Manchester United: 11 Predictions for the Red Devils' Premier League Season
We dust off the old crystal ball and gaze into it in a bid to predict how defending Premier League champions Manchester United's season will pan out.
From their chances in the league and in Europe to the players who will shine and those who will flop—and the likelihood of Alex Ferguson avoiding any run-ins with the FA—everything is covered in our soothsaying special.
1. United Will Win the League for a 20th Time
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United were the best team in the country last season and there is nothing to suggest they have gone downhill since. Indeed, as is typical of an Alex Ferguson side, they look even stronger than last time out, even if an early wave of injuries and some uncertain goalkeeping blighted their opening game of the new campaign.
Nor is there any immediate evidence that the teams around them have improved enough to knock them off their perch. If we are now talking about a top six of title contenders, we could say that Chelsea and Tottenham have merely stagnated and Arsenal—now Fabregas-less—have gone backwards while Liverpool have strengthened but are not ready to challenge.
Only Manchester City have brought in the kinds of players that will make a difference but, again, United should have the experience, know-how and legs to see off any season-long challenge from across town. Which brings us nicely to...
2. Their Noisy Neighbours Will Become Even More Boisterous
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Carlos who? Tevez hasn't yet departed for pastures new but already his inevitable loss isn't looking as catastrophic as first imagined. Sergio Aguero can claim much of the credit for brightening the mood around Eastlands after the £38 million man's blistering debut on Monday night.
But it is not just the Argentine's individual performances that will worry United this season: Roberto Mancini's side are a year older, more experienced and more cohesive as a unit this time around. Add to that the undeniable individual talent of their squad and United can expect more vociferous soundings from across town this season, even if it may not be enough to ultimately wrest the title off the champions.
3. Tom Cleverley Will Grow into a Natural Successor to Paul Scholes
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So, what of United's squad and how it has improved over the summer? Much of United's focus over the past two months has been on finding a replacement for the retired Paul Scholes, with Wesley Sneijder and Luka Modric heavily linked with moves to Old Trafford. But with deals for either creative midfielder failing to materialise, United have turned inwards for the answer to their problem.
And they have found Cleverley, a player who greatly impressed in preseason but was able to back that up with sterling performances both in the Community Shield and the Premier League opener at West Brom. Blessed with a poise on the ball that is not at all unlike Scholes, the United trainee also can ping a pass with the best of them and has a eye for goal—just like the master himself. Can he tackle? Even if he can't, we'll forgive him.
4. David De Gea Will Beef Up and Get Better
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As far as debuts go, De Gea's in the Community Shield was pretty bad. And when he followed that up with a second howler in a week against West Brom, questions were inevitably raised about the wisdom of spending £18 million on such a young goalkeeper.
But, as Alex Ferguson was quick to point out, even Peter Schmeichel struggled at the beginning and we can be sure that a plan has already been put into place to get the best out of the former Atletico Madrid man. A few lessons in concentration should be high of the list of things to do, as should a proper meal to bulk out the wisp-like creature we witnessed buckling a physical onslaught from the Baggies at the weekend. If both issues are addressed, there is no reason why De Gea should not go on to fully justify his price tag.
5. Javier Hernandez Will Go from Strength to Strength
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The revelation of last season, Chicarito has everything in his locker required to make it at the highest level in England—and in Europe. While some of his success last campaign may be put down to the fact he arrived in the Premier League an unknown, he still has the blistering pace, the steely determination and the trickery to outfox opposition defences once again this time around—even if they know what to expect.
On top of that, he can lay claim to a full season's experience, and plus he has another international competition, the Gold Cup, under his belt. All in all, a terrifying prospect.
6. Dimitar Berbatov Will Fade Further into the Shadows
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Hernandez's gain is likely to be Berbatov's loss. That the Bulgarian is still at the club after last May's Champions League final snub is a surprise and with Hernandez, Wayne Rooney and even Danny Welbeck apparently ahead of him in the pecking order, a mid-season exit is certainly not out of the question. Either that, or we will get further used to the odd cameo appearance as a substitute and his glum face doing little for an upbeat mood on the bench.
7. Chris Smalling Will Become United's First-Choice Right-Back
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Smalling was bought primarily as a central defender but with competition in that position intense, a shift to right-back would seem the most likely route to regular first-team action for the former Fulham man. With doubts persisting over Rafael Da Silva's defensive prowess, Smalling has already convinced in the role this season. He may not be as attack-minded as the Brazilian, but he is undoubtedly a better defender, and no slouch with the ball at his feet either.
8. The Champions League Title Will Remain Elusive
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Despite all this wealth of promise the new generation boasts, the plain fact is that United are no match for Barcelona in Europe. If anything, Barca will be even better this season, with the additions of Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez. Frankly, it's scary how good this team can be. Pep Guardiola's side are untouchable, and as long as they remain so, Ferguson's quest to win a third European Cup will remain unfulfilled.
9. Alex Ferguson Will Find Himself in Trouble with the FA
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As sure as a half-time hair-dryer follows a misplaced backpass, Alex Ferguson will almost certainly cross the powers that be at some stage this season. Be it for comments about the fitness of a referee, questioning the integrity of a fellow manager, refusing to do television interviews, or even complimenting an official, Fergie has a habit of getting on the wrong side of the suits at Soho Square.
Age mellows some men. But not this one. Ferguson, at the ripe old age of 69, is as fiery as ever and he is showing no signs at all of losing his, er, zest for the game.
10. The Anti-Glazer Protests Will Not Disappear
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For all United's success on the pitch since the controversial Glazer takeover, there remain some dissenters who are still concerned at the way their club is run. No matter how much silverware the club wins, until the Glazer family have sold up their stake in Manchester United and moved their affairs back to the States, the "Love United, Hate Glazer" chants will not go away. So, whilst the green and gold campaign is not as fervent as it was in its full pomp, the American family will still be made to feel unwelcome every time their private jet touches down at Ringway.
11. United Will Win More Games Away from Home Than Last Season
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The easiest prediction to make of all. Well, they couldn't do any worse than last season on their travels, could they? Just five wins from 19 games was an unusually low haul for United, with 10 stalemates and four defeats. That record left them fifth in the "away league" and it's fair to say that it was their home form that landed the title last time out. At least a win at The Hawthorns got them off to a good start on the road this time.