Friday 24 November 2017

Money still shouts while most only dream of survival

The Manchester City factor adds some extra spice to the new season, writes Dion Fanning

Dion Fanning

A t West Ham United, they have been preparing their English footballers for re-acquaintance with their people. As part of their pre-season preparations, the coaching staff have been abusing Rob Green.

English football still knows its audience and the staff at the Boleyn Ground are ensuring Green is ready for the backlash from England fans unhappy with their side's performance in the World Cup and his mistake against the USA.

The beauty of the Premier League is that it allows those feelings to be compartmentalised. The league is able to distance itself from the England team because it has very little to do with them while harnessing some of the bile and frustration to add to the spectacle. So the England players will be booed for a few weeks before the next controversy gets played out until the tape is worn.

Last season provided an exciting title race but a poor standard of football. When English clubs failed to make the semi-finals of the Champions League, many were ready to announce, with some glee, that the Premier League was dying. This season will tell if they were right.

The World Cup suggested they were on to something. Dirk Kuyt was, arguably, the most impressive performer from the English league. Kuyt is the beta male's alpha male so his success may indicate that the stars have gone elsewhere, that English football is losing its ability to compete.

The league will be handicapped by the introduction of the home-grown quotas, even if they are in line with UEFA's regulations for the Champions League. Over time, the hope is it will improve the quality of the England team, even if there is no evidence to suggest it will. England failed to qualify for two World Cups in the 1970s when the league was full of Englishmen so the problems will not be so easily solved.

The inadequacies of the England players will be concealed by their foreign team-mates again this season. The idea that England's failings might temper some of the hysterical claims about the league is reasonable but probably won't last beyond September. The league is more open than it has been in some time and that drama will deflect attention.

There was a heart-warming show of support for Manchester United at Lansdowne Road on Wednesday night. Some seemed to think that an Irish crowd should immediately abandon their historical allegiance to Manchester United and support a collection of players brought together for one night, but there was no sense in that.

If Manchester United's fans had chosen to support their club ahead of the Ireland side, maybe there would have been grounds for complaint. Instead, a young crowd showed up to see their heroes, representatives of a club that has meant so much to Irish people for generations.

Afterwards, Alex Ferguson talked about how the game, following on from their US tour, had illustrated to his new signings how much the club means to people around the world.

Ireland has been as influenced by the globalisation of the Premier League as anyplace else and that is another reality from which nobody can hide. The response of the crowd on Wednesday night was no different to those in Malaysia or Durban when they get to see United. They aped the chants of Rooney they heard on television and they provided some sense of occasion for a night that was, in football terms, meaningless.

Ferguson believed it allowed a glimpse at the "romance of Manchester United" but there were other things to witness as well.

His cold-eyed stare when asked about Wayne Rooney's night out showed that the manager will manage as he always has no matter how long he continues in the job.

He has lasted long enough to make the stories about his retirement boring without anyone coming up with a good idea about who could fill the void. Jose Mourinho is unlikely to be available for two years and everybody else will represent a gamble. So Ferguson goes on, rebuilding, displaying the loyalty, this time to the Glazers, that he believes is the foundation on which he built the club.

Still he waits to spend the money from the Ronaldo sale and, still, in a depressed market, he can find no value.

United had less need than most of the big clubs to bring in players developed in England but they have Chris Smalling as cover at centre-back.

Ferguson's victory this summer was hanging on to Nemanja Vidic, who spent last week dismissing the notion he ever had any intention of leaving. It didn't seem that way for much of last season but with Rio Ferdinand's fitness uncertain, Vidic will have to provide leadership at the back. His retention at least offers United some security when there is uncertainty in so many areas of the side.

John O'Shea returns to offer cover in a number of positions but United need Paul Scholes to remain influential or hope that Michael Carrick can recover something of his form. With Owen Hargreaves again returning after further consultations abut his injury, United's midfield lacks all authority.

United know they have leadership in attack through Rooney. Ferguson might have dealt with his all-night drinking session privately but he will know that Rooney is the key to United, as he has been for so many seasons.

There is more encouraging back-up too in the form of Javier Hernandez. Chicarito has already suggested he may be a valuable signing while Michael Owen is, once more, talking up his own potential impact. He may have to display it somewhere else. If United turn to him, they are in trouble. Owen has developed a worrying habit of falling back on statistics to make his case.

"Before the injury I'd been part of the squad for 42 of the team's first 43 games," he said at Lansdowne Road. "That was pretty good going, but unfortunately the last dozen or so matches of the season that I missed where the ones that decided where the prizes went. Looking back, I was pretty pleased with the season. There were some great highs -- the Cup final obviously, the winning goal against Manchester City. There were some great moments and it was just fabulous to train with these players day in, day out."

Today's game against Chelsea at Wembley has no more significance than Wednesday night's. Owen's season was ended by the injury he picked up on the terrible Wembley pitch in the Carling Cup final. His presence is an indication that Manchester United aren't spending like they once did, but nobody is. Manchester City aren't even spending like Manchester City once did.

City are embarking on the most ambitious project in English football since Jack Walker turned Blackburn into title-winners.

When Roman Abramovich turned Chelsea into the only side that could compete with Alex Ferguson, he was doing it from a position of relative strength. Chelsea had just qualified for the Champions League and had been built up to some degree by Ken Bates.

Blackburn were in the old second division and Manchester City were beset with the problems of being Manchester City, a great and melancholy football club.

There could still be sadness and there may well be blood. City aren't messing around and while the probability is that their money will propel them into the top four this season, there is every danger they could fail spectacularly. Manchester City fans see the objections of others as simple jealousy, while some just view them as the new vulgarians. Each has a bit of truth.

City might dispute the wages that Yaya Toure is said to be paid but the club's problem is that agents believe it. City may still come to an arrangement with Inter and the representatives of the gifted Mario Balotelli but it will be a costly one.

The departure of Stephen Ireland and the arrival of James Milner is another bit of over-inflated business, even if Milner is a player who will provide an example and an industry that wasn't always present in Ireland. When Roberto Mancini says "we have to improve quickly", he is relinquishing whatever advantage City have in the transfer market. There is no need for City to care about that (if money is no object, why would they care if Milner is over-priced?) but they can't complain when others point it out.

They have lots of problems to solve this season. Shay Given should continue in goal when fit but he is not necessarily the type of 'keeper who is craved by modern coaches. Given fails to dominate his box and City have an outstanding alternative in Joe Hart.

The defence will improve thanks to the new signings and David Silva is an interesting purchase. Silva has the skill to excite crowds but he can drift out of games. City's urgency is such that they may not be able to wait for him.

Mancini survived when many expected he wouldn't so he will have to make the squad he has gathered play together. There will be no patience for anything else but City will knock the door down this season.

Arsenal have been very patient. The news that Cesc Fabregas is staying as Barcelona can't afford to buy him could be the making of their season. Fabregas was under-used by Spain in the World Cup and while he pines for a return to Barcelona, he is committed to Arsenal and is professional enough not to be distracted by the summer's stories.

In the summer soap opera, he has had to deal with a lot. When Carlos Puyol and Gerard Pique squeezed a Barcelona shirt over his head, Fabregas had to play the penitent. 'Fabregas pleads for Arsenal fans' forgiveness,' said one headline and there were probably Arsenal fans who asked themselves if they could show mercy. Fabregas's statement on Friday managed to assert his commitment without indulging in fanciful rhetoric.

Wenger, in some ways, has been reduced to that, making claims for his young side which, come March, invariably seem overblown. Arsenal were blown off track by injuries last season and if their key players avoid them and a goalkeeper is recruited, Fabregas's last season at the club may yet be memorable.

But it is Chelsea who look the most stable. They are almost patrician now, this grand old club with its grand history. Their squad is ageing but if Ricardo Carvalho and Ashley Cole leave, there will need to be replacements and John Terry could look even more vulnerable this season than last. Yet Chelsea are stable and the return of Michael Essien is even more important than the signing of the Brazilian Ramires.

Essien could have driven Ghana past Uruguay in the World Cup and he could lead Chelsea to another title if others wilt. The quota system will see Chelsea, in particular, turn to youth and soon they will be probably be hailed for their vision and patience while all around them panicked.

Below these big four, the rest will scramble. Liverpool are at the manic point of a cycle right now, believing the signing of Joe Cole has solved all their problems rather than merely solving their problem of how to replace Yossi Benayoun.

Spurs should qualify for the group stages of the Champions League and White Hart Lane is a ground that deserves those tingling European nights. But Spurs could be edged out of the top four this time as English football becomes unpredictable, or as unpredictable as a league where money talks at the top of its voice can be. David Moyes is an outstanding manager and if Mikel Arteta stays fit, then Everton could also challenge.

With Aston Villa also strong despite the departure of Milner, there is now almost a top eight, although Liverpool, Everton and Villa can't have aspirations for the title. Harry Redknapp has said Tottenham can. They were, of course, in the bottom three when he arrived, a line that might get trotted out at some stage this season.

This year, Blackpool and West Brom look like they will be in trouble. West Ham and Stoke might struggle but Wolves, who did so well to stay up last year, could find it tough to do it again.

It is not true to say they all begin with hope. In the indebted Premier League, some switch from despair to entertaining thoughts of survival which is as hopeful as it gets.

Manchester City will provide a sort of hope and plenty of the entertainment and unpredictability. In the Premier League, the unexpected is almost expected now. Even Rob Green knows what is coming next.

Sunday Independent

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