City, United spend heav­ily to top­ple Chelsea

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - GLOBE SPORTS -

The lead­ers of Manch­ester’s two big­gest soc­cer clubs break the bank to build a team that can chal­lenge their ri­val in Lon­don

ROB HARRIS LON­DON

The­way Pep Guardi­ola and Jose Mour­inho have been spend­ing, the Pre­mier League tro­phy should be re­turn­ing to Manch­ester in May.

In an off-sea­son that has seen more than £1-bil­lion ($1.7-bil­lion) in­vested in play­ers, Manch­ester ri­vals City and United have ac­counted for more than a third of that spend­ing.

It was the in­evitable re­ac­tion to fee­ble ti­tle chal­lenges that saw Guardi­ola’s City fin­ish 15 points be­hind the vic­to­ri­ous Chelsea side in third place and Mour­inho’s United fin­ish nine points fur­ther adrift.

For a se­rial col­lec­tor of tro­phies at Barcelona and Bay­ern Mu­nich, fin­ish­ing his first sea­son in English foot­ball with­out a sin­gle ti­tle was an un­usual feel­ing for Guardi­ola.

If the over­haul of the squad, cost­ing more than £200-mil­lion, doesn’t de­liver sil­ver­ware, there will be fur­ther un­com­fort­able ques­tions for the Spa­niard.

Guardi­ola has started re­build­ing from the back by re­cruit­ing full­backs Ben­jamin Mendy and Kyle Walker for around £50-mil­lion apiece.

Sign­ing Walker was par­tic­u­larly eye catch­ing. The Eng­land right back forced his way out of a Tot­ten­ham team that fin­ished ahead of City in sec­ond place.

With its rigid pay struc­ture, Tot­ten­ham lacks the will to break its bud­get to of­fer big salaries. Or, in this trans­fer win­dow, spend any­thing yet on re­in­forc­ing a squad that de­liv­ered Tot­ten­ham’s high­est league fin­ish in more than 50 years.

Rather than be­ing a plat­form to build on to chal­lenge for a first ti­tle since 1961, Tot­ten­ham’s own­er­ship ap­pears more fo­cused on build­ing its new sta­dium. Still, the north Lon­don club has kept its key tal­ent – notably Harry Kane and Dele Alli, who scored 47 league goals be­tween them last sea­son.

In search of goals, Manch­ester United turned to last sea­son’s sec­ond-high­est scorer. Striker Romelu Lukaku cost at least £75-mil­lion, while Mour­inho off­loaded cap­tain Wayne Rooney in the op­po­site di­rec­tion to Ever­ton.

Lukaku isn’t the only player be­ing re­united with Mour­inho, who also con­vinced former club Chelsea to sell Ne­manja Matic to United. A fee of £40-mil­lion proved too sub­stan­tial for Chelsea owner Ro­man Abramovich to turn down, even if man­ager Antonio Conte wanted to re­tain the mid­fielder he still called “very im­por­tant for our team” on Wed­nes­day.

“Some­times you must ac­cept this crazy trans­fer mar­ket,” Conte told Bri­tish broad­caster Sky Sports, “and some­times you must ac­cept dif­fer­ent de­ci­sions. But he is a great loss for us.”

The dan­ger for Chelsea is that the har­mo­nious at­mos­phere reestab­lished by Conte af­ter Mour­inho’s bitter de­par­ture will erode. Although Conte has brought in striker Al­varo Mo­rata from Real Madrid, he is find­ing it hard to sell another for­ward – Diego Costa.

Chelsea had wanted to bring Lukaku back to Stam­ford Bridge, a trans­fer thwarted by Mour­inho. De­spite fin­ish­ing sixth in the league, the Por­tuguese coach com­pleted his first sea­son at United with two tro­phies. While the League Cup is lit­tle re­garded, the Europa League pro­vided a ticket into the Cham­pi­ons League – and prob­a­bly the sig­na­ture of Lukaku.

It was one of the costli­est moves in Europe dur­ing a sum­mer trans­fer win­dow that has seen United mid­fielder Paul Pogba re­placed as the most ex­pen­sive player in foot­ball by Ney­mar, who joined Paris Saint-Ger­main for €222-mil­lion ($346-mil­lion).

“I don’t think we’re go­ing to see that repli­cated [in Eng­land],” Pre­mier League chair­man Richard Scu­d­amore said. “And, in some ways, I’m glad it’s not the Pre­mier League hold­ing that par­tic­u­lar record.”

Yet, there is set to be a knock-on ef­fect, par­tic­u­larly at Liver­pool.

Liver­pool now ap­pears to have a fight on its hands to re­tain at­tack­ing mid­fielder Philippe Coutinho as Barcelona looks to rein­vest some of its Ney­mar wind­fall in another Brazil­ian. Los­ing such a key player would ham­per Juer­gen Klopp’s hopes of us­ing his sec­ond full sea­son at Anfield to show his up­beat de­meanour can be matched with sil­ver­ware.

Arse­nal also em­barks on a new cam­paign un­cer­tain whether it will hold on to a key mem­ber of its squad. Striker Alexis Sanchez, who has been ruled out of Fri­day’s opener against Le­ices­ter, is in the fi­nal sea­son of his Emi­rates Sta­dium con­tract.

Los­ing Sanchez would jeop­ar­dize Arse­nal’s at­tempt to re­join the elite. For the first time in 20 years, Arsene Wenger’s side will be miss­ing from the Cham­pi­ons League as a con­se­quence of its fifth-place Pre­mier League fin­ish.

But Arse­nal has al­ready re­in­forced its at­tack­ing op­tions by sign­ing Alexan­dre La­cazette, and brought in burly de­fender Sead Ko­lasinac. Wenger is also look­ing to trim play­ers sur­plus to re­quire­ments – an is­sue he dis­cussed with fel­low man­agers at a meet­ing this week.

“It looks like ev­ery­where there is many, many play­ers and a bit of con­ges­tion at the mo­ment ev­ery­where,” Wenger said.

FRANK AUGSTEIN/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Man­ager Antonio Conte, right, led Chelsea to a Pre­mier League ti­tle in his first sea­son with the club, but he will have to fend off chal­lenges from ri­vals that spent heav­ily in the off-sea­son.

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