Manchester United’s Euro 2012 contingent finally returned to action on Sunday as the Reds drew with Norwegian side Vålerenga in Oslo. With just two weeks before the big Premier League kick off, Sir Alex Ferguson’s players were reunited as an almost complete squad for the first time this summer after injury and international commitments disrupted United’s preparations for the new season. Except, of course, the 70-year-old manager, who wasn’t there, with rumours abounding that Ferguson remained in Manchester to conclude summer transfer business.
Despite Ferguson’s absence on unspecified “club business,” Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, and Ashley Young played some part against the the Bohemians, as United began the European leg of an extensive summer programme. Meanwhile, with just three matches remaining in the Reds’ pre-season, long-term injury victim Nemanja Vidić joined the party as the Serbian works towards full fitness before the season’s opener against Everton on 20 August.
While Patrice Evra returned to Manchester on Sunday, with his wife due to give birth this weekend, Ferguson will be pleased to have something like his first choice XI back together after a fragmented, globe-trotting, pre-season.
Still, there was little fluency from United on the pitch against a team that finished seventh in Tippeligaen last season, and currently lies just a place better in the current campaign. Much as in matches against AmaZulu, Cape Town Ajax, and Shanghai Shenhua on tour this summer, United struggled to convert territorial dominance into goals; surely a concern for Ferguson ahead of the new season.
Three goals in four games will set no alarm bells ringing at Old Trafford just yet, but it’s a habit that Ferguson cannot tolerate once the real action gets underway later this month.
Indeed, striker Welbeck missed a host of chances in the Norwegian capital, while Vålerenga goalkeeper Gudmund Kongshavn impressed with three outstanding saves to deny United a third win on tour this summer. Mexican Javier Hernández was less culpable, but did little to improve on a muted pre-season in a 15 minute substitute appearance.
But goals or not there were positives for stand-in manager Phelan, with Vidić paired at the back alongside Rio Ferdinand, Michael Keane – deputising in an unfamiliar role at left-back – performing encouragingly, and substitute Shinji Kagawa bright once again.
Vidić’s return, in particular, is vital with Chris Smalling out for weeks after suffering a broken metatarsal in pre-season training, and Jonny Evans still recovering after foot surgery forced the Northern Irishman out of United’s tour of South Africa and China. Reporting no reaction after eight months on the sidelines, Vidić told MUTV that his knee felt fine.
“After eight months without a game it’s obvious that you have to get used to your positioning, and still fitness-wise it’s not as hopefully it will be in a few weeks, but I’m pleased,” said Vidić.
“It was frustrating, but obviously I knew I would be out for six months. I tried to make the best of it, to work hard and when I come back to be the same as I was before the injury. It’s hard, but it’s part of the football career. Any sportsman has the risk of injuries and hopefully this is the past and better days are coming for me.”
Back in Manchester it’s not yet clear whether Ferguson was involved in the widely rumoured bid for the Brazilian youngster Lucas Moura, or on other club business. There is, after all, a New York IPO to flog.
The Scot’s media mouthpiece Bob Cass claimed on Sunday that a £30 million United bid had been accepted by Moura’s club São Paulo, and a medical had been arranged in Manchester for Sunday. Claims that were trashed by both the Brazilian football association and local media inside the day to leave Cass, not for the first time, short of credibility.
“Lucas has not been sold by São Paulo,” claimed ESPN’s Brazilian commentator Paulo Vinicius Coelho. “The thought is that it will be difficult for the British club to reach the amount required by São Paulo: €45 million.
“Lucas is more willing to go to England than he was three months ago, but nothing is decided. Manchester United must reach the fee desired by São Paulo, or someone will have to convince [São Paulo club] president Juvenal Juvencio to close the deal for less.”
United supporters of a world-weary nature may reserve judgement until the player is pictured at Carrington next to a beaming chief executive, David Gill. After all, when it comes to smokescreens, United has a long record of bluff and counter-bluff.
Further discrediting the Mail, the Brazilian Football Federation said Lucas will not be allowed to take part in any medical during the tournament.
“The Board of the Seleção Brasileira has not received any request from the English club,” said a CBF statement on Sunday. “If we receive one, we will not allow a player to leave the camp to do it.”
Further backtracking on Sunday, the Mail then claimed Ferguson had in fact not stayed in Manchester to oversee Moura’s transfer, but that of Arsenal’s Robin van Persie. Take that one with a very large pinch of salt.
On the pitch United next face Barcelona in Gothenburg on Wednesday – the second pre-season in succession that the teams have met. While the Reds walked away with a 2-1 victory last summer, no pre-season win will ever make up for the thumpings the Catalan side handed United in two Champions League finals.
Still, Ferguson, Phelan or whomever is in charge on Wednesday, will look again both for an improvement in performance, fitness and – hopefully – a few goals. But whatever the result, it’s unlikely we’ll have a conclusion to this summer’s tiresome transfer speculation.
United 0-0 Vålerenga, Ullevaal Stadion, Oslo
Lindegaard; Valencia, Vidić (Anderson 61), Ferdinand, M Keane; Nani, Carrick, Scholes (Powell 75), Young (Lingard 75); Rooney (Hernández 76), Welbeck (Kagawa 61). Subs not used: De Gea, Jones, Berbatov, Macheda.
Revised tour squad to play Barcelona in Gothenburg, and Hannover 96, in Hannover
De Gea, Lindegaard; Evra, Ferdinand, Jones, M Keane, Vidić; Anderson, Carrick, Nani, Powell, Lingard, Scholes, Valencia, Young, Kagawa; Berbatov, Hernández, Macheda, Rooney, Welbeck