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United: Season preview

10 Aug 2009 09:38:48

United: Season preview

IT'S been the most significant exodus at Old Trafford since the summer of 1995 - and we all know what happened that year. Even after the departures of Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis, Alex Ferguson masterminded perhaps his most remarkable title success. The year that David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers came of age to win the league and cup double was the moment Fergie's name was written in legend at Old Trafford. Which is why, even in the face of the departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez this summer, only a fool would write United off. Sir Alex remains convinced that after a hat-trick of titles his side are still the team to beat - no matter how many millions they spend in the blue half of Manchester. But even the most blinkered of United supporters would have to admit it has been a turbulent summer at Old Trafford. From the moment the final whistle went on their Champions League final defeat to Barcelona in May, Ferguson has been putting out fires left, right and centre. First came the departure of Ronaldo - albeit for a staggering £80m - to the one club Fergie insisted he would never sell. That was followed by the embarrassing exit of Tevez, who - to rub salt into the wounds - decided his future would be better served in blue rather than red. At least armed with the biggest transfer budget of his United career, fans waited with anticipation to see which of the world's biggest stars would be heading to the champions. Karim Benzema, Franck Ribery, Samuel Eto'o, Yaya Toure, David Villa, David Silva and Sergio Aguero were all linked, but never materialised. Failure to land top target, Benzema was a particularly heavy blow, with the French striker opting to join Ronaldo and Kaka at Real Madrid. Instead Ferguson has chosen to operate at the lower end of the market, signing long-term target Antonio Valencia for £15m, Michael Owen for free and Gabriel Obertan for £2m. Silva or Aguero could still be recruited before the start of the season but United have yet to see an influx of superstars. Overtaken Ferguson has pointed to inflated prices brought about by the spending of City and Real. But that will be of little comfort to United fans if they see their club overtaken by Liverpool or City. Ferguson won't even entertain the thought of handing the impetus to either of United's fiercest rivals. And there is the sense that the wily Scot's ebullience as the season approaches has more to it than mere bravado. His recruitment drive may have been relatively modest, but it has been astute. Ronaldo's departure left a gaping hole on the right which has been plugged by a proven performer in Valencia. Ferguson always intended to bring the Ecuadorian to Old Trafford and he firmly believes the former Wigan star will develop into a world class player. But it would be too much to expect him to provide the goals that made Ronaldo the World Footballer of the Year. That onus will be spread around the team - and the signing of Owen looks as potentially inspired as Teddy Sheringham. Owen looks as fresh and hungry as ever. While he will have to wait for his chances behind first choice strike force Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov, he has a pedigree that suggests he can provide more goals than the departed Tevez. But Ferguson's hopes to win an unprecedented fourth Premier League title have more to do with the building he has done over the past three years than his activity this summer. Future Anderson and Nani were always bought with the future in mind and he fully expects them to come of age this season. Club record signing Berbatov is still to live up to his £30.75m price tag and the anticipation is that he can show the form he showed at Spurs. And it says everything about the regard with which Rooney is held that even more is expected from the England striker who has been a pivotal figure United's hat-trick of titles and back-to-back Champions League finals. He will at last be played in his preferred central role where Ferguson hopes he can prove himself a great goal-scorer, rather than a scorer of great goals. There will also, hopefully, be the welcome return of Owen Hargreaves to add the steel that has been missing in midfield since former skipper Roy Keane's departure in 2005. Elsewhere Ferguson still has the players who have made United the team to beat at home and abroad in recent years. The defence is built on the unsurpassed partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic and a midfield inspired by the passing of Michael Carrick. Around them are a host of young players who have already illuminated Old Trafford, including Federico Macheda, Danny Welbeck, the Da Silva twins and Jonny Evans. With that in mind it is easy to see why Ferguson remains confident United can still stay top of the pile in the Premier League at least. Europe, though, may be another matter. Ronaldo's influence in the tightest games cannot be underestimated. He scored in each round of the knockout stages of the Champions League last season to fire United to the final. It is in those games that he will be most missed and in those games that Ferguson summer transfer policy will be most closely scrutinised. Prediction: 1st Star in the making: Danny Welbeck


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