Chelsea prepares for ton-up celebration

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has the best attacking line-up this season. Rafael Benitez's forte is his astute strategic play in the centre and in the deep. Liverpool has benefited a lot from this.-AP

Though teams from lower rungs are capable of beating the `Big Four' on any given day, the fight for the pennant in Europe's most physical league, which is the Premiership, would be between Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool, writes N. U. ABILASH.

WELCOME to Cold War II. In the Blue corner is a Russian oil oligarch, and in the Red an American businessman. What separates Roman Abramovich and Malcolm Glazer in the new English Premiership season is not the vast distance — ideological and geographical — between Kremlin and Pentagon, but the small one between Stamford Bridge in West London and Old Trafford in Manchester.

Ideologically, both agree that spending big money is the prerequisite to winning trophies. The only difference being that while the Russian's pockets are still deep enough for his club Chelsea — going into its centenary year as the Premiership holders — to buy a player of its choice, the American has done the impossible over the summer break between the seasons — the economics of his takeover has turned the world's most famous sporting club and the richest football club, Manchester United, into the football club with the largest debt, all of �500m with �250m of it, shockingly for the world's biggest contingent of club fans, against its own assets.

The uncertainty notwithstanding, Manchester United seems best equipped to fight it out till the end of May next year with Chelsea — a side which is a bottomless pit in talent, versatility and confidence (arrogance, if one were to go by some of the statements of its Super Manager Jose Mourinho) and which is the overwhelming favourite to win its second straight title. The guy who manages United, one Sir Alex Ferguson, knows how and when to control and manipulate the twists and turns of the `How to Win the Premiership' script, written over ten months between August and May, like the back of his hand — he has managed the `Red Devils' to eight of the twelve Premiership titles since the competition was launched in the 1992-93 season.

Ferguson might have thrown a few boots, and fought with a couple of superstars during that time (Cantona and Beckham would testify to this), but he has never been integrated into the carrot-and-stick treatment that Premiership club chairmen extend to their managers. Ferguson has had a Vitamin A-rich diet right through; even during the three seasons that bete noire Arsene Wenger took the title to Highbury. With the Glazer takeover in the summer, and the failure to bring any silverware to Old Trafford in the previous two seasons, the greatest sporting manager ever is expected to win at least one of the two major trophies up for grabs this season — the League title and the European Champions League — if he were to hang on to his position in 2006-07.

To do that, he has two of the brightest young talents of Europe — Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo — and the confidence that Glazer has cleared the funds needed to buy Michael Owen from Real Madrid (before the transfer window closes in the end of August) without him needing to sell major players to raise the money. Add Ruud Van Niestelrooy and Ryan Giggs to the list, and we have the best attacking line-up of the Premiership this season.

Man to man between United and Chelsea, there is possibly not much to choose in attacking wide positions (Ronaldo and Giggs being as explosive a duo in the wings as the celebrated partnership between Damian Duff and Arjen Robben, though it must be said that Shaun Wright Phillip's signing in the summer has given the Blues greater depth) but United clearly has the edge in the central positions (Niestelrooy, Rooney and most possibly Owen, as things stand now, tower over Hernan Crespo and Didier Drogba).

But, attack alone does not win a long haul, which is the Premiership. There has to be other survival strategies such as an efficient midfield and a robust defence. The depth and versatility the Blues have in the central midfield will be the envy of all. The brilliant Frank Lampard excels in both the attacking and playmaking roles; Joe Cole can be an attacker as well as winger; Claude Makelele is one of the best defensive midfielders in the business and can step in as a playmaker as well. Ageing stars Paul Scholes and Roy Keane (the temperamental captain, called the alter ego of the manager, could well be playing his last season as United have almost reached a deal with Michael Ballack beginning from the 2006 season, and Ferguson has also decided to try out Alan Smith as a defensive midfielder this season to ease the way out for Keane) find they do not quite have support structures they would be happy with.

As for the defence, United's problems are self-created. Rio Ferdinand, the best central defender in the Premiership, is asking for a wage hike and hence is in a contractual tussle with his employers. During United's recent pre-season tour of South East Asia, fans barracked the defender, who retorted by gesturing angrily. Anti-Glazer protests are fine, as it does not affect the morale of the players fighting it out for the club in the middle. But, anti-Ferdinand barracking is unmistakably United's death knell.

Mikael Silvestre and Wes Brown in the centre and Gabriel Heinze, Gary Neville and John O'Shea as full backs (Heinze can also play as a centre back) could give Ferdinand support, but Chelsea — with the solid John Terry and tackler extraordinaire Ricardo Carvalho in central positions and Paulo Ferreira, Wayne Bridge, William Gallas and new signing Assier Del Horno in wide positions — again has the much-needed depth at the back, and the proven disposition to not making the silliest of defensive howlers that make United what it is.

Chelsea's biggest strength is that Mourinho invariably starts off key matches with defensive formations (4-1-2-2-1, in which five people are fully defending and an additional two have to fall back when necessary, is what makes him and Liverpool's fellow Continental manager Benitez unique in the Premiership), and the manager is a vocal proponent of the theory that strong counterattacks are the decisive moments that change the course of a game.

Benitez and Wenger certainly will not agree that the Premiership is a two-horse race this season. Wenger has lost his captain Patrick Vieira to Juventus for �13m, but it must be said that Vieira had a disappointing season last year and Wenger is desperate to buy Jermaine Jenas from Newcastle with the funds to give support in the central midfield to the effective Brazilian Gilberto Silva. Jenas is one of the brightest English talents in the central midfield, and he has played in defensive positions at St. James Park from time to time. If Wenger sorts out his problems early in the season — Robert Pires, whom Wenger is planning to deploy in a central role in the midfield this season in key matches and situations to offset the void created by the departure of experienced Vieira, is on contract talks with the Highbury board — his young enthusiastic team could well be a greater threat to Chelsea than Ferguson's band of ageing stars.

AP

Jose Antonio Reyes, who had a wonderful start and finish to last season, could well be the surprise packet of the year, as he is explosive in wide and central positions. Francesc Fabregas proved his mettle as playmaker in the later part of the last season, and his combination with Mathieu Flamini in the centre of the field last season (when Gilberto was injured) has the potential to make Highbury — Ashburton Grove from next season — the home of many more trophies.

Wenger, however, has plenty of problems at the back in the early season because of the injury to experienced England central defender Sol Campbell.

Inexperienced Kolo Toure and Philip Senderos in the central defence, and a demotivated Ashley Cole, who could not get out of "Highbury hell", are not exactly a manager's dream ahead of a long season.

But, the great Thierry Henry certainly is. The goal machine is looking to become the top-scorer for the third straight season in a row. And, there really is no forward comparable to him in the Premiership. Whether it is his opportunism as a centre forward, his deftness in cutting in from wide positions, or retreating to the centre of the field to build an attack, Henry is quite simply `Va Va Voom' (the catch line of the popular Renault ad on English television in which he figures). Wenger would be hoping for an injury-free season to his key man as well as to his main support structures in wide positions — Reyes, Pires and Freddie Ljunberg.

Benitez does not have such dream options up front. The young, promising 6ft-7inches tall Peter Crouch and the reasonably talented Djibril Cisse cannot win for Liverpool the most physical league in Europe. But, like last season, with astute strategic play in the centre and in the deep, Benitez can hope to defend the European Champions League, which is quite a misnomer in that it becomes a knockout tournament from the quarterfinal stage onwards.

The versatility of inspirational captain Steven Gerrard, the grace and speed of Luis Garcia who often plays behind the striker, the playmaking skills of Xabi Alonso and the central defence partnership of Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyppia are Benitez's weapons in the Premiership campaign.

The other 16 teams have not much of a chance of winning the title, but they certainly do not just make up the numbers.

They are capable of upsetting the superpowers on any given day, but they will not be able to muster the stamina and the pace to be there shoulder to shoulder with the `Big Four' during the home stretch of the long race. Unlike `Ol Man River' Alan Shearer. Starting this year as Newcastle's main attacking option (assuming that manager Graeme Souness does not poach Owen from under Ferguson's nose in the last minute), Shearer has shown a clean pair of heels to Father Time.