KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- Only four clubs have been honoured as champions of the Premier League more than once in its 29-year history: current champions Manchester City (five), last season’s runners-up Manchester United (13), fourth-placed European champions Chelsea (five) and eighth-placed Arsenal (three).

Liverpool, for all the hype and last season’s third-place, triumphed only in 2020. This merely matches Blackburn (1995) and Leicester (2016).

The status quo is not expected to change in a season which kicked off with new boys Brentford defeating the fading old glories of Arsenal 2-0.

The Premier League has been sustained throughout the Covid-19 pandemic by the massive insurance of its £2.9bn-a-year national and international TV income. This has carried it safely through 17 months without the fans who are now free to fill the stadia once again.

Almost all Covid controls in the UK are being removed next week. Three clubs (Chelsea, Tottenham and Brighton) will demand proof of two vaccinations or a negative test, as at Euro 2020. Others will impose random checks of fans’ Covid-19 status. A government decision is still awaited on whether “vaccination passports” will be ordered for 20,000-plus venues from the end of September.

Players will all be tested twice a week but will be officially permitted to hug each other during goal celebrations.

Top of the ‘hugs league’ of course will be Manchester City, United, Chelsea and Liverpool. The cash-share system which rewards clubs for live TV matches and league places means they grew even richer last season. That was reflected in a transfer activity guaranteed to extend the gap between the rich and the rest.

City splashed an English record £100m on Jack Grealish and will almost certainly spend even more on Harry Kane after this weekend’s embarrassing visit to Tottenham. Pep Guardiola’s team won the title without a ‘real’ centre-forward last season but cannot expect to do so again.

United and Chelsea will challenge hard. The arrivals of Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho have raised Old Trafford expectations of a first crown since the retirement of Sir Alex Fergson in 2013. Thomas Tuchel hopes the goals of Romelu Lukaku will enable the Blues to follow Champions League success with Premier League glory.

The prospects of Liverpool’s title bid are intriguing. Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomes will be fit again to secure defence but the influence of Ginio Wijnaldum will be missed in midfield. Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane must improve on their joint output of 42 goals last season.

Further down the table Patrick Vieira makes his English managerial debut with Crystal Palace with instructions to avoid the relegation dogfight which is likely to feature promoted Norwich, Watford and Brentford as well as Brighton and Burnley.

Let battle commence!