THE champions of England against the champions of Europe. Pep against Jurgen, blue against red, Manchester against Liverpool. If last season marked the start of a rivalry that increasingly looks like it will define the next few years in the Premier League, the campaign that starts on Friday night promises to raise the levels of drama and excitement to an even higher level. Separated by one point last term, there is a tantalising chance the two best teams in the country could be even harder to split over the course of the next nine months.

Proven over course and distance, Manchester City kick off the defence of their crown at West Ham United on Saturday as deserved favourites to lift what would be a fifth Premier League title.

Pep Guardiola’s side laid down an early marker when they lifted the Community Shield on penalties at the weekend, and continuity will be the name of the game at the Etihad once the real action begins with Vincent Kompany the only significant absentee from the squad that triumphed in May.

There were hardly any glaring gaps for Guardiola to plug this summer, but the €70m purchase of defensive midfielder Rodri from Atletico Madrid addresses one of the few issues that arose last season, namely what to do if Fernandinho is absent. With Rodri having slipped seamlessly into his new role, it is not inconceivable that Fernandinho could replace Kompany at centre-half.

A fit Kevin de Bruyne is as good as a new signing – better, actually, given how much it would take to sign the Belgian if he was available on the open market – and with the likes of Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero and Bernardo Silva playing at the top of their game, City’s attack will take some stopping. At this stage, it is hard to see them being toppled.

Liverpool will beg to differ of course, and having come within a point of City last season, Jurgen Klopp’s side will be confident of finally ending what will be a 30-year wait for a league title by the time next May rolls around.

Triumphing in Europe was fantastic, but Anfield craves domestic success and there will be an understandable temptation to shun alternative prizes in order to concentrate on the battle for Premier League supremacy. Unlike Manchester City, Liverpool could struggle if their resources are spread too thinly.

Keeping their front three fit is key, along with ensuring Virgil van Dijk continues to produce the kind of performances that could see him crowned as the Ballon D’Or winner this autumn.

Like City, Liverpool have resisted the temptation to splash the cash this summer, although the return of Joe Gomez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and the continued development of Rhian Brewster should help add some depth to the squad. Liverpool need more things to drop right for them than City, but as last season proved, they do not have to improve too much to finish as champions.

Could anyone else gate-crash the top two? Almost certainly not, but if there is a viable contender, it is probably Tottenham now the distraction of the move back to White Hart Lane is a thing of the past.

Mauricio Pochettino was finally able to break Spurs’ transfer record to sign Tanguy Ndombele from Lyon, but the key to Tottenham’s fortunes could lie in ensuring the continued motivation of the likes of Toby Alderweireld, Danny Rose and Christian Eriksen, all of whom have been heavily linked with moves away from North London. That, and praying that Harry Kane remains injury-free.

Tottenham are joined in the ‘big six’ by Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United, and their three rivals will once again be targeting Champions League qualification as a minimum requirement. However, all three have significant obstacles to overcome.

In the case of Chelsea, it is a transfer embargo that has severely limited their ability to change things this summer. There is a new, if familiar, face in the dug-out, with Frank Lampard having replaced Antonio Conte, and while the former midfielder’s pledge to give youth a chance has been well received amongst the Chelsea faithful, the harsh reality is that he does not really have a choice. The likes of Mason Mount, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Tammy Abraham will be key performers this term.

Arsenal appear to have lapsed into bad habits, sprinkling yet more attacking talent into their squad courtesy of the £72m signing of Nicolas Pepe while once again failing to address the chronic defensive deficiencies that have plagued them for what feels like forever, while Manchester United have spent most of the summer looking like a club coming apart at the seams.

That said, however, if the ongoing sagas involving Romelu Lukaku and Paul Pogba are finally put to bed ahead of tomorrow’s transfer deadline, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s youthful squad could finally be primed for a return to the top four.

Outside the big six, a clutch of upwardly-mobile clubs are jostling to join the elite. Everton, with their plans for a new stadium finally gaining momentum, continue to build patiently under Marco Silva, while West Ham have spent almost £70m to add Sebastien Haller and Pablo Fornals to their already impressive attacking ranks.

Wolves should once again find themselves in the top half provided the Europa League does not become too much of a distraction, but if anyone is to upset the applecart in the top six, it could well be Leicester City, who finished like a train last season under Brendan Rodgers.

At the other end of the table, life will be tough for the promoted teams, but all three start with realistic hopes of survival. Aston Villa have spent close to £100m, and while that didn’t work for Fulham, there appears to have been a lot more method to Villa’s recruitment drive.

Norwich and Sheffield United have been much less lavish, but both boast momentum and a squad that excelled last season. At the very least, they should be competitive.

Who else could go down? Newcastle need to start strongly to ensure their off-field strife does not become all-consuming, but Brighton and Burnley could be most at risk.

Brighton only scraped home last season, and it remains to be seen how Graham Potter fares on his Premier League bow. Burnley went backwards at a rate of knots last term, and Sean Dyche has had his hands tied in terms of recruitment this summer.