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Saturday, Aug. 15, 2009

PREMIER REPORT

Man United facing huge challenge to retain title


LONDON — The questions have been asked and just about everyone with a love of football has an opinion, but we must wait until next May to know the answers.

Christopher Davies

How much will Manchester United miss Cristiano Ronaldo?

Can Manchester City break into the top four?

As the 2009-10 season begins fans are full of optimism and pessimism, depending on their allegiances. The Premier League can be divided into four categories:

• Potential Winners — Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool.

• Chasing Fourth Place — Arsenal, Manchester City.

• The Middle Class — Aston Villa, Everton, Tottenham Hotspur.

• Lower To Middle Class — Fulham, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Sunderland, Wigan Athletic.

• Relegation Candidates — Birmingham City, Burnley, Hull City, Portsmouth, Stoke City, West Ham United, Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Of course United will miss Ronaldo — any club would — but United has lost great players in the past and prospered. Ronaldo's move to Real Madrid for a mind-boggling £80 million will at least allow Wayne Rooney to become the focal point of the English champions' attack with Dimitar Berbatov hopefully proving he is worth the £30 million United paid Spurs.

Then there is Michael Owen, whose free transfer from Newcastle could be the most inspired piece of summer business or a gamble that backfired if the striker is once again a serial visitor to the treatment table.

For the first time most Manchester City supporters can remember the Blues have a genuine chance of, well, something. Having spent £200 million of Sheikh Mansour's billions over the last year, manager Mark Hughes knows he must deliver.

Fifth place will be the minimum expectation with a Cup also finding its way to Eastlands. This summer, City has signed the excellent Gareth Barry from Aston Villa, Roque Santa Cruz, whom Hughes managed at Blackburn, plus ex-United substitute Carlos Tevez and Arsenal rejects Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure.

Hughes' biggest challenge could well be keeping a lid on the egos of so many expensive players and maintaining team spirit in a squad where many who think they should be in the team will be on the bench or even in the stands.

The date in the Manchester diary is Sept. 20 when City visits Old Trafford: Tevez's return (the boos will have the Noise Abatement Society on full alert) and pre-match mind games from the doyen, Sir Alex Ferguson.

If Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard stay fit, Liverpool will again push United for the title. It has lost Xabi Alonso, one of 278 players to be signed by Real Madrid, but the Italian Alberto Aquilani looks a decent replacement even if he arrived from Roma with an injury.

Glen Johnson will give Liverpool pace and power from right-back and Rafa Benitez will have a weekly pop at Ferguson — apart from being excellent managers the only thing they have in common is their opinion of each other.

Arsenal will play breathtaking football, 17-year-old Jack Wilshire should continue the immensely promising start to his career, while Andrey Arshavin will prove to be another brilliant Arsene Wenger buy in his first full season.

It has been four long years since the Gunners won a trophy and Wenger cannot continue to talk about the potential of his youngsters. Arsenal fans want pots not promises.

Chelsea has Carlo Ancelotti, its fifth manager two years, in charge and the former AC Milan coach has impressed the players with his training methods, tactical acumen and his command of English, which has improved remarkably in just a few weeks.

The Blues finished seven points behind United, but if Ancelotti can continue the good work of Guus Hiddink in the second half of last season Chelsea will be a serious contender.

Aston Villa looked like it could break into the top four last season but suffered an alarming slump from February. Martin O'Neill has brought in the promising £6 million Fabian Delph from Leeds and the injured Stewart Downing from Middlesbrough — the winger cost £12 million, arrived on crutches and will not be fit until the New Year. Not the sort of transfer activity that has filled Villa fans with confidence.

Portsmouth fans are possibly the most pessimistic for what they are about to receive and rightly so. The cash-strapped club has sold or released just about every decent player, Paul Hart is the sort of guy you would want to be godfather to your children, but that does not make him a manager capable of locking horns with Ferguson, Benitez and company.

Pompey fans joke that they have so few strikers the team will play a 4-6-0 formation, but the fire sale at Fratton Park is no laughing matter.

The Premier League season will, as ever, be entertaining, exciting, intriguing, full of the unexpected, controversial and with hopefully a photo finish for the title.

Chelsea to pip Manchester United and Liverpool as champions, Portsmouth, Hull City and Burnley for the drop.

Enjoy.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.


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