Sir Alex Ferguson is anticipating a "dogfight" in the battle just to finish in the Premier League's top four this season. Tottenham's fourth-place Champions League qualification, combined with Manchester City's seemingly bottomless pit of money, has put increased pressure on the so-called "big four". One of those clubs, Liverpool, have already discovered what happens if you drop off the pace just a fraction as they slipped to seventh last season.
Ferguson, who is aiming finally to go past their Merseyside rivals in terms of championships won – they are both on 18 – expects the competition to be even fiercer this time around.
"Things definitely changed last season – it was a different league altogether compared to what we'd seen before," said the Manchester United manager. "The top four found it difficult and dropped points in games they wouldn't have expected to. That's an indication of the improvement made by other teams, and I think there'll be a bit of a dogfight for the top four places this season."
Ferguson added: "We all have to be aware of the threats from the likes of Villa, Everton, Tottenham and Manchester City – they'll all be challenging to get into that top four."
Away from title talk, the midfielder Darren Fletcher admits he wants to follow the example of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville in having a long and distinguished career at Old Trafford.
There were times earlier in his career when it seemed Fletcher would be forced to move away from Manchester United in order to get regular first-team action, but the Scotland captain is now firmly established in Ferguson's squad.
Fletcher's absence was cited as one of the main reasons for United's dismal Champions League final performance against Barcelona in 2009, and his performances last season mean he is now regarded as one of the most influential midfielders in the Premier League.
It is just what the 26-year-old hoped for when he first headed south from Scotland as a raw teenager. With over 250 appearances under his belt and a contract that runs until 2012, it does not seem Fletcher will be going anywhere soon.
And, having shared a dressing room with legendary United stalwarts for so long, the Dalkeith-born star fancies a career-long stay. "I can't ever imagine being anywhere else," he said. "There is nowhere better than Manchester United and if I can play my whole career at this club I will be a very happy man.
"Everything about the club – the fans, the facilities and the structure – is fantastic and I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.
"There is something very special about staying at one club for your whole career – the likes of Gary, Ryan and Paul are all legends at Manchester United and to get anywhere close to that would be a real achievement."
The Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher, meanwhile, expects to have to prove himself all over again when the new season kicks off. The 32-year-old had a poor start to the previous campaign, mirroring the club's early problems, and looked a shadow of his former self.
However, as the season progressed he rediscovered the form which has made him one of the most consistent defenders of his generation. But with the arrival of new manager Roy Hodgson – and teenage centre-back Danny Wilson from Rangers – the former England international knows his reputation will count for little if he cannot back it up with performances.
"You never know what might happen," said Carragher as he prepared to enter his 15th season in the Liverpool first team. "Last year, after a few games, the whole world had written me off and said I was finished.
"But in the second half of the season, along with Javier Mascherano and Pepe [Reina], I was probably one of the most consistent players and when you look at how the defence played, we managed to keep 18 clean sheets.
"That's gone now and you have to do it all again. There is going to be a challenge and it has always been the case that players will want to take your place but you just have to be ready. I played every week for Rafa for six years but I've got to prove myself again.
"Even if Rafa had still been here that would have been the case. There will be a time when I don't play 50 games a season, but I've no intention of it happening this year."Reuse content