As the new season draws ever closer, thoughts already begin to turn towards who will be in the running at both ends of the table come next May. Sir Alex Ferguson has already been made to field questions over who will be the strongest challengers this season, and he trotted out the same stock answer of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool… and Manchester City?
This is the same manager who for the past two seasons has written City off as title contenders, dismissed their plans for financial domination and described them as a, “small club with a small mentality.” Ouch.
So why the change of tune? Well, Sir Alex was unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of a defeat which has apparently ignited Mancini’s men, being the 1-0 semi-final defeat at Wembley in April. This enabled the Eastlands club to head back to London and win their first major trophy for 35 years, and Ferguson believes this is the spark that they needed to go on and challenge for more.
But is the Manchester United manager right to fear his (geographically) closest rivals?
Let’s look at last season. If ever there was a chance to usurp their trophy-laden rivals it would have been last year, with nobody running away with the title or even looking like they wanted to win it. In the end they finished 3rd, level on points with Chelsea but with an inferior goal difference, and 9 points behind Manchester United. So they achieved their goal of Champions League qualification. They picked up 43 points at home, winning 13 of their 19 matches, but only 28 away from the newly-christened Etihad Stadium, so maybe they need to improve their away form to close the gap to the top.
But the real area that they lost points last season was in matches against their title rivals. Out of a potential total of 18 they only picked up 5, two draws with Arsenal and United and a win over Chelsea. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side picked up 10 points in the same fixtures, suggesting that the difference between the two sides in these matches could be crucial. Were Manchester City able to improve in these fixtures this season, they could offer a real test to United’s ability to retain the title.
This season’s transfer targets have looked to address the issues in the squad from last season. The defence looked exposed and thin on the ground at times, and Mancini has brought in Stefan Savic to solve this problem. With Wayne Bridge looking to be heading out, Gael Clichy has been drafted in to provide competition for Aleksandar Kolarov, and so Mancini appears to have achieved his goal of having two quality players for every position.
The question still remains as to whether or not Carlos Tevez will remain in Manchester for the coming season following his failed return to Corinthians, so there is still potentially business to be done by Sheikh Mansour. Sergio Aguero’s name has been the most strongly-linked to replace his fellow countryman, and this would be a fairly like-for-like as transfers go. If Edin Dzeko can rediscover the form that made him so sought-after in January and Balotelli can continue to develop, the addition of Aguero would do nothing but strengthen an already impressive strike force.
Ferguson’s comments are cleverly timed with the Charity Shield Derby fast approaching, and he will hope his words will increase the pressure on Mancini’s men. But even if this is a case of mind-games, there is clearly truth in what he says. Manchester City will be contenders next season.
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