by Liam McConville

With the season fast approaching, the usual question of who will win the title is being asked in earnest. With the thrilling conclusion to last season fresh in the memory, and the image of Sergio Aguero celebrating haunting Manchester United fans, Sir Alex Ferguson is preparing for his latest challenge. From utter elation to sheer despair in a matter of minutes, the legendary Scot will have had quite a job of picking his players up from the emotional rollercoaster they endured just a matter of weeks ago.

With the challenge of a new campaign imminent, the motivation to regain the title will be high, however perhaps more importantly the realisation of just how strong their ‘noisy neighbours’ are will surely be dominating Fergie’s thoughts. City have grown from being barely a whimper into a vociferous storm threatening to overshadow United’s juggernaut. Roberto Mancini’s talented squad could yet be bolstered by a couple more world-class stars and for United there is a real danger that they won’t be able to keep up with City this term.

There is a strongly held belief that if the United boss had withstood the expensively assembled upstarts he would have walked away, leaving on a high with City firmly silenced. However it wasn’t to be and the fire that fuels Fergie seemingly burns brighter than ever. He will be 71 this year and despite his unquenchable thirst for success, the curtain is surely closing on perhaps the most glittering managerial career ever. This year could prove to be his swansong and if so he’ll be desperate to finish on top of the pile for a staggering 13th time.

However one thing that has been slightly buried this week under the sporting festival that is the Olympics is the controversial move by United’s owners the Glazers to float ten per cent of the club on the New York Stock Exchange. Although some will welcome fresh investment which will reportedly be worth around £200million the way that the money will be distributed will be of concern to United supporters. Instead of all the much needed investment going directly to servicing United’s mammoth debt, (stemming from the Americans’ takeover in 2005) the Glazers will pocket half of the proceeds from the floatation, with many questioning if Ferguson himself will also stand to profit from the investment.

With the crippling interest payments from the debt, United have had to face up to losing their status as the dominant player in the transfer market. Their spending power has been dwarfed by both City and Chelsea. Whilst once United could shell out huge sums on world-class players, they are now shopping at a lower level. Shinji Kagawa is a very talented player and will undoubtedly be a great signing but he may take time to settle. Nick Powell is another player who could prove to be a star but his time is unlikely to come for some years. United seem to be restricted to signing players with potential rather than a proven performer.

Admittedly United have been linked with big money moves for the unsettled Arsenal skipper Robin Van Persie and young Brazilian starlet Lucas Moura. Both of the touted moves would have likely cost in the region of £30million. United’s interest in both has seemingly cooled and questions are being asked whether the moves were ever serious possibilities or merely lip service designed to appease disgruntled supporters.

Ferguson has always been vocal in his support for the Glazers, seemingly trying to avoid any possible conflict with the owners. He’s even gone as far as saying that ‘the Glazers were great for United’. Ferguson is too old and too wise to embark on a feud with his paymasters (he’s learned after having his fingers burned with previous United shareholders JP McManus and John Magnier in a row over the breeding rights of a horse that they jointly owned). However it would be interesting to see if Ferguson is as bullish about the impact of the Glazers privately as his public persona suggests.

Only Ferguson’s vast experience and managerial genius has allowed United to stay at this level for so long. The cracks were clear in an early exit from the Champions League; an acrimonious defeat in Basel showed fragility rarely seen in Ferguson’s all conquering side. Domestically United lack the swagger of previous teams and despite a valiant effort they threw away last season’s title with an uncharacteristic series of poor results.

Ultimately it is obvious that the Glazers have had a huge impact on United, sadly for the supporters it hasn’t been a positive one. Supporters have proved in the past that they will not be fooled by the spin coming out of the club. Don’t be surprised to see more protests over the course of the season, particularly if United can’t keep pace with their rivals. It is not the ideal backdrop for the new season, especially one that could be the last of the Scot’s tenure.

Ferguson has seen and done it all, but keeping the fractions emerging from United all together, whilst simultaneously moulding another successful team, could prove to be his biggest challenge yet.