Friday, August 15, 2008

Premiership Preview--1. Manchester United

The two-time defending champion of England and current champion of Europe experienced quite the drawn-out saga this summer, as there were times when it seemed certain that Cristiano Ronaldo, the most talented player in the world, would be leaving Old Trafford for Real Madrid. He stayed put, delaying his inevitable move to the club he supported as a boy for at least another season.

It would be unfair to say that Ronaldo single-handedly led United to their second European Double, but without the Portuguese winger on board, there's no way that the Red Devils would've accomplished the feat. He will miss the first month or so of the '08-'09 campaign while recovering from the ankle surgery he had done in early July, though, and we saw what happened in the first couple of weeks last season to United when they didn't have him or Wayne Rooney in the lineup: United looked extremely sluggish, and scoring goals became a difficult chore rather than a sure bet.

Sir Alex Ferguson hasn't addressed that yet this summer. He hasn't brought in any new faces, though the on-again, off-again speculation surrounding Dimitar Berbatov's move from Tottenham seems to be in full force right now. Berbatov would address United's biggest need -- a true striker who can play with his back to goal. Unlike Rooney and Carlos Tevez, Berbatov doesn't drop back into the midfield to collect the ball, he stays up front and gets himself in a position where he can do the most damage. Fraizer Campbell is back from his loan at Hull City, where he shined last season in the Championship. Campbell is nowhere near Berbatov's level, obviously, but has scored wherever he's been. He'll get a chance to play up front this year; Ferguson really likes this kid.

Ferguson lost his right-hand man in Carlos Queiroz, who left Manchester to become his native Portugal's senior national team head coach. The two men had established a great relationship over the years, both personal and professional, and Queiroz's absence will be felt. As I wrote earlier this summer, Queiroz is largely responsible for Ronaldo still playing for United and played a major role in landing Nani and Anderson, both of whom speak Portuguese, before last season.

As far as players go, United hasn't lost any of importance. Gerard Pique has plenty of potential and can play at center back and right back, but the Spanish youngster never seemed to settle in England. He went back home to play for Barcelona after some nervous performances last season in fill-in circumstances.

The Red Devils are undoubtedly strongest in midfield, where they have nine players for four or five spots, depending on the formation and importance of a given game. The wingers are interchangeable and shift from left to right. Ronaldo highlights this group, this team, and this league, and his fellow countryman, Nani, will be given a larger role opposite him this year. Nani is a "mini-Ronaldo" and will step right into Ronaldo's shoes if and when he does, in fact, leave for the Bernabeu. The vastly more experienced Ryan Giggs, who has appeared in over 750 competitive games in 18 seasons and counting with the club, will play an important, but reduced, part this season, likely used in the big Premiership and Champions League games. The same applies to Anderson and Paul Scholes, though Scholes does have more in the tank left than Giggs and will play more often than the Welshman. Anderson is the heir apparent to that position, ahead of Owen Hargreaves and Michael Carrick, the two solid holding midfielders. Darren Fletcher and John O'Shea are two of the most valuable utility players in the league. Park Ji-Sung has a tough time staying healthy but when he's fit, Ferguson plays him and he's another one of the manager's favorites.

Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-2):
GK: Edwin van der Sar

RB: Wes Brown
CB: Rio Ferdinand
CB: Nemanja Vidić
LB: Patrice Evra

*RMF: Nani
**DMF: Carrick
CMF: Scholes
*LMF: Giggs

ST: Rooney
ST: Tevez

Again, the two wingers will swap sides throughout the course of the game. With Ronaldo out, both Nani and Giggs will start. When Ronaldo comes back, one of those two will obviously sit.

**Hargreaves may miss the first week or two with a knee injury, so Carrick will step in. Last season, Ferguson seemed to interchange Carrick and Hargreaves with neither one really getting a long stretch at a time in the starting lineup. Both will play significant minutes this year.

United opened the new year last Sunday, beating Portsmouth in PK's to win their second consecutive Community Shield. The game itself is basically just a glorified exhibition, but it's still a trophy, and it symbolizes what we've been waiting for all summer: the start of another Premiership season.

Ferguson's side kicks off their domestic league slate on Sunday with a home date against Newcastle. The same game last year finished 6-0 to United, and their fans would like nothing more than a repeat of that performance.

It gets tougher after that, though -- United visits Portsmouth next weekend, never an easy place to play, plays Zenit St. Petersburg in the UEFA Super Cup, another glorified exhibition, in Monaco on the 29th, then come home less than 24 hours later to play Fulham.

A trip to Anfield to take on Liverpool on September 13 is the highlight of their early season schedule, and it's followed up by another difficult game at Chelsea. Those two will be United's main competitors in the Premiership this year, so it'll be interesting to see how those three stack up with each other.

The first Manchester derby of the year comes at City on November 30, a week after United will be challenged at Aston Villa. City won both games against their crosstown rivals last year, which is unacceptable for United and a historical rarity. Ferguson hates losing more than any other manager in the league, especially in those types of games, so you can count on him lighting a fire in his team to put in an impressive performance and get a victory.

Stepping back and examining this league schedule from a broader sense, it shapes up favorably for the champions. Cup competitions and their Champions League will complicate things, sure, but United doesn't have any strenuous run of domestic games. Granted, they don't have a particularly easy stretch either. They host Arsenal and City before finishing up the year at Hull City, and that's a microcosm of their year -- a couple tough games but a very easy one right after, or two easy ones with a tricky match in between.

Bottom Line: With Berbatov, United is a slam dunk to win the league for the third straight year. Without him, they're still the clear favorite. This team is better top-to-bottom than any other in the Premiership, in both their starting XI point of view and their full first team roster. The key is keeping Ronaldo and Rooney in the lineup -- they're vulnerable without one and beatable without both. Ronaldo isn't going to have as good of a season as he did last year; that would be impossible, so someone or a combination of players has to step up. If it's Nani, watch out, because it's scary how much raw talent this guy has.

And that's a wrap, my second annual Premiership Preview is now complete. The new year gets underway tomorrow, though Sunday's games should be more entertaining. It's been a pleasure to write these capsules, and whether you agree with them or not, I'm glad you've checked them out. I appreciate the feedback as always.

Let the season begin!