SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - MAY 13: Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United expresses himself during the Barclays Premier League match between Sunderland and Manchester United at Stadium of Light on May 13, 2012 in Sunderland, England. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
In order for United to reclaim the top spot, Sir Alex Ferguson will need to find answers to the plethora of questions surrounding his team going in to the season.
Manchester United might be the most dependable entity within the Premier League. As long as Sir Alex Ferguson remains on the touchline, steadily chewing away at a piece of gum, you can count of the Red Devils contending for the league title and a number of other potential trophies. Granted, they've slipped just a bit of late, at least when compared to their usual lofty ambitions, but they are still a side not to be written off.
Last season's conclusion was a brutal blow for United and their supporters. The league apparently wrapped up after a 1-0 victory over Sunderland, heck even the little celebration platform was ready to be set-up in the Stadium of Light. Instead, Manchester City staged a remarkable comeback in the dying minutes against QPR and the rest is history. United's season closed with images of players and coaches wandering about the pitch looking lost and confused.
Putting that emotional close to last year's campaign behind them will be Ferguson's first task in the new season. It was a year dominated by disappointing headlines around United, something their fans and the rest of us are not particularly used to. Turning things around and striking back at their oil rich neighbors would be a nice way to wash the bad taste out of their mouths.
With that goal in mind, in comes Japanese midfielder Shinji Kagawa from Dortmund and teenager Nick Powell from Crewe...oh yeah, and some guy named Robin van Persie. The van Persie signing is Ferguson's crown jewel of the 2012 summer transfer window, the center piece that will presumably catapult United back ahead of their noisy neighbors...but will it? Kagawa is honestly the more interesting signing in terms of what he could bring to the table, but how much he'll play is a big question mark.
Bringing in RVP has a strange undertone of a desperate move of a desperate man, desperately trying to stay ahead of a rival. It's not that RVP isn't a great player and wouldn't fit nicely in front of Wayne Rooney, but for a team with somany other needs in the midfield and defense, you have to wonder if this was the best decision. Rio Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes are all still key parts of the United lineup but their success will likely be dictated by the performance of some of the younger faces on the roster like Tom Cleverely and Ashley Young. A case can be made that the RVP money should have been spent bolstering the midfield and the defense, but Ferguson seems content with what he has.
He may be confident, but there are plenty of concerns surrounding this United team.
Can Michael Carrick carry the heavy load in the midfield like Ferguson seems to believe he's capable of doing? Will Nemanja Vidic rebound from his knee injury that cost him half of last season? Can Patrice Evra still cut it at left-back? Will David de Gea find the consistency he lacked at key times during his first season at Old Trafford? Will Chris Smalling's foot ever heal?
There are a lot of questions surrounding this team, but these aren't questions about falling out of the Top 5, these are simply questions about United being good enough to challenge City at the top. Should RVP stay healthy and match or improve upon his brilliant numbers from last year, then United could sprint past everyone and re-claim the league title. Then again, even Van Persie can't do anything if injuries and time finally catch up with several key contributors behind him on the pitch.
This is still a very good team, a team that will likely claim a Champions League spot and push again for a league title, but are they good enough to win it all? Time will tell.
Last year: 2nd; 28W, 5D, 5L
This year: 2nd. There are simply too many questions about this roster at the beginning of the season to put them in the top spot.
Key player(s): Nemanja Vidic and David de Gea. Vidic's return from injury is a big boost for United's defense. He's the team's captain and his presence only makes other players around him better. How well he can return to form will be very important for United and for his goalkeeper David de Gea. De Gea was up and down all of last year and while we saw signs of his undeniable talent, he has more than a few head scratching moments. He'll need to be a more consistent force in the goal for United this season.
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