Can London halt rise of Manchester?

 
Trevor Steven
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THE crucial question this season surrounds whether the two Manchester clubs, United and the champions City, can truly be challenged.

It’s difficult to see that happening, but I am very interested in seeing how Chelsea evolve. Before it became clear that Robin van Persie was going to leave Arsenal, they would have been rivals too, but they’ve now lost around 30 goals from their team and will have to settle in a new forward line, which takes time.

Chelsea’s potential surrounds their new players and how quickly they can have an impact. The sooner they impress, the better, because you have to be very careful – if a points gap appears in the league during the season it could be difficult to overcome, so they need a good start. If they do that then Chelsea could be up there – Eden Hazard and Marko Marin are good buys ­– but they still need another goalscorer to help Fernando Torres.

CONCERNS
The two Manchester teams are really well positioned, and it would come as no surprise if City make another big purchase. If you look at their back five, it really is very solid. Their key player last season was Yaya Toure. He was just exceptional, so if he stays fit, they’ve a chance in any game. It’s difficult to find a weakness in City. Carlos Tevez appears to have been accepted back, too, but if they don’t make a signing, Roberto Mancini won’t be happy, so they might yet look for a wide man.

For United, it could come down to how well the older players – Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs – perform. Shinji Kagawa will be interesting­; he’s a high-energy, all-action player. Add Van Persie – who I actually think they’re paying too much for – and Wayne Rooney to that and it’s a potent threat. The league was only won by one goal last season, so that’s how close it was, and they’ve had a better transfer window than City.

That said, their weakness remains central defence. Ferdinand’s ageing and Nemanja Vidic is returning from a long absence, so there are some concerns. Of United and City, the latter’s defence is superior, but there’s little between them up front. Because of that, Van Persie’s signing could be a risk because that money may have been better spent elsewhere, even if having a fit Van Persie does guarantee goals.

INTRIGUING
Though he’s a huge loss, Arsenal’s squad is actually stronger than it was last year, but a lot will depend on how quickly Santi Cazorla, Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski settle. Arsenal’s movement is great and they’ve a goal threat, but they – and Arsene Wenger – could come under pressure very quickly. Last season, Theo Walcott created a lot for Van Persie and knew what was needed of him, but his understanding with a new front line will need to develop quickly.

Their rivals, Tottenham, need to sign a striker as soon as they can – that’s a priority. Also, how much will Andre Villas-Boas affect the dressing room, and how quickly can he get them results and into the top six? If, as expected, Luka Modric goes, that’s their most creative player gone, so there could be a lot of pressure there.

With Brendan Rodgers taking charge, Liverpool look intriguing, as he wants them to adopt a more sophisticated style. They’ve had quite a turnaround of players and expectations are obviously different to those at Swansea. I look forward to seeing their line-up on Saturday, because it should reveal a lot.

Trevor Steven is a former England footballer who played at two World Cups and two European Championships. He now works as a talent scout and media commentator.

THE KEY QUESTIONS
Trevor's verdict

Who will win the title?

Manchester City. Robin van Persie will strengthen Manchester United, but I question his fitness throughout the season, and I think Mario Balotelli will be exceptional for City.

Who will make up the rest of the top four? Chelsea and Arsenal. I think Chelsea will be much better this season, and I see them finishing third with Arsenal just behind them.

Which team will be the surprise package?

If Liverpool can adapt quickly to Brendan Rodger’s style of play, and get Fabio Borini, Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard scoring, it could be them. But I still don’t see them breaking into the top four.

Who will be relegated?

Norwich, Swansea and Reading.

Who is your player to watch this term?

Balotelli. He was excellent at Euro 2012, and I think he’ll finally use all of the talent he’s got. I’m also interested in Borini at Liverpool, however.

Arsenal
LAST SEASON 3RD
NET SPEND £15.5 m
MAJOR INS

Santi Cazorla Malaga, £16.5m; Olivier Giroud Montpellier, £13m; Lukas Podolski Cologne, £11m

MAJOR OUTS
Robin van Persie Manchester United, £24m; Manuel Almunia Watford, free; Denilson Sao Paulo, loan; Ryo Miyaichi Wigan, loan; Kyle Bartley Swansea, £1m

WHERE THEY’RE AT
Scraped into the Champions League last year and are tipped for another battle to maintain their top four status. The sale of Van Persie to one-time rivals United hasn’t helped morale, but Arsene Wenger has spent.

TREVOR’S VERDICT
With Van Persie’s exit, and the players signed, if they achieve what they did last season it’s been a great year, but whichever one it is, they really need to try and win a cup. Podolski (below) scores goals but he’s not a natural centre forward, and there’s a big question mark over whether Giroud will deliver. Arsenal will be vying with Chelsea for third.

Chelsea
LAST SEASON 5TH
NET SPEND £64m
MAJOR INS

Eden Hazard (below) Lille, £32m; Oscar Internacional, £25m; Marko Marin Werder Bremen, £7m; Thorgan Hazard Lens, free

MAJOR OUTS
Didier Drogba Shanghai Shenhua, free; Salomon Kalou Lille, free; Jose Bosingwa released Thibaut Courtois Atletico Madrid, loan Romelu Lukaku West Brom, loan Kevin De Bruyne Werder Bremen, loan

WHERE THEY’RE AT
Champions League triumph or not, Chelsea are back at square one – and with a much changed squad. Will hope to compete for the title, but huge questions remain over their tactics and selection.

TREVOR’S VERDICT
Their fantastic end to last season has obviously got Chelsea buoyant, and the belief is back. There have been some good acquisitions, such as Eden Hazard, but those will need to impress from the off. Roberto Di Matteo must find his best line up quickly. Vying for third with Arsenal.

Fulham
LAST SEASON 9TH
NET SPEND £0m
MAJOR INS

Mladen Petric Hamburg, free; Hugo Rodallega Wigan, free; Sascha Riether Cologne, loan; Moussa Dembele Jr Paris Saint-Germain, £250k

MAJOR OUTS
Andy Johnson QPR, free; Danny Murphy Blackburn, free; Dickson Etuhu Blackburn, undisclosed

WHERE THEY’RE AT
Continue to punch above their weight, but scant investment leaves a repeat resting on last season’s star men Clint Dempsey and Moussa Dembele (below).

TREVOR’S VERDICT
Despite losing the likes of Danny Murphy, who has been key for them, the quality in Fulham’s squad has remained consistent. They’ve got to depend on going on a few decent runs, and hope that Dempsey wants to stay – Martin Jol will certainly be pleased when the transfer window shuts – but not many like to play at Craven Cottage, either. May threaten the top eight, but are likely to finish in mid-table.

QPR
LAST SEASON 17TH
NET SPEND £5.1m
MAJOR INS

Park Ji-Sung Manchester United, £2m; Samba Diakite Nancy, £3.5m; Robert Green West Ham, free; Andrew Johnson Fulham, free; Fabio da Silva Manchester United, loan; Junior Hoilett Blackburn, free

MAJOR OUTS
Paddy Kenny Leeds, £400k; Heidar Helguson Cardiff, undisclosed; Danny Gabbidon released

WHERE THEY’RE AT Mark Hughes kept them up and has recruited en masse for the infamously difficult second season. Djibril Cisse’s (below) goals and the new arrivals could be key to pushing on.

TREVOR’S VERDICT
QPR will be delighted to have a second season in the Premier League, and Hughes is building a squad with better quality, though he – as a good manager – remains their greatest asset. They’re a work in progress and need three or four years to be established in mid-table. Will survive more comfortably than they did last season.

West Ham
LAST SEASON PROMOTED
NET SPEND £10.5m
MAJOR INS

Jussi Jaaskelainen Bolton, free; Mohamed Diame Wigan, free; George McCartney Sunderland, £1m; James Collins Aston Villa, £2.5m; Alou Diarra Marseille, £2m; free Modibo Maiga Sochaux, £5m

MAJOR OUTS
Robert Green QPR, free; Julien Faubert Elazigspor, free; Abdoulaye Faye Hull, free; John Carew released; Papa Bouba Diop released; Ravel Morrison Birmingham, loan

WHERE THEY’RE AT
Sam Allardyce and captain Kevin Nolan (below) dragged them back up at the first attempt, although only just, via the play-offs. Staying in the top flight is the main aim.

TREVOR’S VERDICT
I question West Ham’s judgment in trying to rebuild their team after promotion; that can be dangerous. It’s a big ask to have consistency after throwing several players together, even for someone like Big Sam. Survival has to be their target and they’ll be in a battle for it.

Tottenham
LAST SEASON 4TH
NET SPEND £6.5m
MAJOR INS

Jan Vertonghen Ajax, £10m; Gylfi Sigurdsson Hoffenheim £8m

MAJOR OUTS
Vedran Corluka Lokomotiv Moscow, £5m; Steven Pienaar Everton, £4.5m; Niko Kranjcar Dynamo Kiev, £2m; Louis Saha Sunderland, free; Ryan Nelsen QPR, free

WHERE THEY’RE AT
New manager Andre Villas-Boas, formerly of Chelsea, has replaced his antithesis Harry Redknapp but faces the daunting task of matching his top-four finish. Scott Parker (below) could be key in providing some stability.

TREVOR’S VERDICT
Tottenham have got a real challenge, and I expect them to be competing with Newcastle and Everton. The pressure is on Andre Villas-Boas so it’ll be very interesting to see if the players are happy with him in the dressing room. They’ll still need to do more work in the transfer market, too. Battling for fifth, sixth or seventh.

CITY A.M. VERDICT

FRANK DALLERES
Sports Editor

Who will win the title?
Manchester City
Who will make up the rest of the top four?
Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal
Which team will be the surprise package?
QPR have makings of much improved side
Who will be relegated?
Norwich, Reading and Southampton
Who is your player to watch this term?
Lukas Podolski. I think he’ll get 20 goals


DECLAN WARRINGTON
Sports Reporter

Who will win the title?
Manchester United
Who will make up the rest of the top four? Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea
Which team will be the surprise package?
Liverpool – will challenge the top four
Who will be relegated?
Norwich, Reading and Swansea
Who is your player to watch this term?
Fernando Torres. He’s returning to his best