After capturing their fourth Premier League title in five seasons, Manchester United are hotly tipped to lift the trophy again in the 2011/12 season (hey, even the Guardian hacks agree now).

The talent is certainly there, as along with the likes of Wayne Rooney, Nemanja Vidic, Nani, and Chicharito, the defending champions have spent 50m on summer reinforcements (with more to come??). There also looks to be a lot of promise in homegrown prospects Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck, both of whom looked very impressive in preseason after loan spells at Premier League clubs last season. If the comeback from 2-0 down to score a dramatic late win over archrivals Manchester City in the Community Shield is a sign of things to come, there’s good reason why the odds are in favor of United continuing their amazing run of success.

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City and perennial title contender Chelsea are expected to be United’s closest competition for the hardware, and it won’t take long to find out if those two and perhaps Arsenal and Liverpool have what it takes to dethrone the favorites, as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side faces all of their fiercest rivals in the first two months of the season.

United have a tricky opener as they start the season away to West Brom, who pulled off some stellar results last season and ended up being the only Premier League side to not leave Old Trafford with a defeat.

The real fun begins the following week, as United host Tottenham in a primetime Monday night clash that is sure to hold some drama if it holds true to recent history. Then, before a two-week international break, United welcome fierce rivals Arsenal, who have spent the majority of the summer dealing with speculation about Cesc Fabregas (again…) and Samir Nasri, who was sensationally linked with United for a time before the rumor mill shifted its focus to Inter star Wesley Sneijder.

September features another couple of tests to see if United’s road form is much improved over last season’s, as they visit Bolton and Stoke City. Sandwiched in between those two ties is the one that everyone will be looking forward to. After doing their part to send Carlo Ancelotti into unemployment by defeating the Chelsea in the Champions League quarterfinals and halting their late run at the Premier League title with a May win at Old Trafford, United get their first crack at new manager Andre Villas-Boas when the Blues visit on the 18th.

United start October with what could be considered their first ‘easy’ game of the season – if there is such a thing in the Premier League – as promoted side Norwich City visit Old Trafford, but out of another two-week international break, it’s anything but easy with a Manchester derby sandwiched in between two trips to Merseyside to face Liverpool and Everton respectively.

Liverpool have spent big in each of the last two transfer windows and are expecting Kenny Dalglish to deliver results this season, but United will head to Anfield looking to notch their first win there in four tries and show that they’re much closer to their 20th than Liverpool are to their 19th. But as anticipated as that showdown will be, City’s visit eight days later will be even more so, given how there’ve been so many classic matches between the two sides over the last few years.

There was quite a lot of criticism about United and their title win last season, but if they make it through the first couple of months of the new campaign still well and truly in the driver’s seat in the title race, there should be few questions. And if they can make it through that tough stretch with as few missteps as possible, the reward is a much friendlier stretch over the next few months.

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Eddie Griffin writes for the Manchester United blog