While Manchester City exited Wembley Stadium last Sunday with heads down and tails between legs, a feeling of inevitability began to spread across England.
From Chelsea to Liverpool and back over to Eastlands, a cloud was looming large – one which last season engulfed all en route to its nineteenth title triumph.
The never say die attitude which has fast become a cliched description of every Ferguson team seems to be permeating through to the next generation at Old Trafford. In a week marked by Paul Scholes’ testimonial, Ferguson’s mind was shifting towards a changing of the guard – a switch symbolized most poignantly at the time of Scholes’ Old Trafford bow, when the Englishman was replaced by promising French teenager Paul Pogba. Had City managed to hold on to their two goal lead, then perhaps Pogba would have remained the brightest shining light in United’s youth set up, instead though, an Englishman called Tom Cleverley arrived to end the Frenchman’s fifteen minutes of fame.
While Wesley Sneijder’s name will continue to be bandied around until the clock strikes midnight on August 31st, Cleverly has offered concerned United fans a source of optimism heading into the new season – that is, if they ever really needed one. Despite lacking the creative endeavor provided by players like Sneijder, United still cruised to Premier League success last term, and if Roy Keane is to be believed, they are on their way to a repeat.
“Even Sir Alex Ferguson said the other day the league’s getting tougher. But I don’t think so, if United are really at it, which they will be, they’ll win it comfortably. Even last year when United were slipping up, no team was strong enough to take advantage of it.” Keane, who turned forty years old today, made his message clear – United are still the team to beat.
“United have bought well. People talk about losing experience and I appreciate that Van der Sar, Neville and Scholes have all retired. But they have good young players coming through – and Wayne Rooney can play better than he did last season.”
There is no doubt that the Englishman is the man who United supporters will expect most from next season, having successfully navigated through the summer without a dose of controversy, Rooney is primed to be a key figure as United seek to fulfill Keane’s bullish prophecies. While strikes from Berbatov and Chicharito helped to paper over the Rooney sized chasm in United’s attack last campaign, it would be risky to count on them again. In only is second season at the top level, Chicharito shouldn’t be expected to repeat his feats of last year, and while Berbatov is likely to remain, his career as a first choice starter at United has ended.
“When you look at the players they have left behind, they have Vidic, Rio, Darren Fletcher – these are all international players. And Giggsy is still there, too. United don’t let players go unless they know they have players coming through to replace them.” As a man who was once the rock of a brilliant Manchester United team, it is no surprise that Roy Keane appreciates those who have succeeded him in that role. While players like Chicharito and Rooney garner the most attention, it is the group mentioned by Keane which silently works for the benefit of the team. Still, Nemanja Vidic remains a top class center back, and if Darren Fletcher manages to battle back from the illness which has kept him out since winter, then Ferguson will have available another player capable of providing the bite in midfield which was sorely lacking last May at Wembley.
While internal movement and external signings have dominated explanations as to claims of title success, the lack of action from competitors is a boon equally worthy of thankfulness from the United faithful. Chelsea have endured an uncharacteristically quiet summer under the stewardship of new manager Andre Villas Boas, with moves for Luka Modric and Javier Pastore petering out badly. For an aging side in need of invigoration, more is required than just young Belgian Lukaku and Spanish prospect Romeu.
On the other side of the city, United’s noisy neighbors have been active in the market, but only in an attempt to secure replacement for unsettled striker Carlos Tevez. On the evidence of Sunday’s match, City remain miles behind their Manchester rivals in terms of footballing quality – a problem that they will seek to address over the next few months. Sergio Aguero remains an unproven entity, while the rest of Mancini’s bloated squad is packed with too many ordinary players for the Citizens to be considered true title contenders.
Of all of the top teams, Liverpool have been the least frugal in their spending, with Kenny Dalglish splashing exorbitant amounts on a series of players who, according to Keane, are acquisitions intended to reinforce the wrong positions.
“Liverpool have bought good attacking players but I think it’s actually defenders that they need,” Keane said. “I think we’ve seen that a little bit in pre-season. Don’t get carried away, Liverpool are in no position to win the league, nowhere near.” Keane’s bold pronouncement will come as a stinging rebuke to Reds fans hoping for a quick end to United’s reign as record title winners – many still see Suarez, Carroll and Downing as the men to lead them to that elusive nineteenth championship.
Arsenal meanwhile, have done little but provide entertainment to fans in need of a laugh – Wenger’s side’s unfortunate place as the butt of a few jokes too many looks set to stick, as both Nasri and Fabregas scoot towards the exit. Underwhelming in the extreme, even the most optimistic of Arsenal fans would surely settle for a solitary League Cup victory, and an end to what has been a hellish six years for them. As John Carter so succinctly put it in his piece for ESPN, in Arsene, the trust is slipping.
The pretenders which are Tottenham Hotspur surely have no realistic chance of a title tilt – their unconvincing strike force remains unimproved, as the lion’s share of attention remains with those wishing for an exit. It seems an eternal curse of Tottenham, that their finest should seek pastures new – Redknapp can only hope that Modric chooses to reject the precedent set by Berbatov and Carrick.
In a season riddled with unanswered questions, the initial signs point to a United victory. While rivals fail to build on squads in need of a refresher, Ferguson’s perpetual project continues to mature. Youngsters like Cleverley and Pogba will help to augment a squad already rich with talent – one that, undoubtedly, doesn’t need a retired Dutchman, nor one at the peak of his powers, to challenge for number twenty.