The Guardian writers predicted United would finish 2nd in 2009. We finished 1st, 4 points clear. They predicted we would finish 3rd in 2010. We finished 1 point off 1st. It should therefore come as no surprise that they don’t fancy us for the league this year either.

The predictions are based on an average from some of the football writers at the paper and sadly, quite a few of them reckoning we’ll finish 4th this year. Alarmingly, for City to be pencilled in to finish 2nd a large number of writers at The Guardian will have predicted City will win the league this season. It was upon this realisation I wondered whether I should bother wasting time counter-arguing points made by a bunch of journos who could predict such a thing, but it’s become a bit of a routine around here now and I do enjoy a good ol’ debate.

1st: Chelsea

Barry Glendenning gave his opinion on Chelsea’s season to come.

Six victories, at home and away, over traditional title rivals Manchester United, Arsenal and … go on then, Liverpool were narrower, occasionally lucky but more impressive.

Why Liverpool still get included in the ‘big four’ is beyond me, given that they finished 7th last season. The top four included Spurs, who United beat home away, and who Chelsea lost to away. Then when you look at the team who finished 5th, City, United beat them home and away, whilst Chelsea lost to them home and away. So the less talk of Chelsea’s superiority over the top teams the better. That’s without getting in to the refereeing decisions that gave Chelsea the points against us.

Of course their route to the title last season wasn’t without its twists and turns – they lost a half-dozen times in the Premier League, with five of those coming in matches immediately preceding Champions League or FA Cup outings. It is a statistic that suggests their rivals’ greatest chances of ending the season pogo dancing on a plywood bank advert is to wish the Stamford Bridge outfit every success in their ongoing quest to win that elusive Champions League trophy, in the hope they’ll take their eye of the ball where more mundane domestic matters are concerned.

Peter Kenyon once claimed that Chelsea would be self-sufficient but after making losses every year, including the £44.4m in the year just gone, it is promise that wasn’t met. He also claimed they would win the European Cup, but 7 years later, it’s still elusive. Kenyon officially left the club this month and maybe with him goes the bullshit talking, replaced with actually doing. It would be fairly devastating if Chelsea even had one Champions League title to their name, although in reality, can that trophy go to anyone but Barcelona this season? Regardless, I’d suffer some of their success in Europe, reaching another final maybe, but the sake of us reclaiming our title.

2nd: City

Daniel Taylor has written the preview for City, although I hasten to add his vote for champions went to United this season.

Manchester City, once again, is a happy place to be.

Not according to some of their better players. Carlos Tevez is depressed and talking about retiring, Robinho can’t get away fast enough, Emmanuel Adebayor is touting himself to Juve just a year after joining and on the very day that Mario Balotelli signed he admitted he wished he could have stayed at Inter. Youth team product, Stephen Ireland, has been forced out, as has one of their best players of last season, Craig Bellamy, to continue on with the back-stabbing tradition that was started when they booted out captain Richard Dunne, who had been at the club 9 years. Don’t get carried away. Manchester City is a happy place to be on pay day, that’s about it.

“This is our year” is the slogan emblazoned across city-centre buses in Manchester (in tell-tale blue). A little presumptuous, perhaps, given that they finished 19 points off the top last season. But what we can say for certain is that there is no other club with so much momentum going into the new season.

The slogan is actually is ‘This is gonna be our season’ in a pretty embarrassing scouse-esque fashion. The dippers have been saying that for 20 years and this season is the first where the club actually thinks they will win something, even the league. But after a fairly disappointing pre-season and a mish-mash of players, you have to wonder about their momentum. They ended last season badly, winning just one of their last five, and I’d argue it’s going to take time to get that winning momentum going, if at all.

Of course it’s not all dreamy though, with Taylor recognising the flaws in defence, the manager’s handling of players not making the first XI, and the insane salary bill..

The battle for Mancini will almost certainly be handling the players who are not getting into the team. Big players with big salaries and big reputations do not like being left on the bench but the Italian has already shown he is not afraid of making unpopular decisions and, if necessary, grazing a few egos.

The sad fact of modern-day City is that the youth-academy graduates are slowly being phased out but it was always going to be this way once the men in Abu Dhabi handed the club the keys to the entire football universe. Six City players featured in the latest list of the top 50 highest football salaries published by Futebol Finance, the same as Real Madrid and behind only Barcelona and Chelsea. At least half a dozen members of Mancini’s squad earn in excess of £100,000 a week. Bridge, now a reserve left-back, gets £90,000. The reports of Yaya Touré being on £221,000 a week are incorrect but it not far off and he has overtaken Robinho, on a mere £160,000, as the highest-paid footballer in the league.

When City last released their accounts it showed the wage bill had gone from £38m to £83m in five years, and that did not include Tevez, Adebayor, Barry, Vieira, Lescott, Kolo Touré and Roque Santa Cruz. Add to that this summer’s recruits and it could conceivably be in the region of £130m by the end of August, with no end in sight. Hughes tells the story of his first meeting with Sheikh Mansour and being asked to identify the one fantasy player he would love in his team. “I’d say Wayne Rooney,” he said after a few moments deliberation. “OK, well let us know if we should make a bid for him?” came the reply, deadly serious.

3rd: United

It’s not all bad this year, with Paul Wilson acknowledging how well we’ve done over the past few years.

When you consider that United maintained their overall superiority in spite of Roman Abramovich pumping millions into Chelsea and Arsène Wenger turning Arsenal into the epitome of European elegance it may even be conceded that modern titles are harder to come by than in the days when Liverpool would finish ahead of runners-up such as Queens Park Rangers, Southampton and Watford, though naturally one would not wish to voice the opinion too loudly on Merseyside.

However, it more or less picks United apart

This time last year the same people were either tipping United for a fourth successive title or predicting they would give Chelsea a run for their money, the latter of which in the event turned out to be the case.

Apart from at The Guardian, where it was predicted we would finish behind Liverpool and Chelsea.

United have capable midfielders in Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick and the ageless Paul Scholes, though their ability to seize control and dictate the terms of a game was not always evident when it needed to be last season.

I imagine it’s difficult for our central midfielders to dictate what’s going on from defence, with Fletch and Carrick having a stint in the centre of defence, with Fletch also deployed at right back on occasion too. It can’t be ignored that Carrick underperformed last season but like Chelsea were without Essien, we were without Hargreaves all season and Anderson for half the season.

Antonio Valencia should be a better player for having a season at United under his belt, and Park Ji-sung will always make valuable contributions to offset his anonymous days, but Ferguson has never found a satisfactory replacement for Roy Keane.

We never found a replacement for Eric Cantona either and last season was the first time since Ruud’s departure in 2006 that we had a striker playing that ‘fox in the box’ role. Will United ever find a replacement for Keane? No. There are some players who are irreplaceable and you have to make up for it in other ways. Regardless, if you think Keano was 28 in that wonderful 1999 season, Fletch is a couple of years away, and could be the closest to Keane we’ll ever get.

United’s veterans were doing them proud right up until the moment Wayne Rooney became crocked, when it quickly became apparent that, if not quite a one-man team, the defending champions were heavily reliant on one particular marauding attacker to pose problems for opposing defences.

Yeh, the two match-winning goals Ryan Giggs scored against a Spurs team who had just beaten Chelsea and Arsenal, and the match-winning goal Scholes scored in the 93rd minute at City were desperately disappointing.

If he stays fit, and performs as he did last season, United will be there or thereabouts. If he misses games through injury, or sends along the impostor who turned up for the World Cup, they will struggle.

Fortunately for United, Rooney gets to play alongside United players in the league, not England players, so I very much doubt we’ll see the ‘imposter’. When you think that Rooney scored all but one of his goals for United from inside the box last season, then think Rooney had just one attempt from inside the box for England (keeper got his finger tips to it and pushed it on to the post)

As United will shortly have a 40-year-old goalkeeper in Edwin van der Sar, and a 31-year-old centre-half in Rio Ferdinand who increasingly is only a notional leader of the defence, they may well struggle anyway.

Rio’s proneness to injury may well be a problem, but with Jonny Evans fit and available, not a massive one, but it’s fairly pathetic to think Van der Sar’s age will have any bearing on this season. Aged 38 he was named the best keeper in England and in Europe and I haven’t seen any signs of his age slowing him down. Van der Sar made some great saves against the champions last weekend and will be a contender for the goalie awards come the end of this season too.

However, despite all of that and the 3rd place prediction, concede that we could well be champions come May.

It would not be the greatest surprise in the world to see Rooney start the domestic season in irresistible form. Should that happen, just about anything else could follow.

I think our success will be more complex this season though, with Rooney of course playing an important role, but not the be all and end all as he was last season. Having our defence (or just at least defenders) available gives the rest of our team a platform to work from. Nani and Valencia will be better this season, Hernandez will be adding to the goals tally, Fletch will continue to dominate, amongst a whole host of other possibilities. If Rooney scores 26 goals again this season, we will win the league, but even if he doesn’t, I think we’re a lot better prepared around the park than we were last season.

Like Scholes said last week, the more people who write us off the better. Yet again, The Guardian don’t rate us much, but I’m quite happy for there to be less expectation on our lads. They were told in 05-06 that they were in decline and look at what they went on to achieve after that.

Some people who think United will win the league: Graham Taylor (Former England manager and current BBC Radio 5 live analyst), Daniel Taylor (The Guardian), Steve Claridge (former player and current BBC pundit), Guy Mowbray (BBC commentator) and Steve Wilson (BBC commentator).

Some people who think United will finish 2nd: Sam Wallace (The Independent chief football writer), Lee Dixon (Former Arsenal defender and BBC pundit), Kevin McCarra (The Guardian football correspondent), Mike Sewell (BBC Radio 5 live commentator), Stan Collymore (former dogger and woman-beater) and Duncan White (Sunday Telegraph football correspondent).

Some people who think United will finished 3rd: Ben ‘City 2nd’ Clissett (The Daily Telegraph Head of sport), Ian ‘Arsenal 2nd’ Ladyman (The Daily Mail football writer), David ‘City 2nd’ Hall (FourFourTwo editor), Martin ‘City 2nd’ Lipton (Chief football writer Daily Mirror) and Robbie ‘City 2nd’ Savage (BBC Radio 5 live pundit and The Mirror columnist).

Some people who think United will finish 4th: Patrick ‘Liverpool 2nd’ Barclay (The Times chief football commentator), Matt ‘City 2nd’ Barlow (The Daily Mail football correspondent) and Mark Saggers (TalkSport presenter).

And the rest: Micky Quinn (TalkSport) thinks United will drop out of the top four, with Liverpool winning the league, ahead of Chelsea, then Arsenal, then City.

Predictions from bloggers.


Picking apart The Guardian writers’ predictions