Premier League Team Preview: Manchester United

It was almost a perfect season for Manchester United as Sir Alex Ferguson's team swatted aside Chelsea to reassert their position at the top of the domestic pile. Things didn't work out very well against FC Barcelona in the Champions League final, but United are poised to overcome that setback and make a spirited defence of their Premier League crown. The Busby Babe's Gene Um has the lowdown.

Manchester United come into the 2011-12 season as the champions of England, a feat from last season that vaulted them pass rival Liverpool FC for the most titles won in England's top-flight football history. In addition, the Reds reached their third UEFA Champions League final in a span of four seasons - but just like two seasons ago, they were denied European glory by Catalan giants FC Barcelona. Undoubtedly, the expectation this upcoming season will be to lift the Barclays Premier League trophy once again come May while the hope will be to find a way to overcome Pep Guardiola's Barcelona - arguably the greatest football side ever.

While United are the favorites to repeat as domestic champions, it certainly is far from a given. Despite going nine points clear of Chelsea FC and Manchester City during last season's campaign, United's 80 points is amongst the least convincing totals in recent history for a champion. Going back to the 2001-02 Premeier League season, the champion's point total has been 86, 90, 87, 89, 91, 95, 90, 83, and 87. Perhaps this hints at the elite English sides no longer being as strong as they once were. Perhaps this hints at increased quality all across the Premier League. Perhaps this hints at both. Either way, the days of the "Big Four" dominance appears to be over as clubs like Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur have forced their way into genuine contention for Champions League qualification - if not the title race as well. With six strong sides in the Premier League this upcoming season, United will have many contenders to fend off if they are to lift the trophy for a 20th time.

Despite being 40-years-old for much of last season, the loss of goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar to retirement is a tremendous one. The giant Dutchman gave United six elite seasons, including his last season when he was arguably the best goalkeeper in Europe. The fear amongst United supporters will be that they are facing a repeat scenario to when the great Peter Schmeichel left the club in 1999 - when it took six agonizing seasons before van der Sar finally came on to find stability between the posts. £18.9-million David de Gea will be the goalkeeper tasked to fill the mighty gloves of van der Sar. Despite being immensely agile, quick, and good with his feet, the 20-year-old Spaniard leaves many wondering if he will consistent enough to help lead United to further glory. Lifting the Europa League trophy at age 19 for Atletico Madrid as their No 1 provides some optimism for United supporters.

Along with de Gea, United have spent in the region of £50-million for the services of Ashley Young and Phil Jonesduring the current summer transfer window. The former has established himself as one of the Premier League's finer talents during his time at Aston Villa - his value for manager Sir Alex Ferguson may come in his versatility by being able to play on either flank or also in the hole behind a lead striker. Jones, who is only 19-years-old, has seen a meteoric rise during the last two years. After an impressive debut for Blackburn Rovers against Chelsea's Didier Drogba, the versatile defender became a starter for England's U-21 side and he recently was named by Fabio Capello to the senior side for their upcoming friendly versus Holland. While United already have the established duo of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand at center-back, Jones will provide valuable cover for them and Chris Smallingwhile also providing depth at right-back and in the holding-midfield role.

While much has been made about finding the replacement for the now retired Paul Scholes, the player most are imagining is likely the midfielder of nearly a decade ago. The legendary playmaker's departure continually sparks the calls for the likes of Wesley Sneijder, Luka Modric, and Samir Nasri to join the club. Debate can be had on whether United is in need of an incisive playmaker that plays between the lines or a controlling playmaker that dictates tempo from a deeper position on the field - what is generally agreed upon however is that United are in need of some creativity from the center of the pitch. It will not be a shock to see United bring in reinforcements by the end of the current summer transfer window - even if it is a few games into the season. The need to stockpile talent in the middle is evident, but United still do have the capable Michael Carrick and ageless Ryan Giggs to pull the stings there - along with the potential of Anderson and the promise of Tom Cleverley.

Despite the concerns in the center of the park, the increasing threat from more quality sides in England, and the daunting task of overcoming Barcelona, this is a formidable United side. Opponents will have the difficult dilemma of stopping the deadly trio of Wayne Rooney, Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez, and Dimitar Berbatov up top and also from preventing the precision and pace from Antonio Valencia, Nani, Young, and Park Ji-sung on the flanks. The side is also fortified in the back by the captain Vidic, Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, and the da Silva twins - Rafael and Fabio. This is a group of players that have the guile and craftiness to win trophies. This is a side that is the favorite to conquer England once again.

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