By Martyn Herman
THE last time Manchester United began a season without Alex Ferguson in charge Ron Atkinson was shown the Old Trafford exit door before Christmas and the rest, as they say, is history.
It is almost unthinkable that United’s new manager David Moyes will suffer the fate that befell Atkinson in 1986 because he has inherited a team that romped to the Premier League title in May to sign off Ferguson’s trophy-laden 27-year reign.
The gritty Scot will be under immense scrutiny, however, as he tries to keep the United juggernaut in front of neighbours Manchester City and Chelsea, both of whom boast new managers well-equipped to plot the Old Trafford side’s downfall.
Moyes, the man charged with replacing the most successful manager ever in English football, forged a solid reputation at Everton despite never winning a trophy but finally has the financial backing to satisfy his hunger for silverware.
A 2-0 win over FA Cup winners Wigan Athletic at Wembley in the season-opening Community Shield last weekend would have whet his appetite but Moyes knows outwitting City’s Manuel Pellegrini and Chelsea’s Jose Mourinho will be a far tougher proposition.
Keeping striker Wayne Rooney on board and out of the clutches of title rivals Chelsea before the transfer window closes will be vital for Moyes whose only signing so far has been Uruguayan right back Guillermo Varela.
The Rooney saga has been a regular fixture on the back pages throughout the close season, along with Tottenham Hotspur’s Gareth Bale, chased by Real Madrid, and Liverpool’s Luis Suarez whose relationship with Liverpool has reached an all-time low.
Arsenal have been trailing Suarez and offered 40 million pounds for the Uruguay striker as Arsene Wenger tries to placate the club’s fans for whom the annual consolation prize of Champions League qualification is wearing thin.
While Arsenal, local rivals Tottenham Hostpur – who have invested 50 million pounds in Brazil midfielder Paulinho,Belgium winger Nacer Chadli and Spain striker Roberto Soldado – and Liverpool are all eyeing a top-four finish, United, City and Chelsea look the most likely title protagonists.
Mourinho, once tipped as Ferguson’s successor, is reunited with Chelsea nine years after first walking into Stamford Bridge, declaring himself the ‘Special One’ and going on to win every domestic honour for the club, including two league titles.
Since leaving Chelsea after falling out with the club’s Russian billionaire owner Roman Abramovic in 2007, Mourinho has garnished his CV by winning the Champions League at Inter Milan and briefly knocking Barcelona off their perch with Real Madrid.
Chelsea have not featured in the last two title races as managers have come and gone like London buses atStamford Bridge but with Mourinho back at the controls again, the Blues are already being tipped as the team to beat this season.
Unlike when he first showed up in west London, the 50-year-old Portuguese has been understated and less active in the transfer market, although Germany forward Andre Schuerrle, an 18 million pounds signing from Bayer Leverkusen, will add to the attacking options provided by Juan Mata and Eden Hazard.
Mourinho can also count on his trusty lieutenants Frank Lampard, John Terry and Ashley Cole for another season at least.
The biggest test of his man-management skills will be solving the riddle of Spain striker Fernando Torres, whose inconsistent form has flummoxed a series of coaches, although snatching Rooney from United might spare him the trouble.
Manchester City’s 2012-13 campaign was instantly forgettable as they surrendered their title meekly, sufferedChampions League humiliation and flopped in the FA Cup final.
Roberto Mancini was promptly jettisoned and replaced with Chilean Pellegrini and the man known as “The Engineer” has been busy adding quality to City’s squad, particularly in attack.
City have flexed their considerable financial muscles by signing Brazilian midfielder Fernandinho from Shakhtar Donetsk, Sevilla’s Spain duo Jesus Navas and Alvaro Negredo and Fiorentina’s Montenegro striker Stevan Jovetic.
“Fans of Manchester City will see a different way how they play compared to other years,” Pellegrini, who will be expected to make significant inroads in the Champions League, said. “I’m sure we are going to play an attractive game.”
While the usual suspects are likely to occupy the top six places come next May, there is plenty of intrigue elsewhere as the Premier League and its galaxy of overseas stars reopens for business this weekend with some eye-catching fixtures.
None more so than Michael Laudrup’s League Cup winners Swansea City, fast becoming a Spanish stronghold in south Wales, at home to a Manchester United side who face difficult games against Chelsea and Liverpool in their next two matches.
“It’s the toughest start we have had since I have been here,” said United skipper Nemanja Vidic.
“But we have trained well. Everyone wants to put themselves back into contention to win a trophy. I see the hunger.”
For the first time the English top flight will have two Welsh teams after Cardiff City’s promotion along with Hull City and Crystal Palace.
All three will cash-in thanks to the Premier League’s new eye-watering TV deals but they will quickly discover that the top flight is an unforgiving place.
By Martyn Herman