How do you replace Ronaldo? Sir Alex let down by Old Trafford wannabes
Of all the responses to Cristiano Ronaldo's move to Real Madrid, one in particular will have done little to encourage optimism ahead of Manchester United's first season without him. Ronaldo's Portugal teammate Nani said: 'Ronaldo was an important player to us but now my opportunity has come. 'The time has come for Manchester United to put their trust in me.' Replacing Ronaldo with the ineffectual Nani is rather like swapping your racing car for a pushbike. And the comparison is one that sits at the very heart of Sir Alex Ferguson's dilemma as he looks to compensate for the loss of a player who has scored 67 goals in the last two seasons. Cristiano Ronaldo As the United manager surveys a transfer market that has been pumped up to ridiculous levels by the presence of wealthy clubs like Real, Chelsea and Manchester City, he will be acutely aware of how difficult it will be to replace Ronaldo simply by flexing financial muscle. Signing Ecuador winger Antonio Valencia from Wigan will be a relatively straightforward matter but it will be nowhere near as simple to bring in players such as Bayern Munich midfielder Franck Ribery or Lyon forward Karim Benzema, for example, when their clubs seem intent on demanding such ridiculously high prices. Ferguson and United have never been enthusiastic about paying over the odds. If they had, then players such as Michael Essien, Arjen Robben and - going further back - the fading Brazilian, Ronaldinho, would have been wearing United shirts. Alex Ferguson So as Ferguson attempts to regenerate and reshape his squad as he done so many times before, he will, at least to some degree, be forced to look inwards for encouragement, inspiration and - ultimately - some answers. Consider this: Dimitar Berbatov, Nani, Anderson, Owen Hargreaves and Serbian left winger Zoran Tosic have cost United in excess of £80million, the figure they are about to recoup for Ronaldo when his move to Real Madrid goes through. So far, these players have scored just 26 goals between them. If United really are to recover from the loss of one of their best three players, then these expensive internationals will have to lift their contributions to the levels anticipated when Ferguson bought them. Tosic, of course, has yet to be handed his opportunity while Hargreaves, the player Ferguson hoped to build his midfield around in Europe, has been shattered by a serious knee injury and is by no means certain to be seen in firstteam action this side of Christmas. From the likes of Berbatov, Anderson and Nani, however, there has to be so much more. And Nani's comments to the Portuguese media yesterday hint at a problem with him. He has been at Old Trafford for two years and the 22-year-old has played 72 times but he still talks about 'opportunity' and 'trust'. Does he not realise that at clubs like United, these things have to be earned? The departure of Ronaldo does not ease Nani's path to Ferguson's first team, certainly not if he contributes wretched displays such as the 20- minute cameo when United sought to hang on to a lead in Porto in the Champions League quarter-final and the 45 minutes he was given before he was hauled off at half-time as United trailed 2-0 to Tottenham. His side went on to win 5-2 but Nani did not even stick around to watch the end of the game. Ferguson said he 'didn't have a problem with that'. Believe that and you will believe anything. manager will certainly expect more from Berbatov this season, and he may well get it. Anderson, meanwhile, has enjoyed two decent runs of performances - one in each of his two seasons - but has somehow still not managed to score. There will be a shortfall of goals in the wake of Ronaldo's departure. That fact is inescapable. Certainly, Wayne Rooney is likely to contribute more than the 20 he netted last season if he is allowed to return to his preferred central role. It is understood Ferguson has again told the England player that he will not be shunted around the field to solve problems as he has been in the past. But Rooney was also told that last summer in South Africa . . . and Ferguson was unable to stay true to his word. Part of that was due to the United manager's preference to play Ronaldo through the middle in big games so as to minimise the impact of his defensive inadequacies. That may change next season because the incoming Valencia is more reliable when the opposition have the ball. Nevertheless, Rooney will need supply and support. Berbatov was only fitfully effective in his debut season while young forwards Federico Macheda and Danny Welbeck are some way from the finished articles, despite Ferguson's peculiar recent claim that the latter will be in Fabio Capello's World Cup squad next summer. The issue facing Ferguson is that a certain amount of regeneration must occur throughout his first team. It is not just Ronaldo who needs to be replaced. United will need a successor to goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar very soon while Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, in particular, are fading forces, even if they do remain sporadically capable of influencing games. Thanks to Real Madrid, money will not be a problem. But Ferguson knows full well that hard cash does not solve everything. There is an awful lot of well-paid talent in United's dressing room which has not yet stepped up to the plate. Now is the time.
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