A cracking season in store

FOUR games in and already a pause for thought: who is smiling and which manager is feeling the hot breath of a chairman as he reaches for the revolver in the office drawer?

When China’s former Premier Chou en Lai was asked if the French Revolution had been a success, he replied: “It is too early to tell”. And so it is with the new Premier League season. But it has the makings of a cracker.

So, after they waved off battalions of players to play in the new Nations League, just what, apart from possible casualties, is keeping the managers awake at night?

Not even the loss of his biggest star appears to have fazed Pep Guardiola. And this week’s news suggests Kevin de Bruyne may be back sooner than feared anyway.

A bigger blow was when Jorginho diverted to Chelsea as City had been so sure of getting him they had no Plan B for the holding role.

Now they will depend on Fernandinho staying fit and avoiding cards or a major re-jig will be necessary. But they have to find someone in January if this season’s ambitions are to be realised.

You feel they’ll settle for winning the league with fewer points than last time but will focus on the Champions League.

Liverpool would be ecstatic with either but now have the depth to pursue both. Jurgen Klopp says he would have taken a 100% start even though the Fab Three have yet to hit the dizzy heights of last season.

And on those minor Kopite quibbles – Alisson’s aberration and Fabinho’s non-appearance – he is commendably relaxed.

The Brazilian keeper looks good at the day job while keeping a new player under wraps is what he did with Andy Robertson last season and look how he turned out.

The Reds are picking up the sort of points they might have lost last season and things still look very positive.

Predictably, Jose Mourinho is scowling as he scrambles to protect a diminishing legacy. This could be the greatest test of his career and if he does not have all the players he wanted, he has enough talent in the squad to turn it around. But his reliance on Maraouane Fellaini tells you how far United have fallen.

For once the Portuguese might have got his timing badly wrong. Not only does he have Guardiola and Klopp to contend with but there’s Mauricio Pochettino, a potential successor.

As the Portuguese bemoans his lot and whinges about being denied the signings he wants, he should spare a thought for the Spurs boss. Pochettino has no money and no ground.

Hamstrung by the double whammy the new stadium is delivering – deadline missed and budget blown, Mourinho would have thrown his toys out of the pram long ago. But what does Poch do? Gets on with life with the utmost grace and positivity.

You have to feel the manager’s attitude has to rub off on his players. Offsetting the bad news, Spurs have been rewarded for letting Heung min Son play in the Asian Games and can welcome him back to bolster a thin squad.

Biggest worry? Harry Kane. He may have scored in August but he doesn’t look the player he was before his latest injury.

By hanging on to Eden Hazard, Chelsea have given themselves a chance – and who’s better in the “dark horse” role?

It’s so far so bene for Maurizio Sarri but the Europa League’s daunting schedule may take its toll – something predecessor Antonio Conte was spared of.

Arsenal are interesting and it will be fascinating to see what Unai Emery makes of taking over from Arsene Wenger. Nowhere near as daunting as following Fergie, but still not a simple task.

He has firepower in Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and no shortage of creativity but Mesut Ozil needs careful handling and Aaron Ramsey must be played in the right role.

Lucas Torreira looks to be the tough defensive midfielder the Gunners have long needed, but the fullbacks and keeper are a worry.

Only Liverpool, Watford and Chelsea have maximum points with West Ham alone on what is not even minimum and it could be a long winter at the London Stadium.

Manuel Pellegrini was a curious choice to lead a revival just as are some of the £100 million (RM534.97 million) worth of new signings.

You know the likes of Cardiff, Huddersfield and Brighton will fight all the way to stay up – but you wonder whether the Hammers’ hierarchy and their unhappy fans will have the stomach for it.

Did Jose pay for the banner?

I JEST, of course, but if anything captures the disconnect between football fans and owners it has to be the “Ed Woodward – specialist in failure” banner flown over Turf Moor on Sunday.

For the Manchester United fans who stumped up the RM5,000 plus for the airborne protest, the executive vice-chairman is the man who denied the manager funds to strengthen the team. For the Glazers, he is the man who is making them billions.

The timing, too, was telling. It was the day after Manchester City had celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Sheikh Mansour takeover that turned them from a tragic-comic club to a European giant.

All but a small minority of City fans have shown their undying gratitude for the transformation. And as skipper Vincent Kompany told them: “This is only the beginning.” They can look forward to the next decade pretty confident of being one of the dominant forces in the game.

In contrast, the Glazers will probably look forward to selling “the franchise” for four or five billion pounds – it’s now £3 billion (almost RM16 billion) – once they feel the share price cannot go any higher on the New York Stock Exchange.

League position? Based on recent results, it doesn’t seem to matter much as long as they don’t go down.

In the unlikely event of the Glazers even bothering to watch the win at Burnley, they may have wondered why their financial blue-eyed boy is being singled out. And why City and Liverpool appear to be havens of harmony even with ambitious owners whose knowledge of English football was once similarly scant.

The difference, of course, is that FSG and the Sheikh learned fast and appointed people who did know the game. It didn’t happen overnight but after a few false steps at each, both ended up with the managers they wanted.

Liverpool endured Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish (2.0) and Brendan Rodgers while City had mixed results with Mark Hughes, Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini. During this period, the Glazers managed to see off the Red Knights opposition because Alex Ferguson continued to win trophies.

But all changed once the great man left. Liverpool and City had ambitious plans for the football side of things, stumped up the cash and consulted with fans. They are now reaping the rewards.

The biggest differences are that they did not have to borrow the money and have not ridden roughshod over the institution – for the most part, they’ve respected it. In the simplest terms, the biggest difference is the £1 billion that United spent on interest instead of players.

The biggest mistake Woodward made was giving Jose Mourinho a new contract in January. Now he’s looking at a huge payout if he decides enough is enough of the Portuguese’s moaning.

By denying him the quick-fix merchants with limited resale value, he is once again protecting the Glazers’ money – at risk of damaging the Special One’s reputation.

Is it not a reasonable question to ask that if Timothy Fosu-Mensah had been given a proper run in the side he might have been one accomplished half of a central defence by now?

And that if Marcus Rashford had been encouraged and allowed to actually play for more than a few minutes, he might now be the scourge of Premier League defences instead of another Adnan Januzaj?

They might also have saved a lot of money and revived the fading idea that United are a club that promote their own youngsters.

But, no, Mourinho only thinks about himself. How else to explain his doolally performance in the press conference after the Spurs game? Instinctively, he turns an innocent question to a defence of his own record. As we are seeing now, it’s him first, the club a distant second.

As he finds himself under pressure, that record demands closer scrutiny and the most revealing aspect is that he’s never recovered from a serious decline. Instead, second season or third, that self-combustion engine of his goes into overdrive.

He then fans the flames and storms off into the sunset with another huge payoff, blaming everyone but himself. Woodward has at least given him the chance to show he can turn things around for the first time.

Up to now, Mourinho has always managed to land another lucrative deal at a big club and will do so again – Inter would take him tomorrow. And there’s still PSG.

Such was the rep he built in the early years that he has no trouble finding suckers even when he has become a dinosaur.

Speaking of which, this is my penultimate column – in these pages anyway – and it does seem appropriate to be linking the two men I have probably spent more time writing about than any other – Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger.

The banner really should have had another name on it – same immortal phrase but who else has been so consistently rubbish in his third year? No one has done it so regularly: Mourinho looks a busted flush.

His ideas and his football – even his man-management – have been overtaken by more enlightened managers. Right now, the once-dashing Portugeezer is Sam Allardyce with peri-peri sauce.

Pep & Klopp still in low gear

SUCH is the expectancy that Liverpool and Manchester City will carve up the Premier League, neither can afford to misplace a metatarsal in the early skirmishes.

The merest miss-step will be seized upon, the slightest hint of a glitch in the well-oiled machines turned into a malfunction.

And so it was on the third weekend with neither of the overwhelming favourites anywhere near their all-conquering best.

Liverpool sit top of the pile with maximum points and have yet to concede a goal, but critics point to them needing a world-class save at the death to beat Brighton while the Fab Three often fluffed their lines.

It was worse for City who did drop two points at Wolves. Pep Guardiola’s men seemed a little rattled by the audacity of a newly-promoted team taking the game to them instead of just pleading for mercy.

But any suggestion that these two big-spending, superbly managed clubs might not be all they are cracked up to be is to clutch at the flimsiest of straws. Just look at the reaction of their respective managers.

If it was possible to be more pleased by eking out a narrow victory than murdering someone, Klopp managed it on Saturday night. Unlike the Arsenal of old, one-nil victories are something his Liverpool seldom do with only one all last season.

He said: “We want to be brilliant all the time but, if that doesn’t happen, that doesn’t mean we don’t go for a result. We fought for this result and so I am really happy.”

As the game wore on and Brighton refused to lie down, the nervousness of the crowd was palpable – and with good reason: it was just the kind of situation they would have blown last season.

That it required lightning reflexes from Allison to clinch it might be said to justify the £66 million (RM363m) lavished upon the Brazil keeper, but the save was just the kind that Loris Karius or Simon Mignolet are capable of. But as all Kopites know only too well, either one would probably have found a maddening and inexplicable way to jettison the points earlier.

Not that Allison didn’t manage a heart-stopping moment of his own.

His outrageous flick over Anthony Knockaert when coming far out of goal won applause for its sheer audacity. But just imagine if he’d fluffed it and conceded: it would have felt like £66 million down the drain there and then.

He would have been labelled Karius 2.0 and no amount of brilliant reflex saves would have altered the “dodgy” impression. Only a couple of seasons of solidity would have.

Klopp was certainly unimpressed.

“That’s not too cool for a manager,” he said. But overall he was pleased, adding: “My whole life I have found a 1-0 a very pleasing result. In this early part of the season it was clear – we have to come into the season.”

To have a 100% record without conceding a goal must be very pleasing when he knows what more there is to come.

Much heralded £40 million (RM220m) Brazilian midfielder Fabinho has yet to play; Naby Keita has played a lot but his best has been in fits and starts. He needs more consistency or he’ll be dubbed “Liverpool’s Pogba”.

Joe Gomez is looking as if he can save the club a bundle on another centreback and Mo Salah has scored a couple already, but has yet to hit his stride.

There are positives even among the quibbles: winning without playing well and the competition for places after that threadbare bench in Kiev.

Gini Wijnaldum isn’t going to surrender a midfield place without a fight while up front, and if the front trio doesn’t click – Mane, especially, was out of sorts – there’s Xherdan Shaqiri and a rejuvenated Daniel Sturridge to bring on.

As for City, that Guardiola didn’t seem unhappy with a point said it all. And from a game where City were once again robbed by nemesis Martin Atkinson, whose blatant errors cost them the once-in-a-lifetime glory of winning the title against United.

The manager realised how good Wolves were and certainly the Molineux men look a good bet for a top 10 finish in their first season back for seven years. But still City dominated possession, hit the woodwork three times, were denied a stone-wall penalty and were cheated by a handball goal.

Although they also lacked their usual fluidity, what was impressive was the way they hit back whenever Wolves laid a fang on them, rattling the frame twice and again even with the last kick.

Had the right decisions been given, the post-match talk would have been more akin to that about Liverpool: winning without hitting top gear.

That said, Guardiola is not without concerns although they are mostly a result of the surfeit of riches at his disposal.

Even with Kevin de Bruyne out, he couldn’t find starting places for Leroy Sane, Gabriel Jesus and Riyad Mahrez while Phil Foden wasn’t even in the squad.

You wonder when City are going to get any return on their £200 million (RM1.1b) academy when loanee Aro Muric has to be recalled as reserve keeper instead of trusting any academy grads.

Sane, one of last season’s stars, doesn’t seem to have got over the shock of missing the World Cup.

One mazy slalom apart, he was not himself and, with Benjamin Mendy encroaching into his territory, he may not be the force he was.

Where he slots in is just one of several conundrums the maestro faces with Mahrez itching for a place and Bernardo Silva looking like the player he was at Monaco.

But if anyone can do it, it’s Guardiola; just as Klopp will figure out the best way to deploy his suddenly deep squad.

With momentum to build on as well as new additions, it is hard to see anyone stopping the pair – even if the heights of last season have yet to be approached.

Lower fees can’t hide the greed

JUST when you thought a little sanity – only a little, mind – might be returning to the game, we discover it is anything but. The €100 million (RM475m) Juventus paid for Ronaldo is the highest transfer fee of the year and less than half of the 2017 figure that PSG splashed out for Neymar.

But consider the following:

> While Man United are in turmoil, their share price is at a record high on Wall Street;
> Spurs have to cancel a mouthwatering home game with champions Man City because of a fixture clash with what looks like an encounter from Star Wars;
> Spanish players are threatening to strike rather than play a La Liga match in the home of that alien game;
> And finally Arsenal, fresh from being taken over by billionaire Stan Kroenke, are being sponsored by Rwanda, one of the world’s poorest countries.

So, what to make of all that? It may confirm the long-held suspicion that there is football, fantasy football and just … fantasy. But there is a cold, hard reality too – naked capitalism.

The common thread is American influence – and the undignified chase for the mighty dollar. When it comes to sport, the United States has a different ethos to the rest of the world: games are fine but the dollar still comes first.

Let us take the aforementioned cases one by one.

The English Premier League table and the New York Stock Exchange do not have a symbiotic relationship.

The EPL may be littered with American owners, but losing to Brighton and having a manager and head honcho at war matters little if the MU toilet bowl sales are soaring.

You may think I jest but one of United’s most recent commercial coups is to bring in Kohler, “a global lifestyle brand” from Wisconsin. Actually, they make plumbing equipment for kitchens and bathrooms.

United fans are concerned they may be going down the pan on the field and are chartering a plane to display their displeasure for the next home game. The message is: Ed out – love United, hate the Glazers.

Such protests guarantee a lot of eyeballs but shareholders and executives will be looking in the other direction – at the bottom line.

By resisting Jose Mourinho’s demands for a quick fix with experienced players, Ed Woodward is sure to have been applauded back in the Everglades where the Glazers would see it as the correct business decision.

In their eyes, his glum expression last Sunday might have betrayed a slightly worrying reaction to the actual football but that won’t detract from his firm stance against the manager.

As long as United finish in the top four and catch the Champions League gravy train all will be well. Mourinho? Managers come and go and in a battle between Woodward, the man who has turned United into the world’s richest club, and the bolshy, little Portuguese, who has won them a couple of B grade baubles, there is only one winner.

You don’t need Brasso for Woodward’s trophies – just a sizable vault in Fort Knox. The former investment banker masterminded the Glazers’ leverage buyout of the club in the first place and its value has now topped a staggering £3 billion. Not bad when they didn’t have the money to begin with.

But thanks to Woodward’s borrowing on which they had to pay well over £1 billion in interest (and dividends), they are now laughing all the way to their banks. Last year, the six Glazer siblings helped themselves to £23 million (RM126m) in pocket money.

Debt has been reduced to just over £300 million (RM1.65b) – a burden that would cripple most clubs but with revenues close to £600 million (RM3.3b) expected this year, even a United that loses to Brighton can handle it.

They may not win anything again this season but the sort of “trophies” Woodward deals in are the £1 billion kit manufacturing deal with adidas, a £55 million (RM302m) a year shirt sponsorship with Chevrolet and a sleeve – yes, sleeve (!) – sponsorship tie-up with Kohler, which brings in slightly less than £20 million a year.

United fans may wish some of their players would roll up their sleeves and wonder when the armpits will be taken. Woodward is probably working on a deal right now.

What is no laughing matter is just what United may have won if that billion in interest had gone on players. Ronaldo would not have been sold, Messi could have been bought. And with Fergie still in charge?

Monday night’s opponents Spurs have also sold their soul to the Yanks – albeit in a different way.

By agreeing to host Gridiron as a way of helping finance the new White Hart Lane, complications with the retractable pitch are among several issues that have delayed the opening.

Finding their temporary home of Wembley is also hosting these Jedi when they were supposed to play City, they have had to push back one of their marquee fixtures. Sympathy is in as short supply as new signings.

Europe’s own ambitions to infiltrate America have hit a bump in the road with Spain’s players threatening to strike over plans to play a La Liga fixture in the States.

The players’ union complained they weren’t consulted on a 15-year deal and said: “La Liga is distancing the fans of the players, something that harms the show and the essence of football.”

It is a sentiment understood by players and fans but not, apparently, by those in power who crave a slice of another lucrative pie.

Finally, we have Arsenal being sponsored by Rwanda, one of the world’s poorest nations and recipients of £1 billion in foreign aid and development assistance since 2016. Sixty per cent of Rwandans are below the poverty line.

The Gunners get £30 million for wearing Rwanda armbands. Silent Stan must be feeling the pinch and had to borrow £550 million (RM3.025b) for his buyout of the club.

Greed is Good League?

Taking money from Rwanda is a new low.

Class is permanent, Jose – you are not

WHAT a time to talk about a lack of class! Coming, as it did, before City showed plenty of the stuff in eviscerating Huddersfield and United none at all in going down to Brighton on Sunday.

Alright, Jose Mourinho was referring to matters off the field, not on it, as he bridled at “the movie” City have made, to some degree, he feels, at his expense.

If that had struck many as a prime exhibit of the pot’s relationship with the kettle, he followed it with some nonsensical and sarcastic waffle to the media when questioned about the upset of the season so far.

“Don’t expect me to speak about [it] with you,” he rasped. Just what are post-match press conferences for then, Jose? He also suggested to a female reporter that she must be “fantastic at your job to speak about chemistry between players”.

Fair question, you would have thought, as he has spent the last 15 years being one of the game’s genuine masters of that particular science. But what took everyone aback was not the biting nature of his comments but how weary he sounded. Resigned almost. After two games!

The significance of such an abject defeat to one of the Premier League’s small fry could not have been lost on him. Yes, it is far too early to suggest the wheels might be coming off. But context is everything and he did appear to spend much of the pre-season trying to loosen the nuts.

In today’s interconnected world, it is also impossible to isolate on and off field matters. City’s documentary may have struck him as below the belt, but since when has he been shy to rub salt into opponents’ wounds during a career in which Corinthian spirit has been as visible as the yeti?

City’s ‘All or Nothing’ fly on the wall film is a significant step up from the infamous “Welcome to Manchester” taunt that led to Alex Ferguson calling them ‘noisy neighbours’. But is also a measure of how deafening they have become – and how muted United’s response has been.

Mourinho might as well have said “I told you so” for he certainly inferred that this was the sort of performance that is going to happen after he was denied the players he wanted. Undermining that somewhat was that centre-backs Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof were among the main culprits.

Even Paul Pogba, about whom he had waxed “I’ve never been happier with him” before the game, put in what can only be described as a non-performance. Not even a cameo. Ditto just about everyone including new £55 million (RM287 million) Brazilian midfielder, Fred and £70 million (RM365 million) Romelu Lukaku. All five mentioned were his signings.

It was no wonder executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward had a face like thunder at the end. With City rubbing it in in more ways than one, he saw, at first hand, what a well-run club on a modest budget and without grandiose ambitions can do with a little positivity and unity.

But doesn’t that apply to Huddersfield too? They came up with Brighton, survived with them and have spent a similar amount. But they might have been playing a different game to City. The only consolation is that Woodward didn’t spend a fortune in the transfer window – but he may need to in January.

Bookies have slashed the odds on Mourinho being the first manager to be sacked – just 2-1 to be out by Christmas – and the fans are murmuring. With the media never going to look a good story in the mouth – and this is a cracker – the question is whether the manager’s disgruntlement could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Instead of this job being the crowning glory which he thought when he took it, his career appears on a downward trajectory. And Woodward needs to know whether he is up for challenging Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp & Co – and the evidence suggests not – or if he has decided the best way of remaining marketable is to play the victim.

Another reason that United’s defeat was timely is that it came when you began to worry about the gulf in class between the Big Boys and the minnows. The difference was highlighted on Saturday when Chelsea and Arsenal produced a high-octane – albeit mistake-ridden – thriller to make up for the dire encounter between Cardiff and Newcastle.

Then came City’s masterclass against Huddersfield, a club that had spent almost as much as City in the summer window. Of course, City had spent more than the Huddersfield’s GDP prior to that and had it been boxing, the ref would have stepped in to save the Terriers from further punishment.

So is there life in the little guys after all or was it that United no longer wanted to play for a manager who appears past his rant-by date? The coming weeks should tell us.

Youth wasted on EPL bosses

“Youth is wasted on the young,” claimed Oscar Wilde. It appears that more and more Premier League bosses agree with him.

When Kevin de Bruyne picked up his unfortunate knee injury in training, we thought it might mean a first-team chance for Phil Foden, the English wonder kid who was voted Player of the 2017 U21 World Cup.

And when Foden’s international teammate Callum Hudson-Odoi, also 19, ran Arsenal ragged in a pre-season friendly, it looked as if Chelsea had at long last unearthed a genuine nugget at their academy.

The pair are the most exciting young English players to emerge since Wayne Rooney, but what happened? Hudson-Odoi wasn’t even on the bench against the same opponents and nor, for that matter, was Ruben Loftus-Cheek who had played in England’s senior side at the World Cup.

Foden at least got on the field but only for a token few minutes and it seems that even with injuries, Pep Guardiola is going to rely on his senior stars. Also not starting were Riyad Mahrez and Leroy Sane.

With such pressure on managers to produce results, it could be that the brightest flowers in a generation could be left to wither out of neglect. As the old saying goes, if they’re good enough they’re old enough.

Troubled trio an unholy trinity

AS the Manchester United pantomime threatens to endanger their season, the three protagonists could do worse than take a walk behind Old Trafford’s East Stand to seek inspiration from the United Trinity statue.

The trio depicted in bronze were not best mates either, but on the field they put aside their differences to play football from the heavens.

Best, Law & Charlton. Law, Best & Charlton. Charlton, Law & Best. In whichever order you prefer, the combination has a celestial ring.

Ed Woodward, Paul Pogba & Jose Mourinho don’t quite evoke the same reverence.

In fact, the way they are carrying on, they are more likely to see effigies of themselves than statues.

Petulant, divisive and more concerned with protecting their own backsides than the good of the club, they are undermining a campaign before it has got out of first gear.

The ongoing wrangle about transfers does not merely demean football’s most financially powerful institution, it makes them a laughing stock.

No club has chased the dollar more shamelessly than United yet when it comes to spending it, the head honchos are like old hens squabbling in the coop.

After an early flurry brought in a decent acquisition in Fred for £50 million (RM250m), a young Portuguese fullback and a third-choice keeper, like a Hollywood Babe, the club were linked with anyone with a pulse, but brought in precisely nobody.

No one wants to be taken for a ride, but United’s niggardliness was all the more surprising when the need to play catch-up has never been greater.

Not only is there a 19-point chasm to make up on cross-town rivals City, but that other club Devils don’t like to mention spent like there was no tomorrow.

Liverpool’s £170 million (RM850m) reinforcements persuaded Rio Ferdinand to warn United fans that it could be a “horrendous season” if they found themselves playing third fiddle to their two most hated rivals.

But it was not so much frugality as disagreement that caused the halt in recruitment.

Mourinho, as ever, wanted the quick-fix whereas Woodward preferred younger players with more resale value. And here we see a head-on clash of philosophies – Mourinho the football man versus Woodward the money man.

Toby Alderweireld would surely have shored up United’s defence but, pushing 30 and costing £50 million, he would have had scant resale value. Spurs’ Belgian defender was just one of many such ready-made targets that were missed.

It explains the grumpiness of the manager’s behaviour but does not justify his hoisting of the white flag before a competitive ball was kicked. But then he’s well aware there’s enough cash in the Glazers’ pockets to start wildfires.

This week’s announcement that no less than 10 Premier League clubs could still have made a profit last season had they had no spectators at all justified Woodward’s claim to the New York Stock Exchange: “Playing performance doesn’t really have a meaningful impact on what we can do on the commercial side of the business.”

The executive vice-chairman’s reluctance to take immediate remedies to improve “playing performance” tells you where his priorities lie. And why Mourinho is so miserable. It also explains their differences over Pogba.

The Frenchman was Woodward’s big statement signing two years ago. For a man perceived as not being able to clinch a deal in his early days, this world record £89 million (RM445m) blockbuster confirmed that he could.

Given Pogba’s subsequent underwhelming efforts it is fair to say the deal pleased the shareholders more than the season-ticket holders.

Pogba is United’s cash cow with his Instagram presence and antics that appeal to the younger audience. United plc have invested a lot in him and Woodward won’t hear of him being sold.

But Mourinho surely had a point when he said he was not surprised Pogba did better at the World Cup because he was able to focus with fewer distractions.

The player understandably bridled at this and, with his agent Mino Raiola already trying to hawk him off to Barcelona, Mourinho would gladly have taken the money for a replacement of his choice.

Someone who did not have a new hairstyle for every training session; someone who played a full game and not just cameos; someone who he can build a team around.

Unless Barca make an offer Woodward can’t refuse, it looks like Mourinho is stuck with him with the captaincy representing the last chance saloon to get him to do justice to his undoubted talents.

So what we have is an impasse with an under-performing superstar, grumpy manager looking like he wants out and a money man who continues to make the Glazers even richer at the expense of a club once better known for its football.

It is now more than five years since Fergie left and United just haven’t been the same. The togetherness shown by the Trinity is lost. Worse still, it is being practised by Liverpool and City where owners, manager and players are pulling in the same direction.

Pep Guardiola works hand in hand with Txiki Begiristain, who gave him his break at Barcelona, while at Liverpool the hierarchy are just as close. Jurgen Klopp says: “We like working together, Mike Gordon (FSG president), Michael Edwards (head of recruitment) and myself.”

You could call them a trinity. You’re right, Rio – for Devils fans, it couldn’t be more horrendous.

City, Reds a cut above

THE only surprise was that there was no surprise. For a new EPL season starting too soon for many, with World Cup hangovers not cured and transfer business not completed, an upset or two might have been on the cards. But on the first weekend back all was ominously predictable.

Underdone and as-you-were Spurs still won at Newcastle, unhappy and barely strengthened Manchester United beat Leicester. Chelsea even managed to ignore the Real Madrid raiding party (Courtois gone, Hazard going?) to comfortably see off Huddersfield. All three underlined the Big Six’s superiority.

But even among the elite, there already seems a gulf – between the Big Two and the chasing pack of four. Champions Manchester City and Liverpool had a cohesion and quality that was a cut above.

Neither faced strong opposition, but the contemptuous way they brushed them aside would have sent shudders through the rest. Without even getting out of second gear, Pep Guardiola’s and Jurgen Klopp’s men reaffirmed that they are the teams to beat.

The champions, still a long way from full strength, had a potentially tricky opening assignment – away at another Big Six team – but it felt no more arduous than another pre-season warm-up.

Helped by Unai Emery still getting to know his players – Aaron Ramsey up front for example! – City underlined their depth by bringing on Kevin de Bruyne, Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sane as second half subs!

Riyad Mahrez is the only new addition yet has joined the passing carousel as if he’s been on it for years. If the style appears all too familiar, Guardiola has managed to give the side a fresh and even more frightening look.

A fit-again Benjamin Mendy feels like a new signing and, with two assists from left back, highlighted the fluidity of their movement. With David Silva still returning to fitness, his namesake Bernardo has seized his opportunity and is now showing his old Monaco form.

The biggest change, though, is at centre-back where the traditional types, Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi, have been replaced by the modern passing pair of John Stones and Aymeric Laporte. A touch less rugged but faster and able to start attacks a nanosecond quicker.

The only weakness appears the Fernandinho dependency in the holding role which explains why City were so desperate to get a work permit for Brazilian teen Douglas Luiz. It was denied so a Fabian Delph solution must be made. Nothing’s perfect even with the richest owner and best coach in the world.

If Arsene Wenger had somehow survived and picked that Arsenal team, he would not have picked another. But Emery got off lightly. There were many of the old failings – and some new ones with Petr Cech now well past his cash-by date. Mesut Ozil reverted to his international form, Henrikh Mkhitaryan to his United form.

You feel Emery, an accomplished organiser with a track record, will sort it out if granted the time and money to do so. Whether he’ll get it from new dictator Stan Kroenke is another matter. If the American’s goal is a Super League, Arsenal are a long way from it.

Up on a sunny Merseyside, everything looks rosy. Not only is the expensive renovation looking good there’s the added bonus of a long-term lame duck suddenly showing signs of life.

None other than Daniel Sturridge, the game’s No.1 hypochondriac, appears to have emerged from what seems like a self-induced coma. He did not know much about the fourth goal against West Ham but showed enough in pre-season to be part of Klopp’s plans.

For all the goals that Liverpool’s Fab Three have scored, there was no obvious replacement if one was missing. For £13m, Xherdan Shaqiri is one “no brainer” answer and Sturridge could be another.

The Englishman may not have the Swiss’s repertoire of tricks but he has the pace, class and the ability to latch on to a pass, all of which should fit in perfectly with the way the Reds are set up.

The only other quibble about the squad was Dejan Lovren who did not find much agreement when he claimed to be “a world-class central defender” during the World Cup.

Klopp couldn’t resist a chuckle himself but did not bring in a replacement. Yet with the Croatian still to recover from his exertions in Russia, you might say the injury has proved timely.

It could just be that Joe Gomez, who stepped eagerly into the breach by snuffing out West Ham’s most dangerous player, Marko Arnautovic, could make the position his own.

Originally a centre-back when bought from Charlton, Gomez had a nightmare start with injuries and has been played mostly at right back. But this could be his long-overdue moment.

To many Kopites, Lovren is a liability and no more than a squad player like Joel Matip and Ragnar Klavan. Finding a top-draw centre-back already on the books instead of having to spend another fortune would be an even bigger bonus than a fully restored Sturridge.

Klopp says Liverpool face “a very hard” season ahead, but not as hard as their opponents. It’s early doors, but it looks as if the era of a bunch of teams contending for the title is over and we’re back to the type of duopoly enjoyed by Arsenal and United around the millennium.

If that is a gloomy prospect for rivals, the consolation for the rest of us is that we could be seeing a duel between the best attacking teams the EPL has produced since United paraded Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez in the same attack.

It’s worth following for that alone.

Game for vultures

EVEN before a ball is kicked in a much-anticipated season, football is facing familiar foes: an owner and an agent, both of whom are trying to steal the spoils and the show from two of English football’s most famous clubs.

Stan Kroenke and Mino Raiola are chalk and cheese as characters but what they have in common is their greed and chosen prey. ‘Silent’ Stan is the big cat who gobbles up sporting institutions; Raiola the vulture who picks them clean.

This week, Kroenke bought 100% of Arsenal, a move that the respected Arsenal Supporters Trust (AST) described as “a dreadful day for the club”.

Raiola, meanwhile, tried to sell Manchester United’s most expensive player Paul Pogba to Barcelona – without the club’s permission.

Although a section of United’s support might be wishing Raiola had succeeded(!), it does not diminish the effrontery of the man in attempting to pull off such a deal against the club’s wishes.

It is only two years since Raiola helped himself to the scarcely-credible chunk of £41 million (RM205m) out of £89 million (RM445m) for bringing Pogba to Old Trafford in the first place. And to do so at a time when their manager Jose Mourinho is crying out for players to come in, not stars to leave, is provocation on an epic scale.

In highlighting the game’s major problems and the need for clubs to wrest control back from these ruthless predators, two celebrated quotes from two celebrated old men come to mind.

Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsenal’s then Old Etonian chairman Peter Hill-Wood are as different as Kroenke and Raiola, but both recognised an enemy of the game when they saw one.

In his autobiography, Fergie said he took an instant dislike to the Dutch-Italian former small-time player and said they were like “oil and water”. He reaffirmed his view in a 2015 speech when he called him “a s***bag”.

It was the sheer impossibility of dealing with Raiola that led to Fergie allowing Pogba, then just a promising youngster, to leave for a pittance. And only the lack of an available Hazmat suit can explain why no one has dared ask him about the agent’s portion of the subsequent pie when he returned.

When Kroenke first loomed on the scene in 2007, Hill-Wood took one look and spat: “Call me old-fashioned, but we don’t need his money and we don’t want his sort …”

The old buffer was ridiculed for being an upper-class dinosaur but critics should have heeded the warning. He added: “Americans are buying up chunks of the Premiership football clubs and not because of their love of football but because they see an opportunity to make money.”

Hill-Wood eventually made an unlikely peace with Kroenke, being impressed by the American’s businesslike demeanour and profitable stewardship. Right now, though, you wonder if he thinks he was right the first time.

Kroenke has form in seeing “an opportunity to make money”. His success in seizing them has led to him being voted US sports entrepreneur of the year and his piece de resistance was when he relocated the St Louis Rams.

The NFL franchise was the biggest sporting institution in that mid-west city and in Missouri (Kroenke’s home state). But that didn’t stop him shifting it, lock, stock and two smoking barrels, to Los Angeles, some 2,000km away. After promising not to do so, of course.

It ripped the heart and soul out of the city which is taking a class action against him.

There were demonstrations as you’d expect from a place which mustered some 40,000 to support the Rams on a regular basis.

He has been the most hated man in his home state for years but the Missouri boy is enjoying the fruits of even bigger gates at his LA franchise.

No one is fearing he is about to relocate Arsenal to the north of England or Costa Brava, but it is a perfect example of what Hill-Wood meant when he said: “not because of their love of football but because they see an opportunity to make money”. Kroenke seldom even watches Arsenal.

It has to be said that not all American owners have been bad for their clubs – look at Liverpool who have experienced both extremes: the contemptible worst in Hicks and Gillett before enjoying a resurgence under Fenway Sports Group.

Yes, we know about the Glazers but what of Fulham who have bounced back under the enlightened Shahid Khan? Perhaps the best owner of this ilk was Randy Lerner at Aston Villa – at least before the 2008 Crash.

When Lerner had to trim his largesse and eventually became a hated figure at Villa, he noted: “It’s a cautionary tale: English football is not philanthropy.”
No, it never was. But nor is it a plaything for venture capitalists to rape and pillage on borrowed money. Kroenke has taken a 90% loan from Deutsche Bank to finance his purchase of Alisher Usmanov’s shares.

Now, he won’t take the Gunners out of the Emirates but he might just relocate to a European Super League along with other like-minded owners. That is the game’s biggest fear and another story for another day.

Football really has to get a grip and protect the goose that laid its golden egg.

It’s a two-horse race

MEANINGLESS? If you thought the champions might be under-prepared for the new season through missing half their squad and being thwarted in the transfer market, think again.

In outclassing Chelsea on Sunday, Manchester City suggested that if they were thrown a ball as they stepped off their coach, still in civvies and with headsets dangling, they would still murder just about any team out there.

Big Six? On this evidence and what has happened (and not happened) in the fast-closing window, the coming title race looks to be a two-horse affair: City and big-spending, raring-to-go Liverpool (more of whom later).

The Community Shield showed that the World Cup and the woes of the market had taken a similar toll on both sides, with key men in key positions notable by their absence: neither team’s first-choice keepers nor midfield maestros took any part.

But where the FA Cup winners looked like they had only just been introduced, City reproduced the fluidity of movement and slick passing that took the title by 1,000 cuts last season. The frightening thing, not just for Chelsea but the rest, is that it was different dalang pulling the strings.

After a so-so debut campaign, Bernardo Silva looks as if he’s fed up with being a bit-part player while the precocious Phil Foden unveiled enough delightful touches and deft swivels to show he’s not called “the Stockport Iniesta” for nothing.

Riyad Mahrez may have appeared a luxury item but his silky skills are a perfect fit for the Pep template. And in Benjamin Mendy, there’s a major upgrade at leftback. As well as Fabian Delph and others coped in the Frenchman’s absence, City now boast a marauding powerhouse on that flank.

Where Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva were hardly missed, Chelsea were crying out for the non-stop running of N’Golo Kante and cutting edge of Eden Hazard. Jorginho was off the pace but City shouldn’t think they’ve had a near-miss – Kante will help him. And in Callum Hudson-Odoi, the Blues have a fantastic prospect even if he wasn’t as devastating as he was against Arsenal.

Continuing the comparisons, where Sergio Aguero appeared none the worse for Argentina’s car crash in Russia, Alvaro Morata looked like he’d just stepped out of one.

On the day, Chelsea had the better keeper but neither Willy Caballero nor Claudio Bravo are remotely good enough. If Thibaut Courtois decamps to Real Madrid, as seems increasingly likely, Chelsea would have a keeper crisis.

With 38-year-old Robert Green – remember him? – a curious choice as No.3, they’ll have to make a panic buy to bring in Jack Butland or Kaspar Schmeichel or even Petr Cech. The promising 18-year-old Pole Marcin Bulka would surely be a better back-up than Caballero or Green.

Despite the plaudits for his distribution, Bravo remains City’s Achilles Heel. If anything happens to Ederson, the Chilean clown just cannot be trusted with the day job.

No one knows the importance of the position more than Liverpool who have finally acted to solve the problem. It has taken a world-record fee to bring in Alisson from Roma but it is further evidence that Jurgen Klopp is really going for it this time around.

City have won the only pre-season trophy but Liverpool have dominated since the last one ended. The tears of the Champions League loss had not even dried when they snapped up Fabinho as a holding midfielder and with Naby Keita, Xherdan Shaqiri also added, the Reds have remedied their weaknesses decisively and impressively.

As well as doing their business early, the beauty of these buys is that, with the possible exception of Shaqiri, they are players Klopp really wanted – but at £13m (RM68.7m) the mercurial Swiss was too cheap to ignore.

Now the squad is just about complete, the holes that were exposed at the end of last season have been filled with such quality and character that Klopp’s biggest problem is dealing with expectation levels.

But the current optimism has not been built on names alone – fans have now had a look at these players in what has been an impressive pre-season. Indeed, Liverpool have seemed to be ahead of everyone else – both on and off the field.

Helped by having fewer players at the World Cup, they have played more matches of a gradually increasing difficulty and slotted new names and youngsters in relatively seamlessly.

Even Daniel Sturridge has reminded everyone that he remains a silky, speedy threat up front if he can keep himself in one piece. Even on one leg, he looks a more lethal threat than either Danny Ings or Dominic Solanke.

The only doubts are whether Mo Salah can have the same stellar impact, whether Dejan Lovren is still a liability and whether Alisson is actually that good.

Kopites may have to be prepared for one or two moments on crosses rather like David de Gea had in his first season at United. But the Brazilian has to be a massive improvement on Loris Karius whose position had become untenable.

Elsewhere, it looks as if Jose Mourinho has hoisted the white flag although there may be some last-minute, over-priced addition made to appease him. Don’t forget, though, that Fred is a decent capture in midfield.

United appear to have suffered the most from the Premier League clubs shooting themselves in the foot by closing the window early. But Spurs have signed no one at all and you don’t hear a peep out of Mauricio Pochettino.

With no new faces and a new home to get used to, you can’t see this being the year Spurs step up – unless they land one of the cups. If Chelsea hang on to Hazard, Willian and Courtois, Maurizio Sarri has something to work with – otherwise he could have a tough baptism.

Arsenal may surprise with a new-found resilience but you can’t see past City and Liverpool to win the thing. For all the moans and whinges elsewhere, it should be a riveting battle.

An appetiser to savour

IT would be a stretch to call it the Jorginho derby, but Sunday’s Community Shield clash between Manchester City and Chelsea will give us a glimpse of why the Brazilian-born Italian midfielder was the subject of such a bitter tug o’ war between the two clubs.

Earmarked as the long-term successor to Yaya Toure, Jorginho was going to be Pep Guardiola’s main signing of the summer. The deal was done and all but dusted only for Napoli to insist he was part of the package that took Maurizio Sarri to Chelsea.

Not for the first time, big-spending City were gazumped – and enraged. They complained Napoli had bullied the player into following his boss to Stamford Bridge.

It was an underhand way of getting compensation for their manager (who they sacked) and a big blow to City whose plans were thrown into disarray. But if you think the anger will spill onto the Wembley pitch, think again: Sarri and Guardiola are the best of friends.

They even met for dinner during the World Cup, the Catalan having been given much food for thought in their Champions League encounter last season. He hailed Napoli as “maybe the best team” he’d faced in his entire career after a purple 25 minutes when they totally bossed City at their own mesmerising, high-pressing game.

They make unlikely bedfellows. Sarri, 59, is a latecomer to football, never played professionally and had a career in banking. But in his ability to get teams to defend 40 metres further upfield than the Italian norm, Guardiola recognised a kindred spirit.

Their clashes this season will be watched for their football master classes not their feistiness, and Jorginho is sure to be the focus of attention. He will be Sarri’s lieutenant on the field, the man who can show his teammates what the elderly, chain-smoking boss is raving on about. He will also show Guardiola what he missed.

All that said, City are trying to pretend that missing out on a future fulcrum of their side could eventually be a blessing in disguise: with no Plan B, Guardiola is looking at youngsters and just happens to have a few stellar candidates. England’s Phil Foden and Spain’s Brahim Diaz are the best known but earning rave reviews lately has been Claudio Gomes, the 17-year-old City snapped up from PSG in June. Not the least intriguing aspect to the annual curtain raiser will be making our own comparisons on Sunday night.

Not to be outdone, Sarri will have his own precocious youngster in Callum Hudson-Odoi who has been stealing the pre-season headlines. Just 17, the kid could be the most exciting graduate to come from their much-vaunted but still no-end-product academy.

He had Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin – no slouch himself – on toast in Wednesday’s game while further up the pecking order is Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Fresh from helping England to an unlikely World Cup semifinal, he could just be a major beneficiary of Sarri’s coaching.

Another Englishman hoping for a run in the side is Ross Barkley, a shock £35 million (RM185 million) recruit from Everton last season. Having once been touted for greatness, he now looks more like another Ryan Gosling than a Paul Gascoigne, but Sarriball could offer him a last chance at redemption.

The likes of Cesc Fabregas, Tim Cahill, David Luiz, Alvaro Morata and Marcos Alonso will also be expecting a lift after their careers stalled during Antonio Conte’s tortured final season. And with it looking more likely by the day that Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois won’t be heading for Madrid, competition is going to be fierce.

This is why the bookies make the Blues third-favourites for the title so we could be seeing the two of the best teams in the Premier League competing for the Shield – something that this fixture does not always guarantee.

Although it is not usually that competitive either, it offers a chance to put down a marker. Neither manager will be near to fielding a full-strength side but Guardiola’s may be wetter behind the ears than his friend’s.

With more players in the later stages of the World Cup and mindful of a tough opener at Arsenal next weekend, he will see it as another chance to gauge the quality of the next generation.

They will be bolstered by those who didn’t go to Russia such as Leroy Sane, Aymeric Laporte and maybe Riyad Mahrez, whose ankle injury against Bayern was not as serious as feared. Early returnee Bernardo Silva has already suggested he may come into his own after a so-so first season and is sure to feature.

So this clash between the two most recent champions – their league games have proved pivotal in each season – should whet appetites for what could be mouth-watering collisions to come.

Luiz, for one, has been impressed by Sarri. “I love this philosophy,” says the Brazilian. “We play high, with a lot of possession of the ball in a technical way. He’s trying to help us every single day, double sessions, to learn quickly his philosophy.”

Sounds uncannily like Guardiola’s. It could be the start of a rivalry to savour.