Premier League race is on to catch Manchester City high fliers


There are curmudgeons for whom the football season always comes too early, and their mood will not be improved by a new one arriving in England this week hard on the heels of an Olympic Games in which the sport was more prominent than usual, itself preceded by a European Championship. In fact, the world’s most popular game never went away, even in Europe; Spain demolished Italy in Kiev on the first day of July to round off one season and Champions’ League qualifying matches began two days later.

It is equally true and quite proper that the levels of sportsmanship and dignity shown – for the most part – at the Olympics place a new responsibility on football, whose customary excesses will strike a more jarring note than ever and will consequently be highlighted across the media.

The best possible introduction to today’s Community Shield match and next weekend’s full league programme would be repeated showings of the final few minutes of last season’s Premier League; the thrilling climax in which Manchester United thought they had retained their title, only for their neighbours to snatch it away in comic-book fashion by scoring two goals at the death. So at Villa Park this afternoon it is Manchester City, champions for the first time since 1968, who will take on Chelsea, European champions for the first time ever after an almost equally improbable finish to their own campaign when Didier Drogba’s last kick for the club beat Bayern Munich in a penalty shoot-out.

Drogba has now joined Nicolas Anelka in China and Chelsea have spent some £65million (so far) revamping their squad. Unexpectedly, and to the annoyance of Roberto Mancini, City have not bought anyone. That will surely change in the remaining 19 days of the transfer window, although the manager appears resigned to missing out on Robin van Persie. Mancini rather undermines his own case for strengthening, however, when he says there is no room for Emmanuel Adebayor among his clutch of strikers. «He has no chance of playing this year. It’s important for him he finds a good solution as he scored a lot of goals last year. But I have confidence in our strikers, we scored 90 goals last year.»

It is presumably in other areas that he would like more back-up, insisting that without them United are favourites to regain the title. «Fergie [Sir Alex Ferguson] said we can change history in two years. This is impossible. Maybe we can move but to change history we need more time. United will be fighting because they are used to winning every year over the last 25 years.»

They will be fighting even harder if they can secure Van Persie, whose affection for Arsenal after eight years does not extend to signing a new contract but means he would rather play abroad than for either Manchester club. United still hope to convince him otherwise, for their own recruitment has been modest so far – the Japanese midfielder Shinji Kagawa from Borussia Dortmund and one for the future in Crewe’s talented Nick Powell. Used to the pace and power of Bundesliga football, Kagawa should settle in England more quickly than some imports. Chelsea’s Eden Hazard (£32m from Lille) and Oscar (£25m from Brazil’s Internacional) may take longer, Hazard having not yet shone in a pre-season period in which Chelsea have conceded 10 goals in five friendlies, winning just one.

Di Matteo says of the Champions League triumph that secured him the job, «It is part of the past, it is done and dusted now and we have to look forward to the future and forget about that. It is going to be difficult for us as everybody is probably going to raise their game.»

All in all, the old order seems unlikely to change, even if last season’s order is subject to minor adjustments. It is an extraordinary fact that at present Arsenal have spent more than twice as much as the two Manchester clubs combined, but it would be surprising if they did much more than cut the 19-point gap on the top two. If Van Persie were to stay, their attacking options would look impressive, but if he goes they will need Olivier Giroud (£13m) and Lukas Podoloski (£11m) to prove their worth quickly.

With Tottenham moving in the new direction that Andre Villas-Boas brings, and Newcastle probably having peaked in fifth place, Liverpool are more likely to be upwardly mobile. Eighth place and, worse, just 47 goals scored were recent lows and Brendan Rodgers should be able to improve on both as well as the playing style, even if, like Villas-Boas, he will be implanting what the latter calls a new «methodology».

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