For the third time in as many years Manchester United’s pre-season campaign has carried with it a renewed sense of optimism. In summer 2014, United sacked Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor, David Moyes, and replaced him with Dutch veteran Louis Van Gaal. Throughout that summer supporters were treated to some outstanding performances by Van Gaal’s Netherlands squad at the World Cup. It built hope for what was not to come.
You know it has been a long summer when both participants in the Community Shield look back all doey-eyed on last season’s heroics. Manchester United captured the Premier League title by an emphatic margin, while Wigan Athletic triumphed somewhat impossibly over Manchester City at Wembley.
United’s league victory rounded off Sir Alex Ferguson’s time in charge of the club, but with it came a tough opening two months of David Moyes’ time as successor. Meanwhile, 25 miles east of Old Trafford relegation to the Championship has brought a raft of playing changes and a new manager at Wigan. As Dickens didn’t quite say: it was the best of times, now the worst of times.
The Shield is Moyes’ first competitive fixture in charge after a summer of mixed results on the pitch and serial frustration off it. Defeats in Thailand, Japan and at home to Sevilla last Friday night have brought murmurs of concern from United’s supporters keen for a positive start to the new regime. Meanwhile, the club’s inability to secure either of Moyes’ primary playing targets this summer has left the side painfully short in midfield.
Throw the ongoing Wayne Rooney saga into the mix and Moyes begins the season in an invidious position; keen to hit the ground running, but hamstrung by circumstances largely beyond his control. Indeed, the Scot has less resources at his disposal than his predecessor, positive contributions this summer from younger players notwithstanding.
That may change in the coming three weeks of course, but United heads into the Shield against lower-division opposition in decidedly pensive mood.
With a record against the Latics that reads 16 victories in 17 fixtures Sunday’s game should provide one last boost to team morale before the Premier League kicks off in seven day’s time. Yet, there remains just a modicum of apprehension; after three defeats and two draws in seven games during pre-season the Reds head into the new campaign in anything but good form.
Still, Moyes remains upbeat ahead of Sunday’s game. He can be nothing but; at least not until the campaign begins in earnest over the next few weeks.
“I just cannot wait to get the season started,” said the new United manager.
“I know what it is like to walk out at Old Trafford as the manager of the opposition, so to step out in front of more than 75,000 fans as the Manchester United manager will be a special moment for me.
“Being given the chance to manage a club like this was a dream come true for me and probably more so given that the previous manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, wanted me to be in charge of the club. It won’t always be easy – I know that – but I just hope we can all work together. My sole goal is to be successful and have a winning team.”
On the pitch Moyes will be without Rooney, with the Scouser left out of United’s squad despite being fit to take part at Wembley. The striker has featured for just 45 minutes this summer – in a behind-closed-doors friendly last week – but has suffered a rash of increasingly curious injuries that have kept the 27-year-old out of public-facing fixtures.
In truth, the player’s determination to quit Old Trafford is in little doubt; only the fee and Rooney’s destination is now to be agreed before the transfer window closes on 2 September.
Elsewhere, Moyes may also be without Nani, who suffered a hamstring strain against AIK last week, while Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young, Namanja Vidić and Chris Smalling are at varying stages of fitness. Rio Ferdinand played more than 80 minutes of his testimonial against Sevilla and is likely to miss out at Wembley.
Winger Wilfried Zaha could feature having enjoyed a fine pre-season, while youngsters Adnan Januzaj and Jesse Lingard will be in the matchday squad for the trip to north London. Each impressed over the summer, Lingard top-scoring on tour, while Januzaj walked away having won hearts and minds of the United faithful.
Jonny Evans could partner Phil Jones in central defence, while Rafael da Silva is available despite having to serve the final game of a three match ban against Swansea City next weekend.
Meanwhile, new Wigan boss Owen Coyle has retained much of the squad relegated from the Premier League last season. Arouna Koné departed in a £6 million move to Everton, while Antolín Alcaraz also joined the Toffees on a free transfer, and Maynor Figueroa signed for Hull City. Shaun Malloney and Callum McManaman have remained with the Latics despite offers elsewhere.
However, the former Bolton Wanderers manager will call on significant top flight experience this season: Scott Carson, James Perch, and Grant Holt have joined from Bursaspor, Newcastle United and Norwich City respectively.
Coyle is without club captain Gary Caldwell, and defenders Ivan Ramis and Thomas Rogne through injury at Wembley, but the squad is fine form having beaten Barnsley 4-0 in the opening weekend of this year’s Championship last Saturday.
“Sunday is an opportunity to win a trophy, it’s as simple as that,” said Coyle.
“We have the task of trying to do that against the champions of England and one of the biggest clubs in world football. So it’s going to be a very tough game for us and we will be labelled as underdogs before the game but we have no doubt that if we perform to the best of our ability on the day then there’s nothing we can’t achieve.
“We’ll be playing against a team with quality all over the pitch and the media spotlight on them as always, after the arrival of David Moyes. I know David well, and I’ve no doubt in my mind that come the end of the season they’ll be right up there once again competing for the title.”
Wigan, though, will play with little pressure at Wembley. Just 5,000 fans will make it to support the FA Cup winners in London, while United has sold more than 47,000 tickets for the match. It is just one further data point that underscores the size of the task Moyes has taken on.
And despite a difficult transitionary summer – and the very likely probability of a tough first few weeks of the campaign – Moyes can add a tropy of sorts on Sunday. It would be folly to underestimate the opportunity.
“I will be trying to make this the first trophy of many,” said 50-year-old Moyes, who claimed no silverware during a decade at Everton.
“But, if we win, it’s really something that will have been earned by Sir Alex. I’ll do my best to finish off the job but it’s Sir Alex who will deserve a lot of the credit if we’re successful at Wembley.”
Manchester United v Wigan Athletic, Community Shield, Wembley, 2pm 10 August 2013
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Assistants: Mike Mullarkey and Scott Ledger
Fourth Official: Michael Oliver
There is something about the vibrancy of youth that is Manchester United’s signature, from the Busby Babes to Fergie’s Fledglings. It is a cliché of course but one that supporters buy into with full heart. Yet, in truth some of that youthful vigour had been lost from United in recent seasons, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad aging before our eyes.
No longer. The rash of retiring and released stars over the past year, together with youthful acquisitions this summer, has transformed Ferguson’s squad and reinvigorated its outlook. The United team that overhauled Manchester City in the Community Shield at Wembley on Saturday was aged on average just 22 in the second period, with 13 players in Ferguson’s matchday squad aged 23 or under.
Youthful abandon is not simply an empty soliloquy though. In football the lack of fear in youth so often translates to freedom of expression on the pitch. Indeed, United’s vibrant second half display not only sent thousands of Reds home happy but, arguably, for the first time since 2008, points towards a dynamic shape for the coming season.
United’s front four interchanged with such bewildering regularity that City simply could not cope. That Roberto Mancini at one stage resorted to fielding four central midfielders said much for both United’s attacking shape and the Italian’s defensive outlook.
Little surprise then that Ferguson praised his young team, which fought back from a two goal deficit at Wembley to secure victory in the final minute of injury time.
“For us I think it just confirms what I’ve thought,” Ferguson said.
“People were saying that we’re not the best United squad and things like that but you’ve got to remember a lot of young players will improve. We are very confident with this group of young players.
“I always wanted to expose Jones, Cleverley and Evans to that big-match environment. It was a big challenge for them and they did well. I’m very confident with this group of players.
“De Gea and Jones give us a good future. They are outstanding. Young was good as well. He is 25 and a mature player after playing for Aston Villa but he’s new to the type of challenge he is getting at United.”
United was the better side for much of the game, save for a period in the first half when City’s power in midfield threatened to overwhelm Michael Carrick and Anderson. While eventually Anderson offered his finest performance in a United shirt for some time, Tom Cleverley stole many headlines with a stand-out second half display.
The midfielder, who spent last season on loan with Wigan Athletic, offered the kind of central midfield dynamism that United has lacked for so long. Basingstoke-born Cleverley played a series of incisive one-touch passes, moved into space and – crucially – frequently ran ahead of the ball from central midfield. It is precisely the kind of incisive midfield play that was so lacking in Carrick’s performance during the opening 45.
“Cleverley has come back from Wigan and we brought Welbeck and (Mame) Diouf back from loans as well. These boys are good players,” Ferguson added.
“We toyed with the idea of starting Cleverley but I thought Michael Carrick’s experience was better suited to the game. Cleverley can get forward from midfield though and we probably needed that type of player.”
United’s flexibility with Cleverley, Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Nani and Ashley Young in the side was no better illustrated than in the Portuguese’s equaliser. The slick, one-touch, move cut City’s normally parsimonious defence open with a passage of play that was more than a little reminiscent of Barcelona at its very best.
That each of the aforementioned quintet is comfortable in a variety of positions recalls United’s 2008 Champions League winning side, with Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo interchanging at will.
Chris Smalling’s excellent performance at right-back and Phil Jones’ assured contribution during the second half simply adds to the confidence Ferguson will have gained from Sunday’s victory.
If that is all positive then City’s ability to over-power United in midfield reared its ugly head in the first half. Mancini’s team nominally had an extra man of course, although Rooney’s ability to drop deep augmented United’s resources. But Carrick in particular was unable to cope with the sheer physicality of the Blues for periods.
Then there is the David de question. Ferguson’s €20 million acquisition from Atlétics de Madrid this summer is the subject of much criticism in this morning’s papers. But the Spaniard had little chance claiming David Silva’s outstanding delivery in the 38th minute for Jolean Lescott’s opening headed goal, although the 20-year-old could surely have done better with Edin Džeko’s 35-yard drive just moments later. The late dip and swerve, together with Nemanja Vidic’s failure to close down the attacker, certainly did not help. But on these small details are major games sometimes won and lost.
“City are a big team and the delivery of the ball was good. Goalkeeper no chance with that,” Ferguson claimed.
“The second goal I thought we could have closed them down but the shot swerved a bit and just caught the goalkeeper on the wrong foot. But I think that you have to cope with these things and he’s [got] no problem.”
Indeed, moments earlier de Gea had claimed a high ball under pressure and the Spaniard’s distribution with foot and hand was excellent throughout. During the second period de Gea also made two outstanding saves, which augers well for the youngster’s confidence in games to come. The suggestion, made in more than one media outlet, that Ferguson will now drop his new ‘keeper in favour of Anders Lingegaard is nothing short of rumour-mongering.
Ferguson will also be delighted with Nani’s contribution to the game following an outstanding pre-season. Starting on the right, Nani drifted inside, frequently swapped with Young and contributed heavily to United’s victory. As with last season, Nani’s output is now outstanding.
So too Young, whose delivery from set pieces is a cut above anything in a United shirt since David Beckham left in 2003. Indeed, the former Aston Villa winger created Chris Smalling’s goal with a pin-point free-kick in the 53rd minute.
“Nani had a fantastic season last year,” said Ferguson.
“He contributed 18 assists and scored nine goals. He was unfortunate that Antonio Valencia came in at a time when we needed a bit of freshness and a boost to the squad. But you have seen Nani’s form in pre-season and again today. He will start the season.”
It is a campaign for which United started favourites but will now have gained even greater confidence at City’s expense.
“This shows who the best team is,” Rooney boasted in the wake of victory.
“All game we dominated. The difference the young lads made was outstanding. We never know when a game is finished. We took them apart. The scoreline is deserved. We’re champions and we’re the team to beat. We want to prove that.”
The Community Shield – that clichéd ‘traditional curtain raiser to the season’ – is, of course, little more than a final warm-up for the real business of winning the Premier League in the modern game. That task begins away to West Bromwich Albion next weekend, yet, with United facing local rivals Manchester City on Sunday afternoon, it is perhaps only Sir Alex Ferguson who remains exactingly dispassionate about the fixture this season, with all the emotional and psychological edge that this game brings.
Supporters feel differently of course but the Scot remains focused on bigger tasks ahead despite the local rivalry on hand. After all, major trophies are won in May not August, even if the Manchester sides are competing for this particular gong for the first time since 1956. The full house and local pride ensures that nothing less than victory is acceptable for the 80,000 Reds and Blues return home on Sunday evening.
“It’s very easy to get emotional about this type of game. I don’t think we’ll be changing our policy,” Ferguson said of the Community Shield.
“I’ve always viewed the Community Shield as a stepping stone for the first game of the season and there are two or three players who will need a game to boost their fitness.
“I don’t think it [the Shield] has made any difference at all to the leagues. We have lost and still won the league. It is at Wembley. That is the significance of it. When you go to Wembley, you want to win. That is the only significance.”
Ferguson is likely to be without a quartet of key players at Wembley, with Michael Carrick suffering from an achilles injury, Javier Hernández not risked following concussion in pre-season and Darren Fletcher only recently returned to full training. Antonio Valencia is perhaps a fortnight away from full match fitness after the Ecuadorian suffered an ankle injury at the Copa America.
The absence of midfield pair Carrick and Fletcher, together with Paul Scholes’ retirement, offers Anderson an early season opportunity to impress. The Brazilian scored in Friday’s 6-0 win over New York Cosmos at Old Trafford and should start at Wembley. With Owen Hargreaves released and Darron Gibson consigned to United’s reserve squad in pre-season, Ferguson needs the former-Porto midfielder to start the season in good form.
Anderson, together with youngster Tom Cleverley and veteran Ryan Giggs form Ferguson’s only central midfield options at the season’s start. The limited roster serving to highlight United’s obvious weaknesses ahead of the new season.
Despite this United begins the new campaign as favourites to claim a 20th domestic title. Yet, City will be in contention from the off, having spent £38 million on striker Sergio Aguëro in the close season. The 23-year-old Argentinian offers City both creativity and goals and will likely make City’s bench at Wembley, with Carlos Tevez still absent.
However, with three weeks until the transfer window slams shut, Ferguson believes opposite manager Roberto Mancini may yet add to his already burgeoning squad. It is a challenge the Scot appears to relish.
“Because of the particular facet of the club that they have the money to spend, I thought maybe they would spend more this summer, and that may still happen; they may still sign a couple more players,” Ferguson added.
“We get this almost every year when clubs round about us buy, and that’s how you view the importance of winning the league these days. Chelsea had this great spell of buying when José [Mourinho] first went there and we accepted that challenge. It’s good to accept challenges, it keeps the complacency away from your door and we carry on as best as we can.”
Ferguson also believes that the coming season promises to be one of the most competitive of his 25 year tenure at Old Trafford. Liverpool’s huge outlay in the past six months is a gamble that must be rewarded with Champions League football, with Arsenal seemingly the most vulnerable of last season’s top four. With Tottenham Hotspur also chasing a spot in Europe’s premier competition only four of six leading clubs will reach their goals come May.
Yet, for United – and now City – it is the Premier League title that remains the season’s priority, the Blue half of Manchester now with genuine pretensions to the crown.
“To win the league in England is very difficult. If you look at the Premier League you are looking at the top six fighting for four places,” added the 69-year-old United manager.
“I think 84 points will win the league next year. We had less last year but you have to consider the increasing competition. Liverpool are expected to be better, the top four we know about and Tottenham as well. You expect it to be a really tough league.”
If Ferguson still regards this weekend’s derby as a friendly then his star player Wayne Rooney is more in tune with United fans who travel to Wembley for the third time this year. Defeats to City in the FA Cup semi-final and Barcelona in the Champions League offered a traumatic end to last season. A third Wembley defeat in a row is unthinkable.
“You couldn’t get better motivation to start the season with a bang,” Rooney told Four Four Two.
“I hadn’t even thought about it until I turned on the TV and someone was talking about potentially the best Community Shield ever. Playing City is the best way to start.”
The Scouser may start up front with Bulgarian forward Dimitar Berbatov at Wembley – as the pair did against Cosmos on Friday – although Ferguson’s promise to deploy players in need of minutes may also offer Michael Owen, Danny Welbeck and Federico Macheda an opportunity. Mame Biram Diouf, seventh choice striker, scored twice against Cosmos to stake a claim.
Elsewhere Ferguson is likely to deploy those players short of time in pre-season. Both Rafael and Fabio da Silva are in contention for a place in the side, with Ferguson boasting a full complement of defensive options, including new signing Phil Jones. With Valencia unlikely to play Ferguson will choose from Nani, Park Ji-Sung and Ashley Young in wide positions.
Friendly or otherwise United is protecting a proud record in the competition, including 18 victories overall and seven appearances in the past decade. City, meanwhile, is taking part in the match for the first time since 1973. The Blues lost that game 1-0 to Burnley, with Colin Waldron scoring the only goal.
The game could also be the final appearance in the Shield for Welshman Giggs, who turns 38 this season and holds the record for the most number of appearances with 13. What better tribute, in what might be the midfielder’s final season, than seeing off City at Wembley on Sunday just as the Reds did 55 years ago. On that occasion another United legend Dennis Violet scored the only goal of the game.
Manchester United versus Manchester City. Wembley Stadium, London. 2.30pm 7 August 2011
United – 4-4-1-1 – de Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Nani, Anderson, Giggs, Park; Rooney; Berbatov
Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Smalling, Jones, Evans, Young, Cleverley, Owen, Macheda, Welbeck, Diouf
City – 4-3-3 – Hart; Richards, Lescott, Kompany, Clichy; Toure, De Jong, Barry; Ballotelli, Dzeko, Silva
Subs from: Zabaleta, Bridge, Onuoha, Kolarov, Toure, Johnson, Milner, Wright-Phillips, Agüero
** Update – competition is now closed **
We’ve teamed up with McDonald’s, the official Community Partner of the FA, to offer ten readers the chance to win two match tickets to watch Manchester United take on Manchester City at The FA Community Shield, sponsored by McDonald’s, on 7 August at Wembley Stadium.
This year’s match will be a Manchester derby, which will see Manchester United and Manchester City go head-to-head in this competition for the first time since 1956. The Red Devils look to secure their 14th Community Shield victory against current FA Cup holders City.
McDonald’s has been the Community Partner of the FA since 2002 and aims to create more football opportunities for all. Since the partnership was formed McDonald’s has created over 20,000 qualified football coaches, offering two million hours of free, quality coaching to young players across the UK.
“This year’s FA Community Shield will no doubt be a sell-out as fans from across the country make their way to Wembley to support the Reds and the Blues. It’s going to be a great game – a fantastic match to kick-off the new football season and I wish everyone who enters the competition the very best of luck,” said Geoff Hurst, McDonald’s Director of Football.
To be in with a chance of winning this fantastic prize, answer the following question and email your answer to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “McDonald’s Compo”.
Q: How many times has Manchester United won The FA Community Shield?
The Small Print
1. Rules: Please note that, in addition to these Provisions, entrants are bound by both the Promoter’s terms and conditions at http://www.unitedrant.co.uk/latest/win-tickets-to-the-fa-community-shield/ and the Supplemental Rules For Third Party Promotions Featuring Football-Themed Prizes Supplied By McDonald’s (“General Rules”) at www.mcdonalds.co.uk/policies/football-terms-and-conditions.shtml.
2. Participants: Must be 18 and over and UK resident
3. Duration of Promotion: Enter the Promotion between 6pm 18th July 2011 and 6pm 28th July 2011 inclusive.
4. Entry Criteria: Answer a question correctly to be entered in to a draw for a chance to win.
5. Conditions of entry: Limit of one entry per person.
6. How to Submit your Entry: Entries to be submitted via email. No other method of entry will be accepted. Email: email@example.com.
7. Prizes: The prize pool consists of ten prizes each of: Two match tickets to The FA Community Shield on 7th August 2011 at Wembley Stadium.
8. Prize Awards: Winning entrants will be notified by telephone and / or email and should be contactable no later than Friday 29th July 2011. Prize notification will be sent by email to the address registered at time of entry. If the winner cannot be contacted by telephone before 1pm on Monday 1st August, an alternative winner will be selected.
9. General: Winners will be required for promotional and media activity in relation to this promotion and other related McDonald’s football activities, including facilitating the publication of press releases, editorial and photographs on the UK websites of the Promoter, McDonald’s, and The FA, winners’ local media and in McDonald’s UK restaurants.
10. Promoter’s Details: United Rant, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.unitedrant.co.uk
Sir Alex Ferguson will take much heart from victory over Champions Chelsea at Wembley following a summer of minimal investment and a public declaration of faith in his squad. Manchester United swept aside the tepid Londoners, with Mexican striker Javier Hernández, Dimitar Berbatov and Antonio Valencia on the scoresheet.
Ferguson’s men largely monopolised possession, save for a late Chelsea rally which brought Salmon Kalou’s 82nd minute goal, in a match regarded as little more than a final pre-season warm up by both sides.
Prior to the Ivorian’s strike United had taken the lead through Valencia’s 41st minute goal after Wayne Rooney’s outstanding right-wing pass, with Hernández scoring in off his own face with 15 minutes to go in a promising competitive début.
Man-of-the-match Paul Scholes rolled back the years to deliver an outstanding display of passing on Wembley’s relaid turf, although Chelsea’s parsimonious attitude towards marking the 35-year-old allowed the time and space in which the midfielder thrives. If United is truly not going to reinforce in midfield this summer then Scholes’ form and fitness must belie his advancing years.
Perhaps even more importantly United’s striker Wayne Rooney – unsurprisingly booed by Chelsea fans, many of whom will turn out to support England at Wembley on Wednesday night – impressed during a 45 minute first half work out. The striker looked sharper than at any time prior to his March ankle injury against Bayern Munich in the Champions League.
Indeed, Rooney’s vision to set up Valencia for the opening goal underlines the striker’s brilliance. The former Evertonian turned blind on the right wing, firing into the six yard area to leave winger Valencia with a simple finish.
The goal came shortly after Rooney’s 60-yard pass had created the game’s opening chance for the Ecuadorian who failed to lift over the advancing Chelsea goalkeeper.
Rooney departed for débutant Hernández at half-time and United noticeably sought out the speedy striker with direct balls over John Terry’s back-four. The Mexican’s pace will surely be an outstanding weapon this season even if a period of bedding into Premier League football is required.
Yet Ferguson reserved the largest slice of praise for the Mexican’s second-half striker partner Berbatov, who scored late into injury time by lobbing over Henrique Hilário to seal United’s victory just as Chelsea pressed for an equaliser.
“He needed it [a goal] given the adverse publicity he had last season. It’s an old problem when we pay big money for someone and they are not scoring three goals a game and making 50 passes, they get slaughtered,” said Ferguson of the £30.5 million Bulgarian striker.
“But there’s no disputing his talent; he can be a genius. He had a mixed season by his standards but maybe this will be his season.”
The result, certainly just due to United’s superior possession, could have turned late into the second half when Ferguson’s defence sustained a period of pressure from last season’s double winners.
Even before the Londoners late onslaught Edwin van der Sar saved superbly from Bratislav Ivanovic’s powerful first half header. Further saves by the Dutchman from Florent Malouda, twice, Ashley Cole and Daniel Sturridge in the second half kept United ahead.
However, United and Scholes in particular took the plaudits in front of more than 30,000 delighted United supporters in North West London. The midfielder’s brilliance is beyond doubt; his ability to perform every week is however and that is where United may just fall short this season.
It is not with any surprise that newspaper reports again linked United – and Chelsea – today to a £13.5 million bid for Germany’s ‘ghost’ Mesut Ozil.
“He’s just an incredible footballer,” said Ferguson of 35-year-old Scholes.
“It’s a phenomenon that he goes out there and becomes man of the match, approaching his 36th birthday.”
“This time last year, he’s saying to himself, ‘This is my last season’ – and a lot of people thought that,” Ferguson said.
“It came across my mind also, simply because he’s had a lot of injuries in his career. He keeps coming back; it’s not easy to do that.”
No need to worry about retirement today though with Ferguson rightly reserving the last word for the ginger midfielder.
If United started the Community Shield with questions hanging over the squad, then the penalties defeat to Chelsea left many unanswered. Shorn of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, fans awaited a positive response to the summer’s developments; a sign that United has a plan for the new era. Instead, the team began the game with none of the close season signings in the starting XI and without its first choice goalkeeper and central defender.
For all that United started the game well, dominating possession and taking an early lead through the bright Nani. Lining up in manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s newly reinstated 4-4-2 formation, United used the channels well against a narrow Chelsea diamond. Yet the team’s early promise gave way to an unconvincing performance after Chelsea’s equaliser. Defeat in normal time would have followed the Londoner’s controversial second bar for a late well taken Wayne Rooney goal.
But if fans were looking for a statement of intent ahead of the new season then the Community Shield provided scant comfort. In particular manager Sir Alex Ferguson would have hoped for a good performance from those players who have most to prove – Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Owen Nani and Ben Foster.
The Bulgarian, whom Ferguson stated he intends to build the team around this season, started the game strongly. Like most of the team, the forward – save for one outrageous piece of skill when plucking a long ball out of the air – faded out of the match as it wore on. He was substituted in the 75th minute for Michael Owen’s competitive debut in a United shirt.
Foster’s contribution was more telling on the result but rarely in a positive way. From poor play with his feat, to a weak flap at the cross that led to Ricardo Carvalho’s equaliser, Foster looked nervous and uncertain. Worst still the Lemington-born ‘keeper failed to get a strong hand to Frank Lampard’s drive for Chelsea’s second. Foster’s talent is undoubtedly better than this performance but he can’t afford too many more games like Sunday’s. Ferguson was certainly charitable when blaming Foster’s performance on ring-rustiness.
Nani, however, put in a strong claim for a starting spot before being removed with a suspected dislocated shoulder. The winger, who has flattered to deceive in two years at Old Trafford, was positive, creative and scored a high class goal before leaving the field following John Terry’s robust challenge. It’s too early to know whether this will be the winger’s breakthrough season – we’ve been here before with Nani – but Ferguson can be hopeful on this evidence.
Tactically United were less fluid but more compact than in recent seasons. While Ferguson would have been disappointed with the two goals conceded, United’s attacking play was good for the most part. Whether Ferguson will continue deploying two forwards – especially in more meaningful matches than this one – is a moot point. If Sunday’s match was a forbear for the season ahead then this United side may be more functional that Ferguson’s previous iterations, by building on strength in defence.
One match does not a season make, of course, but this was an average start against what will be one of United’s principal challengers in the coming campaign.