Have United’s rivals got what it takes to knock them off their perch?

With the new Premier League campaign lurking around the corner, the inevitable discussions as to where ones club will finish come May have begun, with the red half of Manchester sure to be confident that the league is once more theirs to lose. United won a record 19th league title last season, overtaking the previous 18 set by Liverpool in 1990. Since taking over in 1986 Ferguson has won 12 of the 19 titles at Old Trafford, and while Liverpool have gradually fallen away from the top of the league, the United boss has created team after team of league winners and will undoubtedly be looking to do the same again this season. United have already been installed as favourites to be crowned champions, but with fierce competition expected from the usual suspects of Chelsea and Arsenal, as well as Manchester City and a rejuvenated Liverpool looking to make their mark on the league, this season looks set to be one of the toughest and tightest for years.

United have been relatively busy in the transfer market so far, and have brought in the likes of Ashley Young, Phil Jones and David De Gea to strengthen the side. Speculation over the signing of Wesley Sneijder continues to dominate the headlines, with the retirement of Paul Scholes is expected to leave a void in the midfield that cannot be filled sufficiently by the current crop. Should the Dutchman complete a move to Old Trafford then this United side would certainly be more of a force to be reckoned with however, as they are, the strength of their midfield has rightly been brought into question. Whilst the likes of Carrick, Anderson, and Gibson can all fulfill a role at United, they are not the kind of players that are going to score and create goals in the way that Sneijder would, or that Scholes did.

Liverpool on the other hand have spent over £40m on midfielders, acquiring the services of Charlie Adam, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing. This season will certainly be an interesting one at Anfield, and should these signings replicate the kind of form they demonstrated last season, then Liverpool could well be pushing into the top four again come the end of May. Whilst a number of optimistic fans will be talking of bringing the league title back to Merseyside, I feel this Liverpool side may take some time to adjust, and do not look particularly convincing at the back. In four pre-season games, Dalglish’s side have conceded 12 goals and will need to eliminate such defensive frailties if they are to break in to the top four – winning the league however, is almost certainly a bridge to far this season.

Arsenal have now gone six years without a trophy, winning the league last back in 2004. Questions over Arsene Wenger’s reluctance to spend large sums in transfer windows have intensified since then, and his side seem to have adopted an unfortunate habit of spending much of the season competing for the top spot, only to finish in 3rd or 4th place come May. Again Wenger has failed to spend significant sums this summer, bringing in the Ivorian forward Gervinho when most fans would have liked to have seen a new centre half or goalkeeper at the club. Similarly to Liverpool, I feel the league is out of reach again for Arsenal, and it seems their season could rely upon the futures of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri – should the two leave the club and not be replace sufficiently then this Arsenal side could struggle to break in to the top four for the first time in years. Should they both stay, then again, we can expect them to be there or thereabouts for much of the season, but without improvements at the back, we can also expect Wenger’s side to falter at the final hurdle once more.

United’s biggest challenge may well come from the other side of Manchester, with Mancini’s side now a ‘top four’ club looking to improve on last seasons achievements. The signings of both Gael Clichy and Stefan Savic indicate Mancini’s desire to strengthen his defensive options, and the £38m capture of Sergio Aguero should take some of the goal scoring pressure off Carlos Tevez, though his future at the club is yet to be determined. City have built a squad over the last two years that have learned to play together, and though many disapprove of their playing style at times, it works. Having qualified for the Champions League, Mancini must find a balance between the league and European football and hope he can keep his key players fit for the best part of the season. Should City cope with the demands of European football, then I can see them mounting a genuine challenge for the league title, and what better incentive than to knock your arch rivals off of their perch at the top of the league.

Finally, we come to Chelsea, last year’s runners-up and United’s biggest challengers in recent seasons. The Blues new manager Andre Villas-Boas has promised attacking football at Stamford Bridge, and whilst Champions League glory is believed to be top of the agenda, we can certainly expect his side to be challenging for the league throughout the campaign. Chelsea have been quiet so far in the transfer window, having only brought in 19-year-old Oriol Romeu to bolster their midfield options up until now. The Blues have also made no secret of their desire to bring in Luka Modric from Spurs and should they do so, would boast one of the strongest midfields in the division. Villas-Boas’ biggest task will be to find a formation that suits both the midfield and his forwards, with Drogba, Anelka, Torres and now Sturridge all likely to be fighting for a place in the starting eleven. If Villas-Boas can get both his £50m Spaniard finding the net, and a partnership alongside Didier Drogba working, then this would certainly be a strike force to be reckoned with. However, it seems probable that a 4-3-3 formation will be favoured by the new boss, and so long as his forwards can find the net, competition for places up front can only be a positive dilemma to have. Chelsea will be looking to rectify the failures of last season and, similarly to City, will need to be careful to not focus too heavily on their European commitments. If they can, I think that once again the Blues will be favourites to give United a run for their money, and may well be crowned champions of England by the end of the season.