The Matt Holland Column: Double your valuation, add £1m – then act the part

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The Independent Football

This week is always hard. The work of pre-season is completed, the match discussions change from the theoretical to the real, and the heart starts to beat a little faster. This year is even more exciting as Ipswich are back in Europe, via the Uefa Cup, and my national side, the Republic of Ireland, can qualify for the World Cup. Of course, we also have the question: "Was last season a fluke?"

This week is always hard. The work of pre-season is completed, the match discussions change from the theoretical to the real, and the heart starts to beat a little faster. This year is even more exciting as Ipswich are back in Europe, via the Uefa Cup, and my national side, the Republic of Ireland, can qualify for the World Cup. Of course, we also have the question: "Was last season a fluke?"

I don't think so, although to finish in the top five was exceptional. This time last year our aim was to finish above the bottom three, by one if necessary, and believe me that would have been celebrated. This time our aims are a little different – that's progress for you.

This is shown by the answers we gave during a session with our sports psychologist. He asked us all individually where we were aiming to finish the campaign. Last year as he went around the room the reply was "bottom of the top half", but everybody knew our real target was to avoid relegation. This time the answers were "top 10" or "as good as last season". All except for the manager, George Burley. He said: "OK, forget Man United and Arsenal. But why not third?"

A positive mental attitude is so important in sport. Another fascinating exercise the psychologist gave us was to ask ourselves our likely fee in the transfer market. Then double it, add a million and try to perform like the player with that transfer value. Again he was working on developing a positive belief and spirit throughout the squad.

These exercises are worthwhile but nothing breeds good team spirit and belief better than points. All our pre-season results are irrelevant. The wins, the loss to PSV Eindhoven and tours to Estonia, Finland and Ireland are there to build match fitness and work on a team shape. Starting this Saturday at Sunderland, points are the only thing that matters and we need to get some from our first three matches. Sunderland away to begin is tough but then we have Charlton and Derby at home. Pre-season has started to drag on, it's time to start the real thing and see how good we really are.

Now for the rest. Can anyone stop Manchester United winning the Premiership title? I must confess that I haven't spent hours pondering this issue. I haven't even spent minutes. Quite simply I can't honestly see anyone challenging them. The most impressive part of their team last season was their midfield. Ryan Giggs on the left, David Beckham on the right and Paul Scholes and Roy Keane in the middle. That is four of the best midfielders in the world. Now add Juan Sebastian Veron. That is why I cannot see any club mounting a serious, season-long challenge. Teams will have their moments against them, that is the nature of sport. I think Veron is the best signing of the summer by any club in England, and probably the second best signing in the world behind Real Madrid's acquisition of Zinedine Zidane. United's other signing, Ruud van Nistelrooy, will score goals, lots of them, but part of the reason will be that he will have many more chances than most other strikers. I am not saying that is the only reason, he is a superb striker, but my point is that United dominate because of their midfield.

So who will come second? There are a few clubs that come to mind and not surprisingly they are the "Usual Suspects", Arsenal, Leeds, Liverpool and Chelsea. Arsenal should be closest, particularly having signed Francis Jeffers and Sol Campbell. Jeffers, if he can stay fit, should prove very effective alongside Thierry Henry. Henry suffered last season through lack of a partner and Jeffers should rectify that by scoring goals and absorbing some of the defensive pressure.

Campbell is a superb signing despite the controversy of leaving Spurs for their arch rivals. His move was based purely on footballing reasons and the fans should applaud that, especially because he stayed in England to reinforce his place in the England team. Besides, why go abroad when a lot of the best players in the world are coming here? He has a great chance of trophies with Arsenal and because they are not asking him to be a Franz Beckenbauer type, bringing the ball out of defence and linking with the midfield, he can concentrate on what he does best – defending.

Most of the players I have mentioned so far have strengthened the "spine" of the clubs they have joined. Chelsea have done exactly the same by signing Emmanuel Petit. He will patrol in front of the Chelsea rearguard, making it difficult to score goals and allowing another signing, Frank Lampard, to play more forward. This added strength through the middle makes them a better side, but the key is will they have the consistency? They will certainly have the goals; Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink will see to that.

Liverpool also need to find consistency in the League and that will depend on keeping Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler fit. They were good enough to beat Manchester United twice but they must seize maximum points from the lower clubs. Meanwhile, Leeds need better luck with injuries at the start of the season.

Anyway, it's nearly time to start playing. And I can't wait.

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