Champions Manchester United still sets standard

Premier League has been the greatest era for Manchester United, says CEO Gill

No club has more reason to celebrate the Premier League's 20th anniversary season than Manchester United.

Only after England's top clubs broke away to form what is now world football's wealthiest league did United become champions again after a 26-year wait. Winning the Premier League in 1993 ushered in an unprecedented era of domination for the club, with another 11 league titles subsequently masterminded by Alex Ferguson.

"The whole Premier League has been the greatest era for Manchester United," chief executive David Gill said on the eve of the new season, which starts Aug 13-14.

The latest title in May took United to the top of the English champions' leaderboard — surpassing Liverpool's tally of 18.

"Looking back on our big breakthrough in 1993 when we won the inaugural Premier League, I never envisaged that we would then storm away to overhaul Liverpool," Ferguson wrote in a Premier League book looking ahead to the new season.

Liverpool is no longer United's greatest rival: Chelsea has captured the championship crown three times since 2005 and Manchester City has been awoken from a decades-long slumber by Abu Dhabi wealth.

"We will be trying our hardest to make it 20 league titles in the Premier League's 20th season," Ferguson said. "But not in any sense of boastfulness."

The comprehensive loss to Barcelona in May's Champions League final prevents such bragging.

Apart from recovering from that Wembley setback, Ferguson's big offseason challenge was replacing a trio of retiring players: goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, defender Gary Neville and midfielder Paul Scholes.

A goalkeeper was found: 20-year-old Spaniard David De Gea from Atletico Madrid. A defender: Phil Jones from Blackburn. And a winger: Ashley Young from Aston Villa. That leaves a direct replacement for Scholes still required, with a deal yet to be done with Inter Milan for Wesley Sneijder.

But no one is more accomplished at rebuilding squads than Ferguson for whom it will be a season of landmarks: 25 years in charge at Old Trafford and a 70th birthday.

The Scot's ambitions are undiminished ahead of his side's season opener at West Bromwich Albion.

"It is very easy for me to remain motivated," he said. "The players keep me enthusiastic. If you sat back and thought about it all, I suppose you would consider how much of my life it is, but that doesn't bother me too much."

Talk of retirement is off the agenda for the league's oldest manager — especially when he has the challenge of outwitting the newly installed youngest top flight manager.

Chelsea's 33-year-old Andre Villas-Boas was only a scout when he was last in England under Jose Mourinho at Stamford Bridge from 2004 to 2007.

And he is the same age as his oldest players: Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba.

Youth should not be a barrier, though, according to captain John Terry, a mere three years the manager's junior.

"Andre is a modern manager," Terry said. "The thing that impresses me, he understands the players. He's not old school."

Villas-Boas is just about the only thing that has changed at Chelsea since Carlo Ancelotti was dismissed after a second season in charge ended trophyless.

Fernando Torres still appears to have stage fright in front of goal and is yet to prove he can play alongside Drogba. And there is the same aging squad that struggled to keep up with United, despite eventually finishing second.

"They have a lot to offer," insists the Portuguese, whose four-trophy haul with Porto last season sealed his return to west London.

Villas-Boas is unlikely to be judged on his Premier League record by owner Roman Abramovich. Champions League glory is the goal for the Russian businessman, who has resisted big offseason spending after his $100 million-plus January outlay on Torres and defender David Luiz.

For Arsenal, any trophy will do — even the League Cup.

For all their widely lauded eye-catching football, a sixth season ended without a trophy after a fourth-place league finish. And in the League Cup final, Birmingham was gifted a first title in 48 years before being relegated.

The fans are yet to see the big-name signing they crave. Instead, it has been another offseason of unsettling speculation about whether captain Cesc Fabregas will return to Barcelona.

Such is the gloom at the Emirates Stadium, the Gunners were even booed off the pitch after drawing with the New York Red Bulls in a home friendly last weekend.

Wenger, whose boss is now billionaire American sports tycoon Stan Kroenke, complains: "We have to compete with people with more resources than us."

None more so than Abu Dhabi's Sheik Mansour, who has pumped more than $1 billion into Manchester City in three years.

At least, there is something to show for such lavish investment.

The pressure that engulfed the club during 35 trophyless years was lifted by May's FA Cup success and qualification for the Champions League for the first time by finishing third in the league.

But like Arsenal, City's preparations for the new season have been disrupted by confusion over the future of an unsettled captain: striker Carlos Tevez.

Even if a club does eventually meet the 50 million-pound asking price — cash that will help City comply with UEFA's new financial controls — a replacement is already in place after Sergio Aguero's capture from Atletico Madrid.

The team City seems to have displaced from the top four is the one that dominated in the decade before the Premier League's inception: Liverpool.

At Anfield, reviving former glories is the eventual aim, just being competitive again is the mission at a club that was battling relegation last season until new American owner John Henry brought back Kenny Dalglish — the manager who produced the 18th and last English title triumph in 1990.

Around $60 million has been spent on midfielders Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson and Charlie Adam, having already spent close to that amount on striker Andy Carroll in January.

There will be no distraction of European football after finishing sixth, but that won't diminish the fans' domestic hopes.

"We have to manage expectations," Dalglish said. "We don't believe we are rubbish. We think we have the right mindset to push forward without shouting our mouths off. We want to improve on last season."

Like Liverpool, Tottenham sees itself as a top-four club now despite missing out by a place last season.

Manager Harry Redknapp will have to be cautious that missing out on the Champions League after reaching the quarterfinals in style in its debut campaign last season does not lead to a sharp downturn in fortunes.

Just staying in the top flight will be the priority for the three promoted teams.

While south Wales club Swansea returns to the top tier after 30 years, two founding members of the Premier League are back.

Queens Park Rangers, which is part owned by Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone, ends a 15-year exile after being promoted as champions.

Norwich returns after six years, with the only current topflight manager to have won the Champions League as a player — Paul Lambert with Borussia Dortmund in 1997.

It shows have far football has changed in England that the 1992-3 season ended with Norwich third and QPR fifth.

Some things, though, never change, with Manchester United favorites to top the standings again 20 years on.

"We would remain popular I think if Manchester United won it for the next X numbers of years," league chief executive Richard Scudamore responded to a question about such predictability.

"Because (A) there is a huge Manchester United following and (B) everyone we would be out watching to see if someone can beat them next time out. I don't think this idea of somebody having to rotate through the trophy all the time is necessarily the thing that drives or doesn't drive interest."

 

 

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