Man United will be the team to beat

The big spenders appear to be head and shoulders above their rivals. United have that look again, the one which says they could be unstoppable. Frank Malley previews the English Premier League, which kicks off on August 11.

An hour or so after the Champions League had been narrowly lost to AC Milan last May, Rafael Benitez sat deep inside the Olympic Stadium and sent a simple message to Liverpool’s new owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

Buy, buy and buy again. And spend big.

He put it slightly more diplomatically, saying “When you lose you need to start thinking about the future. You could see the quality of the players Milan have and we have to improve our team.”

But there was a note of urgency in his voice when he added that if Liverpool wanted to compete with Chelsea and Manchester United the next season, they had to do it “two steps at a time”.

There was nothing wrong with Benitez’s logic.

Liverpool’s problem this season is that Chelsea and, in particular, United have also been taking the Premier League stairs at double time.

The Merseysiders were desperate for a new striker. They have struggled to replace prolific goal scorers like Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler in his prime. So Benitez spent £21.5m on Spain’s Fernando Torres. While the Spaniard impressed in last year’s World Cup in Germany with three goals, his tally in the Spanish league last season was 14 from 36 matches.

Liverpool will need more than that if they are to trouble the big two, especially United.

There was an ebullience about Sir Alex Ferguson’s close-season forays into the transfer market which indicated that he believes he is on the trophy trail again this season. The acquisitions of Anderson of Brazil and Nani of Portugal for a combined £30m were proof that the Glazer family owners are prepared to back the manager with hard cash.

On top of that Ferguson has courted Carlos Tevez and also landed Owen Hargreaves from Bayern Munich, which could prove to be the most important move of the summer.

Ferguson’s big problem last year was his team’s inability to score goals, though it was the defence that ultimately cost Manchester United a place in the Champions League final.

A replacement for Roy Keane has been Ferguson’s priority, and he has plugged that gap, not with one man, but two. Hargreaves covers the ground equally well, as Keane did in his prime. He is a feisty ball winner and a wonderful athlete.

True, Hargreaves does not possess Keane’s vision or his ability to ghost into the penalty box late and unseen. But Ferguson is hoping the maturing Michael Carrick will provide the passing ability and the creativity in the central areas. And he just might if his improving form and confidence towards the end of last season is anything to go by.

The bottom line is that United as a squad are superior to what they were last season. They possess more match-winners and more youthful zest. And they still have Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, the evergreen pair at the heart of their domination this past decade.

Contrast United’s preparations with the more uncertain picture at Stamford Bridge where Frank Lampard stalled over signing a new contract, where the future of Andriy Shevchenko is in doubt and where there is no guarantee that Michael Ballack will produce any more than he did in a depressing first season.

Yes, Chelsea have retained manager Jose Mourinho whose greatest asset is the ability to get an expensive and disparate squad all travelling in the same direction. But they do not approach the new season with the momentum of United.

Neither do Arsenal, who embark on a journey into the unknown after parting with influential vice-chairman David Dein and selling Thierry Henry to Barcelona.

Henry had been the heartbeat of the club for so long. But his absence could go one of two ways. It could cast a cloud over the club’s rebuilding plans but more likely it will accelerate the promotion of the Wenger youngsters who play such sublime football but who have lost the edge of ‘The Invincibles’.

It is time for Cesc Fabregas to step forward as the creative thrust. Time, too, for Robin van Persie to step into Henry’s boots and supply the goals which were lacking last season.

Who else might challenge the Big Four for European places?

Tottenham, for one, could build on their improvement, especially with the talent of last season’s best signing Dimitar Berbatov.

Watch out for Newcastle, too, who have broken free of the Shepherd-Hall era. They have been promised real money to spend and have a manager in Sam Allardyce who will not stand for the underachievement of the past.

Apart from those expect the Premier League to form the pattern of the past decade. The Big Four off across the horizon by Christmas, a trailing group of four or five and a bottom half all struggling to make headway in the world’s richest league.

As usual those who came up, Sunderland, Birmingham and Derby, are likely to go down. None of them give the impression that they can do what Reading managed last season.

Roy Keane at Sunderland might just have the inspiration and the essential big-name lure to survive, but that would bring Fulham into the relegation equation.

Sacking Chris Coleman was not the finest hour of Mohamed Al Fayed and the chances are that the new manager, Lawrie Sanchez, will be heading towards the Championship come next May after a dogfight involving the usual suspects such as Wigan and Middlesbrough.

But when it comes to the Premier League champions, I can see Manchester United lifting yet another title. Do not rule them out for the Champions League either in what could be an action replay of their best-ever season of 1999.

United have that look again. The one which says they could be unstoppable.

© PA Sport, 2007, All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, re-written, re-distributed or commercially exploited. Sportstar is not responsible for any inaccuracy in the material.

* * * THE ONES TO WATCH

Whether it is the new arrivals, emerging youngsters or forgotten heroes, there are plenty of players who will be keen to make their mark in the Premier League this season. Here are the 10 players to look out for.

DEAN ASHTON (West Ham)

A horrific ankle injury last summer ended his season even before it had begun and West Ham dearly missed him. This season, the forward will help soften the blow of Carlos Tevez’s departure.

CLAUDIO PIZARRO (Chelsea)

He may have cost Jose Mourinho nothing, but the Peruvian already has proven pedigree in the Champions League. A dangerous poacher, the Chelsea striker could prove one of the shrewdest signings of the summer.

ANDERSON (Manchester United)

The arrival of one of the hottest young talents around will bolster what is already one of Europe’s most formidable forward lines. Quick and versatile, expect big things from the Brazilian.

EDUARDO (Arsenal)

Few players boast a scoring record like the Croatian. He netted 73 goals in 104 games for Dinamo Zagreb. Filling Thierry Henry’s boots is an unenviable task, but Arsene Wenger rarely gets it wrong.

YOUNES KABOUL (Tottenham)

The 21-year-old is rated as France’s finest young defender and with question marks remaining over Ledley King’s fitness he could have a key role to play this season.

MARK NOBLE (West Ham)

Tevez may have hit the headlines, but Noble’s promotion to the Hammers’ starting XI was a key factor in their survival. Will strive to fully establish himself this term.

COLIN DOYLE (Birmingham)

The Irish goalkeeper has long been tipped for big things at St. Andrews, and he finally made his mark, ousting Maik Taylor last season. Good enough to make the step up to the Premier League.

JOHN CAREW (Aston Villa)

He may have managed just three goals since his January arrival, but the powerful Norwegian’s performances indicated that he has all the attributes to succeed in the Premier League.

JONNY EVANS (Manchester United)

The talented youngster was a prominent figure in Sunderland’s promotion while on loan and Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to keep him at Old Trafford this term rather suggests he could be ready to make the step up.

DAVID ROZEHNAL (Newcastle)

Sam Allardyce moved quickly to plug Newcastle’s leaky defence and in the classy Czech he has secured a fine acquisition. Not only is he tough and trustworthy, Rozehnal is also not short of pace.

Brendan McLoughlin

© PA Sport, 2007, All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, re-written, re-distributed or commercially exploited. Sportstar is not responsible for any inaccuracy in the material.