AS Euro 2020 built to a thrilling conclusion last month, it became abundantly clear just how vital it is to have supporters in sporting grounds.
When football slowly resumed after the Covid-19 lockdown of spring 2020, fans were just happy to have any action back on our screens, and the hastily revised schedules meant we could watch something almost every night.
It got to the point where we became accustomed to the fake crowd soundtrack that accompanied the pictures on Sky or BT Sports.
But the Euros reminded us all what a real atmosphere feels like, and with the Premier League season now upon us and crowds preparing to return to grounds, the excitement in palpable.
Manchester City set out in defence of their title – a third in four seasons – at Spurs on Sunday afternoon, and Pep Guardiola would surely argue that his side would have regained their crown from Liverpool last term, whatever the circumstances.
City romped home by 12 points from neighbours Manchester United in May, their superiority plain to see over the course of the campaign.
Guardiola’s men were scintillating for the most part after a very slow start, yet also found a way to get the job done when not at their best, adding a defensive steel to mesmerising attacking play.
Yet there has to be some weight to the theory that they were suited to the quiet grounds more than any of their direct rivals, such is their insistence on sticking to the formula whatever the occasion.
City are once more the team to beat, but they may not get things all their own way this term, and after a couple of one-sided seasons, we may just have a title race on our hands over the next nine months.
The champions have signalled their intent by splashing £100m on Jack Grealish, adding his unique style to the talents already at Guardiola’s disposal.
Harry Kane may follow, and the mind boggles as to the numbers he could rack up with Grealish, Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden and the majestic Kevin De Bruyne creating chances.
City won the title at a canter last term, largely without a centre-forward, and Kane could take them – and the Premier League transfer record – to new heights.
With that in mind, there will be those who will see the best price of 8/11 quoted by Bet Victor as decent value, with it surely set to shorten if and when the England captain swaps London for Manchester.
City will take some stopping, with or without Kane, but Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel came up with a plan to do just that at the end of last season, getting the better of Guardiola three times in the space of five weeks, most notably in the Champions League final.
Tuchel worked wonders from the off at Stamford Bridge, his ruthless and ambitious approach just what was needed after Frank Lampard constantly played down expectations despite having an expensively assembled squad.
The former PSG manager got things right defensively and then built from there, to the extent that he masterminded a triumph in European’s top competition without a reliable goalscorer of any sort.
That glaring weakness has been addressed with Romelu Lukaku rejoining his old club on the back of a stellar couple of years in Milan with Inter.
The Belgian looked a man reborn after a difficult time for all parties at Manchester United, and while he is not everyone’s cup of tea, Lukaku gets goals wherever he goes, having never failed to hit double figures in any club season.
That is a significant upgrade from last year, when Jorginho topped Chelsea’s charts with seven – all from the penalty spot – and Tuchel should rightfully feel confident of an assault on the title, with Kai Havertz likely to kick on after scoring the winner in the Champions League final, Mason Mount consistently excellent, and N’Golo Kante covering every blade of grass as only he can.
The Blues are just about second-favourites at 5/1 generally and can push City hardest of all. They have shown they can handle them in head-to-head combat, so the challenge is to match their consistency over a season.
Liverpool arguably suffered most for a lack of fans, and it is unthinkable that they would have lost six games on the bounce at Anfield in the winter months had the old ground been rocking.
Injuries also derailed their title defence, with Virgil van Dijk clearly the biggest absentee.
The Dutchman is back, although it might take him a while to find his imperious best, while Joe Gomez and Jordan Henderson are available from the off.
Jurgen Klopp will probably want to do a bit more in the transfer market to add to the recruitment of RB Leipzig centre-back Ibrahima Konate, and he needs a return to form from Sadio Mane to help Mo Salah out in the scoring stakes, but they do have momentum after winning their last five games to seal a top-three finish least term that looked highly unlikely at one stage.
Klopp’s boys can never be written off and will have fans at 11/2, especially with the core of their title-winning side still at Anfield.
That said, they are more likely to be in a battle for third with United than in a scrap for the title.
While Guardiola, Tuchel and Klopp are all proven winners, the same can’t be said of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, boss of the fourth main contenders in United, who can be backed at 17/2 to claim a first Premier League crown since Alex Ferguson retired.
For all the progress made under Solskjaer over the past couple of seasons, silverware has yet to be collected, and the positivity of finishing second to City in May was wiped away to a large extent by the totally avoidable Europa League final defeat on penalties to Villarreal.
There is clearly a mental fragility at Old Trafford, and while serial winner Raphael Varane will help in that regard, the shortcomings on the sideline appear to remain.
The arrival of Jadon Sancho boosts a potent attacking unit that includes Edinson Cavani, Bruno Fernandes, Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford, but the Red Devils lack a top-notch defensive midfielder to bring the best out of Paul Pogba, and still look a bit short of a sustained title bid.
The big prize might well come down to a straight fight between champions City and European kingpins Chelsea, and the value could just lie in a bet on the London Blues at 5/1.
That said, the reverse forecast can be backed at 2/1 with Boylesports, while the 15/8 quoted by Betway about Tuchel’s boys in the ‘without City’ market really jumps out.
Meanwhile, for all of the time spent by Leicester City in the top four over the last two campaigns, the new ‘big four’ of Man City and United, Liverpool and Chelsea have taken the Champions League places on each occasion, and it is hard to see anything different, so the 2/1 offered by Paddy Power about that quartet leading the way again in any order looks a sensible bet.
Brendan Rodgers’ Foxes continue to impress, however, with City defeated in the Community Shield to add to the FA Cup won at Chelsea’s expense.
Leicester are capable of beating anyone on their day, and the poor home form of last term will surely be eradicated by the return of crowds at the King Power Stadium.
Rodgers has added a couple of much-coveted talents in Red Bull Salzburg striker Patson Daka and Lille midfielder Boubakary Soumare, while Ryan Bertrand brings experience and versatility to an already impressive panel.
The injury to Wesley Fofana is a blow, but Leicester continue to be disrespected by the layers which leads to betting opportunities.
They are a better team than either Arsenal or Spurs, and looked nailed on at 11/10 for a top six finish, but the best bet is to do them without the ‘big six’ at 6/4 with William Hill.
The Gunners can be expected to improve from successive eighth-placed finishes after a strong end to last season, although a run for the top four might be beyond them.
Last year was largely underwhelming for Mikel Arteta, but he has bought a decent defender at last in Ben White, while skipper Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can’t be as bad as he was last term, and Kieran Tierney and Bukayo Saka have a great understanding that could lead to a bucketload of chances from the left-hand side.
With Nicholas Pepe also finding his feet, the outlook is brighter for Arsenal than for north London rivals Spurs, with no European action a blessing in disguise.
Tottenham spent weeks going round the houses looking for a new manager before settling for Nuno Espirito Santos.
This is bound to be a transitional season at Tottenham, with or without Harry Kane, and the Sky Bet price of 4/5 about Arsenal finishing above their neighbours looks like a bit of a gift.
I also think Saka could be a bet at 6/1 for Young Player of the Year, with his talent and attitude catching the eye throughout the Euros.
The sounds and sights of the Euros also reminded us of what proper sport is like.
What a season we have in store.
Manchester City/Chelsea dual forecast, 2/1 (Boylesports)
Chelsea, without Man City, 15/8 (Betway)
City/Chelsea/Man United/Liverpool, top four in any order, 2/1 (Paddy Power)
Leicester City, without the ‘Big Six’, 6/4 (William Hill)
N’Golo Kante, PFA Player of the Year, 33/1 (Bet Victor)
Bukayo Saka, PFA Young Player of the Year, 6/1 (Bet Victor)
Arsenal to finish above Tottenham, 4/5 (Sky Bet)