Really, they just need to get better. To that extent, getting more out of Thomas Partey, not to mention Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who managed just the 10 league goals in 29 games, would help.

Mikel Arteta has much work to do to make sure the gap to the head of the field does not grow wider.

THE OUTSIDERS HOPING TO EMERGE

West Ham finished above the north London duo last time thanks in no small part to the impact made by Jesse Lingard during his loan spell.

The attacking midfielder scored nine goals and four assists in 16 games to propel himself back into England contention, even it remains to be seen if it was enough to rekindle his Manchester United career.

Without Lingard, David Moyes will have to conjure up more magic from within his squad as they also tackle the added workload of playing in the Europa League. Goalkeeper Alphonse Areola is unlikely to have the same kind of impact during his temporary stint from Paris Saint-Germain, leaving cravings for 'J-Lingz'.

Leeds United will hope to build on a positive first year back in the top flight, steered diligently by the boss on a bucket, Marcelo Bielsa, while Aston Villa have wisely elected not to replace the talismanic Grealish with just one player, instead bringing in several to try and fill the void.

There is still time for teams to strengthen, particularly as the leading clubs look to cut away some of the unnecessary fat in their bloated squad lists. Lingard demonstrated what a difference the right signing can make to a team.

However, another underdog story to match the wonderful tale of Claudio Ranieri's Leicester appears impossible. Instead, after two consecutive seasons with runaway champions, it would just be nice if the 2021-22 Premier League Stakes at least provided a little more drama by the time we enter into the closing stages.

The Premier League is back! 

Arsenal travel to newly promoted Brentford in the opening game of the 2021-22 campaign on Friday.

Champions Manchester City face Tottenham – and possibly top transfer target Harry Kane – on Sunday, with Liverpool in action against returning Norwich City on Saturday, after Manchester United have hosted Leeds United.

So, ahead of the new season, why not give this Opta-powered quiz a go? You can find the answers at the bottom of the page...

1. Arsenal begin against Brentford – it is the fourth time the Gunners have been involved in the opening game of a Premier League campaign, winning the other three in 2008-09, 2017-18 and 2020-21, but who did they play against in those matches? 

2. Over the last 10 Premier League matches of 2020-21, Leeds claimed 23 points, winning seven games and drawing twice. Can you name the only  club to collect more points across the same time span?

3. Liverpool are unbeaten in their five Premier League openers under Jurgen Klopp, but how many goals have the Reds scored across these matches?

4. Aston Villa begin life without Jack Grealish with a trip to Watford. Emiliano Buendia will wear the number 10 shirt, but how many goals did he assist for Norwich in the Championship last season?

5. Sunday's meeting between Spurs and City brings up Nuno Espirito Santo's first competitive game as Tottenham boss. Who was the club's last manager to lose his opening fixture in charge?

 

Answers:

1. West Brom, Leicester City, Fulham
2. Liverpool (26)
3. 19 
4. 16
5. Andre Villas-Boas 

Liverpool are the side that will provide reigning Premier League champions Manchester City with their sternest title test this season.

That is according to Mark Bosnich, who told Stats Perform he also expects Chelsea and his former club Manchester United to be in the running for top spot.

City won their third title in four seasons last time out, and a fifth in 10 years, as they finished 12 points clear of closest challengers United.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side have strengthened with the signing of Jadon Sancho and imminent arrival of Raphael Varane for reported combined fees of £115million.

City spent £100m to make Jack Grealish the most expensive player in British history, meanwhile, and Chelsea have re-signed Romelu Lukaku for just less.

That makes the £36m Liverpool paid to sign Ibrahima Konate seem modest by comparison, yet Bosnich believes the 2019-20 champions are capable of ousting City this term.

"The real dark horse, if you can really say that, is Liverpool," Bosnich told Stats Perform. "They've won it before, very recently. 

"And I really do think that the injury to Virgil van Dijk hurt them last season far more than anyone realised at the time.

"I think that out of three contenders, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool, they are probably the best placed to really mount a serious challenge."

City, who still want to add Harry Kane to their ranks, won the title with three games to spare last season and have bolstered their attack with Grealish, offsetting the departure of club-record scorer Sergio Aguero and defender Eric Garcia, who were both used sparingly last season.

But while Bosnich considers Pep Guardiola's side as favourites before a ball is kicked, the former Australia international expects them to prioritise the Champions League after finishing as runners-up to Chelsea in 2020-21.

"For me and for a lot of people, understandably so after signing Grealish, they will definitely start as favourites, but I'm not so sure they'll win it," Bosnich said. "There's no doubt in their qualities – we saw what they achieved last season. 

"That was a phenomenal run. But if you think back, I think it was about up to about around November, they had a bit of a poor run and they changed things around and they went on a 15 or 16-game unbeaten spree. 

"But their main focus, and understandably so, is the Champions League. Guardiola hasn't won it since 2011 and City have never won it before.

"I think you have to say that it's their graduation of truly, from a football perspective, being in the big club of clubs.

"I really think the focus would go on that, and I'm not so sure that they will win it. They'll definitely start favourites, but I'm not sure that they will win it."

Bosnich's former United team-mate Solskjaer has yet to win any silverware in his two and a half seasons in charge of the club, losing four cup semi-finals in that time and falling just short in last season's Europa League final.

After finishing third and second in the last two campaigns, Bosnich feels it is time for Solskjaer to end United's nine-season wait for top-flight silverware or else he may be out of a job.

"Solskjaer, although I'll admit I'm biased, has for me done a really good job thus far," Bosnich said. "The only thing that's stopping me from saying 'an excellent job' is the fact that he hasn't won a trophy. 

"The Villarreal Europa League final, obviously losing on penalties was disappointing. But they now have Sancho and I think Raphael Varane will prove to be one of the signings of the season.

"People who have watched LaLiga over time, or France, will realise what an absolutely outstanding asset he is. 

"And I really do think that it gives Solskjaer so many options as well, because they could play three at the back with [Victor] Lindelof and [Harry] Maguire if they wanted to. He could go right-back if they really wanted him to. 

"I'd dearly love to see them sign one more like Harry Kane, but I don't think that will happen this summer. I still think that they've got to win the title in my opinion, for Ole's sake, within the next two seasons."

As for Chelsea's title prospects after winning the Champions League last season and the Super Cup this week, Bosnich cannot see Thomas Tuchel's men quite bridging the gap in the league just yet.

"Tuchel came in and did an absolutely outstanding job last season. But 19 points is too much for them to catch up," Bosnich said. "But they still probably have a better chance of doing it than a lot of teams. 

"With the signing of Lukaku, I think that's really important for them. He's an outstanding player, simple as that. I don't care what anyone says. And I've always held that close – he's an outstanding player. 

"I don't think they’ll be able to make up the 19-point gap, but I don't think they'll be far off."

The new Premier League season has not even begun yet and we're already enjoying some enthralling narratives.

Beyond the mundane matter of who might win the league, who will beat the drop and how thick the VAR lines will be, there are some tantalising stories we'll be following closely in the coming weeks.

Below, Stats Perform takes a look at some of the big talking points...

 

Blue Benitez

Predicting football is often a fool's game – especially in an era when Lionel Messi no longer plays for Barcelona – but Rafael Benitez at Everton? Who saw that coming?

The Spaniard is back in the Premier League, two years after walking away from Newcastle United, having been tempted by the same project that won over Carlo Ancelotti before the lure of a Real Madrid return became too great.

Benitez was a fans' favourite at Newcastle, arguably as much as he was at Liverpool, where he reached two Champions League finals including the unforgettable triumph in Istanbul. His connection to the red half of Merseyside meant his decision to head to Goodison Park raised the eyebrows of some and the blood pressure of others. In fact, only one man has ever managed both clubs: William Edward Barclay, Everton's first boss in 1888 and Liverpool's manager from 1892. We'll forgive you if you don't remember.

The scrutiny on Benitez, who has recorded 11 wins against Everton in his coaching career, will be severe. He has the credentials, but if he cannot quickly prove he is the man to realise the dreams of owner Farhad Moshiri and challenge the 'big six', the pressure could become pretty uncomfortable.

 

Virgil return lifts Reds

For a while, it seemed everything would be okay. In the first 11 games after Virgil van Dijk was injured against Everton last October, Liverpool conceded just six goals and kept as many clean sheets. Perhaps the loss of the Netherlands colossus would not be quite so damaging.

Of course, as injuries in defence piled up and confidence in their title chances waned, Liverpool's season ended up being one of major disappointment even though a strong final few weeks saw them snatch a Champions League spot.

Van Dijk's impact cannot really be disputed: since his move to Anfield in January 2018, Liverpool have won 75.8 per cent of matches with the centre-back in the side and only 54.3 per cent without him. They average 2.4 points per game with him (compared with 1.9 without), and even score more goals on average (2.3 compared with 1.8) when he's playing. No wonder fans began to count down the days to his return.

On Saturday, we can finally expect to watch Van Dijk in competitive action again, with Jurgen Klopp confirming he is fit to start the season. He could even begin his partnership with new signing Ibrahima Konate against Norwich City at Carrow Road. How Liverpool's campaign progresses over the opening few weeks, and how Van Dijk's return goes, might just tell us whether another title tilt is on the cards.

 

Rom-ember us?

Two of the biggest transfers in this pre-season have seen stars returning to England: Jadon Sancho, who finally got his Manchester United move for £72.9million a year after Borussia Dortmund had demanded a sizeably bigger sum; and Romelu Lukaku, who is heading to Chelsea for roughly £93m.

Sancho left Manchester City for the Bundesliga as a teenager and promptly became one of Europe's standout attacking players, with 50 goals and 57 assists in 137 appearances. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wanted a player to get fans on their feet, and he's almost certainly found it: Sancho completed 48 multi take-ons (beating more than one player with a dribble) in the Bundesliga, at least 14 more than any other player in his time in Germany.

For Lukaku, it's a case of unfinished business at Chelsea, the club he left back in 2014. The standout performer for Inter last season, with 30 goals and 11 assists in all competitions, he propelled his side to their first Serie A title since 2010 before taking up the chance to return to Stamford Bridge, where a consistent goalscorer could be decisive to their Premier League title hopes.

Sancho and Lukaku initially struggled to convince managers to give them a shot as youngsters in the Premier League. They return as elite players determined to prove a point. Given the costs involved, the pressure will be on both to perform – and quickly.

 

Did Jack hammer Harry's City hopes?

Manchester City are not exactly frugal in the transfer market, but rarely will they willingly pay over the odds for an individual. That's what made their willingness to spend £100million on Jack Grealish, a player with 12 senior international caps and zero Champions League experience, a touch surprising.

This is not to suggest Grealish is not a good player, of course. This is a man who was involved in a remarkable 376 open-play attacking sequences over the past two seasons for Aston Villa, a team who finished 17th and 11th in those campaigns. It's just notable that Pep Guardiola felt it was warranted to smash City's transfer record by nearly £40m to sign yet another midfielder, especially given what's going on – or not going on – with Harry Kane.

Kane was expected to be City's marquee signing in this window but, as of now, his future is unclear. He is finally due to return to Tottenham training this week but whether he is involved against City in their opening game is harder to know. And if City were willing to spend nine figures on Grealish, you can expect Spurs chairman Daniel Levy to demand top dollar for last term's golden boot winner, who has three years left on his contract.

Will City stump up the cash? Will Kane try his best to force Spurs' hand? Will he be staying in north London for at least a few months more, his form undimmed, the goals flowing as normal? It will be fascinating to watch.

 

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