Pre-Season Crossroads

What was meant to be a glorious summer for English football fell apart as always, crumbling into dust in the corners of history. The signs of disintegration began to show far too soon, making way for the traditional war of words between the believers and the pessimists. The sceptics may have been proven right by England’s capitulation in Bloemfontein but it was not a victory anyone wanted to savour.  With good reason football fans turn expectantly to the approaching juggernaut of the new Premier League Season, wanting to fall in love again with the game, happy to consume the product many say ruins the national side’s chances before a ball has been kicked. The best league in the world stands ready to blast aside the cobwebs of defeat and national humiliation.

Inevitably in this lull before the stormy rebirth of football changes are made, estimations reasoned and expectations adjusted. Every single team has its issues to resolve, its weaknesses, its reasons for optimism and its irreparable limitations. Decisions made in this vital period of preparation are likely to determine whether or not a team embarks on a path of progress or a slide to disappointing underachievement.

The traditional title contenders are examined in particular detail of course. On Sunday the two main protagonists flexed their muscles on the familiar, somewhat pedestrian battlefield of the Community Shield. Manchester United emerged victorious over Chelsea, with a two goal cushion that seemingly sent a defiant message to the new Champions that the trophy shall not be permitted to stay in London for long. And yet the experts and pundits doubt United’s title credentials and the Chelsea fans remain confident despite only modest moves for the likes of Yossi Benayoun in the transfer market.

Those who doubt United and praise Chelsea do so on the evidence of last season. Chelsea will start this campaign with essentially the same strong squad and finally have a consistent, capable manager at the helm, whilst United start the new season with glaring gaps, deficiencies and accidents waiting to happen. It would be wrong, on the basis of Paul Scholes’ dominant display in the Community Shield and Ryan Giggs’ continual class, to say that many of the key cogs in the machinery of the Red Devils are decaying and rusting into ineffective scrap. It is more accurate to describe these Old Trafford legends, preserved from the golden era of the treble in 1999, as priceless antiques capable of the highest quality but only now on rare occasions, due to an increasingly fragility that requires they be handled with the utmost care. And when Scholes and Giggs sit wrapped in protective cotton wool on the sidelines the burden falls all the more heavily on Wayne Rooney. Last season United were reduced to a one man team for long, dangerous spells when Ronaldo’s absence was acutely felt and the likes of Berbatov and Owen continually failed to step up and contribute sufficiently. No one is backing United for the title because the perils of an overreliance on Wayne Rooney’s brilliance were well and truly exposed at the World Cup.

One of the principle architect’s of England’s demise in South Africa was Mezut Ozil, the marauding young German midfielder who carved counter attack after counter attack. I believe that the outcome of Ozil’s future shall reveal a great deal about the true strength of not only United’s title challenge but future success. For recent coverage in the press has made it clear the Fergie is interested in the player and also that his contract issues at Werder Bremen provide a bargain. If United were to fail to sign Ozil, one of Europe’s most exciting prospects and a long term replacement for the creativity of Giggs and Scholes in midfield, it would expose a lack of support from the board and a step backwards in ambition that would not bode well for the future. This time there would be no excuses about wasting money with the sort of prices being discussed for a player of such potential. In the future United will need to replace the likes of Edwin Van Der Sar and Rio Ferdinand and if the Glazers cannot find the funds for a shrewd midfield acquisition now then the club’s finances must truly be in peril and the quality of the squad destined only to deteriorate.

Having said this no one has been foolish enough to discard United from the title mix, perhaps at the expense of big spending local rivals Manchester City. City have brought in high quality players and will have an excellent squad once again. Yaya Toure was once the solution to United’s lack of grit in midfield and David Silva the wing wizard to replace Ryan Giggs, but now both reside in the blue of Eastlands. The doubts remain over whether Mancini is the right man to lead a title charge however and whether he can possibly mould such a glittering squad into a productive starting eleven. United also have some fresh reasons for optimism, in particular the young Mexican Javier Hernandez, which will continue to ensure their presence in the title run-in. Hernandez’s pace will give United the threat of a genuine striker for the first time since Louis Saha left the club and the fans will hope he quickly contributes goals, as he has done in pre-season, to ease the burden on Rooney. The youngster certainly seems set to provide a more reliable threat than Michael Owen’s handful of appearances last season and provides another option for bringing out the best in Dimitar Berbatov, which is still surely yet to come. Overall though the critical consensus seems right to insist that unless United surprisingly strengthen before the end of the transfer window another season of magnificence from Rooney shall be needed for them to prise the title from Chelsea’s grasp.

If progress at Old Trafford has stagnated then things at Villa Park appear to have taken a wrong turn. The resignation of Martin O’Neil has left the club leaderless just days before the new season and groping around at uninspiring alternatives such as the American coach and Sven Goran Eriksson. After achieving a regular sixth place finish and a few impressive cup runs O’Neil leaves with his own reputation intact, perhaps wisely before his team’s limitations begin to show. The imminent sale of James Milner, following the previous saga of Gareth Barry, was understandably the final straw for O’Neil as he sought to take Villa to the next level of European football, despite the ever present obstacles of the Big Four and emerging powers with financial clout such as Spurs and Man City. If O’Neil was ever going to achieve that he needed backing in the transfer market as well as his motivational qualities. Frustratingly for him in the time it took Villa to admit to their lack of ambition exciting challenges like the Liverpool and England jobs slipped away. It remains to be seen if he’ll ever get his big break.

Fabio Capello meanwhile certainly received a big let off. He has admitted that he would have understood had the FA dismissed him following the World Cup debacle and it is difficult to see how he can recover his position. Prior to the tournament he was hailed as a cold disciplinarian with the tactical genius to steer England to glory. Now public admiration has turned to suspicion and derision and his new squad reveals a lack of ideas for reviving the body of English football from a paralysis inflicted courtesy of counter attacking German boots. The international resignations of Paul Robinson and Wes Brown following the squad announcement for this week’s friendly with Hungary have added further lashings of humiliation and embarrassment to Capello’s feast of failure. Whatever happens in this futile friendly fixture, the England players shall be deservedly snubbed in favour of the return of club football and any new hopes shall take much longer to create and younger, visionary squad selection from the Italian in the future.

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