Manchester battle ahead

A week after the extinguishing of the Olympic flame in east London, the Premier League season is set to begin this weekend with football for once on the back foot.

As the British team won 29 gold medals before delighted crowds and each new winner seemed to set new standards of humility and likeability, the contrast, inevitably, was made with the rather darker world of the Premier League.

“A benchmark has been set and we must accept that in football, cricket, rugby and the other major team sports, we will be under a little bit more of the spotlight,” England manager Roy Hodgson said.

“But I wouldn’t mind the spotlight also being focused on the crowd. What made the Olympics was the incredible support the athletes got and the tremendous behaviour of the spectators.

“Performing at the Olympic Stadium, with 80,000 people supporting you is a bit different to being away from home in an English stadium with quite a few people trying to upset you as much as they possibly can,” he added.

Football, of course, is a very different world: whether Olympic athletes would look quite so good if scrutinised constantly rather than emerging for a couple of days every four years is debatable.

Particularly if the default filter were negative, as it is in football, rather than positive, as it seemed to be throughout the Olympics.

Sunday’s Community Shield, though, did feel jarring, as champions Manchester City beat FA Cup-holders Chelsea 3-2.

Chelsea’s right-back Branislav Ivanovic was sent off for a bad challenge, prompting instinctive and vitriolic abuse to be directed at the referee Kevin Friend.

“You can’t compare the atmosphere and the way people behaved in the Olympic Stadium with the game I saw on Sunday,” Hodgson said. “It was a very different public to the one our athletes perform in.

“Maybe it was a wake-up call for us all that you don’t need that hatred that football players have to suffer when they are playing.”

City, in contrast to the past three summers, have been quiet in the transfer market, signing only midfielder Jack Rodwell, something that has clearly frustrated manager Roberto Mancini, who insisted Manchester United start as favourites.

United themselves have made only one major signing, picking up midfielder Shinji Kagawa, but they are close to landing striker Robin van Persie from Arsenal, and will have Nemanja Vidic, Tom Cleverley and – hopefully – Darren Fetcher back from injury and illness.

Chelsea, the European champions, have added Marko Marin, Oscar and Eden Hazard, a trio of slight creators who hint at a change of style, but a title challenge is only likely if they settle quickly.

Arsenal, if they lose Van Persie, probably lack a little firepower to mount a serious challenge themselves, but they, for once, begin the summer in good spirits having landed Santi Cazorla, Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski.

And then there’s Tottenham, who briefly hinted at a title run last season, only for their comparatively small squad to undermine them.

With Andre Villas-Boas still settling in and the future of Luka Modric undecided, they too could be slow starters.

So, it looks like being once again a battle between the two Manchester clubs. City probably should have won more easily than they did last season, when they needed two goals in injury-time to turn their final game and thus win the title race, but United, with key personnel back, should be stronger this year.

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