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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.

Relegation picture: The situation for Newcastle, Sunderland, Norwich

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This is tight, tense and getting horrible for the three teams battling it out at the bottom.

We know Aston Villa has already been relegated but three teams — Norwich City, Sunderland and Newcastle United — are in a dogfight to avoid relegation.

Three into two doesn’t go.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Just two points separates the three aforementioned teams going into the final two weeks of the season. Plus, Crystal Palace isn’t out of the picture either as they have 39 points but Alan Pardew‘s side should be fine. Just.

Newcastle United is the form team as Rafael Benitez’s side is now unbeaten in four games and grabbed a huge 1-0 win against Palace on Saturday, while Sunderland is solid under Sam Allardyce and have lost just once in eight games but have six draws in that span.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule | standings

Norwich is reeling after three defeats on the spin and Alex Neil‘s side is running out of time as they lost 1-0 at Arsenal on Saturday despite a brave, battling display.

Below is a look at the relegation picture, plus the remaining fixtures for all three teams as Newcastle have just two games left, while both Sunderland and Norwich have three.

Who do you think will survive out of these three teams?


Newcastle United – 17th place, 33 points

May 7 – Aston Villa (A)
May 15 – Tottenham Hotspur (H)

Sunderland – 18th place, 32 points

May 7 – Chelsea (H)
May 11 – Everton (H)
May 15 – Watford (A)

Norwich City – 19th place, 31 points

May 7 – Manchester United (H)
May 11 – Watford (H)
May 15 – Everton (A)


Looking at the schedules above, Newcastle has a great chance of getting at least three points from their remaining two games with an away trip to Aston Villa up next, plus if Tottenham is out of the title race heading into the final game then it may be a great chance to pick up another three points at home.

Sunderland will find it tough going against Chelsea and Everton but home advantage will be key, while the final game away at Watford, a team who has nothing to play for, could be the crucial one. They hold their own destiny in their hands. Win all three and they will stay up.

As for Norwich, they won’t expect much against Manchester United next up but they will fancy their chances of picking up at least four points against Watford and Everton in their final two games. Simply put, nobody knows which of these two teams will go down and it’s likely to stay that way until the final minutes of the season.

Arsenal 1-0 Norwich City: Amid protests, Welbeck pulls Gunners third

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 30:  Danny Welbeck of Arsenal celebrates scoring the opening goal with Olivier Giroud (R) during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Norwich City at The Emirates Stadium on April 30, 2016 in London, England  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images
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  • Gunners scoreless streak ends at 200 mins
  • Welbeck subs on to score
  • Norwich stay 19th

Danny Welbeck‘s second-half goal was enough to give Arsenal a much-needed three points from Norwich City’s visit on Saturday.

The Emirates Stadium started with protests, and the Gunners didn’t do a ton to quiet Arsene Wenger‘s critics in the 1-0 match.

Arsenal does, however, pull three points clear of fourth place Manchester City, which plays Sunday at Southampton.

Norwich, meanwhile, is two points back of Newcastle and one point back of Sunderland as the race for 17th continues in England. Newcastle has played one more match than each of its competitors.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Arsenal couldn’t find a way through Norwich City’s defense in the first half, entering the break without scoring a goal in 187 minutes. After taking a 2-0 lead in the 38th minute against West Brom, the Gunners were blanked in the second half, then in a 0-0 draw with Sunderland.

Norwich had a chance or two during a late 10-minute run of play, but couldn’t beat Petr Cech. Both sides had 7 shots, but Norwich was the only to put any on frame with three.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Welbeck subbed on for Arsenal, joining Olivier Giroud up top and quickly making an impact with a shot that deflected to beat John Ruddy and give Arsenal the match’s first goal.

The Gunners still carried the play, though the chance for a pivotal point lurked with every Canaries moment of possession.

Mohamed Elneny took a phenomenal shot that Ruddy met with a similar save, when, in the 83rd minute he used the outside of his foot to swerve an effort that forced Ruddy into flight just to force a corner. Good-looking stuff.

PHOTOS: Supporters protest, support Arsene Wenger before Arsenal-Norwich

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 30:  Arsenal supportes hold banners 'Time For Change' during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Norwich City at The Emirates Stadium on April 30, 2016 in London, England  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images
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“Time for Change” read the sea of placards outside the Emirates Stadium on Saturday, as Arsenal fans protested the continued employment of its legendary manager.

Many consider this season a wasted opportunity for Arsenal to lay claim to a first Premier League title since 2003-04, and have laid the blame at the feet of manager Arsene Wenger.

[ MORE: Everton’s moving tribute to Hillsborough 96 ]

There were some expressing support for their beloved boss, and we’ve got all that and more below. The match is scoreless as halftime, as Arsenal continues to have trouble scoring against relegation threatened rivals.

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 30: Arsenal supportes hold banners 'Time For Change' during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Norwich City at The Emirates Stadium on April 30, 2016 in London, England (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
(Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 30: (EDITORS NOTE: This image was processed using digital filters) Arsenal supporters hold a banner saying 'Arsene Thanks for the Memories But It's Time To Say Goodbye' prior the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Norwich City at The Emirates Stadium on April 30, 2016 in London, England (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 30: An Arsenal supporter holds banner 'Proud of Arsene Ashamed of Fans' during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Norwich City at The Emirates Stadium on April 30, 2016 in London, England (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 30: A banner protesting to Arsene Wenger is seen prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Norwich City at The Emirates Stadium on April 30, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
(Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

And some had some pretty good fun with the protests:

Sunderland hail “brilliant point” but Allardyce fuming at refs

STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND - APRIL 30: Sam Allardyce, manager of Sunderland reacts during the Barclays Premier League match between Stoke City and Sunderland at the Britannia Stadium on April 30, 2016 in Stoke on Trent, England.  (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)
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Sam Allardyce was fuming with the officials as Sunderland drew 1-1 at Stoke City on Saturday.

The Black Cats netted a last-gasp penalty kick via Jermain Defoe to move onto 32 points but slipped into the relegation zone courtesy of Newcastle United’s huge home win against Crystal Palace.

[ MORE: Deeney “sticks it to Villa” ]

Sunderland have a game in hand over Newcastle but they are a point behind. Things are getting very tight as two from Sunderland, Norwich and Newcastle will be relegated.

Speaking after the game, Allardyce feels his side continue to get unlucky with calls from officials and it is starting to wear thin with Big Sam.

“The disappointment is, how many points do they take away from us in this battle against relegation that cost us so dear?” Allardyce told Sky Sports. “All this rubbish about people saying it evens itself out, that’s the biggest load of rubbish I’ve ever heard in my life.

“We’ve had countless opportunities ourselves to win games, so we’ve got ourselves to blame as well but the last thing we want at this stage of the season, with so few games left, is to not get what we deserve. In the last two games, today and last week we certainly didn’t get what we deserved off the officials as far as I was concerned. But I am pleased he was brave enough in the last minute to give a penalty in against Jermain Defoe.”

On reflection, Allardyce agreed that it was a “brilliant point” for his team and but he still couldn’t resist another moan at the officials.

From the BBC:

“It is a brilliant point in the end but for me one that could have been a win rather than the draw,” Allardyce said. “Obviously they didn’t deserve their goal because it was a blatant foul on Younes Kaboul and we should have had a penalty when Geoff Cameron flicks the ball with his hand and referee and his assistant don’t see it. Those things have gone against us today which has not allowed us to be in a position to win it. It is a very precious point and in the end the referee was brave and good enough to make the right decision for us for the penalty.”

The incidents in question are certainly debatable. For Stoke’s goal it did appear that Peter Crouch had his arms on Kaboul when he nodded down for Arnautovic and Allardyce can have complaints about that. Last week a handball decision against Per Mertesacker didn’t go Sunderland’s way and if you add up those two calls, that’s an extra four points for the Black Cats.

[ VIDEO: Townsend scores screamer

However, with Sunderland not really at the races at Stoke and still managing to grind out a point to keep their PL fate in their own hands, he has to be happy enough.

They now have home games against Chelsea and Everton coming up, with the final game of the season away at Watford. Seven points from that will see Newcastle unable to mathematically finish above them.

It’s a big ask but what if Big Sam starts getting some big decisions in Sunderland’s favor?