The passing of time makes pursuit of trophies a necessity
Winning is no longer just aspirational for Alex Ferguson and his youthful squad, says Kevin McCarra
Cordiality is disconcerting in a sport more accustomed to animosity, but Alex Ferguson does not hesitate to call Carlo Ancelotti "a good lad".
The Manchester United manager is speaking of the nemesis whose Chelsea side relieved him of the Premier League title before collecting the FA Cup. It helps, of course, that they were well acquainted long before Ancelotti left Milan for London.
The Scot and the Italian cannot afford to be obsessed with one another in any case, even if a measure of rivalry is inescapable. Each has a broader task ahead of him. Chelsea's encounter with United in the Community Shield today might give some insight into the future of these teams.
Michael Carrick could feature after all. Ferguson claimed on Friday the midfielder would definitely miss the game after picking up an ankle injury in Dublin on Wednesday.
But Carrick was fit enough to complete an open training session at Old Trafford yesterday morning and there appeared no obvious reason -- form aside -- why he should not play some part today.
Ferguson's wish to open up another phase of his time was apparent in his use of youngsters on the pre-season tour of the United States. His commitment was particularly marked in the case of Tom Cleverley, to whom he referred when acknowledging that the days were gone when Paul Scholes, now 35, could be expected to score 15 goals a season.
Invoking the name of Cleverley, though, was a bold step. The midfielder, who will celebrate his 21st birthday on Thursday, is yet to appear in any competitive match for United, although he was productive on loan to Watford last season and scored 11 times. Sceptics will wonder if Ferguson's plans reflect not so much his own idealism as restricted means after the takeover by the Glazers that put more than £700m of debt on to the club's books.
There is, however, another perspective and, with the exception of Manchester City, parsimony is in vogue. Ferguson is in tune with the mood and wallows in the fact that the Mexico forward Javier Hernandez was secured before the World Cup for just £7m. "He is going to do all right, that boy," the manager says. "He has a good brain, great feet and he is quick. He reminds me of Ole Gunnar Solksjaer."
"He has come in and settled really well," says midfielder Darren Fletcher. "He speaks great English and gives us another option up front. But strikers thrive on goals. You see the confidence they get from them. Javier will be no different."
The United manager credits the player's agents with maintaining confidentiality and calls the president of the Guadalajara club "a man of real substance". Ferguson also reports that United had their chief scout and a lawyer in Mexico for three weeks to complete the deal.
While the thorough globalisation of football is relatively new, Ferguson still sounds like the manager who identified undervalued assets and shaped a team at Aberdeen that could win the 1983 Cup Winners' Cup by beating Real Madrid. At 68, silverware is now more necessity than aspiration as he strives to demonstrate that he can maintain United's eminence.
For the moment, Ancelotti may be more at ease. His solicitousness sounded authentic when he spoke about Wayne Rooney's lack of a goal for United or England since March 30. "He is a fantastic footballer," said the Chelsea manager. "Anyone who loves football, like me, wants to see Rooney at 100 per cent."
Ancelotti sighs, too, that Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Lionel Messi -- "all the stars" -- fell short of expectation at the World Cup.
The Chelsea manager got the very best out of his own men last season, but many have since felt the rigours of the World Cup themselves. Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba are both 32, while Nicolas Anelka is 31.
Ancelotti counts on sophisticated sports science and a finesse in arranging periods of rest to sustain the squad. In addition, he is charged with a less familiar task.
Chelsea want to put an emphasis on youth development, even if it will be quite a while before anyone confuses the club with Arsenal. Ancelotti invokes Jeffrey Bruma, Fabio Borini and Gael Kakuta, all of whom are teenagers. By all accounts, they will enjoy playing time as a matter of policy.
Some others may wish they could escape notice. Following England's fiasco at the World Cup finals, there may be animosity towards some players from fans of rival clubs. Grievances can be dusted down for people such as Ashley Cole who was reported to have sent an 'I hate England' message to a friend before the World Cup, although the reference was to coverage of his private life in England rather to the national team.
"We are not interested in what happens outside our training ground," Ancelotti says in reference to John Terry and Cole. "Everyone has their own rules about their private life." The manager knows that this topic will recede and that speculation over Cole going to Real Madrid must also be suspended when the transfer window closes.
Ancelotti can then return to traditional issues as everyone wonders how an older and little-changed squad is to maintain the standards set last season.
Chelsea v Manchester Utd,
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