Man United preview: Holders, favorites

Defending champions Manchester United enters the 2011-12 Barclays Premier League season as favorites, if only slight ones. Here is FOX Soccer’s preview of the defending and 19-time first division champions:

When you finish first, your season’s defined when you hoist the Premier League trophy. When Manchester United did so, they finally eclipsed bitter rivals Liverpool with a record setting 19th top-flight title, their 12th since the start of the Premier League. All the other clubs combined have won seven Premierships, a gap that’s only grown with United having won four of the last trophies. Big four, big two, big six teams? Those numbers say the Premier League’s a big one.

And how about that goal? You know the one: it accompanies this very preview. Go watch Wayne Rooney channel Pele and remember the occasion, opponent, and circumstances. Back in February, City still had faint title hopes, and many were still opening discussing if Rooney would regain him goal scoring touch. Sealing the Red Devils’ victory over their emerging rivals, Rooney put City in their place, quelled doubts he’d lost his touch, and instill a swagger in United that carried them until the end of May.

With that confidence, Manchester United begins their question for No. 20 … though they also had some real weaknesses exposed. They has to gritted it out last year, and the credit has to go to Sir Alex Ferguson for instilling a champion’s belief throughout his entire squad. This was a banged-up, confused bunch at a number of points in the season, yet it still hung tight.

Repeating that this year will be trickier. Remember: they were gifted by both Chelsea and Arsenal and were brutally exposed by Barcelona in the Champions League final at Wembley. Having said that, Barcelona is arguably the team of this century while United are merely a great team. As long as Barcelona continues to ply their trade in Spain (not England), United will be favorites.

Still, this is a team in transition. Sir Alex is taking a gamble on the young `keeper David de Gea, paying a lot of money for the former Atletico Madrid stopper and hoping the kid doesn’t wilt. He has big gloves to strap on as he replaces Edwin van der Sar, who retired following a career year.

Paul Scholes finally hung his boots up as well, though that’s not as big a loss. While he was an inspirational figure, he had lost more than a step, becoming prone to making bad fouls in his attempts to cover. As part of an $80 million spending spree, United also picked up winger Ashley Young (Aston Villa) and defender Phil Jones (Blackburn).

Though United wants their new `keeper to earn his spot, De Gea’s destined to line up behind Nemanja Vidic, Rafael (or his twin bother Fabio) and Patrice Evra – United’s back line. Ah, where’s Rio Ferdinand, you ask? You have to think that he’s going to have to compete with Phil Jones, and given his fitness issues, that’s a battle he may well lose.

Midfield gets a little more interesting. Ryan Giggs remains influential and looked ageless last season, but surely that cannot last forever — can it? Park Ji-Sung is the team’s best big-game player and Nani can still delight, but you have to think that Ashley Young, Wayne Rooney (playing withdrawn) and Antonio Valencia will form a trio behind Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez or Dimitar Berbatov in United’s 4-5-1 “European” formation.

Still, after watching Barcelona rip through them, there have to be some changes. I’d get rid of Michael Carrick and see if I could restore Anderson; get something out of Tom Cleverley or just play Darren Fletcher. Fact is, United could use another creator here to help out Rooney, which may explain why rumors of buying Wesley Sneijder won’t go away. More than one deal has been consummated after Ferguson put it to rest, and the Serie A season is still weeks from starting.

Even without somebody to pull the strings, United start as favorites to repeat, though they are going to get some stiff competition. The gaps in the Premiership are shrinking, and with rivals City looking like chances; Chelsea coming back to life; Liverpool improving dramatically; and Arsenal and Tottenham both looking capable of keeping things interesting. This is going to be a very close season.