Mark Buckingham assesses whether Man Utd can win the title for a fourth year in a row without Cristiano Ronaldo.
Mark Buckingham assesses whether Man Utd can win the title for a fourth year in a row following the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo
Creating history is the challenge lying in wait for Manchester United this season as the Premier League champions aim to overcome the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo to become the first team to win the title four seasons in a row.
United completed a hat-trick of crowns last term for the second time in the Premier League era, but coping without the prodigious talents of Cristiano Ronaldo, and to a much lesser extent than some fans may believe, Carlos Tevez, will be a stern test for Sir Alex Ferguson's side.
Having matched Liverpool's landmark of 18 top-flight titles, United head into the 2009/10 campaign with the aim of claiming that record outright and in the knowledge that their old rivals will be among their biggest challengers after being pushed so close last season.
Is the pressure on United greater this season because they are champions and chasing an unprecedented four in a row? Or is the expectation lessened by the fact no team has ever achieved such a feat?
That question could perhaps be left for another day, with Ferguson's biggest poser of the summer how to replace another poser in the guise of Ronaldo, who has eventually fulfilled his dream of joining Real Madrid.
Keeping Ronaldo last season merely delayed the inevitable and, whenever the deal was actually agreed, at least United saved themselves the mind-numbing tedium of 12 months ago by quickly announcing the Portuguese winger's departure for a mind-boggling fee of £80million.
Ronaldo, for all that he threw in a few stinkers and tantrums last season, will be nigh on impossible to replace and Ferguson has gone for a different type of player to patrol the right wing in Antonio Valencia.
The Ecuador international has arrived from Wigan and showed flashes of what he can bring to the table in pre-season in terms of his crossing ability and willingness to put a shift in defensively.
But perhaps the biggest gain from Ronaldo's sale, aside from the contribution to the Glazer family's interest repayments, is that it may allow Wayne Rooney to flourish in a central position after the England man spent large parts of last season on the wing to accommodate the wanderings of his former team-mate.
Rooney has looked sharp in pre-season in such a role and has linked up well with both the much-maligned Dimitar Berbatov and new signing Michael Owen, even if it took until the Valencia friendly for the England duo to be on the pitch at the same time at club level.
Berbatov is also expected to enjoy a more productive season, although the statistics will show he was not as disappointing as some would lead you to believe following his arrival from Tottenham after he scored nine times in the Premier League and created 10 for his team-mates.
The Bulgarian got a bad press from United fans last season compared to the idolised Tevez, yet the Argentine's actual contribution was not as meaningful as Berbatov's. Anyone can run around for 90 minutes, but sometimes you need a player who does something out of the ordinary and it is hard to believe Owen won't surpass Tevez's tally of five league goals.
Owen's arrival at Old Trafford was perhaps one of the biggest transfer surprises in recent times, but the more you analyse the situation, the more astute a signing it is from Ferguson, with the former Liverpool striker costing nothing and having everything to prove. If you're looking for someone to nick a goal in the last 10 minutes, then Owen is still the best English striker in the business at fulfilling that role.
The depth of United's squad remains arguably their key strength and, while they were occasionally found wanting against their chief rivals last season, and against Barcelona in the Champions League final, they have the knack of beating the teams in the bottom half of the table and rarely drop points at home.
Injuries to the defence was a concern for United last season and the new campaign seems to be starting off on a similar footing with veteran goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar out for eight weeks with a broken finger. Ben Foster should start the season and it is hoped a proper run of games will help the England international to overcome the odd bout of jitters that has threatened to damage his reputation.
Nemanja Vidic is also a fitness worry, but Jonny Evans is a more than able deputy, so the main worry is at right-back, with Rafael, Gary Neville and Wes Brown all struggling. Unlike Patrice Evra on the left, John O'Shea does not offer the same threat going forward on the right and United certainly suffer when the likes of Rafael are not available.
Midfield contains a mix of unrivalled experience and unfulfilled promise, with Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes reaching the twilight of their careers and Anderson and Nani beginning a third season at United and yet to conclusively prove they can be long-term fixtures.
Michael Carrick tries to orchestrate from a deep lying position, while Darren Fletcher offers the energy, but United will certainly benefit from the return of Owen Hargreaves, hopefully this side of Christmas. The other midfield concern is the absence of a player who supports the strikers in the mould of Frank Lampard and, following the departure of Ronaldo, Ferguson is certainly expecting his midfielders to weigh in with more goals.
Overall, United are undoubtedly a weaker team on paper than last season following Ronaldo's sale, yet paper teams only win paper trophies. The signings of Valencia and Owen have given the Red Devils a greater balance and also what looks to be a happier squad. With Rooney primed to play a pivotal role, and Ferguson having plenty of options at his disposal, United remain the team to catch, and then surpass.
Sky Bet's Dale Tempest
says: "Man Utd are 2/1 joint favourites with Chelsea to win the title. There are negatives and positives all round about Sir Alex's side. They've got to replace the goals of Ronaldo, Owen at 10/1 from 25/1 to be the League's top scorer, could do that and I think Valencia is a good addition. The big plus about United is their defence hasn't changed - who can forget that record breaking clean sheet run they went on in the middle of the season, that probably won them the Premier League and they won't be far away. Year in year out you know they are going to be competitive so if I was going to have a bet it would be on United."
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