1. Manchester City
- There would be scope for improvement even if the existing staff was unaltered.
- It would be a mistake to view the squad as mercenaries whose true allegiance is to the pay cheque. There had, for instance, to be admiration of the persistence as well as the sheer composure shown by Agüero in his winner against QPR.
- A close inspection of City reveals that, for all their strengths, they are not entirely flawless. Roberto Mancini’s squad lacks strong cover beyond their central defensive partnership of Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott (hence the bid for Liverpool’s Daniel Agger), whereas United have five players for that position.
- Ferguson also has two capable goalkeepers in David de Gea and Anders Lindegaard whereas City would not like to think what might happen if Joe Hart missed any lengthy period of time, bringing Costel Pantilimon into the team. It would be unnerving for the champions, to say the least.
- Given that worrisome reliance on Kompany, it was not surprising this summer to see City linked with defenders such as Liverpool’s Daniel Agger as they attempt to assemble a more daunting back four. All the same, the days when City were ready to meet any price in the transfer market are drawing to a close. The financial fair play rules ought to have an impact in the near future, but the proprietor of a club would wish to have a sustainable business sooner or later in any case.
- The broader priority for City now is to be seen as a formidable, well-integrated unit. That eluded them in the Champions League, where they came third in the group phase.
2. Manchester United
- By all accounts, the Arsenal striker seems to favour United ahead of City when it comes to the next phase of his career in Manchester. Shinji Kagawa, a probing, clever player who will operate behind the attack, could be an astute piece of business and United have enough know-how and depth to believe they have genuine hopes of title number 20.
- Van Persie’s arrival would be a real coup though. United have been making extensive efforts behind the scenes, with Ferguson prominently involved, to try to coax the Dutchman to Old Trafford. If it comes off, United would then have a front two of Van Persie and Wayne Rooney – the Footballer of the Year and his runner-up – with a combined 72 club goals between them last season. Add the vastly improved Daniel Welbeck into the equation and then consider Javier Hernández’s potential sharpness after Ferguson, citing fatigue, wangled a deal with Mexico to excuse him Olympics duty. It would be a formidable quartet, particularly with the quality United have on the wings, primarily from Nani and Antonio Valencia and, to a slightly lesser extent, Ashley Young.
- It would be unwise to believe City will find it any easier this time when, for starters, Nemanja Vidic is available again after missing the majority of last season with ruptured knee ligaments. That in itself should make a significant difference given the vulnerability of United’s defence last season, epitomised by the 4-4 home draw against Everton when they surrendered a 4-2 lead in the final seven minutes. The team’s defence went to pieces that day, without the considerable presence and competitive courage of their captain.
- United’s supporters are also entitled to think they would be extremely unfortunate to suffer the same catalogue of injuries again – at one stage Ferguson was missing 14 players.
- It is the centre of midfield, by Ferguson’s own admission, and the absence of a truly dynamic player that continues to be the bigger problem, certainly in context with City’s options in this area.
- Patrice Evra‘s form has waned and it is surprising, perhaps, that United have not done more to bring in another left-back now Fábio da Silva has gone to QPR on loan.
- Lucas Moura looks more likely to go to Paris St-Germain and, if so, the Brazilian will join, among others, Wesley Sneijder, Samir Nasri, Eden Hazard, David Villa and Karim Benzema on the list of category-A targets United have tried, and failed, to sign in the Glazer era.
3. Chelsea, 4. Arsenal, 5. Spurs, 6. Liverpool, 7. Newcastle, 8. Everton.
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