United’s season opener saw them pitted against Alex McLeish’s newly promoted Birmingham City. United have failed to win the opening fixture for the last two seasons and no less than a win would be satisfactory. After a summer of slight turmoil and much discussion surrounding the loss of Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo, United’s playing staff and supporters simply want to start well.
With Nemanja Vidic and Rafael da Silva still missing through injury, the loss of defensive talisman Rio Ferdinand following a calf injury in training meant a makeshift central defensive partnership of Jonny Evans and John O’Shea was born. O’Shea captained the side for the first time in a competitive match. Fabio da Silva came in at right-back to make his Premier League debut with Patrice Evra filling his usual berth at left-back as Ben Foster continued to deputise in goal. Evra was the only first choice out of the entire United back-line. The first half was a somewhat cagey affair with some uncharacteristic United passing and Birmingham packing the midfield and the loan figure of Cameron Jerome up top providing the main attacking outlet. The Red Devils won a series of corners in the early stages but a combination of poor delivery and resolute Birmingham defending meant that a speculative effort from Wayne Rooney was the only real cause for concern.
Inevitably it was the England man who broke the deadlock on 34 minutes. Starting the move with a cushioned header to Dimitar Berbatov, Rooney continued his run into the box and rose behind two Blues defenders connecting with Nani’s left-foot cross. His initial header came off Joe Hart’s left-hand post but fell fortunately back into his path enabling him to stroke the ball home comfortably. It was the 99th time the former Everton man had found the net in the red of United. The United faithful and Rooney alike are hoping for at least 24 more this season. Playing a more central striking role, Rooney was fantastic all afternoon. First Rooney linked well with the now hard-working Berbatov. Later he teamed up with a hungry looking Michael Owen. This will have cheered up the United fans who know replacing Ronaldo’s goals will mostly fall on Rooney’s shoulders.
The second half saw a much improved Birmingham City and more defensive heartache for United with Jonny Evans picking up an injury, being replaced by Wes Brown. Brown was subsequently turned inside out by new Birmingham signing Christian Benitez who drew a smart save from Ben Foster to keep the score at 1-0. That was how the game finished. Following the game Ferguson confirmed that Ferdinand will be out for two weeks and could not confirm the extent of the injury to Evans but did state that young Belgian defender Ritchie de Laet may be in line for a start when the Red Devils travel to Turf Moor to face another newly promoted team in the shape of Burnley. Much of the Monday tabloid talk involved an £8m swoop for impressive Stoke City centre-half Ryan Shawcross but this was swiftly quashed by both player and club. This may simply be a rumour but it is clearly born out of the mini injury crisis suffered by the north west club.
Despite keeping a clean sheet, United did not look convincing at the back and should have been punished by the team from St Andrews. On Wednesday Burnley will throw everything at United looking for a first Premier League win and bragging rights over their local rivals. United will need to ensure they are watertight in what will be an intimidating atmosphere at Turf Moor. Ferdinand, Vidic and to a lesser extent Evans have been vital for this United side over the last two seasons and the possibility of them missing out will make Wednesdays match an intriguing one. Much has been written about Ronaldo’s goals but the 14-game run without conceding was the main reason United finished as champions last time round. If the small niggling injuries continue for the likes of Vidic and Ferdinand as they did at the end of last season and United cannot achieve consistency in the back four, coupled with the loss of Ronaldo, a fourth successive Premier League title may be a little out of reach. However, it is still early days and more importantly the transfer window is still open.