The Premier League season will kick off on Saturday lunchtime with one of its traditional marquee fixtures, when a Manchester United team aiming for a return to title glory host a Tottenham side striving to break back into the elusive top four.
After the disaster of a seventh-place finish under David Moyes, United earned a return to the Champions League places last term. But before facing a playoff to try and make it into the prestigious group phase, Louis van Gaal’s side will be desperate to avoid a repeat of the poor start to last season that cost them any chance of seriously challenging for the title.
United took just five points from their first five games last term, and there will be far less understanding of a similar start this time around. For a second straight summer, Van Gaal has been given plenty of license to strengthen his squad in an attempt to bring the club back to the very top in England and in Europe.
Particular investment has been made in the midfield department, with World Cup winner Bastian Schweinsteiger and former Southampton standout Morgan Schneiderlin arriving. Both could be in line for their competitive debuts in a Manchester United shirt, as could two fellow summer signings, Italian right-back Matteo Darmian and Dutch starlet Memphis Depay.
But rather than those making their United bows, much of the focus on Van Gaal’s first selection of the new campaign is likely to be on the identity of the man starting between the posts. It appeared that David de Gea had played his last match for United at the end of last season, with a long-mooted transfer to Real Madrid seemingly set to go through. Yet he remains at the club, although with his future very much undecided and with Van Gaal suggesting after the team’s final preseason outing that the uncertainty was impacting the Spaniard’s performance.
To add more concern, the man who may have replaced De Gea, Victor Valdes, has been exiled from the squad. Instead, Argentina international Sergio Romero, backup at Sampdoria and Monaco over the last two seasons, has been brought in and could be thrust into the limelight, should Van Gaal deem De Gea not to be in the right frame of mind.
Tottenham’s major doubt for the fixture also concerns the goalkeeping position and, intriguingly, one of the players to have been linked with potentially replacing De Gea at Old Trafford. Hugo Lloris broke his wrist lost month and, although he returned as a substitute in Tottenham’s final preseason outing against Milan on Wednesday, remains a question mark for the big kickoff.
Even if Lloris doesn’t make it, Tottenham’s side is set to have a much more familiar look about it than that of their opponents. Indeed, Toby Alderweireld, who impressed last season on loan at Southampton and joined from Atletico Madrid for a little over £11 million, could well be the only new arrival in the starting lineup at Old Trafford.
Tottenham’s other business has focused on removing some of the expensive mistakes of past transfer windows, in the shape of Paulinho, Etienne Capoue, Benjamin Stambouli and Vlad Chiriches. Perhaps because of the previous money spent in error, it has been a much more circumspect approach from Spurs this time around. The focus has been on recruiting young talent at a lower price, such as Austrian defender Kevin Wimmer, former Burnley right-back Kieran Trippier and exciting 19-year-old Dele Alli, signed from Milton Keynes Dons in January but initially loaned back to MK Dons.
Yet even Pochettino’s recent comments have suggested that given the money spent by the clubs around them, Tottenham face a real uphill battle to break into the top four. Still, an opening trip to Old Trafford presents a chance to demonstrate that they could yet exceed expectations.
Prediction: It has been a mixed preseason for Manchester United and the center of their defense, where Daley Blind is likely to start the season, remains a weakness. But Tottenham have not had ideal preparations for the season opener, having been stuck in Munich on Wednesday night following the Audi Cup. And, with Spurs requiring further additions to challenge the top four, United should get a much-needed opening win.
Predicted score: Manchester United 2-1 Tottenham
G: De Gea
D: Darmian, Smalling, Blind, Shaw
M: Schneiderlin, Carrick
Mata, Depay, Young,
D: Walker, Alderweireld, Vertinghen, Rose
M: Mason, Bentaleb
Eriksen, Dembele, Chadli