A new season of the English Premier League kicks off this weekend and excitement is building to see how the two Manchester clubs that have dominated English football in recent years will fare under new management.
It was business as usual for Manchester United in last Sunday’s Community Shield at Wembley—the traditional domestic curtain-raiser between the previous season’s winners of the FA Cup and Premiership. A goal in each half by last season’s top scorer Robin van Persie helped David Moyes’ team ease past a gallant Wigan Athletic, now of the Championship after being relegated last May.
Wayne Rooney Still Unsettled
Sir Alex Ferguson could never summon up much enthusiasm for the Community Shield in his later years, but there is no doubt that for Moyes, an early piece of silverware was very welcome indeed. Notwithstanding the win, most of the questions to the new manager concerned the future of disaffected superstar Wayne Rooney who has begun this season like he ended the last—neither in the team nor even on the bench.
Van Persie is now clearly the “main man” at Old Trafford, and this must be hard for Rooney to take. He is just an ordinary human being after all and probably can’t help feeling slightly jealous of how quickly the Dutch master has established himself in just 12 months. There is now also the question of how the fans will react to him if he does agree to stay.
Rooney was supposedly carrying an injury that has kept him out of United’s preseason friendly matches and the Community Shield, yet he was seen training with the England squad at St George’s Park, Burton-upon-Trent on Monday morning with national team coach Roy Hodgson said he came through “as expected.”
Hodgson went on to say, “It’s always difficult to know or to assess with the naked eye how fit or how match-fit people are, but there was no doubt in my mind that he’s not suffering from any physical injury.”
Post Mancini Era Begins at City
Many felt Roberto Mancini was unlucky to receive his marching orders, having guided City to both major domestic titles over the last couple of years after the club’s decades in the doldrums, but patience is not a virtue among the current crop of billionaire football club owners. Chilean Manuel Pellegrini has arrived from Malaga to see what magic he can work.
At the very least he will be expected to match Mancini’s record in the domestic game while doing very much better in Europe. Unlike Moyes, he is likely to be given just one season— two at best—to succeed.
The mercurial Carlos Tevez has followed the unpredictable Mario Balotelli to Italy, but City have found replacements in Spaniards Jesus Navas and Alvaro Negredo. Both are 27 years of age, in their prime, and members of the Spanish national squad. If they can adapt to the faster pace, directness and physicality of Premier League football they will both surely be an asset to City’s cause.
Return of the “Special One”
If Rooney is to leave Old Trafford, the question is where can he go? United are clearly unwilling to sell him to any of their rivals for the Premier League crown, though Jose Mourinho and Chelsea are still keen to lure him to Stamford Bridge.
The “Special One” is in charge of a relatively young side that would greatly benefit from Rooney’s experience. The ageing John Terry and Frank Lampard are still around, but neither are likely to be permanent fixtures in the starting XI for the duration of the campaign.
At 32, Ashley Cole is no spring chicken either. Much will be expected from 22-year-old German international striker Andre Schurrle who Mourinho signed from Bayer Leverkusen in the offseason.
Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is not known for his patience and, “special” or not, Mourinho will be expected to deliver nothing less than the Premiership crown on his return to the fold and break the Manchester domination of the last few years.
Arsenal and Spurs
The two North London rivals will be there or thereabouts, but one suspects that they will once again be competing for the fourth Champions League qualification place rather than the Premiership itself.
Arsene Wenger has for years confounded his doubters by manufacturing competitive teams out of considerably less resources than those of the Gunners’ main rivals. The team’s sterling performance away at Bayern Munich in the Champions League knockout phase was a highlight of the last season.
No team put up a better display against Bayern last year, either in Europe or in the Bundesliga. If Arsenal can find more consistency, and key players stay healthy, then they may do better than the pundits expect; however, the squad needs to be strengthened to challenge for major silverware.
If Spurs failed to succeed with last season’s outstanding player, Gareth Bale, in their line-up, it is hard to imagine them improving on last year’s showing if they lose him to Real Madrid as now seems likely. If Bale does move to Spain, it will not only be Spurs’ loss, but a loss to the whole league. Bale lit up the scene wherever he played last year and his entertainment value will be sorely missed if he is no longer around.
How Welsh soccer fans must be lamenting that they finally uncovered a new superstar in Gareth Bale when the immortal Ryan Giggs had already retired from international football. It will be sad if Bale, like Giggs, becomes one of the few all-time greats never to have played in a World Cup.
Yet, for the very first time, the sporting public of the Rugby Union mad principality is starting to sit up and take notice of the alternative football code. Swansea exceeded all expectations last season with a very respectable showing in the league and also winning the Carling Cup.
This year they are joined in the Premiership by newly promoted Cardiff City and so there will be a pair of Welsh derby games in the top flight for the very first time.
Finally we come to the league’s great underachievers. Can Liverpool seriously challenge for the title again in the foreseeable future or even manage to qualify for the Champions League? Can they hang on to Luis Suarez, and if they do, is the Uruguayan’s abominable disciplinary record worth tolerating for his undoubted talent?
Can north-east giants Newcastle and Sunderland challenge for European places in the top half of the table rather than worrying about avoiding the drop for much of the campaign?
The passionate but long suffering fans of Tyne and Wear deserve better than they received last year. At least Paulo Di Canio in the Sunderland dugout will be worth the price of admission even if his team fails to perform on the pitch.
Apologies to those teams that have not been given a mention in this brief preview. Of course you never know if there will be a surprise packet from among those other outfits, and if one does emerge then that’s great for the game.
I am absolutely not going to predict who will go down next May. Let’s keep things positive and wish all clubs and players the very best for the new campaign. Roll on Saturday!