Manchester City strong favourites - despite Mancini moaning
Roberto Mancini tries to play down title hopes - but Manchester City will lead the race again
Were Manchester City to start the Premier League season with a 20-point advantage on Saturday Roberto Mancini would still tell you that they are a long way behind their neighbours, United.
Further, that despite the 3-2 whupping of Chelsea in the Community Shield, the London club is in a better position to chase honours on all fronts having brought big in the summer.
Mancini is a hugely likeable drama queen. As long as he can call on Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, David Silva, Mario Balotelli, Vincent Kompany, Joe Hart and Yaya Toure, City will start any season as favourites. The acquisition of Jack Rodwell from Everton has hardly weakened the squad. At some point Rodwell is going to mature into the player we thought he was when he first emerged at Goodison Park. If it happens this year, City will be even harder to beat.
The experimentation with three at the back in pre-season gives them a tactical dimension designed to pay dividends in the Champions League. The composure City showed in reeling in Chelsea at Villa Park mirrored the deeply impressive way they closed out last season. The victory over Manchester United at home followed by the win at Newcastle demonstrated absolute belief in each other.
They start this season augmented by a fit and content Tevez and a player in Balotelli substantiated by a fantastic European Championships for Italy. Mancini will always want more, but what he already has is sufficient to justify their classification as Premier League favourites. The critical point will come in February should Mancini, as expected, have to negotiate the latter stages of the Champions League as well as a domestic campaign.
Sir Alex Ferguson knows this territory well. He acknowledged the mistakes of last season fielding weaker teams in the qualifying stages of the Champions League. The return of Nemanja Vidic, the addition of Shinji Kagawa to fill the creative void in the last third and the pursuit of Robin van Persie tell us that United will once again contend on all fronts. Like Balotelli, Danny Welbeck will present an even greater threat after leading the English line so impressively in Ukraine.
The arrival at Stamford Bridge of young playmakers Eden Hazard and Oscar of Brazil begins the recycling of an ageing Chelsea team. The emergence of Ramires as a dominant midfielder with lungs to match his talent should allow Chelsea to manage better the impact of Frank Lampard’s decline. The sustainability of John Terry at the heart of defence and Fernando Torres at the point of the attack are the critical factors that will determine the success of Chelsea’s campaign.
Arsenal have been busy in the market, too. Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud and Santi Carzola could prove inspired buys, especially if Van Persie leaves as expected. Beyond the Manchester and London quartet I can’t see a title contender, though the first seasons of Andre Villas-Boas at Spurs and Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool provide fascinating cameos.
Villas-Boas has much to prove at White Hart Lane but with the backing of the chairman Daniel Levy he has a chance. Roman Abramovich lacked patience and courage after appointing Villas Boas. Either Spurs will reap the benefit or his success in Portugal was a fluke.
Rodgers has to replicate his work at Swansea, which effectively means reconnecting Liverpool with their passing tradition. They played better than they scored last season, particularly at Anfield. Retaining the commitment of Luis Suarez was pivotal.