Manchester United arrived in China this week on the back of two underwhelming performances against Ajax Cape Town and AmaZulu in South Africa, but a rip-roaring success off the field where column inches were garnered, back-to-back commercial engagements fulfilled and fitness gained. Goodbye Africa, hello Asia as leg two of United’s world tour gets underway. To Shanghai, a whistle-stop tour of the world’s most populous city, and a meeting with sometime nemesis, Didier Drogba, on Wednesday night.
United flew 8057 miles from Cape Town to Shanghai at the weekend, and the squad has just four days in China before it takes another marathon trip back to Europe on Thursday. But with just four more fixtures to be completed before the big Premier League kick off against Everton on 20 August, this is where the tour should get a little more serious.
The Reds take to the huge Shanghai Stadium on Wednesday, where Sir Alex Ferguson’s side will seek to improve on two understandably rusty performances against mediocre opposition in Africa. And while fitness levels will be of more concern to the Scot, the players will have one eye on Goodison Park in just under four weeks time.
Yet, with so many first team players taking an addition break, are injured or away with Olympic Games squads, United was far from impressive against – on league form at least – the seventh and ninth best sides in the South African Premier League. Just two goals and the narrow avoidance of defeat against Ajax Cape Town smacks of a squad not only without some star names, but still finding a collective ethos.
“That [the lack of goals] is not the most important thing,” Ferguson told MUTV, as United held its first training session in China.
“We want to keep our heads held high in terms of our performance level and making sure we get a result. But at the end of the day when we get to that last pre-season game in Hanover we want to be confident the team is ready for the first game of the season.
“They [Shenhua] will be very committed, very enthusiastic, quite aggressive and athletic. We’ll have to deal with that. We don’t know if Drogba will be playing or not but you look at him and you have to say he’s a handful. We’ve played against him many times and you can never take your eye off him. We’ll have to deal with that.”
Whether Drogba, and fellow Premier League exile Nicolas Anelka, play or not there are more than a few United squad members seeking an opportunity in the far east. While some senior pros such as Javier Hernández will be desperate to build on a slow start to the tour, others including Anderson, Dimitar Berbatov and Anders Lindegaard are keen to force their way into Ferguson’s thinking.
So too will new signings Nick Powell, who has already impressed many of United’s senior pros on tour, and Shinji Kagawa, who was bright on his full, albeit non-competitive, debut for the club against Ajax Cape Town.
“I’ve been very, very impressed,” added United captain-for-the-tour Rio Ferdinand of his new Japanese colleague.
“I’d seen him play for Dortmund on TV and I looked on YouTube. He’s been fantastic. He’s quick, he’s sharp, he has great awareness, he plays off both feet. I’m excited about playing with him and getting the season started.
“He’s been one of the better players in Germany for the last few years. I think he will bring that form to Manchester United. I think he’ll be a great acquisition.”
The tour will be judged a greater success still if some of the many youngsters in the party benefit from the experience. While Powell, at just 18, will spend a season bedding into the club, others have genuine pretensions of making Ferguson’s first team squad in the coming year.
Defender Scott Wooten, who spent the season on loan with Peterborough United last year, has drawn praise from Ferdinand for his composed performances on tour. Meanwhile, Ryan Tunnicliffe, Jesse Lingard, back Tyler Blackett, and Marnick Vermijl have all grabbed chances to impress in South Africa.
Meanwhile, Italian Davide Petrucci, for whom many have high hopes at Old Trafford, made his first team bow in Africa after some frustrating years of injury enforced regression. Now signed up for another three years with the club, Petrucci could start his first game for Ferguson’s senior team against Shenhua in China. The youngster came close to scoring after smashing an effort against the bar in United’s fixture with AmaZulu last week.
“I’m really pleased for Davide,” striker Federico Macheda said of his fellow countryman.
“He’s had a tough time at United with injuries but he did great for the Reserves last season. He deserves to be on tour and was unlucky not to score the other night. I’ve just told him to stay calm and not to put too much pressure on himself, but to enjoy the tour and do his best and just play his game. He is a great player and it’s great to see him playing for the first team. I hope he’ll do very well in the future.”
And so to Shenhua, with the Chinese outfit set to test Drogba’s injured back shortly before Sergio Batista names his starting XI for Wednesday’s game. The Shanghai side may now boast some high-profile signings, but finished just 11th in the Chinese Super League last season under the part-time direction of former Chelsea striker Anelka.
Aside from the west London alumni, Shenhua boasts Brazilian defender Moisés, Australian Joel Griffiths and captain Yu Tao among Batista’s predominantly Chinese squad.
It should be a roaring atmosphere in the 80,000-capacity Shanghai Stadium too. Built for the 8th National Games of the People’s Republic of China in 1997, Shanghai Stadium will act as a temporary home for the game, with Shenhua’s 35,000-capacity Hongkou Stadium deemed too small.
And while the local focus has been on Kagawa this week, the 23-year-old is just one of many desperate to impress on a quick-fire tour of the far east.