Premier League returns with a sumptuous pair of fixtures
The Premier League starts with the latest round in one of the great rivalries at Anfield, then get ready for new money against slightly less new money at Eastlands
Anfield, 12.45pm: LIVERPOOL V MAN UTD
Every time Alex Ferguson tried out a new signing on his old chairman Martin Edwards, in the pre-1993 days when he and Manchester United were on their uppers, he'd insist he was "the final piece in the puzzle". Viv Anderson, Brian McClair, Steve Bruce and Mark Hughes. Always touted as Fergie's final piece and almost always not.
In a sense Dimitar Berbatov, who emerged from behind a door with his beaming manager yesterday afternoon in an entry so theatrical that it seemed to demand a round of applause, was yet another final piece; the target man Wayne Rooney isn't and whom United have already seemed in need of, with only two goals from three league games. But for once Ferguson can settle back to watch his acquisition – who heads straight into the encounter Ferguson relishes like none other: Liverpool at Anfield, boosted by the unexpected return of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard – safe in the knowledge that his squad was already pretty much complete.
That, Ferguson said yesterday, is why the inevitable comparisons with Eric Cantona – another brooding, artistic proponent of the dreamy ball skills, the game-changing touch, the arrogant bravado – have their limitations. "When Eric came, United were fighting to get to the top and he opened the gate for us in many ways," Ferguson said. "[Now] it's a different situation. With Dimitar, there is less pressure on the team because we've had a consistent run of success over the last few years. When a new player used to come here he was the guy who was going to solve all the problems. Today that doesn't apply."
Berbatov declined comparisons with the old Diable Rouge, which Ferguson invited by declaring the £31m Bulgarian's physical presence to be a quality missing around Old Trafford since Cantona and Sheringham. "I have my own style and I don't want to be compared with anyone else," he said. "Maybe in the future when I stop playing you will ask some young players the same question about me. That is why I play. I try to entertain. Try to make people smile with my game." In his eloquence alone, the spirit of Cantona was reborn.
Ferguson is relaxing more than when Cantona was around. Resolving to use the international break to rest, he has been to the south of France for a few days and his mood was lightened by the news that Owen Hargreaves and Michael Carrick are back in his squad for today's lunchtime encounter, with Cristiano Ronaldo a contender for a Champions League comeback against Villarreal at Old Trafford on Wednesday. The latter represents an extraordinary recovery time.
Ferguson can also take satisfaction from the fact that Liverpool – a side in the ascendancy in those wilderness years of his – barely touch him now. Rafael Benitez has recorded a draw and seven defeats in his eight league encounters with Ferguson and his only goal in that time was the one John O'Shea put into his own net in 2004. Ferguson was even brushing away talk of equalling Liverpool's record 18 titles – an aspiration which he can accomplish this May. "Matching Liverpool's titles doesn't come into my mind," he said.
Liverpool, for whom an improvement on four points taken from other top four teams last season is key to any title challenge, could hardly be in greater disarray. A mass protest is expected from fans who want Tom Hicks and George Gillett out and it is believed that Gillett, who will be at the game, has been advised to abandon plans to stay at Liverpool's Malmaison hotel for his own safety. Benitez insisted he would not change his approach to United. "We can talk about it all day, but the fact is that United have a very good team, and playing against them is difficult. If you score first then you can have more confidence," he said.
Benitez, who will give a debut to new left winger Albert Riera, is clearly irritated by suggestions from Ferguson that his £19m buy Robbie Keane was overpriced – "Maybe he should look at how much money they are paying for a lot of players. The last time we played them they had around £70m worth of players on the bench," he said. But the pressure for his Tottenham signing to perform is considerably greater than Ferguson's.
Eastlands, 5.30pm MAN CITY V CHELSEA
Luiz Felipe Scolari delivered it almost as an aside yesterday, but it was designed to sting. Manchester City, he said, had offered him the job of manager before Mark Hughes and he had turned it down because, in his eyes, the "project" was not big enough. "Yes, they [City] offered it to me before," said the Chelsea manager. "They offered me a good situation, but at that time I was in Portugal and I needed time to think."
The first round of what could be an extended battle may have gone to Manchester City, when they signed Robinho (pictured) from under Chelsea's noses on transfer deadline day for £32.5m, but the second belonged to Scolari yesterday. He was withering about Hughes being City's second choice for manager, behind himself, and he offered the equivalent of a patronising pat on the head for City's plans for global domination. "They had a big project, they showed me their idea," he said. "It was fantastic; if they follow it, maybe they will arrive as one of the 10 biggest clubs in the world."
The real action starts this afternoon in Manchester, when Chelsea take on City in a game that has been transformed by the Abu Dhabi royal family's takeover of Hughes's club. Yesterday Scolari, his team ravaged by injury, spoke for the first time about how his club were out-manoeuvred for Robinho and the boardroom decisions that were made on that frenetic first day of September, when the Brazilian was sold by Real Madrid to City just when Scolari thought he had the deal sewn up. It was his first tangle with the internal politics of Chelsea, and the question of who makes the final decisions in Roman Abramovich's court, and Scolari was desperate to play it safe.
At first the Chelsea manager said that he had just kept to his own defined role within the club and recommended the signing of Robinho – it was the chief executive, Peter Kenyon, and ultimately Abramovich, he said, who decided what to pay. "They didn't pay what they thought wasn't correct for the club, the agent, the player," Scolari said. "This is the correct philosophy for Chelsea. It's not because we have money or don't have money. We have one project and we follow that.
"The coach needs to say: 'If I want this player, this is why.' I am the coach and manager, but I have zero influence on money. It's a job for Peter, not me. My job is on the pitch. I say: 'This player is good.' That's the way I have worked for 27 years. There were many problems [in the Robinho deal] between agents and outsiders, not the player. It's better to forget, although I won't forget some things. But life goes on. It wasn't about the player. The player is my friend and I like him, he likes me."
Nevertheless, when asked if he thought City had overpaid for Robinho, Scolari said that he did not, suggesting that, for all his placatory words, he felt that his own club should have gone higher in their bid. "He's a very good player," Scolari said. "If I have the money to buy a fantastic house, I buy it." Realising he was straying into dangerous territory, he tried to close down the discussion. "We must forget about Robinho," he said.
That will not be easy today, when the Brazilian's City debut will be a reminder to even Abramovich that his money cannot buy him everything. This week Hughes had focused upon playing down the eruption of excitement that his club were about to spend a limitless budget on the best players in the world. He has toned down the new owners' bold pledge that City would break into the top four this season and tried to unpick some of the bigger claims made by Dr Sulaiman Al-Fahim at the start of the month – that, for example, success would be pursued at any cost.
For the first time since the takeover, Hughes was talking about being "realistic" when it came to assessing what the club could achieve this season. For his part, Sheikh Mansour al Nayed, who is the major player in the takeover, has sent his favoured English executive, Simon Pearce, to Manchester to steady the boat. "There was a statement to be made by everybody on the day, a message to be put out that we are now very much in the market for the top players in the world," Hughes said. "But since that point, I think the message will be more considered and thought through.
"We would have to be in a good position in January [to challenge for the top four]. If we can bring in some good players in January, when we're still in a position where we could challenge, then maybe – but it's not [a] given at this moment in time. We have to be realistic; last year we tailed off badly, in the end we ended up top 10 but it could easily have been less than that – we know that. But we've started OK."
Realism, however, is a peripheral concern as far as these two clubs are currently concerned. Chelsea have been waylaid by injuries to Michael Essien and Michael Ballack while Jon Obi Mikel, Joe Cole and Didier Drogba are major doubts for today's game.
Hughes will have to drop someone, maybe even Martin Petrov, to make way for Robinho. It would be a brave man who left the Brazilian on the bench. Every impecunious football club has reason to envy these two managers' resources, but for today at least they both have reason to be a little uncomfortable.