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Man United act to halt slide as power shifts back to Liverpool

By Keith Weir

LONDON (Reuters) - The balance of power in English soccer has shifted from one famous U.S.-owned club to another, with Liverpool on course to win the league for the first time in 24 years while rivals Manchester United are in disarray and seeking a new manager.

The Glazer family who own United showed their ruthless streak on Tuesday when they sacked manager David Moyes after less than one season in the job.

Moyes inherited a Premier League-winning team from Alex Ferguson last year but a dismal campaign means United will miss out on a place in the UEFA Champions League - Europe's top club competition - next season for the first time since 1995.

Failing to qualify will cost United upwards of 30 million pounds ($50 million) next year but the Glazers will have been prompted to act by fears of a long barren streak of the kind from which Liverpool are emerging.

United shares, which trade on the New York Stock Exchange, were up more than 6.5 percent at $18.90 at 1320 ET, signaling investor relief at the decision to sack Moyes.

Liverpool dominated English soccer in the 1980s before Ferguson came along to, in his own words, "knock them off their perch" and the Scotsman led United to the Premier League 13 times in little over two decades.

United fans delight in pointing out they have won the league title 20 times, eclipsing Liverpool's old record of 18 titles.

AMERICAN OWNERS

The two clubs, both based in traditionally working-class cities in northwest England, have long been part of the elite of English soccer.

As such, both have attracted American investment over the past decade as the global popularity of the Premier League drew in foreign capital.

The Glazers, who own the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, bought United for 790 million pounds in 2005 in a deal that has long irked fans who are angry at the way it saddled the club with debt.

"The club's owners have spent hundreds of millions of the club's money on financial restructuring and debt payments and this has limited funds available for investment in the playing squad," said Duncan Drasdo, chief executive of the Manchester United Supporters Trust, a group campaigning for greater fan involvement in the club ownership.

Liverpool fans have a more benign view of John W. Henry, who took over their club in 2010 in a 300 million pound deal after an earlier American buyout proved unsuccessful.

Henry is on course to complete a remarkable sporting double if Liverpool win the Premier League, his Boston Red Sox having won baseball's World Series last October.

Liverpool top the Premier League by five points with only three games to play. Victory over second-placed Chelsea on Sunday will almost guarantee them their first English title since 1990.

United are adrift in seventh place after Moyes, hand-picked by Ferguson to succeed him, failed to stamp his authority on one of the world's most popular clubs.

FINDING THE RIGHT MAN

The sacking of Moyes shows the Glazers did not trust him to spend an estimated transfer budget of 150 million pounds wisely or motivate the big names needed to return the team to the lucrative Champions League.

"They've cut and run. They've said that it's not working and we've made a mistake," said Mike Carson, a business consultant and recent author of a book on soccer managers.

"I'm worried for United that they get into this cycle of appointment followed by failure as so many clubs have done."

Some of the leading names in world soccer management have been tipped as Moyes's replacement, including Netherlands coach Louis Van Gaal.

It will take a charismatic figure to ensure that the world's top talent still want to join United despite their absence from the Champions League.

Henry admitted he knew little about soccer when he took over Liverpool and mistakes have been made on his watch, notably the appointment of former manager Kenny Dalglish for a second spell in charge for 18 months in 2011-12.

Liverpool now appear to have found the right manager in Brendan Rodgers, a 41-year-old from Northern Ireland who made his name by taking Swansea City into the Premier League for the first time.

Henry gave him strong backing last August when Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez was agitating for a transfer. Henry said Liverpool would not sell the player to a rival and Suarez has inspired Liverpool's title charge this season.

BRAND APPEAL

United executives stress that the club is strong enough commercially to withstand a year out of the Champions League. A shirt sponsorship deal with Chevrolet that starts in full next season will plug the revenue gap and give the club the financial firepower to compete in the transfer market.

The executives point out that Liverpool remain a global brand in soccer despite their long wait for a title and Arsenal, owned by U.S. sports entrepreneur Stan Kroenke, are also still attracting sponsors despite not winning a trophy since 2005.

However, a prolonged absence from the top of European soccer will test the loyalty of the club's 659 million global followers and sponsors who buy into that business model.

United are currently in negotiations with incumbent Nike and other sportswear companies about a new kit supply deal to replace the current deal that expires next year.

The Nike deal was worth around 38 million pounds in 2012-13 and the new agreement will be a litmus test of United's commercial appeal.

($1 = 0.5951 British pounds)

(Editing by Pravin Char)

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