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Early returns from England’s offseason tell a tale of two Manchesters

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How much is Alex Ferguson worth in the standings? Or, more specifically, what will the difference between Ferguson and his replacement, David Moyes, mean to the Red Devils? Because if Ferguson was half as influential as his prodigious reputation implied, Manchester United’s going to take a step back. The big question is how much.

On one hand, trying to determine exactly how much Ferguson means over Moyes is a pointless exercise. We’ll never be able to verify our conclusion. On the other hand, it may be the most important evaluation United makes all summer. Before assessing their needs relative to Manchester City and Chelsea — before determining the financial commitment they need to make to maintain their English standing while improving in Europe — the Red Devils need to decide what they’ve lost. That may not result in a precise number of points they feel they’ve given back to their competition, but it will lead to a general plan of what they’d like to accomplish this summer.

I say “will lead” as if England’s champions haven’t already done this. Undoubtedly they’ve made their assessments and picked their targets, players that will go beyond the project right back they acquired last week. The Red Devils continue to have a need in central midfield. There are concerns wide, where their high-priced talents failed to produce last season. Unless they address those needs, either by getting more out of their players or acquiring new talent, the 11-point gap between them and Manchester City will prove smaller than it seems.

That’s why the relative silence from United should concern Red Devils’ supporters. While links to Marouane Fellaini, Robert Lewandowski, Leighton Baines and (even) Gareth Bale persist, most of those players have been linked elsewhere, with United’s place in the rumors serving as the normal “everybody sounds out Manchester United” part of most high-level gossip. Coming off a season in which they accumulated 89 points, it would be easy for the club to justify a stay-the-course approach.

Meanwhile, in the blue half of Manchester, United’s rivals have already made a number of significant changes. The acquisition of Jesus Navas from Sevilla may not be a huge upgrade on Samir Nasri’s talent, but stylistically, he offers City a significant difference from the two wide-to-in playmakers they played as winger last season. On the opposite flank of David Silva, Navas gives City a needed alternative – somebody who have beat a man one-on-one, pick out City’s snipers from wide, as well as open up the middle of the field.

Through the middle, that means more space for Silva to cut in and orchestrate. It gives Sergio Agüero and Carlos Tévez more room to play beneath the back line. It gives Fernandinho and Yaya Touré space to get forward without the side effects that come with keeping Nasri and Silva wide. With Navas, a natural wide player, the team’s balance improves.

The biggest upgrade, though, may be on the sideline, with Manuel Pellegrini replacing Roberto Mancini. Il Mancho is a well-decorated coach, but Pellegrini’s on a different level. Throughout his career, Pellegrini’s never failed to improve the teams he’s joined, be those teams big or small, ambitious or recovering.

Particularly with the acquisition of Fernandinho, City is starting to look like a very Manuel Pellegrini team. The midfield duo will be able to confidently use a possession-based game to dictate play without making compromises defensively. They’ll be able to play patiently, using their variety in attack to test their opposition, with Pellegrini uses the depth assured by City’s finances to mix-and-match over the course of a season.

The bigger concern with Pellegrini is the fact he hasn’t won a title at this level; that he may not know the buttons that need to be pushed to transcend that 11-point gap. But if the early summer moves from Manchestern United’s rivals mean anything, that 11-point reference is far less meaningful than it was at season’s end. With Ferguson gone, Pellegrini on scene, and City having already made two huge moves, surely the quality difference between the two sides is a much more manageable number.

The better part of the summer’s still to play out, but based on initial returns, the offseason’s been a tale of two Manchesters. The blue side has acted quickly to address their needs, while their red rivals are taking a more deliberate approach.

And of course, we can’t forget that resurgent power in West London.

Coleman explains why he stayed as Wales coach, rejected Hull

ZENICA, BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA - OCTOBER 10: Head coach Chris Coleman of Wales celebrates after the Euro 2016 qualifying football match between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Wales at the Stadium Bilino Polje in Elbasan on October 10, 2015. (Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images)
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CARDIFF, Wales (AP) — Chris Coleman says he chose to remain as Wales manager despite interest from Premier League side Hull because he’s in a job that is “close to his heart.”

The Football Association of Wales rejected an approach for Coleman from Hull this month, with the Welshman deciding to stay on rather than resigning.

Coleman, who guided Wales to the European Championship semifinals against the odds, said on Wednesday that “if someone comes and it’s the Premier League, anybody, you kind of look at it sideways. Of course.”

But, Coleman added, managing your country “comes around once, if you’re lucky.”

Coleman has made no secret of his desire to manage in club football in the future, but says “what I’ve got here is something very special and close to my heart.”

FOLLOW LIVE: The UEFA Champions League finds its last five group stage teams

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 24:  Joe Hart of Manchester City warms up prior to the UEFA Champions League Play-off Second Leg match between Manchester City and Steaua Bucharest at Etihad Stadium on August 24, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Who’s going to join Porto, Monaco, Legia Warsaw, Ludogorets Razgrad and Celtic as playoff teams to join the UEFA Champions League group stage?

The biggest names of Wednesday’s slate are cruising after their first legs, with Manchester City and Borussia Monchengladbach putting five and three goals on the board, respectively.

[ MORE: Champions League Tues. roundup ]

Could the match be Joe Hart‘s last for City? The longtime backstop gets the call with the transfer window a week away.

In the other three cases, things are wide open. Rostov plays Ajax, Red Bull Salzburg faces Dinamo Zagreb, and APOEL lines up Copenhagen.

Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League slateFOLLOW LIVE

Borussia Monchengladbach (3) vs. (1) BSC Young Boys
Rostov (1) vs. (1) Ajax
Red Bull Salzburg (1) vs. (1) Dinamo Zagreb
APOEL (0) vs. (1) Copenhagen
Manchester City (5) vs. Steaua Bucuresti (0)

FOLLOW LIVE – EFL CUP: Four Americans in the 18 for Fulham, Sunderland, Bournemouth

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 13: Lynden Gooch of Sunderland challenges David Silva of Manchester City during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Sunderland at Etihad Stadium on August 13, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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The newly-renamed EFL Cup, formerly the League Cup, rolls on Wednesday with four more matches ahead of the evening’s third-round draw.

American attacker Lynden Gooch starts for Sunderland, while Tim Ream starts for Fulham and Luca de la Torre is on the Cottagers’ bench. Emerson Hyndman is on the bench for Bournemouth.

Tuesday’s action saw Premier League sides West Brom and Watford excused from the tournament.

Wednesday’s EFL Cup scheduleFOLLOW LIVE

Accrington Stanley vs. Burnley
Fulham vs. Middlesbrough
Morecambe vs. Bournemouth
Sunderland vs. Shrewsbury Town

L.A. Galaxy’s Keane retires from Republic of Ireland duty

DUBLIN, IRELAND - OCTOBER 11:  Robbie Keane of Republic of Ireland applauds the fans during the EURO 2016 Qualifier match between Republic of Ireland and Gibraltar at Aviva Stadium on October 11, 2014 in Dublin, Ireland.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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Robbie Keane is ending a big chapter in his career.

Fear not, Galaxy fans, the 36-year-old living L.A. legend isn’t calling it quits on club soccer, but Keane is done with representing the Republic of Ireland.

Keane will play one more game for the Boys in Green, a friendly against Oman next week, before leaving the Republic to qualify for the World Cup without him.

[ MORE: Yedlin, Newcastle make it official ]

In a sprawling and understandably emotional — if not moving — statement, Keane says he isn’t going to stop playing for his club anytime soon, and that he hardly dreamed he’d get to this point.

No player has been capped (145) or scored (67) as many times for Ireland than Keane.