Manchester rivals set to dominate title race again

THE 2011/12 Premier League season will go down in history as one of the most dramatic ever. It was like a heavyweight title fight where both contenders dusted themselves off from a ‘nine-count’ to floor their opponent in the next round, until Sergio Aguero landed the knockout blow in the 94th minute against QPR at the Etihad Stadium. It was a remarkable end to a remarkable season and will surely have left emotional scars on the players and fans of both clubs.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s worst nightmare was realised by losing out on goal difference, to his now even noisier neighbours, and he will make it a personal vendetta to wrest the title back. Manchester United are now no bigger than 9/4, with the signing of Robin van Persie imminent, but, even after the arrival of the Dutchman – and Shinji Kagawa from Borussia Dortmund – they don’t have the firepower that Manchester City have at their disposal.

It is incredibly difficult to retain the title in the top flight, only United and Chelsea have managed it since 1984, but City have unprecedented financial muscle and their squad is packed full of quality players. I’m not concerned that Jack Rodwell is the only signing Roberto Mancini has made so far, although another central defender will surely come in before the end of the transfer window.

City should have wrapped up the league with plenty to spare last season and I just can’t see past them at 13/10 with Coral. United will push them hard again, and they are without doubt the main danger, but they may have to settle for second once again. We backed the City-United straight forecast last season at 11/1 and, while it is now just 3/1 with Coral, that still looks a fair bet.

Sergio Aguero had a fantastic first season in Manchester, scoring 23 league goals, and he is strongly fancied to win the top goalscorer award at a general 8/1. Carlos Tevez (16/1) looks like playing more of a part this term, which may take a few goals away from his fellow Argentine, but the same can be said of Wayne Rooney (8/1) and van Persie (9/1) at United. This could be the season when Aguero stamps his authority as one of the very best strikers in the world.

If there is a team who can upset the Mancunian dominance it will be Chelsea, who have made some decent signings this summer and will be full of confidence after winning the Champions League. Roberto Di Matteo did an excellent job and has been rewarded with a permanent contract, but I worry if he has enough experience to oversee a title winning campaign.

Arsenal have been active in the transfer market again, although they keep losing their best players and there will be serious questions asked of Arsene Wenger if the Gunners get off to a slow start, like last term. With van Persie going and Jack Wilshere still out for at least another couple of months, I think they will struggle.

As is normally the case in this division, the betting markets towards the bottom of the table are far more competitive than the top. The three promoted sides all survived last campaign for the first time since 2001/02, but we all know about the dreaded ‘second season syndrome’ and it could be about to strike again.

Swansea were a joy to watch last year after stepping up from the Championship, with manager Brendan Rodgers adopting a free-flowing style. However, he has left to join Liverpool and the exodus has continued with the likes of Joe Allen following him to Anfield and Gylfi Sigurdsson signing for Tottenham instead, while Scott Sinclair could also be on his way.

Michael Laudrup takes the helm and although he was a world-class player he is yet to prove that he is equally adept as a coach. He did reasonably well at Getafe a few years ago, but his last spell as manager of Mallorca was disappointing and the Swans could be in trouble. They are 2/1 with Coral to be relegated and that is worth backing.

They should also be bought at 19 on Sporting Index’s relegation index where different points are awarded to the teams that finish in the bottom six places. The club that finishes last receives 60 points and sixth bottom five points, so we’d only need Swansea to finish no better than fourth bottom (20 points) to turn a profit.

The three promoted teams all face a massive challenge just to stay in the league, but I’m surprised that Reading are the bookmakers’ favourites for relegation. Brian McDermott’s men put an unbelievable run together towards the back-end of the season, winning 15 of 17 league games between January and April.

Sporting Index have the Royals at the bottom of their season points list and I’d be happy to buy them at 36.5. Pavel Pogrebnyak could prove to be an inspired signing and let’s not forget that Reading finished above both Southampton and West Ham last season. Hopefully they can manage a repeat of their first stint in the Premier League in 2006/07, when they finished eighth with a haul of 55 points.

The Championship looks absolutely impossible this year, so I’m going to concentrate on League One instead. Sheffield United are the favourites, having heartbreakingly lost out to Huddersfield on penalties in the play-off final in May, and they won’t be far away.

However, the best value lies with MK Dons, at 7/1 with Coral. Alan Smith has been brought in permanently now from Newcastle and manager Karl Robinson has made some other decent signings which can give them the edge.

■ Pointers…
Manchester City at 13/10 with Coral
City-United straight forecast at 3/1 with Coral
Sergio Aguero top goalscorer at 8/1 general
Swansea to be relegated at 2/1 with Coral
Buy Swansea on relegation index at 19 with Sporting Index
Buy Reading points at 36.5 with Sporting Index
MK Dons at 7/1 with Coral