Wilson: It's a Manchester battle once more

ESPNSTAR.com columnist Jonathan Wilson is expecting the usual suspects to jostle for places at the top of the Premier League table.

Football News: Man City vs Man Utd

By Jonathan Wilson

Thank goodness for Manchester City and their endless insecurity. The worry when City won the championship in such dramatic style last season, was always that the absurdly heightened tension, the two-goals-in-injury time turnaround, would be the prelude to a long procession of success. It is not to be anti-City to say that the prospect of them - or any club - steamrollering their relentless money-propelled way to multiple successive titles induces the fear of tedium.

And yet as football re-emerges from the haze of an extraordinary sporting summer, it turns out that City are in the grip of unease.

Perhaps it's only natural from a side unused to success and having to deal with being champions, with all the expectation that brings, but it might have been thought that their manager, Roberto Mancini, a man who is used to success, would have seemed rather less anxious than he did in a press conference immediately before the Community Shield.

Although he insisted he was "not frustrated", Mancini seemed irritated as he dealt with a series of questions about transfer dealings. Robin van Persie has chosen United over City. Chelsea outbid City for Eden Hazard. Interest in Daniel Agger and Daniele De Rossi has come to nothing. Each name was followed by a suggestion the journalist should "ask Brian" - that is, Brian Marwood, who is in charge of transfer negotiations at the club. Since then the promising midfielder Jack Rodwell has arrived from Everton for a reported £15million but this has still been a summer of far lower spending that any other since Sheikh Mansoor took over the club.

The Community Shield showed that City, even without further additions, remain a formidable team. Of course they benefited from the red card shown to Branislav Ivanovic, but they had probably been marginally the better side even when they fell behind and then were wholly dominant in the second half, despite the gaffe by their reserve keeper Costel Pantelimon. The new 3-4-3 shape was intriguing and was a factor in the third goal as Aleksandar Kolarov found space on the right and crossed for Samir Nasri.

For Chelsea, the surprise was how similar it all felt. This had seemed like a great summer of transition, when the process of reform signalled by the appointment of Andre Villas-Boas became something more concrete as Marko Marin, Oscar and Eden Hazard joined with Juan Mata - and, perhaps in time, Kevin De Bruyne - to form a new-style Chelsea with neat tight passing and individual flair. As it was, only Hazard of the new signings played, and it was, yet again, Ramires who stood out, both from his holding midfield position and then right-back after the Ivanovic dismissal. Perhaps most significant, though, was the ease with which Fernando Torres took his goal; perhaps, after a summer in which he won the Golden Boot at Euro 2012, the confidence is back and he will become against the player he was three years ago.


 

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"I think United start as favourites this year," Mancini insisted. "We are maybe second, third or fourth." He got used, towards the end of last season, to playing down his side's chances and it's fair to assume that this claim is similar aimed to deflect the pressure from his team. Although United have signed Shinji Kagawa, an intelligent creator who should ease the burden on Wayne Rooney, if they are stronger this year it's because they have so many players returning from injury.

Nemanja Vidic didn't play after December last season after twisting his knee and his return should add solidity at centre-back. Tom Cleverley and Anderson should be back to add depth to a midfield that looked threadbare at ties last season, and then there's Darren Fletcher, back in training after ulcerative colitis, although seemingly some way from a full comeback. Fletcher's energy at the back of midfield was badly missed towards the end of last season particularly in the 1-0 defeat to City at the Etihad. If he doesn't return, and the illness can be terribly debilitating, his absence will be even more sorely felt following the sale of Park Ji-Sung.

Unless Sir Alex Ferguson is convinced that Phil Jones, who was surely signed as a centre-back, can become a dynamic central midfielder, the reluctance to sign anybody in that mould seems baffling, particularly in the light of United's pursuit of Robin van Persie, who seems likely to join for £20million. Given Rooney's understanding with Danny Welbeck and the ability Javier Hernandez showed the season before that, centre-forward doesn't seem a priority (although getting a player of Van Persie's ability for £20million is good business even with his injury record).

Unusually, it's Arsenal who seem to have had the best of the transfer dealing so far. Whether Lukas Podolski can really make an impression against massed defences is doubtful (paradoxically, he may be more effective against better sides), but Santi Cazorla is a wonderfully inventive player and Olivier Giroud offers a combination of physicality and technicality of the sort Arsenal hoped they would find in Nicklas Bendtner and Marouane Chamakh. The one downside is the probable sale of Alex Song, leaving them short of a ball-winning holding midfielder.

If Jack Wilshere recovers fitness, though, the thought of him and Mikel Arteta directing the game from the back of midfield is beguiling. The squad probably isn't strong enough for a title challenge but Arsenal can be confident of a top four finish.

For Tottenham, who missed out on the Champions League only because of Chelsea's success in the tournament, the picture is far less clear.

Andre Villas-Boas arrives with a reputation tarnished by his time at Chelsea, replacing Tottenham's most successful manager in three decades. He inherits a problematic squad with Luka Modric looking for a way out and no guarantee Emmanuel Adebayor's loan deal can be made permanent. A title challenge is improbable but given the level of investment over the past three or four seasons Spurs' board will demand Champions League qualification.

Beyond those five, it's hard to see any challengers. Unless Chelsea settle quickly, it's likely again to be a battle between the two Manchester clubs. Injuries permitting, United should be stronger this season despite the obvious flaw in midfield but then City dropped a lot of soft points last year.



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