‘At last,’ sang the late, great Etta James, ‘my lonely days are over.’ And while Manchester United supporters may not be pining for a love a long gone, the wait for the Reds to return this summer hardly sped by. Two months and five days of waiting, to be precise, since United lost the Premier League title to neighbours City in May. Sixty six days, for the fastidious, or 1584 hours, 95,040 minutes, or 5,702,400 seconds long. Either way, United’s players and supporters will be grateful when the Reds face AmaZulu FC in Durban this week.
Manchester United may have taken a scratch party on tour this summer, with so many regular faces resting, involved in the Olympics or injured, but a Sir Alex Ferguson side of sorts will take to the field on Wednesday night. Locals, and United’s regular support back in England, have waited through a summer of international football for this.
An the passion for all things United has been loudly voiced in South Africa over the 48 hours since Ferguson’s outfit landed in the country, with the sold-out Moses Mabhida Stadium awaiting what will be a highly unfamiliar United side.
Indeed, Ferguson has left more than a dozen players back in England, working the rigours of Euro 2012 out of their bodies, away with international associations, or still recovering from injury. Still, Ferguson hopes that the tour will add more than to the club’s bottom-line this summer, with his front line players gaining fitness, including new signing Shinji Kagawa, and a smattering of youngsters acquiring much-needed experience.
“The priority is to get the experienced players fit but young players will play in each game,” said Ferguson from United’s base in Durban.
“It’s likely that Kagawa will start with Chicharito. Michael Carrick, Rio Ferdinand and Paul Scholes will play. So too Anders Lindegaard, Lingard and Brady at left-back. Antonio Valencia will play.”
The Scot’s defence, in particular, will sport a highly unusual composition through six matches, across five countries, and three continents over the next month or so. Youngster Robbie Brady, for example, will start at left-back against AmaZulu – a position he has very rarely played through youth football. Meanwhile, 17-year-old left-back Tyler Blackett, one of the stars of last season’s Academy side, may also get a run out during the tour.
“Young Robbie Brady will be at left-back,” Ferguson added.
“He’s actually an outside-left but we believe there’s the possibility he’ll develop into a left-back. He was on loan last year at Hull City and did very well. Left-back is an area which we’re paying attention to. Patrice, in the last five years has played an average of 45-50 games. It’s phenomenal. I don’t know if anybody else has achieved that.
“Fabio went to QPR, which was so important for the boy because he has enormous ability, but he needs to play. Because Evra, touch wood, is never injured, the opportunities haven’t been there for the boy.
“That’s why we’re trying Robbie Brady at left-back. We also have Tyler Blackett here – he’s a big, strong boy, tall and quick going forward. But he’s only just turned 18. He has time on his side but he’s here for the experience and he may yet surprise us.”
Even with an unusual United side AmaZulu should offer the kind of ’soft’ start to pre-season rusty legs will welcome. Founded in 1932, as Zulu Royals, AmaZulu FC finished seventh in the South African Premiership last season – the club’s best finish in 15 years. It is a squad with few recognisable stars, although captain Tapuwa Kapini is a Zimbabwe international goalkeeper, while the side also boasts South African international Stanton Lewis, Malawi star Moses Chavula and Namibian Tangeni Shipahu.
“We expect a difficult game,” Sir Alex said ahead of the match, which takes place on Nelson Mandela’s 94th birthday.
“AmaZulu will be well motivated to play us on such a special day. The first thing we always try to do with the pre-season tour is to get everyone fit and try to avoid injuries. The priority is to get the players match-fit. That gives us a platform to say that, come the first day of the season, we are ready.”
“I don’t know how many substitutes will be allowed – we need to establish that – but I’m sure we can be flexible. It’s important the young players get a chance to play on such a big occasion.”
Meanwhile, defenders Jonny Evans, Nemanja Vidić and Chris Smalling continue to work on individual fitness programmes back at Carrington. With Rafael da Silva away at the Olympics until – at worst – 11 August – and his brother Fabio loaned out, Ferguson is likely to need at least one of the injured trio fit come the big kick-off on 20 August.
“Jonny Evans has had an operation,” explained Ferguson.
“I’m not sure he’ll start the season but he won’t be far away. Vidic will start the season. I am sure of that. He’s doing good amounts of training but not in the competitive sense in the way the lads out here have done. It was pointless bringing him with us. He’s back at Carrington with the facilities and the physios so he can get to the next level. By the time we come back, we hope he’ll be at the competitive stage of his comeback.
“Chris Smalling has actually done a bit of training. But the ruptured groin muscle he suffered needed a lot of attention. He’s making progress and we expect him to start the season.”
For now, however, the prospect of a United side in action – no matter the make-up – will have supporters glued to the television on Wednesday night, especially with summer acquisitions Kagawa and Nick Powell likely to feature in Ferguson’s side.
Meanwhile, for the locals, the chance to take on the world’s biggest club in front of more than 50,000 fans, even if AmaZulu remain rank outsiders to cause an upset.
“We’ll be playing against a big team with great players but we’ll have the same number of players on the field and if we all remain focused we can be able to match them,” said AmaZulu striker Sifiso Vilakazi.
It’s unlikely; the last time United visited South Africa the Reds beat Kaizer Chiefs 4-0, and few expect anything other than a similar result in Durban.
AmaZulu FC versus Manchester United
Moses Mabhida Stadium, Durban
Kick off: 7pm (BST)
United from: Lindegaard, Amos, Johnstone, Ferdinand, Veseli, Vermijl, Wootton, Blackett, Valencia, Anderson, Carrick, Scholes, Powell, Kagawa, Bébé, Tunnicliffe, Lingard, Brady, Petrucci, Berbatov, Chicharito, Macheda