So here it is, three months on from Manchester United’s coronation as Premier League champions in May and Sir Alex Ferguson’s team is ready to mount a spirited defence. Installed as favourites from the off, United is seeking a 20th domestic championship in what could still be Ferguson’s final season in charge at Old Trafford. In the Scot’s way are Manchester City and Chelsea, each desperate to land silverware over the next nine months, Arsenal, reeling from Cesc Fabregas’ loss, and Liverpool, resurgent under Kenny Dalglish.
Indeed, United’s campaign could not start with a more difficult programme over the next two months. Ferguson’s outfit faces each of last season’s top six sides before Christmas, while the United manager wrestles with a much-changed team. New signings Ashley Young and David de Gea should make their Premier League debuts for the club in United’s opening fixture against West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthornes on Sunday. Meanwhile, teenager Phil Jones should make the bench, and returning loanee Tom Cleverley is in the squad after impressing last weekend.
However, United kicks off its defence with up to six players missing. Ferguson is definitely without concussion victim Javier Hernández, along with Antonio Valencia, who has a knee problem, and virus afflicted Darren Fletcher. Meanwhile, Michael Carrick, Patrice Evra and Danny Welbeck could also miss United’s opener with injury. Rafael da Silva will not be involved after dislocating his shoulder on Friday.
Hernández is four weeks away from full fitness according to the 69-year-old United manager, while Carrick was forced to pull out of England’s squad during the week with a tight hamstring and Evra missed France’s match with a knock. Carrick could make the game but Evra is rated doubtful. Fletcher and Valencia are now back in full training but are unlikely to be ready for the first team until late August.
“We’ve got a doubt with Patrice Evra,” Ferguson said on Friday.
“He got an injury last Sunday, he missed the France game. We’ll give him until tomorrow but he is doubtful. Darren Fletcher’s training very well and he’ll play in the Reserves on Monday, so will Valencia. Chicharito is still maybe 10 days away from taking part in any football training. It’s not a concern, it’s just a precaution given the fact he had concussion a couple of years back.
“They’re the only injuries we’ve got really. We’ve got a strong squad at the moment, a big squad and I’ll be taking 22 players down to West Brom.”
Ferguson’s key selection decision may come in central midfield, with the club privately briefing media on Thursday night that the bid for Internazionale midfielder Wesley Sneijder is now dead. The Dutchman’s £200,000 per week wage demands have seemingly scuppered a deal that would have cost United up to £100 million over a five-year contract.
In the Dutchman’s stead – with Samir Nasri off to City this week – Ferguson will choose from Anderson, Ryan Giggs, Carrick and Cleverley in central midfield. Cleverley excelled against City in the Community Shield at Wembley and Ferguson admits that the second-half performance from his young side has given the Scot much food for thought ahead of the Baggies tie.
However, with Darron Gibson consigned to the reserves Ferguson is desperately short of central midfield options. Whether there is a plan B that includes dipping into the market is as yet undefined.
“I think picking my team is made easier by the second-half performance last week in some ways,” added Ferguson.
“I still have to respect the experience of the ones who came off at half-time. When you’re 2-0 down in these big games, you don’t expect what we saw. But Welbeck has played two or three times for us at Wembley in the League Cup final and FA Cup semi-final, so, for him, we know his temperament for the big occasion.
“What we wanted to find out was how Jones equipped himself, Smalling and Cleverley too, and they did fantastic. We should know about Cleverley because he’s been with us a long time, he’s been with us since he was 12 years of age. You get to know boys in depth during that time, you get to know their temperament and their character.
“The only reason I didn’t start Cleverley was I just felt the powerful players they have in midfield like Yaya Toure made me a bit cautious about playing him from the start.”
Elsewhere Ferguson is likely to select experience in last season’s top goalscorer Dimitar Berbatov, even if Welbeck passes a late fitness test. The youngster played 85 minutes against City at Wembley, leaving Berbatov fighting for his place in Ferguson’s team
Indeed, Michael Owen might be in line for a start but for a minor knock picked up on United’s tour of the United States this summer.
If competition for places in almost all positions characterises United’s squad this season, then it is required with a highly competitive campaign ahead. Ferguson believes that up to six teams are in competition for the Premier League title, with the ‘real stuff’ beginning this weekend.
“They all knew last week was the Community Shield,” said the United boss.
“It was not the real stuff. That starts on Sunday. Wembley was an occasion. There was rivalry and everyone was motivated. We have to show that in every game. It is going to be tough. It will be a hard campaign, it always is. We will waken up to the fact last week was a different game.
“City are still short of a bit of fitness, have Aguero to come in, Tevez to come back and they might buy another two players.The experience Chelsea have is better than anyone. Terry, Drogba and Cech have been there for yonks. They have been involved in the last seven titles. You cannot, in any way, dismiss them.
“The expectation will be on Liverpool to improve given the money they have spent and you can’t rule Arsenal out either. They used to talk about a top four. Now it is the top six. That is even more interesting for everyone.”
If the Reds are to wrap up a 20th championship the Scot believes his side must improve away from home, starting with West Brom on Sunday. While United dropped just two points at Old Trafford, the away record was worse than any title-winning side since the mid-1970s. United won just five away games last season; just two sides have ever won a 20 team title with fewer away wins: Newcastle United in 1906-07 and Sheffield Wednesday in 1929-30.
That away form will face another stern test on Sunday, with Roy Hodgson revitalising the Baggies since joining as manager last winter. West Brom comfortably avoided relegation and will be targeting a top half finish come May.
Hodgson will be without Steven Reid who has a torn calf muscle but Peter Odemwingie’s ankle and Youssouf Mulumbu’s abdominal strain have cleared in time to play. Meanwhile, winger Jerome Thomas and midfielder Paul Scharner will play if fit and new £7 million signing Shane Long could make his début.
West Bromwich Albion versus Manchester United, Premier League, The Hawthorns, Sunday 14 August, 4pm.
Albion (4-4-2): Foster; Jara Reyes, Tamas, Olsson, Shorey; Brunt, Mulumbu, Scharner, Dorrans; Long, Odemwingie. Subs from: Fulop, Fortuné, Dawson, Roofe, Mantom, Jones, Mattock, Cox, Thorne, Wood, Thomas, Tchoyi, Morrison.
United (4-4-1-1): de Gea; Smalling, Ferdinand, Vidic, Fabio; Nani, Carrick, Anderson, Young; Rooney; Berbatov. Subs from: Lindegaard, Jones, Evans, Cleverley, Giggs, Park, Diouf, Welbeck, Owen,
West Brom: n/a
Mike Jones (Chester)