After coming second, Manchester United are the underdogs to Chelsea in the Community Shield

Chelsea v Manchester United, Community Shield, August 8, 2010

Chelsea 2.40; Draw 3.25; Manchester United 2.95

It’s been a chockablock summer. No sooner had the 2009/10 season finished when all eyes focused on South Africa and the 2010 World Cup. And no sooner had Spain established themselves as the best nation in world football that a hectic schedule of pre-season football began.

And now it’s already time for the 2010/11 Community Shield; the virtually useless barometer ahead of the new Premier League season.

Just like 12 months ago, Wembley will be filled by eager and hopeful Chelsea and Manchester United fans. Then, after a 2-all draw in regulation time, it was the Pensioners who won the curtain-raiser 4-1 in a penalty shoot-out and the Blues have every right to feel confident of beating the Mancunians once again on Sunday. (Relive last year’s final here.)

The reigning Premier League and FA Cup holders start the new campaign as the team to beat. After gently freshening up their squad again there seems to be a feel good factor in West London, and the bookies have shown their cards by backing the Blues as favourites to win the league this season. (Chelsea are 2.62 favourites to win the Premier League.)

Probably the most exciting event for Chelsea this summer has been the return to fitness of Michael Essien. The Ghanaian, who capped his return with a goal against Crystal Palace in a friendly, is arguably the best player in the league.

Whether it be tough tackling, simple passing, defense splitting balls or scoring cracking goals, Essien (5.50 to score) can do the lot. Provided he can stay fit for the majority of the new campaign, it will be as if Chelsea signed a new superstar without actually having shelled out a single penny.

While Essien is certainly a cause for celebration, there are some more troubling concerns hovering around Stamford Bridge. To get to the root of the matter ask yourself how many Chelsea players covered themselves in glory in South Africa this summer.

Nicolas Anelka (7.50 to score 1st, 3.20 anytime) was sent home by the French squad in disgrace. Ivorians Didier Drogba (5.50 to score 1st, 2.25 anytime) and Salomon Kalou were just footnotes on the World Cup. Same goes for Florent Malouda, John Obi Mikel and Branislav Ivanovic. Turning to the English nucleus, Ashley Cole, after failing to perform with the Three Lions managed the make himself even more unpopular. Same goes for John Terry following that press conference. While Frank Lampard (3.20 to score) has begun to be more famous for his celebrity girlfriend than his footballing ability.

With Yossi Benayoun (4.33 to score) the only certified signing this summer (although by all accounts Ramires will definitely sign for the Blues in the next few days), there is a doomsday scenario for Chelsea to consider. Namely, that their squad is too old, with too many egos, and should things go wrong then the mood around the camp could implode.

More immediately for coach Ancelotti though is to decide which of his turnip stand-in keepers he’ll employ at the start of the season. Skull-covered Petr Cech may have his critics, but after seeing Ross Turnbull and Hilario both screw up terribly in pre-season the Czech number one is head and shoulders the best keeper at the Bridge. Whichever replacement is picked, Manchester United will know that the Blues are lacking between the sticks.

That isn’t to say though that Manchester United don’t have their own concerns to worry about. With just the League Cup to show for the 2009/10 season, the Red Devils are playing catch-up to their London rivals and its dubious whether Sir Alex Ferguson has done enough this summer to close the gap.

United’s backline – with Edwin van der Sar, Gary Neville and Rio Ferdinand in particular – is creaking, and there has been little during their tour of North America to suggest that the likes of Wes Brown, Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans, Fabio & Rafael da Silva are ready to make the step up on a regular basis. Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic remain the mainstays at the back, but having missed the American trip their fitness still needs to be proven.

Problems at the back though pale into the background when compared to midfield, specifically in the centre of the park.

While he should be planning for his retirement, evergreen 35-year-old Paul Scholes was the most creative Manchester United central midfielder last season. That Scholes is still performing at the highest level is definitely something to be celebrated, but there is equal concern over who is able to step into the ginger wizard’s place once his body, his asthma or his collection of soon-to be acquired yellow cards force him onto the sidelines.

Looking around the other centre mids, Michael Carrick received a hefty dose of flak last season which, if honest, was fair cop. Carrick started the 2009/10 season slowly and his performances only slightly brightened up towards the tail end of the year.

Staying with the negatives, car-crash victim Anderson remains a Fergie flop to-date, while perhaps this is the junction when we stop mentioning Owen Hargreaves as, sadly due to injury, it looks unlikely that he’ll ever return to his former glory. Instead focus should shift to burgeoning Irishman Darron Gibson. The fresh-faced youngster showed his eye for goal last term, but there is still plenty of work for him to do to become a regular starter for Sir Alex.

While United’s central midfield has holes that need plugging, they do look good in wider positions. Antonio Valencia (nursing an ankle injury) had a superb first season down the right hand side. Fast, intelligent, hard-working and with the ability to notch the odd goal and more importantly create, Valencia looks a nailed-on certainty to retain his wide-right role. On the other flank Luis Nani (4.33 to score) will also be looking to show last season was no flash in the pan. Often criticised for his poor decision-making, Nani began sifting the needless flicks, tricks and mistakes out of his game, while becoming more direct and threatening in the final third. And should either Valencia or Nani be out, Park Ji-Sung is a more than adequate replacement to come in to the side.

Dependent on how Sir Alex tackles his midfield make-up will have a direct knock-on affect to the structure of United’s forward line. 4-5-1, the formation which Manchester United used often last year, remains in vogue, and should it be used again then there is only room for the mercurial Wayne Rooney (6.00 to score 1st, 2.37 anytime) to star in the United attack.

Dimitar Berbatov (8.50 to score 1st, 3.50 anytime) will be looking to have something to say about that. The Bulgarian has had his struggles since moving from Spurs, but after shelling out oodles of cash on the languid striker, you’d expect Fergie to give the forward one last chance to shine this season.

Whether to play two strikers could be the major tactical headache for United this season. Wayne Rooney sparkled as the line-leader, but with Berbatov battling with Michael Owen, Federico Macheda, Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez (3.20 to score) and Mame Biram Diouf, United have lots of forwards to try to muscle their way into the attack. Ferguson needs to work out his winning formula, and fast.

Taking a step back, the likelihood is that both Chelsea and Manchester United will use the Community Shield as their last chance to hone their squads before the big kick-off rather than an occasion to really get one over on their rivals. Accordingly, we expect both sides to field experimental teams as fitness remains the key objective.

It’s a coin toss to predict who’ll emerge as the winners, but with Chelsea last year’s big winners and having twice beaten United in the league last season, it feels only right to tip them to start off the new year on the front foot.

101gg predicts: Chelsea 2 – Manchester United 1 (8.50)

Chelsea 2.40; Draw 3.25; Manchester United 2.95