United struggle to make case for defence
IF Manchester United are looking for grounds for optimism heading into a Premier League campaign where the financial challenge to them is everywhere, then they might reflect on their record in those Premier League seasons which have followed a World Cup summer.
In three out of four, they have lifted the title and the single errant season, following the United States finals of 1994, saw them lose out by the narrowest margin to Blackburn. The general rule of thumb is that United's England contingent troop home disconsolate and take it all out on the domestic opposition.
The notable difference this time is that only five United players of any nationality competed in the finals, of whom the Mexico striker Javier Hernandez has not even made his competitive debut, and judging by the performance in Sunday's 2-1 defeat to the Kansas City Wizards -- the fifth-placed Major League Soccer side, not even in existence when Blackburn triumphed -- the club have some work on their hands when they head back across the Atlantic on Friday.
The caveat to any discussion of a game such as United's in the Arrowhead Stadium -- where the home side played 49 minutes with 10 men and still came from behind to win -- is that pre-season results matter not one iota.
But Alex Ferguson's acknowledgement that "the inexperience of the defenders showed in the first 15 minutes and we never quite recovered", is one which must worry him, tanned and relaxed though he seems.
The average age of United's back four of Rafael da Silva, Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Ritchie de Laet was 21 years and three months in Kansas but, De Laet aside, its personnel are individuals on whom United need to be able to depend in the weeks ahead.
The £10m investment to bring Smalling from Fulham, to whom he was loaned back for the remaining five months of last season, is one that United would hope to reap dividends from, with Rio Ferdinand now absent until at least September 12, but his signing presaged a period in which he seemed to concede a penalty or an own goal at every turn.
The own goal Smalling conceded at Chelsea back in December was unfortunate but another at Goodison Park, a penalty conceded at Hull and the capitulation to Craig Bellamy's pace against Manchester City led his manager Roy Hodgson to joke that he was "doing Alex a favour by letting him get his errors out of the way for Fulham".
A further penalty conceded on his United debut against Celtic in New York last week did not overshadow an aerial quality that Ferguson said had surprised him but it is clear that the 19-year-old requires time.
How much time Rafael will be allowed is unsure. The 21-year-old's poor performance revealed that his habit of diving in persists, despite the harsh lesson Franck Ribery dished out in April's Champions League quarter-final second-leg against Bayern Munich at Old Trafford, when the Brazilian was sent off.
For as long as Rafael struggles, Ferguson will continue to need Gary Neville, aged 35 and out with a calf problem. That Evans, the more experienced of the line-up, should also have been out-muscled by Kansas' Teal Bunbury makes United's desperation to tie Nemanja Vidic to the four-year deal look all the more understandable.
Ferguson insists there is no value in the transfer market, though, and against the more challenging proposition of an MLS All-Stars side probably featuring Landon Donovan on Thursday, we are likely to witness Hernandez for the first time. The manager feels that the World Cup vindicated United's pre-tournament move for a player who would have cost "two or three times the £8m we paid for him" had they waited.
It is certainly United's fervent hope that a big display in the Premier League opener against Newcastle by the man who will carry his nickname 'Chicharito' (Little Pea) on his jersey will erase the impression that United's modest activity in the transfer market will leave them trailing.
But that is a tall order for Hernandez, a player who only 18 months ago was considering giving up after after struggling to make his way at Mexican club Chivas de Guadalajara.
Ferguson's initial idea of allowing Wayne Rooney and the World Cup contingent to miss the start of the season already seems less appealing. Instead, he has dispatched his fitness coach Tony Strudwick back to England to accelerate the return of Rooney, Vidic, Michael Carrick, Patrice Evra and Ji-sung Park for the Newcastle fixture.
In his own way, Carrick is as vital as Rooney now. Sublime in the last title-winning season, a lost soul in the last campaign, his performances may dictate how the cards will fall for United come serious combat.
Nani's contribution on Sunday, in his first appearance since being ruled out of the World Cup with a dislocated collarbone, was encouraging though no one is ignoring the fact that someone must step up and defy expectations if United are to regain their title.
"We do okay, but we don't score enough to support the strikers and take a bit of pressure away," said former captain Bryan Robson yesterday.
But the football world felt the same concerns about United four years ago when Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo returned from the Germany World Cup at loggerheads. United scored five on the opening day of the season, won their opening five fixtures and cruised to the title. (© Independent News Service)