Monday, 9 August 2010

The Community Shield: Should we read anything into the season's 'Curtain Raiser'?

Check out my post on Football Corner on the news of Martin O'Neill's departure from Aston Villa.

Manchester United beat Chelsea 3-1 in yesterday's Community Shield but what can we take from this year's 'Curtain Raiser'? Was it any indication of what we should expect in the coming season?

United looked comfortable in their victory at Wembley yesterday afternoon. They were sharper, fitter and hungrier than their opponents. Each of the big teams will have players struggling to shake off a World Cup hangover, both mentally and physically, but it seems the United squad, unlike Chelsea, has managed to do so.

Chelsea have been struggling to hit their stride in their warm-up matches thus far. The loss to United extends their losing streak to five. Despite this they remain the bookies favourites to retain the Premiership title but many have been questioning their chances to do so as the season approaches.

The squad is ageing and no longer boasts the same enviable strength in depth as it once did. Yossi Benayoun is Chelsea's sole signing this summer while Ballack and Joe Cole have both departed from Stamford Bridge. The team looks flat. Perhaps it is simply a lack of effort in these ulitmately meaningless matches. Perhaps the team is in need of some fresh blood.

It would be foolish to read too much into their poor pre-season campaign. Nevertheless, Chelsea appear to be lacking form and fitness entering the season. They are fortunate to have an easy opening to the season, though, in which they can attempt to get back on track. Their first five games are against West Brom, Wigan, Stoke, West Ham and Blackpool, teams they ought to be beating even if they are not at their best.

Manchester United too have received far less attention from pundits than usual this summer. They remain the second favourites by the bookies but they, like Chelsea, are no longer seen as infallible.

Chris Smalling and Javier Hernandez are the only two new additions to Ferguson's squad, both of whom having already been signed prior to the opening of the transfer window. This will mean that the likes of Scholes, Giggs, Neville and Ferdinand will all be expected and needed to play regularly. It is the lack of new talent entering Old Trafford to replace the Old Guard that has some people doubting if they will be able to regain the title once again.

Injuries plagued United's defence last season and hampered their attempts to win a fourth successive league title. Ferguson has, however, opted to once again put his faith in youth and squad players rather than spending money to insure against a potential injury crisis.

The Red Devils have won all but one of their six pre-season matches and showed yesterday that they have the quality to outclass any opponent. Hernandez looks an exciting prospect, Rooney seems to have left his woeful World Cup form well behind him and Scholes showed in the Community Shield that he can still dominate a game at the age 35.

Ultimately, picking a winner this season is going to be extremely difficult, more so than any year since the Premiership began. The chasing pack has grown in size and stature, however, and so it is no longer a two, three or even a four horse title race.

All this being said, we are only in pre-season. Regardless of current form or lack of transfers, I believe Chelsea and Manchester United remain the two teams to beat. Both teams have quality throughout their squad and, more importantly, know how to win a league title giving them invaluable experience.

I will dedicate another post to look at the 'chasing pack' but, in my opinion, that is what these teams are, chasing. Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City may have gone a long way to bridge the gap between themselves and the big two but it is important to avoid the predictable pre-season optimism and unrealistic expectations surrounding these teams.

Thought, comments and opinions please...

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