A battle to stay on top
Champions of England and Europe, acclaimed as the most relentless attacking force on the continent, Manchester United looked set for a decade of dominance. It is not 2008, however, but 1999. The subsequent nine years were scarcely unsuccessful - five Premier League titles were secured before they conquered the continent again, so it hardly represented a decline of Leeds United proportions - but the lofty predictions were not realised. Sir Alex Ferguson took to accepting that a third European Cup should have been won long before it was in Moscow in May.
So 1999 did not precipitate a collapse; United retained their domestic title for a further two seasons. But in hindsight, it might be regarded as an opportunity missed. Of the four signings made that summer, two were regrettable - Mark Bosnich and Massimo Taibi - and two merely satisfactory, Quinton Fortune and Mikael Silvestre. Thus far this summer United are yet to sign anyone, and acrimony surrounds their principal target.
There are parallels, too, in the composition of the squad. Nine years ago, only Peter Schmeichel and, to a lesser extent, Teddy Sheringham, did not appear to have a long-term future. Now Edwin van der Sar is the veteran goalkeeper and, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs excepted, it is another youthful squad.
But the similarities with 1999 may prove a cause for concern at Old Trafford. The best position from which to buy is one of strength and they have never been stronger. Nine years ago, the arrivals were underwhelming; now they risk starting the season with a worse team on the pitch and in the dugout.
United stood still in 1999. Now, through little fault of their own, they could go backwards. Carlos Queiroz, the consigliere who has branched out to become the boss of his own family, is gone to Portugal; Cristiano Ronaldo, the sharpshooter responsible for pulling the trigger on inferior opponents, is starting to look like a gun for hire to the bigger bidders from the Bernabeu.
While Sir Alex Ferguson's defiance last week earned headlines, Ronaldo has never been for sale. That has not deterred Real. When Giggs, a survivor of the generation of '99, urged his younger team-mates not to wait nine years for a further taste of continental supremacy, he forgot to specify that he meant in Manchester, not Madrid. But the consequence of the Ronaldo saga is that uncertainty has replaced optimism as the prevailing emotion.
Yet there should be sympathy for Ferguson. Neither situation is of his creation. In both cases, he has provided reasons for the architects of United's success to stay. Both, however, are proof that visible progress can be counter-productive, with envious glances directed at the assistant manager and star turn alike.
Ferguson may get his wish and keep Ronaldo, but the effect has been destabilising nonetheless. The Portuguese has endangered his relationship with the United support; the unstoppable momentum that propelled him onto the scoresheet with remarkable regularity seems gone. With a sense his motives may be selfish, team-mates may prove less willing to sacrifice themselves for Ronaldo's benefit; Wayne Rooney, for instance, occupied a deeper or a wider role to allow the nominal winger to operate as a centre-forward. And the longer uncertainty surrounds his future, the less time United have to recruit a replacement if he does depart. It will not be easy: 42 goal wingers are few and far between.
In attack, Ferguson's target is well chosen. Dimitar Berbatov would become a high-calibre signing, and is the type of player who can add another dimension to the forward line. In addition, he would strengthen a department short of personnel, though not quality. The holy trinity - Carlos Tevez, Rooney and Ronaldo - could yet become a fantastic four, but the worst-case scenario is that they will be reduced to a double act. Two rancorous situations are unlikely to both be resolved in the champions' favour. Tottenham's complaints, whether justified or not, about United's conduct in the Berbatov affair add to a summer of discontent.
So what should have been Ferguson's easiest summer has become has hardest. A position at the top has brought attention from snipers, not converts to the cause. Issues go beyond personnel. The unofficial title of the world's biggest club may be at stake. It would be a dent to United's pride and a boost to some already rather sizeable egos at the Bernabeu if Ronaldo could be lured away.
He has served as a distraction from all other players. That may not beneficial; attention elsewhere may have provided a focus on the United squad. In 1999, there was not the recognition that, fine footballers as both remained, Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke had both just enjoyed the best season of their careers. The question can be asked if the same now applies to, say, Wes Brown; given Ferguson's earlier interest in Jose Bosingwa, a right-back may have been on the agenda before he pronounced he intended to make a solitary signing. Likewise, the admiration of Miguel Veloso - perhaps fuelled by Queiroz - may have faded. That is not to suggest dispensing with a successful and exhilarating team; merely that Old Trafford should be a more enticing destination, and the Manchester rain less of an obstacle, when it houses the European champions.
On the two previous occasions that was the case, it did not provide a springboard for greater achievements. Given Chelsea's heavy expenditure, the modern-day United could do much worse than emulate the team of 1999 by winning a hat-trick of Premier League title. The other issue, however, is whether they could do so much more, and the fear the events of this summer could ultimately hinder them.
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