Circus back in town as Fergie set for classic
The circus is back in town, bigger and brasher than ever, full of thrills, skills, tumbling acts and more than a few clowns.
As football storms back into life around England in the Football League, the Big Top of Wembley hosts the Community Shield, this year so much more than a line-learning dress rehearsal for the Premier League.
Manchester City versus Manchester United tomorrow is a full-on, self-contained drama. The game has edge, the significance etched in numerous sub-plots.
Will United silence their 'Noisy Neighbours'? Will Wayne Rooney maintain his terrific pre-season form? Will Ashley Young's vibrancy worry Nani?
Will Sergio Aguero rise from the City bench to test Rio Ferdinand? Will City miss the absent Carlos Tevez, a sign of things to come?
So many areas of intrigue. Will United's youngsters such as Phil Jones demonstrate the depth of Alex Ferguson's replenished squad?
Can David de Gea deal with the pushing and shoving at corners? Will City hint at a more expansive strategy required to win the Premier League?
Will Mario Balotelli struggle with the parking/the weather/the grass/the no-showboating order/the bib?
After this summer of sagas, of Cesc Fabregas and Barcelona, Luka Modric and Chelsea, Joey Barton and George Orwell, the English football nation will raise a glass or three to the sight of footballers chasing a ball rather than new deals. For all that the Premier League has morphed into a colossally successful brand and business, it must never forget that it is also a sport and a brilliantly entertaining one at times.
Ferguson argued as much yesterday. Sitting in his Carrington retreat, plotting another campaign, United's manager predicted a classic season in prospect, a reminder that English football is box-to-box-office.
He began by mentioning the Champions League quartet, United, Chelsea, City and Arsenal, with four soon becoming six.
"Considering the increasing competition with Liverpool expected to be better next season and Tottenham, who haven't done any buying this summer which is surprising, you expect it to be a really tough league,'' reflected Ferguson.
"You are looking at the top six fighting for the top four. That can only add to the excitement of the Premier League, which is the best product in the game now for excitement.
"In every ground in Germany all the season tickets are taken up, which creates fantastic excitement. But in the Premier League, with United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea, there's full houses every week, and we are the best product. To win the league in England is very difficult.''
Ferguson is so driven by keeping the title trophy at Old Trafford that he has already calculated his route to Shangri La. "Eighty-four points will win the league next year," he said. "Definitely."
His champions are favourites, deservedly so. Even if City repeat their FA Cup semi-final success over United in such august surroundings, United look far readier for the long haul of the season.Ferguson has bought well and bought early, allowing recruits such as Young in particular to bed in.
The United manager dismissed suggestions that he had told a female French journalist in midweek that Dimitar Berbatov could leave for Paris Saint Germain.
"I couldn't understand what she was asking. I thought she was asking about our chances for the season. There's absolutely no interest or encouragement from us, either," he insisted.
Over in the City corner, Roberto Mancini declared that Manchester United remain "five yards" ahead of his own club and nine players better off.
Mancini, who is impatient to see his board cede more power to him in the transfer market, repeatedly stated that, without two or three more players for the new campaign, City can forget the title. "Look at United: they have 29 senior players; we have about 20," he declared. Mancini was actually exaggerating United's advantage -- City in fact have 24 players when those he wants to offload are factored out.
But City's struggle to move on the unwelcome members of Mancini's inheritance has left them with a frantic 25 days until the transfer window closes, and other clubs' awareness of their eagerness to get rid means many prospective buyers will bide their time.
The manager is also lobbying his board to cast aside doubts and allow him to swap Carlos Tevez for Internazionale's Samuel Eto'o.
Mancini insisted that he was "not frustrated" that Ferguson had been able to spend £50m on three internationals, Phil Jones, Ashley Young and David de Gea, while he has brought in a left-back (the £7m Gael Clichy) and a £6m unproven central defender (Stefan Savic) as well as £38m Aguero.
But the City manager, who warned back in May that he wanted all the club's transfer business tied up in 40 days, looked the more unsettled of tomorrow's two managers.
Mancini refused to discuss Samir Nasri but admitted that City are looking at talents of that substance.
"We need a good list of players because when you are playing in the Champions League for the first time it is very hard.
"You need to change five, six or even seven players after a Champions League game. Tottenham struggled with this problem last season."
Mancini's body language spoke of a polite weariness over the Tevez debate. "I spoke to Carlos four days ago because his telephone is working again. He told me he would come back on Monday.''
The Argentinian has again been strongly linked with a move to Inter Milan. As for Balotelli, "he is 100pc certain to stay,'' said Mancini.
"I don't think it (the city) is terrible; in my opinion it's good here. And he plays for City, a top team. This is the best championship in Europe and should be a fantastic experience for us.
"At the moment United are on top because they're a strong team. They won the last Premier League and bought good players.
"Young is a good striker, works for the team. Jones is young but a good defender. De Gea is a fantastic keeper. We are very close but United are five yards more than us.''
Inevitably, City will be a more cohesive force since being bonded by that first trophy.
Ferguson understood. "We experienced that in '93 when we won the league for the first time and the door opened for us to a big extent (by the Cup in 1990),'' said United's manager. "It was the start for us."
City want to follow a similar path. Let the circus reopen and the drama begin. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Manchester Utd v Manchester City, Live, Sky Sports 1, tomorrow, 2.30