The new season kicks off for Manchester United on Sunday with a Community Shield clash against the club that will likely be their biggest rival over the next nine months, Chelsea.
The 2010/11 campaign sees United looking to improve on a season that saw the loss of the Premier League crown and disappointingly early exits in the Champions League and FA Cup. All three competitions were settled for the Red Devils by the tightest of margins, with Chelsea finishing just a point ahead in the league, Bayern Munich winning on away goals in Europe, and Leeds knocking United out of the Cup by a single goal. It is the league that will initially dominate Sir Alex Ferguson’s thoughts and it is imperative that his team get off to a solid start. United are rarely the best of starters, often relying on their proven ability to gain momentum in the second half of the season, but they cannot afford to give their competitors a head start. The 2009/10 season was somewhat underwhelming in terms of top sides reaching their full potential and the likes of Chelsea will surely raise their game this time around. United must follow suit if they want to overturn that narrow margin rather than see the Blues pull further ahead.
The subject of finance has been well documented around Old Trafford of late and it is likely that a lack of funds is as much to blame for a lack of significant inbound transfer activity as Ferguson’s insistence that there is no value to be found in the market at present. What fans do have to look forward to are the displays of a man whose potential is far greater than his profile was when his signing was announced. Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez was a virtual unknown in England when United swooped to capture him before the World Cup, but supporters got a sneak preview of what they can expect with his fine goalscoring performances in South Africa. Those that have followed the club in their pre-season matches will have seen plenty to get excited about, with Chicharito netting three times in three appearances.
The arrival of Chicharito boosts an area where United were found short last season. Wayne Rooney enjoyed his best campaign in front of goal but was overburdened with easing the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo. Dimitar Berbatov was inconsistent, looking the heir to Eric Cantona at times and a lost soul at others. His scoring record was not poor, but he showed he was capable of more in a Tottenham shirt. His touch is still superb but he will need to influence games more frequently to finally prove he was worth the hefty transfer fee two years ago. Michael Owen made a scoring return to the side in Wednesday’s preseason friendly against an Airtricity League of Ireland selection, lobbing the goalkeeper with a fine finish, but he is most at risk from the arrival of United’s new Mexican. Chicharito has shown similar traits to the Owen of his Liverpool days but has more of an all round game to offer than the England striker is now capable of.
With young Fulham defender Chris Smalling being the only other addition to the first team squad, Ferguson appears content to persevere with the players that were at his disposal last season. United have been relatively unaffected by the new rules on squad selection, fitting in comfortably with the criteria of no more than 25 players over the age of 21, including at least eight players “home-grown” in England. The rules may have induced the departures of the over-age Zoran Tosic and Ben Foster, but they will not begin to have significant influence at United for another couple of years. By then, the likes of Tom Cleverley, Corry Evans, Ben Amos and Ritchie de Laet will all have to count in the 25, as will the da Silva twins and Smalling. Whilst the rules are designed to encourage clubs like United to produce their own talent, the pressure will be on for those players to establish themselves before they turn 22 or else they will have to fight for their place in the 25-man squad. That is no mean feat at a big club but Ferguson’s preseason selections suggest youth will continue to get a chance at Old Trafford.
With four weeks to go until the transfer deadline, there is still the potential for a new face or two to arrive at the club, but the likelihood is that the squad is complete for the new campaign. Ferguson knows he has a good mix of ingredients at his disposal but his charges need to up their goal tally if they are to reclaim the title from Chelsea. Further competition can be expected from the likes of Arsenal and Manchester City, but it is ahead of them at the Blues that United will be aiming, rather than looking over their shoulders.