Former Manchester United defender Gary Neville believes his old club must begin the Premier League season brightly in order to stave off the challenge from Jose Mourinho's Chelsea.
Neville, who made over 600 appearances in all competitions for United, has told the Guardian that a sprightly start is crucial as the reigning league champions step "into the unknown" under new manager David Moyes.
The need to start well is magnified by the return of Mourinho to Stamford Bridge, after the Portuguese trumped United in his last stint at the Blues.
"That period, 2004 to 2007, was the leanest United had endured since Sir Alex won his first title and Mourinho had a big part to play in that," Neville told the Guardian.
"At United we weren't slow starters particularly, but we generally weren't at our peak from September to December and, in those Mourinho years, we'd fall too far behind them to mount a challenge when we did get into our stride in the new year.
"The critical thing is to be in contention at the turn of the year because you don't want to fall too far behind a Mourinho team. They have the nerve inside the club to withstand the pressure.
"We're stepping into the unknown slightly. Going into a new season you think of Sir Alex Ferguson and automatically think Manchester United will be up there.
"A Jose Mourinho team will be there or thereabouts, always. But we're actually going into a campaign for the first time in a long time where we're not quite sure what's going to happen: how everyone's going to react to new manager, to new squads, to new signings."
As speculation mounts over the future of United's Wayne Rooney - who has returned home from a pre-season tour of Asia and Australia due to a hamstring complaint - Neville insists the England forward will still be greeted warmly by fans if he remains at Old Trafford next term.
"Wayne Rooney and Manchester United go together," he explained. "I'm aware of how big the football club is, and the fact you can achieve all your ambitions there.
"But Wayne is ambitious himself. He has to make his own mind up. There have been rumblings about Wayne but he has come back into pre-season without much of a fuss, and this will unfold in the next few weeks.
"I think the fans will be fine with him. They get behind the players on the pitch. In 26 years I've not seen a United player treated badly by United fans. They love their own, particularly the ones who have served them well and given their all, and Wayne can certainly put himself in that category.
"He has been too good a player - a great player for Manchester United - for the fans not to accept him. Obviously, they want players to be committed to the club, but one thing about Wayne Rooney is, wherever he plays his football and whatever is going on, he is always 100% committed to what he does."