The Closest Title Race Yet


By Matthew Jones

THERE are several factors screaming out at me that say the 2013/14 season will be the closest title race in years.

Manchester United’s 20th English domestic title was a carnival parade – despite the fact that critics continue to weave the laughable yarn that the current squad is one of the worst in the Premier League era.

This season, however, I have a feeling things will be quite different.

After the dramatic final few minutes of the 2012/13 season, Manchester City stood still last summer in the transfer market and looked like they were running through quicksand for much of the season trying to keep pace with their cross city rivals. They cannot afford to do the same this year.

Chelsea bought well but were in a transitional period, with the stalwarts of the first Jose Mourinho era like John Terry and Frank Lampard decreasing in health, influence and importance.

It also didn’t help when the man who won them the Champions League was fired by owner Roman Abramovich, who then proceeded to replace fans favourite Roberto Di Matteo with a former manager of rivals Liverpool, with a reputation for deploying defensive and negative tactics. Fans were never going to claim Rafa Benitez as one of their own.

To be fair to the Spaniard, not that it mattered to the Stamford Bridge faithful, he won them the Europa League and they finished the season strongly, but the Russian billionaire shot himself in the foot right from the go when he revealed that Bentitez’s appointment was in a caretaker capacity, undermining his whole tenure as boss from the very beginning. Not very slick by the oligarch tycoon.

United will be up there challenging, but with the presence of Sir Alex Ferguson sure to cast a shadow over Old Trafford for some time, new manager David Moyes has a tough task ahead of him – to get United fans onside, to keep the trophy train on the tracks, and, what I think will be his toughest job, keeping the press pack from overpowering him as United fans sense they will be on his back and ready to pounce at any chink of weakness or after the first poor result.

Arsenal are set to spend this summer and I expect Tottenham Hotspur, Everton and Liverpool to improve too.

For Liverpool and Spurs, much will depend on whether they are able to or choose to keep hold of their aces in the pack. Gareth Bale is threatening to become the world’s new record signing after a glorious season personally, while reports that Luis Suarez wants to leave Anfield – coupled with his increasingly deteriorating image and playing ban that rules him out for the first six games of next season – are gathering pace.

The league will be tighter this year, of this I have no doubt.

United’s rivals will improve. I think we will too. It’s very early doors yet. Some moves have already been made in the transfer market but I expect it to really hot up once the window officially opens at the beginning of July, and there will be millions spent between now and the end of August.

While much is being made of the daunting task that awaits Moyes in Manchester, let’s not forget there have also been cataclysmic upheavals at two other top clubs.

When was the last time the managers at the teams who finished first, second and third the previous season from the top division in England were replaced?

With Mourinho returning to Chelsea, most critics seem to believe that success will follow just as easily as it did the first time he took over at Stamford Bridge nine years ago. Is that really a given?

Meanwhile, I believe new City boss Manuel Pellegrini’s task is the toughest of the lot. For all of the Sky Blues’ failings last season, Roberto Mancini had delivered success to the club in each of the seasons he had been there. It was not a complete disaster that they didn’t retain the title last season. Gloating City fans ridiculously believed that a first league title in 44 years all of a sudden wiped out the catalogue of success delivered under Fergie’s reign, that they had moved above United as the biggest team in Manchester, even in England.

The Sheikh billionaire’s decision over Mancini smacks of a lack of respect, patience and understanding. It fuels the belief that now, unless Pellegrini delivers the league title and the Champions League, he will be gone before he’s spent a year in the job.

City have the financial clout to go and buy pretty much whoever they want. If the battle for Robin van Persie’s signature had been down solely to money last summer, then there is no doubt that the Dutchman would have been plying his trade at the Etihad. He chose the footballing option though and had his heart set on United.

City have already been throwing their financial weight around this close season, shelling out an initial £15million pounds on Real Mallorca winger Jesús Navas and a mind-blowing £30m on Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder Fernandinho.

More money will surely be spent by the Blues, with Malaga’s Spain Under 21 star Isco reportedly set to follow Pellegrini to the UK.

Chelsea have been quiet so far but, like City, have almost limitless resources. They have been linked with big money moves for Napoli striker Edinson Cavani and Brazilian beast Hulk, among others.

Like City, Liverpool have been active early on, signing Kolo Toure on a free, while the arrivals of several more big money stars appear imminent.

Liverpool are said to be close to agreeing a £9m deal for Sunderland’s Belgium international keeper Simon Mignolet, while a £7m deal for Celta Vigo striker Iago Aspas just needs to be rubber-stamped after he was spotted at Anfield last week.

Porto’s Ghanaian winger Christian Atsu is the latest to attract the interest of Brendan Rodgers interest, with a cut-price £3m deal almost completed, and he is set to be joined by Luis Alberto and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who are both slated for medicals on Merseyside before the end of the week.

Arsenal are on the brink of a £25m deal for Real Madrid’s Argentine striker Gonzalo Higuain – a clear indication to Gunners fans that Arsène Wenger is finally prepared to spend big money to launch them back into the league’s elite core of teams, while the Frenchman has also promised to spend further sums to achieve a first trophy in eight years for the Londoners.

North London rivals Spurs will probably spend the majority of the transfer window trying to keep hold of red hot Welshman Bale, who is attracting interest from Real Madrid and United. Spurs failed to gain a coveted Champions League spot for next season, but if they can persuade the devastating Welshman to stay at White Hart Lane for another season and build a team around him – with the likes of strikers Leandro Damiao, Christian Benteke, David Villa and Roberto Soldado allegedly being pursued, as well as Brazilian pair Paulinho and Bernard – then Spurs will be pushing harder than ever for a spot in the top four next season. Not many people give Spurs a chance of keeping Bale, and if they don’t then they could struggle next year, but if the unthinkable happens and he stays, then they will be a major force.

I can’t help but feel that Bale is key to all the top drawer transfer deals this summer. If he goes to Madrid, that would make it more likely that Los Blancos would be willing to enter into negotiations to sell Ronaldo back to United, although I personally feel we are more likely to bring the Portuguese superstar home at the end of his current contract, providing he doesn’t sign a new one.

If Ronaldo doesn’t prove a viable option, United manager Moyes might be tempted to test the waters with Spurs in relation to bringing Bale to Old Trafford. This too seems unlikely as Bale will demand a figure close to £80m.

There’s money to spend for Moyes but not stupid money (probably around £60m). Rumours abound that a deal for Spain Under 21 star Thiago Alcantara, who is frustrated at being kept in the shadows at Barcelona by Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi, is close, while Dutch box to box midfielder Kevin Strootman is also being carefully considered. Moyes might make a trip back to Goodison Park to make a bid for left back Leighton Baines and, with the promising careers of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling being stunted due to injuries, plus the increased need to manage the fitness and playing regimes of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, a move for a proven central defender has been talked about. With a young, talented, emerging squad at Old Trafford, I would deem three signings of this ilk a satisfactory summer for the Reds.

So whether United choose to bolster their midfield and defence, or go all out for a marquee signing of Bale or Ronaldo’s quality, they will want to push on to give Moyes the platform from which to launch a title bid in his first season in the Old Trafford hot seat.

Simply put, City and Arsenal must improve. Arsenal fans are inpatient and this could feasibly be Wenger’s final season, while City will push the panic (pounds) button after a forgetful campaign.

Chelsea, like United, have a young squad simmering nicely, while the addition of a few mouthwatering ingredients, plus Mourinho’s return, could see them come to the boil in 2013/14.

Liverpool have put down an early marker with their spending, but their progress will depend heavily on the movement of Suarez. Similarly, Bale’s decision to stick or twist will be vital for Spurs’ chances of breaking into the top four, with the top three mould (United/City/Chelsea) for me even more difficult to break.

So here’s to the new season. A season of change. A season of spending. A season of excitement. It cannot come quick enough. And it’s just over 50 days away.

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  1. On what basis can the price of £80 million for Bale be staed as if it were fact? Levy has said that Bale is not for sale in this window and has put NO price on him as not for sale is fairly self-explanatory. If you believe that evy will,in any case, to United or any other Premier League club, you are very short sighted or have poor memory retention. Modric was NOT sold to Chelsea and Levy likes United and their “tactics” with Berbatov even less. So a little misleading and begs the question Bob Hope or no hop? Delusion or denial?

  2. You sir are an idiot. Ever think of doing some research and finding out facts before writing crap? “Not many people give spurs a chance of keeping Bale” and “if the unthinkable happens and he stays”. Levy and AVB have VERY CLEARLY stated, publicly that Bale is NOT FOR SALE AT ANY PRICE. There are also many reasons to believe that Bale would not want to leave spurs at this time and the final decision is bale’s anyway. If he says he’s staying there is nothing more to say or do by anybody.

  3. KennyCoutinho on

    Hey Spurs fans – calm down calm down!! To be fair, this is probably one of the most level-headed and reasonable posts I’ve ever read on a Man Utd fan site. It’s not like the writer has even slated you or anything. He actually gives you credit for being a potential threat next season – with or without Bale.
    The fact is that there has been a lot of speculation surrounding Bale’s future. Real MAdrid appear to have made him their number one target – even withholding the number 11 short for him. Levy and AVB can come out and say that he’s not for sale all they like, just as Liverpool and Rodgers can say Suarez is going nowhere. End of the day though, the players themselves will do what they want. If they want to go, they will go.
    The 80 million figure being bandied around is based purely on the Ronaldo transfer fee. You’ll be lucky to get that, but if you do then it’s surely a pretty decent bit of business and an opportunity to plug the holes in your squad. Getting annoyed because your star player is being touted as the most valuable player in world football is just plain ridiculous! Saying all that though – I’d be gobsmacked if he went to a premier league club. Simply not going to happen.

  4. KennyCoutinho on

    One player that you haven’t mentioned in this piece is Wayne Rooney. I read earlier that he’s handed in a transfer request. Any truth in that, or just more silly season fiction?

  5. Matthew Jones on

    confused – In no way am I stating £80m for Bale as fact. This is just the sort of price, in today’s inflated market, that most papers have bandied around when describing his possible transfer. He is not in the same price bracket as Ronaldo but I think if someone can tempt him away from Spurs and Daniel Levy, then this would be the sort of figure he would go for. I don’t think we would/could pay that for him but I’m sure Real would find the funds to do so.

    If you’re saying that Levy/the club simply stating that Bale is not for sale as ‘self-explanatory’ is the end of the matter, I think it’s you that’s short sighted. Levy may not like United’s tactics yet he still sold us Carrick and Berbatov and I’m sure the money we paid for both helped him sleep a little easier at night. Football fans should know that despite what a club/agent/player/manager says, money talks.

    I seem to remember ‘player won’t be sold at any price’ was the statement regurgitated by Sir Alex and Utd over the Ronaldo saga, with Fergie quite clearly stating ‘I wouldn’t sell that mob (Madrid) a virus’. Perhaps Bale is happy at Spurs, but the club not qualifying for the Champions League will be a factor in the future, perhaps not this season, but I can’t see him staying if you fail to make the competition again next season. Again, maybe I need to point out that this is what I think.

    Spurs Fan – Much of the above applies to you. It’s all well and good being a keyboard warrior and insulting me on here but the article is not intended to be a totally fact-based story. It’s an opinion piece I’ve been asked to write. The nationals print stuff about Bale leaving on a daily basis, which you have to take with a pinch of salt. My article is an account of my thoughts on the situation. And the fact is that Spurs’ failure to reach the Champions League WILL have an impact on Gareth Bale’s future at the club.

    Maybe he’ll stay this season but with Chelsea/City/United clearly the three superior sides in the Premier League (please feel free to argue this and back your beliefs up), I think realistically that fourth place only is up for grabs next year (unless Spurs/Everton/Arsenal/Liverpool have a stupendous spree in the market and hold onto their key players and one of the top three have a catastrophic 2013/14).

    But if Spurs again don’t get the CL this season then it will be crazy or a wonderful show of passion/dedication/commitment from Bale to stay at White Hart Lane beyond this season. Bale was immense last season and for all the critics who thought Utd were a one man team with Robin van Persie around, then that is ever more true of Spurs.

    You may not like my piece and your choice to criticise it is fine. When people talked about Ronaldo leaving Utd it upset me. But you cannot hide from the fact that there is a real possibility that Bale could leave this summer. He’s too good to be playing in the Europa League and in a team only good enough to contest a top four Premier League place. If Spurs and AVB spend to give him adequate support for next season, then I can see Spurs pushing higher, perhaps even mount a title challenge. But they can only do that with Bale plus help.

    KennyCoutinho – Fergie told Sky Rooney had handed in a transfer request but Rooney, despite not wanting to rock the boat with Utd fans or speak ill of Fergie, has denied this.

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