By Sam Holden
LONDON, Aug 18 (Reuters) - Manchester United will return to the top four of the Premier League this season but it is only Liverpool that can challenge for the title, according to former England striker Michael Owen who played for both clubs.
After contrasting campaigns last season and differing fortunes in their opening league matches this weekend, Owen told Reuters in a telephone interview that he believes both clubs can look forward to good seasons.
Although he saw United slump to a 2-1 defeat to Swansea City at Old Trafford on Saturday, he said he believed United would improve from last season's seventh-place finish and earn a Champions League place by the end of this one.
"I think United will have a decent season and get back into the top four, and into the Champions League next season," said the former striker, who spent three injury-plagued years at United from 2009 until 2012.
Since retiring from playing 15 months ago, Owen has embarked on a career as a media pundit and was talking while working with Shell V-Power Nitro+ to encourage people to rediscover the fun of driving.
"Going to Old Trafford on Saturday I thought it would be a United win but when I saw the team sheet and you compared the United side to Swansea's team you all of a sudden think 'this is not a great Manchester United side'.
"I don't think they have got the quality to dethrone Manchester City or finish above Chelsea but I do think they will have a good season."
The loss to Swansea was United's first defeat at home in the opening match of a season for 42 years and also the first competitive game under new manager Louis van Gaal, the Dutchman who led the Netherlands to a third place finish at the World Cup.
He took over from David Moyes, who lasted 10 months as Alex Ferguson's successor before being fired, and after an unbeaten pre-season, had restored hope that United, champions in 2013, might challenge for the title again.
A young team in a new 3-5-2 formation quelled those hopes though with a shaky performance reminiscent of the Moyes reign.
Owen believes that despite their start, United will once again enjoy the winning ways they experienced under Ferguson once they get used to their new leader but are not quite at the level to seriously challenge champions Manchester City and strongly-fancied Chelsea for the title.
"There's no question that van Gaal has got the confidence to fill Alex Ferguson's shoes, that's the least of his worries," explained the former England striker, who is fourth on the country's all-time international scorer's list, level with his former United colleague Wayne Rooney, on 40 goals.
"It's just a shame that when everyone was getting excited about the new season with great pre-season results, they came down to earth with a bang.
"It was the first game though, they are getting used to a new manager. I think they will invest in new players in the coming weeks, and I'm pretty certain they'll be a lot better than their seventh place finish last season."
Liverpool, runners-up last season, overcame a resilient Southampton side to win their opener 2-1 at Anfield on Sunday.
Brendan Rodgers's side finished two points behind City last season and despite the departure of Luis Suarez, who topped last season's scoring list with 31 league goals, to Barcelona.
Owen, who played for Liverpool for eight years before joining Real Madrid in 2004, believes the Merseyside club will continue to challenge for titles despite Suarez leaving and the disappointment of narrowly missing out on their first league title for 24 years.
"They missed an opportunity last season there's no doubt about it but I very much doubt it is their last opportunity," said Owen, who scored 118 league goals in his Anfield career.
"I think they'll be a force to be reckoned with for many years now. I think that Brendan Rodgers has got them back into the top echelons of the game, back up amongst the big boys, where they belong, and I think they'll have more chances to win the league in the coming seasons.
"There is a lot to be interested in Liverpool this year. The question marks are with Suarez not being there and the added pressure of playing in the Champions League.
"If they can combat them I think they'll have a decent chance of challenging for the title again." (Reporting By Sam Holden)