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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.

VIDEO: “The Beast” leads Wimbledon to promotion; leaves club with epic interview

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Adebayo Akinfenwa’s time at AFC Wimbledon may be over, but he will never be forgotten.

The striker scored a penalty kick at Wembley on Monday deep into stoppage time to seal Wimbledon’s promotion to League One after a 2-0 win over Plymouth Argyle.

Headed to League One for the first time in club history, the win caps off a remarkable rise for Wimbledon that started in the ninth-tier of English football back in 2002.

[ MORE: Pellegrini rues Pep announcement ]

Akinfenwa, a journeyman striker in England’s lower leagues, has gained cult-hero status due to his large frame, listed at 5-foot-11-inches and weighing in at over 220 pounds, earning him the nickname “The Beast.”

Speaking to Sky Sports amid the promotion celebrations, Akinfenwa asked for other managers to shoot him a text as his contract expires with Wimbledon this summer.

It’s what dreams are made of. I’m more tired now running around [celebrating] than I was the whole game, but it’s a beautiful feeling.

Sidebar, I think I’m technically unemployed. So any managers, hit me up on the WhatsApp and get me a job.

There ain’t no better way to leave this club than to leave them promoted, it’s beautiful. For all them who said I was too big to play football, come on now.

Akinfenwa also joked about his late-match penalty, in which he was seen wrestling the ball away from teammate Callum Kennedy. When asked about the situation, Akinfenwa responded “It was just set up too beautifully, and I’m bigger than Cal, so Cal was unlucky. I’m sorry Cal K, I love you though.”

Saints to offer Shane Long new deal as Liverpool, Spurs show interest

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 08:  Shane Long of Southampton is chased down by Kyle Walker of Tottenham Hotspur during the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton at White Hart Lane on May 8, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
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After scoring ten Premier League goals this season, Shane Long looks set to be rewarded with a new contract at Southampton.

Despite having two years remaining on his current contract, multiple reports state he will get a new deal to fend off interest from Liverpool and Tottenham.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s EURO 2016 coverage ]

Spurs’ boss Mauricio Pochettino was in Dublin this past weekend to watch Long play for Ireland, where he was pictured sitting with the player’s agent Pat Dolan. The Saints’ striker scored Ireland’s only goal in a 1-1 draw against the Netherlands.

Liverpool had also reached out to Southampton back in January about a possible move for Long, and it is believed Jurgen Klopp is quite fond of the Irish striker.

[ MORE: Klinsmann aiming for top-four finish at Copa America Centenario ]

Having already inked Virgil Van Dijk, James Ward-Prowse, and Fraser Forster to new deals, Southampton will be eager to lock up Long before EURO 2016 kicks off.

Likely to be the top striker for Ireland at the tournament, a good showing for Long on Europe’s biggest stage could lead to even more interest in the 29-year-old.

Arsenal’s Bellerin set to make Spain EURO squad after Carvajal injury

ST GALLEN, SWITZERLAND - MAY 29:  Hector Bellerin of Spain competes for the ball with Sead Kolasinac (L) and Ervin Zukanovic of Bosnia during an international friendly match between Spain and Bosnia at the AFG Arena on May 29, 2016 in St Gallen, Switzerland.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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With just one cap to his name, Hector Bellerin looks poised to make Spain’s final 23-man roster for EURO 2016.

The Arsenal right-back will take the spot of Dani Carvajal, who tore his hip flexor in Real Madrid’s win in the Champions League final.

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Bellerin, 21, made his debut for the Spanish first-team this past weekend, playing the full 90 minutes in a 3-1 win over Switzerland.

Speaking before the extent of Carvajal’s injury was revealed, Spain manager Vicente del Bosque had said “We have two days until I name my list of 23 players. While we are waiting to hear from the medics [about Carvajal], Bellerin stays with us.”

[ REPORT: Barcelona interested in Manchester United’s Juan Mata ]

Despite a lack of experience with the national team, Bellerin has played more than 50 Premier League games with Arsenal, named to the PFA Team of the Year this season as the league’s best right-back.

Spain’s first match of EURO 2016 is on June 13 against the Czech Republic, also paired with Turkey and Croatia in Group D.

Switzerland picks 3 teenagers in final Euro 2016 squad

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - MARCH 29: Breel Embolo of Switzerland (R) fights for the ball with goalkeeper Jasmin Buric of Bosnia-Herzegovina during the international friendly match between Switzerland and Bosnia-Herzegovina at Stadium Letzigrund on March 29, 2016 in Zurich, Switzerland. (Photo by Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images)
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LUGANO, Switzerland (AP) Switzerland has three 19-year-olds in its final European Championship squad of 23 players that features new Arsenal signing Granit Xhaka.

Coach Vladimir Petkovic was expected to pick Basel forward Breel Embolo, and on Monday also selected teenagers Nico Elvedi and Denis Zakaria.

Elvedi, a defender with Borussia Moenchengladbach, and Young Boys midfielder Zakaria both made international debuts on Saturday in a 2-1 loss to Belgium in Geneva.

[ MORE: Barcelona will chase Mata if available from United ]

Zakaria takes a holding midfielder’s place left vacant when Petkovic left out former captain Gokhan Inler over a lack of playing time at Leicester.

Petkovic also omitted defenders Philippe Senderos and Silvan Widmer, and midfielder Luca Zuffi, who had been on the provisional squad.

Switzerland’s final warmup match is against Moldova in Lugano on Friday.

Switzerland is in host France’s group at Euro 2016 along with Albania and Romania.

Squad:

Goalkeepers: Yann Sommer (Borussia Moenchengladbach), Roman Buerki (Borussia Dortmund), Marwin Hitz (Augsburg)

Defenders: Stephan Lichtsteiner (Juventus), Nico Elvedi (Borussia Moenchengladbach), Michael Lang (Basel), Johan Djourou (Hamburger SV), Steve von Bergen (Young Boys), Fabian Schaer (Hoffenheim), Francois Moubandje (Toulouse), Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg)

Midfielders: Valon Behrami (Watford), Blerim Dzemaili (Genoa), Gelson Fernandes (Rennes), Fabian Frei (Mainz), Granit Xhaka (Arsenal), Xherdan Shaqiri (Stoke), Denis Zakaria (Young Boys)

Forwards: Breel Embolo (Basel), Haris Seferovic (Eintracht Frankfurt), Admir Mehmedi (Bayer Leverkusen), Eren Derdiyok (Kasimpasa), Shani Tarashaj (Everton).