Fergie looks to samba beat in huge clearout
Alex Ferguson expects Brazilian duo Anderson and Rafael da Silva to become central figures in Manchester United's future as he prepares to undertake his biggest squad overhaul at Old Trafford for more than a decade.
No fewer than six senior players are expected to leave United at the end of the season, with Edwin van der Sar, Gary Neville, Owen Hargreaves, Tomasz Kuszczak, Michael Owen and Wes Brown all likely to move on, either through retirement or a lack of first-team opportunities.
With doubts also hovering over the Old Trafford futures of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, the United squad which starts the 2011/12 campaign could be the most youthful since Ferguson replaced Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis with emerging stars such as Neville, Scholes, David Beckham and Nicky Butt in the summer of 1995.
While Giggs -- who will mark the 20th anniversary of his United debut in March -- and Scholes are expected to be offered one-year contracts to keep them at the club next season, Ferguson now believes his emerging players, supported by the likes of Nemanja Vidic, Wayne Rooney and Darren Fletcher, are ready to make the breakthrough.
The United manager has admitted that his loyalty to those players who have served him for lengthy periods tests his ruthlessness, but that admission came with the concession that time is a commodity he cannot afford to waste -- a reality which leaves Neville, Van der Sar, Owen, Brown and the injury-ravaged Hargreaves exposed.
"When they (players) grow old, their performance level drops," said Ferguson. "But we have to maintain a level of success at the top end of the game, all the time.
"We can't afford bad years or breaking-in years. We have had periods like that, but we don't want it and we need to be successful all the time.
"Sometimes, when a player grows old, you have to recognise it and they have to move on."
With 21-year-old midfielder Tom Cleverley due to return from his loan at Wigan in the summer and Danny Welbeck (20) set to be elevated to first-team contention following his impressive campaign on loan at Sunderland, new signings are likely to limited to players no older than their mid-20s.
Everton's Jack Rodwell and Sunderland's England midfielder Jordan Henderson are both long-term United targets.
The displays this season, however, of Anderson and Rafael have led Ferguson to pinpoint the pair as replacements for Scholes and Neville.
Having warned Anderson at the outset of the campaign that he faced a make-or-break season after failing to realise his potential since his £19m arrival from Porto in May 2007, Ferguson has been sufficiently impressed by the 22-year-old to have sanctioned a new five-year contract for the midfielder last month.
And after identifying Anderson as a replacement for Scholes four years ago, Ferguson believes the Brazilian is now finally at the stage of being able to rise to that challenge.
"Long term, I hope he (Anderson) can prove to be Paul's successor," Ferguson said. "It's a big ask to reach that level and the challenge will test his confidence, but someone will have to step up to the plate one day."
Neville, meanwhile, has made just four appearances this season and his loss of pace was exposed at West Brom last Saturday, with the 35-year-old fortunate not to be sent off and concede a penalty for a badly-time challenge.
Rafael, in contrast, has emerged as first-choice right-back with Ferguson admitting that the 20-year-old has made impressive progress in recent months.
"Injury opens doors and the succession of setbacks suffered by Gary Neville has provided Rafael with more opportunities than he perhaps expected at this stage of his career," Ferguson said.
"He is one of several players who have moved their careers forward when they have been brought into the team."
Chelsea's struggle to reduce the age of their squad this season has led to accusations that too many of their younger players lack experience, yet many of United's have already figured prominently at senior level.
Ferguson has already earmarked Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling as long-term replacements for Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, while he claimed last week that Portuguese winger Bebe is now being moulded into a central striker to provide competition for Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov along with Welbeck, Javier Hernandez and Federico Macheda.
The acquisition of Danish goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard (26) is likely to be followed by the arrival of a more experienced replacement for Van der Sar, while teenagers Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison can expect to be given opportunities to press their claims in the Carling Cup next season.
For the moment, however, Ferguson is firmly focused on this season and the Scot is hoping that Nani's return, with a healthy dose of arrogance on and off the field, will help drive the team through a crucial period.
The Portuguese winger had been out for four matches with a hip problem before setting up Hernandez's goal and then scoring the winner in a 2-1 victory over Stokeon Tuesday that underlined United's quiet dominance of the title race.
While many people scoff at their performances -- even Vidic has admitted he is surprised that United are top -- Nani believes that Ferguson's side can continue their unbeaten run in the league to the end of the season, which would surely mean a record 19th title.
With Antonio Valencia out with a knee problem until at least the end of February, Ji-sung Park away with South Korea for several weeks, Giggs not realistically expected to play in every match and continued question marks about Gabriel Obertan, Nani is likely to continue to have to carry that weight over the coming weeks. (© Daily Telegraph, London)