Man United: Can They Seize Back The Title?

Despite the distraction of the stock market flotation, Sir Alex Ferguson has achieved some excellent business this summer. Can United now overtake City...?

Last Updated: 17/08/12 at 14:26 Post Comment

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Last season:

Premier League Second; Champions League Group stage; FA Cup Fourth round; Carling Cup Quarter-finals

Manager Sir Alex Ferguson (since 55BC) Odds on being first out of his job 100-1 (20th)Transfers in Robin van Persie (Arsenal), Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund), Nick Powell (Crewe)

Transfers out Park Ji-sung (QPR), Fabio da Silva (QPR, loan), Tomasz Kuszczak (Brighton), Michael Owen (limbo)

Last season had been voted the best in the 20-year history of the Premier League before its astonishing denouement and Manchester United must have wished 2011-12 had been content with top spot rather than deciding to raise the bar and go for another mark, or at least clattered into the bar in the manner of Robbie Grabarz when his Olympic high jump bronze medal was secure.

Instead, the words "Sergio AgUERO-O-O-o-o" as intoned by an admirably measured Martin Tyler must cause endless night sweats that cannot be cured even by the signing of Robin van Persie. The old foes have been neutered but the noisy neighbours have shown they can do more than merely trade insults. It would have been bad enough had it been Arsenal or Chelsea that snatched away the 20th crown. But City? It would not have helped that the worst Chelsea side in a decade then won the Champions League in a season when United did not make the last 16.

Of course, what happened on the last Premier League Sunday will have left Sir Alex Ferguson shrugging to some degree; after all, it was out of United's hands and they did everything required of them at Sunderland, and amassed a record 89 points for a side not winning the title. What will concern him will be the brittleness that let City back into the race, the surrendering of a winning position against Everton. What concerns others is the approach taken in the defeat at Eastlands, a rare negativity from Ferguson contributing to defeat. And the return of Paul Scholes was hardly a step towards the future.

The Scot will hope that last season proves a one-off. Except arguably it isn't. In 2010 Chelsea came from behind, courtesy of a win at Old Trafford and points United dropped at Blackburn. In 2009, it took Federico Macheda's moment in the sun against Aston Villa to steady a side that had looked rocky; Liverpool had seemingly been seen off but United were suddenly slipping. They are human after all.

Part of being human is being vulnerable to injury and the loss of Nemanja Vidic in December was a major blow. On the other hand, United were perhaps fortunate to get such a long run from Rio Ferdinand, though they will hope that David de Gea grows into his role.

This summer, the Glazers have been hawking the club around the world, finally settling on the New York stock market as the one to host the flotation. The company they took private a few years ago now has outside shareholders but only with restricted rights. There were conflicting reports in the run-up to the flotation but in the end a lot of the money has gone to the family, not the club.

The complaints are inevitable and deserved: United are by some measures the richest club in the world but they exist not as a sporting institution but as a money-making one, their immediate aim to pay down the Glazers' debt to a manageable level.

Sir Alex Ferguson has made clear that he has not, contrary to some suggestions, benefited in any way from the flotation and the "equity incentive award plan", designed to "attract, retain and motivate selected employees, consultants and non-employee directors". It would be interesting to know who United consider more worth rewarding than their manager.

But the signings of Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa are indicative of what the Glazers have to do to keep Ferguson's endorsement. Every so often, when he has asked, he has been given. And as long as he is able to push City that hard and outshine Chelsea (at least until the Munich miracle) he cannot argue that he has been hamstrung by the Americans, even if he has not been given the combination to the safe.

If financial fair play bites at Stamford Bridge and Eastlands, then United could prosper still more. Imagine, though, the squad Ferguson could have bought had he access to the money used to pay off the Glazer debts.

United kick off at Everton on Monday, then have home games with Fulham and Wigan sandwiched by a trip to St Mary's. It is the following fixture that will attract greatest attention in this opening spell, a more charged than usual trip to Anfield. A year on from Patrice Evra's clash with Luis Suarez, a victory would be an especially sweet way to maintain obvious superiority over Liverpool and the more thorny question of challenging City.

But the Champions League group stage will be going on in the mix of matches and Fergie, at 70, still has plenty of ambition there. With Van Persie joining Javier Hernandez, Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney, the Scot drew comparisons with "Yorke, Cole, Sheringham and Solskjaer, the four best strikers in Europe". Of course one manager would dispute that he has the four best strikers in Manchester.

Philip Cornwall

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