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.
Share your thoughts with the Stretford End Arising forum HERE.