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Keeping Ronaldo the deal of the summer

Sir Alex Ferguson was always confident he would get his way despite constant reports of Real Madrid's interest, and in keeping Cristiano Ronaldo at Old Trafford he may just have pulled off the most important deal of his long United tenure.

The fact that the Portuguese winger will miss the first two months of the season pales into insignificance when you consider the impact he could have upon his return. United fans may have claimed there was a ready made replacement waiting in the proverbial wings in Nani, but to expect him to fill Ronaldo's 42-goal boots - 31 of them coming in the Premier League - at this stage would be too much.

You could almost sense a collective groan from Liverpool and London as United's title rivals saw a chink of light extinguished right before their eyes.

Sir Alex, though, has been bemoaning his lack of options for the start of the campaign. With Anderson at the Olympics, Wayne Rooney suffering from a virus and the perennially injured Louis Saha's future up in the air, there is plenty for the boss to think about. Whether he turns to Frazier Campbell, whose performances lifted Hull City into the top flight last season, remains to be seen.

He would obviously like to bring in Dimitar Berbatov from Tottenham Hotspur. But with Robbie Keane already lost to Liverpool, Spurs are understandably demanding top dollar for a player Sir Alex has tracked for years.

United can take comfort in the fact that Sir Alex does not need to spend huge amounts in the transfer market. He's built a squad for the future, not just for one season, and it is likely only a striker will arrive before the end of August - and that's far from certain.

Sir Alex himself will take comfort in the fact that last season United recovered from a slow start to win the title, failing to win any of their first three matches, losing to Manchester City in the process and scoring just one goal. They still won the Premier League with a comfort zone of two points and a vastly superior goal difference over Chelsea.

United and Chelsea went right down to the wire in the battle for Premier League glory, and it was ultimately Chelsea's failure to win two of their final four home games against strugglers Wigan Athletic and Bolton Wanderers which cost them the title. That's not to take anything away from United's achievements as they produced scintillating football, and yet again finished as the top scoring side in the division.

In defence, too, United were far and away the best side with just 22 goals conceded. The partnership of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand is now considered to be the best in the division.

The crowning glory came in the Champions League final as they again crossed swords with Avram Grant's side. Ronaldo, predictably, put United in front but he turned villain in the penalty shootout - which the Red Devils eventually won 6-5. It was the culmination of Sir Alex's painstaking job of rebuilding his United side to win Europe's elite competition for a second time in his tenure, something which he freely admits was long overdue.

United failed to reach the FA Cup final for only the second time in five years, though at least they could have a crumb of comfort in knowing they lost to eventual winners Portsmouth.

Ronaldo may be at Old Trafford for at least one more season but there has already been one departure which may yet have a crucial bearing on the season. Carlos Queiroz was tempted away from Old Trafford for a second time, on this occasion by Portugal, and he leaves a huge gulf.

Responsible for most of the coaching and team preparation duties, he leaves a void which has to be filled carefully. The replacement must be able to get a response from the players and command their respect too.

Rene Meulensteen and Mike Phelan have been linked with promotions into the role by ex-Red Devil and Bordeaux manager Laurent Blanc is also thought to have been sounded out.

While many fans are now trying to play down Queiroz's role it seemed to make a difference when he left for Real Madrid in 2003 as it coincided with United's temporary fall from grace - they didn't win the Premier League for four years. Granted, Queiroz was only in Spain for one season before returning but if United do fail this season there will be a certain symmetry.

There's little more that can be written about Sir Alex. The most successful manager in the history of the English game, 22 years in charge of one club and still with more silverware in sight. He has rebuilt Manchester United time and time again, batting away possible retirement to prove his doubters wrong and, arguably, create the greatest team of his tenure.

Retirement is going to feature increasingly in Sir Alex's interviews after he suggested that he would not go beyond 2011 - he turns 70 at the turn of that year - but he has already changed his mind once and it would be no great surprise if he extended his stay. He changed his mind in 2001/02, and while it may not be as easy to do likewise almost ten years later, if the hunger is there Sir Alex could remain.

It means the next three years will act as a continual interview period for those linked with the difficult task of slipping into his shoes. Mark Hughes, Queiroz and Paul Ince have all been named but footballing fortunes change quickly.

With Ronaldo staying he should be the immediate choice as United's key man but this could be the season that Rooney has to take his game to the next level.

United have to replace Ronaldo's goals in the early months of the season. One way of doing that is to sign Dimitar Berbatov, the other is for Rooney to become a consistent goalscorer. Rooney scored 18 goals to Ronaldo's 42 last term, despite featuring in only six fewer matches. With only 12 in the Premier League, it is an area the striker must improve upon.

Once back from his virus, Rooney has to prove he can deliver the goods as he did when scoring a hat-trick on his United debut against Fenerbahce in the Champions League four years ago.

Although the England international will never be as prolific as an out-and-out forward such as Ruud Van Nistelrooy - he scored 68 Premier League goals in three seasons - Rooney must get closer to the magic 20 each season.

If Rooney does flourish in front of goal United have every chance of defending their title for a third season.

Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal have questions of their own to answer and perhaps only the potential loss of Ronaldo provided them with their best hope of stopping a third successive crown heading to Manchester.

United's rivals can only hope that Carlos Queiroz's exit causes problems. However, United's squad is far stronger than when Queiroz first moved on five years ago.

Regardless or not of a new striker arriving, it's hard to see beyond another United title. And with another year's experience in the squad they are sure to go far in the Champions League too.

  • Any comments? Email Dale Johnson


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