Monday, August 6, 2007

Premiership Preview--1. Manchester United

1. It'll be back-to-back Premiership titles for the world's most popular club side, Manchester United. A come-from-behind 4-2 road victory at Everton last April 28 sealed the deal for the Red Devils and they went on to win their 16th Premier League/old First Division crown. The rich only got richer this summer as big names like Owen Hargreaves and Carlos Tevez joined the ranks at Old Trafford, and the addition of supremely talented youngsters Anderson and Nani mean the future is bright in Manchester. The thing that separates Manchester United apart from every other club in England is that their past, present, and future all are intertwined and play vital roles on the team. The old guard, the guys who played in Manchester United's glory days in the late 1990's like Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, and Paul Scholes are all irreplaceable for the time being. Players who are there to help Manchester United win now, individuals such as Hargreaves, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick, Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic, Gabriel Heinze, John O'Shea, Darren Fletcher, and Mikael Silvestre also play varying roles of importance, with Ferdinand, Hargreaves, and Carrick obviously the players who have the bigger say in the success of the team. Then you've got the players of both the now and the future, the cornerstones of the team. Cristiano Ronaldo and 21-year old striker Wayne Rooney, as well as new signing Carlos Tevez, are world-class players right now, but players that will also be in Manchester for a long, long time. They're the type of players you build your team around, and Nani and Anderson are just a season or two away from stepping into the void that will be left by that old guard. Gerard Pique, a young Spanish defender, showed off his talents this summer at the U-21 World Cup and will turn out to be a good player for United if given the chance. Manchester United are loaded up and down their roster, and winning a second consecutive league title is more than possible for the Red Devils, especially with the best Premiership manager out there in Sir Alex Ferguson.

Ferguson and the new American chairmen Joel and Avram Glazer spent a lot of money this summer to bring in top-level talent. $46 million US was invested in three midfielders, Brazilian-born Anderson, who can play a variety of positions, the Portuguese winger Nani, and defensive-minded central midfielder Owen Hargreaves. Nani is very similar to fellow countryman Cristiano Ronaldo in his style of play. He can operate on either wing and would be the heir apparent to Ryan Giggs, who probably doesn't have more than two seasons left in him. Anderson is almost two years younger than Nani, and his versatility will pay dividends for United both this season and in the future. He's capable of playing on the left wing, as a central midfielder, behind the striker, and as an attacking left-back (think Roberto Carlos), though he probably will be used mainly in the midfield this season. Canadian-born Owen Hargreaves' presence will be important as well. Having him in the lineup will allow Michael Carrick or Paul Scholes, whoever is playing, to move forward. Scholes has never been known as a gifted tackler but has had to play more defensively in past years as United have never really had a true holding midfielder since he's been there. Having him go forward to show off his passing and shooting ability will be possible with Hargreaves on the field. Striker Carlos Tevez finally arrived after much controversy surrounding his agent, Kia Joorabchian, and his former club, West Ham. Combined with Wayne Rooney, these two make up a lethal combination of youth, pace, power, and scoring ability that can be matched only by Tottenham in the Premiership. Tevez will probably miss the start of the season as he'll need time to get fit and acclimate himself to the rest of the team, but when he gets into the lineup, watch out. Louis Saha will move back to his familiar role as 3rd-choice striker, and old veteran Ole Gunnar Solksjaer will also be used this season. Strikers Alan Smith and Giuseppe Rossi both left Old Trafford this summer, though Manchester United have a buy-back clause with Rossi that would allow them to bring him back if they so desire. Winger Kieran Richardson departed for Sunderland as his future with the club was in serious doubt when Nani was brought in. He'll play for former teammate Roy Keane at Sunderland, where he'll benefit immensely from more playing time.

August will be a tough month for United as not only do they have to travel to Portsmouth and host Tottenham, they play Manchester City (away) in the always hotly-contested Manchester derby. September 23 is their first meeting of the season with Chelsea; it's at Old Trafford and will be a must-watch game. What should be four easy wins follow that game before a trip to the Emirates to face Arsenal in early November. Another road game against a "Big Four" team comes against Liverpool on December 15, which begins a packed stretch of 4 games in 14 days. February brings Tottenham and Manchester City again, and the game of the season will take place on March 26 when United go to Stamford Bridge in a game that could decide the Premiership. Chelsea haven't lost a league game at home under Jose Mourinho and Manchester United will look to end that run when they visit West London.

Bottom Line: Though Manchester United will probably put a lion's share of focus on the Champions League, they should win the Premiership as well. A Double won't be out of the question (Champions League and Premier League), though Barcelona look to be the team to beat in Europe. They have, for my money, the world's best player in Cristiano Ronaldo and he'll lead the team again as he's coming off the PFA Player of the Year and PFA Young Player of the Year awards. The load on his shoulders will be considerably lightened with Tevez and Hargreaves coming in this summer, and the defense will do the job as well. Manchester United now boast the best midfield in the Premiership as well as one of the two best striking corps (United have better starters, Tottenham has more depth) in the league. This team has the makings of a Premiership champion all over it, but can they win the Champions League as well? Not if Chelsea and Barcelona have something to do with it.

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