Man United’s new dawn in jeopardy

A new dawn looked likely for Manchester United after Alex Ferguson’s team won the European Champions League in Moscow in May to complete a domestic and European double.

That night on May 21, when Edwin van der Sar saved Nicolas Anelka’s spot kick to secure United’s third European Cup at the expense of Chelsea in the Luzhniki Stadium, had been expected to herald further great things from the Red Devils this season.

Not only had United retained their Premier League title, but they had also delivered another crushing blow to closest rivals Chelsea by ensuring that they ended the season without silverware.

Yet with United ready to launch the new season at home to Newcastle on August 17, a week after contesting the Community Shield against FA Cup winners Portsmouth, they will face Kevin Keegan’s team having endured a turbulent closed season that has witnessed the departure of key personnel, the drawn-out saga over Cristiano Ronaldo’s future and an absence of any new signings.

United’s position of strength that appeared so impregnable two months ago is now not looking quite so formidable. Liverpool’s squad rebuilding has increased expectations of a title push at Anfield, and Luiz Felipe Scolari’s arrival as Chelsea manager appears to have injected new belief into last season’s dejected squad.

So where do United go now having lost Ferguson’s trusted assistant, Carlos Queiroz, to the Portugal national team and with Ronaldo, sidelined through injury until October, continuing to make disruptive noises about his desire to move to Real Madrid?

All is likely to become clear inside the opening month of the new campaign, with Ferguson’s men facing a difficult start to the defence of their title. After entertaining Newcastle, United travel to Portsmouth before back-to-back away games at Liverpool and Chelsea in September.

If they emerge unbeaten that demanding opening, which also sees them tackle Zenit St Petersburg in Monaco for the Uefa Super Cup on August 29, then the summer of strife will be quickly forgotten.

Queiroz’s departure is likely to prove a major loss for Ferguson, however.

At 66, the United manager had delegated many coaching and organisational responsibilities to the former Real Madrid manager, and Ferguson admitted recently that his plans to take short breaks away from the club this season have been scuppered by Queiroz’s exit.

While the coaching team of Mike Phelan, Rene Meulensteen and Brian McClair will combine to ease the day-to-day burden on Ferguson, Queiroz’s tactical brain, his scouting contacts and his invaluable ability to communicate freely with fellow Portuguese speakers Ronaldo, Nani and Anderson will all be sorely missed.

Coping with Queiroz’s loss, rather than the troublesome Ronaldo, will be Ferguson’s main challenge.

Having firmly ruled out the sale of Ronaldo, Ferguson has proved on many occasions in the past his ability to get the best out of even the most difficult characters, and the 23-year-old will be expected to fall back into line on the pitch once he recovers from his ankle injury.

Should Ferguson succeed in his efforts to sign the Spurs striker Dimitar Berbatov, then the Bulgarian would give the European champions a more potent attacking edge and ease the goal-scoring burden on Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, who at times last season appeared to be in desperate need of an experienced strike partner.

Berbatov’s flair and physical presence would appear to be perfectly suited to playing alongside Rooney and, with the Argentinian forward Carlos Tevez also at Ferguson’s disposal, United would clearly possess a strike force capable of destroying even the best defences.

But as the new season looms, United will once again begin as favourites to win the Premier League title. Despite the upheaval of Queiroz’s departure and Ronaldo’s refusal to distance himself from the Real Madrid links, United continue to possess in Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic perhaps the Premier League’s best defensive pairing.

They also can still rely on the craft of Paul Scholes, the growing maturity of midfielder Michael Carrick and the industry of Owen Hargreaves.

With or without the injured Ronaldo, United remain a fearsome attacking unit and it will take a formidable team to dethrone them in England and in Europe this season. — Sapa-AFP

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