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 By Michael Cox

Bielsa meets Ranieri, Tottenham face Chelsea among early-season highlights

With the 2017/18 Premier League season around the corner, Stevie Nicol predicts who will finish in the top 4.
Steve Nicol believes that Man City's big summer spending has made the club favourites to win the Premier League.

The 2017-18 European season is nearly upon us and, with Serie A having finally released its fixture list this week, we have a clear idea of which games to watch and when. Here's a selection of the most intriguing fixture for each weekend in August, leading up until the month-ending international break and transfer window closure.

Aug. 6: Lille vs. Nantes

Ordinarily, there would be nothing special about this run-of-the-mill Ligue 1 fixture. It's not a meeting between two major sides and it's not a local derby, but it does feature a fascinating managerial clash: Marcelo Bielsa vs. Claudio Ranieri, AKA the ideologue vs. the pragmatist.

Bielsa takes charge of a Lille side that finished an unimpressive 11th last season, but which have made some eye-catching signings. Highly-rated midfielder Thiago Maia is the most intriguing and, together with his compatriots Luiz Araujo, a left-winger, and holding midfielder Thiago Mendes, Lille have splashed close to £30m on three promising Brazilians. They're just three of nine buys with an average age of 22. Bielsa is doing his usual thing: Packing the squad with energetic, hungry players, who can be moulded to suit his philosophy.

Nantes, meanwhile, were flattered by their seventh-place finish last season; they were an unimaginative, defensive-minded side who scored fewer goals -- 40 -- than third-bottom Lorient. But perhaps Ranieri will be able to transform them into a counter-attacking unit in the manner of his famous Leicester team. Speedy wide forward Prejuce Nakoulma made an impact having arrived midway through last season, although striker Emiliano Sala is very much an old-school target man and will need appropriate service.

This should be an interesting tactical contest between two wise old managers. Neither are likely to mount a title challenge but, on opening day in Ligue 1, expect Bielsa's side to come flying out of the blocks and Ranieri to set his men up to pick off their hosts.

Aug. 12: Brighton vs. Manchester City

It will be Brighton's first top-flight game since 1983 and an emotional occasion for the home supporters, who have spent much of the past 30 years concerned by where their club will play, never might at what level they would compete. After leaving their old Goldstone Ground in 1997, Brighton shared 50 miles away at Gillingham, then moved to an athletics stadium in their home town before, after years of political wrangling, finally building a purpose-built stadium.

After several near misses in their bid to be promoted from the Championship, they will savour Premier League football for the first time. Manager Chris Hughton boasts experience at the highest level and is a master of drilling his players in a simple, back-to-basics defensive system. Brighton won't roll over easily and, in French attacking midfielder Anthony Knockaert, have a potential star in their ranks.

Pep Guardiola's Manchester City finished third in the Premier League last season.

But the major story is the new-look Manchester City. Strengthened with five signings, including an entirely new set of full-backs, Pep Guardiola essentially has no excuse for failure this season. Having tried various new tactical experiments during his first year in charge, it feels like City's manager will revert to a more conventional approach this time around, with overlapping full-backs and a more standard 4-2-3-1 system.

This feels like a gentle warm-up for City. However, visiting newly-promoted sides can be a tricky task; they're something of an unknown quality, the atmosphere will be excellent and Brighton's players will be determined to prove they belong. The hosts play good football but, on this occasion, a direct approach to exploit City's weaknesses makes sense.

Aug. 20: Tottenham vs. Chelsea

Last season's top two in England on the second weekend of the new campaign. Their league games in 2016/17 were both excellent, with Chelsea earning a come-from-behind 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge in November, before Tottenham produced arguably the best team performance of the season to convincingly win 2-0 at White Hart Lane just over a month later.

Then there was a quite extraordinary FA Cup semifinal, which Chelsea won 4-2 at Wembley, which will host this latest clash of London rivals. Tottenham have moved 12 miles west of White Hart Lane for a season at the national stadium and one of the keenest observers of the situation will be Chelsea, who are likely to follow suit with a temporary Wembley arrangement as they redevelop Stamford Bridge.

The game itself should be great. Mauricio Pochettino's approach against Antonio Conte last season was based around matching Chelsea's 3-4-3; Tottenham play the system with great cohesion and fluidity and the versatility of Eric Dier allows them to switch seamlessly between a three-man defence and a back four.

Conte's side, meanwhile, will have their first major test as defending champions. Alvaro Morata's performance will be of particular interest and he won't have a tougher challenge than facing the league's best defensive pairing of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld. It could be a steep learning curve for the Spanish striker.

Aug. 26: Roma vs. Inter

The first big game of the Italian season is given extra spice by the fact that Inter's new manager is Luciano Spalletti, who will return to the Stadio Olimpico just weeks after leaving Roma for the second time, having taken the Giallorossi to the highest second-place points tally -- 87 -- in Serie A history.

His job at Inter is far from simple. The club's recent record is mediocre -- fourth is their best league finish in the last six seasons -- and yet there is always expectation of a title challenge. Spalletti is the most forward-thinking, progressive coach Inter have had for years, however, and transfer business has been quietly encouraging. Borja Valero, signed from Fiorentina, has been one of Serie A's most creative midfielders in recent years, while young centre-back Milan Skriniar was excellent at Sampdoria last season.

Roma's new boss is Eusebio Di Francesco and he's been forced to cope with several major departures: Goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, defender Antonio Rudiger, winger Mohamed Salah and legendary playmaker Francesco Totti have all left. Even if Roma's No. 10 only played a bit-part role last season, it will still be curious to see them begin a campaign without Totti for the first time since 1992-93.

It would be a surprise if either of these sides won Serie A this season; defending champions Juventus, the increasingly impressive Napoli and a refreshed Milan seem more likely winners. However, with Serie A entitled to four automatic Champions League places, the battle for fourth is now meaningful and it might come down to Roma and Inter.

Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.

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