Chris Hughton says he can sum up the Premier League title race in one simple phrase: Mind the gap.
The former Brighton, Norwich City and Newcastle boss sees a potentially explosive battle between the big guns as they chase champions Liverpool.
And while he believes Jurgen Klopp’s men will still be the team to beat, the former Tottenham ace says there will be no repeat of the Merseysiders’ 18-point winning margin this time.
Indeed, Hughton believes the battle to reach the Champions League will be even more ferocious than usual with a resurgent Arsenal and Spurs both mounting far more of a challenge than they did in 2019-20.
Speaking to Mirror Sport, Hughton said: “It’s going to be a lot closer, in my opinion. I don’t see Liverpool running away with it again.
"No doubt, though, they are the club to chase.
“For how they won it last year, in my mind, they start as favourites, although the bookmakers have taken a different view.
“But I see a smaller gap between the top two – and between that pair and the club in third.”
Here is how Hughton sees the sides at the top squaring up…
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"They have been quiet in the market so far. Everyone else has strengthened significantly apart from them.
"But they are now the team to beat. They have been phenomenal during the past couple of years.
"The pressure of landing that title might have been driving the club forwards and it will be interesting to see how the manager harnesses that.
"And it will also be interesting to see how they cope if their front three – who play almost every match of note for them – pick up injuries for any length of time.
"But they are full of confidence and having waited so long for the top prize they won’t give it up easily."
"I still see Manchester City as the closest rivals.
"What the big clubs do well is chop and change, particularly in the attacking third – and Pep Guardiola has plenty of options to keep things fresh where it matters.
"Losing David Silva will be a blow but Phil Foden should get more game-time and the addition of another defender in Nathan Ake will increase Guardiola’s options.
"Guardiola’s side won’t lose nearly as many matches as they did last season."
"Frank Lampard has done really well. Qualifying for the Champions League, reaching the FA Cup Final and playing good football is a tough act to pull off.
"But expectation levels and the pressure to succeed have been raised by their spending spree.
"Frank is a big personality and a big character so that won’t faze him.
"It may take time for his new imports to gel but you can expect a challenge to the established order, that’s for sure."
"I see a resurgent Manchester United. The manager now has a wonderful squad, filled with sufficient quality to compete in every competition.
"I was impressed by United last season. When you have gems that come through, such as Mason Greenwood, it does help.
"For a start, it saves you £60million – as a manager, that gives you an even bigger buzz than someone you’ve bought, like Bruno Fernandes.
"There’s been a lot of talk about Manchester United moving for a big forward – they won’t if they can count on Greenwood. His finishing ability is breathtaking. United are definitely better placed now to challenge the top two."
"Jose Mourinho’s recruits this summer are solid.
If I look at Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Matt Doherty, I’d say Jose’s brought in reliability.
"They don’t have the stardust necessarily of, say Chelsea or Manchester United’s signings, but they are two consistent performers.
"There will be added pressure on Tottenham to get into that Champions League position. More from the club’s point of view because of outlay on the stadium.
"They will also be praying Harry Kane stays fit this season to sustain a top-four push."
"To have two trophies under your belt – as Mikel Arteta has already – is exceptional.
"Arsenal were seen as a club in transition when he took over. Now I think there is more pressure at Spurs than there is at the Emirates.
"Gabriel will be a good signing for them because they needed someone at the back but by far the biggest signing will retaining the services of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
"With him, Arsenal really can challenge that top four."
" Everton, simply, need to do better.
They are that team that’s pushing the top six. For what they want to become, that’s got to be the aim.
"Certainly having the likes of James Rodriguez, Allan and Abdoulaye Doucoure, will help.
"They have an ownership that will expect them to do better this season. May have their day but others’ claims for the top four are stronger."
"West Brom and Fulham should have some idea of what to expect but it’s difficult to see anything but a season of struggle.
"As for Leeds, one benefit of the top flight is more preparation time.
"In the Championship, it’s preparation, game, recovery. Leeds are well-drilled, energetic and young. They will be fine."
Gabriel – Arsenal: "The centre of defence was an area that Mikel Arteta really needed to address.
"Gabriel’s young – and left-footed. Arsenal will play out from the back but look like they will be reliant on their centre-halves being solid.
"If he comes good, the Gunners could enjoy a really successful campaign."
Thiago Silva – Chelsea: "Chelsea now have so much attacking flair but have also brought in Ben Chilwell who is as good a left-back as you will see.
"If they have a weak point, it’s probably at the heart of their defence.
"But having a strong, experienced player like Thiago Silva in there will make a big difference."
Tomas Soucek – West Ham: "It’s been a while since I’ve seen a midfield player who breaks so often into the opposition’s box. An advanced, hard-running type.
"He may lack the technical ability of some and it will be interesting to see how he copes through a full season.
"I felt he had a big impact on West Ham during the run-in."
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