On Sunday afternoon, Manchester United lifted the first trophy of the new season after having beaten Chelsea in the Community Shield at Wembley. For all the talk of the insignificance of pre-season results, it would be nothing short of a folly to suggest that this match was the clearest signal yet that, at least on the field of play, rumours of Manchester United’s irrelevance in the Premier League title race have been overstated. Season ticket sales over the summer may have been a source of consternation to the Glazer family and, without the financial windfalls that have covered their interest payments for the last couple of seasons, there could be further price rises and cost-cutting to come at Old Trafford. For now, however, Manchester United supporters can at least take succour from the fact that their limited involvement in the transfer market thus far this summer has been so well-judged that it could tip the scales that slipped away from them last season back in their favour.
The arrival of Javier Hernandez from the Mexican club Chivas of Guadalajara was received with a somewhat muted response in the British press, but this may have been because of the lack of attention that the Mexican league receives in Europe. It has been said that United originally intended to delay his signing but that they were pushed to acting quickly by his selection for the Mexican national team at this year’s World Cup finals. His early performances have indicated plenty of promise and, whilst any assertions that the goal that he scored with his face at Wembley yesterday was somehow the mark of a natural goalscorer are, in themselves, wide of the mark, there can be no doubting his natural ability, pace and (significantly, considering that he stands at just 5’9″ tall) his strength in the air – and, at twenty-two years of age, he could be at the club for years to come.
We shall have to wait and see for now whether the stories starting to circulate concerning Mesut Ozil have any substance to them. If the rumours – now widely circulated – that Manchester United are looking at paying Werder Bremen £13.5m for the attacking midfielder, it would surely represent one of the greatest transfer coups of the summer. To the extent that £13.5m for a single player can ever be considered a “bargain” in the transfer market, to get a player of his quality and further potential at this reported price would be little short of extraordinary. Of course at that sort of price, Ozil is attracting considerable interest from elsewhere and if it was to come down to a straight auction for his services they may well lose out to one of their rivals. If that situation were to come to pass, it would be a damning indictment of the financial situation that the club finds itself in at present.
What is immediately noticeable about both Hernandez and Ozil (as well, in passing, as their new defender Chris Smalling) is their age. They are twenty-two and twenty-one years old respectively, all of which points to an acknowledgement on the part of Alex Ferguson that his old warhorses cannot continue forever. It has to be said that it sometimes feels as if they might. By the end of 2010, Ryan Giggs will be thirty-seven, Paul Scholes will be thirty-six and Edwin Van der Sar will be forty, whilst Gary Neville is thirty-five. This has the effect of making their other players seem younger than they are, yet Rio Ferdinand is almost thirty-two and Wes Brown, astonishingly, is almost thirty-one. Several others are hovering around the age of thirty. There is no question that, certainly in the cases of Scholes and Giggs, outstanding professionalism has been just as been important as modern training methods and better diets in prolonging their playing careers. They can’t, however, go on forever. When, though, will the decline of these players become a major issue? There hasn’t been much sign of it yet.
Whether they can launch a full assault on both the Champions League and the Premier League this season remains open to question, but supporters of all of the biggest clubs seem to be making similar comments this summer; that being underestimated in the press is a good thing for them. If Wayne Rooney can rediscover the form that he was in prior to his injury in Munich earlier this year, many of the reservations that seem to be growing about the 2010 vintage Manchester United team will swiftly fall away. Rooney was starting to look more like his old self on Sunday (though he carris the gait of someone that really needs a goal), but they cannot afford to be as dependent upon his goals as they were last season. Dimitar Berbatov could come good this season, but can he match his undoubted talent with consistency? Berbatov, however elegant a player he may be, remains one of the most infuriating in the entire Premier League to watch, at times.
So it is with the biggest Premier League clubs this summer. All of them seem to raise as many questions as they do answers. In the case of Manchester United, the questions are big ones. Can they secure the services of Mesut Ozil? Will the green and gold protests start up again at the start of the season and, if they do, how might this affect what happens on the pitch? It says much about Manchester United that winning the League Cup, an early elimination in the FA Cup, the quarter-finals of the Champions League and second place in the Premier League is considered by many to be an under-achievement, and there is a generation of Manchester United supporters now well into adulthood how can remember nothing but practically unbroken success. It would be foolish to confidently predict that Manchester United will slip again in the same way that they did last season, especially when the margins of defeat (away goals in the Champions League, an odd goal in the FA Cup, one point in the Premier League) were so tight. However, it seems likely that this season’s Premier League will be as tight as last year, possibly more so if the unknown quantity that is Manchester City can show anything like a return on their owners’ largesse. They could – relatively – crash and burn. They could win a grand slam, at a canter. They could do anything inbetween. Non-committal? Well, yes, but Manchester United are just as enigmatic as everyone else this summer. That, however, is no reason to discount them from winning anything (or maybe even everything) and they have a wealth of experience at dealing with the biggest occasions. They are to be written off at our peril.
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