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GRAHAME L. JONES / ON SOCCER

Premier League coaches are ready for close-ups

The world is watching as the English Premier League begins.

August 16, 2009|GRAHAME L. JONES

The curtain went up in England on Saturday and onto the stage strode the Scot, the Spaniard, the Frenchman, the Italian and the Welshman.

For the next nine months, while the 38-act drama that is the English Premier League unfolds, it is their voices that the world will be listening to, their opinions that will count, their ranting and raving that will either delight or infuriate fans.

That's because talking the talk is everything in the Premier League. The games might be played on England's manicured fields, but they are won and lost just as much in front of England's ever-present media microphones.

To manage a team at the very top end of the top flight requires not only a keen soccer brain but a solid grasp of psychology. The ability to elevate your players while undermining the opposition is essential.

It is mental warfare on a weekly or even daily basis and it is captivating and addictive for the tens of millions who from now until May will follow every move in the world's most popular sports league.

The past-master of all this, of course, is Alex Ferguson, the florid-faced Scot who is the most successful manager in English soccer history. The Manchester United mentor began lobbing verbal grenades in the direction of his challengers long before the first ball was kicked in anger on Saturday.

For instance, when Argentine star Carlos Tevez rejected an offer to stay at United and signed instead for rival Manchester City, the latter club erected a huge billboard in the city center welcoming the forward to Manchester.

It was a dig at Manchester United, whose stadium is not within Manchester's city limits but in suburban Trafford. Ferguson was furious.

"That arrogance will be rewarded in the right way," he said. "They are a small club with a small mentality. All they can talk about is Manchester United. That's all they've ever done and they can't get away from it."

Earlier, Ferguson dismissed Liverpool, which finished second behind United last season, as a threat this time around.

"Liverpool have just had probably their best season for 20 years, finished up with 86 points and still finished four adrift," Ferguson said. "It will be hard for them to match that, let alone improve. Other teams will read Liverpool better."

Rafael Benitez, Liverpool's Spanish manager, defeated Manchester United twice last season and has signaled his intent to exploit the rift between United and City.

"We can always talk about the top four, but Manchester City are doing a very good job and have bought some excellent players," Benitez said. "I can understand why Mr. Ferguson at Manchester United is a little bit worried."

United is seeking a record fourth consecutive Premier League title, with the teams that finished second, third and fourth last time around -- Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal -- intent on stopping it and Manchester City, which has spent $165 million on new players, intent on cracking the top four.

"There is a lot of interest in us," said Mark Hughes, Manchester City's Welsh manager.

"There are a lot of people who want us to succeed and just as many who want us to fail.

People who maybe have a negative slant on what we are trying to do sometimes have the loudest voices and are given more platforms.

"I think there are just as many people excited and wondering what we are going to do, whether we have the means to do it and whether we are going to shake up the status quo.

"We have to live with that and deal with that."

Arsene Wenger, Arsenal's French manager, has set a target this season, but he might be aiming too low.

"We don't know how strong Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea are going to be," Wenger said, "but the target is always 82 points if you want to win the championship, and in a league of this quality that means you have to win 25 games."

Manchester United netted 90 points from 38 games last season, Liverpool 86 and Chelsea 83. Arsenal managed 72 and Manchester City, which finished 10th, only 50.

The newcomer on the Premier League stage this season is Chelsea's Italian Manager Carlo Ancelotti, winner of just about everything in Italy as a player and coach at AC Milan.

Instead of undermining Ancelotti, Ferguson has praised him, which indicates that he regards him as a serious contender.

"It has to be Chelsea as the main threat," Ferguson said. "Ancelotti will change the way Chelsea play. There is plenty of flexibility in what he's got and he should get goals from Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka.

"They will play the Milan way. It brought him two European Cups -- it should have been three because they should never have lost to Liverpool" in the 2005 final in Istanbul where Liverpool famously overcame a 3-0 halftime deficit.

Ancelotti is holding his fire for now, waiting to see how things develop.

"This is my first season outside Italy so it is a bit different, but I want to do well with my team," he said.

"I am happy, not afraid. There is no tension or pressure."

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