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Aug 6, 2007

A wealth of options for defending champions

Before one can begin to get a pre-season preview of Manchester United then it is best to get one word out of the way: Tevez.

Whether the one-man Argentine media storm will actually play for the Red Devils or not is a topic that has bored most fans into submission. He may form part of an exciting attacking unit for United. He may not.

Whatever happens, United enter the season in a role that has been unfamiliar to them for four years. They are once again the team to beat after finding themselves in the unfamiliar position of people's champions as they held off the challenge of a Chelsea unit that had won few friends with its style of football and the antics of its manager.

Prior to the beginining of 2006/7, many United fans had only hoped that their team would start to play the attacking football that has long been the club's accepted standard. Three seasons of tinkering with 4-5-1 and a style of play that protected the older legs in the team had seen the team's effectiveness slip. Lesser teams were no longer afraid of United as results against the likes of Sunderland and Norwich had shown in the seasons since the title of 2002/3.

In jettisoning Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Roy Keane in typically Machiavellian style, Sir Alex Ferguson changed his team's modus operandi and, with Ryan Giggs reborn alongside Saha and Cristiano Ronaldo in early season, United were able to build a lead which they would hang on to after the turn of the year. Wayne Rooney may have taken time to settle after his World Cup woe and Saha would be supplanted by first loanee Henrik Larsson and then his own problems with injury, yet United were able to survive dips in form by such players because of one man.

Ronaldo dominated from the first game until right until the league was won. Two goals against Fulham on the opening day set out the stall, and a late winning goal in the return at Craven Cottage handed United the belief that they could win 'their' trophy back. Surrounded by speculation that this would be his last season at Old Trafford and booed everywhere except in the M16 postal area, Ronaldo delivered riposte after riposte, bagging enough goals to win a personal bet with Sir Alex and delivering the assists his many critics had previously said were missing from his game.

Ronaldo will remain a marked man in the new season but then again, he was just that the previous year. Ferguson's expectation that Ronaldo will become the world's best will be put to the test in the five more seasons he is re-contracted to the club, ending speculation, for the moment, that his future lies on the continent.

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European success, denied by a semi-final horror show in Milan in 2007, will surely be foremost in Ferguson's mind. The pain of successive failures after the unmatchable watermark of 1999 still hurts the Scot, and Champions League Final victory in Moscow for his own Red Army may well hasten his departure from the club. But then again, we mention that every year...

And, after a few years of Glazer parsimony in the transfer market, it seems that Ferguson has at last been handed a warchest to add to his squad. The new arrivals may well be offset by the departures of the likes of Heinze and Alan Smith but Anderson, Nani, Owen Hargreaves and possibly our unmentionable Argentinian friend have enhanced the team's options in midfield and attack.

The time approaches when Giggs and Paul Scholes, the latter so decisive in rescuing matters against Blackburn as nerves began to jangle, will no longer be able to produce. In adding the first three, Ferguson has acted for the future, if not this season. Indeed, it seems that United initially hoped to keep the two youngsters in the Portugese league before having their hand forced by approaches for Nani, by Spurs, and Anderson, by Arsenal.

Nani, like Ronaldo, can play on either wing, and may allow his compatriot to play off the striker in a more roving role. Anderson, who appeared very briefly at the Copa America, is expected to be able to fill a variety of positions. Perhaps Ferguson, often accused of confusing players by placing them in too many positions, may learn lessons from the failure of Kleberson at Old Trafford and swiftly choose a position for a player compared to Ronaldinho but supposedly capable of playing left wing, central midfield, support striker and, Anderson's stated opinion, attacking left-back in the style of Roberto Carlos.

Hargreaves' transfer saga lasted a year, and it is hoped you-know-who does not keep United fans waiting or otherwise for nearly as long, but there were sound reasons for United waiting so long for his signature.

In winning the Premiership in 2006/7, United became the first team to do so without playing a defensive midfielder. In the league's fifteen-year lifespan, Paul Ince, Keane, Mark Atkins, Patrick Vieira and Claude Makelele have all filled a role that Scholes and the slick Michael Carrick do not. Hargreaves's experience on the European stage and all-action style will complement both Scholes and Carrick while giving Ferguson options in difficult away games where packing the midfield is an option. The Canadian-born midfielder will give Carrick the freedom to move further forward in the absence of his senior partner, and will take Scholes off the tackling duties that are just about the only thing to let down a glittering United career.

Ferguson's defensive options remain much the same as last season with Nemanja Vidic hoped to be as imperious alongside Rio Ferdinand as he was before breaking his shoulder against Rovers. And not the unfit wreck he was in the San Siro.

Gary Neville's injury problems have continued, which is where the versatile Hargreaves may again come in handy but then there are returning youngsters Jonny Evans, superb for Sunderland last season and Gerard Pique, who settled well at Zaragoza, to complement a unit that looks highly unlikely to feature another Argentine rebel, Gabriel Heinze in the light of his desire to join Liverpool; a topic best not mentioned to Sir Alex.

Edwin Van Der Sar is expected to round off his career at United before retiring at Euro 2008, meaning that United would soon be looking for a replacement goalkeeper. Ben Foster's knee injury came at a bad time for him, meaning he will be unable to challenge the Dutchman until the winter months. This was good news for last year's deputy, Tomasz Kuszcak, who gained a permanent deal after Foster's problems.

From having a squad that was stretched to its limits by April, Ferguson looks to be blessed with options he has not possessed in the Glazer era.

Departed are Kieran Richardson, to the sorrow of few, and Giuseppe Rossi, to the chagrim of those who felt he deserved more of a first-team chance but across the board Fergie can feel that he has a group of players to challenge on the three fronts his team came close to winning on in 2006/7.

And don't be surprised if United go back to being unpopular again.

  • Any thoughts? Email John Brewin.