Muddle at Manchester United and Manchester City is likely to clear path for Arsenal and Chelsea this season

COMMENT: Capital clubs are rightly favourites to win the Premier League

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When we stood on this threshold three summers ago, the city of Manchester was, to borrow from Old Trafford vernacular, cock of the nation and not just the north.

The Premier League fight had narrowed down to a one-city struggle. Sir Alex Ferguson, seeking revenge for a dethroning, sat down, tanned and beaming, with the newly acquired Robin van Persie by his side and as a riposte to City, that was a ceremony Danny Boyle could not have bettered.

City, who had not begun to know the extent to which financial fair play would buffet them, could laugh about their own aspirations. They anticipated their new £15m buy Jack Rodwell blossoming. It had just come to light that in the early Abu Dhabi scramble for players someone had declared: “It’s all getting messy.” And… yes, you’ve guessed it. Someone really did interpret this as “Get Messi,” prompting a £30m offer to Barcelona, which was summarily rejected. Football was a one-city state, with two clubs who were streets ahead. Fully 19 points had separated them from the next best the previous season and it would be the same duopoly in the nine months that followed.

That’s all ancient history now because we may be looking at the first season since 2004-05 when neither has featured in the top two. It felt like a very chill wind indeed when Louis van Gaal baldly declared yesterday that David De Gea would be excluded from the picture in favour of a junior; part of that uncompromising pattern of management of his which also informed the reluctance to persist with Angel Di Maria for more than one season. The Argentine’s loss has removed a means of driving hard and fast at opponents. It feels misguided and it belongs to a broader sense that United, a club casting around for two years, remain only half rebuilt.


Some aims have been accomplished. There is creative and dynamic ballast in central midfield at last: the intelligence of Bastian Schweinsteiger and the box-to box capability of Morgan Schneiderlin, whose impact may actually be the greater of those two. There is a genuine attacking wing-back in Matteo Darmian and the personnel for a balanced 4-3-3, for which Memphis Depay helps.

But with Sergio Ramos still equivocating about the merits of Manchester or Madrid, United still lack a dominant centre-half – a requirement which supersedes all others – and another top-bracket striker, because the weight of responsibility on Wayne Rooney looks ominous.

Daley Blind may form a regular part of the defensive unit at left-back, though that may create a flank to exploit. An admission he made last week about the physical deficiency was candid: “Sometimes you need to make a physical tackle as well, and perhaps that’s what I can focus on for the new campaign.” The real assessment must wait 24 days, but after a summer of noise there is much still to do in the transfer window.

City feel like the Manchester club with most. The £44m for Raheem Sterling sounds like a heftier chunk of money now than it will seem next May. Sterling will flourish and, in the gilded company of Sergio Aguero and David Silva, become one of the stories of this season. In Aguero City possess a rarity in the Premier League: a reliably outstanding goalscorer.

It is further back down the team that City have reason to worry. There is nothing to demonstrate that the central defence will be any less fragile than last season. Vincent Kompany is understandably reluctant to give much shape to a conversation about how far beneath his own standards he fell last season. “If you have a strong few months at the end of the season, people will remember but if you have it at the start [as I did last season] everyone forgets,” he said recently. But the questions about him and his game are well justified. Fitness will dictate the course of his season.

City’s central midfield sorely needs Kevin De Bruyne for company because it is lacking and there’s no telling when Yaya Touré’s desire to be elsewhere will whip up again. City feel like a club in a holding position, waiting for Pep Guardiola. The new contract announced for Manuel Pellegrini is less random than it might seem: the minimum required to imbue the club with momentum and erase the characteristics of a lame duck. It won’t stop them changing manager next summer in any case.

Those great hopes of the summer of 2011 are scattered to the four winds now – Van Persie to Turkey, Rodwell to Sunderland. In Arsenal and Chelsea’s possession is a commodity that money can’t buy – the time required for a squad to grow into itself. Perhaps there will be some northern deconstruction of pre-conceived notions, but it feels like the capital city will take the ultimate prize.