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It's all about United, City this season

See the highlights of Manchester United's dramatic 3-2 derby win over rivals Manchester City.
See the highlights of Manchester United's dramatic 3-2 derby win over rivals Manchester City.
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Patrick Barclay

Patrick Barclay is one of England's most experienced soccer writers. He has covered the game for every broadsheet newspaper and attended eight World Cups. Barclay is the author of biographies of Jose Mourinho (Further Anatomy of a Winner) and Sir Alex Ferguson (Football - Bloody Hell!) You can follow him on Twitter @paddybarclay.

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LONDON, ENGLAND

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He’s conquered the Scottish League, the English League and the Champions League. What was there left for Sir Alex Ferguson but the Ivy League?

He did it this past autumn, venturing into the Harvard Business School to tell students the secrets of Manchester United’s many triumphs since he journeyed south from Aberdeen to Old Trafford in November 1986.

Much of it was familiar to those who have read my biography, Football – Bloody Hell!, and some had appeared in his own earlier memoirs, but the bit that surprised many EPL observers was about giving players the bad news that they’d been left out of a game; to some it may have seemed almost apologetic in tone.

Ferguson told his audience: "I tend to say ‘Look, I might be making a mistake here’ – I always say that – ‘but I think this is the best team for today’. I try to give them a bit of confidence, telling them that it’s only tactical, and that there are bigger games coming up."

The eyebrow-raiser was not so much the possibility of a mistake – Ferguson can play the fallibility card to perfection – as the revelation of how he plays mind games with his own men as well as rival managers and referees.

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Whatever the 71-year-old maestro is up to, it will probably work. He arrived in Manchester needing to knock the then all-powerful Liverpool off its ‘’perch’’ and has since seen off challenges from two Arsenals – the Gunners first of George Graham and then Arsene Wenger – and the Chelsea of Jose Mourinho. And now for the ‘’noisy neighbours’’ of Manchester City? That’s my tip for 2013 in the EPL.

The first of the season’s two derby games, a thriller at the Etihad, went United’s way heartbreakingly late for a City support that had seen its team fight back to equality from two goals down. And that Robin van Persie free-kick may well be seen as representing the difference between the teams come the final reckoning in May.

What’s for sure is that whoever finishes top in Manchester will once again finish top in England. The old money of United – poured in by the fans – versus the new riches from Abu Dhabi adds up to a fascinating contest and the pace once again looks far too hot for the aspirants from the capital.

With more consistency, even Tottenham could lead the London mini-league, though Chelsea’s class would be the smart thing to bet. Arsenal just want to cling to fourth place, for it’s been so long since they didn’t qualify for the Champions League that Wenger, who gets stick for claiming that it’s as good as trophy, would face severe embarrassment.

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The first half of the season was probably his worst since arriving from Japan in 1996 and this year has to be the one in which he buys quality. That’s real quality – the quality that used to hit North London in the days when Patrick Vieira or Thierry Henry might be plucked out of a hat – not vague potential.

Just about every neutral wishes Wenger well because he is associated with so much of the style that makes the EPL good box office. Yet I can’t forecast, on the basis of his buying record over recent years, that he’ll bring in enough class to keep happy and stimulated the group of young Brits, led by the truly outstanding Jack Wilshere, whose signing of new contracts was paraded before Christmas. All I can do is hope.

From Chelsea the wish has to be that their behavior will improve. The Mark Clattenburg affair, in which they wrongly accused a referee of calling Nigerian midfielder John Obi Mikel a ‘’monkey’’, was disgraceful – at least the lack of a proper apology was – and the long and distasteful John Terry episode also cast a cloud.

Let Chelsea be known for the football of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar. It’s the nearest we have to Barcelona and I’d make Mata my player of the first half of the season. The man of the second half could be Luis Suarez or someone else from Liverpool, for my hunch is that Brendan Rodgers’s team will keep steadily improving and maybe even reach fourth place.

The FA Cup could be heading for Merseyside too – both Liverpool and Everton have impressive credentials and the latter usually finishes a season strongly – but the Capital One Cup will be decided first and don’t rule out Aston Villa for that. Paul Lambert has done a great job there and I have him tying for top coach with Norwich’s Chris Hughton.

Last season’s top coach, Alan Pardew, has been fretting about relegation at Newcastle. Few saw that coming. Few imagined that neighbors Sunderland would struggle under Martin O’Neill either. The Northeast presence should stay. The bad news is in store, more likely, for Reading and Wigan. And even Harry Redknapp’s Queens Park Rangers.

A pity, that: Happy Harry would be a wow at Harvard.

Patrick Barclay is one of England's most experienced soccer writers. He has covered the game for every broadsheet newspaper and attended eight World Cups and nine European Championships. Barclay is the author of biographies of Jose Mourinho (Further Anatomy of a Winner) and Sir Alex Ferguson (Football - Bloody Hell!) You can follow him on Twitter @paddybarclay.

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