London: As Olympic memories start to fade, Britain’s sporting focus looks set to move from London to Manchester this weekend as a new Premier League season gets underway.
For although the London clubs led by Champions League winner Chelsea and Arsenal would like to be in the footballing spotlight, everything points to this season finishing like the last — as a straight Manchester derby between City and United.
City had to wait until the fourth minute of injury time on a nerve-shredding final day of last season to win their first league title since 1968. However, more than a billion dollars (Dh3.67 billion) poured into the club by their Abu Dhabi-based owner Shaikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan had already marked them out as the team to beat since the previous August.
Only United was able to keep up with the frenetic pace, thanks mainly to the sheer personal drive of 70-year-old manager Alex Ferguson rather than any inspirational football by his players.
Goal difference eventually separated the blue and red sides of Manchester after both clubs finished on 89 points, with Arsenal trailing a distant third on 70.
And that’s the scale of the problem facing any club based outside Manchester’s ring road this season. Nineteen points is not a gap, it’s a gulf.
What’s more, City clearly intends to keep it that way.
Manager Roberto Mancini has been signed up to a new five-year contract, at a reported cost of £37 million (Dh213 million), which will bring more stability to the team. The club have just signed England midfielder Jack Rodwell from Everton for an estimated £12 million and remains in the market for new signings before the transfer window closes on August 31.
On top of that, domestic rather than European success still seems to be the main yardstick for Mancini.
“Chelsea took maybe 10 years to win the Champions League, because it is not easy to win this competition,” Mancini said during a pre-season tour.
“We would like to win it this season, of course, but our main target is the Premier League and a domestic trophy.”
City gave some idea of that intent by storming back from a goal down last weekend to beat Chelsea 3-2 in the Community Shield.
Anxious to keep up with the “noisy neighbours”, as Ferguson once termed his crosstown rivals, United fans have been hoping that some of the funds raised by the club’s flotation on the New York stock exchange would find their way into transfer fees.
Those hopes look to have been answered on Wednesday night when United agreed a deal to sign Robin van Persie from Arsenal. The Netherlands forward was the Premier League’s top scorer last season with 30 goals, and should form a fearsome strike partnership with Wayne Rooney.
Long before the deal for Van Persie, though, Ferguson had already had some good news with the return from long-term injury of club captain and central defender Nemanja Vidic.
The Serbia international is clearly anxious to make amends.
“Maybe we relaxed a bit last season,” Vidic said recently. “We were punished and we can’t allow that to happen again.”
Despite finishing only sixth last time around, FA Cup winner Chelsea still looks like the side most likely to test Manchester’s grip on the title.
Victory over Bayern Munich in that Champions League final fulfilled a dream held by club owner Roman Abramovich since buying the Blues in 2003, and ought to ease at least some of the pressure on coach Roberto Di Matteo.
The departure to China of the club’s ageing striker Didier Drogba is bound to be a loss.
However, the arrival from Lille of the most exciting player in French football, playmaker Eden Hazard, should be a real cause for celebration and there is certainly more to come from the likes of Juan Mata and Daniel Sturridge.
Arsenal is meanwhile wondering if Van Persie’s replacements will be able to fill the Dutchman’s goalscoring boots.
With his departure have been telegraphed well in advance, the usually cost-conscious club have already signed no fewer than three new attacking players: Germany’s Lukas Podolski, France’s Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla of Spain.
Beyond these four teams, though, there is really only room for cameo roles.
Tottenham finished a creditable fourth last season and was only denied a Champions League slot by Chelsea’s penalty shoot-out victory over Bayern. Along with the talent of winger Gareth Bale, the spotlight will also be trained on Spurs’ new coach Andre Villas-Boas, who was sacked in March by Chelsea.
Liverpool will meanwhile look to build on a League Cup victory, a new coach in Brendan Rodgers and a hope that English football fans will forgive their hugely talented striker Luis Suarez for racially abusing United’s Patrice Evra last season.
Judging by the boos he received while playing for Uruguay during the Olympics, they won’t.