City have enough Pep to edge Jose’s Devils

LAST season's Premier League was supposed to be the Pep-Jose Show, but an Italian master produced a Blue renaissance.

This season? The smart money – and much of the transfer money – is on the two old enemies rejoining battle at the top of the bill.

The Manchester clubs have certainly been the most purposeful in the market and may each have another major addition in their sights. In laboured and frustrating contrast, the rest of the Big Six have not found the summer window an easy one to crack.

Of the two Iberian icons, Pep Guardiola is perhaps under even more pressure than Jose Mourinho. He may have finished three places higher but his erstwhile nemesis did snaffle two trophies and City are in no position to be sniffy about their quality.

The Catalan is well aware that having friends in high places and a courtship of five years won't save him if there should be a repeat. So he has not been shy about using his £300 million (RM1.67 billion) budget.

In came Benfica's young keeper Ederson and Monaco playmaker Bernardo Silva, the latter for what now seems a steal at £43 million. Three attacking fullbacks followed for a combined £120 million but still you feel there are cracks.

Central defence is the most glaring even if Vincent Kompany can remain in one piece. Any recurrence of injury, real or imagined, however, would mean a sinkhole reappearing at the heart of defence.

With neither Nicolas Otamendi nor John Stones up to the task, the lack of interest in Virgil van Dijk – surely the identikit Pep defender – seems strange. Another curiosity is his lukewarm attitude to Sergio Aguero.

And if, as seems certain, his pursuit of Alexis Sanchez ends in failure, just how the City legend and ace goal scorer will fit in with Gabriel Jesus, we are left to wonder.

But the pre-season has been encouraging with impressive wins over Spurs, Real Madrid and West Ham. And despite going down in the derby, they have looked a lot more fluid than Mourinho's men.

If, as Yaya Toure claims, Pep is turning City into Barcelona, Mourinho is a long way from getting United to look like Real Madrid. That was apparent even before being outclassed by them in the Super Cup.

They won't have to face anyone of the meringues' calibre in the Premier League, but the gulf between his former club and current one may still have been a rude awakening for the manager.

Don't even mention Ronaldo – just compare Chris Smalling with Sergio Ramos! Matteo Darmian with Marcello! Jesse Lingard with Isco! And still we see Marouane Fellaini being brought on as an impact bruiser. At the Bernabeu, the big Belgian wouldn't get a job as a bouncer.

The lack of a busy, creative talent (a No.10) was also glaring. City have two in Bernardo and David Silva, Arsenal boast Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla (when fit), Spurs have Christian Eriksen and Liverpool are clinging to Coutinho – for now.

His midfield was out of its depth with Paul Pogba – even on this occasion – disappearing yet again. United have the power to push over the lesser lights but Juan Mata's guile is going to be needed to prize open the better defences.

Expect another attempt to lure Gareth Bale as Real need the money to pay for Kylian Mbappe and the Welshman looks the most expendable member of the squad.

With Bale, United would be a lot more like a Mourinho counter-attacking team – and a force to be reckoned with in the Premier League at least.

The summer's biggest surprise has been at Chelsea where the Italian job for the ages seems to have been curiously unappreciated by the Blues' hierarchy. Antonio Conte is struggling to raise a squad and unless he gets the players he wants, you can't see them competing on two fronts.

Spurs fans will also be disappointed that building a new stadium has taken priority over topping off an almost-completed team. That it happens to be the best White Hart Lane has seen since the 1960s makes it harder for long-suffering fans to bear.

At least they prevented Kyle Walker's departure from leading to a mass exodus but, like Chelsea, they lack the depth to build on last season's momentum.

Completing a hattrick of disaffection in the capital, Arsenal have just been Arsenal.

They made an astute acquisition in Alexandre Lacazette and a shrewd free signing in Sead Kolasinic, while also daring to dream that Arsene Wenger's French connection could land Kylian Mbappe at least for an interim period.

But key for them will be hanging on to Alexis Sanchez. Cave in and sell him to City or Chelsea and Wenger will have the fans on his back from the start. On the other hand, if he can get big bucks out of PSG for a player who will go for nothing next year, it will be no threat and good business – as long as it is reinvested.

The Bosnian Kolasinic made more impact as a sub on Sunday than Xhaka, Gabriel, Chambers and Mustafi combined (at a cost of nearly £100 million) and his muscle and aggression has been what's been lacking for a decade. If they can keep Sanchez and get Cazorla fit, Arsenal could be in with a shout.

Liverpool fans already feel as if they've been through the wringer before a ball has been kicked. Delight that the owners have been willing to offer big bucks for Jurgen Klopp's targets has been tempered by not landing them.

As a result, they still can't be sure whether they'll be title contenders or Europa League also-rans.

If the torturous pursuit of Naby Keita has ended in failure, the fates of Van Dijk and Philippe Coutinho are still in the lap of the paymasters. With both the Saints defender and Brazilian playmaker in their line-up, they can challenge; without them, a top four place may be out of reach.

Still, it would be a surprise if the title didn't return to the north-west, although not necessarily to Old Trafford.

City may just have enough class in midfield and firepower up front to make up for their dodgy rear. For that reason, Pep looks the man to beat this time around.