Sunday, August 14, 2011

Red-hot favourites raring to go: United looking to capitalise on rivals' early setbacks..

Latest odds: WBA v Manchester United

Manchester United start their league campaign later this afternoon afternoon at the Hawthorns. The champions saw rivals' Liverpool and Arsenal drop points at Anfield and St James Park, with both games ending in stalemate. Liverpool's pre-season optimism following Dalglish's £50m spending spree will no doubt have been tempered, and worryingly perhaps for their supporters, Sunderland looked stronger in the second forty five minutes. For their part, Arsenal are mired in problems with players looking to leave the club and their supporters will be hoping Wenger has a few aces up his sleeve.

The real challenge for United's title crown is expected to come from Manchester City and Chelsea; realistically, Arsenal and Liverpool will be scrapping for a Champions League spot and no more than that.

A cursory glance at United's fixtures makes for very interesting reading, because the champions will have played all of the big guns before the end of October, with the trip to Liverpool being the only away game. Apart from the derby at Eastlands in April for once, the run-in doesn't look too difficult. No wonder United are red-hot favourites to make it League title number 20.

No one connected with United is suggesting the coming season is going to be easy - it never is, but many of the expert pundits have tipped Ferguson and his team to come out on top again.

It has been a strange summer in many ways, with Scholes retiring and having lost the Champions League final when coming very much second best again to Barca, because fans and pundits alike have been voicing concerns about United's engine room.

United have been trying to broker a deal to sign Wesley Sneijder who is viewed as the answer to the problems in midfield and that deal could still happen with over two weeks remaining in the summer transfer window. However, following that dramatic comeback against Man City at Wembley in the Community Shield, all of a sudden some supporters are suggesting the club doesn't actually need Wesley Sneijder.

The confidence among the fans' is understandable given the emergence of Tom Cleverley, who was the catalyst for that revival in the Wembley derby last weekend. Whether that confidence is misplaced only time will tell.

What is beyond any doubt is that Cleverley gives the manager a different option in midfield. United's preferred formation has pretty much always been 4-4-2, but to be successful and against really strong opposition, with this formation you need two top quality all round central midfield players. At one time Ferguson could call upon Keane and Scholes, or Keane and Ince before them we had Bryan Robson.

These days we have Carrick and Fletcher, both have their critics - no serious commentator would suggest that either are complete midfield players. And so while many pundits are tipping United to retain the title few will be backing Ferguson to win the Champions League, because the all too obvious problems in midfield exposed by Barcelona are still very much apparent.

But in Cleverley, Ferguson at last has a player who has an excellent short-range passing game. Cleverley, is more adventurous around the opposition penalty area; as we saw against City, he will drive on into the box instead of looking to pass sideways. Cleverley might well provide part of the midfield solution.

Without doubt, United are stronger at the back following the signing of Phil Jones who is not that dissimilar to John Terry in his style of play and of course Chris Smalling has been a revelation since his move from Fulham. Despite allowing Wes Brown and John O'Shea to leave to join Sunderland, Ferguson's defensive options look stronger than at any other time in recent history.

The only real concern is new goalkeeper David de Gea who had an absolute nightmare at Wembley in the Community Shield. De Gea doesn't look strong when high-balls are being pumped into the penalty area and then there's that worrying stat - he conceded the most goals scored from outside the box in La Liga last season.

Any mistakes again today against the Baggies could lead to the beginning of a crisis of confidence and so it is vital that there's no more errors from the young Spanish goalkeeper.

As Ben Foster and a string of former United goalkeepers will attest, you don't have the luxury of time to prove your worth if you repeatedly get caught out and make mistakes.

United's striker options have been bolstered with the addition of Danny Welbeck and Frederico Macheda. Both were loaned out to Sunderland and Sampdoria respectively last season, but for now at least, Ferguson says they will be staying put.

The champions do look strong in pretty much every department so on the domestic front, there's every reason to be optmitic about the challenges ahead.

United will be looking to take three points from today's visit to West Brom but there will be no place in the starting line-up for Javier Hernandez who is still recovering from concussion. Danny Welbeck, Michael Carrick and Patrice Evra are rated as doubtful. Darren Fletcher misses the trip to the Hawthorns after recovering from a mystery virus, but he is set to play 45 minutes for the reserves on Monday.

Latest odds: WBA v Manchester United la

Soccerlens Manchester United season preview

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