Although the red and blue halves of Manchester have burst out of the gates like a Grand National winner, the Premier League is a marathon, not a sprint. Accordingly, it would be the epitome of folly to write off Chelsea’s championship drive at such an early stage. Especially when one considers that they are a mere two points back of the Manchester clubs. Before the season commenced, most pundits listed these three teams as the favorites for the title and after a quartet of games this should not have changed.
What will change in the coming weeks, however, will be the starting 11 that take to the field for each of the title contenders on match day. With the Champions League group phase and domestic cup competitions having begun, squad rotation will begin to dictate the standings at the top of the league. While luck, experience and injuries will play a part in deciding who will lift the trophy come May, the ability of Ferguson, Mancini and Villas-Boas to manage their squads will have a significant impact on ribbon-color at the end of the season.
While it is difficult to argue which of the three teams has the best starting lineup, it is possible to rank the depth of each respective squad. Clearly Manchester City has the most talent at their disposal, given that they boast the likes of Carlos Tevez, Mario Balotelli, Adam Johnson and Kolo Touré on their bench. Similarly, United boasts a bench oozing with class and experience, with players such as Ji-Sung Park, Ryan Giggs, Dimitar Berbatov and whoever is left out of the back line on match day. Chelsea does have a strong bench as well, but it lacks the match-winning pedigree that City and United have. Factor in an aging starting 11 and a comparatively inexperienced coach, and Chelsea look disadvantaged in a comparison of squad depth and rotation.
In this context, a comparison of City and United is a difficult one from which to draw definitive conclusions. City has spent more money and has an embarrassment of big names at their disposal. While the positives of having such star-studded depth are obvious, it does create its own set of unique problems. How long will star players collecting splinters do so without a dissenting word or two to the media? Having Tevez, a well paid, proven winner on the bench is very different then having young match-winners like Javier Hernandez or Danny Welbeck on the bench. Ferguson may run into that problem with Berbatov, but the Bulgarian is the only player that would conceivably be angered by a diminished role for the Red Devils. Michael Owen, if his twitter account is to be believed, has no problem spending match day tending to his horses. Conversely, for every eager youngster Ferguson has on his bench, Mancini has a proven international that expects to play.
In terms of experience, Ferguson has no rival. His ability to keep the United squad fresh despite going deep in most competitions is a tale that has been told. Mancini’s ability to do he same, and quash revolt in the ruthless manner that Ferguson does at United, may very well be a key component of this season’s title race. Ferguson and United have done it before, so they face fewer questions from doubters. Mancini and City haven’t, and therefore more questions will be asked. That does not mean the blue half of Manchester won’t be noisy come spring. Then, of course, there is still a certain West London club that might be there when all is said and done.