Gary Neville: 'Mourinho usually wins when he has to deliver'
Chelsea boss now has the power he needs to wrestle Premier League title away from City
Gary Neville's belief that "power and strength" are essential to Premier League title-winners points him towards Chelsea as this season's likely champions. So does his belief that Jose Mourinho will make the difference:
"This year, he knows he has to deliver it – and he's a dangerous man. He usually wins when he has to," he said.
England coach and pundit for Sky Sports Neville is preparing to dissect another enticing campaign in which managerial talent will be to the fore. The decisions of Mourinho, Louis van Gaal, Brendan Rodgers, Arsene Wenger and Manuel Pellegrini will be scrutinised with forensic intent by a commentary team that sometimes leaves Neville feeling isolated as a former Manchester United man surrounded by Liverpool legends.
"Post-football, your morals go out of the window. You'll mix with anybody," he laughs.
"I remember one week it was me, Jamie Redknapp, Jamie Carragher and Graeme Souness for a Champions League game, and I'm thinking – have I been sent to hell here? This is my payback for 15-20 years of battering Liverpool."
Neville has set about television and written analysis the way he went after left-sided opponents in his crimson No 2 shirt. As a student of Alex Ferguson, he admires strength as well as skill, which is why Chelsea strike him as title picks.
He says: "If you look at Courtois, Cech, Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Matic, Willian, Hazard, Costa, Fabregas, they're going to take some stopping. They're my tips for the league.
"Last year, Mourinho was trying to pinch a league and probably should have done better with the points they dropped. The additions of Costa and Drogba as an understudy who might play 15 matches are important. They really struggled up front last season. Torres, Eto'o and Ba fell short of what's required at the highest level and it cost them. The rest of the team didn't look too bad."
A depressing summer with England remains off-limits because Roy Hodgson has yet to give an interview on the World Cup and Neville thinks it would be wrong for a coach to talk before the manager. Good diplomacy. But on club football he skips through the main runners, spotting weaknesses and strengths with a mind that never sleeps.
First: How is he going to square the usual Premier League hoopla with the reality that Spain is now home to Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos?
"Real Madrid and Barcelona are the two clubs who seem to have a magic about them," he admits. "I always say if United and Liverpool had sunshine – if Manchester and Liverpool were 32C on a November Tuesday – they'd all be here.
"Of course they're great football clubs, but I do believe the lifestyle and culture play a big part in South American and Latin American players' choices. So if you're a Portuguese or a Brazilian or an Argentinian you're going to want Barcelona or Real Madrid."
Not discouraged, he goes on: "It's the most watched league in the world. How do you judge the best league? Is it what the fans enjoy the most, or the best football? You've got to judge it on whether the fans – the customers – want to watch it more. That's surely the measure.
"The quality of football in Spain is better. The quality of football in parts of Germany is better. But in terms of what people want to watch, you'll always want to watch an English football match. It's fantastic.
"Relentless. The Premier League will never disappoint. It gives you great games consistently.
"People who come to England are massively respectful. You speak to Wenger or Benitez or Mourinho; I'm sure Van Gaal will say the same. I saw him say that he'd been at Barcelona and Bayern Munich but had never experienced a pre-season like this. So we shouldn't be too down on ourselves."
An unlikely recruit to punditry, given his grumpy image as a player, Neville has raised the bar on technical analysis. His knowledge is backed up by a sharp eye for trends. Consider this, for example, on Arsenal: "They need more. I think it's really difficult to win the league without power and strength. I look at English football and think – when it comes down to it, there are big games when you power through opponents. Drive through them.
"Yaya Toure is a championship player. Vincent Kompany is a championship player. To me, those types of players drive you through to league titles.
"I just wonder with Arsenal if they're going to have to dilute some of their principles in terms of the type of player they sign – unless you can find a Vieira, who can do both jobs equally well; who can pass and be a powerhouse.
"The football with Arsenal is the best in the league, in terms of their possession of the ball, their intricacy. But you can't win the league in England playing that way. We've got to the point where pure football has been on the verge of winning the league, but we saw with Liverpool last year – they were fantastic football-wise, but defensively it cost them. If you haven't got strength and power in defensive midfield and defence and a good goalkeeper you're going to struggle to win the league. I think that's what will let Arsenal down."
Or this, on Manchester City: "They've had the lesson from it (winning in 2011-12). They climbed the mountain last time, sighed and said – we did it.
"Are they going to do that again? That's the big question with City.
"They were aggressive in the transfer market last summer. They're not as aggressive this summer, though there's time yet. I thought they might have done more already to refresh things. They haven't. This wonderful academy they're building will be one of the best in the world. They have Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain, the two lads who were at Barcelona (in executive roles), and have a blueprint to bring young players though. You just wonder whether this is the year when they start to introduce a few home-grown players, if they've got any.
"For City, the challenge has to be retaining the Premier League title. Can they go again? They can't drop off like last time. Definitely, last time it was a case of – we've done it. It's a mentality thing, to go again and again and again."
With Carragher his new Monday Night Football accomplice, Neville could hardly be deaf to Liverpool's claims: "I've looked at Liverpool and thought: he's doing two things, Brendan Rodgers. He's beefing up his squad, which he has to do because he's going on all fronts.
"His squad last year was 12 or 13 players, then it fell off the edge of a cliff in terms of quality. So he needs to get the general quality up to 16, 17, 18 players.
"He's part doing that and he's part trying to replace Suarez.
"What Tottenham tried to do (when replacing Bale) was bring those five or six players in and stick them all in at the start, whereas Liverpool have a settled 10. Rodgers may have looked at Tottenham last year and thought – 'I'll maybe bed one or two of them in, but with the rest I'll phase them in, in FA or League Cups, or the easier league games'.
"He's got to fight on two fronts. For Liverpool this season, top four and the knockout rounds of the Champions League would be success. They'll have their work cut out.
"I know people will be saying, 'Oh he's signed six or seven players, he's spent big money, he should be looking for the championship', but I didn't see that at all. There'll be two or three teams stronger than Liverpool this season. I'm not being patronising. I thought it was an incredible achievement to finish second last year."
Punditry, meanwhile, surges into an age when viewers are watching games on "two screens" – a TV and a social media outlet.
"Pundits are looking at things as coaches now," Neville says.
"A few years ago, I felt they were skirting around the edges. Now, it's almost a post-match debrief, with players, rather than punditry. A lot of the things I'm seeing are as if we're in the dressing room. Five or six years ago, you were looking at a great goal and how he struck it. Nice stuff, but it wasn't the detail. The fans want detail now.
"So we'll spend five minutes on a corner, or one goal, rather than five minutes on five goals. That suits me down to the ground because I want to get into the detail and understand why something's happened.
"I wanted to watch different football teams, learn different football styles. I'd only ever watched Manchester United and I wanted to watch every other team. Different systems, different players. Learn about football again. Start again.
"If you had said to me at 33, 34, do I want to be a pundit – do I want to go on television and speak about football? No. No. Did I want to be a manager?
"I knew I definitely didn't want to do that straight away. I'd looked at people for the previous 10 years and thought – everyone finds it really difficult when they go straight from being a player to a manager. There's the odd exception, but 95pc find it tough. I thought – it's like being a pupil and leaving to become a teacher at the age of 17.
"Then, a year after I finished, Roy rang, and I thought – that's something I can't turn down. One, it wasn't as if I'd been shoehorned into the job.
"He'd selected me. And it was with England. I have a fascination with England, a love of England, and I desperately want them to do well. Even if I felt it was a bit early, I couldn't look back in 15 years and think – I turned down becoming an England coach because it was a little bit early," he adds.
However great England are in his heart they could hardly eclipse United in his affections. What would success look like for the new man?
"Van Gaal is talking about winning the league because he has to. I don't think they can win the league unless they add two or three players quickly," Neville says.
"Third would be a good achievement. Second would be a fantastic achievement. First, and they'd be putting a statue of Van Gaal up at Old Trafford.
"Getting the feelgood factor back, and the way they play, would be success.
"The year after – they have to win the league. No doubt. Manchester United can't suddenly, after winning the league so many times, get into thinking that just reaching the Champions League is success, which some clubs seem to do.
"I think this season is about him embedding his principles and it will help him not having European games in midweek because he'll get out there and coach and drum that system into them.
"I know he said it would have been easier to take over from Alex, but I think he said that tongue in cheek. I think he's quite comfortable, sat where he is, with expectations a little lower."
Expectations for this season, though, are skyscraper-high, and as readers will discover, no one will be pushing himself harder than G Neville, the new Everyman of English football.
(©Daily Telegraph, London)