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Jul 17, 2006

Fergie's constipated summer

Even the World Cup could not completely overshadow it.

Manchester United's summer of discontent is several months old - indeed, its roots lie in February - and is by no means over. The unhappy include Ruud van Nistelrooy, simmering after his omission from the Carling Cup and forced into outright opposition after being banished from the Charlton game. Also among their number is Cristiano Ronaldo, publicly eyeing up a move to Spain and vocal in his criticisms of Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill.

And a third, albeit with a very different perspective from the other two, is Ferguson. Having waged a guerrilla war to keep Wayne Rooney out of the World Cup, he now has to deal with the repercussions of his participation in it.

Having deemed van Nistelrooy more dispensable than his supposed adversary Ronaldo, he now faces the prospect of losing both. And having declared his intention to complete his transfer dealings by the time Germany returned to normality, he is yet to finalise a signing.

Conclusive proof that the Glazers will back their manager with the funds to compete with Europe's wealthiest clubs is yet to arrive. If Ronaldo's restlessness and Old Trafford's apparent lack of allure are symptoms of Ferguson's declining powers, he remains as combative as ever, as van Nistelrooy has discovered; whether public alienating a prized player is the best way of realising his market value in the transfer market is another point.

Ronaldo, almost a decade younger, has tired of the invective and bile directed at him since Rooney's red card in Gelsenkirchen. The unsettling effect of Real Madrid's presidential election, coupled with the warmer climes of Spain and an atmosphere unpolluted by his enemies, has led him to regard La Liga as a preferable home.

There was talk of a rapprochement between Rooney and Ronaldo but the Portuguese, it appears, is not for budging. Repeated assertions that the winger is not for sale are not designed to placate the Portuguese; it is too soon to tell if they will deter potential buyers.

But United, often the pursuer of supposedly unavailable players, are now experiencing a taste of their own medicine.

And even for Ferguson, it is a novel situation. He has orchestrated the departure of Old Trafford heroes in the past; others have gone with his tacit acceptance, but none of their leading lights has left against his express wishes. Ronaldo could belong in an entirely new category to David Beckham, Juan Sebastian Veron, Jaap Stam, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis

The impact of Ronaldo's departure would be felt, and not just in the forthcoming season. The long-term plan was that the generation of Fergie's Fledglings would be eased out, replaced by the Scot's big buys.

Fundamental to them were the three Rs - Rooney, Ronaldo and Rio [Ferdinand], acquired at a combined cost of £70 million. A fourth R - Ruud van Nistelrooy - may have identified himself more with the earlier era, with men such as Roy Keane and Beckham who now form United's past, and in the process condemned himself to their history books. The emergence of Rooney as the focal point of the attack helped seal his fate.

Deprived of Ronaldo, it would look less like another all-conquering team and more like continued transition, an uneasy state United have lurked in since 2003, the year of their last title and the multi-million pound sales of Veron and Beckham that should have financed the construction of a new team.

Instead United could start the season with the two fixtures in midfield being Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, constants over a decade and more. It is proof of their longevity, but hardly the sign of a bright new dawn.

For too much of the past three seasons, they have been marooned in a midfield wasteland, where undistinguished signings were accompanied by converted defenders or forwards. Keane's move into retirement - via Celtic - only compounded the need for high-quality arrivals.

Lacking van Nistelrooy, set to be reunited with Beckham at the Bernabeu if a transfer to Real Madrid proceeds, there would be a need for attacking reinforcements too.

And the shortlist seems star-studded: supposed targets include Fernando Torres, Patrick Vieira, Gennaro Gattuso, Andrea Pirlo, Javier Mascherano, Mahammadou Diarra, Marcos Senna and Michael Carrick. The first newcomer, however, seems rather more underwhelming: Tomasz Kuszczak, set to become Edwin van der Sar's new understudy.

The alternatives to Rooney are more problematic. Unless Torres arrives, Louis Saha's mobility and unselfishness will earn him the role of the most advanced attacker. But the options only range from the untried (Giuseppe Rossi) to the unfit (Alan Smith); the latter is a category that usually includes Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, more icon than player in recent seasons.

Replicating Chelsea's awesome strength in depth - with Andriy Shevchenko added to Didier Drogba and Hernan Crespo in attack and a midfield replenished by Michael Ballack and Salomon Kalou - is impossible. But overcoming the disruption to the midfield and attack by acquiring three enviable recruits to finally wrest United out of transition might not be.

With all previous Keane impersonators fluffing their lines - indeed, Ferguson is yet to successfully replace Nicky Butt, let alone his greatest captain - there is the sense that no one individual should be saddled with that toughest of tasks. Instead, acquiring two midfielders with a combination of attributes could suffice.

Carrick, pursued for much of the summer, offers excellence in distribution and acute positional sense, but not the capacity to dominate. Vieira, if his renaissance at the World Cup provides an accurate guide, has the drive, while Juventus' relegation may be the stroke of fortune Ferguson requires. Milan, spared Serie B, may still be able to discourage the Scot, a long-term admirer of Gattuso.

Wherever his attention falls, time is at a premium. United, minus many of their foremost players, are already in South Africa in pre-season. That imports' acclimatisation to the English game and British buys' burgeoning understanding with new team-mates matters is proved by recent seasons.

United, often riddled by injuries and struggling to accommodate newcomers, have been lacklustre off the blocks, while Chelsea have wasted little time in stamping their authority on the Premiership.

Giggs warned this week that another slow start could result in a fourth successive season without a title. The best antidote to the recent past - or to the potential loss of Ronaldo - is venture into the transfer market and recruit the calibre and quantity of players that United require.

Because, if history repeats itself at Old Trafford, a summer of discontent could be followed by a winter of discontent. And that, assuredly, is worse.

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