Previewing the big one - The English Premiership.
The World's most televised league is also the richest and most lucrative, with fans from all over the world - some would argue, especially fans from other parts of the world. The 2011-12 Premiership kicked off two weeks ago and barring Tottenham and Everton, at time of writing, has seen everyone play once at home and once away. A league table exists but is mostly cosmetic at this stage. The large bulk of the season lies ahead with the long haul still to come. The season has arrived and one wonders who will be on top of the pile come May 2012.
In essence, it's a straight race between two clubs who are far ahead of everyone else. One has strengthened impressively to haul itself into contention by elevating a level - a level that the other club inhabits on all too regular and constant basis. The 2011-12 League title is Manchester United's to contest with Manchester City. United sit atop the pinnacle and City is out to topple them. With Chelsea in a state of flux and bereft of the creative midfielders, as of yet, that can unlock a title challenge, Eastlands has overtaken Stamford Bridge as Old Trafford's biggest threat. Arsenal have gone in reverse with a loss of personnel, morale and momentum and will drop down the pecking order; while Spurs, with or without Luka Modric (the creative midfielder in question coveted by Chelsea), are too inconsistent to threaten for the title. Liverpool are much improved, both in spirit and playing corps from the 2011 version and should make the top four quite comfortably, however lack the match-winners, confidence or rhythm that can lead to a successful title challenge. So, in a class that is weaker from last's year's edition, the standout competitors are, by elimination, left to fight over the crown.
And those two are the red of Manchester United and the blue of Manchester City. United possess a mostly settled squad with impressive youth talent being slowly welded into the team as it seeks to replace three key elder statesmen from last season; in goal, defence and midfield respectively. A fourth veteran still commands a starting spot when fit but his successors and timeline are both on the horizon. United are notoriously slow starters but for the better part of the last decade, have always held the belief and drive to be able to mount a challenge, even from behind, in the Winter and Spring. With a decent start this season already in the books and an absence of player troubles, injuries or as yet, fatigue, they stand an excellent chance of retaining their crown.
Fact is, United not only have an excellent balance, a couple of match-winners and decent depth; they are helmed by the best club manager in the land; and armed with both his influence and monetary pull. Their squad is already excellent, but it will be kept motivated, rotated, energized and if need be, replenished, by a coach who knows the pace and mindset of a long three-fronted season numbering close to 70 games. Throw in the fact that the new kids look deadly and that referees will usually throw in a few crucial decisions their way and the title is practically already theirs. Complacency and a lack of respect for City, are the only two things standing in their way.
Of course City, will have you believe that they themselves pose a bigger obstacle, fully capable of wresting the title from the other side of Manchester. And they have every right to. City's squad, expensively assembled, is the finished product both owners and management crave. Ridiculously deep, dripping with talent and oozing class, City, on paper, have the strongest team in the league. Outside of the big two in Spain, they have the best team in Europe. And in Roberto Mancini, an adept manager, who is both tactically astute and motivationally sound. Mancini is the erudite continental type who seeks to empower, inspire and guide; as opposed to Alex Ferguson's method of berate, threaten and command. United's team has always suing from the same hymn sheet out of a fearful respect for Ferguson, City's will have to do the same to match their counterparts.
Mancini has the respect of his troops, and in delivering the FA Cup last season, notably beating United on the way, both the confidence and experience to deliver silverware again. Their team is hungry, well drilled and other than at full back, impressively stacked with world class talent and top level professionals. City have more match-winners than United but their squad needs some more time to gel. Moreover, Mancini and his team lack the mental fortitude to dominate the English season; an aspect all the more important in a harsh, xenophobic league where both the passports of his corps cause as much mistrust as the derision of their payslips. City have to convince the neutrals as much as themselves, that they are worthy contenders. In the final analysis, they will fall just short.
Behind them Chelsea, under the gifted Andres Villas Boas should seal third place at a canter. The current generation needs to be slowly retired and their team retooled. Chelsea will slowly renew and may well challenge again this year, but even by their impossibly high standards, this will be a transitional season of third place and a decent Cup run. Liverpool are one of the highest spenders in the league this summer and will occupy fourth. Not just by the acquisition of decent talent that fits their system and matches their style; but because both of North London's finest have regressed in the summer, with the roster at Ashburton Grove terminally weakened. Their loss shall be Liverpool's gain and a different top four will be formed at season's end for the fourth consecutive season.
The future is red and blue with two teams of each colour set to contest the top four, this year and the next.
Projected standings with keynotes for each club:
1 - Manchester United - The latest model from the Ferguson Football Factory, they are the blueprint for a successful transitional year. Champions, but only by a bit.
2 - Manchester City - When under pressure Mancini goes into a protective shell. His team deserves a more ambitious attitude and will pay for his caution with costly away draws.
3 - Chelsea - Falling away while AVB renews and rebuilds - this could be the last season of the core trio at The Bridge, with Lampard, Terry and Drogba slowly eased out.
4 - Liverpool - A typically helter-skelter league campaign forged on the industry of their English core but finished by the flair of their Latin fringe.
5 - Tottenham - With or without Modric, a confident, rapid and robust team that knows how to win. With Gareth Bale in good health, capable of upsetting the odds.
6 - Arsenal - A season that begins the decline and calls time on the Arsene Wenger era. Despite a decent squad, both manager and key players will leave at season's end.
7 - Everton - A bad start and shallow squad is no match for the spirit of the troops and the nous of the manager. David Moyes' side, eventually, will finish in the top eight.
8 - Aston Villa - No one expects them to do well and that lack of attention is their strongest card. After losing both wingers, Villa's remnants will forge together and hold.
9 - Newcastle - A decent core mixed with improving youth additions and a clever manager may finally come together in the North East.
10 - Stoke - Strengthened at the back, experienced and confident, the robust agriculturalists under Tony Pulis will improve their position further this season.
11 - Bolton - Owen Coyle has quietly made Bolton into a talented, capable side that is a shadow of its physical long ball past. Building on last season's
12 - Sunderland - Steve Bruce's squad, despite being largely top four castoffs can still compete. Bruce, due to being a United legend, can still manage. Together still, a mid-table team.
13 - Wolves - Unlike their black country rivals, a season of progress as Mick McCarthy's charges impress with another season in the top flight under their belt.
14 - Fulham - The return of Martin Jol sees a steady project slowly taking shape in West London. Fantasy and fan favourite Clint Dempsey is still terribly effective.
15 - West Bromwich Albion - Despite Odemwingie and Chris Brunt, a season in decline. Too many teams are worse, but many more are better. Boing ?
16 - QPR - The good: Adel Taraabt, new passionate and rich owners, Neil Warnock, strong home form. The bad: lightweight squad, no wingers, Neil Warnock.
17 - Wigan - Another near escape but only because of some heroic defending late in the season. No team can be so abject against the big boys and still retain Premiership status.
18 - Norwich - Too little quality and too much pressure. Paul Lambert is a talented manager but his squad, sadly are not. Consecutive promotions have come too early.
19 - Blackburn - Comedic owners, an underwhelming manager and a poor squad can only go south for the summer. Morten Gamst Pederson can only win so many games.
20 - Swansea - Excellent at home with the ball at their feet, they learn the hard way that the Arsenal approach is ineffective in England, especially when the replicas are inferior.
Still to come, The Premiership meet and greet.