5 teams look set to fight for the place to play in Europe’s biggest competition. Jay Redford has a closer look at each teams chances.
They've had their critics early on this season but you'd have to be a very brave person to say that United will fail to finish within the top 4 this season. With a new formation that consists of Rooney playing behind the lead striker, which will no doubt be van Persie, things are bound to take time to adapt. Like every team that goes through a change in tactics, time is vital. Unfortunately performances dont seem to be up to the high standard Ferguson is expecting. With a poor opening against Everton and a surprising loss at home to Tottenham, there are some problems in this new team. With 3 new singings looking towards the future in Shinji Kagawa, Nick Powell and Alex Buttner there is also the question of in-experience. However a certain Alan Hanson once said 'You can't win nothing with kids' and look how well that statement turned out.
Then there is the question of the older players in the squad such as Scholes, Evra, Vidic, Ferdinand and Giggs. Is Ferguson relying on these veterans too much? Yes, there is a balance of playing youth and senior players together but if the equilibrium is upset the effects can be catastrophic. Only a fool would argue that Scholes is not a world class midfielder. His abilty to dictate the tempo of a game so effortlessly is second to none but what certain people fail to realise is that Scholes is now 37 now, he can not play week in week out at the high level he sets upon himself. The exact same can be said about Giggs who has adapted to a similar role. Looking at the defence, Vidic, when fit can easily keep the best strikers in the league quite for 90 minutes, hands down. However the problem with that is that Vidic has become severly injury prone during the last 2 years and has missed much game time. He is no longer reliable to count on for first team duties.
Even after looking at the problems within United right now, what you can absolutely count on is the manager. Alex Ferguson undoubtedly knows what to expect along the course of the league campaign and will be prepared for almost all scenarios. Counting that and the talent the squad consists off, finishing in the top 4 should be a dead set.
Now looking at United's noisy neighbours, last season was one that will be extremely tough to live up to. With a crazy amount of money spent on deadline day, it does seem to say that City panic bought but Mancini has insisted thouroughly that the each deal will show its meaning as the season unfolds. There have been those who have said that once City got the pieces of winning together they'd become unstopable, and there have been those that have said once the league title has been won a few times the oil rich owners will up sticks and leave.
Personally I dont believe Mancini is the man who can emulate the sucess of Ferguson. His limited ability in European football doesn't seem to promising and his unwillingness to experiment away from home also doesn't fill City fans with much to admire. However having said that his abilty to rotate his squad wisely so that domestic performances come first is very good indeed. This was shown cleverly during his sides 3-0 win against Sunderland last weekend giving captain Vincent Kompany a needed rest for upcoming fixtures.
However one thing Mancini can not plan for is the effects of Mario Balotelli and Carlos Tevez. Balotelli on his day potentially shows signs of being a world class striker. This was shown during the Euros against Germany, single handedly putting his side into the final. But just when you think hes finally sorted his act out he will end up with a performance like the one against Arsenal last season, almost costing his side the title. Its from one extreme to another for Mario. Even with the enigmatic events of fiery Italian I firmly believe they too, like United, have enough quality throughout their side to finish in the top 4.
The past 2 starts to the season have been peroids of time many Arsenal fans will want to pass by quickly. With the depatures of Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie in consecutive years, critics have been quick to say Wenger can no longer keep the world class players he needs to win any silverware. Acompany that with a handful of uncharacteristic singings such as Park Cho Young and Sebastien Squillaci the overall outset doesn't look to great.
Yet even with the poor singings, Wenger still manages to unearth some pure brilliant talent amongst his squad. Mainly looking at the addition of Santi Cazorla. A player much overlooked in the Spainish national side and someone not greatly noticed during his time at Villereal and Malaga. Cazorla is the type of player Arsenal missed much last season. When you look at the Arsenal sides of the past they've always needed a key man to link up the play between the midfield and attack. This was demonstrated perfectly by Fabregas and Nasri in recent years (and on their day Rosicky and Arshavin). Now that Wenger has a player of that quality once again I strongly believe they will finish within the top 4.
Roberto Di Matteo's team last year achieved what many had thought impossible. A Champions League win. Albeit it was one that consisted of some very tough defensive football, but a trophy win is a trophy win. A flurry of big spending this summer shows the intentions are clear, Abramovich wants sustained sucess. With the famous diamond formation altered, now with a flat 3 behind the lone striker and 2 holding, this shows that Di Matteo isn't going to be coy with stamping his style on things. The biggest threat in this new look Chelsea team has to be the creative flair that will be shown by new boys Eden Hazard, Oscar, Marko Marin and Victor Mosses. Not forgetting Juan Mata and Ramires, the attacking side looks to be one of the best in the league.
Still even baring all that in mind the real problems inside this Chelsea team has got to be the 2 holding players. Frank Lampard is not a holding midfielder, he has always been more of a attacking player but with the new players in the side this position unfortunately looks set to be given to someone else. This only leaves John Obi Mikel and Oriel Romeu to fill in the position. Unless they can both dramatically change their standards of football then Chelsea are no doubt going to suffer in this area on the counter attack and against teams who control possession.
Andre Villas-Boas' style may not have boded well in his last team but the way he has settled in so easily and quickly has raised the question, why wasn't he hired sooner? Like most sides this year Spurs had a good intake of players that they so desperately needed. The permanent singing of Adebayor and the addition of Clint Dempsey surely will help find the back of the net this year. Also replacing Rafael van der Vaart with someone of equal standards was going to be tough, but by bringing in Moussa Dembele AVB seems to have all the pieces together to propel this side into the top 4.
But just like every team there is a weak spot, and no its not the quality of the players, the style of play or even the worry of ageing players. It simply lies with the manager. Unless AVB can keep on good terms with his entire squad, and create a relationship that suits both parties properly then there is no reason why this side can not challenge for Champions League football again. The reported falling out with French No 1 Hugo Lloris, after days of singing him does not show great man mangement skills. This was also a major factor in his demise at Chelsea.
Newcastle were the surprise package for many last season by showing fine consistent form all season long. Alan Pardew has shown perfectly how to get the best out of the players you have, and with the lethal strike force of Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse, there is no questioning Newcastle are within a shout of finishing in the Top 4. Performances from Hatem Ben Arfa and Yohan Cabaye will also be a vital if Pardew's men can show they are the real deal and not just one season wonders.
On the other hand with all the limelight on the striking options Newcastle possess, the problems at the back seem to be the issue. With ageing players such as captain Fabio Coloccini and Steven Taylor people have wondered if an investment is needed to strengthen this area. However due to the current ownership a transfer policy of 'buy cheap sell big' has been imposed which seems to paying off even if its at the expense of a well rounded team. If Pardew managed to raise the funds to buy a stronger defence, there would be no question of the abilty of this side to compete at a higher level.