Manchester still holds edge

Trevor Steven
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United and City’s title rivals are now stronger, but are they strong enough?

TRANSFER deadline day was even more frenzied than usual this year as Premier League managers scrambled to reinforce their squads for a campaign that already looks like being hugely competitive.

Particularly busy in the final days were those clubs initially billed as challengers to Manchester United and City, but who suddenly look in danger of being left trailing by the free-scoring north-west powerhouses.

Chelsea’s 11th-hour move for Raul Meireles gives them more options in midfield and suggests to me that one of Frank Lampard or John Obi Mikel will soon find themselves under big pressure for their starting place.

Meireles is not the man to elevate a team that has looked worryingly one-dimensional lately, though. Against Norwich last week they were woeful, despite going onto win, and they badly lack crafty players.

Having missed out on Luka Modric and let Yossi Benayoun leave, Juan Mata, another August arrival, looks likely to bear the creative burden. It’s asking a lot, but Mata has been very impressive and looks a real talent.

Across the capital at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger has changed tack by adding the experience of Mikel Arteta, Per Mertesacker, Chu Young Park, Andre Santos and Benayoun to a squad largely made up of youngsters.

Arteta is a great buy, Mertesacker has looked shaky when I’ve seen him but has all the attributes to succeed in England, Benayoun is gifted but is crying out for games, while Santos is much-needed left-back cover.

Park I know particularly well: he is a very busy and versatile little front player who scored a fair few last season for a relegated side and is not Korean captain for nothing.

There’s no marquee signing but it’s a good mix and all of the forward players can spot a pass so should slot in seamlessly.

Tottenham brought in Scott Parker, a very good, dependable player, and Emmanuel Adebayor, a calculated risk, but their best result was holding onto Modric.

Liverpool’s signing of Craig Bellamy is very shrewd and will ease the load on Luis Suarez, £10m signing Bryan Ruiz will have a lot to prove at Fulham, while Stoke continue to move in the right direction.

United did all their business early and look great for it, while City are settled too and only added Owen Hargreaves late on – a good player who I hope finds some luck – so the question is: can the pair be caught?

Much will depend on Mata at Chelsea, who need to up the pace of their play but Arsenal look like they’ve lost belief they can win the league. In short, the pretenders look stronger now the window has closed – but not quite strong enough.